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Changes, Page 2

Jim Butcher

Chapter 3~5

  Chapter 3

  "I hope there are no hard feelings," Martin told me as he pulled out of the little gravel lot next to the house I board in.

  Susan had yielded the passenger seat of the rental car to me, in deference to my storklike legs. "Hard feelings?" I asked.

  "About our first meeting," Martin said. He drove the same way he did everything - blandly. Complete stops. Five miles an hour under the limit. Wherever we were headed, it was going to take forever to get there.

  "You mean the way you used me to attempt to assassinate old Ortega?" I asked. "Thereby ensuring that the Code Duello was broken, the duel invalidated, and the vamps' war with the White Council continued?"

  Martin glanced at me, and then into the rearview mirror at Susan.

  "I told you," she said to Martin. "He's only dense in the short term. He sees everything eventually. "

  I gave Susan a slight, wry tilt of my head in acknowledgment. "Wasn't hard to realize what you were doing in retrospect," I said. "The Red Court's war with the White Council must have been the best thing to happen to the Fellowship in ages. "

  "I've only been with them for slightly over one hundred years," Martin said. "But it was the best thing to happen in that time, yes. The White Council is one of the only organizations on the planet with the resources to seriously threaten them. And every time the Council won a victory - or even survived what should have been a crushing defeat - it meant that the Red Court was tearing itself to shreds internally. Some of them have had millennia to nurse grudges with rivals. They are appropriately epic in scale. "

  "Call me wacky," I said, "but I had to watch a few too many children die in that war you helped guarantee. No hard feelings?" I smiled at him - technically. "Marty, believe me when I say that you don't want me to get in touch with my feelings right now. "

  I felt Martin's eyes shift to me, and a little tension gather in his body. His shoulder twitched. He was thinking about his gun. He was pretty good with firearms. The night of my duel with the Red Court vampire named Ortega, Martin had put a round from one of those enormous sniper rifles into Ortega about half a second before the vampire would otherwise have killed me. It had been a gross violation of the Code Duello, the set of rules for resolving personal conflicts between individuals of the nations who had signed the Unseelie Accords.

  The outcome of a clean duel might have put an early end to the war between the Red Court and the White Council of Wizards, and saved a lot of lives. It didn't turn out that way.

  "Don't worry, guy," I told him. "Ortega was already in the middle of breaking the Code Duello anyway. It would have fallen out the way it did regardless of what you had done that night. And your being there meant that he ate a bullet at the last second instead of me. You saved my life. I'm cognizant of that. "

  I kept smiling at him. It didn't feel quite right, so I tried to do it a little harder. "I'm also aware that if you could have gotten what you wanted by putting the bullet in my back instead of his chest, you would have done it without blinking. So don't go thinking we're pals. "

  Martin looked at me and then relaxed. He said, "It's ironic that you, the mustang of the White Council, would immediately cling to its self-righteous position of moral authority. "

  "Excuse me?" I said quietly.

  He spoke dispassionately, but there was a fire somewhere deep down behind the words - the first I'd ever heard in him. "I've seen children die, too, Dresden, slaughtered like animals by a threat no one in the wise and mighty Council seemed to give a good goddamn about - because the victims are poor, and far away, and isn't that a fine reason to let them die. Yes. If putting a bullet in you would have meant that the Council brought its forces to bear against the Red Court, I would have done it twice and paid for the privilege. " He paused at a stop sign, gave me a direct look, and said, "It is good that we cleared the air. Is there anything else you want to say?"

  I eyed the man and said, "You went blond. It makes you look sort of gay. "

  Martin shrugged, completely unperturbed. "My last assignment was on a cruise ship catering to that particular lifestyle. "

  I scowled and glanced at Susan.

  She nodded. "It was. "

  I folded my arms, glowered out at the night, and said, "I have literally killed people I liked better than you, Martin. " After another few moments, I asked, "Are we there yet?"┬ÁMartin stopped the car in front of a building and said, "It's in here. "

  I eyed the building. Nothing special, for Chicago. Twelve stories, a little run-down, all rented commercial space. "The Reds can't - Look, it can't be here," I said. "This building is where my office is. "

  "A known factor, for Red Court business holdings purchased it almost eight years ago," Martin said, putting the car in park and setting the emergency brake. "I should imagine that was when you saw that sudden rise in the rent. "

  I blinked a couple of times. "I've . . . been paying rent to the Red Court?"

  "Increased rent," Martin said, with the faintest emphasis. "Duchess Arianna apparently has an odd sense of humor. If it's any consolation, the people working there have no idea who they're really working for. They think they're a firm that provides secure data backups to a multinational import-export corporation. "

  "But this is . . . my building. " I frowned and shook my head. "And we're going to do what, exactly?"

  Martin got out of the car and opened the trunk. Susan joined him. I got out of the car on general principles.

  "We," said Martin, definitely not including me, "are going to burgle the office and retrieve files that we hope will contain information that might point the way toward Arianna's locations and intentions. You are going to remain with the car. "

  "The hell I will," I said.

  "Harry," Susan said, her tone brisk and reasonable, "it's computers. "

  I grunted as if Susan had nudged me with her elbow. Wizards and computers get along about as well as flamethrowers and libraries. All technology tends to behave unreliably in the presence of a mortal wizard, and the newer it is, the wonkier it seems to become. If I went along with them, well . . . you don't take your cat with you when you go bird shopping. Not because the cat isn't polite, but because he's a cat. "Oh," I said. "Then . . . I guess I'll stay with the car. "

  "Even odds we've been spotted or followed," Martin said to Susan. "We had to leave Guatemala in a hurry. It wasn't as smooth an exit as it could have been. "

  "We didn't have days to spare," Susan said, her voice carrying a tone of wearily familiar annoyance. It was like listening to a husband and wife having an often-repeated quarrel. She opened a case in the trunk and slipped several objects into her pockets. "Allowances have to be made. "

  Martin watched her for a moment, selected a single tool from the case, and then slid the straps of a backpack with a hard-sided frame over his shoulders. Presumably it had computer things in it. I stayed on the far side of the car from it and tried to think nonhostile thoughts.

  "Just watch for trouble, Harry," Susan said. "We'll be back out in twenty minutes or less. "

  "Or we won't," Martin said. "In which case we'll know our sloppy exit technique caught up to us. "

  Susan made a quiet, disgusted sound, and the pair of them strode toward the building, got to the locked front doors, paused for maybe three seconds, and then vanished inside.

  "And I'm just standing here," I muttered. "Like I'm Clifford the Big Red Dog. Too big and dumb to go inside with Emily Elizabeth. And it's my building. " I shook my head. "Hell's bells, I am off my game. Or out of my mind. I mean, here I am talking to myself. "

  I knew why I was talking to myself - if I shut up, I would have nothing to think about but a small person, terrified and alone in a den of monsters. And that would make me think about how I had been shut out of her life. And that would make me think about the beast in my chest that was still clawing to get out.

  When the local Red Court badass, the late Bianca, had stolen Susan
away and begun her transformation into a full-fledged vampire of the Red Court, it had been the vampire's intention to take my girlfriend away from me. One way or another she had succeeded. Susan as she had been - always joking, always laughing, always touching or kissing or otherwise enjoying life in general and life with me in particular - was gone.

  Now she was somewhere between Emma Peel and the She-Hulk. And we had loved each other once. And a child had been born because of it. And Susan had lied to -

  Before I could begin circling the block a few more times on that vicious cycle, a cold feeling went slithering down my spine.

  I didn't even look around. Several years of tense missions with Wardens not old enough to buy their own beer had taught me to trust my instincts when they went insane in a darkened city at two in the morning. Without even thinking about it, I crouched, reached into the air surrounding me, and drew a veil around myself.

  Veils are subtle, tricky magic, using one of several basic theories to render objects or people less visible than they would be otherwise. I used to suck so badly at veils that I wouldn't even try them - but I'd had to bone up on them enough to be able to teach my apprentice, Molly Carpenter, how to use them. Molly had a real gift and had learned quickly, but I'd been forcing her to stretch her talents - and it had taken a lot of personal practice time for me to be able to fake it well enough to have credibility in front of the grasshopper.

  Long story short - fast, simple veils were no longer beyond my grasp.

  The street darkened slightly around me as I borrowed shadow and bent light. Being under a veil always reduced your own ability to see what was happening around you, and was a calculated risk. I figured it was probably worth it. If someone had a gun pointed my way, I had a long damned run before I could get around the corner of a nice thick building. It would be better to be unseen.

  I crouched next to the car, not quite invisible but pretty close. The ability to be calm and still was critical to actually using a veil. It is hard to do when you think danger is close and someone might be planning to part you from your thoughts in a purely physical fashion. But I arrested the adrenaline surge and regulated my breathing. Easy does it, Harry.

  So I had a dandy view of half a dozen figures that came darting toward the office building with a hideous, somehow arachnid grace. Two of them were bounding along rooftops, vaguely humanoid forms that moved as smoothly as if they were some kind of hunting cat. Three more were closing on the building from different angles at ground level, gliding from shadow to shadow. I couldn't sense much of them beyond blurs in the air and more shivers along my spine.

  The last form was actually scuttling down the sides of buildings on the same street, bounding from one to the next, sticking to the walls like an enormous spider and moving with terrible speed.

  I never got more of a look than that - flickering shadows moving with sinister purpose. But I knew what I was looking at.

  Vampires.

  Red Court vampires.

  They closed on my office building like sharks on bloody meat.

  The tempest in my chest suddenly raged, and as I watched them vanish into the building - my fricking building - like cockroaches somehow finding a way to wriggle into places they shouldn't be, the anger rose up from my chest to my eyes, and the reflections of streetlights in the window glass tinted red.

  I let the vampires enter the building.

  And then I gathered up my fury and pain, honing them like immaterial blades, and went in after them.

  Chapter 4

  My blasting rod was hanging from its tie on the inside of my coat, a stick of oak about eighteen inches long and a bit thicker than my thumb. The ridges of the runes and sigils carved into it felt comfortably familiar under the fingers of my right hand as I drew it out.

  I went up to the building as silently as I could, let myself in with my key, and dropped the veil only after I was inside. It wasn't going to do anything to hide me from a vampire that got close - they'd be able to smell me and hear my heartbeat anyway. The veil would only hamper my own vision, which was going to be taxed enough.

  I didn't take the elevator. It wheezed and rattled and would alert everyone in the building to where I was. I checked the index board in the lobby. Datasafe, Inc. , resided on the ninth floor, five stories above my office. That was probably where Martin and Susan were. It would be where the vampires were heading.

  I hit the stairs and took a risk. Spells to dull sound and keep conversations private were basic fare for wizards of my abilities, and it wasn't much harder to make sure that sound didn't leave the immediate area around me. Of course, that meant that I was effectively putting myself in a sonic bubble - I wouldn't hear anything coming toward me, either. But for the moment, at least, I knew the vampires were here while they presumably were unaware of me. I wanted to keep it that way.

  Besides, in quarters this close, by the time I reacted to a noise from a vampire I hadn't seen, I was as good as dead anyway.

  So I murmured the words to a reliable bit of phonoturgy and went up the stairs clad in perfect silence. Which was a good thing. I run on a regular basis, but running down a sidewalk or a sandy beach isn't the same thing as running up stairs. By the time I got to the ninth floor, my legs were burning, I was breathing hard, and my left knee was killing me. What the hell? When had my knees become something I had to worry about?

  Cheered by that thought, I paused at the door to the ninth-floor hallway, opened it beneath the protection of my cloak of silence, and then dropped the spell so that I could listen.

  Hissing, gurgling speech in a language I couldn't understand came from the hallway before me, maybe right around the corner I could see ahead. I literally held my breath. Vampires have superhuman senses, but they are as vulnerable to distraction as anyone. If they were talking, they might not hear me, and regular human traffic in this building would probably hide my scent from them.

  And why, exactly, a voice somewhere within the storm in my chest whispered, should I be hiding from these murdering scum in the first place? Red Court vampires were killers, one and all. A half-turned vampire didn't go all the way over until they'd killed another human being and fed upon their life's blood. Granted, an unwilling soul taken into the Red Court found themselves at the mercy of new and nearly irresistible hungers - but that didn't change the fact that if they were a card-carrying member of the Red Court, they had killed someone to be there.

  Monsters. Monsters who dragged people into the darkness and inflicted unspeakable torments upon them for pleasure - and I should know. They'd done it to me once. Monsters whose existence was a plague upon millions.

  Monsters who had taken my child.

  The man once wrote: Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. Tolkien had that one mostly right.

  I stepped forward, let the door bang closed, and snarled, "Fuck subtle. "

  The gurgle-hissing from around the corner ahead stopped at a confused intersection of speech that needed no translation: Huh?

  I lifted the blasting rod, aimed it at the corner ahead of me, and poured my rage, my will, and my power into it as I snarled, "Fuego!"

  Silver-white fire howled down the hallway and bit into the corner ahead, blowing through it as easily as a bullet through a paper target. I drew the line of fire to my left, and as quickly as that, the fire gouged an opening as big as my fist through several sections of studs and drywall, blasting through to the perpendicular hallway where I'd heard the vampires talking. The din was incredible. Wood tore and exploded. Drywall flew into clouds of dust. Pipes screamed as they were severed as neatly as if I'd used a cutter. Wires erupted into clouds of popping sparks.

  And something entirely inhuman let out a piercing shriek of pain, pain driven by unnaturally powerful lungs into a scream that was louder than gunshots.

  I screamed in answer, in challenge, in defiance, and pelted forward. The runes on my blasting
rod shone with white-hot fire, throwing brilliant silver-white light out ahead of me into the darkened building as I ran.

  As I rounded the corner a shape was already in motion, coming toward me. My shield bracelet was ready. I lifted my left hand, fingers contorted into a gesture that had nothing to do with magic but that was generally considered insulting. My will poured into the charm bracelet hung with multiple tiny shields, and in an instant my power spread from there into a quarter-dome shape of pure, invisible force in front of me. The black shape of the vampire hit the shield, sending up concentric circles of blue light and white sparks, and then rebounded from it.

  I dropped the shield almost before he was done rebounding, leveled the blasting rod with a flick of my wrist, and ripped the vampire in half with a word and a beam of silver fire. The pieces flew off in different directions, still kicking and thrashing hideously.

  In the middle of the hallway was a second bisected vampire, which I'd apparently hit when firing blindly through the wall. It was also dying messily. Because I've seen too many bad horror movies and know the rules for surviving them, the instant I'd made sure the hallway was empty of more threats, I swung the rod up to point above me.

  A vampire clung to the ceiling not twenty feet away. People have this image of vampires as flawless, beautiful gods of dark sex and temptation. And, while the Red Court can create a kind of outer human shell called a flesh mask, and while that mask was generally lovely, there was something very different underneath - a true, hideous, unrepentant monster, like the one looking down at me.

  It was maybe six feet tall when standing, though its arms were scrawny and long enough to drag the backs of its claw-tipped hands along the ground. Its skin was rubbery and black, spotted here and there with unhealthy-looking bits of pink, and its belly hung down in flabby grotesquerie. It was bandy-legged and hunchbacked, and its face was somewhere between that of a vampire bat and something from H. R. Giger's hallucinations.

  It saw me round the corner, and its goggling black eyes seemed to get even larger. It let out a scream of . . .

  Terror.

  It screamed in fear.

  The vampire flung itself away from me even as I unleashed a third blast, bounding away down the hall, flinging itself from the ceiling to the wall to the floor to the wall and back again, wildly dodging the stream of ruinous energy I sent after it.

  "That's right!" I heard myself scream. "You'd better run, pretty boy!" It vanished around the next corner and I shouted in incoherent rage, kicked the still-twitching head of one of the downed vampires with the tip of my steel-toed work boots, and rushed after it in pursuit, cursing up a storm.

  The entire business had taken, at most, six or seven seconds.

  After that, things got a little complicated.

  I'd started half a dozen small fires with the blasts, and before I'd gone another half a dozen steps the fire alarms twittered shrilly. Sprinkler systems went off all around me. And at the same moment, gunfire erupted from somewhere ahead of me. None of that was good.

  The alarms meant that the authorities would be on the way - and except for the smartest guys in CPD's Special Investigations, they just weren't ready to deal with a vampire. They'd be little more than victims and potential hostages to the supernatural predators.

  The falling water wasn't good, either. Running water grounds magical energies, and while it wouldn't shut me down completely, it would make everything harder to do, like running through soft sand or over wet clay. And the gunshots weren't good because a pair of bullets came through the wall not six feet away, and one of them tugged hard at the hem of my jeans over my left ankle.

  "Ack!" I said.

  Fearless master of the witty dialogue, that's me.

  I twisted my left wrist across the front of my body, brought my shield up again. A couple of bullets that probably wouldn't have hit me anyway popped off of it, concentric circles of flickering blue light spreading from the points of impact. I dashed down the hall and around the corner, the blasting rod in my right hand lifted and ready.

  There were two vampires in front of a door to an office. One of them was on the floor, thrashing and hissing in agony, clutching at its flabby belly. It was leaking blood all over the floor. Several dozen bullet holes - exit holes - in the door explained why. The injuries wouldn't kill the vamp, but they were painful and robbed it of the source of its supernatural power - the blood it had devoured. The other was crouched to the side of the doorway, as if debating with itself whether or not it should try to rush the door as its companion apparently had.

  My runner went by them, wailing in fear.

  I slid to a stop on the rapidly moistening floor, lifted the rod, and cut loose with another blast. It howled down the hallway, and the running vamp seized the wounded one and pulled it up to intercept the shot I'd meant for it. The wounded vamp screamed and absorbed just enough of the energy to let the runner plunge through the drywall at the end of the hall. It vanished from sight, and a second later I heard the sound of glass breaking as it fled the building.

  The luckless vampire was dead, or on the final approach to it, since the beam had sliced off almost everything to the left of its spine. The final vampire whirled toward me, hesitating.

  It proved fatal. The wall behind it suddenly exploded outward, and Martin, his skin livid with dark tattoos, came crashing through it. He drove the vampire across the hallway and slammed it into the wall. One hand snaked around the surprised vampire's belly, and a knife gleamed. Scarlet gore fountained against the wall, and the vampire collapsed, screaming breathlessly.

  Martin leapt clear before the thrashing creature got lucky with one of its claws, snapped his gaze up and down the hallway, saw the hole in the far wall, and said, "Damnation. You let one get away?"

  Before I could answer him, Susan appeared, slipping out through the hole in the wall. She had the computer backpack slung over one shoulder and a smoking gun in her hand, a . 45 automatic with an extended magazine. She took a look at the vampire on the ground and lifted the gun, her dark eyes hard and cold.

  "Wait," I said. "There were six. He's number four. "

  "There are always six of them," Susan said. "Standard operations team. "

  She calmly pulled the trigger, letting loose a short, precise burst of automatic fire, and blew the wounded vampire's head into disgusting mulch.

  Martin looked at his watch. "We don't have long. "

  Susan nodded and they both started down the hallway, toward the stairs. "Come on, Harry. We found floor plans. The building's wired. "

  I blinked and ran after them. "Wired? To what?"

  "The explosives are on the fourth floor," Martin said calmly, "placed all around your office. "

  "Those jerks," I said. "They told us they were cleaning out asbestos!"

  Susan barked out a short laugh, but Martin frowned her down. "When that runner gets them word about what happened, they'll set them off. I suggest we hurry. "

  "Holy crap," I breathed.

  We sprinted for the stairs. Going down them took a lot less time than going up, but it was harder to control. I stumbled once and Susan caught me by the arm, her fingers like bands of rigid steel. We reached the bottom together.

  "Not out the front!" I barked. "Inbound authorities!"

  I pounded past them and led them down a short hallway and out a side door, into an alley. Then we sprinted to the back of the building, down another alley, and away.

  We had made it to the next block when light flashed and a giant the size of the Sears building hauled off and swatted us all with a pillow from his enormous bed. We were flung from our feet. Susan and Martin landed in a roll, tumbling several times. By contrast, I crashed into a garbage can.

  It was, of course, full.

  I lay there for a moment, my ears putting out a constant, high-pitched tone. A cloud of dust and particles washed over me, mixing with whatever hideous stew was in the trash ca
n and caking itself to my body.

  "I am not playing at the top of my game," I mused aloud. I felt the words buzz in my throat, but I couldn't hear them.

  A few seconds later, sounds began to drift back in. Car horns and car alarms were going off everywhere. Storefront security systems were screaming. Sirens - lots and lots of sirens - were closing in.

  A hand slipped beneath my arm and someone helped me stand up. Susan. She was lightly coated with dust. It filled the air so thickly that we couldn't see more than ten or twenty feet. I tried to walk and staggered.

  Martin got underneath my other arm, and we started shambling away through the dust. After a little while, things stopped spinning so wildly. I realized that Martin and Susan were talking.

  " - sure there's not something left?" Susan was saying.

  "I'll have to examine it sector by sector," Martin said tonelessly. "We might get a few crumbs. What the hell was he thinking, throwing that kind of power around when he knew we were after electronic data?"

  "He was probably thinking that the information would be useless to the two of us if we were dead," Susan said back, rather pointedly. "They had us. And you know it. "

  Martin said nothing for a while. Then he said, "That. Or he didn't want us to get the information. He was quite angry. "

  "He isn't that way," she said. "It isn't him. "

  "It wasn't him," Martin corrected her. "Are you the same person you were eight years ago?"

  She didn't say anything for a while.

  I remembered how to walk, and started doing it on my own. I shook my head to clear it a little and looked back over my shoulder.

  There were buildings on fire. More and more sirens were on the way. The spot in the skyline where my office building usually sat from this angle was empty except for a spreading cloud of dust. Fires and emergency lights painted the dust orange and red and blue.

  My files. My old coffee machine. My spare revolver. My favorite mug. My ratty, comfortable old desk and chair. My frosted-glass window with its painted lettering reading, HARRY DRESDEN, WIZARD.

  They were all gone.

  "Dammit," I said.

  Susan looked up at me. "What was that?"

  I answered in a weary mumble. "I mailed in the rent on my office this morning. "

  Chapter 5

  We got a cab. We got out of the area before the cops had cordoned off a perimeter. It wasn't all that hard. Chicago has a first-rate police department, but nobody can establish that big a cordon around a large area with a lot of people in the dead of night quickly or easily. They'd have to call and get people out of bed and onto the job, and pure confusion would slow everything down.

  By morning, I knew, word of the explosion would be all over the news. There would be reporters and theories and eyewitness interviews with people who had sort of heard something happen and seen a cloud of dust. This hadn't been a fire, like we'd seen a few times before. This had been an explosion, a deliberate act of destruction. They would be able to find out that much in the aftermath.

  There would be search and rescue on the scene.

  I closed my eyes and leaned my head on the window. Odds were good that there was no one else in the building. All the tenants were businesses. None of them was prone to operating late at night. But all of them had keys to get in when they needed to, just like I did. There could have been janitors or maintenance people there - employees of the Red Court, sure, but they didn't know that. You don't explain to the janitorial staff how your company is a part of a sinister organization with goals of global infiltration and control. You just tell them to clean the floor.

  There could very well be dead people in that building who wouldn't have been there except for the fact that my office was on the fourth floor.

  Jesus.

  I felt Susan's eyes on me. None of us had spoken in front of the cabbie. Nobody spoke now, until Martin said, "Here. Pull over here. "

  I looked up. The cab was pulling up to a cheap motel.

  "We should stay together," Susan said.

  "We can go over the disk here," Martin said. "We can't do that at his place. I need your help. He doesn't. "

  "Go on," I said. "People" - by which I meant the police - "are going to be at my place soon anyway. Easier if they only have one person to talk to. "

  Susan exhaled firmly through her nose. Then nodded. The two of them got out of the cab. Martin doled out some cash to the driver and gave him my home address.

  I rode home in silence. The cabbie was listening to the news on the radio. I was pretty beat, having tossed around a bunch of magic at the building. Magic can be awfully cool, but it's exhausting. What was left buzzing around me wasn't enough to screw up the radio, which was already alive with talk of the explosion. The cabbie, who looked like he was vaguely Middle Eastern in extraction, looked unhappy.

  I felt that.

  We stopped at my apartment. Martin had already paid him too much for the ride, but I duked him another twenty on top of that and gave him a serious look. "Your name is Ahmahd?"

  It was right there on his cabbie license. He nodded hesitantly.

  "You have a family, Ahmahd?"

  He just stared at me.

  I touched my finger to my lips in a hushing gesture. "You never saw me. Okay?"

  He grimaced, but dipped his head in a nod.

  I got out of the cab, feeling a little sick. I wouldn't hurt the guy's family, but he didn't know that. And even if he did, that and the bribe together wouldn't be enough to keep him from talking to the cops if they came asking - though I suspected it would be enough to keep him from jumping up to volunteer information. Buildings were exploding. Sane people would want to keep their heads down until it was over.

  I watched the car drive away, put my hands in my coat pockets, and shuffled wearily home. I'd cut into my physical and psychic resources pretty hard when I'd turned all that energy loose on the vampires, and now I was paying the price. I'd unintentionally poured soulfire into every blast I'd leveled at them - which was why I'd had the nifty silver-white blasts of flame instead of the red-orange of standard-issue fire. I felt like falling into bed, but it wouldn't be the smart move. I debated doing it anyway.

  I had time to get a shower, take Mouse out for a much-needed trip outside, put on a pot of coffee, and was just finishing up cleaning the debris and trash from my leather duster with some handy-dandy leather-cleaning wipes Charity Carpenter, Molly's mother, had sent over, when there was a knock at the door.

  Mouse lifted his head from where he lay near me, his brown eyes wary and serious. Then his ears perked up, and his tail began to wag. He got up and took a step toward the door, then looked at me.

  "Yeah, yeah," I said. "I'm going. "

  I got up and opened the door. It stuck halfway. I pulled harder and got it open the rest of the way.

  A woman a little more than five feet tall stood at my door, her face weary and completely free of makeup. Her hair was golden blond, but hanging all over her face and badly in need of attention from a brush and maybe a curling iron. Or at least a scrunchie. She was wearing sweat-pants and an old and roomy T-shirt, and her shoulders were hunched up in rigid tension.

  She stared at me for a moment. Then she closed her eyes and her shoulders relaxed.

  "Hiya, Murphy," I said.

  "Hey," she said, her voice a little feeble. I enjoyed the moment. I didn't get to see Murphy's soft side often. "Do I smell coffee?"

  "Made a fresh pot," I said. "Get you some?"

  Murphy let out a groan of something near lust. "Marry me. "

  "Maybe when you're conscious. " I stepped back and let her in. Murph sat down on the couch and Mouse came over to her and laid his head shamelessly on her lap. She yawned and scratched and petted him obligingly, her small, strong hands making his doggy eyes close in bliss.

  I passed her a cup of coffee and got one for myself. She took it black with a couple of
zero-calorie sweeteners in it. Mine came with cream and lots and lots of sugar. We sipped coffee together, and her eyes became more animate as the caffeine went in. Neither of us spoke, and her gaze eventually roved over my apartment and me. I could hear the wheels spinning in her head.

  "You showered less than an hour ago. I can still smell the soap. And you just got done cleaning your coat. At four in the morning. "

  I sipped coffee and neither confirmed nor denied.

  "You were at the building when it blew up," she said.

  "Not at it," I said. "I'm good, but I don't know about having a building fall on me. "

  She shook her head. She stared at the remainder of her coffee. "Rawlins called. Told me that your office building had exploded. I thought someone had gotten to you, finally. "

  "We on the record?" I asked. Murphy was a detective sergeant with Chicago PD's Special Investigations division. It was the dead-end department of CPD and the only one with any clue whatsoever about the supernatural world. Even so, Murphy was a cop to the bone. She could stretch the line when it came to legality, but she had limits. I'd crossed them before.

  She shook her head. "No. Not yet. "

  "Red Court," I said. "They bought the building a few years back. They wired it to blow if they wanted to do it. "

  Murphy frowned. "Why do it now? Why not blow you up years ago?"

  I grunted. "Personal grudge, I guess," I said. "Duchess Arianna is upset about what happened to her husband when he tangled with me. She thinks it's my fault. "

  "Is it?"

  "Pretty much," I said.

  She swirled the coffee around the bottom of the cup. "So why not just kill you? Click, boom. "

  "I don't know," I said. "She figured it wasn't enough, maybe. Click-boom is business. What I have going with her is personal. "

  My jaws creaked a little as I clenched them.

  Murphy's blue eyes missed little. "Personal?" She looked around again. "Your place looks too nice. Who was it?"

  "Susan. "

  Her back straightened a little. It was the only sign of surprise she showed. Murphy knew all about Susan. "You want to talk about it?"

  I didn't, but Murphy needed to know. I laid it out for her in sentences of three and four words. By the time I'd finished, she had set her mug on the coffee table and was listening to me intently.

  "Jesus and Mary, Mother of God," she breathed. "Harry. "

  "Yeah. "

  "That . . . that bitch. "

  I shook my head. "Pointing fingers does nothing for Maggie. We'll do that later. "

  She grimaced, as if swallowing something bitter. Then she nodded. "You're right. "

  "Thank you. "

  "What are you going to do?" she asked.

  "Martin and Susan are seeing what they can get off the disk," I said. "They'll contact me as soon as they know something. Meantime, I'll get a couple hours horizontal, then start hitting my contacts. Go to the Council and ask them for help. "

  "That bunch of heartless, gutless, spineless old pricks," she said.

  I found myself smiling, a little, at my coffee.

  "Are they going to give it to you?" Murphy asked.

  "Maybe. It's complicated," I said. "Are you going to get CPD to help me?"

  Her eyes darkened. "Maybe. It's complicated. "

  I spread my hands in a "there you are" gesture, and she nodded. She rose and paced over to the sink to put her cup down. "What can I do to help?"

  "Be nice if the police didn't lock me up for a while. They'll realize that the explosives were around my office eventually. "

  She shook her head. "No promises. I'll do what I can. "

  "Thank you. "

  "I want in," she said. "You're both too involved in this. You'll need someone with perspective. "

  I started to snap back something nasty, but shut my stupid mouth because she was probably right. I put my own coffee cup in the sink to give me an excuse not to talk while I tried to cool down. Then I said, "I would have asked you anyway, Murph. I need a good gun hand. "

  Tiny Murphy might be, but she'd survived more scrapes with the supernatural than any other vanilla mortal I'd ever met. She'd keep her head in a crisis, even if the crisis included winged demons, howling ghouls, slavering vampires, and human sacrifice. She'd keep anyone - by which I meant Martin - from stabbing me in the back. She'd keep her gun up and firing, too. I'd seen her do it.

  "Harry . . . " she began.

  I waved a hand. "Won't ask you to break any of Chicago's laws. Or U. S. laws. But I doubt we're going to be in town for this one. "

  She absorbed that for a moment, folded her arms, and looked at the fire. Mouse watched her silently from where he sat near the couch.

  She said, "I'm your friend, Harry. "

  "Never had a doubt. "

  "You're going to take Maggie back. "

  My jaw ached. "Damn right I am. "

  "Okay," she said. "I'm in. "

  I bowed my head, my eyes abruptly burning, the emotion clashing with the storm in my belly.

  "Th - " I began. My voice broke. I tried again. "Thank you, Karrin. "

  I felt her hand take mine for a moment, warm and steady.

  "We will get her back," she said, very quietly. "We will, Harry. I'm in. "