Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Summer Knight, Page 22

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-two

  "You're kidding," Billy said, his voice touched with disbelief. "A chain saw? Where did you get the gasoline?"

  Murphy looked up from her wounded leg and the willowy Georgia, who had cut her jeans away and was cleaning out the long gashes she'd acquired from ankle to mid calf. "Gas generator, backup power supply for all the food freezers. They had a ten-gallon plastic jug of it. "

  Billy's apartment was not a large one, and with a dozen people in it, even with the air-conditioning running full blast, it was too hot and too crowded. The Alphas, Billy's werewolf accomplices, were out in force. We'd been challenged by a tall, thin young man in the parking lot and shadowed to the door by a pair of wolves who kept just far enough away to make it difficult to see them in the shadows.

  When I'd first seen them, the Alphas had been a collection of misfits with bad hair, acne, and wanna-be tough guy leather outfits. In the year and a half since, they'd changed. None of them had that pale look anymore, none of them looked wheezy, and like Billy, the kids who'd been carrying baby fat had swapped it for lean, fit muscle. They hadn't become a gang of Hollywood soap opera stars or anything, but they looked more relaxed, more confident, more happy - and I saw some scars, some of them quite vicious, showing on bare limbs. Most of the kids wore sweats, or those pullover knit dresses, garments that could be gotten out of in a hurry.

  Pizza boxes were stacked three deep on the table, and a cooler of soft drinks sat on the floor nearby. I piled a plate with half-warm pizza, picked up a Coke, and found a comparatively empty stretch of wall to lean against.

  Billy shook his head and said, "Look, Harry, some of this doesn't make sense. I mean, if they could really run around doing this mind fog thing, shouldn't we have heard about it by now?"

  I snorted and said around a mouthful of pizza, "It's pretty rare, even in my circles. No one who got hit with it will remember it. Check the paper tomorrow. Ten to one, emergency services showed up after we left, put out the fires, pulled a bunch of confused people out of the building, and the official explanation is a leaky gas line. "

  Billy snorted. "That doesn't make any sense. There's not going to be evidence of an exploding line, no leak is going to show up at the gas company, no continuing fire of leaking gas - "

  I kept eating. "Get real, Billy," I said. "You think people are going to be taken seriously by City Hall if they tell them, 'We really don't know what messed up all these people, we don't know what caused all the damage, we don't know why no one heard or saw anything, and we don't know what the reports of gunshots at the scene were about? Hell, no. People would be accused of incompetence, publicly embarrassed, fired. No one wants that. So, gas leak. "

  "But it's stupid!"

  "It's life. The last thing the twenty-first century wants to admit is that it might not know everything. " I popped open the Coke and guzzled some. "How's the leg, Murph?"

  "It hurts," Murphy reported, considerately leaving out the implied "you idiot. "

  Georgia stood up from attending Murphy's leg and shook her head. She was nearly a foot taller than Billy, and had bound her blond hair back into a tight braid. It emphasized the gauntness of her features. "The cuts and bruises are nothing major, but your knee could be seriously damaged. You should have it checked out by a real doctor, Lieutenant Murphy. "

  "Karrin," Murphy said. "Anyone who mops up my blood can call me Karrin. " I tossed Murphy a Coke. She caught it and said, "Except you, Dresden. Any diet?"

  I put several slices of pizza on a paper plate and passed them over. "Live a little. "

  "All right, Karrin," Georgia said, folding her arms. "If you don't want a twenty-five-thousand-dollar surgery along with seven or eight months of rehab, we need to get you to the hospital. "

  Murphy frowned, then nodded and said, "Let me eat something first. I'm starving. "

  "I'll get the car," Georgia said. She turned to Billy. "Make sure she doesn't put any weight on her leg when you bring her down. Keep it straight if you can. "

  "Got it," Billy said. "Phil, Greg. Get that blanket. We'll make a litter out of it. "

  "I'm not an infant," Murphy said.

  I put my hand on her shoulder. "Easy," I said in a quiet voice. "They can handle themselves. "

  "So can I. "

  "You're hurt, Murph," I said. "If you were one of your people, you'd be telling you to shut up and stop being part of the problem. "

  Murphy shot me a glower, but its edge was blunted by the big mouthful of pizza she took. "Yeah. I know. I just hate being sidelined. "

  I grunted.

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

  I shook my head. "Finish this Coke. I haven't planned much past that. "

  She sighed. "All right, Harry. Look, I'll be home in a few hours. I'll keep digging, see if I can turn up anything about Lloyd Slate. If you need information on anything else, get in touch. "

  "You should rest," I told her.

  She grimaced at her leg. Her knee was swollen to a couple of times its normal size. "Looks like I'm going to have plenty of time for that. "

  I grunted again and looked away.

  "Hey, Harry," Murphy said. When I didn't look at her, she continued, "What happened to me wasn't your fault. I knew the risks and I took them. "

  "You shouldn't have had to. "

  "No one should. We live in an imperfect world, Dresden. In case that hasn't yet become obvious enough for you. " She nudged my leg with her elbow. "Besides. You were lucky I was there. The way I count it, I'm the one who put on the boots. "

  A smile threatened my expression. "You did what?"

  "Put on the boots," Murphy said. "I put on the boots and kicked some monster ass. I dropped the ghoul, and I'm the one who rammed a chain saw through the head of that plant monster thing. Crippled the ogre, too. What did you do? You threw a can of Sterno at him. That's barely an assist. "

  "Yeah, but I soaked him in gasoline first. "

  She snorted at me, around more pizza. "Shutout. "

  "Whatever. "

  "Murphy three, Dresden zero. "

  "You didn't do all of it. "

  "I put on the boots. "

  I raised my hands. "Okay, okay. You've . . . got boots, Murph. "

  She sniffed and took an almost dainty sip of Coke. "Lucky I was there. "

  I squeezed her shoulder and said, with no particular inflection, "Yes. Thank you. "

  Murphy smiled up at me. From the window, one of the Alphas reported, "Car's ready. "

  Billy and a couple more laid out a blanket and then carefully lifted Murphy onto it. She tolerated them with a roll of her eyes, but hissed with discomfort even at the gentle motion.

  "Call," she said.

  "Will. "

  "Watch your back, Harry. " Then they carried her out.

  I picked up some more pizza, exchanged some more or less polite chitchat with some of the Alphas, and made my escape from the crowded living room of the apartment to the balcony. I shut the sliding glass door behind me. Only one light in the parking lot provided any illumination, so the balcony was mostly covered in sheltering shadows. The night was a close one, humidity cooking along at a lazy summer broil, but even so it felt less claustrophobic than the crowded apartment.

  I watched Billy and the Alphas load Murphy into a minivan and drive off. Then there was as much silence as you ever get in Chicago. The hiss of tires on asphalt was a constant, liquid background, punctuated with occasional sirens, horns, mechanical squeaks and squeals, and the buzzing of one lost locust that must have been perched on a building nearby.

  I put my paper plate on the wooden balcony railing, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath, trying to clear my head.

  "Penny for your thoughts," said a quiet female voice.

  I nearly jumped off the balcony in sheer reaction. My hand brushed the paper plate, and the pizza fell to the parking lot below. I whirled around and found Meryl sitting in a chair at the other
side of the balcony, deep in shadows, her large form nothing more than a more solid piece of darkness - but her eyes gleamed in the half-light, reflecting traces of red. She watched the plate fall and then said, "Sorry. "

  "S'okay," I said. "Just a little nervous tonight. "

  She nodded. "I was listening. "

  I nodded back to her and returned to looking at nothing, listening to night sounds. After a while, she asked me, "Does it hurt?"

  I waved my bandaged hand idly. "Sort of. "

  "Not that," she said. "I meant watching your friend get hurt. "

  Some of my racing thoughts coalesced into irritated anger. "What kind of question is that?"

  "A simple one. "

  I took an angry hit from my can of Coke. "Of course it hurts. "

  "You're different than I thought you'd be. "

  I squinted over my shoulder at her.

  "They tell stories about you, Mister Dresden. "

  "It's all a lie. "

  Her teeth gleamed. "Not all of them are bad. "

  "Mostly good or mostly bad?"

  "Depends on who's talking. The Sidhe crowd thinks you're an interesting mortal pet of Mab's. The vampire wanna-be crowd thinks you're some kind of psychotic vigilante with a penchant for vengeance and mayhem. Sort of a one-man Spanish Inquisition. Most of the magical crowd thinks you're distant, dangerous, but smart and honorable. Crooks think you're a hit man for the outfit, or maybe one of the families back East. Straights think you're a fraud trying to bilk people out of their hard-won cash, except for Larry Fowler, who probably wants you on the show again. "

  I regarded her, frowning. "And what do you think?"

  "I think you need a haircut. " She lifted a can to her mouth and I caught a whiff of beer. "Bill called all the morgues and hospitals. No Jane Doe with green hair. "

  "Didn't figure there would be. I talked to Aurora. She seemed concerned. "

  "She would. She's everyone's big sister. Thinks she needs to take care of the whole world. "

  "She didn't know anything. "

  Meryl shook her head and was quiet for a while before she asked, "What's it like being a wizard?"

  I shrugged. "Mostly it's like being a watch fob repairman. It's both difficult and not in demand. The rest of the time . . . "

  More emotion rose in me, threatening my self-control. Meryl waited.

  "The rest of the time," I picked up, "it's scary as hell. You start learning the kinds of things that go bump in the night and you figure out that 'ignorance is bliss' is more than just a quotable quote. And it's - " I clenched my hands. "It's so damned frustrating. You see people getting hurt. Innocents. Friends. I try to make a difference, but I usually don't know what the hell is going on until someone is already dead. Doesn't matter what kind of job I do - I can't help those folks. "

  "Sounds hard," Meryl said.

  I shrugged. "I guess it isn't any different than what anyone else goes through. The names just get changed. " I finished off the Coke and stomped the dead soldier flat. "What about you? What's it like being a changeling?"

  Meryl rolled the beer can between her broad hands. "About like anyone, until you hit puberty. Then you start feeling things. "

  "What kinds of things?"

  "Different, depending on your Sidhe half. For me it was anger, hunger. I gained a lot of weight. I kept losing my temper over the most idiotic things. " She took a drink. "And strength. I grew up on a farm. My older brother rolled a tractor and it pinned him, broke his hip, and caught on fire. I picked it up and threw it off him, then dragged him back to the house. More than a mile. I was twelve. My hair had turned this color by the next morning. "

  "Troll," I said quietly.

  She nodded. "Yeah. I don't know the details about what happened, but yeah. And every time I let those feelings get loose, the more I lost my temper and used my strength, the bigger and stronger I got. And the worse I felt about what I did. " She shook her head. "Sometimes I think it would be easier to just choose the Sidhe half. To stop being human, stop hurting. If it wasn't for the others needing me . . . "

  "It would turn you into a monster. "

  "But a happy monster. " She finished her beer. "I should go check on Fix - he's sleeping now - and try to call Ace. What are you going to do?"

  "Try to add up some facts. Meet some contacts. Interview more Queens. Maybe get a haircut. "

  Her teeth showed again in a smile, and she rose. "Good luck. " She went back into the noisy apartment and shut the door.

  I closed my eyes and tried to think. Whoever had sent the Tigress, Grum, the chlorofiend, and the lone gunman after me had been trying to kill me. It was a reasonable assumption, then, that I was on the right track. Generally speaking, the bad guys don't try to bump off an investigator unless they're worried he's actually about to find something.

  But if that was true, then why had the Tigress taken a shot at me the day before I'd gotten the case? She could have been working for the Red Court and taken a new contract that just happened to be me, but it didn't sound likely. If the ghoul had been on the same contract, it meant that I'd been judged a threat to the killer's plans from day one, if not sooner.

  The frost on my car's windows had probably been the doing of someone from Winter. I mean, a wizard could do the same thing, but as devastating spells go, that one seemed to be kinda limited. The ghoul, presumably, would work for anyone who paid. The chlorofiend, though . . . I hadn't expected it to talk, or to be intelligent.

  The more I thought about the plant monster, the more things didn't add up. It had picked a spot and had its allies herd me to it. That wasn't the behavior of your average thug, even of the magical variety. It had a sense of personal conflict about it, as if the chlorofiend had a particular bone to pick with me.

  And how the hell had Murphy killed it? It was stronger than your average bulldozer, for crying out loud. It had socked me once when I had my full shield going, and it still hurt. It had clipped me a couple of times and nearly broken bones.

  The chlorofiend should have flattened Murphy into a puddle of slurry. It had hit her at least a dozen times, yet it seemed like it had only tapped her, as though unable to risk doing more damage. Then a lightbulb flashed on somewhere in my musty brain. The chlorofiend hadn't been a being, as such. It had been a construct - a magical vessel for an outside awareness. An awareness both intelligent and commanding, but one who could not, for some reason, kill Murphy when she attacked it. Why?

  "Because, Harry, you idiot, Murphy isn't attached to either of the Faerie Courts," I told myself. Out loud.

  "What's that got to do with it?" I asked myself. Again out loud. And people think I'm crazy.

  "Remember. The Queens can't kill anyone who isn't attached to the Courts through birthright or bargain. She couldn't kill Murphy. Neither could the construct she was guiding. "

  "Damn," I muttered. "You're right. "

  A Queen seemed reasonable, then - probably from Winter. Or, more realistically, the frosted windshield could have been a decoy. Either way, I couldn't figure who would have had a reason to come after me with something as elaborate as a mind fog and a veritable army of assassins.

  Which reminded me. The mind fog had to have come from somewhere. I wasn't sure if the Queens could have managed something like that outside of Faerie. If they couldn't, it meant that the killer had a hired gun, someone who could pull off a delicate and dangerous spell like that.

  I started running down that line of thought, but only a moment later the wind picked up into a stiff, whistling breeze that roared through the air and swept down through the city. I frowned at the sudden shift in the weather and looked around.

  I didn't find anything obvious, but when I glanced up, I saw the lights going out. A vast cloud bank was racing north, fast enough that I could see it eating the stars. A second wall of clouds was sailing south, toward the first bank. They met in only moments, and as they did, light flashed from cloud to
cloud, brighter than daylight, and thunder shook the balcony beneath my feet. Not long after that, a drop of freezing-cold water landed on my head, quickly followed by a mounting torrent of chilly rain. The still-rising wind whipped it into a miserable downpour.

  I turned and pulled open the door into the apartment with a frown. The Alphas were peering out windows, speaking quietly with one another. Across the room, Billy finished messing around with a television, and a rather rumpled-looking weatherman appeared, the image flickering with interference lines and bursts of snow.

  "Guys, guys," Billy said. "Hush, let me listen. " He turned up the volume.

  ". . . a truly unprecedented event, an enormous Arctic blast that came charging like a freight train through Canada and across Lake Michigan to Chicagoland. And if that wasn't enough, a tropical front, settled quietly in the Gulf of Mexico, has responded in kind, rushing up the Mississippi River in a sudden heat wave. They've met right over Lake Michigan, and we have received several reports of rain and bursts of hail. Thunderstorm warnings have been issued all through the Lake Michigan area, and a tornado watch is in progress for the next hour in Cook Country. National Weather Service has also issued a flash flood warning and a travel advisory for the eastern half of Illinois. This is some beautiful but very violent weather, ladies and gentlemen, and we urge you to remain in shelter until this storm has time to . . . "

  Billy turned the volume down. I looked around the room and found nearly a dozen sets of eyes focused on me, patient and trusting. Bah.

  "Harry," Billy said at last, "that isn't a natural storm, is it?"

  I shook my head, got another Coke out of the cooler, and headed tiredly for the door. "Side effect. Like the toads. "

  "What does it mean?"

  I opened the door and said, without looking back, "It means we're running out of time. "