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Death Masks, Page 26

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-six

  I opened my eyes a while later, and saw Susan standing in the living room, her eyes closed. She was crouched, her hands held before her as if grasping an invisible basketball. As I watched, she moved, arms and legs gliding through gentle, circular motions. Tai chi. It was a meditative form of exercise that had originally come from martial arts. Lots of people who practiced tai chi didn't realize that the movements they followed were beautiful, slow-motion renditions of bone-breaking throws and joint locks.

  I had a feeling Susan knew. She wore her T-shirt and a pair of my running shorts. She moved with the graceful simplicity of a natural talent honed by training.

  A turn showed me her face, her expression set in peaceful concentration. I spent a minute watching her in silence, cataloging my own aches and pains.

  She suddenly smiled, without opening her eyes, and said, "Don't start drooling, Harry. "

  "My house. I can drool as much as I want. "

  "What was that rope you used?" she asked, still going through her routine. "I've broken handcuffs before. Magic?"

  Shoptalk. I had hoped for some other kind of discussion. Or maybe I'd been nervous about it. Work talk held a certain appeal for me, too. It was safe. "Faerie make," I said. "Has hair from a unicorn's mane woven through it. "


  I shrugged. "That's what Fix said. I imagine he knows. "

  "Would be handy to have around if the Denarians showed up again, don't you think?"

  "Not unless they came here," I told her. "It's set to this place. Take it out of here and it wouldn't work. "

  "Why not?"

  "Because I'm not that good yet," I said. "It's easy to make something that works at home. Takes a lot more know-how than I have to take an enchantment on the road. " I got out of bed and got moving. The clock said that it wasn't yet ten in the morning. I hopped in and out of the shower, dressed, slapped a comb through my hair, and decided that the rakish, unshaven look was in.

  By the time I got back out into the living room, Susan was dressed in the leather pants again and only four or five candles were still lit. The defensive barriers were winding down. "What happened after Martin took off from the hotel?" I asked.

  Susan slouched into a chair. "I tried to get him to stop. He wouldn't. We fought about it and he put a gun in my face. "

  I choked. "He what?"

  "To be fair, I wasn't being very rational. "

  "Hell's bells. "

  "Martin didn't want to, but I convinced him to go to Michael's place. I figured if anyone could get you out of a mess with the Denarians it would be him. "

  "Seems reasonable to me," I said. I debated between coffee and cola. The Coke won by virtue of convenience. Susan nodded at me before I could get the question out of my mouth, and I got her one too. "What about Anna Valmont?"

  "She was in shock. Charity put her to bed. "

  "Did you call the police?"

  Susan shook her head. "I thought she might have known something that would help. We wouldn't be able to find out what it was if she was angry and locked away. "

  "What did Michael have to say about it?"

  "He wasn't there," Susan said. "Shiro was. Charity said that Michael and someone named Sanya hadn't come back from St. Louis and hadn't called. "

  I frowned and passed over the second can to her. "That doesn't sound like him. "

  "I know. They were worried. " She frowned. "Or Charity was. I don't think Shiro was worried at all. It was almost as though he'd been expecting all of it. He was still dressed in the samurai clothes and he opened the front door before I could knock. "

  "Michael's done that kind of thing before. Fringe benefit of his job, maybe. "

  Susan shook her head. "God works in mysterious ways?"

  I shrugged. "Maybe so. Did Shiro say anything?"

  "He just told Martin where to turn left or right and where to park. Then he told me to give him two minutes' lead and to get ready to get you back to the car. He just - smiled a little, the whole time. It would have been a little spooky on anyone else. He seemed content. Maybe he just had a good poker face. "

  I toyed with my can. "Has. He has a good poker face. "

  Susan arched an eyebrow. "I don't understand. "

  "I don't think he's dead. Not yet. He - he agreed to give himself over to the Denarians in exchange for them letting me go. The head Denarian guy, said his name was Nicodemus, made Shiro promise to not to fight back or escape for twenty-four hours. "

  "That doesn't sound good. "

  I shivered. "Yeah. I figure they're archenemies. When Shiro offered himself, Nicodemus looked like a kid on Christmas morning. "

  Susan sipped at her drink. "How bad are these people?"

  I thought of Nicodemus and his knife. Of the sheer helplessness I'd felt as he drew my head back, baring my throat. I thought of sliced and diced corpses. "Bad. "

  Susan regarded me quietly for a moment, while I stared at my drink.

  "Harry," she said finally. "You going to open that or just look at it?"

  I shook my head and popped the tab on the can. My wrists felt sore, and the skin around them had been pretty thoroughly abraded. Evidently Nicodemus preferred regular old ropes to special unicorn-mane custom jobs. "Sorry. Got a lot to think about. "

  "Yeah," she said, her own voice softening. "What's our next move?"

  I checked the candles. Three to go. "Barrier will go down in maybe twenty minutes. We'll call a cab, pick up the Beetle at McAnnally's, and head to Michael's place. "

  "What if the Denarians are waiting outside for us?"

  I picked up my blasting rod from the stand in the corner by the door and twirled it around in my fingers. "They'll have to find their own cab. "

  "And then?"

  I picked up my staff and leaned it against the wall by the door. "We tell Michael and Sanya what happened. "

  "Assuming they're back. "

  "Uh- huh. " I opened the kitchen drawer and got out my gun and its holster. "After that, I ask the nice Denarians to let Shiro go. "

  Susan nodded. "We ask?"

  I flipped open the cylinder on the gun and loaded it. "I'll say pretty please," I said, and snapped the cylinder shut again.

  Susan's eyes flashed. "Count me in. " She watched me while I put on a shoulder rig and slipped the gun into it. "Harry," she said. "I don't want to break up the righteous-vengeance vibe, but there are a couple of questions that are really bothering me. "

  "Why do the Denarians want the Shroud, and what are they going to do with it," I said.

  "Yeah. "

  I got an old squall jacket out of my room and slid it on. It felt wrong. I hadn't worn anything but my old canvas duster or the newer leather one Susan had given me for the past several years. I checked the candles, and they had all gone out. I laid my hand on the wall, feeling for the defenses. There was a faint echo of them left, but nothing of substance, so I went back out into the living room and called for a cab. "We're good to go. I think I've got an idea of what they're doing, but I can't be sure. "

  She straightened my jacket collar absently. "Very sloppy of you. Didn't you get the megalomaniacal bragfest from this Nicodemus?"

  "He must have read that Evil Overlord list. "

  "Sounds like someone who intends to get things done. "

  He sure as hell had. "He let a couple things slip. I think we can get ahead of him. "

  She shook her head. "Harry, when I went down there with Shiro, I didn't see much. But I heard their voices through the tunnels. There was -" She closed her eyes for a moment, her expression one of faint nausea. "It's hard for me to explain. Their voices gave me a strong impression. Shiro sounded like - I don't know. A trumpet. Clear and strong. The other one - his voice stank. It was rotted. Corrupt. "

  I didn't understand what would have made Susan say that. Maybe it was something that the vampires had done to her. Maybe it was something she'd learned between tai c
hi classes. Maybe it was just pure intuition. But I knew what she was talking about. There was a sense to Nicodemus, of something quiet and still and dangerous-of something patient and vile and malicious beyond the scope of mortal understanding. He scared the hell out of me.

  "I know what you mean. Nicodemus isn't another misguided idealist, or some greedy bastard out to make money," I said. "He's different. "

  Susan nodded. "Evil. "

  "And he plays hardball. " I wasn't sure if I was asking Susan or myself, but I said, "You ready?"

  She got her jacket on. I went to the door and she followed.

  "The one bad thing about the duster," she mused. "I could never see your butt. "

  "I never noticed. "

  "If you went around noticing your own ass I'd worry about you, Harry. "

  I looked over my shoulder at her, smiling. She smiled back.

  It didn't last long. Both of our smiles turned a little sad.

  "Susan," I said.

  She put two fingertips to my lips. "Don't. "

  "Dammit, Susan. Last night-"

  "Shouldn't have happened," she said. Her voice sounded tired, but her eyes stayed steady on mine. "It doesn't-"

  "- change anything," I finished. I sounded bitter, even to me.

  She took her hand away and buttoned up the dark leather jacket.

  "Right," I said. I should have stuck to shoptalk. I opened the door and looked outside. "Cab's here. Let's get to work. "