White Night, Page 3Jim Butcher
Molly said little on the way back. She just leaned against the window with half-closed eyes, probably basking in the afterglow.
"Molly," I told her in my gentlest voice. "Heroin feels good, too, Ask Rosy and Nelson. "
The little smile of pleasure faded into blankness, and she stared at me for a while. By degrees, her expression changed to a frown of consideration, and then to a nauseated grimace.
"It killed her," she said finally. "It killed her. I mean, it felt so good. . . but it wasn't. "
"She never knew it. She never had a chance. " Molly looked queasy for a minute. "It was a vampire, right? From the White Court? I mean, they use sex to feed on life energy, right?"
"That's one of the things it could be," I said quietly. "There are plenty of demonic creatures in the Nevernever that groove on the succubus routine, though. "
"And she was killed in a hotel," she said. "Where there was no threshold to protect her from a demon. "
"Very good, grasshopper," I said. "Once you consider that the other victims weren't done White Court style, it means that either there is more than one killer or the same one is varying his techniques. It's too early for anything but wild guesses. "
She frowned. "What are you going to do next?"
I thought about it for a minute. "I've got to figure out what all of the killer's victims have in common, if anything. "
"They're dead?" Molly offered.
I smiled a little. "Besides that. "
"Okay," she said. "So what do you do?"
I nodded to the papers Butters had given me, now resting on the dashboard. "I start there. See what I can extrapolate from the data I've got. Then I look people up and ask questions. "
"What do I do?" she asked.
"That depends. How many beads can you move?" I asked her.
She glowered at me for a minute. Then she unbound the bracelet of dark beads from her left wrist and held it up. The beads all slipped down to the bottom of the bracelet, leaving three or four inches of bare cord.
Molly focused on the bracelet, a device I'd created to help her practice focusing her mind and stilling her thoughts. Focus and stillness are important when you're slinging magic around. It's a primal force of creation, and it responds to your thoughts and emotions - whether you want it to or not. If your thoughts get fragmented or muddled, or if you aren't paying complete attention to what you're doing, the magic can respond in any number of unpredictable and dangerous ways.
Molly was still learning about it. She had some real talent, don't get me wrong, but what she lacked was not ability, but judgment. That's what I'd been trying to teach her over the past year or so - to use her power responsibly, cautiously, and with respect for the dangers the Art could present. If she didn't get a more solid head on her shoulders, her talent with magic was going to get her killed - probably taking me with her.
Molly was a warlock.
She'd used magic to tinker with the minds of two of her friends in an effort to free them from drug addiction, but her motives had been mixed, and the results were moderately horrific. One of the kids still hadn't recovered enough to function on his own. The other had pulled through, but was still facing a lot of problems.
Normally, the White Council of wizards kills you for breaking one of the Laws of Magic. Practically the only time they didn't was when a wizard of the Council offered to take responsibility for the warlock's future conduct, until they could satisfy the Council that their intentions were good, their ways mended. If they could, fine. If not, the warlock died. So did the wizard who had taken responsibility for him.
I'd been a warlock. Hell, plenty of the Council wondered if I still was a ticking bomb getting ready to blow. When Molly had been bound and hooded and dragged before the Council for trial, I'd stepped in. I had to.
Sometimes I regretted the hell out of that decision. Once you've felt the power of dark magic, it could be awfully hard to resist using it again, and Molly's errors tended to run in that direction. The kid was good at heart, but she was just so damned young. She'd grown up in a strict household; she'd gone insane with freedom the minute she ran away and got out on her own. She was back home now, but she was still trying to find the balance and self-discipline she'd need to survive in the wizarding business.
Teaching her to throw a gout of fire at a target really wasn't terribly difficult. The hard part was teaching her why to do it, why not to do it, and when she should or should not do it. Molly saw magic as the best solution to any given problem. It wasn't, and she had to learn that.
To that end, I'd made her the bracelet.
She stared at it for a long minute, and one of the beads slid up the string and stopped when it touched her finger. A moment later, the second bead joined the first. The third quivered for several seconds before it moved. The fourth took even longer. The fifth bead jumped and twitched for several moments before Molly let out her breath in a snarl, and the others once more succumbed to gravity.
"Four of thirteen," I noted, as I pulled into a driveway. "Not bad. But you aren't ready yet. "
She glared at the bracelet and rubbed at her forehead for a moment. "I got six last night. "
"Keep working," I said. "It's about focus, stillness, and clarity. "
"What does that mean?" Molly demanded in exasperation.
"That you have more work to do. "
She sighed and got out of the car, glancing up at her family's home. It was a gorgeous place, white picket fence and everything, somehow preserving a suburban appearance despite the city all around us. "You aren't explaining it very well. "
"Maybe," I said. "Or maybe you aren't learning it very well. "
She gave me a glower, and what might have been a hot answer came to her lips - but she shut them and shook her head in irritation. "I'm sorry. For putting up that veil and trying to follow you. No disrespect intended. "
"None taken. I've been where you are. I don't expect you to be perfect all the time, kid. "
She smiled a little. "What happened today. . . "
"Happened," I said. "It's done. Besides, it worked out. I don't know if I could have read anything at all from that victim, the way you did today. "
She looked hopeful. "Yeah?"
I nodded. "What you found might be a big help. You did good. Thanks. "
She practically glowed. Once or twice, after a compliment, she'd literally glowed, but we'd gotten that under control within a month or two. She gave me a smile that made her look even younger than she was, and then pelted up the front steps and into the house.
That left me there alone with pages and pages of dead women. I wanted to know more about them almost as much as I wanted to shove my manly parts into a radioactive wood chipper.
I sighed. I had to get closer to this, but I could at least do it with a drink in my hand.
So I went to McAnally's.
Mac's pub - and make no mistake, it was a pub, not a bar - was one of those few places in Chicago frequented almost entirely by the supernatural scene. It didn't have a sign outside. I had to walk down a flight of stairs to get to the unmarked front door. Inside, it's all low ceilings, a crooked bar, and irregularly spaced, hand-carved wooden columns. Mac manages to keep electricity moving through the bar despite all the magical types wandering through - partly because it's rare for anything but a full-blown wizard, like me, to cause the inevitable failure of any nearby technology, and partly because he does a ton of preventive maintenance. He still didn't bother with electric lights - it costs too much to keep replacing bulbs - but he was able to keep a bunch of ceiling fans whirling and maintain a functional telephone.
On the wall beside the door was a wooden sign that stated, simply, ACCORDED neutral ground. That meant that Mac had declared the place a nonpartisan location, according to the terms set up by the Unseelie Accords - sort of the Geneva Convention of the supern
atural world. It meant that any member of the signatory nations was free to enter peaceably, and remain unmolested by any other member. The neutral ground had to be respected by all parties, who were obligated to take outside any fight that might begin and respect the pub's neutral status. Oaths and the rights and obligations of hospitality were very nearly a force of nature in the supernatural world. It meant that, in Chicago, there was always a place'to set up a meeting with a reasonable expectation of a civilized outcome.
All the same, it also meant that you might find yourself in bad company when you went to Mac's place.
I always sit with my back to a smoke-stained wall.
It was late afternoon and the place was busier than it should have been. Of the thirteen tables, only two were open, and I took the one farther away from the rest of the room, tossing the papers and my coat on it.
I went to the bar, suppressing an instinct to duck every time I walked under one of the too-low-for-towering-wizards ceiling fans. I nodded to Mac. He's a spare man, a little taller than average, his head shaved bald. He could be anywhere between thirty and fifty. He wore jeans, a white shirt, and a white apron, and despite the fact that his wood-fueled grill was up and running, there wasn't a spot or stain anywhere on his clothes. "Mac," I said, "beer me. "
Mac slid over a dark brown bottle of his home brew. I opened it, chugged it, and passed him a twenty with the empty. "Keep 'em coming. "
Mac let out a grunt of surprise, and his eyebrows went up.
"Don't ask," I told him.
He folded his arms and nodded. "Keys. "
I glared at him for a second, but I was halfhearted about it. I tossed the keys to the Blue Beetle onto the bar.
Mac gave me another beer, and I went to the table, drinking on the way. By the time I'd circled the carved column shaped like one enormous, ugly giant, except for the carved figures of faerie knights attacking its ankles, and sat down at my table, the beer was mostly gone.
I don't usually go through them like that. I should have been more cautious, but I really, really didn't want to dig into that material sober. I figured that if my brain was mushy enough, maybe all the bad I was about to drag through it wouldn't leave as deep an impression.
I settled down and read through the information Butters had given me on the dead women, pausing every so often for more beer. I read the words, but there was an odd sense of blankness inside. I read them, I understood them, but they somehow didn't seem relevant, vanishing like pebbles dropped in a well - there was a little ripple, then nothing.
I thought I recognized two of the victims, though not by name. I'd probably seen them around, maybe even there at McAnally's. I didn't recognize the others, but it wasn't like I knew every face in the community.
I stopped reading for a few minutes, and drank some more. I didn't want to keep going. I didn't want to see any of this. I didn't want to get involved. I'd seen more than enough of people being hurt and killed. I'd seen too many dead women. I wanted to burn the papers, walk out the door, and just keep walking.
Instead, I went back to reading.
By the time I finished, I had found no obvious connection between the victims, I was emptying my fifth bottle, and it was dark outside. The bar had grown quiet.
I looked up to see that, except for Mac, I had the place entirely to myself.
That was odd. Mac's place isn't usually packed, but it's busy in the evening. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen it empty around dinnertime.
Mac came over to me with another bottle, putting it down just as I finished the previous. He glanced from the fresh bottle to all the empties, standing in a row.
"I use up my twenty?" I asked him.
I grunted, got out my wallet, and put another twenty on the table.
He frowned at it, then at me.
"I know," I said. "I don't usually drink this much. "
He snorted quietly. Mac isn't big on verbalization.
I waved a hand vaguely at the papers. "Hate seeing women get hurt. I should hate seeing anyone get hurt, but it's worse with women. Or kids. " I glared down at the paperwork, then around at the now-empty bar, adding two and two. "Get another," I told him. "Sit down. "
Mac's eyebrows went up. Then he went over to the bar, got himself a beer, and came over to sit down with me. He casually opened both bottles with a deft twist of his hand and no bottle opener. Mac is a professional. He pushed my bottle over to me and lifted his own.
I nodded at him. We clinked bottles and drank.
"So," I said quietly. "What gives?"
Mac set his beer down and surveyed the empty pub.
"I know," I said. "Where'd everyone go?"
"Away," Mac said.
If Scrooge had hoarded words instead of money, Mac would have made him look like Monty Hall. Mac didn't use rhetorical phrasing.
"Away," I said. "Away from me, you mean. "
"They're scared. Why?"
"Grey cloak. "
I exhaled slowly. I'd been a Warden of the White Council for nearly two years. Wardens were the armed forces of the White Council, men and women who were accustomed to violence and conflict. Normally, Wardens existed to police wizards, to make sure that they didn't use their power against the rest of humanity in violation of the Laws of Magic. Things weren't normal. For years, the Council had been engaged in a war against the Vampire Courts. Most of the Wardens had been killed in battle, and they'd gotten desperate for new wizards to take up the grey cloak of their office - desperate enough to ask me to join them, despite my checkered past.
Plenty of people in the world had talent of one kind or another. Very few had the kind of power and talent it took to be recognized as a member of the White Council. For the others, contact with the Council's Wardens was mostly limited to one of them showing up to deliver a warning about any potential abuse of magic.
But when anyone broke the Laws of Magic, the Wardens appeared to apprehend, try, convict, and probably execute. Wardens were scary, even to someone like me, who is more or less in their weight class. For the minor talents, like most of the crowd at Mac's place, the Wardens occupied a position somewhere between avenging angel and bogeyman.
Apparently, they had begun to see me in the latter role, which was going to be a problem in my hunt for the Exodus-quoting killer. The victims were probably members of the local supernatural community, but a lot of Wiccans can be ticklish about talking about their beliefs, or identifying their fellow believers as members of the faith: Part of it is a basic respect for personal freedom and privacy endemic to the faith. Part of it is a kind of theologically hereditary caution.
Both of those factors were going to make it hard to get anyone to talk to me. If people thought the Wardens were a part of the killings, they'd shut me out faster than you can say, "Burn the witch. "
"There's no reason for anyone to be afraid," I said. "These women are officially suicides. I mean, if Murphy's instincts hadn't picked up on something, we wouldn't even know there was a killer loose. "
Mac sipped his beer in silence.
"Unless," I said, "some other factor I don't know about made it obvious to everyone in our crowd that the victims weren't suicides. "
Mac put his beer down.
"They're linked," I said quietly. "The victims. There's a connection between them that the police files don't show. The magic folks know it. That's why they're scared. "
Mac frowned at the beer. Then he looked over at the neutral GROUND sign by the door.
"I know," I said quietly. "You don't want to get involved. But someone out there is killing women. They're leaving calling cards for me, specifically. Whoever is doing it is going to keep on doing it until I find them. "
Mac did not move.
I kept the quiet pressure on him. "A lot of people come in here. They eat and drink. And they talk. You stand over there running the gr
ill and pouring drinks and you might as well be invisible. But I know you hear a lot more than most people realize, Mac. I figure you know something that might help me. "
He gazed at me for a moment, his expression unreadable. Then he asked, "Is it you?"
I almost barked out a bit of laughter, until I realized that he was serious.
It took me a minute to get my head around that one. Since I had gone into business in Chicago, I had spent a lot of time trying to help the supernatural community. I did exorcisms here and there, helped with ghost problems, taught young and out-of-control talents enough discipline to restrain themselves. I've done other things too, smaller, not necessarily directly involving magic: giving advice on how to handle problems dealing with friendly but inhuman beings that mingled with magically aware mortals, helping parents to deal with the fact that their kid was suddenly able to set the cat on fire, and otherwise trying to help.
Despite all of that, the same folks I'd tried to help were afraid of me.
I guess I couldn't blame them. I wasn't as accessible as I used to be, what with the war and my new Warden duties, and teaching my apprentice. Practically the only times I had appeared in public, things had gotten messy, and people had died. I sometimes forgot how scary the supernatural could be. I lived in a state of relative power. I'm not under any illusions that I can take out anything that messes with me, but I am not a pansy, and with the right planning and leverage I can be a threat to even awfully powerful beings.
Those folks couldn't. They were the have-nots of the supernatural world, and they didn't have the options that my power gave me. And after all, I was supposed to be the one protecting folks from supernatural threats. If they truly believed that the women had been murdered, then either I was cruel enough to do the deed, or uncaring and/or incompetent enough to allow it to happen. Either way, it didn't paint a flattering picture of me. Add in the growing sense of fear, and it was understandable.
But it still hurt.
"It's not me," I said quietly
Mac studied my features for a moment, then nodded. "Needed to hear it. "
"Sure," I said. "I don't know who is behind it. But I give you my word that when I catch up to whoever is doing this, I'm going to take him down, regardless of who he is or who he works for. My word, Mac. "
He took another sip of beer, stalling.
I reached out and started flipping through the pages, one by one, reviewing the horrible photos. Mac saw them too. He let out a breath barely tinged with a throaty growl, and leaned back in his chair, away from the images.
I put my last beer on the table and spread my hands. "Help me, Mac. Please. "
Mac stared down at his bottle for a moment. Then he looked at his sign again. Then he reached out and took the top sheet of paper from the stack. He flipped it over, produced a pencil from his apron pocket, and wrote on the page before passing it back to me.
It read: Anna Ash, Ordo Lebes, four P. M. tomorrow
"What's this?" I asked him.
He picked up his bottle and rose. "A start. "
"Ordo Lebes," Murphy said. She took the lid off her coffee and blew some steam away from its surface. "My Latin is a little rusty. "
"That's because you aren't a master of arcane lore, like me. "
She rolled her eyes. "Right. "
"Lebes means a large cooking pot," I told her. I tried to adjust the passenger seat of her car, but couldn't manage to make it comfortable. Saturn coupes were not meant for people my height. "Translates out to the Order of the Large Cooking Pot. "
"Or maybe Order of the Cauldron?" Murphy suggested. "Since it sounds so much less silly and has a more witchy connotation and all?"
"Well," I said, "I suppose. "
Murphy snorted at me. "Master of the arcane lore. "
"I learned Latin through a correspondence course, okay? We should have taken my car. "
"The interior of a Volkswagen Beetle is smaller than this one. "
"But I know where it all is," I said, trying to untangle my right foot from where it had gotten wedged by the car's frame.
"Do all wizards whine this much?" Murphy sipped her coffee. "You just want to be the one driving. I think you have control issues. "
"Control issues," she said.
"You're the one who wouldn't find the woman's address unless I let you drive, and I'm the one with issues?"
"With me, it's less an issue and more a fact of life,"'she said calmly. "Besides, that clown car of yours doesn't exactly blend in, which is what you're supposed to do on a stakeout. "
I glowered out the front window of her car and looked up at the apartment building where one Anna Ash was presumably hosting a meeting of the Order of the Large Cooking Po - er, uh, Cauldron. Murphy had found a spot on the street, which made me wonder if she didn't have some kind of magical talent after all. Only some kind of precognitive ESP could have gotten us a parking space on the street, in the shadow of a building, with both of us in sight of the apartment building's entrance.
"What time is it?" I asked.
"Five minutes ago it was three o'clock," Murphy said. "I can't be certain, but I theorize that it must now be about three-oh-five. "
I folded my arms. "I don't usually do stakeouts. "
"I thought it might be a nice change of pace for you. All that knocking down of doors and burning down of buildings must get tiring. "
"I don't always knock down doors," I said. "Sometimes it's a wall. "
"But this way, we get a chance to see who's going into the building. We might learn something. "
I let out a suspicious grunt. "Learn something, huh?"
"It'll only hurt for a minute. " Murphy sipped at her coffee and nodded at a woman walking toward the apartment building. She wore a simple sundress with a man's white cotton button-down shirt worn open atop it. She was in her late thirties, maybe, with pepper-and-salt hair worn in a bun. She wore sandals and sunglasses. "How about her?"
"Yeah," I said. "Recognize her. Seen her at Bock Ordered Books a few times. "
The woman entered the building at a brisk, purposeful pace.
Murphy and I went back to waiting. Over the next forty-five minutes, four other women arrived. I recognized two of them.
Murphy checked her watch - a pocket watch with actual clockwork and not a microchip or battery to be found. "Almost four," she said. "Half a dozen at most?"
"Looks that way," I agreed.
"And you didn't see any obvious bad guys. "
"The wacky thing about those bad guys is that you can't count on them to be obvious. They forget to wax their mustaches and goatees, leave their horns at home, send their black hats to the dry cleaner's. They're funny like that. "
Murphy gave me a direct and less-than-amused look. "Should we go on up?"
"Give it another five minutes. No force in the known universe can make a gang of folks naming their organization in Latin do much of anything on time. If they're all there by four, we'll know there's some kind of black magic involved. "
Murphy snorted, and we waited for a few minutes more. "So," she said, filling time. "How's the war going?" She paused for a beat, and said, "God, what a question. "
"Slowly," I said. "Since our little visit to Arctis Tor, and the beating the vampires took afterward, things have been pretty quiet. I went out to New Mexico this spring. "
"Helping Luccio train baby Wardens," I said. "You've got to get way out away from civilization when you're teaching group fire magic. So we spent about two days turning thirty acres of sand and scrub into glass. Then a couple of the Red Court's ghouls showed up and killed two kids. "
Murphy turned her blue eyes to me, waiting.
I felt my jaw tighten, thinking back on it. It wouldn't do those two kids any good, going over it again. So I pretended I didn't realize she was
giving me a chance to talk about it. "There haven't been any more big actions, though. Just small-time stuff. The Merlin's trying to get the vamps to the table to negotiate a peace. "
"Doesn't sound like you think much of the idea," Murphy noted.
"The Red King is still in power," I said. "The war was his idea to begin with. If he goes for a treaty now, it's only going to be so that the vamps can lick their wounds, get their numbers up again, and come back for the sequel. "
"Kill them all?" she asked. "Let God sort them out?"