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Proven Guilty, Page 3

Jim Butcher

Chapter 6

  Chapter Six

  Murphy stayed until she was sure I wasn't going to suddenly drop unconscious, but made me promise to call her in a couple of hours to be sure. Mouse escorted her to the door when she left, and Murphy swung it shut with two hands and a grunt of effort in order to make it close snugly into the frame. Her car started, departed.

  I prodded my brain with a sharp stick until it figured out my next move. My brain pointed out that I knew the current Summer Knight of the Summer Court, and that the guy owed me some fairly big favors. I'd saved his life when he'd just been a terrified changeling trying not to get swallowed up by an incipient war between Winter and Summer. When everything settled, he was the new Summer Knight, the mortal champion of the Summer Court. It gave him a lot of influence with fully half of the Sidhe realm, and he'd probably know more about what was going on there than any other native of the real world. My brain thought it would be really wonderful if maybe I could make one little phone call to Fix and get all the information I needed about the Sidhe Courts handed to me on a silver platter.

  My brain is sometimes overly optimistic, but I indulged it on the off chance that I came up a winner in the investigative lottery.

  I reached for the phone. It rang eleven times before someone answered. "Yes?"

  "Fix?" I asked.

  "Mmmph," answered a rumpled-sounding male voice. "Who is this?"

  "Harry Dresden. "

  "Harry!" His voice brightened with immediate, if somewhat sleepy, cheer, which seemed far more appropriate to the Summer Knight of the Sidhe Courts. "Hey, how are you? What's up?"

  "That's the question of the day," I said. "I need to talk to you about Summer business. "

  The sleepiness vanished from his voice. So did the friendliness. "Oh. "

  "Look, it's nothing big," I started. "I just need to-"

  "Harry," he said, his voice sharp. Fix had never cut me off before. In fact, if you'd asked my professional opinion a year before, I'd have told you he never interrupted anyone in his life. "We can't talk about this. The line might not be secure. "

  "Come on, man," I said. "No one can monitor the phone line with a spell. It'd burn out in a second. "

  "Someone isn't playing by the old rules anymore, Harry," he said. "And a phone tap is not a difficult thing to engineer. "

  I frowned. "Good point," I allowed. "Then we need to talk. "


  "Soonest. "

  "Accorded neutral territory," he responded.

  He meant McAnally's pub. Mac's place has always been a hangout for the supernatural crowd in Chicago. When the war broke out, someone managed to get it placed on a list of neutral territories where, by the agreements known as the Unseelie Accords, everyone respected the neutrality of the property and was expected to behave in a civil fashion when present. It might not have been a private rendezvous, but it was probably the safest place in town to discuss this kind of thing. "Fine," I said. "When?"

  "I've got business tonight. The soonest I can do it is tomorrow. Lunch?"

  "Noon," I replied.

  There was a sleepy murmur on the other end of the phone-a woman's voice.

  "Shhhhh," Fix said. "Sure, Harry. I'll see you there. "

  We hung up, and I regarded the phone with pursed lips. Fix sleeping this late in the day? And with a girl in bed with him, no less. And interrupting wizards without a second thought. He'd come a ways.

  Of course, he'd had a lot of exposure to the faeries since the last time I'd seen him. And if he had anything like the power that I'd seen the champions of the Sidhe display before, he'd have had time to get used to his new strength. You can never tell how someone is going to handle power-not until you hand it to them and see what they do with it. Fix had certainly changed.

  I got a little twist in my gut that told me I should employ a great deal more than average caution when I spoke to him. I didn't like the feeling. Before I could think about it for too long, I made myself pick up the phone and move on with what my brain told me was a reasonable step two- checking around to see if anyone had heard anything about bad juju running around town.

  I called several people. Billy the Werewolf, recently married. Mortimer Lindquist, ectomancer. Waldo Butters, medical examiner and composer of the "Quasimodo Polka," a dozen magical small-timers I knew, plus my ex's editor at the Midwestern Arcane. None of them had heard of anything, and I warned them all to keep an ear to the ground. I even put in a call to the Archive, but all I got was an answering service, and no one returned my call.

  I sat and stared at the phone's base for a moment, the receiver buzzing a dial tone in my gloved left hand.

  I hadn't called Michael, or Father Forthill. I probably should have, working on the basic notion that more help was better help. Then again, if the Home Office wanted Michael on the case, he'd be there regardless of whether or not anyone called him and how many immovable objects stood in the way. I've seen it happen often enough to trust that it was true.

  It was a good rationalization, but it wasn't fooling anyone. Not even me. The truth was that I didn't want to talk to either one of them unless I really, really, really had to.

  The dial tone turned into that annoying buzz-buzz-buzz of a no-connection signal.

  I hung the phone back up, my hand unsteady. Then I got up, reached down to the clumsily trimmed area of carpet that covered the trapdoor set in the apartment's floor, and pulled it open onto a wooden stepladder that folded out and led down into my laboratory.

  The lab is in the sub-basement, which is a much better name for it than the basement-basement. It's little more than a big concrete box with a ladder leading up and out of it. The walls are lined with overflowing white wire shelves, the cheap kind you can get at Wal-Mart. In my lab, they store containers of every kind, from plastic bags to microwave-safe plastic dinnerware to heavy wooden boxes-and even one lead-lined, lead-sealed box where I store a tiny amount of depleted uranium dust. Other books, notebooks, envelopes, paper bags, pencils, and apparently random objects of many kinds crowd each other for space on the shelves-all except for one plain, homemade wooden shelf, which held only candles at either end, four romance novels, a Victoria's Secret catalog, and a bleached human skull.

  A long table ran down the middle of the room, leaving a blank section of floor at the far end kept perfectly clear of any clutter whatsoever. A ring of plain silver was set into the floor-my summoning circle. Underneath it lay a foot and a half or so of concrete, and then another heavy metal box, wrapped with its own little circle of wards and spells. Inside the box was a blackened silver coin.

  My left palm, which had been so badly burned except for an outline of skin in the shape of Lasciel's angelic symbol, suddenly itched.

  I rubbed it against my leg and ignored it.

  My worktable had been crowded with material for most of the time it had been down in my lab. But that no longer was the case.

  At that point I felt I owed someone an apology. When Murphy had asked me about the money from the Council, the answer I'd given her was true enough. They'd set the pay rate for Wardens in the fifties-but even the Council wasn't quite hidebound enough to ignore things like standard inflation, and the Warden's paychecks had kept pace through discretionary funding in-my God, I'm starting to sound like part of the establishment.

  Long story short. The Wardens have sneaky ways of getting paid more, and the money I was getting from them, while not stellar, was nothing to sneeze at, either. But I hadn't been spending it on things like fixing up my apartment.

  I'd been spending it on what was on my worktable.

  "Bob," I said, "wake up. "

  Orangish flames kindled wearily to life inside the open eye sockets of the skull. "Oh for crying out loud," a voice from within complained. "Can't you take a night off? It'll be finished when it's finished, Harry. "

  "No rest for the wicked, Bob," I said cheerfully. "And that means we can't slack off ei
ther, or they'll outwork us. "

  The skull's voice took on a whiny tone. "But we've been tinkering with that stupid thing every night for six months. You're growing a cowlick and buck teeth, by the way. You keep this up and you'll have to retire to a home for magical geeks and nerds. "

  "Pish tosh," I said.

  "You can't say pish tosh to that," Bob grumped. "You don't even know what it means. "

  "Sure I do. It means spirits of air should shut up and assist their wizard before he sends them out to patrol for fungus demons again. "

  "I get no respect," Bob sighed. "Okay, okay. What do you want to do now?"

  I gestured at the table. "Is it ready?"

  "Ready?" Bob said. "It isn't ever going to be ready, Harry. Your subject is fluid, always changing. Your model must change too. If you want it to be as accurate as possible, it's going to be a headache keeping it up to date. "

  "I do, and I know," I told him. "So talk. Where are we? Is it ready for a test run?"

  "Put me in the lake," Bob said.

  I reached up to the shelf obligingly, picked up the skull, and set it down on the eastern edge of the table.

  The skull settled down beside the model city of Chicago. I'd built it onto my table, in as much detail as I'd been able to afford with my new paycheck. The skyline rose up more than a foot from the tabletop, models of each building made from cast pewter-also expensive, given I'd had to get each one made individually. Streets made of real asphalt ran between the buildings, lined with streetlights and mailboxes in exacting detail-and all in all, I had the city mapped out to almost two miles from Burnham Harbor in every direction. Detail began to fail toward the outskirts of the model, but as far as I'd been able to, I modeled every building, every road, every waterway, every bridge, and every tree with as much accuracy as I knew how.

  I'd also spent months out on the town, collecting bits and pieces from every feature on my map. Bark from trees, usually. Chips of asphalt from the streets. I'd taken a hammer and knocked a chip or two off every building modeled there, and those pieces of the originals had been worked into the structure of their modeled counterparts.

  If I'd done it correctly, the model would be of enormous value to my work. I'd be able to use various techniques to do all kinds of things in town-track down lost objects, listen in on conversations happening within the area depicted by the model, follow people through town from the relative safety of my lab-lots of cool stuff. The model would let me send my magic throughout Chicago with a great deal more facility and with a far broader range of applications than I could currently manage.

  Of course, if I hadn't done it correctly. . .

  "This map," Bob said, "is pretty cool. I'd have thought you would have shown it off to someone by now. "

  "Nah," I said. "Tiny model of the city down here in my basement laboratory. Sort of projects more of that evil, psychotic, Lex Luthor vibe than I'd like. "

  "Bah," Bob said. "None of the evil geniuses I ever worked for could have handled something like this. " He paused. "Though some of the psychotics could have, I guess. "

  "If that's meant to be flattering, you need some practice. "

  "What am I if not good for your ego, boss?" The skull turned slowly, left to right, candleflame eyes studying the model city-not its physical makeup, I knew, but the miniature ley lines that I'd built into the surface of the table, the courses of magical energy that flowed through the city like blood through the human body.

  "It looks. . . " He made a sound like someone idly sucking a breath through his teeth. "Hey, it looks not bad, Harry. You've got a gift for this kind of work. That model of the museum really altered the flow around the stadium into something mostly accurate, speaking thaumaturgically. "

  "Is that even a real word?" I asked.

  "It should be," he said with a superior sniff. "Little Chicago might be able to handle something if you want to give it a test run. " The skull spun around to face me. "Tell me that this doesn't have something to do with the bruises on your face. "

  "I'm not sure it does," I said. "I got word today that the Gatekeeper-"

  Bob shivered.

  "-thinks that there's black magic afoot in town, and that I need to do something about it. "

  "And you want to try to use Little Chicago to find it?"

  "Maybe," I said. "Do you think it will work?"

  "I think that the Wright Brothers tested their new stuff at Kitty Hawk instead of trying it over the Grand Canyon for a reason," Bob said. "Specifically, because if the plane folded due to flawed design, they might survive it at Kitty Hawk. "

  "Or maybe they couldn't afford to travel," I said. "Besides, how dangerous could it be?"

  Bob stared at me for a second. Then he said, "You've been pouring energy into this thing every night for six months, Harry, and right now it's holding about three hundred times the amount of energy that kinetic ring you wear will contain. "

  I blinked. At full power, that ring could almost knock a car onto its side. Three hundred times that kind of energy translated to. . . well, something I'd rather not experience within the cramped confines of the lab. "It's got that much in it?"

  "Yes, and you haven't tested it yet. If you've screwed up some of the harmonics, it could blow up in your face, worst-case scenario. Best case, you only blow out the project and set yourself back to ground zero. "

  "To square one," I corrected him. "Square one is the beginning of a project. Ground zero is the area immediately under a bomb blast. "

  "One may tend to resemble the other," Bob said sourly.

  "I'll just have to live with the risk," I said. "That's the exciting life of a professional wizard and his daring assistant. "

  "Oh, please. Assistants get paid. "

  In answer, I reached down to a paper bag out of sight below the table and withdrew two paperback romances.

  Bob let out a squeaking sound, and his skull jounced and jittered on the blue-painted surface of the table that represented Lake Michigan. "Is that it, is that it?" he squeaked.

  "Yes," I said. "They're rated 'Burning Hot' by some kind of romance society. "

  "Lots of sex and kink!" Bob caroled. "Gimme!"

  I dropped them back into the bag and looked from Bob to Little Chicago.

  The skull spun back around. "You know what kind of black magic?" he asked.

  "No clue. Just black. "

  "Vague, yet unhelpful," Bob said.

  "Annoyingly so. "

  "Oh, the Gatekeeper didn't do it to annoy you," Bob said. "He did it to prevent any chance of paradox. "

  "He. . . " I blinked. "He what?"

  "He got this from hindsight, he had to," Bob said.

  "Hindsight," I murmured. "You mean he went to the future for this?"

  "Well," Bob hedged. "That would break one of the Laws, so probably not. But he might have sent himself a message from there, or maybe gotten it from some kind of prognosticating spirit. He might even have developed some ability for that himself. Some wizards do. "

  "Meaning what?" I asked.

  "Meaning that it's possible nothing has happened, yet. But that he wanted to put you on your guard against something that's coming in the immediate future. "

  "Why not just tell me?" I asked.

  Bob sighed. "You just don't get this, do you?"

  "I guess not. "

  "Okay. Let's say he finds out that someone is going to steal your car tomorrow. "

  "Heh," I said bitterly. "Okay, let's say that. "

  "Right. Well, he can't just call you up and tell you to move your car. "

  "Why not?"

  "Because if he significantly altered what happened with his knowledge of the future it could cause all sorts of temporal instabilities. It could cause new parallel realities to split off from the point of the alteration, ripple out into multiple alterations he couldn't predict, or kind of backlash into his consciousness and drive him insane. " Bob glanced at
me again. "Which, you know, might not do much to deter you, but other wizards take that kind of thing seriously. "

  "Thank you, Bob," I said. "But I still don't get why any of those things would happen. "

  Bob sighed. "Okay. Temporal studies 101. Let's say that he hears about your car being stolen. He comes back to warn you, and as a result, you keep your car. "

  "Sounds good so far. "

  "But if your car never got stolen," Bob said, "then how did he know to come back and warn you?"

  I frowned.

  "That's paradox, and it can have all kinds of nasty backlash. Theory holds that it could even destroy our reality if it happened in a weak enough spot. But that's never been proven, and never happened. You can tell, on account of how everything keeps existing. "

  "Okay," I said. "So what's the point in sending the message at all, if it can't change anything?"

  "Oh, it can," Bob said. "If it's done subtly enough, indirectly enough, you can get all kinds of things changed. Like, for example, he tells you that your car is going to be stolen. So you move it to a parking garage, where instead of getting stolen by the junkie who was going to shoot you and take the car on the street, you get jacked by a professional who takes the car without hurting you-because by slightly altering the fate of the car, he indirectly alters yours. "

  I frowned. "That's a pretty fine line. "

  "Yes, which is why not mucking around with time is one of the Laws," Bob said. "It's possible to change the past-but you have to do it indirectly, and if you screw it up you run the risk of Paradox-egeddon. "

  "So what you're saying is that by sending me this warning, he's indirectly working some other angle completely?"

  "I'm saying that the Gatekeeper is usually a hell of a lot more specific about this kind of thing," Bob said. "All of the Senior Council take black magic seriously. There's got to be a reason he's throwing it at you like this. My gut says he's working from a temporal angle. "

  "You don't have any guts," I said sourly.

  "Your jealousy of my intellect is an ugly, ugly thing, Harry," Bob said.

  I scowled. "Get to the point. "

  "Right, boss," said the skull. "The point is that black magic is very hard to find when you look for it directly. If you try to bring up instances of black magic on your model, like Little Chicago is some kind of evil-juju radar array, it's probably going to blow up in your face. "

  "The Gatekeeper put me on guard against black magic," I said. "But maybe he's telling me that so that I can watch for something else. Something black-magic related. "

  "Which might be a lot easier to find with your model," Bob said cheerfully.

  "Sure," I said. "If I had the vaguest idea of what to look for. " I frowned, scowling. "So instead of looking for black magic, we look for the things that go along with black magic. "

  "Bingo," Bob said. "And the more normal the better. "

  I pulled out my stool and sat down, frowning. "So, how about we look for corpses? Blood. Fear. Those are pretty standard black wizardry accessories. "

  "Pain, too," Bob said. "They're into pain. "

  "So's the BDSM community," I said. "In a city of eight million there are tens of thousands like that. "

  "Oh. Good point," Bob said.

  "One would almost think you should have thought of that one," I gloated. "But for the BDSM crowd, the pain isn't something they fear. So you just look for the fear instead. Real fear, not movie-theater fear. Terror. And there can't be a lot of spilled human blood in places with no violent activity, unless someone slips at the hospital or something. Ditto the corpses. " I drummed the fingers of my good hand thoughtfully on the table beside Bob. "Do you think Little Chicago could handle that?"

  He considered for a long moment before he said, in a cautious tone, "Maybe one of them. But this will be a very difficult, very long, and very dangerous spell for you, Harry. You're good for your years, but you still don't have the kind of fine control you'll get as you age. It's going to take all of your focus. And it will take a lot out of you-assuming you can manage it at all. "

  I took a deep breath and nodded slowly. "Fine. We treat it as a fullblown ritual, then. Cleansing, meditation, incense, the works. "

  "Even if you do everything right," Bob said, "it might not work. And if Little Chicago turns out to be flawed, it would be very bad for you. "

  I nodded slowly, staring at the model city.

  There were eight million people in my town. And out of all of them, there were maybe two or three who could stand up to black magic, who had the kind of knowledge and power it took to stop a black wizard. Not only that, but odds were good that I was the only one who could actively find and counter someone before he got the murder-ball rolling. I was also, presumably, the only one who was forewarned.

  Maybe it would be better to slow this down. Wait for developments my friends would report to me. Then I could get a better read on the threat, and how to deal with it. I mean, was it worth as much as my life to try this spell, when patience would get me information that was almost as good?

  It might not be worth my life, but it would probably cost someone else's. Black magic isn't the kind of thing that leaves people whole behind it-and sometimes the victims it kills are the lucky ones. If I didn't employ the model, I'd have to wait for the bad guys to make the first move.

  So I had to do it.

  I was tired of looking at corpses and victims.

  "Pull together everything you know about this kind of spell, Bob," I told him quietly. "I'm going to get some food and then we'll lay out the ritual. I'll start looking for fear come sundown. "

  "Will do," Bob said, and for once he was serious and didn't sass me.


  I started back up my ladder before I thought about it too much and changed my mind.