Grave Peril, Page 3Jim Butcher
Even days that culminate in a grand battle against an insane ghost and a trip across the border between this world and the spirit realm usually start out pretty normally. This one, for example, started off with breakfast and then work at the office.
My office is in a building in midtown Chicago. It's an older building, and not in the best of shape, especially since there was that problem with the elevator last year. I don't care what anyone says, that wasn't my fault. When a giant scorpion the size of an Irish wolfhound is tearing its way through the roof of your elevator car, you get real willing to take desperate measures.
Anyway, my office is small - one room, but on the corner, with a couple of windows. The sign on the door reads, simply, HARRY DRESDEN, WIZARD. Just inside the door is a table, covered with pamphlets with titles like: Magic and You, and Why Witches Don't Sink Any Faster Than Anyone Else - a Wizard's Perspective. I wrote most of them. I think it's important for we practitioners of the Art to keep up a good public image. Anything to avoid another Inquisition.
Behind the table is a sink, counter, and an old coffee machine. My desk faces the door, and a couple of comfortable chairs sit across from it. The air conditioning rattles, the ceiling fan squeaks on every revolution, and the scent of coffee is soaked into the carpet and the walls.
I shambled in, put coffee on, and sorted through the mail while the coffee percolated. A thank you letter from the Campbells, for chasing a spook out of their house. Junk mail. And, thank goodness, a check from the city for my last batch of work for the Chicago P. D. That had been a nasty case, all in all. Demon summoning, human sacrifice, black magic - the works.
I got my coffee and resolved to call Michael to offer to split my earnings with him - even though the legwork had been all mine, he and Amoracchius had come in on the finale. I'd handled the sorcerer, he'd dealt with the demon, and the good guys won the day. I'd turned in my logs and at fifty bucks an hour had netted myself a neat two grand. Michael would refuse the money (he always did) but it seemed polite to make the offer; especially given how much time we'd been spending together recently, in an attempt to track down the source of all the ghostly happenings in the city.
The phone rang before I could pick it up to call Michael. "Harry Dresden," I answered.
"Hello there, Mr. Dresden," said a warm, feminine voice. "I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time. "
I kicked back in my chair, and felt a smile spreading over my face. "Why, Miss Rodriguez, isn't it? Aren't you that nosy reporter from the Arcane? That useless rag that publishes stories about witches and ghosts and Bigfoot?"
"Plus Elvis," she assured me. "Don't forget the King. And I'm syndicated now. Publications of questionable reputation all over the world carry my column. "
I laughed. "How are you today?"
Susan's voice turned wry. "Well, my boyfriend stood me up last night, but other than that . . . "
I winced a little. "Yeah, I know. Sorry about that. Look, Bob found a tip for me that just couldn't wait. "
"Ahem," she said, in her polite, professional voice. "I'm not calling you to talk about my personal life, Mr. Dresden. This is a business call. "
I felt my smile returning. Susan was absolutely one in a million, to put up with me. "Oh, beg pardon, Miss Rodriguez. Pray continue. "
"Well. I was thinking that there were rumors of some more ghostly activity in the old town last night. I thought you might be willing to share a few details with the Arcane. "
"Mmmm. That might not be wholly professional of me. I keep my business confidential. "
"Mr. Dresden," she said. "I would as soon not resort to desperate measures. "
"Why, Miss Rodriguez. " I grinned. "Are you a desperate woman?"
I could almost see the way she arched one eyebrow. "Mr. Dresden. I don't want to threaten you. But you must understand that I am well acquainted with a certain young lady of your company - and that I could see to it that things became very awkward between you. "
"I see. But if I shared the story with you - "
"Gave me an exclusive, Mr. Dresden. "
"An exclusive," I amended, "then you might see your way clear to avoiding causing problems for me?"
"I'd even put in a good word with her," Susan said, her voice cheerful, then dropping into a lower, smokier register. "Who knows. You might get lucky. "
I thought about it for a minute. The ghost Michael and I had nailed last night had been a big, bestial thing lurking in the basement of the University of Chicago library. I didn't have to mention the names of any people involved, and while the university wouldn't like it, I doubted it would be seriously hurt by appearing in a magazine that most people bought along with every other tabloid in the supermarket checkout lines. Besides which, just the thought of Susan's caramel skin and soft, dark hair under my hands . . . Yum. "That's an offer I can hardly refuse," I told her. "Do you have a pen?"
She did, and I spent the next ten minutes telling her the details. She took them down with a number of sharp, concise questions, and had the whole story out of me in less time than I would have believed. She really was a good reporter, I thought. It was almost a shame that she was spending her time reporting the supernatural, which people had been refusing to believe in for centuries.
"Thank you very much, Mr. Dresden," she said, after she squeezed the last drips of information out of me. "I hope things go well between you and the young lady tonight. At your place. At nine. "
"Maybe the young lady would like to discuss the possibilities with me," I drawled.
She let out a throaty laugh. "Maybe she would," Susan agreed. "But this is a business call. "
I laughed. "You're terrible, Susan. You never give up, do you?"
"Never, ever," she said.
"Would you really have been mad at me if I hadn't told you?"
"Harry," she said. "You stood me up last night without a word. I don't usually stand for that kind of treatment from any man. If you hadn't had a good story for me, I was going to think that you were out horsing around with your friends. "
"Yeah, that Michael. " I chuckled. "He's a real party animal. "
"You're going to have to give me the story on him sometime. Have you come any closer to working out what's going on with the ghosts? Did you look into the seasonal angle?"
I sighed, closing my eyes. "No, and yes. I still can't figure why the ghosts seem to be freaking out all at once - and we haven't been able to get any of them to hold still long enough for me to get a good look at them. I've got a new recipe to try out tonight - maybe that will do it. But Bob is sure it isn't a Halloweeny kind of problem. I mean, we didn't have any ghosts last year. "
"No. We had werewolves. "
"Different situation entirely," I said. "I've got Bob working overtime to keep an eye on the spirit world for any more activity. If anything else is about to jump, we'll know it. "
"All right," she said. She hesitated for a moment and then said, "Harry. I - "
I waited, but when she stalled I asked, "What?"
"I, uh . . . I just want to be sure that you're all right. "
I had the distinct impression that she had been going to say something else, but I didn't push. "Tired," I said. "A couple of bruises from slipping on some ectoplasm and falling into a card catalog. But I'm fine. "
She laughed. "That creates a certain image. Tonight then?"
"I'm looking forward to it. "
She made a pleased little sound with more than a hint of sexuality in it, and let that be her goodbye.
The day went fairly quickly, with a bunch of the usual business. I whipped up a spell to find a lost wedding ring, and turned down a customer who wanted me to put a love spell on his mistress. (My ad in the Yellow Pages specifically reads "No love potions," but for some reason people always think that their case is special. ) I went to the bank, referred a caller to a private detective I knew, and met with a fledgling pyromancer in an att
empt to teach him to stop igniting his cat accidentally.
I was just closing down the office when I heard someone come out of the elevator and start walking down the hallway toward me. The steps were heavy, as though from boots, and rushed.
"Mr. Dresden?" asked a young woman's voice. "Are you Harry Dresden?"
"Yes," I said, locking the office door. "But I'm just leaving. Maybe we can set up an appointment for tomorrow. "
The footsteps stopped a few feet away from me. "Please, Mr. Dresden. I've got to talk to you. Only you can help me. "
I sighed, without looking at her. She'd said the exact words she needed to in order to kick off my protective streak. But I could still walk away. Lots of people got to thinking that magic could dig them out of their troubles, once they realized they couldn't escape. "I'll be glad to, Ma'am. First thing in the morning. " I locked the door and started to turn away.
"Wait," she said. I felt her step closer to me, and she grabbed by hand.
A tingling, writhing sensation shot up my wrist and over my elbow. My reaction was immediate and instinctive. I threw up a mental shield against the sensation, jerked my hand clear of her fingers, and took several steps back and away from the young woman.
My hand and arm still tingled from brushing against the energy of her aura. She was a slight girl in a black knit dress, black combat boots, and hair dyed to a flat, black matte. The lines of her face were soft and sweet, and her skin was pale as chalk around eyes that were sunken, shadowed, and glittering with alley-cat wariness.
I flexed my fingers and avoiding meeting the girl's eyes for more than a fraction of a second. "You're a practitioner," I said, quietly.
She bit her lip and looked away, nodding. "And I need your help. They said that you would help me. "
"I give lessons to people who want to avoid hurting themselves with uncontrolled talent," I said. "Is that what you're after?"
"No, Mr. Dresden," the girl said. "Not exactly. "
"Why me, then? What do you want?"
"I want your protection. " She lifted a shaking hand, fidgeting with her dark hair. "And if I don't have it . . . I'm not sure I'll live through the night. "