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White Night, Page 4

Jim Butcher

Chapter 6~7

  Chapter Six

  "I don't like this," Murphy said. "Helen Beckitt has got plenty of reasons to dislike you. "

  I snorted. "Who doesn't?"

  "I'm serious, Harry. " The elevator doors closed and we started up. The building was old, and the elevator wasn't the fastest in the world. Murphy shook her head. "If what you said about people beginning to fear you is true, then there's got to be a reason for it. Maybe someone is telling stories. "

  "And you like Helen for that?"

  "She already shot you, and that didn't work. Maybe she figured it was time to get nasty. "

  "Sticks and stones and small-caliber bullets may break my bones," I said. "Words will never, et cetera. "

  "It's awfully coincidental to find her here. She's a con, Harry, and she wound up in jail because of you. I can't imagine that she's making nice with the local magic community for the camaraderie. "

  "I didn't think cops knew about big words like 'camaraderie,' Murph. Are you sure you're a real policeperson?"

  She gave me an exasperated glance. "Do you ever stop joking around?"

  "I mutter off-color limericks in my sleep. "

  "Just promise me that you'll watch your back," Murphy said.

  "There once was a girl from Nantucket," I said. "Her mouth was as big as a bucket. "

  Murphy flipped both her hands palms up in a gesture of frustrated surrender. "Dammit, Dresden. "

  I lifted an eyebrow. "You seem worried about me. "

  "There are women up there," she said. "You don't always think very clearly where women are concerned. "

  "So you think I should watch my back. "

  "Yes. "

  I turned to her and looked down at her and said, more quietly, "Golly, Murph. Why did you think I wanted you along?"

  She looked up and smiled at me, the corners of her eyes wrinkling, though her voice remained tart. "I figured you wanted someone along who could notice things more subtle than a flashing neon sign. "

  "Oh, come on," I said. "It doesn't have to be flashing. "

  The elevator doors opened and I took the lead down the hall to Anna Ash's apartment - and stepped into a tingling curtain of delicate energy four or five feet shy of the door. I drew up sharply, and Murphy had to put a hand against my back to keep from bumping into me.

  "What is it?" she asked.

  I held up my left hand. Though my maimed hand was still mostly numb to conventional stimuli, it had never had any trouble sensing the subtle patterns of organized magical energy. I spread out my fingers as much as I could, trying to touch the largest possible area as I closed my eyes and focused on my wizard's senses.

  "It's a ward," I said quietly.

  "Like on your apartment?" she asked.

  "It's not as strong," I said, waving my hand slowly over it. "And it's a little cruder. I've got bricks and razor wire. This is more like aluminum siding and chicken wire. But it has a decent kick. Fire, I think. " I squinted up and down the hall. "Huh. I don't think there's enough there to kill outright, but it would hurt like hell. "

  "And a fire would set off the building's alarms," Murphy added. "Make people start running out. Summon the authorities. "

  "Uh-huh," I said. "Discouraging your average prowler, supernatural or not. It's not meant to kill. " I stepped back and nodded to Murphy. "Go ahead and knock. "

  She gave me an arch look. "That's a joke, right?"

  "If this ward isn't done right, it could react with my aura and go off. "

  "Can't you just take it apart?"

  "Whoever did this was worried enough to invest a lot of time and effort to make this home safer," I said. "Kinda rude to tear it up. "

  Murphy tilted her head for a second, and then she got it. "And you'll scare them if you just walk through it like it wasn't there. "

  "Yeah," I said quietly. "They're frightened, Murph. I've got to be gentle, or they won't give me anything that can help them. "

  Murphy nodded and knocked on the door.

  She rapped three times, and the doorknob was already turning on the third rap.

  A small, prettily plump woman opened the door. She was even shorter than Murphy, mid-forties maybe, with blond hair and rosy, cherubic cheeks that looked used to smiling. She wore a lavender dress and carried a small dog, maybe a Yorkshire terrier, in her arms. She smiled at Murphy and said, "Of course, Sergeant Murphy, I know who you are. "

  Maybe half a second after the woman started speaking, Murphy said, "Hello, my name is Sergeant Murphy, and I'm a detective with the CPD. "

  Murphy blinked for a second and fell silent.

  "Oh," the woman said. "I'm sorry; I forget sometimes. " She made an airy little gesture with one hand. "Such a scatterbrain. "

  I started to introduce myself, but before I got my mouth open, the little woman said, "Of course, we all know who you are, Mister Dresden. " She put her fingers to her mouth. They were shaking a little. "Oh. I forgot again. Excuse me. I'm Abby. "

  "Pleased to meet you, Abby," I said quietly, and extended my hand, relaxed, palm down, to the little Yorkie. The dog sniffed at my hand, quivering with eagerness as he did, and his tail started wagging. "Heya, little dog. "

  "Toto," Abby said, and before I could respond said, "Exactly, a classic. If it isn't broken, why fix it?" She nodded to me and said, "Excuse me; I'll let our host speak to you. I was just closest to the door. " She shut the door on us.

  "Certainly," I said to the door.

  Murphy turned to me. "Weird. "

  I shrugged. "At least the dog liked me. "

  "She knew what we were going to say before we said it, Harry. "

  "I noticed that. "

  "Is she telepathic or something?"

  I shook my head. "Not in the way you're thinking. She doesn't exactly hide what she's doing, and if she was poking around in people's heads, the Council would have done something a long time ago.

  "Then how did she know what we were about to say?"

  "My guess is that she's prescient," I said. "She can see the future. Probably only a second or two, and she probably doesn't have a lot of voluntary control over it. "

  Murphy made a thoughtful noise. "Could be handy. "

  "In some ways," I said. "But the future isn't written in stone. "

  Murphy frowned. "Like, what if I'd decided to tell her my name was Karrin Murphy instead of Sergeant, at the last second?"

  "Yeah. She'd have been wrong. People like her can sense a. . . sort of a cloud of possible futures. We were in a fairly predictable situation here even without bringing any magical talents into it, basic social interaction, so it looked like she saw exactly what was coming. But she didn't. She got to judge what was most probable, and it wasn't hard to guess correctly in this particular instance. "

  "That's why she seemed so distracted," Murphy said thought fully.

  "Yeah. She was keeping track of what was happening, what was likely to happen, deciding what wasn't likely to happen, all in a window of a few seconds. " I shook my head. "It's a lot worse if they can see any farther than a second or two. "

  Murphy frowned. "Why?"

  "Because the farther you can see, the more possibilities exist," I said. "Think of a chess game. A beginning player is doing well if he can see four or five moves into the game. Ten moves in holds an exponentially greater number of possible configurations the board could assume. Master players can sometimes see even further than that - and when you start dealing with computers, the numbers are even bigger. It's difficult to even imagine the scope of it. "

  "And that's in a closed, simple environment," Murphy said, nodding. "The chess game. There are far more possibilities in the real world. "

  "The biggest game. " I shook my head. "It's a dangerous talent to have. It can leave you subject to instabilities of one kind or another as side effects. Doctors almost always diagnose folks like Abby with epilepsy, Alzheimer's, or one of a number of personality dis
orders. I got five bucks that says that medical bracelet on her wrist says she's epileptic - and that the dog can sense seizures coming and warn her. "

  "I didn't see the bracelet," Murphy admitted. "No bet. "

  While we stood there talking quietly for maybe five minutes, a discussion took place inside the apartment. Low voices came through the door in tense, muffled tones that eventually cut off when a single voice, louder than the rest, overrode the others. A moment later, the door opened.

  The first woman we'd seen enter the apartment faced me. She had a dark complexion, dark eyes, short, dark straight hair that made me think she might have had some Native Americans in the family a generation or three back. She was maybe five foot four, late thirties. She had a serious kind of face, with faint, pensive lines between her brows, and from the way she stood, blocking the doorway with solidly planted feet, I got the impression that she could be a bulldog when necessary.

  "No one here has broken any of the Laws, Warden," she said in a quiet, firm voice.

  "Gosh, that's a relief," I said. "Anna Ash?"

  She narrowed her eyes and nodded.

  "I'm Harry Dresden," I said.

  She pursed her lips and gave me a speculative look. "Are you kidding? I know who you are. "

  "I don't make it a habit to assume that everyone I meet knows who I am," I said, implying apology in my tone. "This is Karrin Murphy, Chicago PD. "

  Anna nodded to Murphy and asked, in a neutral, polite tone, "May I see your identification, Ms. Murphy?"

  Murphy already had her badge on its leather backing in hand, and she passed it to Anna. Her photo identification was on the reverse side of the badge, under a transparent plastic cover.

  Anna looked at the badge and the photo, and compared it to Murphy. She passed it back almost reluctantly, and then turned to me. "What do you want?"

  "To talk," I said.

  "About what?"

  "The Ordo Lebes," I said. "And what's happened to several practitioners lately. "

  Her voice remained polite on the surface, but I could hear bitter undertones. "I'm sure you know much more about it than us. "

  "Not especially," I said. "That's what I'm trying to correct. "

  She shook her head, suspicion written plainly on her face. "I'm not an idiot. The Wardens keep track of everything. Everyone knows that. "

  I sighed. "Yeah, but I forgot to take my George Orwell-shaped multivitamins along with my breakfast bowl of Big Brother Os this morning. I was hoping you could just talk to me for a little while, the way you would with a human being. "

  She eyed me a bit warily. Lots of people react to my jokes like that. "Why should I?"

  "Because I want to help you. "

  "Of course you'd say that," she said. "How do I know you mean it?"

  "Ms. Ash," Murphy put in quietly, "he's on the level. We're here to help, if we can. "

  Anna chewed on her lip for a minute, looking back and forth between us and then glancing at the room behind her. Finally, she faced me and said, "Appearances can be deceiving. I have no way of knowing if you are who - and what - you say you are. I prefer to err on the side of caution. "

  "Never hurts to be cautious," I agreed. "But you're edging toward paranoid, Ms. Ash. "

  She began to shut the door. "This is my home. And I'm not inviting you inside. "

  "Groovy," I said, and stepped over the threshold and into the apartment, nudging her gently aside before she could close the door.

  As I did, I felt the pressure of the threshold, an aura of protective magical energy that surrounds any home. The threshold put up a faintly detectable resistance as my own aura of power met it - and could not cross it. If Anna, the home's owner, had invited me in, the threshold would have parted like a curtain. She hadn't, and as a result, if I wanted to come inside, I'd have to leave much of my power at the door. If I had to work any forces while I was in there, I'd be crippled practically to the point of total impotence.

  I turned to see Anna staring at me in blank surprise. She was aware of what I had just done.

  "There," I told her. "If I was of the spirit world, I couldn't cross your threshold. If I had planned on hurting someone in here, would I have disarmed myself? Stars and stones, would I have shown up with a cop to witness me doing it?"

  Murphy took her cue from me, and entered the same way.

  "I. . . " Anna said, at a loss. "How. . . how did you know the ward wouldn't go off in your face?"

  "Judgment call," I told her. "You're a cautious person, and there are kids in this building. I don't think you'd have slapped up something that went boom whenever anyone stepped through the doorway. "

  She took a deep breath and then nodded. "You wouldn't have liked what happened if you'd tried to force the door, though. "

  "I believe you," I told her. And I did. "Ms. Ash, I'm not here to threaten or harm anyone. I can't make you talk to me. If you want me to go, right now, I'll go," I promised her. "But for your own safety, please let me talk to you first. A few minutes. That's all I ask. "

  "Anna?" came Abby's voice. "I think you should hear them out. "

  "Yes," said another woman's voice, quiet and low. "I agree. And I know something of him. If he gives you his word, he means it. "

  Thinking on it, I hadn't ever really heard Helen Beckitt's voice before, unless you counted moans. But its quiet solidity and lack of inflection went perfectly with her quasi-lifeless eyes.

  I traded an uneasy glance with Murphy, then looked back to Anna.

  "Ms. Ash?" I asked her.

  "Give me your word. Swear it on your power. "

  That's serious, at least among wizards in my league. Promises have power. One doesn't swear by one's magical talent and break the oath lightly - to do so would be to reduce one's own strength in the Art. I didn't hesitate to answer. "I swear to you, upon my power, to abide as a guest under your hospitality, to bring no harm to you or yours, nor to deny my aid if they would suffer thereby. "

  She let out a short, quick breath and nodded. "Very well. I promise to behave as a host, with all the obligations that apply. And call me Anna, please. " She pronounced her name with the Old World emphasis: Ah-nah. She beckoned with one hand and led us into the apartment. "I trust you will not take it amiss if I do not make a round of introductions. "

  Understandable. A full name, given from one's own lips, could provide a wizard or talented sorcerer with a channel, a reference point that could be used to target any number of harmful, even lethal spells, much like fresh blood, nail clippings, or locks of hair could be used for the same. It was all but impossible to give away your full name accidentally in a conversation, but it had happened, and if someone in the know thought a wizard might be pointing a spell their way, they got real careful, real fast, when it came to speaking their own name.

  "No problem," I told her.

  Anna's apartment was nicer than most, and evidently had received almost a complete refurbishing in the past year or three. She had windows with a reasonably good view, and her furnishings were predominantly of wood, and of excellent quality.

  Five women sat around the living area. Abby sat in a wooden rocking chair, holding her bright-eyed little Yorkie in her lap. Helen Beckitt stood by a window, staring listlessly out at the city. Two Anna lifted a hand in a gesture beseeching Helen for silence. "At least two more reliable witnesses have reported that the last time they saw some of the folk who had disappeared, they were in the company of the grey-cloaked man. Several others have reported sightings of the beautiful dark-haired man instead. "

  I shook my head. "And you thought the guy in the cloak was me?"

  "How many tall, grey-cloaked men move in our circles in Chicago, sir?" Priscilla said, her voice frosty.

  "You can get grey corduroy for three dollars a yard at a surplus fabric store," I told her. "Tall men aren't exactly unheard of in a city of eight million, either. "

  Priscilla narrowed her eyes.
"Who was it, then?"

  Abby tittered, which made Toto wag his tail.

  I pursed my lips in a moment of thought. "I'm pretty sure it wasn't Murphy. "

  Helen Beckitt snorted out a breath through her nose.

  "This isn't a joking matter," Priscilla snapped.

  "Oh. Sorry. Given that I only found out about a grey cloak sighting about two seconds ago, I had assumed the question was facetious. " I turned to face Anna. "It wasn't me. And it wasn't a Warden of the Council - or at least, it damned well better not have been a Warden of the Council. "

  "And if it was?" Anna asked quietly.

  I folded my arms. "I'll make sure he never hurts anyone. Ever again. "

  Murphy stepped forward and said, "Excuse me. You said that three members of the order had died. What were their names, please?"

  "Maria," Anna said, her words spaced with the slow, deliberate beat of a funeral march. "Janine. Pauline. "

  I saw where Murphy was going.

  "What about Jessica Blanche?" she asked-

  Anna frowned for a moment and then shook her head. "I don't think I've heard the name. "

  "So she's not in the order," Murphy said. "And she's not in the, ah, community?"

  "Not to my knowledge," Anna replied. She looked around the room. "Does anyone here know her?"


  I traded a glance with Murphy. "Some of these things are not like the others. "

  "Some of these things are kind of the same," she responded.

  "Somewhere to start, at least," I said.

  Someone's watch started beeping, and the girl on the couch beside Priscilla sat up suddenly. She was young, maybe even still in her teens, with the rich, smoke-colored skin of regions of eastern India. She had heavy-lidded brown eyes, and wore a bandanna tied over her straight, glossy black hair. She was dressed in a lavender ballet leotard with cream-colored tights covering long legs, and she had the muscled, athletic build of a serious dancer. She wore a man's watch that looked huge against her fine-boned wrist. She turned it off and then glanced up at Anna, fidgeting. "Ten minutes. "

  Anna frowned and nodded at her. She started toward the door, a gracious hostess politely walking us out. "Is there anything else we can do for you, Warden? Ms. Murphy?"

  In the investigating business, when someone starts trying to rush you out in order to conceal some kind of information from you, it is what we professionals call a clue. "Gee," I said brightly. "What happens in ten minutes?"

  Anna stopped, her polite smile fading. "We have answered your questions as best we could. You gave me your word, Warden, to abide by my hospitality. Not to abuse it. "

  "Answering me may be for your own good," I replied.

  "That's your opinion," she said. "In my opinion, it is no business of yours. "

  I sighed and nodded acquiescence. I handed her a business card. "There's my number. In case you change your mind. "

  "Thank you," Anna said politely.

  Murphy and I left, and were silent all the way down in the elevator. I scowled up a storm on the way, and brooded. It had never solved any of my problems in the past, but there's always a first time.

  Chapter Seven

  There was no time to do anything. Even if I'd been crouched, tense, and holding defensive magic ready to go, I wouldn't have beaten the explosion to the punch. It was instant, and violent, and did not at all care whether I was on my guard or not. Something that felt vaguely like an enormous feather pillow swung by the Incredible Hulk slammed into my chest.

  It lifted me up off the ground and dumped me on the sidewalk several feet later. My shoulder clipped a mailbox as I went by it, and then I had a good, steady view of the clear summer sky above me as I lay on my back and ached.

  I'd lived, which was always a good start in this kind of situation. It couldn't have been a very big explosion, then. It had to have been more incendiary than concussive, a big old rolling ball of flame that would have shattered windows and burned things and set things on fire, and pushed a whole lot of air out of the way along with one Harry Dresden, wizard, slightly used.

  I sat up and peered at the rolling cloud of black smoke and red flame where Murphy's Saturn was, which bore out my supposition pretty well. I squinted to one side and saw Murphy sitting slowly back up. She had a short, bleeding cut on her upper lip. She looked pale and shaken.

  I couldn't help it. I started laughing like a drunk.

  "Well," I said. "Under the circumstances, I'm forced to conclude that you were right. I am a control freak and you were one hundred percent right to be the one driving the car. Thank you, Murph. "

  She gave me a slow, hard stare, drew in a deep breath, and said, through clenched teeth, "No problem. "

  I grinned at her and slumped back down onto my back. "You okay?"

  She dabbed at the blood on her lip with one hand. "Think so. You?"

  "Clipped my shoulder on a mailbox," I said. "It hurts a little. Not a lot. Maybe I could take an aspirin. Just one. Not a whole dose or anything. "

  She sighed. "My God, you're a whiner, Dresden. "

  We sat there quietly for a minute while sirens began in the distance and came closer.

  "Bomb, you think?" Murphy said, in that tone people use when they don't know what else to say.

  "Yeah," I said. "I was grounding some extra energy out when it went off. It must have hexed up the bomb's timer or receiver. Set it off early. "

  "Unless it was intended as a warning shot," she said.

  I grunted. "Whose bomb, you think?"

  "I haven't annoyed anyone new lately," Murphy said.

  "Neither have I. "

  "You've annoyed a lot more people than me, in toto. "

  "In toto?" I said. "Who talks like that? Besides, car bombs aren't really within. . . within the, uh. . . "

  "Idiom?" Murphy asked, with what might have been a very slight British accent.

  "Idiom!" I declared in my best John Cleese impersonation. "The idiom of the entities I've ticked off. And you're really turning me on with the Monty Python reference. "

  "You're pathetic, Harry. " Her smile faded. "But a car bomb is well within the idiom of ex-cons," she said.

  "Mrs. Beckitt was inside with us the whole time, remember?"

  "And Mr. Beckitt?" Murphy asked.

  "Oh," I said. "Ah. Think he's out by now?"

  "I think we've got some things to find out," she said. "You'd better go. "

  "I should?"

  "I'm not on the clock, remember?" Murphy said. "It's my car. Simpler if there's only one person answering all the questions. "

  "Right," I said, and pushed myself up. "Which end do you want?"

  "I'll take our odd corpse out and the Beckitts," she said. I offered her a hand up. She took it, which meant more to the two of us than it would to anyone looking on. "And you?"

  I sighed. "I'll talk to my brother. "

  "I'm sure he's not involved," Murphy said quietly. "But. . . "

  "But he knows the incubus business," I said, which wasn't what Murphy had been about to say. It might have drawn an anger response out of me, but rationally speaking, I couldn't blame her for her suspicion, either. She was a cop. She'd spent her entire adult life dealing with the most treacherous and dishonest portions of the human condition. Speaking logically, she was right to suspect and question until more information presented itself. People's lives were at stake.

  But Thomas was my brother, my blood. Logic and rationality had little to do with it.

  The first emergency unit, a patrolling police car, rounded the corner a couple of blocks away. Fire trucks weren't far behind.

  "Time to go," Murphy said quietly.

  "I'll see what I can find out," I told her, and walked away.

  I took the El back to my neighborhood on high alert, watching for anyone who might be following, lying in wait, or otherwise planning malicious deeds involving me. I didn't see
anyone doing any of those things on the El, or as I walked to my apartment in the basement of an old boardinghouse.

  Once there, I walked down a sunken concrete staircase to my front door - one of those nifty all-metal security doors - and with a muttered word and an effort of will, I disarmed the wards that protected my home. Then I used a key to open its conventional locks, and slipped inside.

  Mister promptly hurtled into my shins with a shoulder block of greeting. The big grey cat weighed about thirty pounds, and the impact actually rocked me back enough to let my shoulder blades bump against the door. I reached down and gave his ears a quick rub. Mister purred, walking in circles around one of my legs, then sidled away and hopped up onto a bookshelf to resume the important business of napping away a summer afternoon in wait for the cool of evening.

  An enormous mound of shaggy grey-and-black fur appeared from the shadows in the little linoleum-floored alcove that passed for my kitchen. It walked over to me, yawning as it came, its tail wagging in relaxed greeting. I hunkered down as my dog sat and thrust his head toward me, and I vigorously scratched his ears and chin and the thick ruff of fur over his neck with both hands. "Mouse. All quiet on the home front, boy?"

  His tail wagged some more, jaw dropping open to expose a lethal array of very white teeth, and his tongue lolled out in a doggy grin,

  "Oh, I forgot the mail," I said. "You mind getting it?"

  Mouse promptly rose, and I opened the door. He padded out in total silence. Mouse moves lightly for a rhinoceros.

  I crossed my floor of mismatched carpets and rugs to slump into the easy chair by the old fireplace. I picked up my phone and dialed Thomas's number. No answer. I glared at the phone for a minute and, because I wasn't sure what else to do, I tried it again. No one answered. What were the odds.

  I chewed on my lip for a minute and began to worry about my brother.

  Mouse returned a moment later - long enough to have gone out to the designated dog-friendly little area in the house's yard. He had several bits of mail held gently in his mouth, and he dropped them carefully onto the surface of the old wooden coffee table in front of my sofa. Then he went over to the door and leaned a shoulder against it. It hadn't been installed quite right, and it was a real pain in the ass to open, and once it was open it was a pain in the ass to close. Mouse shoved at the door with a little snort of familiar effort and it swung to. Then he came back over to settle down by me.

  "Thanks, boy. " I grabbed the mail, scratched his ears again, and flicked to life several candles on the end table next to the recliner with a muttered spell. "Bills," I reported to him, going through the mail. "More bills. Junk mail. Another Best Buy catalog, Jesus, those people won't give up. Larry Fowler's new lawyer. " I put the unopened envelope against my forehead and closed my eyes. "He's threatening me with another variation on the same lawsuit. " I opened the letter and skimmed it, then tossed it on the floor. "It's as if I'm psychic. "

  I opened the drawer in the end table, felt about with my fingertips, and withdrew a single silver metallic key, the only one on a ring marked with an oval of blue plastic that sported my business card's logo: HARRY DRESDEN. WIZARD. PARANORMAL INVESTIGATIONS. CONSULTING, ADVICE, REASONABLE RATES.

  I looked at the key. Thomas had given it to me, in case I should need to show up at his place in an emergency. He had a key to my place, too, even after he'd moved out. There had been a tacit understanding between us. The keys were there in case one or the other of us needed help. They had not been given so that one or the other of us could go snooping uninvited around the other one's home and life.

  (Though I suspected that Thomas had looked in on my place a few times, hoping to figure out how the place managed to get so clean. He'd never caught my housekeeping brownies at work, and he never would. They're pros. The only drawback to having faerie housekeepers is that you can't tell people about them. If you do, they're gone, and no, I don't know why. )

  The faces of the dead women drifted through my thoughts, and I sighed and closed my fingers around the key. "Okay, boy," I said. "Time to go visit Thomas. "

  Mouse rose up expectantly, his tags jingling, his tail thrashing energetically. Mouse liked going for rides in the car. He trotted over to the door, pulled his lead down from where it hung on the doorknob, and brought it over to me.

  "Hang on," I told him. "I need the arsenal. "

  I hate it when bad business goes down in summer. I put on my torturously warm leather duster. I figured I could take death from heat prostration to whole new levels given the potential presence of further firebombs. And that could land me a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Maybe even a Darwin Award.

  See there? That's called positive thinking.

  I put on my new and improved shield bracelet, too, and slipped three silver rings onto the fingers of my right hand. I snagged my blasting rod, clipped Mouse's lead on, took up my staff, and tromped on out to the car.

  I told Mouse to stay back while I approached the Blue Beetle, my battered, often-repaired, mismatched Volkswagen Bug. I looked all around it, then lay down to check the vehicle's undercarriage. I looked at the trunk and under the hood next. I even examined it for traces of hostile magic. I didn't find anything that resembled a bomb or looked dangerous, unless you counted the half-eaten Taco Bell burrito that had somehow gotten tossed into the trunk about six months ago.

  I opened the door, whistled for Mouse, and off we went to invade my brother's privacy.

  I hadn't actually visited Thomas's place before, and I was a little taken aback when I got there. I had assumed that the street address was to one of the new buildings in Cabrini Green, where urban renewal had been shoved down the throat of the former slum by the powers that be - largely because it bordered on the Gold Coast, the most expensive section of town, and the second-highest-income neighborhood in the world. The neighborhood around the Green had become slowly more tolerable, and the newer apartment buildings that had replaced the old were fairly nice.

  But Thomas's apartment wasn't in one of those buildings. He was across the street, living in the Gold Coast. When Mouse and I got to the right apartment building, twilight was fading fast and I felt underdressed. The doorman's shoes were nicer than any I owned.

  I opened the outer door with Thomas's key and marched to the elevators, Mouse walking smartly at heel. The doorman watched me, and I spotted two security cameras between the front door and the elevator. Security would have a pretty good idea who was a resident and who wasn't - and an extremely tall and gangly man in a black coat with nearly two hundred pounds of dog with him wouldn't be something they forgot. So I tried to stall them with body language, walking the walk of the impatient and confident in the hopes that it would make the security guys hesitate.

  Either it worked or the building's security people were getting paid too much. No one challenged me, and I took the elevator to the sixteenth floor and walked down the hall to Thomas's apartment.

  I unlocked the door, gave it a couple of knocks, and then opened it without waiting. I slipped in with Mouse, and found the light switch beside the door before I closed it.

  Thomas's apartment was. . . well. Chic. The door opened onto a living room bigger than my entire apartment - which, granted, will never cause anxiety to agoraphobics. The walls were painted a deep crimson, and the carpeting was a rich charcoal grey. The furniture all matched, from the sofas to the chairs to the entertainment centers, all of it done in stainless steel and black, and a little more art deco than I would have preferred. He had a TV too big ever to fit into the Beetle, and a DVD player and surround sound and racks of DVDs and CDs. One of the newer video game systems rested neatly on a shelf, all its wires squared away and organized. Two movie posters decorated the walls: The Wizard of Oz and The Pirates of Penzance, the one with Kevin Kline as the Pirate King.

  Well. It was good to see that my brother was doing well for himself. Though I had to wonder what he was doing that pulled dow
n the kind of money this place would require-

  The kitchen was like the living room - a lot of the same stainless steel and black in the appliances, though the walls had been painted white, as was the expensive tile floor. Everything was pristine. No dirty dishes, no half-open cupboards, no food stains, no papers lying about. Every single horizontal surface in the place was empty and sanitized. I checked the cupboards. The dishes stood in neat stacks, perfectly fitted to their storage in the cupboard.

  None of which made sense. Thomas had a lot of positive qualities, but my brother was a fairly shameless slob. "I get it now. He's dead," I said aloud to Mouse. "My brother is dead, and he's been replaced with some kind of obsessive-compulsive evil clone. "

  I checked the fridge. I couldn't help it. It's one of those things you do when you're snooping through someone's house. It was empty, except for one of those boxes of wine, and about fifty bottles of Thomas's favorite beer, one of Mac's microbrewed ales. Mac would have killed Thomas for keeping it cold. Well. He would have scowled in disapproval, anyway. For Mac, that was tantamount to a homicidal reaction in other people.

  I checked the freezer. It was packed, wall to wall, with TV meals in neat stacks. There were three different meals, stacked up in alternating order. There was room for maybe nine or ten more, and I presumed the others eaten. Thomas probably went shopping only every couple of months. That was more like him - beer, food cooked by pushing one button on a microwave. No dishes needed, and the drawer nearest the freezer yielded up a container of plastic forks and knives. Eat. Discard. No cooking or cleaning necessary.

  I looked around at the rest of the kitchen, then at the fridge and freezer.

  Then I went down the little hall that led to two bedrooms and a bath, and snorted in triumph. The bathroom was in total disarray, with toothbrushes and various grooming supplies tossed here and there, apparently at random. A couple of empty beer bottles sat out. The floor was carpeted with discarded clothing. Several half-used rolls of toilet paper sat around, with an empty cardboard tube still on the dispenser.

  I checked in the first bedroom. It, too, was more Thomas's style. There was a king-sized bed with no head or foot, only the metal frame to support it. It had white sheets, several pillows in white cases, and a big, dark blue comforter on top. All of them were disheveled. The closet door stood open, and more clothes lay around on the floor. Two laundry baskets of fresh, neatly folded and ironed clothing (mostly empty) sat on a dresser with three of its drawers slightly open. There was a bookshelf haphazardly saturated with fiction of every description, and a clock radio. A pair of swords, one of them an old U. S. Cavalry saber, the other a more musketeer-looking weapon, were leaned against the wall, where they'd be more or less within reach of anyone in the bed.

  I went back to the hall and shook my head at the rest of the apartment. "It's a disguise," I told Mouse. "The front of the apartment. He wants it to give a certain impression. He makes sure no one gets to see the rest. "

  Mouse tilted his head and looked at me.

  "Maybe I should just leave him a note. "

  The phone rang, and I about jumped out of my skin. After I made sure I wasn't having a cardiac episode, I padded back out to the living room, debating whether or not to answer it. I decided not to. It was probably building security calling to check up on the stranger who had walked in with a pet woolly mammoth. If I answered and Thomas wasn't here, they might get suspicious. More suspicious. If I let them eat answering machine, they'd still be uncertain. I waited.

  The answering machine beeped, and my brother's recorded voice said, "You know the drill. " It beeped again.

  A woman's voice poured out of the answering machine like warm honey. "Thomas," she said. She had a polyglot of a European accent, and pronounced his name "toe-moss," accent on the second syllable. "Thomas," she continued. "It is Alessandra, and I am desperate for you. Please, I need to see you tonight. I know that there are others, that there are so many others, but I can't stand it anymore, and I must have you. " Her tone lowered, thick with sensuality. "There is no one, no one else who can do for me what you do. Do not disappoint me, I beg you. " She left her number, and her voice made it sound like foreplay. By the time she hung up, I had begun to feel uncomfortably voyeuristic for listening.

  I sighed and told Mouse, "I so need to get laid. "

  At least now I knew what Thomas had been feeding his Hunger. Alessandra and "so many others" must be supplying him. I felt. . . ambiguous about that. He could feed the demonic portion of his nature on many different victims, effectively spreading out the damage he inflicted upon them in a bid to avoid fatally overfeeding upon any one of them. Even so, it meant that there were a number of lives who had been tainted by his embrace, women who had become addicted to the sensation of being fed upon - who were now under his influence, subject to his control.

  It was power, of a sort, and power tends to corrupt. Wielding such authority over others would provide a great many temptations. And Thomas had been distant of late. Very distant.

  I took a deep breath and said, "Don't get carried away, Harry. He's your brother. Innocent until proven guilty, right?

  "Right," I replied to myself.

  I decided to leave Thomas a note. I didn't have any paper handy. The stylishly sterile kitchen and living room yielded none - nor did the bedroom. I shook my head, muttering about people who couldn't organize their way out of a paper bag, and checked in the second bedroom.

  I flicked on the light, and my heart stopped.

  The room looked like the office of Rambo's accountant. There was a desk and computer against one wall. Tables lined two of the other walls. One of them was dedicated to the neatly organized disassembly of a pair of weapons - submachine guns I didn't recognize right away. I did, however, recognize the kit for home-converting the weapons from legal semiautomatics to fully illegal automatics. A second table looked like a workbench, with the necessary tools to modify weapons and custom-assemble ammunition. It would not be difficult to create explosive devices, such as pipe bombs, with what he had there, if the heavy storage containers under the table contained, as I suspected, explosive compounds.

  A nasty thought went through my mind: They could just as easily be used to create incendiaries.

  One wall was covered with corkboard. There were papers tacked up on it. Maps. Photographs.

  I walked over to the photos with heavy, reluctant feet.

  There were photos of dead women.

  I recognized them all.

  The victims.

  The photos were those Instamatic kind. They were a little grainy, the images lit by the harsh glare of a flashbulb, but they covered many of the same angles as the police photos. There was one difference, though. The police photos had all been neatly indexed, with small placards with large, printed numbers appearing in each shot, accompanied by a meticulous written diagram recording their relative positions and what they showed, locking the scene down for future reference.

  Thomas's photos did not have any such placards.

  Which meant that they could only have been taken before the police got there.

  Holy shit.

  What was my brother thinking? Leaving all of this stuff sitting out here like this? Anyone who came by with an only slightly biased point of view would come to the conclusion that he had been at all of those sites before the police. That he was a killer. I mean, I was his brother, and even I thought that it looked damned peculiar. . .

  "Hell's bells. " I sighed to Mouse. "Can this day get any worse?"

  A heavy, confident hand delivered a short series of knocks to the apartment's door. "Security," called a man's voice. "Here with Chicago police. Open the door, please, sir. "