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Grave Peril, Page 4

Jim Butcher

Chapter Four

  I let us both back into the office, and flicked on the lights. The bulb blew out. It does that a lot. I sighed, and shut the door behind us, leaving stripes of golden autumn light pouring through the blinds, interweaving with shadows on the floor and walls.

  I drew out a seat in front of my desk for the young woman. She blinked at me in confusion for a second before she said, "Oh," and sat. I walked around the desk, leaving my duster on, and sat down.

  "All right," I said. "If you want my protection, I want a few things from you first. "

  She pushed back her asphalt-colored hair with one hand and gave me a look of pure calculation. Then she simply crossed her legs, so that the cut of her dress left one pale leg bare to mid-thigh. A subtle motion of her back thrust out her young, firm breasts, so that their tips pressed visibly against the fabric. "Of course, Mr. Dresden. I'm sure we can do business. " The look she gave me was direct, sensual, and willing.

  Nipple erection on command - now that's method acting. Oh, she was pretty enough, I suppose. Any adolescent male would have been drooling and hurling himself at her, but I'd seen acts a lot better. I rolled my eyes. "That's not what I meant. "

  Her sex-kitten look faltered. "It . . . it isn't?" She frowned at me, eyes scanning me again, reassessing me. "Is it . . . are you . . . ?"

  "No," I said. "I'm not gay. But I'm not buying what you're selling. You haven't even told me your name, but you're willing to spread your legs for me? No thanks. Hell's Bells, haven't you ever heard of AIDS? Herpes?"

  Her face went white, and she pressed her lips together until they were white, too. "All right, then," she said. "What do you want from me?"

  "Answers," I told her, jabbing a finger at her. "And don't try lying to me. It won't do you any good. " Which was only a marginal lie, in itself. Being a wizard doesn't make you a walking lie detector, and I wasn't going to try a soulgaze on her to find out if she was sincere - it wasn't worth it. But another great thing about being a wizard is that people attribute just about anything you do to your vast and unknowable powers. Granted, it only works with those who know enough to believe in wizards, but not enough to understand our limits - the rest of the world, the regular people who think magic is just a joke, just look at you like someone is going to stuff you into a little white coat any second now.

  She licked her lips, a nervous gesture, not a sexy one. "All right," she said. "What do you want to know?"

  "Your name, for starters. "

  She let out a harsh laugh. "You think I'm going to give you that, wizard?"

  Point. Serious spell-slingers like me could do an awful lot with a person's name, given by their own lips. "All right, then. What do I call you?"

  She didn't bother to cover her leg again. A rather pretty leg, actually, with a tattoo of some kind encircling her ankle. I tried not to notice. "Lydia," she said. "Call me Lydia. "

  "Okay, Lydia. You're a practitioner of the Art. Tell me about that. "

  "It doesn't have anything to do with what I want from you, Mr. Dresden," she said. She swallowed, her anger fading. "Please. I need your help. "

  "All right, all right," I said. "What kind of help do you need? If you're into some kind of gang-related trouble, I'm going to recommend that you head for the police. I'm not a bodyguard. "

  She shivered, and hugged herself with her arms. "No, nothing like that. It's not my body I'm worried about. "

  That made me frown.

  She closed her eyes and drew in a breath. "I need a talisman," she said. "Something to protect me from a hostile spirit. "

  That made me sit up and take notice, metaphorically speaking. With the city flying into spiritual chaos as it was, I had no trouble believing that a girl gifted with magical talent might be experiencing some bad phenomena. Ghosts and spooks are drawn to the magically gifted. "What kind of spirit?"

  Her eyes shifted left and right, never looking at me. "I can't really say, Mr. Dresden. It's powerful and it wants to hurt me. They . . . they told me you could make something that would keep me safe. "

  True, in point of fact. Around my left wrist at that very moment was a talisman made from a dead man's shroud, blessed silver, and a number of other, more difficult to come by ingredients. "Maybe," I told her. "That depends on why you're in danger, and why you feel you need protection. "

  "I c-can't tell you that," she said. Her pale face pinched into an expression of worry - real worry, the kind that makes you look older, uglier. The way she hugged herself made her look smaller, more frail. "Please, I just need your help. "

  I sighed, and rubbed at one eyebrow with my thumb. My first rampant instincts were to give her a cup of hot chocolate, put a blanket around her shoulders, tell her everything would be all right and strap my talisman onto her wrist. I tried to rein those in, though. Down, Quixote. I still knew nothing about her situation, or what she needed protection from - for all I knew, she was trying to stave off an avenging angel coming after her in retribution for some act so vile that it stirred the Powers that be to take immediate action. Even vanilla ghosts sometimes come back to haunt someone for a darned good reason.

  "Look, Lydia. I don't like to get involved in anything without knowing something about what's going on. " Which hadn't slowed me down before, I noted. "Unless you can tell me a little bit about your situation, convince me that you are in legitimate need of protection, I won't be able to help you. "

  She bowed her head, her asphalt hair falling across her face for a long minute. Then she drew in a breath and asked, "Do you know what Cassandra's Tears is, Mr. Dresden?"

  "Prophetic condition," I said. "The person in question has random seizures - visions of the future, but they're always couched in terms of conditions that make explanation of the dreams seem unbelievable. Doctors mistake it for epilepsy in children, sometimes, and prescribe a bunch of different drugs for it. Pretty accurate prophecy, as it goes, but no one ever buys into it. Some people call it a gift. "

  "I'm not one of them," she whispered. "You don't know how horrible it is. To see something about to happen and to try to change it, only to have no one believe you. "

  I studied her for a minute in silence, listening to the clock on my wall count down the seconds. "All right," I said. "You say that you have this gift. I guess you want me to believe that one of your visions warned you about an evil spirit coming after you?"

  "Not one," she said. "Three. Three, Mr. Dresden. I only got one vision when they tried to kill the President. I got two for that disaster at NASA, and for the earthquake in Laos. I've never had three before. Never had something appear so clearly . . . "

  I closed my eyes to think about this. Again, my instincts told me to help the girl, smash the bad ghost or whatever, and walk off into the sunset. If she was indeed afflicted with Cassandra's Tears, my actions could do more than save her life. My faith could change it for the better.

  On the other hand, I'd been played for a sucker before. The girl was obviously a competent actress. She had shifted smoothly to the role of willing seductress, when she thought I had been asking for sex in payment. That she would immediately make that conclusion based on my own fairly neutral statement said something about her, all by itself. This wasn't a girl who was used to playing things fair and square. Unless I was grossly misreading her, she had bartered sex for goods and services before - and she was awfully young to be so jaded about the entire matter.

  The entire Cassandra's Tears angle was a perfect scam, and people had used it before, among the circles of the magically endowed. The story required no proof, no performance on the part of the person running the scam. All she would need would be a smidgen of talent to give her the right aura, maybe enough kinetomancy to tilt the dice a little on their way down. Then she could make up whatever story she wanted about her supposed prophetic gifts, put on a little-girl-lost act, and head straight for the local dummy, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden.

  I opened my eyes to find her watching m
e. "Of course," she said. "I could be lying. Cassandra's Tears can't be analyzed or observed. I could be using it as an excuse to provide a reasonable explanation why you should help a lady in distress. "

  "That's pretty much what's going through my mind, Lydia, yeah. You could just be a small-time witch who stirred up the wrong demon and is looking for a way out. "

  She spread her hands. "All I can tell you is that I'm not. I know that something's coming. I don't know what, and I don't know why or how. I just know what I see. "

  "Which is?"

  "Fire," she whispered. "Wind. I see dark things and a dark war. I see my death coming for me, out of the spirit world. And I see you at the middle of it all. You're the beginning, the end of it. You're the one who can make the path go different ways. "

  "That's your vision? Iowa has less corn. "

  She turned her face away. "I see what I see. "

  Standard carny procedure. Flatter the ego of the mark, draw him in, get him good and hooked, and fleece him for everything he's got. Sheesh, I thought, someone else trying to get something out of me. My reputation must be growing.

  Still, there was no sense in being rude. "Look, Lydia. I think maybe you're just overreacting, here. Why don't we meet again in a couple of days, and we'll see if you still think you need my help. "

  She didn't answer me. Her shoulders just slumped forward and her face went slack with defeat. She closed her eyes, and I felt a nagging sensation of doubt tug at me. I had the uncomfortable impression that she wasn't acting.

  "All right," she said, softly. "I'm sorry to have kept you late. " She got up and started walking toward the door of my office.

  My better judgement propelled me up out of my chair and across the room. We reached the door at the same time.

  "Wait a minute," I said. I unbound the talisman from my arm, feeling the silent pop of energy as the knot came undone. Then I took her left wrist and turned her hand over to tie the talisman onto her. There were pale scars on her arm - the vertical kind that run along the big veins. The ones you get when you're really serious about killing yourself. They were old and faded. She must have gotten them when she was . . . what? Ten years old? Younger?

  I shuddered and secured the little braid of musty cloth and silver chain about her wrist, willing enough energy into it to close the circle once the knot was tied. When I finished, I touched her forearm lightly. I could just feel the talisman's power, a tingling sensation that hovered a half-inch off of her skin.

  "Faith magic works best against spirits," I said quietly. "If you're worried, get to a church. Spirits are strongest just after the sun goes down, around the witching hour, and again just before the sun comes up. Go to Saint Mary of the Angels. It's a church at the corner of Bloomingdale and Wood, down by Wicker Park. It's huge, you can't miss it. Go around to the delivery door and ring the bell. Talk to Father Forthill. Tell him that Michael's friend said that you need a safe place to stay for a while. "

  She only stared at me, her mouth open. Tears formed in her eyes. "You believe me," she said. "You believe me. "

  I shrugged, uncomfortable. "Maybe. Maybe not. But things have been bad, the past few weeks, and I would rather not have you on my conscience. You'd better hurry. It's going to be sundown soon. " I pressed some bills into her hand and said, "Take a cab. Saint Mary of the Angels. Father Forthill. Michael's friend sent you. "

  "Thank you," she said. "Oh, God. Thank you, Mr. Dresden. " She seized my hand in both of hers and pressed a tearstained kiss to my knuckles. Her fingers were cold and her lips too hot. Then she vanished out the door.

  I shut it behind her and shook my head. "Harry, you idiot. Your one decent talisman that would protect you against ghosts and you just gave it away. She's probably a plant. They probably sent her to you just to get the talisman off you, so that they can eat you up the next time you go spoil their fun. " I glared down at my hand, where the warmth of Lydia's kiss and the dampness of her tears still lingered. Then I sighed, and walked to the cabinet where I kept fifty or sixty spare light-bulbs on hand, and replaced the one that had burned out.

  The phone rang. I got down off my chair and answered it sourly. "Dresden. "

  There was silence and scratchy static on the other end of the line.

  "Dresden," I repeated.

  The silence stretched on, and something about it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. There was a quality to it that is difficult to describe. Like something waiting. Gloating. The static crackled louder, and I thought I could hear voices underneath it, voices speaking in low, cruel tones. I glanced at the door, after the departed Lydia. "Who is this?"

  "Soon," whispered a voice. "Soon, Dresden. We will see one another again. "

  "Who is this?" I repeated, feeling a little silly.

  The line went dead.

  I stared at the phone before hanging it up, then ran my hand back through my hair. A chill crawled neatly down my spine and took up residence somewhere a little lower than my stomach. "All right, then," I said, my own voice a little too loud in the office. "Thank God that wasn't too creepy or anything. "

  The antique radio on the shelf beside the coffee machine hissed and squalled to life and I almost jumped out of my shoes. I whirled to face it in a fury, hands clenched.

  "Harry?" said a voice on the radio. "Hey, Harry, is this thing working?"

  I tried to calm my pounding heart, and focused enough will on the radio to let my voice carry through. "Yeah, Bob. It's me. "

  "Thank the stars," Bob said. "You said you wanted to know if I found out anything else ghostly going on. "

  "Yeah, yeah, go ahead. "

  The radio hissed and crackled with static - spiritual interference, not physical. The radio wasn't set up to receive AM/FM any more. Bob's voice was garbled, but I could understand it. "My contact came through. Cook County Hospital, tonight. Someone's stirred up Agatha Hagglethorn. This is a bad one, Harry. She is one mean old biddy. "

  Bob gave me the rundown on Agatha Hagglethorn's grisly and tragic death, and her most likely target at the hospital. I glanced down at my bare left wrist, and abruptly felt naked. "All right," I said. "I'm on it. Thanks, Bob. "

  The radio squalled and went silent, and I dashed out the door. Sundown would come in less than twenty minutes, rush hour had been going for a while now, and if I wasn't at Cook County by the time it got dark, all kinds of bad things could happen.

  I flew out the front door, the sack of ghost dust heavy in my pocket, and all but slammed into Michael, tall and broad, toting a huge athletic bag over his shoulder, which I knew would contain nothing but Amoracchius and his white cloak.

  "Michael!" I burst out. "How did you get here?"

  His honest face split into a wide smile. "When there is a need, He sees to it that I am there. "

  "Wow," I said. "You're kidding. "

  "No," he said, his voice earnest. Then he paused. "Of course, you've gotten in touch with me every night for the past two weeks. Tonight, I just thought I'd save Him the trouble of arranging coincidence, so I came on over as soon as I got off work. " He fell into step beside me and we both got into the Blue Beetle - he got in the red door. I got in the white one, and we peered out over the grey hood as I pulled the old VW into traffic.

  And that was how we ended up doing battle in the nursery at Cook County.

  Anyway, you see what I mean about a day being fairly normal before it falls all to pieces. Oh, well. Maybe it hadn't been all that normal. As we took off into traffic and I gave the Beetle all the gas it could take, I got that sinking feeling that my life was about to get hectic again.