White Night, Page 5Jim Butcher
I had only a few seconds to think. If security had called in a cop, they were thinking I might be trouble. If I came off as something suspicious, they'd probably take a look around as a matter of course. If that happened, and they found what was in my brother's war room, I'd be buying us both more kinds of trouble than I could count.
I needed a lie. A really good, really believable lie. I shut the door to Thomas's war room and bedroom and stared around the immaculate, stylish, tracklit living room, trying to think of one. I stared at Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, looking for inspiration. Nothing. The Pirate King, with his white shirt manfully open to his waist, didn't give me any ideas either.
And then it hit me. Thomas had already established the lie. He'd used it before, no less - and it was just his style of camouflage, too. All I had to do was play up to it.
"I can't believe I'm about to do this," I told Mouse.
Then I set my coat and staff aside, took a deep breath, flounced to the door, opened it, and demanded, "He sent you, didn't he? Don't try to lie to me!"
A patrol cop - God, she looked young - regarded me with a polite, bored expression. "Um, sir?"
"Thomas!" I snarled, pronouncing it the same way as the woman on the answering machine. "He's not man enough to have come to meet me himself, is he? He sent his bully boys to do it for him!"
The cop let out a long-suffering breath. "Sir, please, let's stay calm here. " She turned to the building's security guy, a nervous-looking, balding man in his forties. "Now, according to building security, you aren't a known resident, but you've entered with a key. It's standard procedure for them to ask a few questions. "
"Questions?" I said. It was hard not to lisp. So hard. But that might have been too much. I settled for saying everything in my Murphy impersonation voice. "Why don't you start with why he hasn't called me? Hmm? After giving me his spare key? Ask him why he hasn't come to visit the baby!" I pointed an accusatory finger at Mouse. "Ask him what excuse he has this time!"
The cop looked as if she had a headache. She blinked at me once, lifted a hand to her mouth, coughed, and stepped aside, gesturing to the security guy
He blinked a few times. "Sir," the security man said. "Um, it's just that Mr. Raith hasn't actually listed with building security any one he's given access to his apartment. "
"He'd better not have!" I said. "I have given him years, years, and I will not be cast aside like last season's shoes!" I shook my head and told the young cop, in an aside voice, "Never date a beautiful man. It isn't worth what you have to put up with. "
"Sir," the security man said. "I'm sorry to, um, intrude. But part of what our residents pay for is security. May I see your key, please?"
"I can't believe that he never even. . . " I trailed off into a mutter, got the key out of my coat pocket, and showed it to him.
The security guy took it, squinted at it, and checked a number on its back against a list on his clipboard. "This is one of the resident's original keys," he confirmed.
"That's right. Thomas gave it to me," I said.
"I see," the security man said. "Um. Would you mind if I saw some photo ID, sir? I'll put a copy in our file, so this won't, um. . . happen again. "
I was going to kill my brother later. "Of course not, sir," I assured him, trying to appear mollified and reluctantly willing to be gracious. I got out my wallet and handed him my driver's license. The cop glanced at it as it went by.
"I'll be right back," he told me, and hustled toward the elevator.
"Sorry about this," the cop told me. "They get paid to be a little paranoid. "
"Not your fault, Officer," I told her.
She regarded me thoughtfully for a moment. "So, you and the owner are, uh. . . "
"We're something. " I sighed. "You can never get the pretty ones to come out and say exactly, can you?"
"Not generally, no," she said. Her tone of voice stayed steady, her expression mild, but I knew a poker face when I saw one. "Do you mind if I ask what you're doing here?"
I had to be careful. The young cop wasn't dumb. She thought she smelled a rat.
I gestured forlornly at the dog. "We were living together in a tiny little place. We got a dog and didn't know he was going to get so big. Thomas was feeling crowded, so he moved into his own place, and. . . " I shrugged and tried to look like Murphy did when talking about her exes. "We were supposed to switch off every month, but he always had some excuse. He didn't want the dog slobbering around his little neat-freak world. " I gestured at the apartment.
The cop looked around and nodded politely. "Nice place. " But she hadn't been convinced. Not completely. I saw her putting a few thoughts together, formulating more questions.
Mouse pulled it out of the fire for me. He padded over to the door, looked up at the cop.
"Good lord, he's huge," the cop said. She leaned slightly away from him.
"Oh, he's a big softie, isn't he," I crooned to him, and ruffled his ears.
Mouse gave her a big doggy grin, sat, and offered her one of his paws.
She laughed and shook. She let Mouse sniff the back of her hand, and then scratched his ears herself.
"You know dogs," I said.
"I'm in training for one of the K-9 units," she confirmed.
"He likes you," I said. "That's unusual. He's usually a great big chicken. "
She smiled. "Oh, I think dogs can tell when someone likes them. They're smarter about that kind of thing than people give them credit for. "
"God knows, that seems to be smarter than I can ever manage. " I sighed. "What kind of dogs do they use at the K-9 units?"
"Oh, it varies a great deal," she said, and started in on talking about candidates for police dogs. I kept her going with a couple of questions and a lot of interested nodding, and Mouse demonstrated his ability to sit and lie down and roll over. By the time the security guy and his apologetic expression got back, Mouse was sprawled on his back, paws waving languidly in the air, while the cop scratched his tummy and told me a pretty good dog story about her own childhood and an encounter with a prowler.
"Sir," he said, handing my key and license back and trying not to look like he was carefully not touching me. "I apologize for the inconvenience, but as you are not a resident here, it is standard procedure for visitors to check in with the security personnel at the entrance when entering or leaving the building. "
"This is just typical of him," I said. "Forgetting something like this. I probably should have called ahead and made sure he'd told you. "
"I'm sorry," he said. "I hate to inconvenience you. But until we do have that written authorization from Mr. Raith that he wishes you to have full access, I need to ask you to leave. I know it's just paperwork, but I'm afraid there's no way around it. "
I sighed. "Typical. Just typical. And I understand you're just doing your job, sir. Let me go to the bathroom and I'll be right down. "
"Perfectly all right," he told me. "Officer. "
The cop stood up from Mouse and gave me a lingering look. Then she nodded, and the pair of them headed back down the hall.
I let Mouse back in, then closed the door most of the way and Listened, narrowing the focus of my attention until nothing existed but sound and silence.
"Are you sure?" the cop asked the security guy.
"Oh, absolutely," he said. "Toe-moss," he said, emphasizing the pronunciation, "is as queer as a three-dollar bill. "
"He have any other men here?"
"Once or twice," the man said. "This tall one is new, but he does have one of the original keys. "
"He could have stolen it," the cop said.
"An NBA-sized gay burglar who works with a dog?" the security guy replied. "We'll make sure he's not stealing the fridge when he comes out. If Raith is missing anything, we'll point him right at this guy. We've got him on video, eyewitnesses putting him in
the apartment, a copy of his driver's license, for crying out loud. "
"If they're in a relationship," the cop said, "how come this Raith guy never cleared his boyfriend?"
"You know how queers are, the way they sleep around," the security guy said. "He was just covering his ass. "
"So to speak," the cop said.
Security guy missed the irony in her tone, and let out a smug chuckle. "Like I said. We'll watch him. "
"Do that," the cop said. "I don't like it, but if you're sure. "
"I don't want a jilted queen making a big scene. No one wants that. "
"Heavens, no," the cop said, her tone flat.
I eased the door shut and said to Mouse, "Thank God for bigotry. "
Mouse tilted his head at me.
"Bigots see something they expect and then they stop thinking about what is in front of them," I told him. "It's probably how they got to be bigots in the first place. "
Mouse looked unenlightened and undisturbed by it.
"We've only got a couple of minutes if I want them to stay complacent," I said quietly. I looked around the apartment for a minute, "No note," I said. "Not necessary now. "
I went back to the war room, turned on the light, and stared at the huge corkboard wall with its maps, notes, pictures, and diagrams. There was no time to make sense of it.
I closed my eyes for a moment, lowered certain mental defenses I'd held in place for a considerable while, and cast a thought into the vaults of my mind: Take a memo.
Then I stepped up to the wall and scanned my eyes over it, not really stopping to take in any information. I caught glimpses of each photo and piece of paper. It took me maybe a minute. Then I turned the lights back out, gathered my things, and left.
I breezed out of the elevators, stopping at the security guy's desk. He nodded at me and waved me out, and Mouse and I departed the building, secure in our heterosexuality.
Then I went back to my car and headed home to seek counsel from a fallen angel.
I picked up some burgers, four for me and four for Mouse, and went home. I got onion rings, too, but Mouse didn't get any because my class-four hazmat suit was at the cleaners.
Mister, of course, got an onion ring, because he has seniority. He ate some, batted the rest around the kitchen floor for a minute, then mrowled to be let outside for his evening ramble.
By the time I'd eaten it was after ten, and I was entertaining thoughts of putting off more investigation until after a full night's sleep. Pulling all-nighters was getting to be more difficult than it had been when I was twenty and full of what my old mentor Ebenezar McCoy would term "vinegar. "
Staying awake wasn't the issue: If anything, it was far easier to ignore fatigue and maintain concentration these days. Recovering from it was a different story. I didn't bounce back from sleep deprivation quite as quickly as I used to, and a missed night's sleep tended to make me grouchy for a couple of days while I got caught up. Too, my body was still recovering from way too many injuries suffered in previous cases. If I'd been a normal human being, I'd probably be walking around with a collection of scars, residual pain, and stiff joints, like an NFL lineman at the tail end of an injury-plagued career, or a boxer who had been hit too many times.
But I wasn't normal. Whatever it is that allows me to use magic also gives me a greatly enhanced life span - and an ability to eventually recover from injuries that would, in a normal person, be permanently disabling. That didn't really help me much on an immediate, day-to-day basis, but given what my body's gone through, I'm just as glad that I could get better, with enough work and enough time. Losing a hand is bad for anyone. Living for three or four centuries with one hand would, in the words of my generation, blow goats.
Sleep would be nice. But Thomas might need my help. I'd get plenty of sleep when I was dead.
I glanced at my maimed hand, then picked up my old acoustic guitar and sat down on the sofa. I flicked some candles to life and, concentrating on my left hand, began to practice. Simple scales first, then a few other exercises to warm up, then some quiet play. My hand was nowhere close to one hundred percent, but it was a lot better than it had been, and I had finally drilled enough basics into my fingers to allow me to play a little.
Mouse lifted his head and looked at me. He let out a very quiet sigh. Then he heaved himself to his feet from where he'd been sleeping and padded into my bedroom. He nudged the door shut with his nose.
Everybody's a critic.
"Okay, Lash," I said, and kept playing. "Let's talk. "
"Lash?" said a quiet woman's voice. "Do I merit an affectionate nickname now?"
One minute there was no one sitting in the recliner facing the sofa. The next, a woman sat there, poof, just like magic. She was tall, six feet or so, and built like an athlete. Generally, when she appeared to me, she appeared as a healthy-looking young woman with girl-next-door good looks, dressed in a white Greco-Roman tunic that fell to midthigh. Plain leather sandals had covered her feet, their thongs wrapping up around her calves. Her hair color had changed occasionally, but the outfit had remained a constant.
"Given the fact that you're a fallen angel, literally older than time and capable of thought and action I can't really comprehend, whereas to you I am a mere mortal with a teeny bit more power than most, I thought of it more as a thinly veiled bit of insolence. " I smiled at her. "Lash. "
She tilted her head back and laughed, to all appearances genuinely amused. "From you, it is perhaps not as insulting as it might be from another mortal. And, after all, I am not in fact that being. I am only her shadow, her emissary, a figment of your own perception, and a guest within your mind. "
"Guests get invited," I said. "You're more like a vacuum cleaner salesman who managed to talk his way inside for a demonstration and just won't leave. "
"Touche, my host," she admitted. "Though I would like to think I have been both more helpful and infinitely more courteous than such an individual. "
"Granted," I said. "It doesn't change anything about being unwelcome. "
"Then rid yourself of me. Take up the coin, and I will rejoin the rest of myself, whole again. You will be well rid of me. "
I snorted. "Yeah. Up until Big Sister gets into my head, turns me into her psychotic boy toy, and I wind up a monster like the rest of the Denarians. "
Lasciel, the fallen angel whose full being was currently bound in an old Roman denarius in my basement, held up a mollifying hand, "Have I not given you sufficient space? Have I not done as you asked, remained silent and still? When is the last time I have intruded, the last time we spoke, my host?"
I hit a bad chord, grimaced, and muted it out. Then I started over. "New Mexico. And that wasn't by choice. "
"Of course it was," she said. "It is always your choice. "
I shook my head. "I don't speak ghoul. As far as I know, no one does. "
"None of you have ever lived in ancient Sumeria," Lasciel said.
I ignored her. "I had to have answers from the ghoul to get those kids back. There was no time for anything else. You were a last resort. "
"And tonight?" she asked. "Am I a last resort tonight?"
The next couple of chords came out hard and loud. "It's Thomas. "
She folded her hands in her lap and regarded one of the nearby candles. "Ah, yes," she said, more quietly. "You care for him a great deal. "
"He's my blood," I said.
"Allow me to rephrase the observation. You care for him to an irrational degree. " She tilted her head and studied me. "Why?"
I spoke in a slower voice. "He's my blood. "
"I understand your words, but they don't mean anything. "
"They wouldn't," I said. "Not to you. "
She frowned at that and looked at me, her expression mildly disturbed. "I see. "
"No," I said. "You don't. You can't. "
Her expression became remote and
blank, her gaze returning to the candle. "Do not be too sure, my host. I, too, had brothers and sisters. Once upon a time. "
I stared at her for a second. God, she sounded sincere. She isn't, Harry, I told myself. She's a liar. She's running a con on you to convince you to like her, or at least trust her. From there, it would be a short commute to the recruiter's office of the Legion of Doom.
I reminded myself very firmly that what the fallen angel offered me - knowledge, power, companionship - would come at too high a price. It was foolish of me to keep falling back on her help, even though what she had done for me had undoubtedly saved both my life and that of many others. I reminded myself that too much dependence upon her would be a Very, Very Bad Thing.
But she still looked sad.
I concentrated on my music for a moment. It was hard not to experience the occasional fit of empathy for her. The trick was to make sure that I never forgot her true goal - seduction, corruption, the subversion of my free will. The only way to prevent that was to be sure to guard my decisions and actions with detached reason rather than letting my emotions get the better of me. If that happened, it would be easy to play right into the true Lasciel's hands.
Hell, it'd probably be fun.
I shook off that thought and lumbered through "Every Breath You Take" by the Police and an acoustic version of "I Will Survive" I'd put together myself. After I finished that, I tried to go through a little piece I'd written that was supposed to sound like classic Spanish guitar while giving me a little exercise therapy on the mostly numb fingers of my left hand. I'd played it a thousand times, and while I had improved, it was still something painful to listen to.
Except this time.
This time, I realized halfway in, I was playing flawlessly. I was playing faster than my usual tempo, throwing in a few licks, vibrato, some nifty transitional phrases - and it sounded good. Like, Santana good.
I finished the song and then looked up at Lasciel.
She was watching me steadily.
"Illusion?" I asked her.
She gave a small shake of her head. "I was merely helping. I. . . can't write original music anymore. I haven't made any music in ages. I just. . . helped the music you heard in your thoughts get out through your fingers. I circumvented some of the damaged nerves. It was all you, otherwise, my host. "
Which was just about the coolest thing Lasciel'd ever done for me. Don't get me wrong; the survival-oriented things were super - but this was playing guitar. She had helped me to create something of beauty, and it satisfied an urge in me so deep-set and vital that I had never really realized what it was. Somehow, I knew without a hint of a doubt that I would never be able to play that well on my own. Ever again.
Could evil, true capital-E Evil, do such a thing? Help create something whole and lovely and precious?
Careful, Harry. Careful.
"This isn't helping either of us," I said quietly. "Thank you, but I'm learning it myself. I'll get there on my own. " I set the guitar down on its little stand. "Besides, there's work to be done. "
She nodded once. "Very well. This is regarding Thomas's apartment and its contents?"
"Yes," I said. "Can you show them to me?"
Lasciel lifted a hand, and the wall opposite the fireplace changed.
Technically, it hadn't actually changed, but Lasciel, who existed only as an entity of thought hanging around in my head, was able to create illusions of startling, even daunting clarity, even if I was the only one who could perceive them. She could sense the physical world through me - and she carried aeons of knowledge and experience. Her memory and eye for detail were almost entirely flawless.
So she created the illusion of the wall of Thomas's war room and put it over my own wall. It was even lit the same way as in my brother's apartment, every detail, I knew, entirely faithful to what had seen earlier that night.
I padded over to the wall and started checking it out more thoroughly. My brother's handwriting was all but unreadable, which made the notes he'd scribbled of dubious value in terms of actually enlightening me as to what was going on.
"My host - " Lasciel began.
I held up a hand for silence. "Not yet. Let me look at it unprejudiced first. Then you tell me what you think. "
"As you wish. "
I went over the stuff there for an hour or so, frowning. I had to go check a calendar a couple of times. I got out a notebook and scribbled things down as I worked them out. "All right," I said quietly, settling back down on the sofa. "Thomas was following several people. The dead women and at least a dozen more, in different parts of the city. He had a running surveillance on them. I think he probably hired a private detective or two to cover some of the observation - keeping tabs on where people were going, figuring out the recurring events in their schedules. " I held up the notebook. "These are the names of the folks he was" - I shrugged - "stalking, I suppose. My guess is that the other people on this list are among the missing folk the ladies of the Ordo Lebes told us about. "
"Think you Thomas preyed upon them?" Lasciel asked.
I started to deny it, instantly and firmly, but stopped.
Reason. Judgment. Rational thought.
"He could have," I said quietly. "But my instincts say it isn't him. "
"Why would it not be?" Lasciel asked me. "Upon what do you base your reasoning?"
"Upon Thomas," I said. "It isn't him. To engage in wholesaled murder and abduction? No way. Maybe he fell off the incubus wagon, sure, but he wouldn't inflict any more harm than he had to. it isn't his way. "
"Not his way by choice," Lasciel said. "Though I feel I must point out that - "
I cut her off, waving a hand. "I know. His sister could have gotten involved. She already ate Lord Raith's free will. She could have monkeyed around with Thomas's mind, too. And if not Lara, then there are plenty of others who might have done it. Thomas could be doing these things against his will. Hell, he might not even remember he's doing them. "
"Or he might be acting of his own volition. He has another point of weakness," Lasciel said.
"Lara Raith holds Justine. "
A point I hadn't yet considered. Justine was my brother's. . . well, I don't know if there's a word for what she was to him. But he loved her, and she him. It wasn't their fault that she was slightly insane and he was a life force-devouring creature of the night.
They'd been willing to give up their lives for each other in the midst of a crisis, and the love confirmed by doing so had rendered Justine deadly to my brother, poisonous to him. Love is like that to the White Court, an intolerable agony to them, the way holy water is to other breeds. Someone touched by pure and honest love cannot be fed upon - which had more or less put an end to Thomas's ability to be near Justine.
It was probably just as well. That last time they'd been together had all but killed Justine. The last time I'd seen her, she'd been a wasted, frail, white-haired thing barely capable of stringing sentences together. It had torn my brother apart to see what he had done to her. To my knowledge he hadn't even tried to be a part of her life again. I couldn't blame him.
Lara watched over Justine now, though she could not feed upon the girl any more than Thomas could.
But Lara could cut her throat, if it came to that.
My brother might very well be capable of some unpleasant things in the interests of protecting Justine. Strike that. He was capable of anything where the girl was concerned.
Means. Motive. Opportunity. The equation of murder was balanced.
I looked back at the illusory wall, where the pictures, maps, and notes grouped together in a broad band near the top, then descended into fewer notes on the next strip down, and so on, forming a vague V-shape. At the top of the V rested a single, square yellow sticky note.
That note read, in a heavy hand, Ordo Lebes? Find them.
"Dammit, Thomas," I murmured quietly. I addres
sed Lasciel. "Get rid of it. "
Lasciel nodded and the illusion disappeared. "There is something else you should know, my host. "
I eyed her. "What's that?"
"It may concern your safety and the course of your investigation. May I show you?"
The word no came strongly to mind, but I was already in for a penny, so to speak. Lasciel's wealth of intelligence and experience made her an extremely capable adviser. "Briefly. "
She nodded, rose, and suddenly I was standing in Anna Ash's apartment, as I had been that afternoon.
"My host," Lasciel said, "Remember you how many women you observed entering the building?"
I frowned. "Sure. As many as half a dozen had the right look, though anyone who arrived before Murphy and I got there could have already been inside. "
"Precisely," Lasciel said. "Here. "
She waved a hand, and an image of me appeared in the apartment's entry, Murphy at my side.
"Anna Ash," Lasciel said. She nodded toward me, and Anna's image appeared, facing me. "Can you describe the others in attendance?"
"Helen Beckitt," I said. "Looking leaner and more weathered than the last time I saw her. "
Beckitt's image appeared where she had been standing by the window.
I pointed at the wooden rocking chair. "Abby and Toto were there. " The plump blond woman and her dog appeared. I rubbed at my forehead. "Uh, two on the sofa and one on the love seat. "
Three shadowy forms appeared in the named places.
I pointed at the sofa. "The pretty one, in the dance leotard, the one worried about time. " She appeared. I pointed at the shadowed figure next to her. "Bitter, suspicious Priscilla who was not being polite. " The shadowy figure became Priscilla's image.
"And there you go," I said.
Lasciel shook her head, waved her hand, and the people images all vanished.
All except the shadowy figure sitting on the love seat.
"What can you remember about this one?" Lasciel asked me.
I racked my brain. It's usually good for this kind of thing. "Nothing," I said after a moment. "Not one damned detail. Nothing. " I added two and two together and got trouble. "Someone was under a veil. Someone good enough to make it subtle. Hard to tell it was there at all. Not invisible so much as extremely boring and unremarkable. "
"In your favor," Lasciel said, "I should point out that you had crossed the threshold uninvited, and thus were deprived of much of your power. In such a circumstance it would be most difficult for you to sense a veil at all, much less to pierce it. "
I nodded, frowning at the shadowy figure. "It was deliberate," I said. "Anna goaded me into walking over the threshold on purpose. She was hiding Miss Mystery from me. "
"Entirely possible," Lasciel concurred. "Or. . . "
"Or they didn't know someone was there, either," I said. "And if that's the case. . . " I tossed the notebook aside with a growl and rose.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
I got my staff and coat, and got Mouse ready to go. "If the mystery guest was news to the Ordo, she's right in among them and they could be in danger. If the Ordo knew about her, then they played me and lied to me. " I ripped open the door with more than my usual effort. "Either way, I'm going over there to straighten some things out. "