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Blood Rites, Page 5

Jim Butcher

Chapter 8~9

  Chapter Eight

  I tore the door open onto a room the size of my apartment, lined with freestanding mirrors, folding tables, and chairs. A cloud of foul energies slapped me in the face. Bobby stood off to my right, his expression registering surprise and confusion. To my left stood a woman in the corner of my vision, mostly naked. I didn't stop to goggle, but ran through the room to a second door. It was partly open and swinging closed again.

  I slammed through it into a bathroom as big as my bedroom, which I suppose isn't all that unusual. The air was hot, humid, and smelled like fresh soap. The shower was running, its glass door broken into jagged teeth. The floor was covered in more broken glass, a little water, and a lot of blood. Two rigid, motionless bodies lay on the floor.

  My instincts screamed a warning, and just before I stepped into the pool of bloodstained water, I threw myself into a jump. My shins hit heavily on the counter of the sink and I started to fall. I grabbed on to the faucet and hauled myself up. My shins hurt like hell, but I'd kept my feet off the floor. My brain caught up to my instincts, and I saw what was going on. The two people on the floor weren't motionless-they were locked into positions of rigid agony.

  Sparks leapt up in the back corner of the room. A heavy, high-voltage light fixture had broken loose from the ceiling and fallen, hauling exposed wiring to lie in the thin sheet of scarlet liquid on the floor.

  Like I said, I don't get along with technology when I'm trying to use it. But when I actually want to bust it up, I'm hell on wheels. I extended my right hand at the light fixture, snarled incoherently, and willed raw power over the electric menace like an invisible wrecking ball. The hex rippled through the air, and the live wires exploded into wild blue arcs of electricity for maybe two seconds.

  And then the lights went out.

  In the whole damn building.


  I heard a pair of gasps from whoever was on the floor, presumably Jake and someone named Giselle. I got out my pentacle amulet.

  "What's happening?" Bobby's voice sounded suspicious. Stars, what a dolt. "Hey, prick, what do you think you're doing?"

  "Where are the damned emergency lights?" said an annoyed female voice. A light flicked on in the dressing room, and Joan appeared at the bathroom door holding a pocket flashlight on her key chain. "What's going on?"

  "Call nine-one-one," I snapped. "Hurry, there's bleeding. "

  "You need a light," Joan said.

  "Got one. " I willed energy through the silver pentacle. It flickered and began to brighten with a steady blue glow that made the blood on the floor look black. "Hurry, and bring all the ice you can find with you when you come back. "

  Joan vanished from the door. She snarled, "Get out of the way, you blockhead," and her footsteps retreated back down the hall. I got off the sink, splashed into the water, and knelt beside the downed people.

  Jake, naked from the waist up, stirred as I did. "Ow," he said in a rough voice. "Ow. "

  "Are you all right?" I asked.

  He sat up, wobbling a little. "Never mind. Giselle, she must have slipped in the shower. I came in to help her. "

  I turned my attention to the girl. She was young and a little scrawny for my tastes, all long limbs and long hair. I rolled her onto her back. She had a cut running the length of her neck, curving from the base of her ear to above her collarbone. Blood shone on her skin, her mouth was partly open, and her dark eyes were glassy.

  "Crap," I said. I seized a towel from a large shelf of them and pressed it down hard on the girl's wound. "Jake, I need you. "

  He looked up a little blearily. "Is she dead?"

  "She will be if you don't help. Hold this down hard. Keep pressure on the wound. "

  "Okay. " He didn't look steady, but he clenched his jaw and did as I instructed. While I elevated her feet with a rolled towel, Jake said, "I can't feel a pulse. She isn't breathing. "

  "Dammit. " I tilted the girl's head back and made sure her mouth was clear. I sealed my mouth to hers and blew in hard. Then I drew back and put the heels of my hands near her sternum. I wasn't sure how hard to push. The practice dummy in the CPR class didn't have ribs to break. I guessed and hoped I got it right. Five pushes, then another breath. Five more, then another breath. The blue light from my amulet bobbed and waved about, making shadows lurch and shift.

  For the record, CPR is hard to do for very long. I made it for maybe six or seven minutes, and was getting too dizzy to see when Jake told me to switch off with him. We swapped jobs. Joan returned with a big steel bowl of shaved ice, and I had her fold it into another towel, which I then pressed down over the wound.

  "What are you doing?" Joan asked.

  "She's cut bad. If we get her heart started, she'll bleed out," I panted. "The cold will make the blood vessels constrict, slow down the bleeding. It might buy her some time. "

  "Oh, God," Joan muttered. "Poor thing. "

  I leaned down to peer at her face. The skin on the left side of her features and on her throat was covered in blotches of dark, angry red. "Look. Burns. "

  "From the electricity?" Joan asked.

  "Her face wasn't in the water," I said. I squinted between the girl and the shower. "The water," I said. "It turned hot on her. She got scalded and fell right through the damned glass. "

  Joan flinched as if she'd been stabbed with a knife, and her face turned grey. "Oh, my God. This is my fault. I hooked up the water heater myself. "

  "Jinxed," said Bobby from the dressing room. "This whole shoot is jinxed. We're screwed. "

  Joan was holding herself steady, but tears fell from off her chin onto the naked girl. I kept pressure on the injury. "I don't think this was your fault. I want you to get out front and show the paramedics in when they arrive. "

  Her face still ashen, she rose and took off without looking back. Jake kept up the mouth-to-mouth like he knew what he was doing. I was panting and holding the towel and ice against the wound when the paramedics finally showed up, carrying heavy-duty flashlights and rolling a wheeled stretcher between them.

  I told them what had happened to the girl and got out of their way, taking a seat on the corner of a counter that ran along a wall of makeup mirrors. Jake joined me a minute later. "Thought I felt her breathe," he panted, his tone subdued. We watched the paramedics work. "God, this is really terrible. What are the odds of all that happening? You know?"

  I frowned and closed my eyes, extending my senses into the room around me. Somewhere in the furor and panic, the choking cloud of destructive magic had dissipated. Barely a trace remained. With the crisis over and no action to occupy my mind, my hands started shaking and I saw a few stars in the corners of my vision. A phantom surge of panic sent my heart and breathing racing. I bowed my head and rubbed at the back of my neck, waiting for it to pass. The paramedics had some big old flashlights, so I put my amulet away, letting the blue light die out.

  "You all right?" Jake asked.

  "Will be in a minute. I hope she'll be okay. "

  Jake nodded, frowning. "Maybe Bobby's right. "

  "About a jinx?"

  "Maybe. " He studied me for a second, expression guarded. "How did you know?"

  "Know what?"

  "That we were in trouble. I mean, I thought you were in the studio. I ran in a couple of seconds after I heard her fall, and I was only a few feet away. You must have come through the door a couple of seconds after I did. How did you know?"

  "Just lucky. We finished the cameras and Joan took me up there to introduce me or something. "

  "What was that light you had?"

  I shrugged. "Present from a friend's kid. Some kind of fancy new thing the kids have. Light up jewelry for dance clubs and keggers. "

  "They call them raves now. "

  "Raves. Right. "

  Jake watched me for a moment and then slowly nodded his head. "Sorry. I'm being paranoid, I think. "

  "Been there
. No problem. "

  He nodded and slumped down tiredly. "I thought I was a dead man in there. Thank you. "

  It seemed smart to keep the wizard thing as low-key as possible. Someone was flinging some nasty energy around. No sense in advertising my identity as a wizard of the White Council. "I didn't do much but run in," I said. "We're just lucky the power went out. "

  "Yeah. "

  The paramedics stood up, loaded Giselle onto the stretcher, and picked it up. Jake and I both came to our feet as they did. "Is she going be okay?" he asked.

  The paramedics didn't slow down, but one of them said, "She's got a chance. " The man nodded to me. "Without the ice she wouldn't have had that. "

  Jake frowned and chewed on his lip, clearly upset. "Take care of her. "

  The paramedics started moving out with quick, steady steps. "Sir, you'd better come along with us to the hospital so that the doctors can check you out. "

  "I feel fine," Jake said.

  The paramedics went around the corner, but the second one called back, "Electricity can do some nasty damage you might not feel. Come on. "

  But Jake stayed where he was. The paramedics took their lights with them, leaving the dressing room in darkness for a moment, until Joan returned with her little flashlight. "Guffie, get your Bowflexed ass into that ambulance. "

  He looked up at his reflection in the mirrored wall. His hair was sticking up every which way. "Though I apparently see the same stylist as Einstein, the Bride of Frankenstein, and Don King, I feel fine. Don't worry about me. "

  "I thought you'd say that," she said. "Fine, I'll drive you there myself. Everyone else needs to leave until I can make sure the power lines aren't going to kill anyone. Bobby and Emma are already outside. Harry, be back here by three, all right?"

  "Why?" I asked.

  "To start shooting. "

  "Shooting," Jake blurted. "After that?"

  She grimaced. "The show must go on. Everyone out so I can lock up. Guffie, get in my car and don't argue with me. Arturo is meeting us at the hospital. "

  "Okay," Jake said. He didn't sound like he minded agreeing. "What about Bobby and Emma? They have a car?"

  "Don't think so. "

  Jake picked up his sports bag, dug in it, and tossed me a set of keys. "Here. Give those to Emma for me?"

  I caught them, and we all started out of the building. "Gotcha. "

  Joan sighed. "Maybe we are jinxed. It's like someone said Macbeth. "

  "What are the odds," Jake agreed.

  Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, fire bum and cauldron bubble. I didn't say anything to them, but I was pretty sure things would get worse before they got better.

  A whole lot worse.

  Chapter Nine

  We went outside. Joan and Jake spoke briefly with Bobby and the woman I presumed to be Emma. Then Joan chivvied Jake into a car and drove out in a hurry, leaving the stage open for me to do some more snooping. There wasn't any time to waste with lethal magic like that on the loose, and the keys gave me a good excuse to do some more sniffing around.

  I didn't hold out much hope that anything in Bobby the Bully's head would be important, so I focused on the woman and walked over to them. "Heya. I'm Harry. Production assistant. "

  "Emma," the woman said. She was actually very pretty. She had the kind of beauty that seemed to convey a sense of personal warmth, of kindness-a face best suited to smiling. Her eyes were shamrock green, her skin pale, her hair long and red, highlighted with streaks of sunny gold. She wore jeans with a black sweater, and made both of them look inviting-but she wasn't smiling. She offered me her hand. "I'm pleased to meet you. I'm glad you were there to help them. "

  "Anyone would have," I said.

  "Come on, Emma," Bobby said, his expression sullen. "Let's call a cab and go. "

  She ignored him. "I don't think I've seen you around before. "

  "No, I'm local. A friend introduced me to Arturo, told him I needed a job. "

  Emma pursed her lips and nodded. "He's a softie," she said. "In case no one's told you, this isn't an average day on the set. "

  "I'd hope not. I'm sorry about your friend. "

  Emma nodded. "Poor Giselle. I hope she'll be all right. She's from France-doesn't have any family. I couldn't see her from where I was standing. Was it her throat that was hurt?"

  "Yeah. "

  "Where? I mean, where was she hurt?"

  I drew a line on my own face, starting at the back corner of my jaw and curving around to beside my Adam's apple. "There. Back to front. "

  Emma shuddered visibly. "God, the scars. "

  "If she lives, I doubt she'll mind them. "

  "Like hell she won't," Emma said. "They'll show. No one will cast her. "

  "Could have been worse. "

  She eyed me. "You don't approve of her profession?"

  "I didn't say that. "

  "What, are you a religious type or something?"

  "No. I just-"

  "Because if you are, I'd like to tell you right now that I'm not, and I don't appreciate it when people pass judgment on my line of work. "

  "I'm not religious. I, uh-"

  "I get so tired of hypocritical bastards who. . . " She started to say something else, then made a visible effort and shut her mouth. "I'm sorry. I'm not usually oversensitive. Sometimes I just get sick of people telling me how bad my work is for me. How it corrupts my soul. That I should abandon it and give my life to God. "

  "You're not going to believe me," I said. "But I know exactly what you mean. "

  "You're right," she said. "I don't believe you. "

  Her belt chirped, and she drew a cell phone from its clip. "Yes?" She paused for a moment. "No. No, sweetheart. Mommy already told you before I left. If Gracie says you get one cookie, then you only get one cookie. She's the boss until Mommy comes home. " She listened for a moment, and then sighed. "I know, sweetie. I'm sorry. I'll be home soon. Okay? I love you too, sweetie. Kisses. Bye-bye. "

  "Kid?" I asked.

  She gave me half of a smile as she put the phone back onto her belt. "Two. Their grandmother is with them. "

  I frowned. "Wow. I never really thought about, uh, actresses with children. "

  "Not many do," she said.

  "Does, uh. . . does their father mind your career?"

  Her eyes flashed hotly. "He isn't involved with them. Or me. "

  "Oh," I said. I offered her the keys. "From Jake, for the car. Sorry if I offended you. I didn't mean to. "

  She exhaled, and it seemed let out the pressure of her anger. She accepted them. "Not your fault. I'm tense. "

  "Everyone around here seems to be," I said.

  "Yeah. It's this film. If it doesn't do well we're all going to be looking for work. "


  She shrugged a shoulder. "It's complicated. But we're all on contract with Silverlight. Arturo left them, but he had managed to slip something into his own contract with the studio that would let him continue hiring cast from Silverlight for three months after his departure. "

  "Oh," I said. "Jake said something about another movie. "

  She nodded. "Arturo wanted to do three of them. This is the second. If the movies go over well, Arturo will have a name for himself, and we'll have leverage to either quit contract with Silverlight or renegotiate better terms. "

  "I see," I said. "And if the movies crash, Silverlight will never pick up your contracts. "

  "Exactly. " She frowned. "And we've had so many problems. Now this. "

  "Come on, Emma," Bobby called. "I'm starving. Let's go find something. "

  "You should start practicing some self-restraint for a change. " The woman's green eyes flashed with irritated anger, but she smoothed it away from her face and said, "I'll see you here this afternoon then, Harry. Nice to meet you. "

  "Likewise. "

  She turned and glowered at Bobby as she walked to the car. They go
t in without speaking, Emma driving, and left the lot. I walked over to my car, pensive. Thomas and Arturo had been right. Someone had whipped out one hell of a nasty entropy curse-assuming that this wasn't a coincidental focus of destructive energy-the mystical equivalent of being struck with a bolt of lightning.

  Sometimes energy can build up due to any number of causes-massive amounts of emotion, traumatic events, even simple geography. That energy influences the world around us. It's what gives the Cubbies the home-field advantage (though that whole billy goat thing sort of cancels it out), leaves an intangible aura of dread around sights of tragic and violent events, and causes places to get a bad reputation for strange occurrences.

  I hadn't sensed any particular confluence of energies until just before the curse happened to Giselle and Jake, but that didn't entirely rule out coincidence. There is a whole spectrum of magical energies that are difficult to define or understand. There are thousands of names for them, in every culture-mana, psychic energy, totem, juju, chi, bioethereal power, the Force, the soul. It's an incredibly complex system of interweaving energy that influences good old Mother Earth around us, but it all boils down to a fairly simple concept: Shit happens.

  But then again, other people around Arturo had been hurt. I could buy that lightning could strike once-but if I hadn't interfered, it would have hit four times. Not much chance for coincidence there.

  No matter how much I might have wished it, the energy that had caused Giselle to slip into the glass door, the glass to break and cut her, and the lights to fall down and electrify the floor was not one of those natural hot spots of power. It had swirled past me like some vast and purposeful serpent, and it hadn't gone after the first person to cross its path. It had ignored me, Joan, Jake, Bobby, and Emma and gone into the shower after the girl.

  So Arturo was wrong about at least one thing. He wasn't the target of the malocchio.

  The women around him were.

  And that pissed me off. Call me a Neanderthal if you like, but I get real irrational about bad things happening to women. Human violence was at its most hideous when a woman was on the receiving end, and supernatural predators were even worse. That was why seeing Thomas entrance Justine had set me off. I knew the girl was willing, sure. I was pretty sure Thomas didn't want any harm to come to her. But the more primitive instincts in me only saw that she was a woman and Thomas had been preying upon her.

  No matter what the rational part of my head thinks, when I see someone hurt a woman my inner gigantopithicus wants to reach for the nearest bone and go Kubrickian on someone's head.

  I got into the car, frowning more deeply, and forced myself to calm down and think. I took deep breaths until I relaxed enough to start analyzing what I knew. The attacks had the feeling of vendetta to it. Someone had a grudge against Arturo and was deliberately striking women near him. Who would hold a grudge that vicious?

  A jealous woman, maybe. Especially since he was a man with three ex-wives.

  Madge was in business with Arturo, though. She didn't seem to me the sort who would jeopardize her fortunes with something so primitive and intangible as vengeful hatred. The most recent wife, Tricia, was in the same situation, though I hadn't yet met her. The other ex-wife, Lucille maybe, was not supposed to be in the picture. Could she be using magic to get a little payback?

  I shook my head and started my car. I'd been briefly exposed to an entropy curse once. It had been a lot more powerful than the malocchio that had nearly killed Jake and Giselle. I barely survived it-even with a hefty arsenal of magic and the sacrifice of a good man's life to divert the curse from me.

  I'd saved Jake and Giselle, but I'd been lucky. It could as easily have been me getting electrocuted in a pool of my own blood. I'd managed to mitigate the malocchio, barely, but there was nothing to say that it couldn't happen again. And it was more than possible that next time the lance of vicious magic would be aimed right at me.

  I started up the Blue Beetle and headed for my office, pondering on the road.

  I didn't have enough information to make a solid guess on a perpetrator. Maybe it would make more sense to examine the murder weapon, as it were, and determine how it was being used.

  Curses had the same sorts of limitation as any other spell, after all. Which meant that whoever was sending the Evil Eye had to have some sort of means of directing the magic at a target. Body parts worked best-a lock of hair, nail clippings, and fresh blood were the most common items used, but they weren't the only ones. A poppet, a little dolly dressed up like the intended victim, could also be used to aim a malevolent spell. I've heard you can even employ a good photo.

  But targeting the spell was only one part of the process. Before the killer could send it anywhere, he had to gather up the energy to make it happen. A curse that strong would require a whole lot of work, gathering and focusing raw magic in one place. And after that, the energy would have to be molded, shaped into its desired result. Even among the magically gifted, that kind of discipline was rare. Sure, any of the White Council could do that as a matter of routine, but the White Council didn't include everyone with magical skill. Most weren't talented enough to apply for an apprenticeship. And there were plenty of people who washed out and never made it through their schooling.

  Magic this powerful would be a dangerous business for someone new to the use of magic. Odds were good that this wasn't some petty, jealous whim of an arcane dabbler. Someone with a disturbing amount of ability was methodically committing murder.

  But why? Why kill women working for Arturo? What effect would it have? The people involved in his films were clearly very nervous. Maybe someone was attempting to spread terror, to cause Arturo's business venture to implode.

  Vengeance of some kind could be a motive, but after a moment's thought, I decided that greed opened up the field to more possibilities. Greed is a nice, sterile motivation. If the money's right, you don't need to know someone to take advantage of them. You don't have to hate them, or love them, or be related to them. You don't even have to know who they are. You just have to want money more than you want them to keep on breathing, and if history is any indicator, that isn't a terribly uncommon frame of mind.

  I parked in my building's lot and stomped up the stairway to my office. Who would gain by Arturo's ruin? Silverlight Studios. I nodded. That line of thought fit a lot better than some sort of demented vengeance kick. It was a good place to get started, and I had a couple of hours to put to use. With luck, I could dig up the information I would need to support (or demolish) the idea of a bad guy with dollar signs where his conscience should be.

  I opened my office door, but before I could go inside I felt something cold and hard press against the back of my neck: the barrel of a gun. My heart fluttered into sudden, startled panic.

  "Go into the office," said a quiet, rough voice, relaxed and masculine. "Don't make this any louder than it has to be. "