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Death Masks, Page 5

Jim Butcher

Chapter Five

  They don't make morgues with windows. In fact, if the geography allows for it, they hardly ever make morgues above the ground. I guess it's partly because it must be easier to refrigerate a bunch of coffin-sized chambers in a room insulated by the earth. But that can't be all there is to it. Under the earth means a lot more than relative altitude. It's where dead things fit. Graves are under the earth. So are Hell, Gehenna, Hades, and a dozen other reported afterlives.

  Maybe it says something about people. Maybe for us, under the earth is a subtle and profound statement. Maybe ground level provides us with a kind of symbolic boundary marker, an artificial construct that helps us remember that we are alive. Maybe it helps us push death's shadow back from our lives.

  I live in a basement apartment and like it. What does that say about me?

  Probably that I overanalyze things.

  "You look pensive," Murphy said. We walked down an empty hospital corridor toward the Cook County Morgue. We'd had to go the long way around so that I could avoid any areas with important medical equipment. My leather duster whispered around my legs as I walked. My blasting rod thumped against my leg rhythmically, where I'd tied it to the inside of the duster. I'd traded in my slacks for blue jeans and my dress shoes for hiking boots.

  Murphy didn't look like a monster-hunting Valkyrie. Murphy looked like someone's kid sister. She was five nothing, a hundred and nothing, and was built like an athlete, all springy muscle. Her blond hair hung down over her blue eyes, and was cut close in back. She wore nicer clothes than usual-a maroon blouse with a grey pantsuit-and she had on more makeup than was her habit. She looked every inch the professional businesswoman.

  That said, Murphy was a monster-hunting Valkyrie. She was the only person I'd ever heard of who had killed one with a chainsaw.

  "I said you look pensive, Harry," she repeated, a little louder.

  I shook my head and told Murphy, "I don't like hospitals. "

  She nodded. "Morgues spook me. Morgues and dogs. "

  "Dogs?" I asked.

  "Not like beagles or cocker spaniels or anything. Just big dogs. "

  I nodded. "I like dogs. They give Mister something to snack on. "

  Murphy gave me a smile. "I've seen you spooked. It doesn't make you look like that. "

  "What do I look like?" I asked.

  Murphy pursed her lips, as though considering her words. "You look worried. And frustrated. And guilty. You know, romance things. "

  I gave her a wry glance, and then nodded. "Susan's in town. "

  Murphy whistled. "Wow. She's - okay?"

  "Yeah. As much as she can be. "

  "Then why do you look like you just swallowed something that was still wriggling?"

  I shrugged. "She's in town to quit her job. And she was with someone. "

  "A guy?" Murphy asked.

  "Yeah. "

  She frowned. "With him, or with him?"

  I shook my head. "Just with him, I think. I don't know. "

  "She's quitting her job?"

  "Guess so. We're going to talk, I think. "

  "She said so?"

  "Said she'd get in touch and we'd talk. "

  Murphy's eyes narrowed, and she said, "Ah. One of those. "

  "Eh?" I said, and eyed her.

  She lifted her hands, palms out. "None of my business. "

  "Hell's bells, Murph. "

  She sighed and didn't look up at me, and didn't speak for a few steps. Finally she said, "You don't set up a guy for a good talk, Harry. "

  I stared at her profile, and then scowled down at my feet for a while. No one said anything.

  We got to the morgue. Murphy pushed a button on the wall and said, "It's Murphy," at a speaker next to the door. A second later, the door buzzed and clicked. I swung open the door and held it for Murphy. She gave me an even look before she went through. Murphy does not respond well to chivalry.

  The morgue was like others I'd seen, cold, clean, and brightly lit with fluorescent lights. Metal refrigerator doors lined one wall. An occupied autopsy table sat in the middle of the room, and a white sheet covered its subject. A rolling medical cart sat next to the autopsy table, another by a cheap office-furniture desk.

  Polka music, heavy on accordion and clarinet, oom-pahed cheerfully through the room from a little stereo on the desk. At the desk sat a small man with a wild shock of black hair. He was dressed in medical scrubs and green bunny slippers, complete with floppy ears. He had a pen clenched in one hand, and scribbled furiously at a stack of forms.

  When we came in, he held up a hand toward us, and finished his scribbling with a flourish, before hopping up with a broad smile. "Karrin!" he said. "Wow, you're looking nice tonight. What's the occasion?"

  "Municipal brass are tromping around," Murphy said. "So we're all supposed to wear our Sunday clothes and smile a lot. "

  "Bastards," the little guy said cheerfully. He shot me a glance. "You aren't supposed to be spending money on psychic consultants, either, I bet. You must be Harry Dresden. "

  "That's what it says on my underwear," I agreed.

  He grinned. "Great coat, love it. "

  "Harry," Murphy said, "this is Waldo Butters. Assistant medical examiner. "

  Butters shook my hand, then turned to walk to the autopsy table. He snapped on some rubber gloves and a surgical mask. "Pleased to meet you, Mister Dresden," he said over his shoulder. "Seems like every time you're working with SI my job gets really interesting. "

  Murphy chucked me on the arm with one fist, and followed Butters. I followed her.

  "Masks on that tray to your left. Stay a couple of feet back from the table, and for God's sake, don't throw up on my floor. " We put on masks and Butters threw back the sheet.

  I'd seen corpses before. Hell's bells, I'd created some. I'd seen what was left of people who had been burned alive, savaged to death by animals, and who had died when their hearts exploded out of their chests, courtesy of black magic.

  But I hadn't ever seen anything quite like this. I shoved the thought to the back of my head, and tried to focus purely upon taking in details. It wouldn't do to think too much, looking at this. Thinking too much would lead me to messing up Butters's floor.

  The victim had been a man, maybe a little over six feet tall, thin build. His chest looked like twenty pounds of raw hamburger. Fine grid marks stretched vertically from his collarbones to his belly, and horizontally across the width of his body. The cuts were spaced maybe a sixteenth of an inch apart, and the grid pattern slashed into the flesh looked nearly flawless. The cuts were deep ones, and I had the unsettling impression that I could have brushed my hand across the surface of that ruined body and sent chunks of flesh pattering to the floor. The Y-incision of the autopsy had been closed, at least. Its lines marred the precision of the grid of incisions.

  The next thing I noticed were the corpse's arms. Or rather, the missing bits of them. His left arm had been hacked off two or three inches above the wrist. The flesh around it gaped, and a shard of black-crusted bone poked out from it. His right arm had been severed just beneath the elbow, with similar hideous results.

  My belly twitched and I felt myself taking one of those prevomit breaths. I closed my eyes for a second and forced the impending reaction down. Don't think, Harry. Look. See what there is to see. That isn't a man anymore. It's just a shell. Throwing up won't bring him back.

  I opened my eyes again, tore my gaze from his mutilated chest and hands, and forced myself to study the corpse's features.

  I couldn't.

  His head had been hacked off, too.

  I stared at the ragged stump of his neck. The head just wasn't there. Even though that's where heads go. Ditto his hands. A man should have a head. Should have hands. They shouldn't simply be gone.

  The impression it left on me was unsettling-simply and profoundly wrong. Inside me, some little voice started screaming and running away. I
stared down at the corpse, my stomach threatening insurrection again. I stared at his missing head, but aloud all I said was, "Gee. Wonder what killed him. "

  "What didn't kill him," Butters said. "I can tell you this much. It wasn't blood loss. "

  I frowned at Butters. "What do you mean?"

  Butters lifted one of the corpse's arms and pointed down at dark mottling in the dead grey flesh, just where the corpse's back met the table. "See that?" he asked. "Lividity. If this guy had bled out, from his wrists or his neck either one, I don't think there'd be enough blood left in the body to show this much. His heart would have just kept on pumping it out of his body until he died. "

  I grunted. "If not one of the wounds, then what was it?"

  "My guess?" Butters said. "Plague. "

  I blinked and looked at him.

  "Plague," he said again. "Or more accurately plagues. His insides looked like models for a textbook on infection. Not all the tests have come back yet, but so far every one I've done has returned positive. Everything from bubonic plague to strep throat. And there are symptoms I've found in him that don't match any disease I've ever heard of. "

  "You're telling me he died of disease?" I asked.

  "Diseases. Plural. And get this. I think one of them was smallpox. "

  "I thought smallpox was extinct," Murphy said.

  "Pretty much. They have some in vaults, probably some in some bioweapon research facilities, but that's it. "

  I stared at Butters for a second. "And we're standing here next to his plague-ridden body why?"

  "Relax," Butters said. "The really nasty stuff wasn't airborne. I disinfected the corpse pretty well. Wear your mask and don't touch it, you should be fine. "

  "What about the smallpox?" I said.

  Butters's voice turned wry. "You're vaccinated. "

  "This is dangerous, though, isn't it? Having the body out like this?"

  "Yeah," Butters said, his voice frank. "But County is full, and the only thing that's going to happen if I report an occurrence of free-range smallpox is another evaluation. "

  Murphy shot me a warning look and stepped a very little bit between me and Butters. "You got a time of death?"

  Butters shrugged. "Maybe forty-eight hours ago, tops. All of those diseases seemed to sprout up at exactly the same time. I make cause of death as either shock or a massive failure and necrosis of several major organs, plus tissue damage from an outrageously high fever. It's anyone's guess as to which one gets the blue ribbon. Lungs, kidneys, heart, liver, spleen-"

  "We get the point," Murphy said.

  "Let me finish. It's like every disease the guy had ever had contact with all got together and planned when to hit him. It just isn't possible. He probably had more germs in him than blood cells. "

  I frowned. "And then someone Ginsued him after he died?"

  Butters nodded. "Partly. Though the cuts on his chest weren't postmortem. They had filled with blood. Tortured before he died, maybe. "

  "Ugh," I said. "Why?"

  Murphy regarded the corpse without any emotion showing in her cool blue eyes. "Whoever cut him up must have taken the arms and hands to make it hard to identify him after he died. That's the only logical reason I can think of. "

  "Same here," said Butters.

  I frowned down at the table. "Why prevent identification of the corpse if it had died of disease?" Butters began to lower the arm slowly and I saw something as he did. "Wait, hold it. "

  He looked up at me. I pressed closer to the table and had Butters lift the arm again. I had almost missed it against the rotted tone of the dead man's flesh-a tattoo, maybe an inch square, located on the inside of the corpse's biceps. It wasn't fancy. Faded green ink in the shape of a symbolic open eye, not too different from the CBS network logo.

  "See there?" I asked. Murphy and Butters peered at the tattoo.

  "Do you recognize it, Harry?" Murphy asked.

  I shook my head. "Almost looks old Egyptian, but with fewer lines. Hey, Butters, do you have a piece of paper?"

  "Better," Butters said. He got an old instant camera off the bottom tray of one of the medical carts, and snapped several shots of the tattoo. He passed one of them over to Murphy, who waved it around a little while the image developed. I got another.

  "Okay," I said, thinking out loud. "Guy dies of a zillion diseases he somehow contracted all at once. How long do you think it took?"

  Butters shrugged. "No idea. I mean, the odds against him getting all of those at once like that are beyond astronomical. "

  "Days?" I asked.

  "If I had to guess," Butters said, "I'd say more like hours. Maybe less. "

  "Okay," I said. "And during those hours, someone uses a knife on him and turns his chest into tuna cubes. Then when they're done, they take his hands and his head and dump the body. Where was it found?"

  "Under an overpass on the expressway," Murphy said. "Like this, naked. "

  I shook my head. "SI got handed this one?"

  Murphy's face flickered with annoyance. "Yeah. Homicide dumped it on us to take some high-profile case all the municipal folk are hot about. "

  I took a step back from the corpse, frowning, putting things together. I figured odds were pretty good that there weren't all that many people running around the world torturing victims by carving their skin into graph paper before murdering them. At least I hoped there weren't all that many.

  Murphy peered at me, her expression serious. "What. Harry, do you know something?"

  I glanced from Murphy to Butters and then back again.

  Butters raised both his hands and headed for the doors, stripping his gloves and dumping them in a container splattered with red biohazard signs. "You guys stay here and Mulder it out. I have to go down the hall anyway. Back in five minutes. "

  I watched him go and said, after the door swung shut, "Bunny slippers and polka music. "

  "Don't knock it," Murphy said. "He's good at his job. Maybe too good. "

  "What's that mean?"

  She walked away from the autopsy table, and I followed her. Murphy said, "Butters was the one who handled the bodies after the fire at the Velvet Room. "

  The one I'd started. "Oh?"

  "Mmm- hmm. His original report stated that some of the remains recovered from the scene were humanoid, but definitely not human. "

  "Yeah," I said. "Red vampires. "

  Murphy nodded. "But you can't just stick that in a report without people getting their panties in a bunch. Butters wound up doing a three-month stint at a mental hospital for observation. When he came out, they tried to fire him, but his lawyer convinced them that they couldn't. So instead he lost all his seniority and got stuck on the night shift. But he knows there's weirdness out there. He calls me when he gets some of it. "

  "Seems nice enough. Except for the polka. "

  Murphy smiled again and said, "What do you know?"

  "Nothing I can tell you," I said. "I agreed to keep the information confidential. "

  Murphy peered up at me for a moment. Once upon a time, that comment might have sent her into a fit of stubborn confrontation. But I guess tunes had changed. "All right," she said. "Are you holding back anything that might get someone hurt?"

  I shook my head. "It's too early to tell. "

  Murphy nodded, her lips pressed together. She appeared to weigh things for a moment before saying, "You know what you're doing. "

  "Thanks. "

  She shrugged. "I expect you to tell me if it turns into something I should know. "

  "Okay," I said, staring at her profile. Murphy had done something I knew she didn't do very often. She'd extended her trust. I'd expected her to threaten and demand. I could have handled that. This was almost worse. Guilt gnawed on my insides. I'd agreed not to divulge anything, but I hated doing that to Murphy. She'd gone out on a limb for me too many times.

  But what if I didn't tell her anything? What if I ju
st pointed her toward information she'd find sooner or later in any case?

  "Look, Murph. I specifically agreed to confidentiality for this client. But - if I were going to talk to you, I'd tell you to check out the murder of a Frenchman named LaRouche with Interpol. "

  Murphy blinked and then looked up at me. "Interpol?"

  I nodded. "If I were going to talk. "

  "Right," she said. "If you'd said anything. You tight-lipped bastard. "

  One corner of my mouth tugged up into a grin. "Meanwhile, I'll see if I can't find out anything about that tattoo. "

  She nodded. "You figure we're dealing with another sorcerer type?"

  I shrugged. "Maybe. But if you give someone a disease with magic, it's usually so that you make it look like they haven't been murdered. Natural causes. This kind of mishmash - I don't know. Maybe it's something a demon would do. "

  "A real demon? Like Exorcist demon?"

  I shook my head. "Those are the Fallen. The former angels. Not the same thing. "

  "Why not?"

  "Demons are just intelligent beings from somewhere in the Nevernever. Mostly they don't care about the mortal world, if they notice it at all. The ones who do are usually the hungry types, or the mean types that someone calls up to do thug work. Like that thing Leonid Kravos had called up. "

  Murphy shivered. "I remember. And the Fallen?"

  "They're very interested in our world. But they aren't free to act, like demons are. "

  "Why not?"

  I shrugged. "Depends on who you talk to. I've heard everything from advanced magical resonance theory to 'because God said so. ' One of the Fallen couldn't do this unless it had permission to. "

  "Right. And how many people would give permission to be infected and then tortured to death," Murphy said.

  "Yeah, exactly. "

  She shook her head. "Going to be a busy week. Half a dozen professional hitters for the outfit are in town. The county morgue is doing double business. City Hall is telling us to bend over backward for some bigwig from Europe or somewhere. And now some kind of plague monster is leaving unidentifiable, mutilated corpses on the side of the road. "

  "That's why they pay you the big bucks, Murph. "

  Murphy snorted. Butters came back in, and I made my good-byes. My eyes were getting heavy and I had aches in places where I hadn't known I had places. Sleep sounded like a great idea, and with so many things going on, the smart option was to get lots of rest in order to be as capably paranoid as possible.

  I walked the long route back out of the hospital, but found a hall blocked by a patient on some kind of life-support machinery being moved on a gurney from one room to another. I wound up heading out through the empty cafeteria, into an alley not far from the emergency room exit.

  A cold chill started at the base of my spine and slithered up over my neck. I stopped and looked around me, reaching for my blasting rod. I extended my magical senses as best I could, tasting the air to see what had given me the shivers.

  I found nothing, and the eerie sensation eased away. I started down the alley, toward a parking garage half a block from the hospital, and tried to look in every direction at once as I went. I passed a little old homeless man, hobbling along heavily on a thick wooden cane. A while farther on, I passed a tall young black man, dressed in an old overcoat and tattered and too-small suit, clutching an open bottle of vodka in one heavy-knuckled hand. He glowered at me, and I moved on past him. Chicago nightlife.

  I kept on moving toward my car, and heard footsteps growing closer, behind me. I told myself not to be too jumpy. Maybe it was just some other frightened, endangered, paranoid, sleep-deprived consultant who had been called to the morgue in the middle of the night.

  Okay. Maybe not.

  The steady tread of the footsteps behind me shifted, becoming louder and unsteady. I spun to face the person following me, raising the blasting rod in my right hand as I did.

  I turned around in time to see a bear, a freaking grizzly bear, fall to all four feet and charge. I had already begun preparing a magical strike with the rod, and the tip burst into incandescent light. Shadows fell harshly back from the scarlet fire of the rod, and I saw the details of the thing coming at me.

  It wasn't a bear. Not unless a bear can have six legs and a pair of curling ram's horns wrapping around the sides of its head. Not unless bears can somehow get an extra pair of eyes, right over the first set, one pair glowing with faint orange light and one with green. Not unless bears have started getting luminous tattoos of swirling runes on their foreheads and started sprouting twin rows of serrated, slime-coated teeth.

  It came charging toward me, several hundred pounds of angry-looking monster, and I did the only thing any reasonable wizard could have done.

  I turned around and ran like hell.