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Changes, Page 6

Jim Butcher

Chapter 14~16

  Chapter 14

  I came out of the doors of the FBI building to find a ring of paparazzi surrounding it, waiting with predatory patience to get more material for their stories. A couple of them saw me and hurried toward me, beginning to ask me questions, thrust microphones toward me, that sort of thing. I winced. I was still pretty tired, but it was going to play merry hell with their gear if I got too close to it.

  I looked around for a way to get down the sidewalks without messing up anybody's equipment, and that was when they tried to kill me.

  I'd been the target of a drive-by attempt once before. This one was considerably more professional than the first. There was no roar of engines to give me a warning, no wildly swerving vehicle. The only tip-off I had was a sudden prickling of the hairs on the back of my neck and a glimpse of a dark sedan's passenger window rolling down.

  Then something hit me in the left side of my chest and hammered me down onto the stairs. Stunned, I realized that someone was shooting at me. I could have rolled down the stairs and into the news crowd, put them between myself and the shooter, but I had no way of knowing whether the shooter wanted me bad enough to fire through a crowd in hopes of getting me. So I curled into a defensive ball and felt two more heavy blows land against me: one of them on my ribs, the second on my left arm, which I'd raised to cover my head.

  There was an exclamation from below, and then there were several people standing over me.

  "Hey, buddy," said a potbellied cameraman in a hunting jacket. He offered me a hand to help me up. "Nasty fall, there. You still in one piece?"

  I just stared at him for a second, the adrenaline coursing through me, and realized that the cameraman - all of the newsies, in fact - didn't even know what had just happened.

  It made a creepy kind of sense. I hadn't heard anything. The assassin must have been using a suppressor. There hadn't been any flashes, so he must have done it right, aiming at me through the car window while sitting far enough back to make sure the barrel of his gun didn't poke out suspiciously - and that he never became a highly visible target. I had helped, too, by denying the onlookers the subtle clue of a dead body with little holes in the front of it and big ones in the back. No sound, no sight, and no victim. Why should they think that murder had just been attempted?

  "Move!" I said, hauling myself up by the cameraman's paw. I struggled to get higher, to look over the crowd and get a plate off of the dark sedan. It didn't take much more than stepping around a couple of people and standing on tiptoe to get a view of the shooter's vehicle, cruising calmly away, without roaring engines, without crashing up onto the sidewalk or running red lights. It just vanished into the traffic like a shark disappearing into the depths. I never got a clear look at the plates.

  "Dammit," I growled. Pain was starting to register on me now, especially in my arm. The protective spells I'd woven over my duster had held out against the bullets, but the leather had been pulled pretty tight over my skin and as a result it felt like someone had smashed a baseball bat into my forearm. The fingers of my left hand were tingling and refused to do more than twitch. I felt similar throbs from the other two hits, and ran my hands over the duster, just to be sure none of them had gone through without my noticing.

  I found a bullet caught in the leather of my left sleeve. It hadn't penetrated more than maybe a quarter of an inch, but it was trapped in the leather and deformed from the impact. I pulled a handkerchief out of my pocket, wrapped the bullet in it, and put it back again, managing to do the whole thing unnoticed while about a dozen people looked at me like I was a lunatic.

  From the street came a wheezy little beep-beep! The Blue Beetle came slowly down the street and stopped in front of the building. Molly was behind the wheel, waving at me frantically.

  I hurried down to the street and got in before the mismatched color scheme of my car sent the obsessive-compulsive federal personnel in the building behind me into a conniption. As Molly pulled away, I buckled up, then got a sloppy kiss on the face from Mouse, who sat in the backseat, his tail going thump-thump-thump against the back of the driver's seat.

  "Ick!" I told him. "My lips touched dog lips! Get me some mouthwash! Get me some iodine!"

  His tail kept wagging and he smooched me again before settling down and looking content.

  I sagged back into my seat and closed my eyes.

  Maybe two minutes passed. "You're welcome," Molly said abruptly, her tone frustrated. "No problem, Harry. Whatever I can do to help. "

  "Sorry, padawan," I said. "This has been a long day already. "

  "I came back from the church and saw a bunch of guys and cops were going in and out of your apartment. The door was broken down and the whole place looked like it had been ransacked. " She shuddered and clenched the wheel. "God. I was sure you were dead or in trouble. "

  "You were about ninety percent right," I said. "Someone told the feds I was the one who blew up the office building. They wanted to talk to me. "

  Molly's eyes grew wide. "What about the Swords? We've got to tell my dad, right away, or - "

  "Relax," I said. "I stashed them. They should be safe for now. "

  Molly puffed out a breath and subsided in relief. "You look terrible," she said, after a minute. "Did they beat you up or something?"

  I swept my eyes left and right as we went on, searching. "Giant centipede. "

  "Oh," Molly said, drawing the word out, as though I had explained everything. "What are you looking for?"

  I'd been scanning the traffic around us for a dark sedan. I'd found about thirty of them so far, being a master detective and all. "The car of the guy who just shot at me. " I produced the bullet, a little copper-jacketed round more slender than my pinkie and a little under an inch long.

  "What is that?" Molly asked.

  "Two-twenty-three Remington," I said. "I think. Probably. "

  "What's that mean?"

  "That it could have been almost anybody. It's the round used in most NATO assault rifles. A lot of hunting rifles, too. " A thought struck me and I frowned at her. "Hey. How did you know where to find me?"

  "I let Mouse drive. "

  Thump, thump, thump.

  I was tired. It took my brain a second to sort out the humor in her tone. "It isn't funny when everyone does it, Molly. Not ready for the burden of constant wiseassery are you. "

  She grinned widely, evidently pleased at having scored the point on me. "I used a tracking spell and the hair you gave me in case I ever needed to find you. "

  Of course she had. "Oh, right. Well-done. "

  "Um," she said. "I'm not sure where we're driving. As far as I know, your apartment is still crawling with guys. "

  "Priorities, grasshopper. First things first. "

  She eyed me. "Burger King, huh?"

  "I'm starving," I said. "Then back to the apartment. They should be gone by the time we get there, and it's the only place where I'm sure Susan and Martin will be trying to make contact. "

  She frowned. "But . . . the wards are down. It's not safe there anymore. Is it?"

  "It never was," I said calmly. "If someone really wants to come kill you, it's hard to stop them. All you can do is make it expensive for them to try it, and hope that they decide the price is too high. "

  "Well, sure," Molly said. "But . . . without the wards, aren't you kind of having a super discount sale?"

  Kid had a point. Anyone who ever wanted to take a whack at me had a peachy opportunity now. Attention, shoppers! Discount specials on Harry Dresden's life. Slightly used, no refunds, limit one per customer. Shop smart. Shop S-Mart.

  I leaned my head against the window, closed my eyes, and said, "What'd Forthill tell you?"

  "What he always says. That he couldn't make any promises, but that he'd do whatever he could to help. He said to call him back in a few hours and he'd see what he could get from his peeps. "

  "Pretty sure that Roman Catholic priests
don't have peeps," I said gravely. "Too trendy and ephemeral. Like automobiles. And the printing press. "

  Molly didn't return fire against my comments, though I'd made them lightly. She was conflicted on the whole issue of the Church, which I thought was probably a fine state for her mind to be in. People who ask questions and think about their faith are the last ones to embrace dogma - and the last to abandon their path once they've set out on it. I felt fairly sure that the Almighty, whatever name tag He had on at the moment, could handle a few questions from people sincerely looking for answers. Hell, He might even like it.

  "Harry," she said. "We could talk to my father. "

  "No," I said in a calm and final tone. "That isn't even on the table. "

  "Maybe it should be. Maybe he could help you find Maggie. "

  I felt a sharp stab of anger and pain go through me - a vivid memory. Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Sword and unflagging friend, had gotten his body torn and beaten to bits trying to help me with one of my cases. Bearing a Sword melded to one of the nails of the Crucifixion, given him by an archangel, he had been a bulwark against very real, very literal forces of evil in the world. It was incredibly comforting to have him on your side. We'd waded into all kinds of ridiculously lethal situations together and come out of them again.

  Except that last time.

  He was retired now, and happy, walking only with the aid of a cane, out of the evil-smiting business and spending his time building houses and being with his family, the way he'd always wanted to. So long as he stayed retired, I gathered that he had a certain amount of immunity against the powers of supernatural evil. It would not surprise me at all if there were literally an angel standing over his shoulder at all times, ready to protect him and his family. Like the Secret Service, but with swords and wings and halos.

  "No," I said again. "He's out of the fight. He deserves to be. But if I ask for his help, he'll give it, and he'll have chosen to accept the consequences. Only he can't protect himself or your family from them anymore. "

  Molly took a very deep breath and then nodded, her worried eyes focused on the road. "Right," she said. "Okay. It's just . . . "


  "I'm used to him being there, I guess. Knowing that . . . if I need him, he's there to help. I guess I always had it in my head that if things ever went really, truly bad, he'd Show Up," she said, putting gentle emphasis on the last words.

  I didn't answer her. My father had died when I was young, before I learned that there was anything stronger than he was. I'd been operating without that kind of support for my whole life. Molly was only now realizing that, in some ways, she was on her own.

  I wondered if my daughter even knew that she had a father, if she knew that there was someone who wanted, desperately, to Show Up.

  "You get yourself an apartment and your plumbing goes bad, he'll still be there," I said quietly. "Some guy breaks your heart, he'll come over with ice cream. A lot of people never have a dad willing to do that stuff. Most of the time, it matters a hell of a lot more. "

  She blinked her eyes several times and nodded. "Yeah. But . . . "

  I got what she didn't say. But when you need someone to break down the door and commence kicking ass, you really need it. And Michael couldn't do that for his daughter anymore.

  "Tell you what, Molly," I said. "You ever need a rescue, I'll handle that part. Okay?"

  She looked at me, her eyes blurred with tears, and nodded several times. She clasped my hand with hers and squeezed tight. Then she turned her face back to the road and pressed down on the accelerator.

  We hit a drive-through and went on back to my apartment.

  At the top of the stairs that led down to my door, I felt myself starting to get angry. They'd hammered the door flat. There were some scuff marks on it, but not much more than that. Tough door. But the wooden frame around it was shattered. There would be no way to get the door mounted again without extensive repairs that were probably beyond my skill level.

  I stood there shaking with rage. It wasn't like I lived in an ivory tower or Bag End. It was just a dingy little hole in the ground. It wasn't much of a place, but it was the only home I had, and I was comfortable there.

  It was my home.

  And Rudolph and company had trashed it. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm down.

  Molly touched my shoulder for a second. "It's not so bad. I know a good Carpenter. "

  I sighed and nodded. I already knew that when all this was over, Michael would be Showing Up for me.

  "Just hope Mister will be back soon. Might have to board him somewhere until the door is fixed. " I started down the stairs. "I just hope that - "

  Mouse let out a sudden, deep growl.

  I had my blasting rod out and my shield up in less than two seconds. Mouse is not an alarmist. I've never heard him growl outside the presence of danger of one kind or another. I checked to my right, and saw no Molly standing there. The grasshopper had vanished from view even more quickly than I'd readied my defenses.

  I swallowed. I'd heard many variants on my dog's snarl. This one wasn't as threatening as it might have been - as it would be, in the presence of dark threats. His body posture was a balance of tension and relaxation, simple wariness rather than the fighting crouch he had exhibited before. He'd smelled something that he thought was extremely dangerous, but not necessarily something that had to be immediately attacked and destroyed.

  Slowly, I went down the steps, shield at the ready, my left hand extended before me, my fingers in a warding gesture, my thumb, pinkie, and index fingers stiff and spread wide apart, center fingers folded. My right hand held the blasting rod extended before me, seething scarlet power boiling out from the carved runes and the tendril of bright flame at its tip, simultaneously ready to destroy and lighting my way. Mouse came down the stairs with me, his shoulder against my right hip. His growl was a steady tone, like the engine of a well-tuned car.

  I came down the stairs and saw that there was a fire crackling in the fireplace. Between that and my blasting rod and the stray bits of afternoon sunlight, I could see fairly well.

  The FBI could have done worse to my apartment, I supposed. Books had been taken off my bookshelves, but at least they had been stacked in piles, more or less, rather than tossed on the floor. They'd moved my furniture around, including taking the cushions off, but they'd put them back. Incorrectly, but they were back. Similarly, my kitchen had been dismantled with a kind of cursory courtesy, but not destroyed.

  All of that was secondary in my mind, next to the pair of coffin-sized cocoons of what looked like green silk. One of the cocoons was stuck to my ceiling, the other to the wall beside the fireplace. Susan's face protruded from the second cocoon, sagging in something near unconsciousness, her dark hair hanging limply. On the ceiling, I could see only a man's mouth and part of his chin, but I was pretty sure it was Martin. They'd come back to my apartment, presumably after the feds left, and been captured.

  "Mouse," I murmured. "You smell any cordite?"

  The dog shook his head as if to shed it of water, and his tags jingled.

  "Me neither," I said. So. Whatever had been done to them, it had happened fast, before an extremely quick Susan or an extremely paranoid Martin could employ a weapon.

  One of my old recliners was faced away from the door. As I stepped across the threshold, it spun around (completely ignoring the fact that it was neither meant to spin nor mounted on any kind of mechanism that would make such a thing possible) and revealed, in firelight and shadow, an intruder and my cat.

  She was tall and beyond beautiful - like most of the Sidhe are. Her skin was fair and flawless, her eyes enormous, slightly oblique orbs of emerald green. In fact, they almost mirrored Mister's eyes as he sat primly in the Sidhe woman's lap. Her lips were full and very red, and her long red hair, accented with streaks of pure white, spilled down in silken coils and waves over her dress
of emerald green.

  When she saw me she smiled, widely, and it revealed neatly pointed canine teeth, both dainty and predatory. "Ah," she said warmly. "Harry. It's been such a long time since we've spoken. "

  I shivered and kept my blasting rod trained on the Sidhe woman. She was a faerie, and I'd learned, from long experience, that the folk of Faerie, Summer and Winter alike, were not to be underestimated. Only a fool would trust them - but on the other hand, only a madman would offend them. They set great store by the forms of courtesy, etiquette, and the relationship of guest to host. One flouted the proper forms at peril of . . . rather extreme reactions from the Sidhe, the lords of Faerie.

  So instead of opening up with fire and hoping I got in a sucker punch, I lowered my blasting rod, gave the Leanansidhe a precise, shallow bow without ever taking my eyes off of her, and said, "Indeed. It's been a while, Godmother. "

  Chapter 15

  "Aren't you pleased with me?" the Leanansidhe said. She gestured with one manicured hand to the two cocoons, then went back to caressing Mister. "I came upon these brigands ransacking your little cave and . . . What is the word?" Her smile widened. "I apprehended them. "

  "I see," I said.

  "As I understand mortal business," she said, "next there is a trial, followed by . . . What is the word mortal law uses for murder? Ah, an execution. " Her red-gold brows furrowed briefly. "Or is it execution and then trial?" She shrugged. "La. It seems largely a matter of semantics in any case. Harry, would you prefer to be the judge, the jury, or the executioner?"

  I . . . just stared.

  The last time I'd seen my faerie godmother, she had been ranting and raving in a couple of distinct personalities and voices while half-entombed in a sheet of ice at the heart of the Winter Court. Since I was sixteen, she'd pursued me relentlessly whenever I crossed into the Nevernever, apparently determined to transform me into one of her hounds.

  For crying out loud. Now she was all smiles and bubbles? Protecting my apartment? Offering to play courtroom with me, as if I were a child and Martin and Susan were a pair of dolls?

  "It isn't that I don't like to see you, Lea," I said. "But I can't help but wonder what it is you want. "

  "Merely to ensure the well-being of your spiritual self," she replied. "That is what a godmother is supposed to do, is it not?"

  "I was sort of hoping your answer would be a bit more specific. "

  She let out a musical laugh that rang like distant church bells over snow. "Sweet child. Have you learned nothing of the fae?"

  "Does anyone, ever?"

  Her slender fingers stroked Mister's fur. "Do you think it so impossible?"

  "Don't you think it is?"

  "In what way is my opinion relevant to the truth?"

  "Are we going to stand around here all day answering each other's questions with questions?"

  Her smile widened. "Would you like that?"

  I lifted a hand, capitulating.

  She inclined her head to me, a gracious victor. Lea was better at that sort of wordplay than me, having had several centuries to practice.

  Besides, losing to the guest with grace was a traditional courtesy, as well.

  "What I would like," I said, nodding toward the cocoons, "is for you to please release these two. They aren't robbers. They're guests. And this is, after all, my home. "

  "Of course, child," she said agreeably. "No harm done. " She snapped her fingers and the cocoons seemed to sublimate into a fine green mist that quickly dispersed. Susan fell limply from the wall, but I was waiting to catch her and lower her gently to the floor.

  Martin plummeted from the ceiling and landed on a threadbare throw rug covering the concrete floor. Nobody was there to catch him, which was awful. Just awful.

  I examined Susan quickly. She had no obvious wounds. She was breathing. She had a pulse. And that was pretty much the length and breadth of my medical knowledge. I checked Martin, too, but was disappointed. He was in the same condition as Susan.

  I looked up at my godmother. Mister was sprawled in her lap on his back, luxuriating as she traced her long nails over his chest and tummy. His purr throbbed continuously through the room. "What did you do to them?"

  "I lulled their predator spirit to sleep," she said calmly. "Poor lambs. They didn't realize how much strength they drew from it. Mayhap this will prove a useful lesson. "

  I frowned at that. "You mean . . . the vampire part of them?"

  "Of course. "

  I sat there for a moment, stunned.

  If the vampire infection within half vampires like Susan and Martin could be enchanted to sleep, then it was presumably possible to do other things to it as well. Suppress it, maybe permanently.

  It might even be possible to destroy it.

  I felt a door in my mind open upon a hope I had shut away a long time ago.

  Maybe I could save them both.

  "I . . . " I shook my head. "I searched for a way to . . . I spent more than a . . . " I shook my head harder. "I spent more than a year trying to find a way to . . . " I looked at my godmother. "How? How did you do it?"

  She looked back at me, her lips curled into something that wasn't precisely a smile. "Oh, sweet child. Information of that sort is treasure indeed. What have you to trade for such a precious gem of knowledge?"

  I clenched my teeth. "It's always about bargains with you, isn't it. "

  "Of course, child. But I always live up to my end. Hence, my protection of you. "

  "Protection?" I demanded. "You spent most of a couple of decades trying to turn me into a dog!"

  "Only when you strayed out of the mortal world," she said, as if baffled at why I would be upset. "Child, we had a bargain. And you had not willingly provided your portion of it. " She smiled widely at Mouse. "And dogs are so charming. "

  Mouse watched her with calm, wary eyes, his body motionless.

  I frowned. "But . . . you sold my debt to Mab. "

  "Precisely. At an excellent price, I might add. So now, all that remains twixt thou and I is your mother's bargain. Unless you would prefer to enter another compact, of course . . . "

  I shuddered. "No, thank you. " I finally lowered my shields. The Leanansidhe beamed at me. "I saw you in Mab's tower," I said.

  Something dark flickered through her emerald eyes, and she turned her face slightly away from me. "Indeed," she said quietly. "You saw what it means for my queen to heal an affliction. "

  "What affliction?"

  "A madness had beset me," she whispered. "Robbed me of myself. Treacherous gifts . . . " She shook her head. "I can think on it no more, lest it make me vulnerable once again. Suffice to say that I am much better now. " She stroked a fingertip over an icy white streak in her hair. "The strength of my queen prevailed, and my mind is mine own. "

  "Ensuring the well-being of my spiritual self," I murmured. Then I blinked. "The garden, the one on the other side of this place . . . It's yours. "

  "Indeed, child," she said. "Did you not think it strange that in your turmoil-strewn time here none of your foes - not one - ever sought to enter from the other side? Never sent a spirit given form directly into your bed, your shower, your refrigerator? Never poured a basket of asps into your closet so that they sought refuge in your shoes, your boots, the pockets of your clothing?" She shook her head. "Sweet, sweet child. Had you walked much farther, you would have seen the mound of bones of all the things that have attempted to reach you, and which I have destroyed. "

  "Yeah, well. I nearly wound up there myself. "

  "La," she said, smiling. "My guardians were created to attack any intruder - including one that looked like you. We couldn't have some clever shapeshifter slipping by, now, could we?" She sighed. "You took a terrible toll on my primroses. Honestly, child, there are elements other than fire, you know. You really ought to diversify. Now I have two gaping maws to feed instead of one. "

  "I'll . . . be more careful next ti
me," I said.

  "I should appreciate such a thing. " She studied me quietly. "It has been true for your entire lifetime, child. I have followed you in the spirit world. Created guardians and defenses 'pon the other side to ward your sleep, to stand sentinel over your home. And you still have only the beginnings of an idea of how many have tried. " She smiled, showing her delicately pointed canine teeth again. "Tried, and failed. "

  Which also explained how she was always near at hand whenever I had entered the Nevernever. How she would be upon my trail in seconds whenever I went in.

  Because she had been there, protecting me.

  From everything but herself.

  "Now, then," she said, her tone businesslike. "You left a considerable trove of equipment in my garden for safekeeping. "

  "It was an emergency. "

  "I had assumed that," she said. "I will, of course, safeguard it or return it, as you wish. And, should you perish, I will deliver it to an heir of your designation. "

  I let out a weary laugh. "You . . . Of course you will. " I eyed Mouse. "What do you think, boy?"

  Mouse looked at me, and then at Lea. Then he sat down - but still kept watching her carefully.

  "Yeah," I said. "I think that, too. "

  The Leanansidhe smiled widely. "It is good that you have taken my lessons to heart, child. It is a cold and uncaring universe we live in. Only with strength of body and mind can you hope to control your own fate. Be wary of everyone. Even your protector. "

  I sat there for a moment, thinking.

  My mother had prepared protection for me with considerable foresight. She had anticipated my eventually looking for and finding my half brother, Thomas. Had she prepared other things for me, as well? Things I hadn't yet guessed at?

  How would I pass on a legacy to my child if I knew that I wasn't going to be alive to see it happen? What kind of legacy did I have, other than a collection of magical gear that anyone could probably accumulate without help, in time?

  My only real treasure was knowledge.

  Ye gods and little fishes, but knowledge was a dangerous legacy. I imagined what might have happened if, at the age of fifteen, I had learned aspects of magic that had not come to me on their own until I was over thirty. It would have been like handing a child a cocked and loaded gun.

  A safety mechanism was needed - something that would prevent the child from attaining said store of knowledge until she was mature enough to handle it wisely. Something simple, but telling, for a child. A wizard child.

  I smiled. Something like being able to admit one's own ignorance. Expressed in the simplest possible form: asking a question. And, as I now knew, my mother had not been called "LeFay" for nothing.

  "Godmother," I asked calmly. "Did my mother leave anything for you to give me when I was ready for it? A book? A map?"

  Lea took a very slow, deep breath, her eyes luminous. "Well," she murmured. "Well, well, well. "

  "She did, didn't she. "

  "Yes, indeed. But I was told to give you fair warning. It is a deadly legacy. If you accept it, you accept what comes with it. "

  "Which is?" I asked.

  She shrugged a shoulder. "It varies from one individual to the next. Your mother lost the ability to sleep soundly. It might be worse for you. Or it might be nothing. "

  I thought about that for a moment, and then nodded. "I want it. "

  Lea never took her eyes off me. She lifted her empty palm, closed her fingers over it, and opened them again.

  A small, gleaming ruby, bright as a drop of blood, carved in a pentagon, lay in her hand.

  "It is the sum of her knowledge of the Ways," Lea said quietly. "Every path, every shortcut, every connection. She developed enough skill at searching them out that she was eventually able to predict them. Ways may change from decade to decade, but your mother knew where they were and where they would be. Very few of mine own kind can say as much. " She narrowed her eyes. "That knowledge is the burden I hold in my hand, child. Mine own belief is that it will destroy thee. The choice must needs be thine. "

  I stared at the gem for a long moment, forcing myself to breathe slowly. All the Ways. The ability to travel around the world without concern for geography. Knowledge like that could have won the war with the Red Court almost before it began. Whoever possessed that knowledge could regard laws with utter impunity, avoid retribution from mortal authorities or supernatural nations alike. Go anywhere. Escape from damned near anything. Gather more information than anyone else possibly could.

  Hell's bells. That gleaming little gem was a subtle strength that had the potential to be as potent as any I had seen. Such power.

  Such temptation.

  I wondered if I'd be able to handle it. I am not a saint.

  At the same time, I had never seen a tool so obviously intended to help a man Show Up for his little girl. No matter where she was, I could go to her. Go to her and get away clean.


  I reached out and took the gem from my godmother's hand.

  Chapter 16

  "Harry," Molly called from up in the living room. "I think they're waking up. "

  I grunted and lifted my pentacle necklace to examine it. The little pentagonal ruby had been quite obviously cut for this particular piece of jewelry. Or it had been before I'd been forced to use the necklace as a silver bullet. My little pentacle, the five-pointed star within a circle, had been warped by the extremes of stress I'd subjected it to. I'd been straightening it out with the set of jeweler's tools I used to update Little Chicago.

  The jewel abruptly snapped into the center of the pentacle as if into a socket. I shook the necklace several times, and the gem stayed put. But there was no point in taking chances. I turned it over and smeared the whole back with a big blob of adhesive. It might not look pretty from the front after it had dried, but I was pressed for time.

  "That'll do, pig," I muttered to myself. I looked up to Bob's shelf, where Mister was sprawling, using a couple of paperbacks for pillows while he amused himself dragging his claws through the mounded candle wax. I reached up to rub his ears with my fingertips, setting him to purring, and promised myself I would get Bob back soon: For the time being, he was, like the Swords, too valuable and too dangerous to leave unguarded. In Lea's bloodthirsty garden, they were probably safer than they had been in my apartment in the first place.

  I left my mother's amulet and the glittering ruby sitting on my worktable so that the glue could dry, and padded up the stepladder.

  I had hefted Susan up onto the sofa and fetched a pillow for her head, and a blanket. Molly had managed to roll Martin onto a strip of camping foam, and given him a pillow and a blanket, too. Mouse had settled down on the floor near Martin to sleep. Even though his eyes were closed and he was snoring slightly, his ears twitched at every sound.

  While I had been in the lab, Molly had been cleaning up. She probably knew where all the dishes went better than I did. Or she was reorganizing them completely. Either way, I was sure that the next time I just wanted to fry one egg, I wouldn't be able to find the little skillet until after I had already used the big skillet and cleaned it off.

  I hunkered down next to Susan, and as I did she stirred and muttered softly. Then she jerked in a swift breath through her nose, her eyes suddenly opening wide, as if she were panicked.

  "Easy," I said at once. "Susan. It's Harry. You're safe. "

  It seemed to take several seconds for my words to sink in. Then she relaxed again, blinked a few times, and turned her head toward me.

  "What happened to me?" she asked.

  "You were mistaken for an intruder," I said. "You were hit with a form of magic that made you sleep. "

  She frowned tiredly. "Oh. I was dreaming. . . . "


  "I was dreaming that the curse was gone. That I was human. " She shook her head with a bitter little smile. "I thought I was done having that one. Mart

  "Here," Martin slurred. "I'm all right. "

  "But maybe not for long," I said. "The apartment's wards are down. We're naked here. "

  "Well," Martin said in an acidic voice. "I think we learned our lesson about where that leads. "

  Susan rolled her eyes, but the look she gave me, a little hint of a smile and a level stare with her dark eyes, was positively smoldering.

  Yeah. That had been pretty good.

  "Did you guys find out about our tail?" I asked.

  "Tails, as it turns out. Three different local investigative agencies," Martin supplied. "They were paid cash up front to follow us from the time we arrived. They all gave a different description of the woman who hired them. All of them were too beautiful to believe. "

  "Arianna?" I asked.

  Martin grunted. "Probably. The oldest of them can wear any flesh mask they wish, and go abroad in daylight, hidden from the sun in the shadow of their own mask. "

  I lifted my eyebrows. That was news. I wasn't even sure the Wardens had that kind of information. Martin must have been a little groggy from his naptime.

  "How long were we out?" Susan asked.

  "I got here about five hours ago. Sun's down. "

  She closed her eyes for a moment, as if bracing herself for something, and nodded. "All right. Martin and I need to get moving. "

  "Where?" I asked.

  "The airport," Martin said. "We should be able to be in Nevada by very late tonight or early tomorrow morning. Then we can move on the warehouse and look for more information. "

  "We discussed it, Harry," Susan said quietly. "You can't take a plane, and we're counting the minutes. A jet will get us there in about seven hours. The car will take two days. There's no time for that. "

  "Yeah, I can see your reasoning," I said.

  Martin stood up creakily and stretched. "Entering the facility may require a reconnaissance period. We'll have to determine its weaknesses, patrol pacing, and so on before we - "

  I interrupted him by slapping a piece of notebook paper down on the coffee table. "The storage facility is set into the side of a stone hill. There are some portable units stored outside in a yard with a twelve-foot razor-wire fence. A road leads into the hill and down into what I presume to be caverns either created for storage space or appropriated after a mining operation closed. " I pointed at the notebook paper, to different points on the sketch, as I mentioned each significant feature.

  "There is a single watchtower with one guard armed with a longbarreled assault rifle with a big scope. There are two men and a dog walking a patrol around the perimeter fence with those little assault rifles - "

  "Carbines," Molly said brightly, from the kitchen.

  " - and fragmentation grenades. They aren't in a hurry. Takes them about twenty minutes; then they go inside for a drink and come back out. There are security cameras here, here, and here, and enough cars in the employee parking lot to make me think that the underground portion of the facility is probably pretty big, and probably has some kind of barracks for their security team. "

  I nodded. "That's about it on the surface, but there's no way we can get inside to scout it out ahead of time. Looks pretty straightforward. We move up to it under a veil; I shut down the communications. We use a distraction to draw everyone's attention, and when the reinforcements come running out, we're in. Hopefully we can find a way to lock them outside. After that, it's just a matter of . . . "

  I trailed off as I looked up to find Martin and Susan staring at me, their jaws kind of hanging limply.

  "What?" I said.

  "How . . . " Martin began.

  "Where . . . " Susan said.

  Molly burst out into a fit of giggles she didn't even try to hide.

  "How do I know?" I reached over to the table and held up an old set of binoculars I'd left sitting there. "I went over to take a look. Took me about fifteen minutes, one way. I could bring you, if you want, but it's cool if you guys want to take the plane. I'll wait for you. "

  Martin stared hard at me.

  "You . . . " Susan began, something like anger in her tone. Then she threw back her head and laughed. "You insufferable, arrogant pig," she said fondly. "I shouldn't have underestimated you. You don't always perform gracefully when everything is on the line - but you're always there, aren't you. "

  "I hope so," I said quietly. I stood up again. "Better eat something. I've got some things finishing up in the lab that might help us. We'll go in one hour. "