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Changes, Page 7

Jim Butcher

Chapter 17~18

  Chapter 17

  We rolled out in fifty-five minutes.

  The Blue Beetle was full, but we weren't going more than a half dozen blocks. The entry into the proper Way was in an alleyway behind a brownstone apartment building in a fairly typical Chicago neighborhood. It was getting late, so there wasn't much traffic, and Mouse ghosted along behind us, staying mostly in the shadows and easily keeping pace with the car.

  Which speaks to my dog's mightiness, and not to my car's wimpiness. Seriously.

  Molly pulled up to the mouth of the alley and stopped. She looked nervously around as we unloaded from the car. I gave Susan a hand out of the tiny backseat, and then held the door open as Mouse jumped up into the passenger seat.

  I ruffled his ears and leaned down to speak to Molly. "Go get coffee or something. Give us about an hour, an hour and a half tops. We'll be back by then. "

  "What if you aren't?" Molly asked. She reached one hand over to Mouse in an unconscious gesture, burying her fingers in his fur. "What do I do then?"

  "If we don't show up by then, go on back home to your folks' place. I'll contact you there. "

  "But what if - "

  "Molly," I said firmly. "You can't plan for everything or you never get started in the first place. Get a move on. And don't take any lip from the dog. He's been uppity lately. "

  "Okay, Harry," she said, still unhappily. She pulled out into the street again, and Mouse turned his head to watch us as she drove away.

  "Poor kid," Susan said. "She doesn't like being left behind. "

  I grunted. "That kid's got enough power to take all three of us down if she caught us off guard," I said. "Her strength isn't an issue. "

  "I'm not talking about that, obviously. "

  I grunted. "What do you mean?"

  Susan frowned at me briefly, and then her eyebrows rose. "Dear God. You don't realize it. "

  "Realize what?"

  She shook her head, one corner of her mouth crooked into the same smile I remembered so well. It made my heart twitch, if such a thing is possible. "Molly has it bad for you, Harry. "

  I frowned. "No, she doesn't. We settled that early on. Isn't happening. "

  Susan shrugged a shoulder. "Maybe you settled it, but she didn't. She's in love. "

  "Is not," I said, scowling. "She goes on dates and stuff. "

  "I said she was in love. Not dead. " Her expression went neutral. "Or half-dead. " She stared after the vanished car for a moment and said, "Can I share something with you that I've learned in the past few years?"

  "I guess. "

  She turned to me, her expression sober. "Life is too short, Harry. And there's nowhere near enough joy in it. If you find it, grab it. Before it's gone. "

  It cost Susan something to say that. She hid it well, but not as well as I knew her. Giving breath to those thoughts had caused her very real pain. I was going to disagree again, but hesitated. Then I said, "I never stopped loving you. Never wanted you to be gone. "

  She turned a little away from me, letting her hair fall across her face as a curtain. Then she swallowed thickly and said, her voice trembling slightly, "Same here. Doesn't mean we get to be together. "

  "No," I said. "I guess not. "

  She suddenly balled her fists and straightened her spine. "I can't do this. Not right now. We've got to focus. I . . . " She shook her head and started walking. She went to the end of the block, to stand there taking deep, slow breaths.

  I glanced at Martin, who stood leaning against the wall of a building, his expression, of course, bland.

  "What?" I snapped at him.

  "You think what you're feeling about your daughter is rage, Dresden. It isn't. " He jerked his chin at Susan. "That is. She knew the Mendozas, the foster parents, and loved them like family. She walked into their house and found them. She found their children. The vampires had quite literally torn them limb from limb. One of the Mendozas' four children was three years old. Two were near Maggie's age. "

  I said nothing. My imagination showed me terrible pictures.

  "It took us half an hour to find all the pieces," Martin continued calmly. "We had to put them back together like a jigsaw puzzle. And the whole time, the blood thirst was driving us both mad. Despite the fact that she knew those people. Despite her terror for her daughter. Imagine that for a moment. Imagine Susan standing there, filled with the urge to rip into the bloody limb with her teeth, even though she knew that little dismembered leg might have been her daughter's. Picture that. "

  At that point, I didn't think I could avoid it.

  "It was only when the puzzle was finished that we realized that Maggie had been taken," Martin continued, his words steady and polite. "She's barely holding on. If she loses control, people are going to die. She might be one of them. " Martin's eyes went hard and absolutely cold. "So I would take it as a fucking courtesy if you wouldn't torture her by stirring up her emotions five minutes before we kick down the door of a high-security facility. "

  I looked over my shoulder at Susan. She was still facing away from us, but she was in the act of briskly pulling her hair back into a tail.

  "I didn't know," I said.

  "In this situation, your emotions are liabilities," Martin said. "They won't help Rodriguez. They won't help the little girl. I suggest you postpone indulging them until this is all over. "

  "Until what is all over?" Susan asked, returning.

  "Uh, the trip," I said, turning to lead them into the alley. "It won't take us long - about thirty seconds of walking down a level hallway. But it's dark and you have to hold your breath and nose the whole way. "

  "Why?" Susan asked.

  "It's full of methane gas and carbon monoxide, among others. If you use a light source, you run the risk of setting off an explosion. "

  Susan's eyebrows rose. "What about your amulet?"

  I shook my head. "The light from that is actually . . . Glah, it's more complicated than you need to know. Suffice it to say that I feel there would be a very, very small possibility that it might make the atmosphere explode. Like those static electricity warnings at the gas stations. Why take the chance?"

  "Ah," Susan said. "You want us to walk blind through a tunnel filled with poisonous gases that could explode at the smallest spark. "

  "Yeah. "

  "And . . . you're sure this is a good idea?"

  "It's a terrible idea," I said. "But it's the fastest way to the storage facility. " I lifted my fingertips to touch the red stone on my amulet as I neared the location of the Way. It was an old, bricked-over doorway into the ground level of the apartment building.

  A voice with no apparent source began to speak quietly - a woman's voice, throaty and calm. My mother's voice. She died shortly after my birth, but I was certain, as sure as I had been of anything in my life: It was her voice. It made me feel warm, listening to it, like an old, favorite piece of music that you haven't heard for years.

  "The hallway on the other side is full of dangerous levels of methane and carbon monoxide, among other gases. The mixture appears to be volatile, and in the other side you can never be sure exactly which energies might or might not trigger an explosion. Forty-two walking steps to the far end, which opens on a ridge outside Corwin, Nevada. " There was a moment of silence, and then the same voice began to speak again, panting, shaking, and out of breath. "Notation: The hallway is not entirely abandoned. Something tried to grab me as I came through. " She coughed several times. "Notation secundus: Don't wear a dress the next time you need to go to Corwin, dummy. Some farmer's going to get a show. "

  "Maybe it was a grue," I murmured, smiling.

  "What did you say?" Susan asked.

  "Nothing," I said. "Never mind. " I put a hand on the doorway and immediately felt a kind of yielding elasticity beneath my fingertips. The separation between the world of flesh and spirit was weak here. I took a deep breath, laid out a fairly mild effort of
will, and murmured, "Aparturum. "

  A circle of blackness began to expand from the center of my palm beneath my hand, rapidly swelling, overlaying the wall itself. I didn't let it get too big. The gate would close on its own, eventually, but smaller gates closed more quickly, and I didn't want some poor fool going through it.

  Present company excluded, of course.

  I glanced back to Susan and Martin. "Susan, grab on to my coat. Martin, you grab hers. Take a deep breath and let's get this done fast and quiet. "

  I turned to the Way, took a deep breath, and then strode forward.

  Mom's gem hadn't mentioned that it was flipping hot in there. When I'd stepped into the hallway on the first trip, I felt like I was inside about three saunas, nested together like those Russian dolls. I found the righthand wall and started walking, counting my steps. I made them a bit shorter than normal, and nailed the length of Mom's stride more accurately this time. I hit the Way out at forty-three.

  Another effort of will and a whispered word, and I opened that gate as well, emerging into a cold mountain wind, and late twilight. Susan and Martin came out with me, and we all spent a moment letting out our pent-up breaths. We were in desert mountains, covered with tough, stringy plants and quick, quiet beasts. The gate behind me, another circle, stood in the air in front of what looked like the entrance to an old mine that had been bricked over a long time ago.

  "Which way?" Martin said.

  "Half mile this way," I said, and set out overland.

  It was an awfully good hidey-hole, I had to admit. We were out so far in the desert hills that the commute to nowhere was a long one. The facilities had been cut into a granite shelf at the end of a box canyon. There was a single road in, and the floor of the canyon was wide and flat and empty of any significant features, like friendly rocks that one might try to take cover behind. The walls of the canyon had been blasted sheer. No one was coming down that way without a hundred yards of rope or a helicopter.

  Or a wizard.

  "All right," I said. The night was growing cold. My breath steamed in the air as I spoke. "Take these. Drink half of 'em. Save the rest. " I passed out test tubes filled with light blue liquid to Martin and Susan.

  "What is it?" Susan asked.

  "A parachute," I said. "Technically a flight potion but I watered it down. It should get us to the valley floor safely. "

  Martin eyed his tube, and then me.

  "Harry," Susan began. "The last time I drank one of your potions, it became . . . awkward. "

  I rolled my eyes. "Drop into a roll at the end. " Then I drank away half of my potion and stepped off the edge of the cliff.

  Flight is a difficult thing for a wizard to pull off. Everyone's magic works a little differently, and that means that, when it comes to flying, the only way to manage it is by trial and error. And, since flying generally means moving very quickly, a long way above the ground, would-be aeromancers tended to cut their careers (and lives) short at the first error.

  Flying is hard - but falling is easy.

  I dropped down, accelerating for a second, then maintaining a pace of somewhere around fifteen miles an hour. It didn't take long to hit the desert floor, and I dropped into a roll to spread out the impact energy. I stood up, dusting myself off. Susan and Martin landed nearby and also rose.

  "Nice," Susan said. She bounced up in the air experimentally, and smiled when her descent was slowed. "Very cool. Then we drink more to climb out?"

  "Should make that slope a piece of cake," I said. "But we'll need to move fast. Potion will last us maybe twenty minutes. "

  Susan nodded, adjusting the straps on the small pack she wore. "Got it. "

  "Get close to me," I said. "I can't veil all three of us unless we're all within arm's reach. "

  They did, and after a few seconds of focus and concentration, I brought up a veil around us that should hide us from view and disperse our heat signature as well. It wouldn't be perfect. We'd still show up on a night-vision scope, to one degree or another. I was counting on the fact that men guarding a building that isolated could not possibly deal with problems on a regular basis. They'd have a very comfortable, reliable routine, which was exactly the sort of thing to take the edge off a sentry's wariness. That's just human nature.

  I beckoned, and the three of us began approaching the facility. There was no fluttering from shadow to shadow, or camouflage face paint. The veiling spell took care of that. We just walked over the uneven ground and focused on staying close together. That part may have been more fun if Martin weren't there.

  We got to within thirty yards of the fence, and I paused. I lifted my staff, pointed it at the first sentry camera, and whispered, "Hexus. "

  I wasn't used to holding something as demanding as a veil in one hand while performing another working with the other - even such an easy spell as a technology hex. For a second, I thought I'd lose the veil, but then it stabilized again. The lights on the camera had gone out.

  We moved around the perimeter while I hexed the other two cameras into useless junk, but just as I'd taken down camera number three, Susan gripped my arm and pointed. The foot patrol was moving by on their sweep.

  "The dog will get our scent," Susan said.

  Martin drew a short pistol from beneath his jacket, and screwed a silencer to its end.

  "No," I half growled. I fished in the pocket of my duster and found the second potion I'd made while preparing for the trip. It was in a delicate, round globe of glass about as thick as a piece of paper. I flipped the globe toward the path of the oncoming dog and heard it break with a little crackle.

  The two patrolmen and the dog went by the area where I'd left my surprise, and the dog snuffled the new scent with thorough interest. At a jerk of the lead, the dog hurried to catch up to the guards, and all three of them went by without so much as glancing at us.

  "Dog'll have his senses of smell and hearing back in the morning," I murmured. "These guys are just doing a job. We aren't going to kill them for that. "

  Martin looked nonplussed. He kept the pistol in his hand.

  We circled around to where the fence met the canyon wall, opposite the large parking lot. Susan got out a pair of wire cutters. She opened them and prepared to cut through when Martin snatched her wrist, preventing her from touching the fence. "Electricity," he whispered. "Dresden. "

  I grunted. Now that he'd pointed it out, I thought I could feel it, too - the almost inaudible hum of current on the move, making the hairs on my arms stand up. Hexing something with a microchip in it is simple. Impeding the flow of electricity through a conductive material is considerably more difficult. I pitched my best hex at the wiring where it connected to a power line and was rewarded with the sudden scent of burned rubber. Martin reached out and touched the fence with the back of his hand. No electricity burned him.

  "All right," Susan whispered, as she began clipping us a way in, cutting a wire only when the gusting wind reached a crescendo and covered the sound of the clippers at work, then waiting for the next gust. "Where's that distraction?"

  I winked at her, lifted my blasting rod, thrust it between links of fence in front of us, and aimed carefully. Then I checked the tower guard, to be sure he was looking away, and whispered, "Fuego, fuego, fuego, fuego. "

  Tiny spheres of sullen red light flickered out across the compound and into the parking lot opposite. My aim had been good. The little spheres hissed and melted their way through the rear quarter panel of several vehicles and burned on into the fuel tanks beneath.

  The results were predictable. A gas tank explosion isn't as loud as an actual bomb going off, but when you're standing a few yards away from it, it could be hard to tell. There were several hollow booming sounds, and light blazed up from the cars that had been hit as flames roared up and consumed them.

  The guard in the tower started screaming into a radio, but apparently could get no reply. No surprise. The second c
amera had been positioned atop his tower, and the hex that took it out probably got his radio, too. While he was busy, Susan, Martin, and I slipped through the opening in the fence and made our way into the shadows at the base of one of the portable storage units.

  A car, parked between two flaming vehicles, went up with another whump of ignition, and it got even brighter. A few seconds later, red lights started to flash at several points around the facility, and a warning klaxon began to sound. The giant metal door to the interior of the facility began to roll upward, just like a garage door.

  The two patrollers and their temporarily handi-capable German shepherd came running out first, and were followed, in a moment, by nearly a dozen other guys in the same uniforms, or at least in portions of them. It looked like some of them had hopped out of bed and tossed on whatever they could reach. Several were dragging fire extinguishers, as if they were going to be useful against fires that large. Good luck with that, boys.

  The moment the last of them was past our position and staring agog at the burning automobiles, I hurried forward, putting everything I had into the veil, trusting that Martin and Susan would stay close. They did. We went through the big garage door and down a long ramp into the facility.

  "Go ahead," Martin said. He hurried to a control panel on the wall and whipped out some kind of multitool. "I'll shut the door. "

  "As long as we can get it open on the way out," I muttered.

  "Yes, Dresden," Martin said crisply. "I'd been doing this for sixty years before you were born. "

  "Better drop the invisibility thing, Harry," Susan said. "What we're looking for might be on a computer, so . . . "

  "So I'll hold off on the magic until we know. Got it. "

  We went deeper into the facility. The caves ran very deep back into the stone, and we'd gone down maybe a hundred yards after moving about four hundred yards forward on a spiraling ramp. The air grew colder, to the ambient underground average.

  More than that, though, it gained a definite spiritual chill. Malevolent energy hovered around us, slow and thick like half- frozen honey. There was a gloating, miserly quality to it, bringing to my mind images of old Smaug lying in covetous slumber upon his bed of treasure. That, then, was the reason the Red Court had hidden its dark treasures here. Ambient energy like this wasn't directly dangerous to anyone - but with only the mildest of efforts it would protect and preserve the magical implements jealously against the passing of time.

  The ramp opened up into a larger area that reminded me of the interior corridors of a sports stadium. Three doors faced us. One was hanging slightly open, and read, QUARTERS. The other was shut and read, ADMINISTRATION.

  The last, a large steel vault door, was labeled, STORAGE. A concrete loading dock with its edges painted in yellow and black caution stripes stretched before us, doubtless at just the right height to make use of the large transport van parked nearby.

  Oh, and there were two guards standing in front of the vault door with some hostile-looking black shotguns.

  Susan didn't hesitate. She blurred forward with nearly supernatural speed, and one of the guards was down before he realized he was in a fight. The other had already spun toward me with his weapon and opened fire. In his rush to shoot, he hadn't aimed. People make a big thing about shotguns hitting absolutely everything you point them at, but it ain't so. It still takes considerable skill to use a shotgun well under pressure, and in his panic the guard didn't have it. Pellets buzzed around me like angry wasps as I took three swift steps to my left and threw myself through the open barracks door, carrying me out of his line of fire.

  From outside, there was a crack of something hard, maybe the butt of a gun hitting a skull, and Susan said, "Clear. "

  I came out of the emptied barracks nonchalantly. The two guards lay unconscious at Susan's feet. "God, I'm good," I said.

  Susan nodded, and tossed both guns away from the unconscious men. "Best distraction ever. "

  I went to her and eyed the door. "How we getting through that?"

  "We aren't," she said. She produced a small kit of locksmith tools and went to the administration door, ignoring the vault completely. "We don't need their treasures. We just need the receipts. "

  I'd learned a little bit about how to tickle a lock, but Susan had obviously learned more. Enough so that she took one look at the lock, pulled a lock gun from her kit, and went through it damned near as fast as if she'd had a key. She swung the door open and said, "Wait here. And don't break anything. "

  I put my hands behind my back and tried to look righteous. A smile lit her face, fast and fierce, and she vanished into the office.

  I walked over to the barracks. My guns had been riding with the rest of my contraband when it got buried in Lea's garden, and I didn't like going unarmed on general principles. Magic is pretty damned cool when things get rowdy, but there are times when there's no replacing a firearm. They are excellent, if specialized, tools.

  Two seconds of looking around showed me a couple of possibilities, and I picked up a big semiautomatic and a couple of loaded clips. I tucked them into a pocket of the duster. Then I picked up the assault rifle from its rack and found that two spare magazines were being held in this socklike device that went over the rifle's stock.

  Rifles weren't my forte, but I knew enough to check the chamber and see that no round was in it. I made sure the safety was on and slung the assault rifle over my shoulder on its nylon-weave strap. Then I went back over to administration and waited outside.

  Susan was cursing in streaks of blue and purple and vermilion inside. She appeared a moment later and spat, "Nothing. Someone was here first. They erased everything related to the shipment less than three hours ago. "

  "What about the paper copy?" I asked.

  "Harry," Susan said. "Have you ever heard of the paperless office?"

  "Yeah," I said. "It's like Bigfoot. Someone says he knows someone who saw him, but you don't ever actually see him yourself. " I paused. "Though I suppose I actually have seen Bigfoot, and he seems like a decent guy, but the metaphor still stands. Remember who owns this place. You think someone like the duchess is a computer whiz? Trust me. You get to be over a couple of hundred years old, you get copies of everything in triplicate. "

  Susan arched an eyebrow and nodded. "Okay. Come on, then. "

  We went in and ransacked the office. There were plenty of files, but we had the identification number of the shipment of magical artifacts (000937, if it matters), and it was possible to flick through them very rapidly. We came up all zeroes, again. Whoever had covered up the back trail had done it well.

  "Dammit," Susan said quietly. Her voice shook.

  "Easy," I said. "Easy. We aren't out of options yet. "

  "This was the only lead we had," she said.

  I touched her arm briefly and said, "Trust me. "

  She smiled at me a little. I could see the strain in her eyes.

  "Come on," I said. "Let's get out of here before the cavalry arrives. Oh, here. " I passed her the assault rifle.

  "That's thoughtful of you," she said, smiling more widely. Her hands went over the weapon, checking the chamber as I had, only a lot more smoothly and quickly. "I didn't get you anything. "

  I turned and eyed the moving van, then went back to its cargo doors. "Here. Open this door for me?"

  She got out her tools and did it in less time than it took to say it.

  There were several long boxes in the van, standing vertically, and I realized after a moment that they were garment boxes. I opened one up and . . .

  And found a long, mantled cloak made from some kind of white and green feathers, hanging from a little crossbar in the top of the garment box. It was heavy, easily weighing more than fifty pounds. I found a stick studded with chips of razor-sharp obsidian in there, too, its handle carved with pictographs. I couldn't read this particular form of writing very well, but I recognized it - and recognized that
it was no ancient artifact, either. It had been carved in the past few decades.

  "This is Mayan ceremonial costume," I murmured, frowning. "Why is it loaded up on the next truck out . . . ?"

  The answer jumped at me. I turned to Susan and we traded a look that conveyed her comprehension as well. She went to the front of the van and popped it open. She started grabbing things, shoving them into a nylon gym bag that she had apparently found in the truck.

  "What did you get?" I asked.

  "Later, no time," she said.

  We hurried back up the ramp to Martin.

  The big door looked like it was having a tug-of-war with itself. It would shudder and groan and try to rise, and then Martin would do something with a pair of wires in the dismantled control panel and it would slam down again. I saw guards trying to stick their guns beneath the door for a quick shot, but they wound up being driven back by Martin's silenced pistol.

  "Finally," Martin said as we came up to him. "They're about to get through. "

  "Damn," I said. "I figured they'd be firefighting longer than that. " I looked around the barren tunnel. I was tired and shaking. If I were fresh, I would have no trouble with the idea of slugging it out with a bunch of guys with machine guns - provided they were all in front of me. But I was tired, and then some. The slightest wavering in concentration, and a shield would become porous and flexible. I'd be likely to take a bunch of bullets. The duster might handle most of them, but not forever, and I wasn't wearing it over my head.

  "Plan B," I said. "Okay, right. We need a plan B. If we only had a wheelbarrow, that would be something. "

  Susan let out a puff of laughter, and then I turned to her, my eyes alight.

  "We have a great big truck," Susan said.

  "Then why didn't you list that among our assets?" I said, in a bad British accent. "Go!"

  Susan vanished back down the tunnel, moving scary-fast.

  "Martin," I said. "Get behind me!"

  He did, as I lifted my left arm and brought up a purely physical shield, and within five or six seconds, the door had lifted two feet off the ground and a couple of prone shooters opened up on the first thing they saw - me.

  I held the shield against the bullets as the door continued to rise, and they exploded into concentric circles of light spread across the front of the shield's otherwise invisible surface. The strain of holding the shield grew as more of the guards opened fire. I saw one poor fellow take a ricochet in the belly and go down, but I didn't have the time or the attention to spare to feel sorry for him. I ground my teeth and hung on to the shield as the guards kept a constant pressure on it.

  Then there was a roar of large engines and Susan drove the cargo truck forward like some kind of berserk bison, charging the group of guards blocking the road out.

  Men screamed and sprinted, trying to avoid the truck. They made it. I didn't need Martin to tell me to move, as the truck slammed into a turn, throwing its rear end in a deadly, skidding arch. We both sprinted for it in the confusion and flung ourselves up into the cargo compartment, which Susan had thoughtfully left open.

  One of the more alert guards tried the same trick, but Martin saw him coming, aimed the little pistol, and shot him in the leg. The man screamed and fell down as the truck picked up speed. Susan stomped the pedal flat, and metal and razor wire screamed as she drove through a section of the fencing and out onto the open valley floor. She immediately turned it toward our escape point, and the truck began to bounce and rattle as it raced away from the facility.

  After that, it was simple.

  We went back to our ascension point, drank our watered-down flying potions, and bounded up the rocky face of the valley wall like mountain goats. Or possibly squirrels. Either way, it made the eighty-degree incline feel about as difficult to handle as a long stairway.

  "Harry," Susan said, panting, as we reached the top. "Would you burn that truck for me?"

  "My pleasure," I said, and dealt with the cargo truck the same way I had the cars in the parking lot. Thirty seconds later, it huffed out its own explosion, and Susan stood there nodding.

  "Okay," she said. "Good. Hopefully that makes it harder for them to do whatever they're going to do. "

  "What did you find?" Martin asked.

  "Mayan ceremonial gear," I said. "Not focus items, but the other stuff. The props. They were on the truck to be shipped out next. "

  Susan rustled in the nylon bag and held up a sheet of paper. "Bill of lading," she said. "Shipment number 000938. The next outgoing package after the original shipment, and it was initiated two days after the focus items went out. "

  Martin narrowed his eyes, thinking. "If it was going to the same place as the first shipment . . . "

  "It means that we can make a pretty good guess that wherever it's going, it's within two days' drive," I said. "That gives the vampires time enough to get the first shipment, realize that some things got left out, and call in a second shipment to bring in the missing articles. "

  Martin nodded. "So? Where are they?"

  Susan was going through the contents of the bag she'd appropriated. "Mexico," she said. She held up a U. S. passport, presumably falsified, since most people don't tote their passports around in manila envelopes, along with a wallet full of new-looking Mexican cash. "They were planning on taking those cloaks and things to Mexico. "

  I grunted and started walking back to the Way. Martin and Susan fell in behind me.

  "Harry? Will destroying that gear ruin what they're doing?"

  "It'll inconvenience them," I said quietly. "Not much more than that.

  The actual magic doesn't need the costumes. It's the people performing it who need them. So any replacement sixty-pound cloak of parrot feathers will do - and if they want it badly enough, they can do the ritual even without replacing them. "

  "They'll know who was here," Martin said. "Too many men saw us. Interior cameras might have gotten something, too. "

  "Good," I said. "I want them to know. I want them to know that their safe places aren't safe. "

  Susan made a growling sound that seemed to indicate agreement.

  Even Martin's mouth turned up into a chilly little smile. "So other than somewhat discomfiting the sleep of some of the Red Court, what did we actually accomplish here?"

  "We know where they're going to do their ritual," Susan said.

  I nodded. "Mexico. "

  "Well," Martin said. "I suppose it's a start. "

  Chapter 18

  Mrs. Spunkelcrief was a fantastic landlady. She lived on the ground floor of the old house. She rarely left her home, was mostly deaf, and generally didn't poke her nose into my business as long as my rent check came in - which it pretty much always did, these days, on time or a bit early.

  A small army of crazy-strong zombies had assaulted my home without waking her up, probably because they'd had the grace to do it after her bedtime, which was just after sundown. But I guess the visit from the cops and the FBI had been even louder than that, because as Molly pulled the Blue Beetle into the little gravel parking lot, I saw her coming up the stairs from my apartment, one at a time, leaning heavily on her cane. She wore a soft blue nightgown and a shawl to ward against the October chill in the night, and her bright blue eyes flicked around alertly.

  "There you are," she said irritably. "I've been calling your house all evening, Harry. "

  "Sorry, Mrs. S," I said. "I've been out. "

  I don't think she could make out the words very well, but she wasn't stupid. "Obviously you've been out," she said. "What happened to your nice new door? It's wide-open! If we get another one of those freak thunderstorms, the rain will pour right in and we'll have mold climbing up the walls before you can say Jack Robinson. "

  I spread my hands and talked as loudly as I could without actually shouting. "There was a mix-up with the police. "

  "No," she said, "the lease is quite clear. You are responsibl
e for any damages inflicted on the apartment while you are a tenant. "

  I sighed and nodded. "I'll fix it tomorrow. "

  "Oh, not so much sorrow as surprise, Harry. You're a good boy, generally. " She peered from me to Molly, Susan, and Martin. "Most of the time. And you help out so when the weather is bad. "

  I smiled at her in what I hoped was an apologetic fashion. "I'll take care of the door, ma'am. "

  "Good," she said. "I thought you would. I'll come check in a few days. " Mouse emerged from the darkness, not even breathing very hard from running to keep up with the Beetle. He immediately went over to Mrs. Spunkelcrief, sat, and offered her his right paw to shake. She was so tiny and the dog so large that she hardly had to bend down to grip his paw. She beamed broadly at Mouse, shook, and then patted his head fondly. "You can tell a lot about a man from how he treats his dog," she said.

  Mouse walked over to me, sat down panting happily, and leaned his shoulders against my hip affectionately, all but knocking me down.

  Mrs. Spunkelcrief nodded, satisfied, and turned to walk away. Then she paused, muttered something to herself, and turned back around again. She dug into her robe's pocket and produced a white envelope. "I almost forgot. This was lying on your stairs, boy. "

  I took it from her with a polite nod. "Thank you, ma'am. "

  "Welcome. " She shivered and wrapped her shawl a little more tightly around her. "What is the world coming to? People breaking down doors. "

  I shot a glance at Molly, who nodded and immediately went to Mrs. Spunkelcrief's side, offering an arm for support. My landlady beamed up at her, saying, "Bless you, child. My cane arm got tired on the way down. " Molly began helping her back up the little ramp to her apartment's front door.

  Mouse immediately went to the bottom of the stairs, his nose questing. Then he turned back to me, tail fanning the air gently. No surprises lurked in my apartment. I went on down into it, waving the candles and fireplace to life with a murmur and a gesture, tearing open the envelope as I went to the fireplace to open it.

  Inside was a piece of folded paper and another, smaller envelope, upon which was written, in Luccio's flowing writing, READ ME FIRST. I did:

  If you are receiving this letter, it is because someone has rendered me unable to contact you. You must presume that I have been taken out of play entirely.

  The bearer of this note is the person I trust the most among every Warden stationed at Edinburgh. I cannot know the particulars of my neutralization, but you can trust his description implicitly, and I have found his judgment to be uncommonly sound in subjective matters.

  Good luck, Harry.


  I stared at the note for a moment. Then I unfolded the second piece of paper, very slowly. This one was written in blocky letters so precise that they almost resembled a printed font, rather than handwriting:

  Hullo, Dresden.

  Luccio wnted me to bring this note to you in the event something happened to her. No idea what her note says, but I'm to give you whatever information I can.

  I'm afraid it isn't good news. The Council seems to have gone quite mad.

  After your appearance at Cristos's grandstand, a number of ugly things happened. Several young Wardens were caught debating amongst themselves about whether or not they should simply destroy the duchess in Edinburgh to ensure that the war continued - after all, they reasoned, the vampires wouldn't be suing for peace if they could still fight. On Cristos's orders, they were arrested and detained by older members of the Council, none of whom were Wardens, in order to Prevent Them from Destabilizing Diplomatic Deliberations.

  Ramirez heard about what had happened and I suspect you can guess that his Spanish-by-way-of-America reaction was more passionate than rational. He and a few friends, only one of whom had any real intelligence, hammered their way into the wing where the Wardens were being detained - at which point every single one of them (except for the genius, naturally) was captured and similarly imprisoned.

  It's quiet desperation here. No one can seem to locate anyone on the Senior Council except Cristos, who is quite busily trying to Save Us from Ourselves by sucking up to Duchess Arianna. The Wardens' chain of command is a smashing disaster at the moment. Captain Luccio went to Cristos to demand the release of her people and is, at this time, missing, as are perhaps forty percent of the seniormost Wardens.

  She asked me to tell you, Dresden, that you should not return to Edinburgh under any circumstances until the Senior Council sorts this mess out. She isn't sure what would happen to you.

  She also wanted me to tell you that you were On Your Own.

  I will send dispatches to you as events unfold - assuming I don't Vanish, too.


  PS - Why, yes, I can in fact capitalize any words I desire. The language is English. I am English. Therefore mine is the opinion which matters, colonial heathen.

  I read over the letter again, more slowly. Then I sat down on the fireplace mantel and swallowed hard.

  "Steed" was an appellation I'd stuck on Warden Chandler, who was a fixture of security in Edinburgh, one of the White Council's home guards, and, once I had thought upon it, one of the guys who I'd always seen operating near Anastasia and in positions of trust: Standing as the sole sentinel at a post that normally required half a dozen. Brewing the Wardens and their captain their tea.

  He and I had been the only ones present at the conversation where I'd tacked that nickname on him, thanks to the natty suit and bowler he'd been wearing, and the umbrella he'd accessorized - or maybe it was accessorised, in England - with, so the signature itself served as his bona fides. The flippant tone was very like Chandler, as well. I also knew Anastasia's handwriting, and besides, the paper on which her letter was written was scented with one of the very gentle, very subtle perfumes she preferred.

  The message was as legitimate as it was likely to get, under the circumstances.

  Which meant we were in real trouble.

  The White Council carried a fearsome reputation not simply because of its capability of engaging in direct action against an enemy, but because it wielded a great deal of economic power. I mean, it doesn't take a genius to get rich after two hundred and fifty years of compounded interest and open trading. There was an entire brigade of economic warriors for the White Council who constantly sought ways to protect the Council's investments against hostile economic interests sponsored by other long-lived beings, like vampires. Money like that could buy a lot of influence. Not only that, but the Council could make the world a miserable place for someone who had earned their displeasure, in about a million ways, without ever throwing magic directly at someone. There were people in the Council who could play dirty with the most fiendish minds in history.

  Taken as a whole, it seemed like a colossus, an institution as fixed and unmoving as a vast and ancient tree, filled with life, with strength, its roots sunk deep into the earth, a survivor of the worst storms the world had offered it.

  But all of it, the power, the money, the influence, revolved around a critical core concept - every member of the White Council acted in concert. Or at least, that was the face that was supposed to be presented to the outside world. And it was mostly true. We might squabble and double-deal one another in peacetime, but when there was an enemy at hand we closed ranks. Hell, they'd even done that with me, and most of the Council thought that I was the next-best thing to Darth Vader. But at the end of the day, I think a lot of them secretly liked the idea of having Vader on the team when the monsters showed up. They didn't love me, never would, and I didn't need them to love me to fight beside them. When things got hairy, the Council moved together.

  Except now we weren't doing it.

  I looked at the folded letter in my hands and had the sudden, instinctive impression that I was watching an enormous tree begin to fall. Slowly at first, made to seem so by its sheer size - but falling nonetheless, to the ruin of anything shelter
ed beneath its boughs.

  I was pretty tired, which probably explained why I didn't have any particular emotional reaction to that line of thought. It should have scared the hell out of me for a laundry list of reasons. But it didn't.

  Susan came over to stand near me. "Harry. What is it?"

  I stared at the fire. "The White Council can't help us find Maggie," I said quietly. "There are things happening. They'll be of no use to us. "

  After all they had wrongly inflicted upon me, after all the times I had risked my neck for them, when I needed them, truly needed their help, they were not there.

  I watched my hands crush the letters and envelopes without telling them to do it. I threw them into the fire and glowered as they burned. I didn't notice that the fire in the fireplace had risen to triple its normal height until the blue-white brightness of the flames made me shade my eyes against them. Turning my face slightly away was like twisting the spigot of a gas heater - the fire immediately died back down to normal size.

  Control, moron, I warned myself. Control. You're a loaded gun.

  No one spoke. Martin had settled down on one of the sofas and was cleaning his little pistol on the coffee table. Molly stood at the wood-burning stove, stirring a pot of something.

  Susan sat down next to me, not quite touching, and folded her hands in her lap. "What do we have left?"

  "Persons," I said quietly.

  "I don't understand," Susan said.

  "As a whole, people suck," I replied. "But a person can be extraordinary. I appealed to the Council. I told them what Arianna was doing. I went to that group of people looking for help. You saw what happened. So . . . next I talk to individuals. "

  "Who?" she asked me quietly.

  "Persons who can help. "

  I felt her dark eyes on me, serious and deep. "Some of them aren't very nice, I think. "

  "Very few of them, in fact," I said.

  She swallowed. "I don't want you to endanger yourself. This situation wasn't of your making. If there's a price to be paid, I should be the one to pay it. "

  "Doesn't work like that," I said.

  "He's right," Martin confirmed. "For example: You paid the price for his failure to sufficiently discourage you from investigating the Red Court. "

  "I made my choice," Susan said.

  "But not an informed one," I said quietly. "You made assumptions you shouldn't have, because you didn't have enough information. I could have given it to you, but I didn't. And that situation wasn't of your making. "

  She shook her head, her expression resigned. "There's no point in all of us fighting to hold the blame stick, I guess. "

  Martin began to run a cleaning patch through his pistol's barrel on a short ramrod and spoke in the tone of a man repeating a mantra. "Stay on mission. "

  Susan nodded. "Stay on mission. Where do we start, Harry?"

  "Not we," I said, "me. I'm going down to the lab while you four stay up here and watch for trouble. Make sure you warn me when it shows up. "

  "When it shows up?" Susan asked.

  "Been that kind of day. "

  Molly turned from the stove, her expression worried. "What are you going to do, boss?"

  I felt as if my insides were all cloying black smoke, but I summoned up enough spirit to wink at Molly. "I gotta make a few long-distance calls. "