Death Masks, Page 7Jim Butcher
I followed Michael's white pickup truck in the Blue Beetle to Saint Mary of the Angels Cathedral. It's a big, big church, a city landmark. If there's anything you like in the way of gothic architecture, you can find it somewhere on Saint Mary's. We parked near the back of the cathedral, and went to the delivery entrance, a plain oak door framed by lovingly tended rose vines.
Michael knocked at the door, and I heard the sound of multiple bolts being undone before the door opened.
Father Anthony Forthill opened the door. He was in his late fifties, balding, and carried a comfortable weight of years. He wore black slacks and a black shirt, the stark white square of his clerical collar sharply delineated. He was taller than Shiro, but a lot shorter than everyone else there, and beneath his glasses his eyes looked strained.
"Success?" he asked Michael.
"In part," Michael responded. He held up the folded cloth and said, "Put this in the cask, please. And we'll need to splint an arm. "
Forthill winced, and accepted the folded cloth with the kind of ginger reverence paid only to explosives and samples of lethal viruses. "Right away. Good evening, Mister Dresden. Come in, all of you. "
"Father," I answered. "You look like my day so far. "
Forthill tried to smile at me, then padded away down a long hallway. Michael led us deeper into the church, up a flight of stairs to a storage room whose boxes had been stacked to the ceiling to make room for a number of folding cots, blocking the view of any windows. A mismatched pair of old lamps lit the room in soft gold.
"I'll get food, something to drink," Michael said quietly. He headed back out of the room. "And I need to call Charity. Sanya, you'd better sit down until we can see to your arm. "
"I'll be fine," Sanya said. "I will help with food. "
Shiro snorted and said, "Sit, boy. " He headed for the door, catching up to Michael, and said, "Call your wife. I will do the rest. " The two left together, their voices lowering to bare murmurs as they entered the hall.
Sanya glowered at the door for a moment and then settled down on one of the bunks. He looked around at the room for a moment, and then said, "You use the forces of magic, I take it. "
I folded my arms and leaned against the wall. "What gave it away?"
He bared his teeth, white against his dark skin. "How long have you been a Wiccan?"
"A pagan. A witch. "
"I'm not a witch," I said, glancing out the door. "I'm a wizard. "
Sanya frowned. "What is the difference?"
"Wizard has a Z. "
He looked at me blankly.
"No one appreciates me," I muttered. "Wicca is a religion. It's a little more fluid than most, but it's still a religion. "
"And I'm not really big on religion. I do magic, sure, but it's like - being a mechanic. Or an engineer. There are forces that behave a certain way. If you know what you're doing, you can get them to work for you, and you don't really need a god or a goddess or a whatever to get involved. "
Sanya's expression became surprised. "You are not a religious man, then. "
"I wouldn't burden any decent system of faith by participating in it. "
The tall Russian regarded me for a moment and then nodded slowly. "I feel the same way. "
I felt my eyebrow arch, Spock-like. "That's a joke, right?"
He shook his head. "It is not. I have been an atheist since childhood. "
"You've got to be kidding me. You're a Knight of the Cross. "
"Da," he said.
"So if you're not religious, you risk your life to help other people because -?"
"Because it must be done," he answered without hesitation. "For the good of the people, some must place themselves in harm's way. Some must pledge their courage and their lives to protect the community. "
"Just a minute," I said. "You became a Knight of the Cross because you were a communist?"
Sanya's face twisted with revulsion. "Certainly not. Trotsky. Very different. "
I stopped myself from bursting out in laughter. But it was a near thing. "How did you get your sword?"
He moved his good hand to rest on the hilt of the blade, where it lay beside him on the cot. "Esperacchius. Michael gave it to me. "
"Since when has Michael gone running off to Russia?"
"Not that Michael," Sanya said. He pointed a finger up. "That Michael. "
I stared at him for a minute and then said, "So. You get handed a holy sword by an archangel, told to go fight the forces of evil, and you somehow remain an atheist. Is that what you're saying?"
Sanya's scowl returned.
"Doesn't that strike you as monumentally stupid?"
His glare darkened for maybe a minute before he took a deep breath and nodded. "Perhaps some could argue that I am agnostic. "
"One who does not commit himself to the certain belief in a divine power," he said.
"I know what it means," I said. "What shocks me is that you think it applies to you. You've met more than one divine power. Hell, one of them broke your arm not half an hour ago. "
"Many things can break an arm. You yourself said that you do not need a god or goddess to define your beliefs about the supernatural. "
"Yeah, but I'm not agnostic. Just nonpartisan. Theological Switzerland, that's me. "
Sanya said, "Semantics. I do not understand your point. "
I took a deep breath, still holding back the threat of giggles, and said, "Sanya. My point is that you have got to be more than a little thick to stand where you are, having seen what you've seen, and claim that you aren't sure whether or not there's a God. "
He lifted his chin and said, "Not necessarily. It is possible that I am mad, and all of this is a hallucination. "
That's when I started laughing. I just couldn't help it. I was too tired and too stressed to do anything else. I laughed and enjoyed it thoroughly while Sanya sat on his cot and scowled at me, careful not to move his wounded arm.
Shiro appeared at the door, bearing a platter of sandwiches and deli vegetables. He blinked through his owlish glasses at Sanya and then at me. He said something to Sanya in what I took to be Russian. The younger Knight transferred his scowl to Shiro, but nodded his head in a gesture deep enough to be part bow, before he rose, claimed two sandwiches in one large hand, and walked out.
Shiro waited until Sanya was gone before he set the platter down on a card table. My stomach went berserk at the sight of the sandwiches. Heavy exertion coupled with insane fear does that to me. Shiro gestured at the plate and pulled up a couple of folding chairs. I sat down, nabbed a sandwich of my own, and started eating. Turkey and cheese. Heaven.
The old Knight took a sandwich of his own, and ate with what appeared to be a similar appetite. We munched for a while in contented silence before he said, "Sanya told you about his beliefs. "
I felt the corners of my mouth start to twinge as another smile threatened. "Yeah. "
Shiro let out a pleased snort. "Sanya is a good man. "
"I just don't get why he'd be recruited as a Knight of the Cross. "
Shiro looked at me over the glasses, chewing. After a while, he said, "Man sees faces. Sees skin. Flags. Membership lists. Files. " He took another large bite, ate it, and said, "God sees hearts. "
"If you say so," I said.
He didn't answer. Right about the time I finished my sandwich, Shiro said, "You are looking for the Shroud. "
"That's confidential," I said.
"If you say so," he said, using my own inflection on the words. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened. "Why?"
"Why are you looking for it?" he asked, chewing.
"If I am- and I'm not saying that I am-I'm doing it because I've been hired to look for it. "
"Your job," he said.
You do it for money," he said.
"Hmph," he said, and pushed his glasses up with his pinky. "Do you love money then, Mister Dresden?"
I picked up a napkin from one side of the platter, and wiped my mouth. "I used to think I loved it. But now I realize that it's just dependency. "
Shiro let out an explosive bark of laughter, and rose, chortling. "Sandwich okay?"
Michael came in a few minutes later, his face troubled. There wasn't a clock in the room, but it had to have been well after midnight. I supposed if I had called Charity Carpenter that late, I'd be troubled after the conversation, too. She was ferocious where her husband's safety was concerned-especially when she heard that I was around. Okay, admittedly Michael had gotten pretty thoroughly battered whenever he came along on a case with me, but all the same I didn't think it was fair of her. It wasn't like I did it on purpose.
"Charity wasn't happy?" I asked.
Michael shook his head. "She's worried. Is there a sandwich left?"
There were a couple. Michael took one and I took a second one, just to keep him company. While we ate, Shiro got out his sword and a cleaning kit, and started wiping down the blade with a soft cloth and some kind of oil.
"Harry," Michael said finally. "I have to ask you for something. It's very difficult. And it's something that under normal circumstances I wouldn't even consider doing. "
"Name it," I said between chews. At the time, I meant it literally. Michael had risked his life for me more than once. His family had been endangered the last time around, and I knew him well enough to know that he wouldn't ask something unreasonable. "Just name it. I owe you. "
Michael nodded. Then looked at me steadily and said, "Get out of this business, Harry. Get out of town for a few days. Or stay home. But get out of it, please. "
I blinked at him. "You mean, you don't want my help?"
"I want your safety," Michael said. "You are in great danger. "
"You're kidding me," I said. "Michael, I know how to handle myself. You should know that by now. "
"Handle yourself," Michael said. "Like you did tonight? Harry, if we hadn't been there-"
"What?" I snapped. "I'd have been dead. It isn't like it isn't going to happen sooner or later. There are enough bad guys after me that one of them is eventually going to get lucky. So what else is new. "
"You don't understand," Michael said.
"I understand all right," I said. "One more wacky B-horror-movie reject tried to kill me. It's happened before. It'll probably happen again. "
Shiro said, without looking up from his sword, "Ursiel did not come to kill you, Mister Dresden. "
I considered that in another pregnant silence. The lamps buzzed a little. Shiro's cleaning cloth whispered over the steel of his sword.
I watched Michael's face and asked, "Why was he there then? I'd have put down money that it was a demon, but it was just a shapechange. There was a mortal inside it. Who was he?"
Michael's gaze never wavered. "His name was Rasmussen. Ursiel took him in eighteen forty-nine, on his way to California. "
"I saw him, Michael. I looked in his eyes. "
Michael winced. "I didn't know that. "
"He was a prisoner in his own soul, Michael. Something was holding him. Something big. Ursiel, I guess. He's one of the Fallen, isn't he?"
"How the hell does that happen? I thought the Fallen aren't allowed to take away free will. "
"They aren't," Michael said. "But they are allowed to tempt. And the Denarians have more to offer than most. "
"Denarians?" I asked.
"The Order of the Blackened Denarius," Michael said. "They see an opportunity in this matter. A chance to do great harm. "
"Silver coins. " I took a deep breath. "Like the one you wrapped up in blessed cloth. Thirty pieces of silver, eh?"
He nodded. "Whoever touches the coins is tainted by the Fallen within. Tempted. Given power. The Fallen leads the mortal deeper and deeper into its influence. Never forcing them. Just offering. Until eventually they have surrendered enough of themselves and-"
"The thing gets control of them," I finished.
Michael nodded. "Like Rasmussen. We try to help them. Sometimes the person realizes what is happening. Wants to escape their influence. When we face them, we try to wear the demon down. Give the person taken the chance to escape. "
"That's why you kept talking to it. Until its voice changed. But Rasmussen didn't want to be free, did he?"
Michael shook his head.
"Believe it or not, Michael, I've been tempted once or twice. I can handle it. "
"No," Michael said. "You can't. Against the Denarians, few mortals can. The Fallen know our weaknesses. Our flaws. How to undermine. Even warned and aware of them, they have destroyed men and women for thousands of years. "
"I said I'll be fine," I growled.
Shiro grunted. "Pride before fall. "
I gave him a sour glance.
Michael leaned forward and said, "Harry, please. I know that your life has not been an easy one. You're a good man. But you are as vulnerable as anyone. These enemies don't want you dead. " He looked down at his hands. "They want you. "
Which scared me. Really scared me. Maybe because it seemed to disturb Michael so much, and very little disturbs him. Maybe because I had seen Rasmussen, and would always be able to see him there, trapped, wildly laughing.
Or maybe it was because part of me wondered if it would be so impossible to find a way to use the power the coin obviously offered. If it had made some random schmuck on the way to pan for gold into a killing machine that it took all three Knights of the Cross to handle, what could someone like me do with it?
Beat the living snot out of Duke Paolo Ortega. That's for sure.
I blinked, refocusing my eyes. Michael watched me, his expression pained, and I knew that he'd guessed at my thoughts. I closed my eyes, shame making my stomach uneasy.
"You're in danger, Harry," Michael said. "Leave the case alone. "
"If I was in so much danger," I responded, "why did Father Vincent come and hire me?"
"Forthill asked him not to," Michael said. "Father Vincent - disagrees with Forthill on how supernatural matters are to be handled. "
I stood up and said, "Michael, I'm tired. I'm really damned tired. "
"Harry," Michael chided me.
"Darned," I mumbled. "Darned tired. Darn me unto heck. " I headed for the door and said, "I'm heading home to get some sleep. I'll think about it. "
Michael stood up, and Shiro with him, both of them facing me. "Harry," Michael said. "You are my friend. You've saved my life. I've named a child for you. But stay out of this business. For my sake, if not for your own. "
"And if I don't?" I asked.
"Then I'll have protect you from yourself. In the name of God, Harry, please don't push this. "
I turned and left without saying good-bye.
In this corner, one missing Shroud, one impossibly and thoroughly dead corpse, one dedicated and deadly vampire warlord, three holy knights, twenty-nine fallen angels, and a partridge in a pear tree.
And in the opposite corner, one tired, bruised, underpaid professional wizard, threatened by his allies and about to get dumped by his would-be girlfriend for John Q. Humdrum.