Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

White Night, Page 8

Jim Butcher

Chapter 15~16

  Chapter Fifteen

  No threshold, which was good. No wards, which was even better. Grey Cloak hadn't entered a living area - he'd entered Undertown.

  Chicago is an old city - at least by American standards. It has been standing, in one form or another, since the French and Indian War, before the United States even existed. Being as Chicago is basically one giant swamp, from a strictly geographic point of view, buildings tended to slowly settle into the earth over years and years. The old wooden streets did the same, and new streets had to be built atop them in successive layers.

  Wherever the ground isn't slow-motion mud, there's solid rock. Tunnels and cave systems riddle the area. The Manhattan Project had been housed briefly in such tunnels, before it got relocated to the middle of nowhere. Someone in the government had shown unaccountably good judgment in considering the notion that developing a freaking nuclear weapon smack in the middle of America's second-largest city qualified as a Bad Idea.

  All of that had left behind an enormous labyrinth of passages, caves, half-collapsed old buildings, and crumbling tunnels seemingly ready to come thundering down at any moment. It was dark, human beings rarely went there, and as a result, Undertown had become a home, shelter, and hiding place to all kinds of nasty things - things no mortal, not even a wizard, had ever seen. Some of those things, in turn, had expanded some of the tunnels and caves, establishing jealously protected territories that never saw the face of the sun, never heard the whisper of wind. It's dark, close, cold, and intensely creepy down there. The fact that it was inhabited by things that had no love for mankind and potential radioactivity to boot didn't do much to boost its tourism industry.

  Grey Cloak paced swiftly through a crack in the back wall of the building and into Undertown's tunnels. He grew even more indistinct as he did. I had to stay closer to him, and it cost me an increasingly greater effort of will to do so. Little Chicago hadn't accurately modeled Undertown, partly because there were no maps to be had of the place, and because taking samples to incorporate into the model would have been an act just shy of active suicide. Mostly, though, it hadn't happened because I had never considered doing so.

  Through the translucent veil of earth and stone and brick, I could still see the real me standing over the city. My hand was still held out, but my fingers were trembling, and sweat beaded my forehead. Odd that I couldn't feel the strain on my body from here. I hadn't anticipated that. It was entirely possible that I might have continued on without ever realizing what the effort was costing me. It could kill my physical body, leaving me. . .

  I don't know what. It might kill me outright. It might kill my body while stranding my mind here. It might bind my awareness into place like some sort of pathetic ghost.

  Get tough, Dresden. You didn't take up this career to run at the first hint of fatigue.

  I kept going - but all the same, I looked up to check on myself as often as I could.

  Grey Cloak was not long in reaching his goal. He found a narrow cleft in a rock wall, slipped inside it, and then pressed his hands and feet against either wall on the inside of the cleft and climbed up it with rapid precision. Eight or nine feet up, it opened into a room with three walls of brick and one of earth - a partially collapsed basement, I assumed. There were a few creature comforts in it - an inflatable mattress and sleeping bag, a lantern, a miniature barbecue next to a heavy paper bag of charcoal, and several cardboard boxes that contained supplies.

  Grey Cloak slipped a heavy grate over the hole he'd just climbed up, and weighted it down with several stones the size of cinder blocks. Then he opened a box, unwrapped a pair of those meal-replacement bars that people use to punish themselves when they think they're overweight, ate them, and emptied a plastic bottle of water. Critical information, there. Glad I was risking my metaphysical neck to pick up vital clues like this.

  I checked up over my shoulder. My face had gone white and ran with sweat.

  I expected Grey Cloak to turn in, but instead he turned the lantern down low, opened a second box, withdrew a plaque the size of a dinner plate, and laid it down on the floor. It was a simple wooden base, inset with a ring of some reddish metal, probably copper.

  Grey Cloak pressed a fingernail against one of his gums, and when he withdrew it his fingertip glistened with blood that looked far more solid and real than the person it had come from. He touched it to the circle and began a low chant I did not recognize.

  A faint mist swirled up within the copper circle, and through the spell I could see the raw magic forming itself into a pattern, a vortex that vanished beneath the plaque.

  A second later, the mist resolved itself into a figure, in miniature, a vaguely humanoid shape wearing a heavy cloak and cowl that hid any possible details of appearance.

  Except that I'd seen him before - or at least someone who dressed exactly like him.

  The last time I'd seen Cowl, he'd been caught in the unbelievably savage backlash of an enormous power-summoning spell called a Darkhallow, It would have been impossible for the man to have survived that spell. There was no way, no way in hell that he'd lived through it. This couldn't be the same person.

  Could it?

  Surely it had to be someone else. The Ringwraith look was hardly uncommon among those who fancied themselves dark wizards of one kind or another, after all. It could just as easily be someone else entirely, someone not at all connected to Cowl or my theoretical Black Council.

  On the other hand, Cowl had been the person whose actions had tipped me off to the possibility of the Black Council to begin with. Could he have been a part of the Circle that Grey Cloak had mentioned? After all, I dropped a freaking car onto Cowl's head, and he'd hardly blinked at it. If he'd been that well protected, could he have survived the wild energies of the disintegrating Darkhallow?

  Worse, what if he hadn't? What if he was one of a set of people just as crazy and dangerous as he had been?

  I started feeling even more nervous.

  "My lord," Grey Cloak said, bowing his head. He left it that way;

  There was a long moment of silence before Cowl spoke. Then he said, "You have failed. "

  "I have not yet succeeded," Grey Cloak replied with polite disagreement. "The curtain has not fallen. "

  "And the fool with you?"

  "Still ignorant, my lord. I can preserve or dispose of him as you see fit. " Grey Cloak took a deep breath and said, "He has gotten the wizard involved. There is some sort of vendetta between them, it would seem. "

  The little mist figure made a hissing sound. "The fool. There is not enough profit in Dresden's death to jeopardize the operation. "

  "He did not consult me on the matter, my lord," Grey Cloak said with another bow of his head. "Had he done so, I would have dissuaded him. "

  "And what followed?"

  "I attempted to remove him along with the last of the culling. "

  "Dresden interfered?"

  "Yes. "

  Cowl hissed. "This changes matters. What precautions have you taken?"

  "I was not followed in flesh, my lord; of that I am certain. "

  Cowl held up a miniature hand for silence, a gesture that looked, somehow, stiff and pained. Then his hood panned around the room.

  The figure's gaze met mine, and hit me like a literal, physical blow, a swift jab in the chest.

  "He is there!" Cowl snarled. The misty figure turned to face me and lifted both hands.

  An odd, cold pressure hit me like a wave and pushed me back several feet before I could gather up my will and exert pressure in return, coming to a stop several feet away from Grey Cloak and Cowl.

  Cowl's hands clenched into claws. "Insolent child. I will rip your mind asunder. "

  I snarled at him and planted my insubstantial feet. "Bring it, Darth Bathrobe!"

  Cowl screamed at me. He spoke a word that resonated in my head and thundered through the hazy confines of Grey Cloak's hideawa
y. Though I had braced myself to gather my will and pit it against his, his next strike hammered into me like a freight train. I could no more have resisted it than I could have stopped an ocean tide, and I felt it throwing me back and away.

  In that last second before I was banished, I reached out with all the strength I had left, focusing on Grey Cloak, pouring everything I had into the spell to grant me a clear view of his face. I got it, for the barest instant, the face of a man in his mid-thirties, tall and lean and wolfish.

  And then there was a geyser of scarlet pain, as if someone had seized both halves of my skull and torn it into two pieces.

  Darkness followed.

  Chapter Sixteen

  I woke up with someone shaking my shoulder and someone else holding the back of my head against a running band saw.

  "Harry," Molly said. She was speaking through some kind of megaphone pressed directly against the side of my head, evidently while pounding my skull with the pointy end of a claw hammer. "Hey, boss, can you hear me?"

  "Ow," I said.

  "What happened?"

  "Ow," I repeated, annoyed, as if it should have been explanation enough.

  Molly let out an exasperated, worried sound. "Do I need to take you to the hospital?"

  "No," I croaked. "Aspirin. Some water. And stop screaming. "

  "I'm barely whispering," she said, and got up. Her combat boots slammed down on the floor in great Godzilla-sized rolls of thunder as she went up the stair steps.

  "Bob," I said, as soon as she was gone. "What happened?"

  "I'm not sure," Bob said, keeping his voice down. "Either she's been working out, or else she's started using some kind of cosmetics on her arms. She still had some baby fat when she got the tattoos, and that's always bound to make any kind of changes more noticeable, and - "

  "Not her," I growled, images of genuine mayhem floating through my agonized brain. "Me. "

  "Oh ," Bob said. "Something hit the model, hard. There was an energy surge. Boom. The psychic backlash lit up your mental fusebox. "

  "How bad?"

  "Hard to say. How many fingers am I holding up?"

  I sighed. "How bad is Little Chicago, Bob?"

  "Oh. You've got to be more specific with this stuff, Harry. Could be worse. A week to fix, at most. "

  I grunted. "Everything's too loud and bright. " I tested my arms and legs. It hurt to move them, an odd and stretchy kind of pain, but they moved. "What happened, exactly?"

  "You got lucky, is what. Something you met out there threw a big blast of psychic energy at you. But it had to come at you through your threshold and the model. The threshold weakened it, and Little Chicago shorted out when the blast hit, or. . . "

  "Or what?" I asked.

  "Or you wouldn't have that headache," Bob said. Then his eye-lights winked out.

  Molly's boots clumped back down the stairs. She set down on the table a couple of fresh candles she'd brought, took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment, and then very carefully used the same spell I did to light them.

  The light speared into my brain and hurt. A lot. I flinched and threw my arm across my face.

  "Sorry," she said. "I wasn't thinking. I couldn't even see you down here, and. . . "

  "Next time just shove some pencils into my eyes," I muttered a minute later.

  "Sorry, Harry," she said. "The aspirin?"

  I held out a hand. She pressed a bottle of aspirin into it, and then pressed a cold glass into my other hand. I opened the aspirin with my teeth, dumped several into my mouth, and chugged them down with the water. Exhausted from this monumental effort, I lay on the floor and felt somewhat sorry for myself until, after several more mercilessly regular minutes, the painkiller started kicking in.

  "Molly," I said. "Were we supposed to have a lesson today?"

  "No," she said. "But Sergeant Murphy called our house, looking for you. She said you weren't answering the phone. I thought I should come over and check on you. "

  I grunted. "Good call. Any trouble getting through the wards?"

  "No, not this time. "

  "Good. " I opened my eyes slowly, until they started getting used to the glare of the candles. "Mouse. Mouse probably needs you to let him out. "

  I heard a thumping sound, and squinted up the stairs. Mouse was crouched at the top, somehow managing to look concerned.

  "I'm fine, you big pansy," I said. "Go on. "

  Molly started up the staircase, and then froze, staring back down at Little Chicago.

  I squinted at her. Then rose and squinted at the table.

  There was a hole melted in the metal table, not far from the spot where Grey Cloak had entered Undertown. One of the buildings was half slagged, the pewter melted into a messy runnel that coursed down the hole in the table like dribbled wax. There was a layer of black soot over everything within several inches of the hole in the table.

  If the table hadn't taken the magical blow, it would have been my head with the hole burned in it. That had been part of the purpose in creating Little Chicago - as a tool and a safety measure for working that kind of magic. All the same, it was a sobering thing to see.

  I swallowed. Cowl. It had been Cowl. I'd heard the hatred and venom in his voice, the familiarity - and the overwhelming power of his magic had been unmistakable. He'd survived the Darkhallow. He was working with this "Circle," who were almost certainly the Black Council, and there was some kind of larger mischief afoot in Chicago than I had suspected.

  Oh, yeah. This whole situation was definitely starting to make me nervous.

  I turned back to Molly and said, "Like I said. This thing is dangerous, grasshopper. So no playing with it until I say so. Got it?"

  Molly swallowed. "Got it. "

  "Go on. Take care of Mouse. Do me a favor, and call Murphy's cell phone. Ask her to come here. "

  "Do you need me to help you today?" she asked. "Like, go with you and stuff?"

  I looked at her. Then at the table. Then back at her.

  "Just asking," Molly said defensively, and hurried on up the stairs.

  By the time I'd gotten a shower, shaved, and climbed into fresh clothes, I felt almost human, though I still had a whale of a headache. Murphy arrived shortly after.

  "What the hell happened to you?" she said, by way of greeting.

  "Took a psychic head butt from Cowl," I said.

  Murphy greeted Mouse, scratching him under the chin with both hands. "What's a Cowl?"

  I grunted. "Right, forgot. When I met Cowl, you were in Hawaii with your boy toy. "

  Murph gave me a smug smile. "Kincaid isn't a boy toy. He's a man toy. Definitely a man toy. "

  Molly, lying on the floor with her feet up on the wall while she read, dropped her book onto her face. She fumbled it back into her hands and then tried to appear uninterested in the conversation. It would have been more convincing if she weren't holding the book upside down.

  "Long story short," I told her. "Cowl is a wizard. "

  "Human?" Murphy asked.

  "Pretty sure, but I've never seen his face. All I know about him is that he's stronger than me. He's better than me. I stood up to him in a fair fight and got lucky enough to survive it. "

  Murphy frowned. "Then how'd you beat him?"

  "I stopped fighting fair and bumped his elbow while he was handling supernatural high explosives. Boom. I figured he was dead. "

  Murphy sat down in one of my easy chairs, frowning. "Okay," she said. "Better give me the whole thing. "

  I rubbed at my aching head and started from where I'd left Murphy yesterday up until the end of my confrontation with Cowl. I left out some of the details about Elaine, and everything about the Circle. That was information too dangerous to spread around. Hell, I wish I didn't know about it, myself.

  "Skavis," Murphy mused aloud. "I've heard that somewhere before. "

  "It's one of the greater Houses of the White
Court," I said, nodding. "Raith, Skavis, and Malvora are the big three. "

  "Right," Murphy said. "Psychic vampires. Raith feed on lust. Malvora on fear. How about these Skavis?"

  "Pain," I said. "Or despair, depending on how you translate some of the texts the Council has on them. "

  "And suicide," Murphy said, "is the ultimate expression of despair. "

  "With a mind like that," I said, "you could be a detective. "

  We were quiet for a minute before Murphy said, "Let me see if I've got this right. This Skavis is in town. According to your ex, the private investigator Anna Ash hired, he's killed women in four other cities, and he's doing it again here - four so far, and Anna's meant to be number five. "

  "Yeah," I said.

  "Meanwhile, this Grey Cloak, who works for Cowl, is in town doing more or less the same thing, but you don't think he's here to help the Skavis, whoever he is. But you do think he's working against the killer, along with this Passenger, whoever he is. You think those two left the clues you found on the bodies to pull you into an investigation and take out the Skavis. "

  "Even better," I said. "I think I know who Passenger was. "

  "Who?" Murphy asked.

  "Beckitt," I said. "It makes sense. He's got his wife on the inside as an information source. He's gone up against me before, and walked away, and I cost him years of his life and a lucrative share of a criminal empire. He's got plenty of reasons not to like me. That's who Grey Cloak the Malvora was talking to. "

  "Whoa. Grey Cloak the Malvora? How'd you get that?"

  "Because," I said, "he talked about sharing some tastes with the Skavis, when it came to letting the prey anticipate what was coming before the kill. The Malvora do it so that their prey will feel more fear. The Skavis do it so that they'll be more tired, be more ready to give in to despair. "

  Murphy nodded, lips pursed. "And the White Court loves manipulating everything indirectly. Using others to do their dirty work for them. "

  "Like using me to wipe out his Skavis competition," I said.

  "Which makes sense because Malvora and Skavis are rivals. "

  "Right," I said. "And I'm fairly confident in my guess. Just like I'm fairly confident that Beckitt must be our passenger. "

  "That's a sound theory, Dresden," Murphy said.

  "Thank you, I know. "

  "But Beckitt died almost seven years ago. He was killed in prison. "

  "I figure Beckitt must have made a deal with the Malvora and - " I blinked. "He what?"

  "Died," Murphy said. "There was a riot. Three prisoners were killed, several injured. He was one of them. As near as anyone can tell, he was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. A prisoner was wrestling for a guard's gun. It discharged and killed Beckitt instantly. "

  "Um," I said, frowning. I hate it when the real world ignores a perfectly logical, rational assumption. "He faked it?"

  She shook her head. "I looked into it, and I talked to the guard. There was an autopsy, an identification of the body from his family, a funeral, the whole nine yards. He's dead, Harry. "

  "Well, dammit," I said, and rubbed at my headache. "He made sense. "

  "That's life," Murphy said. "So this hidey-hole you found. . . "

  "Long gone by now," I said.

  "Might be worth going anyway, if you take Krypto here with you. " She leaned down and planted a kiss on top of Mouse's head. My dog gets more play than me, sheesh. "Maybe Grey Cloak the theoretical Malvora left a good scent behind. "

  "Worth a shot, I guess," I said. "But I'm pretty sure he's going to be thorough enough to remove that, too. "

  "Who goes around removing their scent from places?" Murphy asked.

  "Vampires. They can track that way, just like Mouse. "

  "Oh. Right. " Murphy sighed. "Another burned building. "

  "Not - " I began.

  "Not his fault!" Molly said.

  "Not your fault," Murphy said, "I know. But it's going to look awfully odd. My car gets firebombed. A building less than a block away gets firebombed a few hours later. "

  I grunted. "Same device?"

  "What do you think?"

  "Same device. "

  Murphy nodded. "I'm sure it will be. It's going to take them time to figure it out, though. Were you seen?"

  "Me and about a million other people," I said.

  "That's something, at least. But a lot of people are going to be asking questions before long. The sooner we get this thing put to bed, the better. "

  I grimaced. "I shouldn't have gone for the subtle maneuver last night. I should have smashed him to paste right there. I don't have any way to find him now, and he's aware that we're looking. "

  "Yeah, but Grey Cloak isn't our first problem," Murphy said. "He's a sideshow. The Skavis is the real killer. Right?"

  "Yeah," I said quietly. "Right. And we've got no clue who or where he is. "

  Murphy frowned. "But he's a vampire, right? I mean, you can tell if someone's a vampire, can't you?"

  "It isn't so simple with the White Court," I said. "They hide themselves a lot better than any other breed. I had no idea what Thomas was when I met him. And you remember talking to Darby Crane. "

  "Yeah. "

  "Did you get 'vampire' off him?"

  "Mostly I got 'player,' " Murphy said, "But you knew he was really Madrigal Raith. "

  "I guessed," I corrected her. "Probably because I unconsciously recognized the family resemblance to Lord Raith. That's why I stopped you from touching him. There was no magical tip-off about it. " I frowned. "Hell, I wouldn't be shocked if they had some kind of ability to cloud their prey's judgment. When Inari Raith tried to feed on me, even though I was in their freaking house, even though I knew she was a baby succubus, and in my room, it never really occurred to me that she might be dangerous to me, until it was too late. "

  "Just like that never occurred to me about Crane," Murphy said. "So the Skavis. . . he could be anyone. "

  "I'm pretty sure he's not me," I said. "I'm almost as sure he's not you. "

  "Are you sure you're a professional investigator?"

  "I sometimes wonder. "

  "What about Thomas?" Murphy asked.

  "He's more of a hired thug than a shamus. "

  Murphy glared.

  It drew a little bit of a smile from me, but it faded quickly in the light of reality. "I left messages. Nothing yet. "

  "That's not what I meant, either," Murphy said quietly. "Could he still be involved? Could he have been the passenger?"

  "He wasn't. "

  Again, she held up a hand. "Harry. Is it possible?"

  "Look, we know the killer is a Skavis. "

  "We know what Grey Cloak thinks," Murphy corrected roe, "But you're forgetting something. "


  "That at least one of those women was killed in the throes of supernatural passion. Not amidst fear. Not amidst despair. "

  I scowled at her.

  "Is it physically possible, Harry? Possible. That's all I'm asking. "

  "I suppose," I said quietly. "But Thomas isn't Grey Cloak's partner. What if. . . " I couldn't finish the sentence.

  "What if your passenger has him?" Murphy asked. "What if the 'endeavor' he's talking about is pressing Thomas for some kind of information?"

  I grimaced. "Thomas should have been in touch by now. "

  "We've got a little time. Grey Cloak thought it would be another day or so before the Skavis moved again, right?"

  "Yeah. "

  "So far, you think he's been smart about most things. Maybe he's smart about that, too. "

  "We can hope," I said. "What did you find about Jessica Blanche?"

  "Still working on it. I've got feelers out, but I'll need to follow up with some legwork. "

  I blew out a breath. "And I need to get in touch with Elaine and the Ordo. Maybe I can get Helen Beckitt to talk. And I can make some calls to oth
er Wardens. Maybe someone's heard something about recent White Court activities. "

  Murphy rose. "Sounds like we have a plan. "

  "If we repeat it often enough, maybe we'll even believe it," I said. "Let's go. "