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Blood Rites, Page 8

Jim Butcher

Chapter 12

  Chapter Twelve

  I swung past my apartment to grab lunch, a shower, and some clothes without so much blood on them. A beaten-up old Rabbit had lost a game of bumper tag with a Suburban, and traffic was backed up for a mile. As a result, I got back to the set a few minutes late.

  A vaguely familiar girl with a clipboard met me at the door. She wasn't old enough to drink, but made up for a lack of maturity with what I could only describe as a gratuitous amount of perkiness. She was pretty, more awkwardly skinny than sleek, and had skin the color of cream. Her dark hair was done up in Princess Leia cinnamon rolls, and she wore jeans, a peasant-style blouse, and clunky-looking sandals. "Hi!" she said.

  "Hi, yourself. "

  She checked her clipboard. "You must be Harry, then. You're the only one left, and you're late. "

  "I was on time this morning. "

  "That makes you half as good as a broken watch. You should be proud. " She smiled again to let me know she was teasing. "Didn't I see you talking to Justine at Arturo's party?"

  "Yeah, I was there. Had to leave before I turned into a pumpkin. "

  She laughed and stuck out her hand. "I'm Inari. I'm an associate production assistant. "

  I shook her hand. She wore some light, sweet scent that I liked, something that reminded me of buzzing locusts and lazy summer nights. "Nice to meet you-unless you're stealing my job. You're not a scab, are you?"

  Inari grinned, and it transformed her face from moderately attractive to lovely. She had great dimples. "No. As an associate gofer, I'm down the ladder from you. I think your job is safe. " She checked a plastic wristwatch. "Oh, God, we need to get moving. Arturo asked me to take you to his office as soon as you got here. This way. "

  "What's he want?"

  "Beats me," Inari said. She started a brisk walk, and I had to lengthen my steps to keep up with her as she led me deeper into the building. She nipped to a second page and took a pen from behind one hair-bun. "Oh, what would you like on your vegetarian pizza?"

  "Dead pigs and cows," I said.

  She glanced up at me and wrinkled her nose.

  "They're vegetarians," I said defensively.

  She looked skeptical. "With all the hormones and things they put in meats, you know that they're having a number of very bad effects on you. Right? Do you know the kind of long-term damage fatty meats can do to your intestinal tract?"

  "I choose to exercise my status as an apex predator. And I laugh in the face of cholesterol. "

  "With an attitude like that, you're going to wind up with bulletproof arteries. "

  "Bring it. "

  Inari shook her head, her expression pleasant and unyielding. "Everyone decided they wanted to stick with veggies when I order. If someone has meat, the grease will get all over the rest of the pizza, so they settled on veggies. "

  "Then I guess I will too. "

  "But what do you want on yours? I mean, I'm supposed to make everyone happy here. "

  "Kill me some animals, then," I said. "It's a protein thing. "

  "Oh, you should have said," Inari replied, smiling at me. We stopped in front of a door and she scribbled on her clipboard. "Some extra cheese, maybe some beans and corn. Or wait. Tofu. Protein. I'll fix you up. "

  Bean- curd pizza, good grief. I should raise my rates. "You do that. " The puppy stirred in my pocket and I stopped. "Here, there's something you could help me with. "

  She tilted her head at me. "Oh?"

  I reached into my pocket and drew the pup out. He was sleeping, every inch of him completely limp. "Could you keep my friend company while I talk to Arturo?"

  The girl melted with adoration the way only girls can, and took the pup, cradling him in the crook of her arm and crooning to him. "Oh, he's so sweet. What's his name?"

  "No name," I said. "Just watching him for a day or three. He might be hungry or thirsty when he wakes up. "

  "I love dogs," she replied. "I'll take good care of him. "

  "Appreciate it. "

  She started to walk away. "Oh, Harry, I almost forgot. What do you want to drink? Is Coke okay?"

  I eyed her suspiciously. "It isn't noncaffeinated, is it?"

  She arched a brow. "I'm health-conscious, not insane. "

  "Dear child," I said. She gave me another sunny smile and jounced off down the hall, holding the pup as if he were made of glass. I went into the office.

  Arturo Genosa was inside, sitting on the corner of a desk. His silver hair looked rumpled, and a half-smoked cigar smoldered in a thick ashtray beside him. He summoned up a tired smile for me as I came in. "Hey, Harry. " He came over and gave me one of those manly Mediterranean hugs, the kind that leave bruises. "God bless you, Mister Dresden. Without you there, I think we would have lost them both. Thank you. "

  He kissed me on either cheek. I'm not a kissy-huggy type, really, but I figured it was another manly European affection thing. Either that or he'd just marked me for death. I stepped back and said, "The girl going to be all right?"

  Arturo nodded. "Going to live. All right? That I don't know. " He waved a hand at his neck. "The scars. They will be very bad. "

  "Tough on an actress. "

  He nodded. "In the phone book, your ad says you give advice. "

  "Technically I sell it," I said. "But that's really more for-"

  "I need to know," he said. "Need to know whether I should stop the project. "

  I arched an eyebrow. "You think that's why these people have been attacked?"

  He picked up his cigar, fiddling around with it. "I don't know what to think. But I was nowhere nearby. This could not have been an attack on me. "

  "I agree," I said. "And it was the Evil Eye. I'm sure of it. "

  "Mister Dresden, if a man threatens me, then it is nothing to face it. But this person, whoever he is, is hurting the people near me. I no longer choose only for myself. "

  "Why would someone want to stop your film, Mr. Genosa?" I asked. "I mean, pardon me if this insults you, but it's a skin flick. There are lots of them. "

  "I don't know. Maybe it is the business end," he said. "Small entrepreneur, maybe could be a threat to more entrenched businessmen. So they lean. Apply pressure. Quietly, you understand. "

  "If I didn't know better, I'd swear you just told me that you think you're being persecuted by a covert pornography syndicate. "

  Genosa put the cigar in his mouth, rolling it around. He drummed his fingers on the desk and lowered his voice. "You joke, but in the past few years someone has been buying the studios a little at a time. "


  He shook his head. "It is hard to say. I have investigated, but I am not a detective. Is there any way you could-"

  "I'm already on it. I'll tell you if I turn up anything. "

  "Thank you," he said. "But what should I do today? I can't allow any of these people to be harmed. "

  "You're racing the clock, right? If you don't finish the film, your business is kaput. "

  "Yes. "

  "How long do you have?"

  "Today and tomorrow," he said.

  "Then you should ask yourself how willing you are to let ambition get someone killed. Then weigh it against how willing you are to let someone scare you out of living your life. " I frowned. "Or maybe lives, plural. You're right when you say you aren't choosing only for yourself. "

  "How can I make that choice?" he asked.

  I shrugged. "Look, Arturo. You need to decide if you are protecting these people or leading them. There's a difference. "

  He rolled the cigar back and forth between his fingers, and then nodded slowly. "They are adults. I am not their father. But I cannot ask them to risk themselves if they do not wish to. I will tell them they are free to leave should they choose, with no ill will. "

  "But you will stay?"

  He nodded firmly.

  "Leader, then," I said. "Next thing you know, Arturo, I'll be buying you a big
round table. "

  It took him a second, but he laughed. "I see. Arthur and Merlin. "

  "Yeah," I said.

  He regarded me thoughtfully "Your advice is good. For a young man, you have good judgment. "

  "You haven't seen my car. "

  Arturo laughed. He offered me a cigar, but I turned him down with a smile. "No, thank you. "

  "You look troubled. "

  "Yeah. Something about your situation doesn't sit right with me. This whole thing is hinky. "

  Genosa blinked. "It is what?"

  "Hinky," I said. "Uh, it's sort of a Chicago word. I mean that there's something not right about what's going on. "

  "Yes," he agreed. "People are getting hurt. "

  "That's not it," I said. "The attacks have been brutal. That means that the intentions of whoever is behind them are equally brutal. You can't sling around magic that you don't really believe in. That isn't something a simple business competitor would come up with-even assuming some hardball corporate types decided to start trying a supernatural angle instead of hiring fifty-dollar bruisers to lean on you. "

  "You think it is personal?" he asked.

  "I don't think anything yet," I said. "I need to do more digging. "

  He nodded, expression sober. "If you stay here, you can keep protecting my people?"

  "I think so. "

  He pressed his lips together, expression resolved. "Then I will tell th-"

  The door flew open and a living goddess of a woman stormed into the office. She was maybe five-foot-four and had brilliant, lush blond-highlighted red hair that fell to the small of her back. She wore only high-heeled pumps and a matching dark green two-piece set of expensive-looking designer lingerie, translucent enough to defeat the purpose of wearing clothing at all. It ably displayed all kinds of pleasant proportions of tanned, athletic female.

  "Arturo, you Eurotrash pig," she snarled. "What do you think you are doing, bringing that woman here?"

  Genosa flinched at the tone, and did not look at the woman. "Hello, Trish. "

  "Do not call me that, Arturo. I've told you over and over. "

  Genosa sighed. "Harry, this my newest ex-wife, Tricia Scrump. "

  And he let this gem slip out of his fingers? Shocking.

  The woman's eyes narrowed. "Trixie. Vixen. It's been legally changed. "

  "Okay," Arturo said mildly. "Now what are you talking about?"

  "You know full well what I'm talking about. " She spat the words. "If you think you are going to split this feature between two stars, you are sadly mistaken. "

  "That isn't going to happen at all," he said. "But with Giselle hurt, I had to find someone else, and on such short notice. . . "

  "Don't patronize me. " Tricia ground her teeth. "Lara is retired. Re. Tie. Urd. This film is mine. I am not going to let you use my drawing power to fuel a comeback appearance for that. . . that bitch. "

  I thought about pots and kettles.

  "It won't be an issue," Genosa said. "She has agreed to a mask and a pseudonym. You are the star, Tricia. That has not changed. "

  Trixie Vixen folded her arms, geometrically increasing her cleavage. "Fine, then," she snapped. "As long as we understand each other. "

  "We do," Arturo said.

  She threw her hair back over her shoulder, a gesture filled with arrogance, and glared at me. "And who is this?"

  "Harry," I provided. "Production assistant. "

  "Well then, Larry. Where the hell is my latte? I sent you for it an hour ago. "

  Evidently, reality did not often intrude on Tricia Scrump's life. It was probably shacked up with courtesy somewhere. I prepared to return verbal fire, but a panicked look from Arturo stopped the first reply that sprang to mind. "Sorry. I'll take care of it. "

  "See that you do," she said. She spun on one high heel, displaying her G-string and an ass that probably deserved its own billing in the credits, and stalked out.

  At least she started to.

  She abruptly stopped, frozen, her body tightening with tension.

  A woman that made Trixie Vixen look like the ugly stepsister appeared in the door and blocked the starlet's exit. I had to force myself not to stare.

  Tricia "Trixie" Scrump nee Genosa nee Vixen's beauty was up to code. You could run a checklist from it: lovely mouth, deep eyes, full breasts, slender waist, flared hips, long and shapely legs. Check, check, check. She looked like she'd been ordered from a catalog and assembled from a kit. She was a vision of a woman-but a prefabricated one, painted by numbers.

  The newcomer was the real thing. She was grace. Beauty. Art. As such, she was not so easily quantified.

  She would have been tall, even without the heeled faux-Victorian boots of Italian leather. Her hair was so dark that its highlights were nearly blue, a torrent of glossy curls held partially in check with a pair of milky ivory combs. She had eyes of dark grey with hints of violet twilight at their centers. Her clothes were all effortless style: natural fabrics, black skirt and jacket embroidered with abstract dark crimson roses with a white blouse.

  Thinking back later, I couldn't clearly remember her facial features or her body, beyond a notion that they were superb. Her looks were almost extraneous. They weren't any more important to her appeal than a glass was to wine. It was at its best when invisible and showing the spirit contained within. Beyond mere physical presence, I could sense the nature of the woman-strength of will, intelligence, blended with a sardonic wit and edged with a lazy, sensuous hunger.

  Or maybe the hunger was mine. In the space of five seconds, my attention to detail fractured, and I wanted her. I wanted her in the most primal sense, in every way I could conceive. Whatever gentle and chivalrous tendencies my soul harbored suddenly evaporated. Images swarmed over me-images of unleashing the fires burning in me upon willing flesh. Conscience withered a heartbeat later. Something hungry, confident, and unrepentant took its place.

  I realized, on some distant level, that something was wrong, but there was no tangible, tactile sense of truth to the thought. Instincts ruled me, and only the most feral, vicious drives remained.

  I liked it.

  A lot.

  While my inner Neanderthal was pounding his chest, Trixie Vixen took a step back from the dark-haired woman. I couldn't see her face, but her voice crackled with too much anger. She was afraid. "Hello, Lara. "

  "Trish," the woman said, with faint contemptuous emphasis on the name. Her voice smoldered, so low and delicious that my toes started to curl up. "You look lovely. "

  "I'm surprised to see you here," Tricia said. "There aren't any whips or chains on the set. "

  Lara shrugged, perfectly relaxed. "I've always felt that the best whips and chains are in the mind. With a little creativity, the physical ones are hardly necessary. " Lara stared down at Tricia for a moment and then asked, "Have you given any more thought to my offer?"

  "I don't do bondage films," Tricia said. A sneer colored the words. "They're for wrinkled old has-beens. " She started forward with a determined stride.

  Lara didn't move. Tricia stopped a bare inch from her and they met gazes again. The redheaded film star started trembling.

  "Perhaps you're right," Lara said. She smiled and stepped clear of the doorway. "Keep in touch. Trish. "

  Trixie Vixen fled-at least as much as someone wobbling away on six-inch heels can flee. The dark-haired woman watched her with a smug smile on her mouth and then said, "Exit scene. It must be difficult to be the center of the universe. Good afternoon, Arturo. "

  "Lara," Arturo said. His tone was that of an uncle chiding his favorite niece. He came around his desk and walked over to the woman, offering both hands. "You shouldn't tease her like that. "

  "Arturo," she said warmly. She took his hands, and they did more social cheek kissing. I shook my head while they did, and managed to shove my libido out of the driver's seat of my brain. Captain of my own soul (even if my pants
were considering mutiny), I began focusing my thoughts, building up a barrier to shield them.

  "You are an angel," Arturo said to her. His voice was steady and kind and not at all that of a man having most of his blood channeled south of his belly button. How the hell could he not have reacted to her presence? "An angel to come here so quickly. To help me. "

  She waved a hand in a lazy motion. Her fingernails weren't terribly long, and didn't have any polish. "I'm always glad to help a friend, Arturo. Are you all right?" she asked. "Joan said you'd forgotten to refill your prescription. "

  He sighed. "I'm fine. Lowering my blood pressure would not have helped Giselle. "

  Lara nodded. "It's horrible, what happened. I'm so sorry. "

  "Thank you," he said. "I am not sure I am comfortable to have Inari here. She's a child. "

  "That's arguable," Lara said. "After all, she's old enough to perform now, if she wishes. "

  Arturo looked startled and a little sick. "Lara. "

  She laughed. "I'm not saying she should, dear fool. Only that my baby sister makes her own choices now. "

  "They grow," Arturo said. His voice was a little sad.

  "They do. " Lara's eyes moved over to me. "And who is this? Tall, dark, and silent. I like him already. "

  "Harry," Arturo replied. He beckoned me over. "Lara Romany, meet Harry, our new production assistant. He just started today, so be kind to him. "

  "That shouldn't be too hard," she said, and slipped her arm through Genosa's. "Joan wanted me to tell you that your prescription came in, and that she needs your help on the set. "

  Arturo nodded with a strained but genuine smile. "And you are to escort me down to take my medicine, eh?"

  "Via my feminine wiles," Lara confirmed.

  "Harry," Arturo said.

  "I need to make a quick call," I answered. "I'll be right behind you. "

  The two of them left. Lara threw another look at me over her shoulder, her expression speculative. And hot. I mean, wow. If she'd crooked her finger, I think I would have been in danger of floating off the floor and drifting along behind her on a cloud of her perfume. Me and PepĀ§?le Pew.

  It took me maybe half a minute after they walked away before I was able to reboot my brain. After that, I ran a quick review of what had just happened through the old grey matter.

  Pretty, pale, supernaturally sexy, and just a little scary. I could do the math. And I was willing to bet that Romany wasn't Lara's last name.

  She looked a hell of a lot more like a Raith.

  Son of a bitch. The White Court was here.

  A succubus on the set. Strike that, the health-conscious kid sister made it two. . . succubuses. Succubusees? Succubi? Stupid Latin correspondence course. Or maybe she wasn't one, because I hadn't felt a thing like the attraction Lara Romany exuded when I was near little Inari.

  It really hit me, then, that I'd wandered into a mess that might get me killed, regardless of how silly and embarrassing it sounded. Now I had to contend not only with pornography-syndicate conspiracies, but also a succubus of the White Court. Or maybe more than one, which for grammatical reasons I hoped was not the case.

  So in addition to a feisty new Black Court partner in the war dance between the Council and the Vampire Courts, I also got angry lust bunny movie stars, deadly curses, and a thoroughly embarrassing job as my investigative cover.

  Oh, and bean-curd pizza, which is just wrong.

  What a mess.

  I made a mental note: The next time I saw Thomas, I was going to punch him right in the nose.