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Changes, Page 9

Jim Butcher

Chapter 22~23

  Chapter 22

  I needed sleep.

  I rode back to my place with Molly in the midmorning. Mouse came padding up the stairs from the apartment as we got out of the car, his alert, wary stance relaxing into the usual waving of a doggy tail and enthusiastic sniffs and nudges of greeting. I shambled on into my apartment calmly. All was obviously well.

  Susan and Martin were both inside, both busy, as Mister looked on from his lordly peak atop the highest bookshelf. Susan had been shaking out all the rugs and carpets that cover the floor of my living room, and was now rolling them back into place, probably not in the same order as they had been before. She picked up one end of a sofa with a couple of fingers of one hand to get an edge into place.

  Martin was alphabetizing my bookshelves.

  They used to kill men for sacrilege like that.

  I suppressed my twitches as best I could, and told myself that they thought they were helping.

  "Success," Susan said. "Or at least a little of it. Our people found out exactly who is tailing us up here. "

  "Yeah?" I asked. "Who?"

  "The Eebs," she said.

  Molly came in and frowned severely at what they were doing. Granted, the place was kind of a mess after the FBI and cops got done, but still. She was probably as used to the place as I was. "Sounds like the Scoobies, only less distinctive. "

  Martin shook his head. "Esteban and Esmerelda Batiste," he clarified. "One of the husband-wife teams the Red Court uses for fieldwork. "

  "One of?" I asked.

  "Couples traveling together attract less attention," Susan said. "They're often given the benefit of the doubt in any kind of judgment call made by various officers of the law. It smooths things out a little more than they would be otherwise. "

  "Hence you and Martin," I said.

  "Yes," said Martin. "Obviously. "

  "Esteban and Esmerelda are notorious," Susan said. "They're unorthodox, difficult to predict, which is saying something when you're talking about vampires. They'll throw away their personnel, too, if that is what it takes to get results. Personally, I think it's because they have some kind of gruesome variation of love for each other. Makes them more emotional. "

  "They have complementary insanities," Martin said. "Don't dignify it with anything more. "

  "The one you said got away, Harry?" Susan said. "Esteban, probably. He rabbits early and often, which probably explains why he's still alive. Esmerelda would have been the spotter on top of a nearby building - also the one who probably triggered the explosives. "

  "Gotta figure they're behind the hit outside the FBI building, too," I said. "Tinted windows on the car. Shooter was way back inside the backseat, away from the window. "

  "Maybe, sure," Susan said. "They'll suit up in all-over coverage and head out in the daytime if they think it's really necessary. "

  I grunted. "So Esteban and Esmerelda . . . "

  "Eebs," Susan said firmly.

  "So the Eebs aren't really fighters. They're planners. Fair to say?"

  "Very much so," said Martin. There might have been a faint note of approval in his voice.

  I nodded. "So they and their vampire gang were supposed to follow you, only when they saw you heading into the data center, they were forced to do more than shadow you. They tried to protect the data. All rational. "

  Susan began to frown and then nodded at me.

  "Of course," Martin said. "Difficult to predict but never stupid. "

  "So why," I said, "if they were here operating under orders from the duchess to foil your efforts, would they take the trouble to try an assassination on me?"

  Martin opened his mouth, and then closed it again, frowning.

  "I mean, Arianna wants to see me suffer, right? Thank God for clich¨¦d mind-sets, by the way. I can't do that if I'm dead. I go early, it cheats her of the fun. "

  "There's division in the ranks of the Red Court," Susan murmured. "It's the only thing that would explain it. Countervailing interests - and at the summit of their hierarchy, too. "

  "Or," Martin said, "it was not the" - he sighed - "Eebs . . . who made the attempt. "

  "But I haven't seen any of the other people who want to kill me lately," I said. "I saw the Eebs just the other night. They're the simplest explanation. "

  Martin tilted his head slightly in allowance. "But remember that what you have is a theory. Not a fact. You are not blessed with a shortage of foes, Dresden. "

  "Um, Harry?" Molly asked.

  I turned to her.

  "I don't know if I'm supposed to jump in with this kind of thing or not, but . . . if there's some sort of internal schism going on inside the Red Court . . . what if the kidnapping and so on is . . . like a cover for something else she's doing, inside her court? I mean, maybe it isn't all about you. Or at least, not only about you. "

  I stared at her blankly for a moment. "But for that to be true," I said, "I would have to not be the center of the universe. "

  Molly rolled her eyes.

  "Good thought, grasshopper," I said. "Something to keep in mind. Maybe we're the diversion. "

  "Does it matter?" Susan asked. "I mean, as far as our interests go?"

  I shrugged. "We'll have to see, I guess. "

  She grimaced. "If the Eebs are working for a different faction than Arianna, then there goes our only lead. I was hoping I could convince them to tell us where Maggie was being held. "

  "Worth a try in any case," Martin said. "If we can catch them. "

  "We could do that," I said. "Or we could make sure we've got Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢ staked out and grab her when the Reds bring her there for their ¨¹ber-magic shindig. "

  Susan whirled to face me, her eyes wide. "What?"

  "They're pulling off their big ceremony at Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢," I said. I met Susan's eyes and nodded. "I found her. She'll be there. And we'll go get her. "

  Susan let out a fiercely joyful cry and pounced upon me clear from the other side of the room. The impact drove my back up against one of the bookshelves. Susan's legs twined around my waist and her mouth found mine.

  Her lips were fever-hot and sweet, and when they touched mine silent fire spread out into my body and briefly consumed all thought. My arms closed around her - around Susan, so warm and real and . . . and so very, very here. My heart lurched into double time, and I started to feel a little dizzy.

  Mouse's growl rolled through the room, sudden and deep in his chest.

  "Rodriguez," Martin barked, his voice tense.

  Susan's lips lifted from mine, and when she opened her eyes, they were solid black, all the way across - just like a Red vampire's. My lips and tongue still tingled at the touch of her mouth, a very faint echo of the insidious venom of one of the Reds. Bright red tattoos showed on her face, her neck, and winding down one arm. She stared at me for a moment, dazed, then blinked slowly and looked over her shoulder at Martin.

  "You're close," he said, in a very quiet, very soothing voice. "You need to back down. You need to take some time to breathe. "

  Something like rage filled Susan's face for an instant. Then she shuddered, glancing from Martin to me and back, and then began disentangling herself from me.

  "Sun's out, and it's warm," Martin said, taking her elbow gently. "Come on. We'll get some sun and walk and sort things out. "

  "Sun," Susan said, her voice still low and husky with arousal. "Right, some sun. "

  Martin shot me a look that he probably hoped would kill me, and then he and Susan left the apartment and walked up into the morning's light.

  Molly waited until they were well away from the front door and said, "Well. That was stupid of you both. "

  I looked over my shoulder at her and frowned.

  "Call it like I see it," my apprentice said quietly. "You know she has trouble controlling her emotions, her instincts. She shouldn't have been all over you. And you shouldn't have kissed her
back. " Her mouth tightened. "Someone could have gotten hurt. "

  I rubbed at my still-tingling lips for a moment and suppressed a flash of anger. "Molly . . . "

  "I get it," she said. "I do. Look. You care about her, okay. Maybe even loved her. Maybe she loved you. But it can't be like that anymore. " She spread her hands and said, "As messed up as that is, it's still the reality you have to live with. You can't ignore it. You get close to her, and there's no way for it to come out good, boss. "

  I stared hard at her, all the rage inside me coming out in my voice, despite the fact that I tried to hold it in. "Be careful, Molly. "

  Molly blanched and looked away. But she folded her arms and stood her ground. "I'm saying this because I care, Harry. "

  "You care about Susan?" I asked. "You don't even know her. "

  "Not Susan," she said. "You. "

  I took a step toward her. "You don't know a goddamned thing about me and Susan, Molly. "

  "I know that you already blame yourself for what happened to her," she said, spitting out the words. "Think about what it'll be like for her if she gets lost in a kiss with you and realizes, later, that she ripped your throat open and drank your blood and turned herself into a monster. Is that how you want your story, Susan and Harry, to end?"

  The words made me want to start screaming. I don't know what kept me from lashing out at the girl.

  Other than the fact that she would never believe me capable of such a thing.

  And she was right. That might have something to do with it.

  So I took a deep breath and closed my eyes and fought down the rage again. I was getting tired of that.

  When I spoke, a moment later, my voice sounded raw. "Study with a wizard has made you manipulative. "

  She sniffed a couple of times, and I opened my eyes to see her crying silently. "N-no," she said. "That was my mom. "

  I made a sound of acknowledgment and nodded.

  She looked at me, and made no move to wipe the tears from her face. "You look awful. "

  "I found out some things," I said.

  She bit her lip. "It's bad. Isn't it. "

  I nodded. I said, "Real bad. We're . . . " I shook my head. "Without the Council's support, I don't see how it can be done. "

  "There's a way," she said. "There's always a way. "

  "That's . . . sort of the problem," I said. I looked at the hopelessly organized bookshelf nearest me. "I . . . think I'd like to be by myself for a while," I said.

  Molly looked at me, her posture that of someone being careful, as if they're concerned that any move might shatter a delicate object. "You're sure?"

  Mouse made a little whining noise in his throat.

  "I'm not going to do anything desperate," I told her. Not yet, anyway. "I just need some time. "

  "Okay," she said. "Come on, Mouse. "

  Mouse watched me worriedly, but padded out of the apartment and up the stairs with Molly.

  I went to my shower, started it up, stripped, and got under the cold water. I just stood there with it sheeting over me for a while and tried to think.

  Mostly, I thought about how good Susan's mouth had felt. I waited for the cold water to sluice that particular thought down to a bearable level. Then I thought about Vadderung's warning about the Red Court.

  I've taken on some tough customers in my time. But none of them had been godlike beings - or the remnants of them, or whatever the Lords of Outer Night and the Red King were. You couldn't challenge something like that in a direct confrontation and win. I might have powers, sure. Hell, on a good day I'd go along with someone who said that I was one of the top twenty or thirty wizards on the planet, in terms of sheer magical muscle. And my finesse and skill continued to improve. Give me a couple of hundred years and I might be one of the top two or three wizards on the planet.

  Of course, if Marcone was right, I'd never make it that high. And the boss predator of the concrete jungle was not stupid. In fact, I'd say that there was an excellent chance I wouldn't live another two or three days.

  I couldn't challenge the masters of the Red Court and win.

  But they had my little girl.

  I know. It shouldn't matter that she was my little girl in particular. I should have been just as outraged that any little girl was trapped in such monstrous hands. But it did matter. Maggie was my child, and it mattered a whole hell of a lot.

  I stood in the shower until the cold water had muted away all the hormones, all the emotion, all the mindless power of blood calling to blood. After thinking about it for a while, I decided that three courses lay open to me.

  The enemy was strong. So I could show up with more muscle on my side. I could round up every friend, every ally, every shady character who owed me a solid. Enough assistance could turn the tide of any battle - and I had no illusions that it would be a battle of epic proportions.

  The problem was that the only people who would show up to that kind of desperate fight were my friends. And my friends would die. I would literally be using them to shield myself against the crushing power of the Red King and his court, and I had no illusions of what such a struggle would cost. My friends would die. Most of them. Hell, probably all of them, and me with them. Maybe I could get to the kid and get out, while my friends gave their lives to make it possible. But after that, then what? Spend my life running with Maggie? Always looking over my shoulder, never stopping in one place for longer than a few days?

  The second thing I could do was to change the confrontation into something else. Find some way to sneak up close enough to grab the girl and vanish, skipping the whole doomed-struggle part of option one. That plan wouldn't require me to get my friends killed.

  Of course, to pull it off, I'd have to find some way to get more clever and sneakier than beings with millennia of practice and experience at just such acts of infiltration and treachery. You didn't survive for as long as they had among a nation of predators without being awfully smart and careful. I doubted it would be as simple as bopping a couple of guards over the head, then donning their uniforms and sneaking in with my friends the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Woodsman.

  (I had cast myself as the Scarecrow in that one. If I only had a brain, I'd be able to come up with a better plan. )

  So, the stand-up fight with an all-star team was a bad idea. It probably wouldn't work.

  The sneaky smash-and-grab at the heart of Red Court power was a bad idea. It probably wouldn't work, either.

  And that left option three. Which was unthinkable. Or had been, a few days ago. Before I knew I was a father.

  My career as a wizard has been . . . very active. I've smacked a lot of awfully powerful things in the kisser. I've mostly gotten away with it, though I bear the scars, physical and otherwise, of the times I didn't. A lot of the major players looked at me and saw potential for one kind of mayhem or another.

  Some of them had offered me power.

  A lot of power.

  I mean, if I went out, right now, and gathered together everything I could - regardless of the price tag attached to it - it would change the game. It would make me more than just a hotshot young wizard. It would give my power an intensity, a depth, a scope I could hardly imagine. It would give me the chance to call upon new allies to fight beside me. It would place an almost unlimited number of new weapons at my disposal, open up options that could never otherwise exist.

  But what about after?

  I wouldn't have to go on the run with Maggie to protect her from the monsters.

  I'd be one.

  Maybe not that day. Maybe not that week. But one day before too long, the things I had taken into me would change me. And I probably wouldn't mind, even if I bothered to notice it happening. That was the nature of such power. You didn't feel it changing you.

  There is no sensation to warn you when your soul turns black.

  Option three shared one commonality with options one and two
: I wouldn't survive it. Not as the man I was. The one who tried to make the world a little brighter or more stable. The one who tried to help, and who sometimes screwed things up. The one who believed in things like family, like responsibility, like love.

  But Maggie might survive it. If I did it right - only to be orphaned again, in one way or another.

  I felt so tired.

  Maybe there isn't a way, whispered a voice in the back of my head.

  I snapped the water off and reached for a towel. "Screw that kind of thinking, Dresden," I ordered myself. "There's a way through this. There's a way. You've just got to find it. "

  I dried myself off and stared intently at my stark, scarred, unshaven face in the mirror. It didn't look like the kind of face a child would love. Kid would probably start crying when she got a good look at me.

  But it might be the kind of face that belonged to a man who could pull her safely out of a mob of bloodthirsty beasts. It was too early to throw in the towel.

  I had no idea what I was going to do.

  I just knew that I couldn't give up.

  Chapter 23

  I called Murphy's cell phone.

  "Murphy here. "

  "Heya, Murph. How you doing?"

  "This line isn't - "

  "I know," I said. "I know. Mine either. Hello, FBI guys. Don't you get bored doing this stuff all the time?"

  Murphy snorted into the phone. "What's up?"

  "I'm thinking about getting a broken-down doormat to go with my broken-down door and the broken frame around it," I said. "Thank you, FBI guys. "

  "Don't make demons of the Bureau," Murphy said. "They aren't much more inept than anyone else. There's only so much they can do when they're given bad intelligence. "

  "What about your place?" I asked.

  "They came, they searched, they left. Rawlins and Stallings and a dozen other guys from SI were here assisting. The Bureau dusted and took out my trash after they were done. "

  I barked out a laugh. "The boys at SI got away with that?"

  Murphy sounded decidedly smug. "They were there at the request of the new agent in charge. "


  "You met him, huh?"

  "Did, and glad to. Spoke well of you. "

  "He's an aikidoka," Murphy said. "I've been to his dojo a few times to teach some practical application classes. He's come out to Dough Joe's to teach forms and some formal weapons classes. "

  "Oh, right. He's the guy who taught you staff fighting?"

  "That's him. We started off in the same class, many moons ago. "

  I grunted. "Shame to meet him this way. "

  "The Bureau generally aren't a bad bunch. This is all about Rudolph. Or whoever is giving Rudolph his marching orders. "

  A thought struck me, and I went silent for a moment.

  "Harry? You still there?"

  "Yeah, sorry. Was just about to head out for a steak sandwich. Interested?"

  "Sure. Twenty?"

  "Twenty. "

  Murphy hung up and I said, to the still-open line, "Hey, if you've got someone watching my place, could you call the cops if anyone tries to steal my Star Wars poster? It's an original. " Then I vindictively hung up on the FBI. It made my inner child happy.

  Twenty minutes later, I walked into McAnally's.

  It was too early for it to be properly crowded, and Murphy and I sat down at a corner table, the one farthest from the windows, and therefore from laser microphones, in case our federal pursuers had doubled up on their paranoia meds.

  I began without preamble. "Who said Rudolph was getting his orders from his direct superiors? Or from anyone in Chicago at all?"

  She frowned and thought about it for a moment. I waited it out patiently. "You don't really think that," she said. "Do you?"

  "I think it's worth looking at. He looked shaky when I saw him. "

  "Yeah," Murphy said thoughtfully. "At my place, too. "

  I filled her in on the details of what she'd missed, at my apartment and the FBI building, and by the time I was done she was nodding confidently. "Go on. "

  "We both know that ladder climbers like Rudolph don't usually get nervous, rushed, and pressured when they're operating with official sanction. They have too much fun swaggering around beating people over the head with their authority club. "

  "Don't know if all of them do that," she said, "but I know damned well that Rudolph does. "

  "Yeah. But this time, he was edgy, impatient. Desperate. " I told her about his behavior in general, and specifically at my place and in the interrogation room downtown. "Tilly said that Rudolph had lied his ass off to point the FBI at me. "

  "And you believe that?" Murphy asked.

  "Don't you?"

  She shrugged. "Point. But that doesn't mean he's being used as some kind of agent. "

  "I think it does," I said. "He's not operating with the full authority of his superiors. Someone else has got to be pushing him - someone who scared him enough to make him nervous and hasty. "

  "Maybe that works," Murphy said. "Why would he do it?"

  "Someone wanted to make sure I wasn't involved in the search for Maggie. So, maybe they sent Rudolph after me. Then, when Tilly turns me loose, they take things to the next level and try to whack me outside the FBI building. "

  Murphy's blue eyes were cold at the mention of the assassination attempt. "Could they have gotten someone into position that fast?"

  I tried to work it through in my head. "After Tilly sent Rudolph out of the room, it didn't take long for me to get out. Ten minutes, fifteen at the most. Time enough to call in his failure, and for his handler to send in a hit, you think?"

  Murphy thought about it herself and then shook her head slowly. "Only if they were very, very close, and moved like greased lightning. But . . . Harry, that hit was too calm, too smooth for something thrown together at the last possible moment. "

  I frowned, and we both clammed up as Mac came over to our table and put a pair of brown bottles down. He was a spare man, bald, and had been ever since I knew him, dressed in dark clothes and a spotless white apron. We both murmured thanks, and he withdrew again.

  "Okay," she said, and took a pull from the bottle. "Maybe Rudolph's handler had already put the assassin in place as a contingency measure, in case you got loose despite Rudolph's efforts. "

  I shook my head. "It makes more sense if the assassin was already there, positioned to remove Rudolph, once he had served his purpose. Whoever his handler was, they would need a safety measure in place, a link they could cut out of the chain so that nothing would lead back to them. Only once Rudy calls them and tells them he isn't able to keep me locked up, they have the shooter switch targets. "

  Which meant . . . I had taken three bullets meant for Rudolph.

  "Harry?" Murphy asked. "Why are you laughing?"

  "I heard a joke yesterday," I said. "I just got it. "

  She frowned at me. "You need some rest. You look like hell. And you're obviously tired enough to have gotten the giggles. "

  "Wizards don't giggle," I said, hardly able to speak. "This is cackling. "

  She eyed me askance and sipped her beer. She waited until I had laughed myself out before speaking again. "You find out about Maggie yet?"

  "Sort of," I said, abruptly sobered. "I think I know where she will be in the next few days. " I gave her what we had learned about the duchess's intentions, leaving out the parts where I committed a bunch of crimes like theft, trespassing, and vandalism. "So right now," I concluded, "everyone's checking their contacts in Mexico while I'm talking to you. "

  "Susan?" she asked.

  "And Father Forthill," I said. "Between them, they should be able to find out what's going on at Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢. "

  Murphy nodded and asked, casually, "How's she holding up?"

  I took another pull from the bottle and said, "She thinks Molly has the hots for me. "

>   Murphy snorted. "Wow. She must have used her vampire superpowers to have worked that one out. "

  I blinked at Murphy.

  She stared at me for a second and then rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on, Harry. Really? Are you really that clueless?"

  "Uh," I said, still blinking. "Apparently. "

  Murphy smirked down at her beer and said, "It's always staggering to run into one of your blind spots. You don't have many of them, but when you do they're a mile wide. " She shook her head. "You didn't really answer my question, you know. "

  I nodded. "Susan's a wreck. Maybe more so because of the whole vampire thing. "

  "I don't know, Harry. From what you've said, I don't think you'd need to look any further than the whole mommy thing. "

  "Could be," I said. "Either way, she's sort of fraying at the edges. "

  "Like you," Murphy said.

  I scowled at her. "What?"

  She lifted an eyebrow and looked frankly at me.

  I started to get angry with her, but stopped to force myself to think. "Am I?"

  She nodded slowly. "Did you notice that you've been tapping your left toe on the ground for the past five minutes?"

  I frowned at her, and then down at my foot, which was tapping rapidly, to the point that my calf muscles were growing tired. "I . . . No. "

  "I'm your friend, Harry," she said quietly. "And I'm telling you that you aren't too stable yourself right now. "

  "Monsters are going to murder my child sometime soon, Murph. Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow night. Soon. I don't have time for sanity. "

  Murphy nodded slowly, then sighed like someone setting down an unpleasant burden. "So. Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢. "

  "Looks like. "

  "Cool. When do we hit them?"

  I shook my head. "We can't go all Wild Bunch on these people. They'll flatten us. "

  She frowned. "But the White Council . . . "

  "Won't be joining us," I said. I couldn't keep a bit of the snarl out of my voice. "And to answer your question . . . we're not sure when the ritual is supposed to take place. I've got to come up with more information. "

  "Rudolph," Murphy said thoughtfully.

  "Rudolph. Someone who is a part of this, probably someone from the Red Court, is leaning on him. I plan on finding that someone and then poking him in the nose until he coughs up something I can use. "

  "I think I'd like to talk to Rudolph, too. We'll start from our ends and work toward the middle again, then?"

  "Sounds like a plan. " I waved at Mac and pantomimed holding a sandwich in front of me and taking a bite. He nodded, and glanced at Murphy. "You want a steak sandwich, too?"

  "I thought you didn't have time to be sane. "

  "I don't," I said. "I don't have time to be hungry, either. "