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Jim Butcher

Chapter 20~21

  Chapter Twenty

  "T his is getting awfully murky, Harry," Michael said, worry in his voice. "I don't like it. "

  Snow crunched under our feet as we walked from the house to the workshop. The daylight was fading as a second front hit the city, darkening the skies with the promise of more snow. "I don't like it much either," I replied. "But nobody came rushing up to present me with options. " I stopped in the snow. "How's Murphy?"

  Michael paused beside me. "Charity is the one who's had actual medical training, but it seemed a simple enough injury to me. A bandage stopped the bleeding, and we cleaned the wound thoroughly. She should be careful to monitor her condition for the next few days, but I think she'll be all right. "

  "How much pain is she in?" I asked.

  "Charity keeps some codeine on hand. It isn't as strong as the painkillers at a hospital, but it should let her sleep, at least. "

  I grimaced and nodded. "I'm going to hunt up the Denarians, Michael. "

  He took a deep breath. "You're going to attack them?"

  "I should," I said, a little more sharply than I'd meant to. "Because there are people who don't deserve a second chance, Michael, and if these losers don't qualify for the permanent shit list, I don't know who does. "

  Michael gave me a small smile. "Everyone does, Harry. "

  A little shiver went through me, but I didn't let it show on my face. I just rolled my eyes. "Right, right. Original sin,

  God's grace, I've heard this part before. " I sighed. "But I'm not planning to assault them. I just want to learn whatever I can about them before we square off. "

  Michael nodded. "Which is why we're standing out in the snow talking, I take it. "

  "I need whatever information you can give me. And I don't need another philosophical debate. "

  Michael grunted. "I already got in touch with Father Forthill. He sent over a report on who we think might be in town with Tessa. "

  I spent a couple of seconds feeling like an argumentative jerk. "Oh," I said. "Thank you. That. . . that could help a lot. "

  Michael shrugged. "We've learned to be wary of even our own intelligence. The Fallen are masters of deception, Harry. Sometimes it takes us centuries to catch one of them lying. "

  "I know," I said. "But you must have something solid. "

  "A little," he said. "We are fairly certain that Tessa and Imariel are the second-eldest of the Denarians. Only Nicodemus and Anduriel have been operating longer. "

  I grunted. "Are Tessa and Nicodemus rivals?"

  "Generally," Michael replied. "Though I suppose it bears mentioning that they're also husband and wife. "

  "Match made in Hell, eh?"

  "Not that it seems to mean much to either of them. They very rarely work together, and when they do it's never good. The last time they did so, according to the Church's records, was just before the Black Plague came to Europe. "

  "Plagues? The Nickelheads did that last time they were in town. " I shook my head. "You'd expect a different tune or two in a husband-and-wife act that had been running that long. "

  "Variety is the key to a happy marriage," Michael agreed solemnly. His mouth quivered. "Nickelheads?"

  "I decided their name gave them too much dignity, given what they are. I'm correcting that. "

  "Those who underestimate them generally don't survive it," Michael said. "Be careful. "

  "You know me. "

  "Yes," he said. "Where were we?"

  "Plagues. "

  "Ah, yes. The Nickelheads have used plagues to instigate the most havoc and confusion in the past. "

  I fought off a smile that threatened my hard-ass exterior as Michael continued.

  "It's proven a successful tactic on more than one occasion. Once a plague has gained momentum, there's almost no limit to the lives they can claim and the suffering they can inflict. "

  I frowned and folded my arms. "Sanya said that Tessa preferred choosing eager. . . subjects, I suppose, over talented ones. "

  Michael nodded. "The Fallen who follow Imariel go through bearers very quickly. None of them are kind to those they bond with, but Imariel's crew are the monsters among the monsters. Tessa chooses their hosts from among the downtrodden, the desperate, those who believe that they have nothing to lose. Those who will succumb to temptation the most rapidly. "

  I grunted. "Lot of those around in the wake of a big nasty plague. Or any kind of similar chaos. "

  "Yes. We believe that it is one reason she collaborates with Nicodemus from time to time. "

  "She's focused on short-term," I said, getting it. "He's all about the long view. "

  "Exactly," Michael said. "When he threw Lasciel's coin at my son, it was a calculated gesture. "

  "Calculated to rope me in," I said.

  "You," Michael said, "or my son. "

  A chill that had nothing to do with the air went through me. "Give the coin to a child?"

  "A child who couldn't defend himself. Who could be raised with the voice of a Fallen angel whispering in his ear. Shaping him. Preparing him to be used as a weapon against his own family. Imagine it. "

  I stared around the yard that had been the scene of so much merriment only a few hours before. "I'd rather not," I said.

  Michael continued quietly. "In general, the families of the bearers of the Swords are sheltered against such evils. But things like that have happened before. And Nicodemus has borne a coin for a score of centuries. He has no difficulty with the notion of waiting ten or fifteen or twenty years to attain his goals. "

  "That's why you think he's here," I said. "Because going after someone like Marcone isn't Tessa's style. "

  "It isn't," Michael said. "But I believe that if by helping it happen she could create the kind of environment she loves best, full of chaos and despair, it would be reason enough for her to join forces with her husband. "

  "How many?"

  "Tessa keeps a group of five other Fallen around her. " He gave me a quick smile. "Sorry. Four, now. "

  "Thank Thomas," I said. "Not me. "

  "I intend to," Michael said. "Nicodemus. . . " Michael shook his head. "I believe you've been told before that Nicodemus makes it a point to destroy any records the Church manages to build concerning him. That's not going to be as easy to arrange in the future-"

  "Hail the information age," I interjected.

  "-but our accounts regarding him are sketchy. We thought he had only three regular companions-but then he produced Lasciel's coin, which had supposedly been in secure storage in a Chilean monastery. I think it would be dangerous to assume anything at this point. "

  "Worst-case scenario," I said, "how many other coins might he have with him?"

  Michael shrugged. "Six, perhaps? But it's just a guess. "

  I stared at him. "You're saying that they could have a dozen walking nightmares with them this time. "

  He nodded.

  "Last time they came to party, all three Swords were here. There were four Denarians. And we barely came out of it alive. "

  "I know. "

  "But you're used to this, right?" I asked him. "The Knights take on odds like this all the time. "

  He gave me an apologetic glance. "We like to outnumber them two to one if possible. Three to one when we can arrange it. "

  "But Shiro said he had fought several duels against them," I said. "One-on-one. "

  "Shiro had a gift," Michael said. "It was as simple as that. Shiro knew swordplay like Mozart knew music. I'm not like him. I'm not afraid of facing a single Denarian alone, but I would generally consider us evenly matched. My fate would be in God's hands. "

  "Super," I sighed.

  "Faith, Harry," Michael said. "He will not abandon us. There will be a way for good to overcome. "

  "Good overcame last time," I said quietly. "More or less. But that didn't stop them from killing Shiro. "

  "Our lives belong to the Almighty," Mic
hael said evenly. "We serve and live for the sake of others. Not for our own. "

  "Yeah," I said. "I'm sure that will comfort your kids when they have to grow up without a father. "

  Michael abruptly turned to face me squarely, and his right hand closed into a fist. "Stop talking," he said in a low, hard tone. "Right now. "

  So help me God, I almost took a swing at him out of sheer frustration. But sanity grabbed the scruff of my neck and turned me around. I stalked several paces away through the snow and stood with my back to him.

  Sanity invited shame over for tea and biscuits. Dammit. I was supposed to be a wizard. Connected with my inner light, master of the disciplined mind, all of that kind of crap. But instead I was shooting my mouth off at a man who didn't deserve it because. . .

  Because I was scared. Really, really scared. I always started shooting my mouth off when something scared me. It had been an asset before, but it sure as hell wasn't right now. When something scared me I almost always embraced my anger as a weapon against it. That, too, was usually an asset. But this time I'd let that fear and anger shape my thinking, and as a result I'd torn into my friend in the most tender spot he had, at a time when he could probably have used my support.

  Then I realized why I was angry at Michael. I had wanted him to come flying in like Superman and solve my problems, and he'd let me down.

  We're always disappointed when we find out someone else has human limits, the same as we do. It's stupid for us to feel that way, and we really ought to know better, but that doesn't seem to slow us down.

  I wondered if Michael had ever felt the same way about me.

  "My last remark," I muttered, "was out of line. "

  "Yes," Michael said. "It was. "

  "You want to duke it out or arm wrestle or something?"

  "There are better ways for us to spend our time. Nicodemus and Tessa should be our focus. "

  I turned back to him. "Agreed. "

  "This isn't over," he said, a harsh edge in his voice. "We'll discuss it after. "

  I grunted and nodded. Some of the tension left the air between us. Back to business. That was easier. "You know what I don't get?" I said. "How do you step from Nicodemus's end of recruiting Marcone all the way to Tessa's end of a society steeped in chaos and despair?"

  "I don't know," Michael said. He moved his hand to the hilt of the sword he now wore belted to his side, an unconscious gesture. "But Nicodemus thinks he does. And whatever he's doing, I've got a bad feeling that we'd better figure it out before he gets it done. "

  Chapter Twenty-one

  "I f I knew of any trusted lieutenants preparing to betray my employer," Miss Gard said with exaggerated patience, "they wouldn't be trusted, now, would they? If you ask politely, I'm sure you can get someone to read the definition of treachery to you, Dresden. "

  Michael smiled quietly. He sat at the workbench with one of his heavy daggers and a metal file, evidently taking some burrs out of the blade. Hendricks sat on a stool at the other end of the workbench. The huge enforcer had disassembled a handgun and was cleaning the pieces fastidiously.

  "Okay, then," I said to Gard. "Why don't we start with everyone who knew the location of Marcone's panic room. "

  Gard narrowed her eyes, studying me. She looked better. Granted, it's difficult to look much worse than disemboweled, but even so, she'd been reduced from ten miles of bad road to maybe two or three. She was sitting up in her cot, her back resting against the wall of the workshop, and though she looked pale and incredibly tired, her blue eyes were clear and sharp.

  "I don't think so," she said quietly.

  "There's not going to be much need to keep Marcone's secrets once he's dead, or under the control of one of the Fallen. "

  "I can't," she said.

  "Oh, come on," I said, throwing up my hands. "Hell's bells, I'm not asking you for the launch codes to nuclear missiles. "

  She took a deep breath and enunciated each word. "I. Can't. "

  From the workbench Hendricks rumbled, "S'okay. Tell him. "

  Gard frowned at his broad back but nodded once and turned to me. "Comparatively few people in the organization were directly aware of the panic room, but I'm not sure that's our biggest concern. "

  The change in gears, from stonewall to narration, made me blink a little. Even Michael glanced up, frowning at Gard.

  "No?" I asked. "If that's not our biggest concern, what is?"

  "The number of people who could have pieced it together from disparate facts," Gard replied. "Contractors had to be paid. Materials had to be purchased. Architects had to be hired. Any of a dozen different things could have indicated that Marcone was building something, and piqued someone's curiosity enough to dig deeper. "

  I grunted. "At which point he could probably find out a lot by talking to the architects or builders. "

  "Exactly. In this instance he was unusually lax in his standard caution when it came to matters of security. I urged him to take conventional measures, but he refused. "

  "Conventional measures," I said. "You're talking about killing everyone who worked on it. "

  "Secret passages and secret sanctums are quite useless if they aren't secret," Gard replied.

  "Maybe he didn't feel like killing a bunch of his employees to cover his own ass. "

  Gard shrugged. "I'm not here to make moral judgments, Dresden. I'm an adviser. That was my advice. "

  I grunted. "So who would know? The builders. People handling books and paychecks. "

  "And anyone they talked to," Gard said.

  "That makes the suspect pool a little larger than is useful," I said.

  "Indeed it does. "

  "Stop," I said. "Occam time. "

  Gard gave me a blank stare. Maybe she'd never heard of MC Hammer.

  "Occam?" she asked.

  "Occam's razor," I said. "The simplest explanation is most often correct. "

  Her lips quivered. "How charming. "

  "If we define a circle of suspects that includes everyone who might possibly have heard anything, we get nowhere. If we limit the pool to the most likely choices, we have something we can work with, and we're much more likely to find the traitor. "

  "We?" Gard asked.

  "Whatever," I said. "Who would have had a lot of access? Let's leave the contractors out of it. They generally aren't out for blood, and Marcone owns half the developers in town anyway. "

  Gard nodded her head in acceptance. "Very well. One of three or four accountants, any of the inner circle, and one of two or three troubleshooters. "

  "Troubleshooters?" Michael asked.

  "When there's trouble," I told him, "they shoot it. "

  Gard let out a quick snort of laughter-then winced, clutching at her stomach with both hands.

  "Easy there," I said. "You all right?"

  "Eventually," Gard murmured. "Please continue. "

  "What about Torelli?" I asked.

  "What about him?"

  "Could he be our guy?"

  Gard rolled her eyes. "Please. The man has the intellect of a lobotomized turtle. Marcone's been aware of his ambition for some time now. "

  "If he's been aware of it," I asked, "how come Torelli is still paying taxes?"

  "Because we were using him to draw any other would-be usurpers into the open, where they could be dealt with. "

  "Hungh," I said, frowning. "Could he have put pressure on any of the people in the know?"

  "The bookkeepers, perhaps, but I think it highly unlikely. Marcone has made it clear that they enjoy his most enthusiastic protection. "

  "Yeah, but Yurtle the Lobotomized isn't all that bright. "

  Gard blinked. "Excuse me?"

  "My God, woman!" I protested. "You've never read Dr. Seuss?"

  She frowned. "Who is Dr. -"

  I held up a hand. "Never mind, forget it. Torelli isn't all that bright. Maybe he figured he could strong-arm a bookkeep
er and knock off Marcone before Marcone got a chance to demonstrate his enthusiasm. "

  Gard pursed her lips. "Torelli has stupidity enough and to spare. But he's also a sniveling, cowardly little splatter of rat dung. " She narrowed her eyes. "Why are you so focused on him?"

  "Oh," I said, "I can't put my finger on any one thing. But my finely tuned instincts tell me that he's hostile. "

  Gard smiled. "Tried to kill you, did he?"

  "He started trying to put the muscle on Demeter while I was there this morning. I objected. "

  "Ah," she said. "I had wondered how you found us. "

  "Torelli's goons tried shooting me up right before I came here. "

  "I see," Gard said, narrowing her eyes in thought. "The timing of his uprising is rather too precise to be mere coincidence. "

  "I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought of that. "

  She tapped a finger against her chin. "Torelli is no genius, but he is competent at his job. He wouldn't be operating that high in the organization if he weren't. I suppose it's possible that Torelli might have secured the information if he applied enough mean cunning to the task. " She glanced up at me. "You think the Denarians recruited him to be their man on the inside?"

  "I think they had to get their information about Marcone's panic room somewhere," I said.

  "Worked that out, did you?" Gard said with a wan smile.

  "Yeah. Turned your own hidey-hole into a fox trap. That's gotta sting the old ego, Miss Security Consultant. "

  "You wouldn't believe how much," Gard said, a flinty light in her eyes. "But I'll deal with that when it's time. "

  "You aren't dealing with anything but more sleep for a little while," I noted.

  Her face twisted into a scowl. "Yes. "

  "So let me do the heavy lifting," I said.

  "How so?"

  I glanced around the workshop. "Could we speak privately for a moment?"

  Hendricks, who had been reassembling his gun, turned his over-developed brow ridges toward me, scowling in suspicion. Michael glanced up, his face a mask.

  Gard looked at me for a while. Then she said, "It's all right with me. "

  Hendricks finished putting the pistol back together, loaded it, and then loaded a round into the chamber. He made it a point to stare straight at me the entire while. Then he stood up, tugged on his coat, and walked straight toward me.

  Hendricks wasn't as tall as me, which cut down on the intimidation factor. On the other hand, he had muscle enough to break me in half and we both knew it. He stopped a foot away, put the gun in his pocket, and said, "Be right outside. "

  "Michael," I said. "Please. "

  He rose, sheathing the dagger, and followed Hendricks out into the snow. The two kept a careful, even distance between them as they went, like dogs who aren't yet sure whether they're going to fight or not. I closed the door behind them and turned to Gard.

  "Give me what I need to find and question Torelli. "

  She shook her head. "I can get you his address and the locations of the properties he owns, places he frequents, known associates, but he won't be at any of those places. He's been in the business too long to make a mistake like that. "

  "Oh, please," I said, rolling my eyes. "You've got blood or hair samples for all of your people somewhere. Get me Torelli's. "

  Gard stared at me with her poker face.

  "For that matter," I added, "get me Marcone's. If I can get close enough, it might help me find him. "

  "My employer keeps them under intense security. He's the only one who can access them. "

  I snorted. "So get me samples from the second collection. "

  "Second collection?"

  "You know, the one you're keeping. The one Marcone doesn't know about. "

  Gard brushed a stray lock of gold from her cheek. "What makes you think I have any such samples?"

  I showed her my teeth. "You're a mercenary, Gard. Mercenaries have to be more cautious with their own employers than they do with the enemy they've been hired to fight. They take out insurance policies. Even if Marcone didn't have samples collected, I'm betting you did. "

  Her eyes drifted over to the door for a moment, and then back to me. "Let's pretend, for a moment, that I have such a collection," she said. "Why on earth would I hand it over to you? You're antagonistic to my employer's business, and could inflict catastrophic damage on it with such a thing in your possession. "

  "Gosh, you're squeamish, considering the catastrophic damage his business inflicts on thousands of people every day of the year. "

  "I'm merely protecting my employer's interests. " She showed me her teeth. "Almost as though I'm a mercenary. "

  I sighed and folded my arms. "What if I only took Torelli's and Marcone's samples?"

  "Then you would still be capable of using that against Marcone in the future. "

  "If I want to hurt Marcone," I said, "all I need to do is sit down with a six-pack of beer and a bag of pretzels and let him twist in the wind. "

  "Perhaps," Gard admitted. "Swear to me that you will use none of the samples but Torelli's and Marcone's, that you will use neither of them for harm of any kind, and that you will return both to me immediately upon my request. Swear it by your power. "

  Oaths in general carry a lot of currency among the preternatural crowd. They're binding in more senses than the theoretical. Every time you break a promise, there's a kind of backlash of spiritual energies. A broken promise can inflict horrible pain on supernatural entities, such as the Sidhe. When a wizard breaks a promise, particularly when sworn by his own power, the backlash is different: a diminishing of that magical talent. It isn't a crippling effect by any means-but break enough promises and sooner or later you'd have nothing left.

  As dangerous as the world had been for wizards over the past few years, any of us would have been insane to take the chance that our talents, and thus our ability to defend ourselves, might be hampered, even if that reduction was relatively slight.

  I squared my shoulders and nodded. "I swear, by my own power, that I will abide by those restrictions. "

  Gard narrowed her eyes as I spoke, and when I finished she gave me a single nod. She reached into her pocket, moving very gingerly, and withdrew a single silver key. She held it out to me. "Union Station, locker two fourteen. Everything is labeled. "

  I reached out to take the key, but Gard's fingers tightened on it for a second. "Don't let anything you care about stand directly in front of it when you open it. "

  I arched an eyebrow at her as she released the key. "All right. Thank you. "

  She gave me a quick, tight smile. "Stop wasting time here. Go. "

  I frowned. "You're that worried about your boss?"

  "Not at all," Gard said, closing her eyes and sagging wearily down on the cot. "I just don't want to be in the vicinity the next time someone comes to kill you. "