White Night, Page 9Jim Butcher
Ramirez's contact number went to a restaurant his family ran in eastern Los Angeles. I left a message with someone whose English sounded like a second or third language. It took Ramirez only about ten minutes to call me back.
"White Court?" my fellow Warden said. "Can't think as I've heard anything about them lately, Harry. "
"How about a professional wizard investigator?" I asked him. "Works out of Los Angeles. "
"Elaine Mallory?" he asked. "Tall, pretty, smart, and nearly as charming as myself?"
"That's the one," I said. "What do you know about her?"
"Far as I know, she's straight," he said. "Moved to town five or six years ago, college in San Diego, and working for an investigative agency out here. She's got a decent grounding in thaumaturgy from somewhere, but when I ran her through the standard tests, she didn't score quite high enough to be considered for Council membership. " He was quiet for a second, before saying, in a tone of forced cheer, "Unless we keep on losing people to the vamps, in which case I guess we might lower our standards. "
"Uh-huh," I said. "But you think she knows what she's doing?"
"Well," Ramirez drawled, "I hinted that she might want to advertise as something other than a 'wizard,' eventually. If we get the time to look away from the war, some hidebound dinosaur might take exception to someone claiming the title. "
I snorted. "Don't call me a dinosaur. It isn't fair to the dinosaurs. What did a dinosaur ever do to you?"
"Other than give me a ride right next to this big skinny lunatic? Mallory's not stupid, and she's done people some good out here," Ramirez said. "Lost kids, especially. Couple of exorcisms I wouldn't have had time to handle. Maybe she can be of some help to you. Though I've got one reservation about her. "
"What's that?" I asked.
"Her taste in men. I keep asking her out, and she's turned me down about a dozen times, now. "
"Shocking," I said.
"I know," Ramirez replied. "Makes me wonder how smart she could really be. Why?"
I gave him the brief on what I knew about the murders, and on what Elaine had told me about the other cities.
"Someone's framing the Wardens," he said.
"Looks that way. Sow seeds of distrust and all that. "
"Five cities. Bastards. " He paused to say something off the phone, and then told me, "Hang on. I'm pulling the file on recent White Court reports. "
I waited a few more minutes. Then he came back and said, "According to what we've heard out on this end, the White King has met with emissaries from the Council under a flag of truce, and declared a temporary cease-fire. He's agreed to approach the Reds about sitting down to negotiate an end to the war. "
"I've met him," I said. "Kissinger he ain't. Gandhi, neither. "
"Yeah. Sorta makes you wonder what he's getting out of the war ending, don't it. "
I grunted. "There's not a lot of love lost between the Reds and the Whites. A cease-fire won't cost him anything. His people don't get involved in the messy stuff anyway. "
Ramirez let out a thoughtful hum. "The way you tell it, looks like maybe not everybody in the White Court agrees with his take on the war. "
"They're pretty factional. Triumvirate of major houses. Raith happens to be on top right now. If Raith is pushing for peace, it would be consistent for the other major houses to oppose it. "
"Gotta love those vampires. So arbitrarily contrary. "
"Say that five times fast," I said.
He did, flawlessly, rolling the Rs as he went. "See there?" he said. "That's why the ladies love me. "
"It's not love, Carlos. It's pity. "
"As long as the pants come off," he said cheerfully. Then his voice turned more sober. "Dresden, I've been meaning to call you. Just. . . wanted to see how you were doing. You know. Since New Mexico. "
"I'm good," I told him. "I'm fine. "
"Uh-huh," Ramirez said. He sounded skeptical.
"Listen," I said. "Forget New Mexico. I've forgotten it. We need to move on, focus on what's in front of us right now. "
"Sure," he said, without conviction. "You want to fill in the Captain or should I?"
"Go ahead. "
"Will do," he said. "You need any backup out there?"
"Why?" I asked. "You got nothing to pay attention to where you are?"
He sighed. "Yeah, well. All the same. If the Whites are trying to shut down the peace talks, I could pry a few of the boys loose to come help you boot some head. "
"Except I don't yet know whose head it is or how to boot it," I said.
"I know. But if you need help, it's here. "
"Watch your ass, Dresden," he said.
"I'd tell you to do the same, but you probably gaze at your own ass in admiration all the time anyway. "
"With an ass like mine? Who wouldn't?" Ramirez said. "Vaya con Dios. "
"Happy trails. "
I hung up the phone and leaned back in the chair, rubbing at my still-aching head. I closed my eyes and tried to think for a minute. I thought about how much my head hurt, which was nonproductive.
"Harry?" Molly asked me.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Um. . . " She was quiet for a moment, as though thinking about her words before she spoke.
That got my attention.
"I'm just wondering why you were asking Warden Rodriguez about Elaine Mallory. "
I closed my eyes and tried thinking again.
"I mean, Sergeant Murphy said she was your ex. But you asked about her as if you didn't know her. "
I mumbled something.
"So I figure that means that you do know her. And you wanted to know what Warden Rodriguez knew about her, without him knowing that you already knew her. " She took a deep breath and said, "You're keeping secrets from the Wardens. "
I sighed. "For years, kid. Years and years. "
"But. . . I'm under the Doom of Damocles, and that means you are, too. This is the kind of thing that could make them decide to invoke it. So, um. . . why are you doing it?"
"Does it matter?" I asked.
"Well," she said, her tone cautiously diffident, "since I could get beheaded over this just as much as you can, it matters to me. And I think that maybe I deserve to know. "
I started to growl at her that she didn't. I stopped myself because she had a point, dammit. Regardless of how inconvenient I thought it, she did have an undeniable right to ask me about it.
"I was an orphan," I told her. "A little while after my magic came to me, I got adopted by a man named DuMorne. He's the one who gave me most of my training. He adopted Elaine, too. We grew up together. Each other's first love. "
Molly set her book aside and sat up, listening to me.
"DuMorne was a warlock himself. Black wizard as bad as they come. He planned on training us up to be his personal enforcers. Trained, strong wizards, under mental compulsion to be loyal to him. He nailed Elaine with it. I got suspicious and fought him. I killed him. "
Molly blinked. "But the First Law. . . "
"Exactly," I said. "That's how I wound up living under the Doom of Damocles myself. Ebenezar McCoy mentored me. Saved my life. "
"The way you did for me," she said quietly.
"Yeah. " I squinted at the empty fireplace. "Justin burned, and I thought Elaine did, too. Turned out years later that she had survived, and was in hiding. "
"And she never told you?" Molly demanded. "What a bitch. "
I gave the apprentice a lopsided smile. "The last time she'd seen me, I had been busy murdering the only thing like a real parent she'd ever had, and had apparently tried to kill her, too. It isn't a simple situation, Molly. "
"But I still don't get why you lied about her. "
"Because I had a bad time of it, coming out from under DuMorne's
corpse the way I did. If the Wardens knew that she'd been there too, and fled the Council rather than coming out to them. . . " I shrugged. "Looks like she's managed to convince Ramirez that she doesn't have enough power to be considered for the Council. "
"But she does?" Molly asked.
"She's nearly as strong as I am," I said quietly. "Makes up for it in grace. I'm not sure what would happen if the Wardens learned DuMorne had a second apprentice, but there would be trouble. I'm not going to make that choice for her. "
"In case I haven't told you this before," Molly said, "the Wardens are a fine bunch of assholes. Present company excluded. "
"There isn't any easy way to do their job," I said, before amending, "our job. Like I said, kid. Nothing's simple. " I pushed myself slowly to my feet and found my keys and Mouse's lead. "Come on," I told her. "I'll drop you off at your place. "
"Where are you going?"
"To talk to the Ordo," I said. "Anna's got them all holed up with Elaine. "
"Why don't you just call them?"
"This is a sneak attack," I said. "I don't want to warn Helen Beckitt that I'm on the way. She's got an angle in this; I'm sure of it. It's easier to get people to talk if you get them off balance. "
Molly frowned at me. "You sure you don't need my help?"
I paused to glance at her. Then at the bead bracelet on her wrist.
She clenched her jaw, took off the bracelet, and held it up with defiant determination, staring at the beads. Three minutes and two beads later, she gave it up, gasping and sweating at the effort. She looked bitterly frustrated and disappointed.
"Nothing's simple," I told her quietly, and put the bracelet back on her wrist for her. "And nothing much is easy, either. Be patient. Give it time. "
"Easy for you to say," she said, and stomped out to the car, leading Mouse.
She was wrong, of course. It wasn't easy.
What I really wanted to do was get down a little food and go to bed until my head felt better. That wasn't an option for me.
Whoever the Skavis was, and whatever he was up to, there wasn't a lot of time to figure it out and stop him before he added another victim to his tally.
The Amber Inn is a rarity in downtown Chicago: a reasonably priced hotel. It isn't large or particularly fancy, and it wasn't designed by an architect with three names. No one infamous has owned it, lived in it, or been machine-gunned to death there. Thus, stripped of anything like a good excuse to stick it to the customer, one needn't schedule a visit to a loan officer in tandem with making a reservation, even though the Amber Inn is fairly central to Chicago.
It was the kind of place I always tried to pick on the occasions my work had taken me to another town for a client's business. My job, in cases like that, is investigating, not checking out four-star hotels. The most important thing was to be close to where I would be working and that I not run up an unmanageable bill. I've heard that some private investigators make it a point to stay somewhere nice at the client's expense, but it always seemed unprofessional to me, and a bad way to conduct business in the long term. It stood to reason that Elaine would have chosen it for similar reasons.
I didn't ask after her at the desk. I didn't need to. I just told Mouse, "Find 'em. "
Mouse sniffed the air and we started walking down halls like we owned the place. That's always important, the confidence. It keeps people from getting suspicious about why you're stalking around the building, and even when it doesn't deter them, it makes them respond more cautiously.
Mouse finally stopped at a door, and I extended my hand, half closing my eyes, feeling for magic. There was a ward over the door. It wasn't terribly fancy or solid - it couldn't be, without a threshold to use as a foundation - but it was exceedingly well crafted and I was sure it was Elaine's work. The spell looked like it would release only a tiny bit of energy, probably a pulse of light or some kind of audible sound that would alert her to company.
I debated, for a moment, making a Big Bad Wolf entrance, and decided against it. It wouldn't be terribly polite to Elaine, and the only person I wanted to scare was Helen Beckitt, assuming she was there. Besides which, tipped off by her alarm and wary about a murderer, Elaine might well send a lightning bolt through the doorway before she had a chance to see who was there. I knocked.
Nothing changed, but my instincts warned me that someone was on the other side of the door - not magic, just the sudden absence of the simple, solitary feel one gets when standing alone in an empty house.
I sensed a little stirring of the magic in the ward. Then the door rattled and swung open, revealing Elaine standing on the other side, one corner of her mouth tilted up in amusement.
"Oh, I get it," I said. "Not a ward. A peephole. "
"Sometimes a girl's got to improvise," she said. "You look awful. "
"Long night. "
"It must have been. I thought you were going to call. "
"I was in the neighborhood. "
She pursed her lips in speculation. "Were you?" I saw the wheels turning in her head for a moment, and then she nodded once and lowered her voice. "Which one?"
"Beckitt," I murmured back.
"She's here. "
I nodded, and she opened the door the rest of the way at the same time I stepped through it. She slipped to one side as I walked briskly into the room. It was clean, plain, a kind of minisuite with a queen bed, a couch, and a coffee table.
Priscilla sat on the couch in a pea green turtleneck and a scratchy-looking wool skirt, and scowled at me in disapproval of Dickensian proportion. Abby and Toto occupied the floor, where Toto was engaged in mortal combat with a white athletic sock he had pulled partway from the foot of his plump little owner, who sat looking distracted and distant. Anna sat on the edge of the bed, dark eyes tired, bloodshot, and serious, while Helen stood by the window again, holding the curtain aside just enough to gaze out.
Toto promptly abandoned the field of battle upon spying Mouse, and walked in a little nervous circle within a couple of inches of Abby's lap. Mouse went over to trade sniffs with the little dog, and promptly settled down to begin grooming Toto with long licks.
"Ladies," I said, then after a brief pause added, "Mrs. Beckitt. "
She didn't look at me. She just smiled and stared out the window. "Yes, Mister Dresden?"
"What do you know?" I asked her.
"I beg your pardon?" she said.
"You know something about this, and you aren't talking. Spill. "
"I can't imagine what you mean," she said.
Anna Ash rose and frowned. "Mister Dresden, surely you aren't accusing Helen of being involved in this business?"
"I'm pretty sure I am," I said. "Do they know about the first time we met, Helen? Have you told them?"
That drew looks from everyone in the room.
"Helen?" Abby said after a moment. "What is he talking about?"
"Go ahead, Mister Dresden," Helen said, very faint, very dry amusement giving her monotone a little life. "I wouldn't dream of cheating you of the satisfaction of looking down at one less righteous than yourself. "
"What is she talking about?" Priscilla demanded. She glared at me, probably with her mind already made up as to what she was going to think of me, regardless of what I said.
It's nice to know that some things in life are consistent, because Beckitt was disappointing me here. Her associates didn't know about her past. By revealing it, I was probably about to destroy whatever life she'd built for herself since she regained her freedom - something that would be a terrible injury to most people in her circumstances. She'd lost her daughter years ago, lost her husband shortly after, had been sent to prison and permanently stained with the guilt of her crimes.
I had expected her to attempt to evade me, to protest her innocence or accuse me of lying. Failing that, I thought the next most likely reaction would be for her to panic and flee, or e
lse panic and shut her mouth entirely. Depending on how badly she thought I was about to screw up her life, it was even possible that she might produce a weapon and attempt to murder me.
Instead, she just stood there, apparently unafraid, a quiet little smile hovering on her lips, unruffled, like some nascent saint before the man who was about to martyr her.
None of which added up. I hate it when things don't add up. But now that I'd forced the confrontation, here in front of the rest of the Ordo, I'd destroy any credibility I had if I backed out, which is what the whole mess was about: someone attempting to destroy the Council's credibility.
I backed off on the aggression and tried to make myself sound polite and compassionate, yet serious. "Did any of you know that Ms. Beckitt is a felon?"
Priscilla's eyes grew wide behind her glasses. She looked from me to Helen to Anna. Helen continued watching out the window, that same' little smile in place.
Anna was the first to speak. "No," she said, frowning. "She hasn't told us that. "
Beckitt might as well have been deaf, for all the reaction she showed.
"She was a part of a cult headed up by a sorcerer I had to take down several years ago," I said. I delivered it flat, without emphasis. "She participated in ritual magic that created a drug that hurt a lot of people, and helped out with other rites that murdered the sorcerer's criminal rivals. "
There was a shocked silence. "B-b-but. . . " Abby stammered. "But that's the First Law. The First Law . "
"Helen? Is that true?"
"Not quite," Helen said. "He didn't mention that the specific rituals used were sexual in nature. " She touched her tongue to her upper lip. "Strike that. Depraved and indiscriminately sexual in nature. "
Priscilla stared at Helen. "For God's sake, Helen. Why?"
Beckitt looked away from the window for the first time since I'd arrived, and the emptiness in her eyes was replaced with an impossibly remote, cold fury. Her voice lowered to a murmur as hard as a sheet of glacial ice. "I had reason to do so. "
I didn't meet that frozen gaze. I didn't want to see what was behind it. "You've got a record, Mrs. Beckitt. You've helped in supernatural murders before. Maybe you're doing it again. "
She shrugged, her expression becoming lifeless again. "And maybe I'm not. "
"Are you?" I said.
She went back to staring out the window. "What's the point in answering, Warden? It's obvious that you've already tried and convicted me. If I tell you I am involved, you will believe me guilty. If I tell you I am not involved, you will believe me guilty. The only thing I can do is deny you your precious moral justification. " She lifted a hand to her lips and pantomimed turning a key and throwing it away.
Silence fell. Anna got up and walked to Beckitt. Anna put a hand on her shoulder, and tugged gently until the other woman turned around.
"Don't answer," Anna said quietly. "There's no need for it, as far as I'm concerned. "
"And I," Priscilla said.
"Of course you aren't involved," Abby said.
Beckitt looked around the room at each of them in turn. Her mouth quivered for an instant, and her eyes glistened. She blinked them several times, but a single tear escaped and coursed over her cheekbone. She nodded to the Ordo once, and turned back to the window.
Instinct told me that this was not the reaction of a guilty woman - and no one could put on an act that good.
Beckitt wasn't involved. I was sure of it - now.
Detectives are supposed to learn things. All I'd done so far was to unlearn them, and the clock kept right on ticking.
Priscilla turned to me, her eyes narrowed. "Is there anything else of which you'd like to accuse us? Any other presumptuous bigotry you'd care to share?" She built her glare back up into the terawatt range, just for me.
It made me feel special. "Look," I said. "I'm trying to help you. "
"Oh?" Priscilla said, scorn in her voice. "Is that why all those people have been disappearing in the company of a man fitting your description?" I started to answer, but she cut me off. "Not that I expect you to tell us the truth, unless it serves whatever purpose you truly have in mind. "
I carefully did not lose my temper and barbecue her stupid face right then and there. "Angels weep when someone so perceptive, warmhearted, and loving turns cynical, Priscilla. "
"Harry. " Elaine sighed beside me. I glanced at her. She met my eyes for a moment, and though her lips didn't move, I heard her voice quite distinctly. God knows she makes a fine target of herself, but shooting off your mouth isn't helping.
I blinked at her a couple of times, and then smiled a little. The communion spell between us was an old one, but once upon a time we'd used it every day. School had been boring as hell, and it beat passing notes. It had also been handy when we'd been staying up past curfew and didn't want DuMorne to know we were awake.
I put a gentle effort of will behind words, and sent them to Elaine. God, I'd forgotten all about this. I haven't done it since I was sixteen.
Elaine showed me her smile - the swift, rare one, the one where her mouth widened and white teeth gleamed and her eyes took on golden highlights. Neither have I. Her expression sobered as she glanced at Priscilla, then back to me. Be gentle, Harry. They're hurting.
I frowned at her. What ?
She shook her head. Look around you.
I did, going more slowly this time. My focus on confronting Beckitt had prevented me from noticing what else was going on. The room was thick with tension and something heavy and bitter. Grief?
Then I saw what wasn't there. "Where's the little brunette?"
"Her name," Priscilla almost snarled, "was Olivia. "
I arched a brow and glanced at Elaine. "Was?"
"When we called her last night, she was all right," she told me. "When we arrived to pick her up, there was no answer at her door, and no one in her apartment. "
"Then how do you know. . . ?"
Elaine folded her arms, her expression neutral. "There are several security cameras around the building, and outside. One of them showed her leaving with a very pale, dark-haired man. "
I grunted. "How'd you get to the security footage?"
Elaine gave me a smile that bared a gratuitous number of teeth. "I said pretty please. "
I nodded, getting it. "You can get more with a kind word and well-applied kinetomancy than with just a kind word. "
"The security guard was a smug little twit," she said. "Bruises fade. "
She produced a couple of sheets of printer paper bearing grainy black-and-white images. Indeed, I recognized Olivia and her dancer's leotard, even from behind, which was a good angle for her. There was a man walking next to her. He looked to be maybe a tiny bit shy of six feet, had dark, glossy, shoulder-length black hair, and was dressed in jeans and a black tee. I could see his profile in one of the pictures, his head turned toward Olivia.
It was my brother.
It was Thomas.