Changes Chapter 49

Chapter 49

Everything changed the night the Red Court died. It made the history books.

First, for the unexplained destruction of several structures in Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢. A thousand years of jungle hadn't managed to bring the place down, but half an hour of slugfest between practitioners who know what they're doing can leave city blocks in ruins. It was later attributed to an extremely powerful localized earthquake. No one could explain all the corpses - some of them with dental work featuring techniques last used a hundred years before, some whose hearts had been violently torn from their chests, and whose bodies had been affected by some kind of mutation that had rendered their bones almost unrecognizable as human. Fewer than 5 percent of them were ever identified - and those were all people who had abruptly gone missing in the past ten or fifteen years. No explanation was ever offered for such a confluence of missing persons, though theories abounded, none of them true.

I could have screamed the truth from the mountaintops and blended right in with all the rest of the nuts. Everyone knows that vampires aren't real.

Second, it made the books because of all the sudden disappearances or apparent outright murders of important officials, businessmen, and financiers in cities and governments throughout Latin America. The drug cartels took the rap for that one, even in the nations where they weren't really strong enough to pull such tactics off. Martial law got declared virtually everywhere south of Texas, and a dozen revolutions in eight or ten different countries all kicked off, seemingly on the same night.

I've heard that nature abhors a vacuum - though if that's true, then I can't figure why about ninety-nine zillion percent of creation is vacuum. But I do know that governments hate 'em, and always rush to fill them up. So do criminals. Which probably tells you more about human beings than it does about nature. Most of the nations in South America proper kept their balance. Central America turned into a war zone, with various interests fighting to claim the territory the vampires had left behind them.

Finally, it made the books in the supernatural community as the night of bad dreams. Before the next sunset, the Paranet was buzzing with activity, with men and women scattered over half the world communicating about the vivid and troubling dreams they'd had. Pregnant women and mothers who had recently delivered had been hardest hit. Several had to be hospitalized and sedated. But everyone with a smidge of talent who was sleeping at the time was troubled by dreams. The general theme was always the same: dead children. The world in flames. Terror and death spreading across the globe in an unstoppable wave, destroying anything resembling order or civilization.

I don't remember what happened when the ritual went off. There's a blank spot in my head about two minutes wide. I had no desire whatsoever to find out what was there.

The next thing I remember is standing outside the temple with Maggie in my arms, wrapped up in the heavy feather cloak her mother had left behind. She was still shivering and crying quietly, but only in sheer reaction and weariness now, rather than terror. The shackles lay broken on the ground behind me. I don't remember how I got them off her without hurting her. She leaned against me, using a fold of the cloak as a pillow, and I sat down on the top step, holding her, to see what I had paid for.

The Red Court was dead. Gone. Every one of them. Most of the remains were little more than black sludge. That, I thought, marked the dead vampires. The half-breeds, though, only lost the vampire parts of their nature. The curse had cured them.

Of course, it was the vampire inside them that had kept them young and beautiful.

I saw hundreds of people on the ground aging a year for every one of my breaths. I watched them wither away to nothing, for the most part. It seemed that half-breeds came in a couple of flavors - those who had managed to discipline their thirst for blood, and thus carried on for centuries, and those who had not been half-vampires for very long. Very few of the latter had ranked in the Red King's Court. It turned out that most of the young half vampires had been working for the Fellowship, and many had already been killed by the Reds - but I heard later that more than two hundred others had been freed from their curse.

But for me, it wouldn't matter how many I'd freed in that instant of choice. No matter how high the number, it would need to be plus one to be square in my book.

Inevitably, the Red Court had contained a few newbies, and after the ritual went off, they were merely human again. They, and the other humans too dim to run any sooner, didn't last long once the Grey Council broke open the cattle car and freed the prisoners. The terror the Reds had inflicted on their victims became rage, and the deaths the Reds and their retainers suffered as a result weren't pretty ones. I saw a matronly woman who was all alone beat Alamaya to death with a rock.

I didn't get involved. I'd had enough for one day.

I sat and I rocked my daughter until she fell asleep against me. My godmother came to sit beside me, her gown singed and spattered with blood, a contented smile upon her face. People talked to me. I ignored them. They didn't push. I think Lea was warning them off.

Ebenezar, still bearing the Blackstaff in his left hand, came to me sometime later. He looked at the Leanansidhe and said, ’’Family business. Please excuse us.’’

She smirked at him and inclined her head. Then she stood up and drifted away.

Ebenezar sat down next to me on the eastern steps of the temple of Kukulcan and stared out at the jungle around us, beneath us. ’’Dawn's about here,’’ he said.

I looked. He was right.

’’Locals stay hidden in their houses until sunrise around here. Red Court would meet here sometimes. Induct new nobility and so on. Survival trait.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said. It was like that a lot, especially in nations that didn't have a ton of international respect. Something weird happens in Mexico;twenty million people can say that they saw it and no one cares.

’’Sun comes up, they'll be out. They'll call authorities. People will ask questions.’’

I listened to his statements and didn't disagree with any of them. After a moment, I realized that they were connected to a line of thought, and I said, ’’It's time to go.’’

’’Aye, soon,’’ Ebenezar said.

’’You never told me, sir,’’ I said.

He was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, ’’I've done things in my life, Hoss. Bad things. I've made enemies. I didn't want you to have them, too.’’ He sighed. ’’At least . . . not until you were ready.’’ He looked around at the remains of the Red Court. ’’Reckon you more or less are.’’

I thought about that while the sky grew lighter. Then I said, ’’How did Arianna know?’’

Ebenezar shook his head. ’’A dinner. Maggie - my Maggie - asked me to a dinner. She'd just taken up with that Raith bastard. Arianna was there. Maggie didn't warn me. They had some scheme they wanted my support on. The vampires thought I was just Maggie's mentor, then.’’ He sighed. ’’I wanted nothing to do with it. Said she shouldn't want it, either. And we fought.’’

I grunted. ’’Fought like family.’’

’’Yes,’’ he said. ’’Raith missed it. He's never had any family that was sane. Arianna saw it. Filed it away for future reference.’’

’’Is everything in the open now?’’ I asked.

’’Everything's never in the open, son,’’ he responded. ’’There're things we keep hidden from one another. Things we hide from ourselves. Things that are kept hidden from us. And things no one knows. You always learn the damnedest things at the worst possible times. Or that's been my experience.’’

I nodded.

’’Sergeant Murphy told me what happened.’’

I felt my neck tense. ’’She saw it?’’

He nodded. ’’Reckon so. Hell of a hard thing to do.’’

’’It wasn't hard,’’ I said quietly. ’’Just cold.’’

’’Oh, Hoss,’’ he said. There was more compassion in the words than you'd think would fit there.

Figures in grey gathered at the bottom of the stairs. Ebenezar eyed them with a scowl. ’’Time for me to go, looks like.’’

I nudged my brain and looked down at them. ’’You brought them here. For me.’’

’’Not so much,’’ he said. He nodded at the sleeping child. ’’For her.’’

’’What about the White Council?’’

’’They'll get things sorted out soon,’’ he said. ’’Amazing how things fell apart just long enough for them to sit them out.’’

’’With Cristos running it.’’

’’Aye.’’

’’He's Black Council,’’ I said.

’’Or maybe stupid,’’ Ebenezar countered.

I thought about it. ’’Not sure which is scarier.’’

Ebenezar blinked at me, then snorted. ’’Stupid, Hoss. Every time. Only so many blackhearted villains in the world, and they only get uppity on occasion. Stupid's everywhere, every day.’’

’’How'd Lea arrange a signal with you?’’ I asked.

’’That,’’ Ebenezar said sourly. ’’On that score, Hoss, I think our elders ran their own game on us.’’

’’Elders?’’

He nodded down the stairs, where the tall figure with the metal-headed staff had begun creating another doorway out of green lightning. Once it was formed, the space beneath the arch shimmered, and all the hooded figures at the bottom of the stairs looked up at us.

I frowned and looked closer. Then I realized that the metal head of the staff was a blade, and that the tall man was holding a spear. Within the hood, I saw a black eye patch, a grizzled beard, and a brief, grim smile. He raised the spear to me in a motion that reminded me, somehow, of a fencer's salute. Then he turned and vanished into the gate. One by one, the other figures in grey began to follow him.

’’Vadderung,’’ I said.

Ebenezar grunted. ’’That's his name this time. He doesn't throw in often. When he does, he goes to the wall. And in my experience, it means things are about to get bad.’’ He pursed his lips. ’’He doesn't give recognition like that lightly, Hoss.’’

’’I talked to him a couple of days ago,’’ I said. ’’He told me about the curse. Put the gun in my hand for me and showed me where to point it.’’

Ebenezar nodded. ’’He taught Merlin, you know. The original Merlin.’’

’’How'd Merlin make out?’’ I asked.

’’No one's sure,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’But from his journals . . . he wasn't the kind to go in his sleep.’’

I snorted.

The old man stood and used his right hand to pull his hood up over his face. He paused and then looked at me. ’’I won't lecture you about Mab, boy. I've made bargains myself, sometimes.’’ He twitched his left hand, which was still lined with black veins, though not as much as it had been hours before. ’’We do what we think we must, to protect who we can.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said.

’’She might lean on you pretty hard. Try to put you into a box you don't want to be in. But don't let her. She can't take away your will. Even if she can make it seem that way.’’ He sighed again, but there was bedrock in his voice. ’’That's the one thing all these dark beings and powers can't do. Take away your ability to choose. They can kill you. They can make you do things - but they can't make you choose to do 'em. They almost always try to lie to you about that. Don't fall for it.’’

’’I won't,’’ I said. I looked up at him and said, ’’Thank you, Grandfather.’’

He wrinkled up his nose. ’’Ouch. That doesn't fit.’’

’’Grampa,’’ I said. ’’Gramps.’’

He put his hand against his chest.

I smiled a little. ’’Sir.’’

He nodded at the child. ’’What will you do with her?’’

’’What I see fit,’’ I said, but gently. ’’Maybe it's better if you don't know.’’

Both pain and faintly amused resignation showed in his face. ’’Maybe it is. See you soon, Hoss.’’

He got halfway down the stairs before I said, ’’Sir? Do you want your staff?’’

He nodded at me. ’’You keep it, until I can get you a new blank.’’

I nodded back at him. Then I said, ’’I don't know what to say.’’

His eyes wrinkled up even more heavily at the corners. ’’Hell, Hoss. Then don't say anything.’’ He turned and called over his shoulder, ’’You get in less trouble that way!’’

My grandfather kept going down the stairs, walking with quick, sure strides. He vanished through the doorway of lightning.

I heard steps behind me, and turned to find Murphy standing in the entrance of the temple. Fidelacchius rode over one shoulder, and her P-90 hung from its strap on the other. She looked tired. Her hair was all coming out of its ponytail, strands hanging here and there. She studied my face, smiled slightly, and came down to where I sat.

’’Hey,’’ she said, her voice hushed. ’’You back?’’

’’I guess I am.’’

’’Sanya was worried,’’ she said, with a little roll of her eyes.

’’Oh,’’ I said. ’’Well. Tell him not to worry. I'm still here.’’

She nodded and stepped closer. ’’So this is her?’’

I nodded, and looked down at the sleeping little girl. Her cheeks were pink. I couldn't talk.

’’She's beautiful,’’ Murphy said. ’’Like her mother.’’

I nodded and rolled one tired and complaining shoulder. ’’She is.’’

’’Do you want someone else to take her for a minute?’’

My arms tightened on the child, and I felt myself turn a little away from her.

’’Okay,’’ Murphy said gently, raising her hands. ’’Okay.’’

I swallowed and realized that I was parched. Starving. And, more than anything, I was weary. Desperately, desolately tired. And the prospect of sleep was terrifying. I turned to look at Murphy and saw the pain on her face as she watched me. ’’Karrin,’’ I said. ’’I'm tired.’’

I looked down at the child, a sleepy, warm little presence who had simply accepted what meager shelter and comfort I had been able to offer. And I thought my heart would break. Break more. Because I knew that I couldn't be what she needed. That I could never give her what she had to have to stand a chance of growing up strong and sane and happy.

Because I had made a deal. If I hadn't done it, she'd be dead - but because I had, I couldn't be what she deserved to have.

Never looking away from the little girl's face, I whispered, ’’Will you do me a favor?’’

’’Yes,’’ Karrin said. Such a simple word, to have so much reassuring mass.

My throat tightened and my vision blurred. It took me two tries to speak. ’’Please take her to Father Forthill, when we get b-back,’’ I said. ’’T-tell him that she needs to disappear. The safest place he has. That I . . .’’ My voice failed. I took deep breaths and said, ’’And I don't need to know where. T-tell him that for me.’’

I turned to Murphy and said, ’’Please?’’

She looked at me as if her heart were breaking. But she had a soul of steel, of strength, and her eyes were steady and direct. ’’Yes.’’

I bit my lip.

And, very carefully, I passed my little girl over into her arms. Murphy took her, and didn't comment about the weight. But then, she wouldn't.

’’God,’’ I said, not two full seconds later. ’’Molly. Where is she?’’

Murphy looked up at me as she settled down to hold the child. The girl murmured a sleepy complaint, and Murphy rocked her gently to soothe her back to sleep. ’’Wow. You were really out of it. You didn't see the helicopter?’’

I raked through my memories of the night. ’’Um. No.’’

’’After . . .’’ She glanced at me and then away. ’’After,’’ she said more firmly, ’’Thomas found a landline and made a call. And a navy helicopter landed right out there on the lawn less than an hour later. Lifted him, Molly, and Mouse right out.’’

’’Mouse?’’

Murphy snorted gently. ’’No one was willing to tell him he couldn't go with Molly.’’

’’He takes his work seriously,’’ I said.

’’Apparently.’’

’’Do we know anything?’’ I asked.

’’Not yet,’’ Murphy said. ’’Sanya's manning the phone in the visitors'center. We gave Thomas the number before he left.’’

’’Be honest, Sergeant Murphy,’’ the Leanansidhe said quietly as she glided back over to me. ’’You gave the dog the number.’’

Murphy eyed her, then looked at me and said defensively, ’’Thomas seemed to have enough on his mind already.’’

I frowned.

’’Not like that,’’ Murphy said sternly. ’’Ugh. I wouldn't have let him go with her if he'd seemed . . . all weird.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said. ’’Yeah. Mouse wouldn't have, either, would he.’’

’’He was in no danger of losing control,’’ my godmother said calmly. ’’I would never let such a promising prospect be accidentally devoured.’’

Sanya appeared, jogging around the lower end of the pyramid from its far side. Esperacchius hung at his side - and Amoracchius, still in its sheath on Susan's white leather belt, hung from his shoulder.

I stared at the belt for a moment.

It hurt.

Sanya came chugging up the stairs, moving lightly for a big guy with so much muscle. He gave my godmother a pleasant smile, one hand checking to be sure that Amoracchius was still on his shoulder.

’’Next time,’’ Lea murmured.

’’I think not,’’ Sanya said, beaming. He turned to me. ’’Thomas called. He seemed surprised it was me. Molly is on navy cruiser on maneuvers in Gulf of Mexico. She will be fine.’’

I whistled. ’’How did . . . ?’’ I narrowed my eyes.

’’Lara?’’ Murphy asked quietly.

’’Got to be,’’ I answered.

’’Lara has enough clout to get a navy chopper sent into another country's airspace for an extraction?’’ Murphy kept on rocking Maggie as she spoke, seemingly unaware that she was still doing it. ’’That's . . . scary.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said. ’’Maybe she sang 'Happy Birthday, Mister President.'’’

’’Not to be rude,’’ Sanya said, ’’but I saw some people come up road in car and drive away very fast. Now would be a good time to . . .’’ He glanced over his shoulder and frowned. ’’Who left that lightning door there?’’

’’I arranged that,’’ Lea said lightly. ’’It will take you directly back to Chicago.’’

’’How'd you manage that?’’ I asked.

The Leanansidhe smoothed her gown, a hungry little smile on her lips, and folded her hands primly in her lap. ’’I . . . negotiated with its creator. Aggressively.’’

I made a choking sound.

’’After all, your quest must be completed, my child,’’ my godmother said. ’’Maggie must be made safe. And while I found the swim bracing, I thought it might not be safe for her. I'm given to understand that the little ones are quite fragile.’’

’’Okay,’’ I said. ’’I . . .’’ I looked back up at the temple. ’’I can't just leave her there.’’

’’Will you take her back to Chicago, child?’’ my godmother asked. ’’Allow your police to ask many questions? Perhaps slip her into your own grave at Graceland Boneyard, and cover her with dirt?’’

’’I can't just leave her,’’ I said.

The Leanansidhe looked at me and shook her head. Her expression was . . . less predatory than it could have been, even if it wasn't precisely gentle. ’’Go. I will see to the child's mother.’’ She lifted her hand to forestall my skeptical reply. ’’With all the honor and respect you would wish to bestow yourself, my godson. And I will take you to visit when you desire. You have my word.’’

A direct promise from one of the Sidhe is a rare thing. A kindness is even rarer.

But maybe I shouldn't have been surprised: Even in Winter, the cold isn't always bitter, and not every day is cruel.

Sanya, Murphy, and I went down the stairs and through the lightning gate. Murphy politely refused Sanya's offer to carry Maggie for her. He didn't know how to work her the right way to get her to accept help.

I offered to carry her gear.

She surrendered the Sword and her guns willingly enough, and I lagged a few steps behind them while I settled the straps and weaponry about myself. I hung the P-90, the only object Murph was carrying with enough open space in it to hide an itinerant spirit, so that it bumped against the skull still in the improvised bag on my belt and murmured, very quietly, ’’Out of the gun.’’

’’About time,’’ Bob whispered back. ’’Sunrise is almost here. You trying to get me cooked?’’ Orange light flowed wearily out of the apertures of the P-90 and back into the safety of the skull. The lights in the eye sockets flickered dimly, and the spirit's slurred voice whispered, ’’Don'gimme any work for a week. At least.’’ Then they flickered out.

I made sure the T-shirt was still tied firmly, and that the gun wasn't going to scratch the skull. Then I caught up to the others, and was the first one through the gateway.

It was like walking through a light curtain into another room. A step, a single stride, took me from Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢ to Chicago. Specifically, we emerged into Father Forthill's storage room-slash-refugee closet, and the lightning gate closed behind us with a snap of static discharge.

’’Direct flight,’’ said Sanya with both surprise and approval, looking around. ’’Nice.’’

Murphy nodded. ’’No stops? No weird places? How does that work?’’

I had no idea. So I just smiled, shrugged, and said, ’’Magic.’’

’’Good enough,’’ Murphy said with a sigh, and immediately settled Maggie down onto one of the cots. The child started to cry again, but Murphy shushed her and tucked her beneath the blankets and slipped a pillow beneath her head, and the little girl was out in seconds.

I watched Maggie without getting involved.

Her mother's blood was on my hands. Literally.

Sanya stepped up next to me and put his hand on my shoulder. He nodded toward the hallway and said, ’’We should talk.’’

’’Go ahead,’’ Murphy said. ’’I'll stay with her.’’

I nodded my thanks to her, and went out into the hallway with Sanya.

Wordlessly, he offered me Amoracchius. I stared at the Sword for a moment.

’’I'm not so sure I should have that,’’ I said.

’’If you were,’’ he said, ’’I wouldn't want you to have it. Uriel placed it in your care. If he wanted it moved, he should say so.’’

After a moment, I took the sword and hung its belt over the same shoulder as Fidelacchius. The Swords felt very heavy.

Sanya nodded. ’’Before he left, Thomas said to give you this. That you would know what it was.’’ He passed me a key.

I recognized it from the stamp on the head reading, WB. It stood for the name of the Water Beetle, Thomas's beat-up old commercial fishing boat. It had a bathroom, a shower, a little kitchen, some bunks. And I had a couple of changes of clothing there, from overnight trips to one of the islands in Lake Michigan.

My brother was offering me a place to stay.

I had to blink my eyes several times as I took the key. ’’Thank you,’’ I said to Sanya.

He studied my face for a second, thoughtfully. Then he said, ’’You're leaving now, aren't you?’’

I looked back toward Forthill's quiet little haven. ’’Yeah.’’

He nodded. ’’When will Mab come for you?’’

’’I don't know,’’ I said quietly. ’’Soon, I guess.’’

’’I will talk to Michael for you,’’ he said. ’’Tell him about his daughter.’’

’’I appreciate it,’’ I said. ’’Just so you know . . . Murphy knows my wishes regarding Maggie. She'll speak for me.’’

’’Da,’’ he said. Then he reached into his pocket and produced a metal flask. He sipped from it, and offered it to me. ’’Here.’’

’’Vodka?’’

’’Of course.’’

’’On an empty stomach,’’ I said, but took the flask, tilted it to him in a little salute, and downed a big swallow. It burned going in, but not necessarily in a bad way.

’’I am glad that we fought together,’’ he said, as I passed the flask back. ’’I will do everything in my power to help make your daughter safe until you can return.’’

I lifted my eyebrows. ’’Returning . . . isn't really in the cards, man.’’

’’I do not play cards,’’ he said. ’’I play chess. And in my opinion, this is not your endgame. Not yet.’’

’’Being the Winter Knight isn't the kind of job you walk out of.’’

’’Neither is being Knight of the Sword,’’ he said. ’’But Michael is with his family now.’’

’’Michael's boss was a hell of a lot nicer than mine.’’

Sanya let out a rolling laugh, and took another sip from the flask before slipping it back into his coat. ’’What will be, will be.’’ He offered me his hand. ’’Good luck.’’

I shook it. ’’And you.’’

’’Come,’’ the Russian said. ’’I will call you a cab.’’

I went down to the Water Beetle. I took off the armor. I hid the swords in the concealed compartments Thomas had built into the boat for just such an occasion, along with Bob's skull. And I took a long, long shower. The water heater on the tub wasn't much, but I was used to not having hot water. Being the Winter Knight didn't help when it came to the cold water, which seemed a complete rip-off to me - in other words, typical. I scrubbed and scrubbed at myself, especially my hands. I couldn't decide if Susan's blood was coming off my skin or just sinking in.

I moved mechanically after that, with the routine of a longtime bachelor. There was chicken soup and chili in the kitchen - sorry, galley. I heated them both up and ate them. I had a choice between white wine, orange juice, or warm Coke to go with them. The orange juice was about to go bad, so it won the decision. Hot soups and cold juice got along better than I thought they would, and I lay down on a bunk. I thought I would sleep.

I couldn't.

I lay there feeling the gentle motion of the great lake rocking the boat. Water made soft slaps and gurgles against the hull. Sunlight warmed the cabin. I was clean and dressed in an old pair of sweats and lying in a bed that was surprisingly comfortable - but I couldn't sleep.

The old clock on the wall - sorry, bulkhead - ticked with a steady, soothing rhythm.

But I couldn't sleep.

Chicken soup and chili. That was one hell of a last meal.

Maybe I should have had the cab stop at Burger King.

As noon closed in, I sat up and stared at my godmother's armor, which had stopped bullets and lightning bolts and maybe worse. I'd found several marks on the back and sides, but no corresponding memories matching them to any of the attacks I knew about. Evidently, it had handled a number of hits I hadn't noticed, and I knew that without the ridiculously ornate stuff I'd be dead.

The little ticking clock chimed twelve times at noon, and on the twelfth chime the armor changed. It . . . just melted back into my leather duster. The one Susan had given me before a battle a long, long time ago.

I picked up the coat. There were gaping wounds in it. Slashes. Patches burned away. Clearly visible bullet holes. There was more hole than there was coat, really, and even the surviving leather was cracked, dried, stiff, and flaking. It began to fall apart while I stood there examining it.

I guess nobody tried making a pie out of Cinderella's pumpkin once it got through being a carriage. Though in some versions of the story, I guess it had been an onion. Maybe you could have made soup.

I dropped the coat into the lake and watched it sink. I washed my face in the bathroom and squinted at the little mirror. My mother's amulet and gem gleamed against my bare chest.

Three days ago, my life had been business as usual. Now that little bit of silver and stone was just about the only thing I had left. Not my office. Not my house. Not my car. Not my dog - or my cat. God, where had Mister gone after the fire? Not my integrity. Not my freedom. Not my friends - not after Mab finished with me.

What was left?

A little bit of silver and a tiny rock.

And Maggie.

I sat down and waited to see what happened.

Footsteps came down the dock and then onto the boat. A moment later, Murphy knocked on the door, and then let herself into the cabin.

She looked like she'd come straight here from the church, since she was still in her whitened battle wear, and from her expression she hadn't slept. She exhaled slowly and nodded. ’’I thought so.’’

’’Murph,’’ I said. ’’Maybe you shouldn't be here.’’

’’I had to see you,’’ she said. ’’You . . . you just left.’’

’’Wanted to say good-bye?’’ I asked.

’’Don't be stupid,’’ she said. ’’I don't want to say it.’’ She swallowed. ’’Harry . . . it's just that . . . I was worried about you. I've never seen you like this.’’

’’I've never murdered my child's mother before,’’ I said tonelessly. ’’That's bound to take a little adjustment.’’

She shivered and looked away. ’’I just . . . just came to make sure that you aren't doing this to punish yourself. That you aren't going to . . . do anything dramatic.’’

’’Sure,’’ I said. ’’Nothing dramatic. That's me.’’

’’Dammit, Dresden.’’

I spread my hands. ’’What do you want from me, Murphy? There's nothing left.’’

She came and sat down next to me, her eyes on my face, on my chest and shoulders, taking in all the scars. ’’I know how you feel,’’ she said. ’’After Maggie was settled, I called in to the office. There's . . . been another investigation launched. That putz Rudolph.’’ She swallowed, and I could practically smell the pain on her. ’’The game's rigged. Stallings thinks he can get me early retirement. Half pension.’’

’’Jesus, Murphy,’’ I said, quietly.

’’I'm a cop, Harry,’’ she whispered. ’’But after this . . .’’ She spread her hands, to show me that nothing was in them.

’’I'm sorry,’’ I said. ’’I got you into this.’’

’’The f*k. You. Did.’’ She turned angry blue eyes to me. ’’Don't try that bullshit with me. I knew what I was doing. I took the risks. I paid for it. And I'll keep doing it for as long as I damned well please. Don't try to take that from me.’’

I looked away from her and felt a little bit ashamed. She was probably right. She could have backed off from me a long time ago. She'd chosen to be my friend, even though she'd known the danger. It didn't exactly make me feel any better about myself, but it made me respect her a little more.

Is it wrong of me to admire a woman who can take a hit? Take it with as much fortitude as anyone alive, and stand up again with the fire still in her eyes?

If it is, I guess I can blame it on a screwed-up childhood.

’’Do you want the Sword?’’ I asked.

She let out a quiet groan. ’’You sound like Sanya. That was the first thing he said.’’ She twisted her face into a stern mask wearing a big grin and mimicked his accent. ’’ 'This is excellent! I have been doing too much of the work!'’’

I almost laughed. ’’Well. I must say. It looks good on you.’’

’’Felt good,’’ she said. ’’Except for that pronouncement-of-doom thing. It was like someone else was using me as a sock puppet.’’ She shivered. ’’Ugh.’’

’’Yeah, archangels can be annoying.’’ I nodded toward the hidden compartment. ’’There's a space behind that panel. You ever want the Sword, check there.’’

’’I'm not rushing into anything. I've had rebound boyfriends. Not interested in a rebound career.’’

I grunted. ’’So. What are you going to do?’’

She shrugged. ’’I don't know. I don't want to think about it. I don't want to make any more decisions. So . . . I think I'm going to go get really drunk. And then have mindless se* with the first reasonably healthy male who walks by. Then have a really awkward hangover. And after that, we'll see.’’

’’Sounds like a good plan,’’ I said. And my mouth kept going without checking in with the rest of me. Again. ’’Do you want some company?’’

There was a sharp, heavy silence. Murphy actually stopped breathing. My heart rate sped up a little.

I wanted to curse my mouth for being stupid, but . . .

Why the hell not?

Bad timing is for people who have time.

’’I . . .’’ She swallowed, and I could see her forcing herself to speak casually. ’’I suppose you exercise. It would make things simpler.’’

’’Simple,’’ I said. ’’That's me.’’

Her hand went to her hair and she forced it back down. ’’I want to . . .’’ She took a breath. ’’I'll pick you up in an hour?’’

’’Sure,’’ I said.

She stood up, her cheeks pink. Hell's bells, it was an adorable look on her. ’’An hour, then,’’ she said.

Before she could leave, I caught her hand. Her hands were small and strong and just a little rough. She had bandages over a couple of burst blisters the sword had worn on her during half an hour or so of hard work. I bent over it and kissed the back of her fingers, one for each. I let her go reluctantly and said, my stomach muscles twitching with butterflies, ’’An hour.’’

She left and I saw her walking very quickly toward her car. Her ragged ponytail bobbed left and right with her steps.

The only thing certain in life is change. Most of my changes, lately, hadn't been good ones.

Maybe this one wouldn't be good either . . . but it didn't have that feel to it.

I took forty minutes shaving and putting on my nicest clothes, which amounted to jeans and a T-shirt and my old fleece-lined denim jacket. I didn't have any cologne, so the deodorant and soap would have to do. I didn't allow myself to think about what was going on. In a dream, if you ever start realizing it's a dream, poof, it's gone.

And I didn't want that to happen.

After that I spent a few minutes just . . . breathing. Listening to the water around me. The ticking of the clock. The peaceful silence. Drinking in the comforting sense of solitude all around me.

Then I said out loud, ’’Screw this Zen crap. Maybe she'll be early.’’ And I got up to leave.

I came out of the cabin and into the early-afternoon sun, quivering with pleasant tension and tired and haunted - and hopeful. I shielded my eyes against the sun and studied the city's skyline.

My foot slipped a little, and I nearly lost my balance, just as something smacked into the wall of the cabin behind me, a sharp popping sound, like a rock thrown against a wooden fence. I turned, and it felt slow for some reason. I looked at the Water Beetle's cabin wall, bulkhead, whatever, behind me and thought, Who splattered red paint on my boat?

And then my left leg started to fold all by itself.

I looked down at a hole in my shirt, just to the left of my sternum.

I thought, Why did I pick the shirt with a bullet hole in it?

Then I fell off the back of the boat, and into the icy water of Lake Michigan.

It hurt, but only for a second. After that, my whole body felt deliciously warm, monstrously tired, and the sleep that had evaded me seemed, finally, to be within reach.

It got dark

It got quiet.

And I realized that I was all by myself.

’’Die alone,’’ whispered a bitter, hateful old man's voice.

’’Hush, now,’’ whispered a woman's voice. It sounded familiar.

I never moved, but I saw a light ahead of me. With the light, I saw that I was moving down a tunnel, directly toward it. Or maybe it was moving toward me. The light looked like something warm and wonderful and I began to move toward it.

Right up until I heard a sound.

Typical, I thought. Even when you're dead, it doesn't get any easier.

The light rushed closer, and I distinctly heard the horn and the engine of an oncoming train.


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