Turn Coat Chapter 1517

Chapter Fifteen

The Senior Council members, as it turned out, do not live like paupers.

After I passed through still more security checkpoints, the stone hallway yielded to a hall the size of a ballroom that looked like something out of Versailles. A white marble floor with swirls of gold in it was matched in color to elegant white marble columns. A waterfall fell from the far wall, into a pool around which grew a plethora of plants, from grass to roses to small trees, forming a surprisingly complex little garden. The faint sound of wind chimes drifted through the air, and the golden light that poured down from crystals in the ceiling was indistinguishable from sunlight. Birds sang in the garden, and I saw the quick, darting black shape of a nightingale slalom between the pillars and settle in one of the trees.

A number of expensive, comfortable-looking sets of furniture were spaced in and near the garden, like the sets you sometimes see at the pricier hotels. A small table against one wall was covered with an eclectic buffet of foods, everything from cold cuts to what looked like the saut¨¦ed tentacles of an octopus, and a wet bar stood next to it, ready to protect the Senior Council members from the looming threat of dehydration.

A balcony ran around the entire chamber, ten feet up, and doors opened onto the Senior Council members'private chambers. I paced through the enormous, grandiose space of the Ostentatiatory to a set of stairs that swept grandly up one wall. I looked around until I spotted which door had a pair of temple-dog statues standing guard along with a sleepy-looking young man in a Warden's cape and a walking cast. I walked around the balcony and waved a hand at him.

I was just about to speak when both temple-dog constructs abruptly moved, turning their heads toward me with a grating sound of stone sliding against stone.

I stopped in my tracks, and held my hands up a little. ’’Nice doggy.’’

The young Warden peered at me and said something in a language I didn't recognize. He looked like someone from eastern Asia, though I couldn't have guessed at his nation of origin. He stared at me for a second, and I recognized him abruptly as one of the young men on Ancient Mai's personal staff. The last time I'd seen him, he'd been frozen half to death, trying to bear a message to Queen Mab. Now a broken ankle had presumably kept him from joining the search for Morgan.

Some people are just born lucky, I guess.

’’Good evening,’’ I said to him, in Latin, the official tongue of the White Council. ’’How are you?’’

Lucky stared at me for another moment before he said, ’’We are in Scotland. It is morning, sir.’’

Right. My half hour walk had taken me six time zones ahead. ’’I need to speak with Wizard Listens-to-Wind.’’

’’He is occupied,’’ Lucky told me. ’’He is not to be disturbed.’’

’’Wizard McCoy sent me to speak to him,’’ I countered. ’’He felt it was important.’’

Lucky narrowed his eyes until they were almost closed. Then he said, ’’Wait here, please. Do not move.’’

The temple dogs continued staring at me. Okay, I knew they weren't really staring. They were just rock. But for essentially mindless constructs, they had an intense gaze.

’’That will not be a problem,’’ I told him.

He nodded and vanished through the door. I waited for ten uncomfortable minutes before he returned, touched each dog lightly on the head, and nodded to me. ’’Go in.’’

I took a wary step, watching the constructs, but they didn't react. I nodded and went on by them, trying not to look like a nervous cat as I passed from the Ostentatiatory into LaFortier's chambers.

The first room I came to was a study, or an office, or possibly a curio shop. There was a massive desk carved out of some kind of unstained wood, though use and age had darkened the front edge, the handles of the drawers, and the area immediately in front of the modern office chair. A blotter lay precisely centered on the desk, with a set of four matching pens laid in a neat row. Shelves groaned with books, drums, masks, pelts, old weaponry, and dozens of other tokens that looked as though they came from exotic lands. The wall spaces between the shelves were occupied by shields fronted with two crossed weapons-a Norman kite shield with crossed broadswords, a Zulu buffalo-hide shield with crossed assegais, a Persian round shield with a long spike in its center with crossed scimitars, and many others. I knew museums that would declare Mardi Gras in the galleries if they could get their hands on a collection half that rich and varied.

A door at the far end of the study led into what was evidently a bedroom. I could see a dresser and the foot of a covered bed approximately the size of a railroad car.

I could also see red-black droplets of blood on the walls.

’’Come on, Harry Dresden,’’ called a quiet, weathered voice from the bedroom. ’’We're at a stopping point and waiting on you.’’

I walked into the bedroom and found myself standing in a crime scene.

The stench hit me first. LaFortier had been dead for days, and the second I crossed the threshold into the room, the odor of decay and death flooded my nose and mouth. He lay on the floor near the bed. Blood was sprinkled everywhere. His throat gaped wide-open, and he was covered in a black-brown crust of dried blood. There were defensive wounds on his hands, miniature versions of the slash on his throat. There might have been stab wounds on his torso, under the mess, but I couldn't be sure.

I closed my eyes for a second, swallowed down my urge to throw up, and looked around the rest of the room.

A perfect circle of gold paint had been inscribed on the floor around the body, with white candles burning at five equidistant points. Incense burned at five more points halfway between the candles, and take it from me-the scent of sandalwood doesn't complement that of a rotting corpse. It just makes it more unpleasant.

I stood staring down at LaFortier. He had been a bald man, a little over average height, and cadaverously skinny. He didn't look skinny now. The corpse had begun to bloat. The front of his shirt was stretched tight against its buttons. His back was arched and his hands had locked into claws. His teeth were bared in a grimace.

’’He died hard,’’ said the weathered voice, and ’’Injun Joe’’ Listens-to-Wind stepped out of a doorway that led to a bathroom, drying his hands on a towel. His long hair was grey-white, with a few threads of black in it. His leathery skin was the ruddy bronze of a Native American complexion exposed to plenty of sunshine, and his eyes were dark and glittering beneath white brows. He wore faded blue jeans, moccasin boots, and an old Aerosmith T-shirt. A fringed leather bag hung from a belt that ran slantwise across his body, and a smaller, similar bag hung from a thong around his neck. ’’Hello, Harry Dresden.’’

I bowed my head to him respectfully. Injun Joe was generally regarded as the most skilled healer on the White Council, and maybe in the world. He had earned doctoral degrees in medicine from twenty universities over the years, and he went back to school every decade or two to help him stay current with modern practice. ’’Went down fighting,’’ I agreed, nodding to LaFortier.

Injun Joe studied the body for a moment, his eyes sad. Then he said, ’’I'd rather go in my sleep, I think.’’ He glanced back at me. ’’What about you?’’

’’I want to be stepped on by an elephant while having se* with identical triplet cheerleaders,’’ I said.

He gave me a grin that briefly stripped a century or two of care and worry from his face. ’’I've known a lot of kids who wanted to live forever.’’ The smile faded as he looked back to the dead man. ’’Maybe someday that will happen. But maybe not. Dying is part of being alive.’’

There wasn't much I could say to that. I was quiet for a minute. ’’What are you setting up here?’’

’’His death left a mark,’’ the old wizard replied. ’’We're going to reassemble the psychic residue into an image.’’

I arched an eyebrow. ’’Is... that even possible?’’

’’Normally, no,’’ Injun Joe said. ’’But this room is surrounded on all sides by wards. We know what they're all supposed to look like. That means we can extrapolate where the energy came from by what impact it had on the wards. It's also why we haven't moved the body.’’

I thought about it for a minute. What Injun Joe was describing was possible, I decided, but only barely. It would be something like trying to assemble an image illuminated by a single flash of light by backtracking how the light in the flash had all bounced around the room. The amount of focus, concentration, and the sheer mental process that would be involved in imagining the spell that could reassemble that image were staggering.

’’I thought this was open and shut already,’’ I said.

’’The evidence is conclusive,’’ Injun Joe said.

’’Then why are you bothering with this... this... thing?’’

Injun Joe looked at me steadily and didn't say anything.

’’The Merlin,’’ I said. ’’He doesn't think Morgan did it.’’

’’Whether he did it or not,’’ Injun Joe said, ’’Morgan was the Merlin's right hand. If he is tried and found guilty, the Merlin's influence, credibility, and power will wane.’’

I shook my head. ’’Gotta love politics.’’

’’Don't be a child,’’ Injun Joe said quietly. ’’The current balance of power was largely established by the Merlin. If he is undone as the leader of the Council, it will cause chaos and instability across the supernatural world.’’

I thought about that for a minute. Then I asked, ’’You think he's going to try to fake something?’’

Injun Joe didn't react for a moment, and then he shook his head slowly and firmly. ’’I won't let him.’’

’’Why not?’’

’’Because LaFortier's death has changed everything.’’

’’Why?’’

Injun Joe nodded toward the study. ’’LaFortier was the member of the Council with the most contacts outside of the Western nations,’’ he said. ’’Many, many members of the Council come from Asia, Africa, South America-most of them from small, less powerful nations. They feel that the White Council ignores their needs, their opinions. LaFortier was their ally, the only member of the Senior Council who they felt treated them fairly.’’

I folded my arms. ’’And the Merlin's right-hand man killed him.’’ ’’Whether Morgan is guilty or not, they think he did it, possibly on the Merlin's orders,’’ Injun Joe said. ’’If he is found innocent and set free, matters could turn ugly. Very ugly.’’

My stomach turned again. ’’Civil war.’’

Injun Joe sighed and nodded.

Fantastic.

’’Where do you stand?’’ I asked him.

’’I would like to say that I stood with the truth,’’ he said, ’’but I cannot. The Council could survive the loss of Morgan without falling to pieces, even if it means a period of chaos while things settle out.’’ He shook his head. ’’A civil war would certainly destroy us.’’

’’So Morgan did it, and that's all there is to it,’’ I said quietly.

’’If the White Council falls, who will stand between humanity and those who would prey upon it?’’ He shook his head, and his long braid gently bumped his back. ’’I respect Morgan, but I cannot permit that to happen. He is one man balanced against mankind.’’

’’So it's going to be Morgan, when you're finished,’’ I said. ’’No matter who it really is.’’

Injun Joe bowed his head. ’’I... doubt that it will work. Even with the Merlin's expertise.’’

’’What if it does? What if it shows you another killer? You start picking who lives and who dies, and to hell with the truth?’’

Injun Joe turned his dark eyes to me, and his voice became quiet and harder than stone. ’’Once, I watched the tribe I was expected to guide and protect be destroyed, Harry Dresden. I did so because my principles held that it was wrong for the Council or its members to involve itself in manipulating the politics of mortals. I watched and restrained myself, until it was too late for me to make a difference. When I did that, I chose who would live and who would die. My people died for my principles.’’ He shook his head. ’’I will not make that mistake again.’’

I looked away from him, and remained silent.

’’If you would excuse me,’’ he said, and walked from the room.

Hell's bells.

I had been hoping to enlist Injun Joe's aid-but I hadn't counted on the additional political factors. I didn't think he'd try to stop me if he knew what I was up to, but he certainly wasn't going to help. The more I dug, the messier this thing kept getting. If Morgan was vindicated, doom. If he wasn't vindicated, doom.

Doom, doom, and doom.

Damn.

I couldn't even be angry at Injun Joe. I understood his position. Hell, if it was me on the Senior Council and I was the one making the call, I wasn't completely confident that I wouldn't react the same way.

My headache started coming on again.

How the hell was I supposed to do the right thing if there wasn't a right thing?

Chapter Sixteen

I stared at LaFortier's corpse for a moment longer, shook my head, and then pulled one of those disposable cameras you can get from a vending machine out of my duster pocket. I walked around the room snapping pictures of the body, the blood splatters, and the broken bits of furniture. I ran through the entire role of film, making the most complete record of the scene that I could, and then pocketed the camera again and turned to leave LaFortier's chambers.

Back in the Ostentatiatory, I heard voices drifting up from below. I nodded pleasantly to Lucky, who gave me an inscrutable look, and walked to the balcony railing.

Listens-to-Wind and the Merlin were standing by the buffet table, speaking quietly. Peabody hovered in the background, carrying a different set of folders, ledgers, and pens.

I paused for a moment to Listen. It's a trick I picked up somewhere along the line-not really magic, per se, as much as it is turning my mental focus completely to my sense of hearing.

’’... to find out the truth,’’ the Merlin was saying as he loaded up a plate with tiny sandwiches and wedges of cheese and fresh green grapes. ’’Surely you have no objection to that.’’

’’I think the truth is already well established,’’ Listens-to-Wind replied quietly. ’’We're just wasting time here. We should be focusing on controlling the fallout.’’

The Merlin was a tall man, regal of bearing, with a long white beard and long white hair to go with it-every inch the wizard's wizard. He wore a blue robe and a silver circlet about his brow, and his staff was an elegant length of pure white wood, completely free of any marking. He paused in loading his plate and regarded Injun Joe with a level gaze. ’’I'll take it under advisement.’’

Injun Joe Listens-to-Wind sighed and held up his hands palms forward in a conciliatory gesture. ’’We're ready to begin.’’

’’Let me get some food in me and I'll be right in.’’

’’Ahem,’’ Peabody said diffidently. ’’Actually, Wizard Listens-to-Wind, if you could sign a few papers for me while the Merlin eats, it would be greatly appreciated. There are two files on your desk that need your approval and I have three...’’ He paused and began to juggle the load in his arms until he could peer into a folder. ’’No four, four others here with me.’’

Injun Joe sighed. ’’Okay,’’ he said. ’’Come on.’’ The two of them walked toward the stairs leading up to the balcony, turned the opposite way I had when they reached the top, and entered a chamber on the far side of the room.

I waited until they were gone to descend the staircase to the ground level.

The Merlin had seated himself in the nearest group of chairs and was eating his sandwiches. He froze for a second as he saw me, and then smoothly resumed his meal. Funny. I didn't like the Merlin much more than I would a case of flaming gonorrhea, but I had never seen him in this context before. I'd always seen him at the head of a convened Council, and as this remote and unapproachable figure of unyielding authority and power.

I'd never even considered the notion that he might eat sandwiches.

I was about to go on past him, but instead swerved and came to a stop standing over him.

He continued eating, apparently unconcerned, until he'd finished the sandwich. ’’Come to gloat, have you, Dresden?’’ he asked.

’’No,’’ I said quietly. ’’I'm here to help you.’’

He dropped the bit of cheese he'd been about to bite into. It fell to the floor, unnoticed, as his eyes narrowed, regarding me suspiciously. ’’Excuse me?’’

I bared my teeth in a cold little smile. ’’I know. It's like having a cheese grater shoved against my gums, just saying it.’’

He stared at me for a silent minute before taking in a slow breath, settling back into the chair, and regarding me with steady blue eyes. ’’Why should I believe you would do any such thing?’’

’’Because your balls are in a vise and I'm the only one who can pull them out,’’ I said.

He arched an elegant silver eyebrow.

’’Okay,’’ I said. ’’That came out a little more homoerotic than I intended.’’

’’Indeed,’’ said the Merlin.

’’But Morgan can't stay hidden forever and you know it. They'll find him. His trial will last about two seconds. Then he falls down and breaks his crown and your political career comes tumbling after.’’

The Merlin seemed to consider that for a moment. Then he shrugged a shoulder. ’’I think it's far more likely that you will work very, very hard to make sure he dies.’’

’’I like to think I work smarter, not harder,’’ I said. ’’If I want him dead, all I need to do is stand around and applaud. It isn't as though I can make his case any worse.’’

’’Oh,’’ said the Merlin. ’’I'm not so certain. You have vast talents in that particular venue.’’

’’He's already being hunted. Half the Council is howling for his blood. From what I hear, all the evidence is against him-and anything I find out about him is going to be tainted against him by our antagonistic past.’’ I shrugged. ’’At this point, I can't do any more damage. So what have you got to lose?’’

A small smile touched the corners of his mouth. ’’Let's assume, for a moment, that I agree. What do you want from me?’’

’’A copy of his file,’’ I said. ’’Everything you've found out about LaFortier's death, and how Morgan pulled it off. All of it.’’

’’And what do you intend to do with it?’’ the Merlin asked.

’’I thought I'd use the information to find out who killed LaFortier,’’ I said.

’’Just like that.’’

I paused to think for a minute. ’’Yeah. Pretty much.’’

The Merlin took another bite of cheese and chewed it deliberately. ’’If my own investigations yield fruit,’’ he said, ’’I won't need your help.’’

’’The hell you won't,’’ I said. ’’Everyone knows your interests are going to lie in protecting Morgan. Anything you turn up to clear him is going to be viewed with suspicion.’’

’’Whereas your antagonism with Morgan is well-known,’’ the Merlin mused. ’’Anything you find in his favor will be viewed as the next best thing to divine testimony.’’ He tilted his head and stared at me. ’’Why would you do such a thing?’’

’’Maybe I don't think he did it.’’

His eyebrows lifted in amusement that never quite became a smile. ’’And the fact that the man who died was one of those whose hand was set against you when you were yourself held in suspicion has nothing to do with it.’’

’’Right,’’ I said, rolling my eyes. ’’There you go. There's my self-centered, petty, vengeful motivation for wanting to help Morgan out. Because it serves that dead bastard LaFortier right.’’

The Merlin considered me for another long moment, and then shook his head. ’’There is a condition.’’

’’A condition,’’ I said. ’’Before you will agree to let me help you get your ass out of the fire.’’

He gave me a bleak smile. ’’My ass is reasonably comfortable where it is. This is hardly my first crisis, Warden.’’

’’And yet you haven't told me to buzz off.’’

He lifted a finger, a gesture reminiscent of a fencer's salute. ’’Touch¨¦. I acknowledge that it is, technically, possible for you to prove useful.’’

’’Gosh, I'm glad I decided to be gracious and offer my aid. In fact, I'm feeling so gracious, I'm even willing to listen to your condition.’’

He shook his head slowly. ’’It simply isn't sufficient to prove that Morgan is innocent. The traitor within our ranks is real. He must be found. Someone must be held accountable for what happened to LaFortier-and not just for the sake of the Council's membership. Our enemies must know that there are consequences to such actions.’’

I nodded. ’’So not only prove Morgan innocent, but find the guy who did it, too. Maybe I can set the whole thing to music and do a little dance while I'm at it.’’

’’I feel obligated to point out that you approached me, Dresden.’’ He gave me his brittle smile again. ’’The situation must be dealt with cleanly and decisively if we are to avoid chaos.’’ He spread his hands. ’’If you can't present that sort of resolution to the problem, then this conversation never happened.’’ His eyes hardened. ’’And I will expect your discretion.’’

’’You'd hang your own man out to dry. Even though you know he's innocent.’’

His eyes glittered with a sudden cold fire, and I had to work not to flinch. ’’I will do whatever is necessary. Bear that in mind as you 'help'me.’’

A door opened upstairs, and in a few seconds Peabody began a precarious descent of the stairs, balancing his ledgers and folders as he did.

’’Samuel,’’ the Merlin said, his eyes never leaving me. ’’Be so good as to provide Warden Dresden with a complete copy of the file on LaFortier's murder.’’

Peabody stopped before the Merlin, blinking. ’’Ah. Yes, of course, sir. Right away.’’ He glanced at me. ’’If you would come this way, Warden?’’

’’Dresden,’’ the Merlin said in a pleasant tone. ’’If this is some sort of ruse, you would be well-advised to be sure I never learn of it. My patience with you wears thin.’’

The Merlin was generally considered to be the most capable wizard on the planet. The simple words with their implied threat were almost chilling.

Almost.

’’I'm sure you'll last long enough for me to help you out of this mess, Merlin.’’ I smiled at him and held up my hand, palm up, fingers spread, as if holding an orange in them. ’’Balls,’’ I said. ’’Vise. Come on, Peabody.’’

Peabody blinked at me as I swept past him on the way to the door, his mouth opening and closing silently several times. Then he made a few vague, sputtering sounds and hurried to catch up with me.

I glanced back at the Merlin as I reached the door.

I could clearly see his cold, flat blue eyes burning with fury while he sat in apparent relaxation and calm. The fingers of his right hand twitched in a violent little spasm that did not seem to touch the rest of his body. For an instant, I had to wonder just how desperate he had to be to accept my help. I had to wonder how smart it was to goad him like that.

And I had to wonder if that apparent calm and restrained exterior was simply a masterful control of his emotions-or if, under the pressure, it had become some kind of quiet, deadly madness.

Damn Morgan, for showing up at my door.

And damn me, for being fool enough to open it.

Chapter Seventeen

Peabody went into an immaculate office lined with shelves bearing books arranged with flawless precision, grouped by height and color. Many of the shelves were loaded with binders presumably full of files and documents, similarly organized, in a dazzling array of hues. I files and documents, similarly organized, in a dazzling array of hues. I guess it takes all kinds of colors to make a bureaucratic rainbow.

I started to follow him inside, but he turned on me with a ferocious glare. ’’My office is a bastion of order, Warden Dresden. You have no place in it.’’

I looked down at him for a second. ’’If I was a sensitive guy, that would hurt my feelings.’’

He gave me a severe look over his spectacles and said, as if he thought the words were deadly venom and might kill me, ’’You are an untidy person.’’

I put my hand over my heart, grinning at him. ’’Ow.’’

The tips of his ears turned red. He turned around stiffly and walked into the office. He opened a drawer and started jerking binders out of it with more force than was strictly necessary.

’’I read your book, by the way,’’ I said.

He looked up at me and then back down. He slapped a binder open.

’’The one about the Erlking?’’ I said. ’’The collected poems and essays?’’

He took a folder out of the binder, his back stiff.

’’The Warden from Bremen said you got the German wrong on the title,’’ I continued. ’’That must have been kind of embarrassing, huh? I mean, it's been published for like a hundred years or something. Must eat at you.’’

’’German,’’ said Peabody severely, ’’is also untidy.’’ He walked over to me with the folder, a pad of paper, an inkwell, and a quill. ’’Sign here.’’

I reached out for the quill with my right hand, and seized the folder with my left. ’’Sorry. No autographs.’’

Peabody nearly dropped the inkwell, and scowled at me. ’’Now see here, Warden Dresden-’’

’’Now, now, Simon,’’ I said, taking vengeance on behalf of the German-speaking peoples of the world. ’’We wouldn't want to screw up anyone's plausible deniability, would we?’’

’’My given name is Samuel,’’ he said stiffly. ’’You, Warden Dresden, may address me as Wizard Peabody.’’

I opened the file and skimmed over it. It was modeled after modern police reports, including testimony, photographs, and on-site reports from investigating Wardens. The militant arm of the White Council, at least, seemed to be less behind the times than the rest of us dinosaurs. That was largely Anastasia's doing. ’’Is this the whole file, Sam?’’

He gritted his teeth. ’’It is.’’

I slapped it shut. ’’Thanks.’’

’’That file is official property of the Senior Council,’’ Peabody protested, waving the paper and the ink. ’’I must insist that you sign for it at once.’’

’’Stop!’’ I called. ’’Stop, thief!’’ I put a hand to my ear, listened solemnly for a few seconds and shook my head. ’’Never a Warden around when you need one, is there, Sam?’’

Then I walked off and left the little wizard sputtering behind me.

I get vicious under pressure.

The trip back was quieter than the one in. No B-movie escapees tried to frighten me to death-though there were a few unidentifiable bits wrapped up in spider silk, hanging from the trees where I'd established the pecking order, apparently all that was left of the bug I'd smashed.

I came out of the Nevernever and back into the alley behind the old meatpacking plant without encountering anything worse than spooky ambience. Back in Chicago, it was the darkest hour of night, between three and four in the morning. My head was killing me, and between the psychic trauma the skinwalker had given me, the power I'd had to expend during the previous day, and a pair of winter wonderland hikes, I was bone-weary.

I walked another five blocks to the nearest hotel with a taxi stand, flagged down a cab, and returned to my apartment. When I first got into the business, I didn't think anything of sacrificing my sleeping time to the urgency of my cases. I wasn't a kid in my twenties anymore, though. I'd learned to pace myself. I wouldn't help anyone if I ran myself ragged and made a critical error because I was too tired to think straight.

Mister, my bobtailed grey tomcat, came flying out of the darkened apartment as I opened the door. He slammed his shoulder into my legs, startled me half to death, and nearly put me on my ass. He's the next best thing to thirty pounds of cat, and when he hits me with his shoulder block of greeting I know it.

I leaned down to grab him and prevent him from leaving, and wearily let myself into the house. It felt a lot quieter and emptier without Mouse in it. Don't get me wrong: me and Mister were roommates for years before the pooch came along. But it had taken considerable adjustments for both of us to get used to sharing our tiny place with a monstrous, friendly dust mop, and the sudden lack of his presence was noticeable and uncomfortable.

But Mister idly sauntered over to Mouse's bowl, ate a piece of kibble, and then calmly turned the entire bowl over so that kibble rolled all over the floor of the kitchen alcove. Then he went to Mouse's usual spot on the floor and lay down, sprawling luxuriously. So maybe it was just me.

I sat down on the couch, made a call, left a message, and then found myself lacking sufficient ambition to walk all the way into my bedroom, strip the sheets Morgan had bloodied, and put fresh ones on before I slept.

So instead I just stretched out on the couch and closed my eyes. Sleep was instantaneous.

I didn't so much as stir until the front door opened, and Murphy came in, holding the amulet that let her in past my wards. It was morning, and cheerful summer sunlight was shining through my well windows.

’’Harry,’’ she said. ’’I got your message.’’

Or at least, that's what I think she said. It took me a couple of tries to get my eyes open and sit up. ’’Hang on,’’ I said. ’’Hang on.’’ I shambled into the bathroom and sorted things out, then splashed some cold water on my face and came back into the living room. ’’Right. I think I can sort of understand English now.’’

She gave me a lopsided smile. ’’You look like crap in the morning.’’

’’I always look like this before I put on my makeup,’’ I muttered.

’’Why didn't you call my cell? I'd have shown up right away.’’

’’Needed sleep,’’ I said. ’’Morning was good enough.’’

’’I figured.’’ Murphy drew a paper bag from behind her back. She put it down on the table.

I opened it. Coffee and donuts.

’’Cop chicks are so hot,’’ I mumbled. I pushed Peabody's file across the table to her and started stuffing my face and guzzling.

Murphy went through it, frowning, and a few minutes later asked, ’’What's this?’’

’’Warden case file,’’ I said. ’’Which you are not looking at.’’

’’The worm has turned,’’ she said bemusedly. ’’Why am I not looking at it?’’

’’Because it's everything the Council has about LaFortier's death,’’ I said. ’’I'm hoping something in here will point me toward the real bad guy. Two heads are better than one.’’

’’Got it,’’ she said. She took a pen and a notepad from her hip pocket and set them down within easy reach. ’’What should I be looking for?’’

’’Anything that stands out.’’

She held up a page. ’’Here's something,’’ she said in a dry tone. ’’The vic was two hundred and seventy-nine years old when he died.’’

I sighed. ’’Just look for inconsistencies.’’

’’Ah,’’ she said wisely.

Then we both fell quiet and started reading the documents in the file.

Morgan had given it to me straight. A few days before, a Warden on duty in Edinburgh heard a commotion in LaFortier's chambers. She summoned backup, and when they broke in, they found Morgan standing over LaFortier's still-warm corpse holding the murder weapon. He professed confusion and claimed he did not know what had happened. The weapon had been matched to LaFortier's wounds, and the blood had matched as well. Morgan was imprisoned and a rigorous investigation had turned up a hidden bank account that had just received a cash deposit of a hell of a lot of money. Once confronted with that fact, Morgan managed to escape, badly wounding three Wardens in the process.

’’Can I ask you something?’’ Murphy said.

’’Sure.’’

’’One of the things that make folks leery of pulling the trigger on a wizard is his death curse, right?’’

’’Uh-huh,’’ I said. ’’If you're willing to kill yourself to do it, you can lay out some serious harm on your killer.’’

She nodded. ’’Is it an instantaneous kind of thing?’’

I pursed my lips. ’’Not really.’’

’’Then how long does it take? Minutes? Seconds?’’

’’About as long as it takes to pull a gun and plug somebody,’’ I said. ’’Some would be quicker than others.’’

’’A second or three, then.’’

’’Yeah.’’

’’Did Morgan get blasted by LaFortier's death curse then?’’

I lifted an eyebrow. ’’Um. It's sort of hard to say. It isn't always an immediate effect.’’

’’Best guess?’’

I sipped at the last of the coffee. ’’LaFortier was a member of the Senior Council. You don't get there without some serious chops. A violent death curse from someone like that could turn a city block to glass. So if I had to guess, I'd say no. LaFortier didn't throw it.’’

’’Why not?’’

I frowned some more.

’’He had time enough,’’ Murphy said. ’’There was obviously a struggle. The vic has defensive wounds all over his arms-and he bled to death. That doesn't take long, but it's plenty of time to do the curse thing.’’

’’For that matter,’’ I mused, ’’why didn't either of them use magic? This was a strictly physical struggle.’’

’’Could their powers have canceled each other out?’’

’’Technically, I guess,’’ I said. ’’But that sort of thing needs serious synchronization. It doesn't often happen by accident.’’

’’Well. That's something, then,’’ she said. ’’Both men either chose not to use magic or else were unable to use magic. Ditto the curse. Either LaFortier chose not to use it, or he was incapable of using it. The question is, why?’’

I nodded. ’’Sound logic. So how does that help us get closer to the killer?’’

She shrugged, unfazed. ’’No clue.’’

That's how investigation works, most of the time. Cops, detectives, and quixotic wizards hardly ever know which information is pertinent until we've actually got a pretty good handle on what's happening. All you can do is accumulate whatever data you can, and hope that it falls into a recognizable pattern.

’’Good thought, but it doesn't help yet,’’ I said. ’’What else have we got?’’

Murphy shook her head. ’’Nothing that I can see yet. But do you want a suggestion?’’

’’Sure.’’

She held up the page with the details on the incriminating bank account. ’’Follow the money.’’

’’The money?’’

’’Witnesses can be mistaken-or bought. Theories and deductions can throw you completely off target.’’ She tossed the page back onto the coffee table. ’’But the money always tells you something. Assuming you can find it.’’

I picked up the page and scanned it again. ’’A foreign bank. Amsterdam. Can you get them to show you where the payment came from?’’

’’You're kidding,’’ Murphy said. ’’It would take me days, weeks, maybe months to go through channels and get that kind of information from an American bank, if I could get it at all. From a foreign bank specializing in confidentiality? I've got a better chance of winning a slam-dunk contest against Michael Jordan.’’

I grunted. I got the disposable camera out of my duster pocket and passed it over to Murphy. ’’I snapped some shots of the scene-a lot more of them than are in the Wardens'file. I'd like to get your take on them.’’

She took the camera and nodded. ’’Okay. I can take them by a photo center and-’’

My old rotary telephone rang, interrupting her. I held up a hand to her and answered it.

’’Harry,’’ Thomas said, his voice tight. ’’We need you here. Now.’’

I felt my body thrum into a state of tension. ’’What's happening?’’

’’Hurry!’’ my brother snapped. ’’I can't take them on by m-’’

The line went dead.

Oh, God.

I looked up at Murphy, who took one look at my face and rose to her feet, car keys in hand, already moving toward the door. ’’Trouble?’’

’’Trouble.’’

’’Where?’’

I rose, seizing my staff and blasting rod. ’’Storage rental park off Deerfield Square.’’

’’I know it,’’ Murphy said. ’’Let's go.’’


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