Turn Coat Chapter 46
About five minutes after I left Thomas's place, I found myself instinctively checking the rearview mirror every couple of seconds and recognized the quiet tension that had begun to flow through me. My gut was telling me that I'd picked up a tail.
Granted, it was only an intuition, but hey. Wizard, over here. My instincts had earned enough credibility to make me pay attention to them. If they told me someone was following me, it was time to start watching my back.
If someone was following me, it wasn't necessarily connected to the current situation with Morgan. I mean, it didn't absolutely have to be, right? But I hadn't survived a ton of ugly furballs by being thick all of the time. Generally, maybe, but not all the time, and I'd be an idiot to assume that my sudden company was unconnected to Morgan.
I took a few turns purely for fun, but I couldn't spot any vehicles following mine. That didn't necessarily mean anything. A good surveillance team, working together, could follow a target all but invisibly, especially at night, when every car on the road looked pretty much like the same pair of headlights. Just because I couldn't see them didn't mean that they weren't there.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I felt my shoulders ratcheting tighter with each passing streetlight.
What if my pursuer wasn't in a car?
My imagination promptly treated me to visions of numerous winged horrors, soaring silently on batlike wings just above the level of the ambient light of the city, preparing to dive down upon the Blue Beetle and tear it into strips of sheet metal. The streets were busy, as they almost always were in this part of town. It was one hell of a public location for a hit, but that didn't automatically preclude the possibility. It had happened to me before.
I chewed on my lower lip and thought. I couldn't go back to my apartment until I was sure that I had shaken the tail. To do that, I'd have to spot him.
I wasn't going to get through the next two days without taking some chances. I figured I might as well get started.
I drew in a deep breath, focused my thoughts, and blinked slowly, once. When I opened my eyes again, I brought my Sight along with them.
A wizard's Sight, his ability to perceive the world around him in a vastly broadened spectrum of interacting forces, is a dangerous gift. Whether it's called spirit vision, or inner sight, or the Third Eye, it lets you perceive things you'd otherwise never be able to interact with. It shows you the world the way it really is, matter all intertwined with a universe of energy, of magic. The Sight can show you beauty that would make angels weep humble tears, and terrors that the Black-Goat-with-a-Thousand-Young wouldn't dare use for its kids'bedtime stories.
Whatever you see, the good, the bad, the insanity-inducing-it sticks with you forever. You can't ever forget it, and time doesn't blur the memories. It's yours. Permanently.
Wizards who run around using their Sight willy-nilly wind up bonkers.
My Third Eye showed me Chicago, in its true shape, and for a second I thought I had been teleported to Vegas. Energy ran through the streets, the buildings, the people, appearing to me as slender filaments of light that ran this way and that, plunging into solid objects and out the other side without interruption. The energies coursing through the grand old buildings had a solid and unmoving stability about them, as did the city streets-but the rest of it, the random energies generated by the thoughts and emotions of eight million people, was completely unplanned and coursed everywhere in frenetic, haphazard, garish color.
Clouds of emotion were interspersed with the flickering campfire sparks of ideas. Heavy flowing streams of deep thought rolled slowly beneath blazing, dancing gems of joy. The muck of negative emotions clung to surfaces, staining them darker, while fragile bubbles of dreams floated blissfully toward kaleidoscope stars.
Holy crap. I could barely see the lines on the road through all of that.
I checked over my shoulder, seeing each occupant of the cars behind me clearly, as brilliantly lit shapes of white that skittered with other colors that changed with thoughts, moods, and personalities. If I'd been closer to them, I'd have been able to see more details about them, though they would be subject to my subconscious interpretation. Even at this distance, though, I could tell that they were all mortals.
That was a relief, in some ways. I'd be able to spot any wizard strong enough to be one of the Wardens. If whoever was pursuing me was a normal, it was almost certain that the Wardens hadn't caught up to Morgan yet.
I checked up above me and-
Try to imagine the stench of rotten meat. Imagine the languid, arrhythmic pulsing of a corpse filled with maggots. Imagine the scent of stale body odor mixed with mildew, the sound of nails screeching across a chalkboard, the taste of rotten milk, and the flavor of spoiled fruit.
Now imagine that your eyes can experience those things, all at once, in excruciating detail.
That's what I saw: a stomach-churning, nightmare-inducing mass, blazing like a lighthouse beacon upon one of the buildings above me. I could vaguely make out a physical form behind it, but it was like trying to peer through raw sewage. I couldn't get any details through the haze of absolute wrongness that surrounded it as it bounded from the edge of one rooftop to another, moving more than fast enough to keep pace with me.
Someone screamed, and I dimly noted that it was probably me. The car hit something that made it shriek in protest. It jounced hard up and down, wham-wham. I'd drifted into the curb. I felt the front wheels shimmy through the steering wheel, and I slammed on the brakes, still screaming, as I fought to close my Third Eye.
The next thing I knew, car horns were blaring an impatient symphony.
I was sitting in the driver's seat, gripping the wheel until my knuckles were white. The engine had died. Judging from the dampness on my cheeks, I must have been crying-unless I'd started foaming at the mouth, which, I reflected, was a distinct possibility.
Stars and stones. What on God's green earth was that thing?
Even brushing against the subject in my thoughts was enough to bring the memory of the thing back to me in all its hideous terror. I flinched and squeezed my eyes shut, shoving hard against the steering wheel. I could feel my body shaking. I don't know how long it took me to fight my way clear of the memory-and when I did, everything was the same, only louder.
With the clock counting down, I couldn't afford to let the cops take me into custody for a DWI, but that's exactly what would happen if I didn't start driving again, assuming I didn't actually wreck the car first. I took a deep breath and willed myself not to think of the apparition-
I saw it again.
When I came back, I'd bitten my tongue, and my throat felt raw. I shook even harder.
There was no way I could drive. Not like this. One stray thought and I could get somebody killed in a collision. But I couldn't remain there, either.
I pulled the Beetle up onto the sidewalk, where it would be out of the street at least. Then I got out of the car and started walking away. The city would tow me in about three point five milliseconds, but at least I wouldn't be around to get arrested.
I stumbled down the sidewalk, hoping that my pursuer, the apparition, wasn't-
When I looked up again, I was curled into a ball on the ground, muscles aching from cramping so tight. People were walking wide around me, giving me nervous sidelong glances. I felt so weak that I wasn't sure I could stand.
I needed help.
I looked up at the street signs on the nearest corner and stared at them until my cudgeled brain finally worked out where I was standing.
I rose, forced to lean on my staff to stay upright, and hobbled forward as quickly as I could. I started calculating prime numbers as I walked, focusing on the process as intently as I would any spell.
’’One,’’ I muttered through clenched teeth. ’’Two. Three. Five. Seven. Eleven. Thirteen...’’
And I staggered through the night, literally too terrified to think about what might be coming after me.
By the time I'd reached twenty-two hundred and thirty-nine, I'd arrived at Billy and Georgia's place.
Life had changed for the young werewolves since Billy had graduated and started pulling in serious money as an engineer, but they hadn't moved out of the apartment they'd had in college. Georgia was still in school, learning something psychological, and they were saving for a house. Good thing for me. I wouldn't have been able to walk to the suburbs.
Georgia answered the door. She was a tall woman, lean and willowy, and in a T-shirt and loose, long shorts, she looked smarter than she did pretty.
’’My God,’’ she said, when she saw me. ’’Harry.’’
’’Hey, Georgia,’’ I said. ’’Twenty-two hundred and... uh. Forty-three. I need a dark, quiet room.’’
She blinked at me. ’’What?’’
’’Twenty-two hundred and fifty-one,’’ I responded, seriously. ’’And send up the wolf-signal. You want the gang here. Twenty-two hundred and, uh... sixty... seven.’’
She stepped back from the door, holding the door open for me. ’’Harry, what are you talking about?’’
I came inside. ’’Twenty-two hundred and sixty... not divisible by three, sixty-nine. I need a dark room. Quiet. Protection.’’
’’Is something after you?’’ Georgia said.
Even with the help of Eratosthenes, when Georgia asked the question and my brain answered it, I couldn't keep the image of that thing from invading my thoughts, and it drove me to my knees and would have sent me all the way to the floor-except that Billy caught me before I could get there. He was a short guy, maybe five six, but he had the upper body of a professional wrestler and moved with the speed and precision of a predator.
’’Dark room,’’ I gasped. ’’Call in the gang. Hurry.’’
’’Do it,’’ Georgia said, her voice low and urgent. She shut the door and locked it, then slammed down a heavy wooden beam the size of a picnic table's bench that they had installed themselves. ’’Get him into our room. I'll make the calls.’’
’’Got it,’’ Billy said. He picked me up the way you'd carry a child, barely grunting as he did. He carried me down the hall and into a dark bedroom. He laid me down on a bed, then crossed to the window-and pulled and locked a heavy steel security curtain over it, evidently another customization that he and Georgia had installed.
’’What do you need, Harry?’’ Billy asked.
’’Dark. Quiet. Explain it later.’’
He put a hand on my shoulder and said, ’’Right.’’ Then he padded out of the room and shut the door.
It left me in the dark with my thoughts-which is where I needed to be.
’’Come on, Harry,’’ I muttered to myself. ’’Get used to the idea.’’
And I thought about the thing I'd Seen.
It hurt. But when I came back to myself, I did it again. And again. And again.
Yes, I'd Seen something horrible. Yes, it was a hideous terror. But I'd Seen other things, too.
I called up those memories, too, all of them just as sharp and fresh as the horror pressing upon me. I'd Seen good people screaming in madness under the influence of black magic. I'd Seen the true selves of men and women, good and bad, Seen people kill-and die. I'd Seen the Queens of Faerie as they prepared for battle, drawing all their awful power around them.
And I'd be damned if I was going to roll over for one more horrible thing doing nothing but jumping from one rooftop to another.
’’Come on, punk,’’ I snarled at the memory. ’’Next to those others, you're a bad yearbook picture.’’
And I hit myself with it, again and again, filling my mind with every horrible and beautiful thing I had ever Seen-and as I did, I focused on what I had bloody well done about it. I remembered the things I'd battled and destroyed. I remembered the strongholds of nightmares and terrors that I had invaded, the dark gates I'd kicked down. I remembered the faces of prisoners I'd freed, and the funerals of those I'd been too late to save. I remembered the sounds of voices and laughter, the joy of loved ones reunited, the tears of the lost and bereaved.
There are bad things in the world. There's no getting away from that. But that doesn't mean nothing can be done about them. You can't abandon life just because it's scary, and just because sometimes you get hurt.
The memory of the thing hurt like hell-but pain wasn't anything special or new. I'd lived with it before, and would do it again. It wasn't the first thing I'd Seen, and it wouldn't be the last.
I was not going to roll over and die.
Sledgehammers of perfect memory pounded me down into blackness.
When I pulled myself back together, I was sitting on the bed, my legs folded Indian-style. My palms rested on my knees. My breathing was slow and rhythmically heavy. My back was straight. My head pounded painfully, but not cripplingly so.
I looked up and around the room. It was dark, but I'd been in there long enough for my eyes to adjust to the light coming under the door. I could see myself in the dresser mirror. My back was straight and relaxed. I'd taken my coat off, and was wearing a black T-shirt that read ’’PRE-FECTIONIST’’ in small white letters, backward in the mirror. A thin, dark runnel of blood had streamed from each nostril and was now drying on my upper lip. I could taste blood in my mouth, probably from where I'd bitten my tongue earlier.
I thought of my pursuer again, and the image made me shudder-but that was all. I kept breathing slowly and steadily.
That was the upside of being human. On the whole, we're an adaptable sort of being. Certainly, I'd never be able to get rid of my memory of this awful thing, or any of the other awful things I'd Seen-so if the memory couldn't change, it would have to be me. I could get used to seeing that kind of horror, enough to see it and yet remain a reasoning being. Better men than I had done so.
I shivered again, and not because of any memory. It was because I knew what it could mean, when you forced yourself to live with hideous things like that. It changed you. Maybe not all at once. Maybe it didn't turn you into a monster. But I'd been scarred and I knew it.
How many times would something like this need to happen before I started bending myself into something horrible just to survive? I was young for a wizard. Where would I be after decades or centuries of refusing to look away?
I got up and went into the bathroom attached to the bedroom. I turned on the lights, and winced as they raked at my eyes. I washed the blood from my face, and cleaned the sink of it carefully. In my business, you don't leave your blood where anyone can find it.
Then I put my coat back on and left the bedroom.
Billy and Georgia were in the living room. Billy was at the window that led out to the tiny balcony. Georgia was on the phone.
’’I'm not getting anything out here,’’ Billy said. ’’Is he sure?’’
Georgia murmured into the phone. ’’Yes. He's sure it circled this way. It should be in sight from where you are.’’
’’It isn't,’’ Billy said. He turned his head over his shoulder and said, ’’Harry. Are you all right?’’
’’I'll survive,’’ I said, and paced over to the window. ’’It followed me here, huh?’’
’’Something's outside,’’ Billy said. ’’Something we've never run into before. It's been playing hide-and-seek with Kirby and Andi for an hour. They can't catch it or get a good look at it.’’
I gave Billy a sharp look. There weren't many things that could keep ahead of the werewolves, working together. Wolves are just too damn alert and quick, and Billy and company had been working Chicago almost as long as I had. They knew how to handle themselves-and in the past couple of months, I'd been teaching my apprentice a little humility by letting her try her veiling spells against the werewolves. They'd hunted her down in moments, every time.
’’So whatever's out there, it isn't human,’’ I said. ’’Not if it can stay ahead of Kirby and Andi.’’ I crossed to the window and stared out with Billy. ’’And it can veil itself from sight.’’
’’What is it?’’ Billy asked quietly.
’’I don't know,’’ I said. ’’But it's real bad.’’ I glanced back at Georgia. ’’How long was I down?’’
She checked her watch. ’’Eighty-two minutes.’’
I nodded. ’’It's had plenty of time to try to come in, if that's what it wanted.’’ I felt a nauseated little quiver in my stomach as a tight smile stretched my lips. ’’It's playing with me.’’
’’What?’’ Billy said.
’’It's dancing around in front of us out there, under a veil. It's daring me to use my Sight so that I'll be able to spot it.’’
From outside, there was a sound, a cry. It was short and high-pitched, loud enough to make the windows quiver. I'd never heard anything like it before. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, a purely instinctive reaction. My instincts had been tracking this thing well, so far, so I trusted them when they told me one more thing-that cry was a statement. The hunt was on.
An instant later, every light in sight blew out in a shower of sparks, and darkness swallowed several city blocks.
’’Tell Andi and Kirby to get back here to the apartment!’’ I snapped at Georgia. I grabbed my staff from where it leaned against the wall by the door. ’’Billy, you're with me. Get your game face on.’’
’’Harry?’’ Georgia said, confused.
’’Now!’’ I snapped, flinging the bar off the door.
By the time I'd reached the bottom of the stairs, there was the sound of a heavy, controlled impact, and a wolf with hair the same dark brown as Billy's hit the floor next to me. It was an enormous beast, easily as heavy as Mouse, but taller and leaner-a wolf the world has rarely seen between here and the last ice age. I slammed open the door and let Billy out ahead of me. He bounded over a parked car-and I mean completely over it, lengthwise-and shot toward the buildings at the back of the complex.
Billy had been in contact with Andi and Kirby, and knew their approximate positions. I followed him, my staff in hand, already summoning up my will. I wasn't sure what was out here, but I wanted to be ready for it.
Kirby appeared from around the northernmost corner of the other building. He hurried along with a cell phone pressed to his ear, a lanky, dark-haired young man in sweat pants and a baggy T-shirt. The active phone painted half his face like a miniature floodlight. I checked the southern corner of the building at once, and saw a dark, furry shape trotting around the corner-Andi, like Billy, in her wolf form.
Wait a minute.
If the whatever-it-was had taken out the local lights, how in the hell had Kirby's cell phone survived the hex? Magic and technology don't get along so well, and the more complex electronic devices tended to fall apart most quickly. Cell phones were like those security guys in red shirts on old Star Trek: as soon as something started happening, they were always the first to go.
If the creature, whatever it was, had blown out the lights, it would have gotten the phone, too. Unless it hadn't wanted to take the phone out.
Kirby was the only clearly lit object in sight-an ideal target.
When the attack came, it came fast.
There was a ripple in the air, as something moving beneath a veil crossed between me and the light cast by Kirby's phone. There was an explosive snarl, and the phone went flying, leaving Kirby hidden in shadow.
Billy flung himself forward, even as I ripped the silver pentacle amulet from around my neck and lifted it, calling forth silver-blue wizard light with my will. Light flooded the area between the complex's buildings.
Kirby was on his back, in the center of a splatter of black that could only be blood. Billy was standing crouched over him, his teeth bared in a snarl. He suddenly lunged forward, teeth ripping, and a distortion of the air in front of him bounded up and then to one side. I lurched forward, feeling as if I was running through hip-deep peanut butter. I got the impression of something four-legged and furry evading Billy's attack, a raw flicker of vision like something seen out of the very corner of the eye.
Then Billy was on his back, slashing with canine claws, ripping savagely with his teeth, while something shadowy and massive overbore him, pinning him down.
Andi, a red-furred wolf that was smaller and swifter than Billy's form, hurtled through the air and tore at the back of the attacker.
It screamed again, the sound deeper-chested than before, more resonant. The creature whirled on Andi, too swiftly to be believed, and a limb slammed into her, sending her flying into a brick wall. She hit with a yipping cry of pain and a hideous snapping sound.
I raised my staff, anger and terror and determination surging down into the wooden tool, and shouted, ’’Forzare!’’
My will unspooled into a lance of invisible energy and slammed into the creature. I've flipped over cars with blasts of force like that, but the thing barely rocked back, slapping at the air with its forelimbs. The blast shattered against it in a shower of reddish sparks.
The conflicting energies disrupted its veil, just for a second. I saw something somewhere between a cougar and a bear, with sparse, dirty golden fur. It must have weighed several hundred pounds. It had oversized fangs, bloodied claws, and its eyes were a bright and sickly yellow that looked reptilian, somehow.
Its snarling mouth twisted in a way that no animal's could, forming words, albeit words that I did not understand. Its form twisted, changing with liquid speed, and in maybe half a second, a cougar bigger than any mountain lion I'd ever even heard about was hurtling toward me, vanishing into the rippling colors of a veil as it came.
I brought up my left hand, slamming my will into the bracelet hung upon it. The bracelet, a braid of metals hung with charms in the shape of medieval shields, was another tool like the staff, a device that let me focus the energies I wielded more quickly and efficiently.
A quarter dome of blue-white light sprang into existence before me, and the creature slammed into it like a brick wall. Well. More like a rickety wooden wall. I felt the shield begin to give as the creature struck it-but at least initially, it stopped it in its tracks.
Billy hit it low and hard.
The great dark wolf sailed in, teeth ripping, and got hold of something. The creature howled, this time more in pain than fury, and whirled on Billy-but the leader of Chicago's resident werewolves was already on the way back out, and he bounded aside from the creature's counterattack.
It was faster than Billy was. It caught him, and I saw Billy hunch his shoulders against its attack, his fur being bloodied as he crouched low, standing his ground.
So that Georgia could hit it low and hard.
Georgia's wolf form was dusty brown, taller and lither than Billy's, and moved with deadly precision. She raked at the creature, forcing it to turn to her-only to be forced to keep whirling as Billy went after its flank.
I brandished my staff, timing my shot with my teeth gritted, and then screamed again as I sent another lance of force at the creature, aiming for its legs. The blast tore gashes in the asphalt and brought the nearly invisible thing to the ground, once more disrupting its veil. Billy and Georgia rushed toward it to keep it pinned down, and I raised my staff, calling up more energy. My next shot was going to pile-driver the thing straight down into the water table, by God.
But once more, its shape turned liquid-and suddenly a hawk with a wingspan longer than my car tore into the air, reptilian yellow eyes glaring. It soared aloft, its wings beating twice, and vanished into the night sky.
I stared after that for a second. Then I said, ’’Oh, crap.’’
I looked around in the wildly dancing light of my amulet, and rushed toward Andi. She was unconscious, her body reverted to its human form-that of a redhead with a killer figure. One entire side of her body was a swelling purple bruise. She had a broken arm, shoulder, ribs, and her face was so horribly damaged that I had to worry about her skull as well. She was breathing, barely.
The shapeshifter had been strong.
Georgia arrived at my side in wolf form, her eyes, ears, and nose all alert, scanning around us, above us.
I turned my head to see Billy, nude and in human form, crouched over Kirby. I lifted my light and moved a couple of steps over toward him so I could see.
Kirby's throat was gone. Just gone. There was a scoop of flesh as wide as my palm missing, and bare vertebrae showed at the back of it. The edges of the gaping wound were black and crumbling, as if charred to black dust. Kirby's eyes were glassy and staring. His blood was everywhere.
’’Hell's bells,’’ I breathed. I stared at the dead young man, a friend, and shook my head hard once. ’’Billy, come on. Andi's still alive. We can't leave her out here. We've got to get her behind your threshold and get her an ambulance, now.’’
Billy crouched over Kirby, his face twisted in confusion and rage.
’’Will!’’ I shouted.
He looked up at me.
’’Andi,’’ I said. ’’Help me get her inside.’’
He nodded jerkily. Then the two of us went to her. We laid my duster out on the ground and got her onto it as gently as we could. Then we picked her up and carried her back toward the apartment building. People were calling out in the buildings around us, now. Flashlights and candles and chemical glow lights had begun to appear. I had no doubt that within a few minutes, we'd get sirens, too.
From somewhere above us, there was a contemptuous brassy cry-the same tone I heard before, though modulated differently now, coming from an avian throat.
’’What was that?’’ Billy asked, his tone dull and heavy. ’’What was that thing?’’
’’I'm not certain,’’ I answered, breathing hard. Georgia was coming along behind us, dragging my staff in her jaws. ’’But if it's what I think it is, things just got a lot worse.’’
Billy looked up at me, Kirby's blood all over his face and hands. ’’What is it, Harry?’’
’’A Native American nightmare,’’ I said. I looked at him grimly. ’’A skinwalker.’’
Georgia told the EMTs she was Andi's sister, which was true in a spiritual sense, I suppose, and rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital. The EMTs looked grim.
The cops had gathered around Kirby's body, and were busy closing off the scene.
’’I have to be here,’’ Billy said.
’’I know,’’ I said. ’’I'm on the clock, Billy. I can't stay. I can't lose the time.’’
He nodded. ’’What do I need to know about skinwalkers?’’
’’They're... they're just evil, man. They like hurting people. Shape-shifters, obviously-and the more afraid of them you are, the more powerful they get. They literally feed on fear.’’
Billy eyed me. ’’Meaning you aren't going to tell me anything more. Because it won't help me. You think it will scare me.’’
’’We knew it was here, we were ready for a fight, and you saw what happened,’’ I said. ’’If it had hit us from a real ambush, it would have been worse.’’
He bared his teeth in a snarl. ’’We had it.’’
’’We had it at a momentary disadvantage-and it saw that, and it was smart enough to leave and come back later. All we did was prove to it that it would have to take us seriously to kill us. We won't get another opportunity like that one.’’ I put a hand on his shoulder. ’’You and Georgia stay close to Andi. This thing likes hurting people. And it gets off on hunting down wounded prey. She's still in danger.’’
’’Got it,’’ he said quietly. ’’What are you going to do?’’
’’Find out why it's here,’’ I said. ’’There's Council business afoot. Christ, I didn't mean to bring you into this.’’ I stared toward the knot of officers around Kirby's corpse. ’’I didn't mean for this to happen.’’
’’Kirby was an adult, Dresden,’’ Billy said. ’’He knew what could happen. He chose to be here.’’
Which was the truth. But it didn't help. Kirby was still dead. I hadn't known what the skinwalker was before, beyond something awful, but that didn't change anything.
Kirby was still dead.
And Andi... God, I hadn't even thought about that part. Andi and Kirby had been an intense item. She was going to be heartbroken.
Assuming she didn't die, too.
Billy-I just couldn't think of him as Will-blinked tears out of his eyes and said, ’’You didn't know it was going to come down like that, man. We all owe you our lives, Harry. I'm glad we got the chance to be there for you.’’ He nodded toward the police. ’’I'll do the talking, then get to Georgia. You'd better go.’’
We traded grips, and his was crushingly tight with tension and grief. I nodded to him, and turned to leave. The city lights were starting to come back on as I went out the back entrance to Will's building, down a side street, and through an alley that ran behind an old bookstore where I wasn't welcome anymore. I passed the spot in that alley where I'd nearly died, and shivered as I did. I'd barely dodged the old man's scythe, that day.
Tonight, Kirby hadn't.
My head felt dislocated, somehow. I should be feeling more than I was. I should be madder than hell. I should be shaking with fear. Something. But instead, I felt like I was observing events from a remote cold place somewhere up above and behind me. It was, I reasoned, probably a side effect of exposing myself to the skinwalker's true form. Or rather, a side effect of what I'd had to do to get over it.
I wasn't worried about the skinwalker sneaking up on me. Oh, sure, he might do it, but not cold. Supernatural beings like the skinwalker had so much power that reality itself gets a little strained around them wherever they go, and that has a number of side effects. One of them is a sort of psychic stench that goes with them-a presence that my instincts had twigged to long before the skinwalker had been in a position to do me any real harm.
Read a little folklore, the stuff that hasn't been prettied up by Disney and the like. Start with the Brothers Grimm. It won't tell you about skinwalkers, but it will give you a good idea of just how dark some of those tales can be.
Skinwalkers are dark compared to that. You've got to get the real stories from the peoples of the Navajo, Ute, and other Southwestern tribes to get the really juicy material. They don't talk about them often, because the genuine and entirely rational fear the stories inspire only makes the creatures stronger. The tribes rarely talk about them with outsiders, because outsiders have no foundation of folklore to draw upon to protect themselves-and because you never know when the outsider to whom you're telling dark tales might be a skinwalker, looking to indulge a sense of macabre irony. But I've been in the business awhile, and I know people who know the stories. They'd confided a handful to me, in broad daylight, looking nervously around them as they spoke, as if afraid that dredging up the dark memories might catch a skinwalker's attention.
Because sometimes it did.
That's how bad skinwalkers are. Even amongst the people who know the danger they represent, who know better than anyone else in the world how to defend against them, no one wants to talk about skinwalkers.
But in a way, it worked in my favor. Walking down a dark alley in the middle of a Chicago night, and stepping over the spot on the concrete where I'd almost been ripped to pieces just wasn't spooky enough to encompass the presence of a skinwalker. If things got majorly Tales from the Darkside creepy and shivery, I'd know I was in real trouble.
As it was, the night was simply-
A small figure in a lightweight Cubs jacket stepped around the corner at the end of the alley. The newly restored streetlight shone on blond hair, and Sergeant Karrin Murphy said, ’’Evening, Dresden.’’
’’Murph,’’ I responded woodenly. Murphy was a sergeant with Chicago PD's Special Investigations department. When something supernaturally bad happened and the cops got involved, Murphy often contacted me to get my take on things. The city didn't want to hear about ’’imaginary’’ things like skinwalkers or vampires. They just wanted the problem to go away-but Murphy and the rest of SI were the people who had to make it happen.
’’I tip a guy down at impound to keep an eye out for certain vehicles,’’ Murphy said. ’’Pay him in bottles of McAnally's ale. He calls me and tells me your car got brought in.’’
’’Uh-huh,’’ I said.
Murphy fell into pace beside me as I turned out onto the sidewalk. She was five feet nothing, with blond hair that fell a little past her shoulders and blue eyes. She was more cute than pretty, and looked like someone's favorite aunt. Which seemed likely. She had a fairly large Irish Catholic family.
’’Then I hear about a power outage,’’ she said, ’’and a huge disturbance at the same apartments where your werewolf friends live. I hear about a girl who might not make it and a boy who didn't.’’
’’Yeah,’’ I said. It might have come out a little bleak.
’’Who was it?’’ Murphy asked.
’’Kirby,’’ I said.
’’Jesus,’’ Murphy said. ’’What happened?’’
’’Something fast and mean was following me. The werewolves jumped it. Things went bad.’’
Murphy nodded and stopped, and I dimly realized that we were standing next to her Saturn-an updated version of the one that had been blown up-blithely parked in front of a hydrant. She went around to the trunk and popped it open. ’’I took a look at that pile of parts you call a car.’’ She drew out the medical toolbox and cooler from her trunk and held them up. ’’These were on the passenger seat. I thought they might have been there for a reason.’’
Hell's bells. In the confusion of the attack and its aftermath, I had all but forgotten the whole reason I'd gone out in the first place. I took the medical kit from her as she offered it. ’’Yeah. Stars and stones, yeah, Murph. Thank you.’’
’’You need a ride?’’ she asked me.
I'd been planning on flagging down a cab, eventually, but it would be better not to spend the money if I didn't need to. Wizarding might be se*y, but it didn't pay nearly as well as lucrative careers like law enforcement. ’’Sure,’’ I said.
’’What a coincidence. I need some questions answered.’’ She unlocked the door with an actual key, not the little what's-it that does it for you automatically with the press of a button, and held it open for me with a gallant little gesture, like I'd done for her about a million times. She probably thought she was mocking me with that impersonation.
She was probably right.
This mess was getting stickier by the minute, and I didn't want to drag Murphy into it. I mean, Jesus, the werewolves had been capable defenders of their territory for a long while, and I'd gotten half of them taken out in the first couple hours of the case. Murphy wouldn't fare any better in the waters through which I was currently swimming.
On the other hand, I trusted Murph. I trusted her judgment, her ability to see where her limits lay. She'd seen cops carved to pieces when they tried to box out of their weight division, and knew better than to attempt it. And if she started throwing obstacles in my way-and she could, a lot of them, that I couldn't do diddly about-then my life would get a whole lot harder. Even though she wasn't running CPD's Special Investigations department anymore, she still had clout there, and a word from her to Lieutenant Stallings could hobble me, maybe lethally.
So I guess you could say that Murphy was threatening to bust me if I didn't talk to her, and you'd be right. And you could say that Murphy was offering to put her life on the line to help me, and you'd be right. And you could say that Murphy had done me a favor with the medical kit, in order to obligate me to her when she told me that she wanted to be dealt in, and you'd be right.
You could also say that I was standing around dithering when time was critical, and you'd be right about that, too.
At the end of the day, Murphy is good people.
I got in the car.
’’So let me get this straight,’’ Murphy said, as we approached my apartment. ’’You're hiding a fugitive from your own people's cops, and you think the guy's been set up in order to touch off a civil war within the White Council. And there's some kind of Navajo boogeyman loose in town, following you around and attempting to kill you. And you aren't sure they're related.’’
’’More like I don't know how they're related. Yet.’’
Murphy chewed on her lip. ’’Is there anyone on the Council who is in tight with Native American boogeymen?’’
’’Hard to imagine it,’’ I said quietly. ’’Injun Joe’’ Listens-to-Wind was a Senior Council member who was some kind of Native American shaman. He was a doctor, a healer, and a specialist in exorcisms and restorative magic. He was, in fact, a decent guy. He liked animals.
’’But someone's a traitor,’’ Murphy said quietly. ’’Right?’’
’’Yeah,’’ I said. ’’Someone.’’
Murphy nodded, frowning at the road ahead of her. ’’The reason treachery is so reviled,’’ she said in a careful tone of voice, ’’is because it usually comes from someone you didn't think could possibly do such a thing.’’
I didn't say anything in reply. In a minute, her car crunched to a stop in the little gravel lot outside my apartment.
I picked up the medical kit, the cooler, and my staff, and got out of the car.
’’Call me the minute you know something,’’ she said.
’’Yep,’’ I told her. ’’Don't take any chances if you see something coming.’’
She shook her head. ’’They aren't your kids, Harry.’’
’’Doesn't matter. Anything you can do to protect them in the hospital...’’
’’Relax,’’ she said. ’’Your werewolves won't be alone. I'll see to it.’’
I nodded and closed my eyes for a second.
’’Harry?’’ she asked me.
’’You... don't look so good.’’
’’It's been a long night,’’ I said.
’’Yeah,’’ she said. ’’Look. I know something about those.’’
Murphy did. She'd had more than her share of psychic trauma. She'd seen friends die, too. My memory turned out an unwelcome flash from years before-her former partner, Carmichael, half eviscerated and bleeding to death on white institutional tile flooring.
’’I'll make it,’’ I said.
’’Of course you will,’’ she said. ’’There's just... there's a lot of ways you could deal, Harry. Some of them are better than others. I care about what happens to you. And I'm here.’’
I kept my eyes closed in order to make sure I didn't start crying like a girl or something. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
’’Take care, Harry,’’ she said.
’’You, too,’’ I said. It came out a little raspy. I tilted the toolbox at her in a wave, and headed into my apartment to see Morgan.
I had to admit-I hated hearing the sound of my friend's car leaving.
I pushed those thoughts away. Psychic trauma or not, I could fall to little pieces later.
I had work to do.