Turn Coat Chapter 79

Chapter Seven

Morgan woke up when I opened the bedroom door. He looked bad, but not any worse than he did before, except for some spots of color on his cheeks.

’’Lemme see to my roommates,’’ I said. ’’I got the goods.’’ I put the medical kit down on the nightstand.

He nodded and closed his eyes.

I took Mouse outside for a walk to the mailbox. He seemed unusually alert, nose snuffling at everything, but he didn't show any signs of alarm. We went by the spot in the tiny backyard that had been designated as Mouse's business area, and went back inside. Mister, my bobtailed grey tomcat, was waiting when I opened the door, and tried to bolt out. I caught him, barely: Mister weighs the next best thing to thirty pounds. He gave me a look that might have been indignant, then raised his stumpy tail straight in the air and walked haughtily away, making his way to his usual resting point atop one of my apartment's bookcases.

Mouse looked at me with his head tilted as I shut the door.

’’Something bad is running around out there,’’ I told him. ’’It might decide to send me a message. I'd rather he didn't use Mister to do it.’’

Mouse's cavernous chest rumbled with a low growl.

’’Or you, either, for that matter,’’ I told him. ’’I don't know if you know what a skinwalker is, but it's serious trouble. Watch yourself.’’

Mouse considered that for a moment, and then yawned.

I found myself laughing. ’’Pride goes before a fall, boy.’’

He wagged his tail at me and rubbed up against my leg, evidently pleased to have made me smile. I made sure both sets of bowls had food and water in them, and then went in to Morgan.

His temperature was up another half a degree, and he was obviously in pain.

’’This isn't heavy-duty stuff,’’ I told him, as I broke out the medical kit. ’’Me and Billy made a run up to Canada for most of it. There's some codeine for the pain, though, and I've got the stuff to run an IV for you, saline, intravenous antibiotics.’’

Morgan nodded. Then he frowned at me, an expression I was used to from him, raked his eyes over me more closely, and asked, ’’Is that blood I smell on you?’’

Damn. For a guy who had been beaten to within a few inches of death's door, he was fairly observant. Andi hadn't really been bleeding when we picked her up in my coat. She was only oozing from a number of gouges and scrapes-but there had been enough of them to add up. ’’Yeah,’’ I said.

’’What happened?’’

I told him about the skinwalker and what had happened to Kirby and Andi.

He shook his head wearily. ’’There's a reason we don't encourage amateurs to try to act like Wardens, Dresden.’’

I scowled at him, got a bowl of warm water and some antibacterial soap, and started cleaning up his left arm. ’’Yeah, well. I didn't see any Wardens doing anything about it.’’

’’Chicago is your area of responsibility, Warden Dresden.’’

’’And there I was,’’ I said. ’’And if they hadn't been there to help, I'd be dead right now.’’

’’Then you call for backup. You don't behave like a bloody superhero and throw lambs to the wolves to help you do it. Those are the people you're supposed to be protecting.’’

’’Good thinking,’’ I said, getting out the bag of saline, and suspending it from the hook I'd set in the wall over the bed. I made sure the tube was primed. Air bubbles, bad. ’’That's exactly what we need: more Wardens in Chicago.’’

Morgan grunted and fell silent for a moment, eyes closed. I thought he'd dropped off again, but evidently he was only thinking. ’’It must have followed me up.’’

’’Huh?’’

’’The skinwalker,’’ he said. ’’When I left Edinburgh, I took a Way to Tucson. I came to Chicago by train. It must have sensed me when the tracks passed through its territory.’’

’’Why would it do that?’’

’’Follow an injured wizard?’’ he asked. ’’Because they get stronger by devouring the essence of practitioners. I was an easy meal.’’

’’It eats magic?’’

Morgan nodded. ’’Adds its victims'power to its own.’’

’’So what you're telling me is that not only did the skinwalker get away, but now it's stronger for having killed Kirby.’’

He shrugged. ’’I doubt the werewolf represented much gain, relative to what it already possessed. Your talents, or mine, are orders of magnitude greater.’’

I took up a rubber hose and bound it around Morgan's upper arm. I waited for the veins just below the bend of his elbow to pop up. ’’Seems like an awfully unlikely chance encounter.’’

Morgan shook his head. ’’Skinwalkers can only dwell on tribal lands in the American Southwest. It wasn't as if whoever is framing me would know that I was going to escape and flee to Tucson.’’

’’Point,’’ I said, slipping the needle into his arm. ’’Who would wanna go there in the summer, anyway?’’ I thought about it. ’’The skinwalker's got to go back to his home territory, though?’’

Morgan nodded. ’’The longer he's away, the more power it costs him.’’

’’How long can he stay here?’’ I asked.

He winced as I missed the vein and had to try again. ’’More than long enough.’’

’’How do we kill it?’’ I frowned as I missed the vein again.

’’Give me that,’’ Morgan muttered. He took the needle and inserted it himself, smoothly, and got it on the first try.

I guess you learn a few things over a dozen decades.

’’We probably don't,’’ he said. ’’The true skinwalkers, the naagloshii, are millennia old. Tangling with them is a fool's game. We avoid it.’’

I taped down the needle and hooked up the catheter. ’’Pretend for a minute that it isn't going to cooperate with that plan.’’

Morgan grunted and scratched at his chin with his other hand. ’’There are some native magics that can cripple or destroy it. A true shaman of the blood could perform an enemy ghost way and drive it out. Without those our only recourse is to hit it with a lot of raw power-and it isn't likely to stand still and cooperate with that plan, either.’’

’’It's a tough target,’’ I admitted. ’’It knows magic, and how to defend against it.’’

’’Yes,’’ Morgan said. He watched me pick a preloaded syringe of antibiotics from the cooler. ’’And its abilities are more than the equal of both of us put together.’’

’’Jinkies,’’ I said. I primed the syringe and pushed the antibiotics into the IV line. Then I got the codeine and a cup of water, offering Morgan both. He downed the pills, laid his head back wearily, and closed his eyes.

’’I Saw one once, too,’’ he said.

I started cleaning up. I didn't say anything.

’’They aren't invulnerable. They can be killed.’’

I tossed wrappers into the trash can and restored equipment to the medical kit. I grimaced at the bloodied rug that still lay beneath Morgan. I'd have to get that out from under him soon. I turned to leave, but stopped in the doorway.

’’How'd you do it?’’ I asked, without looking behind me.

It took him a moment to answer. I thought he'd passed out again.

’’It was the fifties,’’ he said. ’’Started in New Mexico. It followed me to Nevada. I lured it onto a government testing site, and stepped across into the Nevernever just before the bomb went off.’’

I blinked and looked over my shoulder at him. ’’You nuked it?’’

He opened one eye and smiled.

It was sort of creepy.

’’Stars and stones... that's...’’ I had to call a spade a spade. ’’Kind of cool.’’

’’Gets me to sleep at night,’’ he mumbled. He closed his eye again, sighed, and let his head sag a little to one side.

I watched over his sleep for a moment, and then closed the door.

I was pretty tired, myself. But like the man said:

’’I have promises to keep,’’ I sighed to myself.

I got on the phone, and started calling my contacts on the Paranet.

The Paranet was an organization I'd helped found a couple of years before. It's essentially a union whose members cooperate in order to protect themselves from paranormal threats. Most of the Paranet consisted of practitioners with marginal talents, of which there were plenty. A practitioner had to be in the top percentile before the White Council would even consider recognizing him, and those who couldn't cut it basically got left out in the cold. As a result, they were vulnerable to any number of supernatural predators.

Which I think sucks.

So an old friend named Elaine Mallory and I had taken a dead woman's money and begun making contact with the marginal folks in city after city. We'd encouraged them to get together to share information, to have someone they could call for help. If things started going bad, a distress call could be sent up the Paranet, and then I or one of the other Wardens in the U.S. could charge in. We also gave seminars on how to recognize magical threats, as well as teaching methods of basic self-defense for when the capes couldn't show up to save the day.

It had been going pretty well. We already had new chapters opening up in Mexico and Canada, and Europe wouldn't be far behind.

So I started calling up my contacts in those various cities, asking if they'd heard of anything odd happening. I couldn't afford to get any more specific than that, but as it turned out, I didn't need to. Of the first dozen calls, folks in four cities had noted an upswing in Warden activity, reporting that they were all appearing in pairs. Only two of the next thirty towns had similar reports, but it was enough to give me a good idea of what was going on-a quiet manhunt.

But I just had to wonder. Of all the places the Wardens could choose to hunt for Morgan, why would they pick Poughkeepsie? Why Omaha?

The words ’’wild-goose chase’’ sprang to mind. Whatever Morgan was doing to mask his presence from their tracking spells, it had them chasing their tails all over the place.

At least I accomplished one positive thing. Establishing rumors of Wardens on the move meant that I had a good and non-suspicion-arousing motivation to start asking questions of my own.

So next, I started calling the Wardens I was on good terms with. Three of them worked for me, technically speaking, in several cities in the Eastern and Midwestern United States. I'm not a very good boss. I mostly just let them decide how to do their job and try to lend a hand when they ask me for help. I had to leave messages for two, but Bill Meyers in Dallas answered on the second ring.

’’Howdy,’’ Meyers said.

I'm serious. He actually answered the phone that way.

’’Bill, it's Dresden.’’

’’Harry,’’ he said politely. Bill was always polite with me. He saw me do something scary once. ’’Speak of the devil and he appears.’’

’’Is that why my nose was itching?’’ I asked.

’’Likely,’’ Bill drawled. ’’I was gonna give you a call in the morning.’’

’’Yeah? What's up?’’

’’Rumors,’’ Bill said. ’’I spotted two Wardens coming out of the local entrance to the Ways, but when I asked them what was up, they stone-walled me. I figured you might know what was going on.’’

’’Darn,’’ I said. ’’I called to ask you.’’

He snorted. ’’Well, we're a fine bunch of wise men, aren't we?’’

’’As far as the Council is concerned, the U.S. Wardens are a bunch of mushrooms.’’

’’Eh?’’

’’Kept in the dark and fed on bullshit.’’

’’I hear that,’’ Meyers said. ’’What do you want me to do?’’

’’Keep an ear to the ground,’’ I told him. ’’Captain Luccio will tell us sooner or later. I'll call you as soon as I learn anything. You do the same.’’

’’Gotcha,’’ he said.

We hung up, and I frowned at the phone for a moment.

The Council hadn't talked to me about Morgan. They hadn't talked to any of the Wardens in my command about him, either.

I looked up at Mister and said, ’’It's almost like they want to keep me in the dark. Like maybe someone thinks I might be involved, somehow.’’

Which made sense. The Merlin wasn't going to be asking me to Christmas dinner anytime soon. He didn't trust me. He might have given the order to keep me fenced out. That wouldn't hit me as a surprise.

But if that was true, then it meant that Anastasia Luccio, captain of the Wardens, was going along with it. She and I had been dating for a while, now. Granted, she had a couple of centuries on me, but a run-in with a body-switching psychopath several years before had trapped her in the body of a coed, and she didn't look a day over twenty-five. We got along well. We made each other laugh. And we occasionally had wild-monkey se* to our mutual, intense satisfaction.

I would never have figured Anastasia to play a game like that with me.

I got on the phone to Ramirez in LA, the other regional commander in the United States, to see if he'd heard anything, but just got his answering service.

At this rate, I was going to have to go to the spirit world for answers-and that was risky in more ways than one, not the least of which was the very real possibility that I might get eaten by the same entity I called up to question.

But I was running a little low on options.

I pulled back the rug that lay over the trapdoor leading down to my lab, and was about to go down and prepare my summoning circle when the phone rang.

’’I'm meeting Justine in half an hour,’’ my brother told me.

’’Okay,’’ I said. ’’Come get me.’’

Chapter Eight

Chicago's club scene is wide and diverse. You want to listen to extemporaneous jazz? We got that. You want a traditional Irish pub? A Turkish-style coffeehouse? Belly dancers? Japanese garden party? Swing dancing? Ballroom dancing? Beat poetry? You're covered.

You don't have to look much harder to find all sorts of other clubs-the kind that Ma and Pa Tourist don't take the kids to. Gay clubs, lesbian clubs, strip clubs, leather clubs, and more subtle flavors within the genre.

And then there's Zero.

I stood with Thomas outside what looked like a fire-exit door at the bottom of a stairway, a story below street level in the side of a downtown building. A red neon oval had been installed on the door, and it glowed with a sullen, lurid heat. The thump of a bass beat vibrated almost sub-audibly up through the ground.

’’Is this what I think it is?’’ I asked him.

Thomas, now dressed in a tight-fitting white T-shirt and old blue jeans, glanced at me and arched one dark eyebrow. ’’Depends on if you think it's Zero or not.’’

Zero's one of those clubs that most people only hear rumors about. It moves around the city from time to time, but it's always as exclusive as a popular nightspot in a metropolis can possibly be. I've been a PI in Chicago for better than a decade. I'd heard of Zero, but that was it. It was where the rich and beautiful (and rich) people of Chicago went to indulge themselves.

’’You know somebody here?’’ I asked. ’’Because they aren't going to let us-’’

Thomas popped a key into the lock, turned it, and opened the door for me.

’’In,’’ I finished. A wash of heat and smoke heavy with legally questionable substances pushed gently against my chest. I could hear the whump-whump-whump of techno dance music somewhere behind the red-lit smoke.

’’It's a family business,’’ Thomas explained. He put the keys back in his pocket, an odd expression on his face. ’’I met Justine at Zero.’’

’’There any more of the other side of the family in there?’’ I asked him. White Court vampires were the least physically dangerous of any of the various vamps running around-and the most scary. Creatures of seduction, they fed upon the emotions and life energy of those they preyed upon. Their victims became addicted to the act, and would willingly offer themselves up over and over, until eventually there was nothing left to give. The poor suckers in thrall to a White Court vampire were virtually slaves. Tangling with them in any sense of the word was a bad idea.

Thomas shook his head. ’’I doubt it. Or Justine wouldn't have chosen to meet us here.’’

Unless she'd been forced to do so, I thought to myself. I didn't say anything. I like to stay cozy with my paranoia, not pass her around to my friends and family.

’’After you,’’ Thomas said, and then he calmly stripped his shirt off.

I eyed him.

’’The club has an image they strive to maintain,’’ he said. He might have been just a little bit smug, the bastard. His abs look like they were added in with CGI. My abs just look like I can't afford to feed myself very well.

’’Oh,’’ I said. ’’Do I need to take my shirt off, too?’’

’’You're wearing a black leather coat. That's wardrobe enough.’’

’’Small favors,’’ I muttered. Then I went through the door.

We walked down a hallway that got darker, louder, and more illicitly aromatic as we went. It ended at a black curtain, and I pushed it aside to reveal a few more feet of hallway, a door, and two politely formidable-looking men in dark suits standing in front of it.

One of them lifted a hand and told me, ’’I'm sorry, sir, but this is a private-’’

Thomas stepped up next to me and fixed the man with a steady grey gaze.

He lowered his hand, and when he spoke, it sounded rough, as if his mouth had gone dry. ’’Excuse me, sir. I didn't realize he was with you.’’

Thomas kept staring.

The bouncer turned to the door, unlocked it with a key of its own, and opened the door. ’’Will you be in need of a table, sir? Drinks?’’

Thomas's unblinking gaze finally shifted from the guard, as if the man had somehow vanished as a matter of any consequence. My brother walked by him without saying anything at all.

The bouncer gave me a weak smile and said, ’’Sorry about that, sir. Enjoy your evening at Zero, sir.’’

’’Thanks,’’ I said, and followed my brother into a scene that split the difference between a Dionysian bacchanal and a Fellini flick.

There was no white light inside Zero. Most of it was red, punctuated in places with pools of blue and plenty of black lights scattered everywhere so that even where shadows were thickest, some colors jumped out in disquieting luminescence. Cigarette smoke hung in a pall over the large room, a distance-distorting haze under the black lights.

We had entered on a kind of balcony that overlooked the dance floor below. Music pounded, the bass beat so loud that I could feel it in my lower stomach. Lights flashed and swayed in synchronicity. The floor was crowded with sweating, moving bodies dressed in a broad spectrum of clothing, from full leather coverings including a whole-head hood, at one extreme, to one girl clad in a few strips of electrical tape on the other. There was a bar down by the dance floor, and tables scattered around its outskirts under a thirty-foot-high ceiling. A few cages hung about eight feet over the dance floor, each containing a young man or woman in provocative clothing.

Stairways and catwalks led up to about a dozen platforms that thrust out from the walls, where patrons could sit and overlook the scene below while gaining a measure of privacy for themselves. Most of the platforms were furnished with couches and chaise longues rather than tables and chairs. There were more exotic bits of furniture up on the platforms, as well: the giant X shape of a St. Andrew's cross, which was currently supporting the bound form of a young man, his wrists and ankles secured to the cross, his face to the wood, his hair falling down over his naked back. Another platform had a shiny brass pole in its center, and a pair of girls danced around it, in the middle of a circle of men and women sprawled over the couches and lounges.

Everywhere I looked, people were doing things that would have gotten them arrested anywhere else. Couples, threesomes, foursomes, and nineteensomes were fully engaged in se*ual activity on some of the private platforms. From where I stood, I could see two different tables where lines of white powder waited to be inhaled. A syringe disposal was on the wall next to every trash can, marked with a bright biohazard symbol. People were being beaten with whips and riding crops. People were bound up with elaborate arrangements of ropes, as well as with more prosaic handcuffs. Piercings and tattoos were everywhere. Screams and cries occasionally found their way through the music, agony, ecstasy, joy, or rage all indistinguishable from one another.

The lights flashed constantly, changing and shifting, and every beat of the music created a dozen new frozen montages of sybaritic abandon.

The music, the light, the sweat, the smoke, the booze, the drugs-it all combined into a wet, desperate miasma that was full of needs that could never be sated.

That's why the place was called Zero, I realized. Zero limits. Zero inhibitions. Zero restraint. It was a place of perfect, focused abandon, of indulgence, and it was intriguing and hideous, nauseating and viscerally hungry.

Zero fulfillment.

I felt a shudder run through me. This was the world as created by the White Court. This is what they would make of it, if they were given the chance. Planet Zero.

I glanced aside at Thomas and saw him staring around the club. His eyes had changed hue, from their usual grey to a paler, brighter silver, actual flecks of metallic color in his eyes. His eyes tracked over a pair of young women who were passing by us, dressed in black lingerie under long leather coats, and holding hands with their fingers intertwined. The women both turned their eyes toward him as if they'd heard him call their names, and stared for a second, their steps slowing and faltering.

Thomas dragged his eyes away, and let that inhuman stillness fill him again. The women blinked a few times, then continued on their way, their expressions vaguely puzzled.

’’Hey,’’ I yelled through the music. ’’You all right?’’

He nodded once, and then twitched his chin up at the highest platform in the building, on the far side of the dance floor. ’’Up there.’’

I nodded, and Thomas took the lead. We negotiated the maze of catwalks and stairs. They had been purposefully designed to be just barely too narrow for two people to pass one another without touching, as I found out when Thomas and I passed a girl in leather shorts and a bustier, both of which strained to match themselves to a body whose curves were made ripe and inviting by the red light's primitive rhythm. She slid by Thomas, her eyes locked on his chest, as if she was about to lean over and bite him.

He ignored her, but then the girl reached me-and I take up more room than Thomas. I felt her hip brush me, and she arched her back as I stepped past her, turned sideways. Her breasts pressed against my sternum, pliant, resilient warmth, and her lips were parted, her eyes too bright. Her hand brushed over my thigh, a touch that could have been accidental but wasn't, and my body was suddenly demanding that I stop for a moment and see where this would lead.

You can't trust your body when it tells you stuff like that. It doesn't understand about things like actual affection, interaction, pregnancy, STDs. It just wants. I tried not to pay any attention to it-but there were other people on the catwalks, and evidently there was no such thing as a less than gorgeous woman inside Zero's walls. Most of them seemed perfectly happy to make sure I knew it as they went by.

So did some of the men, for that matter, but that was less of an issue, as far as my focus went.

It probably didn't help matters that we were walking by things that I hadn't ever seen before, not even in movies. There was this one girl doing a thing with her tongue and an ice cube that-

Look, just trust me on this one. It was distracting as hell.

Thomas was walking faster as we approached the stairway leading up to the highest platform, and he took the last steps three at a time. I followed along behind him, scanning around me steadily, trying to be on the lookout for potential bad guys. This had the side effect of me getting to ogle more pretty girls than I'd ever seen in one place at one time. But it was professional ogling. One of them could have been concealing-

Well, actually, I was sort of shocked at what one of them was concealing.

I made it up the last stairway just in time to see Thomas throw himself into a woman's arms.

Justine wasn't particularly tall, for a girl, or at least she hadn't been before she'd put on the boots with the five-inch heels. She looked like I remembered her last-a gorgeous face that still fell into the girl-next-door category, with a heart-melting smile. Her hair was silver-white, and was being held in a tight bun up high on the back of her head with a pair of white chopsticks.

Of course, the last time I'd seen her, she hadn't been dressed in a formfitting white rubber cat suit that included gloves over her fingers. It emphasized absolutely everything and did it well.

Thomas fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around her waist, drawing her to him. She twined her rubber-covered arms around his neck and clung tightly. Both of them closed their eyes, and just stood there for a long minute, embracing without moving, just holding each other close.

It was an alien act in that place.

I turned away, leaned on the platform's safety railing, and stared down at the club, trying to give my brother and the woman he loved a moment of privacy. Justine hadn't worn the cover-everything suit for the sake of fashion. The touch of honest love, real and selfless love, was anathema to the White Court. Thomas had told me about White Court vampires who had been badly burned by the touch of some wedding rings, or the brush of a sweetheart's rose. But most dangerous of all to them was the touch of someone who was loved and who loved in return.

I'd seen Thomas give himself a second-degree burn on his lips and mouth the last time he'd kissed Justine.

They hadn't been together since the night she had laid down her life to save his, offering herself up to his hunger so that he could survive the evening. Thomas, in turn, had refused to devour her, denying his own darker nature. It had nearly killed her anyway, turning her hair white literally overnight. It had taken her years to recover her mind, after a long-term addiction to being fed upon by an incubus, but she'd done it. She was currently an assistant to Thomas's older sister, Lara, and positioned to find out all kinds of juicy details about the White Court. Being protected by love meant that the vamps couldn't feed on Justine, which Lara thought ideal in a personal assistant.

It also meant that my brother couldn't touch the woman he loved. If he'd been like most of the White Court, only interested in feeding his hunger, he'd have been able to have her all he wanted. Instead...

Sometimes irony is a lot like a big old kick in the balls.

I stared down at the dance floor for a while, not so much ogling as simply taking in the light and motion as a whole, until I saw them part in my peripheral vision. Then I turned and walked over to join them, as Justine gestured for us to sit on a pair of couches that had been moved to face each other.

Thomas sat down in a corner of the couch, and Justine pressed up close against him, careful to keep what little of her was exposed from touching his skin. I settled down across from them, leaning my elbows forward onto my knees.

I smiled at Justine and nodded to her. The floor and half-wall railing of the platform must have been made from sound-absorbing material. The roar of the club was much reduced up here. ’’Justine. You look like the Michelin Man's wet dream.’’

She laughed, pink touching her cheeks. ’’Well. The club has a look we try to maintain. How are you, Harry?’’

’’Half buzzed on this smoke, and floundering,’’ I said. ’’Thomas told me you had some information.’’

Justine nodded seriously, and picked up a manila file folder from the couch beside her. ’’Word is out about a hunt for a renegade Warden,’’ she said. ’’There weren't a lot of details, but I was able to turn up this.’’

She slid the folder over to me, and I opened it. The first page was a printout of a Web site of some kind. ’’What the hell is Craigslist?’’

’’It's a site on the Internet,’’ Justine said. ’’It's sort of like a giant classified ads section, only you can get to it from anywhere in the world. People use it to advertise goods they want to buy or sell.’’

’’Goods,’’ Thomas put in, ’’and services. Help wanted, with veiled language for the less-legal things. A lot of shady deals happen there because it's relatively easy to do so anonymously. Escorts, mercenaries, you name it.’’

There was an ad printed on it:

WANTED FOR PERMANENT POSITION,

DONALD MORGAN, 5MIL FINDER'S FEE,

CONSIDERATIONS.

[email protected]

’’Hell's bells,’’ I cursed quietly.

I passed the page to Thomas. ’’A wanted poster,’’ he said.

I nodded. ’’And not dead or alive, either. They just want him dead.’’

Every supernatural hitter on the bloody planet was going to be coming after Morgan. Not so much for the money, probably, as for the favors that the ad promised. They carry a hell of a lot more weight than cash in the world of the weird. The five million was just there to provide scope, a sense of scale for the favors that would come with it.

’’Every button man in the world and his brother,’’ I muttered. ’’This just keeps getting better and better.’’

’’Why would your people do that?’’ Justine asked.

’’They wouldn't,’’ I said.

Thomas frowned. ’’How do you know?’’

’’Because the Council solves things in-house,’’ I said. Which was true. They had their own assassin for jobs like this, when he was needed. I grimaced. ’’Besides, even if they did put out a hit, they sure as hell wouldn't use the Internet to do it.’’

Thomas nodded, fingers idly stroking Justine's rubberized shoulder. ’’Then who did?’’

’’Who indeed,’’ I said. ’’Is there any way to find out who put this here? Or who this e-mail thingy belongs to?’’

Justine shook her head. ’’Not with any confidence.’’

’’Then we'll have to make contact ourselves,’’ Thomas said. ’’Maybe we can draw them out.’’

I scratched my chin, thinking. ’’If they've got a lick of sense, they won't show themselves to anyone who isn't established in the field. But it's worth a try.’’ I sighed. ’’I've got to move him.’’

’’Why?’’ Thomas asked.

I tapped the page with my finger. ’’When the hard cases start coming out of the woodwork, things are going to get messy, and old people live upstairs from me.’’

Thomas frowned and nodded. ’’Where?’’

I began to answer when the tempo of the beat suddenly changed below, and a wave of frenzied cries rolled up, deafening despite any soundproofing. A second after that, an odd frisson crawled across my nerves, and I felt my heart pound a little more quickly, and the earlier demands my body had been making returned in a rush.

Across from me, Justine shivered and her eyes slid almost completely closed. She took a deep breath, and her nipples tightened against the rubber cat suit. Her hips shifted in a small, unconscious movement, brushing against Thomas's thigh.

My brother's eyes flashed from light grey to cold, hard silver for a second, before he narrowed them and rose, carefully disentangling himself from Justine. He turned to face the dance floor, his shoulders tense.

I followed his example. ’’What is it?’’

’’Trouble,’’ he said, and looked over his shoulder at me. ’’Family's come to visit.’’

Chapter Nine

Thomas stared hard at the floor below, and then nodded once, as if in recognition. ’’Harry,’’ he said in a steady, quiet voice, ’’stay out of this.’’ in recognition. ’’Harry,’’ he said in a steady, quiet voice, ’’stay out of this.’’ ’’Stay out of what?’’ I asked.

He turned to look at me, his expression inhumanly remote. ’’It's family business. It won't involve you. The House has given orders that wizards are not to be molested without clearance. If you don't get involved, I won't have to worry about you.’’

’’What?’’ I said. ’’Thomas...’’

’’Just let me handle it,’’ he said, his voice hard.

I was going to answer him when the vampire entered the room.

It was one of those sensations you have trouble remembering afterward-like the last moments of the dream you have just before waking. You know that once you're outside the dream, you're going to forget-and you can't believe you could lose something so significant, so undeniably tangible.

I turned to look the second she entered-just like everyone else in the room.

She wore white, of course. A white dress, a simple shift made of some kind of glistening silken fabric, which fell to the top of her thighs. She was at least six feet tall, more so in the partially transparent shoes she wore. Her skin was pale and perfect, her hair dark and shining with highlights that changed color in the beat of the strobe lighting of the club. Her face was perfect beauty that remained unmarred by the obvious arrogance in her expression, and her body could have been used on recruiting posters for wet dreams.

She descended to the dance floor and crossed to the stairways and catwalks with a predator's easy motion, each stride making her hips roll and shoulders sway, somehow in time to the music, and far more graceful than the efforts of the sweating dancers, more sensual than the frantic lovers.

At the foot of the first stairway, she came to a young man in leather pants and the scraps of a shirt that looked like it had been torn to pieces by ardent admirers. Without hesitation, she pushed him up against the railing beside the stairway and pressed her body up against his.

She twined her arms slowly around his neck and kissed him. A kiss, and that was all-but apparently no one told the young man that. From his reaction, you'd have thought that she'd mounted him then and there. Her lips were sealed to his, their tongues lashing one another, for maybe a minute. Then she turned away with that same precise grace, and began walking up the stairs-slowly, so that every shift and change of muscle in her perfectly formed legs danced in mesmerizing ripples beneath her soft white skin.

The young man simply melted onto the floor, muscles twitching, his eyes closed. I didn't think he was actually aware that she had left.

The woman had every eye in the building and she knew it.

It wasn't an enormous event, the way she took the attention of everyone there. It wasn't a single large simultaneous, significant motion when everyone turned to look. There was no sudden silence, no deepening stillness. That would have been bad enough.

Her influence was a lot scarier than that.

It was simply a fact, like gravity, that everyone's attention should be directed to her. Every person there, men and women alike, glanced up, or tracked her movement obliquely with their eyes, or paused for half a beat in their... conversations. For most of them it was an entirely unconscious act. They had no idea that their minds had already been ensnared.

And as I realized that, I realized that mine was in danger, too.

It was a real effort to close my eyes and remind myself of where I was. I could feel the succubus's aura, like the silken brush of cobwebs against my eyelashes, something tingling and delicious and fluttering that swayed up my legs and through my groin on its way to my brain.

It was only a promise, a whisper to the flesh-but it was a good whisper. I had to make an effort to wall it away from my thoughts, until suddenly reason reasserted itself, and that fluttering haze froze and cracked and blew away under the chill wind of sensible fear.

When I opened my eyes, the woman was stalking toward us along that last catwalk, slithering nearer in her thin white dress as she mounted the last few stairs. She paused there, letting us look at her, knowing what effect she was having. Even on guard against it, I could feel the subtle sweetness of her presence calling out to me, whispering that I should relax and let my eyes run over her for a while.

She turned her cornflower blue eyes to me for a moment, and her mouth parted, spreading slowly into a smile that shrunk my pants about three sizes in as many seconds.

’’Cousin Thomas,’’ she purred. ’’Still noble and starving, I see.’’

’’Madeline,’’ Thomas replied, a small smile showing white, perfect teeth. ’’Still undisciplined and blatant, I see.’’

Madeline Raith's mouth and eyes reacted in completely different ways to my half brother's remark. Her smile widened into a beauty-pageant expression, wide and immobile, but her eyes narrowed and went completely white, the pale blue vanishing from her irises. She looked from Thomas to Justine.

’’Lara's little pet mortal,’’ Madeline said. ’’I wondered where you were running off to. Now I find you meeting with your old flame and...’’ Her eyes slid to me. ’’The enemy.’’

’’Don't be ridiculous,’’ Justine replied. Though her voice was calm, her cheeks were bright pink, her eyes dilated. ’’I came to go over the books, the way I do every week.’’

’’But this time you wore perfume,’’ Madeline said. ’’And a rather provocative ensemble, not that you don't do it justice, darling. I find it’’-her tongue touched her upper lip-’’interesting.’’

’’Madeline,’’ Thomas said, in a tone of exaggerated patience, ’’please go away.’’

’’I have every right to be here,’’ she murmured. It didn't seem right that she should be able to keep her voice so maddeningly soft and sensual over the beat of the club's music. She turned to me and took a few steps my way, with her full attention on me.

I suddenly felt like a teenager-a little bit afraid, a whole lot excited, and filled with so many hormones demanding so many inexplicable things that I nearly lost the ability to focus my eyes.

She stopped just out of the reach of my hand. ’’Don't mind my cousin's horrible manners. The infamous Harry Dresden hardly needs an introduction.’’ She looked me up and down and twined a finger through a tendril of dark hair. ’’How could I come to Chicago so many times without meeting you?’’

’’But I've seen you,’’ I said. My voice was a little rough, but it worked.

’’Oh?’’ she asked, the se*y smile widening. ’’Are you the sort who likes to watch, Harry?’’

’’You betcha,’’ I said. ’’And that time, I was watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’’

Her smile faltered a fraction.

’’You are Jessica Rabbit, right?’’ I asked. ’’All slinky and overblown and obvious?’’

The smile vanished.

’’Because I know I've seen you somewhere, and gosh, I'll be embarrassed if it turns out that you were the evil princess from Buck Rogers instead.’’

’’What?’’ she said. ’’Buck what?’’

I gave her my best forced smile. ’’Hey, don't get me wrong. You do that ensemble justice. But you're trying too hard.’’ I leaned a little closer and fake-whispered, ’’Lara does more for me just sitting in a chair than you did with your whole entrance.’’

Madeline Raith became as still and cold as a statue of a furious goddess, and the air temperature around us dropped several degrees.

I suddenly sensed Thomas's presence beside me, and found my brother had leaned back against the railing on his elbows, his hands loose and relaxed. He was standing just a tiny bit closer to Madeline than I was.

’’Madeline,’’ he said in the precise same tone he'd used a moment before, ’’go away before I beat you to death with my bare hands.’’

Madeline jerked her head back as if Thomas had slapped her. ’’What?’’

’’You heard me,’’ he said calmly. ’’It isn't quite cricket as family squabbles go, I know, but I'm tired, I don't give a f*k what you or anyone else in the House thinks of me, and I don't respect you enough to play games with you, even if I was in the mood.’’

’’How dare you?’’ Madeline snarled. ’’How dare you threaten me? Lara will have the skin flayed from your body for this.’’

’’Oh?’’ Thomas gave her a wintry smile. ’’After what you projected at the wizard, he'd be well within his rights to burn you right down to your overpriced shoes.’’

’’I never-’’

’’And despite the orders handed down from the King,’’ Thomas said, shaking his head. ’’Lara's getting tired of cleaning up after you, Mad. She'd probably buy me a new set of steak knives if I found a way to make her life a bit less trying.’’

Madeline laughed. It reminded me of glass breaking. ’’And do you think she loves you any better, cousin mine? You refuse to appear with the House at meetings of the Court, and spend your time among the kine, grooming them and bringing shame upon your family. At least tell me you are planning to take the beasts to some sort of auction.’’

’’You aren't capable of understanding why I do what I do,’’ Thomas said.

’’Who would want to?’’ she retorted. ’’You're as much a degenerate as any of those fools in Skavis and Malvora.’’

Thomas's mouth ticked at the corner, but that was all the reaction he gave her. ’’Go away, Madeline. Last warning.’’

’’Two members of the oldest bloodlines in Raith murdering each other?’’ Madeline said, sneering. ’’The White King could not tolerate such a divisive act and you know it.’’ She turned away from Thomas and walked toward Justine. ’’You're bluffing,’’ she said over her shoulder. ’’Besides. We haven't heard from our little pink rose yet.’’

Her voice sank to a throaty purr, and Justine quivered in place, seemingly unable to move as Madeline approached.

’’Pretty Justine.’’ Madeline put a hand on Justine's shoulder and slid a single fingertip down the slope of one breast. ’’I don't generally enjoy does as much as some, darling, but even I find the thought of taking you delicious.’’

’’You c-can't touch me,’’ Justine stammered. She was breathing faster.

’’Not yet,’’ Madeline said. ’’But there's not enough will left in your pretty little head to control yourself for long.’’ Madeline stepped closer, sliding her hand along Justine's waist. ’’Some night, perhaps I'll come to you with some beautiful young buck and whisper pretty things to you until you're mad to be taken. And after he has made use of you, little doe, I'll take you in one big bite.’’ She licked her lips. ’’I'll take you whole and make you scream how much you love it as it happen-’’

Thomas broke a chair over Madeline's head.

It was particularly impressive, given that all the chairs on the balcony were made of metal.

It happened fast, during an eye blink. One instant he was standing beside me, tightening with anger, and the next there were popped rivets zinging everywhere and Madeline had been crushed to the floor of the balcony.

The air went cold. Thomas dropped the ruined chair. Madeline bounced up from the floor and threw a blow at Thomas's jaw. He hunched and twisted, a boxer's defense, and took it on the shoulder with a grunt of pain. Then he seized her ankle and slammed her in a half circle, smashing a 36-24-36 dent into the drywall.

Madeline cried out and her limbs went loose. Thomas swung her in another arc that brought her crashing down onto the low coffee table between the couches. She lay there and let out a single choked gasp, her eyes unfocused. Without pausing, my brother snatched both chopsticks from Justine's hair, letting the white-silver locks tumble down her back.

Then, in two sharp, swift motions, he slammed the chopsticks through Madeline's wrists and into the table beneath them, pinning her like a butterfly to a card.

’’You're right of course,’’ he snarled. ’’Lara couldn't ignore one member of the family murdering another. It would make the King look weak.’’ His hand closed over Madeline's face, and he pulled her head up toward his, making her arms strain at a painful angle. ’’I was bluffing.’’

He shoved her back down against the table. ’’Of course,’’ he said, ’’you're family. Families don't murder one another.’’ He looked up at Justine and said, ’’They share.’’

She met his eyes. A very small, very hard smile graced Justine's features.

’’You wanted to taste her,’’ Thomas said, his fingers twining with Justine's rubber-clad ones. ’’Well, Madeline. Be my guest.’’

Justine leaned over and kissed Madeline Raith's forehead, her silken silver hair falling to veil them both.

The vampire screamed.

The sound was lost in the pounding rhythm and flashing lights.

Justine lifted her head a few seconds later, and swept her hair slowly down the length of Madeline's form. The vampire writhed and screamed again, while Thomas held her pinned to the table. Wherever Justine's hair glided over exposed fleshed, the skin sizzled and burned, blackening in some places, forming blisters and welts in others. She left a trail of ruin down one of Madeline's legs and then rose together with Thomas, two bodies making one motion.

Madeline Raith's face was a ruin of burn marks, and the imprint of Justine's soft mouth was a perfect black brand on pale flesh in the center of her forehead. She lay on the table, still pinned by the chopsticks, and quivered in jerking little motions, gasping and breathless with the pain.

Thomas and Justine walked, hand in hand, to the stairs leading down from our platform. I followed them.

They passed beneath an air-conditioning outlet, and a few strands of Justine's hair blew against Thomas's naked arm and chest. Small bright lines of scarlet appeared. Thomas didn't flinch.

I walked over to them and passed Justine a pair of pencils, taken from my coat pocket. She took them with a nod of thanks, and quickly bound up her hair again. I looked over my shoulder as she did.

Madeline Raith lay helpless and gasping-but her white eyes burned with hate.

Thomas took his T-shirt from where he'd stowed it on a belt loop, and put it back on. Then he slid his arms around Justine again and pulled her against his chest, holding her close.

’’Will you be all right?’’ he asked.

Justine nodded, her eyes closed. ’’I'll call the House. Lara will send someone for her.’’

’’You leave her there and it's going to make trouble,’’ I told him.

He shrugged. ’’I couldn't get away with killing her. But our House has rather stern views on poaching.’’ Something hard and hot entered his eyes. ’’Justine is mine. Madeline had to be shown that. She deserved it.’’

Justine clung a little bit tighter to him. He returned the gesture.

We all started down the stairs together, and I was glad to be leaving Zero.

’’Still,’’ I said. ’’Seeing her like that, I feel like maybe somebody went too far. I feel a little bit bad for her.’’

Thomas arched an eyebrow and glanced back at me. ’’You do?’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said. I pursed my lips thoughtfully. ’’Maybe I shouldn't have said that Jessica Rabbit thing.’’


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