White Night Chapter 43

Chapter Forty-Three

I didn't wake up until I was back home, and then only long enough to shamble inside and fall down on my bed. I was out for maybe six hours, and then I woke up with my whole back fused into one long, enormous muscle cramp. I made some involuntarily pathetic noises, and Mouse rose up from the floor beside my bed and jogged out of my room.

Molly appeared from the living room a moment later and said, ’’Harry? What's wrong?’’

’’Back,’’ I said. ’’My back. Freaking vampire tart. Wrenched my neck.’’

Molly nodded once and vanished. When she came back, she had a small black bag. ’’You were holding yourself sort of strangely last night, so after I dropped you off, I borrowed Mother's medicine bag.’’ She held up a bottle. ’’Muscle relaxants.’’ A jar. ’’Tiger Balm.’’ She held up a plastic container of dust. ’’Herbal tea mix Shiro found in Tibet. Great for joint pain. My father swears by it.’’

’’Padawan,’’ I said, ’’I'm doubling your pay.’’

’’You don't pay me, Harry.’’

’’Tripling it, then.’’

She gave me a broad smile. ’’And I'll be happy to get you all set up just as soon as you promise to tell me everything that happened. That you can, I mean. Oh, and Sergeant Murphy called. She wanted to know as soon as you were awake.’’

’’Give her a ring,’’ I said. ’’And of course I'll tell you about it. Is there any water?’’

She went and got me some, but I needed her help to sit up enough to drink it. That was embarrassing as hell. I got more embarrassed when she took my shirt off with a clinical detachment, and then winced at all the bruises. She fed me the muscle relaxants and set to with the Tiger Balm, and it hurt like hell. For about ten minutes. Then the stuff started working, and the not-pain was a drug of its own.

After a nice cup of tea - which tasted horrible, but which made it possible to move my neck within ten or twenty minutes of drinking it - I was able to get myself into the shower and get cleaned up and into fresh clothes. It was heavenly. Nothing like a nightmarish near-death experience to make you appreciate the little things in life, like cleanliness. And not being dead.

I spent a minute giving Mister some attention, though apparently he'd slept with Molly, because he accepted maybe a whole thirty seconds of stroking and then dismissed me as unnecessary once he was sure I was in one piece. Normally, he needs some time spread across someone's lap to be himself. I ruffled Mouse for a while instead, which he enjoyed dutifully, and then got myself some food and sat down in the chair across from Molly on the couch.

’’Sergeant Murphy's on the way,’’ Molly reported.

’’Good,’’ I told her quietly

’’So tell me about it.’’

’’You first.’’

She gave me a semiexasperated look, and started talking. ’’I sat in the car being invisible for... maybe an hour? Mouse kept me company. Nothing much happened. Then bells started ringing and men started shouting and shooting and the lights went out. A few minutes later, there was a great big explosion - it moved the rearview mirror out of position. Then Mouse started making noise like you said he would, and we drove to the gate and he jumped out of the car and came back with you.’’

I blinked at her for a minute. ’’That sounds really boring.’’

’’But scary,’’ Molly said. ’’Very tense.’’ She took a deep breath and said, ’’I had to throw up twice, just sitting there, I was so nervous. I don't know if... if I'm going to be cut out for this kind of thing, Harry.’’

’’Thank God,’’ I said. ’’You're sane.’’ I took a few more bites of food and then said, ’’But I need to know how much you want to know.’’

Molly blinked and leaned toward me a little. ’’What?’’

’’There's a lot I can tell you,’’ I said. ’’Some of it is just business. Some of it is going to be dangerous for you to know about. It might even obligate you in ways you wouldn't like very much.’’

’’So you won't tell me that part?’’ she asked.

’’Didn't say that,’’ I said. ’’I'm willing. But some of this stuff you'd be safer and happier not knowing. I don't want to endanger you or trap you into feeling you have to act without giving you a choice about it.’’

Molly stared at me for a minute while I gobbled cereal. Then she frowned, looked down at her hands for a minute, and said, ’’Maybe just tell me what you think is best. For now.’’

’’Good answer,’’ I said quietly.

And I told her about the White Court, about the challenge and the duel, about Vittorio's betrayal and how he gated in the ghouls and how I'd had my own backup standing by in the Nevernever.

’’What?’’ Molly said. ’’How did you do that?’’

’’Thomas,’’ I said. ’’He's a vampire, and they have the ability to cross into the Nevernever at certain places.’’

’’What kind of places?’’ Molly asked.

’’Places that are, ah,’’ I said, ’’important to them. Relevant to them in a particular way.’’

’’Places of lust, you mean,’’ Molly said.

I coughed and ate more cereal. ’’Yeah. And places where significant things have happened to them. In Thomas's case, he was nearly sacrificed by a cult of p*****-star sorceresses in those caves a few years a - ’’

’’I'm sorry,’’ Molly said, interrupting. ’’But it sounded like you said 'cult of p*****-star sorceresses.'’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said.

’’Oh,’’ she said, giving me a skeptical look. ’’Sorry, then. Keep going.’’

’’Anyway. He nearly died there, so I knew he could find it again. He led Marcone and Murphy there, and they were camped out, waiting for me to open a gate.’’

’’I see,’’ Molly said. ’’And you all ganged up on this Vittorio guy and killed him?’’

’’Not quite,’’ I said, and told her what happened, leaving out any mention of Lasciel or Cowl.

Molly blinked as I finished. ’’Well. That explains it, then.’’

’’Explains what?’’

’’There were all kinds of little lights going by the windows all night. They didn't upset Mouse. I thought maybe it was some kind of sending, and figured the wards would keep it out.’’ She shook her head. ’’It must have been all the little faeries.’’

’’They hang around all the time anyway,’’ I said. ’’It just takes a lot of them before it's obvious enough to notice.’’ I chewed Cheerios thoughtfully. ’’More mouths to feed. Guess I'd better call Pizza 'Spress and step up my standing order, or we'll have some kind of teeny faerie clan war over pizza rights on our hands.’’

I finished breakfast, found my back stiffening again, after sitting still, and was stretching out a little when Murphy arrived. She was still in her party clothes from the night before, complete with a loaded backpack.

After kneeling down to give Mouse his hug, she surprised me. I got one, too. I surprised myself with how hard I hugged back.

Molly occasionally displayed wisdom beyond her years. She did now, taking my car keys, showing them to me, and departing without a word, firmly shutting the door behind her.

’’Glad you're okay,’’ I told Murphy.

’’Yeah,’’ she said. Her voice shook a little, even on that one word, and she took a deep breath and spoke more clearly. ’’That was fairly awful. Even by your usual standards. You made it out all right?’’

’’Nothing I won't get over,’’ I told her. ’’You had any breakfast?’’

’’Don't think my stomach is up for much, after all that,’’ she said.

’’I have Cheerios,’’ I said, as if I'd been saying ’’dark chocolate Caramel almond fudge custard.’’

’’Oh, God.’’ Murphy sighed. ’’How can I resist.’’

We sat down on the couch, with Murphy's heavy bag on the coffee table. Murphy snacked on dry Cheerios from a bowl with her fingers. ’’Okay,’’ I told her. ’’First things first. Where is my gun?’’

Murphy snorted and nodded at her bag. I got in and opened it. My .44 was inside. So was Murphy's boxy little submachine gun. I picked it up and eyed it, then lifted it experimentally to my shoulder. ’’What the hell kind of gun is this?’’

’’It's a P90,’’ Murphy said.

’’See-through plastic?’’ I asked.

’’That's the magazine,’’ she said. ’’You can always see how many rounds you have left.’’

I grunted. ’’It's tiny.’’

’’On a hyperthyroid stork like you, sure,’’ Murphy said.

I frowned and said, ’’Full automatic. Ah. Is this weapon precisely legal? Even for you?’’

She snorted. ’’No.’’

’’Where'd you get it?’’ I asked.

’’Kincaid,’’ she said. ’’Last year. Gave it to me in a box of Belgian chocolate.’’

I took the weapon down from my shoulder, flipped it over, and eyed a little engraved plate on the butt. ’’ 'We'll always have Hawaii,'’’ I read aloud. ’’What the hell is that supposed to mean?’’

Murphy's cheeks turned pink. She took the gun from me, put it in the bag, and zipped it firmly closed. ’’Did we ever decide who blew up my car?’’

’’Probably Madrigal,’’ I said. ’’You stood him up for that cup of coffee, remember?’’

’’Because he was busy kidnapping you and attempting to sell you on eBay,’’ Murphy said.

I shrugged. ’’Vindictive doesn't equal rational.’’

Murphy frowned, the suspicious-cop look on her face something I was long used to seeing. ’’Maybe. But it doesn't feel right. He liked his vengeance personal.’’

’’Who then?’’ I asked. ’’Vittorio wasn't interested in drawing out the cops. Neither was Lord Skavis's agent. Lara Raith and Marcone don't do bombs.’’

’’Exactly,’’ Murphy said. ’’If not Madrigal, then who?’’

’’Life is a mystery?’’ I suggested. ’’It was probably Madrigal. Maybe one of the others had a reason for it that we don't know. Maybe we'll never know.’’

’’Yeah,’’ she said. ’’I hate that.’’ She shook her head. ’’Harry, wouldn't a decent human being be inquiring after his wounded friends and allies about now?’’

’’I assumed if there was bad news, you'd have told me already,’’ I said.

She gave me a steady look. ’’That,’’ she said, ’’is so archetypically male.’’

I grinned. ’’How is everyone?’’

’’Ramirez is in the hospital. Same floor as Elaine, actually, and we're watching them both. Unofficially, of course.’’

We meaning the cops. Murphy. Good people. ’’How is he?’’

’’Still had some surgery to go, when I left, but the doctor said his prognosis was excellent, as long as they can avoid infection. He got his guts opened up by that knife. That can always be tricky.’’

I grunted, and had my suspicions about where Molly had gone when she borrowed my car. ’’He'll make it. What about that poor no-neck you abused?’’

’’Mister Hendricks is there with two of those mercenaries. Marcone has some of his people guarding them, too.’’

’’Cops and robbers,’’ I said. ’’One big, happy family.’’

’’One wonders,’’ Murphy said, ’’why Marcone agreed to help.’’

I settled back on the couch and rubbed at the back of my neck Tilth one hand, closing my eyes. ’’I bribed him.’’

’’With what?’’ Murphy asked.

’’A seat at the table,’’ I said quietly.

’’Huh?’’

’’I offered Marcone a chance to sign on to the Unseelie Accords as a freeholding lord.’’

Murphy was quiet for a moment, and then she said, ’’He wants to keep expanding his power.’’ She thought about it a minute more and said, ’’Or he thinks his power might be threatened from someone on that end.’’

’’Someone like the vampires,’’ I said. ’’The Red Court had defacto control of prostitution in Chicago until Bianca's place burned down. And an agent of the White Court has just shown up and killed one of his prostitutes.’’

’’Are we sure it was Madrigal?’’

’’I am,’’ I said. ’’No way to prove it, but he was the Raith involved in this mess.’’

’’That was more or less an accident,’’ Murphy said. ’’Taking out one of Marcone's people, I mean.’’

’’She's just as dead,’’ I replied. ’’And Marcone won't stand by when someone - anyone - kills one of his own.’’

’’How does becoming a... what was it? And how does it help?’’

’’Freeholding lord,’’ I said. ’’It means he's entitled to rights under the Accords - like rights of challenge when someone kills his employees. It means that if a supernatural power tries to move in on him, he'll have an opportunity to fight it and actually win.’’

’’Are there many of these lords?’’

’’Nope,’’ I said. ’’I had Bob look into it. Maybe twenty on the whole planet. Two dragons, Drakul - the original, not baby Vlad - the Archive, the CEO of Monoc Securities, some kind of semi-immortal shapeshifter guru in the Ukraine, people like that. The Accords let them sign on as individuals. They have the same rights and obligations. Most people who consider the idea aren't willing to agree to be a good, traditional host for, let's say, a group of Black Court vampires, and don't want to get caught up as a mediator in a dispute between the major powers. They don't want to make themselves the targets of possible challenges, either, so not many of them even try it.’’ I rubbed at my jaw. ’’And no one who is just a vanilla human being has tried it. Marcone is breaking new ground.’’

Murphy shook her head. ’’And you were able to set him up for it?’’

’’You have to have three current members of the Accords vouch for you to sign on,’’ I said. ’’I told him I'd be one of them.’’

’’You can speak for the Council in this?’’

’’When it comes to defending and protecting my area of responsibility as a Warden, I damned well can. If the Council doesn't like it, they shouldn't have dragooned me into the job.’’

Murphy chewed on some Cheerios, scrunched up her nose in thought, and then gave me a shrewd look. ’’You're using Marcone.’’

I nodded. ’’It's only a matter of time before someone like Lara Raith tries to push for more power in Chicago. Sooner or later they'll swamp me in numbers, and we both know SI will always have their hands tied by red tape and politics. If Marcone signs the Accords, he'll have a strong motivation to oppose any incursion - and the means to do so.’’

’’But he's going to use his new means to secure his position here even more firmly,’’ Murphy said quietly. ’’Make new allies, probably. Gain new resources.’’

’’Yeah. He's using me, too.’’ I shook my head. ’’It isn't a perfect solution.’’

’’No,’’ Murphy said. ’’It isn't’’

’’But he's the devil we know.’’

Neither of us said anything for several minutes.

’’Yes,’’ Murphy admitted. ’’He is.’’

Murphy dropped me off at the hospital and I headed straight for Elaine's room.

I found her inside, dressing. She was just pulling a pair of jeans up over strong, slender legs that looked just as good as I remembered. When I opened the door, she spun, thorn-wand in hand.

I put my hands up and said, ’’Easy there, gunslinger. I'm not looking for any trouble.’’

Elaine gave me a gentle glare and slipped the wand into a small leather case that clipped to the jeans. She did not look well, but she looked a lot weller than she had the last time I'd seen her. Her face was still quite pale and her eyes were sunken and bruised, but she moved with brisk purpose for all of that. ’’You shouldn't sneak up on people like that,’’ she said.

’’If I'd knocked, I might have woken you up.’’

’’If you'd knocked, you'd have missed out on an outside chance of seeing me getting dressed,’’ she shot back.

’’Touche.’’ I glanced around and spotted her bag, all packed. My stomach twisted a little in disappointment. ’’Shouldn't you be in bed?’’

She shook her head. ’’Have you ever tried to watch daytime television? I was glad when the set finally blew. I'd lose my mind just lying here.’’

’’How you feeling?’’

’’A lot better,’’ Elaine said. ’’Stronger. Which is another reason to leave. I don't want to have a nightmare and have my powers kill some poor grampa's respirator.’’

I nodded. ’’So it's back to California?’’

’’Yes. I've done enough damage for one trip.’’

I folded my arms and leaned against the door, watching her brush back her hair enough to get it into a tail. She didn't look at me when she asked, ’’Did you get them?’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said.

She closed her eyes, shivered, and exhaled. ’’Okay.’’ She shook her head. ’’That shouldn't make me feel better. It won't help Anna.’’

’’It will help a lot of other people in the long run,’’ I said.

She abruptly slammed the brush against the rail of the bed, snapping it. ’’I wasn't here trying to help a lot of other people, dammit.’’ She glanced down at the brush's handle and seemed to deflate for a moment. She tossed it listlessly into a corner.

I went over to her and put a hand on her shoulder. ’’This just in. Elaine isn't perfect. News at eleven.’’

She leaned her cheek on my hand.

’’You should know,’’ I said. ’’I got reparations out of the White Court. A weregild for their dependents.’’

She blinked at me. ’’How?’’

’’My boyish charm. Can you get me contact information for the victims'families? I'll get somebody to get the money to them.’’

’’Yes,’’ she said. ’’Some of them didn't have any dependents. Like Anna.’’

I grunted and nodded. ’’I thought we might use that money to build something.’’

Elaine frowned at me. ’’Oh?’’

I nodded. ’’We use the money. We expand the Ordo, build a network of contacts. A hotline for middle-class practitioners. We contact groups like the Ordo in cities all around the country. We put the word out that if people are in some kind of supernatural fix, they can get word of it onto the network. Maybe if something like this starts happening again, we can hear about it early and stomp on the fire before it grows. We teach self-defense classes. We help people coordinate, cooperate, support one another. We act.’’

Elaine chewed on her lip and looked up at me uncertainly. ’’We?’’

’’You said you wanted to help people,’’ I said. ’’This might. What do you think?’’

She stood up, leaned up onto her toes, and kissed me gently on the lips before staring into my eyes, her own very wide and bright. ’’I think,’’ she said quietly, ’’that Anna would have liked that.’’

Ramirez woke up late that evening, swathed in bandages, his injured leg in traction, and I was sitting next to his bed when he did. It was a nice switch for me. Usually I was the one waking up into disorientation, confusion, and pain.

I gave him a few minutes to get his bearings before I leaned for-ward and said, ’’Hey, there, man.’’

’’Harry,’’ he rasped. ’’Thirsty.’’

Before he was finished saying it, I picked up the little sports bottle of ice water they'd left next to his bed. I put the straw between his lips and said, ’’Can you hold it, or should I do it for you?’’

He managed a small glare, fumbled a hand up, and held on to the bottle weakly. He sipped some of the water, then laid his head back on the pillow. ’’Okay,’’ he said. ’’How bad is it?’’

’’Alas,’’ I said. ’’You'll live.’’

’’Where?’’

’’Hospital,’’ I said. ’’You're stable. I've called Listens-to-Wind, and he's going to come pick you up in the morning.’’

’’We win?’’

’’Bad guys go boom,’’ I said. ’’The White King is still on his throne. Peace process is going to move ahead.’’

’’Tell me.’’

So I gave him the battle's last few minutes, except for Lash's role in things.

’’Harry Dresden,’’ Ramirez murmured, ’’the human cannonball.’’

’’Bam, zoom, right to the moon.’’

He smiled a little. ’’You get Cowl?’’

’’Doubt it,’’ I said. ’’He was right by his gate. When he saw me running for the exit, ten to one he just stepped back through it and zipped it shut. In fact, I'm pretty sure he did. If there'd been an open gate there, the blast would have been able to spread into it. I don't think we would have been thrown so far.’’

’’How about Vitto?’’

I shook my head. ’’Vitto was pretty far gone even before the bombs went off. I'm pretty sure we nailed him, and those ghouls, too.’’

’’Good thing you had that army on standby, huh,’’ Ramirez said, a faint edge to his voice.

’’Hey,’’ I said, ’’it's late. I should let you get some rest.’’

’’No,’’ Ramirez said, his voice stronger. ’’We need to talk.’’

I sat there for a minute, bracing myself. Then I said, ’’About what.’’

’’About how tight you are with the vamps,’’ he said. ’’About you making deals with scumbag mobsters. I recognized Marcone. I've seen his picture in the papers.’’ Ramirez shook his head. ’’Jesus Christ, Harry. We're supposed to be on the same team. It's called trust, man.’’

I wanted to spit something hostile and venomous and well deserved. I toned myself down to saying, ’’Gee. A Warden doesn't trust me. That's a switch.’’

Ramirez blinked at me. ’’What?’’

’’Don't worry about it. I'm used to it,’’ I said. ’’I had Morgan sticking his nose into every corner of my existence for my entire adult life.’’

Ramirez stared at me for a second. Then he let out a weak snort and said, ’’All hail the drama queen. Harry...’’ He shook his head. ’’I'm talking about you not trusting me, man.’’

My increasingly angry retort died unspoken. ’’Uh. What?’’

Ramirez shook his head wearily. ’’Let me make some guesses. One. You don't trust the Council. You never have, but lately, it's been worse. Especially since New Mexico. You think that whoever is leaking information to the vampires is pretty high up, and the less anyone in the Council knows about what you're doing, the better.’’

I stared at him and said nothing.

’’Two. There's a new player in the game. Cowl's on the new team. We don't know who they are, but they seem to have a hard-on for screwing over everyone equally - vampires, mortals, wizards, whoever.’’ He sighed. ’’You aren't the only one who's been noticing these things, Harry.’’

I grunted. ’’What do you call them?’’

’’The Black Hats, after our Ringwraith-wannabe buddy, Cowl. You?’’

’’The Black Council,’’ I said.

’’Oooh,’’ Ramirez muttered. ’’Yours is better.’’

’’Thanks,’’ I said.

’’So you can't trust our own people,’’ he said. ’’But you're cutting deals with the vampires...’’ He narrowed his eyes. ’’You think you might be able to find the traitor coming in from the other side.’’

I put my finger on my nose.

’’And the gangster?’’ Ramirez asked.

’’He's a snake,’’ I said. ’’But his word is good. And Madrigal and Vitto had killed one of his people. And I know he isn't working for Cowl's organization.’’

’’How do you know that?’’

’’Because Marcone works for Marcone-’’

Ramirez spread his hands weakly. ’’Was that so damned hard, Dresden? To talk to me?’’

I settled back in my chair. My shoulders suddenly felt loose and Wobbly. I breathed in and out a few times, and then said, ’’No.’’

Ramirez snorted gently. ’’Idiot.’’

’’So,’’ I said. ’’Think I should come clean to the Merlin?’’

Ramirez opened one eye. ’’Are you kidding? He hates your guts. He'd have you declared a traitor, locked up, and executed before you got through the first paragraph.’’ He closed his eye again. ’’But I'm with you, man. All the way.’’

You don't have much endurance after going through something like Ramirez had. He was asleep before he realized it was about to happen.

I sat with him for the rest of the night, until Senior Council Member Listens-to-Wind arrived with his team of medical types before dawn the next morning.

You don't leave an injured friend all alone.

The next day, I knocked on the door to the office at Executive Priority and went in without waiting for an answer.

’’Tonight you will be visited by three spirits,’’ I announced. ’’The ghosts of indictment past, present, and future. They will teach you the true meaning of 'you are still a scumbag criminal.'’’

Marcone was there, sitting behind the desk with Helen Beckitt, or maybe Helen Demeter, I supposed. She wore her professionally suggestive business suit - and was sitting across Marcone's lap. Her hair and suit looked slightly mussed. Marcone had his third shirt button undone.

I cursed my timing. If I'd come ten minutes later, I'd have opened the door in medias res. It would have been infinitely more awkward.

’’Dresden,’’ Marcone said, his tone pleasant. Helen made no move to stir from where she was. ’’It's nice to see you alive. Your sense of humor, of course, remains unchanged, which is unsurprising, as it seems to have died in your adolescence. Presumably it entered a suicide pact with your manners.’’

’’Your good opinion,’’ I said, ’’means the world to me. I see you got out of the Nevernever.’’

’’Simple enough,’’ Marcone said. ’’I had to shoot a few of the vampires, once we were clear of the fight. I did not appreciate the way they were attempting to coerce my employees.’’

’’Hell's bells.’’ I sighed. ’’Did you kill any of them?’’

’’Unnecessary. I shot them enough to make my point. After that, we had an adequate understanding of one another - much as you and I do.’’

’’I understand that you settled matters with Anna's killers, Mister Dresden,’’ Helen said. ’’With help, of course.’’

Marcone smiled his unreadable little smile at me.

’’The people who did the deed won't be bothering anyone anymore,’’ I said. ’’And most of the people who motivated them have gone into early retirement.’’ I glanced at Marcone. ’’With help.’’

’’But not all of them?’’ Helen asked, frowning.

’’Everyone we could make answer,’’ Marcone said, ’’has answered. It is unlikely we could accomplish more.’’

Something made me say, ’’And I'm taking steps to prevent or mitigate this kind of circumstance in the future. Here and elsewhere.’’

Helen tilted her head at me, taking that in. Then she nodded and said, very quietly, ’’Thank you.’’

’’Helen,’’ Marcone said. ’’Would you be so good as to excuse us for a few moments.’’

’’Won't take long,’’ I added. ’’I don't like being here.’’

Helen smiled slightly at me and rose smoothly from Marcone's lap. ’’If it makes you feel any better, Mister Dresden, you should know that he dislikes having you here as well.’’

’’You should see how much my insurance premiums go up after your visits, Dresden.’’ He shook his head. ’’And they call me an extortionist. Helen, could you send Bonnie in with that file?’’

’’Certainly.’’

Helen left. Healthy brunette Bonnie, in her oh-so-fetching exercise outfit, bounced in with a manila folder, gave me a Colgate smile, and departed again. Marcone opened the folder, withdrew a stack of papers, and started flicking through them. He got to the last page, turned it around, slid it across the desk, and produced a pen from his pocket. ’’Here is the contract you faxed me. Sign here, please.’’

I walked over to the desk, took the entire stack, and started reading it from page one. You never sign a contract you haven't read, even if you aren't a wizard. If you are one, it's even more important than that. People joke about signing away their soul or their firstborn. In my world, it's possible.

Marcone seemed to accept that. He made a steeple of his fingers and waited with the relaxed patience of a well-fed cat.

The contract was the standard one for approving a new signatory of the Accords, and though he'd had it retyped, Marcone hadn't changed a word. Probably. I kept reading. ’’So you suggested the name Demeter for Helen?’’ I asked as I read.

Marcone's expression never changed. ’’Yes.’’

’’How's Persephone?’’

He stared at me.

’’Persephone,’’ I said. ’’Demeter's daughter. She was carried away by the Lord of the Underworld.’’

Marcone's stare became cold.

’’He kept her there in Hades, but Demeter froze the whole world until the other gods convinced him to return Persephone to her mother.’’ I turned a page. ’’The girl. The one in the coma, who you're keeping in a hospital somewhere, and visiting every week. That's Helen's daughter, isn't it. The one who got caught in the cross fire of one of your shoot-outs.’’

Marcone didn't move.

’’Newspaper file on it said she was killed,’’ I said.

I read several more pages before Marcone answered. ’’Tony Vargassi, my predecessor, I suppose, had a son. Marco. Marco decided that I had become a threat to his standing in the organization. He was the shooter.’’

’’But the girl,’’ I said, ’’didn't die.’’

Marcone shook his head. ’’It put Vargassi in an awkward position. If the girl recovered, she might identify his son as the shooter, and no jury in the world would fail to send a thug to jail who'd shot a pretty little girl. But if the girl died, and it came back on Marco, he'd be looking at a murder charge.’’

’’And someone who murders little girls gets the needle in Illinois,’’ I said.

’’Exactly. There was a great deal of corruption at the time - ’’

I snorted.

Marcone's little smile returned for a moment. ’’Pardon me. Say instead that the Vargassis exerted their influence on official matters with a heavy hand. Vargassi had the little girl declared dead. He convinced the medical examiner to sign false paperwork, and he hid the girl away in another hospital.’’

I grunted. ’’If Marco got identified as the shooter and put up for trial, Vargassi could produce the little girl. Look, she's not dead. Mistrial.’’

’’One possibility,’’ Marcone replied. ’’And if things went quietly for a while, he could simply delete her records.’’

’’And her,’’ I said.

’’Yes.’’

’’Whatever happened to old Tony Vargassi?’’ I asked.

I saw a flash of Marcone's teeth. ’’His whereabouts are unknown. As are Marco's.’’

’’When did you find out about the girl?’’

’’Two years later,’’ he said. ’’Everything was set up through a dummy corporation's trust fund. She could have just...’’ He looked away from me. ’’Just lain there. Indefinitely. No one would have known who she was. Known her name.’’

’’Does Helen know?’’ I asked him.

He shook his head. He was quiet for a moment more. ’’I can't return Persephone from Hades. The child's death almost destroyed Helen - and her world is still frozen. If she knew her daughter was... trapped... just lying there in a half-life...’’ He shook his head. ’’It would shatter her world, Dresden. And I shouldn't wish that.’’

’’I've noticed,’’ I said quietly, ’’that most of the young ladies working here would be about the same age as her daughter.’’

’’Yes,’’ Marcone said.

’’That isn't exactly a healthy recovery.’’

’’No,’’ Marcone said. ’’But it's what she has.’’

I thought about it while I kept reading. Maybe Helen deserved to know about her daughter. Hell, she probably did. But whatever else Marcone was, he was no fool. If he thought news of her daughter's fate might shatter Helen, he was probably right. Sure, she should know. But did I have the right to make that decision?

Probably not - even if Marcone wouldn't do his best to have me killed if I tried. Hell, I probably had less right to decide than Marcone. He had way more invested in the girl and her fate than I did.

Because that was the secret I'd seen in a soulgaze with Gentleman Johnnie Marcone, years ago. The secret that gave him the strength and the will to rule the mean streets.

He felt responsible for the little girl who'd taken a bullet meant for him.

He'd taken over Chicago crime with ruthless efficiency, always cutting down on the violence. A couple of people had been hurt in gang-related crimes. The gangsters responsible hadn't been heard from again. I'd always assumed it was because Marcone had decided to manipulate matters, to make himself appear to be a preferable alternative to more careless criminals who might take his place if the cops took him down.

I'd never even considered the idea that he might actually give a crap about innocents being harmed.

Granted, that didn't change anything. He still ran a business that killed far more people than any amount of collateral damage. He was still a criminal. Still a bad guy.

But...

He was the devil I knew. And he probably could have been worse.

I got to the last page of the contract and found spaces for three signatures. Two of them were already filled.

’’Donar Vadderung?’’ I asked Marcone.

’’Current CEO of Monoc Securities,’’ Marcone replied. ’’Oslo.’’

’’And Lara Raith,’’ I murmured.

’’Signing on behalf of her father, the White King, who is obviously in charge of the White Court.’’ There was a trace of irony in Marcone's voice. He hadn't been fooled by the puppet show.

I looked at the third open line.

Then I signed it, and left without another word.

It isn't a perfect world. I'm doing the best I can.

’’Hmmmm.’’ said Bob the Skull, peering at my left hand. ’’It looks like...’’

I was sitting in my lab, my hand spread open on the table, white the skull examined my palm.

I'd worn a mark there for years - an unblemished patch of skin amidst all the burn scars, in the perfect shape of the angelic sigil that was Lasciel's name.

The mark was gone.

In its place was just an irregular patch of unburned skin.

’’It looks like there's no mark there anymore,’’ Bob said.

I sighed. ’’Thank you, Bob,’’ I said. ’’It's good to have a professional opinion.’’

’’Well, what did you expect?’’ Bob said. The skull swiveled around on the table and tilted up to look at my face. ’’Hmmmmm. And you say the entity isn't responding to you anymore?’’

’’No. And she's always jumped every time I said frog.’’

’’Interesting,’’ Bob said.

’’What's that supposed to mean?’’

’’Well, from what you told me, this psychic attack the entity blocked for you was quite severe.’’

I shivered, remembering. ’’Yeah.’’

’’And the process she used to accelerate your brain and shield you was traumatic as well.’’

’’Right. She said it could cause me brain damage.’’

’’Uh-huh,’’ Bob said. ’’I think it did.’’

’’Huh?’’

’’See what I mean?’’ Bob asked cheerfully. ’’You're thicker already.’’

’’Harry get hammer,’’ I said. ’’Smash stupid talky skull.’’

For a guy with no legs, Bob backpedals swiftly and gracefully. ’’Easy there, chief;don't get excited. But the brain damage thing is for real.’’

I frowned. ’’Explain, please.’’

’’Well, I told you that the entity in your head was like a recording of the real Lasciel, right?’’

’’Yeah.’’

’’That recording was written in your brain, in portions you weren't using.’’

’’Right.’’

’’I think that's where the damage is. I mean, I'm looking at you right now, and your head has been riddled with tiny holes, boss.’’

I blinked and rubbed my fingers over my scalp. ’’It doesn't feel like that.’’

’’That's because your brain doesn't sense injuries. It manages sensing injuries for the rest of you. But trust me, there's damage. I think it wiped out the entity.’’

’’Wiped out... you mean, like...’’

’’Killed it,’’ Bob said. ’’Technically, it was never alive, but it was constructed. It's been deconstructed, and...’’

I frowned. ’’And what?’’

’’And there's, um, a portion of you missing.’’

’’I'm sure I would have felt that,’’ I said.

’’Not your body,’’ Bob said scornfully. ’’Your life force. Your chi. Your soul.’’

’’Whoa, wait a minute. Part of my soul is gone?’’

Bob sighed. ’’People get all excited when you use that word. The part of you that is more than merely physical, yes. You can call it whatever you want. There's some missing, and it's nothing to panic over.’’

’’Part of my soul is gone and I'm not supposed to be worried about that?’’ I demanded.

’’Happens all the time,’’ Bob said. ’’You shared a bunch of yours with Susan, and she with you. It's what protected you from Lara Raith. You and Murphy swapped some pretty recently, looks like - you must have gotten a hug or something. Honestly, Harry, you really ought to bang her and get it over wi - ’’

I reached under the worktable, drew out a claw hammer, and gave Bob a pointed look.

’’Um, right,’’ he said. ’’Back to business. Uh, your soul. You give away pieces of yourself all the time. Everyone does. Some of it goes out with your magic, too. It grows back. Relax, boss.’’

’’If it's no big deal,’’ I said, ’’then why is it so interesting?’’

’’Oh, well,’’ Bob said. ’’It is energy, you know. And I wonder if maybe... maybe... well, look, Harry. There was a tiny bit of Lasciel's energy in you, supporting the entity, giving you access to Hellfire. That's gone now, but the entity had to have had some kind of power source to turn against the essence of its own originator.’’

’’So it was running off my soul? Like I'm some kind of battery ?’’

’’Hey,’’ Bob said, ’’don't get all righteous. You gave it to her. Encouraging her to make her own choices, to rebel, to exercise free will.’’ Bob shook his head. ’’Free will is horrible, Harry, believe me. I'm glad I don't have it. Ugh, no, thank you. But you gave her some. You gave her a name. The will came with it.’’

I was quiet for a moment, then said, ’’And she used it to kill herself.’’

’’Sort of,’’ Bob said. ’’She chose which areas of your brain were going to take the worst beating. She took a psychic bullet for you. I guess it's almost the same thing as choosing to die.’’

’’No, it isn't,’’ I said quietly. ’’She didn't choose to die. She chose to be free.’’

’’Maybe that's why they call it free will,’’ Bob said. ’’Hey, tell me that at least you got a pony ride before the carnival left town. I mean, she could have made you see and feel anything at all, and...’’ Bob paused, and his eyelights blinked. ’’Hey, Harry. Are you crying?’’

’’No,’’ I snapped, and left the lab.

The apartment felt... very empty.

I sat down with my guitar and tried to sort out my thoughts. It was hard. I was feeling all kinds of anger and confusion and sadness. I kept telling myself that it was the emotional fallout of Malvora's psychic assault, but it's one thing to repeat that to yourself over and over, and quite another to sit there feeling awful.

I started playing.

Beautifully.

It wasn't perfect performance - a computer can do that. It wasn't a terribly complex bit of music. My fingers didn't suddenly regain their complete dexterity - but the music became alive. My hands moved with a surety and confidence I usually felt only in bursts a few seconds long. I played a second piece, and then a third, and every time my rhythm was on, and I found myself seeing and using new nuances, variations on chords that lent depth and color to the simple pieces I could play - sweet sadness to the minor chords, power to the majors, stresses and resolutions I'd always heard in my head, but could never express in life, It was almost like someone had opened a door in my head, like they were helping me along.

I heard a very, very faint whisper, like an echo of Lash's voice.

Everything I can, dear host.

I played for a while longer, before gently setting aside my guitar.

Then I went to call Father Forthill and tell him to come over, so that he could pick up the blackened denarius as soon as I dug it out of my basement.

I picked up Thomas outside his apartment and tailed him as he crossed town. He took the El over toward the Loop, and hit the sidewalks again. He looked tense, and paler than usual. He'd blown an awful lot of energy killing those ghouls, and I knew he'd have to feed - maybe dangerously - to recover what he'd lost.

I'd called him the day after the battle and tried to talk to him, but he'd remained reticent, remote. I'd told him I was worried about him, after blowing that much energy. He'd hung up on me. He'd cut short two more calls since.

So, being as how I am a smart and sensitive guy who respects his brother's feelings, I was tailing him to find out what the hell he was trying so hard not to talk to me about. This way, I was sparing him all the effort and trouble of telling me about it by finding out all on my own. Like I said, I'm sensitive. And thoughtful. And maybe a little stubborn.

Thomas wasn't being very careful. I would have expected him to move around the city like a long-tailed cat at a rocking chair convention, but he sort of trudged along, fashionable in his dark slacks and loose, deep crimson shirt, his hands in his pockets, his hair hiding his face most of the time.

Even so, he attracted more than a little feminine attention. He was like a walking, talking cologne commercial, except that even silent and standing he was making women look over their shoulders at him, while coyly rearranging their hair.

He finally stalked into the Park Tower, and went into a trendy little boutique-slash-coffee shop calling itself the Coiffure Cup. I checked a clock, and thought about following him in. I could see a few people inside, where a coffee bar backed up to the front window. A couple of fairly pretty girls were getting things set up behind the counter, but I couldn't see any more than that.

I found a spot where I could watch the door and loomed unobtrusively - which is easier than you'd think, even when you're as tall as I am. A couple of women whose hair and nails screamed ’’beautician’’ came in later. The boutique opened for business a few minutes after Thomas got there, and immediately began doing a brisk trade. A lot of evidently wealthy, terribly attractive, generally young women started coming and going.

It put me in a quandary. On the one hand, I didn't want anyone to get hurt because my brother had exerted himself so furiously on my behalf. On the other, I didn't particularly care to go in and find my brother lording it over a roomful of worshipful women like some dark god of lust and shadow.

I chewed on my lip for a while, and decided to go on in. If Thomas had... if he had become the kind of monster his family generally did, I owed it to him to try to talk some sense into him. Or pound it in. Whichever.

I pushed open the door to the Coiffure Cup and was immediately, pleasantly assaulted by the aroma of coffee. There was techno music playing, thumping bouncily and mindlessly positive. The front room contained the coffee bar, a few little tables, and a little podium next to a heavy curtain. Even as I came in, one of the young women behind the bar came out to me, gave me a bubbly, caf-feinated smile, and said, ’’Hi! Do you have an appointment?’’

’’No,’’ I said, glancing back at the curtains.'’’Um, I just need to talk to someone. One second.’’

’’Sir,’’ she said in protest, and tried to hurry into my path. My legs were longer. I gave her a smile and outdistanced her, pushing the curtain aside.

The techno music grew a little louder as I went through. The back room of the boutique smelled the way boutiques always do, of various tonsorial chemicals. A dozen styling stations, all in use, stood six on a side, marching up to a rather large and elaborate station on a little raised platform. At the base of the little platform was a pedicure station, and a young woman with a mud mask, and cucumber slices, and a body posture of blissful relaxation was lounging through a pedicure. On the other side, another young woman was under a dryer, reading a magazine, her expression heavy and relaxed with that postcoiffure glow. On the main chair on the platform, a deluxe number that leaned back to a custom shampoo sink, another young woman lay back with a blissful expression while having her hair washed.

By Thomas.

He was chatting with her amiably as he worked, and she was in the middle of a little laugh when I came in. He leaned down and said something in her ear, and though I couldn't hear the substance of it, it came across in an unmistakable just-us-girls kind of tone, and she laughed again, replying in a similar manner.

Thomas laughed and turned away, practically prancing over to a tray of... styling implements, I supposed. He came back with a towel and, I swear to God, a dozen bobby pins held in his lips. He rinsed her hair and started pinning.

’’Sir!’’ protested the coffee girl, who had followed me into the room.

Everyone stopped and looked at me. Even the woman with the cucumbers over her eyes took one of them off and peered at me.

Thomas froze. His eyes widened to the size of hand mirrors. He swallowed, and the bobby pins fell out of his mouth.

All the women looked back and forth between us, and there was an immediate buzz of whispers and quiet talks.

’’You have got to be kidding me,’’ I said.

’’O-oh,’’ Thomas said. ’’Ah-ree.’’

One of the stylists glanced back and forth between us and said, ’’Thomas.’’ (She pronounced it Toe-moss.) ’’Who is your friend?’’

Friend. Oy vey. I rubbed at the bridge of my nose with one hand. I was never going to get away from this one. Not if I lived to be five hundred.

Thomas and I sat down at a table over cups of coffee.

’’This?’’ I asked him without preamble. ’’This is your mysterious job? This is the moneymaking scam?’’

’’It was cosmetology school first,’’ Thomas said. He spoke in a French accent so thick that it barely qualified as English. ’’And night work as a security guard in a warehouse where no one else ever showed up, to pay for it.’’

I rubbed at my nose again. ’’And then... this ? Here I'm thinking you've created your own batch of personal thralls while running around as a hired killer or something, and... you're washing hair ?’’

It was difficult to keep my voice quiet, but I made the effort. There were too many ears in that little place.

Thomas sighed. ’’Well. Yes. Washing, cutting, styling, dying. I do it all, baby.’’

’’I'll bet.’’ Then it hit me. ’’That's how you're feeding,’’ I said. ’’I thought that took...’’

’’se*?’’ Thomas asked. He shook his head. ’’Intimacy. Trust. And believe me, next to se*, washing and styling a woman's hair is about as intimate as you can get with her.’’

’’You're still feeding on them,’’ I said.

’’It isn't the same, Harry. It isn't as dangerous - more like... sipping, I suppose, than taking bites. I can't take very much, or very quickly. But I'm here all day and it...’’ He shivered. ’’It adds up.’’ He opened his eyes and met mine. ’’And there's no chance I'm going to lose control of myself. They're safe.’’ He shrugged a shoulder. ’’They just enjoy it.’’

I watched the woman who'd been under the hair dryer come out, smile at Thomas, and pick up a cup of coffee on the way out. She looked... well, radiant, really. Confident. She looked like she felt se*y and beautiful, and it was quite pleasant to watch her move while she did.

Thomas watched her go with what I recognized as his look of quiet possession and pride. ’’They enjoy it a lot.’’ He gave me one of his brief, swift grins. ’’I imagine there's a lot of husbands and boyfriends enjoying it, too.’’

’’But they're addicted to it, I'd imagine.’’

He shrugged again. ’’Some, maybe. I try to spread myself around as much as I can. It isn't a perfect solution - ’’

’’But it's the one you've got,’’ I said. I frowned. ’’What happens when you try to wash somebody's hair and it turns out that they're in love? Protected?’’

’’True love isn't as common as you'd think,’’ Thomas said. ’’Especially among people rich enough to afford me and superficial enough to think that it is money well spent.’’

’’But when they do show?’’ I asked.

’’That's why I've got all the hired help, man. I know what I'm doing.’’

I shook my head. ’’All this time and...’’ I snorted and sipped at some coffee. It was amazing. Smooth and rich and just sweet enough, and it probably cost more than a whole fast-food meal. ’’They all think I'm your lover, don't they.’’

’’This is a trendy, upper-class boutique, Harry. No one expects a man with a place like this to be straight.’’

’’Uh-huh. And the accent, Toe-moss?’’

He smiled. ’’No one would pay that much money to an American stylist. Please.’’ He shrugged. ’’It's superficial and silly, but true.’’ He glanced around, suddenly self-conscious. His voice lowered, and his accent dropped. ’’Look. I know it's a lot to ask...’’

It was an effort not to laugh at him, but I managed to give him a hard look, sigh, and say, ’’Your secret is safe with me.’’

He looked relieved. ’’Merci .’’

’’Hey,’’ I said. ’’Can you stop by my place tonight after work? I'm putting something together that might help people if someone else starts something like those White Court bozos just tried. I thought maybe you'd want to be in on it.’’

’’Um, yeah. Yeah, we can talk about it.’’

I sipped more coffee. ’’Maybe Justine could help, too. Might be a way to get her out, if you want to do it.’’

’’Are you kidding?’’ Thomas asked. ’’She's been working for a year to get closer to Lara.’’

I blinked up at him. ’’Hell's bells, I thought she was acting weird,’’ I said. ’’She came on all zonked out, like the mindless party girl, but she dropped it a couple of times, where I could see. I just put it down to, well. Weirdness.’’

He shook his head. ’’She's been getting information to me. Nothing huge, so far.’’

’’Does Lara know about her?’’

Thomas shook his head. ’’She hasn't tipped to it yet. Justine is, as far as Lara is concerned, still one more helpless little doe.’’ He glanced up. ’’I talked it over with her. She wants to stay. She's Lara's assistant, most of the time.’’

I exhaled slowly. Holy crap. If Justine stayed in place, and was willing to report on what she knew... intelligence gathered at that level could turn the entire course of the war - because even if the White Court's peace proposal went through, it just meant a shift in focus and strategy. The vamps weren't about to let up.

’’Dangerous,’’ I said quietly.

’’She wants to do it,’’ he said.

I shook my head. ’’I take it you've been in touch with Lara?’’

’’Of course,’’ Thomas said. ’’Given my recent heroism’’ - his voice turned wry - ’’in defense of the White King, I am now in favor in the Court. The prodigal son has been welcomed home with open arms.’’

’’Really?’’

’’Well,’’ Thomas amended, ’’with reluctant, irritated arms, anyway. Lara's miffed about the Deeps.’’

’’Guess the bombs weren't good for them.’’

Thomas's teeth showed. ’’The whole place just collapsed in on itself. There's a huge hole in the ground, the plumbing at the manor got torn up, and the foundation cracked. It's going to cost a fortune to fix it.’’

’’Poor Lara,’’ I said. ’’No more convenient corpse-disposal facilities.’’

He laughed. ’’It's nice to see her exasperated. She's usually so self-assured.’’

’’I have a gift.’’

He nodded. ’’You do.’’ We sat quietly for a few minutes.

’’Thomas,’’ I said, finally, gesturing at the room. ’’Why didn't your tell me about this?’’

He shrugged and looked down. ’’At first? Because it was humiliating. I mean... working nights to put myself through cosmetology school? Starting my own place and posing as...’’ He waved a hand down at himself. ’’I thought... I don't know. At first I thought you'd disapprove or... laugh at me or something.’’

I kept a straight face. ’’No. Never.’’

’’And after that... well. I'd been keeping secrets. I didn't want you to think I didn't trust you.’’

I snorted. ’’In other words you didn't trust me. To understand.’’

His cheeks turned very slightly pink and he looked down. ’’Um. I guess so, yeah. Sorry.’’

’’Don't worry about it.’’

He closed his eyes and nodded and said, ’’Thanks, Harry.’’

I put a hand on his shoulder for a second, then dropped it again. Nothing else needed to be said.

Thomas gave me a suspicious look. ’’Now you're going to laugh at me.’’

’’I can wait until you've turned your back, if you like.’’

He grinned at me again. ’’It's all right. I sort of stopped caring about it after I got fed steady for a few weeks straight. Feels too nice not to be starving again. Laugh all you want.’’

I looked around the place for a minute more. The coffee girls were having a private conversation, evidently discussing us, if all the covert glances and quiet little smiles were any indication.

I couldn't help it. I burst out laughing, and it felt good.


Share Novel White Night Chapter 43

#Read#Novel#White#Night#Chapter#43################