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Blood Lite III: Aftertaste
There are times when, as a professional wizard, my vocation calls me to the great outdoors, and that night I was in the northwoods of Wisconsin with a mixed pack of researchers, enthusiasts and . . . well. Nerds.
“I don’t know, man,” said a skinny kid named Nash. “What’s his name again?”
I poked the small campfire I’d set up earlier with a stick and pretended that they weren’t standing less than ten feet away from me. The forest made forest sounds like it was supposed to. Full dark had fallen less than half an hour before.
“Harry Dresden,” said Gary, a plump kid with a cell phone, a GPS unit, and some kind of video game device on his belt. “Supposed to be a psychic or something.” He was twiddling deft fingers over the surface of what they call a “smart” phone, these days. Hell, the damned things are probably smarter than me. “Supposed to have helped Chicago PD a bunch of times. I’d pull up the Internet references, but I can’t get reception out here.”
“A psychic?” Nash said. “How is anyone ever supposed to take our research seriously if we keep showing up with fruitcakes like that?”
Gary shrugged. “Doctor Sinor knows him or something.”
Doctor Sinor had nearly been devoured by an ogre in a suburban park one fine summer evening, and I’d gotten her out in one piece. Like most people who have a brush with the supernatural, she’d rationalized the truth away as rapidly as possible—which had led her to participate in such fine activities as tonight’s Bigfoot expedition in her spare time.
“Gentlemen,” Sinor said, impatiently. She was a blocky, no-nonsense type, grey-haired and straight-backed. “If you could help me with these speakers, we might actually manage to blast a call or two before dawn.”
Gary and Nash both hustled over to the edge of the firelight to start messing about with the equipment the troop of researchers had packed in. There were half a dozen of them, altogether, all of them busy with trail cameras and call blasting speakers and scent markers and audio recorders.
I pulled a sandwich out of my pocket and started eating it. I took my time about it. I was in no hurry.
For those of you who don’t know it, a forest at night is dark. Sometimes pitch-black. There was no moon to speak of in the sky, and the light of the stars doesn’t make it more than a few inches into a mixed canopy of deciduous trees and evergreens. The light from my little campfire and the hand-held flashlights of the researchers soon gave the woods all the light there was.
Their equipment wasn’t working very well—my bad, probably. Modern technology doesn’t get on well with the magically gifted. For about an hour, nothing much happened beyond the slapping of mosquitoes and a lot of electronic noises squawking from the loudspeakers.
Then the researchers got everything online and went through their routine. They played primate calls over the speakers and then dutifully recorded the forest afterward. Everything broke down again. The researchers soldiered on, repairing things, and eventually Gary tried wood-knocking, which meant banging on trees with fallen limbs and waiting to hear if there was a response.
I liked Doctor Sinor, but I had asked to come strictly as a ride-along and I didn’t pitch in with her team’s efforts.
The whole “let’s find Bigfoot” thing seems a little ill-planned to me, personally. Granted, my perspective is different from that of non-wizards, but marching out into the woods looking for a very large and very powerful creature by blasting out what you’re pretty sure are territorial challenges to fight (or else mating calls) seems . . . somewhat unwise.
I mean, if there’s no Bigfoot, no problem. But what if you’re standing there, screaming “Bring it on!” and find a Bigfoot?
Worse yet, what if he finds you?
Even worse, what if you were screaming, “Do me, baby!” and he finds you then?
Is it me? Am I crazy? Or does the whole thing just seem like a recipe for trouble?
So anyway, while I kept my little fire going, the Questionably Wise Research Variety Act continued until after midnight. That’s when I looked up to see a massive form standing at the edge of the trees, in the very outskirts of the light of my dying fire.
I’m in the ninety-ninth percentile for height, myself, but this guy was tall. My head might have come up to his collarbone, barely, assuming I had correctly estimated where his collarbone was under the long, shaggy, dark brown hair covering him. It wasn’t long enough to hide the massive weight of muscle he carried on that enormous frame or the simple, disturbing, very slightly inhuman proportions of his body. His face was broad, blunt, with a heavy brow ridge that turned his eyes into mere gleams of reflected light.
Most of all, there was a sense of awesome power granted to his presence by his size alone, chilling even to someone who had seen big things in action before. There’s a reaction to something that much bigger than you, an automatic assumption of menace that is built into the human brain: Big equals dangerous.
It took about fifteen seconds before the first researcher, Gary I think, noticed and let out a short gasp. In my peripheral vision, I saw the entire group turn toward the massive form by the fire and freeze into place. The silence was brittle crystal.
I broke it by bolting up from my seat and letting out a high-pitched shriek.
Half a dozen other screams joined it, and I whirled as if to flee, only to see Doctor Sinor and crew hotfooting it down the path we’d followed into the woods, back toward the cars.
I held it in for as long as I could, and only after I was sure that they wouldn’t hear it did I let loose the laughter bubbling in my chest. I sank back onto my log by the fire, laughing, and beckoning the large form forward.
“Harry,” rumbled the figure in a very, very deep voice, the words marked with the almost indefinable clippings of a Native American accent. “You have an unsophisticated sense of humor.”
“I can’t help it,” I said, wiping at tears of laughter. “It never gets old.” I waved to the open ground across the fire from me. “Sit, sit, be welcome, big brother.”
“Appreciate it,” rumbled the giant and squatted down across the fire from me, touching fingers the size of cucumbers to his heart in greeting. His broad, blunt face was amused. “So. Got any smokes?”
It wasn’t the first time I’d done business with the Forest People. They’re old school. There’s a certain way one goes about business with someone considered a peer, and Strength of a River in His Shoulders was an old school kind of guy. There were proprieties to be observed.
So we shared a thirty-dollar cigar, which I’d brought, had some S’mores, which I made, and sipped from identical plastic bottles of Coca-Cola, which I had purchased. By the time we were done, the fire had burned down to glowing embers, which suited me fine—and I knew that River Shoulders would be more comfortable in the near-dark, too. I didn’t mind being the one to provide everything. It would have been a hassle for River Shoulders to do it, and we’d probably be smoking, eating, and drinking raw and unpleasant things if he had.
Besides, it was worth it. The Forest People had been around long before the great gold rushes of the nineteenth century, and they were loaded. River Shoulders had paid my retainer with a gold nugget the size of a golf ball, the last time I’d done business with him.
“Your friends,” he said, nodding toward the disappeared researchers. “They going to come back?”
“Not before dawn,” I said. “For all they know, you got me.”
River Shoulders’ chest rumbled with a sound that was both amused and not entirely pleased. “Like my people don’t have enough stigmas already.”
“You want to clear things up, I can get you on the Larry Fowler show any time you want.”
River Shoulders shuddered—given his size, it was a lot of shuddering. “TV rots the brains of people who see it. Don’t even want to know what it does to the people who make it.”
I snorted. “I got your message,” I said. “I am here.”
“And so you are,” he said. He frowned, an expression that was really sort of terrifying on his features. I didn’t say anything. You just don’t rush the Forest People. They’re patient on an almost alien level, compared to human beings, and I knew that our meeting was already being conducted with unseemly haste, by River Shoulders’ standards. Finally, he swigged a bit more Coke, the bottle looking tiny in his vast hands, and sighed. “There is a problem with my son. Again.”
I sipped some Coke and nodded, letting a little time pass before I answered. “Irwin was a fine, strong boy when I last saw him.”
The conversation continued with contemplative pauses between each bit of speech. “He is sick.”
“Children sometimes grow sick.”
“Not children of the Forest People.”
“No, never. And I will not quote Gilbert and Sullivan.”
“Their music was silly and fine.”
River Shoulders nodded agreement. “Indeed.”
“What can you tell me of your son’s sickness?”
“His mother tells me the school’s doctor says he has something called mah-no.”
“Mono,” I said. “It is a common illness. It is not dangerous.”
“An illness could not touch one born of the Forest People,” River Shoulders rumbled.
“Not even one with only one parent of your folk?” I asked.
“Indeed,” he said. “Something else must therefore be happening. I am concerned for Irwin’s safety.”
The fire let out a last crackle and a brief, gentle flare of light, showing me River Shoulders clearly. His rough features were touched with the same quiet worry I’d seen on dozens and dozens of my clients’ faces.
“He still doesn’t know who you are, does he.”
The giant shifted his weight slightly as if uncomfortable. “Your society is, to me, irrational and bewildering. Which is good. Can’t have everyone the same, or the earth would get boring.”
I thought about it for a moment and then said, “You feel he has problems enough to deal with already.”
River Shoulders spread his hands, as if my own words had spotlighted the truth.
I nodded, thought about it, and said, “We aren’t that different. Even among my people, a boy misses his father.”
“A voice on a telephone is not a father,” he said.
“But it is more than nothing,” I said. “I have lived with a father and without a father. With one was better.”
The silence stretched extra-long.
“In time,” the giant responded, very quietly. “For now, my concern is his physical safety. I cannot go to him. I spoke to his mother. We ask someone we trust to help us learn what is happening.”
I didn’t agree with River Shoulders about talking to his kid, but that didn’t matter. He wasn’t hiring me to get parenting advice, about which I had no experience to call upon anyway. He needed help looking out for the kid. So I’d do what I could to help him. “Where can I find Irwin?”
“Chicago,” he said. “St. Mark’s Academy for the Gifted and Talented.”
“Boarding school. I know the place.” I finished the Coke and rose. “It will be my pleasure to help the Forest People once again.”
The giant echoed my actions, standing. “Already had your retainer sent to your account. By morning, his mother will have granted you the power of a turnkey.”
It took me a second to translate River Shoulders’ imperfect understanding of mortal society. “Power of attorney,” I corrected him.
“That,” he agreed.
“Give her my best.”
“Will,” he said, and touched his thick fingertips to his massive chest.
I put my fingertips to my heart in reply and nodded up to my client. “I’ll start in the morning.”
It took me most of the rest of the night to get back down to Chicago, go to my apartment, and put on my suit. I’m not a suit guy. For one thing, when you’re NBA sized, you don’t exactly get to buy them off the rack. For another, I just don’t like them—but sometimes they’re a really handy disguise, when I want people to mistake me for someone grave and responsible. So I put on the grey suit with a crisp white shirt and a clip-on tie, and headed down to St. Mark’s.
The academy was an upper-end place in the suburbs north of Chicago, and was filled with the offspring of the city’s luminaries. They had their own small, private security force. They had wrought iron gates and brick walls and ancient trees and ivy. They had multiple buildings on the grounds, like a miniature university campus, and, inevitably, they had an administration building. I started there.
It took me a polite quarter of an hour to get the lady in the front office to pick up the fax granting me power of attorney from Irwin’s mom, the archeologist, who was in the field somewhere in Canada. It included a description of me, and I produced both my ID and my investigator’s license. It took me another half an hour of waiting to be admitted to the office of the dean, Doctor Fabio.
“Doctor Fabio,” I said. I fought valiantly not to titter when I did.
Fabio did not offer me a seat. He was a good-looking man of sober middle age, and his eyes told me that he did not approve of me in the least, even though I was wearing the suit.
“Ms. Pounder’s son is in our infirmary, receiving care from a highly experienced nurse practitioner and a physician who visits three days a week,” Doctor Fabio told me, when I had explained my purpose. “I assure you he is well cared for.”
“I’m not the one who needs to be assured of anything,” I replied. “His mother is.”
“Then your job here is finished,” said Fabio.
I shook my head. “I kinda need to see him, Doctor.”
“I see no need to disrupt either Irwin’s recovery or our academic routine, Mister Dresden,” Fabio replied. “Our students receive some of the most intensive instruction in the world. It demands a great deal of focus and drive.”
“Kids are resilient,” I said. “And I’ll be quiet like a mouse. They’ll never know I was there.”
“I’m sorry,” he replied, “but I am not amenable to random investigators wandering the grounds.”
I nodded seriously. “Okay. In that case, I’ll report to Doctor Pounder that you refused to allow her duly appointed representative to see her son, and that I cannot confirm his well-being. At which point I am confident that she will either radio for a plane to pick her up from her dig site, or else backpack her way out. I think the good doctor will view this with alarm and engage considerable maternal protective instinct.” I squinted at Fabio. “Have you actually met Doctor Pounder?”
He scowled at me.
“She’s about yay tall,” I said, putting a hand at the level of my temples. “And she works outdoors for a living. She looks like she could wrestle a Sasquatch.” Heh. Among other things.
“Are you threatening me?” Doctor Fabio asked.
I smiled. “I’m telling you that I’m way less of a disruption than Mama Bear will be. She’ll be a headache for weeks. Give me half an hour, and then I’m gone.”
Fabio glowered at me.
St. Mark’s infirmary was a spotless, well-ordered place, located immediately adjacent to its athletics building. I was walked there by a young man named Steve, who wore a spotless, well-ordered security uniform.
Steve rapped his knuckles on the frame of the open doorway and said, “Visitor to see Mister Pounder.”
A young woman who looked entirely too nice for the likes of Doctor Fabio and Steve looked up from a crossword puzzle. She had chestnut-colored hair, rimless glasses, and had a body that could be readily appreciated even beneath her cheerfully patterned scrubs.
“Well,” I said. “Hello, nurse.”
“I can’t think of a sexier first impression than a man quoting Yakko and Wakko Warner,” she said, her tone dry.
I sauntered in and offered her my hand. “Me neither. Harry Dresden, PI.”
“Jen Gerard. There are some letters that go after, but I used them all on the crossword.” She shook my hand and eyed Steve. “Everyone calls me Nurse Jen. The flying monkeys let you in, eh?”
Steve looked professionally neutral. He folded his arms.
Nurse Jen flipped her wrists at him. “Shoo, shoo. If I’m suddenly attacked I’ll scream like a girl.”
“No visitors without a security presence,” Steve said firmly.
“Unless they’re richer than a guy in a cheap suit,” Nurse Jen said archly. She smiled sweetly at Steve and shut the infirmary door. It all but bumped the end of his nose. She turned back to me and said, “Doctor Pounder sent you?”
“She’s at a remote location,” I said. “She wanted someone to get eyes on her son and make sure he was okay. And for the record, it wasn’t cheap.”
Nurse Jen snorted and said, “Yeah, I guess a guy your height doesn’t get to shop off the rack, does he.” She led me across the first room of the infirmary, which had a first aid station and an examination table, neither of which looked as though they got a lot of use. There were a couple of rooms attached. One was a bathroom. The other held what looked like the full gear of a hospital’s intensive care ward, including an automated bed.
Bigfoot Irwin lay asleep on the bed. It had been a few years since I’d seen him, but I recognized him. He was fourteen years old and over six feet tall, filling the length of the bed, and he had the scrawny look of young things that aren’t done growing.
Nurse Jen went to his side and shook his shoulder gently. The kid blinked his eyes open and muttered something. Then he looked at me.
“Harry,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“Sup, kid,” I said. “I heard you were sick. Your mom asked me to stop by.”
He smiled faintly. “Yeah. This is what I get for staying in Chicago instead of going up to British Columbia with her.”
“And think of all the Spam you missed eating.”
Irwin snorted, closed his eyes, and said, “Tell her I’m fine. Just need to rest.” Then he apparently started doing exactly that.
Nurse Jen eased silently out of the room and herded me gently away. Then she spread her hands. “He’s been like that. Sleeping maybe twenty hours a day.”
“Is that normal for mono?” I asked.
“Not so much,” Nurse Jen said. She shook her head. “Though it’s not completely unheard of. That’s just a preliminary diagnosis based on his symptoms. He needs some lab work to be sure.”
“Fabio isn’t allowing it,” I said.
She waggled a hand. “He isn’t paying for it. The state of the economy, the school’s earnings last quarter, et cetera. And the doctor was sure it was mono.”
“You didn’t tell his mom about that?” I asked.
“I never spoke to her. Doctor Fabio handles all of the communication with the parents. Gives it that personal touch. Besides. I’m just the nurse practitioner. The official physician said mono, so behold, it is mono.”
I grunted. “Is the boy in danger?”
She shook her head. “If I thought that, to hell with Fabio and the winged monkeys. I’d drive the kid to a hospital myself. But just because he isn’t in danger now doesn’t mean he won’t be if nothing is done. It’s probably mono. But.”
“But you don’t take chances with a kid’s health,” I said.
She folded her arms. “Exactly. Especially when his mother is so far away. There’s an issue of trust, here.”
I nodded. Then I said, “How invasive are the tests?”
“Blood samples. Fairly straightforward.”
I chewed that one over for a moment. Irwin’s blood was unlikely to be exactly the same as human blood, though who knew how intensively they would have to test it to realize that. Scions of mortal and supernatural pairings had created no enormous splash in the scientific community, and they’d been around for as long as humanity itself, which suggested that any differences weren’t easy to spot. It seemed like a reasonable risk to take, all things considered, especially if River Shoulders was maybe wrong about Irwin’s immunity to disease.
And besides. I needed some time alone to work.
“Do the tests, on my authority. Assuming the kid is willing, I mean.”
Nurse Jen frowned as I began to speak, then nodded at the second sentence. “Okay.”
Nurse Jen woke up Irwin long enough to explain the tests, make sure he was okay with them, and take a couple of little vials of blood from his arm. She left to take the vials to a nearby lab and left me sitting with Irwin.
“How’s life, kid?” I asked him. “Any more bully problems?”
Irwin snorted weakly. “No, not really. Though, they don’t use their fists for that, here. And there’s a lot more of them.”
“That’s what they call civilization,” I said. “It’s still better than the other way.”
“One thing’s the same. You show them you aren’t afraid, they leave you alone.”
“They do,” I said. “Coward’s a coward, whether he’s throwing punches or words.”
Irwin smiled and closed his eyes again.
I gave the kid a few minutes to be sound asleep before I got to work.
River Shoulders hadn’t asked for my help because I was the only decent person in Chicago. The last time Irwin had problems, they’d had their roots in the supernatural side of reality. Clearly, the giant thought that this problem was similar, and he was smarter than the vast majority of human beings, including me. I’d be a fool to discount his concerns. I didn’t think there was anything more troublesome than a childhood illness at hand, but I was going to cover my bases. That’s what being professional means.
I’d brought what I needed in the pockets of my suit. I took out a small baggie of powdered quartz crystal and a piece of paper inscribed with runes written in ink infused with the same powder and folded into a fan. I stood over Irwin and took a moment to focus my thoughts, both upon the spell I was about to work and upon the physical coordination it would require.
I took a deep breath, then flicked the packet of quartz dust into the air at the same time I swept the rune-inscribed fan through a strong arc, released my will, and murmured, “Optio.”
Light kindled in the spreading cloud of fine dust, a flickering glow that spread with the cloud, sparkling through the full spectrum of visible colors in steady, pulsing waves. It was beautiful magic, which was rare for me. I mean, explosions and lightning bolts and so on were pretty standard fare. This kind of gentle, interrogative spell? It was a treat to have a reason to use it.
As the cloud of dust settled gently over the sleeping boy, the colors began to swirl as the spell interacted with his aura, the energy of life that surrounds all living things. Irwin’s aura was bloody strong, standing out several inches farther from his body than on most humans. I was a full-blown wizard, and a strong one, and my aura wasn’t any more powerful. That would be his father’s blood, then. The Forest People were in possession of potent magic, which was one reason no one ever seemed to get a decent look at one of them. Irwin had begun to develop a reservoir of energy to rival that of anyone on the White Council of wizardry.
That was likely the explanation for Irwin’s supposed immunity to disease—the aura of life around him was simply too strong to be overwhelmed by a mundane germ or virus. Supported by that kind of energy, his body’s immune system would simply whale on any invaders. It probably also explained Irwin’s size, his growing body drawing upon the raw power of his aura to optimize whatever growth potential was in his mixed genes. Thinking about it, it might even explain the length of River Shoulders’ body hair, which just goes to show that no supernatural ability is perfect.
Oh, and as the dust settled against Irwin’s body, it revealed threads of black sorcery laced throughout his aura, pulsing and throbbing with a disturbing, seething energy.
I nearly fell out of my chair in sheer surprise.
“Oh no,” I muttered. “The kid couldn’t just have gotten mono. That would be way too easy.”
I called up a short, gentle wind to scatter the quartz dust from Bigfoot Irwin’s covers and pajamas, and then sat back for a moment to think.
The kid had been hit with black magic. Not only that, but it had been done often enough that it had left track marks in his aura. Some of those threads of dark sorcery were fresh ones, probably inflicted at some point during the previous night.
Most actions of magic aren’t any more terribly mysterious or complicated than physical actions. In fact, a lot of what happens in magic can be described by basic concepts of physics. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, for example—but it can be moved. The seething aura of life around the young scion represented a significant force of energy.
A very significant source.
Someone had been siphoning energy off of Bigfoot Irwin. The incredible vital aura around the kid now was, I realized, only a fraction of what it should have been. Someone had been draining the kid of that energy and using it for something else. A vampire of some kind? Maybe. The White Court of Vampires drained the life-energy from their victims, though they mostly did it through physical contact, mostly sexual congress, and there would be really limited opportunity for that sort of thing in a strictly monitored coed boarding school. Irwin had been attacked both frequently and regularly, to have his aura be so mangled.
I could sweep the place for a vampire. Maybe. They were not easy to spot. I couldn’t discount a vamp completely, because they were definitely one of the usual suspects, but had it been one of the White Court after the kid, his aura would have been more damaged in certain areas than others. Instead, his aura had been equally diminished all around. That would indicate, if not conclusively prove, some kind of attack that was entirely nonphysical.
I settled back in my chair to wait, watching Bigfoot Irwin sleep. I’d stay alert for any further attack, at least until Nurse Jen got back.
River Shoulders was right. This wasn’t illness. Someone was killing the kid very, very slowly.
I wasn’t going to leave him alone.
Nurse Jen came back in a little less than two hours. She looked at me with her eyebrows raised and said, “You’re still here.”
“Looks like,” I said. “What was I supposed to do?”
“Leave me a number to call with the results,” she said.
I winked at her. “If it makes you feel any better, I can still do that.”
“I’m taking a break from dating cartoon characters and the children who love them.” She held up the envelope and said, “It’s mono.”
I blinked. “It is?”
She nodded and sighed. “Definitely. An acute case, apparently, but it’s mono.”
I nodded slowly, thinking. It might make sense, if Irwin’s immune system had come to rely upon the energy of his aura. The attacks had diminished his aura, which had in turn diminished his body’s capacity to resist disease. Instead of fighting off an illness when exposed, his weakened condition had resulted in an infection—and it was entirely possible that his body had never had any practice in fighting off something that had taken hold.
Nurse Jen tilted her head to one side and said, “What are you thinking?”
“How bad is it?” I asked her. “Does he need to go to a hospital?”
“He’s in one,” she said. “Small, but we have everything here that you’d find at a hospital, short of a ventilator. As long as his condition doesn’t get any worse, he’ll be fine.”
Except that he wouldn’t be fine. If the drain on his life-energy kept up, he might never have the strength he’d need to fight off this disease—and every other germ that happened to wander by.
I was thinking that the boy was defenseless—and I was the only one standing between Bigfoot Irwin and whatever was killing him.
I looked at Nurse Jen and said, “I need to use a phone.”
“How serious?” Doctor Pounder asked. Her voice was scratchy. She was speaking to me over a HAM radio from somewhere in the wilds of unsettled Canada, and was shouting to make herself heard over the static and the patch between the radio and the phone.
“Potentially very serious,” I half-shouted back. “I think you need to come here immediately!”
“He’s that ill?” she asked.
“Yeah, Doc,” I replied. “There could be complications, and I don’t think he should be alone.”
“I’m on the way. There’s weather coming in. It might be tomorrow or the next day.”
“Understood,” I said. “I’ll stay with him until then.”
“You’re a good man, Dresden,” she said. “Thank you. I’ll move as fast as I can. Pounder, out.”
I hung up the phone and Nurse Jen stared at me with her mouth open. “What the hell are you doing?”
“My job,” I replied calmly.
“The boy is going to be fine,” Jen said. “He’s not feeling great, but he’ll be better soon enough. I told you, it’s mono.”
“There’s more going on than that,” I said.
“Oh?” Jen asked. “Like what?”
Explaining would just convince her I was a lunatic. “I’m not entirely at liberty to say. Doctor Pounder can explain when she arrives.”
“If there’s a health concern, I need to know about it now.” She folded her arms. “Otherwise, maybe I should let the winged monkeys know that you’re a problem.”
“I told his mother I would stay with him.”
“You told his mother a lot of things.”
“What happened to not taking chances?”
“I’m thinking I’ll start with you.”
I felt tired. I needed sleep. I inhaled and exhaled slowly.
“Nurse,” I said. “I care about the kid, too. I don’t dispute your medical knowledge or authority over him. I just want to stay close to him until his mom gets here. That’s why I was hired.”
Nurse Jen eyed me askance. “What do you mean, it’s more than mono?”
I folded my arms. “Um. Irwin is a nice guy. Would you agree with that?”
“Sure, he’s a great kid. A real sweetheart, thoughtful.”
I nodded. “And he has a tendency to attract the attention of . . . how do I put this?”
“Complete assholes?” Nurse Jen suggested.
“Exactly,” I said. “People who mistake kindness for weakness.”
She frowned. “Are you suggesting that his sickness is the result of a deliberate action?”
“I’m saying that I don’t know that it isn’t,” I said. “And until I know, one way or another, I’m sticking close to the kid until the Doc gets here.”
She continued looking skeptical. “You won’t if I don’t think you should. I don’t care how much paperwork you have supporting you. If I start yelling, the winged monkeys will carry you right out to the street.”
“They’d try,” I said calmly.
She blinked at me. “You’re a big guy. But you aren’t that big.”
“You might be surprised,” I said. I leaned forward and said, very quietly, “I’m not. Leaving. The kid.”
Nurse Jen’s expression changed slowly, from skepticism to something very thoughtful. “You mean that, don’t you.”
She nodded. Then she called, “Steve.”
The security guard lumbered into the room from the hall outside.
“Mister Dresden will be staying with Mister Pounder for a little while. Could you please ask the cafeteria to send over two dinner plates instead of one?”
Steve frowned, maybe trying to remember how to count all the way to two. Then he glowered at me, muttered a surly affirmative, and left, speaking quietly into his radio as he went.
“Thank you,” I said. “For the food.”
“You’re lying to me,” she said levelly. “Aren’t you.”
“I’m not telling you the whole truth,” I said. “Subtle difference.”
“Semantic difference,” she said.
“But you’re letting me stay anyway,” I noted. “Why?”
She studied my face for a moment. Then she said, “I believe that you want to take care of Irwin.”
The food was very good—nothing like the school cafeterias I remembered. Of course, I went to public school. Irwin woke up long enough to devour a trayful of food, and some of mine. He went to the bathroom, walking unsteadily, and then dropped back into an exhausted slumber. Nurse Jen stayed near, checking him frequently, taking his temperature in his ear every hour so that she didn’t need to waken him.
I wanted to sleep, but I didn’t need it yet. I might not have had the greatest academic experience, in childhood, but the other things I’d been required to learn had made me more ready for the eat-or-be-eaten portions of life than just about anyone. My record for going without sleep was just under six days, but I was pretty sure I could go longer if I had to. I could have napped in my chair, but I didn’t want to take the chance that some kind of attack might happen while I was being lazy.
So I sat by Bigfoot Irwin and watched the shadows lengthen and swell into night.
The attack came just after nine o’clock.
Nurse Jen was taking Irwin’s temperature again when I felt the sudden surge of cold, somehow oily energy flood the room.
Irwin took a sudden, shallow breath, and his face became very pale. Nurse Jen frowned at the digital thermometer she had in his ear. It suddenly emitted a series of beeping, wailing noises, and she jerked it free of Irwin just as a bunch of sparks drizzled from its battery casing. She dropped it to the floor, where it lay trailing a thin wisp of smoke.
“What the hell?” Nurse Jen demanded.
I rose to my feet, looking around the room. “Use a mercury thermometer next time,” I said. I didn’t have much in the way of magical gear on me, but I wasn’t going to need any for this. I could feel the presence of the dark, dangerous magic, radiating through the room like the heat from a nearby fire.
Nurse Jen had pressed a stethoscope against Irwin’s chest, listening for a moment, while I went to the opposite side of the bed and waved my hand through the air over the bed with my eyes closed, trying to orient upon the spell attacking Irwin’s aura, so that I could backtrack it to its source.
“What are you doing?” Nurse Jen demanded.
“Inexplicable stuff,” I said. “How is he?”
“Something isn’t right,” she said. “I don’t think he’s getting enough air. It’s like an asthma attack.” She put the stethoscope down and turned to a nearby closet, ripping out a small oxygen tank. She immediately began hooking up a line to it, attached to one of those nose-and-mouth-covering things, opened the valve, and pressed the cup down over Irwin’s nose and mouth.
“Excuse me,” I said, squeezing past her in order to wave my hand through the air over that side of the bed. I got a fix on the direction of the spell, and jabbed my forefinger in that direction. “What’s that way?”
She blinked and stared at me incredulously. “What?”
“That way,” I said, thrusting my finger in the indicated direction several times. “What is over that way?”
She frowned, shook her head a little, and said, “Uh, uh, the cafeteria and administration.”
“Administration, eh?” I said. “Not the dorms?”
“No. They’re the opposite way.”
“You got any lunch ladies that hate Irwin?”
Nurse Jen looked at me like I was a lunatic. “What the hell are you talking about? No, of course not!”
I grunted. This attack clearly wasn’t the work of a vampire, and the destruction of the electronic thermometer indicated the presence of mortal magic. The kids were required to be back in their dorms at this time, so it presumably wasn’t one of them. And if it wasn’t someone in the cafeteria, then it had to be someone in the administration building.
Doctor Fabio had been way too interested in making sure I wasn’t around. If it was Fabio behind the attacks on Irwin, then I could probably expect some interference to be arriving—
The door to the infirmary opened, and Steve and two of his fellow security guards clomped into the room.
—any time now.
“You,” Steve said, pointing a thick finger at me. “It’s after free hours. No visitors on the grounds after nine. You’re gonna have to go.”
I eased back around Nurse Jen and out of the room Irwin was in. “Um,” I said, “let me think about that.”
Steve scowled. He had a very thick neck. So did his two buddies. “Second warning, sir. You are now trespassing on private property. If you do not leave immediately, the police will be summoned and you will be detained until their arrival.”
“Shouldn’t you be out making sure the boys aren’t sneaking over to the girls’ dorms and vice versa? Cause I’m thinking that’s really more your speed, Steve.”
Steve’s face got red. “That’s it,” he said. “You are being detained until the police arrive, smartass.”
“Let’s don’t do this,” I said. “Seriously. You guys don’t want to ride this train.”
In answer, Steve snapped his hand out to one side, and one of those collapsible fighting batons extended to its full length and locked. His two friends followed suit.
“Wow,” I said. “Straight to the weapons? Really? Completely inappropriate escalation.” I held up my right hand, palm out. “I’m telling you, fellas. Don’t try it.”
Steve took two quick steps toward me, raising the baton.
I unleashed the will I had been gathering and murmured, “Forzare.”
Invisible force lashed out and slammed into Steve like a runaway car made of foam rubber. It lifted him off his feet and tossed him back, between his two buddies, and out the door of the infirmary. He hit the floor and lost a lot of his velocity before fetching up against the opposite wall with an explosion of expelled breath.
“Wah,” I said, Bruce Lee style, and looked at the other two goons. “You boys want a choo-choo ride, too?”
The pair of them looked at me and then at each other, gripping their batons until their knuckles turned white. They hadn’t had a clear view of exactly what had happened to Steve, since his body would have blocked them from it. For all they knew, I’d used some kind of judo on him. The pair of them came to a conclusion somewhere in there—that whatever I had pulled on Steve wouldn’t work on both of them—and they began to rush me.
They thought wrong. I repeated the spell, only with twice the energy.
One of them went out the door, crashing into Steve, who had just been about to regain his feet. My control wasn’t so good without any of my magical implements, though. The second man hit the side of the doorway squarely, and his head made the metal frame ring as it bounced off. The man’s legs went rubbery and he staggered, bleeding copiously from a wound that was up above his hairline.
The second spell was more than the lights could handle, and the fluorescents in the infirmary exploded in showers of sparks and went out. Red-tinged emergency lights clicked on a few seconds later.
I checked around me. Nurse Jen was staring at me with her eyes wide. The wounded guard was on his back, rocking back and forth in obvious pain. The two who had been knocked into the hallway were still on the ground, staring at me in much the same way as Jen, except that Steve was clearly trying to get his radio to work. It wouldn’t. It had folded when the lights did.
I spread my hands and said, to Nurse Jen, “I told them, didn’t I? You heard me. Better take care of that guy.”
Then I scowled, shook my head, and stalked off along the spell’s back-trail, toward the administration building.
The doors to the building were locked, which was more the academy’s problem than mine. I exercised restraint. I didn’t take the doors off their hinges. I only ripped them off of their locks.
The door to Doctor Fabio’s office was locked, and though I tried to exercise restraint, I’ve always had issues with controlling my power—especially when I’m angry. This time, I tore the door off its hinges, slamming it down flat to the floor inside the office as if smashed in by a medieval battering ram.
Doctor Fabio jerked and whirled to face the door with a look of utter astonishment on his face. A cabinet behind his desk which had been closed during my first visit was now open. It was a small, gaudy, but functional shrine, a platform for the working of spells. At the moment, it was illuminated by half a dozen candles spaced out around a Seal of Solomon containing two photos—one of Irwin, and one of Doctor Fabio, bound together with a loop of what looked like dark grey yarn.
I could feel the energy stolen from Irwin coursing into the room, into the shrine. From there, I had no doubt, it was being funneled into Doctor Fabio himself. I could sense the intensity of his presence much more sharply than I had that morning, as if he had somehow become more metaphysically massive, filling up more of the room with his presence.
“Hiya, Doc,” I said. “You know, it’s a pity this place isn’t Saint Mark’s Academy for the Resourceful and Talented.”
He blinked at me. “Uh. What?”
“Because then the place would be S.M.A.R.T. Instead, you’re just S.M.A.G.T.”
“What?” he said, clearly confused, outraged, and terrified.
“Let me demonstrate,” I said, extending my hand. I funneled my will into it and said, “Smagt!”
The exact words you use for a spell aren’t important, except that they can’t be from a language you’re too familiar with. Nonsense words are best, generally speaking. Using “smagt” for a combination of naked force and air magic worked just as well as any other word would have. The energy rushed out of me, into the cabinet shrine, and exploded in a blast of kinetic energy and wind. Candles and other decorative objects flew everywhere. Shelves cracked and collapsed.
The spell had been linked to the shrine. It unraveled as I disrupted all the precisely aligned objects that had helped direct and focus its energy. One of the objects had been a small glass bottle of black ink. Most of it wound up splattered on the side of Doctor Fabio’s face.
He stood with his jaw slack, half of his face covered in black ink, the other half gone so pale that he resembled a Renaissance Venetian masque.
“Y-you . . . you . . .”
“Wizard,” I said quietly. “White Council. Heck, Doctor, I’m even a Warden these days.”
His face became absolutely bloodless.
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “You know us. I’m going to suggest that you answer my questions with extreme cooperation, Doctor. Because we frown on the use of black magic.”
“Please,” he said, “anything.”
“How do you know us?” I asked. The White Council was hardly a secret, but given that most of the world didn’t believe in magic, much less wizards, and that the supernatural crowd in general is cautious with sharing information, it was a given that your average Joe would have no idea that the Council even existed—much less that they executed anyone guilty of breaking one of the Laws of Magic.
“V-v-venator,” he said. “I was a Venator. One of the Venatori Umbrorum. Retired.”
The Hunters in the Shadows. Or of the Shadows, depending on how you read it. They were a boys club made up of the guys who had the savvy to be clued in to the supernatural world, but without the talent it took to be a true wizard. Mostly academic types. They’d been invaluable assets in the White Council’s war with the Red Court, gathering information and interfering with our enemy’s lines of supply and support. They were old allies of the Council—and any Venator would know the price of violating the Laws.
“A Venator should know better than to dabble in this kind of thing,” I said in a very quiet voice. “The answer to this next question could save your life—or end it.”
Doctor Fabio licked his lips and nodded, a jerky little motion.
“Why?” I asked him quietly. “Why were you taking essence from the boy?”
“H-he . . . He had so much. I didn’t think it would hurt him and I . . .” He cringed back from me as he spoke the last words. “I . . . needed to grow some hair.”
I blinked my eyes slowly. Twice. “Did you say . . . hair?”
“Rogaine didn’t work!” he all but wailed. “And that transplant surgery wasn’t viable for my hair and skin type!” He bowed his head and ran fingertips through his thick head of hair. “Look, see? Look how well it’s come in. But if I don’t maintain it . . .”
“You . . . used black magic. To grow hair.”
“I . . .” He looked everywhere but at me. “I tried everything else first. I never meant to harm anyone. It never hurt anyone before.”
“Irwin’s a little more dependent on his essence than most,” I told him. “You might have killed him.”
Fabio’s eyes widened in terror. “You mean he’s . . . he’s a . . .”
“Let’s just say that his mother is his second scariest parent and leave it at that,” I said. I pointed at his chair and said, “Sit.”
“Do you wish to live?”
“Yes. Yes, I don’t want any trouble with the White Council.”
Heavy footsteps came pounding up behind us. Steve and his unbloodied buddy appeared in the doorway, carrying their batons. “Doctor Fabio!” Steve cried.
“Don’t make me trash your guys,” I told Fabio.
“Get out!” Fabio all but screamed at them.
They came to a confused stop. “But . . . sir?”
“Get out, get out!” Fabio screamed. “Tell the police there’s no problem here when they arrive!”
“Tell them!” Fabio screamed, his voice going up several octaves. “For God’s sake, man! Go!”
Steve, and his buddy, went. They looked bewildered, but they went.
“Thank you,” I said, when they left. No need to play bad cop at this point. If Fabio got any more scared, he might collapse into jelly. “Do you want to live, Doctor?”
He swallowed. He nodded once.
“Then I suggest you alter your hairstyle to complete baldness,” I replied. “Or else learn to accept your receding hairline for what it is—the natural progression of your life. You will discontinue all use of magic from this point forward. And I do mean all. If I catch you with so much as a Ouija board or a deck of Tarot cards, I’m going to make you disappear. Do you get me?”
It was a hollow threat. The guy hadn’t broken any of the Laws, technically speaking, since Irwin hadn’t died. And I had no intention of turning anyone over to the tender mercies of the Wardens if I could possibly avoid it. But this guy clearly had problems recognizing priorities. If he kept going the way he was, he might slide down into true practice of the black arts. Best to scare him away from that right now.
“I understand,” he said in a very meek voice.
“Now,” I said. “I’m going to go watch over Irwin. You aren’t going to interfere. I’ll be staying until his mother arrives.”
“Are . . . are you going to tell her what I’ve done?”
“You bet your ass I am,” I said. “And God have mercy on your soul.”
Irwin was awake when I got back to the infirmary, and Nurse Jen had just finished stitching closed a cut on the wounded guard’s scalp. She’d shaved a big, irregularly shaped section of his hair off to get it done, too, and he looked utterly ridiculous—even more so when she wrapped his entire cranium in bandages to keep the stitches covered.
I went into Irwin’s room and said, “How you feeling?”
“Tired,” he said. “But better than earlier today.”
“Irwin,” Nurse Jen said firmly.
“Yes ma’am,” Irwin said, and meekly placed the breathing mask over his nose and mouth.
“Your mom’s coming to see you,” I said.
The kid brightened. “She is? Oh, uh. That’s fantastic!” He frowned. “It’s not . . . because of me being sick? Her work is very important.”
“Maybe a little,” I said. “But mostly, I figure it’s because she loves you.”
Irwin rolled his eyes but he smiled. “Yeah, well. I guess she’s okay. Hey, is there anything else to eat?”
Later, after Irwin had eaten (again), he slept.
“His temperature’s back down, and his breathing is clear,” Nurse Jen said, shaking her head. “I could have sworn we were going to have to get him to an ICU a few hours ago.”
“Kids,” I said. “They bounce back fast.”
She frowned at Irwin and then at me. Then she said, “It was Fabio, wasn’t it. He was doing something.”
“Something like what?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I just know it . . . feels like something that’s true. He’s the one who didn’t want you here. He’s the one who sent security to run you out just as Irwin got worse.”
“You might be right,” I said. “And you don’t have to worry about it happening again.”
She studied me for a moment. Then she said, simply, “Good.”
I lifted my eyebrows. “That’s one hell of a good sense of intuition you have, nurse.”
She snorted. “I’m still not going out with you.”
“Story of my life,” I said, smiling.
Then I stretched out my legs, settled into my chair, and joined Bigfoot Irwin in dreamland.