ALSO BY JIM BUTCHER
THE DRESDEN FILES
THE CODEX ALERA
FURIES OF CALDERON
A NOVEL OF THE DRESDEN FILES
A ROC BOOK
I owe thanks to the usual crowd for this book, as for all the rest: the inmates at the Beta Foo Asylum, semper criticas. Thank you to my agent, Jenn, and my editor, Anne, and thank you, my angel Shannon. You each help me more than you know—yeah, okay, probably Shannon more than the others. But thank you all.
Many things are not as they seem: The worst things in life never are.
I pulled my battle-scarred, multicolored old Volkswagen Beetle up in front of a run-down Chicago apartment building, not five blocks from my own rented basement apartment. Usually, by the time the cops call me, things are pretty frantic; there’s at least one corpse, several cars, a lot of flashing blue lights, yellow-and-black tape, and members of the press—or at least the promise of the imminent arrival of same.
This crime scene was completely quiet. I saw no marked police cars, and only one ambulance, parked, its lights off. A young mother went by, one child in a stroller, the other toddling along holding Mommy’s hand. An elderly man walked a Labrador retriever past my car. No one was standing around and gawking or otherwise doing anything at all out of the ordinary.
A creepy shiver danced over the nape of my neck, even though it was the middle of a sunny May afternoon. Normally, I didn’t start getting wigged out until I’d seen at least one nightmarish thing doing something graphic and murderous.
I put it down to the paranoia of advancing age. It isn’t like I’m all that old or anything, especially for a wizard, but age is always advancing and I’m fairly sure it’s up to no good.
I parked the Blue Beetle and headed into the apartment building. I went up several flights of stairs that needed their old tile replaced, or at least scrubbed and shined. I left them to find a hallway carpeted in a low, grey-blue pile that had been crushed down to shiny smoothness in the middle. The apartment doors were battered, old, but made of thick oak. I found Murphy waiting for me.
At five feet and small change, a hundred and not much, she didn’t exactly look like a tough Chicago cop who could face down monsters and maniacs with equal nerve. Chicks like that aren’t supposed to be blond or have a cute nose. Sometimes I think Murphy became that tough cop she didn’t look like purely for the sake of contrariness—no amount of sparkling blue eyes or seeming harmlessness could hide the steel in her nature. She gave me her we’re-at-work nod, and a terse greeting. “Dresden.”
“Lieutenant Murphy,” I drawled, with an elaborate bow and flourish of one hand, deliberately at odds with her brusque demeanor. I wasn’t doing it out of pure contrariness. I’m not like that. “I am dazzled by your presence once more.”
I expected a snort of derision. Instead, she gave me a polite, brittle little smile and corrected me in a gentle tone: “Sergeant Murphy.”
Open mouth, insert foot. Way to go, Harry. The opening credits aren’t done rolling on this case, and you’ve already reminded Murphy of what it cost her to be your friend and ally.
Murphy had been a detective lieutenant, and in charge of Special Investigations. SI was Chicago PD’s answer to problems that didn’t fall within the boundaries of “normal.” If a vampire slaughtered a transient, if a ghoul killed a graveyard watchman, or if a faerie cursed someone’s hair to start growing in instead of out, someone had to examine it. Someone had to look into it and reassure the government and the citizenry that everything was normal. It was a thankless job, but SI handled it through sheer guts and tenacity and sneakiness and by occasionally calling in Wizard Harry Dresden to give them a hand.
Her bosses got real upset about her abandoning her duties in a time of crisis, while she helped me on a case. She’d already been exiled to professional Siberia, by being put in charge of SI. By taking away the rank and status she had worked her ass off to earn, they had humiliated her, and dealt a dreadful blow to her pride and her sense of self-worth.
“Sergeant,” I said, sighing. “Sorry, Murph. I forgot.”
She shrugged a shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I forget sometimes, too. When I answer the phone at work, mostly.”
“Still. I should be less stupid.”
“We all think that, Harry,” Murphy said, and thumped me lightly on the biceps with one fist. “But no one blames you.”
“That’s real big of you, Mini Mouse,” I replied.
She snorted and rang for the elevator. On the way up, I asked her, “It’s a lot quieter than most crime scenes, isn’t it?”
She grimaced. “It isn’t one.”
“Not exactly,” she said. She glanced up at me. “Not officially.”
“Ah,” I said. “I guess I’m not actually consulting.”
“Not officially,” she said. “They cut Stallings’s budget pretty hard. He can keep the equipment functional and the paychecks steady, barely, but…”
I arched a brow.
“I need your opinion,” she said.
She shook her head. “I don’t want to prejudice you. Just look and tell me what you see.”
“I can do that,” I said.
“I’ll pay you myself.”
“Murph, you don’t need to—”
She gave me a very hard look.
Sergeant Murphy’s wounded pride wouldn’t allow her to take charity. I lifted my hands in mock surrender, relenting. “Whatever you say, boss.”
She took me to an apartment on the seventh floor. There were a couple of doors in the hall standing slightly open, and I caught furtive looks from their residents from the corner of my eye as we walked past. At the far end of the hall stood a pair of guys who looked like medtechs—bored, grouchy medtechs. One of them was smoking, the other leaning against a wall with his arms crossed and his cap’s bill down over his eyes. Murphy and the two of them ignored one another as Murphy opened the apartment door.
Murphy gestured for me to go in and planted her feet, clearly intending to wait.
I went into the apartment. It was small, worn, and shabby, but it was clean. A miniature jungle of very healthy green plants covered most of the far wall, framing the two windows. From the door, I could see a tiny television on a TV stand, an old stereo, and a futon.
The dead woman lay on the futon.
She had her hands folded over her stomach. I didn’t have the experience to tell exactly how long she’d been there, but the corpse had lost all its color and its stomach looked slightly distended, so I guessed that she died at least the day before. It was hard to guess at her age, but she couldn’t have been much more than thirty. She wore a pink terry-cloth bathrobe, a pair of glasses, and had her brown hair pulled up into a bun.
On the coffee table in front of the futon there was a prescription bottle, its top off, empty. A decanter of golden brown liquid, dusted for prints and covered by a layer of plastic, sat beside it, as did a tumbler that was empty but for a quarter inch of water still in its bottom, enough for a melted ice cube or two.
Next to the tumbler there was a handwritten note, also inside in a plastic bag, along with a gel-tip pen.
I looked at the woman. Then I went over to the futon and read the note:
I’m so tired of being afraid. There’s nothing left. Forgive me. Janine.
I’d seen corpses before; don’t get me wrong. In fact, I’d seen crime scenes that looked like photos of Hell’s slaughterhouse. I’d smelled worse, too—believe you me, an eviscerated body puts off a stench of death and rot so vile that it is almost a solid object. By comparison to some of my previous cases, this one was quite peaceful. Well organized. Tidy, even.
It looked nothing like the home of a dead woman. Maybe that’s what made it feel so creepy. Except for Janine’s corpse, the apartment looked like its owners had just stepped out for a bite to eat.
I prowled around, careful not to touch anything. The bathroom and one of the bedrooms were like the living room: neat, a little sparse, not rich, but obviously well cared for. I hit the kitchen next. Dishes were soaking in now-cold water in the sink. In the fridge, chicken was marinating in some kind of sauce, its glass bowl covered with Saran.
I heard a quiet step behind me, and said, “Suicides don’t usually leave a meal marinating, do they? Or dishes soaking to be cleaned? Or their glasses on?”
Murphy made a noncommittal noise in her throat.
“No pictures up anywhere,” I mused. “No family portraits, graduation shots, pictures of everyone at Disneyland.” I added up some other things as I turned toward the second bedroom. “No hair in the sink or bathroom trash can. No computers.”
I opened the door to the master bedroom and closed my eyes, reaching out with my senses to get a feel of the room. I found what I expected.
“She was a practitioner,” I said quietly.
Janine had set up her temple on a low wooden table against the east wall. As I drew near it, there was a sense of gentle energy, like heat coming up from a fire that had burned down to mostly ashes. The energy around the table had never been strong, and it was fading, and had been since the woman’s death. Within another sunrise, it would be completely gone.
There were a number of items on the table, carefully arranged: a bell, a thick, leather-bound book, probably a journal. There was also an old pewter chalice, very plain but free of tarnish, and a slender little mahogany wand with a crystal bound to its end with copper wire.
One thing was out of place.
An old, old knife, a slender-bladed weapon from the early Renaissance called a misericord, lay on the carpet in front of the shrine, its tip pointing at an angle toward the other side of the bedroom.
I grunted. I paced around the room to the knife. I hunkered down, thinking, then looked up the blade of the knife to its hilt. I paced back to the bedroom door and peered at the living room.
The hilt of the knife pointed at Janine’s body.
I went back to the bedroom and squinted down the knife toward its tip.
It was pointed at the far wall.
I glanced back at Murphy, now standing in the doorway.
Murphy tilted her head. “What did you find?”
“Not sure yet. Hang on.” I walked over to the wall and held up my hand about half an inch from its surface. I closed my eyes and focused on a very faint trace of energy left there. After several moments of concentration, I lowered my hand again. “There’s something there,” I said. “But it’s too faint for me to make it out without using my Sight. And I’m getting sick of doing that.”
“What does that mean?” Murphy asked me.
“It means I need something from my kit. Be right back.” I went outside and down to my car, where I kept a fisherman’s tackle box. I snagged it and went back up to the dead woman’s bedroom.
“That’s new,” Murphy said.
I set the box on the floor and opened it. “I’ve been teaching my apprentice thaumaturgy. We have to go out to the country sometimes, for safety’s sake.” I rummaged through the box and finally drew out a plastic test tube full of metallic grains. “I just tossed things into a grocery sack for the first couple of weeks, but it was easier to put together a more permanent mobile kit.”
“What’s that?” Murphy asked.
“Copper filings,” I said. “They conduct energy. If there’s some kind of pattern here, I might be able to make it out.”
“Ah. You’re dusting for prints,” Murphy said.
“Pretty much, yeah.” I pulled a lump of chalk out of my duster’s pocket and squatted to draw a very faint circle on the carpet. I willed it closed as I completed the circle, and felt it spring to life, an invisible screen of power that kept random energies away from me and focused my own magic. The spell was a delicate one, for me anyway, and trying to use it without a circle would have been like trying to light a match in a hurricane.
I closed my eyes, concentrating, and poured an ounce or two of copper filings into my right palm. I willed a whisper of energy down into the filings, enough to create a magical charge in them that would draw them toward the faint energy on the wall. When they were ready, I murmured, “Illumina magnus.” Then I broke the circle with my foot, releasing the spell, and cast the filings outward.
They glittered with little blue-white sparks, crackling audibly as they struck the wall and stayed there. The scent of ozone filled the air.
I leaned forward and blew gently over the wall, clearing any stray filings that might have clung to the wall on their own. Then I stepped back.
The copper filings had fallen into definite shapes—specifically, letters:
Murphy furrowed her brow and stared at it. “A Bible verse?”
“I don’t know that one,” she said. “Do you?”
I nodded. “It’s one that stuck in my head: ‘Suffer not a witch to live.’”
“Murder, then,” Murphy said.
I grunted. “Looks like.”
“And the killer wanted you to know it.” She came to stand beside me, frowning up at the wall. “A cop couldn’t have found this.”
“Yeah,” I said. The empty apartment made a clicking noise, one of those settling-building, homey sounds that would have been familiar to the victim.
Murphy’s tone became lighter. “So, what are we looking at here? Some kind of religious wacko? Salem Witch Trials aficionado? The Inquisitor reborn?”
“And he uses magic to leave a message?” I asked.
“Wackos can be hypocrites.” She frowned. “How did the message get there? Did a practitioner have to do it?”
I shook my head. “After they killed her, they probably just dipped their finger in the water in the chalice, used it to write on the wall. Water dried up, but a residue of energy remained.”
She frowned. “From water?”
“Blessed water from the cup on her shrine,” I said. “Think of it as holy water. It’s imbued with positive energy the same way.”
Murphy squinted at me and then at the wall. “Holy? I thought magic was just all about energy and math and equations and things. Like electricity or thermodynamics.”
“Not everyone thinks that,” I said. I nodded at the altar. “The victim was a Wiccan.”
Murphy frowned. “A witch?”
“She was also a witch,” I said. “Not every Wiccan has the innate strength to be a practitioner. For most of them, there’s very little actual power involved in their rites and ceremonies.”
“Then why do them?”
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony.” I shrugged. “Every faith has its ceremonies, Murph.”
“This was about a conflict of religion, then?” Murphy said.
I shrugged. “It’s sort of difficult for sincere Wiccans to conflict with other religions. Wicca itself is really fluid. There are some basic tenets that ninety-nine percent of all Wiccans follow, but at its core the faith is all about individual freedom. Wiccans believe that as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else by doing it, you should be free to act and worship in whatever way you’d like. So everyone’s beliefs are a little bit different. Individualized.”
Murphy, who was more or less Catholic, frowned. “Seems to me that Christianity has a few things to say about forgiveness and tolerance and treating others the way you’d like to be treated.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Then came the Crusades, the Inquisition….”
“Which is my point,” Murphy said. “Regardless of what I think about Islam or Wicca or any other religion, the fact is that it’s a group of people. Every faith has its ceremonies. And since it’s made up of people, every faith also has its assholes.”
“You only need one side to start a fight,” I agreed. “KKK quotes a lot of scripture. So do a lot of reactionary religious organizations. A lot of times, they take it out of context.” I gestured at the wall. “Like this.”
“I dunno. ‘Suffer not a witch to live.’ Seems fairly clear.”
“Out of context, but clear,” I said. “Keep in mind that this appears in the same book of the Bible that approves the death sentence for a child who curses his parents, owners of oxen who injure someone through the owner’s negligence, anybody who works or kindles a fire on Sunday, and anyone who has sex with an animal.”
“Also keep in mind that the original text was written thousands of years ago. In Hebrew. The actual word that they used in that verse describes someone who casts spells that do harm to others. There was a distinction, in that culture, between harmful and beneficial magic.
“By the time we got to the Middle Ages, the general attitude within the faith was that anyone who practiced any kind of magic was automatically evil. There was no distinction between white and black magic. And when the verse came over to English, King James had a thing about witches, so ‘harmful caster of spells’ just got translated to ‘witch.’”
“Put that way, it sounds like maybe someone took it out of context,” Murphy said. “But you’d get arguments from all kinds of people that the Bible has got to be perfect. That God would not permit such errors to be made in the Holy Word.”
“I thought God gave everyone free will,” I said. “Which presumably—and evidently—includes the freedom to be incorrect when translating one language into another.”
“Stop making me think,” Murphy said. “I’m believing over here.”
I grinned. “See? This is why I’m not religious. I couldn’t possibly keep my mouth shut long enough to get along with everyone else.”
“I thought it was because you’d never respect any religion that would have you.”
“That too,” I said.
Neither one of us, during this conversation, looked back toward the body in the living room. An uncomfortable silence fell. The floorboards creaked.
“Murder,” Murphy said, finally, staring at the wall. “Maybe someone on a holy mission.”
“Murder,” I said. “Too soon to make any assumptions. What made you call me?”
“That altar,” she said. “The inconsistencies about the victim.”
“No one is going to buy magic writing on a wall as evidence.”
“I know,” she said. “Officially, she’s going down as a suicide.”
“Which means the ball is in my court,” I said.
“I talked to Stallings,” she said. “I’m taking a couple of days of personal leave, starting tomorrow. I’m in.”
“Cool.” I frowned suddenly and got a sick little feeling in my stomach. “This isn’t the only suicide, is it.”
“Right now, I’m on the job,” Murphy said. “That isn’t something I could share with you. The way someone like Butters might.”
“Right,” I said.
With no warning whatsoever, Murphy moved, spinning in a blur of motion that swept her leg out in a scything, ankle-height arc behind her. There was a thump of impact, and the sound of something heavy hitting the floor. Murphy—her eyes closed—sprang onto something unseen, and her hands moved in a couple of small, quick circles, fingers grasping. Then Murphy grunted, set her arms, and twisted her shoulders a little.
There was a young woman’s high-pitched gasp of pain, and abruptly, underneath Murphy, there was a girl. Murphy had her pinned on her stomach on the floor, one arm twisted behind her, wrist bent at a painful angle.
The girl was in her late teens. She wore combat boots, black fatigue pants, and a tight, cutoff grey T-shirt. She was tall, most of a foot taller than Murphy, and built like a brick house. Her hair had been cut into a short, spiky style and dyed peroxide white. A tattoo on her neck vanished under her shirt, reappeared for a bit on her bared stomach, and continued beneath the pants. She had multiple earrings, a nose ring, an eyebrow ring, and a silver stud through that spot right under her lower lip. On the hand Murphy had twisted up behind her back, she wore a bracelet of dark little glass beads.
“Harry?” Murphy said in that tone of voice that, while polite and patient, demanded an explanation.
I sighed. “Murph. You remember my apprentice, Molly Carpenter.”
Murphy leaned to one side and looked at her profile. “Oh, sure,” she said. “I didn’t recognize her without the pink-and-blue hair. Also, she wasn’t invisible last time.” She gave me a look, asking if I should let her up.
I gave Murphy a wink, and squatted down on the carpet next to the girl. I gave her my best scowl. “I told you to wait at the apartment and practice your focus.”
“Oh, come on,” Molly said. “It’s impossible. And boring as hell.”
“Practice makes perfect, kid.”
“I’ve been practicing my ass off!” Molly protested. “I know fifty times as much as I did last year.”
“And if you keep up the pace for another six or seven years,” I said, “you might—you might—be ready to go it alone. Until then, you’re the apprentice, I’m the teacher, and you do what I tell you.”
“But I can help you!”
“Not from a jail cell,” I pointed out.
“You’re trespassing on a crime scene,” Murphy told her.
“Oh, please,” Molly said, both scorn and protest in her voice.
(In case it slipped by, Molly has authority issues.)
It was probably the worst thing she could have said.
“Right,” Murphy said. She produced cuffs from her jacket pocket, and slapped them on Molly’s pinned wrist. “You have the right to remain silent.”
Molly’s eyes widened and she stared up at me. “What? Harry…”
“If you choose to give up that right,” Murphy continued, chanting it with the steady pace of ritual, “anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
I shrugged. “Sorry, kid. This is real life. Look, your juvenile record is sealed, and you’ll be tried as an adult. First offense, I doubt you’ll do much more than…Murph?”
Murphy took a break from the Miranda chant. “Thirty to sixty days, maybe.” Then she resumed.
“There, see? No big deal. See you in a month or three.”
Molly’s face got pale. “But…but…”
“Oh,” I added, “beat someone up on the first day. Supposed to save you a lot of trouble.”
Murphy dragged Molly to her feet, her hands now cuffed. “Do you understand your rights as I have conveyed them to you?”
Molly’s mouth fell open. She looked from Murphy to me, her expression shocked.
“Or,” I said, “you might apologize.”
“I-I’m sorry, Harry,” she said.
I sighed. “Not to me, kid. It isn’t my crime scene.”
“But…” Molly swallowed and looked at Murphy. “I was just s-standing there.”
“You wearing gloves?” Murphy asked.
“Um.” Molly swallowed. “The door. Just pushed it a little. And that Chinese vase she’s planted her spearmint in. The one with a crack in it.”
“Which means,” Murphy said, “that if I can show that this is a murder, a full forensic sweep could pick up your fingerprints, the imprint of your shoes, and, as brittle as your hairdo is, possibly genetic traces if any of it broke off. Since you aren’t one of the investigating officers or police consultants, that evidence would place you at the scene of the crime and could implicate you in a murder investigation.”
Molly shook her head. “But you just said it would be called a suic—”
“Even if it is, you don’t know proper procedure, the way Harry does, and your presence here might contaminate the scene and obscure evidence about the actual killer, making the murderer even more difficult to find before he strikes again.”
Molly just stared at her.
“That’s why there are laws about civilians and crime scenes. This isn’t a game, Miss Carpenter,” Murphy said, her voice cool, but not angry. “Mistakes here could cost lives. Do you understand me?”
Molly glanced from Murphy to me and back, and her shoulders sagged. “I didn’t mean to…I’m sorry.”
I said in a gentle voice, “Apologies won’t give life back to the dead, Molly. You still haven’t learned to consider consequences, and you can’t afford that. Not anymore.”
Molly flinched a little and nodded.
“I trust that this will never happen again,” Murphy said.
Murphy looked skeptically at Molly and back to me.
“She means well,” I said. “She just wanted to help.”
Molly gave me a grateful glance.
Murphy’s tone softened as she took the cuffs off. “Don’t we all.”
Molly rubbed at her wrists, wincing. “Um. Sergeant? How did you know I was there?”
“Floorboards creaking when no one was standing on them,” I said.
“Your deodorant,” Murphy said.
“Your tongue stud clicked against your teeth once,” I said.
“I felt some air move a few minutes ago,” Murphy said. “Didn’t feel like a draft.”
Molly swallowed and her face turned pink. “Oh.”
“But we didn’t see you, did we, Murph?”
Murphy shook her head. “Not even a little.”
A little humiliation and ego deflation, now and then, is good for apprentices. Mine sighed miserably.
“Well,” I said. “You’re here. Might as well tag along.” I nodded to Murphy and headed for the door.
“Where are we going?” Molly asked. Both bored medtechs blinked and stared as Molly followed me out of the apartment. Murphy came out behind us and waved them in to carry the body out.
“To see a friend of mine,” I said. “You like polka?”
I hadn’t been back to the Forensic Institute on West Harrison since that mess with Necromancers-R-Us nearly two years before. It wasn’t an unpleasant-looking place, despite the fact that it was the repository for former human beings awaiting examination. It was in a little corporate park, very clean, with green lawns and neat bushes and fresh-painted lines on the spaces in the parking lots. The buildings themselves were quietly unassuming, functional and tidy.
It was one of those places that show up a lot in my nightmares.
It wasn’t like I’d ever been a fan of viewing corpses, but a man I knew had been caught in the magical cross fire, and wound up an animated supercorpse who had nearly torn my car apart with his bare hands.
I hadn’t come back since then. I had better things to do than revisit scenes like that. But once I was there and parked and heading for the doors, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and I went in without hesitation.
This was Molly’s first visit. At my request, she had ditched much of the facial jewelry and wore an old Cubs baseball hat over her peroxide locks. Even so, she didn’t exactly cut a respectable businesslike figure, but I was content with damage control. Of course, my outfit barely qualified for business casual, and the heavy leather coat in the too-warm weather probably gave me a distinctive aura of eccentricity. Or at least it would have, if I made more money.
The guard sitting at the desk where Phil had been murdered was expecting me, but not Molly, and he told me she would have to wait. I said I’d wait, too, until Butters verified her. The guard looked sullen about being forced to expend the enormous effort it took to punch an intercom number. He growled into the phone, grunted a few times, then thumped a switch and the security door buzzed. Molly and I went on through.
There are several examination rooms at the morgue, but it’s never hard to figure out which one Butters is inside. You just listen for the polka.
I homed in on a steady oom-pah, oom-pah of a tuba, until I could pick up the strains of clarinet and accordion skirling along with it. Exam room three. I rapped briefly on the door and opened it without actually stepping inside.
Waldo Butters was bent over his desk, squinting at his computer’s screen, while his butt and legs shuffled back and forth in time to the polka music. He muttered something to himself, nodded, and hit the space bar on his keyboard with one elbow in time with his tapping heels, without looking up at me. “Hey, Harry.”
I blinked. “Is that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?”
“Yankovic. Man’s a freaking genius,” he replied. “Give me a sec to power down before you come all the way in.”
“No problem,” I told him.
“You’ve worked with him before?” Molly asked quietly.
“Uh-huh,” I said. “He’s clued.”
Butters waited until his printer started rattling, then shut down the computer and walked to the printer to pick up a couple of pages and staple them together. Then he dropped the pages onto a small stack of them and bound them with a large rubber band. “Okay, that should do it.” He turned to face me with a grin.
Butters was an odd little duck. He wasn’t much taller than Murphy, and she probably had more muscle than he did. His shock of black hair resembled nothing so much as an explosion in a steel wool factory. He was all knees and elbows, especially in the surgical greens he was wearing, his face was lean and angular, his nose beaky, and his eyes were bright behind the prescription glasses.
“Harry,” he said, offering his hand. “Long time, no see. How’s the hand?”
I traded grips with him. Butters had long, wiry fingers, very precise and not at all weak. He wasn’t anyone’s idea of dangerous, but the little guy had guts and brains. “Only three months or so. And not too bad.” I held my gloved left hand up and wiggled all the fingers. My ring and pinkie fingers moved with little trembles and twitches, but by God they moved when I told them to.
The flesh of my left hand had practically melted in an unanticipated conflagration during a battle with a scourge of vampires. The doctors had been shocked that they didn’t have to amputate, but told me I’d never use it again. Butters had helped me work out a regimen of physical therapy, and my fingers were mostly functional, though my hand still looked pretty horrible—but even that had begun to change, at least a little. The ugly little lumps of scar tissue and flesh had begun to fade, and my hand looked considerably less like a melted wax model than it had before. The nails had grown back in, too.
“Good,” Butters said. “Good. You still playing guitar?”
“I hold it. It makes noise. Might be a little generous to call it playing.” I gestured to Molly. “Waldo Butters, this is Molly Carpenter, my apprentice.”
“Apprentice, eh?” Butters extended an amiable hand. “Pleased to meetcha,” he said. “So does he turn you into squirrels and fishes and stuff, like in The Sword in the Stone?”
Molly sighed. “I wish. I keep trying to get him to show me how to change form, but he won’t.”
“I promised your parents I wouldn’t let you melt yourself into a pile of goo,” I told her. “Butters, I assume someone—and I won’t name any names—told you I’d be dropping by?”
“Yowsa,” the little ME said, nodding. He held up a finger, went to the door, and locked it, before turning to lean his back against it. “Look, Dresden. I have to be careful what kind of information I share, right? It comes with the job.”
“So you didn’t hear it from me.”
I looked at Molly. “Who said that?”
“Groovy,” Butters said. He walked back over to me and offered me the packet of papers. “Names and addresses of the deceased,” he said.
I frowned and flipped through them: columns of text, much of it technical; ugly photographs. “The victims?”
“Officially, they’re the deceased.” His mouth tightened. “But yeah. I’m pretty sure they’re victims.”
He opened his mouth, closed it again, and frowned. “You ever see something out of the corner of your eye? But when you look at it, there’s nothing there? Or at least, it doesn’t look like what you thought it was?”
“Same thing here,” he said. “Most of these folks show classic, obvious suicides. There are just a few little details wrong. You know?”
“No,” I said. “Enlighten me.”
“Take that top one,” he said. “Pauline Moskowitz. Thirty-nine, mother of two, husband, two dogs. She disappears on a Friday night and opens up her wrists in a hotel bathtub around three A.M. Saturday morning.”
I read over it. “Am I reading this right? She was on antidepressants?”
“Uh-huh,” Butters said, “but nothing extreme, and she’d been on them and stable for eight years. Never showed suicidal tendencies before, either.”
I looked at the ugly picture of a very ordinary-looking woman lying naked and dead in a tub of cloudy liquid. “So what’s got your scalpel in a knot?”
“The cuts,” Butters said. “She used a box knife. It was in the tub with her. She severed tendons in both wrists.”
“So,” Butters said. “Once she’d cut the tendons on one wrist, she’d have had very little controlled movement with the fingers in that hand. So what’d she do to cut them both? Use two box knives at the same time? Where’s the other knife?”
“Maybe she held it with her teeth,” I said.
“Maybe I’ll close my eyes and throw a rock out over the lake and it will land in a boat,” Butters said. “It’s technically possible, but it isn’t really likely. The second wound almost certainly wouldn’t be as deep or as clean. I’ve seen ’em look like someone was cutting up a block of Parmesan into slivers. These two cuts are almost identical.”
“I guess it’s not conclusive, though,” I said.
“I’ve been hearing that a lot today.” I frowned. “What’s Brioche think?”
At the mention of his boss, Butters grimaced. “Occam’s razor, to use his own spectacularly insensitive yet ironic phrasing. They’re suicides. End of story.”
“But your guess is that someone else was holding the knife?”
The little ME’s face turned bleak, and he nodded without speaking.
“Good enough for me,” I said. “What about the body today?”
“Can’t say until I look,” Butters said. He gave me a shrewd glance. “But you think it’s another murder.”
“I know it is,” I replied. “But I’m the only one, until Murphy’s off the clock.”
“Right.” Butters sighed.
I flipped past Mrs. Moskowitz’s pages to the next set of ugly pictures. Also a woman. The pages named her Maria Casselli. Maria had been twenty-three when she washed down thirty Valium with a bottle of drain cleaner.
“Another hotel room,” I noted quietly.
Molly glanced over my shoulder at the printout of the photo at the scene. She turned pale and took several steps away from me.
“Yeah,” Butters said, concerned eyes on my apprentice. “It’s a little unusual. Most suicides are at home. They usually go somewhere else only if they need to jump off a bridge or drive their car into a lake or something.”
“Ms. Casselli had a family,” I said. “Husband, her younger sister living with her.”
“Yeah,” Butters said. “You can guess what Brioche had to say.”
“She walked in on her hubby and baby sister, decided to end it all?”
“Uh,” Molly said. “I think—”
“Outside,” Butters provided, unlocking the door. “First door on the right.”
Molly hurried from the room, down to the bathroom Butters had directed her to.
“Jesus, Harry,” Butters said. “Kid’s a little young for this.”
I held up the picture of Maria’s body. “Lot of that going around.”
“She’s actually a wizard? Like you?”
“Someday,” I said. “If she survives.” I read over the next two profiles, both of women in their twenties, both apparent suicides in hotel rooms, both of them with housemates of one sort or another.
The last profile was different. I read over it and glanced up at Butters. “What’s with this one?”
“Fits the same general profile,” Butters said. “Women, dead in hotel rooms.”
I frowned down at the papers. “Where’s the cause of death?”
“That’s the thing,” Butters said. “I couldn’t find one.”
I lifted both eyebrows at him.
He spread his hands. “Harry, I know my trade. I like figuring this stuff out. And I haven’t got the foggiest why the woman is dead. Every test I ran came up negative; every theory I put together fell apart. Medically speaking, she’s in good shape. It’s like her whole system just…got the switch turned off. Everything at once. Never seen anything like it.”
“Jessica Blanche.” I checked the profiles. “Nineteen. And pretty. Or at least prettyish.”
“Hard to tell with dead girls,” Butters said. “But yeah, that was my take.”
“But not a suicide.”
“Like I said. Dead, and in hotel rooms.”
“Then what’s the connection to the other deaths?”
“Little things,” Butters said. “Like, she had a purse with ID in it, but no clothes.”
“Meaning someone had to have taken them away.” I rolled up the papers into a tube and thumped them against my leg, thoughtfully. The door opened, and Molly came back in, wiping at her mouth with a paper towel. “This girl still here?”
Butters lifted his eyebrows. “Yeah. Miss Blanche. Why?”
“I think maybe Molly can help.”
Molly blinked and looked up at me. “Um. What?”
“I doubt it’s going to be pleasant, Molly,” I told her. “But you might be able to read something.”
“Off of a dead girl?” Molly asked quietly.
“You’re the one who wanted to come along,” I said.
She frowned, facing me, and then took a deep breath. “Yes. Um. Yes, I was. I mean, yes, I will. Try.”
“Will you?” I asked. “You sure? Won’t be fun. But if it gets us more information, it could save someone’s life.”
I watched her for a moment, until her expression set in determination and she met my eyes. She straightened and nodded once. “Yes.”
“All right,” I said. “Get yourself set for it. Butters, we need to give her a few minutes alone. Can we go get Miss Blanche?”
“Um,” Butters said. “What’s this going to entail, exactly?”
“Nothing much. I’ll explain it on the way.”
He chewed on his lip for a moment, and then nodded once. “This way.”
He led me down the hall to the storage room. It was another exam room, like the one we’d just been in, but it also featured a wall of body-sized refrigerated storage units like morgues are supposed to have. This was the room we’d been in when a necromancer and a gaggle of zombies had put a bullet through the head of Butters’s capacity to ignore the world of the supernatural.
Butters got out a gurney, consulted a record sheet on a clipboard, and wheeled it over to the fridges. “I don’t like to come in here anymore. Not since Phil.”
“Me either,” I said.
He nodded. “Here, get that side.”
I didn’t want to. I am a wizard, sure, but corpses are inherently icky, even if they aren’t animated and trying to kill you. But I tried to pretend we were sliding a heavy load of groceries onto a cart, and helped him draw a body, resting upon a metal tray and covered in a heavy cloth, onto the gurney.
“So,” he said. “What is she going to do?”
“Look into its eyes,” I said.
He gave me a somewhat skeptical look. “Trying to see the last thing impressed on her retinas or something? You know that’s pretty much mythical, right?”
“Other impressions get left on a body,” I said. “Final thoughts, sometimes. Emotions, sensations.” I shook my head. “Technically, those kinds of impressions can get left on almost any kind of inanimate object. You’ve heard of object reading, right?”
“That’s for real?” he asked.
“Yeah. But it’s an easy sort of thing to contaminate, and it can be tricky as hell—and entirely apart from that, it’s extremely difficult to do.”
“Oh,” Butters said. “But you think there might be something left on the corpse?”
“That sounds really useful.”
“So how come you don’t do it all the time?” he asked.
“It’s delicate,” I said. “When it comes to magic, I’m not much for delicate.”
He frowned and we started rolling the gurney. “But your only half-trained apprentice is?”
“The wizarding business isn’t standardized,” I said. “Any given wizard will have an affinity for different kinds of magic, due to their natural talents, personalities, experiences. Each has different strengths.”
“What are yours?” he asked.
“Finding things. Following things. Blowing things up, mostly,” I said. “I’m good at those. Redirecting energy, sending energy out into the world to resonate with the energy of what I’m trying to find. Moving energy around or redirecting it or storing it up to use later.”
“Aha,” he said. “None of which is delicate?”
“I’ve practiced enough to handle a lot of different kinds of delicate magic,” I said. “But…it’s the difference between me strumming power chords on a guitar and me playing a complex classical Spanish piece.”
Butters absorbed that and nodded. “And the kid plays Spanish guitar?”
“Close enough. She’s not as strong as me, but she’s got a gift for the more subtle magic. Especially mental and emotional stuff. It’s what got her in so much trouble with…”
I bit my tongue and stopped in midsentence. It wasn’t my place to discuss Molly’s violations of the White Council’s Laws of Magic with others. She would have enough trouble getting past the horrible acts she’d committed in innocence without me painting her as a psycho monster-in-training.
Butters watched my face for a few seconds, then nodded and let it pass. “What do you think she’ll find?”
“No clue,” I said. “That’s why we look.”
“Could you do this?” he said. “I mean, if you had to?”
“I’ve tried it,” I hedged. “But I’m bad about projecting things onto the object, and I can barely ever get something intelligible out of it.”
“You said it might not be pleasant for her,” Butters said. “Why?”
“Because if something’s there, and she can sense it, she gets to experience it. First person. Like she’s living it herself.”
Butters let out a low whistle. “Oh. Yeah. I guess that could be bad.”
We got back to the other room, and I peered in before opening the door. Molly was sitting on the floor with her eyes closed, her legs folded lotus-style, her head tilted slightly up. Her hands rested on her thighs, the tips of her thumbs pressed lightly against the tips of her middle fingers.
“Quietly,” I murmured. “No noise until she’s finished. Okay?”
Butters nodded. I opened the door as silently as I could. We brought the gurney into the room, left it in front of Molly, and then at my beckon, Butters and I went to the far wall and settled in to wait.
It took Molly better than twenty minutes to focus her mind for the comparatively simple spell. Focus of intention, of will, is integral to any use of magic. I’d drawn myself up to focus power so often and for so long that I only had to actually make a conscious effort to do it when a spell was particularly complex, dangerous, or when I thought it wise to be slow and cautious. Most of the time, it took me less than a second to gather up my will—which is critical in any situation where speed is a factor. Drooling abominations and angry vampires don’t give you twenty minutes to get a punch ready.
Molly, though she was learning quickly, had a long damned way to go.
When she finally opened her eyes, they were distant, unfocused. She rose to her feet with slow, careful movements, and drifted over to the gurney with the corpse. She pulled the sheet down, revealing the dead girl’s face. Then Molly leaned down, her expression still distant, and murmured quietly beneath her breath as she opened the corpse’s eyelids.
She got something almost instantly.
Her eyes flew open wide, and she let out a short gasp. Her breath rasped in and out frantically several times before her eyes rolled back up into her head. She stood frozen and rigid for a pair of quivering seconds, and then her breath escaped in a low, rough cry and her knees buckled. She did not fall to the floor so much as melt down onto it. Then she lay there, breathing hard and letting out a continuous stream of guttural whimpers.
Her breathing continued, fast and hard, her eyes unfocused. Her body rippled with several slow, undulating motions that drew the eye to her hips and breasts. Then she slowly went limp, her panting gradually easing, though little, unmistakably pleased sounds slithered from her lips on every exhalation.
I blinked at her.
I hadn’t been expecting that.
Butters gulped audibly. Then he said, “Uh. Did she just do what I think she just did?”
I pursed my lips. “Um. Maybe.”
“What just happened?”
“She, um.” I coughed. “She got something.”
“She got something, all right,” Butters muttered. He sighed. “I haven’t gotten anything like that in about two years.”
For me, it had been more like four. “I hear you,” I said, more emphatically than I meant to.
“Is she underage?” he asked. “Legally speaking?”
“Okay. I don’t feel quite so…Nabokovian, then.” He raked his fingers back through his hair. “What do we do now?”
I tried to look professional and unfazed. “We wait for her to recover.”
“Uh-huh.” He looked at Molly and sighed. “I need to get out more.”
Me and you both, man. “Butters, is there any way you could get her some water or something?”
“Sure,” he said. “You?”
“Right back.” Butters covered up the corpse and slipped out.
I went over to the girl and hunkered down by her. “Hey, grasshopper. Can you hear me?”
It took her longer than it should have to answer, like when you’re on the phone with someone halfway around the world. “Yes. I…I hear you.”
“Oh, God.” She sighed, smiling. “Yes.”
I muttered under my breath, rubbed at the incipient headache beginning between my eyes, and thought dark thoughts. Dammit all, every time I’d opened myself up to some kind of horrible psychic shock in the name of investigation, I’d gotten another nightmare added to my collection. Her first time up to bat, and the grasshopper got…
What had she gotten?
“I want you to tell me what you sensed, right away. Sometimes the details fade out, like when you forget parts of a dream.”
“Right,” she murmured in a sleepy-sounding drawl. “Details. She…” Molly shook her head. “She felt good. Really, really good.”
“I gathered that much,” I said. “What else?”
Molly kept shaking her head slowly. “Nothing else. Just that. It was all sensation. Ecstasy.” She frowned a little, as if struggling to order her thoughts. “As if the rest of her senses had been blinded by it, somehow. I don’t think there was anything else. Not sight nor sound nor thought nor memory. Nothing. She didn’t even know it when she died.”
“Think about it,” I said quietly. “Absolutely anything you can remember could be important.”
Butters came back in just then, carrying a bottle of water beaded with drops of condensation. He tossed it to me, and I passed the cold drink to Molly. “Here,” I told her. “Drink up.”
“Thanks.” She opened the bottle, turned on her side, and started guzzling it without even sitting up. The pose did a lot to make her clothing look tighter.
Butters stared for a second, then sighed and quite evidently forced himself to go over to his desk and start sharpening pencils. “So what do we know?”
“Looks like she died happy,” I said. “Did you run a toxicology check on her?”
“Yeah. Some residual THC, but she could have gotten that from the contact high at a concert. Otherwise she was clean.”
“Damn,” I said. “Can you think of anything else that would do…that to a victim?”
“Nothing pharmacological,” Butters said. “Maybe if someone ran a wire into the pleasure centers of her brain and kept stimulating them. But, uh, there’s no evidence of open-skull surgery. I would have noticed something like that.”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“So it must be something from the spooky side,” Butters said.
“Could be.” I consulted my packet again. “What did she do?”
“No one knew,” Butters said. “No one seemed to know anything about her. No one came to claim the body. We couldn’t find any relations. It’s why she’s still here.”
“No local address, either,” I said.
“No, just the one on an Indiana driver’s license, but it dead-ended. Not much else in her purse.”
“And the killer took her clothes.”
“Apparently,” Butters said. “But why?”
I shrugged. “Must have been something on them he didn’t want found.” I pursed my lips. “Or something on them he didn’t want me to find.”
Molly abruptly sat up straight. “Harry, I remember something.”
“Sensation,” she said, resting one hand over her belly button. “It was like…I don’t know, like hearing twenty different bands playing at the same time, only tactile. But there was a prickling sort of sensation over her stomach. Like one of those medical pinwheel things.”
“A Wartenberg Pinwheel,” Butters supplied.
“Eh?” I said.
“Like the one I use to test the nerves on your hand, Harry,” Butters supplied.
“Oh, ow, right.” I frowned at Molly. “How the hell do you know what one of those feels like?”
Molly gave me a lazy, wicked smile. “This is one of those things you don’t want me to explain.”
Butters let out a delicate cough. “They are sometimes used recreationally, Harry.”
My cheeks felt warm. “Ah. Right. Butters, you got a felt-tip marker?”
He got one out of his desk and tossed it to me. I passed it to Molly. “Show me where.”
She nodded, lay back down on her back, and pulled her shirt up from her stomach. Then she closed her eyes, took the lid off the marker, and traced it slowly over the skin of her abdomen, her eyebrows furrowed in concentration.
When she was finished, the black ink spelled out clear, large letters:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said quietly. “We have a serial killer.”
Molly said little on the way back. She just leaned against the window with half-closed eyes, probably basking in the afterglow.
“Molly,” I told her in my gentlest voice. “Heroin feels good, too. Ask Rosy and Nelson.”
The little smile of pleasure faded into blankness, and she stared at me for a while. By degrees, her expression changed to a frown of consideration, and then to a nauseated grimace.
“It killed her,” she said finally. “It killed her. I mean, it felt so good…but it wasn’t.”
“She never knew it. She never had a chance.” Molly looked queasy for a minute. “It was a vampire, right? From the White Court? I mean, they use sex to feed on life energy, right?”
“That’s one of the things it could be,” I said quietly. “There are plenty of demonic creatures in the Nevernever that groove on the succubus routine, though.”
“And she was killed in a hotel,” she said. “Where there was no threshold to protect her from a demon.”
“Very good, grasshopper,” I said. “Once you consider that the other victims weren’t done White Court style, it means that either there is more than one killer or the same one is varying his techniques. It’s too early for anything but wild guesses.”