Harry Dresden’s faced some pretty terrifying foes during his career. Giant scorpions. Oversexed vampires. Psychotic werewolves. It comes with the territory, when you’re the only professional wizard in the Chicago area phone book.
But in all Harry’s years of supernatural sleuthing, he’s never faced anything like this: the spirit world’s gone postal. All over Chicago, ghosts are causing trouble—and not just of the door-slamming, boo-shouting variety. These ghosts are tormented, violent, and deadly. Someone—or something—is purposely stirring them up to wreak unearthly havoc. But why? And why do so many of the victims have ties to Harry? If Harry doesn’t figure it out soon, he could wind up a ghost himself...
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ALSO BY JIM BUTCHER
THE DRESDEN FILES
STORM FRONT FOOL MOON SUMMER KNIGHT DEATH MASKS BLOOD RITES DEAD BEAT PROVEN GUILTY WHITE NIGHT SMALL FAVOR
THE CODEX ALERA
FURIES OF CALDERON ACADEM’S FURY CURSOR’S FURY CAPTAIN’S FURY
Copyright © Jim Butcher, 2001
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There are reasons I hate to drive fast. For one, the Blue Beetle, the mismatched Volkswagen bug that I putter around in, rattles and groans dangerously at anything above sixty miles an hour. For another, I don’t get along so well with technology. Anything manufactured after about World War II seems to be susceptible to abrupt malfunction when I get close to it. As a rule, when I drive, I drive very carefully and sensibly.
Tonight was an exception to the rule.
The Beetle’s tires screeched in protest as we rounded a corner, clearly against the NO LEFT TURN sign posted there. The old car growled gamely, as though it sensed what was at stake, and continued its valiant puttering, moaning, and rattling as we zoomed down the street.
“Can we go any faster?” Michael drawled. It wasn’t a complaint. It was just a question, calmly voiced.
“Only if the wind gets behind us or we start going down a hill,” I said. “How far to the hospital?”
The big man shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. He had that kind of salt-and-pepper hair, dark against silver, that some men seem lucky enough to inherit, though his beard was still a solid color of dark brown, almost black. There were worry and laugh lines at the corners of his leathery face. His broad, lined hands rested on his knees, which were scrunched up due to the dashboard. “I don’t know for certain,” he answered me. “Two miles?”
I squinted out the Beetle’s window at the fading light. “The sun is almost down. I hope we’re not too late.”
“We’re doing all we can,” Michael assured me. “If God wills it, we’ll be there in time. Are you sure of your . . .” his mouth twisted with distaste, “source?”
“Bob is annoying, but rarely wrong,” I answered, jamming on the brakes and dodging around a garbage truck. “If he said the ghost would be there, it will be there.”
“Lord be with us,” Michael said, and crossed himself. I felt a stirring of something; powerful, placid energy around him—the power of faith. “Harry, there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”
“Don’t ask me to Mass again,” I told him, uncomfortable. “You know I’m just going to say no.” Someone in a red Taurus cut me off, and I had to swerve around him, into the turn lane, and then ahead of him again. A couple of the Beetle’s wheels lifted off the ground. “Jerk!” I howled out the driver’s window.
“That doesn’t preclude asking,” Michael said. “But no. I wanted to know when you were going to marry Miss Rodriguez.”
“Hell’s Bells, Michael,” I scowled. “You and I have been chasing all over town for the past two weeks, going up against every ghost and spirit that has all of a sudden reared its ugly head. We still don’t know what’s causing the spirit world to go postal.”
“I know that, Harry, but—”
“At the moment,” I interrupted, “we’re going after a nasty old biddy at Cook County, who could kill us if we aren’t focused. And you’re asking me about my love life.”
Michael frowned at me. “You’re sleeping with her, aren’t you?” he said.
“Not often enough,” I growled, and shifted lanes, swerving around a passenger bus.
The knight sighed. “Do you love her?” he asked.
“Michael,” I said. “Give me a break. Where do you get off asking questions like that?”
“Do you love her?” he pressed.
“I’m trying to drive, here.”
“Harry,” he asked, smiling. “Do you love the girl or don’t you? It isn’t a difficult question.”
“Speaks the expert,” I grumbled. I went past a blue-and-white at about twenty miles an hour over the speed limit, and saw the police officer behind the wheel blink and spill his coffee as he saw me go past. I checked my rearview mirror, and saw the blue bulbs on the police car whirl to life. “Dammit, that tears it. The cops are going to be coming in right after us.”
“Don’t worry about them,” Michael assured me. “Just answer the question.”
I flashed Michael a glance. He watched me, his face broad and honest, his jaw strong, and his grey eyes flashing. His hair was cropped close, Marine-length, on top, but he sported a short, warrior’s beard, which he kept clipped close to his face. “I suppose so,” I said, after a second. “Yeah.”
“Then you don’t mind saying it?”
“Saying what?” I stalled.
“Harry,” Michael scolded, holding on as we bounced through a dip in the street. “Don’t be a child about this. If you love the woman, say so.”
“Why?” I demanded.
“You haven’t told her, have you? You’ve never said it.”
I glared at him. “So what if I haven’t? She knows. What’s the big deal?”
“Harry Dresden,” he said. “You, of all people, should know the power of words.”
“Look, she knows,” I said, tapping the brakes and then flattening the accelerator again. “I got her a card.”
“A card?” Michael asked.
He sighed. “Let me hear you say the words.”
“Say the words,” he demanded. “If you love the woman, why can’t you say so?”
“I don’t just go around saying that to people, Michael. Stars and sky, that’s . . . I just couldn’t, all right?”
“You don’t love her,” Michael said. “I see.”
“You know that’s not—”
“Say it, Harry.”
“If it will get you off my back,” I said, and gave the Beetle every ounce of gas that I could. I could see the police in traffic somewhere behind me. “All right.” I flashed Michael a ferocious, wizardly scowl and snarled, “I love her. There, how’s that?”
Michael beamed. “You see? That’s the only thing that stands between you two. You’re not the kind of person who says what they feel. Or who is very introspective, Harry. Sometimes, you just need to look into the mirror and see what’s there.”
“I don’t like mirrors,” I grumbled.
“Regardless, you needed to realize that you do love the woman. After Elaine, I thought you might isolate yourself too much and never—”
I felt a sudden flash of anger and vehemence. “I don’t talk about Elaine, Michael. Ever. If you can’t live with that, get the hell out of my car and let me work on my own.”
Michael frowned at me, probably more for my choice of words than anything else. “I’m talking about Susan, Harry. If you love her, you should marry her.”
“I’m a wizard. I don’t have time to be married.”
“I’m a knight,” Michael responded. “And I have the time. It’s worth it. You’re alone too much. It’s starting to show.”
I scowled at him again. “What does that mean?”
“You’re tense. Grumpy. And you’re isolating yourself more all the time. You need to keep up human contact, Harry. It would be so easy for you to start down a darker path.”
“Michael,” I snapped, “I don’t need a lecture. I don’t need the conversion speech again. I don’t need the ‘cast aside your evil powers before they consume you’ speech. Again. What I need is for you to back me up while I go take care of this thing.”
Cook County Hospital loomed into sight and I made an illegal U-turn to get the Blue Beetle up into the Emergency entrance lane.
Michael unbuckled his seat belt, even before the car had come to a stop, and reached into the backseat to draw an enormous sword, fully five feet long in its black scabbard. He exited the car and buckled on the sword. Then he reached back in for a white cloak with a red cross upon the left breast, which he tossed over his shoulders in a practiced motion. He clasped it with another cross, this one of silver, at his throat. It clashed with his flannel workman’s shirt, blue jeans, and steel-toed work boots.
“Can’t you leave the cloak off, at least?” I complained. I opened the door and unfolded myself from the Beetle’s driver’s seat, stretching my long legs, and reached into the backseat to recover my own equipment—my new wizard’s staff and blasting rod, each of them freshly carved and still a little green around the edges.
Michael looked up at me, wounded. “The cloak is as much a part of what I do as the sword, Harry. Besides, it’s no more ridiculous than that coat you wear.”
I looked down at my black leather duster, the one with the large mantle that fell around my shoulders and spread out as it billowed in a most heavy and satisfactory fashion around my legs. My own black jeans and dark Western shirt were a ton and a half more stylish than Michael’s costume. “What’s wrong with it?”
“It belongs on the set of El Dorado,” Michael said. “Are you ready?”
I shot him a withering glance, to which he turned the other cheek with a smile, and we headed toward the door. I could hear police sirens closing in behind us, maybe a block or two away. “This is going to be close.”
“Then we best hurry.” He cast the white cloak back from his right arm, and put his hand on the hilt of the great broadsword. Then he bowed his head, crossed himself, and murmured, “Merciful Father, guide us and protect us as we go to do battle with the darkness.” Once more, there was that thrum of energy around him, like the vibrations of music heard through a thick wall.
I shook my head, and fetched a leather sack, about the size of my palm, from the pocket of my duster. I had to juggle staff, blasting rod, and sack for a moment, and wound up with the staff in my left hand, as was proper, the rod in my right, and the sack dangling from my teeth. “The sun is down,” I grated out. “Let’s move it.”
And we broke into a run, knight and wizard, through the emergency entrance of Cook County Hospital. We drew no small amount of stares as we entered, my duster billowing out in a black cloud behind me, Michael’s white cloak spreading like the wings of the avenging angel whose namesake he was. We pelted inside, and slid to a halt at the first intersection of cool, sterile, bustling hallways.
I grabbed the arm of the first orderly I saw. He blinked, and then gawked at me, from the tips of my Western boots to the dark hair atop my head. He glanced at my staff and rod rather nervously, and at the silver pentacle amulet dangling at my breast, and gulped. Then he looked at Michael, tall and broad, his expression utterly serene, at odds with the white cloak and the broadsword at his hip. He took a nervous step back. “M-m-may I help you?”
I speared him into place with my most ferocious, dark-eyed smile and said, between teeth clenched on the leather sack, “Hi. Could you tell us where the nursery is?”
We took the fire stairs. Michael knows how technology reacts to me, and the last thing either of us wanted was to be trapped in a broken elevator while innocent lives were snuffed out. Michael led the way, one hand on the rail, one on the hilt of his sword, his legs churning steadily.
I followed him, huffing and puffing. Michael paused by the door and looked back at me, white cloak swirling around his calves. It took me a couple of seconds to come gasping up behind him. “Ready?” he asked me.
“Hrkghngh,” I answered, and nodded, still clenching my leather sack in my teeth, and fumbled a white candle from my duster pocket, along with a box of matches. I had to set my rod and staff aside to light the candle.
Michael wrinkled his nose at the smell of smoke, and pushed open the door. Candle in one hand, rod and staff in the other, I followed, my eyes flicking from my surroundings to the candle’s flame and back.
All I could see was more hospital. Clean walls, clean halls, lots of tile and fluorescent lights. The long, luminescent tubes flickered feebly, as though they had all gone stale at once, and the hall was only dimly lit. Long shadows stretched out from a wheelchair parked to the side of one door and gathered beneath a row of uncomfortable-looking plastic chairs at an intersection of hallways.
The fourth floor was a graveyard, bottom-of-the-well silent. There wasn’t a flicker of sound from a television or radio. No intercoms buzzed. No air-conditioning whirred. Nothing.
We walked down a long hall, our steps sounding out clearly despite an effort to remain quiet. A sign on the wall, decorated with a brightly colored plastic clown, read: NURSERY/MATERNITY, and pointed down another hall.
I stepped past Michael and looked down that hallway. It ended at a pair of swinging doors. This hallway, too, was quiet. The nurse’s station stood empty.
The lights weren’t just flickering here—they were altogether gone. It was entirely dark. Shadows and uncertain shapes loomed everywhere. I took a step forward, past Michael, and as I did the flame of my candle burned down to a cold, clear pinpoint of blue light.
I spat the sack out of my mouth and fumbled it into my pocket. “Michael,” I said, my voice strangled to hushed urgency. “It’s here.” I turned my body, so that he could see the light.
His eyes flicked down to the candle and then back up, to the darkness beyond. “Faith, Harry.” Then he reached to his side with his broad right hand, and slowly, silently, drew Amoracchius from its sheath. I found it a tad more encouraging than his words. The great blade’s polished steel gave off a lambent glow as Michael stepped forward to stand beside me in the darkness, and the air fairly thrummed with its power—Michael’s own faith, amplified a thousandfold.
“Where are the nurses?” he asked me in a hoarse whisper.
“Spooked off, maybe,” I answered, as quietly. “Or maybe some sort of glamour. At least they’re out of the way.”
I glanced at the sword, and at the long, slender spike of metal set into its cross guard. Perhaps it was only my imagination, but I thought I could see flecks of red still upon it. Probably rust, I reasoned. Sure, rust.
I set the candle down upon the floor, where it continued to burn pinpoint-clear, indicating a spiritual presence. A big one. Bob hadn’t been lying when he’d said that the ghost of Agatha Hagglethorn was no two-bit shade.
“Stay back,” I told Michael. “Give me a minute.”
“If what the spirit told you is correct, this creature is dangerous,” Michael replied. “Let me go first. It will be safer.”
I nodded toward the glowing blade. “Trust me, a ghost would feel the sword coming before you even got to the door. Let me see what I can do first. If I can dust the spook, this whole contest is over before it begins.”
I didn’t wait for Michael to answer me. Instead, I took my blasting rod and staff in my left hand, and in my right I grasped the pouch. I untied the simple knot that held the sack closed, and slipped forward, into the dark.
When I reached the swinging doors, I pressed one of them and it slowly opened. I remained still for a long moment, listening.
I heard singing. A woman’s voice. Gentle. Lovely.
Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.
I glanced back at Michael, and then slipped inside the door, into total darkness. I couldn’t see—but I’m not a wizard for nothing. I thought of the pentacle upon my breast, over my heart, the silver amulet that I had inherited from my mother. It was a battered piece of jewelry, scarred and dented from uses for which it was never intended, but I wore it still. The five-sided star within the circle was the symbol of my magic, of what I believed in, embodying the five forces of the universe working in harmony, contained inside of human control.
I focused on it, and slid a little of my will into it, and the amulet began to glow with a gentle, blue-silver light, which spread out before me in a subtle wave, showing me the shapes of a fallen chair, and a pair of nurses at a desk behind a counter, slumped forward over their stations, breathing deeply.
The soothing, quiet lullaby continued as I studied the nurses. Enchanted sleep. It was nothing new. They were out, they weren’t going anywhere, and there was little sense in wasting time or energy in trying to break the spell’s hold on them. The gentle singing droned on, and I found myself reaching for the fallen chair, with the intention of setting it upright so that I would have a comfortable place to sit down for a little rest.
I froze, and had to remind myself that I would be an idiot to sit down beneath the influence of the unearthly song, even for a few moments. Subtle magic, and strong. Even knowing what to expect, I had barely sensed its touch in time.
I skirted the chair and moved forward, into a room filled with dressing hooks and little pastel hospital gowns hung upon them in rows. The singing was louder, here, though it still drifted around the room with a ghostly lack of origin. One wall was little more than a sheet of Plexiglas, and behind it was a room that attempted to look sterile and warm at the same time.
Row upon row of little glass cribs on wheeled stands stood in the room. Tiny occupants, with toy-sized hospital mittens over their brand-new fingernails, and tiny hospital stocking caps over their bald heads, were sleeping and dreaming infant dreams.
Walking among them, visible in the glow of my wizard’s light, was the source of the singing.
Agatha Hagglethorn had not been old when she died. She wore a proper, high-necked shirt, as was appropriate to a lady of her station in nineteenth-century Chicago, and a long, dark, no-nonsense skirt. I could see through her, to the little crib behind her, but other than that she seemed solid, real. Her face was pretty, in a strained, bony sort of way, and she had her right hand folded over the stump at the end of her left wrist.
If that mockingbird don’t sing, Mama’s going to buy you . . .
She had a captivating singing voice. Literally. She lilted out her song, spun energy into the air that lulled listeners into deeper and deeper sleep. If she was allowed to continue, she could draw both infants and nurses into a sleep from which they would never awaken, and the authorities would blame it on carbon monoxide, or something a little more comfortably normal than a hostile ghost.
I crept closer. I had enough ghost dust to pin down Agatha and a dozen spooks like her, and allow Michael to dispatch her swiftly, with a minimum of mess and fuss—just as long as I didn’t miss.
I hunkered down, kept the little sack of dust gripped loosely in my right hand, and slipped over to the door that led into the roomful of sleeping babies. The ghost did not appear to have noticed me—ghosts aren’t terribly observant. I guess being dead gives you a whole different perspective on life.
I entered the room, and Agatha Hagglethorn’s voice rolled over me like a drug, making me blink and shudder. I had to keep focused, my thoughts on the cool power of my magic flowing through my pentacle and coming out in its spectral light.
If that diamond ring don’t shine . . .
I licked my lips and watched the ghost as it stooped over one of the rolling cradles. She smiled, loving-kindness in her eyes, and breathed out her song over the baby.
The infant shuddered out a tiny breath, eyes closed in sleep, and did not inhale.
Hush little baby . . .
Time had run out. In a perfect world, I would have simply dumped the dust onto the ghost. But it’s not a perfect world: Ghosts don’t have to play by the rules of reality, and until they acknowledge that you’re there, it’s tough, very, very tough, to affect them at all. Confrontation is the only way, and even then, knowing the shade’s identity and speaking its name aloud is the only sure way to make it face you. And, better and better, most spirits can’t hear just anyone—it takes magic to make a direct call to the hereafter.
I rose fully to my feet, bag gripped in my hand and shouted, forcing my will into my voice, “Agatha Hagglethorn!”
The spirit started, as though a distant voice had come to her, and turned toward me. Her eyes widened. The song abruptly fell silent.
“Who are you?” she said. “What are you doing in my nursery?”
I struggled to keep the details Bob had told me about the ghost straight. “This isn’t your nursery, Agatha Hagglethorn. It’s more than a hundred years since you died. You aren’t real. You are a ghost, and you are dead.”
The spirit drew itself up with a sort of cold, high-society haughtiness. “I might have known. Benson sent you, didn’t he? Benson is always doing something cruel and petty like this, then calling me a madwoman. A madwoman! He wants to take my child away.”
“Benson Hagglethorn is long dead, Agatha Hagglethorn,” I responded, and gathered back my right hand to throw. “As is your child. As are you. These little ones are not yours to sing to or bear away.” I steeled myself to throw, began to bring my arm forward.
The spirit looked at me with an expression of lost, lonely confusion. This was the hard part about dealing with really substantial, dangerous ghosts. They were almost human. They appeared to be able to feel emotion, to have some degree of self-awareness. Ghosts aren’t alive, not really—they’re a footprint in stone, a fossilized skeleton. They are shaped like the original, but they aren’t it.
But I’m a sucker for a lady in distress. I always have been. It’s a weak point in my character, a streak of chivalry a mile wide and twice as deep. I saw the hurt and the loneliness on the ghost-Agatha’s face, and felt it strike a sympathetic chord in me. I let my arm go still again. Perhaps, if I was lucky, I could talk her away. Ghosts are like that. Confront them with the reality of their situation, and they dissolve.
“I’m sorry, Agatha,” I said. “But you aren’t who you think you are. You’re a ghost. A reflection. The true Agatha Hagglethorn died more than a century ago.”
“N-no,” she said, her voice shaking. “That’s not true.”
“It is true,” I said. “She died on the same night as her husband and child.”
“No,” the spirit moaned, her eyes closing. “No, no, no, no. I don’t want to hear this.” She started singing to herself again, low and desperate—no enchantment to it this time, no unconscious act of destruction. But the infant girl still hadn’t inhaled, and her lips were turning blue.
“Listen to me, Agatha,” I said, forcing more of my will into my voice, lacing it with magic so that the ghost could hear me. “I know about you. You died. You remember. Your husband beat you. You were terrified that he would beat your daughter. And when she started crying, you covered her mouth with your hand.” I felt like such a bastard to be going over the woman’s past so coldly. Ghost or not, the pain on her face was real.
“I didn’t,” Agatha wailed. “I didn’t hurt her.”
“You didn’t mean to hurt her,” I said, drawing on the information Bob had provided. “But he was drunk and you were terrified, and when you looked down she was gone. Isn’t that right?” I licked my lips, and looked at the infant girl again. If I didn’t get this done quickly, she’d die. It was eerie, how still she was, like a little rubber doll.
Something, some spark of memory caught a flame in the ghost’s eyes. “I remember,” she hissed. “The axe. The axe, the axe, the axe.” The proportions of the ghost’s face changed, stretched, became more bony, more slender. “I took my axe, my axe, my axe and gave my Benson twenty whacks.” The spirit grew, expanding, and a ghostly wind rustled through the room, emanating from the ghost, and rife with the smell of iron and blood.
“Oh, crap,” I muttered, and gathered myself to make a dash for the girl.
“My angel gone,” screamed the ghost. “Benson gone. And then the hand, the hand that killed them both.” She lifted the stump of her arm into the air. “Gone, gone, gone!” She threw back her head and screamed, and it came out as a deafening, bestial roar that rattled the nursery walls.
I threw myself forward, toward the breathless child, and as I did the rest of the infants burst into terrified wails. I reached the child and smacked her little upturned baby butt. She blinked her eyes open in sudden shock, drew in a breath, and joined the rest of her nursery mates in crying.
“No,” Agatha screamed, “no, no, no! He’ll hear you! He’ll hear you!” The stump of her left arm flashed out toward me, and I felt the impact both against my body and against my soul, as though she had driven a chip of ice deep into my chest. The power of the blow flung me back against a wall like a toy, hard enough to send my staff and rod clattering to the floor. By some miracle or other, I kept hold of my sack of ghost dust, but my head vibrated like a hammer-struck bell, and cold shivers racked my body in rapid succession.
“Michael,” I wheezed, as loudly as I could, but already I could hear doors being thrown open, heavy work boots pounding toward me. I struggled to my feet and shook my head to clear it. The wind rose to gale force, sending cribs skittering around the room on their little wheels, tearing at my eyes so that I had to shield them with one hand. Dammit. The dust would be useless in such a gale.
“Hush little baby, hush little baby, hush little baby.” Agatha’s ghost bowed over the infant girl’s cradle again, and thrust the stump of her left arm down and into the mouth of the child, her translucent flesh passing seamlessly into the infant’s skin. The child jerked and stopped breathing, though she still attempted to cry.
I shouted a wordless challenge and charged the spirit. If I could not cast the dust upon her from across the room, I could thrust the leather bag into her ghostly flesh and pin her into place from within—agonizing, but undoubtedly effective.
Agatha’s head whipped toward me as I came, and she jerked away from the child with a snarl. Her hair had come free in the gale and spread about her face in a ferocious mane well suited to the feral features that had replaced her gentle expression. She drew back her left hand, and there suddenly appeared, floating just above the stump, a short, heavy-headed hatchet. She shrieked and brought the hatchet down on me.
Ghostly steel chimed on true iron, and Amoracchius’s light flared bright-white. Michael slid his feet into position on the floor, gritting his teeth with effort, and kept the spirit-weapon from touching my flesh.
“Dresden,” he called. “The dust!”
I fought my way forward, through the wind, shoved my fist into Agatha’s weapon-arm, and shook loose some of the ghost dust from the leather sack.
Upon contact with her immaterial flesh, the ghost dust flared into blazing motes of scarlet light. Agatha screamed and jerked back, but her arm remained in place as firmly as if it had been set in concrete.
“Benson!” Agatha shrieked. “Benson! Hush little baby!” And then she simply tore herself away from her arm at the shoulder, leaving her spirit flesh behind, and vanished. The arm and hatchet collapsed to the floor in a sudden spatter of clear, semifluid gelatin, the remnants of spirit-flesh when the spirit was gone, ectoplasm that would swiftly evaporate.
The gale died, though the lights continued to flicker. My blue-white wizard light, and the lambent glow of Michael’s sword were the only reliable sources of illumination in the room. My ears shrieked with the sudden lack of sound, though the dozen or so babies, in their cribs, continued a chorus of steady, terrified little wails.
“Are the children all right?” Michael asked. “Where did it go?”
“I think so. The ghost must have crossed over,” I guessed. “She knew she’d had it.”
Michael turned in a slow circle, sword still held at the ready. “It’s gone, then?”
I shook my head, scanning the room. “I don’t think so,” I responded, and bent over the crib of the infant girl who had nearly been smothered. The name on her wrist bracelet read Alison Ann Summers. I stroked her little cheek, and she turned her mouth toward my finger, baby lips fastening on my fingertip, cries dying.
“Take your finger out of her mouth,” Michael chided. “It’s dirty. What happens now?”
“I’ll ward the room,” I said. “And then we’ll get out of here before the police show up and arres—”
Alison Ann jerked and stopped breathing. Her tiny arms and legs stiffened. I felt something cold pass over her, heard the distant drone of a mad lullaby.
Hush little baby . . .
“Michael,” I cried. “She’s still here. The ghost, she’s reaching here from the Nevernever.”
“Christ preserve,” Michael swore. “Harry, we have to step over.”
My heart skipped a beat at the very thought. “No,” I said. “No way. This is a big spook, Michael. I’m not going to go onto her home ground naked and offer to go two out of three.”
“We don’t have a choice,” Michael snapped. “Look.”
I looked. The infants were falling silent, one by one, little cries abruptly smothered in mid-breath.
Hush little baby . . .
“Michael, she’ll tear us apart. And even if she doesn’t, my godmother will.”
Michael shook his head, scowling. “No, by God. I won’t let that happen.” He turned his gaze on me, piercing. “And neither will you, Harry Dresden. There is too much good in your heart to let these children die.”
I returned his stare, uncertain. Michael had insisted that I look him in the eyes on our first meeting. When a wizard looks you in the eyes, it’s serious. He can see inside of you, all of your dark secrets and hidden fears of your soul—and you see his in return. Michael’s soul had made me weep. I wished that my soul would look like his had to me. But I was pretty damn sure that it didn’t.
Silence fell. All the little babies hushed.
I closed the sack of ghost dust and put it away in my pocket. It wouldn’t do me any good in the Nevernever.
I turned toward my fallen rod and staff, thrust out my hand, and spat, “Ventas servitas.” The air stirred, and then flung staff and rod into my open hands before dying away again. “All right,” I said. “I’m tearing open a window that will give us five minutes. Hopefully, my godmother won’t have time to find me. Anything beyond that and we’re going to be dead already or back here, in my case.”
“You have a good heart, Harry Dresden,” Michael said, a fierce grin stretching his mouth. He stepped closer to my side. “God will smile on this choice.”
“Yeah. Ask Him not to Sodom and Gomorrah my apartment, and we’ll be even.”
Michael gave me a disappointed glance. I shot him a testy glare. He clamped a hand onto my shoulder and held on.
Then I reached out, caught hold of reality in my fingertips, and with an effort of will and a whispered, “Aparturum,” tore a hole between this world and the next.
Even days that culminate in a grand battle against an insane ghost and a trip across the border between this world and the spirit realm usually start out pretty normally. This one, for example, started off with breakfast and then work at the office.
My office is in a building in midtown Chicago. It’s an older building, and not in the best of shape, especially since there was that problem with the elevator last year. I don’t care what anyone says, that wasn’t my fault. When a giant scorpion the size of an Irish wolfhound is tearing its way through the roof of your elevator car, you get real willing to take desperate measures.
Anyway, my office is small—one room, but on the corner, with a couple of windows. The sign on the door reads, simply, HARRY DRESDEN, WIZARD. Just inside the door is a table, covered with pamphlets with titles like: Magic and You, and Why Witches Don’t Sink Any Faster Than Anyone Else—a Wizard’s Perspective. I wrote most of them. I think it’s important for we practitioners of the Art to keep up a good public image. Anything to avoid another Inquisition.
Behind the table is a sink, counter, and an old coffee machine. My desk faces the door, and a couple of comfortable chairs sit across from it. The air-conditioning rattles, the ceiling fan squeaks on every revolution, and the scent of coffee is soaked into the carpet and the walls.
I shambled in, put coffee on, and sorted through the mail while the coffee percolated. A thank you letter from the Campbells, for chasing a spook out of their house. Junk mail. And, thank goodness, a check from the city for my last batch of work for the Chicago P.D. That had been a nasty case, all in all. Demon summoning, human sacrifice, black magic—the works.
I got my coffee and resolved to call Michael to offer to split my earnings with him—even though the legwork had been all mine, he and Amoracchius had come in on the finale. I’d handled the sorcerer, he’d dealt with the demon, and the good guys won the day. I’d turned in my logs and at fifty bucks an hour had netted myself a neat two grand. Michael would refuse the money (he always did) but it seemed polite to make the offer; especially given how much time we’d been spending together recently, in an attempt to track down the source of all the ghostly happenings in the city.
The phone rang before I could pick it up to call Michael. “Harry Dresden,” I answered.
“Hello there, Mr. Dresden,” said a warm, feminine voice. “I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time.”
I kicked back in my chair, and felt a smile spreading over my face. “Why, Miss Rodriguez, isn’t it? Aren’t you that nosy reporter from the Arcane? That useless rag that publishes stories about witches and ghosts and Bigfoot?”
“Plus Elvis,” she assured me. “Don’t forget the King. And I’m syndicated now. Publications of questionable reputation all over the world carry my column.”
I laughed. “How are you today?”
Susan’s voice turned wry. “Well, my boyfriend stood me up last night, but other than that . . .”
I winced a little. “Yeah, I know. Sorry about that. Look, Bob found a tip for me that just couldn’t wait.”
“Ahem,” she said, in her polite, professional voice. “I’m not calling you to talk about my personal life, Mr. Dresden. This is a business call.”
I felt my smile returning. Susan was absolutely one in a million, to put up with me. “Oh, beg pardon, Miss Rodriguez. Pray continue.”
“Well. I was thinking that there were rumors of some more ghostly activity in the old town last night. I thought you might be willing to share a few details with the Arcane.”
“Mmmm. That might not be wholly professional of me. I keep my business confidential.”
“Mr. Dresden,” she said. “I would as soon not resort to desperate measures.”
“Why, Miss Rodriguez.” I grinned. “Are you a desperate woman?”
I could almost see the way she arched one eyebrow. “Mr. Dresden. I don’t want to threaten you. But you must understand that I am well acquainted with a certain young lady of your company—and that I could see to it that things became very awkward between you.”
“I see. But if I shared the story with you—”
“Gave me an exclusive, Mr. Dresden.”
“An exclusive,” I amended, “then you might see your way clear to avoiding causing problems for me?”
“I’d even put in a good word with her,” Susan said, her voice cheerful, then dropping into a lower, smokier register. “Who knows. You might get lucky.”
I thought about it for a minute. The ghost Michael and I had nailed last night had been a big, bestial thing lurking in the basement of the University of Chicago library. I didn’t have to mention the names of any people involved, and while the university wouldn’t like it, I doubted it would be seriously hurt by appearing in a magazine that most people bought along with every other tabloid in the supermarket checkout lines. Besides which, just the thought of Susan’s caramel skin and soft, dark hair under my hands . . . Yum. “That’s an offer I can hardly refuse,” I told her. “Do you have a pen?”
She did, and I spent the next ten minutes telling her the details. She took them down with a number of sharp, concise questions, and had the whole story out of me in less time than I would have believed. She really was a good reporter, I thought. It was almost a shame that she was spending her time reporting the supernatural, which people had been refusing to believe in for centuries.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Dresden,” she said, after she squeezed the last drops of information out of me. “I hope things go well between you and the young lady tonight. At your place. At nine.”
“Maybe the young lady would like to discuss the possibilities with me,” I drawled.
She let out a throaty laugh. “Maybe she would,” Susan agreed. “But this is a business call.”
I laughed. “You’re terrible, Susan. You never give up, do you?”
“Never, ever,” she said.
“Would you really have been mad at me if I hadn’t told you?”
“Harry,” she said. “You stood me up last night without a word. I don’t usually stand for that kind of treatment from any man. If you hadn’t had a good story for me, I was going to think that you were out horsing around with your friends.”
“Yeah, that Michael.” I chuckled. “He’s a real party animal.”
“You’re going to have to give me the story on him sometime. Have you come any closer to working out what’s going on with the ghosts? Did you look into the seasonal angle?”
I sighed, closing my eyes. “No, and yes. I still can’t figure why the ghosts seem to be freaking out all at once—and we haven’t been able to get any of them to hold still long enough for me to get a good look at them. I’ve got a new recipe to try out tonight—maybe that will do it. But Bob is sure it isn’t a Halloweeny kind of problem. I mean, we didn’t have any ghosts last year.”
“No. We had werewolves.”
“Different situation entirely,” I said. “I’ve got Bob working overtime to keep an eye on the spirit world for any more activity. If anything else is about to jump, we’ll know it.”
“All right,” she said. She hesitated for a moment and then said, “Harry. I—”
I waited, but when she stalled I asked, “What?”
“I, uh . . . I just want to be sure that you’re all right.”
I had the distinct impression that she had been going to say something else, but I didn’t push. “Tired,” I said. “A couple of bruises from slipping on some ectoplasm and falling into a card catalog. But I’m fine.”
She laughed. “That creates a certain image. Tonight then?”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
She made a pleased little sound with more than a hint of sexuality in it, and let that be her goodbye.
The day went fairly quickly, with a bunch of the usual business. I whipped up a spell to find a lost wedding ring, and turned down a customer who wanted me to put a love spell on his mistress. (My ad in the Yellow Pages specifically reads “No love potions,” but for some reason people always think that their case is special.) I went to the bank, referred a caller to a private detective I knew, and met with a fledgling pyromancer in an attempt to teach him to stop igniting his cat accidentally.
I was just closing down the office when I heard someone come out of the elevator and start walking down the hallway toward me. The steps were heavy, as though from boots, and rushed.
“Mr. Dresden?” asked a young woman’s voice. “Are you Harry Dresden?”
“Yes,” I said, locking the office door. “But I’m just leaving. Maybe we can set up an appointment for tomorrow.”
The footsteps stopped a few feet away from me. “Please, Mr. Dresden. I’ve got to talk to you. Only you can help me.”
Excerpted from "Grave Peril"
Copyright © 2001 Jim Butcher.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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