That left me with plan B. I glanced across the room to a small woodstove, half-covered by stacks of books. Building a wood fire right now seemed impossibly hard, so I bravely dropped the blanket and pulled on sweats as fast as I could.

Once dressed, I checked the head in the fridge. Still no decomposition. This whole investigation took the notion of “normal” undead behavior out back and blew its brains out with a sawed-off shotgun.

I walked the dog, sorted out the garbage, which took nearly twenty minutes, and tried the phone. Dial tone. No rhyme or reason to it, but one doesn’t look a gift phone in the mouth. I called to the Casino before the phone line decided to cut out on me. In ten seconds Ghastek came on the phone.

“I sincerely hope you have news, Kate. It’s been a long night and I was resting.”

This was likely the stupidest thing I could’ve done, but I had no idea who else to ask. “Are you familiar with the Dubal ritual?”

There was a tiny pause before he answered. “Of course. I’ve performed it on several occasions. However, I’m surprised you’re aware of it.”

He wouldn’t ask me how I knew about it, but he had to be dying of curiosity. Nobody except my guardian’s exwife knew I was able to pilot undead. The Dubal ritual required a great deal of raw power and a lot of knowledge. Ghastek viewed me as a thug. The idea that I was capable of it would never cross his mind and that’s the way I preferred it. “What would cause the ritual to fail?”

“Describe the manner of the failure.”

“Instead of the identity or location of the undead’s former navigator, the person performing the ritual saw themselves in the blood.”

Ghastek hummed to himself for a long breath. “The Dubal ritual lifts the imprint of the navigator’s mind from the undead’s brain. The blood streaming from the head isn’t central to the ritual; in fact, any dark surface will do. The dark background simply makes the image stand out more. If you stare for a few seconds at a lamp, then close your eyes or look at a dark object, you’ll see the glowing outline of the lamp. This phenomenon is called negative afterimage. The same principle applies here, except that the image is acquired from the mental footprint left on the brain of the undead.”

I filed that tidbit away for future reference. “Aha.” “There are two factors that could cause the practitioner to see themselves. One, too much time had passed or the undead had been unpiloted. How quickly was the ritual performed?”

“Within two hours of death.”

“Hmmm. Then the time lapse shouldn’t be an issue. I’ve been able to pull a reasonably decent image six hours after the termination of the undead. In this case we’re left with possibility number two: the navigator’s will was much stronger than that of the practitioner. If the navigator realized the undead was about to be terminated, he or she could shock it with a mental surge. We refer to it as searing. A seared brain is difficult to read. Lifting the image becomes a matter of raw power rather than skill. Is there a possibility that the navigator is much stronger than the practitioner?”

“Unlikely.” I had little skill, but in the raw power department, I would blow even Ghastek off the scale.

“What makes you say that?”

“I know how powerful the practitioner is.”

“So this is someone you know personally?”

Thin ice. Proceed with caution. “Yes.”

“Am I to understand that you were in possession of an undead head and you didn’t take it to me for identification?”

“Yes.” Oh boy.

Silence reigned. “There are four people in Atlanta, aside from the People’s personnel, capable of performing the Dubal ritual. I have their numbers in front of me. Of the four, Martina is the best, but she can’t match me in either finesse or power. Why would you use someone other than me?”

“I had my reasons.”

“I’m waiting to hear them.”

“I’d rather keep them to myself.”

“You disappoint me.”

I grimaced. “Why should you be any different?”

“Was it a vampire head?”

This wouldn’t go over well. “No.”

More silence. Finally he sighed. “Do you still have it?”

If I brought him the head, he’d lift my imprint from its mind. “It decomposed.”

Ghastek sighed again. “Kate, you had a unique undead specimen and you’ve denied me the opportunity to examine it. Instead, you’ve taken it to a hack, who’s obviously ignorant of the basic necromantic principles; otherwise we wouldn’t be engaged in this phone call. I trust you won’t make the same mistake in the future. Was there anything else?”

“No.”

A disconnect signal beeped in my ear.

I looked at the poodle. “I think I hurt his feelings.”

This petition was getting complicated in a hurry. On one side, the Steel Mary attacked the shapeshifters. On other side, undead mages tried to barbeque the Casino and the Guild. They didn’t seem connected, except that both the Steel Mary and the undead then attacked the Guild.

Maybe Roland had declared a free-for-all on the Pack and we were getting a flood of bounty hunters who thought they could take the shapeshifters on. But then the attack on the Casino made no sense.

The phone rang. I picked it up. “Kate Daniels.”

“It’s me,” Curran said. “I—”

I hung up.

The phone rang again. I unplugged it from the wall. Talking to Curran was beyond me at the moment.

WHEN I MADE IT INTO THE OFFICE, MOST OF THE coffee was already gone and what remained had cooked down to a syrup-thick brew that smelled toxic and tasted like poison. I got a mug anyway. I also stole a small yellow doughnut from the box of Duncan’s doughnuts in the rec room and fed it to the attack poodle in my office. He made a great production of it. First, he growled at the doughnut, just to show it who was boss. Then he nudged it with his nose. Then he licked it, until finally he snagged it into his mouth and chomped it with great pleasure, dropping crumbs all over the carpet. Watching him eat made me feel marginally better, but only just.

Mauro walked into my office, carrying a large paper box plastered with evidence tape. The poodle growled and snapped his teeth.

Mauro smiled. “He’s such a good doggie. So fierce.”

“He has a mad passion for garbage.”

“He probably lived on it for a while. Did you name him yet?” Mauro set the box on the table.


Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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