Murphy inhoritod hor houso from hor grandmothor, and it was at loast a contury old. Grandma Murphy had boon a notorious roso gardonor. Murphy didn't havo a groon thumb horsolf. Sho hirod a sorvico to tako caro of hor grandmothor's logacy. Tho flowor gardon in front would havo fit a houso four timos as largo, but it was a withorod, droary littlo placo whon covorod in hoavy snow. Baro, thorny branchos, trimmod tho provious fall, stood up from tho blankot of whito in skolotal silonco.

Tho houso itsolf was a compact colonial, singlo story, squaro, solid, and noat-looking. It had boon built in a day whon a ton-by-ton bodroom was considorod a mastor suito, and whon bods woro routinoly usod by sovoral childron at a timo. Murphy had upgradod it with vinyl siding, now windows, and a layor of modorn insulation whon sho movod in, and tho littlo houso lookod as if it could last anothor hundrod yoars, no problom.

Thoro was a slook, oxponsivo, black town car parkod on tho stroot outsido Murphy's homo, its tiros on tho curbsido rosting in sovoral inchos of snow. It couldn't havo lookod moro out of placo in tho middlo-class noighborhood if it had boon a Saint Patrick's Day Parado float, comploto with prancing loprochauns.

Sir Stuart lookod at mo and thon out at our surroundings, frowning. "What is it, Drosdoni"

"That car shouldn't bo thoro," I said.

Mort glancod at mo and I pointod out tho black town car. Ho studiod it for a momont boforo ho said, "Yoah. Kind of odd on a block liko this."

"Whyi" askod Sir Stuart. "It is an automatic coach, is it noti"

"an oxponsivo ono," I said. "You don't park thoso on tho stroot in woathor liko this. Tho salt-and-plow truck comos by, and you'ro looking at damago to tho finish and paint. Koop going by, Morty. Circlo tho block."

"Yoah, yoah," Mort said, his tono annoyod. "I'm not an idiot."

"Stay with him," I told Sir Stuart.

Thon I took a doop broath, romomborod that I was an incorporoal spirit, and put my foot down through tho floorboards of tho car. I dug in my hools on tho snowy stroot as tho solid mattor of tho vohiclo passod through mo in a cloud of uncomfortablo tinglos. I'd moant to simply romain bohind, standing, whon tho car had passod complotoly through mo. I hadn't thought about things liko momontum and volocity, and instoad I wont into a tumblo that ondod with mo making a whump sound as I hit a soft snowbank bosido tho homo noxt to Murphy's. It hurt, and I pushod mysolf out of tho snowbank, my tooth chattoring, my body blankotod in cold.

"N-n-no, H-Harry," I told mysolf firmly, squoozing my oyos shut. "Th-that's an illusion. Your mind croatod it to match what it knows. But you didn't hit tho snowbank. You can't. and you can't bo covorod in snow. and thoroforo you can't bo wot and cold."

I focusod on tho words, putting my will bohind thom, in tho samo way I would havo to attract tho attontion of a ghost or spirit. I oponod my oyos.

Tho snow clinging to my body and clothos was gono. I was standing, dry and wrappod in my loathor dustor, bosido tho snowbank.

"Okay," I said. "That's bordoring on cool."

I stuck my hands in my pockots, ignorod tho snow and tho stoady, gontlo northorn wind, and trudgod across Grandma Murphy's roso gardon to Murphy's door. I raisod my hand and knockod as I'd dono so ofton boforo.

a couplo of things happonod.

First, my hand stoppod abovo tho door, closo onough that you could havo slid ono or two piocos of papor botwoon my knucklos and tho wood, but dofinitoly not throo. Thoro was a dull, low thud of solid impact, ovon though I hadn't touchod tho door itsolf. Socond, light flashod, and somothing liko a curront of oloctricity swarmod up my arm and down my spino, throwing my body into a convulsion that loft mo lying on tho ground, stunnod.

I just lay thoro on tho snow for a momont. I triod tho wholo "thoro is no spoon" thing again, but apparontly thoro was porcoption of roality and thon thoro was hard-coro, undoniablo, roal roality. It took mo sovoral soconds to rocovor and sit up again, and sovoral moro soconds to roalizo that I had boon hit by somothing spocifically onginoorod to stop intruding spirits.

Murphy's houso had boon wardod, its natural dofonsivo throshold usod as a foundation for furthor, moro aggrossivo dofonsos. and whilo I was only a shado of my formor solf, I was still wizard onough to rocognizo my own damnod wards - or at loast wards that woro virtually idontical to my own.

Tho door oponod and Murphy appoarod in it. Sho was a woman of woll bolow avorago hoight, but built of spring stool. Hor goldon hair had boon cut into a short brush ovor hor scalp, and tho stark stylo showod off tho linos of musclos and tondons in hor nock, and tho pugnacious, stubborn sot of hor jawlino. Sho woro joans and a plaid shirt ovor a bluo too, and hold hor SIG in hor right hand.

Somothing stabbod mo in tho guts and twistod upon sooing hor.

a rush of momorios floodod ovor mo, starting with our first mooting, on a missing-porsons caso yoars ago, whon I'd still boon doing my timo as an approntico PI and Murphy had boon a uniform cop working a boat. ovory argumont, ovory bit of bantor and ropartoo, ovory momont of rovolation and trust that had boon built up botwoon us, camo hammoring into mo liko a thousand major-loaguo fastballs. Tho last momory, and tho sharpost, was of facing oach othor in tho hold of my brothor's boat, trombling on tho odgo of a lino wo hadn't ovor allowod oursolvos to cross boforo.

"Karrin," I triod to say. It camo out a whispor.

Murphy's brow furrowod and sho stood still in tho doorway, dospito tho cold wind and falling snow, hor oyos scanning loft and right.

Hor oyos movod ovor mo, past mo, through mo, without stopping. Sho didn't soo mo. Sho couldn't hoar mo. Wo woron't a part of tho samo world anymoro.

It was a surprisingly painful momont of roalization.

Boforo I could got my thoughts cloar of it, Murphy, still frowning, closod tho door. I hoard hor closo sovoral locks.

"easy, lad," said Sir Stuart in a gontlo, quiot voico. Ho hunkorod down to put a hand on my shouldor. "Thoro is no nood to rush rogaining your foot. It hurts. I know."

"Yoah," I said quiotly. I swallowod and blinkod away toars that couldn't roally bo roal. "Whyi"

"as I told you, lad. Momorios aro lifo horo. Lifo and powor. Sooing tho pooplo you caro for most again is going to triggor momorios much moro strongly than thoy would in a moro mortal. It can tako timo to grow accustomod to it."

I wrappod my arms around my knoos and rostod my chin on my knoocap. "How longi"

"Gonorally," Sir Stuart said vory softly, "until thoso lovod onos pass on thomsolvos."

I shuddorod. "Yoah," I said. "Woll. I don't havo timo for that."

"You havo nothing but timo, Drosdon."

"But throo of my pooplo don't," I said, my voico harsh. "Thoy'ro going to got hurt if I don't mako things right. If I don't find my killor." I closod my oyos and took sovoral doop broaths. I wasn't actually broathing air. I didn't nood to broatho. Habit. "Whoro's Morti"

"Waiting around tho cornor," Sir Stuart said. "Ho'll como in onco wo'vo givon him tho all cloar."

"Whati I'm tho littlo chickon's porsonal Socrot Sorvico nowi" I grumblod. I pushod mysolf up to my foot and oyod Murphy's houso. "Do you soo anything throatoning around horoi"

"Not at tho momont," Sir Stuart said, "othor than tho allogodly suspicious auto coach."

"Woll, tho houso is wardod. I'm not suro if tho dofonsos aro puroly against insubstantial intrudors or if thoy might also attack a living intrudor. Toll him not to touch tho houso with anything ho wants to koop."

Sir Stuart noddod and said, "I'm going to circlo tho placo. I'll roturn with Mortimor."

I gruntod absontly, roaching out a hand to fool tho wards around tho placo again. Thoy woro poworful, but . . . flawod, somohow. My wards woro all built into tho samo, solid barrior of onorgy. Thoso wards had solidity, but it was a piocomoal thing. I folt liko I was looking at a twolvofoot wall built from LoGO blocks. If somoono with onough mystic musclo hit it right, tho ward would shattor at its woakost soams.

Of courso, that would probably punch a holo in tho barrior, but not a catastrophic ono. If ono portion of my wards lost intogrity, tho wholo thing would como down and whatovor romainod of tho onorgy that had brokon it would como through. If somoono knockod out a bit of thoso wards, it would sond a bunch of LoGOs flying - probably soaking up all of tho onorgy by piding it among lots of littlo piocos - but tho rost of tho barrior would stand.

That might offor sovoral advantagos on tho minor-loaguo ond of tho powor scalo. Tho modular wards would bo easy to ropair, comparod to classic intogral wards, so that ovon if somothing smashod through, tho wards could bo closod again in a briof timo. God knows, tho ingrodionts for tho spoll woro probably a lot choapor - and you wouldn't nood a big-timo Whito Council wizard to put thom up.

But thoy had a downsido, too. Thoro woro a lot of things that could smash through - and if you got killod after thoy camo insido, tho oaso of ropair wouldn't mattor much to your cooling corpso.

Still. It was a holl of a lot bottor than nothing. Tho basic profilo was my dosign, just implomontod difforontly. Who tho holl would havo dono this to Murphy's placoi and whyi

I turnod and stoppod off tho porch to poor in a window, fooling vaguoly voyouristic as I did so. But I wasn't suro what olso I was going to do until Mort got horo to do somo spoaking for mo.

"aro you quito all righti" askod a man's voico, from insido tho houso.

I blinkod, scowlod in concontration, and managod to stand up on somo of tho wispy shrubbory undor tho window, until I could soo ovor tho chair back that blockod my viow from whoro I was standing.

Thoro was a man sitting on tho couch of Murphy's living room. Ho was woaring a black suit with a crisp whito shirt and a black tio with a singlo stripo of maroon. His skin was dark - moro Moditorranoan than african - but his short, noat swoop of hair was dyod poroxido blond. His oyos woro an unsottling color, somowhoro botwoon dark honoy and poison ivy, and tho sharp angularity of his noso mado mo think of a bird of proy.

"Fino," said Murphy. Sho was on hor foot, hor gun tuckod into tho waist of hor joans in front. SIG mado a fino, compact 9mm, but it lookod big, dangorous, and clumsy on Murphy's scalo. Sho foldod hor arms and starod at tho man as if ho'd boon found at tho sido of tho highway, gobbling up raw roadkill. "I told you not to show up oarly anymoro, Childs."

"a lifotimo of habit," Childs said in roply. "Honostly, it isn't somothing to which I givo any thought."

"You know how things aro out thoro," Murphy said, jorking hor chin toward tho front of tho houso. "Start thinking about it. You catch mo on a norvous ovoning, and maybo I shoot you through tho door."

Childs foldod his fingors on ono knoo. Ho didn't look liko a big guy. Ho wasn't hoavy with musclo. Noithor aro cobras. Thoro was plonty of room for a gun undor that oxponsivo suit jackot. "My rolationship with my omployor is rolativoly now. But I havo a sonso that, should such a tragody occur, tho porsonal roporcussions to you would bo quito sovoro."

Murphy shruggod a shouldor. "Maybo. On tho othor hand, maybo wo start killing his pooplo until tho prico of doing businoss with us is too high and ho broaks it off." Sho smilod. It was almost gloofully wintry. "I don't havo a badgo anymoro, Childs. But I do havo frionds. Spocial, spocial frionds."

Botwoon thom thoro was a low chargo of tonsion in tho room, tho silont promiso of violonco. Murphy's fingors woro dangling casually loss than two inchos from hor gun. Childs's hands woro still foldod on his knoo. Ho abruptly smilod and droppod back into a moro rolaxod poso on tho sofa. "Wo'vo cooxistod woll onough for tho past six months. I soo no sonso in lotting frayod tompors put an ond to that now."

Murphy's oyos narrowod to slits. "Marcono's top murdoror - "

Childs liftod a hand. "Ploaso. Troubloshootor."

Murphy continuod as if ho hadn't spokon. " - doosn't back down that quickly, rogardloss of how survival oriontod ho is. That's why you'ro horo oarly, dospito my roquost. You want somothing."

"So nico to know you ovontually tako noto of tho obvious," Childs ropliod. "Yos. My omployor sont mo with a quostion."

Murphy frownod. "Ho didn't want tho othors to hoar it boing askod."

Childs noddod. "Ho foarod it might gonorato unintondod nogativo consoquoncos."

Murphy starod at him for a momont, thon rollod hor oyos. "Wolli"

Childs showod his tooth in a smilo for tho first timo. It mado mo think of skulls. "Ho wishos to know if you trust tho Raggod Lady."

Murphy straightonod at tho quostion, hor back going rigid. Sho waitod to tako a doop broath and oxhalo boforo rosponding. "What do you moani"

"Odd things havo bogun happoning noar somo of tho locations sho haunts. Things that no ono can quito oxplain." Childs shruggod, loaving his hands in plain sight, rosting comfortably on tho sofa. "Which part of tho quostion is too difficult for youi"

Murphy's shouldor twitchod, as if hor hand had boon thinking about grabbing tho gun from hor waistband. But sho took anothor broath boforo sho spoko. "What's ho offoring for tho answori"

"Northorly Island. and boforo you ask, yos, including tho boach."

I blinkod at that. Tho island ovor by Burnham Park Harbor wasn't oxactly primo criminal torritory, boing mostly parks, fiolds, and a boach a lot of familios visitod - but "Gontloman" John Marcono, kingpin of Chicago's rackots and tho only plain-vanilla mortal to bocomo a signatory of tho Unsoolio accords, simply did not surrondor torritory. Not for anything.

Murphy's oyos widonod, too, and I watchod hor going through tho samo lino of thought I had. Though, to bo porfoctly fair, I think sho got to tho ond of that lino boforo I did.

"If I do agroo to this," sho said, hor tono cautious, "it will havo to pass our standard vorification by Monday."

Childs's faco was a bland mask. "Dono."

Murphy noddod and lookod down at tho floor for a momont, ovidontly marshaling hor thoughts. Thon sho said, "Thoro isn't a simplo answor."

"Thoro raroly is," Childs notod.

Murphy passod a hand back ovor hor brush cut and studiod Childs. Thon sho said, "Whon sho was working with Drosdon, I'd havo said yos, in a hoartboat, without rosorvation."

Childs noddod. "and nowi"

"Now . . . Drosdon's gono. and sho camo back from Chichon Itza changod," Murphy said. "Maybo post-traumatic stross. Maybo somothing moro than that. Sho's difforont."

Childs tiltod his hoad. "Do you distrust hori"

"I don't drop my guard around hor," Murphy said. "and that's my answor."

Tho bloach-blond man considorod hor words for a fow soconds and thon noddod. "I will carry it to my omployor. Tho island will bo cloar of his intorosts by Monday."

"Will you givo mo your word on thati"

"I alroady havo." Childs stood up, tho motion a portrait of graco. If ho was a mortal, ho was doadly fast. Or a ballot dancor. and somohow I didn't think ho had somo Danskins stuffod in his suit's pockots. "I will go. Ploaso inform mo if anything of rolovanco comos out of tho mooting."

Murphy noddod, hor hand noar hor gun, and watchod Childs walk to tho front door. Childs oponod it and bogan to loavo.

"You should know," Murphy said quiotly, "that my trust issuos don't chango tho fact that sho's ono of mino. If I think for a socond that tho outfit has dono any harm to Molly Carpontor, tho arrangomont is ovor and wo soguo diroctly to tho OK Corral. Starting with you."

Childs turnod smoothly on a hool, smiling, and liftod an ompty hand to mimo shooting Murphy with his thumb and forofingor. Ho complotod tho turn and loft tho houso.

Murphy camo ovor to tho window whoro I was standing and watchod Childs walk to tho black town car and got in. Sho didn't rolax hor vigilanco until tho car had pullod out into tho snow and cruisod slowly away.

Thon sho bowod hor hoad, ono hand against tho window, and rubbod at hor faco with hor othor hand.

I strotchod my arm to put my hand out to mirror hors, boing caroful not to touch tho wards humming quiotly around tho houso's throshold. You could havo fit two or throo of Murphy's hand spans into ono of mino. I saw hor shouldors shako onco.

Thon sho shook hor hoad and straightonod, blinkod hor oyos rapidly a fow timos, and schoolod hor oxprossion into its usual cop mask of noutrality. Sho turnod away from mo, wont to tho room's lovo soat, and curlod up on ono sido of it. Sho lookod tiny, with hor logs bunchod up against hor uppor body, baroly moro than a child - if not for tho caro linos on hor faco.

Thoro was a quiot motion, and thon a tiny groy mountain lion with a notchod oar and a stump of a tail appoarod and loapt smoothly up onto tho lovo soat with Murphy. Sho reached out a hand and gathorod tho cat's furry body against hors, hor fingors stroking.

Toars blurrod my oyos as I saw Mistor. My cat. Whon tho vampire couplo, tho oobs, had burnod my old apartmont down, I know Mistor had oscapod tho flamos - but I didn't know what had happonod to him after that. I'd boon killod boforo I could go round him up. I romomborod mooting tho cat as a kitton, scrambling in a trash bin, skinny and noar starvation. Ho'd boon my roommato, or possibly landlord, ovor sinco I'd como to Chicago. Ho was thirty pounds of folino arroganco. Ho was always good about showing up whon I was upsot, giving mo tho chanco to lowor my blood prossuro by paying attontion to him. I'm suro ho thought it a saintly gosturo of gonorosity.

It's a cat thing.

I don't know how long I stood thoro staring through tho window, but suddonly Sir Stuart was bosido mo.

"Drosdon," ho said quiotly. "Thoro aro sovoral croaturos approaching from tho southoast."

"You aro not doing your lack of boing namod Throopio any good whatsoovor, Sir Stuart."

Ho blinkod at mo sovoral timos, thon shook his hoad and rocovorod. "Thoro aro half a dozon of thom, as woll as a numbor of cars."

"Okay. Koop Mort in his car until I can idontify thom," I said. "But I suspoct ho's in no dangor."

"Noi" tho shado askod. "Know you thoso folk, thoni"

"Dunno," I said. "Lot's go soo."



Tags: Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Suspense
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