The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.
My boots squeaked and squealed on the tile floor as I sprinted around a corner and toward the exit doors to the abandoned school building on the southwest edge of Chicagoland. Distant streetlights provided the only light in the dusty hall, and left huge swaths of blackness crouching in the old classroom doors.
I carried an elaborately carved wooden box about the size of a laundry basket in my arms, and its weight made my shoulders burn with effort. I’d been shot in both of them at one time or another, and the muscle burn quickly started changing into deep, aching stabs. The damned box was heavy, not even considering its contents.
Inside the box, a bunch of flop-eared grey and black puppies whimpered and whined, jostled back and forth as I ran. One of the puppies, his ear already notched where some kind of doggie misadventure had marked him, was either more brave or more stupid than his litter mates. He scrambled around until he got his paws onto the lip of the box, and set up a painfully high-pitched barking full of squeaky snarls, big dark eyes focused behind me.
I ran faster, my knee length black leather duster swishing against my legs. I heard a rustling, hissing sound and juked left as best I could. A ball of some kind of noxious-smelling substance that looked like tar went zipping past me, engulfed in yellow-white flame. It hit the floor several yards beyond me, and promptly exploded into a little puddle of hungry fire.
I tried to avoid it, but my boots had evidently been made for walking, not sprinting on dusty tile. They slid out from under me and I fell. I controlled it as much as I could, and wound up sliding on my rear, my back to the fire. It got hot for a second, but the wards I’d woven over my duster kept it from burning me.
Another flaming glob crackled toward me, and I barely turned in time. The substance, whatever the hell it was, clung like napalm to what it hit. There were a row of metal lockers further back in the school that had been literally burned to slag.
The goop hit my left shoulder blade and slid off the protective spells on my mantled coat, spattering the wall beside me. I flinched nonetheless, lost my balance and fumbled the box. Fat little puppies tumbled onto the floor with a chorus of whimpers and cries for help.
I checked behind me.
The guardian demons looked like demented purple chimpanzees, except for the raven-black wings sprouting from their shoulders. There were three of them that had escaped my carefully crafted paralysis spell, and they were hot on my tail, bounding down the halls in long leaps assisted by their black feathered wings.
As I watched, one of them reached down between its crooked legs and . . . Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but it gathered up the kind of ammunition primates in zoos traditionally rely upon. The monkey-demon hurled it with a chittering scream, and it combusted on its way to me. I had to duck before the noxious ball of incendiary goop smacked into my nose.
I grabbed puppies and scooped them into the box. I got up to run. Behind me, the demon monkeys burst into fresh howls.
Squeaky barks behind me made me look back. The little notch-eared puppy had planted his clumsy paws solidly on the floor, and was barking defiantly at the oncoming demon chimps.
“Dammit,” I cursed and reversed course. The lead monkey swooped down at the puppy. I made like a ballplayer, slid in feet first, and planted the heel of my boot squarely on the end of the demon’s nose. I’m not heavily built, but I’m most of a head taller than six feet, and no one ever thought I was a lightweight. I kicked the demon hard enough to make it screech and veer off. It slammed into a metal locker, and left a dent six inches deep.
“Stupid little fuzzbucket,” I muttered, and recovered the puppy. “This is why I have a cat.” I ran for the box, while the puppy kept up its tirade of ferocious, squeaking snarls. I pitched him into the box without ceremony, ducked two more flaming blobs, and started coughing on the smoke already filling the building. Light was growing back where I’d come from, as the demons’ flaming missiles chewed into the old walls and floor, spreading rapidly.
I ran for the front doors of the old building, slamming the opening bar with my hip and barely slowing down. But then a sudden weight hit my back and something pulled viciously at my hair. The chimp demon started biting at my neck and ear. It hurt. I tried to spin and throw it off me, but it had a good hold. The effort, though, showed me a second demon heading for my face, and I had to duck to avoid a collision.
I let go of the box and reached for the demon on my back. It howled and bit my hand. Snarling and angry, I turned around and threw my back at the nearest wall. The monkey demon evidently knew that tactic. It flipped off of my shoulders at the last second, and I slammed the base of my skull hard against a row of metal lockers.
A burst of stars blinded me for a second, and by the time my vision cleared, I saw two of the demons diving toward the box of puppies. They both hurled searing blobs at the wooden box, splattering it with flame.
There was an old fire extinguisher on the wall, and I grabbed it. My monkey attacker came swooping back at me. I rammed the end of the extinguisher into its nose, knocking it down, then reversed my grip on the extinguisher and sprayed a cloud of dusty white chemical at the carved box. I got the fire put out, but for good measure, I unloaded the thing into the other two demon’s faces, creating a thick cloud of dust.
I grabbed the box and hauled it out the door, and then slammed the school doors shut behind me.
There were a couple of thumps from the other side of the doors, and then silence.
Panting, I looked down at the box of whimpering puppies. A bunch of wet black noses and eyes looked back up at me from under a white dusting of extinguishing chemical.
“Hell’s bells,” I panted at them. “You guys are lucky Brother Wang wants you back so much. If he hadn’t paid half up front, I’d make you carry me.”
A bunch of little tails wagged hopefully.
“Stupid dogs,” I growled. I hauled the box into my arms again and started shlepping it toward the old school’s parking lot.
I was about halfway there when something ripped the steel doors of the school inward, against the swing of their hinges. A low, loud bellow erupted from inside the building and then the Kong-size version of the chimp demons came stomping out of the doorway.
It was purple. It was winged. And it looked really pissed off. At least eight feet tall, it had to weigh four or five times what I did. As I stared at, two little monkey demons flew directly at demon Kong and were simply absorbed by the bigger demon’s bulk upon impact. Kong gained another eighty pounds or so and got a bit bulkier. Not so much monkey Kong, then, as Monkey Voltron. The original crowd of guardian demons must have escaped my spell with that combining maneuver, pooling all of their energy into a single vessel and using the greater strength provided by density to power through my binding.
Kongtron spread wings as wide as a small airplane’s and leapt at me with a completely unfair amount of grace. Being a professional investigator, as well as a professional wizard, I’d seen slobbering beasties before. Over the course of many encounters and many years, I have successfully developed a standard operating procedure for dealing with big, nasty monsters.
I ran away.
The parking lot and the Blue Beetle, my beat up old Volkswagen, were only thirty or forty yards off, and I can really move when I’m feeling motivated. Kong bellowed. I found it motivational.
There was the sound of a small explosion, then a blaze of red light brighter than the nearby street lamps. Another fireball hit the ground a few feet wide of me and detonated like a Civil War cannonball, gouging out a coffin sized crater in the pavement. The enormous demon roared and shot past me, banking to come around for another pass.
“Thomas!” I screamed. “Start the car!”
The passenger door opened, and an unwholesomely good-looking young man with dark hair, tight jeans and a leather jacket worn over a bare chest poked his head out and peered at me over the rims of round green-glassed spectacles. Then he looked up and behind me. His jaw dropped open.
“Start the freaking car!” I screamed.
Thomas nodded and dove back into the Beetle. It coughed and wheezed and shuddered to life. The surviving headlight flicked on and Thomas gunned the engine and headed for the street.
For a second, I thought he was going to leave me, but he slowed down enough that I caught up with him. Thomas leaned across the car and pushed the passenger door open. I grunted with effort and threw myself into the car. I almost lost the box, but managed to get it just before the notch-eared puppy pulled himself up to the rim, evidently determined to go back and do battle.
“What the hell is that?” Thomas screamed. His black hair, shoulder length, curling and glossy whipped around his face as the car gathered speed and drew the cool autumn wind through the open windows. His grey eyes were wide with apprehension. “What is that, Harry?”
“Just drive!” I shouted. I stuffed the box of whimpering puppies into the back seat, grabbed my blasting rod, and climbed out the open window so that I was sitting on the door, chest to the car’s roof. I twisted to bring the blasting rod in my right hand to bear on the demon. I drew in my will, my magic, and the end of the blasting rod began to glow with a cherry red light.
I was about to loose a strike against the demon when it swooped down with another fireball in its hand. It flung it at the car.
“Look out!” I screamed.
Thomas must have seen it coming in the mirror. The Beetle swerved wildly, and the fireball hit the asphalt, bursting into a roar of flame and concussion that broke windows on both sides of the street. Thomas dodged a car parked on the curb by roaring up onto the sidewalk, bounced gracelessly, and nearly went out of control. The bounce threw me from my perch on the closed door. I was wondering what the odds were against finding a soft place to land when I felt Thomas grab my ankle. He held onto me and drew me back into the car with a strength that would have been shocking to anyone who didn’t know that he wasn’t human.
He braced me with his hold on my leg, and as the huge demon dove down again, I pointed my blasting rod at him and snarled, “Fuego!”
A lance of white-hot fire streaked from the tip of my blasting rod into the late night air, illuminating the street like a flash of lightning. Bouncing along on the car like that, I expected to miss. But I beat the odds and the burst of flame took Kongtron right in the belly. It screamed and faltered, plummeting to earth. Thomas swerved back out onto the street again.
The demon started to get up. “Stop the car!” I screamed.
Thomas mashed down the breaks and I nearly got reduced to sidewalk pizza again. I hung on as hard as I could, but by the time I had my balance, the demon had hauled itself to its feet.
I growled in frustration, readied another blast, and aimed carefully.
“What are you doing?” Thomas shouted. “You lamed him, let’s run!”
“No,” I snapped back. “If we leave it here, it’s going to take things out on whoever it can find.”
“But it won’t be us!”
I tuned Thomas out and readied another strike, pouring my will into the blasting rod until wisps of smoke began emerging from the length of its surface.
Then I let Kong have it right between its black beady eyes.
The demon screamed. The fire hit it like a wrecking ball, right on the chin. The demon’s head exploded into a cloud of luminous purple vapor and sparkles of scarlet light, which I have to admit looked really neat.
Demons who come into the mortal world don’t have bodies as such. They create them, like a suit of clothes, and as long as the demon’s awareness inhabits the construct-body, it’s as good as real. Having its head blown up was too much damage for even the demon’s life energy to support. The body flopped around on the ground for a few seconds, and then the Kong-demon’s earthly form stopped moving and dissolved into a lumpy looking mass of translucent gelatin ectoplasm, matter from the Nevernever.
A surge of relief made me feel a little dizzy, and I slid bonelessly back into the Beetle.
“Allow me to reiterate,” Thomas panted a minute later. “What. The hell. Was that.”
I settled down onto the seat, breathing hard. I buckled up, and checked that puppies and their box were both intact. They were and I closed my eyes with a sigh. “Shen,” I said. “Chinese spirit creatures. Demons. Shapeshifters.”
“Christ, Dresden! You almost got me killed!”
“Don’t be a baby. You’re fine.”
Thomas frowned at me. “You at least could have told me!”
“I did tell you,” I said. “I told you at Mac’s that I’d give you a ride home, but that I had to run an errand first.”
Thomas scowled. “An errand is getting a tank of gas or picking up a carton of milk or something. It is not getting chased by flying purple pyromaniac gorillas hurling incendiary poo.” “You asked for the ride, man. Next time take the bus.”
He glared at me. “Where are we going?”
I waved vaguely at the back seat. “Returning stolen property to my client. He wants to get it back to Tibet, pronto.”
“Anything else you’re neglecting to tell me? Ninja wombats or something?”
“I wanted you to see how it feels,” I said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Come on, Thomas. You never go to Mac’s place to hang out and chum around. You’re wealthy, you’ve got connections, and you’re a freaking vampire. You didn’t need me to give you a ride home. You could have taken a cab, called for a limo, or talked some woman into taking you.”
Thomas’ scowl faded away, replaced by a careful, expressionless mask. “Oh? Then why am I here?”
I shrugged. “Doesn’t look like you showed up to bushwhack me. I guess you’re here to talk to me.”
“With an intellect like that you should be a private investigator or something, Harry.”
“You going to sit there insulting me, or are you going to talk?”
“Yeah,” Thomas said. “I need a favor.”
I snorted. “What favor? You do remember that technically, we’re at war, right? Wizards versus vampires? Ring any bells?”
“If you like, you can pretend that I’m employing subversive tactics as part of a fiendishly elaborate ruse meant to manipulate you,” Thomas said.
“Good,” I said. “Cause you’d hurt my feelings if I went to all the trouble of starting a war and you didn’t want to participate. I worry about these things.”
He grinned. “Aren’t you worried whose side I’m on?”
“No. You’re on Thomas’ side.”
He grinned. Thomas has the kind of whiter-than-white boyish grin that makes women’s panties spontaneously evaporate. “Granted. But I’ve done you some favors over the past couple of years.”
I frowned. He had, though I didn’t know why. “Yeah. So?”
“So now it’s my turn,” he said.
“Ah. What do you want?”
“To take a case. I want you to talk to an acquaintance of mine. He needs your help.”
“I don’t really have time,” I said. “I have to make a living.”
Thomas flicked a piece of monkey flambe off the back of his hand and out the window. “You call this living?”
“Jobs are a part of life. Maybe you’ve heard of the concept. It’s called work? See, what happens is that you suffer through doing annoying things until you get paid not enough money.”
“I’m not asking you to go pro bono. He’ll pay your fee.”
“Bah,” I muttered. “What’s he need help with?”
Thomas frowned. “He thinks someone is trying to kill him. I think he’s right.”
“There have been a couple of suspicious deaths around him.”
“He sent his driver, girl named Stacy Willis, out to the car with his bags. Willis put them in the back seat of the limo. Then she got stung to death by about twenty thousand bees who had somehow swarmed into the limo in the time it took her to walk up to the door and back.”
I nodded. “Can’t argue there. Gruesomely suspicious.”
“The second was his personal assistant, a young woman named Sheila Barks. She was hit by a runaway car, killed instantly.”
I shrugged. “Don’t mean to imply that I don’t believe you, but that doesn’t sound so odd.”
“She was waterskiing at the time.”
I blinked. “How the hell did that happen?”
“Bridge over the reservoir was the way I heard it. Car jumped the rail, landed right on her.”
“Ugh,” I said. “Any idea who is behind it?”
“None. Think it’s an entropy curse?” Thomas asked.
“If so, it’s a pretty sloppy curse. Let me think a minute.” I checked on the puppies. They had fallen together into one dusty lump and were sleeping. The notch-eared pup lay on top of the pile. He opened his eyes and gave me a sleepy little growl of warning. Then he went back to sleep.
Thomas glanced back at the box. “Cute little furballs. What’s their story?”
“Guardian dogs for some monastery in the Himalayas. Someone snatched them and came here. A couple of monks hired me to get them back.”
“What, they don’t have a dog pounds in Tibet?”
I shrugged. “They believe these dogs have a foo heritage.”
“Is that like epilepsy or something?”
I snorted and put my hand palm down out the window, waggling it back and forth to make an airfoil in the wind of the Beetle’s passage. “The monks think their great grandcestor was a divine spirit-animal. Celestial guardian spirit. Foo dog. They believe it makes the bloodline special.”
“How the hell should I know, man? I’m just the repo guy.”
“Some wizard you are.” Thomas fell quiet for a while, and the road whispered by. “Uh, do you mind if I ask what happened to your car?”
I looked around at the Beetle’s interior. It wasn’t Volkswagen standard any more. The seat covers were gone. So was the padding underneath. So was the interior carpet, and big chunks of the dashboard that had been made out of wood. There was a little vinyl left, and some of the plastic, and anything made out of metal, but everything else had been stripped completely away.
I’d done some makeshift repairs with several one by sixes, some hangar wire, some cheap padding from the camping section at Wal-Mart, and a lot of duct tape. It gave the car a real post-modern look: by which I meant that it looked like something from after a major nuclear exchange, a la “Road Warrior.”
On the other hand, the Beetle’s interior was very, very clean. My glasses are half full, dammit.
“Mold demons,” I said.
“Mold demons ate your car?”
“Sort of. They were called out of the decay in the car’s interior, and used anything organic they could find to make bodies for themselves.”
“You called them?”
“Oh, hell no. They were a present from the guest villain of the week a few months ago.”
“I hadn’t heard there was any action this summer.”
“I have a life, man. And my life isn’t all about feuding demigods and nations at war and solving a mystery before it kills me.”
“It’s also about mold demons?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Mold demons. Flaming monkey poo. Unholy jaundiced ”
“You can stop there,” Thomas said. “I get it.”
He fell silent again. Now that I wasn’t running and screaming and such, the car started to get uncomfortably cold. I rolled up the window.
“So,” he said. “Will you help me out?”
I sighed. “I shouldn’t even be in the same car with you. I’ve got enough problems with the White Council.”
“Gee, your own people don’t like you. Cry me a river.”
“Bite me,” I said. “What’s his name.”
“Arturo Genosa. He’s a motion picture producer, starting up his own company.”
“Is he clued in?”
“Sort of. He’s a normal, but he’s real superstitious.”
“Why did you want him to come to me?”
“He needs your help, Harry. If he doesn’t get it, I don’t think he’s going to live through the week.”
I frowned at Thomas. “Entropy curses are a nasty business even when they’re precise, much less when they’re that sloppy. I’d be risking my ass.”
“I’ve done as much for you.”
I frowned and thought about it for a moment. Then I said, “Yeah. You have.”
“Didn’t ask for any money at all, either.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll talk to him. No guarantees. But if I do take the case, you’re going to pay me to do it, on top of what this Arturo guy shells out.”
“This is how you return favors, is it.”
I shrugged. “If you don’t like it, get out of the car.”
He shook his head. “Fine. You’ll get double.”
“No,” I said. “Not money.”
He arched an eyebrow and glanced at me over the rims of his green fashion spectacles.
“I want to know why,” I said. “I want to know why you’ve been helping me. If I take the case, you come clean with me.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I did.”
“That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”
Thomas frowned, and we drove for several minutes in silence. “Okay,” he said then. “Deal.”
“Done,” I responded. “Shake on it.”
We did. His fingers felt very cold.