Dead Beat Chapter 2

 

The dog and I went to my grave.

Graceland Cemetery is famous. You can look it up in just about any Chicago tour book—or God knows, probably on the internet. It’s the largest cemetery in town, and one of the oldest. There are walls, substantial ones, all the way around, and it has far more than its share of ghost stories and attendant shades. The graves inside range from simple plots with simple headstones to life-sized replicas of Greek temples, Egyptian obelisks, mammoth statues—even a pyramid. It’s the Las Vegas of boneyards, and my grave is in it.

The cemetery isn’t open after dark. Most aren’t, and there’s a reason for it. Everybody knows the reason, and nobody talks about it. It isn’t because there are dead people in there. It’s because there are not-quite dead people in there. Ghosts and shadows linger in graveyards more than anywhere else, especially in the older cities of the country, where the oldest, biggest cemeteries are right there in the middle of town. That’s why people build walls around graveyards, even if they’re only two feet high—not to keep people out, but to keep other things in. Walls can have a kind of power in the spirit world, and the walls around graveyards are almost always filled with the unspoken intent of keeping the living and the un-living seated at different sections of the community dinner table.

The gates were locked, and there was an attendant in a small building too solid to be called a shack, and too small to be called anything else. But I’d been there a few times, and I knew several ways to get in and out after dark if need be. There was a portion of the fence in the northeast corner where a road construction crew just outside had left a large mound of gravel, and it sloped far enough up the wall that even a man with one good hand and a large and ungainly dog could reach the top.

We went in, Mouse and I. Mouse might have been large, but he was barely more than a puppy, and he still had paws that looked too big for his lean frame. The dog had been built on the scale of those statues outside Chinese restaurants, though—broad chested and powerful, with that same mountainous strength built into his muzzle. His coat was a dark and almost uniform grey, marked on the tips of his fuzzy ears, his tail, and his lower legs with solid black. He looked a little gangly and clumsy now, but after a few more months of adding on muscle, he was going to be a real monster. And damned if I minded the company of my own personal monster going to meet a vampire over my grave.

I found it, not far from a rather famous grave of a little girl named Inez, who had died a century before. The little girl’s grave had a mounting on it, and in the mountain resided a statue. I’d seen it often, and it looked mostly like Carroll’s original Alice—a cherub in a prim and proper Victorian dress. Supposedly, the child’s ghost would occasionally animate the statue, and run and play among the graves and the neighborhoods near the graveyard. I’d never seen her, myself.

But hey. The statue was missing.

My grave is one of the more humble ones there. It’s standing open, too—the vampire noble who had bought it for me had set it up to be that way. She’d gotten me a coffin on permanent standby, too, sort of like the President gets Air Force One, only a little more morbid. Dead Force One.

My headstone is simple white marble, a vertical stone, but it’s engraved in bold letters inlaid with gold. HARRY DRESDEN. Then a gold-inlaid pentacle, a five pointed star surrounded by a circle—the symbol of the forces of magic contained within mortal will. Underneath it are more letters: HE DIED DOING THE RIGHT THING.

It’s a sobering sort of place to visit.

I mean, we’re all going to die. We know that on an intellectual level. We figure it out sometime when we’re still fairly young, and it scares us so badly that we convince ourselves we’re immortal for more than a decade afterward.

Death isn’t something anyone likes to think about, but the hard, cold fact is that you can’t get out of it. No matter what you do, how much you exercise, how religiously you diet, or meditate, or pray, or how much money you donate to your church, there is a single hard, cold fact that faces everyone on earth. One day, it’s going to be over. One day, the sun will rise, the world will turn, people will go about their daily routine—only you won’t be in it. You’ll be still. And cold.

And despite every religious faith, the testimony of near-death eyewitnesses, and the imaginations of storytellers throughout history, death remains the ultimate mystery. No one truly, definitively knows what happens after. And that’s assuming there is an after. We all go there blind to whatever is out there in the darkness beyond.

Death.

You can’t escape it.

You.

Will.

Die.

That’s a bitter, hideously concrete fact to endure—but believe me, you get it in a whole new range of color and texture when you face it standing over your own open grave.

I stood there among silent headstones and memorials both sober and outrageous, and the late October moon shone down on me. It was too cold for crickets, but the sound of traffic, sirens, car alarms, overhead jets and distant loud music, the pulse of Chicago, kept me company. Mist had risen off of Lake Michigan like it did a lot of nights, but tonight it had come on exceptionally thick, and tendrils of it drifted through the graves and around the stones. There was a silent, crackling tension in the air, a kind of muted energy that was common in late autumn. Halloween was almost here, and the borders between Chicago and the spirit world, the Nevernever, were at their weakest. I could sense the restless shades of the graveyard, most of them too feeble to ever manifest to mortal eyes, stirring in the roiling mist, tasting the energy-laden air.

Mouse sat beside me, ears forward and alert, his gaze shifting regularly, eyes focused, his attention obvious enough to make me think that he could literally see the things I could only vaguely feel. But whatever was out there, it didn’t bother him. He sat beside me in silence, content to leave his head under my gloved hand.

I wore my long leather duster, its mantle falling almost to my elbows, along with black fatigue pants, a sweater, and old combat boots. I carried my wizard’s staff with me in my right hand, a length of solid oak hand-carved with flowing runes and sigils all up and down its length. My mother’s silver pentacle hung by a chain around my neck. My scarred flesh could barely feel the silver bracelet hung with tiny shields on my left wrist, but it was there. Several cloves of garlic tied together in a big lump lay in my duster’s pocket, and brushed against my leg when I shifted my weight. The group of odd items would have looked innocuous enough to the casual eye, but they amounted to a magical arsenal that had seen me through plenty of trouble.

Mavra had given me her word of honor, but I had plenty of other enemies who would love to take a shot at me. I wasn’t going to make myself an easy target. But standing around in the haunted graveyard in the dark started to make me nervous, fast.

“Come on,” I muttered after a few minutes. “What’s taking her so long.”

Mouse let out a growl so low and quiet that I barely heard it—but I could feel the dog’s sudden tension and wariness quivering up through my maimed hand, shaking my arm to the elbow.

I gripped my staff, checking all around me. Mouse was doing much the same, until his dark eyes started tracking something I couldn’t see. Whatever it was, judging from Mouse’s gaze, it was getting closer. Then there was a quiet, rushing sound and Mouse crouched, nose pointed at my open grave, his teeth bared.

I stepped closer to my grave. Patches of mist flowed down into it from the green grounds. I muttered under my breath, took off my amulet, and pushed some of my will into the five-pointed star, causing it to glow with a low blue light. I draped the amulet over the fingers of my left hand and held it there for light, while I gripped the staff in my right, and peered down into the grave.

The mist inside it suddenly gathered, congealed, and flowed into the form of a withered corpse—that of a woman, emaciated and dried as though from years in the earth. The corpse wore a gown and kirtle, medieval style, the former green and the latter black. The fabric was simple cotton—modern manufacture, then, and not actual historic dress.

Mouse’s snarl bubbled up into a more audible, rumbling snarl.

The corpse sat up, opened milk-white eyes, and focused on me. It lifted a hand, in which it held a white lily, and held it toward me. Then the corpse spoke in a voice that was all rasp and whisper. “Wizard Dresden. A flower for your grave.”

“Mavra,” I said. “You’re late.”

“There was a headwind,” the vampire answered. She flicked her wrist, and the lily arched up out of the grave and landed on my headstone. She followed it out with a similar, uncannily smooth motion that reminded me of a spider in its eerie grace. I noted that she wore a sword and a dagger on a weapons belt at her waist. They looked old and worn, and I was betting that they were not of modern make. She came to a halt and faced me from across my grave, her face turned very slightly away from the blue light of my amulet, her cataract-eyes steady on Mouse. “You kept your hand? After those burns, I would have thought you would have amputated it.”

“It’s mine,” I said. “And it’s none of your business. And you’re wasting my time.”

The vampire’s corpse-lips stretched into a smile. Flakes of dead flesh fell down from the corners of her mouth. Brittle hair like dried straw had mostly been broken off to the length of a finger, but here and there longer strands the color of bread mold brushed the shoulders of her dress. “You’re allowing your mortality to make you impatient, Dresden. Surely you want to take this opportunity to discuss your assault on my scourge?”

“No.” I slipped my amulet on again and rested my hand on Mouse’s head. “I’m not here to socialize. You’ve got dirt on Murphy and you want something from me. Let’s have it.”

Her laugh was full of cobwebs and sandpaper. “I forget how young you are until I see you,” she said. “Life is fleeting, Dresden. If you insist on keeping yours, you ought to enjoy it.”

“Funny thing is, trading insults with an egotistical super-zombie just isn’t my idea of a good time,” I said. Mouse punctuated the sentence with another rumbling growl. I turned my shoulders from her, starting to turn away. “If that’s all you had in mind, I’m leaving.”

She laughed harder, and the sound of it spooked the hell out of me. Maybe it was the atmosphere, but something about it, the way that it simply lacked anything to do with the things that should motivate laughter. There was no warmth in it, no humanity, no kindness, no joy. It was like Mavra herself—it had the withered human shell, but underneath it was all something from a nightmare.

“Very well,” Mavra said. “We shall embrace brevity.”

I faced her again, wary. Something in her manner had changed, and it was setting off all my alarm bells.

“Find the Word of Kemmler,” she said. Then she turned, dark skirts flaring, one hand resting negligently upon her sword, and started to leave.

“Hey!” I choked. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” she said without turning.

“Wait a minute!” I said.

She paused.

“What the hell is the Word of Kemmler?”

“A trail.”

“Leading to what?” I asked.

“Power.”

“And you want it.”

“Yes.”

“And you want me to find it.”

“Yes. Alone. Tell no one of our agreement or what you are doing.”

I took in a slow breath. “What happens if I tell you to go to hell?”

Mavra silently lifted a single arm. There was a photo between two of her desiccated fingers, and even in the moonlight I could see that it was of Murphy.

“I’ll stop you,” I said. “And if I don’t, I’ll come after you. If you hurt her, I’ll kill you so hard your last ten victims will make miraculous recoveries.”

“I won’t have to touch her,” she said. “I’ll send the evidence to the police. The mortal authorities will prosecute her.”

“You can’t do that,” I said. “Wizards and vamplres may be at war, but we leave the mortals out of it. Once you get mortal authorities involved, the Council will do it as well. And then the Reds. You could escalate matters into global chaos.”

“If I intended to employ the mortal authorities against you, perhaps,” Mavra said. “You are White Council.”

My stomach twisted with sudden, sickened understanding. I was a member of the White Council of Wizardly, a solid citizen of the supernatural realms.

But Murphy wasn’t.

“The protector of the people,” Mavra all but purred. “The defender of the law will find herself a convicted murderer, and her only explanation would make her sound like a madwoman. She is prepared to die in battle, wizard. But I won’t merely kill her. I will unmake her. I will destroy the labor of her life and her heart.”

“You bitch,” I said.

“Of course.” She looked at me over her shoulder. “And unless you are prepared to unmake mortal civilization—or at least enough of it to impose your will upon it—there is nothing you can do to stop me.”

Fury exploded somewhere in my chest and rolled out through my body and thoughts in a red fire. Mouse rolled forward toward Mavra a step, shaking the mist around us with a rising growl, and I didn’t realize at first that he was following my lead. “Like hell there isn’t,” I snarled. “If I hadn’t agreed to a truce I would—”

Mavra’s corpse-yellow teeth appeared in a ghastly smile. “Kill me in my tracks, wizard, but it will do you no good. Unless I put a halt to it, the pictures and other evidence will be sent to the police. And I will do so only once I am satisfied with your retrieval of the Word of Kemmler. Find it. Bring it to me before three midnights hence, and I will turn over the evidence to you. You have my word.”

She dropped the photo of Murphy, and some kind of purple, nauseating light played over it for a second as it fell to the ground. There was the acrid smell of scorched chemical.

When I looked back up at Mavra there was no one there.

I walked slowly over to the fallen photo, struggling to slap my anger aside quickly enough to reach out with my supernatural senses. I didn’t feel any of Mavra’s presence anywhere near me, and over the next several seconds, my dog’s growls died down to low, wary sounds of uncertainty—and then to silence. While I wasn’t quite certain of the all the details, Mouse wasn’t your average dog, and if Mouse didn’t sense lurking bad guys, it was because there weren’t any bad guys lurking.

The vampire was gone.

I picked up the photo. Murphy’s picture had been marred. The dark energy had left scorch-marks in the shape of numbers over Murphy’s face. A phone number. Cute.

My righteous fury kept on fading, and I missed it. Once it was gone, there was only going to be sick worry and fear left in its place.

If I didn’t work for one of the worst of the bad guys I’ve ever dealt with, Murphy would get hung out to dry.

Said bad guy was after power—and was on a deadline to boot. If Mavra needed something that soon, it meant that some kind of power struggle was about to go down. And three midnights hence meant Halloween night. Aside from ruining my birthday, it meant that black magic was going to be brought into play sometime soon, and at this time of year that could only mean one thing.

Necromancy.

I stood there in the boneyard, staring down at my grave, and started shivering. Partly from the cold.

I felt very alone.

Mouse exhaled a breath that was not quite a whimper of distress, and leaned against me.

“Come on, boy,” I told him. “Let’s get you home. No sense in more than one of us getting involved with this.”

 Posted by at 8:07 pm