I started walking for my car, and beckoned Father Vincent to follow me. He did, and I walked fast enough to make him work to keep up with me. “You must understand,” he said, “that I must insist upon strict confidentiality if I am to divulge details of my problem to you.”
I frowned at him and said, “You think I’m a crackpot at best, or a charlatan at worst. So why would you want me to take your case?”
Not that I would turn him down. I wanted to take his case. Well, more accurately, I wanted to take his money. I wasn’t in the bad fiscal shape of the year before, but that only meant that I had to fend the creditors off with a baseball bat rather than a cattle prod.
“I am told you are the best investigator in the city for it,” Father Vincent said.
I arched an eyebrow at him. “You’ve got something supernatural going on?”
He rolled his eyes. “No, naturally not. I am not naive Mister Dresden. But I am told that you know more about the occult community than any private investigator in the city.”
“Oh,” I said. “That.”
I thought about it for a minute, and figured it was probably true. The occult community he had in mind was the usual new-age, crystal-gazing, tarot-turning, palm-reading crowd you see in any large city. Most of them were harmless, and many had at least a little ability at magic. Add in a dash of fang-shui artists, season liberally with Wiccans of a variety of flavors and sincerities, blend in a few modestly gifted practitioners who liked mixing religion with their magic, some followers of voodoo, a few Santerians and a sprinkling of Satanists, all garnished with a crowd of young people who liked to wear a lot of black, and you get what most folks think of as the ‘occult community.’
Of course, hiding in there you found the occasional sorcerer, necromancer, monster or demon. The real players, the nasty ones, regarded that crowd the same way a ten-year-old would a gingerbread amusement park. My mental early warning system set off an imaginary klaxon.
“Who referred you to me, padre?”
“Oh, a local priest,” Vincent said. He took a small notebook from his pocket, opened it, and read, “Father Forthill, of Saint Mary of the Angels.”
I blinked. Father Forthill didn’t see eye to eye with me on the whole religion thing, but he was a decent guy. A little stuffy, maybe, but I liked him–and I owed him for favors past. “You should have said that in the first place.”
“You’ll take the case?” Father Vincent asked, as we headed into the parking garage.
“I want to hear the details first, but if Forthill thinks I can help, I will.” I added, hastily, “My standard fees apply.”
“Naturally,” Father Vincent said. He toyed with the crucifix at his throat. “May I assume that you will spare me the magician rigamarole?”
“Wizard,” I said.
“There’s a difference?”
“Magicians do stage magic. Wizards do real magic.”
He sighed. “I don’t need an entertainer, Mister Dresden. Just an investigator.”
“And I don’t need you to believe me, padre. Just to pay me. We’ll get along fine.”
He gave me an uncertain look and said, “Ah.”
We reached my car, a battered old Volkswagen bug named the Blue Beetle. It has what some people would call ‘character’ and what I would call lots of mismatched replacement parts. The original car may have been blue, but now it had pieces of green, white and red VWs grafted onto it in place of the originals as they got damaged in one way or another. The hood had to be held down with a piece of hanger wire to keep it from flipping up when the car jounced, and the front bumper was still smashed out of shape from my last attempt at vehicular monsterslaughter. Maybe if Vincent’s job paid well, I’d be able to get it fixed.
Father Vincent blinked at the Beetle and asked, “What happened?”
“I hit trees.”
“You drove your car into a tree?”
“No. Trees, plural. And then a Dumpster.” I glanced at him self-consciously and added, “They were little trees.”
His uncertain look deepened to actual worry. “Ah.”
I unlocked my door. Not that I was worried about anyone stealing my car. I once had a car thief offer to get me something better for a sweetheart rate. “I guess you want to give me the details somewhere a little more private?”
Father Vincent nodded. “Yes, of course. If you could take me to my hotel, I have some photographs and–”
I heard the scuff of shoes on concrete in time for me to catch the gunman in my peripheral vision as he rose from between a pair of parked cars one row over. Dim lights gleamed on the gun, and I threw myself across the hood of the Beetle, away from him. I crashed into Father Vincent, who let out a squeak of startled surprise, and the pair of us tumbled to the ground as the man started shooting.
The gun didn’t split the air with thunder when it fired. Typically, guns do that. They’re a hell of a lot louder than anything most folks run into on a day to day basis. This gun didn’t roar, or bark, or even bang. It made a kind of loud noise. Maybe as loud as someone slamming an unabridged dictionary down on a table. The gunman was using a silencer.
One shot hit my car and caromed off the curve of the hood. Another went by my head as I struggled with Father Vincent, and a third shattered the safety glass of a ritzy sports car parked beside me.
“What’s happening?” Father Vincent stammered.
“Shut up,” I snarled. The gunman was moving, his feet scuffing on the concrete as he skirted around my car. I reached around the Beetle’s headlight and fumbled at the wire holding the hood down while the man came closer. It gave way and the hood wobbled up as I reached into the storage compartment.
I looked up in time to see a man, medium height and build, mid thirties, dark pants and jacket, lift a small-caliber pistol, its end heavy with a manufactured silencer. He lifted the gun, and it barked again, but he hadn’t taken time to aim at me. He wasn’t twenty feet away, but his next shot missed.
I drew the shotgun out of the car’s trunk and flicked off the safety as I chambered a round. The gunman’s eyes widened and he turned to run. He shot at me again on the way, shattering one of the Beetle’s headlights, and he kept shooting towards me as he skittered back the way he came.
I jerked back behind the car and kept my head down, trying to count his shots. He got to eleven or twelve and the gun went silent. I stood up, the shotgun already at my shoulder, and sighted down the barrel. The gunman ducked behind a concrete column and kept running.
“Dammit,” I hissed. “Get in the car.”
“But–” Father Vincent stammered.
“Get in the car!” I shouted. I got up, twisted the hangar wire on the hood back into place and got in. Vincent got in the passenger side and I shoved the shotgun at him. “Hold this.”
He fumbled with it, his eyes wide, as I brought the Beetle to life with a roar. Well. Not really a roar. A Volkswagen Bug doesn’t roar. But it sort of growled, and I mashed it into gear before the priest had managed to completely shut the door.
I headed for the parking garage’s exit, whipping around the ramps and turns.
“What are you doing?” Father Vincent demanded.
“He’s an outfit hitter,” I spat. “They’ll have the exit covered.”
We screeched around the final corner and towards the parking garage’s exit. I heard someone yelling in a breathless voice, and a couple of large and unfriendly-looking men in a car parked across the street were just getting out. One of them held a shotgun, and the other had a heavy-duty semiautomatic, maybe a Desert Eagle.
I didn’t recognize the thug with the shotgun, but Thug Number Three was an enormous man with reddish hair, no neck, and a cheap suit–Cujo Hendricks, right hand enforcer to the crimelord of Chicago, Gentleman Johnny Marcone.
I had to whip the Beetle up onto the sidewalk at the parking garage exit, to get around the security bar, and I mowed down some landscaped bushes on the way. I jounced over the curb and into the street, hauling the wheel to the right, and mashed the accelerator to the floor.
I glanced back and saw the original gunman standing at a fire exit door, yelling and pointing the silenced pistol at us. He snapped off several more shots, though I only heard the last few, as the silencer started to give out. He didn’t have a prayer of a clean shot, but he got lucky and my back window shattered inwards. I gulped and took the first corner against the light, nearly colliding with a U-Haul moving truck, and kept accelerating away.
A couple of blocks later, my heart slowed down enough that I could think. I slowed the car down to something approaching the speed limit, and rolled down my window. I stuck my head out for a second to see if Hendricks and his goons were following us, but I didn’t see anyone coming along behind us, and took it on faith.
I pulled my head in and found the barrel of the shotgun pointed at my chin, while Father Vincent, his face pale, muttered to himself under his breath in Italian.
“Hey!” I said, and pushed the gun’s barrel away. “Careful with that thing. You wanna kill me?” I reached down and flicked the safety on. “Put it down. A patrolman sees that and we’re in trouble.”
Father Vincent gulped, and tried to lower the gun below the level of the dash. “This weapon is illegal?”
“Illegal is such a strong word,” I muttered.
“Oh my,” Father Vincent said with a gulp. “Those men,” he said. “They tried to kill you.”
“That’s what hitters for the outfit do,” I agreed.
“How do you know who they are?”
“First guy had a silenced weapon. A good silencer, metal and glass, not a cheapo plastic bottle.” I checked out the window again. “He was using a small caliber weapon, too, and he was trying to get real close before he started shooting.”
“Why does that matter?”
It looked clear. My heart started slowing down. My hands trembled and felt a little weak. “Because it means he was using light ammunition. Sub-sonic. If the bullet breaks the sound barrier, it sort of defeats the point of a silenced weapon. When he saw I was armed, he ran. Covered himself doing it, and went for help. He’s a pro.”
“Oh my,” Father Vincent said again. He looked a little pale.
“Plus I recognized one of the men waiting at the exit.”
“Someone was at the exit?” Father Vincent said.
“Yeah. Some of Marcone’s rent-a-thugs.” I glanced back at the shattered window and sighed. “Dammit. So where are we going?”
Father Vincent gave me directions in a numb voice, and I concentrated on driving, trying to ignore the quivering in my stomach and the continued trembling of my hands. Getting shot at is not something I handle very well. Getting shot at is scary as hell.
Hendricks. Why the hell was Marcone sending goons after me? Marcone was the lord of the mean streets of Second City, but generally he didn’t like to use that kind of violence. He thought it was bad for business. I had believed Marcone and I had an understanding–or at least an agreement to stay out of each other’s way. So why would he make a move like this?
Maybe I had already stepped over a line somewhere, that I didn’t know existed.
I glanced at the shaken Father Vincent.
He hadn’t told me yet what he wanted, but whatever it was, it was important enough to covertly drag one of the Vatican’s staff all the way to Chicago. Maybe it was important enough to kill a nosy wizard over, too.
It was turning into one hell of a day.