Father Vincent directed me to a motel a little ways north of O’Hare. It was a national chain, cheap but clean, with rows of doors facing the parking lot. I drove around to the back of the motel, away from the street, frowning. It didn’t look like the kind of place someone like Vincent would stay in. The priest left my car almost before I’d set the parking break, hurried to the nearest door, and ducked inside as quickly as he could open the lock.
I followed him. Vincent shut the door behind us, locked it, and then fiddled with the blinds they closed. He nodded at the room’s little table and said, “Please, sit down.”
I did, and stretched out my legs. Father Vincent pulled open a drawer on the plain dresser, and drew out a file folder, held closed with a wide rubber band. He sat down across from me, took off the rubber band and said, “The Church is interested in recovering some stolen property.”
I shrugged and said, “Sounds like a job for the police.”
“An investigation is underway and I am giving your police department my full cooperation. But . . . How to phrase this politely.” He frowned. “History is an able teacher.”
“You don’t trust the police,” I said. “Gotcha.”
He grimaced. “It is only that there have been a number of associations between Chicago police and various underworld figures in the past.”
“That’s mostly movies now, padre. You may not have heard, but the whole Al Capone thing has been over for a while.”
“Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps not. I simply seek to do everything within my power to recover the stolen article. That includes involving an independent and discrete investigator.”
Ah ha. So he didn’t trust the police and wanted me to work for him on the sly. That’s why we were meeting at a cheap motel rather than wherever he was really staying. “What do you want me to find for you?”
“A relic,” he said.
“An artifact, Mister Dresden. “An antique possessed by the Church for several centuries.”
“Oh that,” I said.
“Yes. The article is fragile and of great age, and we believe that it is not being adequately preserved. It is imperative that we recover it as quickly as possible.”
“What happened to it?”
“It was stolen three days ago.”
“The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in northern Italy.”
“Long ways off.”
“We believe that the artifact was brought here, to Chicago, to be sold.”
He took an eight by ten glossy black and white from the folder and passed it to me. It featured a fairly messy corpse laying on cobblestones. Blood had run into the spaces between the stones, as well as pooling a little on the ground around the body. I think it had been a man, but it was hard to tell for certain. Whoever it was had been slashed to almost literal ribbons across the face and neck–sharp, neat, straight cuts. Professional knifework. Yuck.
“This man is Gaston LaRouche. He is the ringleader of a group of organized thieves who call themselves the Churchmice. They specialize in robbing sanctuaries and cathedrals. He was found dead the morning after the robbery near a small airfield. His briefcase contained several falsified pieces of American identification and plane tickets that would carry him here.”
“But no whatsit.”
“Ah. Exactly.” Father Vincent removed another pair of photos. These were also black and white, but they looked rougher, as if they had been magnified several times. Both were of women of average height and build, dark hair, dark sunglasses.
“Surveillance photos?” I asked.
He nodded. “Interpol. Anna Valmont and Francisca Garcia. We believe they helped LaRouche with the theft, then murdered him and left the country. Interpol received a tip that Valmont had been seen at the airport here.”
“Do you know who the buyer is?”
Vincent shook his head. “No. But this is the case. I want you to find the remaining Churchmice and recover the artifact.”
I frowned, looking at the photos. “Yeah. That’s what they want you to do too.”
Vincent blinked at me. “What do you mean?”
I shook my head impatiently. “Someone. Look at this photo. LaRouche wasn’t murdered there.”
Vincent frowned. “Why would you say that?”
“Not enough blood. I’ve seen men who were torn up and bled out. There’s a hell of a lot more blood.” I paused and then said, “Pardon my French.”
Father Vincent crossed himself. “Why would his body be found there?”
I shrugged. “A professional did him. Look at the cuts. They’re methodical. He was probably unconscious or drugged, because you can’t hold a man still very easily when you’re taking a knife to his face.”
Father Vincent pressed one hand to his stomach. “Oh.”
“So you’ve got a corpse found out in the middle of a street somewhere, basically wearing a sign around his neck that says ‘the goods are in Chicago.’ Either someone was incredibly stupid, or someone was trying to lead you here. It’s a professional killing. Someone meant his corpse to be a clue.”
“But who would do such a thing?”
I shrugged. “Probably a good thing to find out. Do you have any better pictures of these two women?”
He shook his head. “No. And they’ve never been arrested. No criminal record.”
“They’re good at what they do then.” I took the photos. There were little dossiers paper-clipped to the back of the pictures, listing known aliases, locations, but nothing terribly useful. “This one isn’t going to be quick.”
“Worthwhile goals rarely are. What do you need from me, Mister Dresden?”
“A retainer,” I said. “A thousand will do. And I need a description of this artifact, the more detailed the better.”
Father Vincent gave me a matter-of-fact nod, and drew a plain steel money clip from his pocket. He counted off ten portraits of Ben Franklin, and passed them to me. “The artifact is an oblong length of linen cloth, fourteen feet three inches long by three feet seven inches wide made of a handwoven three to one herringbone twill. There are a number of patches and stains on the cloth, and–”
I held up my hand, frowning. “Wait a minute. Where did you say this thing was stolen from?”
“The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist,” Father Vincent said.
“In northern Italy,” I said.
“In Turin, to be exact,” I said.
He nodded again, his expression reserved.
“Someone stole the freaking Shroud of Turin?” I demanded.
I settled back into the chair, looking down at the photos again. This changed things. This changed things a lot.
The Shroud. Supposedly the burial cloth used by Joseph of Aramithea to wrap the body of Christ after the Crucifixion. Capital Cs. The cloth supposedly wrapped around Christ when he was resurrected, with his image, his blood, imprinted upon it.
“Wow,” I said.
“What do you know about the Shroud, Mister Dresden?”
“Not much. Christ’s burial cloth. They did a bunch of tests in the seventies, and no one was able to conclusively disprove it. It almost got burned a few years back when the Cathedral caught fire. There are stories that it has healing powers, or that a couple of angels still attend it. A bunch of others I can’t remember right now.”
Father Vincent rested his hands on the table and leaned towards me. “Mister Dresden. The Shroud is perhaps the single most vital artifact of the Church. It is a powerful symbol of the faith, and one in which many people believe. It is also politically significant. It is absolutely vital to Rome that it be restored to the Church’s custody as expediently as possible.”
I stared at him for a second, and tried to pick out my words carefully. “Are you going to be insulted if I suggest that it’s very possible that the Shroud is, uh . . . significant, magically speaking?”
Vincent pressed his lips together. “I have no illusions about it, Mister Dresden. It is a piece of cloth, not a magic carpet. Its value derives solely from its historical and symbolic significance.”
“Uh huh,” I said. Hell’s bells, that’s where plenty of magical power came from. The Shroud was old, and regarded as special, and people believed in it. That could be enough to give it a kind of power, all by itself.
“Some people might believe otherwise,” I said.
“Of course,” he agreed. “That is why your knowledge of the local occult may prove invaluable.”
I nodded, thinking. This could be something completely mundane. Someone could have stolen a moldy old piece of cloth to sell it to a crackpot who believed it was a magic bed sheet. It could be that the Shroud was nothing more than a symbol, an antique, a historical Pop Tart–nifty, but ultimately not very significant.
Of course, there was also the possibility that the Shroud was genuine. That it actually had been in contact with the Son of God when he had been brought back from the dead. I pushed that thought aside.
Regardless of why or how, if the Shroud was something special, magically speaking, then it could mean a whole new, and nastier ball game. Of all the various weird, dark, or wicked powers who might abscond with the Shroud, I couldn’t think of any who would do anything cheerful with it. All sorts of supernatural interests might be at play.
Even discounting that possibility, mortal pursuit of the Shroud seemed to be deadly enough. John Marcone might already be involved, as well as the Chicago police–probably Interpol and the FBI, too. Even sans supernatural powers, when it came to finding people the cops were damned good at what they did. Odds were good that they’d locate the thieves and haul in the shroud within a few days.
I looked from the photos to the cash laying on the table, and thought about how many of my bills I could pay off with a nice, fat fee courtesy of Father Vincent. If I got lucky, maybe I wouldn’t have to put myself in harm’s way to do it.
I believed that.
I took the money and put it in my pocket. Then I picked up the photos too. “How can I get in touch with you?”
Father Vincent wrote a phone number on the motel’s stationary and passed it to me. “Here. It’s my answering service while I’m in town.”
“All right. I can’t promise you anything concrete, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Father Vincent stood up and said, “Thank you, Mister Dresden. Father Forthill spoke most highly of you, you know.”
“He’s a sport,” I agreed, rising.
“If you will excuse me, I have appointments to keep.”
“I’ll bet. Here’s my card, if you need to get in touch.”
I gave him a business card, shook hands, and left. At the Beetle, I stopped to open the trunk and put the shotgun back in it, after taking the shell from the chamber and making sure the safety was on. Then I pulled out a length of wood a little longer than my forearm, carved over with runes and sigils that helped me focus my magic a lot more precisely. I tossed my suit jacket in over the gun, and dug out a silver bracelet dangling a dozen tiny, medieval-style shields from my pocket. I fastened that to my left arm, slipped a silver ring onto my right hand, then took my blasting rod and set it beside me on the car seat as I got in.
Between the new case, the outfit hitter, and Duke Ortega’s challenge, I wanted to make damn sure that I wasn’t going to get caught with my eldritch britches down again.
I took the Beetle home, to my apartment. I rent the basement apartment from a huge, creaking old boarding house. By the time I got back, it was after midnight and the late February air was speckled with occasional flakes of wet snow that wouldn’t last once it hit the ground. The adrenaline rush of the Larry Fowler Show and then the hired goon attack had faded, and left me aching, tired, and worried. I got out of the car, determined to head for bed, then get up early and get to work on Vincent’s case.
A sudden sensation of cold, rippling energy and pair of muffled thumps from the stairs leading down to my apartment changed my mind.
I drew out my blasting rod and readied the shield bracelet on my left wrist, but before I could step over to the stairs, a pair of figures flew up them and landed heavily on the half-frozen ground beside the gravel parking lot. They struggled, rolling, until one of the shadowy figures got a leg underneath the form on top of it, and pushed.
The second figure flew twenty feet through the air, landed on the gravel with a thump and a cough of expelled air, then got up and sprinted away.
Shield readied, I stepped forward before the remaining intruder could rise. I forced an effort of will through the blasting rod, setting the runes along its length alight with scarlet. Fire coalesced at the tip of the rod, bright as a road flare, but I held the strike as I stepped forward, shoving the tip of the blasting rod down at the intruder. “Make a move and I’ll fry you.”
Red light fell over a woman.
She was dressed in jeans, a black leather jacket, a white t-shirt, and gloves. She had her long, midnight hair tied back in a tail. Dark, oblique eyes smoldered up at me from beneath long lashes. Her beautiful face held an expression of wary amusement.
My heart thudded in sudden pain and excitement.
“Well,” Susan said, looking from the sizzling blasting rod up to my face. “I’ve heard of running into an old flame, but this is ridiculous.”