I was standing there watching the fire with everyone else when the beat cop brought Murphy over to me.
“It’s about time,” she said, her voice tense. She lifted the police tape and beckoned me. I had already clipped my little laminated consultant’s ID to my duster’s lapel. “What took you so long?”
“There’s a foot of snow on the ground and it doesn’t show signs of stopping,” I replied.
She glanced up at me. Karrin Murphy is a wee little thing, and the heavy winter coat she wore only made her look smaller. The large, fluffy snowflakes still falling clung to her golden hair and glittered on her eyelashes, turning her eyes glacial blue. “Your toy car got stuck in a drift, huh? What happened to your face?”
I glanced around at all the normals. “I was in a snowball fight.”
Murphy grunted. “I guess you lost.”
“You should have seen the other guy.”
We were standing in front of a small, five-story apartment building, and something had blown it to hell.
The front facing of the building was just gone, as if some unimaginably huge axe had sliced straight down it. You could see the floors and interiors of empty apartments, when you could get a glimpse of them through the palls of dust and smoke and thick falling snow. Fires burned in the building, insubstantial behind the haze of fire and winter. Rubble had washed out into the street, damaging the buildings on the other side, and the police had everyone cordoned off at least a block away. Broken glass and steel and brick lay everywhere. The air was acrid, thick with the stench of burning materials never meant to feed a fire.
Despite the weather, a couple of hundred people had gathered at the police cordons. Some enterprising soul was selling hot coffee from a big thermos, and I hadn’t been too proud to cough up a dollar for a foam cup of java, powdered creamer, and a packet of sugar.
“Lots of fire trucks,” I noted. “But only one ambulance. And the crew is drinking coffee while everyone else shivers in the cold.” I sipped at my cup. “The bastards.”
“Building wasn’t occupied,” Murphy said. “Being renovated, actually.”
“No one got hurt,” I said. “That’s a plus.”
Murphy gave me a cryptic look. “You willing to work off the books? Per diem?”
I sipped coffee to cover up a wince. I far prefer a two-day minimum. “I guess the city isn’t coughing up much money for consultants, huh.”
“SI’s been pooling the coffee money, in case we needed your take on something.”
This time I didn’t bother to hide the wince. Taking money from the city government was one thing. Taking money from the cops in SI was another.
Special Investigations was the CPD’s version of a pool filter. Things that slipped through the areas of interest of the other departments got dumped on SI. Lots of times, those things included the cruddy work no one else wanted to do, so SI wound investigating everything from apparent rains of toads to dog fighting rackets to reports of El Chupacabra molesting neighborhood pets from its lair in a local sewer. It was a crappy job, no pun intended, and as a result, SI was regarded by the city as a kind of asylum for incompetents. They weren’t, but the inmates of SI generally did share a couple of traits—intelligence enough to ask questions when something didn’t make sense, and an inexcusable lack of ability when it came to navigating the murky waters of office politics.
When Sergeant Murphy had been Lieutenant Murphy, she’d been in charge of SI. She’d been busted for vanishing during twenty four particularly critical hours of an investigation. It wasn’t like she could tell her superiors that she was off storming a frozen fortress in the near reaches of the Nevernever, now could she? Now her old partner, Lieutenant John Stallings, was in charge of SI, and he was running the place on a strained, frayed, often-knotted shoestring of a budget.
Hence the lack of gainful employment for Chicago’s only professional wizard.
I couldn’t take their money. It wasn’t like they were rolling in it. But at the same time, they had their pride. I couldn’t take that, either.
“Per diem?” I told her. “Hell, my bank account is thinner than a tobacco lobbyist’s moral justification. I’ll go hourly.”
Murphy glowered up at me for a moment, then gave me a grudging nod of thanks. Proud doesn’t always outweigh practical.
“So what’s the scoop?” I asked. “Arson?”
She shrugged. “Explosion of some kind. Maybe an accident. Maybe not.”
I snorted. “Yeah, because you call me in on maybe-accidents all the time.”
“Come on.” Murphy pulled a dust mask from her coat pocket and put it on.
I took out a bandana and tied it around my nose and mouth. All I needed was a ten gallon hat and some spurs to complete the image. Stick ’em up, pahdner.
She glanced back at me, her face hard to read under the dust mask, and lead me to the building adjacent to the ruined apartment. Murphy’s partner was waiting for us.
Rawlins was a blocky man in his fifties, comfortably overweight, and looked about as soft as a Brinks truck. He’d grown in a beard frosted with grey, a sharp contrast against his dark skin, and he wore a weather beaten old winter coat over his off-the-rack suit.
“Dresden,” he said easily. “Good to see you.”
I shook his hand. “How’s the foot?”
“It aches when I’m about to get asked to leave,” he said soberly. “Ow.”
“It’s better if you’ve got deniability,” Murphy said, folding her arms in what an astute observer might have characterized as a tone of stubborn argument. “You’ve got a family to feed.”
Rawlins sighed. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll be out by the street.” He nodded to me and walked off. He’d recovered from being shot in the foot pretty well, and wasn’t limping. Good for him. Good for me, too. I’d been the one to get him into that mess.
“Deniability?” I asked Murphy.
“There hasn’t been anything specific,” Murphy said, “but people up the line from SI have made it very clear that you are persona non grata.”
That stung a bit, and my voice turned a shade more brittle than I had intended. “Oh, obviously. The way I keep helping CPD with things they couldn’t handle themselves is just inexcusable.”
“I know,” Murphy said.
“I’m lucky they haven’t charged me with gross competence and contributing to social order and had me locked away.”
She waved a tired, dismissive hand. “It’s always something. That’s the way organizations are.”
“Except that when the country club gets a bug up its nose and decides that someone is out, nobody dies as a result,” I said, and added, “mostly.”
Murphy glared at me. “What do you want me to do about it, Harry? I called in every chip I’d ever collected just to keep my fucking job. There’s no chance at all of me making command again, much less moving up to a position where I could affect real change within the department.”
I clenched my jaw and felt a flush rising up my neck. She hadn’t said it, but she’d lost her command and any bright future for her career because she’d been covering my back. “Murph—”
“No,” she said, her tone more calm and steady than it might have been. “I’d really like to know, Dresden. I’ve paid you out of my own pocket when the city wouldn’t spend it. The rest of SI throws in all the money they can spare into the kitty to be able to pay you when we really need you. You think maybe I should moonlight at a burger joint to pay your fees?”
“Hell’s bells, Murph,” I said. “It isn’t about the money. It’s never been about the money.”
She shrugged. “So what are you bitching about?”
I thought about it for a second and said, “You shouldn’t have to tap dance around the demands of all the ladder climbers to do your job.”
“No,” she said, her tone frank. “Not in a reasonable world. But if you haven’t noticed, that world must be in a different area code. And it seems to me that you’ve had to end run your superiors once or twice.”
“Bah,” I said. “And touché.”
She smiled faintly. “It sucks, but that’s what we’ve got. You done whining?”
“Hell with it,” I said. “Let’s work.”
Murphy jerked her head at the rubble-choked alley between the damaged building and its neighbor, and we started down it, climbing over fallen brick and timber where necessary.
We’d gone about three feet before the stench of sulfur and acrid brimstone seared my nostrils, sharp even through the smell of the gutted apartment building. There’s only one thing that smells like that.
“Crap,” I muttered.
“I thought it smelled familiar,” Murphy said. “Like back at the fortress.” She glanced at me. “And . . . the other times I’ve smelled it.”
I pretended not to notice her glance. “Yeah. It’s Hellfire,” I said.
“There’s more,” Murphy said quietly. “Come on.”
We pressed on down the alley, until we passed the edge of the wrecked portion of the gutted building. One step, there was nothing but wreckage. The next, the brick wall of the building reasserted itself. The demarcation between structure and havoc was a rough, jagged line, stretching up into the dust and the snow and the smoke—all except for a portion of wall perhaps five feet off the ground.
There, instead of a broken line of shattered brick and twisted rebar, a perfectly smooth semi-circle bit into the wall.
I leaned closer, frowning. The scent of Hellfire grew stronger, and I realized that something had melted its way through the brick wall—a shaft of energy like a giant drill bit. It had to have been almost unimaginably hot to vaporize brick and concrete and steel, leaving the rim of the area it had touched melted to smooth glass, though half of the basketball-sized circle was missing, carried away by the collapsing wall.
Any natural source of heat like that would have sent out a thermal bloom that would have scoured the alley I was standing in, leaving it blackened and sere. But the alley was littered with the usual city detritus, where it wasn’t choked with rubble, and several hours worth of snow had piled up there as well.
“Talk to me,” Murphy said quietly.
“No normal fire is this contained,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
I gestured vaguely with my hands. “Fire generated with magic is still fire, Murph. I mean sure, you can call up tremendous heat and energy, but once it gets to you, it behaves like heat. It still does business with the laws of thermodynamics.”
“So we’re talking mojo,” Murphy said.
“Well, technically mojo isn’t—”
She sighed. “Are we dealing with magic or not?”
As if the scent of Hellfire wasn’t enough to give it away. “Yeah.”
Murphy nodded. “You call up fire all the time,” she said. “I’ve seen it do a lot of things that didn’t look like normal fire.”
“Oh sure,” I said, holding my hand over the surface of the flame-bored bricks. They were still warm. “But if you want to control it once you call it up, it takes additional energy to focus the fire into a desired course. The controlling energy is usually as much effort as the fire itself, if not more.”
“Could you do something like this?” she asked, gesturing at the building.
Once upon a time, she would have inflected that question a whole lot differently, and I’d have gotten nervous about whether the hands in her pockets were holding a gun and handcuffs. But that had been a long time ago. Of course, back then I probably wouldn’t have given her a straight answer, either, like I would now.
“Not a chance in hell,” I said quietly, and not entirely metaphorically. “I’m pretty sure I couldn’t call up this much energy in the first place. And if even if I could, I wouldn’t have anything left to control it with.” I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to feel any lingering traces of power around the area, but the destruction and subsequent drift of dust and snow and smoke had obscured any coherent patterns that might have given me hints about how the working had been accomplished.
I did, however, notice something else. The surface of the cut was not perpendicular to the wall of the building. It went in at an angle. I frowned and squinted back behind me, trying to line it up with the wall of the building on the other side of the alley.
Murphy knew me well enough to see I’d noticed something, and I knew her well enough to see her sudden interest make furrows between her eyebrows as she forced herself to be quiet and let me work.
I got up and went to the far side of the alley. A light coating of snow and dust had coated the wall.
“Watch your eyes,” I murmured, squinting my own to slits. Then I raised my right hand, called up my will, and murmured, “Ventas reductas.”
The wind I called up wasn’t the usual burst I commonly used. It was far more toned down than that, and it poured steadily from my outstretched hand. All the work I was doing with Molly had allowed me to rethink a lot of my basic evocations, the fast and dirty magic that wizards used in desperate and violent situations. I’d been trying to teach the spell to Molly, but she didn’t have the raw strength I had, and it would have practically knocked her unconscious to call up a heavy blast of air. I’d modified my teaching, just to get her comfortable with using a bit of air magic, and we’d accidentally developed a passable impersonation of an electric blow dryer.
I used the dryer spell to gently brush away dust and snow from the wall. It took me about a minute and a half, and when I was finished I caught another scent under the brimstone stench and said, “Double crap.”
Murphy stepped forward with her flashlight and shined it on the wall.
The sigil had been painted on the wall in something thick and brown which smelled like blood. At first, I thought it was a pentacle, but I saw the differences immediately.
“Harry,” Murphy said quietly. “Is it human?”
“Most likely,” I said. “Mortal blood is the strongest ink you can use for symbols like this in high energy spells. I don’t think anything else could have contained the amounts of energy it would have taken to blow up this building.”
“It’s a pentacle, right?” Murphy asked. “Like the one you wear.”
I shook my head. “Different.”
“How so?” Her mouth twitched at one corner. “Other than the blood, I mean.”
“A pentacle is a symbol of order,” I said quietly. “Five points, five sides. It represents the forces of air, earth, water, fire, and spirit. It’s contained within a circle, the points touching the outer ring. It represents the forces of magic bound within human control. Power balanced with restraint.” I gestured at the symbol. “See here? The points of the star fall far outside the ring.”
She frowned. “What does it mean?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
“Gosh,” she said. “You’re worth the money.”
“Ha hah. Look, even if I’d seen this symbol before, it could mean different things to different people. The Hindus and the Nazis have very different ideas about the swastika, for example.”
“Can you make a guess?”
I shrugged. “Off the top of my head? This looks uncomfortably like a combination of the pentacle and the anarchy symbol. Magic unrestrained.”
“Anarchist wizards?” Murphy asked.
“It’s just a guess,” I said. My gut told me it was a good one, though, and I got the impression that Murphy had the same feeling.
“What’s the symbol for?” Murphy asked. “What is it meant to do?”
“Reflect power,” I said. “My guess is that the energy that drove through the building was reflected from this sigil, which means . . .” I kayaked down a logic cascade as I spoke. “Which means that the energy had to come in from somewhere else, first.” I turned around slowly, trying to judge the angles. “The incoming beam must have gone right through the collapsed part of the building and . . .”
I pointed at the semicircular hole in the ruined wall. “Yeah. Heat energy, a whole lot of it.”
She studied the hole. “It doesn’t look like it would be big enough to take down the building.”
“It isn’t,” I said. “Not in an explosion, anyway. This just drilled a hole. Might have started a fire as it went, but it couldn’t have sheared off the front of the building like that.”
Murphy frowned, tilting her head. “Then what did?”
“Working on it,” I mumbled. I judged the angles as best I could and took off down the alley. The firemen were still hard at work on the building, and we had to walk over several hoses as we emerged into the street at the back of the apartment building. I crossed the street and walked down the length of the building there, my hand raised, senses questing for any residual magic. I didn’t find any, but I did smell Hellfire again, and a couple of feet later I found another not-pentacle, identical to the first, also hidden under a light dusting of snow.
I kept going clockwise around the ruined building. I found two more symbols on the undamaged building on its next side, and one more across the street from the front of the ruined apartments, and then I completed the circle, arriving back at our original reflective symbol.
Five reflection points, which had guided a truly freaking frightening amount of energy through the building, forming one single, enormous shape as they did.
“It’s a pentagram,” I said quietly.
Murphy frowned. “What?”
I touched the round, smooth bore-mark on the destroyed building’s wall. “The beam of energy that ripped through the building right here was one of five sides of a pentagram. A five pointed star.”
Murphy regarded me blankly.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a piece of chalk. “Okay, look. Everyone learns to draw this in grade school, right?” I quickly sketched out a star on a clear bit of brick wall—five strokes of the chalk, forming five points. “Right?”
“Right,” Murphy said. “You get them from the teacher when you get an A.”
“Another example of symbols having disparate meanings,” I said. “But look here, in the middle.” I filled in the closed shape in the center of the star. “That’s a pentagon shape, see? The center of the pentagram. That’s where you contain whatever it is you’re trying to contain.”
“What do you mean, contain?”
“A pentagram like this one is a symbol of power,” I said. “It’s got a lot of uses, depending on how you employ it. But most often you use it to isolate or contain an entity.”
“You mean like summoning a demon,” Murphy said.
“Sure,” I said. “But you can use it to trap other things too, if you do it right. Remember the circle of power at Harley MacFinn’s place? Five candles formed the pentagram on that one.”
Murphy shuddered. “I remember. But it wasn’t this big.”
“No,” I admitted. “And the bigger you make it, the more juice it takes to keep it going. I’ve never, ever heard of one that would take this much energy to activate.”
I drew little x shapes at the points of the star and drew the chalk from one to the next, thickening the lines of the example pentagram. “Get it? The beam streamed from one reflector to the next, melting holes through the building as it went. The reflectors formed the beam into one huge pentagram at ground level, more or less.”
Murphy frowned and squinted at the simple diagram. “The center of that shape couldn’t have covered the whole building.”
“No,” I said. “I’d need a good map to be sure, but I think the center of the pentagram must have been about twenty feet back from the front door. Which is why only the front half of the building collapsed.”
“The explosion came from inside this pentagon thing? Magical TNT?”
I shrugged. “The explosion came from inside the pentagram’s center, but not necessarily from the pentagram. I mean, it could have been a normal device of some kind.”
“Square in the middle of the giant, scary pentagram?” Murphy asked.
“Maybe,” I said, nodding. “It depends on what the pentagram was being employed for. And to know that, I’d have to know which way was its north.” I circled the topmost point of the chalk pentacle. “The direction of the first line, I mean.”
“Does it make a difference?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Most everybody draws those stars just like I did. Bottom left to the topmost point as the first stroke. That’s how you draw it when you want to defend something, ward something away from a location, or banish a spiritual entity.”
“So this could have been a banishing spell?” Murphy asked.
“It’s possible. But you can do a lot of other things with it, if you draw it differently.”
“Like build a cage for things,” Murphy said.
“Yeah.” I frowned, troubled. “Or open a doorway for something.”
“Which, judging by your face, would be bad.”
“I . . .” I shook my head. I didn’t even want to know what kind of terror would need a pentagram that huge in order to squeeze into our world. “I think if something sized to fit this pentagram had come through it, there would probably be more than one building on fire.”
“Oh,” Murphy said quietly.
“Look, until I know what the pentagram’s purpose was, all I can do is speculate. And there’s something else weird here, too.”
“There’s not a trace of residual magic, and there should be. Hell, with this much power being tossed around, the whole area should practically be glowing. It isn’t.”
Murphy nodded slowly. “You’re saying they wiped their prints.”
I grimaced. “Exactly, and I have no idea how to do it. Hell’s bells, I didn’t know it was possible.”
I sipped at my coffee in the silence and pretended the shiver that went down my spine was from the cold. I passed the cup to Murphy, who took a sip from the opposite side and passed it back to me.
“So,” she said. “We’re left with questions. What is a major league supernatural hitter doing placing a huge pentagram under an empty apartment building? What was his goal in creating it?”
“And why blow up the building afterward?” I frowned and thought of an even better question. “Why this building?” I turned to Murphy. “Who owns it?”
“Lake Michigan Ventures,” Murphy replied, “A subsidiary of Mitigation Unlimited, whose CEO is—”
“Triple crap,” I spat. “Gentleman Johnnie Marcone.”