NOTE: Due to technical issues, this text is missing some of the final punctuation edits from the final, published version. Our apologies!
. . . . .
Carmichael stopped the Mustang in front of a building that reminded me of old episodes of Dragnet. He parked on the empty street and we walked toward the entrance.
“So, where are we going?”
“Told you. The office.”
I frowned. “Don’t suppose you could be more specific?”
He looked around, his eyes narrowed. “Not here. We aren’t in safe territory. Ears everywhere.”
I stopped on the completely empty sidewalk and looked up and down the motionless, vacant street, and saw nothing but lonely streetlamps, traffic signals, and windows unmarred by light or curtains, staring more blankly than the empty eyes of a corpse.
“Yeah,” I said. “Real hotbed of intrigue around here.”
Carmichael stopped at the door and looked over his shoulder. He didn’t say anything for a few seconds. Then he spoke quietly, without a trace of affectation in his voice. “There are Things out here, Dresden. And some Things are worse than death. It’s best if you get inside.”
I rolled my eyes at him. But . . .
Something about the emptiness around me was suddenly extremely nerve-racking.
I stuck my hands in my pockets and tried to saunter inside. The effect may have been slightly sabotaged by my desire to get some solid building between that emptiness and me. Carmichael used a key to open the door and let me in before coming in behind me, his face directed back toward the street until he had shut the door and locked it.
He nodded to a guard, a beat cop in dress uniform, who stood just to one side of an elevator, his back in an entirely rigid position of at-ease, his hands clasped behind him. The guard’s uniform was literally perfect. Perfectly clean, the creases perfectly sharp, his gloves perfectly white. He wore a silver-plated, engraved service revolver in a gleaming black holster at his hip. His features went with the uniform—utterly symmetrical, strong, steady.
I stopped for a second, frowning at the guard, and then reached for my Sight.
Professional wizards like me have access to all kinds of wild things. One of the wildest is the Sight, which has been described in various times and cultures as the second sight, the third eye, the evil eye, and a host of other things. It allows a wizard to look at the true nature of things around him, to see the unseen world of energy and power flowing around him. It’s dangerous. Once you see something with your Sight, you never forget it, and it never fades with time. Take a look at the wrong thing and you can kiss your sanity good-bye.
But this entire scene was so Rod Serling, I had to find something about it that I could pin down, something familiar, something that wasn’t being spoon-fed to me by a person who looked like a younger, thinner Carmichael. I decided to try to identify the single object that was most likely to tell me something about the people around me—a source of power.
I focused on the guard’s gun.
For a second, absolutely nothing happened. And then the black and silver of the gleaming weapon changed, shifted. The holster elongated, trailing down the length of the guard’s leg, and the pearl-handled revolver changed as well, the grip straightening. The silver of the barrel and chamber became the pommel, handle, and hilt of a cruciform sword. Light gleamed from the weapon, not reflected from the illumination in the entry hall of the building, but generated by the weapon itself.
The guard’s blue eyes shifted to me at once. He lifted a hand and said in a gentle voice, “No.”
And as suddenly as a door slamming into my face, my Sight vanished, and the weapon was just a gun again.
The guard nodded at me. “My apologies for being abrupt. You might have harmed yourself.”
I looked. His name tag read AMITIEL.
“Uh, sure,” I said quietly, lifting empty hands. “No problem, man. I’ve got no problem with you.”
Carmichael nodded respectfully to the guard and jammed a thumb down on the button to summon the elevator. It opened at once. “Come on, mister man. Time’s a-wasting.”
Officer Amitiel seemed to find the statement humorous. He smiled as he touched two fingers to the brim of his cap in a casual salute to Carmichael. Then he went back to his relaxed stance as a guardian, calmly facing the emptiness that had unnerved me.
The elevator doors closed, and the car rattled a little before it started moving. “So,” I said, “now that we’ve got at least one guardian angel between us and whatever it is you were nervous about, can you tell me where we’re going?”
Carmichael’s eyes crinkled at the corners. He grunted. “I’m pretty much a tour guide at the moment, Dresden. You need to talk to the captain.”
. . . . .
Carmichael took me through a precinct room, the kind with a lot of unenclosed desks as opposed to cubicles, where cops worked. It looked a lot like the Special Investigations headquarters in Chicago. There were several men and women at the desks, reading through files, talking on phones, and otherwise looking like cops at work. All of them were about Carmichael’s apparent age—right at the line where youthful energy and wisdom-creating life experience were reaching a state of balance. I didn’t recognize any of them, though Carmichael gave and received nods from a couple. He marched over to the only other door in the room, leading to a private office, and knocked.
“In,” said a clear, quiet baritone.
Carmichael opened the door and led me into the room. It was a small, well-used office. There were old filing cabinets, an old wooden desk, some battered wooden chairs. The desk had an in-box, an out-box, and a message spike, along with a rotary telephone. There was no computer. Instead, on a table next to the desk sat an old electric typewriter.
The man behind the desk was also more or less Carmichael’s age, and he looked like a professional boxer. There was scar tissue here and there around his eyes, and his nose had been frequently broken. He had hung his suit jacket over the back of his chair, and his shoulders and biceps strained the fabric of his white shirtsleeves. He had them rolled up to the elbow, revealing forearms that were approximately as thick as wooden telephone poles, and looked every bit as strong. His hair was blond, his eyes blue, and his jawline was heavy enough to make me think of a bulldog. He looked familiar somehow.
“Jack,” Carmichael said. “This is Dresden.”
Jack looked me up and down, but he didn’t get up. He didn’t say anything, either.
“He’s always this way before he’s had his cup of coffee,” Carmichael told me. “Don’t take it personal.”
“Hey, coffee,” I said into the silence that followed. “That sounds good.”
Jack eyed me for a moment. Then he said, in that same mellifluous voice, “Dresden, are you hungry?”
I thought about it. “No.”
“That’s because you’re dead,” Jack said. His smile was brief and not particularly reassuring. “You don’t need to drink. You don’t need to eat. There’s no coffee.”
I eyed Carmichael.
“I stand by my statement,” said Carmichael. He looked at Jack and hooked a thumb at the door. “I should get back to that rakshasa thing.”
Jack said, “Go.”
Carmichael slapped my arm and said, “Good luck, kid. Have fun.” And he strode out, moving like a man on a mission. That left me sharing an awkward silence with Jack.
“This isn’t what I expected out of the afterlife,” I said.
“That’s because it isn’t,” he said.
I frowned. “Well, you said I was dead. Ergo, afterlife.”
“You’re dead,” Jack said. “This is between.”
I frowned. “What, like . . . purgatory?”
Jack shrugged. “If that works for you, call it that. But you aren’t here because you need to cleanse yourself. You’re here because there was an irregularity with your death.”
“I got shot. Or drowned. Ain’t exactly rare.”
Jack lifted a big, square hand and waggled it back and forth. “It isn’t about the physical. It’s about the spiritual.”
I frowned. “Spiritual?”
“The opposition,” Jack said. “You died because they cheated.”
“Wait. What opposition?”
“The angel standing guard at the elevator is what we cops think of as a clue. You need me to draw you some pictures?”
“Um. Hell, you mean? Like . . . actual Fallen angels?”
“Not exactly. But if you want to think of it that way, it works. Sort of. What you need to know is that they’re the bad guys.”
“That’s why I’m here,” I said. “Because they . . . broke some sort of cosmic rule?”
“You were getting in their way. They wanted you gone. They broke the law to make it happen. That makes you my problem.”
I frowned at him and looked down at myself. I noticed idly that I was wearing jeans, a plain black T-shirt, and my black leather duster—which had been torn to shreds and consigned to the waters of the lake an hour or three before I got shot. I mean, my duster had died.
But I was wearing it, whole and good as new.
Which was when it really, really hit me.
I was dead.
I was dead.
Chicago, the White Council, my enemies, my friends, my daughter . . . They were all gone. Obsolete. And I had no idea whatsoever what was going to happen to me next. The room felt like it started spinning. My legs started shaking. I sat down on a chair opposite Jack’s seat.
I felt his steady regard on me, and after a moment he said quietly,
“Son, it happens to all of us. It’s hard to face, but you gotta relax and focus, or there’s nothing I can do for you.”
I took some deep breaths with my eyes closed—and noticed for the first time how absolutely incredible I felt physically. I felt like I had when I was a kid, when I was full of energy and the need to expend it doing something enjoyable. My limbs felt stronger, quicker, lighter.
I looked at my left hand and saw that it was no longer covered in scar tissue from the burns I’d received years ago. It was whole, as if it had never been harmed.
I expanded the logic and realized that I didn’t actually feel all that incredible—I was simply missing an entire catalog of injuries and trauma. The faded, years-old scar I’d given myself on my right forearm, when my knife had slipped while cleaning the fish my grandfather and I had caught, was missing also.
The constant, slowly growing level of aches and pains of the body was simply gone. Which made sense enough, since my body was gone, too.
The pain had stopped.
I mopped at my face with my hand and said, “Sorry. It’s just a lot to take in.”
The smile appeared again. “Heh. Just wait.”
I felt irritated at his tone. It was something to hang on to, and I planted my metaphoric heels and dragged the spinning room to a stop.
“So, who are you?” I asked. “And how can you help me?”
“You want to call me something, call me Captain. Or Jack.”
“Or Sparrow?” I asked.
Jack looked at me with a cop face that showed nothing but the vague hint of disapproval. He reached across the desk and slid a file folder to the blotter in front of him. He opened it and scanned over the contents. “Look, kid, you’re stuck here. You aren’t going anywhere until we get this discrepancy sorted out.”
“Because what comes after isn’t for people who are rubbernecking over their shoulders or bitching about how unfair they had it,” Jack said, his expression frank. “So, we sort out how you got screwed over. Then you get to move on to what’s next.”
I thought of being trapped in the hollow shell of the city outside and shuddered. “Okay. How do we fix it?”
“You go back,” Jack said. “And you catch the scum who did you.”
“Back?” I said. “Back to . . .”
“Earth, yeah,” Jack said. “Chicago.” He closed the folder and dropped it into his out-box. “You gotta find out who killed you.”
I arched an eyebrow at him. “You’re kidding.”
He stared at me, his expression as jovial as a mountain crag.
I rolled my eyes. “You want me to solve my own murder?”
He shrugged. “You want a job here instead, I can set you up.”
“Augh,” I said, shuddering again. “No.”
“Okay,” he said. “Any questions?”
“Uh,” I said. “What do you mean when you say you’re sending me back? I mean . . . back to my body or . . . ?”
“Nah,” he said. “Isn’t available. Isn’t how it works. You go back as you are.”
I frowned at him and then down at myself. “As a spirit,” I said.
He spread his hands, as if I had just comprehended some vast and weighty truth. “Don’t hang around for sunrise. Watch out for thresholds. You know the drill.”
“Yeah,” I said, disturbed. “But without my body . . .”
“Won’t have much magic. Most people can’t see you, hear you. Won’t be able to touch things.”
I stared at him. “How am I supposed to find anything out like that?” I asked.
Jack lifted both hands. “Kid, I don’t make the law. I make sure it gets observed.” He squinted at me. “Besides. I thought you were a detective.”
I clenched my jaw and glared at him. My glare isn’t bad, but he wasn’t impressed.
I exhaled slowly and then said, “Solve my own murder.”
Anger rose from my chest and entered my voice. “I guess it isn’t enough that I spent my adult life trying to help and protect people. There’s something else I have to do before going off to meet Saint Peter.”
Jack shrugged. “Don’t be so certain about that. With your record, son, you might just as easily find yourself on a southbound train.”
“Hell,” I spat. “You know what Hell is, Captain Sparrow? Hell is staring at your daughter and knowing that you’ll never get to touch her again. Never get to speak to her. Never get to help her or protect her. Bring on the lake of fire. It wouldn’t come close.”
“In point of fact,” Jack said calmly, “I do know what Hell is. You aren’t the only dead guy with a daughter, Dresden.”
I sank back into my chair, frowning at him, and then turned my head to stare past him to a simple landscape painting on the wall.
“If it makes any difference,” Jack said, “three of the people you love will come to great harm unless you find your murderer.”
“What do you mean, harm?” I asked.
“Maimed. Changed. Broken.”
“Which three people?” I asked.
“Can’t tell you that,” he said.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “I bet you can’t.”
I thought about it. Maybe I was dead, but I was sure as hell not ready to go. I had to make sure the people who’d helped me take on the Red King were taken care of. My apprentice, Molly, had been badly wounded in the battle, but that wasn’t her biggest problem. Now that I was dead, there was nothing standing between her and a summary beheading at the hands of the White Council of Wizards.
And my daughter, little Maggie, was still back there. I’d deprived her of a mother, just as someone else had deprived her of a father. I had to make sure she was taken care of. I needed to tell my grandfather goodbye . . . and Karrin.
God. What had Karrin found when she came back to the boat to pick me up? A giant splatter of blood? My corpse? She was misguided and stubborn enough that I was sure she would blame herself for whatever had happened. She’d tear herself apart. I had to reach her somehow, and I couldn’t do that from this spiritual Siberia.
Could they be the ones the captain was talking about? Or was it someone else?
My self might have felt full of energy and life, but my mind was weary almost beyond measure. Hadn’t I done enough? Hadn’t I helped enough people, rescued enough prisoners, defeated enough monsters? I’d made enemies of some of the deadliest and most evil things on the planet, and fought them time and again. And one of them had killed me for it.
Rest in peace, it says on all those tombstones. I’d fought against the rising tide until it had literally killed me. So where the hell was my rest? My peace?
Three of the people you love will come to great harm unless you find your murderer.
My imagination conjured scenes filled with the anguish of the people I cared most about. Which pretty much settled things. I couldn’t allow something like that to happen.
Besides, there was one more thing that made me certain that I wanted to go back. At the end of the day . . . some son of a bitch had freaking killed me.
That’s not the kind of thing you can just let stand.
And if it would let me get out of this place and let me move on to wherever it was I was supposed to go, that was a nice bonus.
“Okay,” I said quietly. “How does it work?”
He slid a pad and a piece of paper across the desk at me, along with a pencil. “You get to go to an address in Chicago,” he said. “You write it there. Driver will drop you off.”
I took the pad and paper and frowned at it, trying to work out where to go. I mean, it wasn’t like I could show up just anywhere. If I was going in as a pure spirit, it would be futile to contact any of my usual allies. It takes some serious talent to see a spirit that hasn’t manifested itself, the way a ghost can occasionally appear to the physical eye. My friends wouldn’t even know I was there.
“Out of curiosity,” I said, “what happens if I don’t catch the killer?”
His expression turned sober and his voice became quieter. “You’ll be trapped there. Maybe forever. Unable to touch. Unable to speak. Watching things happen in the world, with no ability whatsoever to affect them.”
“Hell,” I said quietly.
“You’re dead, son,” Jack said. “Cheer is contraindicated.”
I was looking at one hell, ba-dump-bump-ching, of a risk. I mean, fitting in here in Chicago-tory might not be fun, but it probably wouldn’t be torture, either. Judging from what Carmichael and Jack had said and from the way they went about their business, they were able to act in some fashion, maybe even do some good. They didn’t look particularly thrilled to be doing what they were doing, but they carried that sense of professional purpose with them.
A ghost trapped on the mortal coil? That would be far worse. Always present, always watching, and always impotent.
I never really developed my Don’t-Get-Involved skills. I’d go crazy in a year, and wind up one more pathetic, insane, trapped spirit haunting the town I’d spent my adult life protecting.
“Screw it,” I said, and started writing on the paper. “If my friends need me, I have to try.”
Jack took the pad back with a nod of what might have been approval. Then he stood up and pulled on his suit coat. Car keys rattled in his hand. He was only medium height, but he moved with a confidence and a tightly leashed energy that once more made him seem familiar, somehow. “Let’s go.”
Several of the cops—because I was sure they were cops, or at least were doing something so similar that the word fit—nodded to Jack as he went by.
“Hey,” called someone from behind us. “Murphy.”
Jack stopped and turned around.
A guy wearing a suit that would have looked at home in the historic Pinkerton Detective Agency came over to Jack with a clipboard and held it out along with a pen. Jack scanned what was on it, signed off, and passed the clipboard back to the man.
Jack resumed his walking speed. I stuck my hands in my duster pockets and stalked along beside him.
“Captain Collin J. Murphy?” I asked quietly.
“You’re Karrin’s dad. Used to run the Black Cat case files.”
He didn’t say anything. We went down the elevator, past the guard angel, and out to the street, where an old blue Buick Skylark, one with tailfins and a convertible roof, sat waiting by the curb. He went around to the driver’s side and we both got in. The rain drummed on the roof of the car.
He sat behind the wheel for a moment, his eyes distant. Then he said, “Yeah.”
“She’s talked about you.” He nodded. “I hear you’ve looked out for my Karrie.”
Karrie? I tried to imagine the person who would call Murphy that to her face. Rawlins had done it once, but only once, and not only was he her partner, but he’d also worked with her dad when she was a little girl. Rawlins was practically family.
Anyone else would need to be a Terminator. From Krypton.
“Sometimes,” I said. “She doesn’t need much in the way of protection.”
“Everyone needs someone.” Then he started the car, the engine coming to life with a satisfying, throaty purr. Jack ran his hand over the steering wheel thoughtfully and looked out at the rain. “You can back out of this if you want, son. Until you get out of this car. Once you do that, you’ve chosen your path—and whatever comes with it.”
“Yep,” I said, and nodded firmly. “The sooner I get started, the sooner I get done.”
His mouth quirked up at one corner and he nodded, making a grunting sound of approval. He peered at the pad, read the address I’d written, and grunted. “Why here?”
“Because that’s where I’ll find the one person in Chicago I’m sure can help me,” I said.
Captain Murphy nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”