Many things are not always as they seem: the worst things in life never are.
I pulled my battle-scarred, multicolored old Volkswagen Beetle up in front of a rundown Chicago apartment building, not five blocks from my own rented basement apartment. Usually, by the time the cops call me, things are pretty frantic; there’s at least one corpse, several cars, a lot of flashing blue lights, yellow and black tape, and members of the press — or at least the promise of the imminent arrival of same.
This crime scene was completely quiet. I saw no marked police cars, and only one ambulance, parked, its lights off. A young mother went by, one child in a stroller, the other toddling along holding mommy’s hand. An elderly man walked a Labrador Retriever past my car. No one was standing around and gawking or otherwise doing anything at all out of the ordinary.
A creepy shiver danced over the nape of my neck, even though it was the middle of a sunny May afternoon. Normally, I didn’t start getting wigged out until I’d seen at least one nightmarish thing doing something graphic and murderous.
I put it down to the paranoia of advancing age. It isn’t like I’m all that old or anything, especially for a wizard, but age is always advancing and I’m fairly sure it’s up to no good.
I parked the Blue Beetle and headed into the apartment building. I went up several flights of stairs that needed their old tile replaced, or at least scrubbed and shined. I left them to find a hallway carpeted in a low, grey-blue pile that had been crushed down to shiny smoothness in the middle. The apartment doors were battered, old, but made of thick oak. I found Murphy waiting for me.
At five feet and small change, a hundred and not much, she didn’t exactly look like a tough Chicago cop who could face down monsters and maniacs with equal nerve. Chicks like that aren’t supposed to be blonde or have a cute nose. Sometimes I think Murphy became that tough cop she didn’t look like purely for the sake of contrariness — no amount of sparkling blue eyes or seeming harmlessness could hide the steel in her nature. She gave me her we’re-at-work nod, and a terse greeting. “Dresden.”
“Lieutenant Murphy,” I drawled, with an elaborate bow and flourish of one hand, deliberately at odds with her brusque demeanor. I wasn’t doing it out of pure contrariness. I’m not like that. “I am dazzled by your presence once more.”
I expected a snort of derision. Instead, she gave me a polite, brittle little smile and corrected me, in a gentle tone, “Sergeant Murphy.”
Open mouth, insert foot. Way to go, Harry. The opening credits weren’t done rolling on this case, and you’ve already reminded Murphy of what it cost her to be your friend and ally.
Murphy had been a Detective Lieutenant, and in charge of Special Investigations. SI was Chicago PD’s answer to problems that didn’t fall within the boundaries of “normal.” If a vampire slaughtered a transient, if a ghoul killed a graveyard watchman, or if a faerie cursed someone’s hair to start growing in instead of out, someone had to examine it. Someone had to look into it and reassure the government and the citizenry that everything was normal. It was a thankless job, but SI handled it through sheer guts and tenacity and sneakiness and by occasionally calling in Wizard Harry Dresden to give them a hand.
Her bosses got real upset about her abandoning her duties in a time of crisis, while she helped me on a case. She’d already been exiled to professional Siberia, by being put in charge of SI. By taking away the rank and status she had worked her ass off to earn, they had humiliated her, and dealt a dreadful blow to her pride and her sense of self-worth.
“Sergeant,” I said, sighing. “Sorry, Murph. I forgot.”
She shrugged a shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I forget sometimes, too. When I answer the phone at work, mostly.”
“Still. I should be less stupid.”
“We all think that, Harry,” Murphy said, and thumped me lightly on the biceps with one fist. “But no one blames you.”
“That’s real big of you, Mini Mouse,” I replied.
She snorted, and rang for the elevator. On the way up, I asked her, “It’s a lot quieter than most crime scenes, isn’t it?”
She grimaced. “It isn’t one.”
“Not exactly,” she said. She glanced up at me. “Not officially.”
“Ah,” I said. “I guess I’m not actually consulting.”
“Not officially,” she said. “They cut Stallings’ budget pretty hard. He can keep the equipment functional and the paychecks steady, barely, but . . .”
I arched a brow.
“I need your opinion,” she said.
She shook her head. “I don’t want to prejudice you. Just look and tell me what you see.”
“I can do that,” I said.
“I’ll pay you myself.”
“Murph, you don’t need to — ”
She gave me a very hard look.
Sergeant Murphy’s wounded pride wouldn’t allow her to take charity. I lifted my hands in mock surrender, relenting. “Whatever you say, boss.”
She took me to an apartment on the seventh floor. There were a couple of doors in the hall standing slightly open, and I caught furtive looks from their residents from the corner of my eye as we walked past. At the far end of the hall stood a pair of guys who looked like medtechs — bored, grouchy medtechs. One of them was smoking, the other leaning against a wall with his arms crossed and his cap’s bill down over his eyes. Murphy and the two of them ignored one another as Murphy opened the apartment door.
Murphy gestured for me to go in and planted her feet, clearly intending to wait.
I went into the apartment. It was small, worn, and shabby, but it was clean. A miniature jungle of very healthy green plants covered most of the far wall, framing the two windows. From the door, I could see a tiny television on a TV stand, an old stereo, and a futon.
The dead woman lay on the futon.
She had her hands folded over her stomach. I didn’t have the experience to tell exactly how long she’d been there, but the corpse had lost all its color and its stomach looked slightly distended, so I guessed that she died at least the day before. It was hard to guess at her age, but she couldn’t have been much more than thirty. She wore a pink terrycloth bathrobe, a pair of glasses, and had her brown hair pulled up into a bun.
On the coffee table in front of the futon there was a prescription bottle, its top off, empty. A decanter of golden-brown liquid, dusted for prints and covered by a layer of plastic, sat beside it, as was a tumbler that was empty but for a quarter inch of water still in its bottom, enough for a melted ice cube or two.
Next to the tumbler there was a handwritten note, also inside in a plastic bag, along with a gel-tip pen.
I looked at the woman. Then I went over to the futon and read the note:
I’m so tired of being afraid. There’s nothing left. Forgive me. Janine.
I’d seen corpses before, don’t get me wrong. In fact, I’d seen crime scenes that looked like photos of Hell’s slaughterhouse. I’d smelled worse, too—believe you me, an eviscerated body puts off a stench of death and rot so vile that it is almost a solid object. By comparison to some of my previous cases, this one was quite peaceful. Well-organized. Tidy, even.
It looked nothing like the home of a dead woman. Maybe that’s what made it feel so creepy. Except for Janine’s corpse, the apartment looked like its owners had just stepped out for a bite to eat.
I prowled around, careful not to touch anything. The bathroom and one of the bedrooms were like the living room; neat, a little sparse, not rich, but obviously well cared-for. I hit the kitchen next. Dishes were soaking in now-cold water in the sink. In the fridge, chicken was marinating in some kind of sauce, its glass bowl covered with Saran.
I heard a quiet step behind me, and said, “Suicides don’t usually leave a meal marinating, do they? Or dishes soaking to be cleaned? Or their glasses on?”
Murphy made a noncommittal noise in her throat.
“No pictures up anywhere,” I mused. “No family portraits, graduation shots, pictures of everyone on at Disneyland.” I added up some other things as I turned toward the second bedroom. “No hair in the sink or bathroom trash can. No computers.”
I opened the door to the master bedroom and closed my eyes, reaching out with my senses to get a feel of the room. I found what I expected.
“She was a practitioner,” I said quietly.
Janine had set up her temple on a low wooden table against the east wall. As I drew near it, there was a sense of gentle energy, like heat coming up from a fire that had burned down to mostly ashes. The energy around the table had never been strong, and it was fading, and had been since the woman’s death. Within another sunrise, it would be completely gone.
There were a number of items on the table, carefully arranged; a bell, a thick, leather-bound book, probably a journal. There was also an old pewter chalice, very plain but free of tarnish, and a slender little mahogany wand with a crystal bound to its end with copper wire.
One thing was out of place.
An old, old knife, a slender-bladed weapon from the early Renaissance called a misericord, lay on the carpet in front of the shrine, its tip pointing at an angle toward the other side of the bedroom.
I grunted. I paced around the room to the knife. I hunkered down, thinking, then looked up the blade of the knife to its hilt. I paced back to the bedroom door and peered at the living room.
The hilt of the knife pointed at Janine’s body.
I went back to the bedroom, and squinted down the knife toward its tip.
It was pointed at the far wall.
I glanced back at Murphy, now standing in the doorway.
Murphy tilted her head. “What did you find?”
“Not sure yet. Hang on.” I walked over to the wall and held up my hand about half an inch from its surface. I closed my eyes and focused on a very faint trace of energy left there. After several moments of concentration, I lowered my hand again. “There’s something there,” I said. “But it’s too faint for me to make it out without using my Sight. And I’m getting sick of doing that.”
“What does that mean?” Murphy asked me.
“It means I need something from my kit. Be right back.” I went outside and down to my car, where I kept a fisherman’s tackle box. I snagged it and went back up to the dead woman’s bedroom.
“That’s new,” Murphy said.
I sat the box on the floor and opened it. “I’ve been teaching my apprentice thaumaturgy. We have to go out to the country sometimes, for safety’s sake.” I rummaged through the box and finally drew out a plastic test-tube full of metallic grains. “I just tossed things into a grocery sack for the first couple of weeks, but it was easier to put together a more permanent mobile kit.”
“What’s that?” Murphy asked.
“Copper filings,” I said. “They conduct energy. If there’s some kind of pattern here, I might be able to make it out.”
“Ah. You’re dusting for prints,” Murphy said.
“Pretty much, yeah.” I pulled a lump of chalk out of my duster’s pocket and squatted to draw a very faint circle on the carpet. I willed it closed as I completed the circle, and felt it spring to life, an invisible screen of power that kept random energies away from me and focused my own power. The spell was a delicate one, for me anyway, and trying to use it without a circle would have been like trying to light a match in a hurricane.
I closed my eyes, concentrating, and poured an ounce or two of copper filings into my right palm. I willed a whisper of energy down into the filings, enough to create a magical charge in them that would draw them toward the faint energy on the wall. When they were ready, I murmured, “Illumina magnus.” Then I broke the circle with my foot, releasing the spell, and cast the filings outward.
They glittered with little blue-white sparks, crackling audibly as they struck the wall and stayed there. The scent of ozone filled the air.
I leaned forward and blew gently over the wall, clearing any stray filings that might have clung to the wall on their own. Then I stepped back.
The copper filings had fallen into definite shapes - specifically, letters:
Murphy furrowed her brow and stared at it. “A Bible verse?”
“I don’t know that one,” she said. “Do you?”
I nodded. “It’s one that stuck in my head: suffer not a witch to live.”