I hadn’t been back to the Forensic Institute on West Harrison since that mess with Necromancers-R-Us nearly two years before. It wasn’t an unpleasant looking place, despite the fact that it was the repository for former human beings awaiting examination. It was in a little corporate park, very neat, with green lawns and neat bushes and fresh-painted lines on the spaces in the parking lots. The buildings themselves were quietly unassuming, neat and tidy.
It was one of those places that show up a lot in my nightmares.
It wasn’t like I’d ever been a fan of viewing corpses, but a man I knew had been caught in the magical crossfire, and wound up an animated super-corpse that had nearly torn my car apart with his bare hands.
I hadn’t come back since then. I had better things to do than revisit things like that. But once I was there and parked and heading for the doors, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and I went in without hesitation.
This was Molly’s first visit. At my request, she had ditched much of the facial jewelry and wore an old Cub’s baseball hat over her peroxide locks. Even so, she didn’t exactly cut a respectable businesslike figure, but I was content with damage control. Of course, my outfit barely qualified for business casual, and the heavy leather coat in the too-warm weather probably gave me a distinctive aura of eccentricity. Or at least it would have, if I made more money.
The guard sitting at the desk where Phil had been murdered was expecting me, but not Molly, and he told me she would have to wait. I said I’d wait, too, until Butters verified her. The guard looked sullen about being forced to expend the enormous effort it took to punch an intercom number. He growled into the phone, grunted a few times, then thumped a switch and the security door buzzed. Molly and I went on through.
There are several examination rooms at the morgue, but it’s never hard to figure out which one Butters is inside. You just listen for the polka.
I homed in on a steady “oom-pah, oom-pah” of a tuba, until I could pick up the strains of clarinet and accordion skirling along with it. Exam room three. I rapped briefly on the door and opened it without actually stepping inside.
Waldo Butters was bent over his desk, squinting at his computer’s screen, while his butt and legs shuffled back and forth in time to the polka music. He muttered something to himself, nodded, and hit the space bar on his keyboard with one elbow in time with his tapping heels, without looking up at me. “Hey, Harry.”
I blinked. “Is that Bohemian Rhapsody?”
“Yankovic. Man’s a freaking genius,” he replied. “Give me a sec to power down before you come all the way in.”
“No problem,” I told him.
“You’ve worked with him before?” Molly asked quietly.
“Uh huh,” I said. “He’s clued.”
Butters waited until his printer started rattling, then shut down the computer and walked to the printer to pick up a couple of pages and staple them together. Then he dropped the pages onto a small stack of them and bound them with a large rubber band. “Okay, that should do it.” He turned to face me with a grin.
Butters was an odd little duck. He wasn’t much taller than Murphy, and she probably had more muscle than he did. His shock of black hair resembled nothing so much as an explosion in a steel wool factory. He was all knees and elbows, especially in the surgical greens he was wearing, his face was lean and angular, his nose beaky, and his eyes were bright behind the prescription glasses.
“Harry,” he said, offering his hand. “Long time, no see. How’s the hand?”
I traded grips with him. Butters had long, wiry fingers, very precise, neat, and not at all weak. He wasn’t anyone’s idea of dangerous, but the little guy had guts and brains. “Only three months or so. And not too bad.” I held my gloved left hand up and wiggled all the fingers. My ring and pinky fingers moved with little trembles and twitches, but by God they moved when I told them to.
The flesh of my left hand had practically melted during an unanticipated conflagration during a battle with a scourge of vampires. The doctors had been shocked that they didn’t have to amputate, but told me I’d never use it again. Butters had helped me work out a regimen of physical therapy, and my fingers were mostly functional again, though my hand still looked pretty horrible—but even that had begun to change, at least a little. The ugly little lumps of scar tissue and flesh had begun to fade, and my hand looked considerably less like a melted wax model than it had before. The nails had grown back in, too.
“Good,” Butters said. “Good. You still playing guitar?”
“I hold it. It makes noise. Might be a little generous to call it playing.” I gestured to Molly. “Waldo Butters, this is Molly Carpenter, my apprentice.”
“Apprentice, eh?” Butters extended an amiable hand. “Pleased to meetcha,” he said. “So does he turn you into squirrels and fishes and stuff, like in The Sword in the Stone?”
Molly sighed. “I wish. I keep trying to get him to show me how to change form, but he won’t.”
“I promised your parents I wouldn’t let you melt yourself into a pile of goo,” I told her. “Butters, I assume someone—and I won’t name any names—told you I’d be dropping by?”
“Yowsa,” the little M.E. said, nodding. He held up a finger, went to the door, and locked it, before turning to lean his back against it. “Look, Dresden. I have to be careful what kind of information I share, right? It comes with the job.”
“So you didn’t hear it from me.”
I looked at Molly. “Who said that?”
“Groovy,” Butters said. He walked back over to me and offered me the packet of papers. “Names and addresses of the deceased,” he said.
I frowned and flipped through them; columns of text, much of it technical; ugly photographs. “The victims?”
“Officially, they’re the deceased.” His mouth tightened. “But yeah. I’m pretty sure they’re victims.”
He opened his mouth, closed it again, and frowned. “You ever see something out of the corner of your eye? But when you look at it, there’s nothing there? Or at least, it doesn’t look like what you thought it was?”
“Same thing here,” he said. “Most of these folks show classic, obvious suicides. There are just a few little details wrong. You know?”
“No,” I said. “Enlighten me.”
“Take that top one,” he said. “Pauline Moskowitz. Thirty-nine, mother of two, husband, two dogs. She disappears on a Friday night and opens up her wrists in a hotel bathtub around 3 a.m. Saturday morning.”
I read over it. “Am I reading this right? She was on anti-depressants?”
“Uh huh,” Butters said, “but nothing extreme, and she’d been on them and stable for eight years. Never showed suicidal tendencies before, either.”
I looked at the ugly picture of a very ordinary-looking woman lying naked and dead in a tub of cloudy liquid. “So what’s got your scalpel in a knot?”
“The cuts,” Butters said. “She used a box knife. It was in the tub with her. She severed tendons in both wrists.”
“So,” Butters said. “Once she’d cut the tendons on one wrist, she’d have had very little controlled movement with the fingers in that hand. So what’d she do to cut them both? Use two box knives at the same time? Where’s the other knife?”
“Maybe she held it with her teeth,” I said.
“Maybe I’ll close my eyes and throw a rock out over the lake, and it will land in a boat,” Butters said. “It’s technically possible, but it isn’t really likely. The second wound almost certainly wouldn’t be as deep or as clean. I’ve seen ‘em look like someone was cutting up a block of parmesan into slivers. These two cuts are almost identical.”
“I guess it’s not conclusive, though,” I said.
“I’ve been hearing that a lot today.” I frowned. “What’s Brioche think?”
At the mention of his boss, Butters grimaced. “Occam’s razor, to use his own spectacularly insensitive yet ironic phrasing. They’re suicides. End of story.”
“But your guess is that someone else was holding the knife?”
The little M.E.’s face turned bleak, and he nodded without speaking.
“Good enough for me,” I said. “What about the body today?”
“Can’t say until I look,” Butters said. He gave me a shrewd look. “But you think it’s another murder.”
“I know it is,” I replied. “But I’m the only one, until Murphy’s off the clock.”
“Right,” Butters sighed.
I flipped past Mrs. Moskowitz’s pages, to the next set of ugly pictures. Also a woman. The pages named her Maria Casselli. Maria had been twenty three when she washed down thirty Valium with a bottle of drain cleaner.
“Another hotel room,” I noted quietly.
Molly glanced over my shoulder at the printout of the photo at the scene. She turned pale and took several steps away from me.
“Yeah,” Butters said, concerned eyes on my apprentice. “It’s a little unusual. Most suicides are at home. They usually only go somewhere else if they need to jump off a bridge or drive their car into a lake or something.”
“Ms. Casselli had a family,” I said. “Husband, her younger sister living with her.”
“Yeah,” Butters said. “You can guess what Brioche had to say.”
“She walked in on her hubby and baby sister, decided to end it all?”
“Uh,” Molly said. “I think . . .”
“Outside,” Butters provided, unlocking the door. “First door on the right.”
Molly hurried from the room, down to the bathroom Butters had directed her to.
“Jesus, Harry,” Butters said. “Kid’s a little young for this.”
I held up the picture of Maria’s body. “Lot of that going around.”
“She’s actually a wizard? Like you?”
“Someday,” I said. “If she survives.” I read over the next two profiles, both of women in their twenties, both apparent suicides in hotel rooms, both of them with housemates of one sort or another.
The last profile was different. I read over it and glanced up at Butters. “What’s with this one?”
“Fits the same general profile,” Butters said. “Women, dead in hotel rooms.”
I frowned down at the papers. “Where’s the cause of death?”
“That’s the thing,” Butters said. “I couldn’t find one.”
I lifted both eyebrows at him.
He spread his hands. “Harry, I know my trade. I like figuring this stuff out. And I haven’t got the foggiest why the woman is dead. Every test I ran came up negative, every theory I put together fell apart. Medically speaking, she’s in good shape. It’s like her whole system just . . . got the switch turned off. Everything at once. Never seen anything like it.”
“Jessica Blanche.” I checked both profile. “Nineteen. And pretty. Or at least pretty-ish.”
“Hard to tell with dead girls,” Butters said. “But yeah, that was my take.”
“But not a suicide.”
“Like I said. Dead, and in hotel rooms.”
“Then what’s the connection to the other deaths?”
“Little things,” Butters said. “Like, she had a purse with ID in it, but no clothes.”
“Meaning someone had to have taken them away.” I rolled up the papers into a tube and thumped them against my leg, thoughtfully. The door opened, and Molly came back in, wiping at her mouth with a paper towel. “This girl still here?”
Butters lifted his eyebrows. “Yeah. Miss Blanche. Why?”
“I think maybe Molly can help.”
Molly blinked and looked up at me. “Um. What?”
“I doubt it’s going to be pleasant, Molly,” I told her. “But you might be able to read something.”
“Off of a dead girl?” Molly asked quietly.
“You’re the one who wanted to come along,” I said.
She frowned, facing me, and then took a deep breath. “Yes. Um. Yes, I was. I mean, yes, I will. Try.”
“Will you?” I asked. “You sure? Won’t be fun. But if it gets us more information, it could save someone’s life.”
I watched her for a moment, until her expression set in determination and she met my eyes. She straightened and nodded once. “Yes.”
“All right,” I said. “Get yourself set for it. Butters, we need to give her a few minutes alone. Can we go get Miss Blanche?”
“Um,” Butters said. “What’s this going to entail, exactly?”
“Nothing much. I’ll explain it on the way.”
He chewed on his lip for a moment, and then nodded once. “This way.”
He led me down the hall to the storage room. It was another exam room, like the one we’d just been in, but it also featured a wall of body-sized refrigerated storage units like morgues are supposed to have. This was the room we’d been in when a necromancer and a gaggle of zombies had put a bullet through the head of Butters’ capacity to ignore the world of the supernatural.
Butters got out a gurney, consulted a record sheet on a clipboard, and wheeled it over to the fridges. “I don’t like to come in here, any more. Not since Phil.”
“Me either,” I said.
He nodded. “Here, get that side.”
I didn’t want to. I am a wizard, sure, but corpses are inherently icky, even if they aren’t animated and trying to kill you. But I tried to pretend we were sliding a heavy load of groceries onto a cart, and helped him draw a body, resting upon a metal tray and covered in a heavy cloth, onto the gurney.
“So,” he said. “What is she going to do?”
“Look into its eyes,” I said.
He gave me a somewhat skeptical look. “Trying to see the last thing impressed on her retina or something? You know that’s pretty much mythical, right?”
“Other impressions get left on a body,” I said. “Final thoughts, sometimes. Emotions, sensations.” I shook my head. “Technically, those kinds of impressions can get left on almost any kind of inanimate object. You’ve heard of object reading, right?”
“That’s for real?” he asked.
“Yeah. But it’s an easy sort of thing to contaminate and it can be tricky as helland entirely apart from that, it’s extremely difficult to do it.”
“Oh,” Butters said. “But you think there might be something left on the corpse?”
“That sounds really useful.”
“So how come you don’t do it all the time?” he asked.
“It’s delicate,” I said. “When it comes to magic, I’m not much for delicate.”
He frowned and we started rolling the gurney. “But your only half-trained apprentice is?”
“The wizarding business isn’t standardized,” I said. “Any given wizard will have an affinity for different kinds of magic, due to their natural talents, personalities, experiences. Each has different strengths.”
“What are yours?” he asked.
“Finding things. Following things. Blowing things up, mostly,” I said. “I’m good at those. Redirecting energy, sending energy out into the world to resonate with the energy of what I’m trying to find. Moving energy around or redirecting it or storing it up to use later.”
“Ah hah,” he said. “None of which is delicate?”
“I’ve practiced enough to handle a lot of different kinds of delicate magic,” I said. “But . . . it’s the difference between me strumming power chords on a guitar and me playing a complex classical Spanish piece.”
Butters absorbed that and nodded. “And the kid plays Spanish guitar?”
“Close enough. She’s not as strong as me, but she’s got a gift for the more subtle magic. Especially mental and emotional stuff. It’s what got her in so much trouble with . . .”
I bit my tongue and stopped in mid-sentence. It wasn’t my place to discuss Molly’s violations of the White Council’s Laws of Magic with others. She would have enough trouble getting past the horrible acts she’d committed in innocence without me painting her as a psycho monster-in-training.
Butters watched my face for a few seconds, then nodded and let it pass. “What do you think she’ll find?”
“No clue,” I said. “That’s why we look.”
“Could you do this?” he said. “I mean, if you had to?”
“I’ve tried it,” I hedged. “But I’m bad about projecting things onto the object, and I can barely ever get something intelligible out of it.”
“You said it might not be pleasant for her,” Butters said. “Why?”
“Because if something’s there, and she can sense it, she gets to experience it. First person. Like she’s living it herself.”
Butters let out a low whistle. “Oh. Yeah. I guess that could be bad.”
We got back to the other room, and I peered in before opening the door. Molly was sitting on the floor with her eyes closed, her legs folded lotus-style, her head tilted slightly up. Her hands rested on her thighs, the tips of her thumbs pressed lightly against the tips of her middle fingers.
“Quietly,” I murmured. “No noise until she’s finished. Okay?”
Butters nodded. I opened the door as silently as I could. We brought the gurney into the room, left it in front of Molly, and then at my beckon, Butters and I went to the far wall and settled in to wait.
It took Molly better than twenty minutes to focus her mind for the comparatively simple spell. Focus of intention, of will, is integral to any use of magic. I’d drawn myself up to focus power so often and for so long that I only had to actually make a conscious effort to do it when a spell was particularly complex, dangerous, or when I thought it wise to be slow and cautious. Most of the time, it took me less than a second to gather up my will—which is critical in any situation where speed is a factor. Drooling abominations and angry vampires don’t give you twenty minutes to get a punch ready.
Molly, though she was learning quickly, had a long damned way to go.
When she finally opened her eyes, they were distant, unfocused. She rose to her feet with slow, careful movements, and drifted over to the gurney with the corpse. She pulled the sheet down, revealing the dead girl’s face. Then Molly leaned down, her expression still distant, and murmured quietly beneath her breath as she opened the corpse’s eyelids.
She got something almost instantly.
Her eyes flew open wide, and she let out a short gasp. Her breath rasped in and out frantically several times before her eyes rolled back up into her head. She stood frozen and rigid for pair of quivering seconds, and then her breath escaped in a low, rough cry and her knees buckled. She did not fall to the floor so much as melt down onto it. Then she lay there, breathing hard and letting out a continuous stream of guttural whimpers.
Her breathing continued, fast and hard, her eyes unfocused. Her body rippled with several slow, undulating motions that drew the eye to her hips and breasts. Then she slowly went limp, her panting gradually slowing, though little, unmistakably pleased sounds slithered from her lips on every exhalation.
I blinked at her.
I hadn’t been expecting that.
Butters gulped audibly. Then he said, “Uh. Did she just do what I think she just did?”
I pursed my lips. “Um. Maybe.”
“What just happened?”
“She, um.” I coughed. “She got something.”
“She got something all right,” Butters muttered. He sighed. “I haven’t gotten anything like that in about two years.”
For me, it had been more like four. “I hear you,” I said, more emphatically than I meant to.
“Is she under-age?” he asked. “Legally speaking?”
“Okay. I don’t feel quite so . . . Nabokovian, then.” He raked his fingers back through his hair. “What do we do now?”
I tried to look professional and unfazed. “We wait for her to recover.”
“Uh huh.” He looked at Molly and sighed. “I need to get out more.”
Me and you both, man. “Butters, is there any way you could get her some water or something?”
“Sure,” he said. “You?”
“Right back.” Butters covered up the corpse and slipped out.
I went over to the girl and hunkered down by her. “Hey, grasshopper. Can you hear me?”
It took her longer than it should have to answer, like when you’re on the phone with someone halfway around the world. “Yes. I . . . I hear you.”
“Oh God,” she sighed, smiling. “Yes.”
I muttered under my breath, rubbed at the incipient headache beginning between my eyes, and thought dark thoughts. Dammit all, every time I’d opened myself up to some kind of horrible psychic shock in the name of investigation, I’d gotten another nightmare added to my collection. Her first time up to bat, and the grasshopper got . . .
What had she gotten?
“I want you to tell me what you sensed, right away. Sometimes the details fade out, like when you forget parts of a dream.”
“Right,” she murmured in a sleepy-sounding drawl. “Details. She . . .” Molly shook her head. “She felt good. Really, really good.”
“I gathered that much,” I said. “What else?”
Molly shook her head slowly. “Nothing else. Just that. It was all sensation. Ecstasy.” She frowned a little, as if struggling to order her thoughts. “As if the rest of her senses had been blinded by it, somehow. I don’t think there was anything else. Not sight nor sound nor thought nor memory. Nothing. She didn’t even know it when she died.”
“Think about it,” I said quietly. “Absolutely anything you can remember could be important.”
Butters came back in just then, carrying a bottle of water beaded with drops of condensation. He tossed it to me, and I passed the cold drink to Molly. “Here,” I told her. “Drink up.”
“Thanks.” She opened the bottle, turned on her side and started guzzling it without even sitting up. The pose did a lot to make her clothing look tighter.
Butters stared for a second, then sighed and quite evidently forced himself to go over to his desk and start sharpening pencils. “So what do we know?”
“Looks like she died happy,” I said. “Did you run a toxicology check on her?”
“Yeah. Some residual THC, but she could have gotten that from the contact high at a concert. Otherwise she was clean.”
“Damn,” I said. “Can you think of anything else that would do . . . that to a victim?”
“Nothing pharmacological,” Butters said. “Maybe if someone ran a wire into the pleasure centers of her brain and kept stimulating them. But, uh, there’s no evidence of open-skull surgery. I would have noticed something like that.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“So it must be something from the spooky side,” Butters said.
“Could be.” I consulted my packet again. “What did she do?”
“No one knew,” Butters said. “No one seemed to know anything about her. No one came to claim the body. We couldn’t find any relations. It’s why she’s still here.”
“No local address, either,” I said.
“No, just the one on an Indiana driver’s license, but it dead ended. Not much else in her purse.”
“And the killer took her clothes.”
“Apparently,” Butters said. “But why?”
I shrugged. “Must have been something on them he didn’t want found.” I pursed my lips. “Or something on them he didn’t want me to find.”
Molly abruptly sat up straight. “Harry, I remember something.”
“Sensation,” she said, resting one hand over her belly button. “It was like. . . I don’t know, like hearing twenty different bands playing at the same time, only tactile. But there was a prickling sort of sensation, over her stomach. Like one of those medical pinwheel things.”
“A wartenberg pinwheel,” Butters supplied.
“Eh?” I said.
“Like the one I use to test the nerves on your hand, Harry,” Butters supplied.
“Oh, ow, right.” I frowned at Molly. “How the hell do you know what one of those feels like?”
Molly gave me a lazy, wicked smile. “This is one of those things you don’t want me to explain.”
Butters let out a delicate cough. “They are sometimes used recreationally, Harry.”
My cheeks felt warm. “Ah. Right. Butters, you got a felt tip marker?”
He got one out of his desk and tossed it to me. I passed it to Molly. “Show me where.”
She nodded, lay back down on her back, and pulled her shirt up from her stomach. Then she closed her eyes, took the lid off the marker, and traced it slowly over the skin of her abdomen, her eyebrows furrowed in concentration.
When she was finished, the black ink spelled out clear, large letters:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said quietly. “We have a serial killer.”