Life is hard.
So many things have to come together for a life to begin. It has to happen in a place that supports life, something approximately as rare as hen’s teeth, from the perspective of the universe. Parents, in whatever form, have to come together for it to begin. From conception to birth, any number of hazards can end a life. And that’s to say nothing of all the attention and energy required to care for a new life until it is old enough to look after itself.
Life is full of toil, sacrifice, and pain, and from the time we stop growing we know that we’ve begun dying. We watch helplessly as year by year, our bodies age and fail, while our survival instincts compel us to keep on going—which means living with the terrifying knowledge that ultimately, death is inescapable. It takes enormous effort to create and maintain a life, and the process is full of pitfalls and unexpected complications.
Ending a life, by comparison, is simple. Easy, even. It can be done with a relatively minor effort, a single microbe, a sharp edge, a heavy weight… or a few ounces of lead.
So difficult to bring about. So easy to destroy.
You’d think we would hold life in greater value than we do.
I died in the water.
I don’t know if I bled to death from the gunshot wound or drowned. For being the ultimate terror of the human experience, once it’s over, the details of your death are unimportant. It isn’t scary anymore. You know that tunnel with the light at the end of it, that people report in near-death experiences? Been there, done that.
Granted, I never heard of anyone rushing toward the light and suddenly hearing the howling blare of a train’s horn.
I became dimly away that I could feel my feet beneath me, standing on what seemed to be a set of tracks. I knew because I could feel the approaching train making them shake and buzz against the bottoms of my feet. My heart sped up, too.
For crying out loud, did I just say that death isn’t scary anymore? Tell that to my glands.
I put my hands on my hips and just glared at the oncoming train in disgust. I’d had a long, long day, battling the forces of evil, destroying the Red Court utterly, rescuing my daughter and murdering her mother—oh, and getting shot to death. That kind of thing.
I was supposed to be at peace, or merging with the holy light, or in line for my next turn on the roller coaster, or maybe burning in an oven equipped with a stereo that played nothing but Manilow. That’s what happens when you die, right? You meet your reward. You get to find out the answer to the Big Questions of life.
“You do not get run over by trains,” I said crossly. I folded my arms, planted my feet, and thrust my jaw out belligerently as the train came thundering my way.
“What’s wrong with you?” bellowed a man’s voice, and then a heavy, strong hand wrapped around my right biceps and hauled me off the track by main force. “Don’t you see the damned train?”
Said train roared by like a living thing, a furious beast that howled and wailed in disappointment as I was taken from its path. The wind of its passage raked at me with sharp, hot fingers, actually pulling my body a couple of inches toward the edge of the platform.
After a subjective eternity, it passed, and I lay on flat ground for a moment, panting, my heart beating along lickety-split. When it finally began to slow down, I took stock of my surroundings.
I sprawled onto a platform of clean but worn concrete, and suddenly found myself under fluorescent lights, as at many train stations around Chicago. I looked around the platform, but though it felt familiar, I couldn’t exactly place it. There were no other commuters. No flyers or other advertisements. Just an empty, clean, but featureless building.
And a pair of polished wingtip shoes.
I looked up a rather modest length of cheap trousers and cheap suit and found a man of maybe thirty years looking back at me. He was built like a fireplug, and managed to give the impression that if you backed a car into him, he’d dent your fender. His eyes were dark and glittered very brightly, hinting at a lively intellect, his hairline had withdrawn considerably from where it must have been at one point, and while he wasn’t exactly good looking, it was the kind of face you could trust.
“Southbound trains are running pretty quick lately,” he said, looking down at me. “I figured you probably didn’t want to hook up with that one, mister man.”
I just stared up at him. I mentally added twenty years and forty pounds to the man standing in front of me, subtracted more hair, and realized that I knew him.
“C—“, I stammered, “C-c-c-“
“Say it with me,” he said, and enunciated. “Carmichael.”
“But you’re… you know,” I said. “Dead.”
He snorted. “Whoah, buddy, we got us a real gen-yoo-wine detective with us now. We got us the awesome wizardly intellect of mister man himself.” He offered me his hand, grinning, and said, “Look who’s talking, Dresden.”
I reached up, dazed, and took the hand of Sergeant Ron Carmichael, formerly of the Chicago Police Department, Special Investigations Division. He’d been Murphy’s partner. And he’d given his life to save her from a rampaging loup-garou. That had been… Hell’s bells, more than ten years ago. I saw him die.
Once I was standing, I stared down at him for a moment, shaking my head. I was a lot taller than he was. “You…” I said. “You look great.”
“Funny what being dead can do for you,” he said, widening his eyes dramatically. “And I tried Weight Watchers and everything.” He checked his watch. “This is fun and all, but we’d better get moving.”
“Uh,” I said, warily. “Get moving where, exactly?”
Carmichael stuck a toothpick in his mouth and drawled, “The office. Come on.”
I followed him out of the station, where an old gold-colored Mustang was waiting. He went around to the driver’s side and got in. It was dark. It was raining. The city lights were on, but the place looked deserted, except for the two of us. I still couldn’t tell exactly where in Chicago we were, which was damned odd: I know my town. I hesitated for a moment, looking around, trying to place myself by spotting the usual landmarks.
Carmichael pushed the door open. “Don’t bother, kid. Out there’re all the buildings that coulda been, as well as the ones that are. You’ll give yourself a headache if you keep thinking at it.”
I looked around once more and got into the old Mustang. I shut the door. Carmichael pulled sedately into the empty streets.
“This isn’t Chicago,” I said.
“Genius,” he said amiably.
“Then… where are we?”
“Between what?” I asked.
“Between what,” he said. “Between who. Between where. Between when.”
I frowned at him. “You left out “why.””
He shook his head and grinned. “Naw, kid. We’re real fond of why around here. We’re big fans of why.”
I frowned at that for a moment. Then I said, “Why am I here?”
“You never even heard of foreplay, didja,” Carmichael said. “Cut straight to the big stuff.”
“Why am I here as opposed to… you know… wherever it is I’m supposed to be?”
“Maybe you’re having a near-death experience,” Carmichael said. “Maybe you’re drowning, and this is the illusion your mind is creating for you, to hide you from the truth of death.”
“Being here? With you? I’ve met my subconscious and he’s not that sick.”
Carmichael laughed. It was a warm, genuine sound. “But that could be what is happening here. And that’s the point.”
“I don’t understand. At all.”
“And that’s the point, too,” he said.
He kept on smiling, and said, “Kid, you’re allowed to see as much as you can handle. Right now, we’re in someplace that looks a lot like Chicago, driving along in the rain in my old Mustang because that’s what your limits are. Any more would…” He paused, considering his words. “Would obviate certain options, and we ain’t big on that around here.”
I thought about that for a moment. Then I said, “You just used ‘obviate’ and ‘ain’t’ in the same sentence.”
“I got me one of them word-a-day calendars,” he said. “Don’t be obstreperous.”
“You kidding?” I said, settling back in the seat. “I live to be obstreperous.”
Carmichael snorted, and his eyes narrowed. “Yeah, well. We’ll see.”
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.”
Captain Murphy’s old Skylark stopped in a residential area up in Harwood Heights, a place that still looked as empty and hollow as the rest of the city. It was an odd home, for Chicago—a white stucco number with a red tile roof that looked like it had been transplanted from Southern California. In the steady rain and the mournful grey light of the streetlamps it sat, cold, lonely, and empty of purpose among the more traditional homes that surrounded it.
The Buick’s windshield wipers thumped rhythmically.
“Once you get out,” said Captain Murphy, “there’s no coming back. You’re on your own.”
“Been there, done that,” I said. I offered him my hand. “Thank you, Captain.”
He traded grips with me. I didn’t try to outcrush him. He didn’t try to crush me. The men who can really handle themselves rarely do.
I wished Captain Murphy had lived long enough for me to meet him in the real world. I had a feeling he’d have made one hell of an ally.
“I might be in touch with Karrin,” I said.
“No messages. I’ve done her enough harm,” he said, almost before I had finished speaking. His voice carried a tone of unquestionable finality. He nodded toward the house. “But you can tell the big fellow over there that I sent you. It might help.”
I nodded. Then I took a deep breath, opened the door of the car, and stepped out into—
I was more impressed with what I hadn’t stepped into, for a moment. Because when my feet hit the ground and the car door shut behind me, I wasn’t standing in Chicago’s rainy, abandoned corpse. Instead, I was on a city street on a cold, clear evening. No rain fell. The stars and moon burned bright overhead, and the ambient city light combined with a fairly fresh and heavy snowfall to make it nearly as bright as daylight outside.
Sounds rushed all around me. Traffic, distant horns, the thumping beat of music from a large stereo. A jet’s passage left a hollow roar behind it—I was standing only a few miles from O’Hare.
I turned to look behind me, but Captain Murphy’s car had vanished, back into Chicago Between, presumably.
I stood there alone.
I sighed. Then I turned and walked onto the property of Mortimer Lindquist, ectomancer.
. . . . .
Once upon a time, Morty had covered his lawn with decorations meant to be intimidating and spooky. Headstones. A wrought-iron fence with a big metal gate. Eerie lighting. The overall impression could be scary if you were gullible enough and the lighting was low, but mostly it had looked like cheap Halloween decorations outside a crack house.
Times had changed.
Morty had gotten rid of all the cheap junk, except for the fence. He’d turned his front yard into a Japanese garden. There were a few hedges, and a koi pond complete with a little wooden bridge that spanned it. Raised planters everywhere contained bonsai, all of them trees native to North America. It was a little unnerving to see what looked like an adult oak tree—only fifteen inches high and complete with miniature leaves.
There weren’t a lot of people in Chicago doing that for money, which implied that it was Morty’s own handiwork. If so, it had taken him a lot of effort and patience to create those.
I walked forward calmly, reaching out to open the gate.
My hand went right through it.
Yeah, I know, I was essentially a ghost, but I’d never gotten much practice with intangibility. I was used to reaching out for objects and being able to touch them. Now my hand simply tingled, as if waking up after I’d taken a nap and used it as a pillow. I pushed my arm a little farther forward, leaning to one side, and saw my fingertips emerge from the metal of the gate. I waggled my fingers, just to be sure.
“Okay,” I said. “No help for it, then.” I took a deep breath and held it as if I were about to jump into deep water. Then I hunched my shoulders and rushed forward.
Anticlimax. As I went through the gate, I was subjected to a swift, intense tingling sensation. Then I was on the other side.
I walked up a little stone path leading to Morty’s front door, but it wasn’t until I had gone over the bridge that I saw the man standing in the shadows on the front porch.
He was huge. Not built like a weight lifter or anything, just a naturally big-boned, brawny man standing almost as tall as I. His dark hair was gathered at the nape of his neck with a bit of ribbon. A long, dark blue coat fell to his calves, its sleeves marked with gold braid. Beneath that, he wore a uniform—a tight-fitting blue jacket, white shirt, white pants, and high black boots. He carried some kind of long-handled ax over one shoulder, and as I came to a halt, he was already drawing a flintlock pistol from his belt with his free hand. He leveled it just a little bit to one side of me and called out, “Halt! Identify yourself, scoundrel, or begone!”
“Scoundrel?” I asked, putting my fingers on my chest as if distressed at the accusation. “That’s a little unfair.”
“Ye’ve the look of a scoundrel!” boomed the man. “And a dandysprat and a ragamuffin. Though I’ll admit, for all that, ye could yet be a congressman.” I could see the white flash of his teeth in the dark as he smiled. “Give me a name, man.”
“Harry Dresden,” I said in a clear tone.
The barrel of the gun wavered a few more degrees away from me. “The wizard?”
“The late wizard,” I replied, then gestured down at myself. “The late Harry Dresden, really.”
“Zounds,” the man said. He frowned for a moment as if in thought. It didn’t look natural on him.
“If you lie,” he said slowly, “I can see no veritable reason for doing so, and I am inclined to shoot you. Yet if you tell the truth, your presence here draws mischief to my friend’s house, and I am inclined to shoot you repeatedly.” He nodded firmly and settled the gun’s barrel on me. “Either way . . .”
He was about to shoot. I didn’t know if it would re-kill me or not, but given what I had experienced of the universe, it might. At the very least, I figured, it would probably hurt like a son of a bitch. I had to keep this bozo from bringing the hammer down. Assuming his period outfit was authentic, that might be simple.
“Little rude, isn’t it, to shoot me?” I asked him. “I’m unarmed, and I’ve offered no violence or insult to you. Introduced myself, even. Whereas you haven’t even told me your name.”
The man in the blue coat looked suddenly abashed, and the pistol dropped slightly once more. “Ah yes. Um, please excuse me. Societal graces were imperfectly instilled in me in my youth, and that sad fact tends to be reflected in my more temperate afterlife.” He straightened and literally clicked his heels together, without ever moving the gun far from me, and gave me a slight bow. “The late Captain Sir Stuart Winchester of the Colonial Marines.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Sir Stuart of the Colonial Marines?”
He shrugged. “It is a protracted and complex tale.”
“Well, Stu,” I said, “With all due respect, my business here is not with you. It’s with Mr. Lindquist.”
“I hardly think so,” Stu sniffed. “Have you an invitation?”
I gave him a blank look for a moment and then said, “I’m new to the whole ghost thing, but I’m damned sure you don’t just send out envelopes through the U.S. Ghostal Service.”
“Ye’d be surprised how many postal workers leave a shade behind,” Stu countered. “The routine, methinks, is what keeps them making their rounds. The poor things don’t even realize anything’s changed.”
“Don’t change the subject,” I said. “I need to talk to Mort.”
“I am sorry, sir,” Stu said. “But the standing order regarding the visit of any uninvited ghosts is to deny them entry.”
“And you have to follow Mort’s orders?”
“It isn’t as though you could cross his threshold uninvited in any case, man,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “You have to follow his orders.”
“We are not compelled,” Stu said at once, and severely. “We aid him out of friendship and respect and . . .” He sighed and added, “And boredom. Ye gods, but this city pales after but half a century, and I’ve lingered here more than four times that.”
I found myself grinning at the ghost. “Stu, let me make you a promise. Maybe even an oath. I come to ask Mort’s help, not to harm him— and I’m reasonably sure my presence will not contribute to your ongoing sense of ennui.”
Stu let out a rolling belly laugh and began to speak, but the sound died off, and he stared at me thoughtfully, tapping a fingertip against the pistol.
“If it makes any difference,” I said, “Jack Murphy was the one who dropped me off here. Told me to mention his name.”
Stu’s eyebrows shot up. I could see the thoughts racing behind his eyes. They weren’t going to win any sprints, but they seemed good for the long haul. “Aye?” He pursed his lips. “A good fellow. For an Irishman.”
I snorted. “If he’s ever around, you’d better smile when you say—”
A flood of intangible cold pressed against my back, as suddenly as if I’d been standing in front of an industrial freezer door when it opened.
I turned to see a humanoid, grey form floating just above the ground maybe five yards away from me and drifting closer. The details were obscure, the proportions slightly off, as if I were looking at a badly molded plastic doll. There were no real features on it, just hollow, gaping eye sockets within a sunken, nearly skull-like face, and a wide, empty mouth that hung open as if the tendons attaching the lower jaw had stretched out like old elastic bands.
It moved with a kind of shuffling grace, as if it had no real weight and needed only to touch the ground to propel itself forward with its toes. It made a sound as it came, a hollow, rattling, muted gasp. It was the sound of an agonized scream that had long since run out of breath to propel it—but tried to continue anyway.
It got closer to me, and I felt colder as it did.
“Get back,” I snapped. “I mean it.”
The creature came forward with another little touch of its toes to the earth, as mindless and graceful as a hungry jellyfish, and a hell of a lot creepier.
I took a pair of quick steps back and said, “Fine. Be that way.” I lifted my right hand, drew in my will, and snarled, “Fuego.”
And nothing—nothing at all—happened.
There was no stirring of forces deep inside me. There was no current of equal parts giddy excitement, vibrating tension, and raw lightning flashing through my thoughts. There was no flash of white-hot flame that would have incinerated the apparition coming toward me.
There was no magic.
There was no magic.
“Oh, crap,” I choked and reeled back as the thing’s fingers raked at me with deathly grace, the sound of its strangled scream growing higher pitched. Its fingers didn’t end in nails. They just sort of trailed off into drifting shreds that were surrounded by deadly cold.
Behind me, there was a mechanical sound, click-clack, of a large, half-cocked trigger being pulled fully back and ready to fire.
I whirled my head around in time to see Stu’s enormous old gun snap up to aim directly at the end of my nose. I’m sure its barrel wasn’t actually as big as a train tunnel, but at the moment it sure as hell looked like it.
I felt the wave of cold intensify against my back, and by the time Stu shouted, “Get down!” I was already halfway to the ground.
I hit hard—apparently being insubstantial didn’t free me from the laws of gravity or the discomfort of its unwavering enforcement—at the same time that Stu’s pistol went off.
Everything happened in dreamtime, slowly enough for me to see every detail, but happening so swiftly that I felt that no matter how fast I moved, I would not be able to keep up. I was expecting the crack of a pistol round, or even the hollow whump of a large-bore black-powder weapon. What I got was a roar that sounded like it had been distorted by a dozen different DJs and a mile of train tunnel. The standard plume of black-powder smoke didn’t emerge from the barrel. Instead, expanding concentric rings of pastel mist puffed out, swirling at their center as if pulled into following the contrail of the bullet.
The bullet itself was no lump of lead. It was a sphere of multicolored light that looked nearly big enough to be a golf ball. It went by a couple of feet over my head, and I swear it felt like I’d gotten a mild sunburn just from being close to it. A deep tone, like the thrumming of an amplified bass-guitar string, emanated from the sphere, vibrating through my flesh and against my bones.
I turned my head in time to see the sphere smash against the chest of the attacking apparition. The not-bullet plunged into its body, tearing a hole the size of my fist in its chest. A cloud of something that looked like steam poured out of the creature. Light kindled within it, almost like an old movie projector playing upon the vapor, and I suddenly saw a flicker of shadowy images, all of them dim, warped, twisted, as if someone had made a clips reel from the random strips of celluloid from the cutting-room floor.
The images grew steadily dimmer, until there was nothing left but a thinning cloud of mist. It wasn’t until then that I saw that the grey form was gradually sagging, like a waterskin being slowly emptied.
The mists vanished. All that was left of the grey creature was an ugly, colorless lump on the ground.
Firm bootsteps came down the walkway from the porch, and Stu placed himself between me and the thing, whatever it had been. Though his hands were reloading the pistol, complete with powder horn and a short ramrod, his eyes swept up and down the street around us.
“What the hell was that?” I asked.
“Wraith,” he said quietly, with a certain professional detachment in his voice. “A ghost, like you or me, who gave in to despair and gave up his sense of self-reason.”
“Extremely so,” Stu said. He turned to look down at me. “Especially to someone like you.”
“A fresh shade. You’ve a paucity of experience in learning to defend yourself here. And it is all but impossible for a fresh shade such as yourself, to hide: there is a sense of life that clings to you.” He frowned. “To you especially.”
“Because I’m a wizard, maybe.” Stu nodded.
“What would have happened if . . . ?” I gestured at the wraith’s remains.
“It would have devoured your memories,” Stu said calmly.
I considered that for a moment and studied the remains almost wistfully. “I don’t know. I’ve got some I wouldn’t mind losing.”
Stu slid his readied pistol back into his belt. “For shades, memories are life, sustenance, and power. We are memories now, wizard.”
“The images in the mist,” I said. “When it was . . . was dying. They were its memories?”
“Aye. What was left of them.” Stu moved forward and crouched over the remains. He held out his hand, palm down over them, and took a deep breath. After a few heartbeats, glowing mist began to rise from the wraith’s remains. It snaked through the air and into Stu’s chest, flowing into him like water into a pool. When it was complete, he stood again and let out a sigh.
Whatever had struck the wraith, it had evidently been made of the same substance as Sir Stuart. If ghosts, then, were memories . . . “The bullet,” I said. “You made it out of a memory?”
“Naturally,” he said. His expression filled with a gentle, distant sorrow. “A strong one. I’ll make it into another bullet at some point.”
“Thank you,” I said. “For helping me.”
“I must admit, I did not put the poor brute down exclusively for your sake, wizard. You represent a feast for any wraith. Fresh from the world of the living, still with a touch of vitality upon you, and full to bursting with fresh, unfaded memories. The wraith that ate you would become powerful—a dire, fell creature indeed. One that could threaten the world of the living as easily as it could the world of spirit. I won’t have that.”
“Oh,” I said. “Thanks anyway.”
Stu nodded and offered me his hand. I took it, rose, and said, “I need to talk to Mort.”
Even as I spoke, I saw two more wraiths appear from the darkness. I checked behind me and saw more coming, drifting with effortless motions and deceptive speed.
“If you get me inside Mort’s threshold, I’ll be safe from them,” I said, nodding to the wraiths. “I don’t know how to defend myself against them. They’ll kill me. And if that happens, you’ll have that monster wraith on your hands.”
“Not if I kill you first,” Stu said calmly, tapping a finger on the handle of his pistol.
I turned my head slightly to one side, eyeing him, studying his face. “Nah,” I said. “Won’t happen.”
“How would you know, spook?” he asked in a flat voice. But he couldn’t keep the smile out of his eyes.
“I’m a wizard,” I said, infusing my voice with portentous undertones. “We have our ways.”
He remained silent, expression stern, but his eyes danced. I sobered.
“And those wraiths are getting closer, man.”
Stu snorted and said, “The wraiths are always getting closer.” Then he drew his pistol and pointed it at my chest. “I hereby take you prisoner, late wizard. Keep your hands in plain sight, follow all my verbal instructions, and we’ll do splendidly.”
I showed him my hands. “Oh. Uh. Okay.”
Stu nodded sharply. “About face, then. Let’s go talk to the little bald man.”
I followed Stu through the front door (dammit, tingle, ouch), and paused on the other side to consider that fact for a moment. Only a member of the household’s family could issue an invitation that would let an immaterial entity past the home’s threshold.
So. Sir Stuart was practically family around Mort’s place. Unless he was literal family. Hauntings, after all, have historically been known to remain with a specific family lineage. Could Stu be one of Mort’s ancestors, here to watch out for his familial posterity? Or had the little ectomancer always possessed an odd sort of family, one I had never known about?
Interesting. It would be wise to keep my eyes open.
The house looked much different. What had been a cheesily staged séance room had become a living room with a sofa, love seat, and comfortable chairs. I’d seen only part of the rest of the house, but as I walked with Sir Stuart, I could see that the dismal little den of a house had been renovated, redecorated, and otherwise made more beautiful. Stu guided me to a room that was part library, part office, with a fire crackling in the fireplace.
Mortimer Lindquist seemed to have finally given in to the inevitable. I’d seen him with a bad toupee, and with an even worse comb-over, but this was the first time I’d seen him sporting a full-on Charles Xavier. The unbroken shine of his pate looked a lot better than the partial coverage. He’d lost weight, too, since the last I’d seen him. I mean, he wasn’t going to be modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch or anything, but he’d definitely dropped from self-destructively obese down to merely stout. He was in his early fifties, under five-and-a-half feet tall, and dressed in black slacks and a grey silk shirt, and he wore little square-rimmed spectacles.
He sat at his table, a deck of playing cards spread out in front of him in what could be either a fortune-telling through the cards or a game of solitaire—they tended to have about the same amount of significance, in my experience.
“Did I hear a shot, Sir Stuart?” Mort asked absently, staring intently at the cards. Then his hands froze in the act of dealing another, and he shot to his feet, whirling to face me. “Oh, perfect.”
“Hiya, Morty,” I said.
“This is not happening,” Mort said, promptly getting up from the table and walking quickly toward another room. “This just can’t be happening. No one is this unlucky.”
I hurried forward, trying to keep up, and followed him into a hallway. “I need to talk to—”
“I don’t care,” Mort said, his arms crossing one another in a slashing, pushing-away gesture, never stopping. “I do not see you. I am not listening to you, Dresden. It’s not enough that you have to keep dragging me into things in life. So now your stupid ghost shows up to do it, too? No. Whatever it is, no.”
We entered a kitchen, where I found Sir Stuart already present, his arms folded, leaning back against a wall with a quiet smile as he watched. Mort went to a large cookie jar, opened it, and took out a single Oreo before replacing the lid.
“Morty, come on, it’s never been like that,” I said. “I’ve come to ask your help a couple of times because you’re a capable professional and—”
“Bullshit,” Mort snapped, spinning to face me, his eyes flashing. “Dresden came to me when he was so desperate he might as well try any old loser.”
I winced. His summation of our relationship was partially true. But not entirely. “Morty, please.”
“Morty, what?” he snapped back. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I am not getting involved in whatever international crisis you mean to perpetrate next.”
“It’s not like I’ve got a lot of choice in the matter, man. It’s you or no one. Please. Just hear me out.”
He barked out an incredulous little laugh. “No, you hear me out, shade. No means ‘no.’ It isn’t happening. It isn’t ever going to happen. I said no!” And then he slammed the door to the next room in my face.
“Dammit, Morty,” I snarled, and braced myself for the plunge through his door after him.
“Dresden, st—!” Sir Stuart said.
Too late. I slammed my nose and face into the door and fell backward onto my ass like a perfect idiot. My face began to throb immediately, swelling with pain that felt precisely normal, identical to that of any dummy who walked into a solid oak door.
“—op,” Sir Stuart finished. He sighed, and offered me a hand up. I took it and he hauled me to my feet. “Ghost dust mixed into the paint inside the room,” he explained. “No spirit can pass through it.”
“I’m familiar with it,” I muttered, and felt annoyed that I hadn’t thought of the idea before, as an additional protection against hostile spirits at my own apartment. To the beings of the immaterial, ghost dust was incontrovertible solidity. Thrown directly at a ghost, it would cause tremendous pain and paralyze it for a little while, as if the spook had been suddenly loaded down with an incredible and unexpected weight. If I’d put it all over my walls, it would have turned them into a solid obstacle to ghosts and their ilk, shutting them out with obdurate immobility.
Of course, my recipe had used depleted uranium dust, which would have made it just a tad silly to spread around the interior of my apartment.
Not that it mattered. My apartment was gone, taken when a Molotov cocktail, hurled by a vampire assassin, had burned the boarding house to the ground along with most of my worldly possessions. Only a few had been left, hidden away. God knew where they were now.
I suppose I couldn’t really count that as a loss, all things considered. Material possessions aren’t much use to a dead man.
I lifted a hand to my nose, wincing and expecting to find it rebroken. No such thing had happened, though a glob of some kind of runny, transparent, gelatinous liquid smeared the back of my hand. “Hell’s bells. I’m bleeding ectoplasm?”
That drew a smile from the late marine. “Ghosts generally do. You’ll have to forgive him, Dresden. He can be very slow to understand things at times.”
“I don’t have time to wait for him to catch on,” I said. “I need his help.”
Sir Stuart grinned some more. “You aren’t going to get it by standing there repeating yourself like a broken record. Repeating yourself like a broken record. Repeating yourself like a broken—”
“Ha, ha,” I said without enthusiasm. “People who cared about me are going to get hurt if I can’t act.”
Sir Stuart pursed his lips. “It seems to me that if your demise was to leave someone vulnerable, something would have happened to them already. It’s been six months, after all.”
I felt my jaw drop open. “W-what? Six months?”
The ghost nodded. “Today is the ninth of May, to be precise.”
I stared at him, flabbergasted. Then I turned, put my back against Morty’s impenetrable door, and used it to stay upright as I sank to the ground. “Six months?”
“That’s not . . .” I knew I was just gabbling my stream of thought, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself from talking. “That’s not right. It can’t be right. I was dead for less than a freaking hour. What kind of Rip van Winkle bullshit is this?”
Sir Stuart watched me, his expression serious and untroubled. “Time has little meaning to us now, Dresden, and it’s very easy to become unattached to it. I once lost five years listening to a Pink Floyd album.”
“There is snow a foot and a half deep on the ground,” I said, pointing in a random direction. “In May?”
His voice turned dry. “The television station Mortimer watches theorizes that it is due to person-made, global climate change.”
I was going to say something insulting, maybe even offensive, but just then the rippling sound of metallic wind chimes tinkled through the air. They were joined seconds later by more and more of the same, until the noise was considerable.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Sir Stuart turned and walked back the way we’d come, and I hurried to follow. In the next room over, a dozen sets of wind chimes hung from the ceiling. All of them were astir, whispering and singing even though there was no air moving through the room.
Sir Stuart’s hand went to his ax, and I suddenly understood what I was looking at.
It was an alarm system. “What’s happening?” I asked him.
“Another assault,” he said. “We have less than thirty seconds. Come with me.”