br /> 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?"
Many things are not as they seem: The worst things in life never are.
I pulled my battle-scarred, multicolored old Volkswagen Beetle up in front of a run-down 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 blond 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 aren'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 some-times, 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's 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. "
"Damn right. "
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 terry-cloth 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 did 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.
Murphy made a noncommittal noise in her throat.
"No pictures up anywhere," I mused. "No family portraits, graduation shots, pictures of everyone 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 set 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 magic. 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. '"
"Murder, then," Murphy said. I grunted. "Looks like. "
"And the killer wanted you to know it. " She came to stand beside me, frowning up at the wall. "A cop couldn't have found this. "
"Yeah," I said. The empty apartment made a clicking noise, one of those settling-building, homey sounds that would have been familiar to the victim.
Murphy's tone became lighter. "So, what are we looking at here? Some kind of religious wacko? Salem Witch Trials aficionado? The Inquisitor reborn?"
"And he uses magic to leave a message?" I asked.
"Wackos can be hypocrites. " She frowned. "How did the message get there? Did a practitioner have to do it?"
I shook my head. "After they killed her, they probably just dipped their finger in the water in the chalice, used it to write on the wall. Water dried up, but a residue of energy remained. "
She frowned. "From water?"
"Blessed water from the cup on her shrine," I said. "Think of it as holy water. It's imbued with positive energy the same way. "
Murphy squinted at me and then at the wall. "Holy? I thought magic was just all about energy and math and equations and things. Like electricity or thermodynamics. "
"Not everyone thinks that," I said. I nodded at the altar. "The victim was a Wiccan. "
Murphy frowned. "A witch?"
"She was also a witch," I said. "Not every Wiccan has the innate strength to be a practitioner. For most of them, there's very little actual power involved in their rites and ceremonies. "
"Then why do them?"
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony. " I shrugged. "Every faith has its ceremonies, Murph. "
"This was about a conflict of religion, then?" Murphy said.
I shrugged. "It's sort of difficult for sincere Wiccans to conflict with other religions. Wicca itself is really fluid. There are some basic tenets that ninety-nine percent of all Wiccans follow, but at its core the faith is all about individual freedom. Wiccans believe that as long as you aren't hurting anyone else by doing it, you should be free to act and worship in whatever way you'd like. So everyone's beliefs are a little bit different. Individualized. "
Murphy, who was more or less Catholic, frowned. "Seems to me that Christianity has a few things to say about forgiveness and tolerance and treating others the way you'd like to be treated. "
"Uh-huh," I said. "Then came the Crusades, the Inquisition. . . "
"Which is my point," Murphy said. "Regardless of what I think about Islam or Wicca or any other religion, the fact is that it's a group of people. Every faith has its ceremonies. And since it's made up of people, every faith also has its assholes. "
"You only need one side to start a fight," I agreed. "KKK quotes a lot of scripture. So do a lot of reactionary religious organizations. A lot of times, they take it out of context. " I gestured at the wall. "Like this. "
"I dunno. 'Suffer not a witch to live. ' Seems fairly clear. "
"Out of context, but clear," I said. "Keep in mind that this appears in the same book of the Bible that approves the death sentence for a child who curses his parents, owners of oxen who injure someone through the owner's negligence, anybody who works or kindles a fire on Sunday, and anyone who has sex with an animal. "
sp; Murphy snorted.
"Also keep in mind that the original text was written thousands of years ago. In Hebrew. The actual word that they used in that verse describes someone who casts spells that do harm to others. There was a distinction, in that culture, between harmful and beneficial magic.
"By the time we got to the Middle Ages, the general attitude within the faith was that anyone who practiced any kind of magic was automatically evil. There was no distinction between white and black magic. And when the verse came over to English, King James had a thing about witches, so 'harmful caster of spells' just got translated to 'witch. '"
"Put that way, it sounds like maybe someone took it out of context," Murphy said. "But you'd get arguments from all kinds of people that the Bible has got to be perfect. That God would not permit such errors to be made in the Holy Word. "
"I thought God gave everyone free will," I said. "Which presumably - and evidently - includes the freedom to be incorrect when translating one language into another. "
"Stop making me think," Murphy said. "I'm believing over here. "
I grinned. "See? This is why I'm not religious. I couldn't possibly keep my mouth shut long enough to get along with everyone else. "
"I thought it was because you'd never respect any religion that would have you. "
"That too," I said.
Neither one of us, during this conversation, looked back toward the body in the living room. An uncomfortable silence fell. The floorboards creaked.
"Murder," Murphy said, finally, staring at the wall. "Maybe someone on a holy mission. "
"Murder," I said. "Too soon to make any assumptions. What made you call me?"
"That altar," she said. "The inconsistencies about the victim. "
"No one is going to buy magic writing on a wall as evidence. "
"I know," she said. "Officially, she's going down as a suicide. "
"Which means the ball is in my court," I said.
"I talked to Stallings," she said. "I'm taking a couple of days of personal leave, starting tomorrow. I'm in. "
"Cool. " I frowned suddenly and got a sick little feeling in my stomach. "This isn't the only suicide, is it. "
"Right now, I'm on the job," Murphy said. "That isn't something I could share with you. The way someone like Butters might. "
"Right," I said.
With no warning whatsoever, Murphy moved, spinning in a blur of motion that swept her leg out in a scything, ankle-height arc behind her. There was a thump of impact, and the sound of something heavy hitting the floor. Murphy - her eyes closed - sprang onto something unseen, and her hands moved in a couple of small, quick circles, fingers grasping. Then Murphy grunted, set her arms, and twisted her shoulders a little.
There was a young woman's high-pitched gasp of pain, and abruptly, underneath Murphy, there was a girl. Murphy had her pinned on her stomach on the floor, one arm twisted behind her, wrist bent at a painful angle.
The girl was in her late teens. She wore combat boots, black fatigue pants, and a tight, cutoff grey T-shirt. She was tall, most of a foot taller than Murphy, and built like a brick house. Her hair had been cut into a short, spiky style and dyed peroxide white. A tattoo on her neck vanished under her shirt, reappeared for a bit on her bared stomach, and continued beneath the pants. She had multiple earrings, a nose ring, an eyebrow ring, and a silver stud through that spot right under her lower lip. On the hand Murphy had twisted up behind her back, she wore a bracelet of dark little glass beads.
"Harry?" Murphy said in that tone of voice that, while polite and patient, demanded an explanation.
I sighed. "Murph. You remember my apprentice, Molly Carpenter. "
Murphy leaned to one side and looked at her profile. "Oh, sure," she said. "I didn't recognize her without the pink-and-blue hair. Also, she wasn't invisible last time. " She gave me a look, asking if I should let her up.
I gave Murphy a wink, and squatted down on the carpet next to the girl. I gave her my best scowl. "I told you to wait at the apartment and practice your focus. "
"Oh, come on," Molly said. "It's impossible. And boring as hell. "
"Practice makes perfect, kid. "
"I've been practicing my ass off!" Molly protested. "I know fifty times as much as I did last year. "
"And if you keep up the pace for another six or seven years," I said, "you might - you might - be ready to go it alone. Until then, you're the apprentice, I'm the teacher, and you do what I tell you. "
"But I can help you!"
"Not from a jail cell," I pointed out.
"You're trespassing on a crime scene," Murphy told her.
"Oh, please," Molly said, both scorn and protest in her voice.
(In case it slipped by, Molly has authority issues. )
It was probably the worst thing she could have said.
"Right," Murphy said. She produced cuffs from her jacket pocket, and slapped them on Molly's pinned wrist. "You have the right to remain silent. "
Molly's eyes widened and she stared up at me. "What? Harry. . . "
"If you choose to give up that right," Murphy continued, chanting it with the steady pace of ritual, "anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. "
I shrugged. "Sorry, kid. This is real life. Look, your juvenile record is sealed, and you'll be tried as an adult. First offense, I doubt you'll do much more than. . . Murph?"
Murphy took a break from the Miranda chant. "Thirty to sixty days, maybe. " Then she resumed.
"There, see? No big deal. See you in a month or three. "
Molly's face got pale. "But. . . but. . . "
"Oh," I added, "beat someone up on the first day. Supposed to save you a lot of trouble. "
Murphy dragged Molly to her feet, her hands now cuffed. "Do you understand your rights as I have conveyed them to you?"
Molly's mouth fell open. She looked from Murphy to me, her expression shocked.
"Or," I said, "you might apologize. "
"I-I'm sorry, Harry," she said.
I sighed. "Not to me, kid. It isn't my crime scene. "
"But. . . " Molly swallowed and looked at Murphy. "I was just's-standing there. "
"You wearing gloves?" Murphy asked.
"Um. " Molly swallowed. "The door. Just pushed it a little. And that Chinese vase she's planted her spearmint in. The one with a crack in it. "
"Which means," Murphy said, "that if I can show that this is a murder, a full forensic sweep could pick up your fingerprints, the imprint of your shoes, and, as brittle as your hairdo is, possibly genetic traces if any of it broke off. Since you aren't one of the investigating officers or police consultants, that evidence would place you at the scene of the crime and could implicate you in a murder investigation. "
Molly shook her head. "But you just said it would be called a suic - "
"Even if it is, you don't know proper procedure, the way Harry does, and your presence here might contaminate the scene and obscure evidence about the actual killer, making the murderer even more difficult to find before he strikes again. "
Molly just stared at her.
"That's why there are laws about civilians and crime scenes. This isn't a game, Miss Carpenter," Murphy said, her voice cool, but not angry. "Mistakes here could cost lives. Do you understand me?"
Molly glanced from Murphy to me and back, and her shoulders sagged. "I didn't mean to. . . I'm sorry. "
I said in a gentle voice, "Apologies won't give life back to the dead, Molly. You still haven't learned to consider consequences, and you can't afford that. Not anymore. "
Molly flinched a little and nodded.
"I trust that this will never happen again," Murphy said.
"No, ma'am. "
Murphy looked skeptically at Molly and back to me.
"She means well," I said. "She just wanted to help. "
Molly gave me a grateful glance.
Murphy's tone softened as she took the cuffs off. "Don't we all. "
Molly rubbed at her wrists, wincing. "Um. Sergeant? How did you know I was there?"
"Floorboards creaking when no one was standing on them," I said.
"Your deodorant," Murphy said.
"Your tongue stud clicked against your teeth once," I said.
"I felt some air move a few minutes ago," Murphy said. "Didn't feel like a draft. "
Molly swallowed and her face turned pink. "Oh. "
"But we didn't see you, did we, Murph?"
Murphy shook her head. "Not even a little. "
A little humiliation and ego deflation, now and then, is good for apprentices. Mine sighed miserably.
"Well," I said. "You're here. Might as well tag along. " I nodded to Murphy and headed for the door.
"Where are we going?" Molly asked. Both bored medtechs blinked and stared as Molly followed me out of the apartment. Murphy came out behind us and waved them in to carry the body out.
"To see a friend of mine," I said. "You like polka?"