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White Night (The Dresden Files #9)(14)
Author: Jim Butcher

"Never hurts to be cautious," I agreed. "But you're edging toward paranoid, Ms. Ash."

She began to shut the door. "This is my home. And I'm not inviting you inside."

"Groovy," I said, and stepped over the threshold and into the apartment, nudging her gently aside before she could close the door.

As I did, I felt the pressure of the threshold, an aura of protective magical energy that surrounds any home. The threshold put up a faintly detectable resistance as my own aura of power met it - and could not cross it. If Anna, the home's owner, had invited me in, the threshold would have parted like a curtain. She hadn't, and as a result, if I wanted to come inside, I'd have to leave much of my power at the door. If I had to work any forces while I was in there, I'd be crippled practically to the point of total impotence.

I turned to see Anna staring at me in blank surprise. She was aware of what I had just done.

"There," I told her. "If I was of the spirit world, I couldn't cross your threshold. If I had planned on hurting someone in here, would I have disarmed myself? Stars and stones, would I have shown up with a cop to witness me doing it?"

Murphy took her cue from me, and entered the same way.

"I..." Anna said, at a loss. "How... how did you know the ward wouldn't go off in your face?"

"Judgment call," I told her. "You're a cautious person, and there are kids in this building. I don't think you'd have slapped up something that went boom whenever anyone stepped through the doorway."

She took a deep breath and then nodded. "You wouldn't have liked what happened if you'd tried to force the door, though."

"I believe you," I told her. And I did. "Ms. Ash, I'm not here to threaten or harm anyone. I can't make you talk to me. If you want me to go, right now, I'll go," I promised her. "But for your own safety, please let me talk to you first. A few minutes. That's all I ask."

"Anna?" came Abby's voice. "I think you should hear them out."

"Yes," said another woman's voice, quiet and low. "I agree. And I know something of him. If he gives you his word, he means it."

Thinking on it, I hadn't ever really heard Helen Beckitt's voice before, unless you counted moans. But its quiet solidity and lack of inflection went perfectly with her quasi-lifeless eyes.

I traded an uneasy glance with Murphy, then looked back to Anna.

"Ms. Ash?" I asked her.

"Give me your word. Swear it on your power."

That's serious, at least among wizards in my league. Promises have power. One doesn't swear by one's magical talent and break the oath lightly - to do so would be to reduce one's own strength in the Art. I didn't hesitate to answer. "I swear to you, upon my power, to abide as a guest under your hospitality, to bring no harm to you or yours, nor to deny my aid if they would suffer thereby."

She let out a short, quick breath and nodded. "Very well. I promise to behave as a host, with all the obligations that apply. And call me Anna, please." She pronounced her name with the Old World emphasis: Ah-nah. She beckoned with one hand and led us into the apartment. "I trust you will not take it amiss if I do not make a round of introductions."

Understandable. A full name, given from one's own lips, could provide a wizard or talented sorcerer with a channel, a reference point that could be used to target any number of harmful, even lethal spells, much like fresh blood, nail clippings, or locks of hair could be used for the same. It was all but impossible to give away your full name accidentally in a conversation, but it had happened, and if someone in the know thought a wizard might be pointing a spell their way, they got real careful, real fast, when it came to speaking their own name.

"No problem," I told her.

Anna's apartment was nicer than most, and evidently had received almost a complete refurbishing in the past year or three. She had windows with a reasonably good view, and her furnishings were predominantly of wood, and of excellent quality.

Five women sat around the living area. Abby sat in a wooden rocking chair, holding her bright-eyed little Yorkie in her lap. Helen Beckitt stood by a window, staring listlessly out at the city. Two Anna lifted a hand in a gesture beseeching Helen for silence. "At least two more reliable witnesses have reported that the last time they saw some of the folk who had disappeared, they were in the company of the grey-cloaked man. Several others have reported sightings of the beautiful dark-haired man instead."

I shook my head. "And you thought the guy in the cloak was me?"

"How many tall, grey-cloaked men move in our circles in Chicago, sir?" Priscilla said, her voice frosty.

"You can get grey corduroy for three dollars a yard at a surplus fabric store," I told her. "Tall men aren't exactly unheard of in a city of eight million, either."

Priscilla narrowed her eyes. "Who was it, then?"

Abby tittered, which made Toto wag his tail.

I pursed my lips in a moment of thought. "I'm pretty sure it wasn't Murphy."

Helen Beckitt snorted out a breath through her nose.

"This isn't a joking matter," Priscilla snapped.

"Oh. Sorry. Given that I only found out about a grey cloak sighting about two seconds ago, I had assumed the question was facetious." I turned to face Anna. "It wasn't me. And it wasn't a Warden of the Council - or at least, it damned well better not have been a Warden of the Council."

"And if it was?" Anna asked quietly.

I folded my arms. "I'll make sure he never hurts anyone. Ever again."

Murphy stepped forward and said, "Excuse me. You said that three members of the order had died. What were their names, please?"

"Maria," Anna said, her words spaced with the slow, deliberate beat of a funeral march. "Janine. Pauline."

I saw where Murphy was going.

"What about Jessica Blanche?" she asked-

Anna frowned for a moment and then shook her head. "I don't think I've heard the name."

"So she's not in the order," Murphy said. "And she's not in the, ah, community?"

"Not to my knowledge," Anna replied. She looked around the room. "Does anyone here know her?"

Silence.

I traded a glance with Murphy. "Some of these things are not like the others."

"Some of these things are kind of the same," she responded.

"Somewhere to start, at least," I said.

Someone's watch started beeping, and the girl on the couch beside Priscilla sat up suddenly. She was young, maybe even still in her teens, with the rich, smoke-colored skin of regions of eastern India. She had heavy-lidded brown eyes, and wore a bandanna tied over her straight, glossy black hair. She was dressed in a lavender ballet leotard with cream-colored tights covering long legs, and she had the muscled, athletic build of a serious dancer. She wore a man's watch that looked huge against her fine-boned wrist. She turned it off and then glanced up at Anna, fidgeting. "Ten minutes."

 

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