Rating: A healthy PG-13
Spoilers: Heavy book references in this one, a few book characters appear later on. No plot spoilers, however. TV references: Storm Front, Birds of a Feather, Things that go Bump
Chapter Length: 3093 words
Summary: An unusual epidemic has hit Chicago and Harry's in the thick of it.
Author's Notes: None.
I tried to leave after being released by Forrester, but was stopped by someone calling ‘Mr. Dresden?’. I turned around, impatient to get moving and found a young man in a hospital gown standing behind me. It took a moment for me to realize it was Jake Bloom.
“Uh...hi,” I said.
“You can see me?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said, feeling extremely tired.
He looked relieved. “Good. No one else can, I thought you might be able to. I need to talk to you.”
“Okay,” I nodded. A nurse was giving me an odd look, talking to nothing as I was. “Follow me, huh?”
I went into the supply closet again. Jake followed me in and I shut the door behind him. In his ghostly form, he looked normal. Or at least, not dead. His nose was back in line and he had colour in his cheeks. His hair was gelled up in spikes. Apparently there is hair gel in the afterlife.
“Uh, not to be blunt or anything,” I started, before he could speak. “But you do realize you’re dead, right?”
“Yeah, I figured that out,” he agreed.
“Sometimes people are in denial,” I explained.
“No, I’m pretty sure I’m dead,” he said.
“You seem to be taking it pretty well.”
He shrugged. “What’re ya gonna do? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m really, really pissed. I had plans, you know? Dying wasn’t on my To-Do list. But, I can’t really do anything about it now. Except...well, shouldn’t I be in Heaven? Or at least...not here?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m not really sure how that works exactly, but you shouldn’t be here. Sometimes when people die suddenly or violently, or they feel like they need to do something here or be avenged, they get sort of stuck half way between Here and There. There isn’t, like, a light anywhere, is there?”
“I haven’t seen one, no,” he replied. “And I’ve been all around this place.” He looked thoughtful. “Are you going to have to exorcise me?”
“I hope not,” I said, with a smile. “Are you causing trouble?”
“No, I can’t do much of anything,” he answered. “I woke up in the morgue, just before you came in with Lt. Murphy. I hid, ‘cause I was really freaked out. Then I saw Jade and I wanted to talk to her - “
“Oh, right.” Jake and Jade, that was cute. I felt bad for them and added that feeling to the growing ball of anger in my stomach.
“She was getting ready to deal with my mother. Jade isn’t Jewish and my mother has a thing about it,” he continued. He rolled his eyes. “Anyway, I wanted to comfort her or something, but she couldn’t see me or hear me. By the time I figured it out, you and Lt. Murphy were gone. I tried to follow Jade back home, but I can’t leave the hospital.”
“You’re probably bound here,” I explained. “It’s where you died.”
“Whatever,” he dismissed. “So I sort of wandered around for awhile. You and Lt. Murphy came in the next day, but I was talking to Mrs. Bailzow.”
“Yeah, she had the same illness as me. She was a really great old lady. Do you know she was a Holocaust survivor?” I shook my head. “That’s amazing. She was Roma – a gypsy? From Poland. She’s got, like, a billion grandkids. We talked for a bit. I think she was trying to keep me company, but then she said she had to go and then she sort of disappeared.”
“So, she wasn’t stuck then?” I asked.
“No, she said she was ready to go,” he said. He looked angry. “Can you imagine surviving that and living for so long, only to be killed by some stupid disease? It’s horrible.”
“This isn’t a disease, Jake,” I said. “It’s a spell. Someone, or a bunch of people, is doing this to people.”
“A spell?” he repeated, skeptically. “No way, man.”
“Jake, you’re a ghost talking to a wizard,” I pointed out. “Are you really gonna doubt me on this?”
He smirked. “I guess not.” He cocked his head to one side. “So, you’re really a wizard? I mean, I was there with those people on that drug, Third Eye? That was insane. I saw you do some amazing stuff, but it was dark and I figured I was just imagining things.”
“I’m really a wizard,” I confirmed. “And I’m trying to stop this before anyone else dies. You can help me. What do you remember about being sick?”
“Uh...not a lot,” he said. “I went to bed before Jade; she was watching some late night talk show. She loves those. I went to sleep, I guess. I had this really weird dream.”
“What about?” I prompted.
“Do you know what a golem is?” he asked.
“It’s a creature made of clay that you activate by putting a magic word in its mouth,” I recited. “Then it acts as your servant..”
“Right, sort of,” he said. “Well, I dunno, I suppose you know more than me. But it’s a Jewish legend. This Rabbi makes a golem; he activates it by putting the name of God in its mouth. The golem becomes a guard to protect the village. At the end of the tale, the golem gets enough experience that it starts to get a human personality. It attacks the people its supposed to be protecting and the Rabbi has to destroy it. My grandmother told it to me when I was a kid and it terrified me.” He looked sheepish and scratched at his head. “Stupid, I know.”
“No,” I assured him. “I’m afraid of clowns. That’s stupid.”
“Man, who isn’t afraid of clowns?” he asked. “Anyway, that’s what I dreamed about. The golem. It was chasing me and I kept running and hiding and running and hiding and it always found me. It went on for a really long time. I got so tired. In the end, it found me and I couldn’t run anymore. I think it killed me. Then I woke up in the morgue.”
I shuddered. That confirmed the whole ‘trapped in a nightmare’ theory, which didn’t make me feel any better about the situation. It just made me feel more panicked. I had to get everyone out of there.
“Mr. Dresden?” Jake asked, when I didn’t respond.
“Sorry, just thinking,” I said. “Did Mrs. Bailzow dream about the golem too?”
“No, she said she dreamed about being in the concentration camps,” he said, sadly. “That sort of thing sticks with you your whole life. You never escape from it. Doesn’t that make you want to break things?” I nodded an agreement. “She said she’d heard about her brother dying in the gas chambers and she’s always had dreams about it. She dreamed she was in there and they turned on the gas.”
“And she died,” I finished. “So, we’re talking your worst or subconscious fears, here?”
“I guess so, yeah,” he said. “I hadn’t really thought about it like that.”
I started to pace. It was hard to pace in that small a space, especially with Jake’s ghost occupying half of it. It’s not polite to walk through a ghost you don’t know. I thought some more, my tired brain a little slow in getting the gears to work. Jake watched me, stirring restlessly. I decided not to tell him his foot was in the mop bucket.
“Did you know Mrs. Bailzow?” I asked. “Before she, uh, died?”
“No,” he replied. “Why?”
“I’m trying to figure out how everyone connects,” I said. “Okay...do you know how someone might have gotten a hold of a piece of you? Your hair, your blood, your spit, anything?”
“Um...no,” he said. “I’ll think about it, though. Things are sort of jumbled up in my mind right now.”
“I understand,” I said. “I have to go, Jake, and try to figure this all out. But, I will get you to the other side, I promise.”
“I know you will,” Jake told me. “I’ve seen you in action.”
I smiled and left the closet.
I’d had enough of the hospital by the time I was done with Forrester and Jake. I returned home to bring Catalina’s hair to Bob. I brought a bowl of Cheerios into the lab with me and scarfed it down while he contemplated the sample and I filled him in on what I’d learned.
“Do you have to crunch?” he snapped, suddenly.
I swallowed the cereal with a gulp. “Sorry.”
“You look terrible, Harry,” he said. “You should lie down.”
I didn’t know if that was actual concern or an attempt to get me out of his way. I was too chicken to try to sleep, so I mumbled some excuse and stuck around, but abandoned the Cheerios. After about half an hour of sitting there, a combination of exhaustion and boredom took over my brain. I knew my staring at him wasn’t helping him think any faster and I was risking face planting into the bowl of cereal and drowning in the milk. Death by cereal: not the way I want to go out.
I went upstairs, dreading the thought of sleeping. It didn’t stop me from conking out almost immediately, though. I was dreamless for the next four hours and woke feeling relieved. I lay there for awhile, considering things and organizing my brain, before I got up and went back to the lab.
“It’s a ritual, isn’t it?” I demanded without preamble. I looked around. “Bob?”
He stuck his head through a wall. “I am out here, Harry.”
“Oh.” I exited the lab and went to the storefront. He had his hand in one of the books on the shelf over my desk. “It’s a ritual, right?”
“What makes you say that?” He asked.
“I’ve only gotten the nightmares at night,” I said, talking it out. I started to pace. “And remember a few nights ago, I had that bad nightmare about my dad? We decided it was just because it’s almost the anniversary of his death but - “ I held up a finger. “That was the night before Jake Bloom got sick. Then, yesterday morning, when Susan was here, I had nightmares again – worse ones.” I held up another finger. “Then, Jake Bloom died and Catalina Hernandez and Serena Bailzow were admitted. Last night, more nightmares, this morning more patients.” I held up a third finger. “The worse the nightmares, the more people end up sick. Plus, when I lay down during the day yesterday and just now, I didn’t have nightmares. That means the spell is spiking at night, say between sunset and sunrise and rituals get their power from being done at the same time in the same way each time. Three strikes and you’re a ritual.”
“Indeed, those were my thoughts as well,” Bob agreed.
“Then why did you have me say all that?” I demanded, tiredly.
“I'm not a mind-reader, Harry,” he replied. “Now, from what I can tell, whomever is casting this spell is using thaumaturgy. Adding to that what Officer Bloom said, I would say the caster is using the connection to enter the dreams of the victims and manipulate them. The connection is weak, since the lock of hair you gave me is no longer attached to the victim, but the remnants of it are still there.”
“Thaumaturgy,” I repeated. I rubbed my forehead. “But...we have to be looking at a group, then, right? I mean, not even the Merlin could keep up a spell continuously for that length of time, let alone doing it for six people at once.”
“Correct,” Bob said. “The strain on the caster would be enormous. I would say at least one caster per victim, if not more.”
“Okay...but this is more than just a case of stabbing a voodoo doll in the head,” I pointed out. “There isn’t any injury, it’s all psychological. How are they getting inside people’s heads?”
“That’s why I am looking here,” he said, gesturing to a book on the shelf. It was one of the more ornate ones, which I put out for atmosphere. It was about herbs and their uses. “Everything one does to the symbol of the person is amplified on the actual person, that is how thaumaturgy works.”
“I know,” I said, impatiently. “I kinda have experience with it, Bob, thanks. So what are they doing to the doll?”
He glared at me. I was ruining his dramatic moment. I really shouldn’t do that, it’s not like he gets a lot of time to be impressive. I made up my mind to shut up and nodded at him encouragingly.
“I know of no specific potion or spell to create the symptoms you describe,” he went on. “So, it is probably something cobbled together from more than one concept. A portmanteau, if you will.”
“A coat rack?” Me and shutting up never got along well.
“A catch-all, Harry,” Bob groaned.
“Ah,” I said. “Well, I translated it properly, though.”
“Yes, that’s something.”
“Okay.” I started to pace again. “We got a half dozen or more sorcerers with a snazzy new spell or potion using thaumaturgy to trap people in their nightmares. Question one: who?”
“That is not my area of expertise, Harry,” Bob said. “You’re the legman.”
“Right. Okay, I’ll come back to that. Question two: why?”
“If I had to guess, I would venture that they are using fear in order to gather up a great deal of power, perhaps for a larger spell or to perform a complicated rite.”
I frowned. “So – not a good thing.”
“Okay. Question three: why these victims? What do they have in common and how did their hair, or whatever the casters are using, get into their possession?”
Bob was silent and then shrugged. “Again, that is more your area of work, I should think.”
I sat down on my desk, knocking a pile of expense reports on the floor. “Once, I’d like weirdness to be related to something good. Like ‘oh, we were trapping people in their nightmares so we can find a cure for cancer’. No one is ever nefarious for the greater good.”
Bob smiled, sardonically. “I believe most of them would disagree with that opinion. Everyone believes they are working for the greater good. I doubt anyone sets out with the express purpose of being nefarious.”
“I guess not,” I said. I yawned. “Okay. Plan of action...” I stared into space for awhile, waiting for my brain to work. “How do you feel about the Bahamas, Bob? You and I could skip town. I have money. I could buy a hammock and take a nice long nap by the beach.”
He chuckled. “The entire time you would be worrying about everyone here and I would have to listen to you. You’re too benevolent to be a coward.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “That’s me. Freakin’ Mother Theresa.” He snorted. “Could I track the caster of the spell backwards from the hair?”
“Theoretically, yes,” he said.
“But...” I filled in.
“But, it requires a good deal of concentration and finesse with delicate spells,” he explained. “As you know, your forte is not with delicacy.”
“No,” I agreed. “Harry like things go boom.”
“Alright. Let’s save that for when we’re desperate. Could I use the hair to do the same ritual as the bad guys and kick them out of her head?”
“That would be dark magic, Harry,” Bob pointed out. “Also, we do not yet know how the ritual works and there would be no limits to what the other casters could do to you, once you were inside her head. You might overwhelm her brain and cause damage, as well.”
“That’s another big no, then. Alright. Let’s go the private eye route – if we could find out what spells or potions this coat rack is made up of, I could call some of the dealers up and see if anyone has bought those particular ingredients lately,” I mused. “It’s better than nothing.” Bob nodded. “Okay. Let’s get cracking.”
I will spare you the details of our research. In short, it took all of the afternoon and well into the evening and made my living room look like an antique bookstore had thrown up on it. I took notes on several neon Post-It notes, which I stuck to various surfaces as I filled them. So, then my living room looked like an antique bookstore suffering from a 60’s acid trip had thrown up on it. The air in the lab was filled with golden writing. Bob and I compared notes, filed down our lists to several core ingredients and then narrowed that down to the most unusual ones.
It was too late to call anyone by that time and I was yawning every few seconds. Enough that even Bob started to yawn. I wondered if scientists would be interested to know that ghosts suffer from contagious yawning.
“I’ll call Joya in the morning,” I told Bob, getting up from the table. “She’s the most popular and most reasonable dealer in town, so I’ll start with her.”
“Do you think you should contact the Council?” he asked.
“I...don’t know,” I said. “I think I should wait. They probably already know the gist of it. I should come to them when I can prove what’s going on and who’s doing it. I know I’ll need back-up. I can’t handle a coven on my own.”
Bob relaxed, clearly having expected to fight with me about it. The truth was - I was exhausted. I might have been more inclined to argue if I was well-rested and feeling good about the world. Right then, I felt like the world was a scary, horrible place that I should hide from.
“That seems reasonable,” Bob said.
“I know,” I replied, with a smile. “Where the hell did that come from, huh?”
I said goodnight, ducked under the writing still hanging in the air and went upstairs. As I climbed into bed, I remembered I hadn't called Murphy. It was too late for that now, though. If something really important had happened, she would have called me. I made a mental note to call her in the morning and followed the advice I'd given to Scott, doing a little meditation before I fell into another night of fitful sleep.