Death Masks

Chapter One

Some things just aren't meant to go together. Things like oil and water. Orange juice and toothpaste.

Wizards and television.

Spotlights glared into my eyes. The heat of them threatened to make me sweat streaks through the pancake makeup some harried stagehand had slapped on me a few minutes before. Lights on top of cameras started winking on, the talk-show theme song began to play, and the studio audience began to chant, "Lah-REE, Lah-REE, Lah-REE!"

Larry Fowler, a short man in an immaculate suit, appeared from the doors at the rear of the studio and began walking to the stage, flashing his porcelain smile and shaking the hands of a dozen people seated at the ends of their rows as he passed them. The audience whistled and cheered as he did. The noise made me flinch in my seat up on the stage, and I felt a trickle of sweat slide down over my ribs, beneath my white dress shirt and my jacket. I briefly considered running away screaming.

It isn't like I have stage fright or anything, see. Because I don't. It was just really hot up there. I licked my lips and checked all the fire exits, just to be safe. No telling when you might need to make a speedy exit. The lights and noise made it a little difficult to keep up my concentration, and I felt the spell I'd woven around me wobble. I closed my eyes for a second, until I had stabilized it again.

In the chair beside me sat a dumpy, balding man in his late forties, dressed in a suit that looked a lot better than mine. Mortimer Lindquist waited calmly, a polite smile on his face, but muttered out of the corner of his mouth, "You okay?"

"I've been in house fires I liked better than this."

"You asked for this meeting, not me," Mortimer said. He frowned as Fowler lingered over shaking a young woman's hand. "Showboat."

"Think this will take long?" I asked Morty.

He glanced beside him at an empty chair, and at another beside me. "Two mystery guests. I guess this one could go for a while. They shoot extra material and edit it down to the best parts."

I sighed. I'd been on The Larry Fowler Show just after I'd gone into business as an investigator, and it had been a mistake. I'd had to fight my way uphill against the tide of infamy I'd received from association with the show. "What did you find out?" I asked.

Mort flicked a nervous glance at me and said, "Not much."

"Come on, Mort."

He opened his mouth to answer, then glanced up as Larry Fowler trotted up the stairs and onto the stage. "Not now. Wait for a commercial break."

Larry Fowler pranced up to us and pumped my hand, then Mort's with equally exaggerated enthusiasm. "Welcome to the show," he said into a handheld microphone, then turned to face the nearest camera. "Our topic for today is 'Witchcraft and Wizardry—Phony or Fabulous?' With us in order to share their views are local medium and psychic counselor Mortimer Lindquist."

The crowd applauded politely.

"And beside him, Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard."

There was a round of snickering laughter to go with the applause this time. I couldn't say I was shocked. People don't believe in the supernatural these days. Supernatural things are scary. It's much more comfortable to rest secure in the knowledge that no one can reach out with magic and quietly kill you, that vampires exist only in movies, and that demons are mere psychological dysfunctions.

Completely inaccurate but much more comfortable.

Despite the relative levels of denial, my face heated up.