It’d taken a horrifying taxi ride to the hotel and, once I’d decided I’d wait a bit before I tried a cab again, a bus and a train to get me to the address programmed into my phone. I arrived by early afternoon, no matter what my body was trying to tell me. I wasn’t up to calculating what time it was back home, but I was putting it up as somewhere around jet-lag o’clock.
I’d never been to Chicago before, and my sense of direction was spinning at all the unfamiliar and just-shy of familiar sights and sounds, but the dot that meant me on my phone was right at the dot that meant my destination. The building was tall and looked rich-- I was, best I could tell, smack in the Chicago downtown, so I wouldn’t have expected anything else-- and after a brusque conversation with a woman over the private phone at the concierge, I took the lift up to the top floor.
There was only one door on that floor. That sat with what I knew about Rivers. They like having... domains, I guess you could say. Spaces all their own. I knocked politely.
"It's open," a voice called, and I winced. I could tell without looking that the place was done up in wards that were going to take my magic down to the dregs. I wondered if all American magic-users did that, or if it was a personal preference on the part of the occupant. Either way, I obviously wasn't going to get an invitation through.
I stepped in-- the wards scraped across my senses like the top of my head against an old short ceiling, and it felt like leaving a layer of skin behind-- and closed the door politely behind me, standing just at the entrance. Like a good copper, pleasant and not underfoot until I had to be unpleasant and very underfoot.
It was a roomy apartment, very tastefully done, furnishings just shy of showroom new. The goddess of Chicago's river took me as the modern sort, up to the moment. The bit that surprised me was the plastic coverings over everything, as if she was expecting painters, or company she didn’t like. The clear plastic tarps took a bit away from the ambience.
There was a woman sitting at a bar abutting the living room. She was white, five-foot one, maybe, possibly not even that. Certainly even smaller than my partner Lesley-- with, disarmingly, the same general sweetness of features and huge blue eyes. But she was older than Lesley and denser, fit in a way that put me in mind of a scaled down Statham or a lady Craig. Similar hairstyle; clipped down to a blond fuzz across her head. She was in heavy military pants and a thin white a-shirt that showed off the muscles in her arms as well as it did her curves.
She was very casually cleaning a gun when I walked in, a serious looking pistol taken to pieces on the counter in front of her, and I looked at it nervously, then at her. Welcome to America, Constable Grant.
"I'm Police Constable Grant," I hazarded.
She nodded, giving me a cool once-over. "Murphy. We spoke on the phone."
That probably made her No-Longer-Police-Sergeant Karrin Murphy, a mortal... acquaintance of the river goddess. Liaison, maybe, seemed to be the polite term and didn't make any assumptions about non-business relations.
We’d spoken about a year ago, when I was tasked with contacting her about Chicago, and then filling in the gaps about the Rivers period, because that pertinent detail had been skipped somewhere in the conversations Nightingale had been having with the lady from the White Council and the conversations he’d been having with me. And, going from her tone now, she was probably the woman who’d given me the go ahead to come up today.
"I'm looking for Chicago,” I said.
"Bad timing," she said, slotting one piece of metal into another in a way that set me on edge. I didn't recognize the make of gun, but it looked pretty large caliber, something that would nearly knock you down while it was killing you.
"It's Saint Patrick's day. She doesn't do visitors."
It didn’t make any more sense with that added information. I stared blankly-- I’ll blame it on jet lag-- until Murphy rolled her eyes at me, sighing.
“Have you seen the river today?”
I didn’t have to answer: Murphy snorted, and jerked a thumb at the big windows that made up the south wall of the living room, letting the sun stream in.
I crossed over, passing a chesterfield and a few reclining chairs, all covered in plastic, and looked down at what first looked like an out-of-place strip of lawn-- and then I looked a bit closer.
“It’s green,” I said stupidly. It was. It really, really was. It wasn’t water-green, not a trick of depth or light. It was green like a lime flavoured sweet.
“Every year,” Murphy agreed.
“That can’t be good for it,” I said, staring down at the green water, the gathered crowds on the street, the pedestrian paths on the bridges and the walkways down either side of the river. “Aren’t there environmental concerns?”
“Probably. They say it’s vegetable dye now. The old stuff was banned a few years ago.”
“This always happens?”
“For more than fifty years.”
“How long does it last?”
That voice wasn’t No-Longer-Police-Sergeant Murphy’s; it was another woman’s, but came from farther away, muffled a little for it. There was a definite sulk to the tone, though. I looked over to the dark doorway just off the living room.
“You might as well come in,” the woman continued from wherever she was exactly, sounding wearily put-upon. “You’re already here.”
Murphy gave the pistol a last scrub with the cleaning rag, and then put the whole kit back into a red plastic case and locked it with a padlock, sliding off her seat.
“Lucky you,” she said dryly. “Don’t stare unless you want the whole sob story and don’t mind spending a couple hours hearing it.” That had the sound of experience behind it. “It happens every year. Who’d have thought, huh? Come on, she’s in the bedroom.”
I followed Murphy-- not that it was far-- and stepped into the master bedroom. Murphy flipped on the lights. The room was big and well decorated; less showroom than the living room, but still quite expensive, lots of rich wood and some woven hangings. The bed was huge and low-slung, and covered in plastic sheets. So was the rest of the furniture, just like in the living room.
And there she was, naked, reclining on the plastic tarpaulin over the bed. Chicago. There was no mistaking her-- her vestigium nearly slapped me across the face, the babble of voices, echoes in every language, the smell of sunbaked prairie, of asphalt and curing concrete, and river.
She was taller than Murphy by maybe three-quarters of a foot, with a lithe athlete’s body. Not white-- from what Nightingale had said, if she really was the same Chicago from before they reversed the river, she’d been living in the area long before the Windy City arrived. If she wasn’t, I couldn’t be sure. Piercing dark eyes, long black hair. And she was bright green. Darker, in patches, bits of it streaked to show tan skin here and there. It was smudged between her thighs, where they rubbed together-- I kept my eyes firmly on her face.
“Ma’am,” I said. “I’m Police Constable Peter Grant, with the Folly, in London.” I didn’t think she’d know it, know us, but the introduction was polite. “We’re a school of Newtonian wizards. Inspector Nightingale presiding. I’m his apprentice.”
The river goddess looked me up and down.
“I’m Chi, that’s C-H-I,” she said. It was good that she’d spelled it out-- she pronounced it like timid or retiring, neither of which she seemed to be.
“Pleased to meet you, Ma’am.”
“In all my Saintly glory,” she said with dismissive snort. Her dark eyes focused more closely on my face. “You’d be lying if you told me your teacher sent you here without something for me.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said again. I pulled the jewelry box from my pocket, holding it up. “For your hospitality.”
She looked at the box for a moment, then sucked a sharp tsking sound. “It’s lovely, I’m sure. Murphy, would you show me?”
Murphy stepped over, taking the box, cracking it open to display the many fine gold chains, strung intermittently with pearls. I’d gaped at Nightingale when he’d handed me the receipt for Customs. He really, really wanted me to turn up gold with this little expedition. He hadn’t sent me with anything for the other American Rivers, though. Probably a good thing, or I could have had a lot more questions getting into the country.
Chicago was the only one we had an in with, through the contact from the White Council that had started this whole thing off-- and if I had to hear one more tightly reined waspish rant about that branch of wizards, it would be too soon. I wouldn’t have minded meeting the envoy myself, learning more about the faith-based magic they seemed to use. But Nightingale was a lot more preoccupied with finding out if there were any branches of Newtonian wizards still on this side of the world than he was hearing my pitch for cross-organizational learning opportunities.
“Oh, that’s lovely,” Chi said, and reached over for her gift before staring at her hand and huffing, irritated. “Put it on the dresser for me, please?” she asked Murphy, and sighed at me, gesturing down her body. “It gets on everything,” she said, disgustedly. “And stains like a motherfucker. Do you know what it’s like having to do this every damn year for a week?”
“It can’t be easy,” I offered. I didn’t mean to. I realized what I’d done the moment the words were out, and Murphy coughed into her fist.
“That was funny once,” Chi said grimly. “In 1970. It is not funny anymore.”
“It isn’t easy, though,” Murphy said, and Chi gave her a withering look that would have had me diving behind the nearest blast-proof bit of furniture. The little ex-cop weathered it with indulgence. I was reminded, then, of Oxely and Isis. Even more than I had been when I noticed that the gun grease under Murphy’s nails was stained green, a detail that I wasn’t going to mention for money.
“Don’t try me, you Irish wench. I need a drink,” Chi said, and rolled up in a crinkle of plastic, jamming her feet into stained thongs and striding past me. “Do we have any Chinese left?”
“Middle shelf,” Murphy said, and pushed me out the door. “Don’t even think about eating my noodles again.”
“I don’t know how you eat those greasy things,” Chi scoffed. “Mix me a drink, would you?”
“You managed to eat about a pound of them last time.” Murphy rolled her eyes. “What are you drinking?”
“Something festive. Can you do the flag?” She caught the edge of Murphy’s look. “Well, I have to get something out of the holiday.”
“A hangover, maybe,” Murphy said, but she pointed me at the chesterfield and chairs near it. “You drinking, Constable Grant? Or can I get you some water? Coffee?”
“Ah,” I said.
“No strings,” Chi said, her head in the refrigerator. “No binding, free to leave when you want, no debt accrued, et cetera, et cetera.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. I’m fine, Ms. Murphy, thank you.”
“You’re out of Marnier, you get two-thirds of a flag,” Murphy said, craning to look into a cabinet full of bottles, standing on the tips of her toes to pull some out.
I watched them maneuver around each, occasionally missing a beat, good naturedly making room for each other. Chicago left green handprints where she touched-- all over the stainless steel door of the refrigerator, the counter tops, the little cardboard boxes.
Then I went and looked out the big living room windows again, at the bright green river, the crowds of people down below, the skyscrapers and soaring property values surrounding Chi’s building. I thought about Tyburn, and how she’d react to turning green once a year. Very carefully, just in case Chicago could read my mind, and watching her reflection reach over to leave a green smear on Murphy’s reflection’s lips, I considered that if being green once a year really wasn’t that easy, Chi could probably have solved that problem whenever she’d wanted to.
She’d scrubbed at it, but Murphy still had some green around the mouth when she and Chi came back to the living room. Chi folded down elegantly onto a plastic-covered chair.
“You came here for a reason, Constable,” she observed. “You might as well get on with it.” Murphy pressed a slim glass of neatly layered liquors into her hand, green and white. Chi smiled at her, eyes crinkling.
I cleared my throat. “We were hoping you could tell us if there was anyone left. Of our sort. The Newtonians. Nightingale thought the worst when the communications from this side stopped, but then we didn’t know the White Council were still ticking on, either,” I said, as if I knew any of this and it hadn’t all been an immense surprise.
The White Council had, I’d learned, been at odds with the Newtonian tradition for generations, maybe back to old Isaac himself, and apparently they’d thought we were done in with the war. Nightingale had certainly thought their sort were gone-- the messenger who’d come after all those sudden deaths (vampires, I hadn’t been happy to learn) had been a shock to him. And me and Lesley, who he’d never mentioned their existence to in the first place. They seemed to be like those family members you don’t get along with so profoundly that you forget to mention them until the next time they showed up to ruin the holidays.
“You’ve come a long way for not much,” Chi said, looking out the window, crossing her still very-naked legs and very much not redirecting my attention downward. “It’s been at least a hundred years since there were Newtonians around here. Longer than that since there were White Council wizards, until very recently.”
“Would the local wizard know, do you think-?”
“No,” and that was Murphy, not Chi. “I knew Dresden. If he knew about science-wizards he’d never shut up about it.”
Dresden, I took that down in my little mental notebook. Dresden-possibly-past-tense.
“But you can ask him, if you have the Winter Queen’s number,” Murphy added, at the look on my face. She waited until I took that in, and had gotten over the first moments of horror. “Yeah,” she said, with a resigned nod.
Dresden not-past-tense-but-in-very-bad-company. Well. That sounded like something I desperately didn’t want to get involved in if I could possibly get out of it.
“You should talk to Hudson,” Chi said, frowning. “If the old witch is still kicking around. I thought there might have been a school of your people in Manhattan. Possibly one in Louisiana, but that’s a bit far to the south for my gossip to be current.” She paused thoughtfully. “Lower Miss might have something, but you’re going to need very good alcohol and patience to get anything out of him, and he’s not speaking with the Mississippi twins so no good asking them.”
“Thank you,” I said weakly. I had an atlas in my luggage, had been pouring over finely detailed maps for weeks on paper and on my laptop. It’s a big country, with some very, very large rivers-- and that was only the bottom half of the continent. If I had to go up to the Mackenzie I’d be here a month and run the travel budget so far into the red that Seawoll would have my head on a pike. It just wasn’t worth the chance to get to travel by dog sled, no matter what the tourism commercials had tried to tell me.
“Anything else?” Chi had already dismissed me. I could hear it. Coppers get used to that tone of voice.
“Well. Have a good day, then,” she said, already up and heading back towards the refrigerator and probably-- going by Murphy’s glare-- the rest of the take away leftovers.
Karrin nodded me out, a curt head-motion that must be the same in every police station in every country, and I followed her to the door, trying hard not to look dejected.
“Sorry, kid,” she said, following me outside the threshold.
“It was a long shot,” I said. “Know anywhere to eat, around here?”
“There’s a great place just the other side of the river-- worth the trip through those crowds, trust me-- let me get a piece of paper--”
“No need. It’s on Google maps, right? Just give me the name,” I said, pulling out my mobile. Her eyebrows leapt.
“You can use a cellphone?”
“Yeah. I have to take the battery out when I’m casting, but--”
“Huh.” She looked impressed, digging a battered older-model Nokia out of her back pocket. “I’ll text you the address, then. If you can give out your number.”
Murphy sighed. “I have a friend in the Council. Well, and Dresden, when I get to see him anymore, but Ana’s a little more involved in the bureaucratic side of things-- she might know something that Chi doesn’t. And I’ll see if any of my out of state law-enforcement contacts are still talking to me.”
“That would be-- well, that’d be great, actually,” I said, a little surprised.
She shrugged at me; cops helped cops. Even not-cops-anymore, it seemed. We exchanged numbers, and she stabbed a message into her little phone, hitting send and waiting.
My phone chimed a second later; I spared a thought for the messaging fees, but since this was technically possibly a lead, maybe the department could refund me. If I hadn’t spent the GDP on plane tickets by the time I got back.
“What’s good at McAnally’s?” I asked, already putting the address she’d given me into the map feature.
“Everything. Have a drink-- Mac does his own ale, great stuff. Then get one of the steak sandwiches, you’ll feel better.”
Something deep inside my tastebuds perked up at the name, dragging up the distant memory of the beer at the nazareth, with Effra Thames. What had Oberon said-- a microbrewery in the States? But what were the chances?
But if it was the same stuff I’d had, it would be a gift worth giving and then some. Especially if the god of the lower stretch of the Mississippi river prefered to drink his gifts. The trip to Chicago might not have been a wasted one after all-- maybe McAnally’s other customers were in the hidden communities, too, maybe there would be someone there who had another lead, or at least knew someone who knew someone who distributed the stuff to magical someones--
“Kid?” Murphy said, and I realized I’d been staring down at my phone for a little longer than was polite.
“Got it,” I said, looking up and smiling at her. “Thanks. Thanks a lot, Ms. Murphy.”
I could feel her eyes on me as I walked to the lift, but I didn’t look back to see if she was watching, and I heard the door click shut before the lift arrived. They’d given me a lot of leads to chase down-- I started typing up a note on my phone to copy over to email and send to Lesley when I got somewhere with wifi so the data charges wouldn’t bankrupt the Met. Or me, if they denied my paperwork.
There was green dye on my jacket, somehow, a few smeared fingerprints on the sleeve. I rubbed at it, frowning, but a few floors down an older woman and a pack of small dogs got on with me, and I wedged myself into the corner doing my best to look harmless and invisible, and by the time I got myself turned around the right way on the street outside, the marks were old and faded looking.
I stifled a yawn. Coffee. There had to be a place to get coffee around here, and then I’d have a sandwich, maybe buy some beer and get back to the hotel, and send off that email to Lesley before I introduced my face to the hotel pillows.
I followed the highlighted path on my phone, and most of the crowd, and crossed over the bright green water of the Chicago river, drawn by the unfamiliar café chain location Google maps promised was just on the other side.
Once I could actually see the sign for the café, I left the map and switched over to the little note feature to recheck what I’d typed. There was all the information I’d gotten in bullet points, and the start of my email to Lesley:
Dear Lesley, it said. America is bloody massive. Send help.
Maybe I’d better try again after I had that nap.