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The Ultimate Dresden Omnibus, 0-15 (fan anthology)

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The Ultimate Dresden Omnibus


by Jim Butcher





"Yes, this counts as one book." - Xx





Table of Contents

A RESTORATION OF FAITH

STORM FRONT

FOOL MOON

B IS FOR BIGFOOT

GRAVE PERIL

SUMMER KNIGHT

DEATH MASKS

VIGNETTE

BLOOD RIGHTS

DEAD BEAT

SOMETHING BORROWED

I WAS A TEENAGE BIGFOOT

PROVEN GUILTY

WHITE NIGHT

IT’S MY BIRTHDAY, TOO

HEOROT

SMALL FAVOR

DAY OFF

BACKUP

THE WARRIOR

LAST CALL

CURSES

LOVE HURTS

TURN COAT

BIGFOOT ON CAMPUS

CHANGES

AFTERMATH

GHOST STORY

EVEN HAND

BOMBSHELLS

COLD DAYS

SKIN GAME





This design is available as a t-shirt via TeePublic or Zazzle!





A RESTORATION OF FAITH




Takes place before Storm Front



This is the first of the Dresden Files stories, chronologically, and it was the first time I tried to write short fiction for the professional market. I originally put it together as a class assignment at the University of Oklahoma’s Professional Writing program, more than two years before Storm Front found a home at Roc.





This one won’t win any awards, because it is, quite frankly, a novice effort. It was perhaps the third or fourth short story I’d ever written, if you include projects in grade school. I had barely learned to keep my feet under me as a writer, and to some degree that shows in this piece. Certainly, the editors to whom I submitted this story seemed to think it wasn’t up to par for professional publication, and I think that was a perfectly fair assessment.





Read this story for what it is—an anxious beginner’s first effort, meant to be simple, straightforward fun.





I struggled to hold on to the yowling child while fumbling a quarter into the pay phone and jamming down the buttons to dial Nick’s mobile.

“Ragged Angel Investigations,” Nick answered. His voice was tense, I thought, anxious.

“It’s Harry,” I said. “You can relax, man. I found her.”

“You did?” Nick asked. He let out a long exhalation. “Oh, Jesus, Harry.”

The kid lifted up one of her oxford shoes and mule-kicked her leg back at my shin. She connec; ted, hard enough to make me jump. She looked like a parent’s dream at eight or nine years old, with her dimples and dark pigtails—even in her street-stained schoolgirl’s uniform. And she had strong legs.

I got a better hold on the girl and lifted her up off the ground again while she twisted and wriggled. “Ow. Hold still.”

“Let me go, beanpole,” she responded, turning to glower back at me before starting to kick again.

“Listen to me, Harry,” Nick said. “You’ve got to let the kid go right this minute and walk away.”

“What?” I said. “Nick, the Astors are going to give us twenty-five grand to return her before nine p.m.”

“I got some bad news, Harry. They aren’t going to pay us the money.”

I winced. “Ouch. Maybe I should just drop her off at the nearest precinct house, then.”

“The news gets worse. The parents reported the girl kidnapped. The police band is sending two descriptions around town to Chicago PD, and they match guess who.”

“Mickey and Donald?”

“Heh,” Nick said. I heard him flick his Bic and take a drag. “We should be so lucky.”

“I guess it’s more embarrassing for Mr. and Mrs. High-and-Mighty to have their kid run away than it is to have her kidnapped.”

“Hell. Kidnapped girl gives them something to talk about at their parties for months. Makes them look richer and more famous than their friends, too. Of course, we’ll be in jail, but what the hell?”

“They came to us,” I protested.

“That won’t be the way they tell it.”

“Dammit,” I said.

“If you get caught with her, it could be trouble for both of us. The Astors got connections. Ditch the girl and get back home. You were there all night.”

“No, Nick,” I said. “I can’t do that.”

“Let the boys in blue bring her in. That’ll clear you and me both.”

“I’m up on North Avenue, and it’s after dark. I’m not leaving a nine-year-old girl out here by herself.”

“Ten,” shouted the girl, furious. “I’m ten, you insensitive jerk!” She started kicking again, and I kept myself more or less out of the way of her feet.

“She sounds so cute. Just let her run, Harry, and let the criminal types beware.”

“Nick.”

“Aw, hell, Harry. You’re getting moral on me again.”

I smiled, but it felt tight on my mouth, and my stomach churned with anger. “Look, we’ll think of something. Just get down here and pick us up.”

“What happened to your car?”

“Broke down this afternoon.”

“Again? What about the El?”

“I’m broke. Nick, I need a ride. I can’t walk back to the office with her, and I don’t want to stand here in a public booth fighting her, either. So get down here and get us.”

“I don’t want to spend time in jail because you can’t salve your conscience, Harry.”

“What about your conscience?” I shot back. Nick was all bluster. When it came down to the wire, he couldn’t have left the girl alone in that part of town, either.

Nick growled out something that sounded vaguely obscene, then said, “Fine, whatever. But I can’t get across the river very easy, so I’ll be on the far side of the bridge. All you have to do is cross the bridge with her and stay out of sight. Police patrols in the area will be looking for you. Half an hour. If you’re not there, I’m not waiting. Bad neighborhood.”

“Have faith, man. I’ll be there.”

We hung up without saying good-bye.

“All right, kid,” I said. “Stop kicking me and let’s talk.”

“To hell with you, mister,” she shouted. “Let me go before I break your leg.”

I winced at the shrill note her voice hit and stepped away from the phone, half dragging and half carrying her with me while I looked around nervously. The last thing I needed was a bunch of good citizens running to the kid’s aid.

The streets were empty, the gathering dark rushing in quickly to fill the spaces left by the broken streetlights. There were lights in the windows, but no one came out in response to the girl’s shouting. It was the sort of neighborhood where people looked the other way and let live.

Ah, Chicago. You just gotta love big, sprawling American cities. Ain’t modern living grand? I could have been a real sicko, rather than just looking like one, and no one would have done anything.

It made me feel a little nauseated. “Look. I know you’re angry right now, but believe me, I’m doing what’s best for you.”

She stopped kicking and glared up at me. “How should you know what’s best for me?”

“I’m older than you. Wiser.”

“Then why are you wearing that coat?”

I looked down at my big black duster, with its heavy mantle and long canvas folds flapping around my rather spare frame. “What’s wrong with it?”

“It belongs on the set of El Dorado,” she snapped. “Who are you supposed to be, Ichabod Crane or the Marlboro Man?”

I snorted. “I’m a wizard.”

She gave me a look of skepticism you can really only get from children who have recently gone through the sobering trauma of discovering there is no Santa Claus. (Ironically, there is, but he can’t operate on the sort of scale that used to make everyone believe in him.)

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said.

“I found you, didn’t I?”

She frowned at me. “How did you find me? I thought that spot was perfect.”

I continued walking toward the bridge. “It would have been, for another ten minutes or so. Then that Dumpster would have been full of rats looking for something to eat.”

The girl’s expression turned faintly green. “Rats?”

I nodded. With luck, maybe I could win the kid over. “Good thing your mother had your brush in her purse. I was able to get a couple of hairs from it.”

“So?”

I sighed. “So, I used a little thaumaturgy, and it led me straight to you. I had to walk most of the way, but straight to you.”

“Thauma-what?”

Questions were better than kicks any day. I kept answering them. Heck, I like to answer questions about magic. Professional pride, maybe. “Thaumaturgy. It’s ritual magic. You draw symbolic links between actual persons, places, or events, and representative models. Then you invest a little energy to make something happen on the small scale, and something happens on the large scale as well—”

The second I was distracted with answering her question, the kid bent her head and bit my hand.

I yelled something I probably shouldn’t have around a kid and jerked my hand away. The kid dropped to the ground, agile as a monkey, and took off toward the bridge. I shook my hand, growled at myself, and took off after her. She was fast, her pigtails flying out behind her, her shoes and stained kneesocks flashing.

She got to the bridge first. It was an ancient, two-lane affair that arched over the Chicago River. She hurled herself out onto it.

“Wait!” I shouted after her. “Don’t!” She didn’t know this town like I did.

“Sucker,” she called back, her voice merry. She kept on running.

That is, until a great rubbery, hairy arm slithered out from beneath a manhole cover at the apex of the bridge and wrapped its greasy fingers around one of her ankles. The kid screamed in sudden terror, pitching forward onto the asphalt and raking the skin from both knees. She turned and twisted, kicking at her attacker. Blood was a dark stain on her socks in the glow of the few functioning streetlights.

I cursed beneath my breath and raced toward her along the bridge, my lungs laboring. The hand tightened its grip and started dragging her toward the manhole. I could hear deep, growling laughter coming from the darkness in the hole that led down to the understructure of the bridge.

She screamed, “What is it? What is it? Make it let go!”

“Kid!” I shouted. I ran toward the manhole, jumped, and came down as hard as I could on the hairy arm, right at the wrist, the heels of both hiking boots thumping down onto the grimy flesh.

A bellow erupted from the manhole, and the fingers loosened. The girl twisted her leg, and though it cost her one of her expensive oxfords and one kneesock, she dragged herself free of its grasp, sobbing. I gathered her up and backpedaled away, turning so that I wasn’t leaving my back to the manhole.

The troll shouldn’t have been able to squeeze his way out of a hole that small, but he did. First came that grimy arm, followed by a lumpy shoulder, and then his malformed head and hideous face. He looked at me and growled, jerking his way out of the hole with rubbery ease, until he stood in the middle of the bridge between me and the far side of the river, like some professional wrestler who had fallen victim to a correspondence course for plastic surgeons. In one hand, he held a meat cleaver approximately two feet long, with a bone handle and suspicious-looking stains of dark brown on it.

“Harry Dresden,” the troll rumbled. “Wizard deprive Gogoth of his lawful prey.” He whipped the cleaver left and right. It made a little whistling sound.

I lifted my chin and set my jaw. It’s never smart to let a troll see that you’re afraid of him. “What are you talking about, Gogoth? You know as well as I do that mortals aren’t all fair game anymore. The Unseelie Accords settled that.”

The troll’s face split into a truly disgusting leer. “Naughty children,” he rumbled. “Naughty children still mine.” He narrowed his eyes, and they started burning with malicious hunger. “Give! Now!” The troll rolled toward me a few paces, gathering momentum.

I lifted my right hand, forced out a little will, and the silver ring upon my third finger abruptly shone with a clear, cool light, brighter than the illumination around us.

“Law of the jungle, Gogoth,” I said, keeping my voice calm. “Survival of the fittest. You take another step and you’re going to land smack in the ‘too stupid to live’ category.”

The troll growled, not slowing, and raised one meaty fist.

“Think about it, darkspawn,” I snarled. The light pouring from my ring took on a hellish, almost nuclear tone. “One more step and you’re vapor.”

The troll came to a lumbering halt, and his rubber-slime lips drew back from fetid fangs. “No,” he snarled. Drool slithered down his fangs and spattered on the asphalt as he stared at the girl. “She is mine. Wizard cannot interfere in this.”

“Oh yeah?” I said. “Watch me.” And with that, I lowered my hand (and with it the fierce silver light), gave the troll my best sneer, and turned in a flare of my dark duster to walk back to North Avenue with long, confident strides. The girl stared over my shoulder, her eyes wide.

“Is he coming after us?” I asked quietly.

She blinked back at the troll, and then at me. “Uh, no. He’s just staring at you.”

“Okay. If he starts this way, let me know.”

“So you can vapor him?” she asked, her voice unsteady.

“Hell, no. So we can run.”

“But what about … ?” She touched the ring on my hand.

“I lied, kid.”

“What!?”

“I lied,” I repeated. “I’m not a good liar, but trolls aren’t too bright. It was just a light show, but he fell for it, and that’s all that counts.”

“I thought you said you were a wizard,” she accused me.

“I am,” I replied, annoyed. “A wizard who was at a séance-slash-exorcism before breakfast. Then I had to find two wedding rings and a set of car keys, and then I spent the rest of my day running after you. I’m pooped.”

“You couldn’t blow that … that thing up?”

“It’s a troll. Sure I could,” I said cheerfully. “If I weren’t so worn-out, and if I were able to focus enough to keep from blowing myself up along with him. My aim’s bad when I’m this tired.”

We reached the edge of the bridge, and, I hoped, Gogoth’s territory. I started to swing the girl down. She was too big to be carrying. Then I saw her one bare foot dangling and the blood forming into dark scabs on her knees. I sighed and started walking along North Avenue. If I could go down the long city block to the next bridge, cross it, and make my way back down the other block within half an hour, I could still meet Nick on the other side.

“How’s your leg?” I asked.

She shrugged, though her face was pained. “Okay, I guess. Was that thing for real?”

“You bet,” I said.

“But it was … It wasn’t …”

“Human,” I said. “No. But hell, kid. A lot of people I know aren’t really human. Look around us. Bundy, Manson, those other animals. Right here in Chicago, you’ve got the Vargassis working out of Little Italy, the Jamaican posses, others. Animals. World’s full of them.”

The girl sniffed. I glanced at her face. She looked sad, and too wise for her years. My heart softened.

“I know,” she said. “My parents are like that, a little. They don’t think about anyone else, really. Just themselves. Not even each other—except what they can do for each other. And I’m just some toy that should get stuck in the closet and dragged out when people come over, so I can be prettier and more perfect than their toys. The rest of the time, I’m in their way.”

“Hey, come on,” I said. “It’s not that bad, is it?”

She glanced at me, and then away. “I’m not going back to them,” she said. “I don’t care who you are or what you can do. You can’t make me go back to them.”

“There’s where you’re wrong,” I said. “I’m not going to leave you down here.”

“I heard you talking to your friend,” she said. “My parents are trying to screw you over. Why are you still doing this?”

“I have another six months to work for a licensed investigator before I can get a license of my own. And I got this stupid thing about leaving kids in the middle of big, mean cities after dark.”

“At least down here, no one tries to lie and tell me that they care, mister. I see all these Disney shows about how much parents love their kids. How there’s some sort of magical bond of love. But it’s a lie. Like you and that troll.” She laid her head against my shoulder, and I could feel the exhaustion in her body as she sagged against me. “There’s no magic.”

I fell silent for several paces as I carried her. It was hard to hear that from a kid. A ten-year-old girl’s world should be full of music and giggling and notes and dolls and dreams—not harsh, barren, jaded reality. If there was no light in the heart of a child, a little girl like this, then what hope did any of us have?

A few paces later, I realized something I hadn’t been admitting to myself. A quiet, cool little voice had been trying to tell me something I hadn’t been willing to listen to. I was in the business of wizardry to try to help people; to try to make things better. But no matter how many evil spirits I confronted, no matter how many would-be black magicians I tracked down, there was always something else—something worse—waiting for me in the dark. No matter how many lost children I found, there would always be ten times as many who disappeared for good.

No matter how much I did, how much trash I cleaned up, it was only a drop in the ocean.

Pretty heavy thoughts for a tired and beaten guy like me, my arms burdened with the girl’s weight.

Flashing lights made me look up. The mouth to one of the alleys between the buildings had been sealed off with police tape, and four cars, blue bulbs awhirl, were parked on the street around the alley. A couple of EMTs were toting a covered shape out of the alley on a stretcher. The flashing strobes of cameras lit the alleyway in bursts of white.

I came to a stop, hesitant.

“What?” the girl murmured.

“Police. Maybe I should hand you over.”

I felt her weary shrug. “They’re only going to take me home. I don’t care.” She sagged against me again.

I swallowed. The Astors were Chicago’s elite crowd. They carried enough clout around the old town to get a bum would-be private investigator put away for a good long time. And they could afford the best of lawyers.

It’s a lousy world, Dresden, the cool little voice told me. And the good guys don’t win unless they have an expensive attorney, too. You’d be in jail before you could blink.

My mouth twisted into a bitter smile as one of the uniform cops, a woman, noticed me and cast a long frown in my direction. I turned around and started walking the other way.

“Hey,” the cop said. I kept walking. “Hey!” she said again, and I heard brisk footsteps on the sidewalk.

I hurried along into the dark and stepped into the first alley. The shadows behind a pile of crates created an ideal refuge, and I carried the girl into it with me. I crouched there in the darkness and waited while the cop’s footsteps came near and then passed on by.

I waited in the dark, feeling all the heaviness and darkness settle into my skin, into my flesh. The girl just shivered and lay against me, unmoving.

“Just leave me,” she said, finally. “Go over the bridge. The troll will let you cross the bridge if I’m not with you.”

“Yes,” I said.

“So go on. I’ll walk up to the police after you’re gone. Or something.”

She was lying. I’m not sure how I could tell, but I could.

She would go to the bridge.

I’m told that bravery is doing what you need to do, even when you’re afraid. But sometimes I wonder if courage isn’t a lot more complicated than that. Sometimes, I think, courage is pulling yourself up off the ground one more time. Doing one more set of paperwork, even when you don’t want to. Maybe that’s just plain stubbornness; I don’t know.

It didn’t matter. Not to me. I’m a wizard. I don’t really belong here. Our world sucks. It might suit the trolls and the vampires and all those nasty, leering things that haunt our nightmares (while we clutch our physics books to our chests and reassure ourselves that they cannot exist), but I’m not a part of it. I won’t be a part of it.

I took a breath, in the dark, and asked, “What’s your name?”

She was silent for a moment and then said, in a very uncertain voice, “Faith.”

“Faith,” I said. I smiled, so that she could hear it. “My name’s Harry Dresden.”

“Hi,” she said, her voice a whisper.

“Hi. Have you ever seen something like this?” I cupped my hand, summoned some of the last dregs of my power, and cast a warm, glowing light into the ring on my right hand. It lit Faith’s face, and I could see on her smooth cheeks the streaks of the tears I had not heard.

She shook her head.

“Here,” I said, and took the ring from my finger. I slipped it onto hers, over her right thumb, where it hung a bit loose. The light died away as I did it, leaving us in the dark again. “Let me show you something.”

“Battery went out,” she mumbled. “I don’t have money for another one.”

“Faith? Do you remember the very best day of your life?”

She was quiet for a minute. Then she said, her voice a bare whisper, “Yes. A Christmas. When Gremma was still alive. Gremma was nice to me.”

“Tell me about it,” I urged quietly, covering her hand with my own.

I felt her shrug. “Gremma came over Christmas Eve. We played games. She would play with me. And we stayed up, on the floor by the Christmas tree, waiting for Santa Claus. She let me open just one present, for Christmas Eve. It was one she’d gotten me.”

Faith took a shuddering breath. “It was a dolly. A real baby dolly. Mother and Father had gotten me Barbie stuff, the whole line for that year. They said that if I left them all in the original boxes, they would be worth a lot of money later. But Gremma listened to what I really wanted.” Then I heard it, the tiny smile in her voice. “Gremma cared about me.”

I moved my hand, and a soft, pinkish light flowed up out of the ring around her thumb, a loving, gentle warmth. I heard Faith draw in a little gasp of surprise, and then a delighted smile spread over her mouth.

“But how?” she whispered.

I gave her a smile. “Magic,” I said. “The best kind. A little light in the dark.”

She looked up at me, studying my face, my eyes. I shied away from the perception of that gaze. “I need to go back, don’t I?” she asked.

I brushed a stray bit of hair from her forehead. “There are people who love you, Faith. Or who one day will. Even if you can’t see them beside you, right here, right now, they’re out there. But if you let the dark get into your eyes, you might never find them. So it’s best to keep a little light with you, along the way. Do you think you can remember that?”

She nodded up at me, her face lit by the light from the ring.

“Whenever it gets too dark, think of the good things you have, the good times you’ve had. It will help. I promise.”

She leaned against me and gave me a simple, trusting hug. I felt my cheeks warm up as she did. Aw, shucks.

“We need to go,” I told her. “We’ve got to get across the bridge and meet my friend Nick.”

She chewed on her lip, her expression immediately worried. “But the troll.”

I winked. “Leave him to me.”

The girl didn’t feel anywhere near so heavy as when I carried her back. I studied the bridge as we approached. Maybe, if I was lucky, I’d be able to sprint across without the troll being able to stop me.

Yeah. And maybe one day I’d go to an art museum and become well-rounded.

Bridges are a troll’s specialty; either because of some magic or just because of aptitude, you never get across the bridge without facing the troll. That’s life, I guess.

I set the girl down on the ground next to me and stepped out onto the bridge. “All right, Faith,” I said. “Whatever happens, you run across that bridge. My friend Nick is going to pull up on the far side any minute now.”

“What about you?”

I gave her a casual roll of my neck. “I’m a wizard,” I said. “I can handle him.”

Faith gave me another look of supreme skepticism and fumbled to hold my hand. Her fingers felt very small and very warm inside of mine, and a fierce surge of determination coursed through me. No matter what happened, I would let no harm come to this child.

We walked out onto the bridge. The few lights that had been burning brightly earlier were gone—Gogoth’s work, doubtless. Night reigned over the bridge, and the Chicago River gurgled by, smooth and cold and black below us.

“I’m scared,” Faith whispered.

“He’s just a big bully,” I told her. “Face him down and he’ll back off.” I hoped very much that was true. We kept walking and skirted wide around the manhole at the apex of the bridge; I kept my body between Faith and the entrance to the troll’s lair.

Gogoth must have been counting on that.

I heard Faith scream again and whirled my head to see the troll’s thick, hairy arm stretched up over the edge of the bridge, while the troll clung to the side of the bridge like some huge, overweight spider. I snarled and stomped his fingers once more, and the troll bellowed in rage. Faith slipped free, and I half hurled her toward the far side of the bridge. “Run, Faith!”

The troll’s arm swept my legs out from beneath me and he came surging up over the railing at the side of the bridge, too supple and swift for his bulk. His burning eyes focused on the fleeing Faith, and more of his slimy drool spattered out of his mouth. He scythed his cleaver through the air and crouched to leap after the child.

I got my feet under me, screamed, and threw myself at the troll’s leg, swinging my long legs around to tangle with the creature’s. He roared in fury and went down in a tumble with me. I heard myself cackling and decided, without a doubt, that I had at least one screw loose.

The troll caught me by the corner of my jacket and threw me against the railing hard enough to make me see stars.

“Wizard,” Gogoth snarled, spitting drool and foam. The cleaver swept the air again, and the troll stalked toward me. “Now you die, and Gogoth chew your bones.”

I gathered myself to my feet, but it was too late. There was no way I could run or throw myself over the railing in time.

Faith screamed, “Harry!” and a brilliant flash of pink light flooded the bridge, making the troll whip his ugly head toward the far side of the river. I ducked to my left and ran, toward Faith and away from the troll. Looking up, I saw Nick’s car roaring toward the bridge with enough speed to tell me my partner had seen that something was going on.

The troll followed me, and though I had gained a few paces on him, I had the sinking realization that the beast was lighter on his feet than I was. There was a whistling sound of the cleaver cutting the air, and I felt something skim past my scalp. I bobbed to my right, ducking, and the second swipe missed by an even narrower margin. I stumbled, and fell, and the troll was on top of me in a heartbeat. I rolled in time to see him lift his bloodstained cleaver high above him, and I felt his drool splatter onto my chest.

“Wizard!” the troll bellowed.

There was a yell, and then the cop, the one who had followed us before, hurled herself onto the troll’s back and locked her nightstick across his throat. She gave the stick a practiced twist, and the troll’s eyes bulged. The huge cleaver clanged as it tumbled from Gogoth’s grip and hit the pavement.

The cop leaned back, making the troll’s spine arch into a bow—but this wasn’t a man she was dealing with. The thing twisted his head, squirmed, and popped out of her grip, then opened his jaws in a frenzied roar that literally blew the patrolwoman’s cap off her head and sent her stumbling back with a wide-eyed stare. The troll, maddened, slammed one fist into the pavement, cracking it, and drew the other back to drive toward her skull.

“Hey, ugly,” I shouted.

The troll turned in time to see me grunt and swing the massive cleaver at his side.

The rotten, grimy flesh just beneath his ribs split open with a howl of sound and a burst of motion. Gogoth leaned his head back and let out a high-pitched, wailing yowl. I backed off, knowing what came next.

The poor cop stared in white-faced horror as the troll’s wound split and dozens, hundreds, thousands of tiny, wriggling figures, squalling and squealing, poured out of the split in his flesh. The massive thews of the beast deflated like old basketballs, slowly sinking in upon themselves as the bridge became littered with a myriad of tiny trolls, their ugly little heads no bigger than the head of a president on a coin. They poured out of Gogoth in a flood, spilling onto the bridge in a writhing, wriggling horde.

The troll’s cheeks hollowed, and his eyes vanished. His mouth opened in a slack-jawed yawn, and, as the leathery, grimy sack of tiny trolls emptied, he sank to the ground until he lay there like a discarded, disgusting raincoat.

The cop stared, mouth wide, attempting to form words of a prayer or a curse. Nick’s headlights whirled and spilled across the bridge, and with twice ten thousand screams of protest, the tiny trolls dispersed before the light in all directions.

A few seconds later, there were only myself, Faith, the cop, and Nick, who was approaching us across the bridge. Faith threw herself at me and gave me a quick hug around the waist. Her eyes were bright with excitement. “That was the most disgusting thing I have ever seen. I want to be a wizard when I grow up.”

“That was … was …” the cop said, stunned. She was short, stocky, and the loss of her cap revealed tightly braided, pale hair.

I winked down at Faith and nodded to the cop. “A troll. I know.” I walked over to the cap and dusted it off. A few trolls, squealing in protest, fell to the street and scampered away. The cop watched with stunned eyes. “Hey, thanks a lot for the help, Officer”—I squinted down at her badge—“Murphy.” I smiled and offered her the hat.

She took it with numb fingers. “Oh, Jesus. I really have lost it.” She blinked a few times and then scowled up at my face. “You. You’re the perp on the Astor kidnapping.”

I opened my mouth to defend myself, but I needn’t have bothered.

“Are you kidding?” Faith Astor sneered. “This … buffoon? Kidnap me? He couldn’t bum a cigarette off the Marlboro Man.” She turned toward me and gave me a wink. Then she offered both her wrists to Murphy. “I admit it, Officer. I ran away. Take me to the pokey and throw away the key.”

Murphy, to her credit, seemed to be handling things fairly well for someone who had just confronted the monster under the bed. She recovered her nightstick and went to Faith, examining her for injuries before directing a suspicious gaze at Nick and me.

“Hoo boy,” Nick said, planting his stocky bulk squarely beside mine. “Here it comes. You get the top bunk, stilts, but I’m not going to pick up your soap in the shower.”

The cop looked at me and Nick. Then she looked at the girl. Then, more thoughtfully, she looked at the leathery lump that had been Gogoth the troll. Her eyes flashed back to Nick and me, and she said, “Aren’t you two the ones who run Ragged Angel, the agency that looks for lost kids?”

“I run it,” Nick said, his voice resigned. “He works for me.”

“Yeah, what he said,” I threw in, just to let Nick know he wasn’t going to the big house alone.

Murphy nodded and eyed the girl. “Are you all right, honey?”

Faith sniffed and smiled up at Murphy. “A little hungry, and I could use something to clean up these scrapes. But other than that, I’m quite well.”

“And these two didn’t kidnap you?”

Faith snorted. “Please.”

Murphy nodded and then jabbed her nightstick at Nick and me. “I’ve got to call this in. You two vanish before my partner gets here.” She glanced down at Faith and winked. Faith grinned up at her in return.

Murphy took the girl back toward the far side of the bridge and the other police units. Nick and I ambled back toward his car. Nick’s broad, honest face was set in an expression of nervous glee. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “I can’t believe that happened. Was that the troll, what’s-his-name?”

“That was Gogoth,” I said cheerfully. “Nothing bigger than a breadcrumb is going to be bothered by trolls on this bridge for a long, long time.”

“I can’t believe it,” Nick said again. “I thought we were so dead. I can’t believe it.”

I glanced back over the bridge. On the far side, the girl was standing up on her tiptoes, waving. Soft pink light flowed from the ring on her right thumb. I could see the smile on her face. The cop was watching me, too, her expression thoughtful. It turned into a smile.

Modern living might suck. And the world we’ve made can be a dark place. But at least I don’t have to be there alone.

I put an arm around Nick’s shoulders and grinned at him. “It’s like I keep telling you, man. You’ve got to have faith.”





STORM FRONT





ALSO BY JIM BUTCHER


THE DRESDEN FILES

FOOL MOON

GRAVE PERIL

SUMMER KNIGHT

DEATH MASKS

BLOOD RITES

DEAD BEAT

PROVEN GUILTY

WHITE NIGHT

THE CODEX ALERA

FURIES OF CALDERON

ACADEM’S FURY

CURSOR’S FURY

CAPTAIN’S FURY





ROC

Published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.) Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices:

80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Published by Roc, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Previously published in a Roc mass market edition.

Copyright © Jim Butcher, 2000

All rights reserved

REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA

ISBN: 1-101-12865-8

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the authors rights is appreciated.





For Debbie Chester, who taught me everything I

really needed to know about writing. And for my

father, who taught me everything I really needed

to know about living. I miss you, Dad.





Contents



Acknowledgments

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Author’s Note





Acknowledgments



Special thanks go out to Caroline, Fred, Debra, Tara, and Corin: the original Harry Dresden fans. Without the perverse desire to make you guys scream at me to write the next chapter, Harry would never have gotten into so much trouble. More thanks are due to Ricia Mainhardt and to A. J. Janschewitz, great agents and good people, and to Chris Ely, who is just an all-around neat person.

Superspecial thanks to my son, J.J., who believed his dada had written a good book even if he couldn’t read it.

And thank you, Shannon, for too many things to list. You’re my angel. One day, I will learn to turn my socks right side out before throwing them on the bedroom floor.





Chapter One




I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn’t sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily, and he whistled. A new guy. He whistled his way to my office door, then fell silent for a moment. Then he laughed.

Then he knocked.

I winced. My mail comes through the mail slot unless it’s registered. I get a really limited selection of registered mail, and it’s never good news. I got up out of my office chair and opened the door.

The new mailman, who looked like a basketball with arms and legs and a sunburned, balding head, was chuckling at the sign on the door glass. He glanced at me and hooked a thumb toward the sign. “You’re kidding, right?”

I read the sign (people change it occasionally), and shook my head. “No, I’m serious. Can I have my mail, please?”

“So, uh. Like parties, shows, stuff like that?” He looked past me, as though he expected to see a white tiger, or possibly some skimpily clad assistants prancing around my one-room office.

I sighed, not in the mood to get mocked again, and reached for the mail he held in his hand. “No, not like that. I don’t do parties.”

He held on to it, his head tilted curiously. “So what? Some kinda fortune-teller? Cards and crystal balls and things?”

“No,” I told him. “I’m not a psychic.” I tugged at the mail.

He held on to it. “What are you, then?”

“What’s the sign on the door say?”

“It says ‘Harry Dresden. Wizard.’”

“That’s me,” I confirmed.

“An actual wizard?” he asked, grinning, as though I should let him in on the joke. “Spells and potions? Demons and incantations? Subtle and quick to anger?”

“Not so subtle.” I jerked the mail out of his hand and looked pointedly at his clipboard. “Can I sign for my mail please?”

The new mailman’s grin vanished, replaced with a scowl. He passed over the clipboard to let me sign for the mail (another late notice from my landlord), and said, “You’re a nut. That’s what you are.” He took his clipboard back, and said, “You have a nice day, sir.”

I watched him go.

“Typical,” I muttered, and shut the door.

My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I’m a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I’m the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under “Wizards.” Believe it or not, I’m the only one there. My ad looks like this:

HARRY DRESDEN—WIZARD

LOST ITEMS FOUND. PARANORMAL INVESTIGATIONS.

CONSULTING. ADVICE. REASONABLE RATES.

NO LOVE POTIONS, ENDLESS PURSES, PARTIES,

OR OTHER ENTERTAINMENT.





You’d be surprised how many people call just to ask me if I’m serious. But then, if you’d seen the things I’d seen, if you knew half of what I knew, you’d wonder how anyone could not think I was serious.

The end of the twentieth century and the dawn of the new millennium had seen something of a renaissance in the public awareness of the paranormal. Psychics, haunts, vampires—you name it. People still didn’t take them seriously, but all the things Science had promised us hadn’t come to pass. Disease was still a problem. Starvation was still a problem. Violence and crime and war were still problems. In spite of the advance of technology, things just hadn’t changed the way everyone had hoped and thought they would.

Science, the largest religion of the twentieth century, had become somewhat tarnished by images of exploding space shuttles, crack babies, and a generation of complacent Americans who had allowed the television to raise their children. People were looking for something—I think they just didn’t know what. And even though they were once again starting to open their eyes to the world of magic and the arcane that had been with them all the while, they still thought I must be some kind of joke.

Anyway, it had been a slow month. A slow pair of months, actually. My rent from February didn’t get paid until the tenth of March, and it was looking like it might be even longer until I got caught up for this month.

My only job had been the previous week, when I’d gone down to Branson, Missouri, to investigate a country singer’s possibly haunted house. It hadn’t been. My client hadn’t been happy with that answer, and had been even less happy when I suggested he lay off of any intoxicating substances and try to get some exercise and sleep, and see if that didn’t help things more than an exorcism. I’d gotten travel expenses plus an hour’s pay, and gone away feeling I had done the honest, righteous, and impractical thing. I heard later that he’d hired a shyster psychic to come in and perform a ceremony with a lot of incense and black lights. Some people.

I finished up my paperback and tossed it into the DONE box. There was a pile of read and discarded paperbacks in a cardboard box on one side of my desk, the spines bent and the pages mangled. I’m terribly hard on books. I was eyeing the pile of unread books, considering which to start next, given that I had no real work to do, when my phone rang.

I stared at it in a somewhat surly fashion. We wizards are terrific at brooding. After the third ring, when I thought I wouldn’t sound a little too eager, I picked up the receiver and said, “Dresden.”

“Oh. Is this, um, Harry Dresden? The, ah, wizard?” Her tone was apologetic, as though she were terribly afraid she would be insulting me.

No, I thought. It’s Harry Dresden the, ah, lizard. Harry the wizard is one door down.

It is the prerogative of wizards to be grumpy. It is not, however, the prerogative of freelance consultants who are late on their rent, so instead of saying something smart, I told the woman on the phone, “Yes, ma’am. How can I help you today?”

“I, um,” she said. “I’m not sure. I’ve lost something, and I think maybe you could help me.”

“Finding lost articles is a specialty,” I said. “What would I be looking for?”

There was a nervous pause. “My husband,” she said. She had a voice that was a little hoarse, like that of a cheerleader who’d been working a long tournament, but had enough weight of years in it to place her as an adult.

My eyebrows went up. “Ma’am, I’m not really a missing-persons specialist. Have you contacted the police or a private investigator?”

“No,” she said, quickly. “No, they can’t. That is, I haven’t. Oh dear, this is all so complicated. Not something someone can talk about on the phone. I’m sorry to have taken up your time, Mr. Dresden.”

“Hold on now,” I said quickly. “I’m sorry, you didn’t tell me your name.”

There was that nervous pause again, as though she were checking a sheet of written notes before answering. “Call me Monica.”

People who know diddly about wizards don’t like to give us their names. They’re convinced that if they give a wizard their name from their own lips it could be used against them. To be fair, they’re right.

I had to be as polite and harmless as I could. She was about to hang up out of pure indecision, and I needed the job. I could probably turn hubby up, if I worked at it.

“Okay, Monica,” I told her, trying to sound as melodious and friendly as I could. “If you feel your situation is of a sensitive nature, maybe you could come by my office and talk about it. If it turns out that I can help you best, I will, and if not, then I can direct you to someone I think can help you better.” I gritted my teeth and pretended I was smiling. “No charge.”

It must have been the no charge that did it. She agreed to come right out to the office, and told me that she would be there in an hour. That put her estimated arrival at about two-thirty. Plenty of time to go out and get some lunch, then get back to the office to meet her.

The phone rang again almost the instant I put it down, making me jump. I peered at it. I don’t trust electronics. Anything manufactured after the forties is suspect—and doesn’t seem to have much liking for me. You name it: cars, radios, telephones, TVs, VCRs—none of them seem to behave well for me. I don’t even like to use automatic pencils.

I answered the phone with the same false cheer I had summoned up for Monica Husband-Missing. “This is Dresden, may I help you?”

“Harry, I need you at the Madison in the next ten minutes. Can you be there?” The voice on the other end of the line was also a woman’s, cool, brisk, businesslike.

“Why, Lieutenant Murphy,” I gushed, overflowing with saccharine, “it’s good to hear from you, too. It’s been so long. Oh, they’re fine, fine. And your family?”

“Save it, Harry. I’ve got a couple of bodies here, and I need you to take a look around.”

I sobered immediately. Karrin Murphy was the director of Special Investigations out of downtown Chicago, a de facto appointee of the Police Commissioner to investigate any crimes dubbed unusual. Vampire attacks, troll maraudings, and faery abductions of children didn’t fit in very neatly on a police report—but at the same time, people got attacked, infants got stolen, property was damaged or destroyed. And someone had to look into it.

In Chicago, or pretty much anywhere in Chicagoland, that person was Karrin Murphy. I was her library of the supernatural on legs, and a paid consultant for the police department. But two bodies? Two deaths by means unknown? I hadn’t handled anything like that for her before.

“Where are you?” I asked her.

“Madison Hotel on Tenth, seventh floor.”

“That’s only a fifteen-minute walk from my office,” I said.

“So you can be here in fifteen minutes. Good.”

“Um,” I said. I looked at the clock. Monica No-Last-Name would be here in a little more than forty-five minutes. “I’ve sort of got an appointment.”

“Dresden, I’ve sort of got a pair of corpses with no leads and no suspects, and a killer walking around loose. Your appointment can wait.”

My temper flared. It does that occasionally. “It can’t, actually,” I said. “But I’ll tell you what. I’ll stroll on over and take a look around, and be back here in time for it.”

“Have you had lunch yet?” she asked.

“What?”

She repeated the question.

“No,” I said.

“Don’t.” There was a pause, and when she spoke again, there was a sort of greenish tone to her words. “It’s bad.”

“How bad are we talking here, Murph?”

Her voice softened, and that scared me more than any images of gore or violent death could have. Murphy was the original tough girl, and she prided herself on never showing weakness. “It’s bad, Harry. Please don’t take too long. Special Crimes is itching to get their fingers on this one, and I know you don’t like people to touch the scene before you can look around.”

“I’m on the way,” I told her, already standing and pulling on my jacket.

“Seventh floor,” she reminded me. “See you there.”

“Okay.”

I turned off the lights to my office, went out the door, and locked up behind me, frowning. I wasn’t sure how long it was going to take to investigate Murphy’s scene, and I didn’t want to miss out on speaking with Monica Ask-Me-No-Questions. So I opened the door again, got out a piece of paper and a thumbtack, and wrote:

Out briefly. Back for appointment at 2:30. Dresden

That done, I started down the stairs. I rarely use the elevator, even though I’m on the fifth floor. Like I said, I don’t trust machines. They’re always breaking down on me just when I need them.

Besides which. If I were someone in this town using magic to kill people two at a time, and I didn’t want to get caught, I’d make sure that I removed the only practicing wizard the police department kept on retainer. I liked my odds on the stairwell a lot better than I did in the cramped confines of the elevator.

Paranoid? Probably. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that there isn’t an invisible demon about to eat your face.





Chapter Two




Karrin Murphy was waiting for me outside the Madison. Karrin and I are a study in contrasts. Where I am tall and lean, she’s short and stocky. Where I have dark hair and dark eyes, she’s got Shirley Temple blond locks and baby blues. Where my features are all lean and angular, with a hawkish nose and a sharp chin, hers are round and smooth, with the kind of cute nose you’d expect on a cheerleader.

It was cool and windy, like it usually is in March, and she wore a long coat that covered her pantsuit. Murphy never wore dresses, though I suspected she’d have muscular, well-shaped legs, like a gymnast. She was built for function, and had a pair of trophies in her office from aikido tournaments to prove it. Her hair was cut at shoulder length and whipped out wildly in the spring wind. She wasn’t wearing earrings, and her makeup was of sufficient quality and quantity that it was tough to tell she had on any at all. She looked more like a favorite aunt or a cheerful mother than a hard-bitten homicide detective.

“Don’t you have any other jackets, Dresden?” she asked, as I came within hailing distance. There were several police cars parked illegally in front of the building. She glanced at my eyes for a half second and then away, quickly. I had to give her credit. It was more than most people did. It wasn’t really dangerous unless you did it for several seconds, but I was used to anyone who knew I was a wizard making it a point not to glance at my face.

I looked down at my black canvas duster, with its heavy mantling and waterproof lining and sleeves actually long enough for my arms. “What’s wrong with this one?”

“It belongs on the set of El Dorado.”

“And?”

She snorted, an indelicate sound from so small a woman, and spun on her heel to walk toward the hotel’s front doors.

I caught up and walked a little ahead of her.

She sped her pace. So did I. We raced one another toward the front door, with increasing speed, through the puddles left over from last night’s rain.

My legs were longer; I got there first. I opened the door for her and gallantly gestured for her to go in. It was an old contest of ours. Maybe my values are outdated, but I come from an old school of thought. I think that men ought to treat women like something other than just shorter, weaker men with breasts. Try and convict me if I’m a bad person for thinking so. I enjoy treating a woman like a lady, opening doors for her, paying for shared meals, giving flowers—all that sort of thing.

It irritates the hell out of Murphy, who had to fight and claw and play dirty with the hairiest men in Chicago to get as far as she has. She glared up at me while I stood there holding open the door, but there was a reassurance about the glare, a relaxation. She took an odd sort of comfort in our ritual, annoying as she usually found it.

How bad was it up on the seventh floor, anyway?

We rode the elevator in a sudden silence. We knew one another well enough, by this time, that the silences were not uncomfortable. I had a good sense of Murphy, an instinctual grasp for her moods and patterns of thought—something I develop whenever I’m around someone for any length of time. Whether it’s a natural talent or a supernatural one I don’t know.

My instincts told me that Murphy was tense, stretched as tight as piano wire. She kept it off her face, but there was something about the set of her shoulders and neck, the stiffness of her back, that made me aware of it.

Or maybe I was just projecting it onto her. The confines of the elevator made me a bit nervous. I licked my lips and looked around the interior of the car. My shadow and Murphy’s fell on the floor, and almost looked as though they were sprawled there. There was something about it that bothered me, a nagging little instinct that I blew off as a case of nerves. Steady, Harry.

She let out a harsh breath just as the elevator slowed, then sucked in another one before the doors could open, as though she were planning on holding it for as long as we were on the floor and breathing only when she got back in the elevator again.

Blood smells a certain way, a kind of sticky, almost metallic odor, and the air was full of it when the elevator doors opened. My stomach quailed a little bit, but I swallowed manfully and followed Murphy out of the elevator and down the hall past a couple of uniform cops, who recognized me and waved me past without asking to see the little laminated card the city had given me. Granted, even in a big-city department like Chicago P.D., they didn’t exactly call in a horde of consultants (I went down in the paperwork as a psychic consultant, I think), but still. Unprofessional of the boys in blue.

Murphy preceded me into the room. The smell of blood grew thicker, but there wasn’t anything gruesome behind door number one. The outer room of the suite looked like some kind of a sitting room done in rich tones of red and gold, like a set from an old movie in the thirties—expensive-looking, but somehow faux, nonetheless. Dark, rich leather covered the chairs, and my feet sank into the thick, rust-colored shag of the carpet. The velvet velour curtains had been drawn, and though the lights were all on, the place still seemed a little too dark, a little too sensual in its textures and colors. It wasn’t the kind of room where you sit and read a book. Voices came from a doorway to my right.

“Wait here a minute,” Murphy told me. Then she went through the door to the right of the entryway and into what I supposed was the bedroom of the suite.

I wandered around the sitting room with my eyes mostly closed, noting things. Leather couch. Two leather chairs. Stereo and television in a black glossy entertainment center. Champagne bottle warming in a stand holding a brimming tub of what had been ice the night before, with two empty glasses set beside it. There was a red rose petal on the floor, clashing with the carpeting (but then, in that room, what didn’t?).

A bit to one side, under the skirt of one of the leather recliners, was a little piece of satiny cloth. I bent at the waist and lifted the skirt with one hand, careful not to touch anything. A pair of black satin panties, a tiny triangle with lace coming off the points, lay there, one strap snapped as though the thong had simply been torn off. Kinky.

The stereo system was state of the art, though not an expensive brand. I took a pencil from my pocket and pushed the PLAY button with the eraser. Gentle, sensual music filled the room, a low bass, a driving drumbeat, wordless vocals, the heavy breathing of a woman as background.

The music continued for a few seconds more, and then it began to skip over a section about two seconds long, repeating it over and over again.

I grimaced. Like I said, I have this effect on machinery. It has something to do with being a wizard, with working with magical forces. The more delicate and modern the machine is, the more likely it is that something will go wrong if I get close enough to it. I can kill a copier at fifty paces.

“The love suite,” came a man’s voice, drawing the word love out into luuuuuuuv. “What do you think, Mister Man?”

“Hello, Detective Carmichael,” I said, without turning around. Carmichael’s rather light, nasal voice had a distinctive quality. He was Murphy’s partner and the resident skeptic, convinced that I was nothing more than a charlatan, scamming the city out of its hard-earned money. “Were you saving the panties to take home yourself, or did you just overlook them?” I turned and looked at him. He was short and overweight and balding, with beady, bloodshot eyes and a weak chin. His jacket was rumpled, and there were food stains on his tie, all of which served to conceal a razor intellect. He was a sharp cop, and absolutely ruthless at tracking down killers.

He walked over to the chair and looked down. “Not bad, Sherlock,” he said. “But that’s just foreplay. Wait’ll you see the main attraction. I’ll have a bucket waiting for you.” He turned and killed the malfunctioning CD player with a jab from the eraser end of his own pencil.

I widened my eyes at him, to let him know how terrified I was, then walked past him and into the bedroom. And regretted it. I looked, noted details mechanically, and quietly shut the door on the part of my head that had started screaming the second I entered the room.

They must have died sometime the night before, as rigor mortis had already set in. They were on the bed; she was astride him, body leaned back, back bowed like a dancer’s, the curves of her breasts making a lovely outline. He stretched beneath her, a lean and powerfully built man, arms reaching out and grasping at the satin sheets, gathering them in his fists. Had it been an erotic photograph, it would have made a striking tableau.

Except that the lovers’ rib cages on the upper left side of their torsos had expanded outward, through their skin, the ribs jabbing out like ragged, snapped knives. Arterial blood had sprayed out of their bodies, all the way to the mirror on the ceiling, along with pulped, gelatinous masses of flesh that had to be what remained of their hearts. Standing over them, I could see into the upper cavity of the bodies. I noted the now greyish lining around the motionless left lungs and the edges of the ribs, which apparently were forced outward and snapped by some force within.

It definitely cut down on the erotic potential.

The bed was in the middle of the room, giving it a subtle emphasis. The bedroom followed the decor of the sitting room—a lot of red, a lot of plush fabrics, a little over the top unless viewed in candlelight. There were indeed candles in holders on the wall, now burned down to the nubs and extinguished.

I stepped closer to the bed and walked around it. The carpet squelched as I did. The little screaming part of my brain, safely locked up behind doors of self-control and strict training, continued gibbering. I tried to ignore it. Really I did. But if I didn’t get out of that room in a hurry, I was going to start crying like a little girl.

So I took in the details fast. The woman was in her twenties, in fabulous condition. At least I thought she had been. It was hard to tell. She had hair the color of chestnuts, cut in a pageboy style, and it seemed dyed to me. Her eyes were only partly open, and I couldn’t quite guess at their color beyond not-dark. Vaguely green?

The man was probably in his forties, and had the kind of fitness that comes from a lifetime of conditioning. There was a tattoo on his right biceps, a winged dagger, that the pull of the satin sheets half concealed. There were scars on his knuckles, layers deep, and across his lower abdomen was a vicious, narrow, puckered scar that I guessed must have come from a knife wound.

There were discarded clothes around—a tux for him, a little sheath of a black dress and a pair of pumps for her. There were a pair of overnight bags, unopened and set neatly aside, probably by a porter.

I looked up. Carmichael and Murphy were watching me in silence.

I shrugged at them.

“Well?” Murphy demanded. “Are we dealing with magic here, or aren’t we?”

“Either that or it was really incredible sex,” I told her.

Carmichael snorted.

I laughed a little, too—and that was all the screaming part of my brain needed to slam open the doors I’d shut on it. My stomach revolted and heaved, and I lurched out of the room. Carmichael, true to his word, had set a stainless-steel bucket outside the room, and I fell to my knees throwing up.

It only took me a few seconds to control myself again—but I didn’t want to go back in that room. I didn’t need to see what was there anymore. I didn’t want to see the two dead people, whose hearts had literally exploded out of their chests.

And someone had used magic to do it. They had used magic to wreak harm on another, violating the First Law. The White Council was going to go into collective apoplexy. This hadn’t been the act of a malign spirit or a malicious entity, or the attack of one of the many creatures of the Nevernever, like vampires or trolls. This had been the premeditated, deliberate act of a sorcerer, a wizard, a human being able to tap into the fundamental energies of creation and life itself.

It was worse than murder. It was twisted, wretched perversion, as though someone had bludgeoned another person to death with a Botticelli, turned something of beauty to an act of utter destruction.

If you’ve never touched it, it’s hard to explain. Magic is created by life, and most of all by the awareness, intelligence, emotions of a human being. To end such a life with the same magic that was born from it was hideous, almost incestuous somehow.

I sat up again and was breathing hard, shaking and tasting the bile in my mouth, when Murphy came back out of the room with Carmichael.

“All right, Harry,” Murphy said. “Let’s have it. What do you see happening here?”

I took a moment to collect my thoughts before answering. “They came in. They had some champagne. They danced for a while, made out, over there by the stereo. Then went into the bedroom. They were in there for less than an hour. It hit them when they were getting to the high point.”

“Less than an hour,” Carmichael said. “How do you figure?”

“CD was only an hour and ten long. Figure a few minutes for dancing and drinking, and then they’re in the room. Was the CD playing when they found them?”

“No,” Murphy said.

“Then it hadn’t been set on a loop. I figure they wanted music, just to make things perfect, given the room and all.”

Carmichael grunted, sourly. “Nothing we hadn’t already figured out for ourselves,” he said to Murphy. “He’d better come up with more than this.”

Murphy shot Carmichael a look that said “shut up,” then said, softly, “I need more, Harry.”

I ran one of my hands back over my hair. “There’s only two ways anyone could have managed this. The first is by evocation. Evocation is the most direct, spectacular, and noisy form of expressed magic, or sorcery. Explosions, fire, that sort of thing. But I doubt it was an evocator who did this.”

“Why?” Murphy demanded. I heard her pencil scritching on the notepad she always kept with her.

“Because you have to be able to see or touch where you want your effect to go,” I told her. “Line of sight only. The man or woman would have had to be there in the room with them. Tough to hide forensic evidence with something like that, and anyone who was skilled enough to pull off a spell like that would have had the sense to use a gun instead. It’s easier.”

“What’s the other option?” Murphy asked.

“Thaumaturgy,” I said. “As above, so below. Make something happen on a small scale, and give it the energy to happen on a large scale.”

Carmichael snorted. “What bullshit.”

Murphy’s voice sounded skeptical. “How would that work, Harry? Could it be done from somewhere else?”

I nodded. “The killer would need to have something to connect him or her to the victims. Hair, fingernails, blood samples. That sort of thing.”

“Like a voodoo doll?”

“Exactly the same thing, yes.”

“There’s fresh dye in the woman’s hair,” Murphy said.

I nodded. “Maybe if you can find out where she got her hair styled, you could find something out. I don’t know.”

“Is there anything else you could tell me that would be of use?”

“Yes. The killer knew the victims. And I’m thinking it was a woman.”

Carmichael snorted. “I don’t believe we got to sit here and listen to this. Nine times out of ten the killer knows the victim.”

“Shut up, Carmichael,” Murphy said. “What makes you say that, Harry?”

I stood up, and rubbed at my face with my hands. “The way magic works. Whenever you do something with it, it comes from inside of you. Wizards have to focus on what they’re trying to do, visualize it, believe in it, to make it work. You can’t make something happen that isn’t a part of you, inside. The killer could have murdered them both and made it look like an accident, but she did it this way. To get it done this way, she would have had to want them dead for very personal reasons, to be willing to reach inside them like that. Revenge, maybe. Maybe you’re looking for a lover or a spouse.

“Also because of when they died—in the middle of sex. It wasn’t a coincidence. Emotions are a kind of channel for magic, a path that can be used to get to you. She picked a time when they’d be together and be charged up with lust. She got samples to use as a focus, and she planned it out in advance. You don’t do that to strangers.”

“Crap,” Carmichael said, but this time it was more of an absentminded curse than anything directed at me.

Murphy glared at me. “You keep saying ‘she,’” she challenged me. “Why the hell do you think that?”

I gestured toward the room. “Because you can’t do something that bad without a whole lot of hate,” I said. “Women are better at hating than men. They can focus it better, let it go better. Hell, witches are just plain meaner than wizards. This feels like feminine vengeance of some kind to me.”

“But a man could have done it,” Murphy said.

“Well,” I hedged.

“Christ, you are a chauvinist pig, Dresden. Is it something that only a woman could have done?”

“Well. No. I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so?” Carmichael drawled. “Some expert.”

I scowled at them both, angry. “I haven’t really worked through the specifics of what I’d need to do to make somebody’s heart explode, Murph. As soon as I have occasion to I’ll be sure to let you know.”

“When will you be able to tell me something?” Murphy asked.

“I don’t know.” I held up a hand, forestalling her next comment. “I can’t put a timer on this stuff, Murph. It just can’t be done. I don’t even know if I can do it at all, much less how long it will take.”

“At fifty bucks an hour, it better not be too long,” Carmichael growled. Murphy glanced at him. She didn’t exactly agree with him, but she didn’t exactly slap him down, either.

I took the opportunity to take a few long breaths, calming myself down. I finally looked back at them. “Okay,” I asked. “Who are they? The victims.”

“You don’t need to know that,” Carmichael snapped.

“Ron,” Murphy said. “I could really use some coffee.”

Carmichael turned to her. He wasn’t tall, but he all but loomed over Murphy. “Aw, come on, Murph. This guy’s jerking your chain. You don’t really think he’s going to be able to tell you anything worth hearing, do you?”

Murphy regarded her partner’s sweaty, beady-eyed face with a sort of frosty hauteur, tough to pull off on someone six inches taller than she. “No cream, two sugars.”

“Dammit,” Carmichael said. He shot me a cold glance (but didn’t quite look at my eyes), then jammed his hands into his pants pockets and stalked out of the room.

Murphy followed him to the door, her feet silent, and shut it behind him. The sitting room immediately became darker, closer, with the grinning ghoul of its former chintzy intimacy dancing in the smell of the blood and the memory of the two bodies in the next room.

“The woman’s name was Jennifer Stanton. She worked for the Velvet Room.”

I whistled. The Velvet Room was a high-priced escort service run by a woman named Bianca. Bianca kept a flock of beautiful, charming, and witty women, pandering them to the richest men in the area for hundreds of dollars an hour. Bianca sold the kind of female company that most men only see on television and the movies. I also knew that she was a vampiress of considerable influence in the Nevernever. She had Power with a capital P.

I’d tried to explain the Nevernever to Murphy before. She didn’t really comprehend it, but she understood that Bianca was a badass vampiress who sometimes squabbled for territory. We both knew that if one of Bianca’s girls was involved, the vampiress must have been involved somehow, too.

Murphy cut right to the point. “Was this part of one of Bianca’s territorial disputes?”

“No,” I said. “Unless she’s having it with a human sorcerer. A vampire, even a vamp sorcerer, couldn’t have pulled off something like this outside of the Nevernever.”

“Could she be at odds with a human sorcerer?” Murphy asked me.

“Possible. But it doesn’t sound like her. She isn’t that stupid.” What I didn’t tell Murphy was that the White Council made sure that vampires who trifled with mortal practitioners never lived to brag about it. I don’t talk to regular people about the White Council. It just isn’t done. “Besides,” I said, “if a human wanted to take a shot at Bianca by hitting her girls, he’d be better off to kill the girl and leave the customer healthy, to let him spread the tale and scare off business.”

“Mmph,” Murphy said. She wasn’t convinced, but she made notes of what I had said.

“Who was the man?” I asked her.

Murphy looked up at me for a moment, and then said, evenly, “Tommy Tomm.”

I blinked at her to let her know she hadn’t revealed the mystery of the ages. “Who?”

“Tommy Tomm,” she said. “Johnny Marcone’s bodyguard.”

Now it made sense. “Gentleman” Johnny Marcone had been the thug to emerge on top of the pile after the Vargassi family had dissolved into internal strife. The police department saw Marcone as a mixed blessing, after years of merciless struggle and bloody exchanges with the Vargassis. Gentleman Johnny tolerated no excesses in his organization, and he didn’t like freelancers operating in his city. Muggers, bank robbers, and drug dealers who were not a part of his organization somehow always seemed to get ratted out and turned in, or else simply went missing and weren’t heard from again.

Marcone was a civilizing influence on crime—and where he operated, it was more of a problem in terms of scale than ever before. An extremely shrewd businessman, he had a battery of lawyers working for him that kept him fenced in from the law behind a barricade of depositions and papers and tape recordings. The cops never said it, but sometimes it seemed like they were almost reluctant to chase him. Marcone was better than the alternative—anarchy in the underworld.

“I remember hearing he had an enforcer,” I said. “I guess he doesn’t anymore.”

Murphy shrugged. “So it would seem.”

“So what will you do next?”

“Run down this hairstylist angle, I guess. I’ll talk to Bianca and to Marcone, but I can already tell you what they’ll tell me.” She flicked her notebook closed and shook her head, irritated.

I watched her for a minute. She looked tired. I told her so.

“I am tired,” she replied. “Tired of being looked at like I’m some sort of nutcase. Even Carmichael, my own partner, thinks I’ve gone over the edge in all of this.”

“The rest of the station think so too?” I asked her.

“Most of them just scowl and spin their index fingers around their temples when they think I’m not looking, and file my reports without ever reading them. The rest are the ones who have run into something spooky out there, and they’re scared shitless. They don’t want to believe in anything they didn’t see on Mister Science when they were kids.”

“How about you?”

“Me?” Murphy smiled, a curving of her lips that was a vibrantly feminine expression, making her look entirely too pretty to be such a hardass. “The world’s falling apart at the seams, Harry. I guess I just think people are pretty arrogant to believe we’ve learned everything there is to know in the past century or so. What the hell. I can buy that we’re just now starting to see the things around us in the dark again. It appeals to the cynic in me.”

“I wish everyone thought like you do,” I said. “It would cut down on my crank calls.”

She continued to smile at me, impish. “But could you imagine a world where all the radio stations played ABBA?”

We shared a laugh. God, that room needed a laugh.

“Hey, Harry,” Murphy said, grinning. I could see the wheels spinning in her head.

“Yeah?”

“What you said about being able to figure out how the killer did this. About how you’re not sure you can do it.”

“Yeah?”

“I know it’s bullshit. Why did you lie to me about it?”

I stiffened. Christ, she was good. Or maybe I’m just not much of a liar. “Look, Murph,” I said. “There’s some things you just don’t do.”

“Sometimes I don’t want to get into the head of the slime I go after, either. But you do what needs to be done to finish the job. I know what you mean, Harry.”

“No,” I said, shortly. “You don’t know.” And she didn’t. She didn’t know about my past, or the White Council, or the Doom of Damocles hanging over my head. Most days, I could pretend I didn’t know about it, either.

All the Council needed now was an excuse, just an excuse, to find me guilty of violating one of the Seven Laws of Magic, and the Doom would drop. If I started putting together a recipe for a murder spell, and they found out about it, that might be all the excuse they needed.

“Murph,” I told her. “I can’t try figuring this spell out. I can’t go putting together the things I’d need to do it. You just don’t understand.”

She glared at me, without looking at my eyes. I hadn’t ever met anyone else who could pull that one off. “Oh, I understand. I understand that I’ve got a killer loose that I can’t catch in the act. I understand that you know something that can help, or you can at least find out something. And I understand that if you dry up on me now, I’m tearing your card out of the department Rolodex and tossing it in the trash.”

Son of a bitch. My consulting for the department paid a lot of my bills. Okay, most of my bills. I could sympathize with her, I supposed. If I was operating in the dark like she was, I’d be nervous as hell, too. Murphy didn’t know anything about spells or rituals or talismans, but she knew human hatred and violence all too well.

It wasn’t as though I was actually going to be doing any black magic, I told myself. I was just going to be figuring out how it was done. There was a difference. I was helping the police in an investigation, nothing more. Maybe the White Council would understand that.

Yeah, right. And maybe one of these days I’d go to an art museum and become well rounded.

Murphy set the hook a second later. She looked up at my eyes for a daring second before she turned away, her face tired and honest and proud. “I need to know everything you can tell me, Harry. Please.”

Classic lady in distress. For one of those liberated, professional women, she knew exactly how to jerk my old-fashioned chains around.

I gritted my teeth. “Fine,” I said. “Fine. I’ll start on it tonight.” Hooboy. The White Council was going to love this one. I’d just have to make sure they didn’t find out about it.

Murphy nodded and let out a breath without looking at me. Then she said, “Let’s get out of here,” and walked toward the door. I didn’t try to beat her to it.

When we walked out, the uniform cops were still lazing around in the hall outside. Carmichael was nowhere to be seen. The guys from forensics were there, standing around impatiently, waiting for us to come out. Then they gathered up their plastic bags and tweezers and lights and things and filed past us into the room.

Murphy was brushing at her windblown hair with her hand while we waited for the ancient elevator to take its sweet time getting up to the seventh floor. She was wearing a gold watch, which reminded me. “Oh, hey,” I asked her. “What time is it?”

She checked. “Two twenty-five. Why?”

I breathed out a curse, and turned for the stairs. “I’m late for my appointment.”

I fairly flew down the stairs. I’ve had a lot of practice at them, after all, and I hit the lobby at a jog. I managed to dodge a porter coming through the front doors with an armload of luggage, and swung out onto the sidewalk at a lope. I have long legs that eat a lot of ground. I was running into the wind, my black duster billowing out behind me.

It was several blocks to my building, and after covering half of them I slowed to a walk. I didn’t want to arrive at my appointment with Monica Missing-Man puffing like a bellows, with my hair windblown and my face streaming with sweat.

Blame it on being out of shape from an inactive winter season, but I was breathing hard. It occupied enough of my attention that I didn’t see the dark blue Cadillac until it had pulled up beside me, and a rather large man had stepped out of it onto the sidewalk in front of me. He had bright red hair and a thick neck. His face looked like someone had smashed it flat with a board, repeatedly, when he was a baby—except for his jutting eyebrows. He had narrow little blue eyes that got narrower as I sized him up.

I stopped, and backed away, then turned around. Two more men, both of them as tall as me and a good deal heavier, were slowing down from their own jog. They had apparently been following me, and they looked annoyed. One was limping slightly, and the other wore a buzz cut that had been spiked up straight with some kind of styling gel. I felt like I was in high school again, surrounded by bullying members of the football team.

“Can I help you gentlemen?” I asked. I looked around for a cop, but they were all over at the Madison, I supposed. Everyone likes to gawk.

“Get in the car,” the one in front of me said. One of the others opened the rear door.

“I like to walk. It’s good for my heart.”

“You don’t get in the car, it isn’t going to be good for your legs,” the man growled.

A voice came from inside the car. “Mister Hendricks, please. Be more polite. Mister Dresden, would you join me for a moment? I’d hoped to give you a lift back to your office, but your abrupt exit made it somewhat problematic. Perhaps you will allow me to convey you the rest of the way.”

I leaned down to look into the backseat. A man of handsome and unassuming features, dressed in a casual sports jacket and Levi’s, regarded me with a smile. “And you would be?” I asked him.

His smile widened, and I swear it made his eyes twinkle.

“My name is John Marcone. I would like to discuss business with you.”

I stared at him for a moment. And then my eyes slid aside to the very large and very overdeveloped Mister Hendricks. The man growled under his breath, and it sounded like Cujo just before he jumped at the woman in the car. I didn’t feel like duking it out with Cujo and his two buddies.

So I got into the back of the Caddy with Gentleman Johnny Marcone.

It was turning out to be a very busy day. And I was still late for my appointment.





Chapter Three




Gentleman Johnny Marcone didn’t look like the sort of man who would have my legs broken or my jaw wired shut. His salt-and-pepper hair was cut short, and there were lines from sun and smiling etched into the corners of his eyes. His eyes were the green of well-worn dollar bills. He seemed more like a college football coach: good-looking, tanned, athletic, and enthusiastic. The impression was reinforced by the men he kept with him. Cujo Hendricks hulked like an all-pro player who had been ousted for extreme unnecessary roughness.

Cujo got in the car again, glowered at me in the rearview mirror, then pulled out into the street, driving slowly toward my office. The steering wheel looked tiny and delicate in his huge hands. I made a mental note: Do not let Cujo put his hands around your throat. Or hand. It looked almost like one of them could manage it.

The radio was playing, but as I got in the car it fouled up, squealing feedback out over the speakers. Hendricks scowled and thought about it for a second. Maybe he had to relay the message through his second brain or something. Then he reached out and fiddled with the knobs before finally turning the radio off. At this rate I hoped the car would make it all the way to my office.

“Mister Dresden,” Marcone said, smiling, “I understand that you work for the police department, from time to time.”

“They throw the occasional tidbit my way,” I agreed. “Hey, Hendricks. You should really wear your seat belt. Statistics say you’re fifty or sixty percent safer.”

Cujo growled at me in the rearview mirror again, and I beamed at him. Smiling always seems to annoy people more than actually insulting them. Or maybe I just have an annoying smile.

Marcone seemed somewhat put off by my attitude. Maybe I was supposed to be holding my hat in my hand, but I had never really liked Francis Ford Coppola, and I didn’t have a Godfather. (I do have a Godmother, and she is, inevitably perhaps, a faery. But that’s another story.) “Mister Dresden,” he said. “How much would it cost to retain your services?”

That made me wary. What would someone like Marcone want me for? “My standard fee is fifty dollars an hour plus travel expenses,” I told him. “But it can vary, depending on what you need done.”

Marcone nodded along with my sentences, as if encouraging me to speak. He wrinkled up his face as if carefully considering what he would say, and taking my well-being into account with grandfatherly concern. “How much would it set me back to have you not investigate something?”

“You want to pay me to not do something?”

“Let’s say I pay you your standard fee. That comes out to fourteen hundred a day, right?”

“Twelve hundred, actually,” I corrected him.

He beamed at me. “An honest man is a rare treasure. Twelve hundred a day. Let’s say I pay you for two weeks’ worth of work, Mister Dresden, and you take some time off. Go catch a few movies, get some extra sleep, that sort of thing.”

I eyed him. “And for more than a thousand dollars a day, you want me to…?”

“Do nothing, Mister Dresden.” Marcone smiled. “Nothing at all. Just relax, and put your feet up. And stay out of Detective Murphy’s way.”

Ah-hah. Marcone didn’t want me looking into Tommy Tomm’s murder. Interesting. I looked out the window and squinted my eyes, as though thinking about it.

“I’ve got the money with me,” Marcone said. “Cash on the spot. I’ll trust you to fulfill your end of the deal, Mister Dresden. You come highly recommended for your honesty.”

“Mmmm. I don’t know, John. I’m kind of busy to be accepting any more accounts right now.” The car was almost to my office building. The car door was still unlocked. I hadn’t worn my seat belt, either—just in case I needed to throw the door open and jump out. See how I think ahead? It’s that wizardly intellect—and paranoia.

Marcone’s smile faltered. His expression became earnest. “Mister Dresden, I am quite eager to establish a positive working relationship, here. If it’s the money, I can offer you more. Let’s say double your usual fee.” He steepled his hands in front of him as he talked, half-turning toward me. My God, I kept expecting him to tell me to go out there and win one for the Gipper. He smiled. “How does that sound?”

“It isn’t the money, John,” I told him. I lazily locked my eyes onto his. “I just don’t think it’s going to work out.”

To my surprise, he didn’t look away.

Those who deal in magic learn to see the world in a slightly different light than everyone else. You gain a perspective you had never considered before, a way of thinking that would just never have occurred to you without exposure to the things a wizard sees and hears.

When you look into someone’s eyes, you see them in that other light. And, for just a second, they see you in the same way. Marcone and I looked at one another.

He was a soldier, a warrior, behind that relaxed smile and fatherly manner. He was going to get what he wanted and he was going to get it in the most efficient way possible. He was a dedicated man—dedicated to his goals, dedicated to his people. He never let fear affect him. He made a living on human misery and suffering, peddling in drugs and flesh and stolen goods, but he took steps to minimize that suffering because it was simply the most efficient means of running his business. He was furious over Tommy Tomm’s death—a cold and practical kind of fury that his rightful dominion had been invaded and challenged. He intended to find those responsible and deal with them in his own way—and he didn’t want the police interfering. He had killed before, and would again, and it would all mean nothing more to him than a business transaction, than paying for groceries in the checkout line. It was a dry and cool place, inside Gentleman Johnny Marcone. Except for one dim corner. There, hidden away from his everyday thoughts, there lurked a secret shame. I couldn’t quite see what it was. But I knew that somewhere in the past there was something that he would give anything to undo, would spill blood to erase. It was from that dark place that he drew his resolve, his strength.

That was the way I saw him when I looked inside, past all his pretenses and defenses. And I was, on some instinctual level, certain that he had been aware of what I would see if I looked—that he had deliberately met my gaze, knowing what he would give away. That was his purpose in getting me alone. He wanted to take a peek at my soul. He wanted to see what sort of man I was.

When I look into someone’s eyes, into their soul, their innermost being, they can see mine in return—the things I had done, the things I was willing to do, the things I was capable of doing. Most people who did that got really pale, at least. One woman had passed out entirely. I didn’t know what they saw when they looked in there—it wasn’t a place I poked around much, myself.

John Marcone wasn’t like the other people who had seen my soul. He didn’t even blink an eye. He just looked and assessed, and after the moment had passed, he nodded at me as though he understood something. I got the uncomfortable impression that he had duped me. That he had found out more about me than I had about him. The first thing I felt was anger, anger at being manipulated, anger that he should presume to soulgaze upon me.

Just a second later, I felt scared to death of this man. I had looked on his soul and it had been as solid and barren as a stainless-steel refrigerator. It was more than unsettling. He was strong, inside, savage and merciless without being cruel. He had a tiger’s soul.

“All right, then,” he said, smoothly, and as though nothing had happened. “I won’t try to force my offer on you, Mister Dresden.” The car was slowing down as it approached my building, and Hendricks pulled over in front of it. “But let me offer you some advice.” He had dropped the father-talking-to-son act, and spoke in a calm and patient voice.

“If you don’t charge for it.” Thank God for wisecracks. I was too rattled to have said anything intelligent.

Marcone almost smiled. “I think you’ll be happier if you come down with the flu for a few days. This business that Detective Murphy has asked you to look into doesn’t need to be dragged out into the light. You won’t like what you see. It’s on my side of the fence. Just let me deal with it, and it won’t ever trouble you.”

“Are you threatening me?” I asked him. I didn’t think he was, but I didn’t want him to know that. It would have helped if my voice hadn’t been shaking.

“No,” he said, frankly. “I have too much respect for you to resort to something like that. They say that you’re the real thing, Mister Dresden. A real magus.”

“They also say I’m nutty as a fruitcake.”

“I choose which ‘they’ I listen to very carefully,” Marcone said. “Think about what I’ve said, Mister Dresden. I do not think our respective lines of work need overlap often. I would as soon not make an enemy of you over this matter.”

I clenched my jaw over my fear, and spat words out at him quick and hard. “You don’t want to make an enemy of me, Marcone. That wouldn’t be smart. That wouldn’t be smart at all.”

He narrowed his eyes at me, lazy and relaxed. He could meet my eyes by then without fear. We had taken a measure of one another. It would not happen in such a way again. “You really should try to be more polite, Mister Dresden,” he said. “It’s good for business.”

I didn’t give him an answer to that: I didn’t have one that wouldn’t sound frightened or stupidly macho. Instead, I told him, “If you ever lose your car keys, give me a call. Don’t try offering me money or threats again. Thanks for the ride.”

He watched me, his expression never changing, as I got out of the car and shut the door. Hendricks pulled out and drove away, after giving me one last dirty look. I had soulgazed on several people before. It wasn’t the sort of thing you forgot. I had never run into someone like that, someone so cool and controlled—even the other practitioners I had met gazes with had not been that way. None of them had simply assessed me like a column of numbers and filed it away for reference in future equations.

I stuck my hands in the pockets of my duster, and shivered as the wind hit me. I was a wizard, throwing around real magic, I reminded myself. I was not afraid of big men in big cars. I do not get rattled by corpses blasted from life by magic more intense than anything I could manage. Really. Honest.

But those dollar-bill-colored eyes, backed by that cool and nearly passionless soul, had me shaking as I took the stairs back up to my office. I had been stupid. He had surprised me, and the sudden intimacy of the soulgaze had startled and frightened me. All added together, it had caused me to fall apart, throwing threats at him like a frightened schoolkid. Marcone was a predator. He practically smelled my fear. If he got to thinking I was weak, I had a feeling that polite smile and fatherly facade would vanish as thoroughly and as quickly as it had appeared.

What a rotten first impression.

Oh, well. At least I was going to be on time for my appointment.





Chapter Four




Monica No-Last-Name was standing outside of my office when I got there, writing on the back of the note I had left taped to my office door.

I walked toward her, but she was too intent upon her writing to look up. She was a good-looking woman, in her mid-thirtysomethings. Ash blond hair that I thought must be natural, after a morbid and involuntary memory of the dead woman’s dye job. Her makeup was tasteful and well applied, and her face was fair, friendly, with enough roundness of cheek to look fresh-faced and young, enough fullness of mouth to look very feminine. She was wearing a long, full skirt of palest yellow with brown riding boots, a crisp white blouse, and an expensive-looking green cardigan over it, to ward off the chill of early spring. She had to be in good shape to pull off a color combination like that, and she did it. Overall, it was a naggingly familiar look, something like Annette Funicello or Barbara Billingsley, maybe—wholesome and all-American.

“Monica?” I asked. I put on my most innocent and friendly smile.

She blinked at me as I approached. “Oh. Are you, um, Harry…”

I smiled and offered her my hand. “Harry Dresden, ma’am. That’s me.”

She took my hand after a tiny pause and kept her eyes firmly focused on my chest. At this point, I was just as glad to be dealing with someone who was too nervous to risk looking at my eyes. I gave her a firm but gentle handshake, and let go of her, brushing past her to unlock the office door and open it up. “I apologize for being late. I got a call from the police that I had to look in on.”

“You did?” she asked. “You mean, the police, um…” She waved her fingers instead of finishing the sentence and entered when I held the door open for her.

“Sometimes.” I nodded. “They run into something and want my take on it.”

“What sorts of things?”

I shrugged and swallowed. I thought of the corpses at the Madison, and felt green. When I looked up at Monica, she was studying my face, chewing on her lip nervously. She hurriedly averted her gaze.

“Can I get you some coffee?” I asked her. I shut the door behind us, flicked on the lights.

“Oh. No, thank you. I’m fine.” She stood there, looking at my box of discarded paperbacks and holding her purse over her tummy with both hands. I thought she might scream if I said boo so I made sure to move carefully and slowly, making myself a cup of instant coffee. I breathed in and out, going through the familiar motions, until I had calmed down from my encounter with Marcone. By the time I was done, so was my coffee. I went to my desk, and invited her to have a seat in one of the two chairs across from me.

“Okay, Monica,” I said. “What can I do for you today?”

“Well, um. I told you that my husband was…was…” She nodded at me, gesturing.

“Missing?” I supplied.

“Yes,” she said with an exhalation of almost relief. “But he’s not mysteriously missing or anything. Just gone.” She flushed and stammered. “Like he just packed up a few things and left. But he didn’t say anything to anyone. And he hasn’t showed up again. I’m concerned about him.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “How long has he been gone?”

“This is the third day,” she said.

I nodded. “There must be some reason why you’re coming to me, rather than a private investigator or the police.”

She blushed again. She had a good face for blushing, fair skin that colored girlishly. It was quite fetching, really. “Yes, um. He had been interested in…in…”

“Magic?”

“Yes. He had been buying books on it in the religion section at the bookstore. Not like those Dungeons and Dragons games. The real thing. He bought some of those tarot cards.” She pronounced it like carrot. Amateurs.

“And you think his disappearance might have had something to do with this interest?”

“I’m not sure,” she confessed. “But maybe. He was very upset. He had just lost his job and was under a lot of pressure. I’m worried about him. I thought whoever found him might need to be able to talk to him about all of this stuff.” She took a deep breath, as if the effort of completing so many sentences without a single um had tired her.

“I’m still not clear on this. Why me? Why not the police?”

Her knuckles whitened on her purse. “He packed a bag, Mr. Dresden. I think the police will just assume he left his wife and his children. They won’t really look. But he didn’t. He’s not like that. He only wants to make a good life for us. Really, that’s all he wants.”

I frowned at her. Nervous that maybe hubby has run out on you after all, dear? “Even so,” I said, “why come to me? Why not a private investigator? I know a reliable man if you need one.”

“Because you know about…” She gestured, fitfully.

“About magic,” I said.

Monica nodded. “I think it might be important. I mean, I don’t know. But I think it might.”

“Where did he work?” I asked her. While I spoke, I got a pad of paper out of my pocket and jotted down a few notes.

“SilverCo,” she told me. “They’re a trading company. They locate good markets for products and then advise companies where they can best spend their money.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “What is his name, Monica?”

She swallowed, and I saw her twitching, trying to think of something to tell me other than his real name. “George,” she supplied at last.

I looked up at her. She was staring furiously down at her hands.

“Monica,” I said. “I know this must be really hard for you. Believe me, ma’am, there are plenty of people who are nervous when they come into my office. But please, hear me out. I am not out to hurt you or anyone else. What I do, I do to help people. It’s true that someone with the right skills could use your names against you, but I’m not like that.” I borrowed a line from Johnny Marcone. “It isn’t good business.”

She gave a nervous little laugh. “I feel so silly,” she confessed. “But there’s so many things that I’ve heard about…”

“Wizards. I see.” I put my pencil down and steepled my fingers in wizardly fashion. The woman was nervous and had certain expectations. I might ease her fears a little if I fulfilled some of them. I tried not to look over her shoulder at the calendar I had hanging on the wall, and the red circle around the fifteenth of last month. Late rent. Need money. Even with the fee from today and what I would make in the future, it would take the city forever to pay up.

Besides, I could never resist going to the aid of a lady in distress. Even if she wasn’t completely, one hundred percent sure that she wanted to be rescued by me.

“Monica,” I told her. “There are powers in the universe that most people don’t even know about. Powers that we still don’t fully understand. The men and women who work with these powers see things in a different light than regular people. They come to understand things in a slightly different way. This sets them apart. Sometimes it breeds unwarranted suspicion and fear. I know you’ve read books and seen movies about how horrible people like me are, and that whole ‘suffer not a witch to live’ part of the Old Testament hasn’t made things all roses. But we really aren’t any different from anyone else.” I gave her my best smile. “I want to help you. But if I’m going to do that, you’re going to have to give me a little trust. I promise. I give you my word that I won’t disappoint you.”

I saw her take this in and chew on it for a while, while staring down at her hands.

“Victor,” she said at last. “Victor Sells.”

“All right,” I said, picking up my pencil and duly noting it. “Is there anyplace he might have gone that you can think of, offhand?”

She nodded. “The lake house. We have a house down by…” She waved her hand.

“The lake?”

She beamed at me, and I reminded myself to be patient. “In Lake Providence, over the state line, around Lake Michigan. It’s beautiful up there in the autumn.”

“Okay, then. Are you aware of any friends he might have run off to see, family he might have visited, anything like that?”

“Oh, Victor wasn’t on speaking terms with his family. I never knew why. He didn’t talk about them, really. We’ve been married for ten years, and he never once spoke to them.”

“Okay,” I said, noting that down, too. “Friends, then?”

She fretted her lip, a gesture that seemed familiar to her. “Not really. He was friends with his boss, and some people at work, but after he was fired…”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “I understand.” I continued writing things down, drawing bold lines between thoughts to separate them. I spilled over onto the next page before I was finished writing down the facts and my observations about Monica. I like to be thorough about this kind of thing.

“Well, Mr. Dresden?” she asked. “Can you help me?”

I looked over the page and nodded. “I think so, Monica. If possible, I’d like to see these things your husband collected. Which books and so on. It would help if I had a picture of him, too. I might like to take a look around your house at Lake Providence. Would that be all right?”

“Of course,” she said. She seemed relieved, but at the same time even more nervous than before. I noted down the address of the lake house and brief directions.

“You’re aware of my fees?” I asked her. “I’m not cheap. It might be less costly for you to hire someone else.”

“We’ve got quite a bit of savings, Mr. Dresden,” she told me. “I’m not worried about the money.” That seemed an odd statement from her, at the time—out of tune with her generally nervous manner.

“Well, then,” I told her. “I charge fifty dollars an hour, plus expenses. I’ll send you an itemized list of what I do, so you’ll have a good idea what I’m working on. A retainer is customary. I’m not going to guarantee that I work exclusively on your case. I try to handle each of my customers with respect and courtesy, so I can’t put any one of them before another.”

She nodded to me, emphatically, and reached into her purse. She drew out a white envelope and passed it over to me. “There’s five hundred inside,” she told me. “Is that enough for now?”

Cha-ching. Five hundred dollars would take care of last month’s rent and a good bit of this month’s, too. I could get into this bit with nervous clients wanting to preserve the anonymity of their checking accounts from my supposed sorcerous might. Cash always spends.

“That will be fine, yes,” I told her. I tried not to fondle the envelope. At least I wasn’t crass enough to dump the money on my desk and count it out.

She drew out another envelope. “He took most of his things with him,” she said. “At least, I couldn’t find them where he usually keeps them. But I did find this.” There was something in the envelope, making it bulge, an amulet, ring, or charm of some kind, I was betting. A third envelope came out of her purse—the woman must be compulsively well organized. “There’s a picture of him in here, and my phone number inside. Thank you, Mr. Dresden. When will you call?”

“As soon as I know something,” I told her. “Probably by tomorrow afternoon or Saturday morning. Sound good?”

She almost looked at my eyes, caught herself, and smiled directly at my nose instead. “Yes. Yes, thank you so much for your help.” She glanced up at the wall. “Oh, look at the time. I need to go. School’s almost out.” She closed her teeth over her words and flushed again, as though embarrassed that she had let such an important fact about her slip out.

“I’ll do whatever I can, ma’am,” I assured her, rising, and walking her to the door. “Thank you for your business. I’ll be in touch soon.”

She said her good-byes, never looking me in the face, and fled out the door. I shut it behind her and went back to the envelopes.

First, the money. It was all in fifties, which always look new even when they’re years old because they get so little circulation. There were ten of them. I put them in my wallet, and trashed the envelope.

The envelope with the photo in it was next. I took it out and regarded a picture of Monica and a man of lean and handsome features, with a wide forehead and shaggy eyebrows that skewed his handsomeness off onto a rather eccentric angle. His smile was whiter-than-white, and his skin had the smooth, dark tan of someone who spends a lot of time in the sun, boating maybe. It was a sharp contrast against Monica’s paleness. Victor Sells, I presume.

The phone number was written on a plain white index card that had been neatly trimmed down to fit inside the envelope. There was no name or area code, just a seven-digit number. I got out my cross-listing directory and looked it up.

I noted that down as well. I wondered what the woman had expected to accomplish by only giving out first names, when she had been going to hand me a dozen other ways of finding out in any case. It only goes to show that people are funny when they’re nervous about something. They say screwy things, make odd choices which, in retrospect, they feel amazingly foolish for making. I would have to be careful not to say anything to rub that in when I spoke to her again.

I trashed the second envelope and opened the last one, turning it upside down over my desk.

The brown husk of a dead, dried scorpion, glistening with some sort of preservative glaze, clicked down onto my desk. A supple, braided leather cord