My office was blown up, my house was burned down, I'd sold my soul to the Winter Queen, I had lost my car, the woman I loved, and was separated forever from my daughter. Oh, and I lost my cat. I figured the universe owed me and, at the very least ought to keep random Mafiosi from appearing in front of me, blocking my path in a particularly thorough manner.
No such luck. I recognized this one, build and hair like a brick wall, Hendricks. Large as life and twice as ugly. The universe is a deadbeat.
"What?" Well, okay, all of the above did spare me from pretending to the minimal politeness I use to affect, so there was that.
"Marcone's been arrested." Hendricks said.
"Other than throwing a party, which I don't have the energy for, what do you want me to do about it?" I had no reason in any of my official capacities to care about that. And my personal capacities were all deadened and unlikely to recover -- pesky side effect of that soul selling thing. I noted that part of me was aware of the loss, and raged against it, but I wondered vaguely how long until even that little candle of humanity died out. I tried to go around, but Hendricks grabbed my arm. I looked down at his hand, then back up at his face, avoiding the eyes, of course. I had no desire to add another thug's soul gaze to my collection of disturbing memories. I felt absolutely nothing, other than weariness, and a vague curiosity as to whether he really wanted to throw down with me. I doubt there was any particular expression on my face, but something there made Cujo let go in a hurry.
"Please, just listen." He ground out. There was no actual pleading in his voice, some anger, some...something else. Caution? This was new -- I raised an eyebrow. He had won a few moments of my attention.
"It was Rudolf that came and took him away. He went quietly; he always does. I called the lawyer –standard procedure. Lawyer gets to the station, and Chicago PD and FBI both say they don't have him." Hendricks was making it fast, trying to get to the part where I should officially give a crap as fast as he could. I let it be known that he still hadn't gotten there with another eyebrow. Rudolf was as dirty a cop as they come, and a champion ass kisser, so of course he was rising rapidly through the ranks -- on the ruined careers of far more deserving people than he. Arresting Marcone was a rather forward action for him, though; he was the kind to get other cops to do it, then have an alibi when Marcone's lawyers stirred up the inevitable shitstorm.
"I've been asking around. I got one tip. Street person." Hendricks continued. He didn't say, but I could picture hours of practically tearing up the street and frantic questioning. Hendricks must have been desperate, since he was bothering to chat up the street people – most of them with some degree or other of mental illness and/or addiction -- not their fault, but made for tedious questioning and unreliable answers.
"She described what could've been Rudolf, said he handed a man off to some other guys, and as soon as he saw them he tried to fight – couldn't do much with cuffs on -- they hit him till he stopped moving, then took him away in a van."
"So Gentleman Johnny Marcone's finally been set up for a hit. What makes you think for a minute that I'd throw in on his side?" Now I was starting to feel something -- anger that Hendricks would think I cared which criminal scumbag ran Chicago. Okay, maybe I did, but not enough to get involved. Marcone was the best of a bad lot; he kept the violence down. Not that he didn't indulge in violence, but he was surgical about it. Maximum impact per body count. Perhaps whoever followed him would be a disciple.
"Your time's up, and I'm still not finding any caring in my heart."
"This is your fault!" He started to shout and push his face into mine, but something made him back down and swallow his bile. I was torn between satisfaction, and wondering what the hell had been tattoed on my forehead when I wasn't looking -- one million hit points perhaps?
"How do you figure that?"
"They never bothered him until you came along, talked him into saving those people, making him Baron."
"Who? Last chance, Cujo, or I'm cutting a path into the Nevernever, through you if I have to, and getting out of here."
"The witness says that one of the guys had something around his neck under his shirt – that it looked like a rope." I narrowed my eyes at him as I weighed this up. A noose around the neck meant Nicodemus. He was head of the order of the Blackened Denarius, a gang of fallen angels with human meat puppets and very nasty powers. It meant people that I really didn't want to tangle with -- people who could easily kill me, and that is if I was lucky. I am hardly ever lucky -- see note above about office, house, car, shooting, soul, lover, daughter, and cat.
"Just FYI, Miss Information, it was stealing the Shroud of Turin better than them that put him on their radar." I responded reflexively. No real feeling, but goon stimulus gets smart ass response. Hendricks boggled. Cujo was evidently not in the know.
"Which he wouldn't have done if you hadn't showed him magic was real." He recovered fast, though.
"Which wouldn't have happened if he didn't aggressively invite me into a limo, and force a soul-gaze." Hendricks ground his teeth at me, but didn't argue further, just muttering "no time for this," under his breath.
It was tempting to say that the street lady must've been crazy, but the risks were too high. If the Denarians had Marcone again, and managed to turn him…I frowned and took a deep breath. The fact that one of those assholes had brought hellfire to Arctis Tor, the heart of Winter, whose Champion I now was, made it pretty likely that Mab would agree, or even demand, that I get involved. And the fact that Marcone's influence, knowledge, and skills were deep and wide-reaching was nudging my mind in the same direction. The man was scary, and that was just as mob boss of Chicago and free holding Baron. Combine that scary man with an ancient demon and Nicodemus wouldn't be the leader of the Nickelheads anymore -- but that was the only bright spot I could see in an otherwise doom-colored scenario. That's what I get for not telling him that there was a vixen in the cat house; the last time the Denarians had been able to lay hands on him was because he'd been set up by his employee and mistress, Helen Beckitt. I'd figured it out, but hadn't bothered telling him.
The last time I had rescued Marcone from the Nickelheads it had been under orders from Mab, and nearly cost me the life of one of my best friends. I wasn't going to do it for free this time.
"He'll owe me, and if he doesn't acknowledge it, I will take it out of you. Got that?" Hendricks looked at me strangely -- I was really going to have to check that tattoo, but nodded.
"Have you got anything I can track him with? Hair, blood, nail trimmings?" Remembering where I got such things from last time, I asked, "And where's Miss Gard?" she had earned some respect from me, and been grievously injured the last time we had to deal with the Nicky and the Nickelheads. Hendricks frowned, probably with the same memory.
"Getting the stuff you want." He was too worried to even sound smug about being one step ahead of me.
Sigrun Gard was not long, and met us at Executive Priority, the high end health club that fronted an equally high end whorehouse and one of Marcone's offices, in a supply room, far from any computers or other electronic gear. She came, not only with a hair sample, but with a gym bag full of water bottles, protein bars, workout clothing, first aid supplies and blankets. Considering how we found him the last time the Denarians had him, it was only prudent, even in the relatively warm weather we were having now. I had brought my grandfather's old staff, and a sword. The sword was the one my friend Michael had carried until he was almost killed on the last mission to rescue Marcone -- the one Susan carried before sacrificing her life to save our child. I wasn't sure why I had grabbed it; I told myself something about the Denarians fearing the Swords of the Cross, but truth was it was just an impulse, perhaps to keep the last thing Susan had touched with me, and I gave in to it.
"Is Ms. Demeter here?" I asked -- that was Helen Beckitt's current alias. It was logical to shake her down for info. Not that she'd tell the truth, but what lies she chose to tell would be information in themselves.
"No, Mr. Marcone called her into his office for a private discussion some days ago," Sigrun answered.
"She yelled, she hit him, he took her somewhere, and she hasn't been around since. He says that she's taken some time off to 'think' and may or may not come back. He knows where she is, we don't." Gard's tone was even, but her words clipped; she wasn't happy about that loose end. Any other mobster and I would say 'taken some time off to think' was a cynical euphemism, but if Marcone was going to cynically euphemize somebody it would be...tidier; no one would have any memory of yelling or hitting. 'She yelled, she hit him', no mention of Marcone doing anything but taking it. Curiouser and curiouser.
I put all that aside and concentrated my mind on the spell I was working -- the scent of burning hair touched my nostrils as I continued, and associated itself nastily in my hindbrain with some bad memories, but soon I was barreling down the hall and out into the street following the imperative of the tracking spell. I was somewhat surprised that it worked this time, they had shielded it last time. The part of me that wasn't channeling supernatural bloodhound was yelling 'trap!' but I was never good at listening to that part. I was semi-conscious of Hendricks grabbing me, and throwing me into a car, and myself giving directions to Gard like a man stoned -- insisting on turns that would crash us into a block of buildings, or submerge us in the river. She followed my dictates as well as she could, and Hendricks growled in frustration, until I yelled 'stop!'. Gard didn't; she pulled off the Dan Ryan at the nearest exit, then stopped. I threw myself out of the car following the spell. Hendricks and Gard, armed to the teeth, piled out after me. They were in charge of looking out for Denarians.
There were none. Even I began to find that a little creepy as we got closer to our goal. I also became very conscious that I hadn't called on Sanya for help, the only active Knight of the Cross would have been the logical back-up to have in on this. But then my mind rebelled at the very idea of getting another of my friends hurt. If I died, I died. There were worse things, far worse. I would say I had seen most of them, but I am not the one to throw a challenge like that at the fates.
Anyway, the path took us into a basement of a partially burned, completely abandoned building. It takes a lot for even the druggies to abandon a building in Chicago. I didn't want to know, but unfortunately I had some pretty vivid guesses. I shoved them aside so I could concentrate on the trail, and felt the ley line as I crossed it like a blow to the head. I staggered, but kept going. The trail ended at a concrete wall.
"What did you do wrong?" Hendricks snarled at me. Gard shook her head with a little non-verbal 'down, Cujo', as she ran a little flashlight over the wall.
"This has been poured recently, it's clean, and not completely cured yet." Her light found a small hole near the top, round, purposeful, like the holes in shipping crates for live animals.
"You mean he's behind there?" Hendricks asked. I shook my head; reluctantly certain that's not what she meant at all. These were Denarians we were dealing with; you can find their picture in the dictionary under 'sick and twisted'.
"She means he's in there." Hendricks turned white and looked pained; Gard looked very serious.
"Don't touch it," I snapped as Hendricks looked on the verge of ripping into the wall with his bare hands, "There are probably spells." I ignored them both and opened my Sight. There were some binding and booby trap spells on the wall itself, and there was another one I could sense through the concrete, a very small, very black working -- like a black hole about the size of a half cantaloupe -- or a man's brain. All of the spells were tied into the ley line. The binding spells were drawing from it, the black hole spell was feeding to it.
"Gard, take your cell phone out of here, we are going to need it later." She complied, going out of the room, probably to do something tactically sound, like place herself where she could keep good watch.
"You have a plan for how to get him out of there?" Hendricks asked. I nodded, it wasn't something he was going to like, so I didn't tell him. What you don't know...no, that's the dumbest saying ever, never mind. Hendricks, after trying to intimidate my back with a baleful stare, left me to it, likewise doing something sensible, no doubt.
The symbols of the binding spells were only visible to Sight. I studied them and snarled as I saw one whole circle that extended the effects of the spell even after death. To be safe, I should have copied all the symbols down, researched and planned how to take them apart piece by piece in proper order, but Marcone didn't have that much time. I took Eb's staff and drew a larger circle around all the bindings, cutting them off from the ley line. I could feel the pressure on the circle, it wouldn't hold for long. Then through the circle, I traced the one symbol that Denarians hated more than any other, one that I didn't have any particular faith in, but I knew people that did, and I had faith in those people. I made the sign of the cross, and as I intoned 'In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti' I thought of Murph, and Michael. I almost stuttered when I felt a Power take hold of my words, but kept going, and as the staff finished the cross, the bindings and traps disintegrated. If my most trusted friends were Jewish, I probably would have used the star of David and said the Shema, and it would have worked. Much as I love Sanya though, I don't think a question mark and a sincere 'maybe' would have done much at all.
Now, I had to get him out, which would be tricky, especially since I wasn't exactly sure where in the wall he was. For my first try I was going with the assumption that the black hole spell actually was centered on his brain.
"Ventas Solidus," I said after a moment, pointing Eb's old staff at the hole in the wall, and with that I had just put myself on grim sort of timer. Gentleman Johnny Marcone could no longer breathe now that I had solidified the air around him. I did that to protect him, but it meant I couldn't waste any time getting him out. Gard said the concrete had not completely cured, that meant there was still some water in it. And where there was water it could be frozen, especially since I was now very good at freezing things. I moved the staff along the section of the wall where I had seen the spell. "Aqua Gelus." With my will I banished the heat from the section I was facing, first at the surface, then all the way through the material, cold, colder. 10degrees below zero, 20, 30, in a matter of moments. At first there was nothing, just our breath misting as the concrete pulled heat from the room trying to fight my spell. I was having none of it, I kept sucking the heat out, 40 below. First there was creaking, then scattered popping as the free water froze, and expanded. The remaining concrete around it gave it no room to expand sideways. I put up a shield, calling out to Hendricks,
"Get behind me! Now!"
Even as he obeyed, there was a shattering din as the section of the wall I had hit with my freeze mojo exploded, throwing jagged shards of flash-frozen concrete outwards. Hendricks and I ducked behind my shield which threw off blue lights as it blocked the flying concrete shrapnel. Even before the dust settled, Hendricks leapt forward with a cry, catching Marcone as he fell free. With a wave I dispelled the solid air spell, and Marcone took a deep gasping breath, then began coughing, deep, racking but purely reflexive coughs. I walked up to where he sprawled, naked, dirty, hypothermic (even before I froze the wall, he had been trapped, immobile for near 24 hours in moist concrete) and unaware in Hendricks's arms. His eyes were wide open, faded money-green barely visible around pupils blown wide. I lifted my pentacle out, calling light from it, moving it toward his eyes. The pupils didn't react. Hendricks threw off his jacket, wrapping Marcone in it, calling to him. No response. Marcone had obviously been worked over pretty thoroughly before being buried alive; he had massive, bone deep bruises, and some long cuts that were bleeding very sluggishly. He also had a nearly faded black eye. I remembered Gard's 'she hit him,' and wondered if that were Helen Beckitt's handiwork.
As Hendricks began to wrap Marcone in the blankets, I opened my Sight to study the black working centered in his mind -- 'black hole' was apt. It looked like a vortex, a whirlpool of darkness pulling all thought away to somewhere else. It reminded me also of the spell Vito had been throwing around down in the deeps, and of a Skavis feeding. None of these were good things to be reminded of. As far as I could tell, it was a spell to bury his mind in torment as thoroughly as his body had been buried in the wall, and keep it trapped there. Somewhere it looked like I was going to have to go.
I very nearly decided 'screw it', glaring mother Hendricks or not, but then imagined Mab making a visit to ask me to handle it. Mab's visits usually ended with me bleeding. And, whatever the spell produced it was being used to pollute the ley line. Stars and stones. I sighed, mentally girding the old metaphorical loins.
I pulled out my little notebook and pencil and wrote a message. There was a being who was the repository of all human knowledge. If it was written she knew it. And she was also a kid. No one else seemed to get that, and just called her 'The Archive", but to me, she was a friend, and had a name.
"Ivy, Please, I need the full name on John Marcone's birth," I scratched that last word out, "...baptismal certificate." For even a lapsed Catholic -- and the way Marcone could carry a guilt, I had no doubt he was Catholic -- the baptismal certificate would be where the name was, the one that held the power. "Have Kincaid call..." I turned to Hendricks where he sat, back to cradling the body of his boss, sharing heat, trying to wheedle some sort of response out of him,
"Hendricks," I snapped, not in irritation, but because it took that to tear his attention from Marcone.
"What's Blondie's cell number?" He blinked at me for a moment then rattled off, "872-555-0107."
"872-555-0107, and tell the nice lady that answers what it is. Please? Harry." I thought for a moment, sadly remembering that I had been less than nice the last time that I had dealt with her, because she couldn't help the way I wanted her to, but she had helped anyway.
"ps How are you?" A moment later I heard a distant ringtone -- Wagner of course. After a few minutes Gard came into the room. Her gaze lingered on Hendricks where he sat trying to get any sign of life from Marcone, then turned to me.
"John Francis Juniper Marcone," she said.
"Juniper?" Francis was embarrassingly girly enough, but Juniper? I was beginning to think the roots of his cold-blooded toughness could be traced back to that baptismal certificate, or at least the first school yard after. Gard turned prim, not a look that went well with her killer (ba-doom ching) Valkyrie looks.
"Saint Juniper was one of the original followers of Saint Francis of Assisi in the early thirteenth century." She sniffed.
"So, you asked too." Yeah, there was no way a Valkyrie was going to be up on obscure Italian saints. Gard looked lofty, but she knew she had been busted. "Oh, and Kincaid says 'fine'."
"What's going on?" Hendricks demanded.
I knelt down beside him, not having the heart to even muster up a 'Cujo'.
"Your boss isn't home. His body's here, but not his mind. They've taken it somewhere, and I need his Name to find it...him." I took a deep breath. "I've got to tell you...I don't think what I'll get back, if I get anything back, is going to be sane." The bodyguard's arms tightened around the lifeless looking figure. He glared at me.
"We'll deal with that as it comes. Just get him back."
Yeah, sounds simple, doesn't it? Hendricks had managed to man-handle the limp body of the mob boss into sweat pants and a hoodie and wrap it in blankets again by the time I finished prepping. He didn't look happy at all when I made him leave the body on the ground, and drew a circle that shut me in with Marcone, and him out. Tough. I knelt by the head with the sightless, staring eyes and called up the indelible memory of the soul gaze we had shared, that was my guiding thread into the vortex. I had Amorachius sheathed on the ground beside me, one hand on the hilt. Normally I would have used my staff, but it hadn't been mine for very long. The sword was associated in my mind with Michael, and Susan-- the tie was stronger. That would be my guide back out again -- I hoped. Concentrating on the the razor sharp memory of the soulgaze, I sent my awareness into the black hole.
The stench of blood and worse was the first thing that assailed my senses. The came the sound of moaning, whimpering, mad keening, screaming -- every sound that humans in physical and mental agony can make. Then there were the bodies, tortured, torn, dying, dead, but a few left alive to helplessly dread and mourn. Just people snatched from their ordinary lives. Moms in jeans and sweaters with sensible haircuts, Dads, business people, old people, teen-agers, children some with their toys clutched to them like impotent talismans, all torn, suffering or dead, heaped together in what looked like the basement I had just left. Over the ruins of the building we were in could be seen the ruins of what once might have been Chicago. I tore my eyes away from the bodies and looked for Marcone. I saw a shapeless bundle half submerged in the wall, broken arms and legs halfway embedded in the concrete sagging at unnatural angles as they tried and failed to support the weight of the rest of his body. The shapeless bundle was Marcone, the bodily representation of what was left of his psyche. He was bound, broken, helpless, but still able to see and hear the sounds of loss and suffering. As I got closer, the bodies became people I knew: Hendricks, Gard, other associates I knew by sight, though not by name, Helen, Oh Stars! Amanda, even Murphy...and myself. I forced myself to walk to him, and take the bloody head in my hands, turn it so the staring, reddened eyes were looking at me.
The lips moved, a voice croaked.
"They killed you. I saw them kill you."
"Marcone, John, this is not real. None of this is real. It. did. not. happen."
"You should go back to dead; they will be back soon to kill more people. Oh, people." He wept. With a wave of my hand and a firm "Pulvulus" I shattered the concrete encasing his limbs, and eased his ruined frame to the ground. It worked because he believed in my power. I was glad of that; I could use it.
"John Francis Juniper Marcone," I intoned, and felt him tremble as the Name took hold, "heed me. This is nothing but a trap full of shadows. Come out. Follow me." I didn't know if he would even be able to obey, but I didn't think I could carry him out. This kind of working, he had to come out of by himself.
"Dresden?" The gaze seemed to focus.
"Follow me, come out." I reached under his arms and pulled him to his knees. Slowly, painfully, he began to crawl away from there on shattered limbs. Just the effort of will made the place fade, brought the swirling boundary of the spell to within reach, but Marcone stopped.
"The wall," he groaned. I wondered how often they had let him go back and forth between the two hells, this one, and being entombed alive, just to rub it in that there was no hope anywhere.
"I got you out of there. John, your body is not in that wall any more." He trembled at the boundary, disbelieving, afraid to hope. The sights, sounds and smell of his personal hell re-intensified as his will faded.
"John!" I said firmly, using the authority granted me as Winter Knight to put some cojones into the tone. "We need you to come out." He shuddered and crawled painfully toward the boundary again, still shaking, face working in dread.
"They worked you over pretty hard, but where did you get that black eye?" I asked lightly. His gaze focused on me, sharpening as he realized that I would have had to have gotten him out of the wall to know about that.
"Helen" he said, and suddenly we were through. It was the most beautiful burnt, gutted basement I had ever seen. Marcone's body twitched, and his eyes, wide and wild, sent a stare skittering about the room. I kicked out with a leg and my will to break the circle and let Hendricks in.
I took deep breaths, the urine, mold and smoke scents seemed like a clean mountain breeze compared to the place we had come from. I could hear Hendricks talking in measured soothing tones, and hear Marcone responding, breathless, near frantic. I was too busy trying to wall off the memories of that place to pay attention to the words. With a will I got my breathing and heart back under control.
"Mr. Dresden." The quiet tone startled me more than a scream would have, and I turned to see Marcone sitting partway up, looking at me with near-normal calm. No. That was just not possible. Hell's Bells the man was barely coherent a minute ago, now he was staring at me with an eerie composure.
"What was that place?"
"It was your mind. You were trapped in your own darkest fears."
"I was tormenting myself, then?" I nodded.
"I seem to have a gift for it." He said wearily, leaning back onto Hendricks's chest. His gaze wandered, his eyes dulled. After a moment he sat up again. His eyes were sharp as green obsidian and they were cutting into me.
"They have shown me what they would make of the world if they were to succeed. I will fight them. Tell me how to fight them." The still, focused intensity was creepy. I shook my head -- the man was not sane, could not be sane. He couldn't fight them. There were always too many of whoever 'they' were, and too few to fight them. We were always doomed and I was sick of it. Sick of holding two of the stupid swords because the friends that had carried them were dead or crippled. I lifted Amorachius from the floor, holding it before him.
"What, John, are you going to pick up this and go crawling after them? Bleed on them, bite their knees?"
And suddenly I was jerked backward, dropping the sword in surprise, I heard it clatter to the floor even as I found myself in the Nevernever. In Winter.
I was facing Mab in an ice cave, blue white, cheerily decorated with icicles and polar bear furs. A large cat, Grimalkin, sat poised at her feet, tail wrapped primly around his paws. I didn't feel the cold, though I could see my breath in the air.
"I was in the middle of something rather important." I snarled, or sulked maybe. She looked at me, eyes shimmering, beautiful and deadly.
"You took an oath, Sir Knight, I fulfilled my part of the bargain, now it is your turn." I had expected the words to come from the cat, but I heard them from Mab herself -- okay, perk of being the Knight, I could hear her voice without my ears bleeding, but they still rang as if I was a giant bell and her words were the clapper.
"You want me to kill someone," I said hopelessly. She laughed, throwing back her white hair, and arching her body in a way that even annoyed as I was I couldn't help responding to.
"That is only part of your duty, my champion. If you will recall you are also required to consort with the queens of Winter." She slunk toward me, and I found myself backing up. I was pulled into Winter for a fairy booty call? Rage warred with undeniable lust as she put her hands on my shoulders, sliding them down my chest, bringing them to rest on my waist, and I was reminded forcefully of the 'ceremony' that bound me to Winter in the first place. I swallowed.
"You would not want to break your word, I would be very disappointed." Stars. I had seen what she could do to those who 'disappointed' her, and a little terror added itself to the rage and lust mix. But I had no choice. I had given my word, so I bent my head when she slid an arm up behind my neck to pull my head down, place her lips against mine.
It didn't make it any better that in the end I was unable not to respond, not to feel incredible pleasure from the act. It really didn't. I stood alone after she had dismissed me, pulling myself together before I opened a gate back into the world.
The squalid basement was empty, except where the concrete wall , and big patches of the building had been pulled in by what looked like huge claws, set afire, and were still smoldering with a sulfurous reek. It was as good as a spray paint tag saying "Denarians Rule". Marcone, Gard, Hendricks were gone, along with the sword and my grandfather's staff. The sun was also much lower in the sky -- if it was even the same day.
Cursing, I did a 360, staring at the wreckage, trying to find some other conclusion than that I'd carelessly let a holy sword and a magic staff fall into the hands of a psychically maimed mafia don, or even worse the Denarians themselves. Yeah, I got nothin'. Um. Oops?
My brain spun its wheels for a while, and the thing that got thrown up most was 'talk to Michael'. If nothing else, it would get the pain of confessing how badly I sucked as a sword guardian over with. So I just needed to get in my car, now where did I leave...crap. Okay, I could walk to my off...shit. I pulled out my pentagram necklace with it's red stone of Nevernever GPS, and got no satisfaction from that either. There was no Way that would save any perceptible time. But one of the advantages of being Winter Knight is increased stamina, so after a bit of grumbling I set off walking to Michael's house.
About a mile into the walk, I saw a relic of a bygone era, an oasis in the desert of personal electronics, lit from above, and praised by an angel choir -- an actual pay phone. I stuck my hand in my pocket, then all the others in turn. No joy. This was getting ridiculous. I had no doubts that Mab could fix me up with everything I needed or wanted, but there was no way in any of the parts of the Nevernever that pass for Hells I was going to go crawling to her.
I steeled myself and followed the instructions for making a collect call. It turned out to be Charity that answered; she laughed. But she accepted the charges.
"Michael's not here, Harry. He is at St. Mary's with Sanya. He said he might be there all night." I winced. Maybe news of my fail had already gotten out. The bright spot was that there was a Way that could help me get to St. Mary's faster; it ended by the dumpster in the side lot.
"Thank's Charity, I'll meet him there. How are the kids?"
"Everyone's fine Harry. Molly arrived today from Puerto Rico with a tan and about a thousand sailor's phone numbers. I blame you." My apprentice had gone with me to Central America to rescue my daughter, and had gotten a lift home with the US Navy thanks to my half-brother's connections. My mouth opened and ran without waiting for any input from my brain.
"I had nothing to do with her tan; I was only with her at night." Charity snorted.
"Yeah, that makes it alllll better." Her easy banter made me uneasy. She didn't know what I had become, what I was becoming.
"Take care of yourselves."
"You too, Harry." Yeah. Uncomfortable.
A short walk into an alley, a slightly longer walk through a dreary, but not threatening part of the Nevernever, then I was by the dumpster at St. Mary's. Full darkness had fallen in the meantime. I went to the little side door, and let myself in.
I was immediately conscious of an electric feeling in the air, like that creepy feeling you get just before a really impressive thunderstorm, the kind with hail, non-stop lightning, air cows and tornadoes. It put me on edge, and rather than calling out I walked quietly down the dim hallway to see who, or what, was around. One little side room - empty, and across the hall...
"HARRY!" I yelped, jumped, spun in the air, and landed twitching to see a big black guy in tee shirt and shorts, Sanya, beaming at me, in spite of the bandages around head, shoulder, and thigh.
"Stars and stones, you nearly gave me a heart atta--oof!" The last was from the enthusiastic hug I was being wrapped in.
"Michael is in there," he gestured toward the closed sanctuary door, behind which I could sense the contained storm. "I was to wait here for you." They knew I was coming, that meant they probably knew about the sword. "Come in! Come in! We have cookies." He smiled happily as he dragged me into the little room where there were indeed cookies, and sandwiches, and Father Forthill.
Father Forthill gave me a nod. Talking was probably more trouble than it was worth most of the time, what with his jaw being wired shut. That was the result of his taking on a hired assassin, an assassin hired to kill me, with his bare hands. He continued what he was doing, wrapping coins in specially embroidered handkerchiefs. I stared at them, blackened denarii, six of them. Each one representing a Denarian that had been forcibly removed from its meat puppet, and was now trapped in its coin again, powers drastically reduced. A coin would infect anyone who touched it with copy of its associated demon, sort of a 'coming attractions', that would whisper sweet nothings to them until they gave in and took the coin and the demon inside it into themselves, usually until the host died. The handkerchiefs were protection, spiritual hazmat suits.
"You had a busy night." I said to Sanya. He smiled and gave a dismissive wave.
"I interrupted a family gathering.Nicodemus, Tessa and Deirdre, and a few others." The elaborate casualness with which he dismissed the others made me wonder if Rosanna, his former handler and pretend lover was in the bunch. Sanya had once been a Denarian host, but he got better.
"How rude." I opined. He grinned again, shoving a chair and a cookie at me. I took both. Mmmm, chocolate chip.
"It was not one of their big plans. It was a little idea of Tessa's that Nicodemus was indulging. Something about 'poisoning ley lines', and getting revenge at the same time." He frowned as he tried to recall the exact words. "It involved burying people in walls at certain points in the city." People?! Stars, there were more? I gaped at Sanya in horror as he continued.
"They had done one, and were doing another when I made my so rude univited entrance." I relaxed again. "The prisoners went free, but it was hard keeping little demon family distracted so they wouldn't chase, but then, someone," he clapped me on the shoulder, nearly knocking me out of my chair. The cookie flew out of my hand.
"Someone let the first one go, so they went screeching off to deal with that." Sanya got up and retrieved my cookie from the floor. I am not proud; I took it back and ate it.
"So me and all the people got away safely. Thank you very much." He pummeled me cheerfully on the shoulder again. Ouch. And gave me another cookie, and a carton of milk. I forgave him. As I munched and slurped I thought. So if Sanya had been worrying about rescuing the people, he could probably account for three of the coins at most. What about the others?
Father Forthill had finished wrapping up the coins, and carefully gathering them up, he gestured for me to follow him. I thought we would be going to the sanctuary to bury the things under the altar, but instead he took me into his office where he put them in a box. With my Sight I could see angelic sigils on it.
My staff was in the office, leaning in a corner by the door. I took it, and rubbed my hands along it. I was checking to see if the Denarians had done any cursing, so get your mind out of the gutter.
"Thank you, Father, but where is the sword?" Father Forthill nodded toward the sanctuary.
"Interesting choice," he said. I thought he was gritting his teeth at first, but then remembered about the jaw. I hung my head.
"I wasn't thinking." A snort made me look up, to see left eyebrow raised and mouth quirked to the right. Father Forthill has a very loud face, and right now it was yelling 'so what else is new?'.
"Yeah, I should get letterhead." I took my staff, and headed out to see Michael in the sanctuary, but Father Forthill put a hand on my arm.
"Protect yourself, war on. Principalities, powers." There was always a war on, I wanted to say, but the creepy about to get struck by lightning feeling was buzzing along my skin. So I only nodded, and pulled up my mental shields.
The sanctuary was dark, lit only by a candle behind the altar in a red glass holder, and two more along one wall. The altar rail was in shadows. Someone knelt there, hands clasped in prayer, breathing hard, tension in every line of his body. I had heard the expression 'wrestling with God', but had never really understood it. Now I did. This guy was wrestling with God, and despite being totally outclassed, he was not going down easy. I saw the sword, safely sheathed on the altar. Oh good. And I saw Michael, sitting on the first pew, regarding the man at the altar rail with deep compassion.
Michael looked up when I entered, and smiled to see me, patting the pew beside him. The caged lightning feeling was so strong here, I wondered how he stood it. The air even felt thick as I walked through it and I sat down next to Michael with relief.
"How long have you been here?" I whispered.
"Four hours," he murmured back, "since he called me." He nodded toward the man at the rail.
"The sword, it's okay, not unmade?" A holy sword only remained holy if it were used properly. Used for the wrong reason, it would become just a sharpened hunk of metal.
"The sword is fine, Harry. What happened to you?"
"I was summoned by Mab, had to satisfy her whims before she would let me go." I felt my face glowing so red, I was surprised when Michael didn't seem to notice it. He only nodded.
The man at the altar hit the rail with the side of his fist, and bent down, looking as if he were being crumpled by a huge hand. The electrical buzzing intensified, reaching audible levels. Michael stood and hurried to the rail, kneeling beside the other man, putting an arm around his shoulders. The man at the rail put one hand over his face, the other on Michael's shoulder and, leaned toward him, still looking crushed. As Michael murmured to him the buzzing began to fade. Altar man lowered the hand from his face and bent his head toward Michael, murmuring back. The intimate connection between them was so obvious and deep that it embarrassed me to be watching, and I turned my face away.
There was someone else in the sanctuary, an old man, checking and re-arranging the missals and hymnals in the pews Some parishioner helping out, only I didn't buy that for a second.
"What are you doing here?" I winced as the tone was more impertinent than I meant it to be.
"Watching," the man said, no offense taken. That's what I thought; it was Uriel.
"There is a war going on, and you are just watching?" I don't get the guy, I really don't . Him or his Boss. He just nodded, completely unflapped.
"Do you ever act?" He smiled.
"I can give you no satisfaction today either, I am watching for the proper time to not act." Oh, my head. I turned away from him too, back to the men at the rail. Both had their hands clasped, voices murmuring in unison. The murmuring stopped, and Michael got up, came limping back to sit by me. The kneeling must have been hard and painful, but his attention was all on the man at the altar rail. He was bent over even farther, his hands no longer raised in prayer, but reaching forward toward the altar like a drowning man begging for rescue.
"Now," Uriel murmured and the buzzing feeling stopped. But the air, if anything, felt even heavier.
"This is a decision he must make within himself, hearing no voices but his own." I got it. Uriel had just lowered an angelic cone of silence. The moment seemed to stretch unbearably, I found I was holding my breath. Then the figure at the altar sagged, like someone does after they put down a heavy load.
"It is done." And the electricity, the buzzing, the heaviness, was all gone, instantly.
The relief and release was so great that I laughed. I caught myself, embarrassed, but Michael was shakily laughing as well, and judging by the shaking of the sagging shoulders, so was altar man.
"Now, we can act." Uriel said, with something like a sigh of relief, and I turned to see what he would do, and there was no one there. Huh. Angels. What can you do?
Michael stood up, walked to the man at the altar, supported him as he stood up. It seemed to have gotten lighter. I glanced at the windows but it was still night. The same three candles were still all the light there was, but they seemed to be doing a better job, as if there was some murk that was no longer in the air. Sanya and Father Forthill had come in. They joined Michael and the other man at the altar. A quiet conversation happened. Then Father Forthill went behind the altar rail, and Sanya and Michael placed themselves beside altar man -- almost like a wedding party.
"Harry, If you would join us," the priest said, and the other three men turned to look at me. Michael, Sanya, and John Marcone. He had gotten cleaned up and dressed since the last time I saw him, casual but respectable, in khakis and polo shirt.
He looked sane -- drained, wounded, but sane. There were tracks of sweat and tears crossing the bruises and cuts on his blandly handsome face, but it was full of resigned acceptance, and not the eerie composure lid over a boiling pot of hysteria I had last seen. I shook my head and opened my Sight. The marks of his psychic maiming were still there, but they did not look like bleeding wounds anymore, they were healed, leaving scars, strong scars; they looked almost like...armor.
I stepped up to the rail between him and Sanya. Father Forthill handed me the sword from the altar. He handed something else from the altar to Michael, a white cloth. When Michael shook it out it turned out to be his white surcoat with the red cross that had been his regalia when he was a knight -- before he was gravely injured rescuing this same John Marcone. A sense of unreality filled me as Michael lifted the surcoat and Marcone bowed his head to put it on. Marcone's breath caught, and he reached out, touching a hole in the white cloth where a bullet had gone through, the bullet that had nearly killed Michael and ended his career as a knight. He looked up and caught Michael's eye. No words were spoken, but Michael nodded, and lifted his chin for Marcone to bend down again. Michael slipped the surcoat over his head. I wanted to protest, but if there was a part in the ceremony where people were asked if they had objections, they hadn't gotten there yet. No one but me seemed to have any problem with this. I hadn't offered Marcone the sword...well, yes, I did, but I didn't mean to, and could the man even wield it? Then I remembered the pile of coins Father Forthill had been quarantining when I arrived.
Oh... I had a sudden very clear mental picture of half a dozen Denarians bursting into the gutted basement to avenge themselves on whoever had messed up their little torture plot, only to find a holy sword in the hands of someone with people to protect -- someone with a very big loyalty button, who knew every dirty trick in the hand to hand book. I suddenly wished I could have been there. I am sure Cujo and the Valkyrie helped too. I smiled, just a little, imagining the 'Ruin a Nickelhead's Day' party that must have ensued.
The surcoat hadn't been tight on Michael, being designed to fit over armor, and Marcone was both shorter and less powerfully muscled than Michael, so it fit Marcone more like a robe. Like a robe I had seen pictured on some later Roman Emperor -- Constantine, that was it.
"Place your hand on the hilt of the sword, my son," Forthill instructed Marcone, who turned and looked at me. As his eyes met mine, the feeling of unreality deepened as I felt a soul gaze start. What? No. This was not supposed to happen! One to a customer, and I had already seen Marcone's. I was so busy having a mental tantrum that I neglected to pull my eyes away.
Marcone's soul had been a strong, bare place -- a bunker -- closed, cold, with shadows in the corners. That bunker had been torn wide open. Yet it didn't look ruined. It was as if the pieces had been rearranged into what they should've been all along. It was now more like the Parthenon, no less strong, still absolutely focused in purpose, but warm, open to a light that poured in from above. It was different, but still recognizably John Marcone. I staggered as the gaze released me. I didn't want to know what changes he'd seen in me. His face didn't show anything.
I was holding the sword down at my side, where Marcone coudn't reach it, but he didn't say anything, just waited, watching. I lifted the sword, held the hilt out to him, and saw a flash of relieved surprise soften his face before he took the hilt in his hand. I felt a thrill in the sword, something too subtle to be a vibration, but distinct enough to feel through the sheath. Father Forthill placed his hand over Marcone's.
"Repeat after me, my son. I, John Francis Juniper Marcone, do take this sword, Amorachius, in trust, swearing to guard its holiness by shedding no innocent blood, nor wielding it in wrath or selfishness, but carrying it bravely into battle against those who would do evil. With this sword I accept the title of Knight of the Cross, and swear to be a good knight and true, giving protection to the innocent, and mercy to the repentant, bearing myself with truth in all things. These things I swear upon my sacred honor to uphold until death take me, or the sword passes to another." Marcone repeated the words solemnly; no one even snickered at the 'Juniper'.
"Kneel my son." Marcone released the sword which became inert again in my hand, and knelt. Father Forthill took the sword from the sheath and made the sign of the cross in front of Marcone with it, touching each shoulder as he made the horizontal pass.
"I dub thee Knight of the Most Sacred Order of the Cross. Rise, Sir John."
At this point some wise ass said, "You may now kiss the bride", but I don't know who. You can't prove it. The grown-ups ignored it anyway.Sanya eyerolled. Michael took the belt from me, buckling it around Marcone's waist. Sanya nudged me with an elbow, grinning.
"Oath is much better in original Russian." My turn to eyeroll. Forthill handed Marcone the sword and he sheathed it. It was done.
Marcone took a handkerchief out of his pocket, and wiped his face of the sweat and tears. He looked at Michael.
"May I have a few minutes to speak with Mr. Dresden?" He grimaced, "I have asked you for so much already, you don't have to stay."
"Can you think of anything else more important that I have to do tonight?" Michael asked. Marcone opened his mouth, then shut it.
"I will go wait with Sanya." He clapped Marcone's shoulder, in the way he had when he wasn't going to take no for an answer. "Charity made cookies." He nodded at both of us, and left with Sanya and Father Forthill.
I leaned against a pew, and crossed my arms.
"What is it you need Michael for now?"
"We are going to sift through the ashes of my life and see if there is any part of it that can be kept in honor and truth, or if everything that was John Marcone must die." I boggled, but he just kept going.
"I don't trust myself to make those decisions alone yet, don't trust myself not to give into wishful thinking."
I boggled harder. Marcone raised an eyebrow and cocked his head.
"I knew to take up the sword, I would probably have to let go of everything I was and had. Bearing myself with truth in all things...?"
I could see his point. That wouldn't go with the whole mafia don thing.
"You mean the money, the power, the...everything?" I asked. He snorted.
"That was the easy part. There was only one thing that was hard to let go of, hard to decide I needed to let go of, but I did. I had to let go of her." Who her, Helen? That shouldn't have been hard. No. It finally hit me -- Amanda. I stared at him. Amanda was Helen's daughter, who had lain in a coma for more than ten years because she had taken a bullet meant for Marcone. Marcone had guarded her, visited her, prayed over her, stolen the shroud of Turin to try to heal her. She had been his obsession -- the reason behind his steel grip on the Chicago underworld, the reason for Gentleman Johnny Marcone.
"I had to put her in His hands, and hope." I never, never could've made that choice. I think I could see a glimmer of why he felt he had to if he took up the sword, she was too intimately tied to his old life, to layers of deceit, to ruthlessness, but it couldn't have been easy for him. No, I had seen that it wasn't; it nearly crushed him.
"Why did you take it then?" I wasn't shouting, I was..speaking intently. He was annoyingly calm.
"Why did you offer it?"
"I didn't! You knew it wasn't a real offer," I pointed at him where he stood so maddeningly composed, "I was just frustrated that with all these monsters to fight, people needing protecting, and no one to pick up the damned sword and fight!" Yes, I was shouting and swearing in a church.
"And that's why I took it." His answer was quiet, and hit me like a punch in the gut.
"So, you're just going to trust Amanda's fate to the winds?" He swallowed, eyes red and moist, and I felt like a heel.
"No, to Him." He swallowed again, and continued, " I wanted to tell you that I was sorry."
"For what? Don't misunderstand me, it's not that I don't think you have anything to apologize for, I'm just wondering which of the long list it is." In the old days he would have remained impassive. Today he snorted ruefully.
"I knew Stevie D. was going to keep going until he completed the contract. I could even narrow down the choices of where and when, given his m.o., but I didn't tell you. We had that meeting, and I didn't tell you." I remembered that meeting.
"You tried to. You told me that I would be dead soon because of my conscience, and if I had thought about it for two seconds I would've figured it out."
"I should have tried harder. You were too intent on rescuing a child to think about my word games. I'm sorry. I felt justified in not trying harder because you hadn't told me about Helen. I was wrong."
"You knew about Helen? How did you know I knew?"
"The first thing she did when I confronted her about it, was curse at you for breaking your word not to tell me." Oh.
"What did you do once you found out?"
"I questioned her to find out her intent, probing her to see if she expected me to take up a coin. If she had...then Amanda or no, she would have been too dangerous, too warped to have around. I would have disappeared her." He closed his eyes and swayed; he couldn't even think that way now without getting sick. "She hadn't thought that far ahead, she just thought they would torture and kill me, thank God." That was a weird thing to be thankful for, but he sounded like he meant it.
"Your soul is different. That's why there was a new soul gaze." I blurted
"I guessed as much. Yours was the same. A little more battered, the flame that drives you to keep fighting, keep helping people, nearly extinguished by a storm, but even as I watched, the flame steadied and grew." Of all the things that had happened today, that rocked me the most. I searched his face. Marcone is a damned good liar, except he wasn't anymore -- a side effect of bearing one of those swords. I saw honesty. Huh. The deadness inside was not the ice of Winter creeping over my soul, but just emotional exhaustion? I was almost afraid to hope. So I changed the subject.
"You told Helen about Amanda, and she didn't take it well." Hence the shiner. Ten years ago Marcone's predecessor bribed the ME to have Amanda declared dead and had hidden the comatose girl away, in case his son Marco, the shooter, was ever put on trial for murder. Marcone found out after he took over Chicago, but he thought Helen would suffer even more to know her daughter was in an endless half existence, so he didn't tell her -- until a few days ago. And she gave him a black eye.
"I had to; the danger to both of them was too great not to. Helen had to know what was at risk before her attempts to hurt me backfired on Amanda. And she took the news of my God-playing as well as it deserved to be taken."
I pointed a finger at him,
"You owe me a shirt." The one I had been wearing that night now had a bullet hole in it.
"Good, are we done here? Because if we are, I'm going to go grab some cookies before that Russian stomach on legs eats them all." Marcone smiled and nodded, and even held the door for me. I stopped in the doorway.
"Stars and fucking stones!"
"Hendricks is going to blame me for this."
I couldn't get a break. And Murphy was going to kill me.
There were still some cookies left, and I grabbed a few, shoving one in my mouth, the rest, wrapped in a paper towel in my pocket. Marcone and Michael jumped right into conference, making notes on legal pads. I stayed well away from it. I hefted my staff, and turned to Sanya.
"The Nickelheads have really left town?" I asked.
"I do not feel their presence near."
Okay then. Fine. I wasn't needed here. I let myself out of the side door, along with my simmering irritation. I felt like a kid whose best friend found somebody else he'd rather play with. Was I mad because Michael and Marcone seemed to share a deep understanding that I didn't? Uh, yeah. I was. The only neighborhood kid not invited to the Holy Sword party was sulking. And I hadn't even wanted to go; blind faith and black and white weren't my things at all. Despite all this insight I was still feeling prickly, and had no idea where in all the hells I was going to go. I walked aimlessly through the Chicago streets (I wasn't being suicidal, I had a shield up) I just had nowhere I needed or wanted to be in particular -- nowhere anyone was expecting me. I ended up at Churchill Park, where I leaned on the fence and stared at the deserted ball fields.
Just then I got another face full of Hendricks.
"What?!" Did I mention that I was irritated?
Hendricks glared at me. Oh yeah, Cujo blamed me, and he didn't even know for what yet.
"He asked us to stay away, so I'm staying, but he needs this message." Hendricks pushed a folded piece of paper at me.
"I am not your errand boy..." I didn't dance attendance on mob bosses...But Marcone wasn't one any more. And Michael would be disappointed at me. I sighed, and held out my hand for the paper. Hendricks surprised me by not slapping into my palm. And then he surprised me even more by saying 'Thanks.'
I went back to the church and let myself back in the side door. Sanya was sacked out on a cot in the room on the right. In the room on the left Michael and Marcone were still in deep discussion, but they looked up when I came in, not looking at all surprised to see me. They probably hadn't even noticed that I was gone.
"I ran into Hendricks. He didn't want to disturb you, but he thought you ought to have this message." I handed Marcone the paper. He nodded in thanks, opened it, took only a moment to look at it, then closed his eyes and put his hands on his face. He took a deep breath, then clasped his hands in front of him on the table and bowed his head. The paper fell to the floor. I picked it up, but it only said, 'black line', and '9:33pm'.
"What is it, John?" Michael asked gently.
"The black line is a line I set up without any traceable ties to me. The line that is to be called if there are issues with Amanda." He took another deep breath, "But I let that go."
"You let go of control," Michael said, "you didn't let go of caring. Take the time, go to see her. You have given your lawyer enough to do tonight." Marcone looked at him, with a worried frown, then relaxed and nodded.
I guess it was because he looked so human at that moment, that I gave in to a charitable impulse.
"There is a Way that can get us there in half an hour." Normally the trip would be at least 2 hours by car. And he couldn't be tailed if we took the Way.
"Us?" He said, for all the world only mildly curious, with just the barest hint of eyebrow raise.
"Yeah, us. Don't rub it in or I'll change my mind."
"Charming as ever."
He asked if he could stop and pick up a back pack. I knew the one, knew what was in it. There was no way that I was going to tell him no.So it was near midnight when we entered the Way.
"Stay awake and on the path." I warned him. He put the backpack into the duffel that carried the sword, and held the shoulder strap in white-knuckled grip.
"Thank you, but wakefulness will not be a problem." I looked at him doubtfully -- he'd just come off of one hell of a 48 hours, but the gaze he returned with level and intent, full of resigned anxiety. When we reached the right place, I opened a door back out into the world. The Way opened into a patch of woods a block from the nursing home where Amanda lay. The night was clearer out here, the sky full of stars.
I stopped to take a look at them, breath in the pine scented air. Marcone did too, drawing in a shaky breath, and letting it out again with what might have been a quiet prayer. He oriented himself with a quick look around, and took off toward the nursing home at a jog.
The place had only a few lights on as we approached, except for the one wing, the wing where Amanda's room was. I was half-afraid that there would be signs of Denarians, but it looked only peacefully busy. Marcone pressed forward, seeming unaware of my presence. The door was locked, there was a keypad. Marcone punched in a some numbers, there was a click, and he pushed the door open, not bothering to hold it for me, but I got to it in time to keep it from closing in my face.
The staff on the wing seemed more alert, more peppy than the midnight shift usually is, shaking their heads as they talked quietly to each other. A nurse came toward us, recognized Marcone, and smiled at him. Then she looked past him at me,
"Is he with you, sir?" Marcone looked at me with surprise, as if he'd forgotten I was there, but he seemed relieved to see me.
"Yes, he is." The nurse nodded, and motioned us down the hall toward Amanda's room. Marcone's pace began to slow as he approached, his breathing to speed up. When we were close enough to Amanda's room to hear voices from it, for Marcone to look in the door, he stopped dead. I couldn't see in yet, but I heard someone weeping, and a young woman's voice, hoarse, weak, speaking with a little girl's intonation,
"Don't cry, mommy." Marcone swayed, then fell to his knees with his head bowed.
I stepped up to look into the room, and saw Helen Beckitt, holding one of Amanda's hands. She had her head against Amanda's shoulder and she was crying. Amanda's other hand was moving clumsily, but purposefully, patting her mother's head.
As soon as Helen was able to notice Marcone in the doorway, a look passed between them. I have heard of words passing in looks, but this one was ridiculous. I think the whole of Crime and Punishment, complete with editor's and translator's notes was packed into that look. The upshot was that Marcone was allowed into the room. He pulled the teddy bear out of the backpack. Amanda stared at it for a moment, then raised her arm so that he could tuck the bear under it, the way he did every time he visited. I could see a light of memory go on.
"Book?" she asked.
Marcone looked stunned.
"Yes, I brought the book." He answered. He had to clear his throat.
"Who're you?" she asked.
"Do you remember being shot?" He managed to keep his face and voice calm. She nodded and pouted.
"Owie," she said. John couldn't respond right away.
"They were aiming at me, and I ducked. That's why it hit you." He had to look away again. She frowned. Talking was not easy for her. She seemed to have to concentrate, search for every word. She looked and sounded like someone having a very hard time waking up from a very deep sleep.
"Not on purpose. If I had known, I wouldn't have ducked." He had to turn away for another moment, to gather his composure. Amanda's brow furrowed as she worked hard to get mouth and breath and mind working together.
"No," she said, face wrinkling into a bleary frown. "No. You owie. No." There was no composure to be found, anywhere, for a long time after that.
The media treatment of 'The Miracle Girl' was remarkably restrained, thanks to all of Marcone's media and political connections. There was much made of the family desiring privacy to re-connect and for the girl to begin her long, hard road to recovery. The identity of the mystery benefactor that paid for her care and the therapy that allowed the comatose girl to wake to a body that had some level of functioning, was glossed over with a 'desires to remain anonymous.' The paparazzi swarmed the place trying to get pictures, but for some reason all their cameras and recording gear malfunctioned as soon as they got anywhere near. I wouldn't know anything about that.
I found fault with God. The timing of Amanda's recovery was just so...obvious, so cliche, a soap opera writer would be canned for even suggesting it. But then there was the other miracle, and that one left awesome behind and went straight to scary.
The transfer of power in the Chicago mob was bloodless.
The day to day operations were given over to a younger, smarter cousin of Torelli's. No one contested it. According to various mob sources, there was a 'foreign outfit', very bad news, part mob, part cult, part terrorist, and the US outfits formed an umbrella organization to keep them out. Marcone hadn't retired, he was in charge of that umbrella, and he was keeping watch to make sure things in Chicago were continuing to be run his way. Murphy, a friend and ex-cop, whose ruined career was one of Rudolf's stepping stones, was bemused to find herself bolstering this rumor, and with her input, it became enshrined as fact.
"Yeah, there were two, actually: a Central American one, that one's been crushed, yeah Rudolf was in their pocket, and this other one that started in the middle east, but has worldwide ties. Watch for fanatics with their tongues cut out..." That led to the mafia being one of the Knights' best sources for information on Denarian activity in the US. The mob didn't suddenly become all warm and fuzzy, but they had always been territorial, and that was now working to the Knights' advantage. See? Scary.
I told Murphy about the sword before we knew about that. She had a right to know, since she was had been offered the remaining sword. She didn't kill me, but she looked piercingly at me.
"Tell me what happened." Calm, but intense. It took me a minute to figure out where to start. I ended up starting with the wall, and that spell. There was no way to comprehend what happened without knowing how thoroughly they had tried to break Marcone. I glossed over the wrestling with God bit. That wouldn't make sense if you didn't know about Amanda, and that was not my secret to tell.
"How can a mob boss wield a holy sword?" She asked.
"He can't. I left him making plans to hand it over. I know he will try to minimize it, but there will have to be some fallout." I frowned, thinking about the increase in violence that was probably going to start any day. Showed what I knew.
"How do you feel about it."
"You know, it's funny you should ask, I am pissed off, and I just can't get over it. I keep being irritated that Michael has a new buddy that shares something with him that I can't." I expected her to laugh at me, punch me in the arm, tell me to pull up my big girl pants.
"That's because you aren't admitting to yourself that you're not mad because of Michael."
"Uhhh, what?" Witty repartee, yet another service cheerfully offered.
"You lost your criminal scum buddy, the one you went on and on about how you hated, but who you could talk to with just one look.The one you went to for help when you had nowhere else to go. I don't know that the juju between you was, but the vibes between you and Marcone have a third of the force sure that you are actually estranged brothers, and another third that you are ex-lovers. At least no one with a brain believes that you work for him anymore-- he wouldn't let an employee get away with a tenth of what he let's you get away with."
"WHAT?!" I turned on her fuming and spitting, but she just looked at me, arms folded, as annoyingly composed as Marcone could be. I searched for the words and proof to tell her how wrong she was, but came up empty. Worse than empty, because she didn't know what I knew about what made Marcone what he was, how deeply I sympathized, even admired...crap.
"Just because he has turned from the dark side, doesn't mean he has forgotten how it feels. Now he can actually talk to you about whatever understanding you shared. You don't get to feel superior to him anymore, but I think you can handle that." I didn't have an answer. I sat, my lips pursed in thought -- it might have looked like a pout -- and couldn't find the flaw in her logic. Marcone had been like me, flouting rules to protect innocents, we understood each other, but because he ran and got rich from a criminal empire while he was doing so, I could feel smug and superior. I had lost my evil twin. But even, though he was no longer my twin, or evil anymore, no because he was no longer we could actually talk about things now. I felt better.
John Marcone ended up owning a garage. He was still John Marcone, though, and within six months he was about to buy a second one. Suppliers grumbled about how he haggled the prices into the ground, but admitted that he paid when he said he would. And word was out among the driving public that their cars would be ready when he said they would. About six months after that, at the autumnal equinox, I was attending a meeting with the Freeholding Lord -- that was still Marcone -- on behalf of both Winter and the Wardens.
Mab insisted on my getting some decent clothes for when I would be representing her, so the suit I was wearing probably cost as much as his, the shirt the hand tailored one he had bought me to replace the one with the bullet hole. The gray cloak was traditional...but I, the representative of powers recognized for centuries by the accords, looked and felt like I was wearing a costume. He, with the second hand, overlarge, shot up Knight's surcoat over his suit, looked regal.
The meeting was being held at a newly constructed building on the outskirts of the city, the project of a coalition of charities whose boards Marcone was on, a home for hard to place children. It looked like an estate, beautiful grounds with gardens, trees, a stream, playgrounds, fenced and warded, a threshhold like Fort Knox, real, non-fallen angelic protection sigils, and a plaque that marked it 'accorded neutral territory'. In the cheeriest conference room I had ever seen, the Baron, myself, the Summer Knight (as surprised to see me as I was to see him), and another, who turned out to be a representative of Monoc, were called to order.
The Monoc representative read us a treaty recently negotiated between the Winter and Summer queens, the White council and the Freeholding Baron. As he read through the provisions, and I followed along on my own copy, I felt a growing sense of disbelief. How had the bastard gotten both the queens to agree to this? How had he gotten the council to agree? I looked at Fix, the Summer Knight, and he looked back at me, equally agog. I kept looking for loopholes, but there were none I could find. Monoc lawyers were good.
Fix and I were both required by this treaty to defend against any assault on this place as if it were an assault on our own territory, I as the warden of the territory was twice obligated. Mab and Titania had both agreed that this place was designated a refuge for changeling youngsters of either court. Stars and Stones!
After that surreal meeting, Marcone walked me around the place. I was still in a daze. It was cheery and peaceful. There were a few children and teens here already. They looked secure and at home, cared for by adults with patient manners and kind faces.
One dark haired little girl was sitting, reading in a window seat, petting a very large, very self-satisfied cat. Mister?!
"The beast just wandered in one day, wouldn't take no for an answer." Marcone informed me.
The child looked up as I approached, and my heart stopped. I went numb as I felt the blood draining to my feet. Maggie! Then I felt a flash of anger. She was supposed to be hidden away, safe. But then, where could there be safer than this? That freeholding, swordswinging bastard! He obviously hadn't been fooled at all when I had described Maggie as 'my client's child.' She was safe here, even from me, and I could see her. She stood up when she saw me, her little face solemn. I went down on one knee to put my face level with hers. The cat was bumping against me, purring and rubbing ecstatically. I found my voice, eventually.
"Do you remember me?"
She nodded, and put a hand on my shoulder.
"The monsters took me to a bad place, and were going to hurt me. I was scared, but you came for me."
Tears started to my eyes, and my voice was gone again. I tried to speak, I moved my mouth to say, 'Maggie,' but no sound came out. My face crumpled. She took a step forward, placed her little hands on me head, and pulled it down to rest on her shoulder. As someone must have done for her through nights of bad dreams, she stroked my hair, and said,
"It's okay, we're not in the bad place any more."
The tears that fell were so warm the ice of Winter didn't stand a chance.