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other things the road to hell is paved with

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They say-- and by they, I mean people who write complicated books about the universe that in the long run don't really change anything about our daily lives because when you're talking about things at that scale, you realize your life is kind of irrelevant and then suppress that knowledge or risk losing your goddamn mind. I mean, seriously, I get wanting to crack the hard nut that is why are we here, but you'd think when people realized most of the numbers were adding up to no reason, really, that they'd back off for fear of going the sort of crazy you tend to only see in Lovecraft stories before the narrator gets eaten by (or, in the more fun ones, turned into) the Eldritch horror of the week.

What was I talking about?

Right. They say that the universe is not only infinite, but there are so many other universes out there mirroring ours that it's like multiplying infinity with infinity again. Every decision we make and every one we might've made exist somewhere out there. When I'm sitting at the red light at the intersection, there's a whole other universe waiting for me depending on which way my signal light's blinking.

I tend to turn right by instinct when given a decision. Right-handed, evocate with my right side, and try to do the right thing.

But we've all done that, haven't we? Wondered what was going down in the universe next door. How one decision would shake up everything we knew.

What happens when we turn left.

 


 

"I want to make a deal with you," Gentleman Johnny Marcone said as he stood over me in the Streetwolves' den, a contract in his hand.

He'd made the offer before and the terms, he claimed, were the same. I'd seen them before and they seemed nice to my legally unsavvy mind. They were most comfortable leash a wizard could hope for. No more worrying about my rents, no more taking cases I knew were just attention-seekers wanting to see some flash. I could catch up on my research. I could learn and expand my repertoire of spells. I could have time. Security.

But I'd have Marcone's collar on me. When he called, I'd have to come. Sure, I'd never have to do anything explicitly illegal, but Marcone had enough power, he could bend the laws as he pleased. And just the idea of being one of Marcone's men made me feel nauseated.

Parker was still watching me with that barely-controlled rage. Well, me and Marcone, who he was giving equally murderous looks. Marcone didn't pay him any attention, his money-green eyes still on me. Talk about being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

I didn't want Parker to turn me into a bloodier pulp than I already was and I didn't want Marcone's shackles around my wrists. But I sure as hell didn't want to die in that rundown building.

I drew in what little will I had left, focusing on a few loose wrenches and tools on a workbench nearby and whispered, "Vento servitas."

That had not been a smart move. My head exploded in a pain that completely overshadowed what I was already feeling. I gritted my teeth and tried to fight off the wave of vertigo that slammed into me.

I opened my eyes to find I was laying sideways on the floor. It was better down there. The solid concrete under my head made my vision spin less. I shut my eyes again and fought to collect myself. It seemed I had literally tapped out all of my will with my magic overuse. Whoops.

Slowly, I became aware of an argument happening above me.

"I had him tied up, now let me--" Parker was growling.

"Don't take another step towards him, Mr. Parker," Marcone said with icy coolness. I heard the click of a safety being removed from a gun. "If Mr. Dresden truly is in such a weakened state, you won't be getting any closer."

"I will be when I kill him," Parker snapped back. "I don't know what game you're trying to play, Marcone, but I'm going to kill the wizard. This wasn't part of the deal."

"I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it further."

I couldn't help it, I let out a slightly hysterical giggle. You ever hear a crime don unironically quote Star Wars? It's guaranteed to brighten your day, even when your day involves broken bones and crazy amounts of pain.

"Ah, Mr. Dresden. Back with us?" Now Marcone's attention was back on me. "I was hoping to get an answer about our arrangement. If you're determined to sacrifice your life to make some point about autonomy, please come out with it. I have other business I could be attending to."

"You sonvoabitch, Marcone--"

Parker took a step closer and Marcone held him off by casually lifting a handgun and pointing it at his face. "Mr. Parker. Please. You need not worry. Mr. Dresden would almost certainly die before accepting my offer."

It was then I noticed one of Parker's underlings was back. Flatnose crouched in the office doorway near Hendricks. I was down, but maybe I wasn't out. A plan was percolating in my head that, either way, should have gotten me out of there alive. Provided my terrible luck didn't hold.

"Give me a pen," I said, my voice as even as I could make it. I tried to blank my expression as well, but couldn't quite manage it. Fortunately I think the only thing I was projecting was how much pain I was in.

Or so I hoped. Marcone looked at me with plain surprise. "What?"

"I'll sign." I licked my dry lips and tasted dry blood on them. "I don't want to die here. Not the most luxurious place to be torn apart by werewolves." Then, I gave Parker a cheeky grin, ignoring how it make my face hurt even more.

Parker let out an enraged growl and took a step closer. Marcone, barely sparing him a glance, fired a shot at his feet. With supernatural agility, Parker jumped back and refixed his deathglare on Marcone.

Over by Hendricks, Flatnose the lurking lycanthrope jumped out at big guy. Hendricks was on guard after watching his boss fire off a shot though and swung the butt of his shotgun, nailing Flatnose right in the temple. Down he went.

Well. Shit. I watched my plan slip away as Marcone knelt by my side. "Hoping for a distraction and a quick getaway, I assume?" He put a hand on my face, carefully turning it toward him so he could look into my eyes. It was disconcerting, his keen, evaluating gaze, like he was running the numbers on this situation in his head, hashing out the best course of action.

There was a rumbling sound, outside the building. "Mr. Marcone," Hendricks said simply and Marcone nodded before looking back at me.

"It seems our time's run out, Mr. Dresden, and the contract will have to wait. I'll have to leave you here." My eyes widened and I saw a flicker of grin on the mobster's face. He looked like the cat who caught the canary.

"I said I'd sign!" There was no keeping the desperate edge out of my voice. I'd already barely survived the last roughing up the Streetwolves had given me. I knew I wouldn't survive the next.

"True, but somehow I think that was only to give you time to attempt an escape."

"Mr. Marcone," Hendricks said again, slightly more agitated.

"They'll kill me," I snapped at Marcone, hoping he'd actually care. The fact he hadn't just up and left at the first sign of trouble said maybe he did. It was all I had to bet on right now.

"Something we'd both like to avoid." Marcone looked up at Hendricks, then back down at me, his gaze even harder. "I'll make this short as we don't have much time; if you want to get out of this alive, I want your word and your Name."

If I had enough blood left in me, I'd have blanched. "What?"

"I want you to swear on your power that you will sign my contract once we are safe and I want your Name as insurance." I was completely stunned by the request and clearly Marcone noticed. "I have done my research, Mr. Dresden. Now say it, we don't have much time."

I didn't want to even think about Marcone knowing my Name, about who he could give it to. It wasn't much better than Chauncy the demon knowing it. It might've been worse. "You scumbag--"

"Don't waste my time. This is your last chance and then I will leave you. You'll die, which makes you both less of a liability and prevents anyone contracting you before me. I win either way."

I had nothing, no way out, and he knew it. I'd been thoroughly backed into a corner.

I shut my eyes and swallowed against the lump of fear and despair in my throat. When I spoke next, I did so quietly so only he would hear. "I, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, swear on my power to sign your fucking contract, you piece of--"

"Good enough." Moving swiftly, Marcone dragged me to my feet and slung my arm over his shoulder. "Mr. Hendricks, we're leaving!"

I'd forgotten about Parker until then, when he snarled. "I'll kill all of you!" He had his tire iron again, lifting it to take a swing at us.

Marcone turned and put a few bullets in his chest, quick and clean. "Fool. I'd have paid him handsomely later for his trouble." He sighed like it was a damn shame Parker hadn't realized this little fact and had to die instead. "I think a fast getaway is in order now."

It was about then my body decided it was going to pass out. I couldn't blame it, really.

 


 

I floated in and out of unconsciousness for a while after that. The next time I opened my eyes, I could feel that I was in a moving car. I could blurrily see Marcone above me, his cell phone against his ear. He was talking, but the words didn't make any sense to me. It sounded like I was underwater, everything echoing and far away.

Turning my head, I saw I was lying on Marcone's thigh. His fancy Italian suit was staining with my blood and I got some vindictive pleasure out of that.

I noted that ludicrously expensive clothes made pretty comfy pillows before shutting my eyes again and slipping under.

 


 

Sometime later, I became aware of someone sticking another needle in my arm and fought to wake up a bit. It was hard; I didn't feel like I was dying anymore, but there was a different weight holding me down, this time medical. I'd been dosed on something. The lack of pain felt new and strange, almost unnatural after so long working through it.

I wasn't sure if I was in a hospital or not. I wanted to check, but I didn't even manage to get my eyes open this time before falling back into calm darkness.

 


 

Next time I woke up, I actually made it to full consciousness.

It wasn't a quick thing. I felt like I'd been sleeping for days, and dragging myself away from the easy rest and back to wakefulness took a few minutes. At first I just enjoyed being warm and feeling safe, a real pillow under my head and the soft heat of sunshine on my face.

Aforementioned sunshine was glaring, blinding even through my eyelids. I turned my head away, trying to shift onto my side instead. A tugging pain in my arm halted me and I jerked at the sensation, twisting to look.

There was an IV feeding into my arm. I vaguely remembered the needle pinch from the last time I was conscious. Someone had hooked me up to a saline drip.

Using my non-IVed arm, I rubbed my face, waking further. I wasn't in a hospital, it seemed, but a bedroom. It was sparse and clean enough to make it clear it wasn't often used. There was a dresser to one side with a first aid kit and some pill bottles sitting on it. Across from it were two doors, one ajar and leading to a bathroom, the other shut.

I slowly pushed myself to sit up, sore from both lying still so long and from whatever was hiding under the bandages around my chest. I took a moment to catalog; the bandages around my torso came with a piece of gauze taped to my temple, a color splattering of bruises across me arms, and a large, stone cuff around each of my wrists.

The cuffs worried me. They were thick rings of smooth stone, dark and almost blue grey. There were symbols engraved on the outer rim, not any runes I recognized. Most troubling was the fact the stone cuffs were solid with no breaks or hinges; they didn't fit over my hands, so unless they were some kind of new elastic stone, the way they got on me was a mystery. Tentatively, I extended a bit of my will, pushing a tendril of magic towards them.

Or, I tried to. Instead... something happened. It was a really strange sensation that I'd never felt before. The magic left me but instead of telling me anything about my new jewelry, it seemed to push back into me. I shivered at the weird prickly feeling it gave me.

I was starting to not like this situation I was in. There happened to be a candle on the dressed next to the medical things, unlit. I pointed a finger at it and said, "Flickum bicus."

Again, the spell started to leave me only to loop back and flow back into me. As it did, I noticed the runes in the cuffs lit up softly.

Huh. I had enough will to work with even if I didn't feel one hundred percent. I was feel pretty well recovered from going a bit trigger happy with my pick-me-up potion. Deciding to try something with a bit more bang, I pointed to the candle again. "Fuego."

Nothing, but when the magic flowed back into me this time, the cuff lit up brightly for a moment. The magic seeped back into my arm around the stone. The sensation was even warmer and felt just enough like my own power to make me shudder uncomfortably.

I didn't like where this was going and I wasn't going to stick around to see what was in store for me next. My plan was to get out of there and go looking for answers instead of waiting for them to find me.

I was picking the tape off my arm to get the IV out when the door opened and John Marcone walked in. "I would leave that in, Mr. Dresden. At least until the doctor can take a look at you."

I wasted no time getting tetchy with him. "What the hell is this?" I lifted one of my arms at him, shaking the bracelet around.

"It's helping," Marcone answered simply, approaching my bed and sitting in a chair next to it.

"Doesn't answer my question."

"It's Sarsen stone, I believe." Stars, the guy wasn't in a forthcoming mood. He just folded his hands in his lap. "How are you feeling?"

"Like a wizard who can't use his magic." I glared at him. "Which is not happy, let me tell you."

Marcone waved one hand dismissively. "I'm more interested in the physical than the emotional at the moment. This is the first time in days you've been conscious for more than a few minutes."

My indignation over the cuffs stuttered. "Days? How long have I been out?"

"Long enough to miss quite a lot of excitement." He then filled me in on the details. How the FBI agents had been hexenwulfen out to kill him, how MacFinn was lead to believe Marcone had destroyed his circle and showed up in his loup-garou form to kill him, and how my report to Murphy on the different varieties of werewolf had helped him identify and take care of the situation.

"What'd you do with MacFinn?"

"I lacked the proper means to kill him, so I lured him into a pit trap and waited until the full moon passed. Afterward, he was very interested in what we learned from interrogating the FBI agents, such as how they arranged for his circle to be broken so they could essentially turn him into a loaded weapon." Marcone picked up the medical chart sitting on my bedside table and flipped idly through it. "Last I heard, he was making the necessary arrangements for a new circle."

I wondered what 'interrogating' meant, but let it go. "And I suppose you'll keep his secret out of the goodness of your heart."

"MacFinn has proven to be an interesting and potentially powerful ally. It's in my interests to keep his confidence for the time being."

I snorted. "That what it's all about? Establishing whether someone can help or harm you, then filing them away in the proper folders?"

Marcone shook his head faintly, apparently amused by my take on it. "How are you feeling?" he asked. I waved the bracelet at him again and he sighed. "Honestly, Dresden... The bracelets are an artifact that recently came into my ownership. You'd be surprised what objects a man of means can obtain when he begins to investigate the supernatural. They're Welsh Sarsen stone and are medical euipment of a kind. The bracelets apparently take the energy put into them and turn it to healing magic. Given you attempted to light some candles, I imagine your control over your magic feels like its returned?"

It did, I had to admit. The terrible, overdrawn feeling I had in the Streetwolves' den was gone. I felt weird, bottled up in a way that could be explained by the bracelets, but I also felt a lot better, at least compared to before. Begrudgingly, I nodded. Then something hit me. "Welsh Sarsen.... are you saying these are from Stonehenge?"

"A powerful magical site, I've heard." Marcone looked smug at having impressed me. Because, yeah, Stonehenge was powerful. It was a nexus of ley lines that was so obvious, even the least magically inclined humans noticed it. "Be careful with them; I'd like them back when you're well."

Cautiously, I said, "I'm feeling well enough now. As nice as the hospitality is, I sort of have things to do. Elsewhere."

Marcone held my gaze levelly and said, "But we still have some unfinished business, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden."

A shudder ran through me at the sound of my Name, perfectly pronounced. I could feel the deal I'd made shifting amid my magic, the potential to seriously harm my power slithering through me like a snake in the grass. Breaking an oath always hurt a person's spirit. With wizards, the effect was even worse. I swore on my power, which meant if I didn't follow through, it'd deal a blow to that power. It was still tempting to rip the IV out of my arm and make for the door.

Which would leave me with my magic suppressed by the cuffs. And I was willing to bet Marcone wasn't going to tell me how to take them off until I'd signed his contract.

Hell's bells, what a scumbag.

"Where's the contract?"

Marcone smiled and reached into the soft suede jacket he wore, presumably into an inside pocket. Out came a roll of papers that Marcone put on his lap, pressing them down flat to uncurl them. "Given the fact I had more time to prepare a proper working arrangement this time, I've had my lawyers revise the contract. Smoothed out some wording, made a few key points clearer."

I slumped back against the pillows propping me up. "I hate you."

"You are eager to assume I mean to do you harm, Harry. That's not what this is about."

"Don't call me that," I grumbled.

With plain despair, I watched him run his fingers over the sheaf of papers. Marcone pulled out a pen and set it on top of the papers, then put them on my lap. "I imagine you'll want to read over the summary of terms, get to know what sort of arrangement you'll be getting into." He stood, smoothing out his jacket casually, like he wasn't setting me up to sign my life away to his evil empire. "Take your time. I'll have brunch sent up for you."

"Thanks," I said with a bright, angry edge of sarcasm as I watched him leave.

There wasn't much else I could do. With a resigned sigh, I settled in to read the new contract.

 


 

 

Marcone came back while I was still enjoying my meal. I was munching on bacon and spreading the fancy orange creme stuff over my waffles. Crime did pay, if this was the sort of breakfast Marcone got on a daily basis.

"Can you even taste the food, inhaling it like that?" Marcone sat in the chair next to my bed with a predatory sprawl, managing to look both relaxed and poised to strike at any second.

I took a long drink of orange juice and swallowed. I was sure it would be fun to irritate Marcone by talking with my mouth full, but there were serious topics to discuss. "I want to talk to my lawyer."

"You don't have a lawyer, Mr. Dresden," Marcone said gently, a smile growing on his face. "Once you've signed the contract, you will of course have access to my legal team, should you require. I believe in sharing resources."

I threw the contract at him, or tried to. It worked for about a half a foot before the paper just fluttered uselessly down. Marcone bent to collect them, unperturbed. "What happened to the old contract? It was simple, it made sense."

"That one was drafted in a very short amount of time. I was more concerned with getting you than the terms themselves." He tapped the papers against his knee until they stacked neatly. "This time, I've had more time to prepare."

Getting me. There was a self-confident, possessive curl to his words that scared the hell out of me. I pushed the food tray away, suddenly not so hungry anymore. I knew I'd been manipulated into this, that to say I gave my word under duress would be putting it lightly. But everyone knew Marcone was pals with the DA's office and it was unlikely I'd be able to convince anyone I'd been coerced. There was a reason Marcone didn't bring me to a hospital to recover: if he took care of me himself, there'd be no records to prove I'd been grievously injured. Every act of kindness was a business decision first.

"Is there any way I can not sign your contract and keep my magic?" I asked quietly.

Marcone didn't answer right away, but when he did, I could feel him staring at me, his gaze like a physical weight on my skin. "I've said this before, Harry, but my goal is not to hurt you. I gain nothing from that. I don't even have any problems with your business as our paths only rarely cross, and even then we tend not to be on opposing sides."

"Then what's this all for?"

"I can only safeguard myself and Chicago so much from the supernatural. I've explored your art to the best of my ability, but too often I find the information I've gathered fraudulent and useless. What I need," Marcone leaned forward on his arms, and it was hard to continue looking away from him, "is someone who can help me deal with the threats against Chicago. I try to keep this city in order, Mr. Dresden. I rein in its demons."

I smirked in an unhappy manner. "Except the actual demons."

"Precisely." He leaned back again, a little less intense, which was a relief. "You deserve to be treated with more respect than I am affording you, I know that. But we've both been caught up in conflicts that prove the mundane and supernatural worlds are growing ever closer. A partnership between us will help this city."

I finally tilted my head to look at him. "You are still just the lesser evil, Marcone."

He didn't argue that. "You may disagree with what I do and what I represent, but you cannot argue with how I operate."

And that was the lynchpin argument whenever anyone mentioned Marcone. We all knew he was a criminal with his fingers in every vice trade in the city, but we all knew he did it better. He made sure the collateral damage was kept to a minimum. That was why the CPD wouldn't go after him. That and he'd bought half the force, if rumors were true and I had no reason to think they weren't.

"So, Harry? Have you come to a decision?" Helpfully, he handed the contract back over to me.

I took it and set it on my lap, grabbing the pen off my lunch tray. It was a shiny onyx fountain pen, sleek and stylish. It looked like it should write in blood, or something. I pulled the cap off with my teeth. "I sign this, no more using my Name, 'kay?" I said around the cap. "Tha' serious magic an' could get me in trouble."

"Deal," Marcone said without hesitation. There was a new gleam in his eyes as he watched me put the pen to paper and sign the line at the bottom of the page. I wondered if getting a wizard to sign onto his syndicate was a turn on or if all business transactions made him look that ravenous.

The instant my pen lifted from the page, I felt the coil of our deal let go of my magic and I let out a relieved sigh. It'd been like standing with a noose around my neck and only now did I feel its hold on me loosen.

Marcone took the contract from me along with the pen, plucking the cap out of my mouth and putting it back on before tucking it into his pocket. "Excellent."

"Do I have to call you Don Marcone now?" I ventured weakly. "Can I get discounts at all the places on your protection racket?" I know, lame jokes, but there were all I had to drown out the underlying oh god what did I just do in my head.

Marcone smiled at me, bright and pleased. It was terrifying, let me tell you. I half expected him to have sharp teeth like a cat. "The next leather coat that falls off the back of a truck, I will have sent right over to you, Mr. Dresden."

Suddenly feeling very tired, I slumped back against the bed, closing my eyes. After a moment, I heard Marcone leave the room. I'd been asleep for too long already, but I dropped off again anyway. The last thing I needed was to stay awake and actually think about what I'd gotten myself into.

 


 

My body was still craving sleep it seemed. I woke up at dawn the next morning, having lost another day to my recovery. While I was out, someone removed the IV from my arm and put clean bandages on me. I finally dragged myself out of bed, a bit sore from lying around so much.

Thanks to Marcone's insane Stonehenge bracelets-- which still scared me because no one should have that kind of money to throw around on magical artifacts without even knowing if they'd work-- I managed a hot shower for once in my life without blowing the water heater. When I got out of the bathroom, there was a neatly folded stack of clothes on my freshly made bed.

I looked around for evidence of some security camera or something. I'm not sure if it was creepier to think someone was watching me or if they somehow just knew when I'd need clothes. There was no sign of anything though, which was a small comfort when I dropped the towel and got dressed.

I wondered what happened to the wrecked jumpsuit I'd used with my blending potion. After the way I'd been roughed up, there likely wasn't much left of the thing anyway. Now, I was dressed in clothes that fit me, which was a shock. Ask any tall person how hard it is to find jeans that actually fit. No easy task, but the pair I put actually fit my legs. As I put on the charcoal grey pullover and noted it fit well enough it might've been tailored, I wondered if someone took my measurements while I was out. Or, worse, Marcone already knew my measurements for some reason.

That thought got stuffed in the never think about this again folder in my head and I let myself out of the room.

I wandered around what I assumed was Marcone's house, trying to stay light on my feet and avoiding the lackeys I spotted in the halls. I was just thinking that things were too easy when I saw Hendricks coming towards me and ducked into the first open door I found.

"Impressive. I wouldn't have considered you capable of stealth without magical aid, but it seems you are able to avoid causing a scene."

Of course I ducked into Marcone's office. It was just as well; it'd be beyond idiotic to leave the relative safety of his house with my magic still sealed. That didn't mean I wasn't embarrassed though. I swallowed what little pride I had left and turned to look at him.

He was sitting behind a massive mahogany desk in the kind of executive chair that looked like it would not only give you a back massage but a happy ending to go with it. Maybe it could. That would explain why Marcone was so damn smug all the time.

"Going somewhere, Harry?"

"What, am I a prisoner now?" I casually pushed my hands into my pockets, strolling over to the desk. "I didn't see that provision in the contract."

"Of course not. You are merely a unique asset. I just thought you'd be wanting these back." He leaned down under the desk and came back with my staff and blasting rod, setting them gingerly before me.

I felt my lip curl on its own; my tools, crafted by my own hand, didn't belong under Marcone's desk. Rolling up my sleeves to show the bracelets, I said in a peevish tone, "Bit useless while you've got me shackled."

"Again, they were for your own good," Marcone said patiently. I had to give him credit, he said it with enough conviction I almost didn't think he was full of shit. Almost. He went back to shuffling through his desk. "Put your hands out."

"Why?"

"Because I told you to." He was barely paying attention to me, pulling a box out of his desk and putting it between us.

"I'm not gonna start asking how high when you say jump, John."

"Harry," Marcone said, drawing my name out in an exasperated sigh. "You can either hold out your hands or continue to wear the bracelets for the rest of the week."

I wanted to tell him not to do me any favors, but there was the chance he'd take that as a challenge and really leave me shackled. The more Marcone played that he was on my side, the less I trusted him, and I hadn't trusted him a lot in the first place. Tricking me into a soulgaze left a rather dubious first impression.

I held out my hands over the desk. Marcone opened the box and pulled out a stone sphere. He swept the sphere over each of my wrists and the cuffs seemed to phase through my arms, falling to the dark wood below with a dull thunk each.

Marcone put the sphere and the two cuffs into the box and tucked it away, out of sight again. "I know you're not one to take advice well, especially from me, but you really should at least attempt to work with me. I don't know how many times I have to point out the fact we're not enemies."

I rolled my eyes and grabbed my staff and rod. "Let's not rehash that conversation again, Marcone."

He nodded faintly. "Some other time then." He settled back in his fancy chair, fingers together, steepled in classic Bond villain style. I guess no one ever dared to tell him he looked like a cliche when he did that.

"So I can go?"

He looked surprised, which was just his normal vaguely omniscient expression with his eyebrows slightly lifted. I wondered what it would take to rattle him. "Of course. You'll find the garage down this hallway and to the right. Whoever is on duty there can see you back to the Loop."

And that was that. I walked out of his office wearing his clothes, with my Name taken and my allegiance bought.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, that once again the popular wisdom of the Windy City was right; Gentleman Johnny always got what he wanted. Including me.