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Family Comes First

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Unionville New York was the kind of town where people were from, rather than a place that they moved to. A once prosperous town built on the backs of Italian immigrants who'd labored in her factories, as the factories had closed the town had fallen on hard times and never recovered. A billboard at the tiny regional airport had boasted that Unionville was a great place to raise a family, which was a polite way of saying that there was nothing to interest anyone over the age of sixteen.

Frank Roma had hated Unionville with a passion, and left as soon as he could enlist. But he'd never found anywhere else to call home, and when he was killed by an IED in Afghanistan, they'd sent those bits of him that they could scrape off the road back to his hometown for burial.

I hadn't kept in touch, though Hendricks did, and brought me the occasional tidbit of news. After putting in his twenty, Frank had been persuaded to sign up for one more tour. After 9/11, he'd stayed on to train the newcomers and never left. Somehow training turned into endless deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and less publicized hotspots, leading teams half his age. I'd been surprised by the grief I felt at the news of his death.

Contrary to Hollywood fiction, the life of a crime lord does not involve frequent attendance at funerals. Why would anyone give the FBI a free chance to document associates and interpret the latest pecking order based on body language and who spoke to whom? But somehow without even knowing why, I'd found myself drawn here, just another mourner crowded into the oak pews of Saint Anthony's.

The church was packed, with members of Frank's extended family mingling with community leaders and delegations of mourners from veterans organization. I followed the familiar rhythms of the funeral mass even as I puzzled over my presence here. I wasn't sure what I was mourning--was it the loss of a man I'd once called friend, someone who'd I trusted at my back? Or the thought of what might-have-beens? Both Frank and I enlisted to escape our pasts, then chosen different paths in life. It was ironic that my life had been safer than his.

The mass ended and the mourners filed out, piling into cars to follow Frank's body to the cemetery. As the church emptied I went to the statue of the Blessed Mother, pausing to light a candle.

Hendricks came up to my side as I left the church, standing on the steps in the sunshine. "Back to the airport?" he asked.

I nodded, putting on my sunglasses. Across the street a bell rang, and children began spilling out the doors of the elementary school, the cheerful clamor of their voices filling the air. A sentimental man might muse on the reminder that even as one life had ended, these young lives were just starting out.

I climbed into the back of the car as Hendricks made his way to the front, idly watching the children. Most headed for the buses, but a few made their way to the waiting parents. A tall man detached himself from the crowd and took the hand of a young girl, shouldering her backpack as they walked. The Chamber of Commerce could have arranged no better photo op--a beautiful young girl with neatly braided dark hair, wearing a blue plaid school uniform. As they passed, the presumed father turned his head, and I recognized a dead man.

"Jesus Christ!" Hendricks swore. Then, after a moment of reflection, he added, "I wouldn't have thought he had it in him."

Neither had I. Seven years ago Harry Dresden's distinctive Volkswagen Beetle had been found abandoned near Montrose Harbor. The shattered windshield and crumpled door were not nearly as disturbing as the amount of blood found inside.

The blood had tested human. Male. But with no DNA on file, there'd been no proof that it was Dresden's. His friends had launched a manhunt while his enemies had speculated on what Dresden had to gain by disappearing.

Two days later, a White Court vampire named Thomas Raith had attempted to break into Dresden's apartment. The resulting explosion and fire had been blamed on improperly stored propane tanks. Raith escaped serious injury, but the building was destroyed along with everything Dresden owned.

I had copies of the police files--naturally--from both the original investigation and then SI's follow-up. I'd listened to the voice mail that he'd left for Karrin Murphy immediately before his disappearance, in which he'd mentioned that he'd be out of touch for a few days and advised her to contact Michael Carpenter if anything came up.

Then, nothing. Not a single sighting, not one plausible lead. He'd vanished, perhaps literally off the face of this earth.

Gradually his friends accepted that he was dead. There was no memorial service, no one close enough to Dresden to have the right to make arrangements. Instead his presence had been gradually erased, as the shell of his former apartment house was bulldozed, while his office was shuttered for failure to pay rent. In time the file on his disappearance was added to the stack of SI's unsolved homicides, cold cases that the department never expected to solve.

I'd held on to my doubts, torn between anger at the waste and the suspicion that I would not be free of Dresden so easily. Then Michael Carpenter had been murdered, and it had been left to Carpenter's fellow knights to avenge his death. The man I'd known would never have let a friend's death pass unchallenged.

All this ran through my mind in an instant. And then I made a mistake.

Perhaps it was the emotion of the day. I'd gone from paying my respects to one of the few men who had known me before I was Johnny Marcone gentleman mobster to being confronted by Dresden's survival. Whatever the reason, for once I did something without calculating the odds.

"Harry," I called, as I stepped out of the car.

He turned slowly, casually, a man who expected to be greeted by his neighbors. Then he caught sight of me. With one practiced move he shoved the girl behind him, as his right hand came up.

I realized at once that I'd made a mistake. There were no obvious trappings of wizardry, but the man in faded jeans and a UVFD sweatshirt was as deadly as any IED.

In the silence I heard the click of a safety coming off. "Stand down," I ordered.

Hendricks drew in a breath as if to protest, then sighed. He took his job of protecting me with utmost seriousness, but he lived by the same rules that I did. A father sheltering his daughter was off-limits. Especially since I'd been the one to provoke Dresden. I willed myself to calmness, furiously calculating strategies, waiting for the anger and threats that were certain to follow.

A school bus passed between us, then another. I half-expected him to disappear, but as the final bus drove on, I saw him still standing there. He said something to the girl, then crossed the street.

"How did you find me?" he demanded.

"Would you believe by chance?"

Dresden shook his head.

"It's the truth. I'm here a funeral."

"I saw the cars. A good friend?" he asked, sarcasm lacing his words.

"An old one." I waited for the threats that had been curiously unforthcoming. Either Dresden had changed in the intervening years, or the situation had moved beyond mere threats. "Truly, I didn't mean to disturb you. I was just taken by surprise."

"Daddy!" The girl had grown tired of waiting and began making her way across the street.

Dresden turned around, the pink Hello Kitty backpack swinging incongruously on his shoulder. "Maggie, I said to wait for me!" he called. Then he turned back to face me. "We need to talk. Tonight?"

I nodded.

"Seven o'clock. There's a pizza place down on Main Street, Angelo's. Anyone can tell you where to find it."

"I'll be there," I promised. I watched him return to his daughter. Unsurprisingly they headed back toward the school.

"He'll probably loop around and go out the back," Hendricks observed. "Want me to follow them?"

"No." I'd made one mistake already today.

When Dresden had disappeared, he'd taken with him knowledge of my most closely guarded secret. He could have destroyed me, but not one word of Amanda's existence had slipped out. At the very least, I owed him the same courtesy.

I'd made one mistake already today, and vowed I would not make another.

It was closer to seven-thirty than seven when Dresden finally arrived. Dresden glanced around, his gaze lingering on the far corner where Hendricks was seemingly engrossed in the Racing Form. The only other patrons were myself and a pair of teenagers at a table by the door. At the tinkling of the door bell, the server behind the counter looked up from his crossword.

I kept both hands visible on the chipped table top as Dresden slid into the booth opposite me.

The server, a middle-aged man with a stained apron over his spreading gut, ambled over and deposited a bottle of beer in front of Dresden. "Usual?" he asked.

"I'm on my own, so throw some sausage on there," Dresden replied.

The server grunted and disappeared through the swinging doors to the back.

So he was a regular, which made this an interesting choice for a meeting place. Had he chosen this because it gave him the advantage of familiarity? Or was he planning to run, in which case where we met wouldn't matter?

"Sorry I'm late," he said.

An unprompted apology. Next frogs would fall from the sky.

"I thought you'd be halfway to Canada by now," I said.

"I thought about it." He paused and took a long sip of his beer. "So, Frank Roma?"

I'd come here for answers, and I'd known the price would be providing my own in return. But that didn't make what came next any easier.

"We were in boot camp together. A lifetime ago."

Most people thought that the Organization had been the ones to teach me to kill. And while they'd provided the motivation, it had been the US Government that had honed my skills. My military service was a closely guarded secret, by mutual agreement between myself and my former employer. But Dresden already held a far greater secret of mine.

Dresden nodded then looked away. "Sorry."

I shrugged. "The price of the life he'd chosen."

I took the opportunity to study Dresden. He'd changed since Chicago, or perhaps it was just that this was the first time I'd seen him when he wasn't embroiled in a crisis. He'd put on ten badly needed pounds, and exchanged the duster for a sweatshirt and baseball cap. To all appearances he hadn't aged a day. Then again, if my information was correct, seven years were nothing to a wizard.

I wondered what Dresden saw when he looked at me.

"I'll swear by any oath you choose that I didn't know you were here. My seeing you was pure chance."

I'd stop looking for him years ago. At first I'd kept tabs on the various official and unofficial investigations into his disappearance. I'd used Monoc's contacts to check for rumors in the supernatural world, while my own staff investigated mundane sources. Convinced that Dresden would be unable to resist using his powers, I'd had agents check out any bizarre news stories. But there'd been nothing, not even a hint.

The server returned and placed two white plates on the table and a metal stand for a pizza. He eyed our barely-touched beers then wandered off without speaking.

"I take it Maggie is yours?"

The reason for Dresden's disappearance had been obvious from the first glance. It was hard to tell a child's exact age, but my bet was that she'd been born either shortly before or right after Dresden disappeared. Dresden hadn't left Chicago and then started a family, he'd found that he had a family and had to leave.

"She's mine," he said. "Her mother is gone... but she left some insurance. I used it to settle here, and did the stay at home dad thing for a while. Now I'm back working construction. Carpentry, mostly."

I blinked, trying to process the concept of Harry Dresden, wizard extraordinaire, changing diapers and arranging play dates. While I was trying to wrap my head around the incongruous picture, the server returned with our pizza-- mushrooms, peppers and the sausage Dresden had asked for.

He took the first piece, then I claimed one for my own. We sat there eating, as if we were two ordinary acquaintances catching up. It was as surreal an experience as any I'd ever had in his presence. Where once he would have taunted me, or threatened me if he was feeling vulnerable, now he kept silent. I wondered if he was less volatile than he'd been before, or if he'd merely learned to hide it better.

We exchanged stories, carefully rationed glimpses of our lives. I told him of the resolution to the Red Court troubles, but left out the details of exactly how I'd forced them to negotiate with me. Dresden revealed that he'd been in Unionville since Maggie could crawl. A remarkably settled life for a man whose own father had led the vagabond life of a performer.

He dropped enough clues that I realized Susan Rodriguez was the most likely candidate for Maggie's mother. She'd apparently helped him arrange his disappearance, but had had no contact with him or her daughter since then.

His honesty surprised me, but by the time the pizza had been demolished, I realized that it wasn't surprising after all. If he'd been truthful about having cut off all contact with his past, I was the first person that he'd spoken to in years who knew who he was, and what he was capable of. Once he'd held the fate of Chicago in his hands, now he was known as Maggie's father, or a good guy to call when you needed a tricky bit of freehand carving done. For all that he claimed to be satisfied with his new life, there was surely a part of him that chafed at its restrictions.

After the remnants of the pizza were cleared away, the conversation turned somber.

"I'm sorry to bring bad news, but Michael Carpenter was killed four years ago," I said.

"I know."

"I thought you didn't keep in touch?"

"I don't," he denied vehemently. "Not with anyone. But Michael's death was the kind of thing that left a ripple to those who could see."

"I'm sorry for your loss," I repeated. I didn't add that Dresden's failure to show up in the aftermath had been what finally convinced the last doubters that he was dead.

"Out of anyone Michael would have understood," Dresden said, as if he'd been able to hear my thoughts. "His kids have Charity, but if anything happened to me, Maggie would have no one."

And Dresden knew all too well what could happen to an orphan with no one to speak for them. Especially one that had talents out of the ordinary. There would be those who would be interested in the offspring of a wizard and a vampire, even more so if she showed any signs of inheriting either of her parents' abilities.

"I'll be a wizard for the rest of my life," Dresden declared. "But Maggie has only one chance at childhood."

The somber mood soured the last of the beer as I finished it off. I cast around for something else to say that would break the tension, my eyes returning to his faded sweatshirt.

"UVFD?" I raised my eyebrows in disbelief.

Dresden flushed with embarrassment, a tell he'd yet to outgrow. "Unionville Volunteer Fire Department."

I grinned.

"Shut up," he said, even though I'd said nothing. "My neighbor Tom convinced me to join. It's mostly quiet, but I like being able to help when they need it."

When I'd been searching for him, I'd had teams checking news reports for massive unexplained fires. It had never occurred to me that his talent might have a flipside, and I wondered just how many fires had been miraculously brought under control before anyone got hurt.

Dresden slid out from the booth and went up to the counter to pay the tab. Politeness perhaps, or lingering caution over being indebted to anyone.

As he returned, I rose to my feet.

"Please take this the right way when I say I hope I never see you again," he said.

I remembered the lively child that I'd seen that afternoon. I thought of the silence of a private hospital room in Wisconsin.

"Understood. But if there is ever anything you need...."

"Thanks. But we're good."

I watched as he disappeared through the door, then carefully turned away, suppressing the instinct to see what kind of car he was driving these days so I could have him followed.

Safety could only be found in ignorance and silence. The less I knew, the less I could betray.

Hendricks came over and read my mood with a glance. "I'll call the pilot and have him start the pre-flight," he said.

I nodded. Whatever questions Hendricks had, he kept them to himself.

I broke the silence only after the plane had taken off. "Nothing happened today," I said. "There's no one of interest here, nothing we want to keep tabs on. Our friends who are dead stay dead, understood?"

"There's nothing to worry about, boss. As far as I'm concerned we spent the day down in Missouri checking out sites for that new casino boat. Just like the log says."

Dresden had promised to destroy me if word of Maggie's existence leaked out, the first truly effective threat he'd ever made. If she was endangered because of my indiscretion, I would deserve whatever vengeance he could mete out.

I wondered if Maggie would make her first communion at Saint Anthony's, or if her father was already making plans to flee. He'd seemed to believe my assurance that I hadn't come looking for him, but that did not change the fact that I now knew where he could be found.

It was a day for thinking about choices, both the ones I'd made and the ones other men had made. I was amazed that Dresden had found the strength to walk away from everything that made him what he was. Not just to walk away, but to stay away, year after year, despite all temptations.

If our situations had been reversed, I'm not certain I could have done the same.

'Madonna, keep them safe,' I silently prayed in the language of my childhood. Then, firmly, I put them from my thoughts.

Turning to Hendricks I said, "So, remind me of what we saw today in Missouri."