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Morgan--the only employee who insisted on going by his last name--plugged the Ethernet cable into the back of the old laptop, then returned to the new laptop and selected the "Move All" option. The Moving Day status screen appeared, showing an endless procession of tiny figures carrying boxes out of a house and into the waiting moving truck. The status line under the moving truck indicated that it would take just over an hour to complete the move.

"The status bar says an hour, but it's usually wrong," he told me. "Make sure you keep an eye on it."

"Understood," I said. All this had already been covered in my training, but since it was a slow day at the service desk, I'd been told to shadow Morgan. So far this week the most exciting thing I'd done was install software on newly purchased PCs, but I was hoping for something a little more challenging before I succumbed to boredom.

"Next..." Morgan's voice trailed off. "Next I believe I'll take my morning break, if Ms. Murphy has no objections."

Karrin Murphy looked up from the schedule she was putting together. "Sure, no problem."

"Thank you," Morgan said. "Oh, and I should inform you that the Spawn of Satan has just entered the store."

"Damn it, Morgan," Karrin swore, but Morgan had already disappeared through the swinging doors that led out back.

The man who approached the service desk was tall enough for the NBA, but no pro would be seen wearing such disreputable sneakers. He clutched a laptop to his chest as if it were a precious child.

"Karrin," he said.

"Dresden," she replied. "Don't you think this is getting a little ridiculous?"

He placed the laptop on the counter, then held up both hands in a gesture meant to convey innocence. "Seriously, I have no idea why this stuff keeps happening to me."

"I see you more than I see my boyfriend Jared," Karrin replied.

"That's why you should go out with me instead."

"Not on your life."

"Anyway, when I bought the laptop I told you that I might need help, and you said I should sign up for Puffin Stuff. So you can fix it when things go wrong," Dresden said.

Karrin bared her teeth in a professional smile. "That's BoffinCare."

The founder of ComputerCottage was a British expatriate who thought that calling his service specialists boffins would lend a touch of class. Instead it just confused the customers and annoyed the employees who were continually forced to explain the meaning of the term.

"So, what is it this time?" she asked.

Dresden shuffled his feet. "Well, it's weird. Every time I boot up the computer, this guy pops-up."

"A guy," I repeated.

For the first time Dresden seemed to notice that Karrin wasn't alone. "You're new."

"I just started this week."

"Harry, John. John, this is Harry Dresden, our most frequent flyer," Karrin said.

She spun the laptop sideways then opened the case and pressed the power button.

The BIOS message flashed by as the computer started to boot.

"No password?" I asked.

"Why would I need one?"

The Windows logo screen briefly appeared, then a tinny chorus of trumpets sounded and a medieval knight appeared on the screen.

"Unworthy wretch, you have earned the wrath of the Winter Queen. You must face her champion or die." The knight raised his sword menacingly.

"See? And then I can't do anything," Harry said.

Karrin tapped the keyboard, trying several control sequences, but she was unable to break the cycle. At regular intervals the knight repeated his challenge.

"Now that's interesting," she said.

Interesting was not good. Interesting meant that she'd never seen this before.

"Okay, John, this one is yours," she said. "Harry's got our silver level protection plan so do whatever it takes."

I printed off the service form and then gave it to Harry to sign. "Please sign the bottom and initial the box that says you understand that if your computer is compromised we may need to wipe the hard drive and reinstall the operating system."

Harry hesitated, chewing his lip, and I mentally downgraded his age to mid-twenties, rather than the early thirties I'd first assumed.

"You do have your stuff backed up, right?"

"Um, mostly," he said. "You'll only do it if there's no other choice, right?"

"Of course."

I'd only been working at the service desk for a week, but I already knew that some employees would spend hours chasing down every bug, while others would just run the standard programs then declare that it was time for a diskwipe. Morgan belonged to the school that believed viruses could never truly be eradicated and that the only solution was a complete wipe and reinstall.

"Don't worry, I'll do my best," I promised. I hadn't been working here long enough to be jaded, and fixing the laptop without a wipe would be more interesting than trailing Morgan around for the rest of the day.

Three hours later, I'd begun to regret my promise to Harry. I'd managed to get past the screen with the knight, but the code was self-propagating and every time I thought I had it rooted out, it popped back up with the next reboot. I'd already gone through four of the five malware scrubbers we were authorized to use. After launching the fifth, I went to the breakroom for lunch.

Susan Rodriguez looked up from her salad. "Join me?"

"My pleasure." I sat down, and unwrapped the sandwich I'd brought from home. We were only given half an hour to eat, and while many of my coworkers were content to dine on the questionable cuisine offered by the grill truck in the parking lot, I was accustomed to better fare.

"How's it going?" she asked. Susan worked in the entertainment section selling televisions and home theater sets. She was also the store gossip, so I'd made it a point to befriend her, letting her ferret out those 'facts' that I wanted to make known.

"It's different from my old job, but it's a challenge, and I like that," I said. "I'm working on a laptop right now that's the poster child for careless user habits."

"Well at least you're not stuck in training or greeting customers," she said.

Susan and the rest of the ComputerCottage staff believed that I was the victim of downsizing, forced to take a job far below my previous pay grade because I couldn't find anything else. Which was true, in a way, though the downsizing had been the result of the Five Families abruptly becoming Four, necessitating my hasty relocation from New York to suburban Chicago. My handler at WitSec believed that if left to my own devices I'd be up to no good, and after declining my suggestions that my talents could best be used in security or real estate management, he'd found me this job at ComputerCottage.

He'd intended it as a petty humiliation, forcing me to wear a nametag and cater to the faceless hordes. But I didn't mind the work, and my compliance meant that WitSec wasn't keeping as close an eye on me as they should have. Which had given me plenty of time for my own career research.

Tony Vargassi ran the Chicago Organization but his son Marco was the one making the day to day decisions. Marco was both violent and impulsive, a poor choice for a leader, and he'd already made a number of blunders that had cost the Organization both profits and territory. Privately both of Vargassi's top lieutenants lamented the situation, but they hated each other more than they despised Marco. If either made a move to seize control, the other would launch a civil war.

An outsider, on the other hand, with no allegiance to either faction, might be able to take advantage of the situation. If one was inclined to return to that life.

In truth, I'd never have chosen to walk away. If Old Man Bonnano or his sons were still alive, I'd still be in New York, fighting for whatever was left. But the choice had been made for me, and I can't say that I was entirely displeased by the turn of events.

I flinched as Morgan's heavy hand dropped down on my shoulder. "Have you found anything yet?"

"Still running the clean-up," I said.

"Be sure you do a thorough inventory. All it takes is one unauthorized piece of hardware, one illegal software program, and we can terminate Dresden. Permanently." He gave a grim smile of satisfaction before wandering over to the refrigerator.

"He gives me the creeps," Susan whispered.

Indeed Morgan reminded me of Carl Bonnano ordering a hit, but I could hardly make that comparison aloud. Instead I merely cleared away the remains of my lunch with the excuse that I had to clock back in.

Karrin made a point to stop by when she came back from her afternoon break. "How's it going? Need any help?"

A few hours ago I could have used her advice but I'd finally figured out how to scrub the last trojan off the laptop. From the number of times that my colleagues had stopped by to check on me, I got the feeling that working on one of Harry Dresden's machines was a hazing ritual for new employees.

"I've banished the Black Knight," I reported. "Now I'm just running the final checks. It must have been months since this guy ran a virus check, the entire machine was riddled with crap."

"Actually it was Tuesday," Karrin said. "Didn't you check the service log?"

"Of course I did. It said the last service had been a standard first aid clean and disinfect." I pulled the printout out from underneath my notebook. "It was done by Waldo Butters on... No, this can't be right."

"On Tuesday," Karrin repeated. "You were filling in at the greeter's station so you missed the fun."

"That's not possible." Today was Friday. "How the hell did he do this much damage in just three days?"

She grinned. "If you ever figure it out, let me know. Ana Luccio thinks he's a spy from corporate, one of those mystery shopper types sent to test us. Morgan thinks he's from the competition, purposefully trying to waste our time to drive the boffins out of business."

"How many computers does Dresden have?"

"Just the one," she said. She patted my shoulder sympathetically, the first person to do so in decades. "Don't worry, before long you'll have its serial number and machine type memorized, just like the rest of us."

It was ten minutes before closing when Harry Dresden appeared at the service desk. His trench coat looked like it had been dragged in the dirt, while the hand that reached for his laptop had bloody knuckles, and I wondered just what exactly he did for a living. In his current condition he would blend in well in any homeless shelter in the city, not that most shelter residents owned thousand dollar laptops.

"Not so fast," I told him.

"Did you fix it? Are my files still there?"

"It's fixed. And your files are still there, but I had to reinstall your browser so you lost your history and cookies, though your bookmarks are still intact." I gave Dresden my sternest look, the one that had made hard men tremble in their shoes. "You had malware, spyware, Trojans and two competing botnets warring for processing time. And all of this apparently happened since Tuesday?"

"Um, sorry?" At least he had the grace to look sheepish.

I leaned across the counter. "You wouldn't have these problems if you stayed away from the porn."

He blushed, an honest to god scarlet flush as if he were a Victorian maiden. "That, that, that's not me! That's my roommate, Bob."

"Pity," I said.

"What?" he squeaked.

"Pity that the problem is 'Bob'," I said, making sure that he could hear the quotation marks. "If Bob were here I could give him pointers on safe sites where he could obtain his thrills without fear of harm, but as it is, you'll just have to warn him to be more careful."

"I'll kill him, is what I'll do," Harry muttered. So perhaps this Bob wasn't imaginary after all.

"Anyway, I've installed Monoc's Gard software. It will defend you against another attack like this but it's only free for a thirty day trial. After that you need to buy a license or you'll be downgraded to the shareware version that isn't as powerful."

Harry nodded. "Okay. I should have the money by then. Hopefully. You can do it for me?"

"You can buy the license online--" I began, only to see his eyes glaze over. "Yes. If you want to purchase a subscription, come back here and any of the boffins would be happy to assist."

"Thanks," he said.

As he left, I couldn't help wondering how long it would be before I saw him next.

 

The Gard software was working or the perhaps mythical Bob had stayed off the porn websites because we didn't hear from Harry Dresden for nearly a week. "A store record," Waldo muttered one day, while Morgan had taken to checking the online obituaries searching for Harry's name.

I should have known it would be too good to last.

When the phone rang, Waldo answered it. "Johnny, it's for you," he said.

I picked it up gingerly. My WitSec handler was the only one who had the store number.

"John? This is Harry, Harry Dresden. You fixed my computer?"

I took a deep breath. "Yes, Mr. Dresden. I remember."

Customers weren't allowed to ask for a particular boffin, but I could hardly blame Waldo for passing the call over to me. If I wasn’t the lowest employee on the totem pole, I would have passed the call off as well.

"Well the Gard system is malfunctioning. It won't let me send files to my printer, says it's evil."

Evil. That would be a new error message, then again this was the man who'd had his laptop infected by a virus masquerading as a rogue knight. Anything was possible.

"Can you tell me the exact error message?"

"Sure," he said. He put me on speaker phone and I heard the clicking of keys in the background. "Unauthorized request. Printer Epson is outside secure communication zone."

"Okay. Is Hendricks running? Gard doesn't talk directly to peripherals, it communicates through Hendricks."

"How the hell would I know?"

I talked Harry through the process of launching Task Manager. Once he confirmed that Hendricks wasn't running, I told him how to launch it. Moments later I heard the distinctive whine of a printer starting up.

"Great, it's working now."

"Okay, I don't know how you disabled Hendricks but make sure it is running in the future. Just look for the symbols at the bottom right of your computer screen-- Hendricks is the red shield, and Gard is the yellow thing that looks like a sword. If you don't see both of them, then there's a problem."

"Sword. Shield. Got it."

I heard something in the background that sounded suspiciously like a crash and breaking glass. "Shit! Gotta go," Dresden said, and hung up.

I stared at the phone for a moment. Waldo sidled over. "You get used to him," he said. "He grows on you. Like flesh-eating bacteria."

"He seemed a tad... rushed." I said. I was trying very hard to convince myself that I had not overheard a home invasion in progress, but my instincts were telling me otherwise.

"If he's on a case, that's probably why we haven't seen him," Waldo said.

"Case?" Dresden was too scruffy to be an attorney, but he could very well be an undercover police officer, in which case the fewer dealings I had with him the better.

"He's a private investigator. Specializes in kids--you know, missing kids, runaways, custody snatchings, that kind of stuff."

And when he'd been in the store last time, he looked like he'd been fresh from a fight.

I looked up Harry Dresden's info in the computer system then dialed his number. There was no answer.

I told myself I wasn't worried. Not over a customer. Not even one who had been the only interesting thing that had happened to me since I was unwilling relocated to Schaumburg Illinois.

"I'm taking a break," I told Waldo. It was twenty minutes since my last break, but apparently the stress of talking to Harry Dresden was considered enough excuse since Waldo didn't even blink.

I couldn't draw attention to myself by calling in a tip from the store. Nor from the cell phone that I carried, the one that WitSec had arranged and had undoubtedly cloned so they could monitor me. But one of the advantages of working at the ComputerCottage was access to burner cell phones, including ones that had been returned as defective but somehow never been sent back to the supplier for credit.

As I stepped outside past the loading dock, I dialed 911. "This is John Smith," I told the dispatcher. "Some crazy whacked-out nutjob just broke into my neighbor's place and is trashing it."

I rattled off Dresden's address. As the dispatcher urged me to stay on the line to provide details, I swore, then said "Hey, someone's screaming. I'm gonna check it out."

I dropped the cell phone on the ground and then stomped on it, shattering the cheap plastic case. Then I picked it up, pulled out the SIM card, and snapped it in half.

There. That would give the Chicago PD something to think about. If nothing was up, well, then, they'd chalk it up to a crank call. But if something were happening, I'd done what I could.

I tried to convince myself that it was enough.

 

The next time I saw Harry Dresden wasn't in the flesh. Instead I spotted him on the cover of the Chicago Tribune, under a headline that shouted BABY MARY FOUND! The photo showed a beaming mother holding her baby, her husband's arms around them both. Standing in the background, his head half-turned as if he was talking to someone else, was Harry Dresden.

The trench coat was missing and his left arm was in a cast. According to the article, Mary Recszka had been stolen from the hospital nursery just hours after her birth. After two weeks of frantic searching, a tip had led police to an upscale neighborhood where the baby was found in the home of the wife of a suspected drug lord. The woman had insisted that the child was hers and was currently in the hospital undergoing psychiatric evaluation.

Harry was not mentioned in the article, but it was clear that the anonymous tip had been anything but anonymous. Though I wondered who had paid his bill on this one, since the Recszkas were described as struggling immigrants who lived in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Chicago.

I wanted to call to check on him. To see if the broken arm was from the altercation that I'd overheard, and whether or not the police had gotten there in time. But such thoughts were ridiculous-- I couldn't explain my interest without coming across as a stalker. And besides, my stay in Illinois was temporary. I had no room in this life for friends.

 

My day off was spent at the US Attorney's office, prepping for my possible testimony in the Scalzi trial. It was a joke. We both knew that Scalzi would strike a plea deal long before a jury could be summoned, but my WitSec status was dependent upon cooperating with such idiocies.

It also meant I missed Harry's visit to the store. I peeked at the service log and saw that Karrin had upgraded his Gard subscription for a full year, and cleaned out his keyboard which was described as "infested by crumb critters."

I decided not to ask.

 

It never failed. The phone at the service desk started ringing at 8:59 PM, one minute before closing.

"The store is still open," Morgan pointed out. He was a stickler for the rules, but then again he wasn't the one who'd have to stay on late if this was a service call.

I picked it up. "Good evening, you've reached BoffinCare home of Chicago's best computer service team, this is John speaking, how may I help you?"

"Oh good, it's you."

Such was the narrowness of my new social circle that I recognized Dresden's voice immediately.

"Mr. Dresden, how can I help you?" I could see my plans for tonight evaporating.

"My computer's infected again," he said.

"Bring it by the store tomorrow--"

"No, you don't understand. I need it. I need the stuff on it, tonight."

'The store is now closed' announcement came over the public address system, and Morgan ceremoniously unclipped his name badge. I watched with envy as he shut down his workstation.

"Well you can describe it to me and I'll see if I can help," I said. "But if I can't fix it over the phone, it will have to wait until you can bring it to the store tomorrow."

I pinched the bridge of my nose as I remembered that this was the man who hadn't known how to launch Task Manager. Just talking him through the basic checks was going to take hours.

"Well, it keeps asking for me to give it a credit card. Everything I try, the window pops up again and says that I can't continue until I pay for their Universal Virus protection."

Or maybe it wouldn't take hours after all.. "You've got the Lash virus," I explained. "There's nothing you can do about it."

"What? How did that happen?"

Because you're a moron, I thought, but did not say aloud. Day two of our training had been devoted to explaining why we were not allowed to say or imply that our customers were brain-damaged simpletons who couldn't be trusted with anything more complex than a spoon.

I summoned up what scraps of patience I had left after a twelve-hour shift. "At some point a box popped up saying that your computer was infected, and if you clicked "OK" it would clean the infection for you and protect you from further threats. And you clicked "OK" didn't you?"

"Well, yes, that's what you're supposed to do, right?"

"Wrong. That was malware. By clicking OK you let it install the software on your PC, bypassing Gard's protections. The Lash virus attack has been all over the news-- it's an extortion scam run out of Russia. It's a particularly nasty rootkit virus--it took Monoc two days to upgrade their software to detect it but by then it was probably too late for you. What's worse, untold thousands of people were foolish enough to think it was legit software and supplied their credit card numbers, which were promptly maxed out by the Russian mob."

From a criminal perspective it was an ingenious scheme, though one easier to implement in a country without strict controls on banking and internet activity. From the perspective of someone who had spent untold hours explaining to customers that once their systems were infected it was too late to install antivirus software, the scheme lost its appeal.

There was a long silence at the other end of the phone. "I just gave it my credit card number, but nothing happened," he said.

"You idiot! Weren't you listening?"

"Look, I need this stuff." Harry insisted. "You don't understand how important this is."

"I thought you backed up your files."

"Yeah, normally. But I didn't have time to print everything off."

"Print?" Surely I had misheard.

"Yeah, I print off anything I think I'll need. But there were too many files and I'm in the middle of a case, so anyway, the stuff is still stuck on there."

I took a deep breath. Then another. It didn't help. "It amazes me how bad you are at this. Were you born in a cave?"

"No, if you must know, we're Amish. Well not me, not anymore. But my grandfather was, and he raised me."

I blinked wondering why every conversation with Harry turned surreal. I mean Amish, now really? What were the odds?

"Look, I'm sorry," I said. "But there's nothing I can do. Once the Lash virus is on there, we have to scrub everything. Bring it by tomorrow and I'll do it first thing."

I already had two jobs scheduled for the morning, but I could fit Harry's laptop in there.

The overhead lights began to click off. The last customer must have left the store and Ana Luccio was closing up.

"Look, isn't there something you can do? Anything? I'll pay you... well, no I can't pay you now but I'd pay you if I could. There's this kid, and well, it's important."

It might have been the desperation in his voice. Or the fact that my life in Illinois was far too tame and predictable. I opened my mouth to explain that boffins never made housecalls and instead said. "Okay, it will take me about thirty minutes to get to your place. Don't do anything till I get there. Don't touch any keys, don't even breathe on the laptop, understood?"

"Yes. Thank you."

I hung up without bothering to ask for directions.

 

Harry lived in a row house in a working class neighborhood near the Cubs stadium. Three of the door buzzers were unlabeled, but the fourth had a handwritten label that said "Wizard Investigations." I leaned on it. Hard.

A moment later the front door swung open. "John? Good. I haven't touched a thing."

I stepped inside. It was a shotgun style house, one room leading to another. The front room was probably intended as a living room, but the small couch and television were overwhelmed by a massive dining room table covered with old-fashioned three-ring binders and stacks of printouts. The much abused laptop was at one end.

Harry looked like he hadn't slept or showered for at least three days. His eyes were fever-bright, while the once white cast was a dingy shade of gray with a curious reddish splotch that I sincerely hoped was ketchup.

"You want a coffee? Beer? I'm pretty sure I have beer," he said. "Maybe."

"Coffee's fine. Black."

As Harry returned, handing me a mug that had only a small chip in it, a pulse-pounding beat drifted up from beneath our feet. "That's Bob," Harry said. "He sublets the basement from me."

"And he's stopped putting porn on your computer?"

"He said he'd stop hacking my wi-fi," Harry said. "I think he's stealing it from the neighbors next door instead, since they complained about his bike."

I pulled a silver case out of my laptop bag. In it was a thumb drive shaped like a cross, given to me by a friend with a sense of humor.

"Look this may not work," I said. I didn't want to get his hopes up. "Officially there's nothing in the BoffinCare kit of authorized tools that can clean up Lash without destroying all the files on the computer."

"Unofficially?" he asked.

"There's this group of White Hats, they call themselves the Knights. They wrote this hack called Defender, and some people have had luck with it."

I hadn't had a chance to test it out myself. Using unauthorized software at ComputerCottage was the fast path to the unemployment line, and I was far too savvy to have had any of my own systems infected. Still I'd downloaded Defender when it was quietly made available. It never hurt to be prepared.

I powered the laptop down, then plugged the thumb drive in. "Wish me luck," then I plugged it in. Then I hit the power button, interrupting the startup to select Boot From Another Device. The light on the thumb drive glowed green. When the DOS window appeared, I typed a seemingly innocuous request that launched the Defender software. I held my breath but the command was accepted. Seconds later glowing starbursts filled the screen and I heard the cooling fan powering up as the Defender software went on the attack.

"And now we wait."

"That's it?" Harry demanded.

"That's it. It will probably take a couple of hours. I'd recommend taking a nap, or turning on the game. The Cubs are out in LA so it's a late one."

Harry eyed me suspiciously, then turned on the television, but every few minutes his gaze kept wandering back to the laptop.

"So, tell me about the case," I prompted him.

"I can't. It's confidential," he said.

I stared at him. "Even if Defender shuts down Lash, you're going to have to tell me what you're looking for so I can find your files."

Harry drained his coffee then put the empty mug on the floor where he'd be certain to trip over it. "Billy's fifteen. Old enough to know better, young enough to attract a certain type. Crappy home life. Anyway, he answered one of those internet ads and disappeared."

"And you found this out?" He couldn't possibly have the skills to track a teenager's web activity.

"The police figured this stuff out and they traced him to the general area where he disappeared. I've been doing the rest, on foot and word of mouth. I got a lead today which reminded me of something I'd run across a couple years ago. But the hell of it is that those files were destroyed when my office got trashed last month, and I hadn't gotten around to printing them off again."

"Isn't this your office? Wizard Investigations?"

"It is now. I had a place downtown, but it's still being repaired and the landlord won't give me the keys back until I come up with another security deposit. The goons came here when they didn't find me in my office, but luckily the police arrived before they did too much damage."

The cast on his arm looked like plenty of damage to me. He'd apparently forgotten that'd he'd been talking to me when the break-in occurred. Unless, of course, that was a different break-in altogether. I was beginning to believe that anything was possible when it came to Harry Dresden.

I finished the crappy coffee. It was strong enough to strip paint and undoubtedly the only thing keeping Harry vertical. If he'd been one of my crew I would have sent him home. Or at least ordered him to get some rest-- strung out he was no good to anyone.

But he wouldn't listen to me. I wasn't his friend. I wasn't Johnny Marcone, mob enforcer. I was John Benedict, computer geek. I could barely convince him to run a virus check.

The end when it came was anticlimactic. A soft chime sounded, and the SafeMode screen appeared. Harry began to climb to his feet but I ruthlessly shoved him back down.

"Sit. Don't go anywhere near it. Just tell me where the files are that you need."

Defender could only contain Lash, it couldn't erase it. What we had won was a window to get as much data as we could off his system before we had to nuke it.

I burned his data directories to a separate USB drive, then sent the files he wanted over to the printer. Later I'd have to make time to scrub the data files to make sure none of them were infected.

Harry loomed over the printer like an impatient vulture, snatching each page as it came off.

"No, no, no, not you, not you," he muttered to himself as he threw the papers away. It was painful to watch.

Then, suddenly, he yelled out, "Yes! Justin DuMorne you scum-sucking son of a bitch."

He turned to me, his face lit with excitement. "I knew the description sounded familiar. Justin DuMorne-- the police nearly had him ten years ago, but the girl's family convinced her not to testify."

"Isn't it unusual to switch from girls to boys?"

"Not for this guy. Rumor has it that he's not into sex, just torture, but they've never made anything stick."

"So why wasn't he questioned before?"

Harry blinked at me. "Do you have any idea how many registered sex offenders there are in the Greater Chicago area? Police can't even begin to question them all, and guys like DuMorne who've never been convicted of anything, they're not on anyone's radar."

"But he's on yours."

"Along with others," Harry said. He folded up the printout and stuck it in his pocket.

"Thanks. I owe you, and I'll pay you back when I can," he said. He picked up a set of keys from the table and began heading toward the door.

I stepped in front of him. "And where do you think you're going?"

"DuMorne's place," he said, as if it should be obvious.

"Why not call the police and let them handle it?"

"And tell them what? That a junkie saw Billy with a guy that may or may not resemble Justin DuMorne, whom I think is a scumbag but the police will know as a retired state senator with the ear of the governor?"

I could see his point. "Okay, we'll do it ourselves," I said.

"You're not coming with me."

"I'm not letting you go alone. Be practical, you've only got one arm. You're hardly an avenging army."

Harry sighed. "Okay. You can come with me. But don't blame me if it gets ugly."

 

Just before dawn, the fire department responded to an automatic alarm at the DuMorne estate on the Gold Coast. The guest cottage was fully engulfed by the time they arrived, and it wasn't until they began searching the rubble that Justin DuMorne's body was found. DuMorne's death was eventually ruled accidental. No public mention was ever made of the iron shackles and instruments of torture found within the ruined structure.

That same night, Billy Borden was checked into Hope Hospital. An anonymous donation covered the cost of the plastic surgeon who ensured that his physical scars at least would be minimal. The press, which had barely noticed his disappearance, took no notice of his return.

 

Two weeks later I unclipped my badge for the final time.

"We're going to miss you," Karrin said, enfolding me in a hug. I returned it cautiously.

"I must take this final opportunity to warn you of the dangers of the path you have chosen," Morgan said. "There is still time to reconsider."

"Thanks, but customer service isn't what I want to do with the rest of my life," I said.

"We're sad to be losing you," Waldo said. "But we're thrilled to be losing Harry Dresden, who now has his very own full-time boffin."

The tech staff cheered.

"You're the best," I said. "And there's still three months left on his contract, so I'll be sure that he uses it."

"Bastard," someone muttered.

Two things had become clear on that night. First, that Harry Dresden could not be left unsupervised. Everyone I'd spoken to had agreed that he had the best instincts in the business. His mentor Nick Christian had described Harry's talents for finding kids that no one else could as almost supernatural, and nicknamed him the Wizard. But Harry's talents were matched by an absence of any sense of self-preservation and an inability to formulate any plan more complex than kicking down the front door and seeing what happened next.

All that was about to change. I'd spent the last two weeks reconfiguring his new laptop, upgrading the security of his home and office networks, arranging for secure offsite backups, and learning everything I could about investigating missing kids. It would be my job to do the research, to check cell phones, computers and internet search histories, all of those things that baffled Harry

And, of course, to provide muscle when the occasion warranted. Taking out Justin DuMorne had felt good. I'd felt alive, for the first time since leaving New York. I knew such confrontations didn't happen every day, but even the possibility was enough to sharpen my wits, and set my blood racing. It wasn't the violence that I'd missed from my old life, it was the satisfaction of outwitting an opponent, of knowing that the decisions I made might very well mean the difference between life or death.

I'd thought my only choices were a return to my criminal roots, or embracing the monotonous routine of the so-called honest citizen. But that night I'd realized that I had a third choice.

My proposed career change from computer geek to private investigator's assistant had enraged WitSec, but then Scalzi had cut a deal and suddenly Johnny Marcone was relegated to the minor leagues while Scalzi took center stage. I didn't mind. I hadn't intended to play the WitSec game forever. And as it was, the paper trail that they'd created for me was far better than anything I could have gotten on my own. Good enough for a gun license or a private investigator's shield, once I'd served my nominal apprenticeship.

My cell phone rang-- a new phone, with a number unknown to WitSec.

"John, it's Harry. How quick can you get to the office? We've got a case."

"I'm on my way," I said.