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For a Price

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I suppressed the urge to growl when Marcone entered my office with Cujo following close behind.

"What do you want?" I asked with the same tone I used to tell people to fuck off and die. It didn't deter Marcone. He gave me an infuriatingly pleased smile instead, as if my bad manners existed solely for his personal entertainment.

He pulled out the seat in front of my desk and sat down without asking for permission. "Good morning, Harry. How are you?"

"That's Ms. Dresden to you, scumbag. What do you want?" My magic prickled beneath my skin, fueled by my anger. He had the power to enrage me as few people did.

"I want to contract your services," Marcone said in a flat tone.

"Didn't we have this conversation before?" I pretended to think about it. I waited a second or two for dramatic pause, before adding, "Yeah, I distinctly remember telling you that I won't work for you. Ever."

"Ms. Dresden," he said patiently.

The formal use of my name caught my attention. Marcone almost never bothered with it. I called him a criminal scumbag; he called me Harry; Hendricks hovered disapprovingly in the background. Don't ask. I didn't get it myself half the time, but it was how we worked.

After the business with the Shroud was over, the two of us had managed to broker some kind of tacit truce. I didn't like Marcone, but I had enough enemies already as it was. There was no point in adding the Outfit to the list. We weren't best friends or anything, but I knew I could go to him for matters concerning Chicago—even though I seldom did—and he knew he could come to me for the same.

Him calling me Ms. Dresden meant trouble, big trouble, the kind that I wouldn't—couldn't—ignore, even to spite him: children, women, our city. With my life sucking as much as it did lately, probably all three combined.

"Fine," I grumbled. "What do you need from me?"

"Some of the women under my protection have gone missing during the last few days," he said, looking me in the eyes.

It still fucking irked me that he could do that. It was a reminder that he had tricked me before and would again, if I didn't keep up. "Fine, some of your hookers wised up and decided to give you the middle finger, more power to them. I don't see how that's my problem. Don't you have pimps to take care of that for you?"

His lips tightened. Cujo took a threatening step closer and that, more than anything, made me relax.

I gave both of them the smarmiest smile I could muster. "Hit a nerve there?"

"Ms. Gard was convinced that something supernatural was behind the disappearances," Marcone continued, ignoring my remark. "She went to investigate and hasn't reported back since."

I straightened up, my little power games with Marcone forgotten. Gard and I weren't friends but I kind of liked her, despite her questionable taste in employers. "When was she supposed to report back?"

"Twelve hours ago," Marcone said.

"Hell's bells!" I cursed. Gard was powerful. Anyone with enough juice to keep her subdued for so long was not to be taken lightly.

"I take it you're interested in the job then?" Marcone gave me a smug smile that didn't reach his eyes.

"Fuck off, Marcone," I said. Sometimes I just couldn't help myself. "You know my standard fees: seventy-five dollars an hour plus travel expenses. Oh, and you'll pay for all collateral property damage, too," I added, feeling mean. That would teach him to make stupid remarks about his insurance premiums next time.

"Of course, Harry," he said, looking far too pleased with himself.

"Don't call me Harry," I snapped. It was the principle of the thing.

"Whatever you say, Harry." His smile broadened.

My fingers ached with the desire to send a teeny-weeny burst of fire in his direction. Nothing too bad, just enough to remind him that I was a wizard, and mafia kingpin or not, he should fucking show me the necessary respect. Then again, I was a grown-up wizard and such childish displays of temper were beneath me.

Mostly.

"All right, tell me everything you know," I said, focusing back on the problem at hand.

"That would take far too long, and to be honest, Harry, I don't trust you that much. You wouldn't be able to handle everything I know." His lips quirked.

I rolled my eyes. Sometimes dealing with Marcone wasn't any better than dealing with a faery. "Very funny," I groused. "Everything you remember about the disappearances would be useful right about now."

"Here's a file with the information Ms. Gard gathered before she, too, went missing," he said. On cue, Cujo stepped closer and handed me a thick manila envelope.

I peeked inside. It was filled with handwritten notes and personnel files on the missing girls. I leafed through one, appalled at the depth of information inside.

"You're aware that it's extremely creepy that you know the names and addresses of each of these girls' boyfriends, right? Aren't there laws against this?"

Marcone shrugged. "There are laws against many things; it’s never stopped me before."

Mafia kingpin, right. It wasn't as if I didn't know that, and yet it was remarkably sobering to hold proof of it in my hands. "For the record, turning down your job offer was the best thing I've ever done in my life," I told him.

Marcone smiled. "Susan Rodriguez," he said, watching me.

"What?" I asked, frowning at the non sequitur.

"The name of your last ex," Marcone said. "I know her current address, too. You don't really think that I limit my investigations to just employees, do you?"

My mouth fell open for a moment. Seriously, the gall of … . Then my mind caught up with what he had just said. It was such a golden opportunity to mess with Marcone. I grinned at him. "Just Susan? Johnny, baby, you need better sources. What you don't know about me could fill a library."

He frowned. I could practically see the wheels turning inside his head as he tried to update his mental file on Harriet Dresden, wizard and eternal pain in his ass. My reaction had surprised him. He'd probably been expecting me to go off the deep end at his little revelation.

I made a mental note to screw with Marcone's head more often. Just thinking about it put me in a good mood.

In case I haven't mentioned this before, fire is my element. A certain penchant for playing with it comes with the territory. I just can't help it, really.

Right, missing girls. Missing Gard. Concentrate on the job at hand, Harry girl, I told myself.

"This conversation has gone long enough," I said to Marcone. "The door is over there. I'm pretty sure that you have a bunch of things to do—people to kill, girls to stalk, drugs to sell. Time's a-wasting. I'll contact you if I need something. Now, chop-chop, I have a case to investigate."

Marcone stood up and Cujo moved aside, falling into place behind him.

"Remember that for the duration you're working for me, Ms. Dresden," Marcone said. "Do keep me informed."

"Sure thing, darling," I said absently, already busy spreading the files over my worktable, trying to find something in common among the missing girls, other than the obvious, of course.

I sensed the moment Marcone left the office, a slight telltale easing of the wards protecting it. I wasn't completely alone yet, though. I looked up, curious as to why Cujo was lingering behind. It wasn't like him.

"Ms. Dresden, a word of advice," Hendricks said, when he caught me looking. "Don't make the boss more curious about you than he already is. It's not healthy." He nodded at me and stepped outside, closing the door.

The hell? As veiled threats went, it wasn't one of the best I had received. Seriously, if Cujo thought that being all menacing would make me stop pissing off his mafia overlord, he needed to borrow Marcone's secret file on me and read it. My days of trying to be an obedient little girl ended when I set Justin on fire. But that was neither here nor there.

I had missing girls to find. The fact that Gard would owe me for this wasn't too bad, either. And if I was truthful with myself, I kind of liked not having to worry about next month's rent. Marcone was a scumbag, but he paid on time.


I had seven names, seven personnel files, countless statements by friends and fellow hookers, and in the end just a big lot of nothing. Zero. Nada. The girls were all nice, well-behaved sex-workers—I had it on good authority that that was the politically correct term, thank you very much. The point was that after seven hours running around Chicago and visiting just as many brothels I still didn't know jack shit.

Sandra Miller's place was my last stop. I parked my car outside and climbed the stairs to her apartment. The door was locked, but that was easily solved. I checked that no one was watching and forced it open with a burst of magic. The flat was small but well kept—certainly tidier than mine. Her book collection surprised me. History, philosophy, and whatnot; not the kind of reading material I would have expected, given her profession. It showed how little I knew.

I picked some long, red hairs from the comb in her bathroom and stored them carefully. I had tried simpler location spells earlier, but they'd been a waste of time. Whoever had the girls knew how to block basic tracking charms. I needed to bring out the big weapons. I rummaged through Miller's laundry basket for some underwear. Don't look so surprised; being a wizard isn't all sunshine and roses. Some spells require rather questionable components. The tracking charm I wanted to attempt was a fine example. It would have worked better with blood, but failing that, used underwear would do. As personal items went, it didn't get any more personal.

I drove home as fast as my car would allow, my mind busy with the finer aspects of the spell I wanted to create. It was the part of my job I loved the most. I practically ran to my lab, giddy with excitement.

"Bob, wake up! We've got work," I called cheerfully, knocking on Bob's forehead.

"Quit that," he snapped. Orange lights flickered in the empty sockets of his skull. "What is it now?"

I brought Bob up to speed on my plan to track the missing girls.

He whistled in something like admiration. "Harry, my dear girl, you've learned from me. That's quite the clever spell." I preened a bit at the compliment. "How'd you get the blood?" Bob asked.

"I didn't," I confessed, knowing that it was a flaw in my plan. "I just hope these will work as a substitute." I showed him the items I'd collected from the girls' houses.

Bob's skull rattled on the table. "Harry, you brought me dirty thongs!" He was practically drooling, or would have been, had a skull been able to.

"I didn't bring you anything." I cut his train of thought before he got carried away. "They're for the spell."

"A spell you want me to help you with," he reminded me. "Harry, I couldn't love you more than I do this instant, unless ... . Are you going to use your dirty underwear to anchor the spell?"

"Of course not!" I squeaked. "Just plain old blood."

"Boring," Bob said. "Wait, you can't use the thongs for the spell!"

"Why not?" I'd checked and re-checked. It might not be as good as blood but it should work.

"You'd destroy them," Bob whined.

I rolled my eyes. "You'll survive it."

"At least let me take a good whiff first," he begged, trying to move closer.

I pushed his skull back unceremoniously. "You're such a disgusting pig, Bob."

"You want my help or not?" he asked. Skulls shouldn't have an expression, but he looked almost beseeching.

I narrowed my eyes at him and then sighed in resignation. "I'm going to warm dinner. I'll be back in twenty minutes, and all seven pieces better be there when I come back."

"Sure thing, Boss," he said, remaining remarkably still. It didn't fool me any.

"I don't want to know," I told Bob the moment I came back, forestalling his constant desire to over-share.

"You're such a prude," he complained, but dropped it. To his credit, he did help with the enchantment, pointing out weaknesses in my casting and behaving like you'd think a true Spirit of Intellect ought to.

I finished tracing the last sigils and stepped inside the circle. I nicked my wrist with a small knife, making sure that the blood fell on the clothes and hairs placed over the central sigil. The red drops burned through the lingerie like acid. Black puffs of smoke rose in the air, engulfing me. I breathed it in. The shallow cut on my wrist burned. My vision clouded, and I blinked, trying to clear the fumes from my teary eyes.

When I could see again I wasn't in my apartment, but in an old warehouse. Nine metal cages hung from the ceiling; only one was empty. I recognized some of the women from the pictures … and Gard, too, of course. The only difference was that while the others were cowering inside their cages, Gard was rattling at the bars of hers, trying to break free.

A sudden wave of dizziness shook me, and I lost my balance. When I opened my eyes again I was back in my lab. Someone was calling my name; it took me a moment to realize it was Bob.

"Boss, come on, wake up. You're scaring me." He sounded desperate.

"I'm fine," I tried to say, but my mouth wouldn't obey. I closed my eyes again, waiting for the nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach to settle. An invisible cord tugged at my heart, like the pull of a leash. A quiet beat that called, "North, north, north," echoing the pain of my throbbing wrist.

"Bob, I won't be able to rescue anyone like this," I finally admitted.

"The spell will lift after you find the place, or at sunrise. Whichever comes first," Bob reminded me.

Right, I only had until sunrise to find that warehouse.

North. North. North.

I couldn't drive like this. Fuck, until the spell ended, I'd barely be able to move. So much for my original plan.

I had one option left; one I didn't like.

I pulled myself up by sheer will and staggered to the living room. Another wave of nausea hit me. I swallowed the urge to throw up and let myself fall on the couch. I picked up the phone and dialed Marcone's number.

"Harry," Marcone's voice came after the third ring. "Did you find something?"

"Need a car," I croaked. "My place. Now. A driver you trust." I almost asked for Hendricks. I hated the idea of anyone seeing me this vulnerable. At least Cujo would keep his mouth shut after he reported to Marcone.

"Done," Marcone said. "Is someone threatening you?" he asked in a low voice. Was he worried?

There was a witty comeback there, waiting for me to hurl it at him, but I was too dizzy to engage in our usual banter. "I'm peachy. Just get me that car."

I hung up and waited for Marcone's minion to arrive.


The pounding on my door forced me to open my eyes. I had been fighting the call of the spell for what felt like hours. I dragged myself out of the couch and tottered to the door. The cold evening breeze brushed against my heated skin. Images of metal cages swinging in the air assaulted me once more, and I faltered.

"Watch out," Marcone called, catching me before I could fall. He sounded honest-to-goodness worried, which was further proof that the stupid spell was screwing with my senses.

I blinked at him in confusion. "What're you doing here?" I mumbled, disentangling myself from him with difficulty.

"You asked for a car."

"The Outfit must be doing bad, if yours is the only car they have." Sarcasm, thy name was Harriet Blackstone Copperfield Dresden.

"Ms. Gard is missing," he said in a clipped tone.

Ah. Of course.

This wasn't Marcone trying to be annoying and controlling in that stalker-ish way of his, but pissed-off Marcone wanting to make an example of whoever had dared touch his property. I suppressed the urge to chuckle. Stars and stones, when Gard found out she'd probably kill Marcone herself.

"Kudos for wanting to play knight in shining armor," I said. "However, they're using magic." That made it my problem, and he knew it.

"You asked for a driver," he reminded me.

I narrowed my eyes at him. I hated it when he had a point. I should've called Michael, but he probably would have had a fit about the state I was in.

"Fine," I snarled. Gracious in defeat I wasn't. "We're heading north." The word triggered the spell, and its strength spiked. I was back at the warehouse, where a man dressed with black robes stood in the middle of a summoning circle, chanting.

A sharp flash of pain against my face brought me back. Marcone was crouching in front of me, looking almost … concerned? It couldn't be.

Hendricks hovered behind him, a sour expression on his face. Somehow they'd managed to carry me from the door to my living room. Stars and stones, I didn't even remember Hendricks leaving the car. That wasn't a good sign.

"What the hell was that?" Marcone smoothed the hair out my face. His hand lingered on my forehead, as if checking for a fever.

"Spell. Ms. Gard and the other women. Warehouse. North," I told him, still shaken by the vision.

Hendricks's face closed off. He looked like a loaded machine gun with the safety off. "Can you be more specific than that, Ms. Dresden?" he asked.

"Just get me in the car and drive," I told them. "The spell will guide me." We were wasting time.

"You can't fight like this," Marcone pointed out.

Okay—since when did he care?

"Mr. Obvious, the spell will lift when we find the place." In theory anyway. He didn't need to know that, though. "Car. Now." I tried to stand up, but another wave of nausea hit me, and I lost my balance. Marcone caught me.

Again.

Seriously, could the evening get any more embarrassing?

"Mr. Hendricks," Marcone said. "Help Ms. Dresden to the car."

Before I could so much as protest, Cujo had already lifted me up and was carrying me. I barely had time to grab my blasting rod. I probably looked like one of those silly heroines on the cover of Bob's trashiest novels. You know the ones? With manly-men wearing half-opened shirts and holding fainting girls on their arms? My only consolation was that I was wearing cargo pants, a long-sleeved shirt and so many layers of baggy clothes that I didn't even look like a girl.

It still pissed me off. "Put me down," I snapped. "I can walk by myself."

Cujo didn't so much as slow down. "Empirical evidence disproves your postulated theory, Ms. Dresden."

I gaped at him at a loss for words. By the time I had a reply ready Cujo had already reached the Caddy. At least he had the decency to shove me unceremoniously in the back seat. Had he been gallant about it, I'd probably have singed his eyebrows.

Marcone slipped into the car and handed me my duster. I cradled it protectively. I couldn't believe that I'd forgotten it. In my defense, it wasn't every day that some caveman-cum-bodyguard carried me around like a blushing bride. I was glad that my wards would keep the place safe in my absence, because I didn’t think I could walk back there to lock the door.

That clinched it. No more spell experimentation for yours truly.

I closed my eyes and focused on the throbbing pain of my bleeding wrist. "West," I called, when the pull changed. Cujo followed my directions quietly. For once in his life even Marcone stayed silent, watching me out of worried green eyes. For the most part, I ignored both of them, too busy making sense out of the images flooding my mind.

"Stop!" I cried when the effects of the spell suddenly vanished. I enjoyed the return to normalcy for a moment before stepping outside. The cold, humid air of the harbor cleared the last traces of dizziness still clinging to me. I clutched my blasting rod, enjoying the rush of adrenaline.

I recognized the distinct shape of the small barred windows I'd seen in my visions. "That's the warehouse," I said, pointing to a dark flat building in front of us.

"Do you know how many people are inside?" Hendricks asked.

"Just one warlock that I could see, and the girls." I turned my Sight on and gasped. The wards protecting the place were powerful. No wonder the Wardens didn't know what was going on in there. "How the fuck is he … ? Ley lines. He is good," I admitted with reluctance.

"Can you take him?" Marcone asked.

I shrugged, slipping into my duster. The extra layer of protection boosted my confidence. "One way to find out," I said, heading for the door.

Marcone yanked me back. "What's your plan?"

You'd think that he'd never worked with me before. "Storm the place? Rescue the girls? Capture the bad guy?" It was as good a plan as any.

"You said he was powerful." Marcone hadn't let go of my wrist. I gave his hand a pointed look until he reluctantly eased his hold.

"That never stopped me before," I reminded him.

"Ms. Gard's life is at stake," Cujo said. At this rate he was going to use up his monthly allotment of words in just one evening.

"I'm perfectly aware of that." I turned to Marcone. "I don't question how you go about running the Outfit. Don't question how I do my job as a wizard. You're paying me to find your girls and rescue them. That's what I'm doing. Now shut up."

"We're going with you." It was a statement, not a question.

He tried my patience, Marcone did. "I can't baby-sit you if I'm going to be fighting this guy."

He stepped into my personal space. Something sharp dug against my chest, inches below the soft curve of my left breast. I didn't dare look away from his eyes, but I knew that if I did, I'd find a dagger poised to pierce my heart at the slightest provocation. "I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, Harry. Even against warlocks. You'd better remember that."

The knife shouldn't have been able to penetrate my shields, unless Gard had altered it somehow. This was Gentleman Johnny Marcone, of course she had. I curved my lips into something resembling a smile, although I'm pretty sure it fell short of it. "Your funeral, Johnny boy, just don't expect me to shed any tears."

"Wouldn't dream of it." He stepped back, putting the knife away in a swift movement. His smile even looked genuine. Obviously, he'd had more practice faking it. "Lead the way."

I toyed with the idea of blasting him unconscious and collecting him after I was done with the rescue, but decided against it. Cujo's eyes hadn't left me for a second, parsing my every step. Well, if they wanted to risk their lives, who was I to stop them. "Sure. The more, the merrier."


In hindsight I was willing to admit—under duress and extreme torture—that Marcone might have been onto something with his plan-thingy. The place was booby-trapped. It wasn't just the wards helping to keep the White Council out; the whole warehouse was built like a prison. The sigils on the walls, the threshold, and the windowsills were specially designed to stop wizards from escaping. My throat was dry with apprehension, not that I was willing to admit it. I'd never seen anything like it before. Whoever this warlock was, vanilla hookers weren't his intended prey.

"This is a trap," I told Marcone.

"Really," he commented dryly, and despite the bleakness of the situation I rolled my eyes at him.

"Phones are out," Cujo said, trying futilely to make his mobile react in any way. I could've told him it was useless. The place reeked with dark magic. Not even old, landline phones would've stood a chance. "Now what?"

A deafening roar stopped me from replying. I spun around, holding my blasting rod in a tight grip. Out of the shadows a huge construct leaped at us. "Fuego!" The spell was pure instinct. The creature's growl turned into a high-pitched scream as fire consumed it.

"Harry, down," Marcone said. I dropped to my knees and folded in on myself, clearing out of Marcone's and Hendricks's line of fire. I whirled around in time to see yet another construct charging. Three more stepped forward from between the shadows. They were everywhere: oddly-shaped, saber-toothed cats that made grizzly bears look small. Marcone's and Hendricks's bullets hit their marks but didn't kill them. Nonetheless, they slowed them down enough for me to destroy them with fire. I was grateful for Marcone’s and Hendricks's presence, which probably gives you an idea of how screwed we truly were.

We were being swarmed. No matter how many I set on fire, more appeared. It was like fighting a hydra.

Hendricks was the first to go down, in a stupid move aimed to save Marcone. I was busy torching one of the biggest cats, when another attacked Marcone while he was reloading his gun. Cujo stepped in front of it, shoving Marcone out of the way. I wanted to help Hendricks, but two more cats were coming towards me. Marcone screamed something unintelligible and emptied his clip on the construct. It shrugged off the bullets as if they were annoying flies and dragged Hendricks away.

It was down to Marcone and me. We fought back to back. I heard the moment when he ran out of bullets and knew that it was over. I had already incinerated over a dozen of creatures, and there were still as many more surrounding us. I used my bracelet to raise a shield around us, pouring my power into it. Screw fighting, we just needed to stay alive until I came up with a better idea.

"I'll distract them," Marcone said to me. "Try to escape and bring back reinforcements."

"Stupid plan," I told him between clenched teeth, concentrating on keeping the shield up. "The place is warded tighter than Queen Mab's personal vault. Believe me, I won't be able to walk out. You have better odds. The wards won't keep vanilla mortals in."

The cats stopped attacking the moment we stopped firing. They sat there, watching us out of their empty black eyes. I was uncomfortably reminded of Mister, when he found a half-dead pigeon particularly entertaining and let it twitch uselessly around, instead of just finishing it off.

"Ms. Dresden," a male voice said from the shadows, "what a memorable show. Not even the Valkyrie destroyed as many of my creatures as you did. I see I've chosen right." An old man walked past the cats, stopping just a few feet shy of the shield. The stench of dark magic filled my nostrils.

"Who are you? And what do you want?" Marcone asked.

The warlock's eyes didn't waver away from me when he answered. "What I want? Right now I just want to offer Ms. Dresden a deal."

"What kind of a deal?" I asked, making sure to keep my shield up.

"Give yourself up, and I'll let your friends live," the warlock said.

"I'll take door number two," I said. In my experience, when someone tells you that if you give up they'll spare your friends, believing them only gets you and your friends killed faster.

"I'll swear on my true name and my magic, if you so wish it," he said. "I'm willing to trade their freedom for yours."

That gave me pause. The offer was tempting. I've dealt often enough with faeries to know how to word vows in a way that makes the magic work in my favor.

For the most part anyway.

"Harry, don't be stupid! It's a trap," Marcone said.

"Tell me something I don't know," I whispered to him, before addressing the warlock once more. "What do you want with me?" I asked. Regardless of Marcone's lack of confidence in my plans, I was able to be careful every now and then.

"You'll help me finish the Ritual of Panathenaea," he said.

I racked my brain trying to remember where I'd heard that name before. I didn't talk too often with other magic users about rituals, just with Bob, and Bob only shared information about rituals that involved sex. Wait a minute … .

"Isn't that the ritual where you sacrifice seven whores and one virgin in exchange for absolute knowledge?" According to Bob, it had been used to create the first Archive. The ritual had been destroyed. Even Bob didn't know enough to recreate it. He just remembered the pervy details, but that was Bob for you.

"Interesting. I didn't think anyone but the Archive herself knew about the ritual's existence, and she, as all Archives before her, has gone to great lengths to keep it hidden." The warlock cocked his head slightly, watching me with curiosity.

"If it's so secret, how did you find about it, then?" A girl could ask. Marcone's fingers dug into my forearm in a silent warning. What could I say? I had a rather long name, but careful wasn't any part of it.

The warlock's lips curled. "That's irrelevant. Will you help me in order to save your allies?"

"We both know you're lying," I pointed out. "You need the hookers for the ritual to work."

The smirk on his face widened, twisting into a cruel sneer. "I said I'd free your allies, not the whores. They're nothing to you. Only your two companions and the Valkyrie will be allowed to walk free."

Ah. So that was his angle. "You still haven't told me what you want with me."

"You said it yourself, little wizardess, seven whores and a virgin. You'll do nicely."

I hated it when men thought that having a dick made them bigger somehow. For the record, I can tower over pretty much every man I've ever met, with a few exceptions. I might not have any curves to speak of, but I'm tall, thank you very much. There was nothing little about me.

I was so pissed off that it took me a moment to actually understand what he was implying. "You need to do your research better, honey. I haven't been a virgin for a long while."

He chuckled. "It's there in your aura for everyone to see, if they know what to look for," he said. "Imagine my surprise when I first saw you, prancing through Chicago: a virgin wizardess leaking power all over the place. I knew then that I had to have you. And I will."

Marcone tensed, ready to jump. It was my turn to tighten my grip on his arm. He couldn't lose his cool now. Besides, I didn't need him jumping to my rescue. I was perfectly capable of defending myself.

"Look, asshole, I'm not a virgin. If anyone would know, it'd be me. You need to have your Sight checked."

"If you can tell me under oath the name of one man you've had sex with, I'll let you and your friends go. I'll even let you take the whores with you," he said.

The memory of Justin's cold hands sliding over my inner thighs came unbidden. I forced myself to stay still, even though every muscle in my body wanted to shudder with revulsion. Justin didn't count, though. He'd burned to ashes before he—I cut off the thought with the ease of practice, pushing it down to the deepest corners of my mind.

"Fine, I can't name any males, but that doesn't make me a virgin, just a lesbian. It's not the same thing." I still had the dark blue strap-on Susan had given me for my birthday to prove it.

"For the purpose of this ritual, it is."

When this was over, Bob and I were going to have words. Why did I have an all-knowing spirit who could read auras, if he wasn't going to warn me about these things? But first things first.

"Just to clarify, will you have to take off my clothes to finish this ritual?" An idea was taking shape in my head. Granted, it was a crazy idea, but I had good reason to believe it'd work. I trusted my gut. More than that, I trusted Bob.

The warlock blinked, as if he couldn't quite follow where I was going with this. That was fine, I was hoping that he wouldn't.

"Evidently," he said.

"And I assume that part of the ritual involves you helping me get rid of my hetero-normative pseudo-virginity, right?"

He paused. "Yes."

"Is that after or before you kill the sex-workers?"

"The blood of the virgin opens the Path to Wisdom," he said as if quoting from a book. I could even hear the capital letters.

"Unless you use a knife, there won't be any blood to speak of, asshole."

Marcone tensed even further. "Harry," he hissed, "you can't … ."

I scraped my fingernails over the soft skin of his inner wrist, silencing him. "I'll do what needs to be done. Just like you would," I whispered to him. He quieted, and I knew that he got my message. I wasn't going to sacrifice my life uselessly; he would never do that. "All right," I said to the warlock. "I agree to your terms, but I want to see Hendricks and Gard first, alive, or no deal."

He nodded. "That can be arranged." His eyes lost some of their focus as he concentrated. He raised his hand, and chanted. The words sounded like Greek, but I wasn’t sure. For a moment I considered using the opportunity to attack again but it’d be useless. I had to bide my time.

The warlock stopped chanting, and two constructs appeared from the shadows, dragging an unconscious Hendricks and a struggling Gard between their huge teeth. They dropped them on the floor. Gard lurched into an attack, but before she could so much as touch the warlock an invisible wave of magic slapped her down, forcing her to stay on the floor. She struggled like a berserker to no avail.

"Enough!" I snapped, unable to watch any further. "Let's get this show on the road. You let my friends go, and I won't use my magic to burn you down to ashes when you try to rape me." I dropped my shield, keeping my blasting rod aimed between the two of us. "I want a vow sworn upon your true name."

Marcone was probably frothing at the mouth with rage. I didn't need telepathic powers to know that he was calling me all kinds of idiot in his mind. I glanced at Gard. Strangely enough, she'd stopped struggling and was watching me with curiosity.

"You will cooperate, then?" The warlock looked unsure.

"I will not actively fight you," I corrected the warlock, being careful to enunciate each word. I did have a faery godmother, after all. Words had power.

"My true name." The warlock sneered and jerked his head. Two constructs jumped with a speed that belied their monstrous size. I wasn't fast enough. The impact knocked the blasting rod out of my hands and sent it flying across the room. Marcone shouted behind me; it wasn't a scream of pain, more of surprise and fury. Of helplessness. I ignored it, scrambling off the floor to face the wizard.

He whispered a word and a gush of power shook me. The air around me thickened, slowing me down. I could feel myself weakening, losing ground by the second, until I couldn't move at all, frozen in place. I struggled to no avail, choking back the wave of panic threatening to capsize me.

I had contingency plans for this, but somehow I had failed to imagine how real it would feel, being held down, forced to stay still, to … . The last time it'd happened, I had … . It was hard to remain rational and calm when my every instinct was screaming at me to either fight or flee. Now. Before it was too late.

No.

I stopped struggling, reining myself in. I swallowed back my panic. "We had a deal," I spat. I needed to keep myself talking, busy, to not think.

"Harry Dresden." The warlock sneered. "Did you really believe that I'd give you my true name? How very naive. I'll enjoy being the one to rip that innocence away from you."

I wanted to laugh at him. He was years too late for that. My hands were dirty with blood. There was nothing innocent about me. The White Council had been right to want me dead; they’d just picked the wrong reasons. They shouldn't have tried to execute me for using magic to kill; they should've done it because I didn't regret it. I didn't fear the part of me that had killed Justin. It was the lack of guilt that terrified me. Good human beings, like Michael, like Charity, like Eb, they would've felt regret to have ended a life.

I felt nothing.

I didn't like to remember Justin. When I did, the only thing I could think of was that he'd deserved it. Not for what he'd tried to do to me, but for what he'd done to Elaine.

"If you touch her, I will kill you." Marcone's voice was colder than Winter. Even my Godmother would've paused to heed the threat coiled in his words. "I'll do more than kill you," Marcone went on, ignoring the loud growl of the constructs keeping him on the ground. "I'll make you regret the day you were born. You'll beg me for death."

A bit melodramatic for my tastes but strangely sincere. Who would've thought that Marcone gave a damn?

The warlock snorted. "You won't live long enough to make good on your threat, mortal. But since you seem to care about Ms. Dresden, I'll let you witness what I do to her before I kill her."

"Don't count your chickens before they hatch. Didn't your mother teach you that?" I asked in a too-sweet voice.

"Quiet," he said. The ley lines powered his command, silencing me. The warlock approached. The stench of his breath carried across my nose as he leaned on me, making me want to gag. He twirled a strand of my hair between his fingers with a proprietary smile. A muffled sound came from behind him. He turned around, allowing me to see past him. Ms. Gard had renewed her struggles to break free. The warlock ignored her, zeroing back in on me. "All your friends will watch you bleed and scream for me, little wizardess."

All my friends will watch you burn, I thought, glad that my voice wasn't mine to control.

His fingers caressed the leather of my duster, humming approvingly. "Lovely spell work," he said. "Whoever taught you to use wards knew what he was doing. Too bad it won't help you here." He slipped my duster off my shoulders, easing it off my rigid arms, careful not to trigger the protecting wards on it. Three more layers of clothes separated us still, but my heartbeat jumped all the same. Any moment now he'd touch my skin and then … .

His hands slipped between my shirt and undershirt, and I gulped. Marcone and Gard were yelling something, but I couldn't hear them over the blood pounding in my ears. Dark magic crackled against my skin, cruel and ruthless. It clogged my senses.

His knuckles trailed down over my ribs and waist, before he started to pull at the last layer of thin cotton separating us. It slipped free of my pants. The tips of his fingers crept beneath my undershirt, dry and rough. I flinched.

The next three seconds seemed to last an eternity.

One.

Two.

The warlock screamed and jerked back, his eyes wide with surprise. The skin of his right hand reddened and blistered as though it was being boiled from inside. Finally, it burst into flames. The heat expanded like molten lava, taking over his upper arm, collarbone, and neck.

His eyes filled with horror. "What did you do?" he screeched, lurching forward. He tore the shirts away from me, revealing my naked torso. Wards and sigils covered almost every inch of it, curling around my breasts and ribs, down my stomach and pelvis. The ink of the tattoos twisted and turned, one sigil flowing seamlessly into the next, like water. Perfect. Unique. The most powerful threshold magic Bob and I could come up with. It had taken us a year to design the tattoos and figure out how to infuse them with magic. Even the ink had been custom-made.

I'd been sixteen, crazy with pain, rage and too much magic and raw power to know what do with.

"Boss, if you don't get a grip, you're going to get us killed," Bob had whispered in the darkness of my room, hidden between the covers of my bed. We were both afraid of Eb finding out about his existence. I couldn't—wouldn't—lose Bob, too.

"I don't want anyone to touch me like that again. Never. What he did to Elaine … I … ." My voice choked. "What good is magic for, if I'm not allowed to use it to protect myself? To protect others? To save them?"

I'd failed her.

"You can use magic to stop them." The lights in Bob's eye sockets flickered into a cold shade of blue before they becoming orange once more.

"How?"

"Come on, Boss, figure it out. Your body is your home."

"But I'd need a threshold," I protested.

"You have one: skin."

"Skin isn't bound to Earth the way a normal threshold would be." It didn't seem logical.

"It's bound to Water. Over sixty percent of your body is made of it. Besides, you couldn't use Earth anyway. Bodies are constantly in motion; the anchor needs to be just as flexible. Water is the key."

"But any wizard could pass a threshold uninvited. Thresholds would just weaken their magic."

It shouldn't have been possible, but the skull's eternal smile broadened more. "I swear to you, Harry, if a wizard or any magical creature tries to violate your body without your explicit permission, their own magic will destroy them. You won't have to do anything. The White Council won't be able to trace it back to you."

"Tell me how," I ordered him.

"I can't," Bob said in a strangled voice, as though even thinking about telling me hurt. "I was forbidden to share this knowledge, but no one forbade me to use it. Let me be the one to ink the wards into your skin."

"Yes."

The warlock's howl of agony brought me back to the present. I watched with sick fascination as his other hand, the one he’d used to rip my shirts off, caught fire, too. He rolled on the floor, screaming, trying to extinguish the flames engulfing him. The constructs shrieked. One after the other they burned and exploded as if they, too, were extensions of the warlock's magical core. The magical bonds around me started to weaken.

Gard was the first to break free. "Will I burn, too, if I touch him?" she asked me.

"No," I answered.

"Good." She jumped forward, all grace and speed, and in a swift movement ripped the head off his shoulders, holding it in her hand like a trophy. "I swore to him that the moment I could walk free, I'd rip his head off," she said, as if talking about the weather, mindless of the gushes of blood splashing her arms and face. "I like to keep my promises." She nodded to me once. "Thank you."

"Are you all right, sir?" Gard asked Marcone, throwing the head of the warlock away like a piece of trash. It rolled around on the floor, splattering blood everywhere. My eyes followed it with sick fascination.

I didn't hear Marcone's reply, but it must have satisfied her, because she went to check on the still-unconscious Hendricks.

"Put this on," Marcone said, startling me. I turned around, surprised. Marcone had picked up my duster from the floor. His eyes didn't leave my face. It took me a minute to realize that he was forcing himself to not look down. Curiosity must have been killing him. Susan had been fascinated with my tattoos. Marcone was probably dying to look his fill; he'd always been attracted by all things magical.

I took pity on him. "You can look if you want. It won't kill you." They wouldn't work on mundanes anyway, but he didn't need to know that.

Marcone's gaze traveled down my half-naked body. Slowly. Almost hungrily. I hadn't realized what being the focus of his undivided attention would be like. The flare of desire rushing through me took me by surprise. I didn't usually find guys attractive. It was just my bad luck that Marcone had always been the exception to that rule. At least he didn't care about me that way. He only wanted my magic. And my obedience. Two things I knew better than to give anyone.

I had to remind myself that the hunger in his eyes wasn't for me, just for the magic embedded into my skin. His only desire was to unravel the mysteries of the wards protecting me.

A shuffle of approaching feet caught my attention. From the corner of my eye I saw Hendricks and Gard coming closer. He was leaning on her. Both of them studied my body with open curiosity. It made me feel uncomfortable all of a sudden. I snatched my duster out of Marcone's hands and put it on hastily. It was one thing to let Marcone watch, but I didn't want Gard or Hendricks doing it. Especially Gard. I didn't want any magical being studying my personal wards.

"Interesting tattoos," Gard said.

"You know what they say. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice … ." I trailed off with a shrug. Marcone, Gard, and Hendricks gaped at me, making me feel self-conscious. "What?" I asked. As jokes went it hadn't been one of my best, but it wasn't that bad.

"I consider myself in your debt now, Dresden," Gard said. "Tell me his or her name. If they are still alive, it will be my pleasure to kill them."

"Whose name?"

"Whoever fooled you once," she said.

Fuck. I hadn't realized that my words had been that revealing. A quick glance at Marcone and Hendricks showed me that they'd probably be happy to help.

"He's dead," I said, before they got any ideas. "Besides, you're not in my debt. Marcone is paying for my time."

"Your usual fees?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said.

"I'd like to think that my life is worth a bit more than seventy-five bucks an hour, wouldn't you agree?"

Well, when she put it like that. I nodded.

"Are you all right?" Marcone asked me, still watching me with that unnerving intensity of his.

"I'm fine," I reassured him.

His frown deepened. "My men will take care of the clean up. Ms. Gard, could you please contact someone from Monoc Securities to handle the magical part of it?"

"I can handle the magical part," I protested.

"I'm taking you home, and then I'm taking Ms. Gard and Mr. Hendricks to a doctor. Unless you want to see the doctor, too?"

"What? No, of course not! I'm fine." Wasn't he listening?

"Then you'll go home and rest," Marcone said in a voice that brooked no arguments.

I found myself almost agreeing, before I remembered that he wasn't my boss. No wonder the whole Outfit followed him around like affection-starved puppies. "I don't have to do what you say," I reminded him.

"As you told Ms. Gard, I'm currently your client. Until I take you back to your place and we close this case, I get to choose what you do with the time I'm paying you for. I can either drive you home, or to a doctor. Those are your two choices. Pick one."

I could have pushed the issue, but I didn't feel like arguing with him. I was going to lose. "Fine," I groused. "Home it is, then."


The first thing I did after Marcone dropped me at home was take a shower. I threw away the shreds of my shirt and undershirt, regretting their loss. They'd been among my favorites, warm and loose and soft to the touch. At the rate I was going through clothes, I'd need to buy new ones soon, and I hated shopping.

I didn't linger. The water was too cold for that, the heater being broken again. I scrubbed my skin roughly, trying to get rid of the clinging smell of smoke and fire. I distracted myself thinking of potions I still needed to brew, and ingredients I needed to acquire. I didn't want to think about the warlock's burning flesh or remember his screams. It was too similar to … . Yeah, thinking about potions was safer. Easier. A part of me kept expecting the Wardens to appear at any given moment, even though Bob had promised me that the magic couldn't be traced back to me.

The sigils reflected intent. The warlock had died because he'd wanted to kill me; had he only wanted to … he'd still be alive. I didn't know what I'd have preferred. Just as well. His choice, his magic.

I hadn't done anything wrong. If I repeated it enough, I might one day come to believe it. Or so Susan claimed. I wasn't too convinced.

Putting on clean underwear and new jeans felt magnificent. I took my time, relishing the crisp fragrance of freshly washed clothes. I toweled my hair dry, and combed it without much care.

My bed looked deceptively inviting, but I knew better than to fall for that trap. I'd only end up dreaming of tonight or, worse yet, of … before. I needed to tire myself out.

The lab it was.

I hadn't been counting on Bob, though. "What happened?" His skull practically leaped off the table trying to get closer to me the instant he saw me.

"Nothing. I'm fine." I froze at the door, realizing my mistake. I couldn't fool Bob. I never had been able to; he knew me too well.

"Then why is your aura all out of whack? Someone tried to kill you. Don't deny it. I can see traces of dark magic clinging to you," he said, voice tight with leashed anger.

Bob was strangely perceptive when he wanted to be. He bartered knowledge for porn and trashy novels, and sometimes I forgot that he was more than just the sum of his interests.

I sighed, dropping into the empty chair in front of the workbench. "All right, you win. There was this warlock. He wanted to do the ritual of whatchamacallit. The one with the seven hookers and the virgin?"

"He wanted to use you as the virgin sacrifice, didn't he?" Bob asked. His eyes flashed blue, a sure sign that he was feeling particularly murderous or trying to remember things he shouldn't. Maybe both. It was something that with time I'd learned to … not quite fear but … respect. "The threshold held," he said. It wasn't a question.

My grip on the worktable tightened. "Yes," I answered, more a whisper than an actual word. I closed my eyes, trying uselessly to erase the memory of burning flesh.

"Good," Bob said flatly. "He's dead, then."

"Yes." I opened my eyes and saw nothing. I blinked; my eyes stung. I rubbed at them. Sometimes I hated my life. So much.

Silence filled the room, uncomfortably heavy. It was Bob who broke it:

"You should let me ride another tattoo artist, Boss. Let me do your inner thighs; I won't ask for porn for a whole month if you do. A whole year, if you let me do your ass. Maybe something to encourage others to cop a feel? Protection runes have their uses, but your sex life could use the help. You haven't seen any action since Susan dumped you."

"Shut up, Bob," I snapped at him without much bite. His words were comforting in a way; we were back on familiar ground. I didn't know how to deal with people (or spirits) when they were pretending to care.

Something still gnawed at me. "How come you knew he wanted me as the virgin sacrifice? I'm not a virgin."

The light in Bob's eyes dimmed. "You're not going to like the answer," he said at last.

"I figured as much. Tell me anyway."

"You aren't a virgin. Technically. For most rituals, anyway." He danced around the issue. "Magic is an old art, though, bound by archaic rules. In the old days a woman was considered a virgin until she'd been penetrated by a male. Fingers don't count, and neither do toys. Not even the blue one you like so much."

"Bob! How do you even … ? I explicitly forbade you to spy on me and Susan," I spluttered, outraged.

"I remember." He still sounded piqued. "The best lesbian action in town happening one door away, and I wasn't allowed so much as a peek."

"Bob!" I used my no-nonsense tone.

"Fine, if you must know, cats have deliciously accurate memories. And for the record, it's discriminating that you ban me from your bedroom, but let Mister in," Bob griped. "He's even allowed to share your bed. Sometimes while you're having sex on it!"

"That's it! I'm never, ever letting you ride Mister again. N-E-V-E-R."

"Wait till you need something," Bob grumbled.

I decided to drop it. Bob did have a point. I just wasn't sure how I was going to convince Mister to stay away from my bedroom.

One problem at a time. I had bigger fish to fry.

"Does that mean that I have to, like, have sex with a guy?" Just thinking about it made my skin crawl. Sex could be used against you; it was the easiest way to open a pathway to the soul. It was the reason why Justin—never mind that.

The point was that I only trusted few people enough to even consider having sex with them. If I had to narrow it down to just males, the list became even shorter. There was Michael, but he had Charity, and I wouldn't risk our friendship like that anyway.

Then, there was the whole magic thing. I didn't want to have sex with anyone who could do magic. The risk was too high. Allowing them to touch me would weaken the power of the threshold. That left out pretty much everyone I knew. Murphy was my only mundane friend, and she didn't qualify. Besides, she'd probably deck me if I came onto her.

"You could ask one of your werewolf friends," Bob offered.

"No one magical," I said aloud.

"Well, that takes everyone out of the equation," Bob said, confirming my fears. "How about me?" Bob almost panted with excitement. "I'd be more than happy to help."

"You lack the necessary physical parts," I reminded him.

"But you could let me ride a college student. Some really nice looking stud. I'll give you the time of your life, Boss. Think about it, all my knowledge at your service," Bob cajoled. "No one in this planet knows more about sex than I do."

"Not in this lifetime, or the next, or even the one after that." I smiled at him sweetly.

"I'd make it real good for you," Bob insisted.

I knocked on the top of his skull, knowing how much it annoyed him. "Other options, Bob."

"Ouch, quit that! Fine, but you're missing out," he said, put-upon. "You could go classical, I guess: put on a dress, go to a bar, smile prettily at some random stranger. The offers would pour in."

"Bob, get real. It's not as easy as that. No one would look at me; I'm too skinny. Besides, I don't own a dress."

"Boss, this is the twenty-first century. Skinny is in. Seventy years ago it might have been a problem; men liked their curves back then. But today? Women starve themselves on purpose to look like you. I could show you my subscription to Vogue and InStyle if you don't believe me," Bob offered.

"No, thank you." It was bad enough I had to buy the things for him. I'd probably die if I looked inside one; the covers were bad enough. I was getting sidetracked. "Look, I'm not going to go to a bar to pick up guys. I wouldn't even know how to go about it."

Bob sighed. He was obviously losing his patience with me, but Bob's total lack of inhibitions didn't let him understand that some things just weren't possible.

"I'm out of options, actually." The eyes dimmed, then brightened, then dimmed again. He sighed. "It's no use; you'd veto the old-school tried-and-true methods as well."

"What methods?"

"Girls married; boys went to a hooker."

I certainly wasn't going to get married, which just left one option open. "Are there any male hookers?" I asked.

"Seriously?" Bob jolted with surprise, his skull almost falling from the workbench.

"Well, I wouldn't have to buy a dress. That's a big plus. It'd be a one-night stand, and I wouldn't have to worry about him wanting anything else other than my money. No strings attached, no expectations. Just perfectly boring, normal, average, mundane sex. No magic. Perfect." I was starting to like the idea more and more. Technically, it was illegal, but I'd done my share of illegal things before. This one wouldn't even rate among the top ten.

"Uh, where are you going to get the money from, Boss?" Bob asked.

"Marcone still needs to pay me," I said, an idea starting to form in my mind. It was going to be one of the good ones; I could feel it. "Hey, it'd be like killing two birds with one stone. He controls the prostitution business in Chicago. Instead of money, he could send me a professional sex-worker, a male one."

Marcone owed me. He owed me big. I got into this mess trying to rescue his employees in the first place. The least he could do was help me find someone suitable.

"Boss," Bob said, tentatively. "I've never met your mafia kingpin personally, but I don't think you should ask him for help with this. Unless you want him to really help you."

I frowned. "Bob, what're you talking about? You aren't making any sense."

"You really don't get it, do you?" Bob asked, flabbergasted.

"What?"

"We're talking about sex here, Boss," Bob said. "Sex with a virgin, even. Technically anyway. He's not going to send someone else to do a job he'd rather do himself."

"Bob, not everyone is as crazy about sex as you are," I told him. "Besides, Marcone has hundreds of women at his beck and call. He's not interested in me."

Bob opened his jaw. For a moment I thought he was going to go into yet another lecture about the importance of sex, but he surprised me by dropping the issue. "Hmm, this is going to be like water magic, I can see that already."

"How so?"

"No matter how hard I try to explain it, you won't get it. You'll just have to figure it out by yourself."

"Whatever," I said. There was no point in fighting with Bob; he always had to have the last word. I didn't care what he thought. It was a great plan. I could feel it. I was never wrong about these things.

Almost never.


Out of sight, out of mind, that should've been my life motto. I spent the next days avoiding Bob, Marcone, and pretty much everyone who could remind me of what I still needed to do. I curled up with my favorite Discworld novels and let the books seduce me away from reality.

It was Marcone who ended my self-imposed seclusion. He and Hendricks dropped by my place three days later.

"What are you doing here?" I asked by way of greeting.

"You haven't been at your office, and you aren't answering your phone," Marcone said.

Well, duh. Maybe I had a reason for that. "I'm on vacation," I said, surly.

Marcone's eyebrows rose. "I didn't know you took vacations."

"Now you do," I snapped.

He sighed. "I just came to see how you were doing, and to pay you."

That was probably code for, I just came to rub in your face that you finally agreed to work for me. If he'd only wanted to pay me, he could have sent a minion. I didn't care one way or the other. I was capable of being practical about these things. A case was a case. As long as he didn't assume that I'd work for him every time he wanted, we would be fine. And if he did assume it, well, it'd be my pleasure to show him how wrong he was.

I had bigger problems at the time. I balled my hands and squared my shoulders, gathering my courage. There was no use postponing the inevitable. Time to face the music, Harry girl, I told myself.

"We should talk inside." I stepped aside, making room for him and Hendricks to enter. They both knew better than to wait for an official invitation. "Grab a seat," I told them, dropping back on the couch myself.

"That won't be necessary," Marcone said, taking a brown envelope out of his briefcase. "Here's your money."

"Actually, I'd like to renegotiate my payment," I started. I'd been trying to come up with a subtle way to ask for a male prostitute without it sounding so harsh. No luck so far.

"Harry," Marcone said, "don't be ridiculous. Just because you agreed to work for me the world isn't going to end. Do we really need to have this discussion?"

"Don't call me Harry. Also, I didn't agree to work for you; I accepted one single contract," I corrected him. I didn't want him getting any ideas. "I'm not refusing payment." I'd done it before, when he'd asked me to drop cases or to investigate things that benefited the Outfit more than they did Chicago. "I want something other than money."

I had his whole attention. It was almost electrical. Stars and stones, I was glad that he was just a mundane. The world couldn't cope with a Marcone who on top of sheer personality had magical power to boot.

"What do you want?" His green eyes darkened, calculating.

"You control the prostitution ring in Chicago, right?"

Marcone frowned slightly. My question had startled him. He disguised it by pulling out the chair next to him and sitting down. He leaned back, regarding me with a carefully blank expression. "Some people claim that."

Right. As far as Marcone was concerned, investing in paranoia was the best health insurance. What did he think? That I was setting him up? Come on, mics didn't work near me.

I ignored him, cutting to the chase. "Instead of money, I'd like you to provide me with the service of a male escort," I said, remembering that prostitutes were bad, but escorts were perfectly legal. "One that comes with fringe benefits." There, I could do subtle.

Hendricks coughed a couple of times. I was about to offer him a glass of water, but he managed to get himself under control. Marcone didn't react at all. He remained utterly still, almost frozen in place. He didn't even blink. "May I ask what for?" he finally said.

"Uh … ." Maybe I'd been too subtle after all. "Well, you know, so that he can … do his thing," I stammered, making vague hand gestures. My face was burning with embarrassment, I was sure. I stared at an old tapestry hanging on the wall behind Marcone's left shoulder. It had very interesting patterns. "I can't go around being a pseudo-virgin forever. With my luck, word will spread, and every warlock wannabe is gonna come to Chicago seeking the missing ingredient for their virgin sacrifice. I'd rather get rid of the problem on my terms."

"I see your point, but why choose a professional?" Marcone asked after a second or two, cocking his head slightly. He made me feel like a bug under a microscope.

I shrugged. "I don't have that many male mundane friends, and it has to be a mundane. Besides, I don't want to mess up my friendships with sex." I found myself explaining—not that I owed Marcone an explanation, but somehow the way he was looking at me, as if I was totally nuts, compelled me to justify myself. "Look, it's either a hooker or Bob. At least with the hooker it'd be a one-time deal. Bob would whine forever for a repeat performance."

"Who's Bob?" Marcone asked curtly.

Oops. "Just a friend," I mumbled. I had the strong suspicion that Marcone would have dozens of people trying to find out who Bob was before the day was over. "He did my tattoos," I said offhand, confident that my attempt to hoodwink him would succeed.

Marcone nodded once, as if ticking an item off his mental list. "Any particular type?"

"Excuse me?" He'd totally lost me. I'd been distracted with the hilarious image of Marcone's men checking every tattoo parlor in Chicago, searching for Bob, the elusive tattoo artist. So I could be childish every now and then, sue me. Besides, it wasn't my fault that Marcone lived under the misguided impression that he had a right to know everything that went on in Chicago.

"Your escort, Harry," Marcone said. He seemed strangely ill at ease. "Do you have a particular type in mind?"

Oh, right. I was a paying customer; that meant I could choose. I hadn't really thought about it. "Uh, well … male? No magical powers?" What else was important for these things? "Some experience, maybe? Though it shouldn't be that difficult to insert tab A into slot B." Suddenly, I remembered Justin's hands, cold and hard, trying to stake a claim to my body and my soul. The emotions blindsided me. Imagining some unknown guy touching me was more than I could bear. My heart pounded wildly inside my chest, and bile rose in my throat.

"He has to keep his hands to himself, when I tell him," I demanded, and just like that I realized that I could request things, things that would make me feel safer. I didn't have to worry about what this random stranger would think; I was never going to see him again. "I don't want him touching me, unless I grant permission first. He shouldn't do anything at all unless I tell him to."

Marcone shifted in his chair, probably filing away each word in a mental folder labeled 'Harry Dresden, the nut case.' I looked away, feeling self-conscious, wondering what he was making of my requests.

"Anything else?" he asked. His voice sounded deeper, or maybe it was just my high-strung nerves making me perceive things differently.

"I … no. That's all," I said, wanting the conversation to be over.

"I have a candidate in mind who'll fulfill your requirements." Marcone looked rather pleased with himself. Leave it to him to take pride in the fact that he had a hooker for every occasion. "Mr. Hendricks?" he said absently, still staring at me.

I glanced at Cujo. He stepped as far away from me as the room would allow and checked his Blackberry. "Nine o'clock tonight. I'll make the necessary rearrangements."

Marcone nodded. "Does tonight at nine o'clock work for you?" he asked.

Huh, that was fast. I'd thought he would need to see who was available and when. I eyed Cujo's Blackberry with awe. Those tiny things were impressive; too bad they didn't last long when I was around.

"Tonight's fine. The sooner, the better," I said. "Do I need to prepare anything? I don't know what's the MO in these situations."

Marcone stood up. He smiled at me, a bastard mix of reassuring and amused. "Just be here. I'll take care of the rest."


One hour before the hooker was due I admitted to myself that I was freaking out. I'd spent fifteen minutes in the bathroom arguing with myself whether to shave or not. I lost.

I showered, I washed my hair, I put on body lotion. Without meaning to, I managed to rope myself into all those countless female rituals that I never bothered with unless I was meeting Susan. Hell's bells, it was just a hooker, not a date. A part of me didn't seem capable of grasping the difference. My only solace was that at least I managed to put my foot down on the perfume.

"All right, that's enough!" I snapped. Yes, I was talking aloud. To myself. In my empty bedroom. You would, too, if you'd spent half an hour pulling random jeans and t-shirts out of your closet and throwing them on your bed, because you couldn't decide on what to wear. The situation called for drastic measures. I closed my eyes, spun around three times and fumbled about until I found the bed. I groped for a shirt and jeans. There! I opened my eyes and surveyed my random selection, tuning out the voice in my head whispering that I'd look better with the dark violet top.

I shoved all my clothes back into the closet and checked the time. Only ten minutes left! Where had the time gone? I wasn't ready yet. I needed to do something, stall, call Marcone and tell him that I'd changed my mind. My heart was about to leap off my chest, and there were butterflies in my stomach. I was pretty sure those weren't typical reactions to meeting hookers. Dating, yes; hookers, no. I was going insane.

The knock on the door startled me.

"Here goes nothing," I muttered to myself, trying to control my nerves. I hesitated at the door, my hand hovering over the knob uncertainly. I could still pretend that I wasn't here, go down to my lab and drown myself in work … and listen to Bob's mocking comments all night long. No, thank you.

I jerked the door open, a bit more forcefully than I intended to. John Marcone stood on the other side. A strange mix of disappointment and elation washed over me.

"Oh, you couldn't find a hooker after all," I said. All my fretting for nothing.

"You look lovely," Marcone said, pushing past me into the apartment.

I flushed with embarrassment, realizing that I'd been stood up by a whore. How pathetic was that? Usually it was me who had left Susan waiting, because I'd found a sudden lead that couldn't wait. She'd always been cross afterwards. Cajoling her out of her bad mood had been almost as good as the make-up sex that ensued. Until that moment, I hadn't realized how much it sucked to go out of your way getting ready for someone, just to have them not appear.

"You don't need to flatter me to make up for your missing employee, Marcone," I said, crossing my arms defensively. I felt stupid and overdressed. I just wanted Marcone to leave. I didn't need to hear his excuses.

Marcone shut the door before facing me. "It wasn't flattery, Harry. You look gorgeous," he said, studying me with a strange intensity. "By the way, I did find you an escort." He walked into my personal space.

I stepped back. "You did?" I looked at the closed door with doubt. "Where is he, then?"

"John Marcone, at your service." He inclined his head in a polite, formal nod.

"Very funny," I said, retreating further away. "You've had your laugh, now go."

"Harry," Marcone said, "I'm not joking."

Something in his voice made me pause, and I took the time to really look at him. He wasn't wearing his usual pinstripe suit, but dark jeans that fit him so well they had to be tailor-made. The dark green cashmere turtleneck brought out the color of his eyes in a way a suit never could. A grey blazer was the final touch. He wasn't here on business.

"Where's Cujo?" I asked, suddenly noticing the absence of Marcone's eternal shadow.

"Mr. Hendricks is waiting in the car," he said. "I didn't think you'd want him here for this. Was I wrong?" His tone was teasing, daring me to play along with this farce.

"So what's this? Some sort of New Age-y management training in which you have to rotate through each position in the Outfit? Today is prostitution and tomorrow what? Drug dealing? Torture? Collecting protection rackets?" I was furious and nervous and somehow hurt, too, and covering it all up with even more fury.

"No," Marcone said. His voice was calm and steady, as if he was talking to some wild creature he didn't want to spook. "This is me, accepting work as an escort for the night, because I know it’s the only chance I'll ever get to have you and I want you, Harry, in whatever form I can get you. I want you."

I recoiled, my anger melting away like snow at the first sight of spring. I could taste the sincerity of his words with my magic. It didn't always work, but on some occasions a wizard could know if she was being lied to. Marcone was telling the truth, or what he believed to be the truth.

I didn't know how to react, what to say. I was too taken aback by the revelation. "I wasn't expecting you," I said rather lamely. Well, duh, of course I wasn't.

"I know," Marcone said with a shrug. "But I fulfill all your requirements: male, mundane, with some experience."

I laughed hollowly. Stars and stones, calling Marcone a mundane was a technicality. "Oh, please, give me a break. You have a fucking Valkyrie under employment! And you're the head of Chicago's Outfit."

"You realize there's no actual proof of that, right?" he pointed out with a smug little grin. "Besides, it doesn't change the fact that I am as mundane as they come. Not a drop of magic in me."

"Look, Marcone, I had a reason for calling a hooker. I don't want this night to mean anything, just a one-night stand without consequences," I reminded him. And myself. "I don't want sex messing up our … ." I trailed off, realizing I was about to say friendship. Marcone and I weren't friends. We weren't enemies either; we were something that the English language didn't have a word for. Reluctant allies came the closest.

Marcone smirked at me. "You were saying?" The asshole was daring me to admit that there was something between us that could be messed up. He knew very well that I wouldn't.

I ignored his little challenge. "The point is that I don't want to have sex with anyone I've met before."

He shrugged. "You forgot to mention that when making your requests."

"Hell's bells! It was implied, and you know it!" I snarled at him.

"There's no such thing as the spirit of the letter, Harry. You deal with faeries. You know that better than I do." He looked so fucking pleased with himself.

I wanted nothing more than to wipe that satisfied smirk of his face. I would have given anything to be able to.

I remembered the last part of my request. "I also asked for someone who would obey my every command," I said with triumph. Take that, Marcone. That was our deal-breaker, and he had to know it.

Except that somehow he didn't. "I know, Harry." His eyes met mine, darkening.

"Well?" I said.

"I don't see the problem," he said. "Tell me what to do, and I'll obey."

He said it as if it meant nothing, as though he was commenting on the weather. John Marcone, head of Chicago's Outfit, nightmare of the justice system, offering to obey my every command. Did he think I'd change my mind? Or did he believe that my orders would be so harmless that obeying them would cost him nothing?

The anger returned tenfold, fueled by something else it took me a moment to identify as arousal. I could finish this with two words. I could order him to get out, and by his own words he'd have to obey me. Game over.

"Strip," I said instead, surprising myself more than Marcone. "I want to see what I'm getting for my money."

His eyes didn't leave mine as he took off his blazer and folded it carefully. His weapon holster was next, a custom-made job that fit so snugly against his chest that I didn't even notice it until his blazer was gone. His fingers were steady as he unbuckled the holster and shrugged it off, placing it next to the blazer. He went down on one knee to take off his shoes, and I swallowed, a flare of lust shaking me. He looked good like that, kneeling before me.

Marcone's head snapped up and he licked his lips. I was mesmerized by the glimpse of that pink tongue.

Things were getting out of control. I didn't know why I'd believed that he'd balk at the order. It'd been stupid of me. Marcone wasn't the kind of person to walk away from a challenge. Neither was I. He shed his ankle holster and his knives, and suddenly I realized that this was it. Taking off his pullover and pants, even his underwear, would be nothing compared to the act of trust that casting his weapons aside implied.

It was the equivalent of me taking off my shield bracelet, something I hadn't done since I was sixteen, not even to have sex. I closed my eyes, overwhelmed by the show of trust. When I opened them again, he was completely naked.

I approached him slowly, giving him time to back away if he wanted. He stood still as I circled him, allowing my eyes to wander down his body.

"Stay put," I said, drawing near his back. His shoulders tensed as I trailed my fingers from his nape to the small of his back and up again. His breath quickened. I relished the sense of power it gave me, having him stay utterly still because I told him to, when every instinct he had must have been screaming at him to turn around.

His muscles jumped when my fingers grazed the puckered scar of a bullet wound. "You ever whored yourself out for money before, Johnny boy?" I taunted him. "Is that the mysterious past of yours no one knows anything about?" I breathed the words in his ear, reveling in the way the tension in his body coiled up even tighter, like a string about to snap.

The only indication that he'd heard my question was a tiny hitch in his breath. "Answer me," I said, twisting my fingers in his hair and pulling his head back in a painful grip. I wanted to see his control shatter. I wanted to be the one to do it.

"No," he snapped, more a snarl than a real answer.

I smiled, pleased. "Really? Hendricks sure didn't look surprised when you asked him to rearrange your schedule," I said.

Marcone snorted. "Nothing surprises Hendricks. Can we not mention him again? He's a bit of a turn off."

I chuckled. "You're rather bossy for a whore, you know that? I'm the paying customer here." I let go of his hair. "Turn around."

His eyes sought mine immediately. I caressed the hollow of his throat, enjoying the way his Adam's apple fluttered beneath my fingers. His half-hard cock brushed against my thigh. I slid my hand down his stomach and stopped shy of touching it. Marcone's hips jerked forward. His hands balled into fists at his sides, the muscles of his arms jumping as he forced himself not to move.

I swallowed, suddenly nervous. My eyes were riveted on his cock, and I watched with fascination as it grew harder under my gaze, even though I wasn't touching it yet. I let my fingers trail softly over the head, jerking my hand back in surprise when it twitched. I looked up at Marcone. There it was, that silent amusement at my expense.

I pursed my lips, annoyed at myself, and grabbed his cock, rubbing along its length. It felt harder than I'd imagined it would, which was, I realized, stupid of me. There was a reason erections were called hard-ons. The flesh was hot in a way silicon toys weren't. I tightened my grip, experimentally.

A choked whimper escaped Marcone's lips. I froze.

"Not so hard," he said between clenched teeth.

I eased my hold immediately, feeling awkward and clumsy. "Sorry," I said.

"It's all right," Marcone said. His lips curved into a smug smirk. "I'm a pro after all."

I laughed. "Right, I almost forgot."

"Let me touch you, Harry," he said.

I stepped back as if burned. "No," I snapped, before I could even think about it. "And don't call me Harry," I said, angry at my own reaction.

"What do you want me to call you?" Marcone asked, lowering his eyes, looking almost shy. Fuck! Who knew that'd be so hot?

"Ms. Dresden."

"Ms. Dresden," he repeated, looking at me from beneath his eyelashes. His voice clung to my name like a caress, sending a shiver of desire down my spine. "Please let me touch you."

I had never heard John Marcone say please before, and mean it. I liked it. More than was probably good for me. I wanted to hear it again, and again. I wanted him to beg.

"Tell me," I said, crowding him. "How would you touch me, if I'd let you?" I circled his cock with my hand again, stroking it slowly, teasing both of us with the hint of more to come. "Come on, Johnny boy, sell me on it. Make me crave it."

"Fuck," Marcone said, his hips lurching forward. "I want—I want—" he was breathless, panting, his pupils dilated so wide with desire that the green of his eyes was almost gone. "Want to taste you, go down on my knees and lick you all over. Want to hear you keen with desire and see you spread your legs as you rub yourself on my face, wanting more. I want to show you that it can be good with a guy, too. With me." He laughed bitterly. "I know—know how fucked up and delusional it is to think that I could turn you onto guys, but I don't care. You don't know what you do to me. I'll suck your clit and fuck you with my fingers until you come, and then I'll lick you clean and keep on sucking you until you come again."

I closed my eyes, his voice doing things to me I couldn't name. I was wet with arousal, even though he hadn't touched me yet. The image of him on his knees, eating me out, was almost too much to bear. This was supposed to be a quick fuck and nothing more, push in, push out, bang and over, but I found myself wanting more. I needed to feel his mouth on me.

"Beg me for it," I said, stroking him a bit faster. "Come on, John, you want it that much, fucking beg me for it."

"God," he panted, hips jerking uncoordinatedly in my grip. "Please, please, let me put my mouth on you, let me suck you. I'll make it so good. Please, God, please."

I pushed my free hand inside my jeans to touch myself. "I don't think it's god you should be begging to here, John." I said, feeling cruel and powerful and in control in a way I seldom was.

"Please, Ms. Dresden." He dragged the words out as if they hurt him, fighting with whatever remains of pride he still had left and losing.

Gentleman Johnny Marcone, begging me to let him touch me. It was almost perfect. Almost. But I wanted more, and I would get it, too. "You can do better than that, Johnny," I said, mockingly, even though my voice sounded harsh and breathless to my own ears. I stepped back and let go of his cock, wiping the precome in my hand on his face. "A nice Catholic boy like you, I'm sure someone must have taught you how to pray."

He made a choked sound that almost resembled a whimper, and then he went down on his knees in front of me, naked, his hard cock smearing precome all over his stomach. "Please, Ms. Dresden, I beg you, let me suck you. Please. I'll do anything you want."

I smiled down at him, lifting his chin with my hand, smearing the traces of precome over his mouth with my fingers. "You'll do anything I want anyway," I said. "That's what I'm paying you for, but yeah, we'll start with your mouth. See if it's as good as you claim."

My fingers lingered on Marcone's cheek. I could tell that he'd shaved before coming to see me, but his skin lacked the softness of Elaine's and Susan's. Instead of turning me off, it made me hotter. Seeing him kneeling—at my mercy—did things to me I didn't know were possible. I'd never wanted anything or anyone so much in my life.

We needed to move this to my bedroom, or we wouldn't make it there at all. My self-control was slipping. Marcone looked gorgeous on his knees, and there was a part of me that wanted to wreck that perfection, mark him, own him. I hoped that if I let the desire swamping me win, those darker urges would quiet down.

"Follow me," I said, heart racing in anticipation. I wondered if Marcone could hear it, too, if he knew what he was doing to me.

I'd almost made it to the bed when I noticed that the only steps in the room were mine. I turned around, fearing that he'd changed his mind after all, and then I saw him.

Hell's bells!

I … he … stars and stones!

For a moment I thought that I'd lost my mind and was imagining things. I blinked, trying to focus. No, I hadn't been hallucinating. He … John was on his hands and knees, crawling behind me. Prowling would've been a better word. There was too much grace, too much confidence in the way he moved. He looked like a predator more than ever.

I stood stock-still. "John," I gasped, breathless with need.

He faltered in his advance, a shiver running through him.

I threw caution to the wind: I would allow myself to have this. And to enjoy it. I'd deal with the consequences later. Much later. Right then, they didn't seem to matter. I'd taken leave of my senses and it was freeing.

"Flickum bicus," I murmured, bringing the candles in the room to life, not wanting to miss anything. I toed off my shoes and socks and shed the rest of my clothes with hasty movements. I sat on the edge of the bed and spread my legs apart. The muscles of my thighs quivered with anticipation.

Marcone stopped in front me. The shadows of the flickering light played across his back, highlighting the sharp curves of his body, the shifting of muscles beneath bare skin. He looked up at me. In the partial darkness I couldn't see the color of his eyes. The realization that I wanted to startled me.

"Ms. Dresden," he said, "may I—"

I yanked him forward, forcing him between my legs. "Stop talking and get to work, John," I snapped. I hadn't given him time to brace himself, and he stumbled. It was a revelation, finding out how much I enjoyed wrecking his natural grace.

He nosed my thighs further apart. His hot, panting breaths sent jolts of pleasure straight through me. I tightened my grip on his hair, not caring if it hurt him, a silent command for him to hurry it up. He buried his face against the folds of my cunt and licked. The wet press of his tongue against my skin shattered any shreds of self-control I had managed to cling to. I canted my hips, pushing his head where I wanted it, spreading myself for him. "Faster! Stop teasing and get to it." I was too far gone to care for finesse.

He made a greedy, hungry sound and started to suck, alternating between broad licks and a hard suction that drove me crazy. "Use a hint of teeth on my clit. Yeah, like that." I couldn't tear my gaze away from him, the way his head bobbed between my thighs, and the wet, sloppy noises he gave as he ate me out.

"Put your tongue inside me, fuck me with it. Faster." I met his thrusts, helping him get deeper. "I said faster!"

Desire tugged deep inside me, coiling tighter. Marcone's nose hit me just right, and I wailed. I wrapped my legs around him and pushed my hips forward, keeping him in place while I fucked myself on his face. I needed it so bad I was dying for it. I was screaming, but in that instant it didn't seem to matter. My orgasm rolled through me, rocking me to my core. It went on forever. I came back to myself slowly, tiny spasms of pleasure I couldn't control still shaking me.

Marcone kept sucking and lapping at me, even after I'd let go of his hair. I caressed the side of his face with shaky fingers while I waited for my heart rate to slow down.

I could almost taste the edges of another orgasm building as desire wound inside me once more. I lowered my legs, releasing him, and pushed him away. "Enough." The next time I came, it would be riding him.

Marcone's lower face was gleaming with a mix of my juices and his saliva. His usually perfect hair was in disarray, sticking up every which way. The sight hit me like a punch.

He was holding the base of his cock with one hand. I didn't know why, but it bothered me. I frowned. "Let go," I rasped, my vocal cords a bit sore from screaming.

He closed his eyes, struggling with the order. When he opened them again, his gaze was almost pleading. "Ma'am, I'm going to—"

"No, you won't." I interrupted him, showing my teeth. The flames of the candles flared. "You came here to provide a service; you don't get to come until you have. Now, let go."

He did.

"Put your hands behind your back." I waited until he complied. "Good boy," I said. His cock twitched. I smiled, letting my foot wander up his thighs, relishing the way his body grew tauter as I moved closer to his groin. He was holding his breath in anticipation. I waited, trailing invisible patterns over the soft hairs of his thigh, back and forth. He stayed still, not breathing for almost half a minute, before the need for oxygen won. My toes caressed his balls in that precise instant. He flailed, coming up from his heels and thrusting forward. I chuckled, fascinated with his reaction, and did it again. And again.

"Please," he panted, quivering with tension.

I didn't know if he was begging for mercy or for more. "Get on the bed. Face up." I moved aside, giving him room to maneuver. "Hold the headboard with both hands and don't let go."

I spread his legs, kneeling in the space between. I lowered my mouth, looking at him.

"Stop," he said.

I froze.

"Condoms," Marcone said. "We need condoms."

"Way to kill the buzz," I grumbled, sitting on my haunches. Only Marcone could be so fastidious as to think about condoms when I was about to go down on him. "I already know what plastic tastes like. I want to taste you."

He groaned. "Fuck, Harry, you're not making it easy to be the responsible one here," he said.

The use of my first name sobered me. He was serious about this. I sighed. "Look, wizards can't catch STDs. Happy now?"

I saw him store that piece of knowledge away, like he did with everything else involving magic or me. I wondered what he thought to gain out of it. Marcone didn't do anything without a reason.

"Do you also have a secret method to stop pregnancy?" he asked.

Oops.

In my defense, I'd never had sex with a guy before. The whole pregnancy thing had never been an issue. I know, I know. It doesn't justify it, because well … duh, but it'd slipped my mind. I'd been so nervous about the whole sex with a stranger thing, and then so rattled by the fact that the stranger turned out to be Marcone that I had just forgotten.

"Okay, condoms it is," I said. "Uh? Did you bring any?"

He laughed. "Jesus Christ, only you. They're in my pants."

"Stay here and don't move. I'll get them." I dashed to the living room and returned half a minute later, holding a bunch of condoms. "You have a very high opinion of your stamina," I said, bouncing on the bed and throwing them at him.

"It's good to be prepared," he said drily.

He'd probably been a Boy Scout, too. I laughed, imagining him in a tiny green uniform all eager and proud.

"What's so funny?"

"You as a Boy Scout," I confessed.

His face became oddly blank.

"Stars and stones!" I guffawed. "You were one for real, weren't you?"

"I fail to see why that's so funny." He sounded petulant, which made me laugh even harder.

"Ms. Dresden," he said, his voice low. "Please let me fuck you."

And just like that the laugher died in my lips, swallowed by hunger. I raked his inner thighs with my nails, watching how his pale skin turned pink in the wake of my fingers. "I'm the one who decides what happens next," I said. He writhed against me, spreading his legs further. His cock, which had softened some during our little intermezzo, hardened again.

I lowered my lips and stopped shy of his groin. I took a deep breath, memorizing the smell of him, masculine and intense in a way I hadn't encountered before. The part of me that went through the world folding sunshine, collecting the fragrance of fresh rain and autumn leaves, cataloguing each scent according to its potential for future potions wanted nothing more than to bottle the smell of his arousal and keep it in store for later. I huffed, amused at myself, and John's cock jerked. I took pity on him and closed my lips around the head, circling the slit with my tongue, while I cupped his balls with my free hand.

He gasped, the muscles of his legs trembling with the effort to stay still. I hummed approvingly, and he cried out.

I liked the slightly tart taste of him and the smooth texture of his skin. I sucked him, not really caring if I was doing it right, allowing myself to explore the new sensations. Marcone's little broken pants and half-swallowed curses urged me on. Our eyes met across the flat planes of his torso. He jerked up, catching me by surprise. I choked and let go of him, coughing.

He apologized, but I silenced him with a finger. "Put on the condom," I told him.

His hands trembled as he ripped the small package. He slid the condom on, watching me watch him. Afterwards, he fell back onto the bed and moved his arms up, grabbing the headboard in a deliberate sensuous gesture that stole my breath. A whiff of my own arousal mixed with his filled the room for an instant as I straddled his waist. I was still wet from my orgasm and his mouth and that inexplicable need his obedience awoke in me. I held his cock steady and leisurely sat down, loving the way my body stretched to accommodate him. We both groaned when my ass touched his thighs. I rose up again and went down with more force, getting used to the feel of him inside me.

His nipples were dark and hard, like two tiny beacons calling for my attention. I grazed them with my teeth, before biting them. John's whole body arched, his mouth falling open in a silent gasp. "Again, please," he begged. I obliged him. After that we both lost control, our bodies caught in a desperate frenzied dance for more, now, faster. I rode him hard, rolling my hips until he hit me just right with every thrust. He writhed and bucked under me, chanting my name, the one I allowed him to use, as if it were a prayer.

I used my fingers to give myself that final nudge, grinding against my hand and back into John, until it was too much. My toes curled and warmth spread through me, a wave of pleasure too powerful to control. I fell on top of John, my breasts heaving against his chest as I calmed down.

John was still hard. He was murmuring a litany of pleas, his hips jerking against mine, frantic. "Please, please, please." Over and over, until I realized that he was waiting for permission to come. It hit me like a freight train at full speed. It was the hottest thing ever. "Yes, Johnny boy, come for me. Come on. Give it up." I clenched around him, and he cried out. He pushed up two, three times and came. I rode out the waves of his orgasm, holding on to him until he flopped out on the bed, all tension gone.

We didn't talk much afterwards. I didn't offer to let him stay, and he didn't ask to. He put on his clothes and strapped on his weapons, slowly erasing all evidence of our time together.

I padded across the room to him, not caring about my nudity. An ironic reversal of how the night had started, with him naked and me dressed. I combed his hair with my fingers, smoothing it down. "There," I said, studying my handiwork with satisfaction. "No one can tell what you've been up to."

"I'd wish it were so easy," he said.

I shrugged. "It's as easy as we want to make it. Leave."

He bowed his head. "As you wish."


I slept surprisingly well. I woke up the next day with a lightness to my steps I hadn't felt in a long while, body still tingling with the memory of pleasure. I went outside and folded the soft rays of the morning sun into a handkerchief, knowing that my good mood wouldn't last forever. I decided to skip work that day and went to the lab, bubbling with the desire to try new magical potions not because I needed to, but because I felt like it.

"Wakey-wakey, sleepy head," I said to Bob's skull and giggled at my own stupid pun.

"Harry, you're back." Bob's eye sockets came alive. "You put me to sleep!" he complained just as I'd expected him to. "I shall never forgive you. I can't believe you didn't even allow me to listen in. I thought I was your friend."

"I've never watched my friends having sex." I sat on a chair and leaned back, stretching my legs in front of me.

"Just because you're a prude and missing out on life doesn't mean I have to be one, too," he said. "At least tell me how it went. Did you like it? Did he make you come? Are you a hot bi now? Was he … ?" Bob trailed off, which surprised me. He could carry on for hours when he got like that.

"Uh, Boss?" He hesitated.

"Yes?" Curiosity got the better of me. It's a curse, I swear.

The light in his eyes narrowed down to tiny points as he studied me more carefully. "Didn't you say that you'd rather hire a hooker than get hitched?

"Yes."

"Well, that's good then. I was just making sure."

Over the years, I'd learned not to trust that tone of his. "Bob," I said, allowing my voice to carry a hint of threat.

"What? I meant nothing by it, really. Hey, I was just thinking about this new potion we could try, using—"

"Bob," I snapped. "Out with it."

"It's nothing." He tried to placate me. "Just, you know, usually hookers' auras don't stick to their customers. If they were to leave pieces of themselves behind with every fuck, they'd be hollow shells within months. Your little whore's aura is clinging to you as if it wanted nothing more than to burrow itself into your soul. It surprised me, that's all."

I had a piece of Marcone's aura clinging to me? That was very much not good. "How do I get rid of it?" Marcone had no right to leave pieces of himself behind without asking me first.

"You don't," Bob said. "It's as though a stray cat followed you home. You can shoo it away, but if it wants to stay, there's not much you can do. Well, you could kill him," he offered.

"What? No!"

"Right, morality." He sighed. "Well, then just ignore it. It'll fade with time. So, about that potion?"

"I just remembered something," I stammered. "I need to go to the office right now. Bye."

I didn't flee: it was a strategic retreat. I just needed time to gather my thoughts, and knowing that Bob could look at me and see Marcone didn't help. I wasn't as ready to deal with the inevitable questions that would follow as I had thought. I didn't wish to think about last night, or Marcone, or pretty much anything that had happened in the last 24 hours.

I holed up in my office, hoping for a case. Someone knocked on the door a couple of hours later, and I sprang to my feet eagerly. I opened the door and stopped dead in my tracks.

"What are you doing here?" My voice cracked. I tried to block Marcone's advance with my body.

"We need to talk," he said.

No, we didn't. "I'm busy. Very busy. I have three cases waiting."

"Don't be childish," he said, stepping closer.

I just didn't get it. He should have been the one avoiding me. It hadn't been me on my knees the night before. Marcone should have been hiding in his bedroom, acquainting himself with denial the way I was trying to.

The last thing I needed was Marcone anywhere near me. It wasn't cowardice, just a healthy sense of self-preservation. I ignored the voice in my head calling me a liar and retreated.

He noticed my reaction, and in a typical Marcone fashion took advantage of it, herding me inside. He looked composed and business-like, not nervous at all. He wore his stupid, expensive suit as though it was made of Kevlar. I paused, taking in his clothes. He wasn't wearing jeans this time. I relaxed slightly, hoping that he had a legitimate reason to be here, one that didn't involve sex or talking.

"Where's Hendricks?" I asked. If he were here on business, Cujo would have come, too.

His lips creased up. "You seem way too interested in Mr. Hendricks of late. He's waiting outside."

"Well, call him in," I said, aiming for inviting and failing. "It's cold."

Marcone chuckled. "I'm sure he'll remember to turn on the heat in the car." He sat down in the chair in front of my desk. "Are you afraid of sitting down?"

His tone infuriated me. "Of course not." I grumbled an unintelligible curse under my breath and sat opposite him. I liked having the desk between us.

"About last night, I have a proposition for—" he started.

"No," I interrupted him.

"You haven't heard me out yet," he pointed out, as if I was the one being irrational.

"No."

"Harry, be reasonable," he said.

"Don't call me Harry!" I clenched my fists.

He leaned forward, as though to share a secret. His smile was all teeth. "If you want me to call you Ms. Dresden, we both know what you have to do."

A rush of memories assaulted me: the way he'd looked wrecked with pleasure, his face drenched with my juices, begging to be allowed to come, and what he'd sounded like, calling me "Ms. Dresden" and meaning it. It was a sharp contrast to the cold, unflappable, mafia-boss facade he was wearing now.

I craved to rip that mask away from him, leave him naked and used and well-fucked. Mine. I could almost taste what it'd feel like to shove him face down on my desk, spread him open with my fingers and fuck him with my fake cock until he begged me for more. The intensity of my own need terrified me. That hadn't been part of the plan. Accepting Marcone's offer shouldn't have ended like this. I'd just sought to show him that he couldn't play with me. He should have left the moment I called him a whore and made him beg. Instead, he'd upped the ante.

And here he was, not a hair out of place, pleased with himself like the proverbial cat, as though he hadn't been on his knees begging for release just hours before.

It made me angry and aroused and flustered. Moreover, it made me want to put him down again. Except that I didn't—shouldn't—want it. I wouldn't let him twist me like that. I wasn't going to become the next Justin. I'd proven the White Council wrong, and I would prove him wrong, too. If letting him win was the price, then I was willing to pay it.

"Fine, call me Harry if you must," I said, admitting defeat. I wished he'd just go. I hated how he made me feel. Was that how Justin had felt? Was that the reason he'd tried to enslave Elaine and me? Had he loved the idea of seeing us crawl and beg the way I cherished the memory of John on his knees?

The smile on Marcone's face disappeared as if it had never been there. "Harry, I—Why do you have to make everything so complicated?"

My chair crashed against the floor, startling us both. I hadn't meant to stand up, and yet there I was, hands braced on the desk, looming over Marcone, seething with anger, struggling with the desire to strike him. Wet with it. I dug my fingernails into the wood and forced myself to breathe out until I felt more in control.

"I. Am. Not. The. One. Complicating. Anything," I said through gritted teeth. Every word felt as though it was being dragged out of me. I was terrified of what I might do if I let him provoke me into reacting.

It was not going to happen. Not now, not ever. The realization that my darker urges weren't a one-time thing, but a twisted addiction I would have to fight for the rest of my life was already bad enough.

"Just go," I told him, sounding weary. "I called a whore to avoid this. I didn't lie to you about what I wanted. You provided the service; I paid. That's all there was to it. Don't try to turn this into something it wasn't meant to be."

He looked at me for a while. For the first time ever I was glad that we had already soulgazed. I didn't know what he would have seen in my soul if he were to look into it again.

"All right," he said, sounding not resigned—Marcone didn't know how to be resigned—but accepting. "If that's how you wish to play it, then we'll have it your way."

I sagged with relief. "Thank you." I regretted the words almost immediately. If he ever found out how much I longed to give in, he'd never stop pushing.

"I have one question, though." He leaned forward, watching my every reaction. "Answer with the truth, and I swear on Chicago I won't seek you out again unless you call me first."

I nodded, accepting his terms.

"Is it because I'm a male, or because I'm me?"

The truth. "There're dozens of reasons—valid, good reasons—why I don't want last night to happen again. None of them has anything to do with your gender, your personality, or even your job."

His eyes narrowed. I could see the wheels turning in his mind as he studied my answer from every possible angle. "Then why?" he said at last.

"One question only, Marcone. You got your answer."

"Fair enough." He stood up. "Until next time, then."

"You swore on Chicago," I reminded him. He had something up his sleeve; I could feel it.

"And I intend to keep my word, Ms. Dresden."

I didn't relax until the sounds of his car's engine faded into nothing. I felt empty and wrung out. I'd battled demons and been less tired in the aftermath. I closed my eyes, letting my head hang for a moment, trying to center myself.

Move on.

Forget.

I'd managed it before.


Roses.

It started with roses.

A dozen of them to be precise, dark red, treacherously beautiful. The most gorgeous bouquet I have ever seen in my life, let alone received. Not that anyone had ever given me flowers before, mind.

They'd been left at my door some time during the evening. I almost stepped on them, still sluggish from a sleepless night. I blinked. They didn't go away.

Oh.

I stood there, hovering, not knowing what to do, my brain too exhausted to be any real help.

I knew who the flowers were from. How could I not? Still, I picked up the elegant white card. It had tiny crimson patterns that matched the roses perfectly. Only two words were written on it: Ms. Dresden. My heart fluttered a bit as I flipped the card. There was a telephone number on the backside.

I burned the card to ashes.

No matter how hard I tried, though, I couldn't bring myself to burn the flowers.

They're just roses, I told myself, bringing them into the house. I found an unused vase, filled it with water and put them inside. The thorns were still intact, and I smiled. I'd have taken offense if he'd had them removed. I went on with my day as if nothing had happened.

I should have known better.

They hadn't been just roses. They had been a declaration of war.

The next day another bouquet was waiting on my doorstep. This time the roses were white. I burned the card, just catching a hint of the word 'Miss' as fire charred it. I kept the flowers. If nothing else, I could use them as potion ingredients.

By the time he'd worked his way up to lilac—I hadn't even known lilac roses existed—I had stopped searching for excuses not to throw the flowers away. It had become a matter of pride. He thought he was so clever. I would show him that his little guerrilla tactics didn't affect me. He would run out of colors before I caved.

The only problem? I ran out of vases first, as well as buckets, pitchers, cauldrons, and pots.

Thus, I tried giving some of the flowers away.

The first attempt didn't go quite as planned. Charity had been appreciative, cooing in all the right places, but then she'd spent the whole evening trying to make me confess to some unknown misdeed she thought I was trying to apologize for. The second attempt went even worse. Murphy accepted the blue roses gracefully and our girl night out proceeded as usual, until I realized that she was trying to find subtle ways to let me know she wasn't interested. After I'd stopped laughing, and she'd stopped whacking me over the head with her tiny arms, she wanted to know who had given me the flowers. I faked a supernatural emergency and fled as if a whole army of Red Court vampires was after me.

There was no third attempt.

Two weeks later I was forced to admit that a) my apartment wasn't big enough to handle that many flowers, and b) this wasn't guerrilla warfare, it was an invasion.

It called for drastic measures.

I carried all the flowers to the lab and tossed them over the workbench.

"Bob, if you make one single comment, I'll crack your skull with a hammer," I forewarned him.

"I wasn't going to say anything," he lied.

"Good. Now, what kind of ingredients can we use roses for?"

I bottled up their smell, dried the petals, stored the thorns, made rose water and rose oil from scratch, and in general spent hours meticulously destroying Marcone's gifts until nothing but their most basic components remained. It felt wonderful.

That night, I dreamed of flowers.

I was alone in a field of red roses that stretched as far as the eye could see. Above me, the sky was dark with a brewing storm. Angry black clouds chased one another. Red petals swung back and forth with the wind like waves in a sea of blood. Behind me, one of the shrubs creaked. I spun around, heart hammering with fear. The creaking sound came again, closer. A pair of eerie green eyes gleamed in the darkness.

Panic seized me, and I bolted. The rose bushes scratched me as I fled, their thorns tearing the skin of my face and arms. My magic didn't work. I tried desperately to access it, but it was gone. I knew, down to the marrow of my bones, that my only hope was to run. I couldn't let it catch me.

I was out of breath, panting with exertion. The muscles of my legs burned and cramped up. I stumbled, caught myself on my hands and rose again. It was closing in on me. I could hear it; it was right behind me. I glanced back and saw it leap. Its massive weight crashed against me and the collision sent us both tumbling. The rose bushes snapped under us, their crimson petals falling down like raindrops.

Somehow the creature managed to land on top, and its monstrous paws pinned me down effectively. So close up I could recognize it. A tiger.

I thrashed and flailed, needing to free myself, knowing that my life depended on it, but I couldn't dislodge the tiger. It waited me out. I don't remember for how long I fought, but in the end I managed to exhaust myself. I collapsed, panting, worn down to the bone.

The tiger watched me, as if assuring itself that I was done. Its tongue felt like wet sandpaper as it licked my face. Its breath smelled of roses. It nosed against my neck, butting its head against mine playfully. All of a sudden I knew, with that absolute certainty one only has in dreams, that it wouldn't hurt me. The muscles of my body uncurled as I came to terms with the staggering revelation that I didn't have to run any longer. My fear seeped away.

I woke up to the fragrance of roses in my bed, feeling oddly at peace. I knew what the dream had been trying to tell me. I just wasn't willing to accept it yet.

The next day, new flowers were waiting at my door. I slipped the tiny card into one of my pockets and took the roses to the office. I didn't call John. I wasn't ready yet, but I knew that I would be soon. The moment my subconscious joined in, it stopped being a question of if and became a question of when.

The dreams didn't end. They just changed into dark, arousing images that left me panting with unfulfilled desire. It was like being fifteen again, crazy with hormones and unable to control them.

Justin's poison had kept my sexuality subdued for almost five years, until the night Susan sat next to me and said, "Feel free to curse me if I'm reading this wrong, but I've been dying to do this since I met you." Then she kissed my libido awake. At that point, hormones were no longer a problem, and I'd been too scared of intimacy anyway. It'd taken Susan years to coax me out of my shell, her patience one of the things I'd loved the most about her.

I wasn't used to waking up in the middle of the night, wet with arousal, shadowy images of male and female bodies alike begging me to use them, and more often than not the memory of John's taste still fresh in my mouth. I had never been a fan of masturbation, but after a while I gave in, hoping that it would be enough to satisfy my hunger. It only made it worse. Thinking of Elaine or Susan hurt too much, and other friends such as Murphy or Charity were totally out of the question. I sneaked one of Bob's Playboy magazines, seeking inspiration, but while I found the pictures of naked women aesthetically pleasing, they didn't do much for me without the emotions to go along. My treacherous subconscious was all too willing to help with that, and even when I started fantasizing about some anonymous curvy girl, she ended up male, with green eyes and grey hair.

It was a conspiracy.

I saw him in the business suits of random strangers, in the half-smile of my barista, in the grey hair of the mailman, in the green of every dollar bill. He was everywhere.

And those damned roses, invading my lab, my office, my home, a constant reminder of his open invitation. Call me. Give in. You know you want to.

And I did. Want to. Very much so.

It couldn't last forever, this constant siege from without and within. I was about to break, and I knew it. Only sheer stubbornness and desperation had allowed me to keep fighting him—and myself—for so long.

Then, Hendricks happened.

The first thing I noticed when I opened the door that day was the lack of flowers. I'll deny, even under torture, that I felt anything remotely close to hurt or disappointment.

"Dresden, this has to stop," Hendricks said, making me jump. He was leaning on the wall next to my door, holding a bouquet of pale yellow roses and a fragile looking vase made out of Venetian glass. "Here," he said, giving them to me. "I got you the vase," he added. "I figured you were probably running out of those by now."

"Uh, thanks." I followed him into my living room a bit dazed. Something dawned on me a moment later. "Marcone swore he wouldn't seek me out," I said angrily—John had sworn on Chicago.

Hendricks's forehead creased. "Do I look like Mr. Marcone to you?"

"Just like his shadow," I countered.

"Well, you know shadows, no reliability at all," he said. "One moment they're right behind you and the next they've left you to sneak into the room of a pretty girl. Ask Peter Pan, he can tell you a tale or two."

I howled with laugher, I couldn't help it. "Cujo, you think I'm pretty? I'm touched." Seconds later, a thought sobered me. "Wait—does that make me Wendy?"

"You do spend an awful lot of time in Never Never Land," he deadpanned.

"It's called the Nevernever, not Never Never Land." It came out a bit sulky.

"You say tomato … ."

I didn't have a good answer to that, so I changed the topic. "Why are you really here?"

"He's miserable and obsessed, not a good combination." We both knew who Hendricks was talking about. "Just call him. I'll consider myself in your debt if you do."

"Maybe I'm not interested," I snapped. "Has anyone thought of that?"

"You're keeping the flowers, Dresden," Hendricks said in an even voice, making a vague gesture that seemed to encompass the whole room. The roses were everywhere. "Either you're more cold-hearted than I thought, or a part of you does want him."

"So what? A part of me also wants to kill him more often than not. Should I listen to it as well?"

"What're you so afraid of?" he asked.

"I'm not afraid of anything." I glowered at him.

"Then what's the problem? Make me understand, Dresden. As long as he thinks that there's a chance you might say yes, he's not going to stop. You have no idea what he's like when he gets like this. Just tell me why you won't accept his offer. Maybe then I can make him see reason."

"He's the head of Chicago's Outfit. Isn't that reason enough?"

Hendricks's smile wasn't reassuring. "Funny, that's what I told him, too. I even pointed out that all your known partners until now had been female. Apparently, you swore to him under a vow of truth that his job wasn't the problem. Or his gender. Or even his personality. You should've lied to him back then; we wouldn't be in this mess now. Give me a different reason. One that I can sell to him."

I couldn't.

Hendricks had guessed right. Fear was the only thing stopping me. Fear of the darkness in me. The tiger in my nightmare, it hadn't been Marcone. It had been me. I was running from myself. And I was done. Done struggling, done fighting, done fleeing.

I had never let fear rule me before. When everyone around me told me to let it be, that the monsters I was fighting were too powerful, too old, and too dark, I hadn't listened to them. I had tucked my terror deep inside and gone into battle. This didn't have to be any different. I had managed to control the part of me wanting to hurt John before. Given enough time and practice, I would get better at it.

I looked at Hendricks. "Fine, I'll call John."

"Excuse me?" He frowned, looking confused.

"John said he had a proposition for me. I'm willing to listen."

Hendricks scrutinized my face. Then he nodded once, as though I'd passed some secret test. "I didn't think you would accept, but I did come prepared just in case." He opened a small bag I'd failed to notice before and started to pull books out of it.

I glanced at them and gasped, flushing with embarrassment. The books had pictures on their covers. Of naked people. In bondage. Bob would have worked years for a chance at them.

I swallowed. "Uh, what are those?"

"Books on dominance and sadomasochism," he said. "Just some basic reading. If you have questions, I'm sure Mr. Marcone will clarify them for you."

I choked. "What? Hendricks, I don't think that—"

"Dresden, save it," he said. "I know what John looks like after someone rides him hard and puts him away wet. It doesn't happen all that often. It pains me to admit it, but you seem to have what it takes."

I gulped. Rode hard and put away wet. Hell's bells, Cujo shouldn't be allowed to talk like that. "Look, I … uh … He … ." I was unable to gather my thoughts into a coherent sentence. "I won't let myself hurt him."

Hendricks went on unconcerned. "If you accept his offer that'll change. He knows how to be persuasive. If you aren't there yet, he'll get you there."

"I have no intention of … of … ," I stammered. "Hurting him is not an option."

Hendricks's eyes narrowed for a moment. "Would you like to know Mr. Marcone's real name?"

The question threw me. "Of course," I said. I didn't even have to think about it.

"Okay, how about a little wager? Read the books, all four of them. If after you're done you still think they were a waste of time, I'll tell you Mr. Marcone's real name."

"You'll betray him?" I was taken aback.

Hendricks snorted. "I won't lose."

He was being reckless and stupid. Those books wouldn't teach me anything I didn't already know. I didn't need suggestions on how to make someone hurt. I could come up with my own ideas easily enough. That was the problem.

On the other hand, I wanted to know John's name. I took up the gauntlet. "Fine, you're on."

"You don't know yet what you have to do if you lose," he said.

"I'm not going to, but do tell."

Hendricks's lips curled up a fraction. "Any questions you have left after reading the books, you'll discuss directly with Mr. Marcone. It doesn't matter how embarrassing or silly they seem to you, you'll have to ask him each and every one."

I didn't feel as confident all of a sudden. The idea of having to talk to John about … well … you know. I didn't think that I … . Some of my apprehension returned.

It must have shown on my face because Hendricks added, "What's the matter, Dresden? Scared you'll lose?"

"In your dreams." I glared at him.

"That's settled then," Hendricks said. "After you and Mr. Marcone come to an arrangement, I'll contact you to agree on a schedule for his visits."

My jaw dropped. "A schedule? Marcone fucks on a schedule?" Why wasn't I surprised?

"Don't be crass, Dresden. He's a busy man."

I smiled sweetly, swearing then and there I'd make it my life mission to screw up his timetable as often as possible. "Sure. We'll work something out."

Hendricks shook his head slightly, looking resigned. "Yeah, I'm sure you will," he mumbled to himself. A bit louder he added, "I'll be in touch."

"I'll be here. Probably." It was never too soon to start implementing a good plan.

After he was gone, I spent five minutes contemplating the books from a safe distance. There was a reason why I asked clerks to wrap all of Bob's books for me. Someone is a coward, my annoying subconscious singsonged.

I picked up the first book on the pile, deciding to get it over with. Finding out Marcone's real name would be worth it. I made myself comfortable and started reading. The book was titled, 'Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns.' I laughed, unable to help myself. I wondered if Hendricks had chosen it for its title.

Half an hour later I knew I was going to lose the bet and didn't mind. I lost track of time, too engrossed in reading. I read right through the night, forgetting hunger and sleep. I had questions, tons of them. I was glad that my bet with Hendricks took the choice to hide away from me, because the idea of asking John some of those questions outright terrified me.

But this was me we were talking about. I thrived on confronting terrifying things.

They were my specialty.

The next day, I called John.