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You know, some days, it just doesn't pay to get out of bed. Which, funny story, was the beginning of my problems.

See, I'm a wizard.

Yes, you heard me, a wizard. Yes, I did notice I was a woman, but the term wizard still applied. Gender neutral term here folks. I was born a wizard, I am a wizard, I'll die a wizard, and I had actual magical powers to back that up.

Good thing since, professionally, that's what I did for a living. No really. If you went downstairs and took a gander at the shopfront door, you'd find the following:


HARRY DRESDEN―WIZARD
Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates.
No Love Potions. Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment

Scribbled beneath that, in smeared crayon, you'll also find:


Yes, I meen you

No, my spelling wasn't that bad. Mal had written that. Malcolm Jonathan Ebenezer Dresden. My son and keeper. Eight going on eighty. He'd written that about a month after we'd moved into the building, standing on a chair, his tongue sticking out as he'd slowly, painstakingly written out each letter.

See, people always think they're the exception to that rule. They always come in with their sob stories of love, finances, and that son-of-a-bitch who'd done them wrong. That was three years ago and the note hasn't done much good at all, but I kept it there. It made me smile.

Most things the Malcontent did made me smile.

Malcontent was his nickname and it fit. Practically from the moment he'd been born, Mal'd made it his life's work to do one of two things: keep me on the straight and narrow or drive me absolutely stark-raving mad.

Most days, the jury was out as to which one he'd settled on.

The note's success and the constant sob stories aside, I'm a wizard, professionally and personally, and people keep finding their way to my door. Most of them were serious, but there were more than a few that thought I was a joke. I got any number of phone calls every single day asking me some variation on was I serious, was I nuts, and if not could I do anything about this little problem they were having with their―RIGHT. Not talking about that. I blushed easily enough without bringing, uh, genitalia into the conversation.

Seriously, Murphy swore there were these emails going around that promised that kind of thing. Lengthening of a man's―uh, well, yeah you know―but I'd never seen them. I didn't see most anything that involved computers.

I didn't do so good with technology. Anything after World War II was a crapshoot as to whether or not it would work with me. Some of it I fried, some of it I didn't. Answering machine? DOA. The lights in the shop and the house? Iffy. The water heater?

God.

The water heater. Raising a kid in Chicago on your own is hard enough. Raising a kid in Chicago on your own when you were a wizard, not always current on your bills, and prone to killing the water heater when you got annoyed. There were days where keeping CPS off my back was murder.

Not literal, mind, but pretty damn close to it. I kept the water heater working through sheer force of will (well, not quite, my will and the magic it powered were generally what killed it in the first place) and many whacks with a well-placed wrench.

I was a fair hand with plumbing and carpentry, actually. The shop was a dump when I'd moved in. Barely up to code. Me and a friend (Michael, good guy, has a magical sword that may or may not be THE magical sword, but we'll get to that later. I have a feeling that if I brought it up now Charity would magically appear and bad things would happen) had spent a lot of time fixing it up. I'd learned from him and a few carpentry-for-dummies books.

Good thing, too. On the slow days, I occupied myself fixing up the place. With the way things had been the last few months, I'd finally get a chance to kickstart the apartment remodel.

Years ago, somewhere around the turn of the century, the shop had been a pretty upscale house. Not a mansion, we were in the wrong part of town for that, but fancy-schmancy nonetheless. The outside was mostly brick and the bare bones of the place had held up through it's transformation from home, to boarding house, to hodgepodge of two apartments, the shop, and the sub-basement below.

I technically rented out the ground floor which was the shop and the apartment. Mrs. Spunkelcrief let me use the sub-basement in exchange for the handiwork I did around the place. She was a nice old bird. Liked her gin and her ale. Mac brewed one up special for her, actually. I think he had a crush.

But you didn't hear that from me.

Anyway, things had been quiet. I'd been late with February's rent, was probably going to be even later with March.

Ugh.

Quiet. I hated quiet. Plus, I had a sick little boy and that just didn't go well. Mal was home with a cold. Nothing spectacular, but magical abilities and fevers didn't really go well together.

Not that Mal had manifested any abilities yet, but I had the feeling he would and, well, my feelings weren't things one should ignore.

Okay, not all of them. I had my moments like anyone else.

I was having one now, really. The gnawing worry was beginning to creep in. You're probably thinking I'm being ridiculous. There was a new millennium right around the corner, we were in the midst of a technological revolution (thank you Bill Gates for making things even more difficult for me. If I killed another one of Murphy's cellphones, I was going to catch a sort of hell that would make a fairy queen sit up and take notice) and the world was one short hop away from Scotty beaming us all to the Enterprise.

Or not.

People wanted to dream. People didn't believe, but they wanted to and that was what mattered. People came to me looking for permission to dream if nothing else and, yes, in this day and age, most of them were willing to pay for the privilege. Since I had a little boy to feed and rent to pay, I didn't mind all that much.

Sometimes, though, I was a little too damn honest for my own good.

I'd just gotten back from a job in Missouri that had turned out to be a glorified case of nerves mixed with booze and a country singer's over-active imagination. I'd explained such, suggested some professional help, and walked away with expenses, a couple hours pay, and my dignity mostly intact.

Mostly because after my explanation? He shelled out big on some shyster psychic to do a 'cleansing' ritual on the place.

Cleansing my ass. I could've done more with a bar of ivory soap and a few of the Wee Folk. Yes, those Wee Folk. One of them was babysitting Mal while I worked. Considering I had a faery godmother, that was less of a stretch than you might think. Granted, the Leanansidhe wasn't exactly an expert in childcare, but she wasn't the one up there. Toot was.

I groaned, cracked my neck, and considered knocking off early. Which, really, meant taking the whole day. I'd already sorted through the mail, finished my paperwork, and was drumming my fingers against the desk.

This was ridiculous. It was going to be one of those days. Quiet, dead, and good for nothing but spending time with my kid.

Decision made, I popped up from behind my desk and, naturally, that was when the phone rang. "You're kidding, right?" I asked, staring at it. It rang a couple more times and, pragmatist that I am, I answered.

Mal needed to eat. I needed to work to make sure he ate. So, phone it was.

"Dresden."

"Oh, is this, um, Harry Dresden's office? He's, uh, er, well, I suppose he would be the wizard?"

I raised my eyebrows and bit my tongue in the same instant. People were nervous around me, wary, and I understood that. Really. I understood, but there was a part of me that wanted to say 'No, sorry, I'm Harry Dresden the, erm, well, lizard. Harry the Wizard is three doors down, short, stocky, and balding. Also a man.'

It was the prerogative of wizards to be grumpy. I'd told Mal that a hundred times. Usually when he was bouncing on the bed, giggling, trying to wake me up. He usually ignored me and right in that second, I decided to ignore me too.

Kid. Eat. Client good. Client money. Harry make money, buy food, keep Mal in Fruit Loops and Toot-toot in pizza.

Hey, the Wee Folk don't work free. Pizza was the currency of the realm and I paid my debts. Toot had a deep dish in his future for today. I'd already promised.

"I thought―I'm sorry, but I need to speak to Mr. Dresden."

"Mr. Dresden was my dad," I said, keeping my grump out of my voice. "I'm Harry. Short for Harriet. You'd be surprised how many people don't trust a woman. Well, no, I guess you wouldn't be, right?"

She laughed. It wasn't much, but it was something. Yay for the sisterhood. "True."

Sitting down, I put up my feet and crossed my legs. "How can I help you today?"

She sucked in a breath and I Heard a lot in that breath. Wizards have a lot of things that we can do. Tricks up our sleeves beyond the usual evocations and such. Listening was one of them. It sounded more glamorous than it really was. Listening meant filtering out the background noises, shutting out distractions, and letting what you'd ordinarily miss come through.

I did that now. Not really sure why, but I closed my eyes, cut out the usual crap, and listened to her voice. I opened my eyes in a hurry. She wasn't nervous. She was terrified.

"I've lost something," she said. Yeah, right. Nothing was ever that simple. Losing stuff doesn't terrify people.

It might scare the hell out of them (had a client once who lost a couple grand belonging to their boss, yeah they'd been scared all right) but this woman was terrified right down to her bones. This was a primal thing that went beyond words like scared and worried.

"Well, lost articles are my speciality," I said, carefully, making sure to sound harmless. Totally nonthreatening. Hell, I was one step from making tea and asking her to tell Auntie Harry what was wrong.

I could do unassuming innocent with the best of them. Okay, maybe the second-best of them, but the point stood.

"My husband." Still not telling me the total truth, but that was nothing new. People didn't open up to private investigators easily. Especially not ones who slapped the moniker of wizard on the door after their name.

Principle, I guess.

Now, I did hesitate. I didn't really do missing people. I hated those kinds of cases. There were a lot of reasons people disappeared. Sometimes, they turned up okay, sometimes the cops found the body, and sometimes―they came to me.

I hated it when they came to me.

"I generally don't handle missing persons cases," I said, cautious. "Have you tried the police?" As soon as the words were out of my mouth I winced, pinching the bridge of my nose. Stupid, stupid, stupid. "I mean―well―" I sighed. "This isn't something they can handle, is it?"

"No," she said. Her voice was quiet, wary, and I resisted the urge to bang my head against the desk. "It's not really―this isn't―it's all so complicated, Ms. Dresden. I'm sorry to have taken your time―it's―"

"All right," I said, bursting in. "I don't usually handle them, but this is different." I put my feet down, sat up straight and I grabbed a pencil. "How about we start with your name and go from there?"

She hesitated and I let out a little grin. People hate giving me their name. They think I can do something to them with it.

They're absolutely right. I can.

It's a thing. Another thing. A person's name is a sacred thing. It's theirs. Even more unique than DNA. Never tell someone your full name. At least, never tell someone like me your full name.

People from my side of the tracks can do things with a person's name. Dangerous things. Just consider it good business sense.

"Monica," she said, finally. She wasn't telling me the truth and I didn't mind. She'd either learn to trust me or she'd realize something important.

If I was going to find her husband, I was going to need to know his name. Just the kind of information that came in handy in these kinds of cases, but I wasn't going to point that out right now.

I might have been a smart ass, but I wasn't a stupid one.

"Okay, Monica," I said, keeping my voice light. "How about you swing by this afternoon? I'll make some tea and we can talk." I had a feeling this wasn't the kind of conversation you had over the phone.

Yeah, I know, I know, I'm stating the obvious, but I do that. Sometimes, if I don't state the obvious, I tend to look right past it and that never ends well at all.

"It doesn't have to go anywhere," I said, "I won't even charge for the time. You can spell things out and we can see if, maybe, I can help at all."

"Yes," 'Monica' said, with some relief. "Thank you."

We debated back and forth around a time. She finally settled on around two-thirty and we hung up. It was fine by me. I could pick up some pizza, have lunch with Mal and Toot, and be ready in plenty of time to talk 'Monica' through her crisis.

Hopefully.

At least I'd have a chance to get the pizza.

-

Ha.

-

I'd barely had the thought of getting pizza before the phone rang again. This time it was Murphy. Lieutenant Karrin Murphy, my contact at the Chicago Police Department. Murphy was five foot nothing, blonde, adorable, and could kick my ass from here to the Pacific Rim and back without ever breaking a sweat.

I had maybe a little crush.

Maybe.

Lieutenant Murphy was in charge of Special Investigations. Basically? The X-Files. She was the Scully to my Mulder and, oh god, I did not mean that in the whole shippy way that everybody was on about, okay?

I'd never even seen an episode (remember, technology hates me with a passion normally reserved for death and taxes and I generally didn't think too fondly of it either, thus televisions and I did not mix) so you know, totally not.

Still, a little bit of a crush.

Right, so Special Investigations lands all the really fun cases. The things no one wants to explain and everyone wants to forget. My territory. When something out of the Nevernever (we'll get to that) decided to go on a rampage, or one of the vampire courts got a little sloppy, or a thousand other possible things showed up to play―Special Investigations got the call.

And so did I.

I worked as a paid consultant to SI sometimes. Well, a lot. Murphy didn't know everything about me, but among the vanilla mortal set, she knew more than most. There were things I couldn't tell her, but I'd not-told her enough. She'd seen enough.

Like I said, most people thought I was either a charlatan or a nutjob. Murphy might've doubted my sanity at times, but not like that. She believed in what I could do. She'd backed me to the department, with her people, and she helped keep a roof over my kid's head.

I liked Murphy.

Which isn't to say I didn't try to weasel out of the job, I did, but two bodies and 'that' tone in Murphy's voice?

Yeah, I'm a sap for a pretty lady. This wasn't exactly news to anyone, me included. Wasn't news to Murphy either, but if she heard me call her a pretty lady, I'd be in deep. Very, very deep.

Pulling on my coat, I grabbed my staff and my blasting road then ducked into the back.

I was immediately confronted by a pretty little blur of light. That, for those still listening, was Toot-Toot. My babysitter, spy, and all around go-to-guy. In days past, I used to call up a circle, lure him into with pizza, but somewhere along the line Toot had figured out my kid liked pizza as much as he did.

That had proven the basis for serious BFF territory. There'd been a day when the first word out of Mal's mouth in the morning was 'Mama'. These days? I was met with a sleepy-eyed boy demanding to know 'Where's Toot?'

Yeah, I'd been thrown over for a faery. Strangely enough, I didn't mind. Toot was a pretty awesome little guy and he'd protect my son to the death. Sure, at six inches of nothing he didn't look like much, but Toot and his buddies had saved my life in the past and I was sure they would again.

Mal was safe with him. I'd buy Toot a million pizzas for that. (The Wee Folk had a thing about pizza. They loved the stuff. And I mean capital L loved.)

"Heya Toot," I said, grinning. "All's well on the home front?"

At the moment, Toot was dressed down. Most of his armor (a bottle-cap helmet, a breastplate shaped out of a Pepto-Bismol bottle and a few other bits and bobs) sat on the coffee table, next to an empty pizza box which had his purple hair on full display. He was adorable. Sure, he could cut you to ribbons if he wanted to, but he was adorable and I was never, ever going to admit that to him.

I held out my hand and he settled into it. "All's well, Harry!" he agreed, relaxing back against my fingers. He laced his own fingers together over his little stomach and grinned at me. "Pizza for lunch?"

"Pizza for lunch," I agreed. "But I have to run out for a little while. Lieutenant Murphy called."

That brought Toot-toot to attention. He flew off my hand in a burst of faery dust that had me sneezing violently. "Hang on, Toot," I called after him, "I don't know if it's anything yet, but I need you to stay here and keep an eye on Mal."

Toot zipped through the air, hovering over the sleeping form on the couch. Poor little guy. I moved to kneel by him, tucking the blanket in closer as I leaned over to kiss his forehead. Still too-warm, but not as bad as earlier. "Can you do that?" I asked, softer, looking up at Toot.

He snapped off a surprisingly perfect salute, alighting on the back of the couch to meet my eyes. I stared back. Most of the time, I wouldn't do that. You know how they say the eyes are the windows to the soul?

For wizards, they are. If I stared into someone's eyes too long, I saw their soul and they saw mine...and they never, ever forgot it.

I didn't get into soulgazes a lot, but the few times I had, most of them hadn't gone well. People tended to react badly to what they saw in mine. I didn't know why, I'd never soulgazed myself, but I tried not to think about it much.

Either way, with Toot-toot and the rest of the fae, it didn't matter as they don't have souls to gaze upon. Add in the fact they can't really comprehend a mortal's (or a wizard's) soul anyway and you had absolutely no possible chance of accidental soulgaze.

Good thing, really. I liked Toot-toot. Most of the fae, aligned and non-aligned, I couldn't really say that about.

"He could be safer with no other!" Toot-toot assured, moving to sit on Mal's hip. "I will protect him to the last!"

I smiled. "I know, Toot," I said. "And you'll be rewarded handsomely." I grinned. "Deep-dish this time."

Toot's eyes widened and I bit my cheek not to laugh. I covered it by kissing Mal again. "Mama's gotta go to work, kiddo," I murmured, smoothing his hair. "Toot's going to keep an eye on you until I get back, okay? I just have to run over and see Aunt Karrin."

Mal's eyes fluttered open and he nodded a little. Drama queen. He was milking this for all he was worth. "Okay," he said, voice a little raspy. "Can she come over later?"

"I'll ask her," I said, smiling. Mal adored Karrin. Karrin adored Mal. Actually, I think Murph liked Mal more than she liked me, but that was okay. I liked Mal more than I liked me. My kid was the poster child for perfection.

Yeah, I was a little biased, but I didn't mind. I was still right.

"Go back to sleep, okay?" I said, standing. "I'll be back before you know it." He didn't fight it, closing his eyes and snuggling down. Mister brushed past me, jumping up to stretch along Mal's legs. I scritched behind his ears as I went by. "You know the drill," I said to Toot. "He doesn't answer the door and he doesn't invite anyone in."

Toot-toot bobbed his assent. "No one shall pass your threshold unchallenged! I will not allow it!"

He wouldn't either. That was Toot. I smiled and locked the door behind me. Thresholds were powerful things in my world. You know the story about vampires needing to be invited in? Yeah, that was truer than you'd think. So was most everything you heard about vampires actually and that wasn't an accident.

Either way, the threshold of a home could be a pretty powerful thing. Could be. Mine was better than most, but still not good enough. Apartments just don't have the permanence of a home, but after three years in it, our threshold had built up to a pretty decent barrier. Add to that the wards I'd woven into it and layered atop each other and most anything magical was going to have a hell of a time getting into my place.

In theory, wards can be breached, and thresholds can be breached too, but crossing a threshold uninvited has consequences.

Most creatures out of the Nevernever can't, neither can vampires, but I could. The only problem was that it meant leaving most of my power behind. I could get in, but I couldn't do much magical when I got there. Neither could anything that forced its way over mine.

Hence why Mal was forbidden to invite anyone in. Mortals can cross a threshold unimpeded. If they needed an invitation, they probably weren't mortal.

Which meant they probably weren't something I wanted in my place or near my little boy.

I wasn't really worried about that today. Toot was there. If Toot-toot promised he wouldn't let Mal invite anyone in, he wouldn't. The pizza might've been a great bonus, but I had a feeling that Toot really did like my kid.

Either way, Mal was as safe as he could be without me there.

Tucking my coat about me, I curled a gloved hand around my staff and headed for the Madison Hotel and Murphy.

-

Murphy met me at the elevator. "One question."

"Just one? Easy pay day," I said, grinning.

She didn't laugh. "You eat yet?"

My grin vanished.

When Murphy started off a consult by asking me if I'd eaten yet, I knew it was going to be bad. I was a scrawny bit of business most days and she did complain that I didn't eat enough, but she didn't do it with the 'please don't yack on my boots, Dresden' look like today.

"Skipped lunch," I grunted, shoving my hands in my pockets and trying to ignore the coppery scent of blood that hung heavy in the air. I looked past her, over her shoulder rather than over the top of her head, and caught a glimpse through the open bedroom door.

Hell's bells but that looked nasty. I started to suck in a steadying breath, looking at the bodies before me, but thought better of it.

I opened my mouth now, something was coming out and it wasn't going to be pleasant.

Not that you could tell in this mess, but I did have my pride. I turned my head away from the grisly sight before me and focused on Murphy instead. Like I said earlier, Murphy is a tiny thing, shorter than me, fair-haired to my dark, curved to my edges and angles, and totally a thousand times scarier than me.

Seriously.

I could flex some magical muscle, but Murphy could break your face. Your face, your neck, your arms, legs, fingers, toes―there wasn't much she couldn't mess up if she wanted to. I didn't comment on that now, we'd traded our usual sarcastic barbs at the door―I'd made height jokes, she'd picked on my coat, it was tradition and we liked it―and the look Murph was giving me was all business.

I tipped my head her partner's way. Detective Carmichael. Not exactly what I'd term as a bad egg, (he tended toward thinking me a crazy, but well-meaning charlatan instead of just a charlatan) but not my biggest fan either and I could already guess what reaction my next words were going to get out of him.

She shrugged and waved a hand.

I made a face and took a closer look at the bodies. My stomach rolled and part of me started screaming somewhere in the back of my mind, but I held both in check and smiled in 'don't say I didn't warn you' fashion before saying, "At first blush, I'm going with black."

"Magic?" Carmichael finished behind me, a snort of derision following up the words.

I rolled my eyes and kept going. "Unless the sex really was that explosive? Yeah, black magic." Which wasn't good. There were degrees to black magic―not that certain wizarding councils cared―and this was as black as the black got.

This was a violation of the First Law. Someone had murdered with magic and they had done it with a hell of a lot of hate. So much I could almost feel it hanging in the air along with the smell of the blood.

The White Council was going to blow a gasket. Hell, they were going to blow fifty gaskets and I was probably going to get a sword at my neck again. Yeah...I'll explain that later.

I made the mistake of looking at the bodies and shuddered again. "Can we do this―" I turned toward the door and Murphy joined me, guiding me toward it with a hand against my back. "I'd really rather not embarrass myself."

Yeah, see? I was a real stone-cold killer. A minute in a room with two corpses and I was ready to toss my cookies.

I'd heard TV had gotten pretty damn gruesome over the past few years. I'd seen a few episodes of The X-Files (and I mean a few. Try watching TV when you fry them before the first commercial) that bore that out, but that was nothing like what was in that bedroom. The smell of blood was so thick I thought I might choke on it and those bodies―stars, I could practically feel the hate vibrating off of them.

I stepped outside the door, looked at the wall behind me, then slumped against it when I decided it was clear. Pressing my hands to my knees, I closed my eyes, pictured my son's face and tried damn hard not to embarrass myself in front of all the nice officers.

Mostly because, generally, they all hated me. Murphy had taken a hell of a risk bringing me into things. She'd fought to make Lieutenant and been awarded a dead end command as a result; hiring me seemed like career suicide when you looked at it objectively. Scuttlebutt had us knocking boots most of the time which amused me to no end. Murph could totally do better than a scrawny wizard like myself.

Still, I was aware of the scrutiny which meant so was Murphy and she kept on calling me. If she could handle it, the least I could do was show up and not make any lesbian jokes.

Carmichael surprised me by pressing a bucket into my hands. "Go ahead," he said, gruff. "You're not going to be the first one today."

I opened my eyes, wary, but I managed to smile at him. Saying he wasn't a good egg might've been putting it mildly, but I wasn't going to look a gift bucket in the―and that was a metaphor we were all better off not hearing. Either way, Carmichael pretty much defined jackass, but I wouldn't do Murphy any favours by joining in. "Thank you."

He shrugged turning away to give me a minute. I didn't need that long. I threw up as quietly as I could, dug in my pockets for a handkerchief and came up with some Burger King napkins. Good. I cleaned up and dumped them into the can, covering the mess. No need to make some poor kid's day even worse than it already was.

"Don't say it," I said when I was done.

Carmichael grunted. "Never said a thing."

"No, but don't tell me you weren't on the verge of suggesting I shouldn't be here," I said. Try as I might, and okay I wasn't trying very hard, annoyance was creeping into my tone. Carmichael was old school. Even if he didn't think Murphy was totally throwing her girlfriend a few extra bucks with this wizard gig, he definitely had 'ideas' about how I should be earning a living.

Trolling around crime scenes, puking in buckets, and talking about black magic weren't among them.

"From there it would've been another suggestion about that cousin and her shop," I actually managed to smile. "It isn't that I don't appreciate it." I did. Most days Carmichael treated me like a person―albeit a person who was female and possibly out of her mind―and that was a hell of a step up from the rest of them.

"But this is what you do and I should shut up about it?"

"Something like that," I said. For a second, I almost laughed, but we'd done this dance before and I wasn't in the mood. "It's not what I do, Detective, it's who I am and pretending to be otherwise isn't going to do a damn thing for my son but teach him to be ashamed of his birthright. I'm never going to do that. As for shutting up, I was going to suggest you work on accepting it, but shutting up I can go with." I put bucket aside. "I'm not going anywhere and, believe me, looking at this? You don't want me to."

With my stomach under control I returned to the door and took in the details as best I could. Hell's bells, but it was a mess. They'd been caught in the middle of the act, which made sense as the height of the passion would have fed the spell and made the job just that much easier. Sex has power. As much as everyone talked about how sex sells, most of them missed the inherent power in the act.

Whatever trappings you dressed it up in, sex was the act of people coming together. Bodies joined, and generated energy; auras and souls mixed up together until you couldn't tell where one left off and the other started.

There was power in that. A lot of it. Justin had known it and used the teenaged fumblings of his two wards to unwittingly feed more than one of his spells. My stomach lurched again and I shut my eyes, forcing the memories back into the little box that was their usual home.

That done, I tried to refocus. Sex had power and the person behind the spell had known that. Known it and used it to make things that much gorier. I looked at the woman where she'd slumped astride her lover. Rigor mortis had set in sometime in the night, freezing them almost perfectly in position, but not in time. Their deaths had turned their passion into a parody, twisted up in the worst of ways, and my heart went out to them.

Think, Harry. Think. Don't think about them. Think about what happened.

Yeah, that wasn't going to work, but I could at least try. I leaned over, taking in the lean, powerful form of the man beneath her. I couldn't see his face, but his body was marked with scars and a strength that didn't come from the gym. This was a guy used to using his body, not that it had saved him in the end.

I saw a tattoo on his arm and bent closer. It took squinting to make the pattern out through the blood that had spilled over it, but I managed and committed the design to memory too. It was old, unlikely to have anything to do with the actual spell, but Murph was paying me good money to do this and that meant doing it right.

I exhaled, drew a breath in through my mouth, and resolutely tried not to urge as I let my gaze travel up again. Both their rib cages had bloomed outward, as if something had exploded inside them, forcing their ribs to bow out through their skin. It had been bloody. Arterial spray was everywhere, floor to ceiling and it covered everything. Even the pulpy mess in their chests.

Ah.

"Their hearts exploded."

"Yeah," Carmichael said behind me. "Here's hoping they didn't know what hit them."

"They didn't," I said. "They didn't have time. This kind of spell hit hard and fast." I looked at Murphy and bit the inside of my cheek, quelling the urge to apologize. The White Council was going to be all over this and I'd told her a lot, I'd let her uncover even more, but not them.

Think of the White Council as Fight Club. The first rule of the Council was "Don't talk about the Council." (The first rule is not to be confused with the First Law, which also came into play here. That one was using magic to kill.)

The Wardens, the Council's legal arm, would be on this in short order, assuming they weren't already. "This was a person," I said, almost as much to myself as to Murphy. "Not a creature or a demon. This was a person and they were really pissed off." And whoever they were, they were already dead.

Wizarding law was a happily draconian like that. You killed with magic; you died. There was a trial, there was evidence, and there was a conviction. The White Council made Texas look like a bunch of pansies. There were no appeals. If you were convicted then you were executed. Do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars; it was the sword for you.

I gulped at the memory of my own trial. Yeah, I still had my head. I hadn't been convicted, but most of the Council thought it was a technicality. I had killed Justin DuMorne and I didn't dispute it.

The thing of it was, though, it had been self-defense.

I'll get to that later, too.

"You don't look so good, Harry," Murphy said, stepping closer.

"I'm not," I said. "It's hard to explain."

"Not really―" Murphy nodded her head at the room and I shook mine in response. "Then what?"

"Magic is life, Murph," I said, slipping into the nickname without really realizing it. I winced, but kept on going. "It's everything around you. My kid's laughter, birdsong outside your window, the sun in the sky, it's everything about the world. It is the world. Doing something like this with it―it's perverse. More than perverse, it's spitting in the eye of Mother Nature herself and then kicking her in the shins for good measure. Whoever did this―" I shook my head again. "Stars, Murphy, they're twisted up inside. Bad."

It seemed arrogant to say it, but I had to find this guy and I had to find him fast. Murphy couldn't put this one in cuffs. This was not the sort of guy who'd go meek and mildly to a jail cell. I didn't want to see what he'd make of the Special Investigations crowd. Better he face wizarding justice than the vanilla equivalent.

Which said something right there. I wasn't the White Council's biggest fan, but I'd hand this one over with a smile on my face. I knew what would happen (black hood, debates raging all around, the sharp sound of a sword being drawn) and I'd still hand them over in a heartbeat.

"How'd they do it?" Murphy asked.

"Thaumaturgy," I said. "Short hand? Make a representation of someone, get something that's uniquely theirs―say blood, hair, fingernails―and put that into the representation. Whatever you do to it? Happens to them."

"Like a voodoo doll?"

"Pretty much." I paused, looking back at them. "I know this isn't going to come as much of a shock, but your killer knew the victims."

Carmichael's response to that was a snort. "This is what you pay her fifty bucks an hour for?" he asked, looking at Murphy. "Thama-whatsit and Criminology 101? Christ, Murphy, they're going to have your head on a pike if you put this in a report."

I rolled my eyes. Like I said, Carmichael was better than most, but I should probably add that he's better in the way a hangnail is better than having your finger chopped off. "Their hearts exploded. There are all sorts of ways to kill a person with black magic." Thousands of years of wizards and warlocks tap-dancing their way through history? There were almost as many ways to kill with magic as there were wizards willing to do it. The methods they chose usually told you as much about the wizard doing the casting as their choice of victims did and this one was seriously, seriously pissed off. "Your killer chose one that needed more than just ritual. It needed a ton of rage and hate. You don't get that kind of hate going because someone cuts you off in traffic."

"Yeah, well, trust me, this guy had plenty of people out there that hated him."

It was more the look on Murphy's face than Carmichael's comment that got me. She flicked her eyes at me and then away at the floor and I had the kind of sinking feeling that Wile E. Coyote usually felt right before he looked down and realized he'd run off the cliff.

"He did," I said, trying to ignore that feeling. "But what about her?"

Anyone out there have a little help sign? I suspected I was about to need one.

Murphy waved Carmichael off with a quick look and I shot one of my own, albeit more with the longing, in the direction of the door. Whatever my friends and acquaintances might tell you, I did have a healthy sense of self-preservation and it was telling me to get out of here and forget the last hour.

I had just decided that I wouldn't even bill Murphy for it, generous soul that I am, when she grabbed my arm.

"Don't even think about it Dresden," she warned. "I still need to know how this happened."

"Not going to be easy," I said. "I'll need some time to do some research." And to figure out a way to do that research without Morgan coming down on me like the force of God's own thunder. Investigating ways of making someone's heart explode would be bad enough for any wizard. For a wizard under the Doom of Damocles, it was a whole other matter altogether.

This case could get my head chopped off. At least that kept with the theme, though, since it was already fixing to take my legs out from under me.

"The victims," Murphy said, ignoring my comment. Which, for her, meant the matter was already settled and, yes, I was going to do it. Which I was. I just needed to be careful about it. I'd rather argue with Morgan than Murphy anyway.

I liked yelling at him. Which, really, did a lot to explain his eagerness to kill me. I wasn't a nice lady most days.

Most days I could barely be considered an actual lady, really. When she wasn't trying to turn me into a hound, my godmother despaired of my appalling lack of manners.

Yes, I said turn me into a hound. My life has layers

"Yes, the victims. Whatever you're trying to tell me, Murphy, you might as well come out with it. I get any weaker in the knees and I'm going to do something really embarrassing like faint in front of all these strapping young men."

"We think the man was the main target," Murphy said. She looked sideways at me, wary, and I got it a second before she asked, "Did you recognize him?"

I briefly considered making a bad joke about gore, but even I'm not that bad. I shrugged, shaking my head. "You know me, Murph, when was the last time I dated? Or ended up in a situation where dates might be suggested? My awareness with the male half of Chicago's population pretty much begins and ends with the guys of SI."

Her lips suggested she was considering a grin, but it never materialized. That serious, somber look of hers chased it right off her face. "His name's Thomas Edward Thompson. Most people just know him as Tommy Tomm."

"And...?"

"And he was one of Johnny Marcone's bodyguards."

Ah.

The world didn't literally drop out from beneath my feet, but believe me, I knew exactly what poor old Wile E. must have felt. Let me tell you, children, plummeting toward a canyon with a roadrunner laughing its ass off as you fall is not a good way to go out.

"John."

After the name had slipped out of me, I glanced warily in Carmichael's direction, belatedly realizing I could get myself in serious trouble with that kind of familiarity. Worse, I could get Murphy in a lot of trouble.

Her pet wizard looking like she was in Gentleman Johnny's pocket just wouldn't have gone well with the higher ups. (Funny, since most of them actually are in John's pocket)

Gentleman Johnny Marcone. John Marcone. My John.

John ran the action in the city. All of it. Anybody remember the Kingpin in Daredevil? Secret, mysterious underworld type who controlled all the action in New York City? John Marcone was the Chicago equivalent―albeit, in theory, a less violent version.

A few years back, the Vargassi syndicate had fallen apart in some serious internal strife. I hadn't paid much attention to it back then, the Outfit wasn't really one of my interests, but no one had missed the change. John Marcone was the guy who'd seized control, installed himself at the top, and then set about to completely transform the Chicago underworld.

He mostly had. The cops and the DA didn't know whether to arrest the guy or send him flowers. Nobody had to like him, but they all agreed that, maybe, just maybe Marcone at the top of the Chicago mob was better than the alternative. Gentleman Johnny ran a neat show, didn't like freelancers in his city, and he kept the bloodshed to an absolute minimum. He was sleek, deadly, and absolutely untouchable.

He was also my son's father.

Yeah, I could pick 'em, couldn't I?

-

I left the hotel not long after that. There hadn't been much else to say even before Murphy had dropped her bombshell on me. She'd followed it up with the less stunning revelation that the girl with Tommy had been Jennifer Stanton. Jennifer happened to work for The Velvet Room, a high-class and equally high-priced escort service run by Bianca.

I knew Bianca in a roundabout way. Her being a vampire, seriously bad news, and the ambitious sort. I'd told Murphy about her before, part of my 'welcome to Dresdenland, please keep your head and limbs inside the vehicle as they just might get bitten off' speech back in the day, but we both agreed it wasn't likely that she was involved.

Possible, yes, but Bianca was smart as well as ambitious. She'd stayed clear of me and mine over the past few years, almost White Court in her Council-avoiding machinations, which said she wasn't stupid. She didn't like the White Council much, would've been only too happy to see us all wiped off the map, but she picked her battles.

Murder by black magic just didn't seem her style. Not when it meant that the White Council would be all over it and, by my connection to Murphy, so would I.

I might've had a small reputation in Chicago's magical underworld. Being one of the few wizards on the planet with a Doom over your head had that kind of effect.

Either way, not likely to be Bianca, so that had left me speculating as to the identity of the killer, but almost everything I'd said had been glorified guesswork and I didn't want to mess with their theories (okay, Carmichael and company taking their potshots didn't appeal to me much either). I wasn't going to know more until I dug into the spell and got a look at the inner workings.

Magic is an intimate thing. Like I said before, you can tell a lot about a practitioner by the choices they make. From the choice of spell and how they construct it right down to their weapons of choice in a fight. It's actually fascinating and part of the process I loved. Digging into spells, pulling them apart, and taking a look at how everything fits together is almost addictive. As you can guess, I pretty much loved that kind of stuff.

However, that got forgotten in the rush back home. I was late. I was going to miss 'Monica' if I wasn't careful. I picked up the pace, long legs eating up the concrete, brooding with every step.

Wizards are a grouchy lot when we want to be and I wanted to be a lot. I'm no Oscar the Grouch, mind, but I liked a good bit of grumpy now and again. Spending a decade with a Doom hanging over your head entitled a girl to it, I felt, especially when you had a little boy depending on you for everything.

And there lay the source of the day's brooding. Malcolm. Mal. My little Malcontent. My world. I adored my son, would walk through fire for the little guy, and I'd devoted the past few years to getting us up and running. We'd made a good life for ourselves in Chicago; the shop wasn't a huge moneymaker but we got by, and I was proud of that.

At least, I usually was. Now, I felt defensive. Grumpy.

I felt John looking over my shoulder.

When you're sixteen years old and still idealistic enough to believe your powerful guardian actually had your best interests at heart, you can do some really stupid things. When you've got magical abilities, you can do some really, really stupid things, and I almost had. Almost, because I'd run into the young, swaggering hood that would be king and John had done a lot to keep sweet little Harriet Dresden out of trouble.

Okay, not really, but he'd minimized it. Even if we were from two completely different worlds (in his mind, that meant uptown girl, downtown boy. In mine? Yeah, in mine it was a whole other story) we weren't that far apart in age.

Mal's existence told the tale of how that had gone. One thing had led to another and John had made Harry a real girl. In doing so, he'd foiled half a dozen of Justin's plans and probably kicked off our respective worlds going 'boom' but that wasn't the point. John was Mal's father and, while I'd been struggling to build a life for me and my son, he'd gone and risen through the ranks of the Chicago mob to―well, where he was.

John had a fancy mansion, a legion of bodyguards, businesses, and enemies. I had the enemies, a cat, and a run down building in a semi-shady section of town. Ignoring the reason behind the enemies and the bodyguards, John's life looked a good deal better for a little boy than mine did. Especially when you could buy yourself a family court judge real cheap.

I scowled. I was scared. The potential existed for John's path to cross with mine now and I was scared. John had all the power in the world to take Mal away from me and, although he hadn't done so, part of me was petrified he was going to try.

The fun part in all of that was the Wardens. Two people, one of whom was connected to my son's father, had been murdered by black magic. I was, as far as I knew, one of the more talented practitioners in town. With the Doom of Damocles hanging over my head, I was going to be Morgan's prime suspect and there was a good chance that John wouldn't need to lift a finger to get Mal.

All he had to do was wait for the Wardens to behead me and it was all good.

I was panicking. John wouldn't try to take Mal and the Wardens couldn't prove anything because I hadn't done anything. The biggest thing I had to worry about was the killer himself and, well, embarrassing Murphy.

Believe me, that was a fear that had dogged me every step from the moment we'd first crossed paths. Murphy was a good cop. The best. She deserved to go right to the top and take every honor on the way.

The problem was she'd been too good, too clean, and all that fighting her way to Lieutenant had gotten her was command of Special Investigations. SI was where the CPD dumped 'problems' like Karrin Murphy. They threw the weirdest and the wackiest at those cops until they either burned out or fucked up. Either way, they didn't tend to last long in the job. Not until Murphy. Murphy had taken the weird shit seriously, she'd hired me, and she'd gone to town.

Her only mistake was my having a mob boss as a baby daddy even if I'd been upfront and honest with Murphy about that from go. Well, I had been but it had taken me a while before I connected the fact Chicago's Gentleman and my John were one and the same.

There was a signed, sealed letter explaining everything somewhere in Murphy's office. Proof that I'd officially notified Special Investigations of my personal connections to John Marcone. It was the only such proof in existence and was only meant to cover Murphy's ass should someone find out and use it against her.

Up until now, Mal's parentage had been a non-issue for us, but I had a feeling it might not be this time. John and I had no contact. He didn't see Mal, he didn't contact me, so there wasn't much chance of him using any influence against me. It had been almost ten years since I'd seen him. Not since the night before I'd killed Justin and the White Council had taken me into custody.

Right. I should explain that.

It's not a pretty picture. Not many of mine are. Things went like this: my mother died giving birth to me, my father had died a few years later of an aneurysm, and I'd gone into foster care for a couple of years until my magic decided to manifest itself relatively early at the age of ten.

When that happened, Justin DuMorne showed up and took me in as his apprentice. He'd already had one apprentice―Elaine―but that hadn't slowed him down for a second. Justin was wealthy by mortal and wizard standards alike, a powerful practitioner, and a complete fraud.

Pick a community, mortal or magical, they both thought he was a saint. He was a respected business man and benefactor in the mortal world and in the magical world he was a Warden. One of those cops I mentioned. He was respected by most, feared by some, and lying to every last one of us.

He'd been abusing Elaine and me to varying degrees from go. I didn't know it then, but he'd been manipulating Elaine's mind for years. To this day, I'm not sure if Elaine's feelings for me were real or if Justin had impressed them on her.

Either way, he'd tricked us into a fledgling teenage relationship of fumbling touches, half-laughed kisses, and soft whispered moments in the dark.

I'd no way of knowing then that the emotions generated by those stolen moments were being used to fuel rituals and spells anymore than I could have know that some nights, it wasn't enough and Elaine had gone into that chamber with someone else. Someone who would touch her and use her until Justin had the power he needed.

I hadn't known anything about that until the night he'd tried it with me. The night he'd tried to rape me while trying to enthrall me as he had Elaine.

The night I killed him and the White Council had taken me into custody. They hadn't known what Justin was doing; he'd done a damn good job of fooling everyone myself included. And they had reacted with predictable fury.

I'd killed one of their own. A sixteen-year-old girl had murdered a respected Warden and she'd used black magic to do it. They'd hated me then and they hated me now.

I'll never forget that night, standing before the council in clothes still stained with blood and mud from my fight with He Who Walks Behind, a black hood covering my head, and shaking with the cold as I waited for someone to tell me if I was going to live or die.

That was the night I'd found out I was carrying John's child.

Sixteen, pregnant, and a murderer. Gee, wouldn't my mother be proud?

Maybe she would. After all, that grandchild saved my life.

Like I said earlier. You kill with magic then your life is forfeit. The Council is clear on that one. Justin raped me, yes, but I'd murdered him and I'd used black magic to do it. His. I'd turned it around on him, I'd beaten back him and the demonic assassin he'd sent after me, and I'd done it all at the tender age of sixteen. A traumatized sixteen at that. I was powerful and I was dangerous. I was a threat and I was a big one.

I scared the hell out of the Council, but not even the Council would execute a pregnant sixteen-year-old girl.

I'd haltingly told my story, crying all the while, not even aware I was pregnant until Ancient Mai had flat out said so in the course of the trial. I'd fallen to my knees then, arms curled around my stomach, clinging to a child I was convinced I'd never see and sobbing out apologies to him.

The Council can be a bunch of cold-hearted bastards, but even they wouldn't go that far. Not when they verified my story and Éabha McCoy had volunteered to take me in. She'd vouched for me―putting her own neck on the line in the process―and I'd gone home with her to Missouri.

I never got the chance to tell John about the baby. I hadn't known what had happened to him, not until Mal and I had moved back to Chicago, the mess with the Vargassi family had hit the roof, and I'd opened up the newspaper to see my son's father proclaimed the boss of bosses.

I hadn't known what to do about that. I hadn't. I still didn't. I didn't want my son anywhere near the Outfit and I didn't think John did either. There was no way he'd missed me moving back into the city. No way he'd missed the fact I had a little boy with eyes like his. John wasn't stupid.

Neither was I.

He knew. He had to know. He knew and he hadn't made contact. Hadn't tried.

I had a feeling that was about to change. His world had just been yanked into mine and if Gentleman Johnny had even an inkling of my John left in him, then he was going to be pissed as hell about his man's death...

And no way in the world was he going to want me anywhere near it.

Tough.

-

Hell's bells, but I hated being right sometimes.

Thugs. Not good. Thugs in expensive suits, toting impressive firearms that spoke of overcompensation? Ah, a lunch date with my ex. How fun. Exactly what I needed to make my day complete.

The Madison was only a few blocks away from the shop so I'd walked over and I'd planned on walking back. Being I was late meeting up with 'Monica' (gee, thanks Murph) I was closer to running. By the looks the thugs were giving me, I'd probably made them work for it―some days, being tall and having freakishly long legs came in handy―and I supposed I should probably feel sorry about that.

Yeah, not so much really.

"Look guys, I'm kind of having a day here, okay?" I spread my hands, smiling all innocent and pretty like, as benign as benign could be. Mostly, this was a gambit that worked for me. Misogyny and the modern age had done a lot for covering a girl's magical ass. Two very key reasons the White Council hadn't come after me about the wizard in the yellow pages thing: most people just didn't believe in magic anymore and even less saw a woman as a threat.

Mafia goons? Had both of those covered in spades. Women didn't have much place in their world as I'd seen it and the closest they got to this kind of power was the occasional trip to Mass. The very occasional trip or they'd have a better idea of what went on behind that particular spiritual curtain. If they had, knowing what they do, they'd never set foot inside the door.

Remember that friend? My carpentry buddy? Yeah, well, technically he's an appointed warrior of God with an actual holy sword and, believe me, the kind of faith a wizard can feel a block away. Faith has power. Faith can give even your average vanilla mortal some serious juice. Lucky for us, most of them have absolutely no idea just how much they're actually rocking.

With that in mind I was reasonably sure I could handle them if needed be. Stars, I could have taken them out with the ring on my pinky finger―literally.

I didn't wear much jewelry as a rule, but each piece I did wear had purpose. My mother's pentacle hung around my neck and, on my fingers, were a few force rings. I'd designed them years ago to gather up kinetic energy, sneaking bits and pieces of it from every move my arms made, and store it within themselves.

They didn't look like much, but they packed a hell of a wallop when I triggered them.

I wasn't going to, but it was nice to have the option.

"You need to get in the car, Miss," one said. He'd had his nose broken a few times. I could hear it in his voice. Ouch. Hope John had good insurance.

"No, I need to get back to my office," I said, smiling too wide. Anyone who knew me would recognize it. I was smiling my 'Gee, it's been a whole forty-five minutes since I've done anything vastly unwise, better get on that' smile. Yes, I really did have one of those. Murphy said so. "Move please."

"Sure," the other one said, glowering. "Just as soon as you get in the car."

I looked from one to the other and then sighed, folding my arms. "I suppose saying something rude wouldn't help matters, huh?"

He glowered all the more. "Not unless you want me to forget my manners."

I rolled my eyes. "Fine, Cujo, but be aware―this totally puts you on my shitlist."

"I'll live," he said, then, stars, helped me into the car.

I scowled in response. A girl has to have some recourse and if I couldn't blast him into the pavement, it would have to do. He winked at me and closed the door. Right, so I hated chivalry like a lot and I'd be having words with Cujo later, but right now I had bigger problems. I sucked in a breath, squared my shoulders, and made myself look at the man across from me. "Make it quick, John, I have a meeting."

It sounded so calm and flippant in my head. Mostly, it came out that way. Except for the part where my voice totally bailed on me at the end, right around the same time I looked John in the eyes and my stomach decided to suckerpunch me.

God, he looked good.

He looked really good. Good enough that my heart started pounding in my chest, my mouth went a little dry, and I felt a flush start working its way up my neck with the eventual goal of my hairline. Damn it. I'd never been good at poker and I probably never would be.

John, however, was another story entirely. Sitting there in his Levis and a sport coat, relaxed and tanned, with just enough gray at his temples to raise my blood pressure a little, he looked as calm and at ease as if we saw each other every Tuesday. Looking at him there was no sign that this was the first time in nearly a decade that we'd breathed the same air.

Not like the last time he'd seen me, I'd been naked, curled in his arms, my skin damp with sweat from his loving me.

Jerk.

I felt like kicking him just on the principle alone. He was supposed to be miserable. He was supposed to be miserable and missing me with every breath. He wasn't supposed to be sitting atop the Chicago Outfit, looking like a million bucks, as comfortable as a king on a throne.

He wasn't supposed to be smiling at me. "It's good to see you again, Harry," he said.

I wanted to kick him so hard his grandmother would feel it. I didn't, but damn I felt like it. Instead, I mirrored him. I sat there and looked as relaxed as I could, watching him silently. The ball was in his court and I wasn't going to give him a single clue as to how to use it. Mostly because I had no idea how to use it.

All those years in Missouri with Eb had given me plenty of time to think and, sometimes, I'd thought about John. I thought about how I'd just disappeared. I thought about how we'd gotten up from that bed, dressed slowly and reluctantly, and I'd gone home to find Elaine sitting on the couch in the grip of Justin's power and my world had blown apart.

I thought about that now. My stomach twisted with the memory of He Who Walks Behind, of my godmother's lying touch, and the feeling of flames exploding around me as Justin had died.

John would have come. I imagined him standing over the burned ruin of Justin's once-luxurious home, watching the firemen search for bodies, and never knowing what really happened to me.

Not until I turned up in Nick Christian's employ with a preschooler in tow. A preschooler with eyes the colour of money.

I relented with a soft sigh and started digging around in my pocket. My pockets are always full. Between the Mommy job and the Wizard job, I was forever in need of something and that meant my coat had everything shy of the kitchen sink.

Including a small envelope that I produced to give him. I'd been carrying it around for years, adding to it regularly, without ever really admitting to myself what it was doing there and why I was carrying it.

I was quiet as I handed it over, watching that practised smile fade as he looked at picture after picture of Mal. I had nothing to say. I didn't know what to say. There weren't words for a situation like ours and the ones I did have, Morgan would cut off my head for uttering. I couldn't.

I just hoped he saw the truth of that in his eyes. "I can't tell you what happened," I said, finally. "If I do―" I spread my hands and looked away. I didn't know if he'd understand. I was afraid to ask. I sucked in a breath. "There are reasons not of my choosing."

John said nothing in response as he handled the envelope, but I thought I saw his hands shake a little when one final picture slid out. A sixteen year old me cradling my newborn son. His newborn son.

Eb had taken it. I was mystified as all get out that the camera had worked for that one. Giving birth is one of those things, a moment of creation so pure that almost nothing can touch it and there'd been enough magic in the air to choke a metaphorical horse.

"He knows about you," I continued, quietly. "I've told him as much as I could." I pressed my hands flat on my legs. John wasn't the only one shaking. "You can tell him the rest yourself"

That brought his eyes to me with a snap and my breath drained out of me in a rush. We'd soulgazed years ago, there was no chance of that now, but it didn't matter. I felt the impact of that look like it was one, letting the emotions in it slam through me with all the ferocity they had, and I didn't fight it.

I deserved it, really. I hadn't kept Mal from him, but I hadn't gone out of my way either. Cowardice, thy name is Dresden.

Really.

"And, no, I won't stay out of the matter." I brushed a hand over his leg as I moved. "They used black magic, John, and that's a violation of the Laws." I didn't smile, as I put emphasis on 'Laws', it was more a baring of teeth than anything, and god, it was a good thing Morgan was nowhere around to hear me say this. "And they used it against my family." Which just pisses me off.

Before he could argue, I slid from the car. Cujo was waiting outside, but one look out of me quelled whatever he would say. It wasn't fear, though. He'd heard me.

I looked at him, he looked back, and we nodded in understanding.

Good enough for me.

The car's radio squealed in protest as I walked away, ruining a perfectly good dramatic exit.

I winced.

-

I didn't like what John did. I trained as a PI, I know pretty much everything about his business that I could ever want to know and I hated it. I hated everything about it. It hurt people, he hurt people, and I hated it with everything I had.

All the more because part of me understood it. Part of me accepted it. There was no denying the effectiveness of his, well, rule. Chicago's streets were quieter, contained, and people like me understood that even more than people like Murphy did. Society-generated law and order was a transient thing. It could change a dozen times with each generation that grew up beneath it. Something might be illegal today, but not tomorrow, and vice versa.

The power John had built around himself echoed something older than that and that was what scared me about those bodies.

Some criminals are stupid and I mean stupid. So stupid you wonder how they managed to find their way down the birth canal. They'd challenge anything and anybody just to prove they had the bigger balls.

Those guys get caught or killed pretty damn fast, but most criminals aren't like that. Chicago criminals aren't like that.

They'd learned quick what Gentleman Johnny expected of Chicago and their behaviour within it. They learned to toe the line, figured out where the boundaries were, and they knew the penalties for crossing any of them. They knew better than I did.

Almost no one dared to cross John Marcone anymore. No one wanted to risk the consequences of that.

Until now.

Someone had committed murder by magic, by the worst black magic out there, and had struck at someone close to John. They wanted him to know. It was a message more than a murder.

John's Chicago and mine was, in theory, the same city; in practice, not so much. There were people and places within its borders that he'd never heard of, never seen, and had no inkling existed. His power, as such, was grounded in a Chicago that knew nothing of vampires, werewolves, or ghosts and goblins. A ghoul was just a Halloween costume. His organization wouldn't have had the foggiest clue what to do with a Red or White Court vampire (Stoker had taken care of the Black Court. Seriously. Thanks to some messy vampire politics, Stoker had the complete skinny on taking out a Black Court vampire) and the Sidhe would wipe them out within minutes.

If you were vanilla human, you couldn't touch John Marcone. If you were someone like me, you could do it from the other side of the world.

I was still thinking about that when I skidded around the corner and found 'Monica', or at least the woman I thought was her, writing a note. I caught myself on the door, grinned at her, and waved a hand. "Sorry about that," I said, breathless. "I consult for the police at times and―" I cut off the explanation, not wanting to get into it too much. "It's been a bit of a day."

"You consult for the police?" Her eyebrows rose with that one and I wasn't quite sure what to make of her reaction. I wasn't quite sure what to make of her period. She was around my age, maybe a little older, beautiful, and, well, perfect. Perfect appearance, perfect clothing, perfect composure; she looked as if she'd stepped off a magazine page somewhere.

Other than the fact I couldn't have managed that kind of composure on my best day (even with a team of Wee Folk helping) I couldn't quite pin down what bothered me about that, but something did.

"On occasion," I said, letting the matter slip to the back of my thoughts, there to be chewed over by my subconscious along with a few other problems of similar vagueness. "Come in," I unlocked the door, offering my most professional smile. "Let me get us some coffee and we can talk for a while."

Which we did. Monica never quite looked me in the eyes―most people didn't, even without knowledge of soul-gazing, I unnerved people―but she did talk. Under intense pressure after losing his job and developing a marked interest in 'magic', her husband had been missing for three days. It almost sounded like the typical midlife crisis rearing its ugly head, but―

But like Monica herself, there was something about the whole thing that just didn't fit. Granted, I needed the money and I was going to take the case anyway, but I was interested. I explained my rates (fifty an hour plus expenses) and I got as much information from her as I could get.

Considering even getting his real name was a battle, I didn't get much. He wasn't on speaking terms with most of his family, he had next to no friends and hadn't been speaking to them since he'd been fired―the most promising of all of it seemed to be the address of their summer home near Lake Providence.

Monica left me with three envelopes. The first contained my retainer, the second contained a photograph of herself with her husband as well as a phone number by which to contact her, and the third―well, the third contained a personal item he'd left behind.

When I upended the envelope and the dried husk of a scorpion slid out onto my desk, I jumped. "What the hell?"

It was dead, but I wasn't taking any chances. It was covered in some kind preservative glaze and threaded onto a leather cord through a ring in its tail, which said something downright creepy right there. Scorpions had a lot of power in some circles and none of it good. A talisman like this one could be used to do some pretty nasty spells.

"So," I said, threading a pencil through the ring and holding the scorpion up before me, "Just what were you digging into, Victor?"

There was a chance Victor didn't know what this thing could do and it had been nothing more than a little trinket for a wannabe, but I didn't think so. The only way to verify if it'd been used in ritual or not was to put some power through the thing and, yeah, that wasn't happening.

I shook my head and dropped it into the top drawer on my desk. Locking it was second nature after years of little fingers poking where they weren't supposed to be. That done, I grabbed the phone book and started calling the morgues.

First things first.

-

I hadn't gotten far, most of the big hospitals, when I went cold. A sliver of magic, one of my own making, shot through me and I was on my feet before I'd even thought to stand. The wards around the apartment were active.

I bolted from my office and down the hall, fear setting my heart to a breakneck pace. Wards were the magical equivalent of barbed wire fences, meant to keep out whatever you wanted out. I had them everywhere you could imagine and set to keep out any number of things. I had wards on every level and every entrance, set to differing levels of protection and security. It helped knowing what I was going to be facing.

Whoever had triggered the apartment's wards was human. The front door and the exterior walls were heavily warded against supernatural beings, but meant to permit vanilla mortals passage while the wards around the apartment itself would keep everything out. Only a handful of people were permitted passage through those. Myself, Murphy, Mal, and Toot pretty much covered it.

Eb could do it, but she was in Missouri and she knew better than to show up unannounced. No, this was someone else. Someone who had made it past the outer wards, but gotten stopped by the ones at the apartment itself.

Someone human who didn't have safe passage through the wards. That was a pretty damn short list.

Skidding on the floor, I burst into the hall that separated the office from the apartment. A second later I was slumped against the wall, holding my sides as I laughed myself sick.

To be fair, if you'd seen what I had, you'd be laughing too.

Which was to say Toot-toot and his compatriots divesting two mobsters of their many weapons. "Well," I said, breathless, "I admit, I didn't see this one coming." Which, no, I really hadn't. I'd expected a visit from John within a day or two, but this fast?

"You could've called," I said to the back of his head. I was a little annoyed, but the sight of Gentleman Johnny Marcone being held prisoner by a bunch of tiny faeries was, well, the next time I needed to fold up some sunlight, I'd be calling up this memory to do it. "Knocked at least."

John tried to turn his head toward me, but Toot was having none of it. "I said freeze, scumbag!" he announced, putting a perfect New York accent on the words.

I raised an eyebrow. "Toot, have you been watching movies with Mrs. Spunkelcrief again?" It wouldn't be the first time, but I couldn't really complain. Part of the reason I'd fallen in with the Wee Folk like I had was their tendency for being everywhere and seeing everything. If anyone anywhere did anything, it was a safe bet that one of the Wee Folk saw them do it and for the right slice, Toot could be persuaded to find them and tell me about it.

He grinned at me. "It's okay, Harry! She never sees us. She always falls asleep."

I shook my head. There wasn't any point in arguing with him. "All right, good job on this by the way," I said, waving a hand at John and Cujo, "but you can let them go now. They're, uh, friends―sort of."

"Friends?" Toot frowned. "Sort of?" He gave me that 'humans are crazy and you are the worst of the bunch' look. "You don't make sense, Harry."

"So everyone tells me," I sighed. "It's okay, Toot, just head on in and figure out what toppings we want." I brandished the envelope containing Monica's retainer. "We're having the good pizza tonight."

Toot beamed at me and then rose from John's hair, zipping toward the apartment. The others went with him, flying in tight formation around him so as to be permitted passage through the wards by the tiny amulet he wore.

I stayed right where I was, leaning against the wall, watching as John and Cujo slowly backed away from the wall. They kind of looked like Mister when he took a tumble somewhere unexpected. "Let me guess," I said, just a touch dryly, "You meant to do that right?"

I had to give it to the Gentleman, he regained his composure fast. Considering he'd just been roughed up by a bunch of tiny faeries and had faery dust in his hair, you wouldn't have known it by the look he turned on me.

"You rushed off earlier," he said, "We didn't get a chance to speak properly."

"I said what I needed to," I shrugged, feeling the fear of earlier crowding back in. I did my best to ignore it. I had a lot of practice at that, really. It was all in the way you carried yourself. There were a lot of things in the Nevernever that were more interested in nonverbal cues than the words coming out of your mouth. In short, if you act like prey, you get treated like prey. I reminded myself of that now and drew up to my full height. "I'm not backing off."

John closed his eyes. I remembered that look. Frustration was simmering closer to the edge than he liked and he was doing his best to force it down. Funny how I'd always been able to tweak him that way. "I wish that you would."

"I can't." There was a lot in that little response too. There was a lot in the conversation. I wasn't trying to explain myself, I didn't need to, but I wanted to make him understand. I wasn't sure myself what that was, but hey, that'd never stopped me before. "It's safer for everyone concerned that I don't."

"On the contrary," he said, meeting my eyes again, "It's safer for everyone concerned if you do."

Ah. I pressed my lips together. "Someone in this city is practising black magic. The sooner I get them off the streets and into the―" I bit off the comment and the rising anger that came with it. John knew nothing of the White Council and even so much as mentioning the Wardens constituted treason.

I could be stupid and reckless, but even I wasn't that stupid or reckless.

"Mal isn't safe until they're gone," I said in the barest of murmurs, shooting a wary look Cujo's way as I did. "And, even as dangerous as you are, neither are you."

"I happen to disagree with that assessment," John said, and almost smiled. I nearly did as well. Us disagree? I would have made a joke about our epic fights, but the truth was, our little Malcontent had probably been conceived during some equally epic makeup sex. "But I didn't come here for that."

I did smile then, shaky though it was. "I didn't think so." Another wary look Cujo's way and this time I didn't even bother trying to hide it. "No offence to the big guy here, but―"

"Mr. Hendricks can be trusted," John said. No extra emphasis, nothing to indicate I should believe him, but that was how he worked. His word was supposed to be enough and, damn it, it was.

I made a skeptical noise, looking up at him. I was tall, but Hendricks was massive. "Let's get one thing straight, Cujo," I said, resisting the urge to go on my tiptoes to meet his gaze. "Anything happens to my kid because of you and they'll be finding pieces of you from here to Alaska, we clear?"

He glared and I surprised myself with the urge to apologize. I'd offended him. Seriously offended him. Like punched his Mama and three generations of his family kind of offence. Huh. "Crystal."

"Mom?"

Mal's voice was still barely more than a miserable croak and I forgot about Cujo in an instant. Leaving the big guy behind, I brushed past John and dropped to my knees before my son. I pressed the back of a hand to his forehead, judging the warmth against earlier and largely thinking it had eased, "Hey, kiddo, how're you feeling? Tummy still hurt?"

He shook his head. "No."

I tipped my head. "You heard the magic word, didn't you?"

A wicked little grin so much like his father's bloomed onto his face. "Uh huh."

Laughing, I got up and hefted him into my arms. He was a scrawny kid like I'd been, so I could get away with it, but only just. The day was coming when I was going to have to admit I couldn't carry my little boy anymore.

"Magic word?" John asked.

I rubbed Mal's back, letting him snuggle into me, and turned to look at John. "Pizza. Around here, that word leaves abracadabra in the dust."

He nodded, almost grave, and I had the feeling he was committing every single second of this to memory. I could relate. The first few moments of holding Mal are as clear to me as any soulgaze or Sight image.

Mal tipped in my arms and I knew what he was doing. Shifting just enough that he could peer at John through my hair. Mal knew who his father was, I'd never ever denied him that, and this was not how I'd intended to fix the separation between them. I rubbed his back and held my breath. Raising a kid had taught me that; sometimes you just hold your breath and hope like hell.

"Mom?"

I shifted him in my arms, leaning back to look at him. "Yeah kiddo?"

His eyes were wide, but he wasn't afraid. I didn't think I could call it excitement either, but it was big and it was something I wasn't necessarily meant to be a part of. Oddly enough, I was okay with that. Particularly when Mal moved again, his eyes fixed on John's face as he asked, "Is that―"

"Yup." I didn't trust myself to say any more than that. Not with the way my throat was threatening to close off.

I heard John clear his throat, just a slight catch, and ached for him. What do you say to your little boy the first time you meet him? Especially a little boy who's on the verge of not being so little anymore.

I grieved the lost time, but didn't try to say anything. For those just joining us at home, my name was Harriet Blackstone Copperfield Dresden and, emotionally, I'm kind of a fuck up.

Mal's little arms tightened around my neck and he hid his face in my hair. We Dresdens didn't do the big emotional conversations. This was as close to his feelings on the matter as I was going to get. His father was here and he was going to be shy about it.

I met John's eyes again. I stepped back through the wards and then, with a murmur, opened them. "Come in," I said with a calm I didn't feel. "There might be other deadly faeries lurking about."

Cujo made a noise and I snickered. Yeah, I was going to be enjoying this for a while.

Turning around, I settled the Malcontent on the couch and coaxed enough blanket away from Mister to cover him back up. I brushed a kiss over his forehead, winked at him, and grinned when he smiled sleepily.

That was about the only reason I didn't put Cujo through the wall. Skulking behind me like that was a surefire way to get dead.

Standing, I turned around and lowered my voice. "Word of advice, Mr. Hendricks, don't sneak up on me. Ever. It doesn't end well for people who do that."

He didn't hold up his hands in surrender, or say anything, but there was look that was halfway between wariness and scepticism. I recognized that look. Most men got it around me. Sure, I was a scrawny bit of business and a female scrawny bit of business at that, but he'd felt my wards in action and he'd just had his ass handed to him by a bunch of the Wee Folk.

Anyone else, male or female, he could handle, but me?

He wasn't sure and I liked it.

"Hold onto that feeling," I advised, feeling sage. "It'll keep you alive." I stepped back and watched with a wariness all my own as he took up position by the couch. He might not have meant for me to see it, but his gaze was just a little bit reverent as he looked down at my son.

John's son. Right.

It was enough reassurance that I felt safe to leave him there. Well, that and the fact Mister and the faerie brigade could totally handle him anyway.

I sucked in a steadying breath and headed toward the kitchen to face John. It had been just a kitchenette, once, but with the floor space and my fledgling carpentry skills, it had been expanded into a pretty decent kitchen and I saw the subtle approval in his eyes when he took the place in. I tried not to think about how that approval settled into me.

There were a lot of things about my relationship, or lack thereof, with John that I tried not to think about.

"You'd be amazed what I can do with a hammer," I said as Toot settled on my shoulder, watching John suspiciously. I bit my lip when I realized what I'd said and why I suddenly had the urge to laugh out loud. John couldn't know, of course, but Bob probably could and, well, was likely thinking of some of my other threatened uses for that hammer.

Bob was Bob. Succinct, yes, but also accurate. Bob was a spirit of Air and Intellect that lived in a skull in my lab. More accurately, it sat on a shelf surrounded by porn and bad romance novels and, occasionally, the aforementioned Bob would come out of said skull in a flurry of light and critique either my wizardry or my shocking lack of orgasms.

The fact that I was, by all accounts, bisexual and unofficially celibate ranked high up there among Bob's greatest disappointments in life. He was convinced I'd somehow conceived Mal by cellular mitosis.

There were days I found Bob's brand of humor funny, but mostly those were the days I threatened to introduce his skull to that hammer.

"Or," I thought aloud, "Maybe you wouldn't."

His gaze rose from the kitchen table (or, more likely, the runes and such that I'd carved into the wood) and met mine. "I wouldn't," he confirmed.

I sighed. I wasn't exactly disappointed, which was more than a little unnerving, but I definitely wasn't surprised. "Didn't think so." Mindful of the dewdrop fairy standing on my shoulder, I decided to exercise a little restraint. "You, uh, mind giving us a minute, Toot? Mr. Marcone and I need to discuss some things."

"Can't," Toot decided, planting his feet on my shoulder. "He needs watching." He flitted up into the air, angling so he could look me square in the eyes. "He attempted to breach the wards. It is not safe to leave you alone with him."

I very nearly argued that. It was on the tip of my tongue to insist I was always safe with John, that he wouldn't hurt me, but uncertainty quelled the words before I could speak them. For so many reasons other than the obvious ones, but mostly―I didn't know that. Unnerving, but I didn't.

The John I'd known didn't want to run this town and the man before me did it with relative ease. Hell's bells but that scared the fuck out of me. I drew in one measured breath and then another, giving myself time to put together a decent response before I did answer him. "I know," I said, finally, "But the wards and the guard held." I wiggled my fingers. "If needs be, Toot, you know I can handle him."

Toot had seen me throw down more than once. Hell, he'd joined in on the fun just as much and that had a lot to do with the way he dipped in approval, flipping in the air with glee, before nodding. "Yes, yes, I do." He beamed. "Rest assured, Harry, we will guard the Malcontent until you call."

He zipped up into the air again and streaked back toward the sofa, throwing up a ton of faery dust in the process. I grinned when he buzzed Cujo a couple of times before he settled on the back of the couch.

Reasonably sure, too, that Cujo backed a step up. Smarter than he looked. Huh.

"Malcontent?"

My smile faded as I turned back to John. "A nickname Malcolm got stuck with around, oh, two? Two and a half? He, uh, gets his mood swings from me." I grimaced. "It made things interesting there for a while―I'm sure they'll settle out someday." I sank into a chair, rubbing the back of my neck, "Puberty is going to be fun."

I didn't make any comments about his presence in it. At this point, I didn't want to presume and I didn't want to give him ideas. I just needed to find an even keel. I was swerving like Toot on a Hawaiian-topped bender.

John didn't acknowledge the opening, but I knew better than to think he'd missed it. "Thank you," He said, instead. I knew what for. "I―didn't realize how much I needed those."

"It wasn't deliberate," I said, barely above a whisper. There was so much I couldn't tell him and I longed for the days that I could have. It wasn't that we'd changed, so much as I understood now. Justin had kept a lot from me while cultivating my power and my trust in him and the years between then and now had given me more than just an understanding of the White Council's rules.

There was a day when I would have told him about the Council and the Laws. I would've blithely unloaded the truth on him without so much as hesitating.

I wasn't that big a genius now, but I was a fucking idiot when I was younger. Still, that didn't change the fact I regretted how much I was holding back now. I couldn't help it. I'd spent years picturing him standing before the smoking ruin of Justin's home, watching firefighters carry out a body, and I felt guilty.

Stupid, but I did. I spent a lot of time thinking about that even now. You might notice a mention or two along the way. Some images never leave you and they don't need a lick of magic to bury themselves deep.

He was watching me now, eyes narrowed just enough, and I flinched a bit. I was a lousy liar and I knew a lot of what I was thinking probably showed on my face. I couldn't tell him about Justin's death without bringing into it my arrest and trial before the Council. I couldn't tell him that without risking his life.

I really hated the wizarding penchant for secrecy sometimes. If you hadn't already guessed that by the part where I'm in the yellow pages.

I pushed my hands into my hair, leaning back in the chair as I did so. Ceiling wasn't in any better shape than the floor and, wow, I was not distracting myself well at all. "It wasn't my choice," I said, finally. "I never would've―it wasn't." I didn't dare say more. I didn't. If I did, I ran the risk of blurting it out and John had always had a knack for getting past my defences, even when he didn't seem to be trying to.

"I won't take him," John said, cutting through the bullshit like always. I wouldn't even try to pretend I didn't find that a little hot.

Because I found it really, really hot.

Even if it didn't seem to be a role he wore well anymore. It didn't fit with the suit, the bodyguards, or anything else he carried around with him these days. Gentleman Johnny was not the kind of role I'd ever thought I'd see John playing, but something had made him grow into it. I just hoped the something wasn't my sudden disappearance from his life. I ended three lives that day, I didn't think I could handle four.

Introspection was something else we Dresdens didn't do easily, or at all really, but we were aces at serious guilt tripping.

"I won't," he said, and looked at me.

I looked back and realized, with some bemusement, that I was pissed off. Seriously, deeply pissed off. I poked at it like a sore tooth for a minute or two, chasing down the fury, and found myself going in circles. I was pissed off because I was relieved, but no, I was pissed off by the idea that he thought he could―Hell's bells, I didn't know.

I just was and I couldn't be. Well, I could, but I couldn't let it into the moment. Malcolm needed me to think for him and I couldn't do that if I was busy trying to blow a blood vessel or fifty.

"Thank you," I said in a murmur. It might've sounded grateful, I didn't know or care, but really, the quiet voice was all I could manage.

I heard the snap and crackle of an electronic device dying and we both looked down at his pocket; John with amazement, me with chagrin, and I shook my head. The movement must have caught his eye because he looked up again and raised a brow.

"Oops," I shrugged. "Sorry."

I wasn't. He could afford it.

Feeling restless, I got up again and circled around him to get a Coke out of the icebox. There was something about that first sip that just calmed a girl right down. I popped the tab, listened to it hiss, and then raised the can to my lips.

Ambrosia. I am not even kidding a little when I say that. Mac would probably have me shot at dawn for admitting it, but it really, really was. The coke hit my throat with its usual burn and I gulped another mouthful, chasing the first down in a ridiculously giddy wave, and, yeah, I had a little bit of a thing for coca-cola.

Know when you're reading a book and you hit one of those really stupid lines? You know the ones I mean 'his eyes were limpet pools of what-the-fuck-ever' or 'faded away like a dream' and stuff like that?

I used to mock that stuff a lot. Hell, half the fun of buying Bob some of the books I did was for the joy of mocking it and watching a skull get het up under a collar he didn't have.

Small things, yeah, but it was worth it.

I wasn't mocking anything now. The silence really was loud in my ears and I turned my head to find John watching me. That look was familiar, really familiar, and I had no idea what to do with it. Awkward.

I put the can down, staring at it, and tried to pull my thoughts back together. Everything was happening at once; the murders, the killer, John reappearing in the middle of it all, and now this, and something else on the periphery, something I couldn't quite pin down that freaked me out all the same.

Like something at the corner of your eye that disappeared when you tried to look at it full on. Being a wizard could be a real pain in the ass sometimes and those times almost always went hand in hand with signs and portents territory.

We could know something was lurking around the corner, something big, but whether it was a nuclear bomb or winning the lottery was never really clear.

"Hell's bells, but this is a mess."

I heard a soft snort that wasn't John. Cujo. Somebody had pretty good ears. I shot a look his way, assessing the big man another time. I had a feeling if this kept up, I'd be doing that a lot. Hendricks didn't look to be the kind of guy that shattered all expectations, but there was that whole thing about looks and deception. "Malcolm is safe with him."

"I know," I said, but not for the reasons John meant. Toot looked like something out of Disney, but he was a mean little guy when he needed to be. The Wee Folk were like that. You never quite knew what you were getting and, I think, that was why we got on so well. People thought the same of me.

I pressed a hand flat against the counter beside the can. I probably should have said something noble and heroic. Something about wanting Mal to know John, but not his world, and sat down to work that out.

I didn't. I had work to do.

"Don't," John said, when I turned around. He was on his feet, in my way, and looked perfectly calm about it. The same calm that he'd displayed in the hall with Toot and company swarming all over him.

Right. I needed to do some catching up and I needed to do it soon.

"What would you do, John?" I asked. "If you found him." I took a step forward. "He can hit you from anywhere in the world. All he needs is power and time." Granted, it wasn't that easy, not with thaumaturgy, but that was the scary part. While he'd demonstrated a preference for thaumaturgy. there were other ways to kill with magic. Simpler ways. Most of which I was protected against in my home, but doubted John had guarded against with his.

"Then work with me," he said. He didn't smile, but I felt the warmth of the invitation nonetheless. The Marcone charm. Gentleman Johnny. I wasn't much of a crime buff, but I knew that the underworld community would follow their Gentleman into hell if he ordered it. Yeah, I knew how to pick them, didn't I? "We can do this together."

I couldn't lie. The idea was tempting, but most everything about John was. Always had been. It wouldn't be so hard, really, to vanish into the world he offered me and Mal. I wouldn't have to worry about rent, what might be coming around the next corner, and I'd be happy. John would see to it. There'd be a lot less weight on my shoulders and a part of me craved that kind of contentment.

I side-stepped him.

As much as part of me craved it, the rest of me was repulsed. Not by John himself, but the carefully hidden truth beneath the possibility. I had power. I had a lot of power. Enough that complacency was the last thing I could let myself fall into. I didn't dare let my guard down, doing that meant bad things tended to happen and the older I got, the stronger I got, and I owed it to Mal not to fuck things up again.

John offered a lot of contentment, but more than a little complacency lurked beneath that feeling. I could go places with him if I let myself and those places would not end well.

"No, we can't," I said. "It would end bad, John. Blood, tears, that kind of thing." He'd gotten out of my world with his life the first time, I didn't fancy his chances a second time round.

I opened the envelope and pulled out a fifty from Mrs. Sells' retainer. "Order some pizza, something good, one for Toot and the gang, and the other for you, Cujo, and the Malcontent. Spend some time with him." I smiled. "Momma's got to go to work."

Yes, I was running, but I knew I was running. That counted for something, right?

As it turned out, not really. I got maybe two or three steps before John's hand closed around my arm and I went rigid. He released me in the same instant, but that didn't change anything. I hated being touched without warning, I needed to see it coming, and understanding why had no impact on the cold that snaked up my spine when it happened.

I didn't know what the wounds looked like, but I knew Justin had torn my soul up pretty damn badly. I felt it in moments like this one, when someone accidentally crossed the invisible line, like they were still bleeding and they probably were. Wounds to the soul are a literal thing, wizards like me could see them, but I'd never seen my own and I didn't want to.

I breathed out. "I have two cases waiting on me, John, and I'm not going to get anything done here." I forced a light smile and turned to look at him. "Not unless you're going to tell me everything you know about Tommy and his lady friend."

He looked at me, perfectly bland, and I rolled my eyes. "Didn't think so." I folded my arms. It wasn't as though I didn't understand. I had the White Council, John had the Outfit, and both of us had obligations keeping our lips sealed tight.

Difference being, of course, I could get past him. He had no such recourse with the Council.

I sighed and shook my head. "Fine." Shrugging out of my duster, I tossed it on a chair and grabbed for the fifty. "This isn't me throwing the case, John," I said, brandishing the bill in warning. "This is me spending the night in with my kid and inviting you to join us."

"It's a risk," John said, quiet, after a moment. I could almost see him running the numbers, trying to figure out which was more cost efficient; the need to know his son or the risk of endangering him. Gentleman Johnny was a solitary figure. Beyond Hendricks and a few others, no one got close to him, and a child would be the perfect weapon by which to bring him down.

He wasn't the only one who had considered that.

"Everything is," I said. I shouldn't have been doing this. I should have shoved him and Cujo out the door, slammed it shut behind him, and maybe disappeared the entire house into the Nevernever (or not, Lea would be on me in a second and that was a family reunion I didn't plan on a attending) but I stepped forward instead. "Some risks are bigger than others." I didn't say it, but The Wee Folk and the wards weren't the only thing guarding my home and my child. I'd built up some pretty solid defences over the years and the kind of vanilla mortals that worried John at night didn't so much as interest me.

He looked at me and I swear he could read all of that in my eyes. I saw a gleam of interest, maybe fascination, flash through his gaze and then he buried it.

Yeah, that was going to be a problem.

-

Problems weren't things I was short on. Ever. Which is why I should have seen it coming when Susan showed up at the door. Susan Rodriguez was a reporter for the Chicago Arcane. It wasn't quite a tabloid, but it wasn't exactly the Tribune either, focusing on everything from Elvis sightings to alien abductions to, well, me.

Susan had stumbled across my ad a few years back and decided to check me out for herself. It had all gone pretty well for a while, enough that I relaxed and let myself flirt a little, but then Susan had tricked me into a soul-gaze and fainted dead away. I didn't want to know what she'd seen to make her faint, Susan was a pretty tough character and, in another life where my dating options weren't governed by the best interests of an eight year old, we might've been great together.

But that was another life. In this one, I had Mal and Mal needed as much stability as I could give him. Considering I was a wizard and his father was a gangster, I was leery of who I let through the front door.

Actually, I was leery about that anyway, but especially in matters of my heart. My libido didn't like me much as it was all on board with the idea of letting Susan anywhere.

My libido liked to write a lot of checks my body never actually intended on cashing. I hadn't had much interest in anything approaching sex or a relationship since I'd had Mal. Of course, before that had been John.

John who was sitting beside me on the couch, Mal's sock-covered feet in his lap, his eyes roaming from my face to the little boy between us.

Awwwkward.

Which is why Toot swirling up in front of my face with an alarmed look on his was almost an improvement. I felt a little guilty thinking that, but I hadn't really thought the whole 'stay a while, spend some time' thing through. The television we had was ancient and barely functional, ruling out the time-honored American tradition of vegging with the kid, and Cujo hulking behind us made conversation almost impossible. Not that I was in any hurry to talk; as much as I wanted to explain, I couldn't tell him the whole story without putting his life on the line.

Usually, I have all the emotional perceptiveness of a pet rock, but even I was acutely aware of the tension.

I could've kissed Toot. Or, at least, buy him pizza for a month.

"A woman, Harry!" he announced, breathless as he went on to describe Susan in detail.

I sighed. "Susan." Dark eyes, dark hair, perfect suit. Okay, those weren't the words that Toot used, but I got the gist of it from his. I looked down at my sleeping son and then at the man watching me. "She's a reporter with the Arcane."

"Ah."

There was a world in that response. I smiled. "Yeah, there's a back door. Toot'll show you."

I eased myself out from beneath Mal's head and replaced my lap with a cushion.

"It's probably best if Susan doesn't catch me consorting with a crime lord."

John almost smiled.

"So it would seem."

I shot a warning look at Cujo as I passed, I wasn't over that whole chivalry thing, and made my way for the door. The Arcane was big on the supernatural and the paranormal. Some people might call it a yellow magazine, I called it a giant pain in my ass.

Not that Susan was a pain, exactly, but really? Tonight? This was the last night I needed her sniffing around and, besides, there was pretty much just one thing that would bring her to my door.

I passed through the inner wards that would keep even Susan from my son and then headed for my front office. Susan was waiting just inside the door, arms folded, smiling at me.

"I could've sworn I locked that," I said mildly, making sure I locked the hall door behind me. The wards would keep her out, but that didn't mean I wanted her running into them in the first place. Susan had tricked me into a soulgaze, she'd passed out halfway through it, which meant she knew what I was, but I didn't want to give her anymore ammunition than I had to.

It wasn't good business.

"What's a locked door between friends?" Susan asked, shucking her jacket.

"I believe it would be a locked door," I said, a little annoyed. "I wasn't expecting company tonight, Susan. Mal's not feeling well."

"Oh no," Susan's face fell. "Is it that flu that's been going around?"

"Probably," I said. "He's not a happy camper right now, so you'll understand me hurrying this along by asking what you're doing here? I thought you'd be writing up the Branson exorcism right now." That would be the one I'd just come off of the week before--the haunted house that wasn't.

"It didn't go where I wanted it to," Susan demurred. "I thought I'd try a different angle."

She looked at me and I bit back a laugh. "Seriously, Susan?" I perched on the edge of my desk, watching her prowl the room, picking over everything in sight. She wouldn't get much, most of it was pure display only, atmosphere to sell the stage.

Hey, I wasn't a conwoman, but I knew a thing or two about atmosphere. Besides, it helped me get into a ritual mindset when I actually needed one and I didn't want Bob skulking over my shoulder.

I laced my fingers together, hooking them on one knee, and waited for it. I knew it was coming.

"The whole town is buzzing, Harry," Susan said, coming to a stop before me. "SI called you in today."

I pasted a look of innocence on my face. "I'm sorry?"

She scrunched her nose at me in reply. It was cute. Mostly. "I know, I know, a nondisclosure agreement means you can't say a word to me about any of it, but--"

"--You're going to try anyway?" I sighed. "Susan, I can't help you."

I wasn't going to lie and say I didn't want to. Part of me did. There was that small, rebellious part of me that wanted to. The part that tied back into the black and still remembered what that power felt like.

Everyone knowing what I was and what I did? That opened the door to all sorts of possibilities and, yes, there was a part of me that wanted that. Mal would be safe, I would be safe, and the damn White Council could never get near either one of us.

See what I mean about temptation? Even a conversation with an old friend could get me in a hell of a lot of trouble if I thought about it long enough. Especially an old friend like Susan.

Hand on one of my reference books (the show ones, not the legit stuff I kept in my lab) Susan looked at me with a little smile. "I guess with the rugrat feeling down, I can't take you guys out to dinner with the King?"

"And charm some of the gorier details out of me? Yeah, not gonna happen, Susan," I smiled. "Even if Mal wasn't under the weather. You'd get something out of me whether I wanted you to or not and trust me, Susan, this is not one I want anyone near."

"So there is something?" her eyes lit up and she leaned in. "Come on, Harry, give me something. Are you a suspect? Are there any leads?"

"I'm not a suspect," I said with a roll of my eyes. "If I was a suspect, would it make any sense for Murphy to ca--keep me on the payroll?" Whoops. That would be the kind of slip I really didn't want to be making right now.

I heard the buzzing of wings and caught a flash of light out of the corner of my eye. One of Toot's impromptu guard. It definitely wasn't Toot himself, but I took the sign for what it was. John and Cujo had made their exit stage left. Good.

"What?"

I blinked, realizing Susan was watching me, and I flushed a little. "Thought I heard Mal."

"Harry, you're acting--well, you're acting like yourself, but something's up."

I smiled, enjoying the frustration in her voice far more than I should have. "Maybe." I thought of Mal and my smile widened. "Mostly I'm just enjoying the fact my kid's saving me from making an ass of myself."

"And ruining my byline," Susan said, laughing anyway.

"Dresden family tradition," I replied. "Do yourself a favor, Susan, take a few days off." It was like waving a flag in front of a bull, but I lived in hope that some day, she'd take a warning from me as exactly that.

I didn't tend to issue them lightly.

"And if I say I can't?"

That would be about when I started wishing that the Laws didn't forbid tampering with the mind. Making Susan forget she'd ever heard about those murders was about the only chance I had of keeping her away from it.

Short of my next option, of course. Picking up her coat, I slid it over her shoulders and kissed her on the cheek. God, she smelled good. I resisted the urge to kiss her again and slid my hands down her arms.

Susan was amazing. I didn't doubt for a second she'd do an equally amazing job with the story of my reality, People would believe her.

And that was why this was as close as we were ever going to get. Having Mal had given me perspective on the separation between us and them. I wasn't sure I could dare pass final judgment on any of it, but things could be a lot worse and I didn't want to be the one who helped make it happen.

Even just by letting Susan talk me into one small dinner. I pulled away from her and waved fingers at the door. A whispered word brought it open and I smiled at the way her eyes widened.

It was the little things.

She shook her head, smiling, and then stepped into my space. "Some day, Harry, some day."

I shivered as she kissed the corner of my mouth. Some day. Hell's bells, the woman knew how to play me.

I closed my eyes and waited for her to go. I knew what happened if I didn't. I heard her laugh and then the door clicked shut behind her.

-

I went back to the apartment and I wasn't surprised to find Mal asleep with his little glowing guardians flitting about the couch. I smiled. Toot was sitting on the pillow next to Mal's head, ever watchful, and shot into the air when I closed the door behind me.

"Gear up, Toot," I said. "There's somewhere I want to check out."

The somewhere was, of course, the Sells summer home. There wasn't much to do there, really, as a couple key factors kept me out of the home itself. Monica hadn't given me permission to look inside the home, I wasn't invited in, and crossing the threshold would've meant leaving my magic at the door and myself unprotected by whatever might still be inside. Bad idea when you're facing down your very own evil sorcerer.

The other thing happened to be the very active alarm system I could see blinking just inside the front door.

I could have fried it, of course, with little more than a muttered 'hexus' but alarms that suddenly malfunctioned tended to bring out the authorities anyway. I didn't think Murphy would appreciate it if I called her from the Michigan State Police with a 'really, funny story' story either.

In fact, she'd probably leave me there the whole night just out of spite. So, no, I wasn't going into the house, but I didn't really need to. I had other ways of finding out what was going on. Like, say, a certain dewdrop fairy riding shotgun in my hair.

"All right, Toot," I said, stopping by the lake. "See what you can turn up and we'll pick up a slice on the way home."

"Hawaiian?" Toot asked, hovering in the air before my face, and his eyes fairly gleamed with avarice.

I didn't like the idea of getting him high on that stuff, but I couldn't say no either. Toot was a fairy and, dewdrop or no, that meant caution, but damn if he wasn't adorable as all get out when he was scamming pizza.

I spread my hands and smiled, pretty please, saying, "I make no promises. Depends on what you bring me."

He brought me a pizza box.

No, seriously, when Toot returned, he was lugging the lid of a pizza box and grinning from ear to ear.

"Start the party without me, Toot?" I asked, looking at it with raised eyebrows.

He let the lid fall to the ground before me, turning loops in the air and spreading faery dust everywhere. Whatever the pizza box meant, the little guy was damned pleased with himself for finding it.

I smiled, wrinkling my nose to ward off a sneeze. Faery dust always tickled. "What'd you find out, Toot?" I asked, sitting down on a rock. Pulling my legs up, I watched him zip about for a second and let him enjoy his moment. When he was ready, he perched on the pizza lid and grinned at me. "C'mon, Toot," I said, leaning forward, "Let's have it."

"You have to guess," he said, bouncing up and down on the lid. It buckled with every jump. Toot was a growing boy. He'd shot up a few inches since I'd first met him. I wasn't sure how old he was, but I thought him relatively young for one of the Wee Folk. They all loved games and dealing, but Toot especially so. I had the sneakiest feeling that my life was like one big paintball game to him.

"Guess?" I tried not to roll my eyes. "We don't have time for that, Toot." Which we didn't. Mal was waiting and I didn't like being away from him any longer than I had to be when he was sick.

Toot frowned at me, stomping one little foot. "You're no fun, Harry," he said, shaking his head. "No fun at all. How come the Malcontent is so much fun when you aren't?"

"Easy," I said, shrugging. "He took it with him when I gave birth." Toot's eyes widened dramatically at that and I realized, belatedly, that he was taking me seriously. Laughing, I held up a hand. "That was a joke, Toot. Not a very good one, but it was a joke. Now, what did you find? Remember, the faster you tell me, the faster I can buy you pizza."

Yes, I was playing dirty, but with faeries you played all the angles or you got kicked out of the game for being too stupid to live.

Sometimes, literally.

I slid off the rock and crouched before him. "What's with the pizza box?"

"The pizza car brought it last night!" Toot announced. He rattled off a string of names who'd told him all about the pizza car that had delivered pizza (a revelation. I'd always brought the pizza before so the idea that it could be brought to you--I saw trouble with that particular bit of news) to the mortals in the house. The sporting mortals.

Before you start picturing the good old American pass time, let's get one thing straight—faeries don't give a damn about football, soccer, basketball, or whatever your game of choice happens to be.

To faeries, sporting meant sex. That didn't bode well for Monica Sells' marriage, but it was a relief for me. As much as I empathized with Monica and the fact her marriage was about to go up in flames, I preferred that to the idea that Victor was a sorcerer in the making. That scorpion talisman wasn't sitting easy in my thoughts and the longer it was there, the more I felt there was trouble brewing around it.

Which was why I needed to be careful. I wanted Victor to be just another cheating jackass of a husband and what I want I rarely get. The universe seems to have a special sort of determination to see me suffer in new and unusual fashion and that didn't fill me with much hope.

I got up. "Right, so evil sorcerer in the making." I looked back at the house and shivered. "Just my luck."

So, you know how the universe had a hate on for me and nothing ever went the way I wanted? Well, that would be about when it decided to remind me just how much. I turned around and saw a familiar face standing at the treeline. Well, his legs were standing, his face was just glaring at me.

Morgan. Donald Morgan. The greying, pony-tail wearing (seriously, that thing was just wrong) monkey on my back.

Part of life under the Doom of Damocles was the Warden assigned to keep an eye on me. Wardens were to the White Council what the Jedi Knights were to the Republic. They kept the peace, fought the battles, and took down the bad guys whenever needed.

At least, that was the theoretical version. The practical had them rounding up pregnant teenaged girls and hauling them before the Council for trial and sentencing or, years later, hounding their every step in the hopes of catching them violating one of the Laws.

Morgan hated me. I wasn't his biggest fan either. This was not going to be a fun conversation.

He stepped clear of the trees, long black coat dragging over the dead grass and killing the 'i am a magical badass and not a middle-aged librarian, really' look he had going for him.

Yeah, not really, that got ruined a long time ago. Between the unevenly gray hair, the flat eyes, and the paunch, badass wasn't a term that applied to Morgan.

I mock because I hate. Truth was, Morgan was a big guy, a little taller than me, definitely broader than me, but it wasn't his bulk that made adrenaline start pushing through my veins.

Morgan was a Warden and that wasn't a job that you picked up on the fly. There was serious magical combat training involved and I didn't fancy my chances in a fight.

Not that it mattered. If I killed Morgan in a fight I was dead anyway. Whether it was black or not, I killed anyone with magic and the White Council would have my head in a bowling bag by dawn.

"Harriet Blackstone Copperfield Dresden."

OUCH. Full name.

I scowled. At least he said it quietly, but still there were some things that just weren't done. "Lay off the Name, Morgan," I said in a hissed whisper. "Some things are better kept private." Like I said, names had power, and although the real power came in hearing it from my lips with the true enunciation and sound, I didn't want people running around shouting it into the night.

Whoever said the walls had ears had no idea just how big an understatement they were making.

Morgan ignored my comment and produced his sword. Oh great. So this was an Official visit. Every warden was issued a sword and drawing it meant he was on Council business.

"Head for the car, Toot," I said over my shoulder, relieved by the sound of buzzing wings.

At least for all of thirty seconds I was.

Toot spiraled up into the air with what passed for a battle cry and zipped toward Morgan.

Oh, fuck.

"TOOT!" I grabbed for him, but the little guy was fast. Faster when he was mad and Morgan was delaying his chance at pizza. Taking pizza from a faery was just asking to get your ass kicked. They take their pizza seriously.

Morgan muttered something and Toot hurtled backward into me. I rocked with the impact, stumbling as I tried to keep us both upright. Yeah, this was not the best night ever.

"Trying to start a war with the fae, Morgan?" I asked, checking Toot over. The poor guy looked a little dizzy, but otherwise in one piece. "I know you're fond of the Laws, but let's try remembering the Accords, huh? If he tells the Queen that you attacked him, the Council's going to be just a little annoyed with you."

"I don't believe you will allow any such thing." Morgan raised his sword and levelled it at me. I gulped. I didn't like Morgan and I was prepared to fight if i had to, consequences be damned, but that didn't mean he didn't scare the hell out of me.

I worked very hard to forget about the Doom most of the time. There just wasn't any way to raise a kid with that hanging over your head and I wasn't about to sacrifice a second of my son's happiness on the altar of the Council's stupidity. I wasn't always that successful at forgetting it, but I had my days and those were usually the ones where Morgan didn't show up.

"Allow?" I laughed to hide the fear in my voice. "I don't 'allow' Toot to do anything. I paid good in pizza, but two things occurred to me when I thought that.

One: The pizza thing is not generally well known. To the best of my knowledge, I'm the only person to ever figure out that faeries are nuts about pizza.

Two: The jackass was trying to set me up with a Fourth Law violation.

I've never, ever been good with fear. I tend not to be smart about it and run like hell. I tend to stand and fight. The last time I'd faced down a Warden, I'd been shaking with fear, adrenaline, and the shock of Justin's betrayal and all without a lick of training.

That girl was long gone and the woman in her place had training coming out her ears.

I also knew the lay of the land a little better than that girl had. "Toot's here of his own free will," I said, pushing down the instinct to lash out with every bit of fire at my disposal. Sure, I'd love to see Morgan burned to so much ash, but it wasn't his fault he was a jackass anymore than it was mine I was a smartass. Some things just came naturally "No compelling about it, right buddy?"

I looked down at the faery in my arms. Toot had one hand to his little head, still glaring at Morgan, but he looked fine. "My mind is my own," he said. It was probably a growl to him, but it sounded a little cuter than that to me. Not that sounding cute had any impact on being cute. Toot looked adorable, but I'd seen what he and his buddies could do to a pizza.

Imagining it on human flesh didn't exactly encourage song and dance.

"Toot's services are entirely voluntary," I continued. "Besides, I'm paying him."

Morgan's lip curled up in a sneer. "What could you possibly have that a faery would want?" His eyes swept over me in that universal manner that made just about every woman want to punch something.

I held my ground. Right now, Morgan was acting as Warden and as good as I'd feel, he'd have that excuse he'd been waiting years to get. I reminded myself of Mal and my responsibilities and I held my damn ground.

"Sorry," I said, smiling sweet as honey. "My dad always said a magician never revealed her secrets and that goes double for wizards. If you don't believe him, however, feel to call the Council and let them investigate. I'm sure they won't be completely furious with you when Toot turns out to be compulsion free and they've got a pissed off Queen breathing down their necks."

God, I loved politics for that one reason. The Unseelie Accords kept things all nice and theoretically friendly between the major supernatural superpowers and the dead last thing anyone wanted to do was piss off one of those powers. The Summer and Winter courts, Seelie and Unseelie respectively, were not to be trifled with lightly.

If you were going to start trouble with the faeries, you needed to have a damn good excuse.

I didn't think I qualified for that one at all.

"There's been no violation of any Law, Morgan," I said again, "You sure you want to call the Council all the way here for nothing?"

He glared at me, but he did put the sword away. I nodded and looked at Toot. "You good to fly?"

Toot glared Morgan's way one more time then shot up into the air. "Quite good, no thanks to him." He made a feint in Morgan's direction then looked at me again.

I bit my cheek. No grinning at the promise of bloody vengeance. It just wasn't done. "No, Toot," I said, keeping my voice soft. "I know he deserves it, but he's not worth the trouble the Queen would dump on you. Head for the car and I'll be right behind you."

Toot turned to fly away, but stopped before Morgan once more. "You will not harm Harry Dresden," he said. "If you do, Warden, you'll face me and mine."

He might've been a few inches of nothing on a good day, but I felt a shiver go down my spine at that one. A lot of people underestimated the smaller fae, but I'd learned a valuable lesson where the little guys like Toot were involved. Sure, they were cute and sometimes cartoonish, but they were vicious little bastards when they needed to be.

They were faeries, after all. Damn Walt Disney and his propaganda machine.

I was still biting my cheek when Toot zoomed off into the night, a trail of sparkling dust hanging in the wake of his departure, and I knew Morgan could sense my amusement.

"He cannot protect you," Morgan said, but he didn't sound convinced. Neither was I. I brushed faerie dust from my hands and looked at him. "Not from us."

"Maybe not," I said, letting out my cheeky grin, "but it'll be a hell of a show to watch him try. Nice seeing you again Morgan, better luck next time and all that, but if you'll excuse me, I've got to pick up dinner and get home to my kid. There's a murder that needs solving too, but if you have time to be harassing me then I'm sure you're not worried about it."

I gave him a wide berth as I walked away, not wanting to get anywhere near the bastard. "Or is that why you're here looking for an excuse to haul me off in a black hood?"

"Two people died by sorcery, Dresden. That kind of spell is not easily accomplished and few have that level of power as well as skill." Morgan stepped closer to me and I stepped back, needing that distance between us. "I think it was you."

Of course he did. Morgan was a Warden, but he was the nuts and bolts kind of cop. Following Murphy around had given me a pretty good education into her world and Morgan's. Some people were natural born investigators, they could dig in deep and they had the creative mind that let them look for the secrets that most people missed. They saw things, noticed things, and they could make the kind of leaps in logic that meant catching killers.

Morgan wasn't one of those guys. Morgan was looking for a killer wizard, ergo he went straight for the one wizard in the area that he knew had killed before. Me.

I had killed to protect myself. Morgan didn't give a damn about that. However I'd done it, I was a killer and I had probably killed again. If Morgan knew my connection to one of the victims, I probably would be wearing that hood.

"I'm going to find out how you did it, Dresden," Morgan said. "And when I do--"

I was a dead duck.

"Lucky for me, I didn't do it," I said, hoping my smile was as confident as earlier. "In fact, I've been hired to find out who did. I was planning on contacting you, actually, as it's going to mean some risky research and I didn't want someone 'getting ideas' as to my conduct." I batted my eyelashes. "Present company absolutely included."

I lengthened my stride, putting distance between us before Morgan's single remaining braincell figured out a way to trick me into a fight.

I had enough problems on my hands without adding brawling with a Warden to the list.

-

After the Sells house, I swung by Bianca's place. That went about as well as you can expect and by the time I got home, I felt like fifteen different kinds of shit.

It seemed like everyone was sure of one thing: Tommy and Jennifer were dead and I'd killed them.

I stepped into the apartment, raised the wards, and promptly muttered a word that would have sent Mal running for the swear jar. I was a powerful and talented wizard. I knew that. Eb had never hidden that from me. Give me a few hundred years at this and I'd probably be pretty damn scary. I already was to some. People who knew that I could push spells to some nasty places if I wanted to. I had, after all, taken out He Who Walks Behind at the tender age of sixteen and most wizards three times that age couldn't have pulled it off.

If only they knew that, to this day, I really didn't understand how I'd done that, then maybe they wouldn't be so convinced that I was behind the murders now.

I groaned. My meeting with Bianca had netted me not much of anything. Oh sure, she'd threatened me, I'd defended myself against her and seen the slimy, scaly monster that all Red Court vampires hide behind a pretty face and a little venom-induced charm (which had been scarring), and I had gotten the name of one of Jennifer's close friends, but mostly I'd come away with jangled nerves and an enemy I didn't have before. Which wasn't to say that Bianca hadn't been wary of me before tonight, but in the way she was wary of all my kind. It was one of the reasons I was sure she hadn't been involved with Jennifer's death. Bianca wasn't stupid; if she wanted someone dead she wasn't going to do it in a way guaranteed to bring the White Council and a few dozen wardens down on her head.

I hadn't gone to see her to make trouble, but Bianca was scared. Scared enough to attack a wizard anyway, despite what common sense told her. I'd forced her hand and, worse, seen behind the illusion. I knew what kind of monster lurked behind Bianca's perfectly sculpted features. I'd shaken her confidence.

I'd turned general wariness into personal animosity and put a target on my ass the size of the Loop. It was the way my luck ran with these things.

The wards flared with warning at the same time John said, "Rough night?" behind me. He stood in the door, the air between us watery with the power of the wards, and he wasn't smiling. On the contrary, I watched his eyes darken with anger as he took in the state of my clothing.

Before he could ask, I raised a hand to forestall any comments and let him through the wards at the same time. "Bianca wasn't too happy to see me." I turned away from him to shrug out of my duster, feeling my shoulders protest the movement as I did. "There aren't a lot of people in Chicago capable of this kind of working. Puts me on the top of everyone's suspect list." Which was the ironic part of it. If Bianca had actually killed me, it probably wouldn't have raised much fuss. Eb would be about it and who was gong to listen to her?

Thinking about that, it took me a minute or two to realize that I'd accidentally confessed just how powerful I was and, uh, that was probably something I shouldn't be telling Gentleman Johnny Marcone. I wasn't sure I should be telling John either.

"Everyone including the White Council?"

I froze. I froze right down to my toes. I'd mentioned the White Council being shy, right? Well, either way, let me be clear. The White Council did not like their name getting around. They really, really, really didn't like their name getting around and to the point that it was considered treason to tell anyone about them. Not just the vanilla mortal set either, there were plenty of supernatural creatures out there who didn't have a clue anything like the White Council existed and that was the way they liked it.

If the Council thought for a second that I'd so much as hinted at their existence to John, they'd chop my head off in a hot second and that one even Eb couldn't argue with. Didn't even need a trial thanks to the Doom over my head, it'd be like a parole violation but with beheading instead of a trip up river.

I rubbed the back of my neck and tried to look uninterested. "The what?"

"The White Council." John moved into the room, circling around to face me, and I didn't know what to do with the look on his face. I'd expected smug satisfaction and not getting it unsettled me. "Surely you've heard of them, Harry," he said, and, oh god, his voice scared the hell out of me. There was a coldly laced fury to it and I watched his eyes fill with same. I took a step back and then stopped, realizing that might just be when Cujo made his appearance and I breathed my last. "They tried to kill you, after all."

Stars, why the hell had I let him in?

"Name rings a bell," I managed, but it was quiet. Guilty. What? I felt guilty and I didn't even know why. It wasn't like I'd done anything wrong. Justin had―I'd been defending myself. I frowned and turned my gaze. I didn't know if that was what I felt guilty over or if I felt guilty over trying to hide it all.

I just knew I felt guilty and I felt ridiculous for feeling it. Ridiculous and, maybe, just a little angry.

"I thought it might," John said. "When someone puts a sword to your throat, generally you remember that."

The breath went out of me in a whoosh and my legs shook so much I didn't dare keep standing. I stumbled into the couch, propping myself up against it and holding on for dear life. "We can't talk about this," I said in a hoarse whisper. "If they hear―"

"They'll finish the job?" John moved closer still and I realized something. He wasn't angry at me. He was furious all right, but not at me. The knot of tension in my gut eased and I started to work on breathing again.

"Yes," I said, sounding more calm than I felt. "I'm under the Doom of Damocles, it's their right."

"The hell it is," John spat. I wished then, more than ever, that I'd known him these past few years. That I'd gotten to see the evolution from the John I remembered to this version who was so controlled as to be unreadable. "They ever lay a finger on you―"

I smiled sadly. "You'd make our son an orphan?"

That, as I'd expected, stopped him cold. He stared at me for a long moment and then closed his eyes.

"I'm alive," I said. "They don't have the grounds to change that." The yet went unsaid. I couldn't pretend that John hadn't worked it out for himself, something had brought him here after all, but I wasn't going to be the one to say it either. "I don't intend on giving them any."

"And I shouldn't either?" John asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Definitely not," I said. "I don't know how you found out about this, John, but trust me, the White Council plays for keeps and all the technology in the world can't keep them from reaching you." I almost reached out for him, but pressed the hand into my lap instead. "I can take care of myself. Fact of the matter is that I am guilty; I used magic to take a life." However much Justin had deserved it for what he'd done to Elaine, me, and whoever else had gotten in his way. "I'm alive because of extenuating circumstances that saw my sentence commuted to the Doom." I could never tell him the truth. That I'd survived, in part, because the Council couldn't bring themselves to execute a pregnant girl or, at least, a pregnant girl who might have been carrying the child of a powerful wizard like Justin DuMorne.

I'm sure more than a few were disappointed to realize that my son's father was just your average (ha!) vanilla mortal. I wasn't. I could never be disappointed about that.

Besides, as vanilla as John supposedly was, it was a label that had never really applied to him. Definitely didn't now.

"Tell me about Tommy," I said, looking at John. "And Jennifer. About now, the only people who think I didn't kill them are me and Toot." He smiled and I amended that with, "And you." His smile widened and I made a face. "Okay, so Cujo too, but don't try and tell me that it's for any reason but the fact I'm a girl and girls aren't supposed to make hearts explode. At least not girls as scrawny as me." Not that it mattered. John was getting me off topic and I heard him chuckle as, apparently, me figuring it out was written all over my face. "Jerk," I complained.

He didn't dispute it, saying instead, "Have dinner with me."

"This isn't a negotiation, John," I said, frowning. "I need to find the killer. They think I did it and in my world that gets you beheaded." I pointed at him. "And don't say you won't allow it. There wouldn't be anything you could do to stop it." I'd thought about that plenty. I had to. I needed to have a plan in place if anything happened to me.

As it stood, Murphy had orders to bring Mal to Eb in Missouri. Looking at John, I realized that it might be time to reconsider that. John needed to be able to see his son.

"Tell me about Tommy, John," I said. "Let me take care of it."

"No."

I pushed away from the couch, shaking my head in the process. "I know you think you can kill him and, given enough time, maybe you might figure out a way, but time's something we don't have. Whoever this is, they're angry enough to kill one of Bianca's girls and―" I stopped mid-sentence when I saw the faint flash of interest in John's eyes. Bianca was a competitor of his, after all, which brought up another thought. "Hey―if you have your own girls, what was Tommy doing with Jennifer Stanton? Something personal?" It wasn't unheard of, after all. Bianca's service was high end. In theory, these were not women trapped by circumstances. They made big money.

Theory failed in the fact that Bianca was a Red Court vampire and produced an addictive venom when they fed. I wasn't sure the women in her service weren't under said venom's influence. I hoped they weren't, but I wasn't sure.

I tried again. "Anyone willing to take on Bianca is someone who doesn't give a damn about John Marcone." Which made me flinch. The look on his face made me do a hell of a lot more than that. "Hell's bells, John, that's not an insult. There's a whole other Chicago out there that you've never seen."

One that I wanted to show him. I really did. Part of me was dying to grab him by the hand and start telling him everything I knew. The John I remembered was a man who understood the meaning of 'knowledge is power' and I was sitting on the intellectual equivalent of a nuclear bomb. I didn't think that part of him had changed. If anything, I was beginning to suspect it was made his takeover of the Chicago underworld so damn successful.

I sighed and headed for the kitchen. The situation called for Mac's. I listened to the silence as I did. Silence was a rare thing in my house. Mal had a way of filling up the space around him with every kind of noise possible. From a wizarding standpoint, it was a gold mind of sound to harvest and I'd bottled up everything from angry wails to happy laughter and when he wasn't in the house it seemed smaller somehow.

I grabbed two bottles of Mac's and turned around to face the following John. "I have no standing in your world, right? If they know me at all they think I'm some crazy bitch working an angle. In mine, you're a non-entity. A vanilla. The only time people have to deal with you is when they venture into your world." Which was not the best way to convince him, I knew that, but nobody ever said I was talented at this stuff.

Breathing out, I tapped one dull nail against the neck of my bottle as I held out the other to him. "Even if you don't tell me, you know I'm going to find out."

"Probably." John took the bottle, eyeing it with interest. "I don't know this."

I offered my most innocent of smiles. "Just a little place I know."

He cast a look at me that promised we'd be bringing that up later, but in the meantime, we already had a dance to finish. Tommy and Jennifer. "Bianca thinks I did it." I gestured to myself. "She got a little rude about it, I barely got out of there with my head on my shoulders. She'd eat Cujo for lunch." Literally. "What was Tommy doing with Jennifer?"

John lowered the bottle. "This is―"

I laughed. That was, in a way, the best description of Mac's brew I'd ever heard. "Yeah," I said, nodding, "It is. So Tommy?"

He frowned. "I don't want to see you hurt."

There was a whole speech behind that. I could feel it. Something about being by his side, ruling the world with my magic and his brains and the idea was tempting. I'd learned from personal experience that darkness and black magic was more tempting than the books and stories we grew up with made it out to be.

That was kind of the point really. Evil didn't get anywhere by being dark and sinister right off the bat. It was the whole boiling a frog principle at work; put the heat on blast, the frog jumped out, but turn it up slowly and it was frogs legs for dinner.

I'd used black magic to save my own life (and, however unwittingly, my unborn son's life in the process) which was a pure motive if there ever was one, but that hadn't stopped it from tainting me. Susan had spoken of me having a second shadow now that I knew to be a remnant of He Who Walks Behind, sometimes it was as though I could feel it at my heels, but that wasn't all of it. I'd let black magic work through me and that was something that left a mark you couldn't erase on your own.

The idea of joining John made sense. I could do more with that kind of backing, Mal would be safer, and even the White Council might have thought twice before making a move on me. John and I might even have a chance at being happy together, which was a dangerous thought in and of itself, but nothing was ever that simple.

I didn't know how it would go wrong, but I knew that it would end badly.

"Funny thing about wizards," I said. "We heal fast."

John nodded, doubtless filing away the information for later. "And your friend?"

It was almost embarrassing how long it took me to figure out that he meant Murphy, but honestly, I haven't worried about my dignity in a while. I killed that thing dead years ago. Instead of blushing, I sighed and paced a few steps away. "Murphy's paying me and she's a friend, but that only goes so far." And I hated saying it, but it was the truth. I'd already stepped out of bounds by talking to Bianca, but I'd known how it would have to be long before I did that. The murderer had broken the First Law which would bring the White Council into things and whatever I felt about it, there was no changing how it would end.

The sentence was death and the Wardens wouldn't stop until it was carried out.

"You or her," I looked at him, "It doesn't matter. The murderer broke the First Law and the White Council can't let that stand." Even as I said it, I could feel the cloth of the hood against my face, growing heavy and wet as I hyperventilated Even the memory of it had me shaking and I took a deep, fortifying gulp of Mac's ale.

Which meant I totally sucked that thing back like a Hoover, promising myself I'd apologize to Mac later. The ale deserved better treatment than that and I could hear the grunt I'd get for such disrespect.

John was watching me when I lowered the bottle again. "There was no business involved," he said, calmly. "It was Tommy's birthday and he wanted to celebrate with friends."

"Friends as in plural?"

I looked at my half-finished bottle―Mac would never forgive me for this―and put it down. Time to go to work.

-

I remember watching an episode of Star Trek when I was a kid. Okay, I admit, I watched a lot of Star Trek (I was a geek long before I turned out to have magical powers beyond some seriously impressive D&D skills) but the one about the anti-universe stuck with me. It was the one with the two Lazaruses swapping back and forth, one threatening to destroy the universe while the other one tried to save it or something. It got me interested in alternate universe and I still was. The idea of a multiverse where every choice spawned a 'what if' universe was pretty damn cool.

At least on days when I didn't have to sneak out on my kid again. I wanted nothing better than to tuck Mal in then sneak off to my own bed for some shut eye, but I had work to do and not a lot of time to do it in.

Murphy needed answers, I needed to catch a killer, and that meant talking to Linda Randall. I'd left Bianca's with Linda's name and her telephone number tucked into the pocket of my duster. After escorting John from the house, I dug the latter out and went down to my office. I could have done it from the apartment, but I liked to keep things as separate as possible. Mal needed a space just for us and, frankly, so did I.

Settling in at my desk, I dialed the number and crossed my fingers. Hey, as far as I was concerned, it couldn't hurt, right?

Linda answered a minute or two later, catching me off guard. "Beckitts, this is Linda."

I sat up straight. "Linda Randall? My name's Harry Dresden and I was hoping I could talk to you."

"About what?"

I leaned forward, resting my forearms on the desk, mindful of the dried scorpion in my desk drawer. I didn't know why I thought of it just then, but I did. I was aware of it in a weird way, not anything I could pin down, but a niggling reminder that it was there. Like I could feel its legs walking over my skin.

Yuck. I got up and moved around to sit on the edge of my desk. "I think you already know the answer to that." I leaned against the desk and smiled. I liked the sound of her voice. It was warm and appealing. "I'm investigating Jennifer's murder." I used to say, as official as I could, that I was a private investigator, but abandoned that about thirty seconds in.

There were only so many ways a woman could be propositioned by men offering their privates for inspection and I'd heard them all. "I know you're probably on duty," I said, given the way she'd answered the phone, "but Jennifer was your friend―" It was an out there thought, but I tried it anyway, "And I think you were supposed to be there that night. There's a chance you're in danger as well."

"How did you―" Linda started outraged, but her voice quavered at the end, fading off into a weary sort of bluster. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Tommy was planning on celebrating his birthday with friends," I said, "but only two people were in that suite that night."

"You don't know that I was supposed to be the other one. I wasn't. I have to go now." She hung up.

I grinned. Like that was going to stop me.

-

Linda was at O'Hare. I'd recognized the recordings playing in the background from a few visits in the past (not that I'd flown much. With the way I killed technology, the last thing I wanted to do was get on a plane full of people) and that meant I didn't have much time. The Beetle wasn't in the best of moods, but she was a reasonable woman and once I explained the situation, she lurched into motion and we were off.

The Beetle was my Volkswagen bug of many years. I'd bought it a few days after we'd moved to Chicago. It had been ancient then and it was three days older than God now, but my mechanic Mike was a miracle worker and resurrected her back to fighting form. He'd spent years keeping her that way, though the Beetle herself might have disagreed with that assessment. She wasn't all that blue anymore, having had parts replaced over the years due to the magical and ordinary disasters I'd put her through, and she looked pothole away from total collapse, but she was solid.

Also cranky, but after what I put her through on a regular basis, I couldn't blame her.

I just asked her to get me to Linda Randall as soon as possible. She apparently deemed that do-able as we reached O'Hare without a single complaint out of her. We came across a silver limo not too much later, idling in a parking zone and I had a hunch.

I found a parking spot of my own in record time, beating out a few competitors for it by virtue of me and the Beetle being a damn unstoppable team willing to break our necks and our bumpers for the prize. I left her hunkered down in the spot and hotfooted it to the nearest payphone, trying to keep the limo in sight as I did.

I popped a quarter into the machine and dialed the number again. As I waited for the rings to go in, I turned around and watched the limo. The driver's side window was down, I could see the curl of cigarette smoke rising into the air, and I thought I saw a head move a second before Linda's voice said, "Beckitts', Linda speaking."

"That's a nasty habit, Linda," I said. "Don't you know those things will give you cancer?"

"Dresden?"

I hung up and hurried toward the limo, leaning against the driver's side door as I looked inside. "The one and only," I said. Linda was gorgeous. Just a little younger than me but her grey eyes held a familiar empty look. I knew that kind of pain well. I wasn't self-centered enough to think I'd cornered the market on fucked up pasts and, by the way Linda's expression changed when she looked at me, neither did she. "I'm sorry to have to do this, I am, but I don't think we have a choice. If you were supposed to be there, then there's a good chance you're supposed to be dead too."

She shivered at that and I did in sympathy. I liked Linda. Maybe because she reminded me of me on some level, but I liked her. "I'm not a cop," I promised, "Lieutenant Murphy and SI did contract me to look into Jennifer's murder, but the report they want me to write won't include you either way."

I stepped back to give her the option of getting out which she then took. "If I see a cop―" she warned, pointing the fingers holding the cigarette at me. "I don't know a thing."

"Kiddo," I said, smiling, "As far as I'm concerned I'm spending tonight at home with my kid." Which I fully intended to just as soon as I finished with her. "You might want to think about taking a nice restorative weekend in the country. Try Bolivia." In the long run, against thaumaturgy, it wasn't a guaranteed defense, but it was something. If the practitioner was a rookie or someone without power then they might not have enough juice to hold the spell long enough to reach her.

Linda looked at me like I'd grown a second head, which was oddly enough, a look I got a lot, usually from Mal, then shrugged. "Jen invited me, yes, but I had to work." Linda didn't know much at all beyond what I already did, but that didn't change my conviction she was in danger one iota.

The gist of it seemed to be that Jennifer was a sweet girl, genuine, a saint and an angel. Hell, if Tommy hadn't been a mobster, I'd be humming Pretty Woman by now. I glanced at Linda's hard eyes and looked away in the same instant.

No, I wouldn't.

"Get out of town," I repeated, catching hold of her hand and pressing my card into it. "Please. You can't work if you're dead, Linda."

She yanked her hand away and I realized she was looking over my shoulder. A couple was walking our way and, stars, my blood ran cold with just the barest glimpse. They were dressed immaculately, every line of their suits perfect and elegant, and presented a near flawless image of the modern day power couple.

I stepped away from Linda, puzzling over the feeling of 'wrong' that they presented. It wasn't the kind of emptiness that I'd seen in Linda's eyes, the kind that came with life holding a grudge, but it was emptiness. They seemed unfinished. I didn't know if it was the lack of wedding rings (or any jewelry) or something else, but I had that feeling.

I heard them ask about me as I walked away, I heard Linda lie, but I didn't hear the rest. I just knew that with every step I took away from her, the greater my conviction that she was in danger and by the time I folded myself into the Blue Beetle I was sure I'd never see her again.

Some days, I hated my job. I looked back to watch Linda help Mrs. Beckitt into the car, saw the way they moved together, and pressed my lips together as a shiver of cold went through me.

Today, I didn't hate my job; I fucking despised it.

-

It was the middle of the night when I got home. I set a pizza box on the table before Toot, managing a tired smile when he whooped with glee and set on the thing like Jaws in a feeding frenzy, and then headed for the bedrooms.

I bypassed my own in favor of Mal's. I didn't crawl into bed with him as I might have a couple years ago, but I did sink down onto the floor and lean my head against his mattress. I was tired, but I couldn't sleep. I just sat there for a while and listened to my son's breathing.

It was old routine. There was nothing more peaceful in my life than the certainty that my son was safe and happy. Tears pricked at my eyes and I let a few slip down, catching them in a hanky before they got far. Sure, I was a big softie, but I was a big wizard softie and there were few things more potent in the world than a mother's love for her child.

I looked up at him. He was getting more and more like his father with each passing day. Part of me thrilled at that, but not all. I wanted John to know Mal and I knew Mal needed to know his father, but his father was a man with a lot of enemies (including, in theory, Murphy) and a lot of those enemies wouldn't think twice about using a child against his father.

Rising up on my knees, I tucked Mal's blankets closer about his body then brushed his hair away from his face. He murmured in his sleep but didn't wake. Nothing short of a nuclear explosion could get him up now and that was just as well. Bob and I had never tried to split the atom, but we did get up to some hinky things in the lab sometimes.

I leaned over to kiss his forehead and found myself considering my two cases as I did. One had the potential to rob my son of his mother and the other had seen a father, apparently, walk away from his children.

The first had priority for obvious reasons, but the second just pissed me off. John hadn't gotten to be a part of Mal's life because of the shitstorm that I'd kicked up killing Justin. He'd been robbed of that time and I had to bear some of the responsibility for that for the rest of my life. I had taken that from him and I knew he never, ever would have done it himself. He wouldn't do it now. Whatever complications came from being a part of Mal's life, John wasn't going to let them rob him of even a minute with his son.

I didn't think anything, myself or the White Council included, could have changed that. That was something we wizarding folk didn't like to acknowledge much. For all their 'vanilla' most mortals could be pretty damn dangerous to people like us. It didn't take much to think of the villagers charging the gate with torches and pitchforks in hand. John might swap in some different weaponry, but he had the collective force of the Chicago underworld at his beck and call.

He was Bianca's main competitor and, unlike most of the others, he was still breathing and in full possession of his mental facilities. She gave him the same berth that she generally gave the White Council and that wariness said a lot to his capabilities. They're as cautious as the rest of us, but the Red Court tended to just take over. Hard to bust out the torches when you had to ask the vampires for a light. They hadn't done that with John, at least not yet, and I could guess what that meant.

I'd warned him against starting anything with her and my warning stood, she'd kill him if given half a chance, but before she took him down, John would make her pay dearly. He'd make any of them pay the same price and that was before his son entered the picture. John didn't surrender territory easily, if at all, and any threat against Mal―it wouldn't end well at all.

I thought about that and I thought about Victor Sells, then found myself considering that scorpion in the office drawer. Black magic has no use for the kind of primal power that comes from a parent's love for their children. If Victor was playing around with the Black, then it could have easily gobbled up his feelings for his family and replaced them with something more suited to itself.

Either way, I wanted to grab the bastard by the scruff of the neck and give him a good, hard shake.

You didn't walk away from your children for the Black. I spoke from experience. The Black was almost like a drug in that it offered immediate payoff and a craving for more. It went quick from being the last possible option to being the automatic response no matter the situation. I'd felt that, I'd fought it, and my son had been one of my biggest motivations to win.

Maybe it made me the world's biggest bitch to think it, but Victor had either lost that fight or had never fought at all.

I kissed Mal's forehead one more time and crept from the room. I had the number of the pizza place scribbled on a notepad in my office. I stopped by my bedroom long enough to throw on some old track pants and a 'it's not the size of the wand' t-shirt and then went to make a call.

What I got when I called the pizza place was a frightened kid who'd stumbled across what he'd thought was an orgy. I gave Victor some credit for just scaring the boy instead of murdering him, but not much. He'd still put the fear of God, or something a little darker, into the kid and it took some serious cajoling to tweak the full story out of him.

"So Victor's using sex to fuel his rituals," I said, hanging up the phone, "And someone with a craving for deep dish is giving him a hand."

If Victor was performing rituals at that house, the last thing he would want was people sniffing around. Someone in that house had screwed up and called a pizza delivery and the delivery boy had seen part of the ritual.

My stomach lurched with memories I refused to let come to mind. I breathed deep and stared at the ceiling. There were a lot of things that I just didn't think about from those days and that was one of the worst.

It took a while for me to calm down, to put the old ghosts to rest, but when I did, I wasn't in the mood to devote anymore time to Victor Sells tonight. Instead, I went back to the apartment and opened up the trap door to the lab. "Hey Bob," I said, clattering down the stairs. "Wakey wakey, we've got work to do."

I owed Murphy an explanation after all and I was going to give it to her. It took me and Bob most of the night, but by the time I fell into my own bed around dawn, we'd worked it out.

-

Mal woke me up a few hours later with the sweet scent of ambrosia waving under my nose. "Izzzat coffee?" I mumbled, pushing my head out from beneath the blanket. Mal was standing there in his jeans and a clean t-shirt with the mug held carefully between his hands. He was grinning at me. "Hell's bells, kid," I said, shoving my hair back out of my eyes, "How did you manage to become the grown up?"

He shrugged one shoulder, still grinning at me. "Somebody had to."

I took the coffee and looked at him. "You know you're not supposed to be in the kitchen by yourself. You could get burned."

Mal rolled his eyes. "Mom, I'm eight."

"Yeah, and I'm a lot older than eight but I'm not supposed to be in there on my own either." I got up, ruffling his hair as I did. He was growing again and I saw a trip to Walmart for new jeans in his future. New jeans, new shirt, new shoes―keeping Mal in clothes was a full-time gig.

I sipped the coffee carefully and wasn't all that surprised to find out it was pretty good. I was only half-joking when I said Mal was the adult. "You've got to be careful," I said, after complimenting his coffee making skills. "It's like being down in the lab, some stuff looks okay but it could blow you into next year."

I wasn't sure that Mal was going to be a wizard, but it was a pretty safe bet, so I'd been halfway mentoring him for a while now.

"And don't roll your eyes at me," I added, feeling a little ridiculous. Raising Mal had been easier when all it took was diapering, feeding, and well-timed cuddles. These days I was supposed to be able to think and answer actual questions. I was supposed to be an actual parent and most of the time I was absolutely pulling it out of my ass.

"So what's on tap for today?" Mal asked and I shot him a look. He gave me another unrepentant smirk that reminded me of his father and segued it into an innocent look that was more my contribution.

"Today I―" I frowned. I wasn't sure what day it was. I crossed my fingers hoping like hell it was Saturday. Otherwise, somebody was supposed to be in school and not making his mother coffee which he wasn't supposed to be doing anyway.

"Relax, Mom," Mal said, laughing. "It's Saturday."

I didn't bother hiding my relief. "Good. Then I guess you get to come with me to see Murphy. I've got a report to go over with her." I didn't take Mal to SI often, much at all really, although he loved any chance he got to spend time around Murph. The guys at SI knew I was a single mom, I've gotten flack from a few of them more than once over my job (though not where Murphy would hear. They might be sexist jackasses, but they're smart sexist jackasses) and I liked the idea of rubbing their noses in it. My kid was a heathen, half-wild, and a gangster's son, but Mal left their kids in the dirt and they knew it.

"Breakfast first," Mal said. He gave me a look and I held up my hands. "You forget, Mom," he put in before I could come up with a snappy quip.

He was right. I did. He ate three square a day without fail and we only had the King on Friday nights, but me? Even when I cooked the damn meal I somehow wandered off to do something else and forgot to eat it myself. I think Mal had given up on ever raising me up properly. Which was fine by me, I liked being the big kid in this family if it meant, from time to time, Mal threw down and played.

You'd be surprised how difficult a thing it was to get my son to just forget anything and play.

We threw breakfast together from some fruit and toast, I actually poured juice for us both, and Mal made sure I drained mine before downing his.

I waited for his back to turn before I laughed and went to clean up the dishes. From there it was duster on, staff in hand, blasting rod in coat and a quick check of my shield bracelet as I waited for Mal to shrug into his favorite coat. I kind of loved that coat as well, but because I'd layered it with every sort of protective spell one could imagine and more besides.

It was that more than anything that saved our skins when we stepped out the door and someone swung at us. Mal was between me and the shape and that tended to do things to me and my self-control. It was one thing to hit me, it was a whole different ballgame to swing a baseball bat at my kid.

I grabbed Mal with one arm, brought my shield bracelet up on the other, and snarled something nasty that sent the guy flying clear across the street. He landed in a clutch of garbage cans that made enough clatter to bring windows open all down the street. Or it would have if my neighbours weren't the 'stay out of sight and call 911 later' types.

It wasn't often that something nasty came to call at Chez Dresden, but when it did, it made a mess.

I waited for the guy to stand up, shaky on his feet, before I leveled my staff at him and narrowed my eyes. "Whatever message you're trying to send," I called out, "I can guarantee mine's about a thousand times worse."

I kept myself between Mal and the thug as I inched toward the Beetle. Once there I settled Mal and slowly moved around to slip in on the driver's side. It was a tricky thing to climb into the car with my staff still pointing at the thug, but I managed. Damn near conked myself in the head pulling the staff in with me, but, yeah, I managed.

"Who's he, Mom?" Mal asked, crouched on the floor out of sight.

"I have no idea," I said, starting the car and pulling out into traffic, "but you can bet I'm going to ask."

-

We were waiting on the desk sergeant to put through a call to Murphy when Mal grabbed my sleeve, yanking hard. I looked down to find him watching a kid across the room with narrowed eyes.

Okay, so in theory, I wasn't sure that Mal had inherited any talent from me, but moments like this one didn't leave any other interpretation. The kid he was watching looked about eighteen or nineteen, waiting docilely between a couple of officers not much older than him and he was out of it. I didn't know what he was on, but he was humming and muttering to himself in a way that suggested reality had taken a left when he'd gone right.

I dropped into a crouch next to Mal, close enough to murmur, "What is it?"

He didn't take his eyes off the kid. "Something's wrong with his head."

I bit my tongue against the first response and turned to look at the kid again. "Wrong with his head how? He is on something, kiddo, so he's not going to read as normal."

"No, it's not that, I mean―" Mal huffed a sigh, frowning. "It's not just that. He's all funny colours around his head. It looks like that time I ate too many Popsicles and threw up."

Which had been just a fun way to end a day with the Murphy family, but to be fair, Murph and I had both warned her sister what would happen. She hadn't listened and had lost a pretty nice pair of shoes and shorts in the process.

My kid's a champion puker and I am just juvenile enough to be proud of that fact. The fact that, possibly, Mal could already read auras was cooler, yes, but not by much.

I looked at the kid again, wishing I'd paid more attention when Bob had tried to teach me the same thing, and almost missed the desk sergeant's bitingly sharp, "Miss."

Bouncing to my feet, I pasted a brilliant 'fuck you and the horse you rode in on' smile on my face. "Yes Ma'am?"

She scowled, but said nothing beyond, "Lieutenant Murphy said to send you up."

I laid a hand on Mal's back and guided him in the direction of the stairs. The building that housed SI might've been older than dirt, but the elevator was brand new and I wasn't taking any chances as to what might happen to it with me in it.

"Come on, kiddo, let's go see Aunt Karrin and tell her how people blow up."

The desk sergeant looked horrified and shot an alarmed look at my son.

I smiled sweetly. "He's an apprentice."

Mal looked up at me with an expression of long-suffering. "Do you have to do that, Mom?"

"Oh absolutely," I said with an unrepentant grin. "Some things just cannot slide." And calling me Miss definitely qualified. Or something. Some day I was going to grow up and make my kid proud of me, but I'd settle for the grin he was trying to hide. I loved making Mal laugh and I did it every chance I could.

Don't get me wrong, I'd ground his little butt in a hot second if he needed it―which did happen once in a blue moon―but mostly we had it good.

Which meant, of course, I was going to need every resource John had at his disposal once puberty rolled around. Possibly Murphy's as well and, while I was at it, maybe Michael could be pressed into service. He certainly understood the demands of raising a teenager enough to know why I'd need the help with a magically inclined one.

God, it was going to be hell on earth when Mal's hormones kicked in.

I walked out of the stairwell, Mal instep with me, and Carmichael crossed our path. He took one look at Mal and then at me and shook his head. He muttered something to himself as he passed and I got just enough of it to roll my eyes. So much for the crime scene camaraderie. I should have known it wouldn't last.

I knew I kind of bucked the gender trend. I drove a crappy car, dressed like an inbred yak picked out my wardrobe, and wandered around town with a staff while talking about magic? Yeah, I definitely didn't fit into any gender dynamics. My only apparent nod to femininity most days was the lacquered hair stick I wore stuck in a messy bun.

Fun part about that was the part where it was my blasting rod. I could count on one hand the number of times I'd had it taken from me. Most people seemed to be relieved some part of me was actually female to really take notice of the markings etched into the stick.

The ones that would know what they were anyway.

Either way, I grinned at Mal and nudged him in Carmichael's direction. "You wait with the detective, kiddo. Mom's got work."

Mal just edged closer. "Uh uh. Someone's got to keep an eye on you two." Which, of course, meant he wanted to keep an eye on the contraband that Murphy kept in her desk. Pixie sticks. You give my son one of those it was like lighting a stick of dynamite and throwing it onto an oil tanker.

It just wasn't going to end well and I was probably going to end up apologizing to Charity Carpenter somehow. I hated apologizing to Charity. It went against everything I knew. I was pretty sure she didn't enjoy it either. It was easier to hate me when I was that bitch who showed up and stole her husband away into the night.

Which wasn't to say there wasn't a part of me that perved on Michael like Toot did pizza, but c'mon. Even if I did go in for being a husband-stealing hussy, I wouldn't stand a chance against Charity in all her blonde, nordic goddess glory. Skin and bones wizard versus tall, buxom badass was not a competition, it was a slaughter.

"You okay, Mom?" Mal asked, squeezing my hand.

I looked down at him in surprise. "Huh?"

"Your face," he said, visibly upset. "You just looked―kind of hurt."

I started to think about it, but Murphy saved me the introspection by catching my eye through her open office door. She was on the phone and arguing with someone. Going by the look on her face it was one of the higher ups being a complete jackass and I would've bet a month's pay that the words 'honey' and 'sweetheart' were being liberally used in conversation.

I'd met some of Murphy's superiors. I used to think that good old boys couldn't reach this far north, but I'd been young and stupid then. I was neither old nor a rocket scientist now, but I could read people better. I could see past Justin DuMorne to realize most monsters weren't, by definition, evil most of them were just sexist dinosaurs with bad comb-overs. Okay, some were both, but that's another topic for another time.

"I'm good, kiddo," I said, tuning back into the conversation. "Just had a weird thought is all."

Mal didn't say anything, but he had an expression that did a lot of talking for him. I laughed at it and squeezed his shoulder again. "I promise," I said. "I'm okay."

He didn't seem to believe it, but I wasn't sure that I did either. I was investigating a case that might get me beheaded, the other had gotten me beaten up, and I was mooning over the fact that I was jealous of a woman that, most days I barely tolerated. Usually, that kind of situation wasn't one that okay usually applied to.

Just another day at the office then.

"Seriously," I said. "If not okay then as close to it as a wizard can get."

"This isn't fate of the world stuff, Mom," Mal said, going with the familiar topic of conversation. Wizards didn't always deal with the fate of the world, but we generally had the capacity to fuck more of it up than the average vanilla mortal.

Well, unless that mortal's name happened to be Marcone.

"You never know, kid," I said. "You never know."

I edged closer to Murphy's office, but she held up a hand and then pointed at the phone, rolling her eyes and flicking her fingers in an age old gesture. Don't believe it when men say women talk a lot. We like our chats, sure, but nobody can drone on and on like a man in love with the sound of his voice.

I gave her a sympathetic look and detoured to the line of chairs outside her office door. I usually felt like I was waiting to see the principal when I sat here, but that morning's adrenaline surge was starting to fade away and I was crashing a little.

Closing my eyes, I started reviewing the case and my conclusions. There was something about them that didn't fit yet, exactly, and I wasn't sure just what that was. It didn't quite keep me from drifting off though as a sudden shout of rage and fear had me stumbling to my feet and looking around bleary-eyed.

"It's him," Mal said, pointing at the door. I had a hunch I knew who he meant and when I ran out into the hall I found the skinny kid from earlier throwing off his escort like they were rag dolls before he broke away and ran for it.

Which put him right in my path. Oh shit. I was a whole lot of scrawny wizard. I couldn't stop a fly without pulling my blasting rod, but that didn't mean I couldn't cheat a little. I threw myself back against the wall and stuck out my foot. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't as daring or dramatic as Murphy might have been, but cheap and dirty could be just as effective.

Predictably, he went sprawling on the floor. Unpredictably, however, he rolled onto his back and looked at me like he knew me. Worse, he started talking and what came out of his mouth did not sound like your average stoner on a really great trip.

Drug addicts didn't know anything about He Who Walks Behind, but the kid on the floor laughed like a hyena as he said, "I see you, wizard! I see the things that follow, those who walk before and He Who Walks Behind! They come, they come for you!"

I turned my back on him as the officers closed in, hauling him to his feet and back toward SI. Carmichael was standing in the doorway looking at me. "I even want to know what the hell that was?" I asked, keeping my voice neutral.

"Third Eye junkie," he said., "They're turning up all over."

I looked back over my shoulder to watch the two officers drag the kid away. He was still looking at me and laughing like he'd been. Stars and stones, it was a damn scary thing to watch.

"Yeah," I said, shuddering. "You probably should have called me about that."

I'd heard of Third Eye. It was the new drug of choice on Chicago's streets and it had been turning up everywhere, supposedly powerful enough to open the literal third eye. There is a real one, by the way, it's not just something dreamed up by one of those television mediums to sell more chakra therapy tapes. It was real and wizards used it from time to time when we wanted to See something.

It was not something you wanted to mess around with. We use it sparingly because what you See you never forget. It will forever be etched into your memory in perfect, painstaking detail. If that kid had Seen me, he was never going to forget either. High or not, when the drug wore off I'd be right there in full technicolour.

Poor bastard.

I was still shaking my head when I went in and sat down again. Mal was still waiting where I'd left him.

"Okay," I said, not looking at him, "Remember when I said Third Eye was a total hoax and not to worry about it?"

"You were wrong," Mal said, nodding. "I know."

I laughed and pinched him, making him giggle. "Do you ever get tired of being right?"

"Nah uh," Mal said, winking at me. "You ever get tired of being wrong?"

"You know I think I'm supposed to ground you for talking to me like that," I tapped a finger against my chin. "This parental discipline thing is tricky. Maybe I should just put you on dish duty for a week? Clean the litter box for a month? I don't know, what do you think?"

Mal 'thought' about it then said, in all seriousness, "BK every night for two weeks?"

"The scary thing," Murphy said from her office door, "Is that for him it would be a punishment."

"Heretics the both of you," I said, pushing up out of my chair. "I don't know why I associate with such riffraff."

"I ask myself the same thing every day," Murphy said, gesturing us into her office. She produced a couple pixie stix and slid them Mal's way then looked at me. "So, other than harassing suspects, I'm going to guess you being here means progress?"

I rubbed the back of my neck and tugged my report out of my duster pocket and tossing it her way. "All right, kiddo, this is where you really do go sit with Carmichael for a while." I got one of those poor pitiful, woebegone specials that Mal used to great effect most of the time, but I was standing firm for this one. There would be a day when Mal needed to know about this stuff, but that day wasn't today. "Scoot," I said, standing firm. "Now."

He snuck a glance at Murphy, but she held up her hands and shook her head. "Forget it, kiddo," she said, smiling. "Your mom's right about this one."

Mal made a face, but left anyway. I leaned back in my chair to watch until he'd plunked himself down in the waiting area with his pixie sticks and one of the comics they kept for kids. Satisfied, I looked at Murphy. "Okay, so I know how he did it, the problem is it doesn't actually make sense."

She opened the notebook (I never said my reports were fancy, but at least this one was sans-Coke stains) and skimmed until she found what I was talking about. From there we hashed out the weirdness and I felt the tension in my gut slowly start to unwind. Okay, so the power requirements involved to kill two people the way our killer had were off the charts and meant either a super-talented, super-powered wizard (eep) or a bunch of wizards working in concert (double, possibly triple eep) or something else that I hadn't figured out yet entirely (eep to infinity), we at least had a starting point.

"Not that it'll do you any good with the higher ups," I said, grimly. I got up then, circling around the office to give myself something to do. I ran a finger over tape that held her 'nameplate' against the glass of her door, smoothing out the air bubbles, then looked at the paper itself. I'd threatened to buy her a proper nameplate more than once, I'd even started pricing them, but I think Murphy liked the paper one. Maybe she thought of using it as her own personal 'fuck you' to the superiors who'd expected her to flame out like all her predecessors, I'd never asked, but I liked the idea too.

It wasn't a shock to anyone that I had issues with authority, but at least I knew where my issues came from. I looked back at Murphy, reading over the report, then out at Mal, and felt that tension knot itself back up. Yeah, I knew, the problem had never been not knowing; it was kind of like New Orleans. Everybody knew it was built over a swamp, but stopping the sinking, now that was a whole other problem entirely.

Turning around, I leaned myself against the wall and took in the silent computer, radio, and few other unplugged electronics around the room. I envied Murphy and her capability, but I worried too. She'd struck a balance between the girl thing and the cop thing, a better one than I'd ever managed with the wizard thing, and I had the worst feeling that some day I was going to ruin that balance.

If she ever lost this job, as fucked in the head as it could be, it was probably going to be my fault. For most people, that was an unfounded fear, but mine had plenty of foundation. When Eb had backed me at the trial, taking responsibility for me and any Laws I might violate with my magic, she'd put herself on the executioner's block with me. If I fucked up, she died too, and I'd lived with that realization ever since.

If I died over this, Eb died too, and Mal―I looked at Murphy. "I talked to John."

Her head snapped up, tiny silver earrings swinging with the motion, and I flinched under the sharp glare. "You what?"

I shrugged. "I talked to Bianca too." I crossed my arms beneath my breasts, such as they were, and hugged myself. "John wanted me to stay out of the investigation―I told him no. After that, we talked about Mal."

Murphy nodded at that, grudging but accepting. We'd always known that day was coming and it was just our shitty luck that it happened in the middle of an investigation. "And Bianca?"

"Old school monster chick," I said. "She was never going to talk to you and, uh, she kind of thought I did it, so we needed to get that out of the way up front."

"She thought you were the killer?"

"Yeah, but most people do," I shrugged. "It's one of the downsides of being me." Which was as close as I ever got to telling Murphy the truth about it all. She knew the generalities and she'd know more if she ever ended up taking responsibility for Mal (at least until John asserted parental rights) but I was serious about respecting the White Council's need for anonymity. "At least we know she wasn't the one who did it. Bianca's not stupid. She wouldn't try and take me on unless she was seriously pissed off."

"She wouldn't try killing you to cover her tracks?" Murphy flipped the report shut and reached for her coffee. "Sounds like a good plan to me."

"That's because you know me," I said. "Bianca doesn't. Until that meeting she knew me by reputation only and she wasn't willing to risk trouble by killing a wizard. That sort of thing invites retribution by my nearest and dearest magical kin." The White Council might not have cared if Bianca took me out, but I was pretty sure Eb would, and Éabha McCoy took her vengeance seriously.

The Red Court would have Bianca's fangs for dragging Eb into a fight.

"The consequences of killing me would invalidate any alibis," I said, eyeing Murphy's coffee wistfully.

She made a disgusted noise and waved a hand toward the pot. I swooped in like Toot on pizza and poured myself a cup that I dosed heavily with sugar. Mal came by his pixie stix supercharge honestly.

Murphy waited until I was sitting again before making me spit coffee. "So what aren't you telling me about Marcone?"

I looked at her, fumbling for a hanky that wasn't full of sunshine to clean up the coffee. "Hell's bells, Murph, you know better than that."

"Uh huh," she said, smiling sweetly, "It's why I did it. Now spill, Dresden, or no more coffee for you."

I scowled, but I liked my coffee. "I think they were sending a message to Marcone. According to Bianca, Jennifer and Tommy were close friends. She wasn't just a hooker, she was someone he cared about."

"Marcone sends one of theirs to the hospital," Murphy paled. "They sent two of his to the morgue. The Outfit's using magic to fight a gang war?"

She looked at me and I held up my hands. Okay, hand. I wasn't giving up my coffee for anything. "Nah uh, he never asked and I never offered." Well, he'd never explicitly asked, but that wasn't an elaboration that Murphy was going to get out of me anytime soon. "He planned on going after them the old-fashioned way." Not that he was going to get the chance. "The magic's all on the Third Eye side."

I got another one of Murphy's special glares for that one and smiled all sweetness and light. "You forget to call me about that one?" I asked, that smile firmly in place. "I thought it was a hoax, Murph, but I ran into a junkie out there and trust me, it's legit." So, yes, I was a little mad about it. There was a wizard out there whipping up magical drugs to flood the streets of my city with, taking out his competitors with black magic and framing me for it, and I'd spent days chasing my damn tail while missing the obvious. "For the record, I'm charging danger pay on this one. That's something I should've known, Murph."

"Maybe," she said, "but we didn't know either. He didn't put 'warning; may contain large amounts of black magic' on the pills."

I granted her that one, but I was still grumpy. "Either way, it changes the playing field a little. That kind of thing takes some attention to detail."

She looked at me. "Any ideas on who?"

I shook my head.

"Would you tell me if you did?"

I smiled.

She didn't. "Harry. This guy is a nasty piece of work and whoever goes looking for him isn't going to get a very warm reception."

"I know," I said, "Precisely why the vanilla folk need to be kept out of it." I ignored the way she glared at me for that one, bouncing back up out of my chair as I did. "If it makes you feel better, I told Marcone the same thing." Sort of. "Neither one of you gets to be in on the endgame of this one, Murphy."

"You can't just walk out of here, Harry," she snapped. "If you know―"

"I don't," I said, sincere.

"But when you find out, you're not going to tell me, are you?"

I smiled. "It's better this way, Murphy."

She smiled back with just a little too much teeth. "Bullshit, Dresden."

-

I collected Mal on my way out of the building, feeling the faint vibrations of a building sugar rush, and eyed him with wariness as we headed for the street and the waiting Beetle. "Just warn me when you're about to go critical, okay?" I asked, watching him suck back another one of the stix. "I need the chance to get below ground."

He giggled and wrapped an arm around my waist. "I won't let you blow up, Mom, I promise."

Most people would have expected a sarcastic reply from me after that, but no one had said anything that sweet to me in a while so I wrapped him up in a surprise hug instead. He returned it as fiercely as I gave it and if one of us sniffled, well, I wasn't going to point it out.

There are a lot of things about kids that I never saw coming, but Mal's knack for picking up on the bad shit that perpetually plagued me was one of the ones that continually surprised me. I smacked a kiss into the top of his head and then looked at him. "Nobody's going to blow me up, kiddo."

Something moved behind him and I squinted. "Cujo, what did I say about sneaking up on me?"

"Not sneaking," he said, grunted really, but he was technically right. It was damn hard for a guy his size to sneak up on anyone out in the open like this.

"Point," I said, nodding. "Say, you know anything about kids and sugar rushes?" I shared a conspiratorial look with my kid. It was probably mean to sic a hyperactive, sugar-hyped eight year old on him, but his resulting look of panic when Mal bounded toward him was well worth it.

I gave Hendricks another one of my warning looks as I passed him and walked around the corner to find John waiting.

"I'd make a joke about balls," I said, "but you've probably heard every variation possible."

He nodded. "Most likely."

I leaned against the brick of the building, kicking my foot against it casually as I said, "So I'm proceeding on the assumption that the guy outside my building this morning was not there on your orders?"

John wasn't surprised by my comment, furious yes, but not surprised. He wasn't behind it, but he'd either been briefed or he'd had people watching my place. The latter seemed more his style and I wasn't sure whether I should be calling them off or quietly accepting the fact he'd just send more as soon as I relaxed. "You would be correct in that assumption."

I nodded. "Good. We'd have problems otherwise, John." I couldn't kill with magic, no, but that didn't stop me from asking the people who could. "That means he's on to me." I thought about Linda and narrowed my eyes. I was probably making a mistake on so many levels by asking this, but hell, it was that kind of day. "Can you get someone under wraps for me?"

"Linda Randall?"

"Oh, seriously? Watching my place is one thing, John, but following me around town?" I pushed away from the wall and put my hands on my hips. "Some girls might find the stalker thing romantic, but I promise I'm not one of them." His lips twitched with possible laughter and I scowled some more. "Stop that."

"No," he said, his eyes taking me in. It was a look I remembered and my ire settled into uncertainty. I didn't him looking at me like that. It was blurring lines that I wanted to stay clear and strong. "I'd really rather not."

I paced a few steps away. "Well, I'd rather you did, and yes, Linda Randall. She might not know anything, but she's in a position to and that's enough. There's not much that can protect you from this kind of curse, but distance might help. A lot of distance."

John's answer was little more than a subtle nod then he stepped closer. "Are you all right?"

I blinked, caught off guard by that as much as I was the fact he genuinely looked worried. I didn't think he was good enough to fool me, but it'd been a long time and I wasn't sure. "Me? Fine, fine. Not even a scratch." I looked back to get eyes on Cujo and Mal, watching them talking seriously, and felt the anger of that morning surface again. "That never happens again, John. I don't care what it is, Third Eye, turf wars, whatever, it never happens again."

"It won't." John's fingers brushed mine, drawing my eyes back to his in a hurry. "Third Eye―you know about it?"

"I know it's legit," I said. "And I know that means the supplier is probably Tommy's killer. Those kind of skills mean there's not much chance two wizards are practising the Black at that level in Chicago at the same time." It wasn't impossible, especially not with the power involved in the killings, but it was unlikely. "We need it off the streets, John. That's what all this is over, isn't it? You were trying to put a stop to it." I was under no illusions about what John did and what he allowed. I didn't think him on the side of the angels, but I wasn't looking for halos right now. Third Eye could do serious, deadly damage to people and God only knew what would happen if someone like me got dosed with it.

Wizards kept our Third Eye closed for damn good reason; we only opened it when we absolutely had to. Something forcing it open like that? I felt sick to think about it.

The Wardens needed warning, but they wouldn't listen to me and John had no standing. We were on our own.

I was on my own. There was no way I was dragging him into this.

I looked at John. "There's paperwork in my place." Just in case. "Save you the legal tangling." And tell him what to do in case Mal did manifest power. There were letters for Eb, Murphy, and Michael too. I'd covered my bases.

John looked pained. "Harry."

Feeling a little reckless, I ducked to kiss him. It felt as good as I remembered. I wanted to let go and hide in it for a while, reacquaint myself with every single part of kissing him, but I couldn't. I felt his hands start to move and broke away. "Keep your head down, okay?" I said and hotfooted it for Mal.

I had a phone call to make.

-

We stopped for Burger King on the way home, we both needed it, and I took note of the car following us. I rolled my eyes in the driver's direction, but let it stand. Let John think I'd fallen for the decoy, especially since it backed off when we pulled into the space outside our building.

"See anybody kiddo?" I asked, leading the way up the front steps.

"Just the same guys as this morning," Mal said. "Not that one though."

Unlocking the door and testing the wards with a wave of my hand, I looked down at him. "You saw the other guys this morning?"

"Uh huh," he nodded. "They were running to us until you took out that guy."

I felt my cheeks heat as I thought about the report they'd written up on that. Shaking my head, I led the way into the front shop and Mal closed the door behind us. There was no one in the apartment or the office, but I stopped in at the office anyway. There was a light flashing on the phone and my eyebrows rose in disbelief. "Hey, the phone's working."

Mal followed me into the office, peering at it in disbelief. "Are you sure it's just not flashing for no reason?"

Answering machines didn't seem to work for me, I'd fried every one that we had tried thus far, but the answering service seemed to be working well enough. Sure, the light would come on for no reason whatsoever and turn off when there was actual messages, but it hadn't exploded in a puff of smoke yet and that was something.

I sat on the edge of my desk and handed the BK bag off to Mal. "Go get the table set up." I punched in the number, followed the distractions for the code, and promptly listened to myself get fired. Monica Sells sounded strange as she left the message which told me that my services were no longer required and, in a roundabout way, told me to keep the full retainer.

Huh.

It was stating the obvious to say something was wrong, but something was wrong. I puzzled it over all the way through lunch, the afternoon, and well into evening.

"Maybe he came home," Mal said, sitting on a bench and watching me and Bob work at a potion. He wore protective goggles too big for his head, rubber gloves, and a baseball hat and I still didn't like having him this close. He needed to learn, Bob was right about that, but I didn't like it. I wouldn't have liked it if we'd dressed him up in full hazmat gear.

Overprotective? Me? Nooooo...

"Yeah, and maybe Morgan finally got that stick shov―" I shot a look at Bob. His skull rocked nervously and I pressed my lips together into a tight little smile. "It's not likely, buddy boy. You don't shell out that kind of money looking for your husband only to have him come home a few days later."

Mal nodded, leaning on his hands. "Maybe he wasn't missing at all."

That got my attention. Maybe he wasn't. It made sense. Monica wanted me looking into something, but couldn't tell me what, so she played coy about it being her husband so my interest would be peaked and I wouldn't be able to let it go.

Thunder cracked overhead and I frowned. Something about that. "Bob?"

"Yeah Boss?"

"Something feel weird to you and, be warned, you answer that question―" Gunfire. Someone was shooting upstairs. I cursed and yanked my blasting rod out of my hair, which then fell to my back with a heavy bounce, scrambling for the ladder as I did. "Mal."

It was all I needed to say. There were a dozen and one ways out if we needed to use them. The closest were a line of potions on a shelf at Mal's level. Escape potions. They were quick, dirty, but they'd do the job.

Mal scrambled for one, downing it and disappearing as I threw open the lab's trapdoor and emerged into an empty apartment. The front door was demolished and there was a line of faeries between me and it―Toot and his buddies―all of whom were screaming something at the figures outside.

Outfit guys.

Stars and stones, I had a full scale security detail. Half a dozen big guys had taken positions along the hallway, all of whom were unloading guns of varying calibre and power on something big, mean, and nasty looking.

Demon. Not The Fallen, but something out of the Nevernever. It was snarling and lurching toward my front door with every impression it was going to come through.

It spit something and I hit the dirt, feeling it whistle through the air and land on the couch behind me. I looked back to watch a large hole form where it struck and sink on down through. Hopefully, it stopped at the floor, but I didn't have time to look. Great. Something out of the Nevernever was bad enough. Something out of the Nevernever that spit acid at me?

Yay my life.

"Hit the deck!" I roared at the men in the hall. "Bullets'll just piss it off and you guys aren't acid immune!"

I heard scrambling and cursing, but they weren't running, just regrouping. Flame spat past the door and I was officially impressed. The Gentleman had done his homework. It wouldn't help much, but it wouldn't hurt.

I inched closer to the door, holding my blasting road in my hand, watching the demon. It waited until it got closer before letting out another mouthful of the acid. I was ready for it this time, yelling, "Vento Riflittum!" before rolling away in the other direction.

I heard the demon shriek and stumble, but I knew it wasn't going to hold it off for long. I didn't need it to. I just needed to scramble out the door through the clutch of mobsters and make tracks for the street.

While the demon was still reeling, I snapped out a "Vento servitas!" that brought my staff to my free hand and did exactly as planned. I scrambled through the line of mobsters who then closed ranks in front of me, one big guy even going so far as to tell me to sit tight and they'd take care of this before joining his fellows in facing down the toad-demon. He even called me honey as he did so.

I shook my head, fighting a smile, and kept right on running. Men. I heard someone shout after me, but no one followed. They probably thought I was doing the smart thing and running for my life.

Ha. What an idea, right? Me doing the smart thing. John had done his research into the magical stuff, but he'd never stopped to warn my security just how uncooperative I could be.

They'd be pissed when they realized I was more worried about their safety than I was my own, but hey, the thing was after me, right? It was only fair that I get to call the shots.

"I should have known you'd be with him."

I stopped in my tracks, leaning against the building, breathing hard as I tried to locate the speaker. It was pounding rain, my hair was in my eyes, everything was plastering against me, and my instincts were screaming at me to get the hell out of there. I was virtually naked (seriously, we were in wet t-shirt contest territory and, stars, I needed to remember to wear a bra sometimes), exposed, and a bunch of annoyed Outfit guys were about to come storming out into the streets.

Yeah, this was not a good time for me to be trading quips with the heavy. I pushed my hair out of my eyes and spied a shadowy spot where rain wasn't really falling. It was a projection and a decent one, but not the best. I could feel the cold spot of its presence and it didn't hold up against the flashes of lightning overhead. This one was one step up from Star Wars while the really good ones were indistinguishable from the genuine article.

I made a mental note. Who was I to look a gift wizard in the mouth? He wanted to show up and tell me all his secrets, I wasn't going to complain.

Seriously, sometimes the villain really did turn up to gloat.

"I'm sorry," I said, leaning on my staff. "I didn't get your name." I couldn't really tell if it was a man or a woman, they were at least skilled enough to disguise that, but I was still betting on man. Maybe it was some kind of whacky self-discrimination or something, but I liked to think a woman would be smarter than this.

Apparently he was supposed to watch me die, but really, if he'd been paying attention he would've noticed the part where I don't die so easy.

It laughed at me and I rolled my eyes. "Seriously? What's next? You lay out your diabolical plan while I cower in fear until the last second before my untimely demise when I suddenly rise up and slew the foul monster?"

Heh. I should've been a writer.

Carpal tunnel sounded a lot more fun than 'rendered to death by demonic forces' now that I thought about it.

"You will do nothing of the sort," it said, annoyed. "My demon will not permit you the luxury of an escape."

"My―hell's bells, you conjured that thing up?" I nearly slapped my hand over my eyes, stopping only when I remembered the blasting rod in it. I hooked my staff into my elbow and twisted up my long hair. The weight of the water made it tricky to hold, but the rod held firm. I had a feeling I wouldn't be needing it right then. "Do you have any idea how stupid that was? What that thing can do if it gets loose?"

More and more I was thinking this guy was an amateur who'd read the right books and hit a few lucky strikes. Delicate magic wasn't my strongest area, but I had a feeling I was still a thousand times better at it than he was.

"It will not," he said―and, yeah, male. No woman could be that damn oblivious. "I control it."

I snorted. "Yeah, because I haven't heard that one before." For curiosity's sake, I reached out again, but probing him with a lot less subtlety than I had before. I wanted him to feel it, but it took longer than it should have before he reacted.

Jerking back as if burned, the projection wavered and fuzzed a bit. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Magical equivalent of kicking your tires." I leaned around the corner, looking for the demon. The boys inside were holding it back a bit, it seemed. Assuming they survived, John owed those guys a seriously impressive bonus.

I heard the demon roar and saw several of John's men spill out into the street. Some were carrying their comrades and when they saw me watching, hesitated.

I waved them off. "Trust me," I hollered through the rain, "I got this."

I looked back at the projection. "Now you will die," he said with satisfaction.

"Yeah, I'm thinking not," I said, laughing. "You can't even control a simple projection when another wizard pokes you in the metaphysical eye. A demon like that is a lot more complicated." I smiled wider, all teeth and 'fuck you, asshole' and raised my staff. "Allow me to demonstrate. Stregallum finitas!"

Light flared from the end of my staff, swirling around the projection and eating at it until it began to shrink in on itself. He screamed in rage, but it didn't do any good. I was better, I was more powerful, and more important than both, I had training. I knew what I was doing and I felt a lot more confident about our approaching confrontation.

I also needed to revise my report. I'd overestimated this guy hardcore. More than that, I had an idea, but I needed to get out of here before I could do anything about it. The problem was that options were slim: fire was out, the rain had seen to that, and the longer it went on the worse it was going to get for me. Mortal magic and water don't mix, the longer I stood in this rain, the weaker I was going to get. I already felt a little shaky from the simple spells I'd used in the last few minutes and that was the water's effect. It was only going to get worse.

I needed to do something about that demon and fast. My eyes went to the sky above me. "I have to be out of my goddamn mind," I said, but shrugged. It wasn't news to anyone that knew me. Just ask Mal. He was definitely convinced his mother wasn't firing on all her cylinders, he was just too loyal to say so.

I thought of my son and, assured he was safe, I turned back to face the demon. Raising my staff over my head, I waited for the demon to launch itself at me before I yelled, "Ventas! Ventas fulmino!" and pushed every bit of my will into the words and the staff, grabbing my blasting rod from my hair as I did.

I felt the spark of electricity fly upward toward the sky and I felt the storm's response. Lightning slammed down into my body like a freight train and damn near whited out every thought in my head. I held onto my plan like Mister on a rat, sinking mental claws in and holding tight to the image, making sure the energy boiling through me erupted down the length of my blasting rod and into the demon where I wanted it.

The demon was inches away, close enough I smelled the fetid stench of its breath despite the rain, when the energy struck it. It light up like Rockefeller Centre at Christmas, lighting the street like mid-afternoon, and screamed loud enough to shatter half the windows on the block. Sweet. I slumped to the concrete as it exploded, hearing the shouts of the Outfit guys as they watched the show.

"Son of a bitch, lady," one of them said, crouching down before me a minute or so later. I opened bleary eyes to look at him and, if I'd had the energy (ha), I might have been amused at the shocked (double ha) expression on his face. "What the hell was that?"

I fumbled for my staff and my rod and reassured myself they were in good working order before saying, "The reason your boss shouldn't piss me off." It sounded great in my head, but somewhere between there and my mouth it got garbled up into an incoherent "Gargh" that ended in me pitching forward into his arms.

-

I woke up in an unfamiliar room, my rod and my staff on one side of me, my kid on the other, and a familiar presence filling all the leftover space. I was tingling from head to foot and, wow, I actually felt pretty damn amazing. Which, considering, I'd channeled a primal force of nature not that long ago, was pretty damn amazing all its own.

I turned my head to look at Mal. He was asleep, out cold, with one bony arm flung across my chest. The touch was deceptively gentle. I knew better than to believe that one. He could hold on like a barnacle when he wanted to.

"You owe your men a raise," I said in a whisper.

"Mm, yes, I believe that I do." John circled around to look at me. He looked oddly proud. Ah hell, they'd told him about the lightning. "Though I am told you made quite a showing yourself."

"They exaggerate, I swear," I said, yawning. "It was just a little static electricity."

John sat on the edge of the bed, on the other side, avoiding any chance of disturbing Mal. He brushed his fingertips along my jaw, up to guide my hair behind my ear, and I shivered a little at the touch. "There's security footage," he said, "from a building across the street. It wasn't just anything, Harry. You called lightning down from on high. Traditionally, that's been the province of deities."

I tried hard to ignore the way his fingers felt on my skin. It would be too tempting to relax beneath it and let him take care of me and Mal.

"Not really," I said, "You'd be surprised just how common that is." I changed the subject, looking down at our son. "So he made it in one piece. Good."

"Mm, you might have considered warning me," John said. "Little boys appearing in my office isn't something my men are used to."

"I wasn't sure it would work," I said. I'd used a few strands of his hair to anchor the potion, barely enough to be effective, and we'd never had the opportunity to test it. Like John said, people appearing in his office, past his defences, without any kind of warning didn't really get the best of receptions. "That hair was old."

"Hair?"

"Mmhmm, thaumaturgy isn't always about hearts exploding," I said, smiling up at him. "Sometimes, it's just about getting little boys to safe territory when all hell breaks loose. He needs to stay here for a while. Whoever this is knows that I'm a threat now and a bigger one than you. I'm going to be his primary target from here on out."

"You sound pleased by that," John said, frowning at me. His hand on my cheek stilled, but stayed there, and I didn't protest it. I wanted to, but I didn't. "Harry―"

"He's an amateur, John," I said. "No real training, just what he learned himself, and that means my bag of tricks is bigger than his." It didn't guarantee me a victory, but it did put me on a lot better ground and I liked that. My days of suicidal runs at evil had kind of died before they began. I was somebody's mother and I didn't have the right to self-destruct. At least, not in my books I didn't, and mine were the only ones that mattered.

That said, I had work to do. It took me a bit to ease myself out of Mal's determined embrace. John stepped back to let me stand, as if he was sure my legs would go out from beneath me the second I stood. That didn't happen. I reached out to lay a palm flat against his chest and guide him back further.

"I'm not saying it won't be dangerous," I said. "I'm saying I can handle it. Now, I need to go. If I don't get a move on this, he's going to have all the time he needs to cook up a better way of killing me." Which wasn't precisely true. He probably already had that cooked up. He just needed to wait for the weather to accommodate him by providing another storm.

That was how he'd fooled me and made me think he was more powerful than he was. He'd learned how to suck down power from the storm systems moving through the area and he was funding his spells with them.

"There's something you need to know," John said. "We didn't make it to Linda in time."

I stumbled, my knees giving out, and he caught me as I fell against him. "Same cause of death?" I managed to ask, faint. When John nodded I swore, low and vicious, and pushed out of his arms. Anger put strength back in me as I paced a few steps away, thinking of Linda and her eyes twin to mine with every step.

John followed me, catching my elbow in his hand and drawing me back. "Yes, but there's more." We both looked at Mal and I didn't protest when John started walking us toward the door. I didn't break away this time and mostly because of the way something twisted in my belly. "I'm acquainted with Linda Randall's employers."

I scrubbed at my face with my free hand, trying to clear my head enough to hear what he was saying. There was something in the words that caught at me, tore at me, and I didn't know what it was. Not with Helen Beckitt's dead eyes boring into my memory. "The yuppies?" I caught his sideways look and tried to smile. "Saw them at the airport. Scary people."

"Yes," John said, sounding tired. "I made them that way."

Something about how he said it stopped me in my tracks. I turned to face him and found myself wondering if my eyes looked anything like Helen's as John told me about the Beckitts and their daughter Amanda. I felt the blood drain away from my face as he told me of the shot meant for him that put a little girl on life support for three weeks before―

I breathed out. "Hell's bells, John."

He looked broken when I faced him and I couldn't help reaching out to curl my hand around his. I felt the gun callouses there as he squeezed tight and I thought of something. I stepped into his space and met his eyes, remembering the day I'd fallen into that soul gaze with him and the man I'd seen there. "Gentleman Johnny's birthday."

His gaze hardened and he nodded once. I could practically see the walls going up again. "It was the only way."

It made a lot of things clear and not just with Gentleman Johnny's rise to power; it explained his distance.

I looked down at his hand wrapped around mine. My thoughts were a complete mess. Murphy would've said that was news, but then again, that was the point, wasn't it? I hadn't seen Murphy in days. I didn't even know if she knew where I was. By now, someone had to have reported the gunfire outside my place. She had an amulet that would get her past the wards, so she'd check it out herself and find the mess the demon had made fighting me and John's men.

It wouldn't take her long to track back here. Linda Randall's death would delay that, maybe, but not for long. Murphy was worried and she had good reason to be. I was worried too.

"You need more sleep," John said, laying a hand flat against my back. It skimmed down, stopping just above my ass. I shot him a look and got perfect innocence in response that had to be one of Gentleman Johnny's favourites.

"Definitely," I agreed. "You're starting to look cute." I stopped, thought that over, and frowned. "Yeah, that wasn't supposed to sound like that. I am tired." Hey, who knew pouring several thousand volts of pure power through your body could tire you out like this?

Not that exhaustion had anything to do with it, but it sure made it easier to lie to myself about it. I didn't look at John, I couldn't, I wasn't sure what kind of expression I'd find and I was more worried than I should have been.

John and I had been apart for years and that wasn't going to change anytime soon. No matter how badly my body was hinting to the contrary, I'd made my mind up.

I had.

Really.

I sighed and rubbed the back of my neck. "I needed to check on Mal anyway. How long has he been asleep?"

"Not that long," John said, his voice softening. "Adrenaline had him keyed up for quite a while. We all but had to sit on him to keep him from going back after you."

I laughed. "That's not adrenaline, that's us. He comes from stubborn stock." His hand shifted, almost twitched, fingertips pressing into my back. Reading John used to be so much easier than this. I could see everything in the way he looked at me, or maybe I thought I could, it was almost impossible to remember those days with any kind of clarity.

I was guessing, but I think that finger twitch was probably as close to any kind of emotional reaction as John allowed myself these days.

"Yes," he said, voice even. As even as if this were a casual discussion of the weather and not the son he barely knew. "I've noticed that." He paused for a second or so and then added, "You've done an incredible job with him."

His hand moved again, a brief skim along my back, before dropping away. I closed my eyes and tried not to shiver. "Thank you."

We needed to sit down and talk about Mal, about all of it, but that wasn't going to happen. I'd been trying, but couldn't make the words cross my lips.

Later. We'd talk later.

-

Mal hadn't moved when I returned to the bedroom and I slipped back onto the mattress with him. If I ignored the opulent setting (seriously, how did John live like this?) it was like a dozen other nights and I was too tired to pay attention to the thread count on the sheets anyway.

I drifted off almost immediately.

Waking when I felt a hand on my hair. I opened my eyes, staring at the wall across from me, trying to figure out how to politely put John off. I didn't want to, that was the bitch of it, but I had to. John and I were explosive and from two worlds that didn't mix. If I wanted to even think about this, I come at it like higher level magic. The kind of magic where every detail, right down to how many breaths you took, was planned in advance.

My kid's happiness depended on it.

Mal.

He was gone.

The hand sliding over my hair gentled, but stilled. I felt it curl around a lock of hair and then stop entirely.

I tensed, turning to look, and realized the man standing over me wasn't John. I yelped and rolled clear, catching the flash of a blade as I moved, feeling my hair tighten and release when I did. He'd cut it.

I came to my feet, staff and rod nowhere within reach, and faced down a familiar face. "Didn't you get enough when I blasted your ass across the street?"

He grinned and then spun, running for the door. With my hair.

People like me have always understood how dangerous it is to leave bits and pieces of yourself lying around. Modern day law enforcement could use fingerprints and DNA identify you, but a wizard could follow you to the seventh circle of hell and back.

This guy was not a wizard. Our confrontation outside my home would've gone drastically different if had been. He wasn't the shadowman I'd seen, but he was probably working for him and if he was then the hair was the ultimate endgame. Forget me going after the little bastard, he'd get me before I'd even had a chance to track him down.

The hell that was happening. Mal wanted to try out for the Thanksgiving play at his school. I had to learn how to make a costume damn it.

Furious, I jumped across the bed and nearly broke my neck when I tripped in the sheets. I caught myself at the last second, but I wasn't in time to stop him from making it into the hall. Not that it mattered, I had home court advantage and the open door inspired me to start shouting my son's name.

It didn't matter what I yelled, John's people would come running anyway, but I needed to know where Mal was. I needed to know he was all right. John had a breach. Someone had gotten into his organization and his home. This guy had gotten into the room where the mother of his son had been sleeping, close enough to cut her hair, and maybe even to grab the boy himself.

I raised a hand, snarling "Fuego!" as I did so. Without my rod or my staff, it was difficult to focus the energy, but I wasn't trying to hit him. Instead, I wanted what happened. Fire billowed down the hallway at him and he hit the floor to avoid it. I was on him in a second. He curled the hand holding my hair beneath his body and I yanked at his arm, trying to get at it.

There was shouting behind me, the thunder of feet on carpet, and a hand grabbed for my shoulder. Only one person had mitts that massive and I looked back with a grin. "Cujo, I could kiss you."

He made a face. "Boss wouldn't like that so much."

At his voice, the guy beneath me went rigid with fear. It seemed that Hendricks had a rep and I wished I could feel bad about that.

"He took my hair," I said, breathless. "And I don't know where Mal is."

"With me."

I'm a wizard. I control and manipulate vast amounts of power. I'm considered, apparently, to be pretty damn impressive and I scare the living hell out of the White Council. I have protected myself and my son against monsters that would send the people around me running for their mothers.

I was scared to death of the promise in John's voice. I looked up at him and I had an idea; this was what I looked like when someone threatened Mal. This is what I'd looked like to the idiot beneath me right before I'd blown him across the street with a word.

I was oddly okay with that.

John closed the door behind him and I got a glimpse of my son just before I did. He was all right. Mal was all right. I relaxed into myself and looked down. "Who is he?"

"His name is Lawrence." John dropped into a crouch, holding out his hand to me. "I take it you've met."

"Well, if you call me blasting him across the street an introduction, then yes, we've met." I pushed away from the thug and took John's hand. I could be pretty damn oblivious when I wanted to be, but even I was aware of the symbolism involved in the moment.

I didn't care.

"He took my hair," I repeated as we stood. John didn't let go when I was on my feet, if anything his grip tightened. He knew what that meant. I had a feeling he'd amassed an impressive amount of information in the years since I'd been back in town. "I want it back."

John nodded. "Mr. Hendricks, if you'd be so kind as to take care of it."

Hendricks lifted Lawrence body and bones, hauling him upright like it was nothing. Lawrence pressed his hand tighter against his stomach, face tight and pale with fear. "Boss―I didn't do anything. She's lying."

John shook his head, looking for all the world like a disappointed parent, and turned to me. "I've known this woman for many years, Lawrence." His expression changed and I wavered beneath it. I wanted what was in that look. I wanted it so badly I felt myself leaning into it. "She's a terrible liar."

I clapped a hand over my mouth to stop the burst of hysterical laughter. He wasn't wrong; I was a terrible liar, if I knew what I was lying about. I knew I'd never completely fooled him that everything was fine with my guardian, but that was another of the many conversations we were never going to have.

"Hold out your hand, Lawrence," John said, still looking at me. "Before Mr. Hendricks takes more drastic measures." His thumb rubbed against my hand where he was still holding it. The touch was brief, but I understood.

I think I pitied Lawrence.

I turned to look at him. "Whatever he paid you wasn't worth it."

"Truly," John agreed, "I would have doubled it without hesitation." He held out his free hand and Lawrence dropped the hair into it. "Hendricks."

I closed my eyes. "I need to check on my son." I couldn't be there for what would happen next. I pulled away from John and turned toward the door I'd seen Mal behind.

"Harry."

John turned me to face him, taking my hand again. I watched him lay the lock of hair across my palm, then close my fingers across it.

"Thank you."

I opened the door and smiled at my son. I'd only just closed it behind me when I heard shouting. Lawrence breaking free. I threw myself at Mal, shaking out my shield bracelet and bringing a shield over us both as soon as it was ready.

Shots rang out as I did. The cracking noises of the shots followed by the dull thudding of bullets impacting walls. I pushed more will into the shield and wrapped my frame around my son.

Mal wrapped his arms around me and tucked his head against my chest. "Mom, what's wrong?"

"Your dad has a small employee problem." I curled my free arm around him. If I were the praying sort I would've been praying now. "Remember the guy outside the shop?"

The wild shots faded and then there was one, final shot.

"That guy used to work for him."

"I don't think I like his job very much," Mal said. His voice sounded small, scared, and I pulled the shield closer around us so I could cuddle him. He was terrified. I could hear the fear in his voice and feel it in the way he shook against me.

"Neither do I, kiddo," I said, pressing my face into his hair, wishing I could turn back the clock.

For all my irrational fears about facing John, this was one of the few rational ones. The one that had always held me back when I talked my way around the others. Whether it had been him or Hendricks who pulled the trigger, a man had died by John's hand just a few feet away from my son. A shield and a door had been the only things standing between an eight year-old and a murder.

I wanted John in Mal's life, I always would, but his business was going to be staying farther away from us than this if we were actually going to do it.

"I want to go home, Mom," Mal said, mumbling the words into my shirt.

"We will, kiddo, we will," I kissed the top of his head, letting the shield fall after the door opened and John looked inside. "Mom just has to make sure it's safe first." When I stood, lifting Mal into my arms, I froze.

Three small, flattened bullets lay on the floor at my feet.

-

The body was gone when we left the room, but I took Mal outside anyway. I didn't want him in that house while John's people were doing whatever they did at times like this.

Life on the Gold Coast was pretty damn impressive. John had a backyard the likes of which I hadn't seen since I'd left Missouri. "Wow―ow, Mom!" Mal batted at my hands and I tried for my usual grin. It didn't quite get there, but my school of parenting involved living the lie until it was true.

Mal was smart. He'd heard gunshots and he could work it out on his own, but he didn't want to. He was eight. If I acted like things were okay, eventually he would start to believe the same, and maybe so would I.

John had traitors in his organization. We weren't safe here. I cursed behind the fake smile. "Sorry," I said, smoothing my hands over his shoulders. "I forgot."

Mal rubbed his neck where the zipper had pinched him. "You always do," he complained, sounding closer to himself than he had in John's study.

"I know," I said, pressing a smacking kiss into his forehead. "Now, let's go explore, huh? House this big? I bet he has a basket ball court, a tennis court, and at least one of the faerie courts." It was a bad joke and Mal made a face at me in response. I grinned, scrubbing a hand through his hair, then gave him a little push. "Come on."

In theory, I didn't have time for this, but I needed to unwind, I needed to get my brain back at full fighting strength, and I needed to spend some time with my son. Victor Sells and the Shadowman were just going to have to wait.

How long we were out there, I didn't know, we didn't pay attention. By the time we finally looped back to the house, our cheeks were pink, Mal was laughing, and John was waiting with a cup of coffee in hand.

It was so damn domestic part of me wanted to puke.

Mal ran ahead of me, surprising John and I both, chattering about the grounds as he went.

"He seems better," John said as I joined him.

"He wants to believe he didn't hear what he heard," I said, sounding calmer than I felt. "I'm letting him do that for now." I watched Mal skid to a stop in front of Cujo who wore a different suit. I imagined the other one had probably already been destroyed. "I, however, am not forgetting a goddamn thing."

Neither would John. He handed me the coffee. "A delivery has arrived."

The coffee was hot, almost scalding, and I gulped at it. Mal shrieked with laughter and I nearly spilled it in the rush to look.

"He's fine," John said, his hand steadying the mug. "Hendricks is very good with children."

"Right up there with the fine art of body disposal, I suppose," I said, but my heart wasn't in the sarcasm. "Stars, John, this is not what I had in mind when I brewed up that potion." I shook my head. "I need to talk to Murphy. She has to be going off the rails by now."

"Reassurances have been made to Detective Murphy," John said.

"You mind if I stomp on your toes?"

I admit I'm not that linear on most days, but even that one caught him off guard. "I'm sorry?"

"I just want to see if anything gets you going anymore," I said. "I get why you do this, makes me sick, but I get it. I don't get why you had to die inside to make it happen." Thing of it was, I wasn't in the mood to give him a chance to argue, so I laid a hand flat on his chest and leaned in. "If that's all you've got, you'd better let me know now, because my kid deserves better than a walking corpse where his father's supposed to be. Trust me, zombies aren't near as cool as Romero made them to be."

John looked down at my hand. "Harry."

I smiled at the raw edge on my name. Weird how that worked. Some days Harry seemed more my true name than Harriet ever had.

Days when I heard it from John's lips.

"There you are," I said, stepping back. "Better. Now, you said something about a delivery?"

-

I gaped at the photographs spread across the table. Hell's bells, Murphy was going to have my ass for this. First the Boss of the city 'makes reassurances' as to my safety and now he raids her cookie jar? Forget the Shadowman, Murphy was going to cook my goose but good.

"These are crime sc―" I bit off the words and shook my head. "Never mind, I don't want to know. I don't want to know who or how."

Except I knew how. Murphy's unit seemed clean enough, but I knew most of them weren't. It might have been a challenge for a hood on the street, a minor inconvenience for somebody like Cujo, for John it was nothing at all.

I put the crime scene photos aside and reached for the box. "Evidence?" I tucked my chin, looking at him. "Did this fall off the back of a truck too?"

John gave me a look and I had a feeling it was what passed for indulgent in his books. I ignored the way I thrilled at it and grabbed for the box instead. I came up with a film canister. I'd found one like it when I poked around the Sells place and, hello, that was interesting. Not to mention annoying.

I made a face.

"What?"

"The cases are linked," I sighed. "I hate it when that happens. Double the work, but the same amount of pay."

He chuckled. "I think we can fix that."

"The hell we will," I said, grabbing for the folder beneath the canister. Developed pictures. "I'm not that kind of girl―oh my god, that's an orgy." I clapped a hand over my eyes and dropped the pictures on the table.

"Yes, I'd noticed that," John said. "It seems ritualistic." He sat down with me, flipping through the pictures, revealing image after image more disturbing than the last.

"It can be," I said. I lowered my hand, resolved that Bob could never, ever see these, and looked at the pictures. "It is." I looked past the bodies to their surroundings. I couldn't swear to it, but it looked like the Sells lake home and, oh look, there was Victor in the background. "Hell, I should've seen this." Seriously, I was an idiot for missing it. Eb would smack me six ways from Sunday when she found out about it and then she'd smack me some more. "He started out using sex to fuel his rituals, but that wouldn't be enough for thaumaturgy." I tapped the picture, frowning. "Particularly when he had to kill the people helping him."

"Not all of them," John held out one picture. "Look."

"Well," I said, taking it. "Guess we know what the message they were sending you was." I dropped the picture onto the table with the others, tapping Helen Beckitt's face. "And how they managed to get biologicals on Tommy and Jennifer."

I leaned back in my chair and passed a hand over my face. "I hate it when I get played."

"MOM!"

Mal's shout brought John and me both off our chairs with such force that we sent them clattering to the floor. Without my blasting rod and staff I felt naked, but I couldn't spare the time to go get them.

John had a gun in his hand. Mine was back at the apartment. Like I said then, demons don't think much of guns. As I skidded into the front hall and found Morgan standing three feet away form my kid, I kind of wished I had mine anyway. The First Law didn't say a damn thing about bullets between the eyes.

"Malcom," I snapped, holding out my hand. He didn't need to be told twice. Mal had never met Morgan, but he recognized a Warden when he saw one. I pushed Mal behind me and felt John step closer.

"Summoning demons, Dresden," Morgan said, smiling. He thought he had me with this one. Shit. It was possible. There wasn't much to prove or disprove my story and Morgan apparently knew enough to get me in a lot of trouble. "I knew you were a blight upon the city, but this? Summoning a demon to rid yourself of me?" He grinned all the wider. "The Council has been convened, arriving two days hence, and then we will have this out. They will hear of your actions and your sentence will finally be carried out."

The breath whooshed out of my lungs. The Doom. God, he was going to get me killed. I shivered and heard Mal make a noise, quiet and broken. I closed my eyes when I felt the sting of tears. "I didn't," I said in a whisper. "I wouldn't."

"She summoned nothing," John interjected, calm and cool. The hand not holding a gun came up to rest on my back and I couldn't lie. Calm washed through me. I took deep breaths, opening my eyes again, and reached around to pull Mal into my arms. "She defended herself against it. There are multiple witnesses who can verify the events."

"There was no one else there capable of accomplishing such a summoning. It can only be Dresden." Morgan's gaze shifted from me to him. "And who are you?"

John smiled. "The man whose home you've invaded. And you? Who precisely are you and what are you doing here threatening a child and his mother?" His voice dropped a register at that and hit the deadly promise that had sealed Lawrence's fate.

I saw the realization steal over Morgan slowly, blood draining out of his face as he realized his mistake. The White Council valued their privacy and Morgan was their favorite lapdog. He'd just let the cat out of the bag in front of a vanilla mortal who wasn't supposed to know a damn thing.

Hendricks chose that moment to step out and stand at John's side. Men and women, all armed, closed in from every side and all of them staring at Morgan.

"Dresden's clear," one of them said. "She was inside. Didn't know a damn thing was wrong until we started firing."

"Yeah," another agreed, "but you weren't. Saw you outside."

"Well," John said, "Isn't that interesting? It would seem, sir, that there was more than one wizard capable of such a summoning present. One with a powerful motive to see Ms. Dresden convicted." His thumb rubbed along my spine, the touch reassuring, and I relaxed into it. There wasn't anywhere I could run if the Council convicted me. There were people on the Council who knew my name, knew how to pronounce it, and that meant they could find me anywhere. "I imagine there would be a few people on your Council willing to listen to such evidence." He smiled, just a little, "Particularly since you were so indiscreet in your eagerness to tell her of their arrival."

Morgan looked at me. "You told him."

He wasn't asking, he was hoping, and I summoned up a ghost of my usual grin. It was as if I could already feel that blade of his cutting through my skin, but hell if I'd let him know that. I tightened my grip on my son and shook my head. "I didn't tell him a damn thing." I didn't need to. What John Marcone wanted to know, John Marcone found out, and that was one thing that hadn't changed in the past few years.

"She's quite right, she didn't tell me anything," John smiled. Mal and I both shivered. "You, however, were most enlightening. You may tell your Council that we look forward to the trial."

"John."

His name was the barest murmur on my lips. He couldn't threaten the Council. He couldn't. He couldn't fight them for me.

John's hand slid along my back, around my waist, and I found myself drawn closer to him. It was as good as any threat could've been. I watched Morgan's eyes flick between us and worried about the conclusions he was drawing.

Stars, but this was going to be a disaster.

"Mr. Hendricks, show him the way out." With a slight pressure on his hand, John turned me around and away from Morgan. "Please impress on him the importance of knocking in the future."

I at least waited for Hendricks to usher Morgan out of the room, being none too gentle when he did, before I looked at John. "You can't threaten a Warden of the White Council, John. We've been through this."

John looked down at Mal and laid a hand on his shoulder before he met my gaze to say, "It's not a threat, Harry. Merely a statement of intent. I won't allow you to go before those people alone."

"And I have no choice," I said, miserable. "They think I murdered those people and with the D—" Mal's sniffle cut off my words. I looked down at him and felt my heart shatter. "Oh, kiddo," I dropped to my knees, "I'm not going to die."

Mal was crying and, fuck, but I hated it when my kid cried. I pulled him into a hug that he returned desperately, clinging to me with everything he had. "Let Dad help," he said, between sobs. "Please, Mom, let him help." He looked up at John who stood over us. "You can, right? You run everything, please. You gotta save her. She can fight them, but she won't, so you've gotta do it for her."

I froze. "Kiddo—"

"No." Mal jerked away from me and looked from me to John. "You won't, Mom. All they've ever done is hurt you, but you won't fight back. If he's my dad, then he has to! He's got to protect us when we can't do it ourselves."

"He's right," John said. "And I'm going to."

I looked at him and he stared back with a calm, controlled expression that promised unholy hell was right around the corner just waiting to break loose.

Well, fuck, but this was a problem.

I sighed. "Is the Beetle here? I need to make a run."

"Mom."

I stood and took Mal by the shoulders. "There's still a sorcerer out there, kiddo, and I still need to stop him, White Council or no White Council and everything I need is back at the apartment."

"I'll take you," John said. "You can argue with me on the way."

-

"Where the hell have you been?"

I opened the door to my office to the oh-so-cheerful accusation from Murphy. "I've been recovering." I leaned against the door and looked at her. "It's the damndest thing, Murph, but when a demon tries to kill you and your kid? It kind of takes the good right out of you."

"And you had to do that at John Marcone's house?" Murphy asked, slamming my desk drawer closed. "What the hell were you thinking, Harry? The man is a thug."

"One? I wasn't thinking. You don't think when you're unconscious." I didn't mention, of course, the part where I'd sent Mal ahead and very much known where he was going when I did it. Just like I didn't mention who'd brought me here and was skulking about the place as we spoke. "Two? Nice try, Murph, but I'm not going to get into a fight with you about John being in my life, and don't even think about it. If you so much as do any kind of 'aha, so he IS in your life' thing with me―"

I stopped. "Yeah, we're not going to do this. You're pissed and I get that, but what happened is what happened and, frankly, I'm not all that interested in trying to change it. You can relax, I'm not quitting wizarding to be a gangster's moll, okay? But you knew this was going to happen sooner or later. Mal needs to know his father."

Murphy sighed, the fight going out of her too. "No fair pulling the Malcontent card on me."

"Yeah, well, you started it." I scrubbed a hand through my hair, making an even worse mess of it than usual, and looked at her. "The killer sent a demon to my door, Murph. A demon."

"You know who it is, don't you?" Murphy asked.

"Yes, I do," I nodded. "And I'm going to try and do this so you guys can make the arrest, but honestly? It won't work. I know that already." Even if it did the Wardens would take Victor before Murphy could even book the bastard. There probably wasn't a single Law the man hadn't broken and the Senior Council was going to be all sorts of twitchy when they realized that someone had fooled them for so long and so very well.

"You're not the one to make that decision," Murphy said. "You know better than to try." The anger was back in her voice and I flinched. I knew better, but that was the thing with being me. I knew better than to try a lot of things, but then I went right on ahead and did them anyway.

I thought about pointing that out, about telling her, but then something shifted. I looked down at my desk and saw the evidence bag sitting there. "Stars and stones, Murph, you took that thing?" I grabbed for the scorpion, but she was faster, snatching it away. "Karrin, you need to put that thing down right now."

Murphy looked at the bag and then at me. "Why?" she asked, giving the bag a shake. "What the hell is this thing, Dresden?"

I felt it a half second before the thing came to life. The faintest push of will into the talisman. I opened my mouth to shout a warning and found myself flying backward, John's arm around my waist. He flattened me against the floor, holding me there with his body, and I blinked at the sight of him with a gun in one hand and a knife in the other. Where'd that thing been the last time? Not that it would've done much good against Morgan's sword, but stars it was impressive.

The commotion at least did the job of warning Murphy for me. The scorpion tore the evidence bag apart in mid-air, but not her hand. She'd flung it toward the far wall when John had tackled me. Her gun wavered from the scorpion to John and back again.

John didn't waver. He pointed the gun at the scorpion and opened fire. I turned my head to watch the thing skitter across the floor, constructed legs moving as quickly as any of its organic cousins, dodging the bullets as it went.

Victor had finally noticed his talisman was missing. I didn't know if he knew whether or not it was in my possession or not, but I doubted he cared. He was probably so far gone into the Black at this point that he wouldn't have cared if his own children were in the room.

Hell's bells, Monica.

I grabbed for the blasting rod tucked in my hair. The scorpion was growing faster by the second and I didn't have much time. "Murphy! Desk! John―do―" I didn't even have to finish. John threw himself backward and I rolled into the scorpion's line of sit. It was about Mister-sized now and it came straight at me.

It was just a simple construct, not something pulled out of the Nevernever, more in line with the projection Victor had made of himself that night.

I grinned. Easy as pie.

-
The house looked different the second time around. Even without my wizard's sight, it seemed sinister somehow. I could see, now, how the illusion of a long-forgotten summer retreat was exactly that. It hadn't sat well before, but now I could feel the dark, creeping dread that sneaked past the peeling paint and faded curtains and whispered of dark dealings behind its walls.

It was the kind of primal fear that made your heart race and your feet prepare to run. People don't trust those feelings nearly as much as they should, but wizards did. Whatever you want to call it—magic, emanations, the Force—it bled into the physical world, saturated the things populating it, and eventually even people without a lick of magical talent could pick up on what wizards felt half a block away.

I cursed myself for not realizing it before. Standing before the Sells summer home, I could feel the black magic that saturated every square inch of the property. It was masked, but it was there. Dark, potent, and my stomach protested even standing there.

The more I realized the extent of it, the more my body rebelled at the idea of spending any time here whatsoever. It was bad. Dangerous. Blood had been spilled here, life had been perverted here, and magic had been fashioned into a weapon as deadly as any blade.

I wanted to burn it to the ground.

I still might.

I looked up at the house with guarded eyes. Experience told me that I didn't want to look at the house with my Sight. I probably should, just in case Victor had laced some nasty safeguards into the house, but I wouldn't.

I had missed the feeling of this place, but beings in the Nevernever wouldn't. This kind of dark magic called out to them. Like to like as Eabha might have said. There were creatures all over the place that fed on magic. The ones that fed on dark magic were especially nasty business and I suspected the house was probably infested with them.

Victor had been a very messy boy. He had power, he had talent, but he didn't have control. He was surfing the magical waves, going where the current took him, and the idea of reining back his power hadn't occurred to him for a second. I was capable of this kind of spellwork, but if I were working it, there wouldn't be a trace of the power that Victor had spilled willynilly.

Eabha had spent years drilling economy of energy into my head until I could get the maximum bang for the minimum buck. I knew how to work a spell, stretch it, make it last, push my power without wasting any of it.

Victor had never learned that. It was part of the reason he needed the storms as badly as he did. If he'd had someone to teach him how to control it, to guide rather than ride it, then I wouldn't be feeling the gritty, cloying feeling of magic tugging at my body and my mind.

"Here there be dragons," I muttered, hoping like I hell I was right. Yes, there were real and actual dragons in the world and, yes, they were a nasty bit of business, and no I hadn't actually seen one.

I hoped I never did.

I pushed forward into the house and wasn't surprised to find no threshold hindering my progress. There wasn't much chance of that, this wasn't a home and hadn't been in a while, but it was a relief.

I needed every ounce of energy I had and then some of I wanted to pull this off. I wished I had backup, but that just wasn't possible. There were a few Council members that might listen to me, Eb could marshal some support, and if they'd been closer, then I might have had the time to wait for them.

I didn't. Most of them were en route, moving through the Ways, converging on Chicago for my trial. By the time they were reachable, this would all be over and, hopefully, I'd be in the clear.

I tightened my grip on my staff and brought a hand up to curl around my mother's pentacle. I was scared to death and I needed the reassurance of it in my hand. The pentacle was the symbol of order, the controlled patterns that rested at the heart of white magic and etched themselves upon everything that wizards like me did, and I believed in that order with everything I had.

Faith mattered in my world and it mattered a lot. I didn't think Victor Sells had much in the way of faith left and as I moved through the house and felt the darkness of his magic creeping in around me, teasing at me with the seductiveness of its power, I knew it. Black magic doesn't allow for faith, doesn't dare share space with it, and I tightened my grip on my mother's amulet again in hopes that it and my faith might ward off the promises in that seduction. It would be so easy to seize that power, wrest it from Victor's control, I was the stronger, the more talented, I'd been trained, and I had every right to it. He'd killed, he'd threatened my child and me, he'd flooded the streets of my city with a filth that claimed more victims with every passing day.

He deserved whatever I turned loose on him. He deserved—no. I cut the thought off as my mother's amulet burned cold against my skin.

I couldn't do that. More importantly than couldn't, I wouldn't do that, I'd made promises to my son and I wasn't about to go back on them. Not for anyone. I rubbed my thumb over my mother's amulet and I breathed in and out, in and out, until I felt my anger cool and the blinding urge to take vengeance slip through my grasp.

Damn it.

That was the thing about black magic. Once you let it through the door that first time, it was that much easier for it to slip back in the second, third, and fourth, on and on until it had carved out a permanent niche in your soul. I wasn't a killer. With or without magic, I wasn't. I could never ever use magic to kill like Victor had. It wasn't me. I was wizard. I protected, I created, but I did not kill.

I refused to even consider becoming that man. I came to a stop at the middle of the main room, surrounded by darkness that hid the dim shapes of furniture and what looked like boxes and cases all around.

I heard chanting coming from the room above me, floating down over the iron railing with the soft sighs of a woman's pleasure, and yeah, they were here. Victor was likely chanting his way through the ritual that would, if this didn't go well, kill me. I looked up and made a face, then moved toward the nearest boxes.

Third Eye and all the ingredients needed to make it. I took quick stock of what was there, committing everything I could to memory for later analysis. Thunder cracked overhead, reminding me of the storm, and Victor's voice rose in counterpoint to it. I shivered with fear. Victor was inexperienced, untrained, but we were in the heart of his power. It wasn't a home anymore, but it was home turf and that gave him the upper-hand.

I didn't think about it any more than that. I couldn't. Not knowing what I did. I didn't have the time to be afraid, to hesitate, I needed to get up there and I needed to stop him.

I looked at the platform above my head and pressed my lips together. Nooo, I couldn't, could I? "Why not?" I asked myself in a whisper. I needed to make an entrance and it wasn't as if Victor hadn't been doing everything he could to scare the hell out of me, why couldn't I return the favour?

I circled back toward the door, tugged my blasting rod free of my hair, and pointed it at the support struts holding up the ceiling overhead. It was a half-ceiling and I could see the flickers of movement as I opened my mouth to yell, with everything I had, "Fuego!"

A column of fire as thick as my wrist shot out of the end of the rod, powering its way across the room and turning the wood surrounding the metal one strut into so much ash. I felt the energy roar out of me, my will pushing the power until I heard the metal groan and give way. The floor fell at an angle, the other struts taking the weight, but not enough to keep Victor or his compatriots from tumbling the platform to the main room below.

They only fell about ten feet or so, but that counted for a lot more than you might expect. Victor had been mid-ritual, all sorts of power kicked up and boiling within the circle he'd created for himself, and I'd just done the magical equivalent of kicking the beehive. If the circle had been whole, unbroken, all that power would've been channeled properly.

By bringing down the platform, causing them to lose balance and fall with it, I'd just upset the applecart and sent that power spilling every which way. It was a magical and literal flare. Fire and energy exploded out the windows, lashing at the walls, and putting up a pretty cool light show.

If I hadn't been so pissed off, I might have enjoyed the show. As it was, I could only enjoy Victor's wordless shout of rage as his unfettered power swirled up around me and tugged at mine. It was like lightning seeking ground and the path of least resistance was the one it would take.

Yeah, that was never ever going to be me.

"I know, I know," I said, looking at Victor, "If only Lawrence had made it back here with my hair—the spell would've been over and done with by now and I'd be just another victim." I smiled at him. "To be fair, I did warn you that you were totally out of your league."

"Fucking cunt," Victor snarled, raising a hand. He started to say something and a gnarled, crooked stick flew into his hands. Uh huh. Someone had been doing some reading. "Someone should've taught you a lesson by now."

"Oh, they've tried," I smiled, "But being I'm me, I didn't much give a shit as to what they said or did." I thumped my staff against the floor, sending stray power bouncing back and away from me. It was damned distracting. "Sticks and stones, Victor, they never worried me all that much, but words? Words don't worry me at all." I raised my arm, gave my shield bracelet a little shake, and smiled at him. "Words are kind of my thing."

"You're dead, Dresden," he said, biting out the words as he pushed himself to his feet. The stray power in the room started to retract, pulling back into him, and I braced myself. Just in time as he raised his hand and screamed nonsense, channeling words into flame that billowed at me. Like the bullets Lawrence had fired, the fire exploded against my shield. Unlike the bullets, however, I felt the heat of it sear at me as the flames licked up and over, trying to find a way around.

I twisted, whirled, and swung my staff like a baseball bat. That's the thing about the magical newbies. They always think in terms of incantations and spells, always magic, and never anything else.

Which is precisely why I clocked him across the jaw and sent him sprawling backward. Just in time for the Beckitts to open fire.

Classy.

I tightened the hold on my shield then yelped when a bullet whizzed by me in the other direction. Someone behind me firing. I had a sinking feeling and remembered John's promise to my son. With my blasting rod raised, I risked looking back and yep, there they were. A bunch of goons in combat gear. I supposed it was probably a good thing they'd left the suits at home, but still—

I was going to kill John.

"Seriously?" I said, looking at them. "Again with the security?"

"Like you don't need it," one of them said. He was one of the guys who'd backed me with Morgan. I raised an eyebrow and he did the same in return, grinning broadly as he raised the gun again. "You should probably duck."

"I should probably deal with the scary wizard before he kills you all," I said in response, "but thanks for coming, it was good of you, now get the hell out of here."

"No can do, lady," another guy said. He, at least, had taken up position around the corner and was peering out at me. "Mr. Marcone was clear. We're supposed to back you up and we don't leave until it's done."

I rolled my eyes. "Of course he was." He'd be here himself if not for Mal. I'd made him promise to stay with the Malcontent until I came home and he was going to keep his word.

Sort of. If he couldn't ride shotgun on this, then clearly his men were going to. Yeah, not exactly the high noon showdown I'd been going for.

Fuck.

One hand on the wall, keeping him upright, Victor raised the stick in his hand like he was pointing a handgun. Funny since I had a feeling the actual handguns in the room weren't going to be doing anyone much good for much longer. The Beckitts were carrying automatics. Definitely too modern for my magic. I'd never really gotten around to asking any of the others if they had the same effect on technology that we all did, I assumed as much since there'd never been much around when I was living with Justin or Eb, but the gun thing had been a surprise. Electronics I understood, but automatic weapons didn't have electrical systems and, still, they tended not to last that long around me either.

I heard Mr. Beckitt curse and saw him throw his gun aside, diving for cover when the Outfit guys behind me realized what was happening and opened up on him. I did the same, but I was diving for cover for different reasons. Victor had slumped against the wall, blood trickling down his jaw from the blow I'd landed, and he was yanking at the stick with the kind of desperation that made me nervous.

I looked more closely at it and realized it was bone, not wood, and that it must have been hollow. My suspicion was confirmed when the end came open and familiar brown husks fell out.

Scorpions.

"Well, shit," I muttered.

He grinned at me, mouth bloody, and started chanting, "Scorpis, Scorpis, Scorpis."

I scrambled backward as the little bugs started to growl, scuttling across the floor toward me as Victor cackled with glee.

Dick.

"I really hate bugs," I said, scrambling for the nearest high ground. There wasn't much, but the back of the sofa did provide some protection. Enough that I could pick off the few that got close while I took a look at the room.

"Son of a bitch," one of John's men snapped, "What the hell are those?"

"The reason I wanted you guys out of here," I said, not really caring if they heard me. I gripped the top of my staff and slammed it down onto the ground with a growled, "Fuego" for effect. Hopefully John's guys were fast on their feet because I wasn't particularly careful about where it went.

Fire sparked and exploded out in a wave of flame. It caught some of the smaller scorpions and sent then up in bursts of fire. The others, however, were too big and getting bigger. Mob guys on one side, crazed sorcerer and his naked assistants on the other, with a bunch of movie monster scorpions looking to kill us all caught in the middle with me—ah, the glorious life of the American wizard.

I wasn't stupid enough to think it couldn't get worse. That was the thing about my life that I understood well; things could always get worse. It could, probably would, and if I didn't make it out of here in one piece, that was a truth my son would grow up knowing.

Things always got worse before they got better and, because the universe is a bastard like that, fell apart all over again.

Scariest part was that, most of the time, I considered myself an optimist and this was one of them. The Beckitts were largely there for effect. Neither of them had a functioning weapon and were watching the situation with those cold, dead eyes of theirs from the relative safety of the kitchen. Without guns they couldn't come out of cover, not with John's men waiting to pick them off.

Said men were also taking shots at the remaining scorpions, keeping them busy dodging bullets. It wouldn't last for long, they were growing rapidly, but I only needed a few more seconds.

I looked at the ruined floor of the upper level and tucked my blasting rod into my coat. The angle was steep enough to keep the scorpions at bay for a while longer and give me a little time to think things through.

"Veni che!" I yelped as I jumped, landing on the ruined floor and scrambling with the attempt to where it had cracked and broken on an almost even edge. If not for the spell, I might have slid down to the waiting scorpions, but it did its thing and I felt a push of wind give me the extra burst of forward motion I needed. I perched atop the ruined floor, safe from the reach of the bugs, and I sought Victor out in the chaos.

"You know, Victor," I said in a conversational tone, "You really should've found yourself a halfway competent mentor before you tried anything like this." I looked around at the Third Eye, the Beckitts, and the scorpions before I smiled brightly at him. "They're going to cut your head off."

Victor cast a withering glance at John's men then fixed the same look on me. "Them? You must be joking, Dresden."

I pulled my blasting rod out of my coat again. "Not them. The Wardens. See, that was the first thing your mentor would've told you. Deal drugs, sure, no problem, prostitution? They don't care about that either, but hell rains down the second you break one of the laws. Believe me, I know. I was defending myself and my child, but they don't give a shit about that. They only care about the Laws and you don't even know what those are, do you?"

I looked down at the scorpions moving amongst the crates and barrels of Third Eye and its ingredients. I thought of that boy in the police station and what Mal had said about his aura. I thought of Lawrence's hand on my hair and the way he'd threatened my child. I thought of everything that Victor had done and I thought of Monica and her children, of Linda and her eyes that had seemed so much like mine, and I thought of little Amanda Beckitt and how horrified a child would be to see everything her parents had wrought in her wake.

I thought of all of that and I got very, very angry.

I got fucking furious.

So much pain, so much death, and heartbreak for, what? Money?

"The Wardens are coming," I said, looking at Victor, feeling my body shake with the force of my anger. "See, they think I did this, so they're watching me very closely. I disappear out into the middle of nowhere with a passel of thugs on my heels? They're going to notice that and they're going to go looking."

Hell's bells, it was a miracle that Morgan hadn't come busting in the door with his sword all ablaze. I guessed that his run in with John had made him a little leery, but still, of all the times to get cautious and smart, he picked now?

Jerk. Big, hairy jerk.

I looked at my surroundings again and I looked at Victor. A bullet smacked into the wall by my ear.

I jerked back with a yelp and brought my shield back to bear. The Beckitts, it seemed, had found the revolvers. Well shit. And me up here like some kind of paper target.

I looked down at the scorpions still circling my perch. Frying pan and fire. Which one did I like better?

Victor chuckled. "I don't think anyone will be cutting off my head today, Ms. Dresden, but if you're willing to negotiate, I could see reason to letting you live." His eyes swept over me in sickening fashion and that didn't do a damn thing to lesson my anger at all. "I might have use for an amateur such as yourself."

I laughed. "You don't believe me, do you? About the Wardens?" He didn't, but he hurled another ball of fire my way just to be sure. It exploded against the floor just below my feet, part of it catching the jagged edges of wood. My sanctuary was going to go up in flames and I was going to be on equal footing with those bugs once more.

I needed to move fast.

"Why should I?" he asked. "You're lying. You're trapped, your men useless against me, all of you with nowhere to go and nowhere to hide. It's only a matter of time before I kill you."

"Possibly, but I'm really not lying about the Wardens. They work for the White Council." My knees felt weak and I realized I was a little woozy. It was like that moment in the movies when you knew the killer was on the other side of the door and you were screaming at the girl not to open it because she was about to get sliced to ribbons.

Just don't look, Harry, and you won't see the bullet hole in your coat. Don't look and you won't see the blood slowly staining your t-shirt

Don't look and you can pretend things didn't just get that much worse.

I looked.

It was high on my shoulder, enough that I hoped it was a graze and nothing worse, but it was a gunshot wound and it was a distraction I just didn't need.

"The White Council? Very real. Very real and very big on law and order. They don't like it when wizards start using their magic to kill and, frankly, I agree with them. Magic isn't this, Victor, magic should never be this. You shouldn't be dreaming up ways to poison people's children; you should be at home with yours, happy enough to fold bedsheets full of sunshine, to bottle up buckets of children's laughter, and storing away enough happiness to remake the universe in bright neon blue if you want. Your kids are never going to see you again, Victor. They're never going to know that the White Council took you out back and chopped off your head, but they're going to be all the better for it. Safer."

"Bitch, what the hell do you know about it?" he asked. It took more effort to bring up my arm and pull a shield around me this time, much more effort to ward off the burst of fire and hate.

I was losing too much blood for it to be just a graze.

"I know my son loves me. I know he doesn't spend every night hunkered down in his bed praying his mother doesn't come stomping into his room looking for a fight. I know he trusts me with everything and knows I'd die before I'd hurt him." I felt my anger rising again and I grabbed for it, needing the edge of the fury to keep the wooziness at bay. I took a breath and reached out into the air around me, drawing in some of the loose power still floating around the place, and I looked at Victor. "I know your kids can't say the same."

He screamed at me. Obscenities and curses that brought the scorpions to even larger size and sent bursts of flame flying across the open space between us.

I didn't care.

"By the way," I said. "Those aren't my men. They're John's. John Marcone." I slumped back against the wall, hand on my shoulder. "Hey boys, should we take odds on who gets here first? My guys or yours?"

The guy from earlier, Mr. I-Won't-Leave-Cause-My-Boss-Is-Scarier-Than-You, burst out laughing. "I say twenty to one on my guys."

"Works for me," I agreed. I turned my head and found the Beckitts watching me. "Yeah, he knows about you guys too."

"You're working with him, aren't you?" Mr. Beckitt asked. His voice was deep, probably warm once, but now as lifeless as his eyes. "He sent you here. He put you on to this."

"Nope," I looked at Victor. "That was someone else."

"Who cares," Beckitt said. "Kill her and let's get out of here. We can deal with Marcone later. Without her, he doesn't stand a chance in hell of stopping you."

"I'd beg to disagree about that," I said, laughing. "Besides, who says I'm going to die that easy. You should have done your research. I'm not that easy to kill. Worse comes to worse, I've got a couple tricks up my sleeve that ol' Vic here's never even heard of. I can make this place go up like Hiroshima and that's the easy option."

Not that the house needed much help. We'd been throwing fire around pretty easily and more than a little of it had caught. The house wasn't fully engulfed yet, but it would be before long and I needed to get John's men out of here. They were serious about not leaving and I wasn't willing to risk anyone else's life but my own.

"Feel free to leave," I said to the Beckitts. "The Council will have no interest in you and, frankly, I can almost understand why you're doing this." It was as close to absolution as I was going to give them. Frankly, I hoped the second they left the house they ran into more of John's men. They'd lost their child, but Linda had been someone's child once and they'd killed her without a second thought. Linda and Jennifer hadn't been a part of John's life. They'd been relatively innocent. The Beckitts' grief didn't absolve them of their part in their deaths.

"Get out," I said, "Before I change my mind."

"Go start the car," Victor said. "I'll handle her."

I snorted a laugh, "The hell you will." I didn't wait for the Beckitts to leave. They couldn't stop me anyway. I launched myself back the way I'd come, propelling myself with another whispered, "Veni che" and landed on the sofa in crumple. It wasn't pretty, no, but it worked and that was the only thing I gave a damn about right then.

Before the scorpions could move to follow, I raised my staff and pointed at the flaming ruin of the floor and drew power from the air around me to yell, "Ventas servitas!" I kept it up until the wind had gathered beneath the floor and then followed it with, "Forzare."

A section of the floor broke free, snapping up and over, to come down on the scorpions with a sickening crunch. Some days you were the bug, some days you were the giant piece of flaming wreckage.

Ah, well, not quite as poetic as the windshield, but I liked it anyway.

Someone cheered. Definitely not me and definitely not Victor. Apparently John's men were enjoying the show.

"Handle me, huh?" I slurred, looking at Victor. "You sure about that one, Vic?"

"Oh, quite," he practically purred. "Kalshazzak." I recognized it as a Name. I didn't know it, but I recognized a summoning when I heard one. I was guessing Kalshazzak was the guy I'd been doing the two step with at my place.

My stomach lurched and threatened to rebel. Kalshazzak wasn't one of the Fallen, but he was still a demon and those guys brought some seriously nasty stuff to the table. This guy was a heavy hitter and I felt the weight of his presence even before he appeared in the center of the room with a crack of thunder that shook the house.

I rolled from the sofa and started picking my way through the flames. Victor stood across the room, near the back door through which the Beckitts had made good their escape, but he didn't try and stop me. He clearly intended on his demon finishing the job.

Considering the last time I had seen the thing in all it's glory, I'd smashed enough lightning down through it to black out half a city block, I was pretty sure the demon wouldn't mind so much.

It wasn't Fallen, but it wasn't easy to kill either. You can't really kill demons. You can destroy their physical vessels, but you can't eradicate them.

On the other hand, given the look that it was giving Victor, it wouldn't mind a shot at him either. That was interesting. I had only ever seen a demon once before and that had been Justin, so I didn't have a vast wealth of experience to drawn on here.

I wasn't alone. This kind of magic was a violation of the Fourth Law and the kind of thing Morgan had thought I was doing to Toot only much, much worse. Toot was dangerous when he wanted to be, but this was like throwing a dog collar on Jaws and taking him for a walk along the Loop.

That thing wanted to rip him to shreds and would at the first chance it got.

"Do you see, Dresden?" Victor asked. He looked insane, eyes wild with madness, vibrating power and magic. He was gone. Capital G gone. There wasn't anything left of the man he'd been before this. Monica's husband was long gone. "You're nothing in the face of this. Nothing." He waved an hand toward me like Darth Vader finishing off some poor stormtrooper. "Kill her."

I heard someone whispering behind me. Rosary, I thought. Well, it couldn't hurt and faith did have a power all its own.

"Via con dios," I said in a murmur then I swayed on my feet. I was still bleeding. Not as much, but I was still bleeding. I didn't have a whole lot of time left to do any kind of fighting. Not that it mattered. I knew precisely what to do.

"Remember how I said you needed a teacher, Vic?" I asked, almost casual. "You should have. A good teacher would have pointed out you're really kind of stupid. You've got so much free floating power here I haven't had to use an ounce of my own since I got here and, worse, didn't anyone ever tell you? Never share a demon's name. Especially not with another wizard."

I looked at the snarling demon advancing on me and smiled. "Kalshazzak!" Every inflection came out as Victor'd said it and, surprise surprise, the demon stopped in its tracks.

I repeated its name over Victor's shout of protest. As soon as I did, I felt the demon's slimy presence in my head, raging and thrashing, eager for freedom. It was sickening and pressed down on me like the weight of a hand. I nearly went to the floor beneath it and realized.

It was the demon himself. He was trying to break free. I thought of all the times Victor had used this thing to kill, how many battles he must have fought, and I mourned the wizard he might have been.

But I didn't let go. I thought of everyone this thing had been used to hurt and maim. I saw my son waiting for me at home, I saw John, and I would not give any of them up.

I'd beaten this thing before and this time I meant to do it for keeps.

"Kalshazzak," I choked out, yanking control of him away from Victor. The demon went to the floor as I nearly had, snarling and spitting, tearing at whatever it could reach, and I just watched it for a moment.

God, I was tired.

Victor was shrieking at the thing now, ranting almost incoherently, ordering the demon to kill me over and over until the words ran together.

"Forget it, Victor," I said, slumping to my knees. "He won't answer you anymore." I raised my hand, drawing on my own power, and I hurled Victor toward me. He hit the floor between the demon and me, fire licking ever closer to us with every second, and I looked at him. "He won't answer either of us."

Someone grabbed me by the arms, dragging me upward, and I looked up at one of my mobster guardians. "Get out of here," I said, voice raspy. "That thing will kill everyone."

"If it kills you then it's the least of my worries," he said, tearing my jacket open. He cursed at the sight of the wound then pressed his hand over it. I groaned and he looked apologetic. "Shield better next time."

I laughed. "Good advice."

"You should've used that thing," he said, nodding at the demon. "You can control it."

"Uh uh. Fourth Law forbids the binding of any being against its will. Even a demon. That kind of thing'll get a girl's head lopped off." I smiled a little. "I like mine right where it is."

I heard Victor make a noise. Shock, fear, I didn't know, but realization was a part of it. I let my head loll to one side so I could see him. "Yeah," I said. "It's free. You should probably run now. I'm guessing it's a little hungry."

"Running sounds good to me," John's man said. He hefted me into his arms and turned tail. "No fucking way that thing gets you or me."

"Please!" Victor yelled after us. "You stopped it before, you can stop it now, please, just--PLEASE."

I closed my eyes. "I'm sorry, Victor, but I can't do that." I was being honest now. I had plenty of magic left, but to borrow a phrase, as willing as my spirit was, my flesh just didn't give a damn. It had its own concerns like keeping me alive.

He roared and I reacted. The shield wasn't much, but it enveloped me and my rescuer and deflected the fire back the way it had come. I heard Victor scream in pain and part of me actually hoped the fire got him before the demon did. A very small part.

We made it out into the cool of the night and I only then realized just how powerful the fire had been. "We're alive," I said. "Yay."

"Don't count your chickens yet," he said, looking back. "Sells is still kicking."

I lifted my head again as we stumbled down the hill. I could see Victor backlit by the fire, waving his arms above his head. I didn't know if he was attacking us or fighting off the demon, but it didn't matter.

Cloaked figures closed ranks before the door and I saw a familiar form in the midst of them.

Morgan.

"Who's that?"

I smiled, said, "Trouble" and then I passed out.

I always did have fantastic timing.

-

I woke up to silence punctuated by the sound of wood cracking. It was the sound of a fire dying down and I lifted my head. The house was so much wreckage, not a sign of a scorpion or the demon in sight, and I smiled in satisfaction. Good. That much had gone right.

My shoulder was bandaged and someone had covered me with a coat. I turned my head to see my mobster guardian sitting by me. He was young, kind of cute, and asleep against the rim of the car. Poor guy. I let him sleep.

Morgan approached. "We would not let you leave. He refused to go without you." He looked surprised by that loyalty.

I smiled. "He's well-paid."

Two Wardens I didn't recognize appeared behind Morgan with Victor hanging between them. He looked like shit, but he was still breathing. Damn that man was wily. I was impressed.

"How much did you see?" I asked.

"Enough," he said. "I saw what you did—" I held my breath, waiting for accusations, but got a grudging respect instead. "You stopped him without breaking any of the Laws. You weren't the killer."

I pushed myself up. "This must burn," I said, wiping blood off my cheek. "Not only can't you prove my involvement, but I seem to be the hero of the piece. Sucks to be you, huh?"

Morgan glared at me. "I wouldn't go so far as to call you a hero, Dresden," he said, sheathing that overblown toothpick of his (if you asked me, he was compensating for something) and taking a step closer. "You refused to violate the Laws and, moreover, acted within them to protect innocents. I may have no great fondness for you―" Don't worry, folks, I didn't pop a blood vessel when I snorted in disgust, but I promise my head didn't like me too much. "―but when you finally meet justice, it will be for crimes you have actually committed."

"You mean like killing a Warden who had broken almost every single one of the Laws he'd sworn to uphold? The man who had tried to rape me body and soul?" I raised my eyebrow. "Yeah, I can see where you'd want to see justice done there."

From my perspective, it already had been.

"So, the Council—" I looked at him. "What are you going to tell them?"

"The truth," Morgan said. He gestured to the waiting Wardens and their prize. Victor's head came up and his gaze met mine. At least until one of the Wardens slid a black hood over his head.

I shivered and turned away.

John's man was sitting there, watching the proceedings, and he looked at me. "Let's get you home, huh?"

I nodded. "Please."

-

They took me back to my building. John met me at the door. He took in the sight of me and I smiled back. "Next time you pull a stunt like that," I said, "I'm going to be a little cranky."

"You say that as though it's supposed to stop me," John said. He looked me over again and I watched his face closely. I couldn't see a damn thing. He kept everything well and truly locked away.

I was going to pretend that didn't bother me. "It is."

It was his turn to smile then. "Did it ever?"

I thought about that and I shook my head.

Again that smile, but it faltered when he ran fingertips over the bandage on my shoulder. "Someone shot you." I saw nothing in his face, but I heard the faintest suggestion of fury in his voice.

"Sells wasn't alone," I said. I didn't want to say more. I didn't know what had happened to the Beckitts, but it wouldn't take John long to figure out who had fired those shots and I didn't want to think about what he might do.

"And Sells?"

I thought of Sells in that black hood and I smiled. Yeah, I smiled. The bastard had brutalized people, threatened my kid, and threatened the man in front of me, so yeah I wasn't too broken up about what was about to happen. I would have been, maybe, if Sells had still been the man who'd married Monica and fathered her children. He wasn't. I wasn't sure he even counted as human anymore. "That date I had with the White Council? He'll be attending in my place."

John relaxed, albeit incrementally, and nodded. "Good."

I looked around. "Where's Mal?"

"Your room."

He stepped out of my way. I smiled. "Thank you." I started forward and looked back. "For everything."

John stood there as if he knew what I was looking at. Which was a surprise. I hadn't even known what I was looking at. A chance lost, maybe? A life I'd never had and, until now, hadn't really admitted that I wanted?

I didn't know that, but I knew one thing. Before I dared admit it to myself I leaned forward and kissed him.

It was like touching a live wire. I made a noise and practically threw myself at him. It had been a while, too long, and that this was John meant every nerve I had was singing. For his part, he didn't seem to be any better. John's hand caught up a fistful of my hair, holding me close, and I found myself gently walked into a wall.

If I hadn't been injured—I shivered to think about it—but I was and I'd almost died and neither of us was where we were supposed to be. If we were, this probably wouldn't be happening, and we seemed to realize that at the same moment.

John pulled away, eyes dark and pupils blown, and I stayed where I was. He touched my shoulder, touched my chin, and then he left.

I didn't watch him go, but only because my eyes were closed.

-

Mal was asleep in my bed when I finally made it up there. Well, he was doing a good job of pretending at any rate. I put my staff and my rod where they were supposed to be, dropped my duster on the floor, and crawled into bed.

My kid did not get his lying abilities from his father, unfortunately for him and fortunately for me, so he made a show of 'sleepily' squirming around to resettle. I gave him a second to think he'd pulled it off then I wrapped an arm around my little boy and tugged him into my arms. "You're supposed to be asleep, little man."

He twisted around to look at me. "I was waiting for you. Did you stop him?"

"The world is safe for school on Monday," I affirmed, grinning. "Which means, of course, you can't call in on account of apocalypse. That means go to sleep we both have a lot to do tomorrow."

I'd call Murphy in the morning. Explain what I could, dance around what I couldn't, and hope that would be enough. There was still a lot of clean up to do and, technically, I was a free woman. No Doom over my head for the first time ever. I didn't quite know what to do with that, but I figured I should probably celebrate.

Maybe I'd even get wild and explain some of what happened to John.

Nah.

I'd go to work, see about paying some bills, and think about some of the rest of it. John would take care of cleaning up the rest of the Third Eye, I didn't even have to worry about him keeping samples, and running down the rest of Victor's operation.

I was going to go see Monica Sells. She needed to know what exactly had happened to her husband and a few other things as well.

The talent for magic ran in families. There was always a chance that one of her children would manifest it and need training. She knew nothing of the White Council or the Wardens, so that meant me.

Namely, me convincing her that a relocation to Missouri would be the best for all concerned. No way in hell was I turning that poor woman and her kids over to Morgan, they'd suffered enough already, but Eb would take care of them.

I grinned. I needed to call her too. She needed the good news.

Then after that, I didn't know. The city was getting wilder by the day and there was always going to be another Victor Sells around the corner. Another threat coming. I'd seen the way the world was going and I knew the only thing keeping Chicago from joining it was probably me.

God help them.

But if He isn't available, they can always give me a call. I'm in the book.