Thanks to the thick leather and heavy enchantments of my duster, I didn't get cut by the glass I smashed through. I still had the sense to presume I’d been blasted through a window; a wall would have hurt a hell of a lot more. Sadly, I'm speaking from experience here.
Welcome to my life.
Ordinary guys would be well into their third beer by this time on a Friday night. Not me. I get to spend my evenings picking myself up from warehouse floors.
I looked down at myself, shaking out my coat to make sure I wasn’t carrying around any stray shards of glass. Maybe I should have looked up, checked out my surroundings. I might have noticed the silent suited men before they trained their guns on me.
"Hi!" I said brightly, freeing my shield bracelet and gathering my will. I really wasn't up for round two, even if these guys were the vanilla mortal mobsters I took them for.
There were clicking noises. The kind of removing the safety so I can shoot this idiot between the eyes click that makes an appearance in my more mundane nightmares. I raised my blasting rod, grateful for the cord that kept it attached to my coat even through unplanned flying lessons.
In the last half second before the stand off could dissolve into a fire fight, an unexpected voice distracted us all. "Wait." It was a low, begrudging tone from a man I was surprised I'd managed to overlook. In fairness he wasn't actually aiming a gun at me, so it’s not so shocking my attention wasn’t immediately drawn to the looming figure of Marcone's favourite enforcer. Hendricks was flanked by two men I recognised in a vague kind of way, probably from one of their boss's establishments.
The non-Marcone goons with the guns looked towards Hendricks as he started talking, but they didn't entirely turn away from me. "Dresden," Hendricks rumbled, "is whatever just did that to you gonna be a problem?"
"Nope," I said, in what passed for a civil tone from me on a day like this. "It's the kind of thing that explodes when it dies. Hence the unnecessarily dramatic entrance."
Hendricks seemed to be pondering this, and that gave me time to wonder if I'd overshot by using words of more than one syllable. Before I could reach a conclusion, we were interrupted by one of the armed scumbags. "Mr Hendricks. I understand Mr Marcone is a professional. Professionals object to uninvited guests at their business meetings. Do you have some objection to me removing him?"
I got the impression this wasn't a temporary, spatial kind of removal. More a permanent, spiritual kind.
The scumbag looked sharp, physically and mentally. There was cold calculation in the brief glimpse of his eyes I chanced, and his body was all lean angles. His pinstriped suit fit him impeccably, and I found his beard irrationally irritating. He had a goatee; it's inexcusable to wear a goatee outside of a comic book.
"Try it," I invited, staring impassively at the bridge of Goatee Gangster’s nose. "I just torched a hydra. I had to behead a gorgon before breakfast. Unless you've got some minotaur horns hidden under that hair, I'm not even going to remember you five minutes from now."
So maybe I was a little keyed up.
"Enough already," Hendricks said, keeping a careful eye on the direction of my blasting rod. He turned to Goatee Gangster. "I gotta say, Mr Marcone's gonna take it kind of personally if this turns into a shootout. That's not how we do business in Chicago anymore."
"Yeah, we know," Goatee sneered. "St. John put the organised back into crime. So I've heard. Get to the point."
"I'm saying we can reschedule. I ring my boss, you ring yours. Easy."
This was kind of fascinating. The idea of an autonomous Hendricks, more than just a pit bull at Marcone's heel, shouldn't keep surprising me after the go-round with the Denarians. But it did. It was kind of like watching a marionette do a jig when you know the puppeteer’s left the room.
Goatee Guy didn't share my fascination. "And maybe," he countered, "my boss will take it kind of personally if he has to hold onto the merchandise any longer. That wasn't the deal."
Ok, so I didn’t know much more than the average street-wise Chicagoan about Marcone's business when it didn't touch on my area of expertise. But right then I was pretty sure I'd just blundered into some kind of Outfit drugs deal, or at least preliminary negotiations for one. This totally wasn’t my jurisdiction; there was one last hydra wandering the Chicago streets somewhere, and that was what I should be concerned with. Time for a graceful exit.
"Sorry to crash your party guys, but I think you can kiss and make up without me playing chaperone. I've got wizardly business to attend to."
That made Goatee Guy pause. "You have what?"
"Wizardly. Business. Business pertaining to wizards. Were you not listening to the bit about the hydras and the gorgon?"
"Wizard?" Goatee asked, unease was creeping into his tone. "You... you're the one who thinks he's a- "
"W-I-Z-A-R-D," I spelled. "You know, hocus pocus? Dumbledore, Dr Strange, Gandalf the Goddamn White! WIZARD."
Goatee lowered his gun all of a sudden. He'd gone a bit pale. "Wait... Dresden? As in, Harry Dresden. Marcone's..." he hesitated again, before protesting; "You should have said!"
"I am not Marcone's wizard," I growled at him. "Do I need to print this in the yellow pages or something? I'm my wizard." Stupidly I looked at Hendricks, as if expecting some moral support from that quarter. He wasn't exactly expressive at the best of times but now his face was completely blank; he didn't give me anything.
The rumors Marcone circulated after the werewolf incident were ancient by now. It hadn't occurred to me that anyone in Chicago would actually still believe I worked for him. But then, Goatee Guy sounded like he was from out of town. He definitely acted like it, if he was willing to get into a pissing contest with Hendricks. Maybe news travelled slowly on his home turf?
I wasn't going to let those thoughts ruin a perfectly good fit of indignation, so I continued at full steam. "Where'd you even get that impression?" I demanded, "And what the hell do you mean, 'Marcone's'?"
"You know," Goatee choked, not sounding all that sharp anymore. "His, uh...his... " I glared at him some more, as he stuttered and wilted.
"Fuck's sake," muttured Hendricks, and to my surprise he sounded genuinely pained. "Dresden, if you're going, get gone."
I was confused. By the looks of things, the gunmen around me were equally baffled. If I have to be standing in a crowd of heavily armed people, I prefer them to be both friendly and in possession of some mental clarity. Sometimes, discretion totally is the better part of valor.
Murphy slammed her coffee cup down onto the diner table and glared up at me. "Outfit drugs deal. And it didn't occur to you to, oh, I don't know- call the cops? To let us do our damned jobs, Dresden?"
"Give me a break Murph," I sighed, "I spent most of last night pretending to be Hercules. I didn't have time to find a phone that'd tolerate me for long enough to call in a tip. And I get the feeling I screwed up any illegal activity by weirding out the guy with the goatee."
Murphy made a noncommittal grunting sound. It wasn't particularly ladylike, and she scowled at the smile trying to creep across my face. I couldn’t help it; she was cute when she was mad. Scary as all hell, but cute. "Anyone but you Dresden," she said, "I'd be bundling into protective custody in case they made Marcone's shit list."
"Hey, I don't need protecting! I'm pretty good at looking after myself." In terms of raw magical energy I'm a heavy hitter, and I've got a reputation for punching above my weight class. But Hell's Bells, I hadn't even considered Murphy’s angle. It was likely I'd just pissed off John Marcone, totally unintentionally.
Murph looked at me strangely. "You don't look convinced. But that's not what I meant; Marcone's not going to do anything. From what you said, your goatee man walked away thinking he fucked up the meeting."
I blinked. "I still have no idea what was going on with him. Maybe he thought I worked for Marcone; everybody knows Marcone's protective. But he was really... inarticulate about it."
Murphy shot me that look again. "Harry, you aren't that oblivious."
I looked at her. She looked at me.
"Ok... apparently you are. He was talking, Captain Blockhead, about the rumors that make the rounds about you and Marcone."
"Wait- me and- wait, what?"
"You know," Murphy mumbled into her coffee.
"No," I said slowly, "I really don't."
"Oh... uhm. You don't?" Murphy looked startled, and than like she was walking a tightrope between horror and hilarity.
"No. Fine. I'm dense; I can cope with your insults. But for the love of God, take pity on a stereotypically oblivious male, and explain what the hell you're talking about."
"Huh," she said. "Right. I'm not sure how to say it, because you're weird about stuff like this, and I don't want to offend your delicate sensibilities." Murphy took a quick breath, bracing herself for something. " ...JohnMarconewantstofuckyou. Some people think he already does."
I choked on my coffee. One of the super duper espresso machines behind the counter made an unhappy noise and started spitting out blue sparks instead of steamed milk. After clearing my nasal passages of scolding hot beverage, I got my voice back. "No! No, he doesn't! He likes women. I've seen him liking women!"
Murphy raised a brow. "Kinky."
"Not like that!" I spluttered, heat rising in my cheeks. "But really, I have empirical evidence that he's attracted to women."
"And men," Murphy said patiently. "Come on, everyone knows that. They'll only ever whisper about it, but everybody knows."
"I didn't!" I yelled. Other customers were beginning to look our way.
"Yeah, I've noticed." Murphy said, shaking her head. "Come on, Harry. You never wondered why he lets you get away with the stunts you pull? The insults? The property damage?"
"He picks his battles," I protested. "Marcone thinks I'm dangerous, and he hasn't had an opportunity to take me out that would be less trouble that just working around me. Or with me."
"Dangerous? Like, say, werewolves, vampires and Denarians?" She shook her head again. "He wouldn't hesitate just because you're a wizard. He's seen you vulnerable."
He had. Drowning, low on magic, bound and beaten. And he stayed his hand.
"He's not... he wouldn't make those kind of decisions with his dick," I said, which was kind of a vulgar thing to say to a lady, but she'd started it.
"No," Murphy said carefully, "he wouldn't."
I looked up from my mug, startled. "It's, uh, more than- ?"
She shrugged. "The bullshit art of female intuition only takes me so far, Harry. How would I know?"
"Oh. Shit," I said, trying to process the idea that maybe, just maybe, the crime and freeholding lord of Chicago had a... thing for me.
Thomas let himself into my apartment and halted when he caught sight of me staring moodily into my beer. "You know," he said lightly, "coffee with Murphy usually makes you more cheerful."
"Yeah," I sighed, "except usually she isn't coming out with crazy talk."
Thomas wandered into the kitchen, and stuck his head into the fridge. I was drinking my last beer, so he was disappointed. Serve him right for not bringing supplies when he came to visit.
"Mmm? What about?" Thomas asked, moving to route through my cupboards. He made a triumphant sound when he happened across a stash of tortilla chips. "Don't suppose you've got salsa hidden anywhere?"
"Salsa? I didn't even know I had chips." I took a swig of my beer, because I knew Thomas was going to mock me relentlessly for half believing what I was about to tell him. "And Murph thinks John Marcone has the hots for me."
I waited for the incredulous laughter, the rolling of his eyes, something that would allow me the relief of realising Murphy was just winding me up. Maybe as payback for the giant hell slugs from last week.
Thomas didn't laugh. He didn't roll his eyes. After a moment of silence, in which it was clear I was waiting for some kind of response, he came and joined me on the couch. "Well, yeah?" Thomas said, looking puzzled.
"What?!" I yelled, staring at him. "Why didn’t you tell me?"
Thomas blinked. "I didn't think I needed to. It's not like Marcone's subtle when he's flirting with you." He considered this for a moment. "...but apparently he doesn't need to be, because you're a giant idiot."
I punched him in the arm. Usually Thomas is wary of human contact; he's not a slap on the back, arm around the shoulder kind of guy. But he must have decided from my wild eyes that I was in need of some kind of fraternal comfort, because he punched me back and then we were scuffling on the couch.
Thomas called a halt to proceedings when he brained me with a pillow, and I nearly spilled my beer; it's sacrilegious to spill Mac's ale. "Anyway," he said, graceful in victory, "you must have noticed. You flirt back."
I dropped the beer. Thomas snatched it out of the air before it could hit the rugs, and took a swig. "I do not!" I protested, too outraged to object to the beer theft. "I'm straight, damn it!"
To add insult to injury, Thomas burst out laughing. I thumped him in the arm some more, but had to stop when it became clear he was too amused to defend himself; it was too much like bullying.
"You really, really aren't," Thomas replied. "You notice guys Harry. I feel you noticing guys."
"Ugh!" I yelped, offended.
Thomas rolled his eyes. "I'm not doing anything with the energy, idiot, I just notice it."
"Oh," I said blankly. " ...Do you want to go to Mac's? I need more beer."
You get all kinds of meetings going on in Mac's; one of the joys of drinking in Accorded Neutral Territory is that I can sit with my big brother and not have anyone join the dots. We didn't have to be relatives or friends to drink together here. We could just have business to discuss.
Still, Thomas had looked at me with poorly masked concern and suggested we just pick up some beer and head back to my apartment. I nixed that idea, because I'd developed a sudden fondness for Mac's collection of thirteens; as soon as we walked in I could feel the disruption to my tangled magic as it started to loosen up a little. I no longer felt like a walking thundercloud.
Thomas surrendered and staked out a table, announcing that he was sticking with soda. I wasn't, so I trotted over to the bar before returning to Thomas with his Coke and my liquid ambrosia.
Three drinks later, my brother tried to stage an intervention. "Uh, Harry," he said, quietly. "I'm not sure beer's going to help you wrap your head around this."
"That," I said, feeling the pleasant buzz of enlightenment, "is because you are not the one drinking the beer. It totally will."
Thomas shook his head. I drank some more.
By the time I bumped into one of the thirteen pillars on my way back from the men’s room, and started giggling at the expression of the faun carved into it (alarmed constipation, maybe?), Thomas finally gave in to his fit of big brotherly concern and took me by the elbow. "Ok," he said, "coffee time."
"Mmmm. Coffee," I said, because I like coffee.
Getting outside was more complicated than usual, partly because I kept wanting to stop and look at the pillars, and partly because Thomas kept trying to pick the pockets of my coat for the car keys. But we got there in one piece.
The fresh air hit me suddenly, and I didn't protest when Thomas propped me against the wall. I closed my eyes and smiled, enjoying the buzz and the moonlight. I don't drink much very often, because part of being a wizard is knowing you can depend on your wits and your will to shape your magic. That gets a lot harder when all your thoughts are mellow, and the urgency melts away from the world.
"Car keys!" Thomas demanded. From his tone, it wasn't the first time he’d said it. I shrugged, to let him know that in the grand scheme of things, the location of one set of car keys wasn't an issue.
Thomas started rummaging through the pockets of my duster again. "How much stuff do you keep in here, Harry?" he muttered. "And why do you need a thimble, anyway?"
"Wizardly accouterments," I mumbled back, yawning. A car door closed somewhere behind Thomas.
"No keys. Are they in your jeans? Because you can check those pockets yourself."
"Perhaps I can help?" asked an amused and urbane voice. It wasn't one I was ready to hear.
Thomas spun towards the new arrival, blocking my view of John Marcone by standing in front of me with his arms crossed. "I don't think your hands down his jeans are likely to improve the situation." Thomas tried to disguise his protectiveness with a sardonic tone, and even just looking at the back of his head, I could picture the scornful, playboy disdain on his face.
Marcone actually tutted. I leaned sideways a little to catch sight of him over Thomas's shoulder. Marcone didn't look any different from the last time I'd seen him; well dressed, well built, with commonplace good looks punctuated by a scarred ear, which he did nothing to hide.
"I realise your thoughts are liable to run along a certain path, Mr Raith, but I intend to help by offering Harry a lift home. It seems to be past his bedtime if he's letting White Court vampires frisk him in the middle of the street."
"Hey!" I protested, pulling away from the wall, because Thomas was trying to help and Marcone made it all sound really sordid. My brother turned half way back to me, and used one hand to press me back against the brickwork. "Dresden," he said, warning in his tone. "No."
Right, no. Defending Thomas to Marcone would give him reason to start examining our relationship. Bad idea.
I looked away from Thomas to see Marcone standing tall in the moonlight. Colors wash out in the dark, but his green eyes were on me like I was the most fascinating person in the world. I knew a lot of predators; friends, allies and enemies. Murphy was right, I was totally oblivious. John Marcone, with his stance, his intensity, the focus of his gaze, had hunger written all over him. All for me.
The warmth of the beer in my blood was suddenly a different kind of warmth altogether, and my brother jerked his hand away from my chest.
"See?" he demanded.
"Yeah," I said. "I'm a giant idiot. Marcone, we need to talk."
Marcone’s smile was small and dark, a quirk of a shadow in the moonlight. "Indeed we do. Let's take this to my car."
"Harry," Thomas hissed, leaning close to my ear. "As glad as I am that you've caught the clue bus, let's get Mac to call you a cab. You can make an appointment with Marcone in the morning."
"No I won't," I murmured. "I'll chicken out in the morning. It's all fine, I'm not that drunk. You can quit trying to defend my honour."
"I'm trying to defend you from turning up dead in Lake Michigan!" Thomas growled, voice rising. Apparently he wasn't as confident as Murphy that I’d stay off of Marcone's shit list.
Marcone coughed politely, to catch Thomas's attention. "You have concerns, Mr Raith?"
Thomas span around. "Yeah, I do. Half the supernatural community of Chicago just watched me walk out of Mac's with a wizard in tow. I'm not having the White Council after my blood because you decide to disappear him."
Marcone considered this for a moment. "A logical concern, but a wasted one. I give you my word that I intend him no harm tonight. I simply want to talk to Mr. Dresden and see him safely home."
Thomas hesitated; he couldn't object further without questioning Marcone's word, and he wasn't foolish enough to go that far. He looked me in the eyes, trying to figure out if this was one of my stupid decisions he needed to defend me from, or one of my stupid decisions that turned out fine in the end. I grinned at him. "Thanks for tonight, but I need to get this straight in my head. I'd rather do that now than the next time I have to call him in a crisis."
Thomas nodded, and then replied loud enough for Marcone's ears. "Call me when you get in, or I'm coming looking for you."
"Sure," I said easily.
Marcone opened the car door, and gestured me toward it.
I fumbled the seat belt, and Marcone took it out of my hands to buckle me in safely. Hendricks was driving this time, but he seemed content to pretend I wasn't in the car. Two could play at that game.
"Now, Mr Dresden. I wanted to address your airborne interruption of a rather delicate negotiation the other night," Marcone began.
"Nah," I said, full of Dutch courage. "I have another item for the agenda. Apparently, you want to fuck me."
Marcone actually froze, drawing in a sharp breath. That's the equivalent of an average human being keeling over in shock. I looked him over and couldn't help grinning; his eyes were even a little wide. "Huh. Weren't expecting me to notice, were you?"
I watched Marcone consider lying before dismissing it as a futile strategy. "Frankly, no. You're unswervingly heterosexual, and reportedly oblivious to the fact that women find you attractive, never mind men."
I started giggling, and Marcone pinned me with his gaze. "I advise you not to mock me," he said, voice cold and brittle. It made me laugh harder.
"Not- not- you," I gasped, because I did have some sense of self-preservation. "Me!"
"I concede that your continued existence is, occasionally, amusing. I fail to see the joke in this instance."
I wiped tears from my eyes. "Unswervingly. Heterosexual!" I choked, and started laughing again. I stopped when a hand pressed against my mouth.
"Explain," Marcone demanded. The wounded pride in his eyes unnerved me, but so did the hints of hunger and curiosity.
"Uhm," I mumbled into the palm of his hand. Marcone didn't remove it. I was inhaling the clean masculine scent of him, and I could feel the coiled strength of his body leaning towards me.
I ran hot again, and dug my fingers into the leather of the seat beneath me.
And then we bumped over a pothole. Marcone's weight fell against me briefly, and he put his other hand down to steady himself; it landed on my thigh.Totally without my permission, my body arched up into his grip.
"Ah," Marcone said, eyes dark. He gave me time to move away. I didn't. And then my arms were full of a heated, eager John Marcone, who had pressed his mouth against my own and was kissing me like he'd been starved of oxygen.
I kissed back. Once I've decided to do something stupid, I do it wholeheartedly, so never mind that I had no idea what to do with another man's body, I let my hands lead me. I cradled the back of Marcone’s neck and managed to wiggle my other hand up his shirt, exploring the strong expanse of his back. I had time to wonder where exactly his hands had gone, before my seatbelt clicked open again and I was being pushed down across the back seat.
I'm way too tall for heavy petting in the back of a car, even one of Marcone's. My legs were jammed up against the door and all tangled with his, but he didn't seem to mind. He was more intent on fighting a losing battle with my T-shirt; it obviously wasn't going to come off while I still had my coat on, but that didn't stop him trying.
I wiggled underneath him, trying to get more of Marcone’s shirt out of his trousers. It had the spectacular side effect of slipping one of his thighs between my own and allowing me to grind against him. I groaned happily into his mouth, spreading my legs to accommodate him.
And then the car stopped. Hendricks coughed.
I pushed hard against John's chest. He pulled away reluctantly, and I felt myself turning a ridiculous shade of crimson; I'd just put on a floorshow for Marcone's bodyguard. Even if Hendricks hadn't been checking the mirrors, the noises we'd made had been pretty explicit.
"I am never drinking again," I announced to the roof of the car.
"My apologies," Marcone said. It was clear he wasn't talking to me.
Hendricks just grunted. Maybe this happened to him a lot.
Marcone started fixing his clothes. He looked at me, and started speaking in his usual detached tone of voice. "I'll be more than a little put out if you attempt to blame this on the alcohol. Your judgement isn't impaired."
"No," I admitted, wiggling my way up into a sitting position. "Just my sanity."
Marcone smiled. "Hardly a recent development."
I glared at him, more than a little of my irritation stemming from the realisation that yes, our usual conversational style clearly was flirting. "For the record, insults are a crappy seduction strategy."
"Hmm. I'll bear that in mind." Marcone looked at me expectantly. "This is your stop, Harry."
"Oh. Uhm." I looked out of the window to see my building, flailing to find the right bit of etiquette that covered this situation. "Yes. Do you want... uh, coffee?"
Marcone took in my flustered expression and dishevelled clothing. He smiled dangerously. "I don't think you're ready for coffee."
"Literal coffee!" I yelled, glaring.
"Of course. You're a traditional man. It's coffee on the third date then?"
"I don't know," I said, partly to wind him up and partly because I didn't have a clue what I was doing. "You just skipped to first base without any dates at all. Maybe you should wait a couple of innings before coffee."
Marcone frowned. "I think we're mixing our metaphors." And then he looked at me, carefully. "I have no plans to rush you. Take your time. Be sure. And please, try not to level Chicago in a heterosexual panic before tomorrow morning."
I gave him the finger and got out of the car. "Sleep tight, John!" I yelled, belatedly realising that I probably couldn't use his first name to annoy him anymore.
"Good night, Harry," he responded, and that content little smile suggested he had just realised the same thing.
I'd find something else. I'm pretty good at annoying John Marcone.