The first thing I did when I crawled out of the lake was find a pay phone and call Father Forthill.
There was a booth in the parking lot by the marina and I climbed inside, grateful to be out of the chill November wind. The cold didn't cut as deep as the back of my mind told me it should have, but I was shivering from the water and wearing soaked, bloodstained jeans and a shirt filled with bullet holes.
I dialed the number of St. Mary of the Angels, calling collect. A receptionist picked up on the third ring but patched me through to Father Forthill when I gave my name.
"Harry." He sounded relieved. "Michael told me - "
A burst of static took the line, not unusual for me, but where I might normally be annoyed this time I grinned. It was a small but significant reminder I had my magic back again.
"I'm glad he did." It would save time. "Listen Father, I've got to know – where's Maggie?"
Father Forthill paused. Static echoed a little in the line.
"Father?" Panic reached up and grabbed my ass. Gard and Michael hadn't said anything – "What's wrong? Is she okay? Did something happen to her?"
I had made the decision to leave my daughter in the care of Father Forthill three weeks ago, the day before I got shot and died. My reasoning had been sound – I had made a deal with the devil, traded my soul and a lifetime of service to Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, for the power she offered. As the Winter Knight my allies and I had managed to storm the palace of the Vampire King of the Red Court and turn his lineage spell, aimed at my daughter and – utimately – at my grandfather, against him and his own.
I had killed my ex-girlfriend and the mother of my daughter to do it. I didn't want to think about that right now. But with Susan gone and my service in Mab's icy hands, Forthill had been the only one I trusted to look after her.
I had trusted him to keep her safe.
"Where is she?" I demanded.
The priest took a deep breath. It hissed through the static. "The couple who adopted her were targeted by the ... the creatures Michael informed me of. The ones with an interest in those with subtle or faint magical ability. The Smiths were not wizards such as yourself, but they did have little talents. Small things – Juniper could never be lost, Brian could find anything he looked for. They had experience with social services and I thought they would be the best caretakers for your daughter. They had enough knowledge of the magical world to know what to watch out for and a real love for lost children.
The Smiths lived just outside of Chicago, up the I-94. Maggie had been there a week, and seemed to be settling in somewhat. Mouse had been sent to her immediately after your ... after your death. She adored him. I visited them twice together, and though Maggie was not yet speaking to anyone and continued to have nightmares, she did seem more comfortable the second time I was there.
Then ... Harry, what I know is the Smiths were attacked in the middle of the night. I know Mouse gave a warning, and if not for him I don't know what would have happened to Maggie. He managed to get her out of the house and hide her in the brush in the backyard. I was in the area, visiting a sick member of my congregation. I decided to visit on my way back to Chicago. I arrived shortly after nine, but it was too late to save Brian and Juniper. It was clear they were meant to be taken, but they had fought back too well. Both were killed. Mouse revealed Maggie and himself to me when I arrived. I brought them immediately back to St. Mary's.
This was two weeks ago. Sarg ... Ms. Murphy called me shortly afterward to ask for Michael's contact information and I managed to get most of the story of what was happening from her. I didn't want to risk Maggie's safety by speaking about her when the Smiths were so recently attacked, so I said nothing. Ms. Murphy and Michael's story I think you know. I understand Ms. Gard was involved as well. I know the creatures were found, tracked, and destroyed. I know, a little, of how you were able to assist them in this search.
With Ms. Murphy and Michael involved in the fight against these creatures, I knew I had to make provisions to keep Maggie safe. I had – I did not expect you to ever return, Mister Dresden, though I know Ms. Murphy at least had not given up hope.
But the church itself was attacked several days after Maggie came to us here. I knew I could not keep her hidden forever. The police arrived and wanted a full accounting of the event, and I had to expose Maggie as a friend's daughter attending school at the church when they asked. There have been several reports of missing children in the wake of these attacks, Harry. I knew they would look into the records of all individuals involved and I knew Maggie would not be listed in the system. I needed someone who could give her proper documentation, and quickly. And I needed someone who could be trusted with the safety of a child."
I had closed my eyes through Father Forthill's explanation, fear for my daughter making my hands around the reciever shake. It was true that I had fought, as best I could while dead, with Karen and Michael against the creatures that had taken so many of the minor practioners of the Northeastern region. No one had mentioned Maggie, and I hadn't been able to communicate well enough to ask outright if she were okay. I knew Karen wouldn't know where she was, and I trusted Michael to let me know if he heard anything dangerous.
He hadn't, and for the past three weeks every spare thought had been for her. I had hoped – even prayed – that she would be okay. I thought she would. And to find out now that she had been attacked, that the people who had taken her in had been killed ... it was almost too much to hear. If I had known ... I don't know if there was anything I could have done. But I would have tried.
Stars, thank goodness for Mouse. If it hadn't been for him ...
I shook my head, trying to come back to the present. Father Forthill had paused. I mentally reviewed the last few minutes of the conversation and filtered out all the static that had been buzzing in the background.
He had said he needed someone, someone who could help get documentation and keep a child safe ...
... oh stars ...
"You didn't." I breathed.
Father Forthill sounded apologetic. "John Marcone was the only person I could think of who had both the resources and the knowledge needed to protect Maggie."
I closed my eyes and leaned back, resting my shoulders on the cold glass of the phone booth. "Let me guess, he demanded to know her true identity before supplying you with the necessary documentation."
The priest sighed. "Yes he did. He met me here at the church and I asked him to swear on his name and his power that he would do all he could for her and would guard her life with his own before I told him."
My brain felt slow and soggy, but I tried to churn through the implications of that.
"He isn't a practioner, his Name would have less holding power over him. But if he swore as the Baron Marcone of Chicago ..."
"He did," Father Forthill noted, sounding relieved. Either he was glad he had guessed right, or he was happy I wasn't already setting fire to his church. "He was ... certainly shocked, Harry. My guess is that your death hit him harder than he wanted it to, or wanted to admit to. But I firmly believed then and now that he would do nothing to harm Maggie. She is now under his protection."
I tried to think through that. To be honest, John Marcone wasn't one of the few people I had spent a lot of time wondering about lately. Karen, Michael, Thomas, my daughter – those had been the focus of my unlife these past few weeks. The idea of him regretting my death seemed a little odd, but then again I guess he would be upset someone had managed to pop me on his hunting grounds.
Then the rest of Forthill's words caught up to me.
"What do mean, under his protection? She isn't at St. Mary's ?"
There was another burst of static from the phone, but I could hear the priest's voice beneath it.
"No, we had another attack yesterday and Marcone informed me the police would be continuing their investigation. He picked her up himself last night. Mouse went with her."
I gripped the phone tightly. Yesterday was when all the really big shit had gone down. Yesterday and this morning. There had been a lot of angry people on the streets before then, and now there was another power vaccum in place. And I knew for a fact that Gard wasn't helping protect Marcone right now, because I had left her with Karen and Michael at the warehouse less than an hour ago Chicago-time.
"Father," I said into the receiver, nearly spitting out the words, "Where is she?"
"I don't know - " he began.
That was enough for me.
I hung up with my left hand, and started punching in numbers with my right.
Don't ask me why I had Marcone's personal number memorized. The guy had given me his business card enough times that it had taken some creative juggling to lose it convincingly, and every time he had hand-written his personal cell onto the bottom of the little white card. I couldn't remember the regular number if you paid me, but apparently those smaller numbers managed to imprint themselves somehow onto my brain.
Or maybe Lash had memorized them for me back in the day, and when I'm acting without thinking I sometimes find myself speaking in ancient Etruscan and writing left-handed.
I wasn't thinking now. I was just punching numbers, angry and afraid and not a little pissed off.
Going after me was one thing, going after my daughter was something else.
There was a little piece of me that remembered that Maggie was a child, and John Marcone had proven himself a true defender of children. But I didn't want to remember that right now; I needed the anger to get past the fear.
He answered on the first ring, even though it was collect. "Yes?"
"Where the hell is my daughter?"
Static filled the line, worse since Marcone was on a cell, but I could hear his shocked indraw of breath behind it.
His voice was strained. I ignored it and focused through the crappy connection.
"Yes, scumbag, its me. Now answer the question or I - "
"You're ... alive?"
I paused. I could count on one hand the number of times Marcone had interupted me. Usually he liked to listen to me rant. It seemed to amuse him.
"Gard didn't tell you?"
The static warbled behind his voice. "Ms. Gard was recalled to Monoc Securities last week. She left eight days ago. Her contract with me states I may not ask her about business other than my own."
The mob boss's tone was back under rigid control but he was rambling. It sounded strange, for Marcone.
"So you're actually five minutes behind the news for once," I said impatiently, "I'll send a notice to the Tribune. Now tell me Marcone – where is my daughter?"
"She is protected." He was quick to reassure me. "As you are aware, I have constructed several safe houses around the city. Your daughter is interned at one of them." A dry note of amusement filled his voice, audible even behind the static. "Father Forthill managed to convince her it was a slumber party for her and Mouse and Mr. Hendricks. For some reason she has taken quite a liking to him."
I took a deep breath in and let it slowly out. I knew of the safe houses Marcone had constructed – they were shelters from physical and magical attacks alike. The last time one had been breached it had taken a group of Denarians to punch a hole through its magical defenses.
Nothing the group I had fought against had anything like that kind of firepower, so I had to assume for the moment that she was safe.
Besides, she had Mouse. That made me feel better.
I still wanted to see her though. I told Marcone as much.
"Of course," he said easily. I guess he had regained his composure. Apparently it had only taken someone coming back from the dead to rattle it. "Tell me where you are and I can come pick you up."
"You could tell me where - "
"Even if you were able to get in without setting off the protections I have carefully established," Marcone interupted me again, "and you wouldn't; I will not reveal its location to you without establishing my own precautions."
I ground my teeth together in frustation, and Marcone continued smoothly. "Besides, I doubt your automobile was resurrected along with you. Picking you up would be faster."
It was the faster comment that convinced me. As he had known it would. Damn him.
I gave him the address of the marina. Marcone seemed to know it. "I'm already on my way," he promised, and I could hear the faint sound of traffic behind the bad connection. "We should be there in -" he paused as if checking with someone, "- ten minutes."
I was tired of the conversation, so I hung up. As soon as I had, however, I regretted it. The wind echoed eerily around the phone booth and the marina suddenly seemed very remote and very ... empty. I shivered.
I was ... back. I was alive. It didn't feel real. My mind still felt detached from my body, and I found the heaviness of my limbs distracting. I hadn't given much thought to how I'd moved around Chicago these past few weeks. It had seemed like I walked from place to place, only my presence had been a thing of mind, not body, and I could move at the speed of thought when I was distracted. It had been as if the very act of walking were a holdover from being alive, and something I hadn't really needed to do, but did because it was habit.
But now I was back, alive and in my own body and it – felt weird. I wasn't sure if I liked it. I leaned against the inside of the phone booth and shivered. The cold was deep enough to reach me and my wet clothes weren't helping. My brain kept trying to make me remember what had happened the past few weeks, but I had a lifetime of magical study and discipline. I forced the memories out.
It was better that way. Just keep moving and think about this all later. I could have a breakdown when I knew my daughter was safe.
To keep myself distracted I looked around the marina. The sky was grey, the dim light of evening further shadowed by low clouds. The wind was blowing the trees back and forth along the gravel drive and the lake was showing white caps. A sudden memory of struggling against those waves reached up and grabbed me by the spine. I breathed through it.
The Water Beetle was no where in sight. I guess the police had taken it in for evidence, or maybe my assassin had done as much damage to the boat as he had to me. I wondered if it were at the bottom of the lake. I wondered if I had time to call Thomas before Marcone showed up.
He would want to see me, though, and I wanted to see Maggie more. I had to trust that Karen would think of him and know who to call. And if she didn't it would only be a couple of hours. I had been dead for three weeks. It sucked, but my brother could wait.
I wondered how long Mab would wait. She would have sensed the moment my body returned. She had even helped, in her own twisted way, while I was dead. Would she give me another day to get my re-life back in order before summoning me to the Winter Court? I had no way of knowing, and no desire to call upon my Godmother and ask.
Instead I sank to the bottom of the phone booth, arms huddled around my bloodstained clothes, and waited for Gentleman Johnny Marcone.
It seemed to take longer than it should have. I found myself nodding off against the plexiglass. It turned out coming back from the dead was more exhausting than I would have thought. But I woke at the gleam of headlights against the phone booth. A graceful black limosine pulled up to the booth and I stood shakily, levering myself up with the assistance of the pay phone.
The door to the limosine opened, and I hurried out from the phone booth into its heated warmth.
The Baron of Chicago, the Free Lord John Marcone, was sitting in the backseat. As always he looked more like a highschool football coach than a mob boss, even tucked into a well tailored suit that probably cost more than I make in a year. His hair was dark and full but there was more grey at the temples than I had seen on him the last time we had spoken face to face. The bland face was also slightly strained, and there were new lines around his eyes.
His face twitched a little when he saw me, and I saw him struggling to maintain his bland facade. There was a line of tension between his eyebrows, and his right hand twisted violently before he curled it into a fist and tucked it gracefully into his lap.
I wanted to smirk and ask if he missed me, but the other person in the car distracted me.
It was one of Marcone's enforcers, one of the big guys slightly smaller than Marcone's usual right-hand man Hendricks. I knew him in the vague way that meant I had probably seen him standing behind Marcone at more than one event, but I couldn't place his face. He had sandy coloured hair and brown eyes, and shoulders like a line backer. His scowl might have been fierce on its own, but sitting across from Marcone the guy looked like a football player in Marcone's high school team.
He had two things that made me notice him, however. One an old fashioned pistol, real gun slinger not easily disrupted by my magic. It was sitting in the maw of his right hand and looked almost danity in the faint light, but it was pointed at me.
The other was a brown paper bag. He held it in his left hand, and its red, blue and gold logo made my mouth instantly water. Burger King. I might have moaned a little.
John Marcone smiled. It lit up his whole face, erasing the lines and dimming the grey at his temples. He guestered towards the brown paper bag.
"By all means, Mister Dresden. We've already eaten."
Linebacker proffered the bag. I heroically kept myself from drooling on the leather seat and tore it open. He had gotten me three Whoppers. And a giant thing of fries. And coke.
This time I did moan. Loudly. Stars it smelled good.
I devoured the first whopper in three bites and started in on the second. My stomach, which I had all but forgotten I had again, growled loudly in the large car. I suddenly wondered what had happened to my body while I'd been dead for three weeks. Had it been slowly decomposing in the lake this whole time? Or had it strangely disappeared and reappeared when I was back to need it again?
The thought made me faintly nauseous, and the burger was too good to waste. To distract myself I looked over at Marcone and tipped my head towards Linebacker and the gun.
"What's with the firepower?" I asked him. Though with my mouth full it might have come out more like "Whhaa wiwh ta firapoawer?"
Instead of looking disgusted Marcone smiled again, though this were more of his usual 'lips tucked up a little at the corners' kind of smile. It was reassuring, somehow.
"It would not be the first time a dangerous entity has used your form to harm someone," he said smoothly, leaning back against the leather seat. "Though I doubt a spirit would be able to enjoy a sold meal so ... throughly."
So he had used Burger King to prove I was who I said I was? And he had managed to feed me at the same time. That was weirdly Marcone.
"Yeah," I said, swallowing the delicious patty meat and special sauce. "I wasn't able to eat for three weeks. I didn't even realize I missed it until ..."
I trailed off. The disconnected feeling was back again, this time full force. I hadn't eaten for three weeks. I was true – I hadn't even missed it. Oh I had thought about food, a little longingly even, but I hadn't really wanted any, not really. I hadn't been hungry.
I hadn't slept either. I hadn't slept for three weeks. And now that I was thinking about it, the colours had been muted too. I thought of Karen's face, and Michael. They had looked like themselves, but slightly blurry and mostly gray. I tried to remember the colour of the shirt Murphy had been wearing this morning and couldn't.
I blinked and looked around the car. Marcone was frowning at me. I stared at him and realized I could see every line on his face, every eyelash. It was all crisp and clear. His suit was a subtle blue-black and I could see that, even in the dim light. I met his eyes and saw his widen, but found myself staring at the dollar-bill green colour of them.
I started to shake.
I hadn't been seeing in colour for the past three weeks. It was like the food – I hadn't even noticed. And my hands – I looked down at my shaking hands. I dropped the burger on the seat and rubbed my thumbs against my index finger.
My hands were rough, they tingled and filled with sensation. The warmth of my palms, the dampness in the air. I touched the leather of the seat, the absurd softness, and felt myself starting to hyperventilate.
I could feel things again. I could feel things because I was alive. And it was different because I had been dead.
I had been dead. I had died. I had died because I got shot, I got shot in the chest and suddenly I could feel the path of the bullet hole slicing through my flesh. It hurt like I hadn't realized it had hurt before, when it was actually happening. It had happened too fast, I hadn't had a chance to process it. But now it burned.
I scrambled back against the leather seat in a panic. My hands were coming up to feel my shoulder wthout my consciously telling them too and I felt the rough edge of the wet cotten, the path of the bullet hole traced in seared cloth and soggy blood. I had been shot! I had died!
".. rry! Harry!"
Something was squeezing my shoulders. I was caught in a vice and I thrashed for a moment, trying to break free. The vice tightened, and something shook me a little.
"Harry listen to me! It's okay, do you understand? It's okay."
I blinked, disorientated, and tried to focus on the voice. It was strong and calm and reassured me in a way I didn't understand. I knew that voice wouldn't lie to me ... I focused on my breathing. In and out. In and out.
Because I was alive. I needed to breath again. That was okay. That was okay.
It took me longer than I like to admit to get myself back under control. When I had, I looked up and met Marcone's eyes. He was still holding me by the shoulders. He had come across the whole car to sit beside me. I realized then that Marcone always left a good sized space between us. Most people did. I hadn't ever thought of it before.
But he was beside me now, literally holding me together.
I didn't want it to be him I broke down in front of. I didn't want Marcone to see me like that. But his eyes held no blame. For once they weren't even clinically appraising. He was just watching me, and I could swear there was almost something like concern in that dollar bill gaze.
I looked away. A blush was rising into my cheeks and I tried to force it away.
He held me for a moment longer, staring at me. Then he stiffly let me go and moved away again. Not so far, not to the opposite end of the car, but giving me a little space. He reached down and rescued my burger from where it had fallen to the floor.
I scrubbed a hand through my hair, wincing at the wet soggy mass of it. "Sorry -" My voice caught a little. I took a deep breath and tried again.
"Sorry about that."
Marcone didn't say anything, but reached over and retrieved the Burger King bag from Linebacker. I remembered him coming forward a little with the pistol before, but Marcone had waved him back.
He offered me the bag. I hestitated, then took out the coke. I needed the sugar.
After a few sips I felt calmer. I was still weirdly hypersensitive about my body, and could feel the cold coke slipping down my esophagus and into my stomach. But the taste was reassuring, and my hands had stopped shaking.
I took a few sips and then found myself reaching for the fries. I didn't want another whopper, so I left it in the bag. I pulled out the fry basket and hestitated, then offered them towards Marcone. It felt weird to sit there eating in front of him.
Marcone eyed me and the fries for a moment, then leaned forward and accepted two slim offerings of salty goodness. He made a face at the taste, but ate them. It felt oddly like a peace offering, even though he had been the one to buy me the food.
I ate a couple of fries and then searched around for a conversation topic. I needed something to distract me from the weight and presence of food in my mouth again.
"So, where are we going?"
Marcone leaned forward and bent one knee along the seat, resting his elbows on his thigh and his chin on his fingertips. No wonder the man drove around in limosines. He could never get himself into that position wearing a seatbelt.
"I have a safehouse constructed in one of the new apartment buildings on the east side of the city. I'm renovating it for opening in the spring, and have converted the basement for my use until that time. Your daughter is safe there with Hendricks and Mouse."
I squinted at him. "How the heck did she fall in with Hendricks?" I mentally reviewed everything I knew of the big red-haired man, and came up with 'not much'. "He doesn't seem the real kid-loving type."
Marcone smiled faintly, "I am not quite sure myself." He admitted. "But they met when I went to St. Mary's to meet with Father Forthill. She took an immediate and obvious liking to him."
I shook my head. Of all the people I would have chosen to be Gardian for my daughter, Marcone and Hendricks were no where near the list. Still ...
"I know your defensive network is extensive," I said grudingly. It was true, after all. "But I want to see her."
Marcone lifted an eyebrow. "Of course. I have already promised as much. But I would like you to recognize the extreme lateness of the hour and the fact that she will most likely be asleep. Also, I must recommend that you change first. Right now you look ... a little too recently returned from the dead."
I looked down at my clothes again, but didn't linger. I knew what he meant. And I still felt weirdly sensitive about everything.
"These were the nicest set of things I owned," I said to Marcone.
His eyebrow lifted again. I scowled.
"And the Beetle is gone, my duster is destroyed, and I don't even have a wallet with me. I can't exactly walk into Walmart or anything."
Marcone leaned back, looking nonplussed. "Fortunately I have arranged for a suitable change of clothing. It is waiting at the safe house. There are also showers with hot water heaters we are exchanging out next week, so you may feel free to hex your way through them if you so desire."
I squinted at him. "How do you have a change of clothes waiting for me? How do you even know my dress size?"
Marcone gave me a look that said he was reevaluating the limits he placed on my intelligence.
"Please Mister Dresden. I may plan for the worst, but I do hope for the best. Each of my safehouses is equiped with a standard set of clothing changes for yourself and Ms. Murphy along with my usual associates. I had given orders that Mr. Carpenter would no longer need to be so outfitted, but perhaps that has changed?"
I shuddered. Thinking of the risks Michael had taken for me during the past twenty-four hours made me feel almost sick. "No, definitely not." I said quickly. "He's – this was just a favour for an old friend. He's no longer in the rescuing business."
Marcone took that information with a nod. "Ah. I will make a note of it."
I fished around for the last fry in my basket. "Still, knowing my pant size. That's a little stalkery there, John."
I poped the fry in my mouth and looked up to find him smiling at me, a tigerish expression in his eyes. "I prefer to think of it as being prepared for all possibilities."
I suddenly found myself in deeper water than I realized I had been swimming. I wasn't sure I wanted to know what he meant, so I cleared my throat to break the abrupt silence and looked behind my shoulder at the scenery.
The low grey afternoon clouds had melted into a true black Chicago night. I got what Marcone said about the time. I had no idea what time ten year olds were supposed to be in bed by, but something told me Marcone was a stickler about that kind of stuff. Maggie was probably sound asleep.
If she slept soundly, that was. Forthill had mentioned nightmares.
"The safe house around here somewhere?"
Marcone sat back in his seat and looked over my shoulder. After a moment the car began to slow and he nodded. "Yes. It's the apartment complex to your right."
The car stopped and I pulled at the door release before whoever was in the front could come around to open it. Linebacker watched me lever myself out, then followed me out of the limo. I didn't look back to see if Marcone followed, but I heard his feet touch the pavement and the door close behind him.
The apartment building to my right was clearly still under construction. There was wire fencing all around it and half the walls were covered in that burlap-like fabric they used to keep at least some of the dust off the street. But I could still see the original building underneath it – it had been an old brownstone, rather like my last apartment building.
I felt another dizzying sensation of grief hit me. It came up under my ribcage and punched me in the gut. But I caught the emotion on a half-choked off gasp and furiously wrapped it under control.
I stared at the building and memorized the parts that were very definitely not like my old apartment to distract me. The fact that it was obviously larger, had two front staircases and was six stories high helped. But I could see the impression of the renovations Marcone was making. Assuming he pressure-washed the hell out of the brick before he finished, it was going to be rather nice eventually.
At which point Marcone would likely move out and reinvent another old building in Chicago, creating another safe haven for himself and his associations while that one went through the process of evolution. I had to admit it was a smart way to do business – both the illegal and the legal fronts of it, with magical protection to boot.
Marcone stepped up to my right side. Linebacker glared from behind us both. I could feel more than see him scanning the thick Chicago night for threats to his boss. He had put the old pistol back in his pocket when we left the limo, but I was sure it was focused somewhere on my spine. I itched between my shoulder blades. He obviously still counted me as one of those things liable to present a threat to his employer.
"If you would allow me, Mister Dresden," Marcone began. He stepped forward onto the bottom-most step of the building's staircase. I watched him as he removed a purple stone from his suit pocket and held it lightly in his palm as he walked up the steps. I could see the faint gleam of a rune carved in gold on its surface. As he walked Marcone flipped the stone end-over-end three times.
He walked back to us but addressed me personally. "Follow me, please?"
I walked forward stiffly, senses alert for the presence of wards and other magics. They were there, but very subtle. If I were walking quickly by the building I might have passed them by completely, they felt so woven into the fabric of old Chicago. I felt my eyebrows ascend into my hairline.
"Gard does good work."
Marcone nodded, leading the way up the steps. "She costs me a small fortune every day. I have never regretted it."
We entered the building through the front door. Linebacker and I followed Marcone down a half-renovated staircase into the bare concrete basement. We stepped through a door and walked a short corridor before going down another staircase.
Along the way I could see faint runes inscribed in the brick and concrete, and once even on the railing of the staircase. I wanted to wait and study the markings – I knew next to nothing about rune-magic and had been meaning to learn – but Marcone wasn't pausing and my desire to see Maggie again was strong enough to drag me forward.
When we stepped off the second staircase I felt the quality of the air change. It prickled in a way that was insistent but not dangerous. There would be no threshold to work with, so Gard had obviously been forced to impovise.
It felt safe, though. Protected. A strange kind of energy filled the spaces between the spell. It felt almost like Marcone himself did. The part of him I had understood during our soul-gaze so many years ago. Possessive and unafraid, determined to protect what was his. I wondered if this was the feeling he engendered in all of his safehouses, or if this had been upgraded because Maggie was here.
Marcone beckoned me forward. He walked towards a door at the end of the hallway. It was closed nd bared, but there was a window build high into its surface. He guestured for me to go ahead and I walked up to the window. I put my face right up to the glass and looked inside. The hum of protective energies buzzed in front of my eyes.
It was a concrete basement that had been turned into a makeshift playroom. It was dim, with only a nightlight plugged into a corner giving any kind of illumination. There were blue and green carpets on the floor and plastic toys spread about. A desk had been pushed into a corner and a child's bed had been erected against the far wall. It was a small white bed with purple covers, and under those covers, head tucked almost under the blankets and curled around a white fluffy stuffed something I thought might be a sock, was Maggie.
My breath caught in my throat.
I stared at her and watched her little head move up and down with every breath. She twitched a little, once, in her sleep. Then she pulled slightly at the white fluffy thing and settled back into sleep.
My little girl.
I blinked back sudden tears and scanned the rest of the room. There was a shaggy mound of hair sleeping on the bed, and as soon as I stared at it I realized it was Mouse. His tail poked out of the covers and that was what she was hanging onto. It couldn't be comfortable for him to sleep with his tail being used as a stuffed animal to a ten year old girl, but my dog seemed comfortable. I knew they had slept this way before.
It brought more tears to my eyes to see him. Mouse and I had been through so much together, I hadn't realized how big of a hole he left in my life when I no longer had him by my side. I wanted to open the door and call to him, reassure him I was alive. But he was sleeping, too. I stood there and watched the rise and fall of his back, the occasional twitch of his tail. I knew from experience how quickly he could go from sound asleep to instantly awake, and I didn't want to alarm Maggie.
To be thorough I looked over the rest of the room. In another corner was Hendricks. The big man was leaning back in an armchair with an iPad held incongruously in his left maw. He was reading something, but every few moments would look up and scan the room. There was a suspicious lump under his coat that spoke of concealed weaponry, and I had to admit that he looked threateningly protective.
I looked back at my sleeping girl. I didn't want to disturb her, or Mouse. Marcone was right – I was a mess. Physically and emotionally. I needed to sleep, eat something that hadn't come from a fast food chain, and get my head into a place where I could figure out what I was going to do with this.
I had a daughter I thought I would never see again. I had a second chance at life. But as much as I wanted to protect her, to be there for her, I was still facing the same problems I had the last time I had decided to give her away. I was still the Winter Knight, and I had no idea when Mab would come for me.
I didn't know what to do.
But I didn't need to know right now. She was safe. For now, she was safe.
I looked back once at mine and Susan's daughter and memorized everything I could about the scene. Then I frowned. Something tugged at my subconscious.
The room had been done in soft colours, very girly. Karen wouldn't approve. But her pillow seemed dark, and now that my eyes had adjusted to the dim light I could make out the difference between the fabric and my girl's dark hair. It looked almost like leather.
I stepped back from the room and looked over at Marcone. He was watching me.
"Leather," he agreed. Now that was damn near freaky. Was the man telepathic or something? I guess my sudden frown had been a little obvious, but still. "Father Forthill mentioned that she seemed calmer when he had wrapped her in an old leather jacket for their trip to the Smith's. She appears to find the smell comforting."
Huh. My duster had been magically transformed into armour when I had stormed Chichen Itza for Maggie. But faerie transformations don't change the original material, more like they reshape it. I wondered if Maggie liked leather because of me.
Or maybe Susan had gotten her a present or something back in the day. I didn't know, and couldn't afford to make a big deal out of it.
Still, something inside me loosened. A little.
I nodded at Marcone and took another step away from the door. As I did I felt the weight of the past three weeks come crashing down over me. I was suddenly exhausted, in all of my parts and every corner of my brain. I wondered how comfortable the concerete would be.
Marcone must have seen me stumble. "Okay," he said, getting back into my personal space and wrapped an arm around my middle. "I think it's time for bed, Harry."
I wanted to protest that he shouldn't call me Harry. But what came out was, "I'm not going to bed with you."
I'm sure he had a snarky come-back to that, but to be honest I didn't catch it. I just put one foot in front of the other until someone steered me towards a comforter and I faceplanted across it. Down and out for the count.
I woke up blissfully warm and comfortable. I was somewhere soft, with big thick blankets and a pillow that felt like clouds against my head. I was seriously comtemplating going back to sleep when the intelligent part of my brain woke up and wondered where the hell I was.
I sat up. I was sleeping in a dimly lit bunker, the bed I was on laying on sat directly on the concrete floor. The door was open a crack and I could see the hunking form of a bodyGard, or perhaps a jailor, sitting in a chair outside my door.
I stared at that crack of light until the memories rose like waves and crashed into me.
Marcone. I was in his safe house. He had Maggie.
I had crawled out of the lake yesterday. Michael, Karen and Gard and I had fought the creatures that had been stalking Chicago and defeated them, and I had gotten my body back.
That part I still shied away from. I wasn't ready to face what had happened there yet. Instead I tried to work out what had happened next. I had called Father Forthill and he told me the creatures had gone after Maggie's new family. Marcone had gotten involved to protect her. He had sworn on his Name and his Power.
Part of me – a loud part – wanted to say I wasn't ready to deal with this. Wanted to crawl back under the covers and wait for someone else to come get me, to deal with the mess my life had become.
But I haven't ever been good at choosing the easy parth, and I knew by now that refusing to face your problems only made those problems seem bigger. Even if coming back from the dead and owing my immortal soul to Mab, and apparently my daughter's safety to Marcone, seemed pretty damn big.
Groaning I threw back the comforter and crawled out of bed. I was still wearing my destroyed clothes from the day before. Thankfully Marcone hadn't seen fit to strip me once he got me into bed. Decent of him. Or possibly afraid I would hex him if he tried. Either seemed equally likely.
The guard/jailor outside my door shifted when I got out of bed. I paused and Listened carefully. Listening is a skill I picked up somewhere – it isn't magic, or at least I don't think it is. It's just a way of focusing, of blocking out everything but what you want to concentrate on. I Listened and heard the hulk pull out a smart phone and tap out a message. It wasn't long, probably just a report that I was alive and conscious, but it gave two-to-one odds on the 'jailor' aspect of his job description.
I could wait and find out if someone was going to come get me, or I could barge out and demand my due. And Marcone had mentioned hot water heaters.
I walked over to the door and flung it open. The Hulk looked up at me nonplussed. I didn't recognize him, but he could have been Linebacker's younger brother.
"Morning!" I smiled brightly at him. "Marcone promised me a hot shower and a change of clothes. Now chop chop."
The Hulk raised an eyebrow. I waved impatiently. "Like 'fetch me my slippers' or, you know, just point the way to the bathrooms. I can figure the rest of it out on my own."
His expression never wavered. Raising a hand the Hulk pointed a finger down the concrete hall to a blue door. "That one."
I started down the hall. It was a different one than I remembered seeing yesterday. There was no door with a window on it, no clue as to where Maggie was. I tried to rememebr how far I had walked last night with Marcone's arm around me, keeping me vertical. I couldn't. I had been too tired to do more than follow him. But I didn't think there had been any stairs involved.
So that meant we had probably turned a corner to end up in this hallway. It was likely Maggie wasn't far. I could find my way out of here if I needed to, could fight my way out if I needed to.
I looked back to see if the Hulk was following me, but he had settled himself back into the chair and was thumbing away at his smart phone. I considered hexing it into oblivion but that would be destruction without purpose, and I didn't need any new enemies today.
I found the blue door and pushed it open. Inside was a relatively industrial looking bathroom. It had obviously not been hit by the renovation crew yet, and there was sand and dust in the corners. There were three shower heads through, and four sinks against one wall. I could see what Marcone meant about hexing the place without consequence. This was probably all set to be torn out regardless.
Someone had placed clean towels in a stack on top of one of the sinks, and there was shampoo and conditioner in two of the small showers. I stripped out of my dirty and still faintly damp clothes and tossed them into a corner. I could set fire to them later.
Turning one of the shower heads on I stood out of the way of the spray while it slowly heated up. Some piece of machinery beneath my feet made a pained sound, but the water finally started to heat up. I waited until it was nearly scalding and stepped under the stray. I groaned as the hot water hit my shoulder blades. It had been years since I had had a hot shower. It was heavenly.
It felt like I was washing a lot more than twenty-four hours worth off my body. There was dried blood on my chest and my hair smelled like lakewater. I couldn't see any of Susan's blood on my hands but I could feel it there still.
I scrubbed and scrubbed using the shampoo as soap. I washed my hair twice and then said to hell with it and used the conditioner. By the time the hot water heater finally gave out with a little puff and low pitched whine I felt almost human again.
Stepping out of the shower I wrapped one of the available towels around myself. It was big and soft and fluffy, and miraculously wide enough to cover me. They must be the Macy's Mob Boss Special line, designed to fit grunts of all sizes. There was a new toothbrush in the plastic by one of the sinks and toothpaste that must have been there for common use. I brushed my teeth and the sensation was heavenly.
I didn't want to pick up my bloodstained clothing from the floor, but I doubted my ability to kick it all the way down the hallway. With a grimace I leaned over and grasped the damp mass with two fingers, then made sure my towel was secure and exited the bathroom.
Marcone was waiting for me back in my room. The Hulk was still outside, but the phone had been put away. I was glad – it was harder to resist the temptation to show off with Marcone standing in the door way to my room, watching me.
I adjusted my grip on the towel and smirked at him. "Morning buttercup."
Marcone ignored the nickname though his eyebrows twitched. I grinned as he transferred his gaze to the mass in my right hand. "I presume you would like to burn those?"
Ah, Marcone knew my weapon of choice. "You bet your buttons."
He gave a long suffering sigh. "Please refrain from exercising your pyromaniac instincts in the building. The sprinker system was installed yesterday."
I brushed past him into the room and dropped my old clothes on the floor with a splat. Then I kicked them into the corner.
On the bed was a new pair of black jeans and a black t-shirt, with a blue sweater that felt softer than anything I had ever owned. There was also a new pair of green boxers and a pair of warm-looking black socks. On the floor were a pair of dark sneakers. I couldn't see a logo on them, but somehow I didn't think they came from Walmart.
I picked up the boxers and was about to drop my towel when I realized Marcone was still watching me.
I gave him a pointed glare and he raised his eyebrows at me before turning to face the door. I shook my head and quickly got dressed.
The clothes felt wonderful. The fit perfectly, too, even the jeans. That was a rare treat. I have a hard problem finding clothes that fit, being as tall as I am. But I didn't even need to roll the cuffs.
The t-shirt was snug, but I had the feeling it was made to be that way. It seemed to hug my body strangely, and it was as soft as buttermilk against my skin. I shivered at the sensation. I hadn't realized t-shirts could be sexy.
Thankfully there was the sweater to wear over it. I felt better when encased in the blue material. I know it's rather hokey, but colour has associations in magic. To me, blue is protection. It's the colour of my shield and my soulfire. I felt better wearing it.
I turned around to sit on the bed and pull on my socks. Marcone took that as invitation to look at me again. I avoided his eyes as he leaned back against the doorway and concentrated on doing up my new sneakers.
"I'd say thanks for the clothes, but you're probably only being nice to me so I don't burn down another one of your buildings, so ..." I shrugged.
Marcone didn't rise to the bait. Instead he folded his elbows in and clasped his hands, extending his index fingers and resting his chin against them. I recognized his 'serious talk' expression. Oops.
"Not that I really would, I mean," I babbled, suddenly aware that I had slept in this man's building and accepted his food and was now wearing his clothes. Not to mention that he had basically rescued my ass from the marina last night. Uh oh. We were getting seriously into debt territory here.
"I think it's time we had a discussion about where this is going, Mister Dresden." Marcone began. At least he wasn't going for my kneecaps. Still, it was never a good sign when he said my name like that. I felt like we were beginning some kind of bizarre negotiation. I almost expected the Hulk to come in carrying a conference table.
To be contrary, because I'm like that, I leaned back on the bed and gave Marcone my most insolent drawl. "Really, John."
He ackowledged my informal address with a nod of his head. "Yes, Harry." I twitched. He smiled briefly, then resumed his serious expression. "Particularly I desire to know your intentions regarding Maggie."
I sat up straight. "Excuse me?"
He leveled me with a look. "I have sworn an oath, Harry. I will protect her, to the best of my ability, from all threats. I need to know if that includes you."
I was on my feet and reaching for my power without consciously thinking about it. It lept to me with an eager hunger, and I didn't have time to notice more than it seemed heavier than it had before I'd died. The air hummed and the lights flickered. "You dare suggest that I would hurt her? Me? Do you know what I have done – what I have given for -"
Marcone never twitched. His gaze never wavered. Outside I heard Hulk pace behind the door.
"I will protect her from all threats, Mister Dresden. All threats. Threats to her physically and threats to her emotionally. I need to know if you intend to meet her today and then walk out of her life forever." His voice was like steel, hard and unyielding.
"If you do not intend to be a father to this child, then I believe it would be in her best interests if you observed her as you did last night, and then left."
His words, delivered in that cool tone of voice, reached up and punched me in the rib cage. I let the power go with a shaky breath. Staggering, I collapsed back on the bed. I raised my hands to my face and scrubbed at my eyes, noting as I did so that my hands were shaking. Stars. How had Marcone gotten so quickly under my defenses like that? Oh yeah, he had used my daughter.
"I'm still the Winter Knight." The words tasted like sandpaper in my mouth. "I didn't – that deal is still in effect. Mab will be coming for me. I don't know when." I let my hands fall to my sides. I squeezed my eyes shut against the truth, but it came out anyway. "I don't know how much I'll be around, or what new enemies I'll bring into her life."
My hands clenched my hands into and I stared up at Marcone. His green eyes were hard, but they would be fair.
"I want to be a father to her, John. I want to be a part of her life. But I don't know if I can."
His gaze was steady. "Harry, you more than any other person should know – you can do whatever you want to do. And I will be here to help."
"Really?" I shot back at him. "And how does that work? You think you can allow me time with my daughter, count my debt in hours and days, and say no to me when you feel like it? All on the strength of a peice of paper your sandbag lawyers cooked up that gives you the right to her? Do you really think I would stand for that, that you could stop me?"
"You are willfully misunderstanding me, Mister Dresden." Marcone's voice was icy steel. "My desire for her protection lies in my oath and my personal goal of seeing her safe. If I judge you to be an asset to her then I will encourage you to see her without counting any debt. If I judge you otherwise I will do my utmost to ensure the dangers you represent be kept as far away from her as possible."
"The 'dangers I represent'?" I echoed, my voice low and cold. "And what dangers would that be? The dangers of the White Council, the Winter Court or the fearsome lowlifes of Chicago, Baron Marcone?"
He shook his head. His voice was sad. "The dangers of a man who cannot accept he is a father. The dangers of forming an attachment to a parent she cannot have."
I rocked back as if slapped. In my vision rose a sudden mental image of Justin DuMorne, his hand extended, his smile kind. A picture of the man he seemed to be the day he picked me up from the orphanage. The feeling of hope that had filled me.
There was still a dark spot in my soul there, where that hope had died.
I stared at Marcone. He stared back. He had his own personal knowledge in his eyes.
I shook my head. "I would never do that to her."
Marcone tipped his head to me. "I am glad to hear it."
I ran a hand through my hair. It was still wet from my shower. "But that means, what?" I paced to the wall and back again. "So I get to see her on weekends or something? Is that supposed to be good enough? And where is she going to live in the meantime – with you?"
I turned back to him and laughed without humour. "How the hell are you going to manage that, Marcone? Are you going to schedule time with her around mob meetings? Don't tell me you've decided to go legal and above board on the strength of a ten year old girl's affections. How are you going to help her, take care of her, with that kind of baggage? You have your own enemies you'll bring to the table – both as the Gentleman and the Baron Marcone."
He acknowleged this truth with a tip of his head.
"It is going to be difficult," he agreed. "I have thought long about this, and decided that I can make adjustments to my schedule, rearrange some of my business. It would be difficult to do this on my own, though I am willing to try."
He gave me a look I had a hard time interpreting.
"I never thought you would return. But now you are back. And if we are smart about this, neither of us has to do it alone."
I stared at him. He sighed and leaned back against the door a little. "Harry – " his tone softed. "When I received the phone call from Father Forthill, I knew you would somehow be involved. He made it clear he required my help about a child. I have ... recommended ... his services to other individuals when the security of children has been at stake. If he was coming to me for help, I knew it was serious.
I also knew that you were dead. You may find this hard to believe, but your presence in Chicago has impacted all facets of my business in a largely positive way." A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Even despite the increase in insurance premiums I have suffered since your influence has grown," He shook his head. "You have done much to keep my city safe. I am grateful for that."
"Your death ... upset me. Frankly I was angry that someone had acted without my knowledge or approval. You and your associates have been declared hands-off for some time now." I raised my eyebrows, and his tone became a shade more cool.
"I was a sound business decision, and I don't regret it." Then his voice and eyes hardened. "Your assassination should never have happened, and I have taken steps to ensure such a thing can not happen again."
I looked away and shivered. So, like my faerie godmother Marcone had been protecting me for the past several years without my knowing it. The Leanansidhe had built me a garden and filled it with man eating slugs. Marcone had surrounded me with words and protections.
It hadn't been enough. I wondered how long it would be before I would feel comfortable again in open spaces. I hoped it wouldn't be long. I thought perhaps that it would.
Marcone had paused. When I turned back to him, he gave me a half smile. He was still leaning back against the doorway with his arms crossed, but something inside him had loosened.
"Before I met with Father Forthill I had decided on several possible courses of action," he continued. "There are many places a child, even a special child, could be hidden effectively. Slightly fewer of those places would allow a child to grow up normally, with the full range of human interaction, but measures could be taken. I was fully prepared to offer these to the Father."
"But when I learned who it was, when I heard her full name, I knew she would never be safe. No where I could place her could erase her presence completely. Every location I could think of, in this world or among my contacts in the Nevernever, every place would contain individuals who could be bribed or intimidated into revealing not only her location, but her history."
He looked angry again. "Susan Rodriguez should have understood that."
A sudden wave of exhaustion overcame me. I sat back on the bed. I wanted to defend Susan and her decisions, but I couldn't say I totally agreed with them either. But was that a disgruntled father talking, or a man who had to protect something valuable?
I scrubbed a hand over my face. "She made the best decision she could at the time," I said tiredly. Marcone's face darkened, and he looked as if he were going to argue, so I cut him off.
"This is all well and good," I leaned forward onto my knees and looked up at him. "But what do you want, John?"
He stood up from the wall and crossed the small room to crouch in front of me. He met my eyes.
"I want to make this work, Harry." He said seriously. "I made a decision that day to make this work, and I swore an oath I'm not about to back out on. I understand that your being back changes things, but I want you to realize that I'm not going to walk away from Margaret or her life. I'm not going to let you walk away with her. And I'm not going to let you say one hello and never return. I thought I would have to do this on my own, as you probably once did. I hope you realize by now that this is no longer true."
The intensity of his gaze made me uncomfortable. I wanted to back away from him and get some space between us. But he was holding me down with his eyes.
And curse me for it, but I wanted to believe him. This was too big for me to tackle by myself. I wanted someone to lean on, and Marcone had some of the biggest shoulders I knew. I didn't trust him, couldn't trust him, not for myself. But for, for a child's life – my child's life – I wanted to try.
"What are you saying?" I asked him quietly.
"I'm saying that I don't intend for Maggie to grow up in a bunker, and I would prefer she not have to grow up without a father. I'm saying my estate is currently being renovated to increase its magical and mortal protections. I have begun the process of hiring in-house educators who have some experience with traumatized children to improve Maggie's English skills and to continue her education in Spanish. I plan to sign her up for school next September." His voice was quiet but passionate. "I'm saying that I want to give her a life, and I am offering you a place in that life."
I stared at him. My heart was hammering in my chest, and it wasn't all from fear. "You're going to put her on the map. You'll paint a target on her back."
Marcone shook his head. "I am not going to parade her identity out for all to see. I can guarantee a certain amount of loyalty in my staff. But neither am I going to hide her away in some distant corner of the world. We will have to accept that no amount of protection will ever be enough, not if we want to give her a life worth living."
I sat up slowly, shaking more than I like to admit. It was strangely easy to imagine. Better by far than my half-assed plan of dragging her around the country with me, trying to keep her safe while I did Knight business for Mab.
I ran a hand through my hair. "And that leaves me to what ... visit on weekends? Is that your brilliant plan?"
Marcone gave me a disappointed look. "Please, Dresden. And where would you live? In another rotting brownstone on the other end of the city? That is if you could even afford the rent, with your likely being gone at random hours on business for the Winter Queen." He stood up and brushed at imaginary dirt on his knees. "I contacted my estate manager this morning. You have a room being prepared for you as we speak."
I stared at him. My jaw might have hung open a little.
"You want me to move in with you?"
Marcone gave me a cool look. "I think it the most practical decision. Your presence in my home will also likely give it a stronger threshold, and I'm sure you have magical protections that could be added to what my associates have constructed."
I thought of Gard and her subtle runes. My palms still itched to explore them. My mind spun out three or four ways to possibly enhance them. "I might."
"Well then?" I looked up to see Marcone clasp his hands behind his back. "Is this acceptable to you?"
I took a deep breath in.
I had called Marcone yesterday because I was angry he had taken my daughter. I had hoped he would keep her safe, but I would never have throught he'd constructed a plan like this. He was offereing to open his home to my daughter, and through her to me. The question was, did I want to accept? Marcone had offered me sweets before. I had always refused them. The price had always been too high.
But so had Mab's. And I had been willing to pay that price for Maggie's safety. Did I want to pay it again?
Could I afford not to?
I had no other options. Father Forthill had proven he couldn't keep her safe. Anonymity had not protected her as Susan wished it had.
Marcone was right, I realized. She would never be safe. I had to accept that there would always be an element of risk.
But was this the best way? People would learn who she was, we weren't going to be able to keep that secret forever. Maybe not even for very long. Would our combined resources be enough to stop them when, eventually, someone came for her?
I didn't know. I couldn't know. But I wanted to try.
John was offering me a chance. A chance I wouldn't have on my own. A chance to be a father. And I wanted that chance.
I wanted it a lot.
And I honestly didn't think I could get rid of him. Marcone was the only man I knew who was as stubborn as I was. If he said he would abide by his oath, it would take more force than I possessed to move him.
I let my breath out slowly. I stood up off the bed and offered Marcone my hand.
"For Maggie," I said. I wanted him to know I would never do this for myself.
He stared at me for a moment before nodding seriously. Then he took my hand and we shook. I felt a fission of power run through our palms.
Marcone's gaze never wavered.
"For Maggie," he agreed.
After that Marcone took me to meet my daughter.
I had been right, my room was in a side corridor off the east side from Maggie's room. It was morning, but in that basement time had no meaning. I knew what John meant – I didn't want Maggie to grow up in a bunker. Even if it was the safest place for her right now.
Marcone stepped up to the door and I found myself straightening my borrowed shirt and sweater. He tapped tapped out a sequence on the door and I memorized it in case this was a common code. Maybe a 'don't shoot it's me' kind of thing. That would probably be good to know about if I was planning to move in with him.
A hulking shadow passed in front of the window and the door opened. Hendricks stood in the doorway, his red hair rumpled. I gave him a once over and then did a double-take. He had purple glitter on his chin.
"Mr. Hendricks," Marcone was smiling. "What -?"
But that was all he got out. The door had continued to widen, and behind Cujo I could see the same white bed and coloured floor mats as I had last night. This time the covers were in a heap at the end of the bed and there were peices of paper and crayons scattered about the floor. A small girl had turned when the door opened and smiled widely when she saw Marcone.
I had a momentary impression of that face: wide dark eyes, a high forehead – before a massive shadow blocked my view. I refocused to see a mound of grey hair come bounding toward me, and then I was on my back and my arms held a lapfull of Mouse. He was licking my face and burrowing into my chest, whining so low in his throat the sound reverberated through the floor.
There were tears in my eyes, and he licked them away.
My voice cracked. "Hi ya Mouse."
He whined deeper and cuddled closer. I couldn't remember the last time Mouse had crawled into my lap. He was just too big, and we were manly men, not much given to cuddling. Mostly he seemed to appreciate a short ear scratching or a thump on his shoulders. But now he was trying to burrow his way into my skin.
I held on tight and didn't let go. Stars I had missed him.
"I heard how you protected her at the Smith's," I told him, speaking into his fur. I hugged him tighter. "Thank you Mouse. Good boy."
I held him until the room quieted around us. Then I looked up. Marcone was staring at me with too many emotions in his eyes. Hendricks mouth was smiling at the edges. And between them ...
Maggie stood watching us. I stared at her.
I hadn't really gotten a chance to look at her before. Chichen Itza had been too chaotic, and she had grown some years from the picture Susan had showed me.
Now I studied her features. Her hair was a nondescript brown and fell straight over her small head. I don't spend a lot of time looking in mirrors, but I could see a little of Thomas in the lines of her cheekbones, the curve of her chin. Her nose was small, her lips thin. She had interesting features. But the only element of beauty she held was in her eyes.
She had her mother's eyes. They were wide and dark and held too many questions.
I didn't know how to begin to answer them.
I decided to start with the classics.
I kept my voice soft and gentle. She hid behind Hendricks.
I didn't move from the floor with my lapfull of Mouse. He had stilled against my chest and turned to watch her with one eye. I wet my lips and tried again.
"My name is Harry. It's very nice to meet you."
Her little head poked out from behind Hendricks massive bulk. The big man was looking down at her with a soft expression. He glanced back up at me, and I must have looked particularly pathetic, because he gave me a pointed look and turned to crouch in front of Maggie.
She stared at him with wide eyes, trusting in a way that made me suddenly, irrationally jealous. Hendricks she knew and played with. I was just the strange man sitting on the floor.
I forced myself to relax. I had had my chance. If I had taken her myself from Chichen Itza she would know who I was by now. We might have been on our way to developing a relationship. But I had made the decision to seperate myself from that possibility. I had thought it was the right choice. And maybe it had been. Maybe she would have been shot along with me. Maybe I wouldn't have been in Chicago to help Karen and Michael when they needed me, if I were looking after her.
And maybe it would have all worked out in the end, better than the deal I was forced to accept now. I can't know what might have happened. I only knew that, for some reason, Marcone had offered me a second chance. It was still my choice to take it.
I watched my daughter trust a mob boss's henchman more than me. I knew that I wanted that chance. I wanted to be part of her life.
It was going to hurt, a whole heck of a lot for most of the time. But I wanted it. Damn Marcone, but I owed him for this.
"Maggie," Hendricks said to her, crouching down to her eye level. "Remember we talked about the special man who would be coming to visit today?"
Her eyes darted back to me. She nodded once.
Hendricks tipped his head towards me. He deep voice was kind. "This is him. He's Mouse's father."
Her eyes widened. She looked back at me. "Mouse's papa?"
Her voice was high but smooth, with a strong Spanish accent. It was beautiful.
I nodded, breaking eye contact to look down at Mouse. I didn't want to soul gaze my daughter. Best not to scar her for life more than she already had been. Mouse licked my chin.
"Yes," I said, looking back at Maggie. "I'm Mouse's papa."
Hesitatingly she stepped forward, her little hand extended. Mouse leaned towards her and she patted his head. "Mouse good dog," she told me, looking into my face.
I felt myself smiling. She gave me a small smile back.
"Yeah," I agreed, ruffling his fur. "Mouse is a good dog."
Maggie stepped back from me and sucked at her lower lip for a moment. The unconscious guesture almost made me laugh. I had a sudden, intense memory of my father doing the same thing. He used to bite at his lower lip when he was learning a new stage trick. I had forgotten that.
Mouse seemed to know what she needed. He levered himself up from my lap, gave me a last long look and a another face lick, and padded over to Maggie's side. She twined her fingers in his thick fur and stared at me for another moment before turning and walking back into the room with Mouse. She sat back down in front of her papers and crayons with her back to the bed and her face towards us and Mouse lay down in front of her, protecting her from the open door. She gave the three of us another glance before bending to her work again.
I let out a deep breath I hadn't been aware I was holding. I became suddenly conscious that my ass was cold. Grimacing, I stood up from the foor.
Marcone was staring at me. I ignored him and turned to Hendricks.
"Thank you," I said, heartfelt. The big man nodded. He glanced to his boss and asked a question with his eyebrows. Marcone nodded and Hendricks turned back to resume his place inside. I watched him settle into the armchair he had slept in last night and pull a weather beaten book from his jacket pocket. He left the iPad turned off on the desk.
I looked back to Marcone. "So what happens now?" I asked. My voice felt scratchy. I felt like I had been run over by a truck.
Marcone checked his watch. It was a tasteful contraption that ran on gears. I wondered if he wore it for me, or because it cost more.
"It's almost ten thirty," he said. I decided to take that on faith. It was impossible to tell down here. "I recieved your phone call yesterday at six eleven p.m. Perhaps we should assume that Mab is willing to give you twenty-four hours until she calls you to court. That gives us approximately six and a half hours to get things settled."
My brain felt like jello. I tried poking it with a stick. "Get settled how?"
"Renovations at my estate should be completed soon," he told me. "I suggest we gather Maggie's things together and move her and yourself in today. That will give you both a chance to settle in before you leave."
I took another deep breath. All I had in the world was my mother's amulet and its ruby accessory. Both had fortunately been resurrected along with me and were lying under my new t-shirt.
"Okay," I said. Marcone blinked like he had thought I would protest. I snorted.
"I've already agreed to this, Marcone. Let's get it over with okay?"
He nodded, then tilted his head and caught Hendricks eye. Together he and Marcone explained to Maggie that we were going to move into our new home now. Her face lit up, and I gather this was another thing they had talked about before I woke up this morning. I realized that if I had said no to Marcone's offer he had been perfectly willing to take Maggie without me. I wondered what he would have done if I had decided to fight him, and remembered the runes in the walls. It wasn't only for my protection that he had kept me here last night. He had wanted any battle we fought this morning to be done on his ground.
I shivered. I was still mostly reacting here. I needed wake up a little if I was going to be dealing with Marcone all day every day. I couldn't afford to let him win every battle.
Maggie helped us pack her things into a bright green box that Hendricks carried out to the car. We left the bed and covers at the safehouse but took a small bag with her clothes in it. She didn't have much, but then I guess Father Forthill hadn't stayed at the Smith's long enough to pack anything she might have had there.
Like me she was living on what Marcone had given her.
I ignored the thought and followed them to the car. Maggie walked with her hand in Mouse's fur again, but I stayed on his other side.
I had taken him aside while everyone packed and explained the deal I had made with Marcone. Mouse had looked worried for a moment when I mentioned still being the Winter Knight, but otherwise he seemed okay with the plan. I guess he had gotten used to Hendricks and Marcone being around the past few days, and he seemed to think they were treating her well.
My dog is usually a lot smarter than me. Having him seeming to agree with me was a lot more reassuring than it probably should have been.
When we exited the building I felt the lack of protective energies like a shiver against my spine. Reflexively I found myself checking the buildings around us. It was eleven o'clock on a chill Chicago morning, and the wind told me December wasn't far away. The streets were busy but not bustling, and Hendricks hurried us all to the car. Linebacker and the Hulk stood on either side. I looked around them into the surrounding buildings, wondering if the itch i felt between my shoulder blades was just paranoia, or if someone were really staring at me.
I forced myself to ignore it. But I would need to contact Eb soon. Not only did he deserve to know I was back, but I needed to start work on another staff. I also needed my supplies from the Water Beetle's hatch. The swords had been in there, both Shiro's and Michael's, and I needed Bob.
He'd said he needed a week to rest from Chichen Itza. I hoped he had stayed quiet and hidden away from who or whatever had him now.
In the limo Maggie asked to see Hendricks iPad. He eyed me and I moved to the far end of the car to minimize my chances of frying the fancy electronic device while my daughter was playing with it. Marcone watched me as I settled in. He had been doing that a lot.
"What?" I demanded, trying to keep my voice quiet. Maggie was humming to herself over the iPad.
Instead of replying like a normal person he guestered to the seat beside me. I saw the small black phone nestled in the corner there. I thought at first it was a cell phone, but then I saw it had been wired to the car.
"I'm sure there are people you need to contact," he told me smoothly. "I'm not sure how long the phone will last in contact with you, but I'm sure it's better than a cell."
My instinctive reaction was to tell him where he could stick his phone, but then I remembered that I had basically agreed to share parenting of my child with this guy and I should probably just shut up and make my calls.
I grunted and reached for the receiver.
I called Karen first. I knew she must be ready to kill me for not getting into contact with her as soon as I got back. I wondered if she had already called Rawlings looking for me.
She picked up on the second ring.
"Karen," I started. I heard her indrawn breath.
"Oh God. It worked then? Harry – is that you, are you -?"
"Hey, yeah it's me," I said, my shoulders relaxing back away from my neck. "I can't talk long, I don't know how much time I have before the phone gives out, but yes – it worked."
"Oh thank Christ," she swore. I heard her sit down. "I have been sitting here worried sick. Where the hell are you? Do you need a place to stay?"
I shook my head. "No, I'm okay. I'm with Maggie." I cut off her indrawn breath, "It's okay – Father Forthill did the best he could but, listen I'll explain everything later. But I'm okay, we're both okay. I'll call back this afternoon and give you the number where we're staying, alright?"
She didn't like it. But Murphy had been around me long enough to know I wasn't kidding about the phone. She sighed.
I almost hung up before I remembered. "Oh – and do you know what happened to the Water Beetle?"
She huffed out a breath. The phone started crackling. Uh oh.
"HPD swarmed it for evidence for a solid week, then kept it in impound for another few days before Lara Raith got a hold of it. You'll have to ask Thomas where it is now." Her voice cringed. "I haven't called him yet, by the way. I wanted to give you until tonight to get back to me. I didn't want to get his hopes up." Her tone turned curious. "Why do you need the Beetle?"
I didn't want to say too much over the phone. The swords were too valuable.
"I left a few things on board." I said vaguely. "I don't know if they would have been taken for evidence."
Murphy guessed. "No they weren't," she told me. She sounded sure. "Rawlings took care of it. Ebenezer was listed as your next of kin. Everything went to him, but not those."
Damn. I would have felt better if Ebenezar had them. I hoped the swords were safe. "Thanks Karen."
"Be safe, Dresden. Call me later okay?"
"I will," I promised. Then I hung up.
I sat by the phone for a moment and let it recover if it could. I'd have to call Thomas next and leave a message.
I looked across the car. Maggie was still immersed in the computer and was kicking happily at the seats. Hendricks was alternating between staring out the window, checking his smartphone and glancing over at Maggie. Mouse was curled up on the floor, silently scattering hair everywhere. Marcone had taken out a notepad and was jotting things down with a pen that looked more expensive than my monthly rent. He looked completely engrossed, but I would bet dollars to donuts he was listening to my conversations.
I couldn't let him know about Thomas. My brother was one of the few secrets I had left. I would trust Marcone with Maggie's safety because he already knew about her and it wasn't like I had a choice. Plus she was a child and I had to admit Marcone had a good track record with kids. But Thomas was a member of the White Court and an adult. I couldn't trust Marcone not to use any connection between us as an advantage.
I gave myself a few moments to plan out my message to Thomas, then I dialed the message service number.
"Hey Thomas, it's me. I'm back." I spoke quickly into the phone. "I can't tell you how right now, its a long story, but I'm still under contract. I don't know whats going to happen or when I'll be able to see you. I hope -" I paused, my voice catching. I felt Marcone's attention shift and grimaced. "- I hope you're doing okay. Listen, I need some things from the Beetle. I'm wondering if you have them. I'm not sure when or where I'll be able to meet you, but I'll leave another message here when I do. Until then."
I hung up and let out a shaky breath. That hadn't been good enough. My brother deserved more of an explanation than that, but now wasn't the time or the place. I pushed the guilt I felt about playing with his emotions out of my mind. Thomas would have guessed I called from a public location. He would understand.
So that was Murphy and Thomas. There was one other person I needed to hear from, who I needed to know was okay.
I picked up the phone again and dialed Michael's number. Molly answered on the third ring. I let out a relieved breath.
"Harry!" She sounded surprised but not shocked. I was glad Michael had warned her. "My Dad told me – well I heard what happened. I guess it worked then? You're – are you back? Are you okay?"
I closed my eyes. I had a feeling this was going to be a recurring theme. I wondered if I should think up some kind of code sequence for the next time I died. Code-response Cherry Ice Cream maybe.
"Yes I'm back, but I can't – I'm still the Winter Knight. Listen I can't chat long but I need to know – your dad said you were okay and living at home. But the White Council? I'm your Gardian for the Doom and when I made the deal and then died -"
Molly cut me off. "They came to the house," she told me. She was trying to sound like it had been no big deal, but I could hear the lingering shakiness in her voice. "There was some talk of another trial, but Luccio and the old guy – Wizard McCoy – managed to get some kind of concession from the Merlin. I'm not sure exactly what, they didn't want me to go to the meeting. But I'm under Luccio right now." I heard the forced cheer in her voice. I winced. Her and Anastasia had never exactly gotten along.
"She's been to the house a few times. We've mosty practiced sword work in the backyard. She says it's good for my focus." Molly trailed off.
"Do you think – I mean, now that you're back, even if you're the Winter Knight – do you think I could be your apprentice again?"
I rubbed at my eyes. "I don't know, Molly. I'd like to say yes, but things just got ..." I looked across the car at Maggie. She was kicking at the leather seats while tapping on the computer. I sighed.
"Things just got a little more complicated. Tell your Dad to talk to Father Forthill about it. Tell him it's okay but I'm not sure whats going to happen next. As soon as I know Grasshopper, I'll let you know, okay?"
She sounded curious, which was at least better than resigned. "Okay boss."
Static filled the line. I guess two magic users was a bit much for the fragile connection.
"Listen I've got to go, the phone's giving out. But I'm glad to know you're okay, Molly."
"Right back at you, boss." Her voice was distant through the static but warm. She hung up.
I placed the phone back on the hook. Exhaustion swamped me. I wanted to collapse into the leather cushions and sleep for a week. I forced myself to sit up and look actively out the window instead.
I had shown enough weakness in front of Marcone today. And I didn't want my daughter to start to get to know me as the man who collapsed multiple times a day. Still, I never would have thought coming back from the dead could be so exhausting.
The window revealed we had left the greater Chicago area and were now among the estates of the Gold Coast. I recognized the area dimly. The last time I had been here it had been pitch black and the Alphas and I had been after a Loup Garou. I had only seen the edges of Marcone's estate then, but even that had been impressive.
Discreet and tastefully hidden driveways passed us by. Old growth trees and fences lined the road. We turned down one particularly well hidden gulley and turned again onto a black gravel driveway. Passing between two pillars I could see hired guards standing inside the fenced area. Every few feet security cameras sat tucked atop the tall fence. It was several feet higher than it had been the last time I had climbed it. Between the cameras I thought I caught a glimpse of more carved runes before the limo carried us past.
We drove up to the house in silence. Mouse lifted his head to peer out the window and Maggie lifted her gaze from the iPad. She let the computer drop into her lap as the car pulled around a bend and the house came into view.
It was obscenely large, built three stories high with two wings I could see coming off the main entrance. Full length windows spanned the front of the house, but they had an odd glimmer when the sun hit them. I had seen that before in bullet proof glass.
It reminded me of the Raith house, only it was more tastefully done. There were none of the extensive gardens or the wraparound driveway with beautiful cars sitting around as ordimentation and recreation both. Instead there were large deciduous trees, oaks and maples mostly, and a garage separate from the main building.
There was a man waiting at the foot of the staircase leading up to the house. He wore a suit that fit him well enough to almost hide the extra padding where his concealed weapon likely lived. He lifted a hand to his ear as the limo pulled up to the house and I saw he had a small radio fixed there.
I made a face. My presence here was going to wreak havoc on Marcone's IT budget.
The security guard stepped forward to open the door for us as we pulled to a stop. Hendricks was the first one out, and he scanned the area before turning to reach back into the car for Maggie. Mouse followed her out. I saw her mouth fall open as her small feet touched the gravel drive.
She turned to Hendricks as Marcone and I climbed out after her. I had to duck my head to avoid banging it on the roof of the limo.
"Aqui es donde usted vive?" She asked in Spanish.
"Esta es la casa de su tio John." He replied.
I blinked. My jaw unhinged and swung free.
It was probably stupid of me to be surprised, but I had always filed Hendricks away as 'big dumb mob boss henchman'. I had seen proof that he could act independently, but hearing him speak another language fluently wasn't something I had been expecting.
He gestured kindly back to Marcone. I still couldn't get over how his deep powerful voice could be turned down so low. "Would you like to try asking in English?"
Her little face screwed up with concentration. She turned back to Marcone and sounded out the words carefully. "This is you house?" she asked.
To his credit, Marcone met her eyes and nodded somenly. "Yes, this is my house. And now it is your house, too."
Her face lit up in a smile. It was like watching the sun come up. I stared.
Then Maggie grabbed at Mouse's fur and latched on with a white-knuckled grip. "Mouse too?"
Marcone smiled. "Mouse too. And ..." he glanced at me, "... and Harry is going to live here sometimes as well."
Maggie turned to me and her smile became shyer. "Okay," she said, then turned quickly back to Mouse. She pulled him towards the house, chatting animatedly to him in Spanish.
I hadn't taken Spanish lessons since the few years I had in public school before Justin adopted me. It looked like I was in for a steeper learning curve with this whole parenting thing than I thought.
I turned to Marcone. He was watching her walk towards the house with Mouse at her side. Hendricks trailed her and the security guard walked ahead. He answered my unspoken question without moving.
"The family she was with taught her some English, apparently, but she's been picking up more syntax with Hendricks these past few days. Spanish is one of the four languages he speaks fluently."
I looked back towards my daughter. "Damn," I said outloud, recovering myself enough to laugh. "I guess I'll have to actually learn his name now."
Marcone turned to be with a faint smile at the corner of his lips.
"He might never recover from the shock."
I rolled my eyes, then nodded back towards the house. "So. Compensating for something Marcone?" I grinned at him cheekily. "It's a little ostentatous, isn't it?"
Marcone lifted his eyebrows cooly. "Some of us enjoy a little more style than others, Mister Dresden."
I rolled my eyes and gestured towards the estate. "Yeah, there's style. And then there's eight extra bedrooms, five bathrooms and an indoor pool. That's not style. That's clearly -"
I broke off, choked. An icy cold hand suddenly reached up into my ass, grabbed hold of my spinal column and tried to rip it from my pelvis.
I gasped and fell to my knees. My vision went blue and then crystal green. Marcone suddenly seemed light years away. I exhaled and my breath condensed in the suddenly frigid air.
I expected you to attend me, Knight, when you returned. Why have you not presented yourself to your Queen?
Mab's cold voice, full of darkness and winter, thundered into my head.
"S-sorry," I gasped outloud. Through the haze I could see Marcone staring at me, alarmed.
"D-didn't have your address. N-next time I return from the dead, I'll leave a v-voice mail."
It was hard to get the sarcasm out through the icy chill spreading through my veins, but I figured I'd get points for trying.
Mab didn't sound amused.
Attend me, Knight.
It was a command that went through to my bones. There was a lightening of pain between my eyes and abruptly the thunderous presence of her power left me. I gasped and collapsed forward. Marcone caught me about the shoulders and cursed when his fingers touched me. I was freezing cold.
"Dresden!" he was speaking into my ear. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Hendricks had already brought Maggie into the house. Mouse was with her. She was safe.
"Harry!" Marcone was shaking me now. There were tight lines of worry around his eyes. "Are you okay?"
It took me two tries to get the words out between my frozen lips. My Queen was not pleased with me.
"Fine." I told him. I pushed his hands off me and levered myself upright. The world spun crazily for a moment before rightening itself.
When it did I suddenly had new knowledge in my head. It was like a tentacle of ice that pulled at me, calling me forward to my Queen. And I knew how to go to her.
I reached forward with one shaking hand. The movement was intinctual, but habit stopped me. I had never been smooth at opening a way into the Nevernever. I had seen wizards who were, and once watched the Summer Lady tear a hole as neatly as a papercut in the air. I had never been able to do that, had always needed to use my staff to cut a tunnel to the otherworld of Faerie.
But now ... suddenly I understood how it could be done. Part of it was Mab's ice tentacle that had wrapped around my spine. It showed me the way forward, like a grappling hook that pulled me part of the way.
But the rest of it was something else. I suddenly realized that the spot I was staring at in the air wasn't empty. My finger wasn't pointing at nothing, it was sitting among the interlocking webs of reality. There were particles of air in the three dimensional space around my finger, and between them were strung the strings of this world. But there was more space between them, showing a glimpse into the other realms.
And I knew this, because in the infinite space between those strings was the place where I had lived for three of the worst weeks of my life. Or rather, the entirety of my unlife. It was the greyspace I had gone to after I died, when I could look back at the world of the living but not interact with it. And I knew that my time being dead had made me more aware of the fabric of reality.
I could see now how my magic, my will, could bend and shape this reality. It was an option I hadn't possessed before, when I was cut off from my magic. Blinking, I twisted my fingertips slightly, and the strings of this world shifted at my touch. I slipped aside the fabric of reality as easily as if I were moving aside a light curtain. It shimered slightly in front of me, and between the parted strings I could see the drifting snow of Winter.
It was the most subtle example of magic I have ever done. And it felt as natural as breathing.
I looked back over at Marcone. He had stood and taken a step to the side. His dollar green eyes watched me warily. I gave him a jaunty wave with the hand that wasn't manipulating the fabric of the world.
"Gotta go attend a pissed off Queen of Winter," I told him. "Look after Maggie and Mouse, and don't shoot Thomas if you see him. I'll be back as soon as I can."
I waited for him to meet my eyes and nod before glancing back one more towards the house. Maggie was already inside and out of sight. I turned back towards my window and stepped through.
My Queen was waiting.
It was dark but not late when I appeared back at the estate. I checked the moon and did a quick calculation in my head. Mab had been right – an hour at the Midplace Winter Palace had been roughly equal to an hour and a half on this side of reality. I had left around eleven am and now it was probably closer to ten.
My Godmother danced lightly on the balls of her feet, snow glitter cascading off her in waves. I bent over to shake the flakes out of my own hair, but still got caught when half of them turned to ecoplasm. I straightened and sighed. Now I was exhausted, hungry, cold and covered in goo.
My Godmother laughed. "Such a shining example of knighthood," she said again, echoing my Queen's words. Mab's tone had been much more complementary. At least, it had been after she finished yelling at me.
Not appearing to dedicate myself to her in person had definitely been a no-no. But apparently returning from the dead had elevated my status among the deziens of the faerie planes. Mab's recruitment of my power was viewed as a coup. My Godmother spent the celebrations drinking and dancing to her heart's content, basking in the glow of my elevated status and her Queen's favour.
I rolled my eyes. "Just give me my regular clothes back."
Lea spun on one dainty ankle to pout at me. "You'd rather wear the Baron's gift than mine, Godson?"
I plucked at the thin Faerie threads. The uniform of the Winter Knight Mab had gifted me with was done in muted blue's and green's. I was wearing a short side-buckled shirt that felt as soft as spider silk but had the strength of mail. Grey goosedown gloves ran past my wrists to my elbows where they ended in a soft flare. My pants were tailored to my height, with a stripe running down the outside edge and a turned cuff. A soft blue belt held the pants higher than I was used to wearing and fastened with a gleaming silver buckle. Around my shoulder was a heavy silver cloak, done in subtle patterns of falling snow. It was fasted at my throat with a silver rose.
I looked like a character from the Alphas tabletop game. Like a rogue who had done battle with a paladin and lost. I felt ridiculous.
I hadn't been able to breathe well enough to complain when Mab had waved an imperious hand and transformed my donated clothing, the gloves had kept my hands warm at least, but there was no way I was walking into Marcone's house looking like a Ren Fair escapee.
"In this instance, Godmother?" I answered her question, "Absolutely."
She pouted more but leaned back and tilted her head. With a sigh my Queen's gift melted into the relaxed comfort of my earlier black jeans and blue sweater. I rolled my shoulders. I could still feel the weight of the Mantle of the Winter Knight, but it was fainter. "Thank you Godmother."
She smiled at me. "Of course, dear child. But you know the gift will return whenever you enter the Relm of Faerie." Her tone became measured. "You are the Winter Knight now, Godson."
As if the day hadn't made it abruptly clear to me. "I know, Lea."
My stomach took that opportunity to growl loudly. My Godmother laughed.
"And as such you know you may eat and make merry in our Queen's realm without fear of enhantment, Harry mine. That was quite a fine meal you picked at."
I grimaced. The Laws of Hospitality dictated Mab offer food and drink to her assembled guests and that they partake to award themselves with her favour and protection. As technically I was a member of her court now and not a guest, I hadn't earned more than a few withering glances for merely taking a bite off every second plate. But a lifetime of habit was hard to break.
Plus, faerie food tasted weird. Too rich and yet bland at the same time, where every plate looked delicious, but tasted almost the same. I could understand why humans wrote poems of feasting on faerie food and not being able to recall afterwards precisely what they ate. It all sort of blended together.
I waved a hand at my Godmother. "Okay, stop your gloating. I've done my duty. Can you leave now?"
She laughed again, bell-like, and sketched me a bow before turning in the air. Between one poiret and the next, she vanished.
I took a deep breath and looked about. My Godmother had deposited me at the edge of Marcone's estate. I was standing on the gravel drive the limo had pulled us into earlier. I looked in the direction of the hosue, a shadow in the distance. With a sigh I started to walk.
It took more than a few minutes to reach the estate itself. In that time I didn't see any of the patrolling guards, but word must have been sent ahead. The same security guard that had met us at the car before was waiting for me by the entrance steps. He was an older man in his late thirties, early forties, with a half smile and sandy coloured hair that was darker in the dim light.
"Mister Dresden?" He asked, not quite meeting my eyes as I walked up to the steps. I wondered what kind of prep course Marcone's goons got before they met me. Maybe Hendricks taught a 'When You Have to Deal with a Wizard 101' in the afternoons.
I nodded and the man extended a hand. "Frank Delare. I'm in charge of security, sir."
I shook his hand. "Nice to meet you Frank. Did Marcone - "
"He said to go ahead on in, sir. A key will be made for you in the morning."
I grimaced again. The way this day was going my face was going to freeze that way.
I left the security chief at the foot of the stairs to continue his rounds and made my way to the front doors. Damn Marcone for his foresight. Without a direct welcome into the house I would have to choose between forcing aside whatever protections he had developed or leaving the bulk of my magic at the door. I doubted the house had a very strong threshold, but this was clearly a place Marcone lived in for at least part of the year. Leaving my magic behind would make me vulnerable. But depriving Maggie of whatever protections Gard had set in place was not an option.
I made it to the top step and paused before the double doors. But before I could reach forward, one of the handles turned and a door opened inward. I stared. Marcone stood inside the threshold.
He was wearing a dark pair of slacks and a long-sleeved shirt. In his hand he held a glass of something dark and poured over ice. I was willing to bet on scotch.
He met my eyes and nodded slightly. "Harry."
I sighed. "Yes, its me. I'm back. Finally." I made to push him aside.
He twisted slightly to stop me. I paused and looked at him.
"Where were we the second time I offered you a contract of employment?"
I squinted at Marcone. "The second time ... what -?"
Then it hit me. "Oh." I had to think about it for a second. The first time was in his limo, when we met, during the Third-Eye business. The second ...
I remembered. "At the Full Moon Garage."
I made to step forward again, but he stopped me with a look. I glared at him.
"And what was your answer?" He asked smoothly.
"My answer? I -" then I paused. Oh come on.
"I said yes," I told him, "to create a diversion and get away without being shot." I rolled my eyes at him. "Don't tell me your still sore about that?"
He smiled slightly and avoided the question by stepping back. "Be welcome to my home, Harry."
I grumbled and stepped forward, feeling the threshold bend about me. I could forgive him for being a dick since it let me keep my magic. But Marcone let go of the door handle to reach up and place a hand on my chest, effectively stopping me in my tracks. I stared at him and he met my eyes, his gaze serious.
"And I want you to know that you are always welcome here, whether I am home or not. Indeed I want you to think of this house as your home, and feel free to come and go as you please."
I blinked. The faint push of the threshold, somewhat stronger than I had anticipated, flowed around me for a moment before before dissapating completely. The house seemed to breathe in and out for a moment before settling. Now when I felt the subtle magic of the threshold it appeared behind me, guarding the door. It protected me as well as the others in the house.
A warm feeling elbowed its way into my chest. Marcone had given me a home. Since my breakdown in his limo I'd managed not to think about what losing my apartment had done to me, but ... well I didn't want it too, but it meant a lot to have this. It was more than a safe place to regroup at – it was a place to come home to.
"Thanks," I told him awkwardly. Marcone held my gaze a moment more before nodding and stepping away.
I took the opportunity to glance around the entraceway. Stars, my new home had an entranceway. This was going to take some getting used to.
It was nice though. The entrance was tiled, with a space to hang coats and put boots off to one side. Beyond that the room opened wide and I could see the house was done in an open-concept style. There was a living room off to my left which seemed to merge into a casual dining area and then into a kitchen more directly in front of me. A single raised step to my right led to a formal sit down dining room that had a wall separating it from the living room but looked open to the kitchen. Behind the kitchen there were two sets of french doors leading to a kind of screened-in sun room.
Marcone saw me looking. "Since you missed the welcome earlier, do you want to ten cent tour?"
"Maybe just the nickel that leads to the kitchen," I admitted. "Mab served a dinner I think I ate five bites off."
"Dinner?" Marcone asked as I toed off my shoes. I was relieved to find them the sneakers Marcone had given me that morning and not the knee-high kid leather silver boots Mab had transformed them into.
I nodded as he lead me forward into the house. After the entrace the tile gave way to hardwood floor. The lights were low and flickering slightly and teased something on the edge of my awareness, but I ignored them to walk towards the kitchen. I could see the walls had been done in muted cream and the furniture in rich earth tones.
"She actually held a party," I complained as we reached the kitchen. The appliances were matted black and I kept on the far side of them, leaning my tired bulk against the dark granite counters. There was a tall island at the edge of the kitchen with high chairs and I perched on one, eying the oven set across from me carefully.
"I imagine she wanted to present you to the various nobles of Winter," Marcone commented as he opened the fridge and started drawing out platters. I rolled my eyes.
"Ugh. Rows after rows of them. And all this was after she publically tortured me, too. It was weird."
There was a clatter. I looked over to see Marcone had dropped a plate of cold cuts on the counter and was staring at me. I met his gaze, surprised, and watched as his eyes roamed over me.
"Um ... poor choice of words." I felt inexplicably embaressed. I reached over and snatched a piece of roast beef to distract him from what – looking for bruises?
"She wasn't pleased I had spent so many hours back alive without formally presenting myself to the Winter Court. So she called me up in front of the assembled guests and froze my blood to ice water. Then while I'm standing there trapped she tells me I'm forgiven and that all my past debts are void because those insults were given before I had 'truly accepted the mantle of the Winter Knight'. So she de-ices me, and of course I fall down because ... well it hurt. So then while I'm on my knees she says its time to accept the responsibility as well as the power and by the time I get to my feet everyone is clapping and my clothes have been transformed into some kind of Ren Faire Asylum."
I grimaced. "Then there was a party where I met two hundred fae whose names I hope I never have to remember and a dance I couldn't avoid. Plus I got my first assignment as the Winter Knight, which thankfully I don't have to complete until the next full moon."
Marcone's visual inspection lightened once he realized I wasn't permenantly damaged. He moved his back to me and arranged slices of bread and meat together into a sandwich while I talked. When I had finished he turned and to slide the plate over to me. I pick up the sandwich and took a large bite.
It was fantastic. I stared at the sandwich in surprise, then swallowed and quickly took another bite.
"This is good," I said, looking up at Marcone. "You can cook?"
He gave me a patient look. "Harry, I made you a sandwich. It's hardly cooking."
I shrugged, taking another bite. "For me cooking is usually opening a can of something and heating it over a wood burning stove."
He eyed me again. "Which explains so much about your underfed status."
"Hey, I eat." I said. "It just all goes someplace. I don't know where."
Marcone shook his head. "Fortunately Maggie requires regular meals, so perhaps we'll be able to get you in the habit."
I finished the sandwich and looked around. "Yeah I figured she was asleep by now. She settle in okay?"
Marcone shrugged and started assembling another plate. I watched him put on cheese and mayo and fresh salad and wondered if maybe having more than two ingredients were why it had tasted so good.
"She and Mouse explored the estate a little. We moved in what she had from the safe house." His lips crooked, "I told her she could begin decorating her room tomorrow. She's to outline a plan of what she wants done and I said we could go shopping in the afternoon."
I squinted at him as he handed over another sandwich. "You're the kind of boss who makes minions do daily reports, aren't you? You probably have wall to wall filling cabnets hidden away somewhere." I tore into the sandwhich. "What kind of person makes a ten year old write an outline plan?"
Marcone managed to look prim. "The ability to organize is an important skill to learn."
I snorted. "When you were ten you probably had three paper routes, did deliveries for the mob and still managed to get perfect grades in school."
To my surprise, Marcone laughed. It was a deep, warm sound I realized I had never heard before.
"When I was ten I had dropped out of school and was working full time for Toni Vargrassi. I was moving contraband around the city on my bicycle, not papers."
I stared at him. "Wow, you did start early."
He grinned and look at me. "And yourself? Were you already setting fire to random buildings?"
I stilled. I had magically manifested at ten and been adopted by Justine DuMorne. On my second night in his house I had woken from a nightmare to find the blinds on fire.
Justin hadn't been upset – he'd been overjoyed. I hadn't known it then, but he had hoped my specialty would be combat magic. I'd proven it that night.
I swallowed the last of my sandwich. "Something like that."
Marcone caught the change of mood. I looked up to find him watching me carefully.
"Is that something we need to worry about in Maggie then?" he asked, his tone even.
I shook my head reflexively, then remembered who I was talking to. I stopped to actually answer the question.
"Magic is usually transmitted down the female line, but not always. Maggie's great, that is my grandfather, passed it on to his daughter. So its possible. But we don't usually manifest so early."
Marcone was staring at me. "You did."
I shrugged one shoulder. "Life events can sometimes ... bring it out."
Marcone's gaze never wavered. "Life events. You mean traumatic stress?"
I squirmed. "Sometimes."
"I take it you weren't captured by vampires?"
I laughed, sharp and sudden. I had a sudden memory of the year Justin dressed up as a vampire for halloween. Elaine had gotten him a set of cheap plastic fangs from the dollar store.
"Not exactly." I sighed. "But yeah, that could do it too." I scrubbed a hand across my face. "I don't know, Marcone. We're just going to have to watch her."
He looked at me a moment more before nodding. He gathered my plate and his collection of cold cuts and replaced it all in the fridge. I moved to help him clean up but he waved me backwards.
"Don't worry about it. I haven't had everything placed on a second circuit yet." He gave me a half-smile. "I didn't think you'd be spending much time in the kitchen."
I shrugged and stepped back, putting my hands in my jean pockets. "If you feed me, I will come."
Marcone murmured something into the fridge before turning around. As the artificial light from fridge winked out I realized what had struck me about the light before. I looked around the house and noticed for the first time that every light bulb had been pulled out. Instead there were candles and candleabras set around the various rooms, each emitting a small glow.
It was another small but potent reminder that I was welcome here. I turned back to find Marcone already walking away from me towards the left of the kitchen.
"Come on, Harry. I'll show you to your room."
I debated telling him not to call me that for a moment before giving up and following him down the hall. To the left of the kitchen was a stairway that lead to the next floor. At the top of the stairs Marcone put a finger to his lips and guestered down the hall. I could see one door standing open and followed him towards it.
Inside was a bedroom nearly the size of my old apartment. It looked bigger for being almost completely empty. I saw what Marcone meant about shopping. There was a small dresser, a round rug and a short bed. Asleep in the bed was Maggie, Mouse curled at her feet. Like at the safehouse Maggie was curled around Mouse's tail like a teddy bear.
My dog opened one eye and gave us a fond look before stretching slightly and falling back asleep. I followed Marcone as he backed away from the door.
He pointed across the hall at another door that was wedged open. "Hendricks" he mouthed. I nodded.
With that we tiptoed away from the open door and back into the hallway proper. The rich carpet quieted our footsteps. I followed Marcone down the hallway past the bathroom to another short staircase. This one was only three steps high and lead to another door. Marcone opened it and gestured for me to preceed him into the room.
It was obviously a guest room, and just as obviously mine. The light bulbs had been removed and the light fixures taken down. Two candleabras were set on the dresser and several candles on the bedside table. The bed was queen-sized and looked amazingly comfortable. There was a door leading out to a small balcony and another leading to an adjoining bathroom.
Marcone stepped forward with a lighter but I beat him to it.
I waved a hand at the room. "Fickum bicus."
The candles each lit with a small pop. Marcone stared at them for a moment before turning back to me. He lifted an eyebrow nonchalantly, but I could see something like hunger in his eyes.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"I think I'm about thirty-five seconds before collasping into that bed," I admitted. Marcone smiled.
"My own room is down the hall. Call if you need anything."
I was already yawning as he turned away. Maybe I should re-estimate that figure. I wondered if I should bother taking my shirt off before getting under the covers.
Marcone left the room. I decided to hell with it and murmured another spell to extinguish the candlelight before falling into bed. I was asleep before I even registered the softness of the pillow.
I awoke in downy comfort. Warm sunlight streamed in and I blinked at it, taking a moment to wonder who and where I was. By the time my neurons started firing my subconscious had already recognized the feeling of being safe behind a distant threshold and was pulling me back under again.
I dozed in semi-awake slumberland before remembering that I lived in a basement apartment and didn't have windows. Then I sat up and stared about in confusion before the last peices of my memory fell into place.
I had found Maggie. She was living with Marcone. Apparently, I was too. I groaned and buried myself back under the covers. Stars they were soft. Whoever said crime doesn't pay lied.
But by that point was I awake enough to recognize that I definitely needed a shower. I had fallen asleep in my clothes from yesterday and felt grimy. Dimly I wondered if Marcone had gotten me anything else or if I really would have to hit Walmart. I didn't want to be any more in the man's debt, but I hated shopping.
Throwing off the covers I toed my way out of bed and looked around my new digs.
In the morning light the room looked bright and pleasant. The walls had been done in a light green with white trim and the furniture was all dark, rich looking wood. A set of glass doors led to a small balcony that looked out onto a garden and the extensive grounds. I tried to orientate myself to the house and figure out which way the pit had been where we'd been tossed for the Loup Garou. Everything looked different from this height, though. I couldn't tell.
The floor was carpet and nice against my bare feet. I must have toed off my socks during the night. The other door lead to the adjacent bathroom. A new toothbrush had been left for me in a ceramic holder. There was also a comb, a razor blade and a large mirror. I blinked to look at myself.
I'm not used to owning a mirror. Too many things can peer out of one, and its sometimes hard not to peer back. But this one was tucked away in a bathroom I could close the door on, so I shrugged and decided to leave it.
There was also a standup shower with an adjustable showerhead and two new things of shampoo and conditioner. It felt delicious to peel off my clothes and turn on the hot water. I set to warm but not scalding, hoping to save the heater. As I lathered up I started putting together a list of things I'd have to tackle today.
I wanted to spend some quality time with Maggie. I remembered Marcone saying something about a shopping trip to fix up her room. That sounded like something we could do together. I didn't want to push, but I wanted to get to know my daughter. Maybe having something specifc to do would help give us a reason to spend a few hours together.
But before that I had a few things I needed to do. I needed to get a hold of Thomas and wanted to call Ebenezer. I still wasn't sure about how I felt about him refusing to help until it was my own daughter – his great granddaughter – at stake. But when push came to shove he had Shown Up.
I wasn't used to someone doing that. It meant a lot to me.
Also I was completely at a loss about how to approach the White Council about the no-longer-dead-still-the-Winter-Knight thing. I figure besides deserving to know I was alive, Eb would probably have some idea of how to handle that.
I told Molly I'd try to stop by today too, and I wanted to see Murphy. I winced at the idea of telling her about the deal I'd made with Marcone, but I knew I'd have to get through it sooner or later.
It was all for Maggie. Karen would understand. I hoped.
I towled dry and padded back into my bedroom. Curious I opened the first door of my dresser. I was not entirely surprised to find it filled with carefully folded black and grey boxers. The other drawer held socks and another plain t-shirts. The other three drawers were empty.
I looked around for a hamper to throw my dirty laundry in and discovered the closet. The door was a fold-away contraption that almost blended in with the wall. Hanging there were a selection of sweaters not unlike the one I had been wearing yesterday. Folded on an open shelf inside the closet was another pair of black jeans. Underneath it was a set of dark green cargo pants.
I stared at the clothes for a moment. I had never owned a set of cargo pants before. And I was beginning to see a theme in my wardrobe. Marcone's stylist seemed to dream in dark earth tones. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to blend in with the furniture or if this was a common combination of clothing usually available in mob boss guest rooms.
Shrugging, I put on the black jeans and grabbed a black t-shirt from the door. The clothes fit as well as they had yesterday and the t-shirt was again noticably snug. It was comfortable though, so I took another sweater for later and turned back to throw my dirty laundry in the hamper.
And stopped, staring.
There, hanging at the back of the closet, behind the sweaters I had moved aside, was a familiar looking black leather duster.
I dropped the sweater on the bed and took the duster carefully off the hook.
It wasn't mine. I could see the small differences in the cut of the leather. But it was buttersoft and whole and it brought to mind the night Susan had given me my old one. I blinked back sudden tears and stared at the leather. I let my mind catelog all the differences between it and my old duster, all the spells I could weave into its new leather. There was room under the folded back cuffs for improvements I hadn't had time to design in my original, and various ideas I had come up with while teaching Molly hovered in my thoughts.
Leather was hard to re-tool, and my duster had been a work of carefully balanced spells best designed to accept and divert dangerous energy. I hadn't had the funds to purchase a new duster in years, and had carefully added spells only seldomly.
Now I had so many more possibilities. I felt like an artist presented with a ceiling high blank canvas.
Carefully I picked up the duster and laid it out on my bed. This was going to take some thought, and I shouldn't even begin without Bob around to supervise. Some of the ideas I had involved overlapping energy patterns, and wanted to run things by his expertise first.
It was a hell of a gift though. Another surprise, like the threshold and the lightbulb thing. Against my better judgement, it made me feel warm inside.
I wondered if Marcone was just buttering me up to eat me. But the longer I lived the more protection I could give to Maggie. And he must be thinking I'd apply the same logic to him. It was probably all a calculation to him – dollars to spend here and there to get what he wanted. I disliked the idea of being bought.
But then again, Marcone knew exactly where to spend on me. He hadn't spent the past ten years making the same mistakes. It was uncomfortable to realize he probably knew me almost as well as anyone else I considered important in my small circle of friends.
I thought about all the things I knew about Marcone and wondered if I could say the same. The man was incredibly obvious about some things, and completely secreative about others.
I left my bedroom and closed the door behind me, finding a key ring hanging on the door knob outside. It had a house key hanging on a chain attached to a small steel 'H'. I fingered the heavy bane and grinned, glancing back down the hall to where Marcone had mentioned his own room was. It looked empty so I pocketed the key and walked down the three stairs to the main hallway. Hendricks and Maggie's doors were open and I could hear the sound of dishes being moved about downstairs. I followed the sounds to the kitchen.
There I found Maggie sitting at the counter in the same highchair I had perched in last night. She was smiling and holding a spatula. Cream coloured batter graced her right cheek and her chin and her hair was liberally dusted with flour. Mouse sat under her chair watching wistfully, waiting for scraps.
Marcone was at the stove. From this angle I could see the stovetop fit into a niche in front of Maggie's seat, so Marcone could stand there making pancakes while she watched him work. There was an oven set into the other side of the kitchen and its timer suddenly dinged.
Marcone looked over confused as the timer went off. Then he saw me standing at the edge of the stairs and smiled.
"Harry. We didn't wake you, did we?"
I shook my head and came into the kitchen. Mouse lifted his head and thumped his tail. Maggie looked over at me, her smiling diming slightly. She crouched further in her chair.
It was a hard reminder that she hardly knew me. I smiled gently at her before leaning back against the wall beside the kitchen, giving her space to realize I was not a threat. "Practicing your culinary arts again John?"
He grinned. "Maggie said she wanted pancakes this morning. It's been years since I made them but since you seemed so impressed with my skills last night," he lifted his eyebrows, "I figured I'd give it a try."
I rolled my eyes and looked around the kitchen. There were dirty bowels in the sink and the stove top was covered in small droplets of pancake batter. Marcone was wearing a blue apron over his relaxed outfit of jeans and a sweater and he had flour prints all over the front of it. I bet the only reason there wasn't a spot on the floor was because Mouse was there.
"I take it back," I drawled, "you're a disaster."
He waved a pancake flipper at me. "Ah ah. Wait until you taste the finished product before passing judgement."
"Pancakes!" Maggie agreed from her chair. Our conversation seemed too fast for her to follow, but she had caught the one word that mattered. She shly showed me her spatula. "Tio John and I, make pancakes."
I laughed. "Okay, pancakes it is." I agreed. "What can I do to help?"
The oven pinged again and Marcone looked at it doubtfully. "You should probably stay away from the appliances. Why don't you and Maggie set the table?"
I blinked at him. "We have a table for breakfast?"
Marcone rolled his eyes and nodded back towards the sunroom. "I know you lived in a basement apartment Dresden, but please." He stuck his tongue out between his lips as he carefully dolled out pancake battern on a hot plate on the stove. "Plates and napkins are in the cupboard."
I looked towards Maggie but she had already given a tail-wagging Mouse her spatula and was running towards the sunroom. I followed carefully, hesitant to crowd her.
Sure enough the glass doors lead out to a tiled sunroom. It was a pleasent day for late November in Chicago and the room was warm. I saw how the glass could be pulled back in the summer so the room got the breeze from the garden. It probably wouldn't be warm in the middle of winter without much insolation, but for the moment it was very pleasent.
Maggie seemed to enjoy knowing where things were. She lost some of her shyness as she pointed out the plates and napkins and with her help I started gathering the necessities. I wondered if dishes had been included in the tour I missed the day before. I passed plates to her from the cupboard and watched as she carefully set the table. Maybe this had been one of her chores, something she had done with her family in South America or with the Smiths. There was so much of her life that I would never know.
I passed her three sets of dishes and then paused, remembering.
"What about Hendricks?" I asked Maggie. Her tiny face screwed up in concentration before she answered.
"Tio H is doing 'paperwork'," Maggie said, pronounciating the unfamiliar word carefully. "He says he will be back after breakfast to help with my ..." she trailed off and looked up at me uncertainly, "informe?"
I squinted, trying to recall long buried Spanish lessons. "Report?"
Her face brightened. "Si! For my dormitorio."
"Oh," I said, then wondered if Marcone was actually going to demand she hand in a report for suggested improvements to her bedroom. What kind of details obsessed freak had I fostered my daughter onto?
I smirked to myself. It was a good thing I was around to keep her balanced.
"How many pancakes did you want Maggie?" Marcone called from the kitchen.
I leaned back to look inside. "Why does it matter?"
Marcone frowned into his batter dish. "I think I may have accidentally doubled the recipe. Or possibly tripled."
I laughed. "Just make half of it and give the rest to Mouse. You'll get on his good side faster that way."
Marcone eyed my dog with a raised eyebrow and from his place beside the now-clean spatula Mouse thumbed his tail approvingly.
Maggie and I finished with the table while Marcone cooked. He made a towering stack of pancakes then set the rest of the bowl on the floor for Mouse. My dog happily tucked in while Marcone made his way out to the sunroom.
He appeared in the doorway as Maggie and I put the glasses on the table with a plate of steaming pancakes, only one of which looked visibly mangled.
"That one's mine," he said appologetically as he set it on a hot plate in the centre of the table. Maggie squealed and clapped her hands. Mouse followed Marcone into the sunroom licking his chops and settled himself under the table. Marcone disappeared for a moment and reappeared with a jar of authentic-looking maple syrup and a jug of orange juice I was willing to bet was freshly squeezed.
I stared at him. "I'm going to learn that you're a health nut, aren't I?"
He smiled with half of his mouth.
"Pancakes!" Maggie clapped her hands in delight. Marcone and I turned to her and smiled.
"Yes," he said, "How many do you want to start Maggie?"
He doled them out to each of us. I took three and Maggie two. Marcone took his mangled one and another extra. I poured a generous amount of maple syrup over my stack and laughed at Marcone's disgusted expression. The bottle was kind of heavy, so I poured for Maggie too.
We were about to dig in when Maggie stopped us by putting down her fork and bowing her head.
"Bendíganos a Señor y estos tus regalos, que estamos a punto de recibir de tu prima, por Cristo nuestro Señor, Amén."
By the time I realized she was saying grace she had already finished and was digging into her pancakes with gusto. To my surprise Marcone crossed himself before doing the same.
I shifted uncomfortably and dug in. I had to admit, the pancakes were delicious. I grugingly told Marcone so and he accepted his due with a kingly nod. I rolled my eyes.
Maggie ate her two and asked for a third. She had better table manners than I did, carefully placing her fork down before drinking her juice. After her third pancake she seemed to relax a little more, and asked me to add maple syrup to her fourth.
Marcone twitched when I showed her how you could spread butter on the pancake and then add maple syrup for extra deliciousness. Maggie grinned and tucked in. I smirked as Marcone bite the inside of his cheek.
Maggie was finishing off her pancake and I had put away my third stack when I recognized Hendricks heavy steps coming up a distant staircase. The big red-haired man rumbled into the kitchen and stopped in the doorway of the sunroom. He glanced at the now empty plate.
Marcone looked momentarily guilty before trying to pin it all on me.
"Mister Dresden is a bottomless pit," he said. He glanced at Maggie who was finishing off her last piece. "And it is obviously genetic."
"Hey!" I defended myself. "You're the one who admitted to dropping two to Mouse in the kitchen."
"Tio H!" Maggie scrambled out of her chair to see Hendricks. I watched the big man smile slightly as she rushed up to him. "Tio John made pancakes!" Maggie told him proudly. "And I helped!"
Hendricks nodded seriously. "That sounds like fun." He glanced at the table and her empty plate and frowned. "How many did you eat?"
"Four!" she told him, bouncing a little on her toes. "With maple syrup!"
"Uh huh?" Hendricks murmured, giving Marcone an evil look. Marcone widened his eyes and tried to pay innocent, but it was one expression he couldn't pull off.
I coughed to cover a laugh.
"The pancakes were good! The pancakes were good! And Mouse likes pancakes too!" She was starting to vibrate slightly from the sugar.
Marcone and I met eyes over the table.
"Uh oh" I said. Marcone's eyes widened, this time for real. "Well!" he said brightly, standing up from the table. He swiftly started snatching plates and forks before heading for the kitchen. I could hear him pouring everything into the dishwasher. "You have fun with her this morning, Hendricks! I'll be in my office until ten." Marcone called from the kitchen.
"I have a videoconference at eleven and should be finished by one. We'll take her shopping with the car at that point." I could hear his steps vanish as he beat a hasty retreat.
I watched him go and turned back to stare at Maggie. She was bouncing on her toes.
Hendricks shook his head. "Thank God my sister has children."
I stared at him. He rolled his eyes.
"Go Dresden. I'll take her outside. She and Mouse can run circles in the yard."
"Good plan," I agreed and stepped away from the table. "I've got, uh, wizardly business to attend to. I guess I'll be back around one though?" I peered at him.
Hendricks shook his head. "Sure. Whatever. Oh wait -" He stopped me as I backed out the glass door towards the kitchen. "Do you need the car today?"
I frowned. "What?"
"Marcone's given orders. You can have the car if you want. There's a 1960 oldsmobile you should be able to take for a few days without inflicting too much damage."
"Oh." I thought about that for a moment, then shook my head. I tapped my amulet with my mother's ruby attached. "No, I'm good. I'll get around town the wizardly way."
Hendricks peered at me. "I don't think that's a word."
"Sure it is!" I smiled at him, backing away again. "I use it in Scrabble all the time."
Hendricks gave me a disbelieving look. I waved at him. "Bye! See you later Maggie!"
"Pancakes!" she shouted back to me, then giggled. I laughed and left.
I left the house by the front door, pausing to put on my new sneakers and grab my sweater from kitchen. I looked back at the sunroom once, listening to Maggie jibber away in Spanish to Hendricks while she helped him with the last of the clean up. There was a large part of me that wanted to say and watch her come down from a sugar high. I bet it would be hilarious, at least from the sidelines. But I really did have things to do today I couldn't get done if I stayed here, so I closed to door carefully behind me and locked it as I left.
I made it to the end of the drive before lifting my mother's amulet and asking what lay on the other side of reality here in the Nevernever. My mother's voice came back to me, this time with a laugh threaded through her usual tones.
"The Nevernever here is on the boundry of Summer. Step through and walk fifteen feet to the left to reach the Pass along the Eastern Route. You can connect from there to a crossroads that leads to New York, Los Angeles and Boston. You have to walk a little farther to get back to Chicago but there's no time differential so -" she paused for a moment and laughed "- so it's all good."
I stood for a moment and listened to her, letting the roll of her laugh echo in my head. It was like looking through a photoalbum, this ghost of a recording on a jewel. I wondered again what it would have been like if I had decided not to investigate my own death, not to come back to this side of reality. If I had stayed dead, if I had passed beyond ... would I have seen her again? Her and my father?
Being dead hadn't answered any of the big questions about death. Had they been reincarnated to live again here on earth, or did they reside in some afterlife somewhere?
Was Justin there too?
I shivered at the random thought. But thinking back to my conversation with Marcone last night, maybe it hadn't been so unexpected. While my mother had given birth to me and my father raised me until his own death when I was six, the only real father I had ever known had been Justin DuMorne.
He hadn't exactly been a shining example.
I wanted to offer Maggie more.
I wasn't sure how.
I scowled at my own doubts. She had been happy this morning. And as bizarre as it seemed, I wasn't alone in this. I had Hendricks, who was freakily good with Maggie, and Marcone. That probably shouldn't be as comforting as it was, but I couldn't deny I felt better knowing he was on my side in this. Marcone hadn't had a typical childhood either, and he seemed to be doing okay.
Well, for a professional mob boss, that was.
But I had been through this with Molly, too. I had managed to take the magical lessons Justin had taught me and transform them into something appropriate for her age, experience and magical talents.
Mostly by remembering what Justine had done and doing the opposite.
Shaking my head, I reached forward and brushed aside the opening into the Nevernever. It was even easier the second time.
By following my mother's amulet I was able to make it from the Gold Coast to downtown Chicago in fifteen minutes. I still missed my Blue Beetle, but I had to admit it was easier to walk than trying to find a parking space.
I hurried from the alleyway where I stepped from the Nevernever to the street leading to McAlly's pub. As soon as I stepped out from the relative safety of the Faerie realm I could feel imaginary eyes staring back at me. My spine itched as I walked down the steps to Mac's.
Once in the familiar, dimly lit pub I stopped and looked around. Only a few of the thirteen tables were taken, and most of those with people I recongized only vaguely. There had been a time when I kept up to date on the number and members of the practicing community in Chicago, but with the war against the Red Court it seemed I had spent more time out of the city than in it these past few years. Most of the people here were virtual strangers, and I kept my eyes away from any inquiring glances I received as I walked up to the bar.
Mac was there, standing with his back to the door fiddling with the grill. I sat on one of stools and said quietly, "I guess I'll have my usual."
Mac stiffened and turned around. He met my eyes and his mouth fell open slowly.
"Harry?" He asked. I gave him a rueful smile.
"Yup. In the flesh. Again."
He stared at me for a moment. I figeted slightly under his gaze. "I figure I should start having some kind of password," I babbled. "Some kind of CIA-like code. If this is really you, respond with 'lettuce' or something. Any imposter would get it wrong."
Mac snorted. He reached reached under the bar and drew out two bottles of his dark microbrew. He popped the cap on both before handing one to me. "Warden's don't have that?"
I took the bottle and tipped it back into my mouth. Mac's glorious beer filled my mouth. It was incredibly good. It wasn't even nine in the morning, but I could appreciate Mac's position. It's not every day you meet someone whose comes back from the dead.
"They haven't been used to getting people back these past few years," I explained, resting my elbows on the bar. The door opened behind me and I twitched, turning slightly in my seat to watch the new arrival settle into a chair and be greeted by his friends. I missed my duster, and thought of the new one laying on my bed.
I shifted my shoulders slightly and turned back to Mac. He was watching me with knowing eyes.
"'Sides," I shrugged, "I don't even know if I'm a warden anymore. Conflict of interest or something."
Mac raised an eyebrow. "You still -" he tipped his head.
I grimaced and took another long sip. "Yeah." I looked away. "It's going okay, so far."
Mac nodded. His next question he asked with his eyes.
I caught his gaze for a moment and nodded, then looked away before I triggered a soulgaze. "Yeah," I said quietly. "We got her. She's okay."
Mac nodded again. We finished our beers in silence, and then he nodded back towards the stove.
I thought of his steak sandwich and smiled. "In a bit," I told him. "I just had breakfast." Then I hesitated. "Mac, could I use your phone? I – kind of need to make some phone calls and the place where I'm staying ..." I trailed off. Mac shrugged and inclined his head towards the back. I thanked him and took my beer with me.
Mac's phone was an old black rotary that hung on the wall at the back of the bar. There was a chalk board there where Mac sometimes outlined the day's special. I swiped a peice of chalk then dialed the number where Thomas sometimes left me messages. There was nothing. So I hung up and dialed his number instead.
"Hey Thomas, it's me again. It's Saturday morning. I'm at Mac's pub and will be for another ..." I glanced at the old clock above the bar. It wasn't even nine. "Probably two hours. Meet me here if you can."
I hung up and my hand lingered on the receiver. I hoped he'd show. I wanted to know he was okay.
I called Murphy next. She was home and I told her where I was.
"Stay," she commanded, "I'll be right there."
"Hey," I tried, "who I am I, Mouse?" But she had already hung up.
I rolled my eyes and lifted the reciever again. This time I dialed Ebenezer.
I wasn't sure where he was these days, but I tried his home number first. To my surprise he answered.
"'Morning?" he grunted. He sounded tired.
"Good morning, sir." It was an automatic answer. I heard his indrawn breath.
"Who is this?" he demanded.
I cringed. "Sorry, sir. It's me, Harry. I'm ... well I'm back."
There was silence on the line. Then, "Hoss?"
I grinned into the phone. "Yes, sir. It's really me sir."
My grandfather paused. Then he growled, "The number of people who could be playing a prank such as this is exeedingly small. If anyone were foolish enough to try, they would know the consequences of such an action."
I winced. "It's not a prank, sir. It's ... it's a long story, and I don't – parts of it aren't completely clear – but ... I had some help. Michael and Murphy can vouch for me, and Gard. Her name should count among those in the know."
The phone crackled a little. Eb's voice softened, "Hoss, if this is really you -" static buzzed, "- you can't just ... come back from the dead."
I tensed a little. "What do you mean? I feel fine."
My grandfather sighed. "I sure you do, its just that ... the Gatekeeper is going to want to see you. And the rest of the Senior Council. This is serious magic, Hoss. Necromancy level magic."
I scratched my head with the hand not holding the phone. "It didn't feel like magic, sir. Certainly nothing like necromancy. It felt like ..." I tried to think back, but my mind skipped over the memories. That was kind of familiar.
"It kind of felt like my encounter with He Who Walks From Behind, actually. It's hard to remember exactly what happened, but I know there was a fight, and I know that I won. Then I was in the lake and swimming for shore."
Ebenezer sucked in a breath. "Hoss ..." he paused. I could imagine him pacing in his small living room at the farm.
"Okay. Just – stay where you are. I'm going to talk to the people that matter, get some things set up. You'll have to come in to explain yourself, but give me some time first. Where are you staying? How can I reach you?"
I bite the inside of my cheek. I didn't want to give Marcone's name out. I'd rather keep that information from the Council for as long as possible.
"My apartment got fried before the big sheebang last month. I'm staying in the area though. You could leave a message for me at Mac's bar. I'll check in every couple of days or so."
Ebenezer sounded relieved. "Okay, a neutral location. That's a good idea, Hoss." He paused. "I assume your other business has been ... reactivated?"
I sighed into the line. "Yes, sir. It's – not too bad, yet."
"Oh, Hoss." My old mentor sighed. "Okay. I'm heading to Edinburgh tomorrow anyway. I'll leave a message with Mac if I need to get ahold of you."
I nodded. "Okay, sir."
My grandfather paused. He sounded like he wanted to say more, but couldn't find the words. Finally he sighed. "Take care of yourself, okay boy?"
I hung up the old rotary phone, then leaned my head against the wall of Mac's pub. I took a deep breath in and out. That had been harder than I thought.
And what did Eb mean – you can't come back from the dead? I did. And I didn't use necromancy to do it.
At least, I didn't think I did. Necromancy was against the Laws of Magic, but it was a form of magic done by the living on the dead to give them the semblance of life. I had been dead when I came back, and I was more than semblance now. I was flesh and blood and as real as I had been before I'd died. I didn't need a beat to keep my heart going, or a spell to fire my veins. I was just .. me.
I suddenly wanted very much to talk to the Gatekeeper. Of all the wizards I knew, he was the one who seemed to know the most about arcane matters. He had once warned me about dark magic in Chicago, and Bob figured he must have used time travel to do it. That warning had led me to Molly, and helped me save her life. If I hadn't been on the lookout, hadn't found her in time ...
I winced. I didn't want to think about what I would have done if I'd learned the Council had executed my friend's daughter.
It wouldn't have been pretty.
The Gatekeeper had kept that from happening. And he must have skirted pretty close to the Laws to do it. If there was anyone who could explain things now, it would probably be him.
I grabbed my half-empty beer and wandered back to the main bar. I took a table by one of the thirteen pillars and sat with my back to the bar so I could keep my eyes on the door.
It didn't take Murphy long to show up. She came down the steps in a whirl of blue jeans and her motorcycle leather jacket, with her helmet slung under one arm. I watched her eyes skitter across the bar and stood up from my table to catch her attention.
Seeing me her jaw fell open and she stared for a moment before rushing over. To my surprise, she thumped her helmet on the table and wrapped her arms around me in a tight hug. I reached around her, remembering again how small she was, and hugged back. Karen had never been a touchy-feely kind of person.
We hung onto each other for a space of time. I hadn't realized how much I had missed human contact. Marcone had been careful not to touch me, and I hadn't dared move closer to Maggie than a few feet away.
Karen was a relief to hang onto. We had been though enough together that I could close my eyes and just be held for a moment, knowing myself safe.
After a long minute I heard her sniffle and loosened my grip to lean back and look down at her. Murphy gave me a glare, then hugged me tight again. After another moment she gave me one last squeeze before letting go, and turning her head wiped her eyes with her hand.
Mac appeared then, with a large mug of tea for Karen and a lemonade for me plus a plate of finger food we could pick at. Murphy shot him a watery but real smile and he gave her a fond look before disappearing again.
We both took our seats at the table. I took my peice of chalk and drew a circle around our corner of the bar, then used my will to fire up the magical protection and block our conversation from the other deziens of the bar. Murphy watched me, holding her mug of tea between her hands. When I sat back down she took a deep breath.
"You're really back."
I smiled at her. "Yeah. I am."
Karen shook her head. "How? I know you said you were going to try, and then Gard and I were attacked and the next time I looked up you were gone."
I shifted in my seat and looked away from her eyes, scanning the bar as I thought of how to reply. My conversation with Ebenzer flittered in the back of my mind. I tried to focus again on the memories. Once again they skittered unhelpfully away.
Karen had been there, though. She deserved as much of an explanation as I could give.
"I was with you in the warehouse, watching, trying to do my best to come through. I wanted to help so badly, I – I pushed, somehow. It was ..." I shook my head, "at the time I wasn't sure, but since I got back its been easier to see the Way between worlds. Karen, I opened a way into the Nevernever this morning and it was as easy as breathing. It's like I can see the way reality works clearer than I ever could before."
This was hard to explain to a nonmagic user. I tried to think of an example. "It's like ... math. I knew the theory, and fumbled through the equations, but now I've experienced the way it actually works and suddenly it all makes sense." I ran a hand through my hair. "That's what I think happened then. I pushed so hard I made myself see a way to come back."
I trailed off for a moment, a cold shadow snaking over me. I shivered.
"But there was something else there, Murph. It – it didn't want me back. It wanted me dead. It wasn't the force that had fired the bullet, but it was the reason behind the shot. I don't know how I know that, but it ... hated me. Really hated me."
I looked back at her. Murphy was watching me. I gave her a cocky grin. "So I fought it. And won, somehow. I'm not sure exactly what happened. Most of the memories seem ... gone. Or buried somehow. I don't know. But I won, and suddenly I was in the lake, wearing the clothes I was shot in, and swimming for shore."
Murphy took a long breath in and out, then shook her head.
"Only you, Dresden, would have enemies in the otherworld as well as this one."
I peered at the tabletop, seeking answers in the wood.
"I don't think it was from the otherworld, Murph. I never made it there. I was stuck between somehow, like any other regular ghost. It was ... it was between the worlds, somehow."
Murphy must have seen me shiver. She reached over and gripped my hand. I squeezed back. She met my eyes and smiled, then deliberately changed the subject.
"So what did you do next? Where did you call me from yesterday?"
I sighed and turned my hand over in her small palm. I looked away from her eyes. "You ... aren't going to like it."
She pinched me, and I looked up. Karen smiled. "Harry. You've just come back from the dead. I think I can handle whatever happened next."
I bite the inside of my cheek.
"I made it to the pay phone and called Father Forthill."
Murphy nodded, she was the one who had promised to bring Maggie to him. She understood.
"I just ... wanted to know she was safe. I wanted ..." I sighed, "I knew it would be dangerous, but I wanted to see her." My eyes trailed across the bar. It was still hard to think about what Forthill had said.
"He had found her a family to live with. Someone called the Smiths. They ..." I looked back at her. "They had minor magic talents." Murphy's eyes widened. "Forthill thought they could keep her safe."
"Harry ..." she breathed.
I took a deep breath in and let it slowly out. "The house was attacked. Mouse was there, he saved Maggie. But he couldn't save the Smiths. They both resisted and were killed."
Murphy stared at me in horror.
"Forthill showed up. He got Maggie and Mouse out of there, brought them to live at St. Mary's. But the church was attacked. Remember how Michael said even the holy places were no longer safe?" I shook my head. "I didn't connect the dots at the time, but he meant St. Mary's. Maggie was there. She was okay, but when the police showed up the next morning Father Forthill had to explain who she was. He didn't have papers, and you know how many missing children there were. The cops got suspicious."
Murphy started to frown. I saw the gears turning in her head.
I nodded. "So Forthill called someone how knew could help a child in distress and get her the necessary identification." I took a deep breath. "He called Marcone."
Murphy sighed. "Oh Harry."
I looked away. "He made him swear on his Name and his Power as the Baron of Chicago. It's not as binding as it would be for a wizard, but he is a Signitory of the Accords. It has some holding power. And ..." I trailed off, then looked back at Murphy. I took a deep breath.
"Karen, I think he means it. He means to keep her safe. I called him, and he picked me up from the Marina. He took me to see her."
Murphy gave me a watery smile. "Let me guess, he's doing a great job with her."
I sighed. "Yeah. It's Marcone. Of course he is. The man is damn near perfect at everything he sets out to do. Take over all crime in Chicago? Get involved in the supernatural community and not be instantly killed? Become a figure of power and respect instead? Raise a traumatized child?" I shook my head. "He's one of the most dangerous people I've ever met, Murph. And I'm counting mortals and nonmortals alike here."
I dropped my head into my hands on the table. "And now he's invested in my daughter. He's made a promise to keep her safe. And he intends damn well to keep that promise."
Above me I could hear Karen sigh. Then she reached over the table rubbed at my shoulder.
"Harry ..." She took a deep breath. "I can't say I like it. I can see why you don't. Marcone is scum. To me I think he always will be. But I have to admit, the man is damn impressive." I heard the wry smile in her voice.
"Do you know he offered me a job?" I raised my head from the table to meet her eyes. She gave me a twisted smile. "It was right after you were shot. Billy and I headed to his office de jour to get information. Hendricks had been spotted at the scene of an abduction."
Murphy shook her head. "He knew I was being fired. He knew I would never work for him. But he still offered me a position in the Outfit, said he needed good people." She paused. "I think ... it was his way of saying I was still important. Even with you gone. I think he was trying to complement me, in a backwards way."
She met my eyes. "But he would have jumped on the chance if I had said yes. He's always ready for opprotunities, always looking for the advantage. It's how his mind works, calculating possibilities. He never does two things when he could do one and save himself the effort."
"Will he do everything in his power to protect Maggie?" Her voice turned gentle. "Yes. I think he will. And Harry, he is probably going to do a very good job of it. But he's not just looking for her – he's looking for you. Marcone has wanted you to work for him for twelve years, since you're name became synomamous with results. He's always looking for people with power. You're the biggest player on the court he counts as up for grabs, and you've always said no to him. Marcone doesn't forget that. This is his chance, and he's going to take it with everything he's got."
I held her eyes for as long as I dared, then looked away. I felt shaken, but in the way you get when you know something is true. When you already knew it, but hadn't heard it said outloud before.
I took a deep breath to steady myself. "I know, Karen." I said quietly. "But it's Maggie. I can't – I can't do it alone. If I could, I would take her away from him, from everyone. I would run to the Nevernever, and no one – not Marcone, not the White Council, could ever find me."
I touched my neckless with its ruby addition. "My mom made sure of that. When she left me her jewel, she gave me a way out. I could run."
I shook my head. "But that wouldn't be a life for Maggie. And I'm tied to the Winter Court, now. Mab can Call me, anywhere. She might not be able to come get me herself, but she can Call and I have to answer. I'm her Knight, now. I made that deal with my eyes open. And I've made this one too."
I gave her a twisted smile. "At least all Marcone wants is my power. Mab now owns my soul."
Murphy raised her eyebrows.
"Marcone wants all of you, Harry. That's how he works. He takes what he can get and then he goes for more. And you've been his biggest challenge for ten years." She shook her head. "In the long run, I'm not sure whose more dangerous."
I snorted. "You think Marcone is more dangerous than a Faerie Queen?"
Murphy gave me a calculating look. "For you Harry? I think he might be.
We sat and talked for a while longer. Mac's food disappeared from the table without either of us being aware of having eaten it, and Murphy's tea disappeared too. By the time I raised my glass of lemonade and realized it was empty, the lunch crowd was beginning to file in.
I checked the antique clock behind Mac's bar and winced.
"It's after twelve. I should start heading back." I looked around the bar, as if I could have missed Thomas's entrance.
"I had hoped Thomas would show up. I left him a message."
Murphy heard the worry in my tone.
"I'm sure he's okay Harry. I haven't had much contact with the office, but I would have heard if something big had gone down."
"So would I, Murph. But Thomas knows how to fall between the cracks when he wants to." I bit my lip and thought. "I'll leave him another message about where to reach me. Laura's going to figure it out soon enough anyway."
Murphy reached across the table and gave my hand a last squeeze before standing up. "We'll keep it on the downlow as long as we can, Harry. But you'd better start thinking of a plan for when people figure it out."
I snorted. "Marcone's probably got five already, and backups for each."
Karen gave me a look. "Which is why you need to have your own."
I threw her a wry smile, standing up from the table myself. "What? You mean I can't fly by the seat of my pants anymore, Murph? Way to ruin a guy's style."
She huffed out a laugh and shook her head. "Call me tomorrow, okay Harry? Let me know if you hear anything about Thomas."
I came around the table to give her another hug. It felt good. "I will Murph. Thanks."
She gave me a last squeeze then stepped away, taking her helmet from the table. "You want me to do anything for you? Call Michael maybe?"
I started to shake my head, then rethought. "Actually, that would probably be a good idea. I told Molly to talk to Forthill, so Michael's probably worried." I glanced back at the clock. "I don't have time to go over there now. Let him know I'm okay? I'll stop by tomorrow, see the Grasshoper."
I rememerbed what Ebenzer had said. "Oh wait – Luccio's apparently teaching her. Eb said to keep things on the quiet side. Could you tell him that? I want to stop by, but don't want to run into Anastasia. Not yet anyway."
Murphy nodded. "The Senior Council are idiots. What do you think the Wardens are going to do?"
I winced. "If they don't execute me instantly for necromancy?" I sighed. "I don't know. Kick me off the team for sure. Maybe out of the Council."
Murphy gave me a look. "Can they do that?"
I ran my hand through my hair. "It's the Senior Council Murph. And the Merlin hates me. They can almost do anything they want."
"But you're not just the Winter Knight now, Harry. You're also the man who singledhandedly won the war against the Red Court. That's got to count for something."
I shrugged. "I have no idea. Eb said he's going to look into it. I'm not going to worry about it right now. At this point the White Council is the least of my worries."
Murphy gave me a wry smile. "Harry, only you could alphabetize your enemies."
I gave her a mock hurt look. "Karen. That sounds like you're trying to make me look organized. I thought we discussed this already?"
She rolled her eyes. "Later, Harry."
I broke the circle I had cast around our table with a minor effort of will and the tip of my sneaker. Murphy gave me a last smile before turning and walking out of Mac's. I headed back to the bar and halfway there remembered I hadn't brought any money with me.
I stopped, embaressed. I didn't even have a wallet anymore.
Mac must have seen me wince. I looked up to find the silent barkeeper looking at me. I walked up to the bar.
"Sorry, Mac," I started. "I'll -"
He raised a hand. "You coming back?"
I stopped. "Yeah. Of course I am. I'm not walking out Mac. I came back and I mean to stay back."
The barkeeper shrugged. "Okay then."
I relaxed. "Thanks, Mac. I might be back tomorrow even. Would it be okay if I used the neutral ground to leave messages? Eb said he'd try to get back to me."
Mac peered at me from beneath heavy brows. "You staying somewhere?"
I reached a hand back to rub at my shoulders awkwardly. "Yeah, but its kinda ..." I trailed off.
"Not neutral?" Mac grunted.
I winced. "Yeah."
The big man shrugged. "S'okay."
"Thanks Mac," I said gratefully. "And thanks for letting me use your phone. I'll pay you back for everything tomorrow."
The man nodded and I turned towards the door.
"Harry?" He called in his quiet way. I turned back.
Mac grunted. "Good to see you."
I smiled at him, a warm bloom in my chest. "Thanks, Mac. It's good to be seen."
I walked out of the bar and made my way carefully to the alley, then stepped into the Nevernever. It took me even less time than it had on the way over to retrace my steps to Marcone's estate. I took a little extra time to erase any traces of my passage from the Nevernever. I didn't want to make it too easy for someone to track me along the road.
I stepped back into the real world at the end of Marcone's drive. By the time I walked back to the house it was closer to one than to twelve thirty, going by the sun. I used the key Marcone had given me to open the door to the house, feeling the threshold pick at me gently before dissolving to reform behind me again. I smiled and stepped inside.
There was no one in the living room or kitchen, but I could hear the sound of laughter coming from somewhere off to my left. I followed the noises down a hallway that led behind the staircase off the kitchen. I passed a billard room and a library and felt like I was lost in the Clue mansion before I passed a half opened door on my right. I stopped and peered inside. Marcone was sitting in a leather chair behind a solid wood desk. He was speaking into a cell phone, but turned in his chair and saw me lurking in the doorway. With a wave he beckoned me inside and motioned me to a safe corner. I mosied my way in, wondering idly how much the State police would pay me to wear a wire in Marcone's private estate. Not that it would help, I'd short it out within minutes. But it was weird to have this kind of wide open access to Marcone's world.
I didn't want to listen to his conversation. I knew I'd be spending the next few hours with the man and didn't want to learn about a situation I couldn't do anything about, anyway. So I distracted myself by peering around his office.
Like the rest of the house the room was done in dark, warm colours. The desk and shelves were mahogany, the carpet a thick forest green. There were two paintings on the wall, both of them landscapes. I recognized one as Lake Michigan and the other as a skyshot of Chicago. The lakeside one caught my eye and I stopped to lean closer, wondering what about it was so familiar.
It took me a moment, but then I recognized it – the painting was of the promentory I had used once or twice to call my Godmother from. It was set at twilight, and the colours reflecting off the water were dazzling. But I wondered, staring at the canvas, if there were an extra few sparks just off the point, where my Godmother had appeared to me in the past.
It had to be a coincidence. I turned to stare at Marcone. He was still talking into his phone, his eyes watching the door while his attention was clearly elsewhere.
I looked at the other painting. This one was of Chicago, an overhead look of the city at night. I thought it was a photo at first, then realized the small details were actually made with brushstrokes. It was high above the corner of Cook County Hospital. I looked over the painting, this time searching for anything out of the ordinary.
There. In front of the hospital was a small cab. I peered closer. Were the two figures getting out carrying a staff and a sword, or was that my imagination?
I straightened and turned to find Marcone watching me. He had finished his phone call and was leaning back in his leather seat, his hands clasped loosely in front of him. I raised my eyebrows at him and he continued, his green eyes clear.
"The painter is a minor practioner, a part of your paranet, I believe. She did a reading for me, and painted those."
It made me faintly uncomfortable to think of someone scrying on me, even more so about two events that were fairly innoculous. I took refuge in sarcasm.
"Your stalker traits are showing again, John."
He smiled slightly. His fingers steepled in front of him. "Perhaps I'm simply persistent."
I glared. "And now your just gloating."
He laughed and stood from his chair. "Should we get going? My business is done for the morning."
I turned towards the door. "Yeah, I heard Maggie from down the hall." I ran a hand through my hair. "I haven't even thought of the paranet yet. I hope the warning got out last month and people were able to take some precautions."
Marcone lifted one shoulder as he led the way down the hall. "I have some contacts on the net," he confessed as we turned a corner. "The word quickly went out that the Red Court had been decimated and that you had been rendered incapacitated. Shortly after it was made known that a new unknown group was on the loose. I'm sure Ms. Murphy told you how advertisements went up in most major cities. The information was relayed to the paranet. I'm not sure how many of your former contacts escaped their advances, but the information was relayed."
"I'm glad," I said as I followed him down another short hallway. I thought of the map of paranet connections I had rescued from my apartment when Tilly broke the door down. The map should have been secure in my pack with Bob and the Swords. I wondered again where Thomas was.
Marcone led me out of the hallway and into a large room. It was obviously set up to be a gym, and just as obviously had been taken over by a ten year old girl. Most of the exercise equipment, including a bench press and a weight set, had been moved off to one side. In front of the wall a row of mats had been turned into a fort. Maggie's giggle came from somewhere inside the leaning structure, while Hendricks leaned over one entrace and peered inside.
Mouse's tail thumped from another entance way, the motion making the mat wall shudder.
"Mouse!" Maggie's laugh came from somewhere inside. "Stop! It is -"
But Mouse had evidently heard us arrive and was already squirming backwards from the fort. I watched as the house of cards shuddered, then first one wall came down, and then another. In a moment the entire ricketedly structure was lying in heaps on the foor and Maggie sat in the middle of the disaster laughing.
"Bad Mouse!" she tried to chide him through her giggles. "Very bad dog!"
Mouse looked unrepentent. He walked towards me wagging his shaggy tail. I laughed and bent down to scratch him vigorously between the ears.
"Mouse is too big for a fort, Maggie," I said, giving the big dog a thump. "He's more of a castle kind of a dog."
Maggie looked as if she were considering that. She glanced around her at the mats. "I can make a castle."
Hendricks looked pained. Marcone chuckled.
"I'm sure you could, my dear. But I believe we had an agreement? Do you have your list ready?"
Maggie sprang up from the mat pile as if she were made of springs. "Yes!" She shouted. She ran up to Hendricks, who pulled a folded peice of paper from one of his suit pockets. It was pink and covered in glitter.
Maggie took it carefully and brought it over to show Marcone. Glitter came off in waves and sprinkled onto the floor.
"I am - was - to use the iPad," she said, almost appologetically as Marcone took the glitter paper with a serious nod. "But Tio H said ..." she glanced at me and was suddenly shy again. But she spoke to me this time. "He said you are not good with ... with ..."
She looked back to Hendricks for the word. "Technology," he grunted.
Maggie brightened and nodded. "Technology!" She turned back to me and looked curious. "Why not? I can show you how use. It's not hard."
I smiled at her. "That would be fun, Maggie, but I bet there's another things you could show me instead. Like how to build a mat fort, for example. That would be cool to learn."
She smile wide. "I build good forts! Mama Jose says ..."
She trailed off. As abruptly as her smile appeared, it vanished.
"She, she used to say I was very good."
I didn't even think before I went down on my knees and offered my arms for a hug. Mouse was still at my feet, and thumped his tail approvingly. Maggie bite her lip for a moment before grabbing Mouse around the neck and holding him tightly, letting me settle me arms around her in a light hug. It was more for comfort than for contact. But I had lost people before, and younger than her, too. I knew something about how that grief worked, how it could sneak up and grab you behind the ears and shake. Sometimes it helped to have someone to hang on to, even someone you didn't really know.
Maggie sniffled. I leaned back from her to look her momentarily in the eye.
"Hey," I said softly, "Mama Jose would be proud of you. You made a wonderful fort."
She gave me a watery smile, then stepped back still hugging Mouse. My big dog licked her cheek and I stood up on suddenly shaky legs.
Marcone had stepped aside for a moment giving us space. Now he looked over and gave me a small smile before handing me the glitter list.
"I think most of this sounds fine. You did a good job, Maggie."
I glanced at the list. It was written in painstakingly good pen – or rather marker – minship, though half the words were misspelt, crossed out and re-written.
But my daughter definitely had a practical head on her shoulders – most of the items were things she would actually need. A dresser, a lamp, a new bedspread – I nodded my way through the list. She also included things for Mouse, which made my smile. A rug, a chew toy, a rope. Then there was a pause at the end and in smaller writing she had added a few special things she wanted – a purple pen, paper, and a book shelf.
I looked up at my daughter. Maggie was figeting slightly, her fingers wound in Mouse's fur.
"I think a purple pen is a wonderful idea," I said, smiling at her. "I never have enough myself."
She smiled shyly back.
I looked over at Marcone. "So where should we start?"
The mob boss checked his watch. "I prepose we begin with the largest items such as the bed and dresser while we all have the energy." He took the list from me and gave it back to Maggie. She took it carefully.
Marcone looked at Mouse.
"Though maybe our first stop should be a pet store. I think the population at large would feel better if the small pony were on a leash."
Molly looked at Mouse doubtfully. My big dog thumped his tail lightly.
Hendricks led the way to the garage, down another hallway and through a heavy steel door I hadn't seen before. I could feel the energy of the threshold protecting it, so knew we were going to be stepping outside. I ran my hand along the door as we left, subtly reinforcing the magic and getting a sense of the strength of the threshold. It would strengthen quickly with the four of us living here, especially with Maggie in the house. Children tend to have an overbundance of energy and it spills everywhere, including into the threshold.
I had spotted a few of Gard's runes around the house, under planters and above windows. There would be more I hadn't seen. I played through a few ideas about reinforcing their magic as we walked the short distance to the garage. I also wanted to add my own tried and true protections, including the wards I had perfected during the war with the Red Court.
The garage looked small on the outside, but I guessed that was because it was sitting beside the house. From the inside it stretched into a massive space, big enough for at least five vehicles that I could see and more I'm sure I could not.
Marcone automatically began walking towards the limo, but I held my ground and shook my head.
"Uh huh." I said firmly. The mob boss stopped and looked over his shoulder at me. "I already live in a mansion. We are about to go into the world and spend more money at one time than I have ever made in a month. We are not rolling into Chicago in a limo that announces your presence to the world."
Marcone gave me a slightly disbelieving look. I think he raised an eyebrow slightly.
"Dresden. Do not make me revisit the painful figures you have imposed upon your bank account for the past ten years. I confess I cringed a little when I added that paper to your file."
I glared at him but he continued smoothly. "And if you truly believe I have not alerted all security personel to be aware of our discrete arrival and prepare accordingly I will begin to despair your investigative mind has been permenantly damaged."
"And driving up in a regular sized, normal looking car will make it that much harder for a normal, everyday bad guy to lose us in traffic." I gave the limo a pained look. "I already agreed to live in a mansion, Marcone. Maggie's going to be spoiled hardcore as it is."
Marcone looked over at Maggie. She had dragged Mouse over to where a motorcycle was lying in three pieces on the floor and was talking to him excitedly while grabbing the handlebars. Hendricks was watching over her carefully.
"She's got a solid, practical mind."
"John, she's ten." I thought of Molly and shuddered. "Do you want her to hit sixteen knowing that if she totals one vehicle you'll just buy her another?"
Marcone looked pained. "I suppoose not." He sighed as if I had just demanded he wear only sneakers for the rest of his life. "Very well, we'll take the volvo."
I snorted. "You have a volvo?"
Marcone led the way to a black car a quarter of the size of the limo but nonetheless had plently of space for three big men, my dog and a ten year old girl. Despite the volvo sign on the hood the windows have that extra sheen that meant they were bulletproof and I was willing to bet the slightly taller than average roof held a number of steel reinforcements.
I rolled my eyes at Marcone as he took a key from the large rack on the wall. "You suped up your volvo."
"Sometimes, Mister Dresden," Marcone said, opening the rear door for Maggie who was bounding up to the car with Mouse and Hendricks tailing behind. "It pays to be prepared."
I followed Maggie and Mouse into the backseat and helped Maggie with her seatbelt while Hendricks drove us off the estate. We did indeed stop at a petstore first and let Maggie pick Mouse out a collar and leash. I had no idea what happened to his old set, probably burned down with my apartment, but I had to admit the new sky blue set she gave him looked fitting. Marcone insisted on purchasing a new tag with Mouse's name on the front and Marcone's address on the back. Mouse gave me a look that said he would have rolled his eyes if he could have, but allowed Maggie to fasten it proudly on.
We also picked up a new shaggy pillow and a rope Maggie insisted Mouse needed to survive and left those with the storeclerk. Marcone said he would have someone stop by later and bring the items to the house.
From there we hit three department stores in rapid succession. Marcone owned all of them, of course, and Hendricks exchanged subtly nods with the security men when we walked into the buildings. Marcone made Maggie wait until she had seen three different complete bedroom sets before allowing her to choose which one she liked best. In the end she settled on a white feminine bed with four posts she said she could tie blankets to and make a castle for Mouse. With the bed came a tall dresser whose top drawer she couldn't even reach but would grow into, a shorter long dresser with a large mirror set on top, and a table to sit beside her bed.
From there we purchased a bedspread and matching rugs for her room. I wasn't sure how much exposure Maggie had recieved to american culture but she hemed and hawed over the Disney Princess covers enough that I caught Marcone making a small note on a book in his pocket to acquire the entire Disney movie collection for her amusement. I gave him a look he pretended not to see while Maggie eventually decided on a green and blue flower pattern that mercifully contained no hint of pink.
John took her on a tour of children's desks, then explaining the importance of having a place for all her books once she started school. Maggie was nodding so hard her head looked ready to fall off, so I bit my lip against teasing him for passing on his religious sense of organization. In the end she decided on a white desk that matched her bedroom furniture and a small bookshelf to sit above her desk.
Mouse looked tired, I was running out of steam, and even Hendricks was looking a little peaked by the time we exited the last furniture store. Then Maggie insisted on visiting the bookshop before we left and in the end it was Marcone and Hendricks who had to pull the two of us away from the shelves. Hendricks purchased a squeeling Maggie three English children's novels she babbled to him excitedly about, and had managed to find another two written in Spanish for her new collection.
I hadn't been to a regular bookshop in years. By the time Marcone found me I had sandwiched myself between three fiction series I had always wanted to buy and never gotten around to and the newest edition of the tabletop rule book I played occasionally with the Alphas. I had a do-it-yourself manual on leather etching in my lap and was scanning through a manual on metalworking.
I was murmuring tool types to myself when Marcone's soft touch at my shoulder made me reflexively cast a shield as I spun, going to my knees with my fists up and my pentacle neckless glowing defensively.
I blinked at the surprised look on Marcone's face through the blue hum of my shield. Dropping my arms the shield winked out and the glow from my mom's pentacle faded. I flushed, embaressed to be so jumpy, and started picking up scattered books.
"I didn't realize you could cast a shield without your bracelet," Marcone remarked as he watched me awkwardly bending over. He had backed up when I turned and remained a safe two feet away.
I glared up at him, irritated and embaressed and glad Maggie was safely on the other side of the store. I wasn't sure what her reaction would be to me flinging magic around, and I didn't want to find out here.
"How did you know about that?"
Marcone gave me a look. "The number of times I have seen you shake out your wrist before casting a shield? The wrist that held your bracelet strung with medieval shields? Please Harry." He looked thoughtful. "You have always required quite a few objects to perform your more ... impressive spells."
I snorted, standing up with the last book in my hands. "Amulets and foci aren't necessary for magic Marcone, they just make it easier to control. If you're worried about property damage you'd better be glad I use my blasting rod and staff most of the time. My magic is very unpredictable without it."
Marcone looked thoughtful. "And yet the shield you just cast appeared quite restrained."
I frowned, thinking back. "It was, wasn't it?" In fact it had fit me quite well. Usually my shield extended several feet out in front of me. It was useful when reflecting bullets because it also gave me space to redirect the force of the impacts, and my new and improved shield bracelet had done the same for heat as well.
The shield I had just reflexively cast had been much tighter, however. More formed around my body. Marcone had stepped back. He hadn't been pushed back. That was interesting.
I shifted my shoulders. The tingling feeling along my spine was back.
"Ever since I came back I always feel as if someone is watching me when I'm out in public. A new paranoia after being shot. I think my subconscious has been readying that spell for a while now, and I cast it without really thinking. It probably wouldn't have lasted as long as my shield-bracelet spell, and it wouldn't have done as much in terms of types and methods of redirecting energy. But it would have given me a few more seconds to get my act together, and that can be more than enough time in a fight."
Marcone nodded, his eyes serious. "It can. If you had known such a spell before, you might not have gotten killed."
I shook my head. "No, I wasn't expecting it then. I was surprised and didn't even know what happened until I was in the water. I didn't even have time for a death curse, it was so fast."
Marcone cocked his head. "Death curse?"
I shot him a dirty look. "Can we leave now and you can fish for information later? I'm not going to stand here and be your encyclopedia for magical info."
"Of course we can leave." Marcone held out a hand for my books. "Would you like all of them?"
I scowled at him and started putting the books back on the shelves. "No, I can't afford any of them, and no -" I turned towards him, "you aren't going to buy them for me. I was just looking."
Marcone didn't say anything as I replaced my selections, just watched with that preternatural calm he had. He stood easily, hands clasped lightly behind his back, incognito in his dark jeans and sweater. He looked for all the world like any man out shopping with his neice or daughter.
I hated how calm he appeared. I knew, better than most, how much lurked under that relaxed exterior. Murphy had been right – Marcone was a man always searching for angles, always awake for opportunity. I had to be more careful around him.
He was too easy to talk to, always asking questions and genuinely interested in the answers. It was dangerous.
I shouldered past him to the front of the store and saw the store clerk putting the last of Maggie's selections into a bag. She was chatting excitedly to Hendricks and holding Mouse's leash. No one had come up our group to complain about having a dog inside the mall.
Hendricks took the bag from the clerk and the five of us exited the store. We walked the short distance through the mall to the main entrance. Hendricks moved a little ways away from me and thumbed on his phone, texting to our valet. I had been surprised when Hendricks had pulled up to the sidewalk beside the mall and ushered us out, then handed the keys to a man dressed in a casual pair of black slacks and a green knit sweater. Marcone had seen my confusion and leaned in close as the car pulled away.
"I never leave vehicles unattended anymore," hehad explained quietly. "Reduces the risks of car bombs."
We exited the mall together and waited on the sidewalk. I was glad for the valet when I thought of the number of hours we had spent debating children's furniture. The back of my neck began to itch again and I twitched.
Then someone behind me gave a startled gasp.
I turned and found myself staring at Justine.
It had been years since I'd seen her but Justine looked little changed. With a visible start she lurched forward and threw her arms around me. I found myself reaching around to hug her back.
First Murphy and now Justine. Coming back from the dead was going to use up my physical affection quota for the next ten years in a hurry.
"Oh my goodness, Harry. You're alive! I knew, I knew it couldn't be true that you were really gone." She leaned back and stared at me. "Have you seen Thomas yet? No of course you haven't. He's been away. When did you get back and -"
She stopped and stared at something behind me. I blinked, a little dazed by her unexpected appearance and flurry of questions, and turned to look over my shoulder.
Maggie was staring at Justine with a wide-eyed expression. Beside her Mouse gave a doggy grin and thumped his tail on the sidewalk. Marcone stood stiffly beside Maggie, arms bent slightly at the elbow in a way I guessed meant he had been going for a knife when he had stopped himself. Hendricks waited patiently off to the side.
"Harry ..." Justine whispered, staring at Maggie. "Is this ..."
I coughed a little, stepping out of Justine's grasp and turned to my daughter.
"Maggie, this is Justine. She's ..." I paused for a moment, my mind blanking on how to introduce her. Finally I shrugged. "She's an old friend." I turned back. "Justine, this is Maggie."
Justine gave a gracious curtsy. I noticed then that she was wearing a long white skirt with high boots and a white blouse under a black leather vest with white fur trim. Her hands were covered to the elbow in white gloves, worn less for protection against the weather than for her employers.
Not to protect her from them, but to protect them from her.
She curtised for Maggie and the skirt flowed gracefully around her slim form. Maggie stared at her.
"Are you a princess?" she asked wonderingly.
Justine smiled at her, a little sadly. "No, Maggie. I am not. But I am very pleased to meet you."
Her gaze flitted over Marcone and Hendricks before coming back to rest on me. She gave me a sad look. "Harry ..."
I winced. "I left him two messages, I swear." Justine's eyes narrowed. "Not on where to find me," I admitted, shifting my weight slightly. "I was trying to wait for that one." I glanced back at Marcone, who was watching our exchange with narrowed eyes.
"Listen, Justine ... we're trying to keep this ... quiet. Marcone is helping me look after Maggie, and ..."
She sighed. "I know, Harry." She glanced once at Marcone, and something I couldn't name passed between them. She turned back towards me.
"I will do what I can. But I hope you have a plan."
I gave her a bright smile. "I'm the mother of all plans."
From behind me, Marcone huffed out a breath I pretended not to hear.
Justine looked like she wanted to roll her eyes, but was too polite to do so. Instead she changed the subject.
"Thomas is close by. Can I call him? Do you have time to see him?"
I smiled at her, "Yeah, course I do. I've been trying to get a hold of him since I got back." I turned to Marcone. "You should take Maggie back to the house. I'll meet you there."
Marcone didn't look impressed with this plan. His eyes watched Justine as he answered. "And how will you return?"
I rolled my eyes. Polite, I am not.
"Please, I'll just - "
"Thomas and I will drive Harry home," Justine said. There was a strange emphasis on her words. Marcone tilted his head slightly, accepting a message that went over my head.
I ignored him and turned to Maggie. She transferred her gaze from Justine to me.
"I'm going to stay and talk with Justine for a while. You head back with Tio H and Tio John. I'll be back at the house for dinner and you can show me your new room, okay?"
Maggie nodded, her little face serious.
"Okay," she agreed, then twisted her hands in Mouse's fur and looked torn. I bent down on one knee, intending her comfort her, but she leaned in close to whisper in my ear.
"But be careful," she said quietly, her small voice soft. "Sometimes the beautiful princess can trick you. Sometimes they can turn out to be monsters."
I thought of the Duchess Arianna and shuddered. Then I turned and gave Maggie a gentle hug.
"I know," I said quietly back. "But I'll be careful." I gave her a smile, then stood up and watched as Marcone's reinforced Volvo pulled up to the curve. I helped Maggie into the car and stood back as Marcone followed her into the back seat and Hendricks took over from the valet.
As they drove off I turned back to Justine. She was fishing a phone out of her pocket and had backed away a little to text Thomas. "He's on his way," she promised as she slipped the cell phone back into her jacket.
"So where were you two? I left him two messages and I know he usually checks the machine every day."
Justine gave me a sad smile. "Harry, that machine was for the two of you. For two weeks he checked it obessively, sure you couldn't really be gone. Then he ... kind of lost hope."
My heart sunk in my chest. "I'm sorry."
"Oh Harry." Justine gave my arm a squeeze. "They never found your body. That was the only thing that held him from completely giving up."
She stepped back. "Then more and more people started going missing. The White Court wasn't targeted directly, but people who worked for the various companies traded in the Courts were. Thomas has been helping, tracking people down who went missing. We were sent out of town on a related mission and heard there was a big blow out in Chicago. We finished our business and only got back this morning."
As she finished a white sports car pulled up to the curb where Marcone's Volvo had been. It barely had time to stop before a large man was throwing himself from the vehicle. He had long brown hair that curled slightly and a strong jaw. He moved with a kind of breathless grace that humans could only dream of.
For the third time that day I found myself enveloped in an overwhelming and unexpected embrace. But this time I hung on with a strength that surprised me. I had known Murphy longer and Justine had caught me off guard, but Thomas was family.
I hugged my brother.
"Hey," I said gently into his shoulder. Thomas was almost as tall as me. "You didn't think I'd be that easy to get rid of, did you?"
Thomas didn't answer, but he squeezed me harder.
We stood like that for a long moment. Justine stepped back to give us some room. But eventually the twitching between my shoulder blades grew too strong to ignore and I had to break the contact and step back.
Thomas's face was wet, but I wasn't about to throw stones. I wiped my own eyes with my sleeve while my brother looked around us at the crowded Chicago street.
"Come on," he said, nodding towards the car. "I'll give you a ride."
I laughed into my sleeve. "Are you kidding? I just got back, I'm not ready to risk my life again."
Justine smiled and stepped forward, gently elbowing Thomas out of the way. I noticed how he was already moving away from her point of contact, but still smiled when she touched him, safe behind her long gloves.
So that was unchanged then.
I was glad Justine was still in love with my brother. He had been hurt, very badly hurt, a few years ago and I had worried his return to the regular White Court vampiric world would destroy their star-crossed relationship. Justine made my brother more human, and her love for him protected her in a den of wolves. If Justine couldn't love the changes Thomas had endured, they would both be hurt.
But it seemed her protection held.
Which meant my brother suffered, because they could never be together. But like I said: star-crossed.
Justine took the keys from Thomas's hand and walked around to the driver's side of the car. Thomas and I got in the back. The itching between my shoulders lightened once I was out of the public eye. I rolled my shoulders uncomfortably and felt Thomas's eyes on me.
Justine looked at me through the drivers mirror. "To Marcone's?"
I gave her an ironic smile. "Yeah."
Thomas frowned. "Marcone?"
As quickly as I could I recapped the past few days. Thomas wasn't happy about it, even less happy than Murphy had been, but Justine gave him a look I couldn't interperate. Finally he sighed and slumped back in the leather seat.
"I guess it'll work out. At least we know Marcone's word is good when it comes to kids. But remember Harry," he looked at me steadily. My brother and I had already soul-gazed and the look held only warning. "She won't be a child forever. You need to have an exit strategy."
"I know," I assured him. "I trust him right now with Maggie's life and her secret, but I haven't told him anything about you or anyone else."
Thomas frowned. "I think you'll have to, though."
My eyebrows shot up. "What? Why?"
Thomas rolled his eyes at me. "How else are you going to explain my coming around? Maggie is my neice too, and I risked my life to save her. Plus Laura knows about her." He raised a hand to stop my open mouth.
"She's keeping it quiet. Of course she is. She understands that Maggie is someone who can be used against me and against the House, even as much as she can be used against you. She's keeping her secret as she keeps ours. Because its in her best interests to do so." Thomas sighed. "But the weight of these secrets is piling on, Harry. I can keep you living with Marcone quiet, for now, but you know its not going to stay that way. And eventually Maggie's identity will come out."
I rubbed my hands against my eyes. "I know, I know. Everyone keeps saying that. And I realize I don't have forever to put something together here." I dropped my hands. "But I don't need forever. I just need a little time. Time to work up a threshold, time to prepare my defenses. Ebenezer is keeping my return from the White Council on the downlow for now. We'll work up a plan to keep Maggie at Marcone's and my ass out of the fire for returning from the dead. Eventually when the world finds out who she is, I want to have as many allies on my side as possible."
Thomas leaned over and gripped my shoulder. "I've got your back, little brother. Never doubt that."
I took a deep breath. I hadn't doubted it, but the hearing the words felt good.
He shrugged. "If you had your big battle the day before yesterday, Harry, you already saved my life again anyway. Justine and I were overseas in some serious heavy water when suddenly everything shifted. I think that's when you beat their leader here in Chicago. The whole organization fell apart after that."
I looked over at Justine in the driver's seat. She shuddered slightly.
"I'm glad you guys are okay." Then I frowned, "That was days ago though. Why did it take you this long to get back? Don't tell me Lara is making you use public transit."
Justine laughed. "She won't even let me take the bus."
Thomas shook his head, his eyes serious. "No, we were on our way home when we got another assignment. Harry," he took a deep breath. "You probably should know about this. Yesterday the White King was approached by an emessary. Lara recognized him. It was the same man who had come before to speak with our father. He knew this time that Lara was the real power behind the throne and was pretty obvious about it. Fortunately 'dad' had decided to meet with the emessary in private."
"Lara said he threw out a bunch of hints of about the waning nature of mortal magic and the desire for true power. Then named a date and place of meeting. She negotiated to send me instead, and Justine and I met with him yesterday."
My brother's gaze was steady, but I heard the faint undertones of fear in his voice.
"That man is ... wrong, Harry. Just wrong. It's like he used to be human, somehow, but no longer is. Like he's been ... corrupted ... somehow. And what he wanted, or rather, what the power behind him wanted ..." my brother shuddered.
"I don't know who he represents, but they are seriously bad news. I can see how my father would have arranged a deal with them. They offer a lot of juice, but take more than your soul in return. I could see that in the emessary's eyes, how he wasn't really there anymore. There was just a gaping emptiness, a vast hunger." Thomas looked slightly green. "My soul I could do without, and hunger I understand. But these things, they take everything."
My brother's convinction shook me. I closed my eyes. It would have been nice to have gone a solid week without some new threat appearing on the scene. Maybe a month. Time to get settled, get used to being back. Time with Maggie, and yes – even with Marcone.
I looked at Thomas. "What are you going to tell Lara?"
He shrugged. "The same thing I told you. Hell no. Whoever these guys are, we are better off without them. I'm pretty sure they're looking for the end of the world, and I don't particularly want to give it to them."
I gave my brother a half smile. "You like us walking hamburgers then?"
Thomas grinned, glanced once at Justine then looked back to me. "Yeah. I've gotten used to you all."
In the front seat, Justine smiled.
"Okay," I said. We were just turning onto the Gold Coast. Justine was a good driver, much better than Thomas. "I'm glad you told me about them. If they're moving in on the White Court, or moving back in as the case may be, it's going to have repercussions in Chicago. I'll keep my ears open. And good luck with Lara. Tell me how it goes down later?"
"I will," my brother promised. "Oh -"
He reached behind him and patted the back window.
"I hope you don't mind, but Justine and I didn't think Bob or the swords would be safe back at the estate. I took them with us, kept them close. I've got them here in the trunk now."
A wave of relief, so strong it staggered me, swept me away. "Oh stars, Thomas. Thank you." I had been worried about the swords, and worried even more about Bob. The swords had survived crusades and battles beyond even my imagining. Bob was much more fragile.
He was also more of a handful. I eyed my brother carefully. "Bob wasn't ... too much?"
Thomas grinned. "He was pretty pissed at you. Said next time you should leave him some instructions if you're going to go off and die after the big finale."
I wrinkled my forehead. That sounded like Bob. "You know, he's probably right. He's a spirit of intellect, and bound to obey the wizard who holds him. I'm glad you kept him close. Bob's too powerful to be found by just anyone."
Thomas nodded. "Yeah, he had a few less than polite comments on my not exactly humbling magical capabilities. He wasn't sure what to do with me. Mostly he grumbled a lot, and tried not to miss you. That part," my brother gave me a half-smile, "I understood."
I leaned over and gripped my brother's shoulder. "I'm glad I trusted you with him. And the swords."
Thomas smiled. "You're going to have to offload those soon. They get rather heavy to carry around."
I sighed and leaned back. "Yeah, I know." I scowled. "I don't know why I was put in charge of them. This is supposed to be Michael's job, not mine."
"Michael's retired, Harry."
I rolled my eyes. "Not that Michael." I pointed up. "That Michael."
Thomas's eyes widened. "Ah. He just – what – comes down and assigns people heavenly duty out of the blue?"
I rubbed the back of my neck. "Yeah, apparently. It's just an offer, people can refuse. But there seems to be some kind of rule to it. He only approaches people who are descended from royalty, from Kings. I keep thinking Murphy will get the recruitment spew, she's wielded the swords before. I keep half expecting Michael to show up and demand one of the swords and offer it to her. But if it hasn't happened yet maybe it isn't going to."
Thomas looked uncomfortable. "I don't know, Harry. Murphy has a job. I know she got fired, but she's never going to stop being a cop. And its a dangerous calling, globetrotting against evil. Murphy's got some serious firepower, never tell her she doesn't, but I wouldn't like to see her get hurt."
I sighed. "I know. It was hard enough watching Michael run around, and I only met him after he took up the duty. I don't know who'd be a better choice though."
Thomas shrugged. "Maybe it isn't up to you."
"Then why would I be stuck holding the things for this long?"
My brother shook his head. "I don't know, Harry. But something has changed. It changed with the death of the Red Court. Things are still reeling from that. This bunch that popped up around the world – they were just the beginning. This group that's approached the House – I don't know what they are. Maybe Michael knew this was coming. Maybe he's saving the swords for something special. But he has to keep them safe in the meanwhile." My brother gave me a cocky grin. "Because safe's your middle name."
I gave Thomas a look as Justine pulled the car to the side of the room. I glanced up to see we had parked across the road from Marcone's estate. My brother opened his door and I followed him out of the sports car. Justine came around from the front.
We walked to the back of the car in silence and Thomas popped the trunk. There, wrapped as securely as they had been when I'd last seen them, were two well-worn handles in a black sports bag. Beside them was a matching black backpack. I picked up the pack and felt Bob's familiar weight. The swords I slung around my shoulders.
I looked over at the estate. The gates were closed but a security guard in a dark uniform watched us from behind the baracade. I turned back to Thomas.
"I'm glad I ran into you," I said. "You can leave any message you like for me here or with Mac at the pub. I'll check the machine, too."
Thomas nodded. "Sounds good. I'll let you know how things go with Lara and if I hear anything else around town I think you should know about. And I'll check the machine, too." He grinned. "It'll be good to get back in the habit."
I smiled, "I'm glad. Can't have you getting lazy now."
Thomas tossed his hair back in a look of mock outrage and put on his most useless pampered boy expression. "Who me?"
I laughed to see him again as the pompous drunk vampire he'd been playing when I first met him. He was that still, a little, but he was also a lot more.
He was my brother.
We shared another tight hug and I gave my best to Justine. Then I shifted the bag on my back and walked over to the gate. The guard gave me a nod and moved to open the gate by hand. He stood there watching Thomas suspiciously as my brother tried to argue back his place in the drivers seat from Justine. She laughed and got in behind the wheel. Thomas turned back to me, rolled his eyes, and waved once before leaping into the side seat. I watched them drive away before turning back to the guard. I lifted my eyebrows once, and he flushed slightly and ushered me in through the gate.
I started my walk back up the gravel drive. The sun was sinking slowly behind the house, sending new shadows spilling through the trees. I had never seen the estate in this light before, and it came to me that by agreeing to live here I was going to see it in morning light as well as late afternoon, midnight and dawn. I would watch the grounds fill with snow and the first flowers bloom in the spring.
I had known my old apartment like that. Just like I had known Ebenezer's ranch and Justin's home. The orphanage where I had grown up. Before that I had only scattered memories of the road, of my father's presence beside me at the wheel. Those memories were very faint, but they were there. Of my mother I remembered nothing.
I had been taken from my father's truck and placed in the orphanage, and then moved by Justin into his old home. I had been taken from that wreckage by the White Council and condemed – that's what it felt like at the time – to Ebenezer's ranch. My apartment had been the first place I had chosen on my own.
I had lived there for twelve years.
And now I had agreed to move here. It wasn't a free choice, it didn't come without strings, but as I looked at the trees and wondered what they would look like with snow hanging heavy off the branches it felt ... okay.
I could see Maggie growing up here, playing among the branches. She would be in the garden come spring, pulling up weeds and flowers both as Mouse politely restrained himself from digging in the rose bushes.
This could work. I would make it work.
Bob's eyelights came on the moment I closed the door behind me. I could see the orange glow peaking out through the zipper line of the backpack.
"Boss!" he shouted, gleefully. "You're alive!"
"Shhh!" I hushed him. I didn't know how thin the walls were. Knowing Marcone the house was probably built to withstand a nuclear disaster, but I wasn't about to take any chances.
Quickly I took out the peice of chalk I had swiped from Mac's bar and drew a circle around my bed. Then I powered it with my will to keep all sound contained within the circle. Moving to the backpack I undid the zipper and pulled Bob free. He rolled a little on my bed.
"Wow," he said, gazing around the room. "You've moved up in the world."
I rolled my eyes, but the gesture was fond. "Some would argue against that."
Bob turned back to me and whistled. "And double wow! Look at you boss!"
I picked self consciously at my new clothes. "What?"
Bob's eyelights gleamed a little as he looked me up and down. "No lingering trace of the River, no taint of death. You did good, coming back! How did you manage it?"
I stared at the skull. "The River?"
Bob rolled his eyes. "Yeah, the River. The ...." he frowned at me. An expression difficult to manage for a skull, but Bob had long since mastered it. "You mean you don't know? You don't remember?"
I shook my head. "Remember what? I died, hung around as a ghost for a while, then forced myself back in."
Bob looked at my sideways. "That doesn't make any sense. From what I've heard, at least. Spirit of intellect. Never died, myself."
I shrugged. "My first time too. But I'm only telling you what happened. I hung around for a few weeks, trying to communicate with people. Only those with some magical ability could seem to see me, and Michael. Murphy kind of learned how to, after a while. Then some big bad started going down and I helped them as best I could. I was frustrated, stuck on the other side without my magic. I ... pushed ... somehow. From the other side of the threads, it felt. There was something there, something that didn't want me back, but I beat it. I'm not sure how, so don't even ask. Then I woke up in the lake."
"Huh." Bob stared at me. "That ..." he rocked his head from side to side. "I have no idea what that means, actually. But good for you, boss! Coming back from the dead! Guess this means I don't have to listen to anything Thomas says anymore eh?" He rolled his eyelights. "That vampire is a terrible wizard. Would have been beneath my dignity to serve with him."
I eyed Bob. "You have dignity?"
He huffed. "It's an expression, boss."
"Uh huh. Listen Bob. As you've probably already seen, we're at Marcone's estate. Maggie is here too. I hereby command you never to speak to anyone who doesn't already know you, and never unless you're alone. And I don't want you speaking to Marcone or Maggie or Hendricks at all."
Bob gave me an open-jaw grin. "Hendricks? Marcone's top enforcer? He lives here too? This is some raunchy arrangement you've got going on boss. Have they made you the middle of their sandwich yet?"
"Oh gross, Bob." I waved him away. "Enough with the sex jokes. That's just wrong."
Bob eyed me. "I don't know boss. Something has sparked your aura. I bet you could throw some serious soulfire around right now."
I rolled my eyes. "I've just come back from the dead. I've got a new chance with my daughter and I've gotten hugs today from Karen, Thomas and Justine. It's perfectly natural for me to feel that things are looking up."
Bob brightened. "Karen! Moved onto a more first name basis, have we? Did she give you 'yay you're back from the dead' sex yet?"
I sighed, losing patience. "No, Bob. Can we focus here?"
"Right right, focus. On something less important than whether or not your getting any. Ever again. Okay."
I rolled my eyes. "Thank you. Now look – can you see the wards Gard has set up from here?"
Bob looked around the room. He whistled. "Slick stuff. I'd have to get closer to get a good look at the mechanisms, but let me guess – you want to reinforce this stuff?"
I nodded. "Yeah. I'm not to good with rune magic, though. Don't want to set anything off or weaken it."
"Hmm," Bob eyed the window and doors. "She's got it networked nice. But I think I can suggest a few improvements. If you use some of that soulfire you've got simmering beneath the surface and anchor it to a few foci it should provide an extra layer of protection and warning."
I thought through this plan. "That could work. I can link the warning to candles like I did at my old apartment, keep them in the living room or kitchen where everyone can see them. Do you think I should use runes to anchor the spells so they work with Gard's defenses?"
Bob seemed to think it over. "I don't know, boss. You're good at improvising, and it would blend the theory nice, but you'll need to practice more rune magic before you go tying soulfire to it."
That made sense. "Marcone's found me some lab space we can use, an old wine cellar under the garage apparently. I'll take you down tomorrow."
Bob grinned. "Sounds perfect! And find a way to carry me around the house a bit, too. Or better yet, let me out tonight and I'll do some prowling. I want to get a closer look at those runes."
I shook my head. "Oh no. No prowling for a while. I'll find a way to carry you around instead."
Bob grumbled a little. "No sign of Mister around?"
A deep cord thrummed in my heart. Mister. My half-street cat, half-bobcat friend had been an occasional mostly-willing companion for Bob. He could carry Bob around in his body and protect the vulnerable spirit from random energies. I hadn't seen him since the night of the fire in my apartment. I knew he had gotten out, but that's all.
If I had stuck around the area maybe he could have found me. But there was no way he'd be able to track me here to the Gold Coast.
"No," I said, answering Bob's question. Then I push my cat out of my mind. Mister had survived without me before. He was probably fine.
To distract myself and Bob I picked up the new leather coat Marcone had given to me. I had left it on the bed, folded up by my pillows. I showed it to Bob. He whistled.
"Nice. You could do some serious bad ass damage with a coat like that. Very dramatic, Boss."
I fingered the new leather. "I've got a list of spells I want to etch into it. I'm worried about crossroading too much though."
Bob eyed the coat. "Oh I think we can handle it. There's some nice room at the cuffs and shoulder. We can under and overwrite similar spells and battle-proof it up."
I nodded. "Yeah, and I want to add a cooling spell, too. Hell, a whole thermostat if I can. I know I'll be better at those now. I want to be able to wear it in summer as well as winter."
Bob nodded. "Let me think it overtonight and we can start tomorrow."
I smiled at him. "Sounds good. It's good to have you back, Bob. I was really worried about you there for a while."
Bob grinned. "Aw boss. You say the sweetest things."
I laughed and got up from the bed. I toed out the circle, and winced when it didn't easy come out of the carpet. "Huh."
Bob rolled his eyes. "Good job, boss. Irritate your new sugar daddy."
"Oh shut up," I grumbled. I rubbed harder at the carpet and only succeeded in widening the white line of chalk. It broke the magical sound proofing though. "We'll go exploring the new lab site tomorrow."
I got undressed to my boxers and crawled into bed, placing Bob on my dresser. I left the coat out for him to look at and plan, then blew out the few candles I had lit with a wave of my hand.
It was good to have Bob back. And it meant a lot to me to know the Swords were safe. For now that meant they were tucked into the back of my new closet, behind my sweaters and hanging shirts, but I hoped to be able to rig up some tighter protection for them tomorrow.
I burrowed farther under the covers. The bed was ridiculously comfortable. I thought it would be hard to fall asleep in a new place, the house was large and creaked to itself as it settled and the garden was full of the rustling of living things instead of the street sounds of Chicago I was used to. But it all reminded me of Ebenezer's farm, and before I realized it I was drifting off.
As sleep took me I heard Bob mumbling quietly to himself, studying the wards he could see etched around the room. I smiled as I fell asleep, feeling a little more whole again.
The next day I was determined to settle my life into some kind of routine.
I got up early and abused Marcone's hot water heater, thinking electronic-friendly thoughts while I enjoyed my hot shower. Then I dressed and wrapped Bob in my new leather duster and went exploring the house.
We spent about a half an hour walking the perimeter of the estate, first on the inside and then the outside. I ran into a few patrolling security guards and waved neighbourly when I saw them. Most gave me suspicious looks but I spotted Frank Delare in the gardens and he smiled at me.
Once Bob had gotten a good look at the wards I walked us towards the unattached garage. The door was unlocked and someone was puttering off in a corner. I cast a quick veil on myself and crept away to the back end. The person kneeling beside a half-dismantled car never looked up.
At the end of the garage I stopped. The back was wall solid, no door in sight. I looked over the floor, wondering where this wine cellar could be, and spotted a wooden panel built into the dark floor. Sure enough it had grooves like hand-holds on the side. I bent down, hoped it wouldn't squeak, and carefully levered it upwards.
The wood moved silently, opening towards the ceiling to reveal a wide set of concrete steps going downward into the earth. Keep a firm grip on Bob and my jacket I crept down the stairs, closing the panel behind me.
With the door closed the blackness of the old staircase was absolute. I channeled a little will through my mother's amulet and the pendent glowed, casting a subtle witch-light. I strengthened it until I could see the stairs clearly, then carefully made my way down.
The concrete setps gave way to a short slab that ended at a packed dirt floor. My light showed the walls of a short hallway as the walls transitioned from concrete to rock. I walked forward through the hall into a large subterrian room. Wooden shelves filled half the space, some still holding dusty ancient wine bottles. The rest of the room was filled with old broken crates and boxes. I walked to the end and found the back wall didn't come quite to the floor – it ended about a foot above and there was a small packing space a foot deep.
The entire room was about twelve feet by fourteen. It was perfect.
I unwrapped Bob and showed him the room. He whistled appreciatively. I set him and my new coat on one of the old wooden wine shelves and set about moving things around.
It took almost an hour to clear the space of boxes and stack them by the stairs. I had found old broken bottles and more than few spiders and nests. There was a mouse hole in one corner I would have to fill in, but other than that it was an ideal work space. Quiet, contained and with a hard dirt packed floor I could bury things in if I needed to.
I figured Maggie would be up soon so I walked back up the staircase and Listened for a moment before opening the hatch. I didn't actually need to keep my new lab location a secret, but I also didn't want Marcone's mechanic wondering what I was doing down there. I should probably get a lock to keep the security guards from investigating. The last thing I needed was someone bumbling in while I was in the middle of a difficult casting.
I didn't hear anyone upstairs so I opened the hatch and looked around. Sure enough it was quiet and the light had been switched off. It took me a few trips to walk up and down the stairs carrying the old boxes and broken crates, but I managed to get it all up into the garage. Then I stacked the few unbroken wine bottles I had found in a corner and went back for Bob and my jacket. I wasn't about to leave him in the lab until it was all set up and warded.
I walked back to the kitchen intent on squirreling Bob and my coat in my room, but was surprised to find Hendricks and Maggie sitting up and chatting at the breakfast table. Hendricks raised an eyebrow at me as I came in and Maggie giggled. I frowned and looked down at myself, then realized how filthy I had gotten moving things around in the dusty old wine cellar. My black jeans were streaked with dirt and the sweater had cobwebs embedded on one shoulder.
"What's the matter, Dresden? Lose a fight with a dustbuster?" Hendricks deep voice came out amused.
"Just ... doing some exploring," I explained. Hendricks frowned and I rolled my eyes. "Marcone found me some lab space, I was clearing it out."
The big man's expression cleared. He nodded. "Yeah, boss mentioned that. The old cellar." He eyed me, "You need some help?"
I shook my head. "Its not hard work, and better to do myself. Still there's a heap of old boxes and crates and things in the garage now. It's all pitch-able, unless someone wants to keep it."
Hendricks shrugged. "I'll have it cleared by tonight. Marcone doesn't like anyone cluttered up his garage." He peered at me, "Why don't you clean up and go find the boss. Tell him if he doesn't eat breakfast now he's not getting any."
I brushed ineffectively at my hair, watching dust scatter as I did. "I think one shower a day is enough. I don't want to bust every appliance in the building."
Hendricks frowned at the kitchen. "Yeah, we're going to have to work on that."
I had a thought then, spurred by Bob's talk of soulfire and runes. "Do you know when Gard is coming back? Or if she even is?"
Hendricks looked away from me back to the stove top. I saw then that he was cooking scrambled eggs while Maggie buttered toast. The food looked so good I almost missed the tightening of his expression.
"Should be back this afternoon. She sent a text yesterday."
Hendricks sounded carefully neutral. I watched him scramble eggs for a moment. For some reason I felt an irrational desire to defend Gard, knowing what she'd gone through to help me, Karen and Michael that day in the warehouse. But I could understand the difficulty of working with two employers.
She'd be back. That was the important thing. Maybe I could catch her after the Carpenters, then. "Good. I'll ..." I trailed off, looking again at my clothes. "Go get cleaned up and then find Marcone."
Hendricks looked up at me. There was a hint of a smile in his rough face. "Good call."
I took the stairs back to my room and peeled off my now-dirty clothes. Throwing them into a hamper that had mysteriously emptied over the previous night I pulled out another set of jeans and a t-shirt from the closet. Downstairs I heard the stove hiss as Hendricks started cooking bacon. The smell hurried me out of my room with my t-shirt still in hand.
I turned at the bottom of the stair to the kitchen and went back down the hallway I had seen yesterday. Marcone's office door was open and I knocked once on the wooden door before walking in.
Marcone was sitting at his large hardwood desk speaking on his cell phone again. This time he turned as I entered, and stopped to stare. I blinked at him once, bemused, until I realized I was still holding the t-shirt and was standing, effectively half-naked, in front of him. Blushing I turned my back and roughly pulled on the shirt, wincing as I realized it was one of the almost-too-small soft ones Marcone's stylist favoured. It hugged me in all the inappropriate places.
I turned back to Marcone to find him still on the phone and listening cooly. I thumbed a gesture to the kitchen and mouted "Breakfast." Marcone nodded and said something in what I figured was Italian – or maybe French – to the person on the other end of the line. I rolled my eyes and walked back to the kitchen.
Maggie was still buttering stacks of toast on the counter. I grabbed a knife and helped her, and the three of us puttered about until Marcone walked out of his office five minutes later. We sat down in the sunroom again to eat breakfast, while Mouse heaved himself under the table and waited for scraps. I gave him a good scratching, and noticed that his coat was a lot softer than it used to be. I eyed Marcone.
"Just what have you been feeding my dog?"
His expression of innocence wouldn't have fooled a half-bought jury. "Dog food."
Mouse gave me a doggy grin and laid his head back on the floor next to Maggie's chair. I snuck him a piece of bacon to ward off all the healthy ridiculously expensive dog food Marcone was probably buying him and concentrated on my meal.
Maggie told us all about her day – apparently she and Hendricks had been up before I was, working on her fort-building – and Marcone and I listened attentively. I wondered if Hendricks felt disgruntled having been moved from top enforcer and loyal bodyguard to what was effectively a nanny position. But look of relaxed indulgence made me decide that whatever his feelings on the subject, he probably didn't mind.
It sounded like Maggie and Hendricks were going to go to the park that morning. I was welcome to join them, but Marcone had business in town. I explained that I wanted to hit the Carpenters before noon, and Marcone nodded. He asked if I needed the car and I shook my head.
That morning set the basic routine of my new life. I would get up early with Bob and work on the lab space, first moving all the old shelves out and then – after a trip into town for supplies – moving new things in. I set up shelf space and benches and the back I kept clear. I would put a summoning circling there, once I had the time and the silver.
Then I would have dinner with the house and spend an hour or two with Maggie afterward. Often we would go to the park with Mouse or explore the gardens. Marcone kept his word and hired language teachers for her. One would show up before lunch, freeing Hendricks to do his regular work for Marcone. Mouse would stay with Maggie while they worked with the tutor in the living room. After lunch she would have another lesson and then work on her homework until four or five or so.
I spend most late mornings over at the Carpenter's house. It was good to see Michael again, to clasp hand man-to-man in a very decidedly not-ghostly fashion. Even Charity seemed happy to see me, while Molly was estatic. She had worried about me, I know. Her lessons with Luccio weren't until the afternoon, so I started spending a few hours a day with the family. Molly and I worked on her skills and focus and Charity set an extra plate at the table for lunch.
I would always leave before Luccio showed up, making my way through the Nevernever back to Chicago or Marcone's estate. No matter what I was wearing that day my clothes would always transform into my Ren Faire outfit once I crossed over into the Nevernever. With time and practice I thought I could control the way my outfit would shift and change, but so far all I could manage was to get rid of the elbow-length kid gloves.
I spent my afternoons either studying with Bob or doing the business of the Winter Knight. Studying with Bob was more fun. It took us almost a week but we managed to get the basement wine cellar cleared out, cleaned, and stocked with new shelves and materials. I had lost years of acculumated ingredients, but I started slowly rebuilding my stores. We added a desk on one side of the room for me and another for Molly. For the moment I was carrying supplies to the Carpenter's place in the black gym bag Thomas had stored the Swords in, but eventually I wanted her to feel welcome in the new lab.
We also worked on adding protections to the house. The morning after my conversation with Hendricks I walked into the kitchen to find Gard making coffee. Her magic was different than mine, which usually I accepted as part and parcel of her being not-quite-human, but it sucked to see her handling the expensive expresso machine without having to worry about it exploding.
"Dresden," Gard said, turning away from the monstrosity. There was the ghost of a smile on her lips. She lifted her cup. "You want one?"
I made grabby motions with my hand. "Coffee. Give."
She actually laughed this time and turned to make me another cup. I settled in at the counter and watched her. I never knew exactly why she had arrived in time to help Karen, Michael and I out that day, but I suspected it was because Monoc told her to. Finding out Father Odin was a part of the Grey Council had given a real boost to my hopes for the secret sect, but I still hadn't expected him to offer free help. I wondered if by having Gard show up and help, I had inadvertedly set up an account with the organization. Still I couldn't regret it, her presence had helped turn the tide and I wasn't sure we could have won without her.
It had been the second time I had been in battle with the Valkyrie without Marcone. She reminded me a little of Murphy in that she had the same dangerous-but-unassuming quality about her, but she was at the same time more fierce and more controlled than my mortal friend. I had no way to guess how old she was, but I doubted there were many on the council who could remember a time earlier than her. I remembered her comment about how crowded the world was now, and wondered what she thought of mondern conviences like expresso machines and computers.
As she turned back to hand me my coffee I thought she would ask the standard questions – how I got back, what had happened, ex cetera. But she didn't. Instead she raised an eyebrow as I took a sip of the scaling deliciousness, and waited for my brain to form higher sentances.
"Mmmm," I mumbled into the coffee. I hated to disrespect my breakfast of champions, but I had to admit hot coffee managed to pull something over cold coke in November.
"Are you settling in?" Gard asked as the coffee began to work its magic. I rested my elbows on the counter and she leaned back against the island. "Red informed me of your status here."
"Oh good," I said, taking another sip. "Could you tell me what it is then? Marcone never seems to quite answer that question."
She smiled, something feminine and knowing in her expression. "I said Hendricks informed me, not Mr. Marcone. I have not spoken to him yet on the subject."
I squinted at her. "That sounds like your avoiding the question."
She raised an eyebrow and turned to the fridge. "Milk?"
I grunted 'no' at her and took another sip. I waited until she had settled back at the counter before indicating the house. "I've had a look at the wards you've set up – you did a good job with them."
She dipped her head in acknowlegement, then gave me another faint smile. "And yet you have suggested improvements?"
I grinned. "A few." I sobered. "But I don't have much experience with rune-magic. I'd appreciate a run through, when you have time. I like the subtly you've worked in, and I wouldn't want to interfere with it."
Gard's face took on a thinking expression. "It is wise of you to admit your weaknesses. Subtly is not one of your particular strengthens, is it?"
I rolled my eyes. "I'm getting to it. We're don't all have your centuries of experience here."
Her lips quirked. "Is that a polite way of calling me old, Dresden?"
I snorted. "No, that's a blunt way of me calling you old. Also," I held up a finger, "that was me asking for help."
She smiled. "I would be interested in teaching you the basics of rune-magic, enough that you could incorporate your own style into the wards. Perhaps it will help teach you some of this subtly you lack."
I mock glared at her. "Is that a polite way of saying my magic is too showy?"
She grinned, showing her teeth. "We can start this afternoon."
Thus I had another component of my day – rune school with Gard. We only met occaisonally, when Marcone and Monoc could spare her, but we usually managed a few lessons a week. Rune magic was interesting, almost like constructing an amulet, only less permenant and more theoretical. I had learned the basic rune meanings with Justin, and I had a feeling this was something that would have come easily to Elaine. She worked a little with hieroglyps, like Justin used to, and would likely have understood more of the concepts behind rune magic than me.
Still I wasn't completely hopeless at it, and with Bob's help was able to work in some of my more standard protections with Gard's weighted shields. I tied my warnings to three sets of candelabras I scattered around the house. One in the front entrance, one in Marcone's study and one in my room. I planned to make more over the coming weeks, I wanted to add something to hang outside Maggie's door specifically and another to put in my lab, but they would take time.
And time was something I was getting short of. My daylight hours, which had been lesiurely during my bachelor days, were now becoming quite full. On top of my morning excursions and evening dinners, I also had my business of being the Winter Knight.
Being the Winter Knight wasn't that difficult at first. Mostly it was like being a private investigator in Chicago – either by accident or by design Mab had me tracking down various lost items for members of her Court. I didn't know what most of them did, but I would get a description of each and be given a reasonable period of time in which to locate it.
The first two items I recovered had been relatively easy to find – both had been traded from the Faerie relms in the recent past by vanilla mortals who weren't too difficult to track down. The first was a short, sharp dagger made of wood cleverly wrapped around iron. It had apparently been constructed during the Renaissance and traded to Summer, and then lost about sixty years ago back to the mortal world. I spent a few afternoons tracking down auctions and muesums and found the dagger without too much difficulty lying behind glass at the beautiful Musee National de la Renaissance at Chateau d'Ecouen in Paris.
I wasn't sure I was comfortable with stealing it back, but once I had located it Lea was able to charm/inspire/dupe some American millionaire into purchasing the dagger, and then arranged a trade with him. I didn't want to waste time arguing the morality of it with Lea, so I visited the millionaire on my own. Apparently my godmother had traded him the dagger for some inspiration in the stock markets, and he was very content with his lot. I left him alone after that.
The second item I had to find took a little more effort but was in the end more satisfying to recover. A colonial soldier from St. Louis, Illinois, fresh from battle and overwhelming in his mortality, had apparently wandered into Faerie. By the time he was right enough in his wits to grab what he could and leave at least fifty years had passed in the mortal world. The poor man had drowned himself somewhere along the shores of Lake Michigan in front of several witnesses, taking all his Faerie treasure with him. Apparently in his mad grab he had taken a sachel of juniper berries grown in Winter, traditionally given to commanders among the Winter army and brewed at the Soltice. A mortal in possession of these berries could take one and gain immortality, or a horrible agonizing death, Lea wasn't sure which.
I stared at her, "What do you mean, you don't know which?"
My godmother shrugged, eminently unconcerned. "Both have happened child. There is no way to predict why some mortals are able to absorb their strength, and other weaken."
I thought about a handful of those berries in the wrong hands. "There are a lot of people who would take that chance."
Lea smiled, her teeth slightly pointed and wicked-looking. "It is," she said with cat-like satisfaction, "a very agonizing death."
In the end I'd had to track down the old routes that would have taken a stumbling and Faerie-sick mortal from St. Louis to Lake Michigan, and then searched for local stories of the incident. Fortunately one of the witnesses had been a resident priest, who recorded the encounter. There was a church in the area familiar with the tale and an old decon took me out to the place where the 'tragic tormented soul' had taken his own life. It took me a week to search the area, but Lea was able to get me one of the juniper berries Mab was planning on handing out at the Soltice. It was tricky, and the connection was tenuous at best, but I was able use the berry to form a thaumaugartic link to the lost fruit. Lea assured me that the Faerie sachel was made of sterner stuff than mortal fabrics, and sure enough I found the bag whole and still fastened shut buried five feet under the Michigan shore. After that it was the short work of a shovel to recover the artifact with its berries intact and turn it over to Lea.
It was a good way to refocus on my tracking skills. I had always had a talent for those, but, like the berry, I usually required a focus on the item itself. Magical farie items were a little different though. For one thing they were old, older by far than their human counterparts. They also had a lot more magical oomph than human artifacts and their magic had a definite Farie flavour. I had a diffcult time maintaining the connection, as the Faerie artifact had been difficult to 'grasp' magically. After handing over the sachel I gave voice to my frustration, and the next time I had to find Faerie treasure my godmother showed me how I could search for such items by focusing on the void they left behind or in their wake.
Which was a good thing, because the third item my new Queen wanted me to retrieve was definitely a horse of a different colour.
Lea gave me the description in the second month of my stay with Marcone and Maggie. It was December now in the mortal world, and we had taken Maggie shopping for her first set of winter clothing the day before. The Faerie realm seemed thicker, somehow, more real than it usually did as the solstice neared. I could feel my gifted Faerie magic growing as well, a slight tension under my skin that sparkled like ice in the winter sun.
The item was a magical wand that had been lost sometime around the second crusade. My godmother described it to me in terms of escatsy.
I looked at her. "So ... its basically a stick."
The Leanansidhe stared at me.
"With red leaves," I ammended. "A foot-long brown stick caught in fall colours. 'Cause that won't be hard to find in December."
"The Wand of Mabon can be used in mortal magic to inflict ever-painful wounds," my godmother corrected sharply. "It was not stolen from our winter realm to be throw into some forest and hidden for a thousand years."
"Do you have a peice of it lying about. Or maybe a ... a leaf that fell off once? Something to form a thaumaugratic link to the stick?"
My godmother raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow. "We have the pillow it rested on for time immemorial."
I scratched my head. "I don't know ..." This sounded more like a job for my apprentice. Or ex-apprentice. Secret apprentice? Anyway – Molly was the sensative when it came to magical forte.
We travelled to Arctis Tor to look at the special pillow. The fortress had been rebuilt since my last visit and gleaming ice-encrusted towers loomed over what had once been broken gates. The Leanansidhe hurried us inside, past the great trolls that once again guarded the sanctum. I shivered as we walked across the courtyard, remembering the feeling of walking on bones. I wondered what Farie-types did with their dead.
Inside the fortress I was lost in the swirl and dip of corridors. My godmother lead me silently to a long banquet hall somewhere deep within Arctis Tor. The tables and chairs that lined the room were empty, as was the pillow that rested in a place of honor at the end of the hall.
It was a goosedown pillow of a chill blue, clean despite its obvious age. There was a faint dent in its surface, where something long and relatively thin had once rested.
I passed my hands over and around the pillow, careful not to touch it directly and eliminate any connection that still linked it to the wonder stick. There was a definite hum of power over the pillow, but that was all I could sense.
My godmother sighed as I released my arms, reading my failure in the cast of my face. I turned to her appologetic. "Without an actual link, godmother, I don't see how I can -"
The Leanansidhe interrupted me, her hands flickered out fast as a snake to grasp mine. She turned my palms towards the pillow. "Stop talking, silly child, and feel."
Gulping I shut up and concentrated on my palms. I felt like an apprentice again, only without the bruises. We stood for a moment in silence and I concentrated on the space between my hands.
Again there was the sense of power, of age that eminated from the spot. And there was the distinct feeling of something missing. But that was all.
And then the Leanansidhe began to speak.
She spoke, softly and unhurried, about the warp and weft of the world. She told me in a dreamers voice about the ties that link and connect all things, the ties that bind matter and energy in a relationship mortal physics has only begun to understand. I remembered the web I had seen/felt in Marcone's driveway and behind Mac's bar. How it had been so easy to brush aside that curtain and step into the Nevernever, to cross between the worlds.
Those strings were still here, in Arctis Tor. As I half-listened to my godmother's crooning voice they slowly came clear to be once again. They were ... shinnier ... somehow. Different than the strings of the mortal world, and I realized they were more filled with energy, less constrained by matter. That was why beings formed of these strings turned to ectoplasm in my reality, because they couldn't hold their shape without the energy present in Faerie.
It all became so clear! It was like when I had been teaching Molly about thaumaugary and basic circles, how all the lessons of my own childhood made more sense when viewed through adult eyes. Now the concepts I had memorized actually made more sense to me. Like understanding the math beneath the equation.
There were suddenly such possibilities in my magic. I could see now how the aura of power I could feel around this pillow altered the flavour and heaviness of the strings. They hummed in a different registrar than the points around them. And there was a faint twisting to their curves, a space that had been carved by something powerful enough to reshape the very space around it.
I understood then how powerful this wand of Mabon was. No wonder my godmother said it could cause ever-lasting wounds. I could see the effect it had on the matter of the universe when it lay passively on a blue pillow. How much worse would it be in the hands of someone who knew how to purposely wield it?
Suddenly it became a lot more important to find this stick than it had been when it was just my third job of Winter. I had a sudden vision of the wand in the hands of the Black Council, and shivered. It was definitely a magical object that needed retrieving. Better to have it back in this hall on its pretty pillow than roaming lost within the mortal world.
"Now hold the shape in your mind," my godmother was saying from somewhere behind me, her voice still holding my palms. "Make a mould of that image and cast it into the world. Search for ressonance there."
I shook my head, instinctively knowing this wouldn't work for me. I had never been good at throwing energy out and hoping it came back. Throwing it out and making big explosions – yes. That part had always been easy.
But with my deepening understanding of the way my magic worked, I had another idea. I shook off my godmother's voice and absently padded down my pockets. Then I remembered I was still in Farie and in my Ren Folk costume and glared at my godmother.
"I need a map of the world, chalk, a peice of string and a compass."
The Leanansidhe eyed me for a moment, then she nodded and disappeared somewhere behind me. I refocused on the pillow and attempted to order what I instinctively knew I could do with how I would actually do it. By the time my godmother returned I had a pretty good idea.
Taking the chalk I drew a circle around myself and the old pillow, blocking out the random energies of the banquet hall. It was different forming a circle in Farie than in the mortal world, thicker to move through and requring more power to charge, but I could feel how solid it became when it sprang into life around me. It was like a block of ice, tough and heavy.
I refocused on the empty space atop the pillow. Taking the chalk in my hand I broke off the end and crushed it under the heel of my boot. I carefully collected the dust on my palm and closed my eyes. Holding the image of the empty space in my mind, I blew the calk dust onto the pillow and concentrated. I captured the image of the space in the calk, then transferred my attention to the map I had spread out on the floor.
The map was a beautiful work of art, one fit for the hall of the Queen of Winter. It depicted the continents and countries of the Earth in painstaking detail, to the deep blue of the oceans and the faint brown of the mountains. But maps have always been more than flat pictures – they are mirrors to those places they depict. I focused on the map and thought of the world it envisioned. I felt a sudden sharp stabbing in my chest, a wave a homesickness for the mortal world. For a real breeze, changing seasons. I concentrated, using my emotions to focus my magic. I stared into the map and felt the connection deepening.
When it felt as if I could step over the map and walk into Chicago should I choose, I let the empty space contained within the calk settled over the map. I used the ressonance technique the Leanansidhe had spoken of – she was good at inspiration, as it turned out – but I focused with a tool I understood. It was easier than I thought. The calk dust settled over a point in Italy. I concentrated, and it hovered over the Vatican.
My godmother left without a word and returned with another map, this one of the Vatican itself. It was as detailed as the first, individual streets and shops beautifully outlined on the page. I opened the circle, stretched, then repeated my experiment. This time I could narrow the location of the wand to a particular warehouse in the Vatican supercomplex, but I couldn't get any closer than that from here. There was too much interference, and I realized the warehouse must be filled with magical objects.
I groaned as I let my concentration falter, and used my toe to rub out the chalk circle. Then I stared at the map of one of the most magically guarded fortresses in the modern world, and wondered how the hell this would work.