Marcone found me at my usual booth at Mac’s, roughly halfway through a pot of coffee and a third of the way through my stack of files. Okay, fine, a quarter of the way through. Or a fifth. I was going to need more coffee, is all I’m saying, and it was still a little early in the day for beer, but I was starting to think about asking for one anyway. Mac likes me. He’d do it.
The shadow that slid across the table wasn’t entirely unwelcome-- even criminal scumbags are preferable to taxes. “Johnny,” I said, plastering on my most irritating grin. After seeing the sports bag-worth of work I’d dragged through the door behind me, Mac had just left the coffee pot at my booth, setting it on something that I think started out life as a fondue pot lamp. I was taking a break anyway, it seemed, so I grabbed it and topped off my cup. “What an unhappy surprise. You get lost looking for a rock to crawl under?”
“Wizard Dresden,” he said, and grimaced when I upended the sugar pot and dumped a few tablespoons worth into my cup. “If I could have a moment of your time. There is something we should discuss.”
I tore the tops off a couple little creamer potties and dumped them in after the sugar. “Let me check my calendar... nope, looks like I’m all booked up. Forever.”
Across the bar, leather squeaked. I let my gaze slide over Marcone’s shoulder and settle on the football-field sized back of Hendricks, Marcone’s own personal redheaded linebacker bulldog, busy dwarfing one of Mac’s bar stools. A second later, a slant of bright spring daylight cut down the stairs, followed by a tall blond woman in a business suit. Sigrun Gard slowly scanned the room, empty save for me, Marcone, Mac, and Hendricks, met my gaze and nodded, and made her way over to the bar.
Gard and Hendricks. Not that I’d really been thinking this was a social call, but that confirmed it.
“I ask that you reconsider.”
I glanced back over to Marcone-- and narrowed my eyes, looking a little harder. He looked rough. If you don’t know the guy, you might not be able to tell. But I’ve seen this man at his worst; I know what to look for. He was pale, his usual boaters’ tan missing, an off-hue pallor around his lips. The lines around his mouth were deeper, the crinkle at his eyes flat, but the shadows under them darker. His face was rounder, too, a little. Fleshy. Less cheekbone, more padding under the jaw, but not in the healthy, glowy way of someone who’s had a few good meals or a great vacation. His hands were folded neatly on the table in front of him, but his knuckles were going white. He looked his normal calm, cool, and collected self... but he was forcing it like a bowling ball through a silly straw.
I scowled. “Are you here in your capacity as a robber baron, or just a baron, scumbag?”
“Mm. I have no doubt that the subject at hand will have some impact on any and all aspects of my life and career, but for the time being, this is strictly a personal call.”
He was going to crack a tooth if he kept clenching his jaw like that. “Then no dice. See this?” I waved at my stacks of papers and files. “Both more important and more preferable company. And also going to take up my entire day. Some of us don’t have legions of accountants at our beck and call.”
He leaned over enough to glance down at the forms in front of me. He was sweating a little, just a bit of shine at his temples to make the silver there go dark. There was definitely more weight in his face; the angle was making him look jowly. I tried to get a look down his front. He was one of those guys who could probably carry a middle-aged tire and make it look damn good-- not that his tailor would let anyone know for at least a pants size or three-- but he’d tucked in close enough to the table that I couldn’t use my height advantage to peek. “Some of us also file our taxes more than three days before they’re due.”
“Well, with that much blood to wash out, preparation is key. Do you cold water soak first?”
“I run several perfectly legal businesses, I’ll have you know. Dresden. This is important and concerns us both.”
“You were last December.”
My eyebrows made a high jump for my hairline. “Is this a booty call, Marcone?”
Look, it was a one time thing. Three times. Over two years. Lapses in judgement. But every now and then, Marcone has to go and prove that under all that scum, he’s actually a decent human being. With great eyes and an ass that should be headlining at the Art Institute. And he takes orders really, really well.
Okay, maybe I wouldn’t mind if this was a hook up. I don’t usually do men, but I can make an exception. Especially when they beg me for it.
“No.” He looked kind of sick, actually. His pale was going all green and grey.
“...Should I get Gard or Cujo over here? You’re looking like you just combined a corn dog and rollercoaster in the worst possible way.”
“No. Harry-- Harlene. Please. This is important.” He smiled then, looking sicker than ever, and spread his hands. “We’re having a baby.”
“...What.” It was stupid. I knew. I knew there was no way. But a little fissure of fear went through me anyway. “That’s impossible. Im-poss-i-ble,” I enunciated for him. “I don’t know if you remember high school health class, Johnny, but certains things need to happen for Slot A and Tab B to end up in Offspring C. And what happened? Was D, None of the above.” I flicked a checkmark in the air in front of his face then grabbed my coffee, chugging down a mouthful so I didn’t put a hand on my belly like some bad movie stereotype. “What the fuck do you want?”
“Your attention. And consideration. Please.” His smile was still there, going sour and a little rictus-like. “The biology is certainly suspect. However Miss Gard assures me this is the case, and that your magical signature is-- ah, intimately. Involved. Male pregnancy is something of a ...corporate specialty of hers.”
I gaped at him. “My strapon is not actually a dick, Marcone. It doesn’t work like that!”
“The magic is, I believe, your expertise.”
“John. Tell me you’re not serious. And I won’t go blow up your car.”
“I’m afraid I’ve never been more serious. All choices and final decisions are, of course, my own. However, I will consider your opinions in this matter, and any professional insight you may be able to provide will be invaluable.” His voice wobbled a little, his calm flickering and his eyes going wild. He slammed down on it like this was just another boardroom meeting.
I’m not that good at pretending. My heart started to pound. This was impossible. This had to be impossible. Hell’s bells, we’d even used a condom. But if Sigrun had said.... Becky would know. What else were spirits of Air and Intellect for? I could go home. Ask her. She’d laugh in my face. It would all be okay.
“If the gestational period remains consistent between the typical female experience and my own. I believe there is slightly less than six months remaining. While I will arrange matters on my end, there are many conversations I would like you to be part of.”
He might have said something after that. I couldn’t tell you. My hearing started whiting out. My vision tunneled down to pinpricks.
I knocked my coffee cup and a few files over getting to my feet, but somehow made it over to the bar. “Mac.” It was more of a croak. I tried again. “Mac. What’s the strongest thing you have on hand?”
He stared at me for a second, I think. I wasn’t really paying attention. Gard and Hendricks moved away. Probably going to John. I swayed on my feet a little. Then Mac was tucking a small smooth shot glass into my palm, full almost to the brim with something gold-coloured and strong enough smelling to peel paint off the wall. I garbled something that might have been thanks or a laugh, toasted him, and swallowed it down before I could puke.
I was going to be a father.