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Chacun à son goût

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"Can you at least describe this ghost to me?" I said, trying to maintain a firm grip on my patience.

"Oh, Mr. Dresden," the manager said, all but wringing his hands. "It's just terrible. He only comes out during the show -- oh, the patrons, what will I do if subscriptions go down--"

"What does he look like?" I asked, trying not to sigh.

"You can't see his face, but it's horrible! He's a wronged man, I just know it!"

I closed my eyes briefly. "Are you telling me he's a phantom of the opera?"

The manager looked horrified. "Mr. Dresden! We're the premier opera house of Chicago -- and maybe the world, but definitely North America -- and we'd never stoop to that kind of vaudeville!"

I barely stopped myself from banging my head against one of the very nice pillars that line the marble halls of the opera house. "All right, all right. Sorry I brought it up. So he only appears during a performance -- I assume that's why you insisted I come tonight, since one is happening right now. Are there particular places you noticed the ghost appearing?"

"The chandelier, sometimes it rocks -- oh, but he always appears in one of the private boxes."

Finally, we were getting somewhere. Frankly, when I'd gotten the call, I probably would have taken just about any job to keep my last rent check from bouncing. Had I known it was going to be this annoying and would also probably involve listening to people professionally shriek, I might have reconsidered. "Take me to the box, and I'll get to the bottom of this," I said, with a quite a bit more confidence than I actually felt.

We went up to the mezzanine, the manager all but hustling me along, and we stopped outside one door. "Oh! Can't you see it, Mr. Dresden? That strange flashing light -- it's the ghost, I'm sure of it!"

"Okay," I said. "How about you go over there, and I'll just poke my head in and take a look."

The manager backed away uneasily. "I don't know if you should--"

"Look, I'm the wizard, here -- time is of the essence." Few things are as irritating watching a ghost dematerialize right in front of your eyes, so I pulled open the door. I meant to actually open it quietly, and only a little bit, but the door actually swung open with a strength that caught me off guard, so much so that I nearly tumbled inside and just narrowly caught myself on the doorframe.

Several heads and guns were turned swiftly in my direction.

"What's the meaning of this?" snapped a balding man with squinty eyes, who was backed by a couple of thugs who looked only too eager to deal with my disruption of the performance. A second man with more accompanying muscle didn't even look in the mood to ask cursory questions before disposing of my carcass one way or another.

Only one man in the opera box didn't have a visible gun trained on me, and that was Gentleman John Marcone. He regarded me with swiftly calculating eyes from his seat on a red velvet sofa, cool as could be in his tuxedo.

"You said we'd be alone," Baldy said meaningfully.

"And we are, I assure you," Marcone said smoothly. "Mr. Dresden here is my companion, who was unavoidably delayed." There was a slight emphasis on the way he said companion, something indulgent and proprietary. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck, and I didn't like it one bit.

Then again, I wasn't really fond of getting plugged full of holes when I accidentally walked in on high-level mafia negotiations, either. The other men in the box still looked suspicious, but Marcone brushed his fingertips over the empty space next to him on the velvet sofa. "Do sit down," he said, not taking his eyes off mine.

Hell if I knew what kind of game he was playing now, but no one's ever accused Marcone of not knowing how to land on his feet, even when a wizard burst into his opera box full of men with itchy trigger fingers. If he was so intent on conducting business that he was willing to let me sit in on it, rather than risk everything going to hell by disclaiming responsibility for me, it wouldn't kill me to play along.

Especially considering the alternative of not playing along.

I moved slowly and deliberately over to Marcone's small sofa and awkwardly sat down next to him. There wasn't a lot of room, and Marcone made no move to accommodate me -- I ended up pressed pretty damn closely against him.

Marcone handed me his program. "I know how you hate to miss the first act," he said, his voice lowered to a civilized, decorous murmur.

I glanced at the title of the program. La bohème, apparently, although I knew crap all about opera. "I hope I didn't miss anything important," I muttered in reply. I was already starting to feel warm in my duster, and the heat of Marcone's body against mine wasn't helping.

"Well then," Marcone said, turning his attention back to Baldy and the guy with unfortunate facial hair. "To return to our previous topic of conversation, I think we can come to some agreement about the residuals in the contract."

Baldy wrinkled his nose and leaned forward a little bit. Marcone, I noticed, stayed right where he was. "Twenty-five," he said grimly.

Marcone didn't even blink. Instead, he turned his head to look at me and offered me something black and compact. "Opera glasses?" he said solicitously.

I wasn't really sure I wanted to be part of Marcone's bargaining strategy, but since the glasses could actually be useful, I said sweetly, "You're so thoughtful." He passed them to me, his hand lingering on mine for a moment, and I wondered if there was some sort of signal I was supposed to be understanding. Marcone and I could usually read each other with a disturbing degree of accuracy, though, so I pushed aside my doubt and used the opera glasses to scan the rest of the theater for any signs of the ghost.

I was distracted by the sudden shift of Marcone reaching for something inside his jacket pocket. He pulled out a sleek-looking Blackberry that practically lit up the opera box, and I could see everyone relax when it didn't turn out to be a gun. "If you consider the distribution aspect," he said, "I think five percent is far more reasonable. Don't you agree, Mr. Dresden?"

Obviously, I had no idea what he was talking about. But hell, it wasn't every day that I got to help Marcone screw around with other mob guys' heads. "Oh, absolutely," I said, and then went back to examining the stage. I thought I saw something up near the top of the curtains, but I couldn't be sure if it was actually a sign of ghostly activity or just the reflection off a piece of staging equipment.

Marcone tapped at the screen of his Blackberry with a stylus. The light flickered in and out for a few moments, before there was a zzzzzt sound and the light went out entirely.

He sighed. "Mr. Dresden," he said reproachfully, looking at me once again with some odd mix of exasperation and fondness.

I winced when I saw the dead device. "Sorry. I'd have gone out in the hallway if you'd said something."

"No, no, I wouldn't want you to miss anything. Musetta's solo is coming up next."

"You're too kind," I said, aware that Baldy's teeth were starting to grind while Marcone and I continued to talk to each other like we were the only ones in the box.

"Nineteen percent," Baldy said, and the slightest rumble in his voice made Hendricks move closer to the sofa in a way that didn't bode well.

"Mr. Scalzi, please," Marcone said, with a hint of regretful finality. "You'd be wise to agree to eight percent -- it's quite generous on my part, and the longer you continue to disturb Mr. Dresden's enjoyment of the show, I'm afraid I'm going to become progressively less generous."

I was about to protest that I could ignore them both just fine, when I caught a flash of light in one of the private boxes across the way. I nearly made a move to stand, but Marcone pressed his hand firmly down on my thigh when he felt my weight shift. It wasn't strength of his hold so much as the placement of it that made me keep my seat -- one part of me, at least, was entertaining some really unauthorized ideas about that casual touch.

The shrieking on stage ratcheted up by a factor of ten, and I started to wonder if something was going to happen now -- if the ghost only appeared during performances, what were the chances that the closing of one act of the opera would trigger some sort of episode with the psychic imprint?

"Mr. Scalzi," Marcone said, implacable.

Scalzi closed his eyes, as if pained. "Eight percent. Thank you for your time, Mr. Marcone."

The noise in the opera swelled immeasurably as a soprano held a note that would make a dog howl, and the people down on the orchestra level rose to their feet, applauding vigorously. Marcone stood as well, and everyone else in the box, myself included, followed suit. Marcone and Scalzi shook hands, and then Scalzi offered me his hand, as well. I shook it, bemused at the courtesy.

The mobsters filed out, leaving Marcone, Hendricks, and I behind.

"Really, Mr. Dresden, if you wanted to attend the opera, you merely had to ask -- there was no need to gatecrash my private box," Marcone said dryly. "It's intermission -- perhaps you'd like to stretch your legs?"

"I'm not here to see the opera," I protested. "I'm investigating something."

"Of course you are," Marcone said tolerantly. "Would a turn around the lobby aid your investigative efforts?"

I wanted to blow him off, but I wasn't having any luck on my own finding this ghost, and I was still pretty attached to the idea of getting paid. "It might," I said cautiously. It was possible that Marcone was in a good mood since we'd just done the whole good-cop/merciless-mafia-lord routine with Scalzi, and it wouldn't hurt to take advantage of the chance to move freely among the patrons.

Hendricks held open the door, and Marcone inclined his head toward the hallway. "Shall we?"

I shrugged and followed him out of the box and over to the grand staircase that led down to the lobby. We paused at the top, and I noticed that the sea of people below were mostly in formal wear. I snuck a quick look at Marcone's immaculate tuxedo and suffered an odd twinge of self-consciousness. "I'm not really dressed for the occasion," I muttered, smoothing my duster down with one hand.

"Not to worry," Marcone said. "I'm fairly certain no one will be bold enough to raise any objections."

I had my doubts about that, but I walked down the staircase with Marcone keeping perfect pace by my side.

Marcone took two flutes of champagne off a tray and handed me one, which I held a little awkwardly while we made a circuit of the room. Marcone's hand hovered just behind my elbow and he introduced me to person after person.

"Do you know everyone in Chicago?" I asked him between introductions.

"Everyone of consequence," he replied, totally nonchalant.

"You don't have to keep introducing me -- people are going to think I work for you," I said sourly.

"Oh, I doubt that's what they'll conclude," Marcone said, and offered no more explanation.

The lights overhead flickered briefly, and I gave them an annoyed glare. "That was so not my fault," I muttered.

Marcone actually smiled slightly. "In point of fact, that was the signal that intermission will be over in five minutes."

"Oh," I said, feeling simultaneously relieved and a little stupid. "I knew that."

I had thought about going backstage to see if there was any trace of the ghost there, but Marcone ushered me up to his box like he fully expected me to stay for the rest of the performance, and all things considered, it wasn't a bad place to wait out the opera in hopes of catching sight of the ghost. As long as Marcone and Hendricks were fine with me staying, I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to investigate in style, for once. Besides which, there was still a decent chance that the ghost would actually turn up in Marcone's box as the manager had suggested, which would make my job infinitely easier.

Once in the box, I sat down on the same sofa as before. Part of me had expected Marcone to take up the adjacent vacant sofa, but he sat down next to me instead. "Perhaps you'd care to tell me what you're really doing here," Marcone murmured.

"I told you, I'm investigating something," I said, busying myself with the program again. "The manager called me about a ghost."

"A ghost?" Marcone repeated.

"Yup."

"A phantom?"

"Look," I said crossly. "I know where you're going with this, and believe me, I already got yelled at for making that joke." I fixed my attention on the summary of the third act of the opera. "Is it just me, or does the plot of this thing sound a lot like Rent?"

Marcone looked unimpressed. "Only if you take away the fine music, the thoughtful characterization, and the meaningful social commentary, and replace it with booze and condom jokes."

"Ouch," I said. "No season of love for you."

"Not if I can't light your candle, Harry."

"Don't call me that," I said automatically, which was good because I really didn't know how to respond to the candle thing, since I was pretty sure the reference involved a coke whore.

The curtain came up, and the third act began. Hendricks was still standing guard behind us, but I found myself strangely caught up in the opera, despite my formerly staunch opinion about professional screeching.

"Rodolfo's kind of an ass," I muttered to Marcone near the end of the third act.

"Amazing what self-preservation will make a person do," he said coolly.

"I wouldn't ever just leave someone to die like that," I said.

"I know," he said, looking me in the eye.

I swallowed once, and turned my attention back to the stage.

As the fourth act drew on, I kept waiting for Rodolfo's love, Mimi, to recover from her life-threatening illness -- consumption or something. And then she just went up and died. "I thought this was going to be like Rent!" I said to Marcone, aghast.

He gave me a look. "This is opera, Harry."

"Do they all end in death and despair?" I demanded.

"All the good ones do."

"Oh my God, I can't believe I spent three hours of my life watching that," I said, ready to throw my hands up in the air as we made our way out of the box into the hallway.

"I thought you were here to investigate, not take in the opera," Marcone said.

"I was!" I said.

"Well, perhaps La Traviata next week will be more to your taste," he said. "I'll pick you up at seven."

"What?"

Marcone leaned in close and murmured, "Don't worry about your lack of appropriate attire," and then left me gaping in his wake as he descended down the stairs.

***

I tried to put the opera out of my mind with two locate-and-retrieve cases, neither of which proved to be more than a few hours' worth of work. That was probably why Hendricks found me in my office, staring at the contents of my desk drawer in a vague bid to entertain myself.

"Uh, hey there, Hendricks," I said lamely.

Three other guys roughly of Hendricks' weight and build filed into my office.

"Mr. Marcone doesn't want you to be late," Hendricks said.

I gripped my blasting rod under my desk. "I wasn't aware I had an appointment."

"12:30," Hendricks said. "We're going now."

It occurred to me that Hendricks probably wouldn't shoot me for being late, but I wasn't a hundred percent certain. I stood up slowly and made every effort to look compliant with the red-headed, linebacker version of the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.

Hendricks and company escorted me down to a sedan, and we took off for a much nicer part of town.

The place we arrived at had no sign out front, and nothing from the front window gave any indication as to what kind of establishment it was. Still, it was clear that I wasn't getting much of a choice about going in, not unless I wanted to arrive black and blue or risk using magic out in the open like this.

Inside were a succession of rooms with more dark mahogany than was strictly necessary, and then I was thrust into a room where Marcone and a thin man with a sharp nose were waiting.

"Right on time," Marcone said, sounding pleased.

"Ah," the other man said, taking in my appearance and passing a world of judgment with that one sound.

"Indeed," Marcone said.

"What?" I demanded.

Marcone just looked at me. "I told you I would take care of it, didn't I?"

"Take care of what?" I said, more baffled by the second.

That was when the thin man advanced toward me and dropped to his knees. My expression must have been priceless, because Marcone looked very much like he was biting his lip.

It was the presence of the tape measure that clued me into to what was going on here. I mean, generally people introduced themselves before they started getting friendly with my inseam.

"First of all, what the hell. Second of all, I really don't need any clothes," I told him. It went without saying that I especially didn't need any clothes from him.

"You were the one who was complaining about not being dressed for the occasion. Won't a good suit assist you in your investigation?"

"That was an observation, not a complaint. And I don't think ghosts give a rat's ass what I'm wearing," I told him and obediently lifted my arms a bit when the tailor tapped them with a brisk, professional touch.

"Ah yes, the ghost," Marcone said. The note of polite doubt in his voice set my teeth on edge.

"Look, I'm going to find it and I'm going to get rid of it," I said, wanting to gesture emphatically but restrained by the man making careful measurements of my waist. "Marcone, I seriously don't have the money for this. Hence the whole job thing. You haven't forgotten how that works, right? Job equals money equals not being evicted?"

Marcone watched me with a considering gaze. "I'm not adverse to you owing me a favor."

"This is so Pretty Woman," I said crossly.

"And here I thought you couldn't be bought," he said, his voice deepening into a slightly amused purr.

"I can't! I told you, if you want me for legitimate, professional purposes, you can hire me just like anyone else, but I'm not going to be on your leash," I said, in what was supposed to be a firm declaration of independence, but was somewhat marred by the tailor taking that opportunity to measure the circumference of my neck.

Marcone looked at the tape measure around my throat like a collar with a disturbing amount of interest.

The tailor coughed delicately and said, "Your estimation, Mr. Marcone, was very close -- but there are some adjustments to be made."

Marcone nodded, and the tailor said, "Walk this way, please."

I followed the tailor into the next room, where he handed me the trousers of what looked like a better suit than I'd dared to even gander at in a store, ever.

"Put these on, please, and this as well," he said, holding a shirt.

I tried not to feel awkward as I shrugged off my duster, toed off my shoes, and stripped out of my worn jeans. I'm a tall man, and it's not always easy to find pants with enough length, but these fit like the tailor had measured me weeks ago, not minutes.

The shirt was a kind of blue-grey, and I'm not sure I would have picked it out for myself, but I put it on anyway. The tailor led me back to the room Marcone was waiting in and had me step on top of a slightly raised platform. He drew a curtain aside, revealing several mirrors curved in a horseshoe shape.

"Why, Mr. Dresden," Marcone said, eying my new ensemble. "I might almost not be embarrassed to be seen in public with you."

"Oh, bite me," I said, but it came out a little fainter than I'd intended. The tailor was murmuring to himself and checking the fit here and there while making notes on a little pad. He draped a tie over my shoulder before excusing himself to the next room.

I've never been a big fan of ties and rarely have the need to wear one, so it took me a little longer than it should have to get the damn thing done up right.

Marcone stepped up behind me on the platform and brought his hand up to the knot at my throat. I froze, because I really don't like things around my neck except my amulet, and I really don't like people touching things around my neck.

But Marcone just adjusted my tie, his eyes on me in the mirror. "You clean up well," he said, and his breath stirred the hair at the nape of my neck, making me shiver slightly.

"Is that your way of telling me I usually look like a slob?" I asked, trying to wrest the conversation back toward something that counted as normal for us.

He tsked. "Can't take a compliment?"

I was about to sass him again, when I caught his eyes in the mirror and realized that it hadn't been an idle remark.

Marcone was looking really...appreciative.

Suddenly I wasn't really sure that the favor he wanted me to owe him was a remotely professional one. Especially with his hands coming to rest on my waist in a way that could only be termed proprietary.

I'm a pretty decent wizard, if I do say so myself, but I'm only human. And some parts of me evidently didn't care that the person who was groping me in a very civilized fashion was male and a professional criminal to boot. Or at least, that's what I deduced from my pants no longer fitting quite as well as they had before.

The tailor came back into the room at that moment with the jacket, but Marcone just slid his hands to rest on my shoulders. He looked me in the eye through the mirror and said, "We'll take it."

***

"Pretty woman, walking down the street, pretty woman, the kind I'd like to meet," Bob sang, doing an annoyingly credible imitation of Roy Orbison.

"Why do I ever tell you anything?" I muttered.

"Next he'll take you to the race track!" Bob said brightly.

"I really don't have to put up with this. How do you even know about that stupid movie, anyway?"

Bob sighed. "Harry, Harry, Harry. Haven't we already agreed that you don't really want to know about what happens when you let me out?"

I shuddered. "This is me, officially not wanting to know. This is also me, telling you to quit singing that damn song."

"But it's so catchy! And it really is apropos, although your hair needs to be curly and longer, and you need some bitchin' boots."

"In no way, shape, or form is it apropos," I said. "Marcone's playing a stupid game with me."

"Right, right. You were all flirty-flirty in the opera box, and then he bought you something nice. Not bad for a first date."

"There was no flirty-flirty! We were just talking about the opera, and how I thought part of it sucked!"

"Like I said, flirty-flirty," Bob said with an air of wisdom. "Harry, my boy, do we need to have a talk about what it means when older men buy you clothing?"

I made an incoherent noise and let my head thunk down onto my work desk.

Bob evidently took my expression of complete and utter despair as assent. "Okay, so you were cuddly at the opera --"

"Cuddly?"

"--and one or both you may have pitched the proverbial tent while he was dressing you up for his love," Bob continued, as if I hadn't interrupted.

I couldn't come up with an appropriate verbal reply, so I settled for dragging a heavy hammer off a nearby shelf.

"Shutting up, now," Bob said, and everything was quiet for almost five whole minutes.

***

I looked at the delivery man. "I think there's been some mistake," I said.

The man looked down at his clipboard. "It says here, two items for Mr. Harry Dresden. That's you, right?"

I nodded, and he handed over the two garment bags to me. "It was only supposed to be the one," I said, confused.

The man shrugged. "Take it up with the sender. Sign here."

I did and took the bags back inside. "What the hell did he send me?" I grumbled under my breath. I unzipped the first bag to find the suit I had tried on. Frankly, it was still too nice to actually wear, especially considering my propensity for attracting demon mucous.

Inside the second bag was a tuxedo. Attached to it was a note that said, "Wear this tonight."

I ripped the note off and crumpled it up in my hand, then yanked open the trapdoor down to the subbasement.

Bob was in the middle of one of his trashy books. "What's got your fancy pants in a twist?" he said.

"Fancy pants is exactly the problem. Marcone sent me a tux," I bit off and smoothed out the note enough so that Bob could read it.

If Bob had possessed eyebrows, they would have been raised. "Well, it is the opening night of La Traviata."

I frowned at the note in my hand. "Does that make a difference? Opera is opera, right?"

Bob looked at me, and it was amazing how he was able to express extreme amounts of pity without musculature or skin.

"Okay," I said, trying not to feel like an uncultured clod. "Fine. I guess I'll have to start getting ready."

"If you feel the need to sing Prince in a bubble bath, I swear I'll never tell anyone," Bob said, sounding altogether too helpful.

"I'm actually feeling the need to clobber you, and yet look at my restraint," I said sourly and climbed back up the ladder.

I got cleaned up and looked at the clock. Waiting on Marcone to pick me up felt uncomfortably like a girl waiting on her prom date, a comparison not aided by the fact that I was putting on a tux. He even got my shoe size right, which was all kinds of disturbing. In one of the jacket pockets was a small jeweler's box, which I opened with trepidation to find a pair of very tasteful cufflinks -- but then, Marcone probably didn't have it in him to pick out anything obnoxious or tacky.

I tried to find something to do while waiting, but ended up pacing around my living room. I hate waiting. I especially hate waiting when I think that mafia lords are having a good laugh at my expense and sending me clothing that I didn't even want in the first place, for who knew what reason.

Eventually someone knocked firmly on my front door, and I opened it to find Marcone standing there, looking as debonair in his tuxedo as last week. I felt like a bit of a fraud in mine, but as usual, my mouth was working well in advance of my brain. "What, no corsage?"

"May I come in?" Marcone said politely.

I stepped back to let him in, uncomfortably aware that Hendricks was glowering at me from the front seat of the limo outside.

"It fits well, I trust?" Marcone said, his eyes flicking over my ensemble.

"Uh, yeah. About that," I said.

Marcone waved a hand negligently. "You can thank me later."

"Or I can call you crazy now, because if I didn't need a suit then I definitely don't need a freakin' tuxedo," I said.

"I would have brought you a boutonniere if I'd known you wanted one," Marcone said.

I wasn't sure I was even in the right conversation, but if he wanted to play this bizarre game of whatever the hell this was, I could give as good as I got. I noticed that he was messing with one of his cufflinks and I said, "Need some help?"

He didn't pull away when I gently pulled up his wrist to see what the problem was. The problem was evidently that he wasn't wearing rental cufflinks -- these had a small chain between two parts and looked like they'd be a pain to try and thread through the cuffs. It was easy enough to put the cufflink back into place with two hands, but probably nearly impossible to fix with only one. Marcone wasn't the only one who could do annoyingly solicitous. "There we go," I said, straightening out his cuff a little.

He held up his other cuff in mute request. I took hold of his wrist again, turning it a bit so I could get to the cufflink. It was a little strange to hold another man's wrist -- I could feel Marcone's pulse under my fingertips. It was as steady as his gaze, which startled me by how oddly earnest he looked.

I was on the verge of saying something when I heard a voice float out of the subbasement, from the trapdoor I had forgotten to shut earlier.

Bob had already regaled me with Pretty Woman several times now, but Hungry Eyes was a new one, and also embarrassing for its connection to a Patrick Swayze movie.

I winced as Bob hit the chorus, and Marcone said thoughtfully, "He has raw talent, but lacks technique. I could give you the name of a vocal coach."

"Please don't encourage him," I said and then realized that I was still holding onto Marcone's wrist. I abruptly let my hands fall to my sides.

"We do have a slightly higher class of music awaiting us," Marcone said. "Perhaps we'll make an aficionado of you yet."

***

I like to pretend, at least to myself, that I'm not freaking out when I actually am. First of all, freaking out is not a good idea when you're being chased by ghouls, zombies, and things that want to flambé you.

John Marcone was none of the above, but still dangerous -- so even though my instincts were telling me that I should save the freak-out for later, I was having it while sitting across from him in the back of his limo.

"I'm disappointed," I said eventually. "Why not one of those Hummer limos?"

He gave me a look as he poured us both some scotch. "Beyond the fact that they're crass and absurd?"

I took the glass from him, painfully aware that my hands weren't as steady as his. I knew I should take it easy with the alcohol, but I was a little unnerved by the see-saw from the casual intimacy of doing up his cuffs, to making what passed for small talk between us.

"You're supposed to sip that, you know," Marcone said, and I narrowly avoided a gesture that he would no doubt term juvenile.

I hunted around for a graceful segue to talking about my actual job for the evening, then gave it up as hopeless and just said, "The opera house manager thinks the ghost is a former singer."

"Probably a tenor. Clearly the ghost is a glutton for attention, if the reports are to be believed," Marcone said, but the tone in his voice suggested he was humoring me.

Maybe it was the alcohol combined with already being in a snit, but I snapped, "If you're not going to take this seriously--"

Marcone cut me off. "I'm taking this very seriously, I assure you." His eyes held mine, and I felt something that might have been what someone in the medical profession calls an irregular heart rhythm.

Well, it sounded a lot less damning than saying it skipped a beat.

***

There are probably less embarrassing things than almost doing a faceplant in front of the main door of the premier opera house in Chicago.

I should know; I've done more than my share of squirm-worthy feats of idiocy. And as embarrassing as tripping was, it was nothing compared to the reason why I tripped in the first place. After getting out of the limo, with Hendricks following closely behind, Marcone and I went up the stairs to the front doors of the opera house. On our way up, it sort of hit me all at once: I was going to the opera with Gentleman Johnny Marcone in a tuxedo he'd bought for me, chauffeured in his private limo, and all the while, I could hear Bob singing "Pretty Woman" in the back of my brain, and holy shit, this was a date, wasn't it? Frankly, it was no wonder I missed that last step -- and at least we were going up, not down.

Marcone saved me from introducing my face to the marble walk with a steadying arm and then conveniently neglected to remove his hand from the small of my back after he guided me in the door past other patrons. I had half a mind to tell him what he could do with his chauvinistic little display, but then I remembered that it was totally something I would do, and it seemed a little hypocritical to complain.

Marcone led us up to his box, but to my surprise, we didn't go in right away. Rather, there were people standing outside the box next door, who smiled at Marcone in greeting. He led me over and extended a hand out to an older gentleman. "Mr. Rosen," Marcone said in that perfectly charming businessman's voice. "We missed you last week."

Mr. Rosen waved his hand. "My granddaughter's engagement party," he said, and then looked at me. "A business associate?" he inquired.

Marcone didn't confirm or deny. "Harry, this is Mr. Paul Rosen, of the Norill Institute. Mr. Rosen, this is Mr. Harry Dresden, a private detective of my acquaintance."

I was a little grateful that Marcone had been discreet enough not to add "wizard" or "man I might be trying to trip into bed" to his introduction.

Mr. Rosen smiled. "A detective, you say? You know, I've heard a few rumors going around that there have been ghost sightings in the hall. Perhaps Mr. Dresden could lay them to rest."

Marcone smiled, too, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I'm certain it's just talk."

"Undoubtedly -- as if ghosts were actually real," Mr. Rosen said, with all the self-assurance of the happily ignorant.

Before I could even think about saying anything, Marcone steered me back to his box and inside. Hendricks followed us and took up a spot by the door, in a pretty little gilt chair that I wasn't sure was built with linebacker-esque men in mind. Marcone sat on the same sofa with me as before, and if I'd been aware of the warmth of his body next to mine at the last opera, it was almost all I could think about now. Which was bad, because I still had work to do, no matter what Marcone thought.

From an inner suit pocket, I drew out a candle, some string twined with a silver chain, and a piece of chalk for a modified version of a ghost-seeking spell. It was one I had been tinkering around with, and while it would take a good deal of concentration, it would hopefully be more precise than some other spells I had worked with.

I gave the new spell a whirl during the first act. Although I was growing to like opera, or at least some parts of it, it was definitely not conducive to concentrating on a small but intricate piece of magic. Marcone was leaning uncomfortably close to me, his eyes trained on the candle in front of us. When the wick sputtered once and then went dark, I could feel a slight chuff of air that might have been half a laugh move through his body.

"It's a new one," I muttered defensively.

"Practice makes perfect," Marcone said.

I frowned at the candle and realized abruptly that with our heads bent down over the candle lying on the floor, there really wasn't much in the way of space between us. I only had to turn slightly to look Marcone in the eye. "Maybe I'll wait for intermission," I said. "The opera's distracting."

"It's meant to be," he said, his face still close to mine.

It felt like a moment where I should say something, anything, but instead I turned my head back to the opera itself.

Just before the end of intermission, I tried again -- this time, I was trying to get the end of the spell to coincide with the opening of the second act. Marcone leaned in close again and whispered in my ear, "The people across the way are looking." My ears have always been, well, sensitive -- and Marcone's lips had been so close that they grazed my lobe while the soft, hot rush of air that accompanied his warning made shiver run down my spine.

That time, not only did the candle sputter out again, but the scrim running along the top of the stage with its translation halted, skipped back a few lines, and then stopped projecting altogether.

"You know, I donated that," Marcone whispered in my ear again, and maybe I imagined the slight touch of his tongue to the inner curve of my ear, but I definitely wasn't imagining the jello-like quality of my knees.

"Sorry," I whispered back. Part of me -- okay, most of me -- really wanted him to put his mouth back where it had been and actually do something. "So much for understanding the opera," I added after a moment.

"How fortunate one of us has more than a passing familiarity with Italian, and this opera in particular," Marcone said into my ear again, and this time when he drew back and looked at me, the expression in his eyes was full of masculine satisfaction. I had no doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing to me.

There was no way in hell I was going to survive another act of this.

***

In Victorian times, the phrase, "making love" wasn't a euphemism for sex. It was used to describe the kind of sweet-talking employed by prospective lovers. I know this because I spend a lot of time reading bizarre magazines and somehow my brain latches on to useless bits of knowledge that will never be of any benefit to me whatsoever.

John Marcone was making love to me in the Victorian sense, in the middle of his opera box, under the guise of repeating the words of the opera in Italian and then translating them into English.

I was so painfully hard that only the presence of Hendricks kept me from throwing myself at his boss like a desperate, horny teenager. Marcone didn't need to lean that close and he definitely didn't have to keep teasing my ear with his lips. I was a shivering, shuddering mess of over-sensitized skin, and probably the only thing keeping me in my seat was Marcone's arm, securely wrapped around my waist.

"Io so che l'ama -- I know she loves him," Marcone translated. "Intermission is next. Would you like to try your spell again?"

I would, but whether or not I could drag my brain out of its hormonal fog long enough to do so was another question entirely. But I nodded, because it was my last chance, and I needed this to work.

Marcone actually stood up to stretch his legs, leaving me sitting alone on the sofa, which actually gave me a fighting chance to get the stupid spell done. Maybe practice does indeed make perfect, or maybe I was just desperate, but the spell finally did what it was supposed to do --

And nothing. I stared at it in confusion, wondering what I'd done wrong. So I did it again.

Still nothing. And then I started to get pissed. "There's no ghost," I hissed. "That stupid, waste-of-space manager -- there's no phantom of the opera, there's no anything."

Marcone mercifully refrained from any I-told-you-so's. "What will you do now?"

Channeling extreme sexual frustration into righteous fury seemed like a good option. "I'm going to have a chat with him. I really don't like people wasting my time."

He placed a hand on my shoulder. "Wait until after the show. You won't want to miss the last act."

I thought about haring after the manager anyway, but the thing was -- Marcone was right. I really didn't want to miss the last act, and maybe it had something to do with how the meaning of the story had been conveyed to me, but I was also caught up in the story of Violetta and Alfredo, and even though I suspected it would all any horribly, I wanted to see it through.

***

"So, anyway, your ghost problem is no more," I said brightly to the manager. "You're lucky you called me -- he was a really destructive one, and he might even have burned down this joint before he was satisfied."

The manager's eyes were wide with fear after my lurid description of the dangers of his fake ghost.

I leaned closer, as if to tell him something in confidence. "I don't know that I would go around mentioning this to other people. Ghosts are kind of funny about stuff like that -- you wouldn't want to draw him back to you, would you?"

He shook his head quickly, and I said, "I'll be expecting payment by the end of next week. Have a good, phantom-free night!"

Marcone watched the whole exchange, the corner of his mouth twitching slightly. "You've a rare gift for inspired sadism," he said afterward.

"He deserved it," I said. "Making me run around on a wild goose chase."

"Yet another reason I've never wanted to make an enemy of you," Marcone said dryly.

We made our way out of the opera house, and I grumbled, "He probably won't even pay me for the extra time I spent on this. Cheapskate."

"Well, you did get something out of it," Marcone said, allowing Hendricks to open the door to the limo.

I slid in, and he followed. "What's that?" I asked, unsure if we were going back to more uncertain territory.

Marcone smiled like a cat who had caught the proverbial canary. "Why, an appreciation of opera, I hope."

"Oh, I did not," I groused.

"So says the man who wept during the last act."

"I told you, I got dust in my eyes!" I lied frantically.

Hendricks pulled the limo away from the curb into traffic, and it didn't escape my notice that Marcone hadn't sat across from me this time. We weren't as tightly pressed against one another as we had been in the opera, but I could practically feel the air between us vibrating with suppressed tension.

"It's just..." I started and then floundered. "Violetta. I felt bad for her, because she didn't think she was the kind of woman a man like Alfredo would stay with."

Marcone made a noncommittal noise. "It never seemed to me that Violetta understood what he saw in her."

I frowned. "Why would that matter? It's not like a relationship between them would have worked out anyway, even if she hadn't died in the end."

"What good is having free will if you can't reach for the things you really want, consequences be damned?" Marcone said softly and looked me straight in the eye.

We weren't talking about the opera, and we both knew it.

Marcone pressed the intercom button and instructed Hendricks to pull over ahead.

Ahead turned out to next to Lake Michigan, down a service drive that ended up close to the water. Marcone got out and held out a hand to assist me in climbing out, as well. It was after midnight, and the Lake was dark except for lights coming from boats in the distance. Marcone leaned against the limo and said, "I told you I was taking this seriously."

I looked away. "What does seriously mean, for you? This isn't like buying a piece of real estate or something."

"This isn't a matter of business," he said, and the solemn tone in his voice made me look at him again.

"I don't know what you want," I said, some of my frustration escaping in my voice. "Is this your special way of telling me that you want to go steady?"

He looked at me, unblinking, and nodded.

That flustered me way more than any words could. "Well, how was I supposed to know?" I said, taking refuge in my old friend, sarcasm. "It wasn't like you gave me your letter jacket or anything."

"I gave you a tuxedo and a pair of cufflinks that are worth more than your entire apartment," he pointed out.

I looked at my cufflinks. "Er. Really?"

"Really."

That brought me up short for a moment, but then I muttered, "Sorry I don't have a class ring to give you or anything."

"I'd settle for a few moments of silence," Marcone said.

I didn't understand what he meant until he leaned close to me again. His eyes were half-closed and his lips so close I could have licked them, but he just stayed there and waited.

I wanted to know what the hell was going on, why he had just stopped, but maybe his point about reaching for what he really wanted included meeting me halfway.

So I closed the distance and let my eyes slide shut and my lips brush against his. We kissed slowly, quietly for a few moments, no rush, just the firm, insistent slide of his lips and tongue against my own. And then he made good on all that ungodly teasing from the opera and kissed his way up my jaw to my ear. I think my backside connected with the limo after he sucked my earlobe into his mouth and nibbled gently.

His jacket was in the way, but I stroked my hands over the front of his shirt, and he hummed a pleased little noise into my ear, which made me shudder and only clutch at him harder. I wanted to hear more of that noise, so I pulled him closer against me via the waistband of his pants, and he rewarded me with a sharp indrawn breath against my neck as he ground his hips against mine.

I ended up slouched against the side of the limo, trying more or less desperately to keep my feet planted and maintain a vaguely upright position. It seemed like I was fighting a losing battle, though, because Marcone had one hand down the back of my pants and grabbing my ass, and the other was holding my shoulder against the car while he rolled our hips together. Our breathing grew more ragged, and even though it was hard to think of a world beyond his body on mine and the hard metal of the car behind me, a flash of headlights off in the distance twigged something in what was left of my brain.

He was sucking on my neck again when I said between gasps, "I don't want to get picked up for indecent exposure."

"Worried I couldn't get you off?" he asked against my skin.

"You can get me off, I'd just rather we did it in the car," I said, fumbling for the handle behind me.

He pushed me down horizontal on the seat and followed almost immediately, yanking the door shut behind him.

It occurred to me that we still weren't precisely alone. "What about Hendricks?"

"What about him?" Marcone said, sounding distracted as he stripped my cummerbund off me.

I waved my hands, which only aided Marcone in his quest to get me out of my jacket. "Look, I don't know what kind of girl you think I am, but I don't usually go around having sex in limos while the driver is still there!"

"Hendricks is discreet. And the soundproofing is excellent."

"John!"

He sighed and slapped his hand against the intercom button. "Mr. Hendricks, take a walk for ten minutes."

"Ten minutes?!" I demanded, outraged.

Marcone looked down on me with a predatory smile. "This is just to take the edge off. We'll continue elsewhere."

I wasn't sure if that made me feel better, but Marcone's breath against my navel prevented all further questions. If I'd been carrying around a few latent notions that blowing another man was an act of submission, then Marcone destroyed them all with the first confident touch of his lips to my cock. He made it seem like an imperial privilege. I had a brief moment to wonder how he'd gotten so good before I met his money-green eyes while he took my cock deeper in his mouth. Everything after that was just the wet warmth of his mouth around me and the strength of his hands gripping my thighs. It wasn't long until I let out a choked moan as he swallowed me down.

I rested my head against the seat as I tried to catch my breath. I reached for him, my arms feeling like they weren't actually connected to the rest of me, but he crawled up my body and pressed a messy, desperate kiss against my mouth before fumbling with his pants and lowering his hips to mine. His cock rubbed against the slickness left near my hip, and he bent his head down towards mine, his hips moving in short, fast thrusts against my skin. I murmured something unintelligible as I wrapped one arm around his shoulders and reached for the flexing muscles in his ass with my other hand. He shuddered at my touch and shoved his hips once more against me, hard, and then went still.

The afterglow should have been uncomfortable -- limo seats are nice for sitting on, but they're not much of a bed, and I was sticking to the leather. Plus I had a mafia lord lying on top of me, who far exceeded me in terms of muscle mass. And I was dimly aware that a door had opened and shut again, which meant we were definitely no longer alone.

But for all of that, when Marcone pulled his head up off my shoulder to look at me, everything seemed just fine.

"You ruined my suit," I said idly after a moment.

"That's only if you think I didn't buy it for this purpose in the first place," he said, looking and sounding pleasantly tired.

"Huh," I said and helped him clean us up a bit as the limo's engine rumbled back to life.

***

It was the first intermission, and Marcone had excused himself, promising to be back momentarily. Hendricks went with him, leaving me standing outside the box, stretching my legs.

Mr. Rosen, the older man from the box right next door, approached me with a friendly smile. "Mr. Dresden, how are you enjoying the show this evening?"

"It's my first time seeing Die Fledermaus -- I hear it differs pretty wildly from the play it was originally drawn from," I said. Not that I'd gone to the library to check out some books on it or anything. No, of course not.

Mr. Rosen's smile widened. "Ah, then you're in for a treat tonight. And I must say, it's so nice to see Mr. Marcone stay past the first act."

"I beg your pardon?"

He leaned closer and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "He always left during the first intermission before you started attending with him."

I tried to process that. "Did he," I said.

"There is a line of the opera tonight: Chacun à son goût -- each to his own taste," Mr. Rosen said and gave me a smile he no doubt thought was worldly and understanding. "How nice for you both."

I managed to nod and then fled back inside our box. Marcone returned and took his customary seat next to mine, flipping through the program briefly before settling one casual arm along the back of the sofa behind me.

Well, two could play at that game. So I said nothing at all, and just leaned back comfortably into his half-embrace as the lights dimmed and the curtain rose.