I hadn't gotten there in time.
Not in time to save them all. 'Some is better than none'. A monk had told me that once, more or less. It hadn't made me feel much better then and it did nothing for me now.
He'd already killed two of the kids by the time I got there. I didn't exactly remember what happened after that, after I saw the bodies and the blood, heard the sobs of the children still alive in the cage built of razor wire. In the end there'd been a half dozen children packed off to St. Mary's with Mouse as guardian to be returned to their parents and another burnt down building.
That one was my fault and I was damned thrilled with it.
I wasn't in any state to drive, so I called him. He answered on the second ring, as always, and then I waited on the curb. The sedan was silent as it pulled up a few feet away from me and I said nothing to the driver, one of the thousand faceless made men that Marcone kept around, as I climbed into the back seat. I didn't need to know his name and he most definitely knew mine. What he and the others like him, the ones sent to pick me up beside pay phones or outside of whatever convenience store or bar let me use their phone, thought was going on didn't concern me. I knew whatever they thought, it was nowhere near the truth.
The car pulled into the 'no parking' zone in front of Executive Priority and I climbed out, letting the door shut behind me as I walked the few feet to the door. It was late and the shops on the ground floor were closed, the elevator door just sliding open as my feet hit the tile floor. I got in and leaned against the back wall, trying to get some sort of control back. My blood still rushed through me, my body tense and straining to fight an enemy that I'd killed more than an hour ago. I was on edge, about to topple over.
When the doors opened onto the third floor, they did so with a strange buzzing ding and they didn't open all the way. I turned sideways to get through the gap and then walked quickly through the halls until I reached Marcone's office.
He was behind his desk, head down as he read over a letter. Probably another one from one of his legion of lawyers. They were the most prevalent of his correspondence. Marcone didn't play games, didn't make me stand there, waiting. He took a pencil and made a small note on the piece of paper then set it down and rolled back from the desk, opening one of the side drawers as he did. I took off my coat and threw it over the end of the couch that was pushed up against one wall, leaned my staff against the wall beside it and then toed off my boots.
The carpet was thick and massaged my feet even through my socks. I considered taking them off as well, imagined shuffling my bare, aching feet into the high pile and sighing deeply as that simple little pleasure soaked into me and made all my other aches and pains that much sharper, but decided against it. Marcone kept his office cool. Not cold, but given the flashes of red anger that were still roiling through me and setting my stomach churning I was going to be here a while and I wanted to be comfortable. Cold toes were not comfortable.
I crossed the room until I was beside his desk, close enough to bump my hip against the hard edge of it. More than close enough to look down into the small, hidden drawer and see the contents. One collar, a dull silver-gray color with a small tag on the front of it. It looked like jewelry there against the rich dark wood of the drawer.
“What happened?” I looked up from the collar to meet Marcone's eyes. They were as clever and as careful as always, giving nothing away.
“Sorcerer. Kids. Human sacrifice.” I waved my hand through the air in a short gesture signaling not dismissal of the subject, but the end of my ability to talk about it. Marcone would want details, and I would give them to him. Later. When I could think a little more clearly. Marcone knew that I wouldn't be standing here, like this, if the monster was still free or the children still in danger. He nodded and picked up the collar.
“I have several hours of paperwork still to deal with.”
I folded to my knees without another word and Marcone settled the collar around my throat in silence, the click of the two ends locking together behind my neck as loud as a shot in the quiet of the room. Once he had checked the collar, unlocking it once and then locking it again, running his fingers along the inside to be certain there was plenty of space between the unyielding metal and my throat Marcone turned back to the desk and his paperwork, seeming to dismiss me from his attention.
It wasn't true though. I shifted my legs out from under myself and settled into a position I could hold for a long time beside his chair, my legs folded in front of me like in kindergarten during playtime. My body was still shaking, still full of anger and exhaustion, the need to fight and kill driving me when I should be crashing. With slow, deep breaths I closed my eyes and leaned my head against Marcone's thigh. I could feel the quiet shift and play of muscle through his slacks as he made small movements.
After a few minutes Marcone's hand came down on the back of my neck, his fingers running over the collar and brushing against skin as they did. I uttered an inaudible little sigh and felt a notch of tension leave my body.
One Year Earlier
“I don't want sex or anything. It's not- I don't want that.”
Marcone had the grace to not burst out laughing at me or to even show anything on his face that hinted at amusement. I appreciated it. This was hard enough as it was, even with the knowledge that I did need this, maybe even more than I wanted it. If he'd been an ass about it, I couldn't have gone through with it.
“Of course not.” He pushed the contract on the table a little closer to me. It was handwritten and there were already scribbled out sections and bits added to the bottom. A work in progress. “There is nothing sexual about this. It's about comfort. Control. And having a safe place to let go for a little while. People in our positions Harry, some of us find that we need this sometimes. There is no shame in it.”
“Do you have one? Someone who you can-” My mind presented me with an image of John Marcone on his knees, a collar around his throat. The empty, blissed out look of complete relaxation I imagined on my face pasted unevenly onto his features. Who would he trust with that? If anything, his position was even more difficult than my own in that respect. Men who surrendered so completely to another were not likely to have a very long life in the mob, even Marcone's more socially inclusive organization.
“It is not exactly the same, but yes. My needs are...different from your own.” He scrubbed a hand at the corner of his mouth and those green eyes flicked quickly to the small front windows of my apartment. To, I suspected, where Mr. Hendricks was waiting with the car. Oh. That...that made sense. Hendricks would, and had, done anything Marcone needed him to do. Taking his Boss in hand from time to time...and now I had that image in my head. Still Marcone on his knees because I didn't know what his 'needs' were and I wasn't about to ask, but with Hendricks beside him, that giants hand resting on the top of Marcone's head, blunt fingers carding gently through the thick black and gray hair, scratching along the scalp with care. I suppressed a shudder that had nothing to do with disgust.
I picked the contract up to reread it. We'd been negotiating for more than an hour but it was finally, finally as close to perfect as I thought we were likely to get. I set it back down on my coffee table and slid it back to him.
“Type it up and give me a call. We'll make it official then.” Marcone picked it up and folded it, placing the resulting rectangle of paper into an inner pocket of his jacket. He rose and began to head for the door. I followed him, torn between relief, anticipation that it was done, that as soon as it was written up properly I could call him when I needed to and the nagging feeling that this was wrong, that I shouldn't want this. It wasn't something a strong man would do, or need.
I reached out, nearly grabbed at his shoulder to stop him. With my fingers a breath away from Marcone's back I stopped and called up a memory of the last time. Memories of the handful of times I'd given in to this need and let myself go. Given myself permission to not be in control, on my guard. It had been...I let my hand drop down to my side.
Marcone left, and I felt a fluttering sense of relief. It was done.
One Year and One Month Earlier
“God dammit Harry!” Murphy threw the chunk of drywall that had nearly conked her on her head at the remaining wall of the building and glared at me, her eyes really blue when surrounded by the white-gray dust of plaster and other building materials.
“Murph, I had-”
“No!” She held up her hand, palm toward me and I stopped talking, stopped moving closer to her. Murphy was practically vibrating with adrenaline and maybe a little anger. I looked around the room, my own body still singing with the stomach churning mix of fear and rage that I had used to fuel my magic and, quite nearly literally, bring down the house. “You are out of control Harry. You could have killed us both. Not just us. You could have killed Rawlins and the hostages while you were at it.” Murphy pointed down the half caved in hallway that Rawlins had been running down with the kidnapped teachers a few minutes before.
“She was going to get away!”
“The priority is always to get the civilians out of the line of fire first! Always!” Murphy ran her hands through her hair and a rain of tiny bits of debris fell around her. “I don't know what's going on with you, but get yourself together. Take a vacation, get laid. Something. Anything. I can't call you in on things if I can't trust you to have yourself under control. People, innocent people, are going to get killed.”
As I drove back to my apartment, the Beetle coughing and sputtering the whole way, spitting out puffs of black smoke every few minutes I thought Murphy might be right. I was on edge; the jittery, spinning out of control feeling that I had come to realize meant I was too close to things. I wanted to scream, to throw things and set buildings and evil creatures on fire with equal pleasure.
I took care of Mouse and Mister when I got home and then locked myself into my tiny bedroom. My shower was quick, the cold water not conducive to trying to get myself under control and into a quiet, calm place. I yanked on a pair of old cut off sweats and a thin tank top, my movements jerky. Then I reached under the bed and pulled out the shoe box I'd stashed under there.
The collar was still there, looking sad and wrong curled up on the bottom of the box, plain black leather with a simple buckle. I shoved the box back under the bed and buckled the collar around my own throat, hands shaking as I did. Then I settled down on the floor beside my bed, legs stretched out so that my feet touched the back of my door and closed my eyes, waiting for the quiet, peaceful emptiness to settle into me.
Ten minutes later I was still sitting there, my muscles cramping. My anger, rather than beginning to recede, was building. A fire feeding on itself. Frustration choked me. Something was missing and I knew what it was. The other person, the one I could trust to take care of me for a little while, to watch my back. I cursed and ripped the leather collar, such a stupid idea, from my throat hard enough I felt the friction burn my skin. I threw the thing across the room and jerked the door open, letting Mouse in. My dog looked at me, whined softly and then followed me into the tiny space of my bed. I wrapped an arm around his solid, comforting form and fought my way into sleep.
One Year and Three Months Earlier
Rudolph smirked and made a quick gesture with his fingers, following it up with a few rapid thrusts of his hips at Murphy's retreating back. Five seconds after that he was unconscious on the floor of the underground parking garage, blood spilling from his nose. Murphy, her cell phone still held to her ear didn't turn around as she stepped into the elevator. Good. I didn't need her interfering with what was about to happen.
I drew up my will, whispered a word and my little ball of sunshine flared into life over my outstretched right hand. I felt the heat of it and my face ached with my smile, something tight in my throat. I had had it with this little shit. Time for him to learn some manners.
Rudolph stirred, his eyes flickering as I knelt down beside him and brought the miniature sun down to within a few inches of his face. I took my time, part of me wanting Rudolph to wake up so he could see what was coming. Sweat broke out on his face, beading along his upper lip. He didn't regain consciousness. I started to bring the fire close enough to scorch him when there was the sound of a door opening and footsteps hurrying in my direction.
Shit. I clenched my hand into a fist and cut off the spell. Murphy rounded the Suburban that had been blocking us from the view of the stairwell and froze.
“What the hell happened?”
I stood and shrugged, looking away from her. I was a really shitty liar, especially to Murphy.
“Dunno.” As I spoke I looked back down at Rudolph. Ice cold water rushed over me. He was bleeding, not just from his nose but from the back of his head. He must have caught it on the edge of one of the supports when he started to go down. It wasn't a whole lot of blood, but it was enough to mat down his hair on that side and form a tiny pool of the stuff. I started to shake, not enough to be seen, but enough that I could feel it. Hells bells. I looked at my own hands. What the hell had I been about to do?
“Jesus, Harry.” Murphy knelt beside Rudolph. “You better hope he doesn't remember who hit him.”
“Yeah.” My voice came out quiet, strained. I still wanted to hurt Rudolph, even as I shook with relief that I'd been stopped from doing something horrible. “I need to go Murph. I need- I've got to go.” I turned on my heel and walked away, out into the sunshine and toward the waiting Blue Beetle. I needed to get myself under control. I'd been running too hard; between Warden work, the Paranet and my job, I'd taken on too much. There'd been that little 'vacation' a couple of months back, but since then it had been nonstop chaos and death. I remembered the feeling of contentment and calm that I'd come out of that month with. I just needed to sit down and get that back.
Two hours later I tried to rise from my meditative position on the floor and toppled forward when my leg announced that it had fallen asleep. It hadn't worked. The incense was too thick, my thoughts too loud, my apartment too cold, my clothes too warm. I hadn't been able to get past all of that and to my core, to the place where there was nothing but my heartbeat and my breathing.
Damn. I flopped backwards onto the rugs and stared at my ceiling. If I was honest with myself, I hadn't been able to get that feeling back since the negotiations had ended and Marcone had taken the collar from around my neck. Okay. Something about the collar had meshed with some weird little corner of my brain. It had decided that I needed the feel of it; heavy but not too heavy. Like a trigger. Fine. Weird, but fine.
I rolled over and pushed myself to my knees, then used the wall to gain my feet. I scratched down a quick addendum to the grocery list; 'collar'. It would be fine. It was just a prop after all. It didn't mean anything.
One Year and Five Months Earlier
“This is a joke, right?” I looked back and forth between Ebenezar and Captain Luccio, waiting for one of them to crack a grin or slump their shoulders and laugh. Neither one of them did. They just continued to look back at me with steady, serious gazes.
“Warden Dresden. Harry. It’s important that these talks proceed as smoothly as possible and that we leave a good impression on the Anunnaki. Safe passage through their lands could be vital.”
“‘Could be’. Not is. This is ridiculous. I’m not doing it. I’m not.” Luccio didn’t do anything so obvious as develop an irritated tic in her face, but her eyes narrowed and I thought I could hear her teeth grinding.
“It is a requirement of your position, Warden Dresden. They are potential allies and what we might gain from them is worth far more than this small shred of your ego. I am ordering you to do it.”
“Then I quit.” Captain Luccio also didn’t lunge across the table and shake me like a rag doll. I think that had a lot to do with the centuries of practice she’d had in dealing with people who pissed her off.
“You cannot quit. Why is this-”
“Captain Luccio.” Ebenezar's hand hit the table softly, close enough that I understood if it had been anyone other than Captain Anastasia Luccio, he’d have been putting his hand on her arm. Respect and the desire to keep all of his bones unbroken prevented that in her case. “Maybe I could talk to Warden Dresden for just a second? Alone.”
“Perhaps you can talk some sense into him.” She rose and headed over to the bar. Mac had a beer waiting for her by the time she sat down. Ebenezar reset the circle she’d broken and then it was just the two of us.
“Hoss, think of it like it’s a piece of jewelry. You wear it for the negotiations and the parties. Once the Anunnaki are gone, you can melt it down or throw it away or anything you like.”
“It’s not jewelry, sir. It’s a collar.” I locked my hands loosely around my own throat for a second, in case Ebenezar didn’t get what I was saying. He gave me a look that said my condescension was not appreciated. “Collar. Denoting ownership and control. Neither of which I am willing to give to anyone. Least of all John fucking Marcone.”
I didn’t turn around to look at Marcone, sitting at a table behind ours, but I could feel his attention on us. On me. It was as though he knew exactly when I said his name, even through the soundproof shielding of the circle.
“The second from the Anunnaki is going to be wearing one the Baron puts on him too. It’s just a custom, a symbol of both parties turning over their weapons to the hosting party.”
“They don’t have to live with him after it’s all over. You guys all get to leave and go back to your lives after this. I have live in the same city as Marcone. Every time I see him this thing is going to be between us. You’re making my life more of a living hell than it already is.”
Ebenezar snorted and shook his head.
“That’d be mighty hard to do, Hoss. You’re both adults. I think you can be mature about this. The collar doesn’t have any real power. It’s not like you’re going to be compelled or controlled. If both parties don’t have their second handed over to the host, it looks like we don’t have faith in the Baron’s ability to handle things. That we don’t feel secure in laying aside our arms to come to the table. The whole deal will die before it gets a chance.” He took a drink. “We need this Hoss. It’ll save lives.”
I closed my eyes and tried to think uncaring thoughts. A minute later I opened my eyes and Ebenezar was looking over my shoulder, past the edges of the circle. Probably giving Marcone the stink eye while Marcone was giving it to me. Say what you like about the old man, he didn’t take well to people messing with me, even if it was just dirty looks.
“Can’t you get some other luckless schlub to play the part?”
“We’re a little short on Wardens, as you’ll recall. Warden Ramirez is still tied up with those shark-man sightings over in Hawaii.”
Which just figured. Carlos got to hang out in Hawaii and I got Marcone and a piece of metal around my throat.
“Who’s our delegate?” The words sighed out of me, half-defeated and surrendering. We’d all known I’d do it anyway. I'd made a career out of doing stupid things that were going to end in flames.
“The Gatekeeper. We’ve always been on pretty friendly but neutral terms with the Anunnaki. Friendly enough as long as you know enough not to step on some weird esoteric custom. There’s not going to be any trouble.” It was my turn to laugh. “Even if there was, the Gatekeeper can handle himself in a fight. You won’t be left holding the whole bag.”
“I want to inspect the thing first. And have someone else I know check it out.”
The collars glowed in the sunlight that cascaded down through the skylight in the middle of Marcone’s office building. They weren’t flashy or anything like that. Just simple braided metal, copper and silver, something that could be mistaken for a Celtic inspired necklace by anyone who didn’t know better. Anyone in the know, however, could look at the small dangling ‘pendant’ at the front and read ‘In the Hands of Baron John Marcone’, which was as close as ancient Babylonian came to ‘Property of’ apparently. The damned things were kind of pretty, if you ignored what they meant.
Cujo stood stiffly behind and a little to one side of Marcone’s chair, holding the tray with the two collars and looking like the worlds angriest butler. I think it really grated on him to have so many people in the room with Marcone, so many dangerous people no less, and be hampered by that tray.
I waited, more or less patiently, in my good robe over the nicest suit I owned. The grey cloak of the Wardens felt heavy and restrictive on my shoulders. I was sweating in the sun under all those layers, miserable, and the ceremony was taking forever. The delegates from the Anunnaki were faring a hell of a lot better than I was.
The little jerks were naked. Short, grey, naked...aliens. They looked like the classic alien stereotype, which I figured meant that they were the truth behind all of those alien sightings. Ninurta, my Anunnaki counterpart for this farce, stood beside me looking cool and calm. I was torn between wanting to see what it would take to make the little guy sweat and my brain flailing around because, hell. Little grey alien.
I let myself space out. Not enough to lose track of what was going on, but just enough that everything seemed to flow around me, faster than normal time. I’d gotten through a lot of high school using the technique.
Ninurta moved forward at his cue from Marcone and I snapped back to full attention. The little guy knelt, which made it hilariously awkward for Marcone to put the collar on him. He wound up crouching more than leaning down to get to the right height. It killed some of the gravity of the situation and I had to muffle a soft snort of laughter. Marcone looked up at me and smiled, the amusement reaching his eyes for once.
“Warden Dresden.” Marcone took the second collar from the tray and stood waiting, his eyes still gleaming with amusement. I stepped forward, not too quickly, but I didn’t hesitate. I’d checked the collar out thoroughly and then I’d had Bob take a look at it. It was just metal, no magical booby traps at all. Embarrassing and annoying, but it wasn’t going to hurt me.
I knelt in front of Marcone, which made my shoulders go tight and his grin grow even wider. A second later the warm pressure of Marcone’s presence was right in front of me. He leaned down far enough that his hair, falling out of its customarily neat business style brushed against my cheek. I jerked a little, just enough to nearly unbalance me. A deep chuckle echoed in my ear as Marcone’s hands came up and placed the collar against my skin. It was warm, nearly hot from being in the sun.
“You look good like this Harry.” Marcone was close enough I could feel his breath puffing over my skin, making it prickle in reaction. I shivered and grit my teeth. Two could play that game. The latch at the back of the collar clicked closed and before Marcone could step away I turned my head, bringing us into contact, my nose buried in his dark hair, my lips nearly touching the shell of his ear.
“Too bad it’s all pretend then John.” Then I licked his jaw, just beneath the curve of his ear. Marcone went still for a second and it was my turn to laugh quietly at him. He recovered his composure fast enough I was sure most people wouldn’t have even noticed the hesitation. I’d gotten him with that one. He’d come expecting to make me uncomfortable, to embarrass me in a little adolescent game. And I’d one upped him. It felt good, even knowing that he was going to come back with something else to mess with me. We had at least a week of this, of the collar and me having to be in his back pocket.
Marcone backed away, his face composed into its usual unreadable businesslike lines. I flashed him one last grin before I rose and backed up to stand beside the Gatekeeper once more. I got the feeling my very serious face didn’t fool Rashid at all and that he knew exactly what had just gone on up there even though I was also sure that our actions had been blocked from physical sight.
Wordlessly I gave him an apologetic shrug. The collar bounced a little with my movement, heavy and foreign. Uncomfortable in far more than just the physical sense. Without my schoolyard fight with Marcone to distract me I could feel the weight of it, annoying and constricting. I hated the damned thing already. I wanted to reach up and yank it off, toss it through one of the windows or maybe right at Marcone’s head. A week of this shit at the least. Great.
Cujo shifted his weight, drawing my attention to him and I was in time to catch the tail end of his smirk. I was going to wind up killing someone before this was all over.
“Harry.” I didn’t jump when Marcone set his hand against the back of my neck, his fingers tracing over the collar before dropping to my shoulder. I’d jumped the first five or six times he’d done it, even knowing that it was coming. It was unsettling, the way Marcone kept touching me, and I couldn’t even blame him or pass it off as Marcone being an ass about things. It was ‘tradition’ and he treated me the exact same way he treated Ninurta.
The game of 'annoy the shit out of Marcone' had gotten old quick, especially when he didn't react to any of it. The lecture I'd gotten from the Gatekeeper had put the kibosh on it fairly well too. He was not amused to say the least, and when the Gatekeeper wasn't amused, no one was amused.
“Is something the matter?”
“Nooo...” I pulled away from him and headed into the dining room.
“Harry!” Marcone's hand was a warm, familiar weight on the back of my neck and I froze, my arm still stretched forward, a spell buzzing between my fingers. A second later I dispersed the energies and turned around to look down at Marcone.
“Just letting off some steam.” A month of negotiations. I had a lot of steam to let off.
“Please don't destroy the gardens.” Marcone shook his head and his fingers flexed slowly, with just enough strength that I felt it through my entire body. My body leaned into it for a second, swaying, before I caught myself and straightened up, pulling away from him. Something flashed over Marcone's face and then was gone, a sort of understanding.
“Did you want something?”
“An agreement has been reached. You're free.” His hand found my shoulder, the side of my throat again. I looked at him, trying to read him. What did he think he'd figured out?