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The last person I wanted to see walked through my office door; at least he asked his bodyguard to wait outside.

"May I help you?" I put as little actual helpfulness in my tone as I could.

"I wish to hire you, Mr. Dresden, for a particular case. I will pay your usual rates, and expenses." There was something in his tone that almost sounded like an emotion -- probably a trick of the light. 'Gentleman' Johnny Marcone, the frequently disputed but never for very long boss of all bosses of the Chicago mob, didn't do emotion. The appearance of it, and the fact that he dared to try to hire me after I had turned him down creatively so many times before had me curious.

"My first impulse is to say 'no way in hell', but what case, Marcone?"

"One of my people has disappeared, a hooker, and I think it might have more to do with your area of expertise than that of the police. Things being as they are, even those in the department with eyes to see will probably not be allowed to call you in." He had a point, Murphy had been disgraced, and the dick in charge of Internal Affairs was now a real dick, who kept SI, the police squad that dealt with 'weird stuff' under malignant scrutiny, and whose way of handling weird stuff was not to see it.

"What makes you think it's my area?"

"A very bad feeling," he said, and before I could express my skepticism he continued, "and her pimp described the last customer with whom she was seen as 'a smooth foreign guy with a weird rope tie'." I sucked in a breath and tried not to believe it was what it sounded like.

"That's not much to go on. It might be just some rich Latino with a bolo. Why would Nicodemus bother with a simple hooker? And why do you care so much? Hookers disappear every day? Has she got something on you?" His gaze focused on me like a money green laser sight, but his face remained impassive.

"She might be a hooker Mr. Dresden, but there are many people walking the streets, guilty of much worse things. I believe she is in the worst kind of danger, and she has done nothing to deserve it."

He had me there, and he knew it. He knew exactly what buttons to push. I glared at him, expecting him to get one of his satisfied little victory smirks back. I didn't. I saw only a slight softening.

"Who is she, John?" I asked quietly. He evaded the question, naturally.

"I don't even know her real name."

"John, if it's Nicodemus that's got her, the only reason I could see for her to take her is to get at you -- if there is a connection between you. Is there? I can't help her if you're going to hold out on me."

He stiffened and stared at me. I thought he would turn and leave, but finally he sagged a little, and his eyes dropped.

"As you say, you can't help her if you don't know. Promise me that you will hold what I tell you in strictest confidence, on your power." I nearly told him to go lump it right then, but he held up a hand.

"In return, I promise that what I have to tell you will not make you an accessory to any crime, or even impugn your delicate sense of honor. It's merely...exquisitely personal."

"I'm still tempted to tell you to take a hike, for insulting my professionalism by assuming that I need coercion to keep what my clients tell me secret." He raised a brow at me.

"Then you take the case? I can assume client's privilege?"

"Yes, yes, I'm on it," I huffed. He nodded.

He paced slowly back and forth in front of my desk for a moment.

"There are days, Mr. Dresden, when I am exceedingly tired of my job, my life. On those days I seriously consider that taking her for a boat ride from which neither of us would return as a viable option."

I stared at him. That was a bombshell and the most chilling thing about it, was the absolute calmness with which he dropped it. I knew which 'her' he referred to. The one that fueled his drive to stay on top of the mob heap in Chicago, keeping violence down. The young woman who still lay in a coma after taking a bullet for him when she was still a little girl. The whole notion of one of the most driven, most powerful men in Chicago contemplating suicide threw my brain into neutral.

"I have, obviously, not given into that impulse, but there are days when it's very hard." He chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment. "On one of those days, it was cold, and gray, of course, I wasn't looking where I was going, and nearly ran into a hooker. I apologized, but she took one look at me, patted my arm, and offered to make me a cup of tea. I was sufficiently...bemused to accept the offer. She took me to her apartment, sat me down, gave me tea, and...hope." He frowned.

"I was going to pay her, as a matter of course, but then I considered that if she was truly acting from kindness, that would be a slap in the face, so I didn't. I did leave my gloves, however; It was very cold, and she didn't have any. If her motives were mercenary, which I couldn't help suspecting, of course she would be annoyed. I saw her again, some days later, when my car was stopped in traffic. She saw me, and she smiled." He closed his eyes for a moment.

"Mr. Dresden, the memory of that smile has warmed and lighted some very cold, dark places." I could imagine. He opened his eyes and met mine. "I have seen her since, at intervals, never anything so predictable as to be a pattern, but if someone had me under long term surveillance..."

"They'd at least be able to guess she meant something to you."

Damn! I wished the man would keep being soulless criminal scum instead of the human being he keeps turning into. I glared at him. This time I did get a ghost of his knowing smirk in reply. I snorted and looked away pulling my mind back to the case at hand.

"How long has she been missing?"

"Nearly forty eight hours, I just happened to find out about it today." He clenched a hand briefly.

"Can you get me into her apartment? It's not taped off?"

"As you say, Mr. Dresden, hookers disappear every day. The police have more important uses for their time."

_________________________________

The building Marcone took me to was old, cold and dingy. He picked the lock so quickly he might as well have had a key. The apartment itself was small, clean and cold, with no discernible threshhold. It was also as depressingly industrial as housing project construction methods could make it: cinder block walls, linoleum tile floor, bare bulb ceiling light. She had added a bare minimum of second or third hand furniture, and a couple of faded prints on the walls -- out of focus paintings of pastoral scenes with gold painted plastic frames. The one window had a sheet hung across it on a string. There was an old particleboard bookcase. It held a picture of a young couple: white girl, black guy, the cute brown-haired girl visibly pregnant. A newspaper item with a picture of the same young man, but in uniform -- an obituary, no mention of being survived by a wife or child, A small stuffed elephant, a blue baby shirt in a size smaller than newborn, a picture of a tiny biracial infant with a tube in it's nose. All of them were faded.

Nothing out of the ordinary, it told a story like thousands of others in this city, of average, everyday heartbreak. There wasn't a young woman in town more than a choice or two and some really bad luck away from where this girl was.

There was also a pair of gloves on that shelf, as if enshrined, men's, expensive leather, fur lined.

"Yours?" I asked. Marcone nodded.

In return he showed me a stack of Stroger Hospital bills on the folding table, dating back a year. The name on them was Marie Patton, and they were for the care of 'male infant Patton', NICU charges nearing fifty grand, there was even a line item for 'post mortem care'. There were payments registered, ten and twenty dollars at a time, that did little to diminish the total. Quiet desperation in a nutshell.

I opened my Sight. There was nothing discernible. A tv tray next to the bed acted as a nightstand. There was a hairbrush there with some long brown strands that matched the girl in the picture; I removed a few.

"You are going to do a tracking spell."

"The thought had crossed my mind."

"Another thought has crossed mine. If they wanted just me to go to them, they would have sent a message saying they'd taken her, with a meeting place and time specified. Since they didn't, perhaps it isn't me they're looking to trap, but the one I would call to find her. Perhaps they want you."

"I always think everything might be a trap, that's why I'm still alive," I responded. Marcone gave me an eyebrow which I pointedly ignored. "I'll let you know when I have something."

"As you wish," he replied urbanely. He couldn't have gotten the movie reference and responded that way, could he? I gaped at him. He remained inscrutable. "I can and will provide back up in order to assure the success of the recovery. Please do not hesitate to ask, and please do hesitate to go rushing in without a plan."

"And when do I get to advise you on how to run your business?" I sneered at him.

"At such time you have hired me."

"That'll be when Nicodemus comes with his own popsicle stick."

"I suppose I ought not to hold my breath then, and keep running my business as I see fit." You know, maybe the guy wouldn't be able to push my buttons so easily if they weren't all red and lit up.

 

_________________________________________________________

I went back to my apartment to put a few things together before tracking the girl. Despite my flip dismissal of his warning, Marcone had a point. This could very well be a trap for me. The Denarians were possessed humans, well, they started out that way, they ended up as very powerful demons with human suits that they could alter at will.

I hadn't realized, until I started looking into this young woman's disappearance, just how often Marcone's and my lives mirrored each other. We'd both been captured by Nicodemus; offered the coin that would allow the demon access to our bodies, and us access to its powers. Both of us had said no despite torture. We were both known for going to great lengths to protect our associates.

Now it looked as if the Nickelheads had found someone who seemed to be vulnerable...but who could get under Marcone's skin. Which meant, sooner or later, that her vulnerability had to be exploited. And when it was...well, hell's bells, who else would Marcone go to? I was the only person in Chicago who was insane enough to choose to fight the Denarians whether I had backup or not.

Really simple. And cheap. One missing hooker equals bait for one worried mob boss. One worried mob boss and one missing hooker equal bait for a wizard private investigator. They barely had to do anything. All they had to do was ensure that that Marcone knew they were around and then make her disappear. Our personalities would drive us to find her. They didn't have to lure us in. We were running right towards them.

And even knowing that we were running into danger didn't matter. Because Marcone protected his people, and it was obvious that Marie Patton was one of them emotionally, if not economically. And I couldn't walk away from someone in more than mortal peril. My life would have included a lot less pain over the years if I could be pragmatic, cut my losses and walk away. Breathing in outer space would have been simpler.

I hate traps. Especially traps that I know are traps and that I'm going to fall into anyway.

So I went home intending to be one step more prepared to get out of a trap than the Denarians were to trap me. Using the part of the hair sample, I called up a spell over little Chicago. A pendulum held over the center of the city swung east to west, and back, then deviated to the South and stayed there. The speed and strength of the reaction told me that she was still alive.

I put on my duster, and shield bracelet, and took my staff and blasting rod. Mouse whuffed at me.

"Not this time boy, you're kind of conspicuous, I am trying to be subtle here." He gave me a look that told me what he thought of my chances of that, but settled his gray canine bulk back on the floor by the sofa.

I drove south, and just west of the loop, in a semi industrial area, I pulled off, and performed a tracking spell. I had intended just to get a rough estimate of her whereabouts, and do some recon, but I really hate Denarians, there was a stew of rage, fear and concern fueling the spell. Also, I had gotten pretty close, by dumb luck. The imperative of the spell hit me hard. It was leading me to the right, and down. Undertown.

There is a maze of tunnels under Chicago. Many of them built during prohibition, when speakeasy patrons needed escape in case of raids, and the mob needed discreet routes of supply. Some were built earlier in the city's history as routes for the underground railroad, some were dug before white people even showed up, and some were not built by humans at all. Most of them aren't mapped. Some of them shelter very bad things. There were various entrances at ground level, and I cast back and forth like a beagle on a leash smelling a rabbit, trying to find the nearest one to me. I was so intent that I didn't notice the plainclothes detective until she had a hand on my shoulder. I had also been trying not to think about some of the nastier denizens of undertown and failing, and that's why the touch made me yelp and jump. Good job, Dresden, that's not suspicious at all.

 

"Oh, Murphy." I gave a relieved smile, which faded as I saw the scowl on her face. Now Karrin Murphy has a cute scowl, what with her petite blondness and her turned up nose, but it fronts the willingness and ability to cause grave physical injury. "Uh, what can I do for you."

"You can tell me what the hell you are doing working for Marcone. And then you can fill me in on when exactly when you were going to warn me. Dammit, Harry, you KNOW IA has me under a microscope. I have defended you, and your role in our investigations over and over, and now here you are working for Marcone!"

"You make it sound like I've suddenly turned hit man or something, and how did you know?" I protested.

"Rudolf's got you under surveillance, he slapped me in the face with this development. It doesn't matter what you're doing for him; it only matters what Rudolf can make it look like you're doing!"

"Which is what? I'm an investigator," I said, trying to sound reasonable. "I'm investigating a woman's disappearance. What's wrong with that?"

Murphy rubbed her forehead as if I were giving her a headache. I get that reaction a lot. "Why does Marcone care about this woman, Harry? What does she know? It can't be anything unimportant. Not with Marcone involved. And what's going to happen to her when you find her? What's he planning to do? And why the hell are you working for him?" She gazed at me, her blue eyes troubled and angry. "There was a time you wouldn't have even considered taking his money. What does he have on you? Why are you DOING this?"

"Because he's worried about her," I said, knowing that this was true and knowing that that wouldn't be enough. I couldn't really blame her. I was probably the only investigator in Chicago who would have credited Marcone's story about thoughts of suicide and a special smile.

"Why? Does she work for him?"

"No. But he seems to be feeling kind of protective anyway."

Again, that troubled gaze. "Harry--Marcone doesn't get protective. Not randomly, anyway. There are a handful of people he puts money, power and influence on the line for. His bodyguards. His mistress. And--on a couple of occasions--you. And now you're saying that this girl is that important, too. I don't know what's going on, but you have to level with me."

"Murph--"

And that was as far as I got before three people in rumpled suits walked up to me. One, a gray-haired man with a face like a weary beagle, had a gun drawn (though his finger wasn't anywhere near the trigger, I noticed), the second, a tall slim young black man, had a badge out and the third, a short-haired Hispanic woman older than Badge Guy and younger than Beagle Masterton, was keeping her hands free, probably in case I decided to attack them or run for it. I judged her to be the most dangerous; the last time I'd seen a woman with an expression that fierce, she'd been attacking an evil monster that fed on fear with a double-edged battle-axe and shouting, "You will NEVER hurt my daughter again!"

This was not a quarrel I wanted to get into. I froze, and then slowly lifted my hands in the air.

The one with the badge spoke. "RICO Taskforce, Mister Dresden. We'd like you to come with us. Right now."

"Am I under arrest?" Probably not the wisest thing I could have said, but I defy anyone to feel innocent when federal agents are saying, "We'd like you to come with us."

The one with the gun shook his head the tiniest bit, not ceasing to keep me from his line of vision for a second. "No. We just have some questions, and we need your help. As soon as we're done, you can go."

I didn't feel in the least bit helpful. Unfortunately, there was no way to say that to them without looking like I was trying to cover something up. Sighing, I capitulated. "Okay, okay. Where do you want me to go?"

***

In the back of an unmarked car, as it turned out. And after that, to O'Hare Communications Center, which is attached to O'Hare International Airport. Did you know that the FBI has an office in the lower level of Terminal One at O'Hare? Neither did I. And I could think of safer places for me to be than anywhere near highly computerized planes, too.

One of the agents informed me that they'd picked this office because it was closer than the other FBI offices in Illinois, which weren't anywhere near Chicago. Because convenience has so much to do with being a federal agent. Yeah. Call me crazy, but I suspected that the levels of security at the airport might have something to do with why I was being brought there.

They started slowly--mostly innocuous questions. Do you mind if we tape this? (They tried taping what they called "the interview" five times before giving up...eight tape recorders and three videocameras later.) State your full name for the record. (It's on my private investigator's license.) How long have you been a private investigator? (If you're counting the year that I first got my license, since I was twenty-five. If you go back to when I started trying to find missing people, since I was twenty-two and working for Ragged Angel Investigations.)

Interspersed with the innocuous questions, though, were more troublesome ones. How long have you known John Marcone? (Met him fifteen years ago when I was investigating a double murder for the Chicago P.D. I wouldn't say anyone knows him.) There's a persistent rumor that says you work for him. That you've even killed for him. (No to both.) Your phone records say that you've called him a few times. What's up with that? (Personal reasons.) I thought you said you don't work for him. (I don't.)

Then they switched to grilling me about Marie Patton. Why is Marcone interested in her? (I couldn't say. I was trying to track her down when you guys interrupted me.) You didn't ask why he wanted to find her? (Yes, I did.) And? (Client confidentiality.) Doesn't apply if law enforcement feels that the client may be in mortal danger. (She's not in mortal danger from Marcone.) Uh-huh. *pause* What does he have on you, Dresden? (Weren't you listening when I told Murphy? NOTHING.)
You sure that's the story you want to go with? (Yes.)

Rinse. Repeat. Start again.

I lost track of time. The questioning seemed to be taking forever. And with no rest and no food for hours on end, nothing but potty breaks, I very quickly started feeling more than a little out of it. I'm not entirely sure how I answered all the questions...nor did I care, then. The tracking spell was becoming acutely painful, like fire rushing through my bones. I had to get out of this room, had to start trying to find Marie. A spell that's been cast but not completed only intensifies over time. The longer I was delayed, the more agonizing the spell became. I was rapidly approaching the point where I needed to find Marie more than I needed food. Or rest. Or breath.

If I'd been able to think coherently, I would have been frightened. Wizards under the geas of powerful spells have run themselves to death before--and kept pursuing their now pointless goals even after their bodies had died. But...well, I'm not great at thinking at the best of times, and right now, exhaustion and the compulsion to find Marie made thought all but impossible.

Then, just when I got to the point where I could have recited my answers by rote, the questions changed.

"Where do you think Marie is?" This from the gray-haired beagle, whose name, I had discovered, was Bridger. "You strike me as a decent guy. If you have any idea where she might be, tell us. She could be in terrible danger."

"I don't know where she is," I said for the thousandth time. "I was looking for her. I hadn't found her yet."

"Any idea who's got her?" This was the Hispanic woman, Aguilar; Grady, the black guy, had just left for coffee and a sandwich, and I was trying not to envy him. "If you were looking for her, you probably had some idea of who to ask, right?"

"Yeah, I do." I swear the words just said themselves. "But that doesn't really help, because I don't know where they've taken her."

"Who?" Bridger again, looking almost as driven as I felt. "We need names here, Dresden. She could be in real danger." He even managed to sound magnanimous as he said that.

I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes. I didn't really know what to say. I could spin the Knights of the Blackened Denarius as a cult or a small domestic terrorist group. The problem was that the feds tended to investigate cults and domestic terrorist groups. I knew that Bridger and his crew weren't ready to deal with the Denarians. The Knights of the Cross had trouble fighting them, and the Knights were used to the bastards. Besides, I couldn't convince myself that vanilla mortals, even if they did know what they were up against, would be able to beat the Denarians, who were thoroughly modern monsters. And that was without taking into account that the Nickelheads attempted to corrupt everything they came in contact with. I didn't think that Bridger, Aguilar or Grady needed photocopies of fallen angels in their heads, urging them to accept power and eternal damnation. They didn't need to be put at risk.

"We're waiting, Dresden," Bridger said with an edge to his voice. "I don't think you realize how important this is, or how much is at stake."

"I..." I hesitated, then shook my head. "I can't."

"So you're refusing to cooperate in our inquiries?"

"Considering that he's been here for over 10 hours, I think that he's been very cooperative," said a new voice as the door to the interrogation room clicked open. Curiosity alone made me open my weary eyes.

The speaker was a man with red-gold hair and a neatly trimmed beard to match. He was dressed in a silver-gray cost-the-earth suit, a white shirt that practically glowed and a gold power tie. At first I thought he was young, and then I thought he wasn't. I never did decide.

Two things stood out as soon as he walked in. First, he was regal. Not arrogant, or pompous--I'm talking princely. He had a tough job to do, but he was proud to do it. And second, he radiated calmness. Automatically, the emotional temperature in the room went right down.

And Bridger didn't like it. Not one bit. "Who the hell are you?" he barked.

"The name's Forseti. Legal counsel to Monoc Corporation. The chief executive officer owes a certain debt to Mister Dresden--he helped one of our clients who was in quite unpleasant circumstances not long ago. Naturally, it is his wish that Mister Dresden receive all the legal assistance he needs...gratis, of course."

I was trying very hard not to gape at this news. It wasn't that I objected. I just hadn't known that I was one of Monoc's clients. Or what this was ultimately going to cost me.

Forseti took charge very quickly. For your information, the "charge him or let him go" arguments take a little longer in real life than they do in the movies and involve a lot more filing of motions with various courts. What blew my mind was that Forseti had apparently filed every single motion possible before he'd even located me at Terminal One. This should have meant that half of the motions protesting my being held had the wrong addresses on them. Instead, they were spot-on perfect. They shouldn't have been, but they were.

Which didn't make things a lot easier. Bridger, for example, was determined to keep me right where I was for as long as possible. Why he cared, I didn't know, but he came up with almost as many methods of stalling as Forseti had of slicing through them. I say "almost" because he kept stopping short of arresting me. It would have been easy enough to charge me...well, pretty much anything...but he didn't. This didn't make a lot of sense. Not then.

Finally, released from the endless badgering, I was like a junkie in need of a fix. I HAD to follow the trail that led to Marie. I was nearly beyond rational thought. I ignored Murph, and her questions, there was someone else in my way, I dodged him without even registering who it was. I ducked quickly behind a pile of shipping crates and tore open a hole into the Nevernever. There was a Way near here that could get me back to Southside.

"Dammit, Harry!" I heard, and even registered it was Murphy, but I was through the gate and running down the path without stopping. I heard the steps of others piling in behind me before the tear closed itself, but I didn't stop to look. This Way was rather analogous to an airport terminal concourse. The path was straight, the surroundings gray and nearly featureless. It was hypnotic in its sameness. The challenge to it was not to just keep running until you were lost and exhausted. I was grateful for the painful yanking of the spell, it kept me from racing past the place that would open near where I wanted to be.

I slowed, tore open another hole, and after a quick check for bystanders ran through into an alleyway, and nearly collided with a pile of discarded boxes. I paused, looking right and left to figure out the quickest way to get from where I was to where the spell was demanding I be, and Murphy grabbed my arm, and squeezed, painfully. Then another person was right in front of me. I was so wound up I almost punched him, but held back to see who it was. Good thing I did; it was John Marcone, and he's quicker than I am, and knows, and is willing to use, more dirty tricks than I do. Also, he had a gun drawn. I was suddenly glad that I'd exerted that last little morsel of self control.

"How did you get here?"

"I came to the airport to offer you a lift, and to remind you that running into this situation unprepared and planless was exactly the wrong thing to do. Your stupidity was too agile for me, however. I was left with the choice of following you or letting you run headlong into an unknown number of Denarians with no back-up whatever." I bristled at him, but he continued, "I imagine Sergeant Murphy faced a similar choice."

"Yeah, and now I have been seen leaving in your company and that of a known criminal." She spat the last two words at Marcone, who gave them one, only partially raised, eyebrow. "And we're going after Denarians? Great. Anyone want to fill me in here?"

"Sure, Murph," I said, chipper to the point of manic, "The Denarians kidnapped a nice kid in a bad spot, probably for the sole purpose of luring Marcone and myself into a trap, and we're running into that trap as fast as we can. Nicodemus is involved and where he goes Deirdre follows, at least them, and Tessa, if she survived."

Murphy closed her eyes. "Why do I even ask?" She sighed. "Go on. Tell me how falling into their trap saves the nice kid and keeps us from getting killed or worse. And why Marcone is doing this personally instead of delegating the search to his hundreds of underlings."

"There are few people I would trust with this," Marcone said quietly. "And I value the lives of those few more than I value mine."

"Stop being decent," I grumbled. "It's disturbing."

"There are also people whose lives I value less than mine," he replied, shrugging. "The Denarians are some of them. What weapons do you have with you, Mister Dresden? And you, Sergeant Murphy?"

"A blasting rod and a staff." Which had probably been given back to me because the Feds couldn't see a pair of carved sticks as weapons. Just as well for me. "I didn't have my gun with me when they picked me up."

"My service weapon." She pulled it.

I was still twitching, bouncing on the balls of my feet, dying to follow that stupid spell. "Remember, Nick can hurt you with his shadow, and Deirdre can turn her hair into blades."

"What is Nicodemus going to expect that we do, given that little delay he arranged to ensure Mr. Dresden's supply of patience was even lower than usual?" Marcone asked.

"You think HE was behind that?" I asked. Marcone gave me a look that resembled the one Mister gives me when I feed him the cheap food -- the one that wonders how I manage to walk and breathe at the same time with so little brain power.

"They are going to expect Harry to go running in there with staff and balls out." Murph answered "The only real question is will they think he is alone?" I was right there, and they were talking about me like this.

"No, they know I am invested in this; they knew as soon as their puppet could make a discreet phone call that I had Monoc working on getting Dresden out. They will figure I am with him. And their puppet will no doubt report your probable presence as well." Marcone replied.

"They will expect you and I to be more circumspect, especially you." Murphy said to Marcone. She looked none too happy to acknowledge anything in common with him.

"I recommend NOT doing as they expect. When we catch sight of the girl, you and Harry see what flanking you can do, and I will go in 'balls out', as you, Ms. Murphy, so pithily phrased it."

Murphy looked at Marcone with narrowed eyes. "You, are just going to bust in there, put yourself in harm's way." Suspicion dripped from her. "Why is she so important, Marcone?"

"She saved my life." His tone said that he would give her that, and no more.

"What did she do? Take a bullet for you?" I was looking for it, so I saw it as Marcone shut down a flare of emotion.

"Muuuurph," I warned.

The narrowed eyes remained on him for another moment. Then they turned on me. "And what is this understanding you two have? What are you hiding from me?"

"Murphy, this is not the time. And it never will be. What I know isn't something that you or Chicago will be better off if you know. You can either trust me, or go home." She glared at me.

"Fine!" she snapped in that tone that means it is neither fine, nor over.

I was taking off already, the spell twanging on my nerves. I heard a gusty sigh behind me, I wasn't sure which of them it came from. I ignored it, I was too busy trying to find a way into Undertown. The manholes (personholes?) were a logical guess, but there wasn't one in the alley, and the street was too busy right now. I tried several doors, veiling in case there were people behind them. After several false starts I found the one to a basement with a furnace room that had a locked door leading to a utility conduit. It was an electronic lock. They were going to need a new one. The utility conduit was low; I had to bend nearly double, and hit my head a few times anyway. Several hundred yards and a few turns later the conduit's concrete wall had a hole in it -- a might-have-been-accidental looking hole large enough to admit a person who was set on getting in. There was a damp, musty smelling draft coming from it. The spell yanked me toward it so I wormed my way through.

It looked like the utility conduit had been built inside an already existing tunnel but didn't take up the whole space. This outer tunnel wasn't lighted, the walls were damp brick, and as I shuffled forward I could feel places where the bricks had fallen in and the wall partially collapsed. I felt my way forward, not wanting to use a light that would give our approach away. I didn't need light to follow the spell. I tried not to think about what was living in this tunnel, and what substances might be on the damp bricks that I trailed my fingers over. Murphy grabbed onto my duster. I imagined Marcone grabbed onto her as we made our way forward into blackness that became more complete as we shuffled farther away from the lights in the newer tunnel. I put up a veil, trying to cover not just sight, but sound and odor. There were sure to be lookouts in the tunnels; they weren't sure to be human.

We were going much more slowly than the spell wanted me to, but as fast as I could feel my way along, dammit, for about an hour when I thought I saw a faint light ahead. As I got closer, I realized that the old brick tunnel had met another tunnel at right angles, and the faint light was coming from our left. I stopped and adjusted our veil. Where there was light, there would be shadows, I had to deal with them. We didn't have to hold onto each other to find our way along, but we did have to stick very close together to keep veiled. We reached a bend in the tunnel leading to the right, the spell and the light were stronger that way.

At the end of the tunnel, under a caged bare bulb Marie was hog tied and lying face down on cold concrete. I had to take a breath and deliberately calm myself to keep from rushing in. I exchanged a glance with Marcone and Murphy, they each nodded; plan stupid futile gesture was a go. I led the way, creeping down the corridor as quietly as I could and stopped just before it widened. I could see the tunnel continuing on the other side of the wide area. I could see a wall by Marie's knees to my right, I couldn't see to my left at all, but I could feel a breeze.

I made a T shape with my hands, and got nods. Murph and Marcone made their weapons unsafe. I took out my blasting rod.

I aimed a fireball right down the opposite tunnel, and right on its heels Marcone went dashing across the open area. As soon as he left the tunnel he was hit by a powerful stream of water from the left. Someone had a fire hose.

"How DARE you take soul fire to my mother?!" yelled a voice. Deirdre.

Marcone dropped, rolled, and came up in the opposite tunnel his gun ready. He was soaked and probably bruised, but still in the fight. If it had been me, I would have been out of it. The water would have stripped my power away. The guns started firing. The stream from the hose, found Marcone again, forcing him to duck back and stop shooting, Murphy took over. The stream came our way, and we ducked farther into the tunnel. Marcone took over shooting.

Next time, when the hose traveled Marcone's way, I stepped out of the tunnel, my staff at the ready.

"Fuego!" The water turned to steam, there was a shriek, and a smell of burnt rubber. Then the water began to pour across the floor rather than streaming through the air. Deirdre appeared heading for Marcone. Murphy ran out into the open area to untie Marie, and get her face off the floor before she drowned. I engaged Nick with everything I had to keep him from getting Murph.

Then I saw one of Deidre's hair blades disarm Marcone. I aimed a blast at her, and when I did, Nick's shadow appeared behind Murph, picked her up and threw her down. She didn't move. I turned from Deirdre to Nicodemus, hitting him with a hammer of soulfire, but Deirdre was bending over Karrin's unconscious body and reaching to touch it with something small round and silver. All Marcone had was a knife. I was busy keeping Nicodemus at bay, time seemed to freeze. Marie reached over and placed her hand between Murphy and the coin. I felt as if a cannon had gone off nearby, there was a noise like a ricochet, and suddenly Deirdre was screeching. The hand that had been holding the coin was bloody and half gone. The coin was nowhere to be seen. Marie was climbing to her feet. She didn't look defeated or even frightened. She stared at Deirdre the way an eagle would look at a rat.

Deirdre started for her, but Nicodemus shouted 'no!' and I heard fear in his voice as he stared at Marie. He grabbed Deirdre and they were gone. Marie looked...disappointed?

 

The rapid departure of Nicodemus and Deirdre left me rather dazed. While Marcone stepped over to Marie's side, Marie was kneeling down helping Murphy who was groaning and beginning to sit up. I went over to the water valve, and with some grunts and groans, shut it off. My weary gaze drifted up to a spot near the valve where the concrete wall of the tunnel was cracked. I stared at it for a while until my brain shook me hard enough to get my attention, and made me actually see what I was looking at. Embedded in the wall was something flat and round. I took out my car key and stuck it next to the thing, wiggling until it popped out and splashed into the water at my feet. I took out my pentacle and fed power through it to make a light. The illumination from the one caged overhead bulb in the tunnel didn't reach the floor over here, and I needed to be sure. Oh yes, it was a denarius.

"Marcone, have you got a handkerchief?" Of course he did; it was silk. He walked over to hand it to me, and very, very carefully, I used it to pick up the thing. I knotted the handkerchief around it and put it in my pocket under Marcone's intent gaze.

"Did it touch her?"

"I don't know." I looked over where Marie was standing, shivering, stiff, bruised and looking ready to pass out, but seeming concerned only for Murphy as she got to her feet. "I don't know, but I can find out. And if she has...I will get her help to deal with it." Marcone gave a tight nod, knowing as well as I did that all the help in the world might not be enough. I walked to Marie, and she looked up at me. She smiled, the kid did have a nice smile, and I felt like a real heel about what I was going to do to her. "Sorry," I muttered, and I met her eyes.

I felt the tug of the soul gaze start, and then I was in a garden. There were shady trees over beds of flowers. Golden light poured in from above. The whole thing looked natural, yet idealized, and as I looked around I could see traces of where huge storms had uprooted things, but the traces of the destruction were worked into the design, and were part of the beauty. Marie's image stood there, but she didn't look like the girl next door turned hooker that we saw outside. Here, she looked beautiful and powerful, like Xena, but more so. It wasn't really her I was looking for, though, and I kept looking, hoping I wouldn't see anyone else.

But there was someone else, and she stepped into the light.

"I think you are looking for me." I wasn't exactly sure what I was expecting, something that looked like Lasciel, I suppose. The demon shadow that had lived in my brain would appear to me as a beautiful woman in a Grecian drapey thing. This one was short, and frankly dumpy, with cropped, salt and pepper hair. She was wearing a floor length medievalesque gown of ornate brocade, gold and white, with huge trailing sleeves. Her eyes were closed.

"Who are you? And why do you look so...like that." Demons liked to go for the impressive, whether frightening or beautiful. This one...wasn't. She grinned.

"The face and body are those of a NICU nurse named Joyce. The gown comes from a Christmas card that impressed Marie when she was six as the most beautiful thing ever." The voice was fond as it talked about Marie. "I am Simkhael, but she doesn't call me that. She calls me Re-Joyce."

"Are you from the coin?"

"I was here before the coin. The coin never touched her. With me here, it couldn't. The repulsion is violent, in fact." It certainly was; I remembered Deirdre's bloody hand, and the coin I dug out of the wall. Of course, she could be lying, or just refracting the truth in small but significant ways. Demons did that.

"How did you get here?"

She took two steps toward my soul presence, and I flinched. "Don't be afraid," she said, and suddenly, I wasn't, I couldn't be. I was only curious as she put her hand where I felt my forehead to be, and showed me how she had gotten there. It was both unbearably sad, and unbearably beautiful and left me awed.

"You're not a fallen angel, are you?"

"No, I'm not."

"Prove it." I told myself I needed to know, for Marie's sake, for Marcone's, and through him, the city, but the truth was something else. The truth: I was curious, and I was arrogant; I believed, as a sage, a wizard, I had a right to know. I think it was, at least partially, to chastise me for the truth that she did as I asked. She opened her eyes and looked into mine.

The next thing I remember was the sensation of a solid door locking on a golden, fiery memory, a memory that would destroy me if I consciously retained it, a memory of something vast, and frightening, and beautiful that would sweep up and consume what I thought of as myself until I was lost. Then I became aware that I was crying, and shaking, and on my knees in a cramped tunnel.

And everyone was staring at me. Marie had her head cocked, and brow furrowed. I'd seen her soul, she had seen mine. Grown men have fainted and cried from it. She just touched me lightly on the head, much as Simkhael had, and said, "I think you're being awfully hard on yourself."

I stared up at her for a moment,then remembered myself and hurriedly got to my feet, wiping my face on my shirt tail.

"It didn't touch her."

Marcone let out a breath, and closed his eyes for a moment. "Good." He put his arm around the shivering girl. "Let's get Marie out of here now." I couldn't argue with that. I gestured them to go ahead of me, and I fell in next to Karrin.

"You all right, Murph?"

"I'm sore, I have a headache, and yes, I will have myself checked out by whatever EMS responds for Marie." She was curt. She was still mad at me. "What the hell happened to you there?"

"I should have been more careful what I wished for," I admitted. She snorted. Okay, she was mad, but it wasn't irreparable. Good.

As soon as we were topside, Murphy walked away from me, and pulled out her cell phone. A few minutes after that an ambulance pulled up, and Marie was bundled up, and hooked to an IV and Murph was given a tentative okay not to go to the hospital as long as she found someone to keep an eye on her for the next twenty four. Way before the ambulance bearing Marie pulled away, Bridger and company pulled up.

They got a statement from Marie (A customer took me, and tied me up, and kept me there. I don't know his name, but he had olive skin with dark hair...) Do you feel threatened at all by John Marcone, or feel you need protection from him or any employees of his? (No. He's always been nice to me.) How do you know John Marcone? (I didn't know he was John Marcone, he was just John and he talked to me sometimes.) *exchange of knowing glances* What does he talk to you about? (Last time there was a violet, growing right up through the sidewalk, and we talked about how life and beauty can show up where you least expect them. That was nice.) They looked a little stunned.

Marcone's included a drawled, "Young women being pulled off the streets don't seem to unduly concern the Chicago PD, so I was forced to hire someone with a proven track record in finding missing people," and Murphy launched herself from the curb where she had been sitting getting her pupils checked by a paramedic.

"Oh yeah, someone who got between me and the perps, because he thought they were demons and if they touched me, I would be possessed." She glared at me, quite convincingly. She was throwing me under the loonie bus, but I was happy to go to help Murph out.

"Sometimes it is demons, Murph, and you people," my sweeping arm gesture included her and the FBI guys, "don't know how to deal with them." She rolled her eyes at that, again, quite convincing. A guy could get a complex.

"It's usually some sick twerp wanting to re-enact the 'it rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again,' scene from Silence of the Lambs, who needs to be arrested!" She whirled on Marcone, "And you! If Chicago PD weren't wrapped around the axle by all of your activities, maybe we would have the time and resources to help people who really need it."

"Be very careful of what you say, Ms. Murphy. I would hate for you to have any legal trouble from making unfounded accusations."

During all this there was a sea change in the body language of Bridger et al. Their diffuse hostility became centered on the rich guy with the slick lawyer, and the crazy, interfering civilian, and drained away from the poor woman just trying to do her job, as if they suddenly found themselves on common ground. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing Murph would come out okay from this. Marie smiled slightly from her gurney.

 

When I got home I expected to be met with a starving dog and cat and several messes, but someone, my apprentice probably, seemed to have stopped by and taken care of things. Still, I was nearly bowled over by affectionate furry things. I topped off their food and water, and took Mouse out; he did his business quickly and apologetically, then pulled me back into the house. I shoved some dry cheerios in my own face, washed down with milk straight from the jug. And still safely cool; someone had renewed my ice as well. Then I toed off my shoes and tumbled face down on the bed.

I repeated the animal care, with the addition 30 minutes of cat-petting when I awoke. Then I cleaned myself up, and changed clothes, and headed down into the basement for a chat with Bob. I told him about Marie, and the way things happened around her, and the denarius.

"Simkhael means God's Joy. Sounds like we've got a lamed-waw-nik," he opined.

"A lama-what-nik?" A skull should not be able to sigh, but since he has managed to whistle too, I suppose the sighing is no big deal.

"One of the lamed-waw, the thirty six." He explained. "In Jewish folklore, in every generation, there are thirty six people whom the world cannot do without -- people in humble stations whose goodness keeps the darkness from taking over. They are the spiritual special forces. Completely overlooked by the powerful, they keep the world going. They are like brownies though; if they start getting attention they move on, so keep it under your figurative hat."

"A hooker? A jewish saint in a hooker?"

One of the orange lights in the skull's eye sockets went out briefly in a Bob wink.

"Now that's the kind of saint I could get behind! But seriously, can you think of a better place for someone fighting the darkness? That's right in behind enemy lines!" He had a point. Spiritual special forces, huh.

I pondered it as I drove to Michael's house. His daughter Molly was my apprentice; I needed to let her know I was alive and thank her for taking care of the beasts.

Molly met me on the sidewalk with a tackling hug. "Oh, Harry, I was so worried, is everything okay?" She fussed inordinately, but she also fed me, so she was forgiven. After I soothed and thanked the apprentice, I cornered her father for a little chat. Michael a retired Holy Knight, and the most humble, decent, loving person I know, was my go-to guy for information about religious colored stuff.

"So, there was the sudden retreat of Nick and Deirdre, the coin taking off like a bullet supposedly before it touched her hand, and the completely different appearance of the person inside, but all of that could have been very clever deception. Even the soul gaze," I rubbed my forehead, recalling the effect of it, "the feeling that remembering would have destoyed me, even that could have been a plant. How do I know that this Simkhael is who she says?"

Michael had listened to the whole story, patiently and carefully.

"The important evidence is what was the effect on you, spiritually."

My forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. "How would I know?"

He chuckled, and put a hand on my shoulder. "How did your encounter with this being make you feel, about the world, life, people...?"

I thought about that. "I felt...that there is such a thing as good, and that it continues. Even if it seems like the dark is winning, it might just be because the dark has better press? And that you never know what good there can be in people until you give them the chance..."

He nodded, as if the answer were what he expected.

"In other words, faith, hope, and love. Demons don't deal in those. A demon appearing as an angel would make you feel that you were good, but nobody else was. That the dark was winning unless you personally took charge to stop it. That other people are tools to be used or obstacles to be gotten rid of, and it is okay because you are special." His answer made sense, a great deal of sense. It settled comfortably in my bones.

"How did the young lady acquire an angelic familiar? Do you know? Is it something that you can tell me?" See that was a difference between Michael and myself. He didn't assume he had a right to knowledge. He humbly accepted whatever was deemed right for him to know.

"I know and I don't think there's any harm in telling you." I'm sure there was more head wrinkling on my part as I searched for the words and where to begin. "It's just that I was shown; I lived the moment as she did, and I'm not sure if I can put it into words."

"The baby that she had loved and cared for and prayed over had died. On her way out of the hospital someone from the billing office rather curtly went over the bill, which was for more than she could imagine ever having, and pressured her about paying it. Her family had disowned her for falling in love with a black guy. His family thought she was white trash and beneath their notice. He was dead before he could talk them into acceptance, before he could meet his child. She had come to Chicago because the baby was flown from her little town to the hospital here. She was grieving, and had no job, no friends, no chances. It seemed, in the moment she walked out of the hospital that there was no God, no love, no hope." Michael was listening raptly, and I saw him brush away a tear with his sleeve. I love the guy.

"In that moment, she saw a homeless woman with a little girl. It was cold, and the mother was trying to wrap her own coat around the child too. Our girl decided that if there was no love anywhere else, that didn't keep her from having and showing it, and that she would do anything she could to keep another person from feeling the despair she felt. She took off her hat, scarf and mittens and put them on the little girl." It didn't sound like much, but from Simkhael's point of view it had been a white phosphorous flare against the night. I was worried that the story wouldn't make sense. I should have known Michael would get it. He looked gently awed behind his tears.

"I would be honored to meet her."

"Bob thinks that she is a member of some spiritual special forces thing, and that if attention is drawn to her, she will split," I apologized.

"Then I had better treat everyone I meet as if they might have an angel on their shoulder," he said with a smile.

"Michael, you already do." Seriously, love the guy.

I did more pondering on the drive back home.

It seemed the height of unfairness that someone like Marcone would have an angel looking out for him, but I found it didn't bother me. Angels didn't really seem to be about keeping your life running smoothly along; they seemed to be about shaking things up, changing, growing. All those things were pretty scary and uncomfortable. It made me very glad that I wasn't John Marcone.

 

 

 

N.B. Forseti -- Norse god of order, law and justice, son of Balder and Nanna, grandson of Odin. A very minor god, and one often forgotten. I thought he might be helping out in a legal capacity. The pillars of his hall are silver and gold, and the ceiling is of red gold; hence his coloring and his clothes. His job, mainly, is to get Harry sprung and to prevent Murphy from being suspended. After that, it becomes a personal quest for Harry, Marcone and possibly Murphy...and that has more to do with the choices a man makes, his courage and his fate than it does with law or justice.