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A Different Time

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                I’ve always loved Chicago, my city, but lately she’s been sort of a mess. Which, most guys in my profession would probably be pretty glad about that, if I’m honest. Keeps us in business, you know? Who’s going to come visit a PI if nothing’s wrong? I guess that just isn’t as important to me, though. Whether or not traditional crime is bad, whether or not people are in danger, whether or not someone is suspicious of their wife or their husband or their whatever else, I’ll have my business. See, I’m not exactly your traditional PI; I’m a Wizard. Yes, I’m serious, no, I’m not insane, and yes, I’m positive it’s not just a nickname I earned because I’m so damn good at what I do. My cases generally fall under the ‘oh no, there’s a pulsing portal in my home through which a cornucopia of weird squirmy things accost me! Whatever shall I do?’ variety rather than the, ‘there are criminals that would enjoy me far more if I were not breathing’ kind of things. Of course, that’s not to say that I won’t work cases like that. I’m really, really broke, generally, and my partner, Murphy, would very much enjoy it if no more requests were made on my behalf to buy me and my fuzzy things food.  

                None of that actually relates to this particular occasion, though. No, the moment I want to discuss occurred when I was sitting in my cheap office on top of my cheaper desk because my chair had collapsed underneath me about a week earlier and the one in front of the desk was for the clients. I know that because Murphy explained it to me very emphatically and with threats of fists. See, no matter what she says, she’d never beat me up for real. She saves that for the assholes that come in and assume she’s my secretary even though the white letters on the door proclaim “Dresden and Murphy: Supernatural Investigations” in thick, blocky letters and the little nameplate on her desk (which is way nicer than mine, by the way) has Karrin Murphy written on it. Which, yeah, I know people think I’m weird (or that I have ulterior motivations) for having a female partner, but she’s smarter, stronger, braver, and generally way more badass than the majority of men I’ve met. After all the bad scrapes she’s gotten me out of, vanilla mortal though she is, I wouldn’t trade her for the brawniest jaded ex-cop in the country. At this point, that would probably be something she’d consider more seriously than me. She’d have to stop advertising as a supernatural agency, though. I got distracted again, didn’t I? Hell’s Bells.

                Okay, so, I was sitting on my desk for the reasons discussed above and Murphy was in her part of the office doing paperwork because she stopped trusting me with it after the third time I brought it back to her incomplete, illegible because of all the ink splotches where my pen leaked, slightly moist from my dog Mouse’s spit, and stained about three shades darker from what was either tea or coffee; I couldn’t recall which I’d been drinking that day. Anyway. I was just sort of staring at the ceiling, as I had been since I arrived that morning, when I heard someone knocking on the office door. I don’t really want to admit to how quickly I leapt up to my feet, but hey, I was bored. I’d welcome checking under some kid’s bed, at that point. I regretted thinking that the moment I opened the office door and found a boy who couldn’t have been any older than thirteen staring up at me.

                He was probably from a poor family, if he had a family at all, because he had rips in his clothes and even though it was freezing outside his jacket was so threadbare that it may as well have been nonexistent. I ushered him inside quickly even though the meager heat offered by the office probably wouldn’t help him too much. I remember that he had snow on his cap and I’d been surprised to realize that it was snowing that day. I have no idea why that surprised me, though; it was the middle of winter, after all. I guessed I’d just been sort of out of it recently, what with all the monotony. Generally if a troll didn’t attack me at least once every other week I started getting a little antsy, and yeah, I do know how bad that sounds, but hey, it’s a living, and I get to help people. I’ve always liked doing that.

                “Stars and Stones, kid, you’ll kill yourself running around in this weather.” He was shivering so I led him over to one of the warmer parts of the office, just outside Murphy’s door. She peeked up at us but made no move to do anything as yet. She generally trusted me to deal with any prospective clients; at least while she was busy with other stuff and as long as they didn’t seem too… rowdy, I guess is the word.

                “You sound weird,” he told me through chattering teeth, and I laughed because I knew that I did. I had one of those accents that people call impossible to place, and it sounded not at all like Chicago even though I’d lived there since eighteen. Plus I’ve picked up some odd expressions over my years, most of them from people I don’t talk about anymore, so I periodically caused confusion when I spoke. Also, I had a weird inability to understand like, all slang. No idea why, it was just lost on me. Another reason why Murphy was pretty much the best partner ever, really. She was a few years younger than me, meaning a few years more in tune with all the youth and whatnot. I have to sound like an old man, don’t I? I promise I’m not. I just turned twenty-nine last October, on Halloween. I know, ha ha, right? The Wizard was born on Halloween.

                “I realize that, kid. Now, did you just run in here to get out of the cold, or do you know where you are?” He shrugged and stared down at his feet, obviously soaking in the warmth and unwilling to look up at me for fear of me throwing him out. Finally, he shook his head.

                “I heard you could help me, from a few guys I know. They said… look, there’s been something following me. Something… I dunno what it is. It’s big. Bigger than you. Bigger than anyone. It ain’t… human. I know that’s… they might’ve been trying to pull one over on me, but I just… I’m desperate, okay? I need help. I gotta get rid of it. It’s gonna kill me.” I narrowed my eyes and looked around the office suspiciously, carefully. “It ain’t here now. It’s usually… most of the time it only shows up when it’s dark out, or when it’s real cloudy.”

                “You don’t know that, kid. Could be it only manifests itself to you at those times. In my experience stuff like that doesn’t just go away because the sun’s out. They’re not like the stories say they are.” The kid shuddered.

                “Are you gonna help me or not? Look, I got the dough, I swear I do, I can pay you, just get rid of it, please. If you ain’t gonna do it I gotta go find somebody who will.” I swallowed.

                “I don’t need your money that badly; I’ll do it for free, yeah? I’m gonna take a closer look at you, okay? It’s something called the Sight. It should let me see what’s attached itself to you. Just… you know, stand there like that. Yeah. And Murph, please don’t walk in front of me this time.” She rolled her eyes at me, but didn’t speak. She’d been annoyed with me the first time I’d said something like that, until I explained that it was only because she was so… brilliant. She has a sword, in my Wizard’s Sight, something like a Holy Sword that throws off so much light that I can’t See anything else for it. I’d missed something because of that, once, way back in our infancy as an agency, and I hadn’t let it happen since. Anyway, I opened up what a lot of people call the Third Eye, and a whole new world sprang up in front of me.

                My bland office sparked in a rainbow of color because of all the magic here, because of all the memories. That was normal, though. I tried to check my office out like this every month or so, just to make sure everything was as it should be and so I would know what normal was and wasn’t. The boy, though… there was something weird about him that I couldn’t exactly place. He didn’t have the white, halo-like aura that a lot of little kids have because of their innocence, their relative purity, but I hadn’t really expected that. Instead, shades of blue and green swirled around him, usually something I associated with someone who was healthy and calm. That couldn’t be right, though; he wasn’t calm, and if he really did have something attached to him then he wasn’t healthy. I realized what I’d noticed suddenly and with a sharp shock. I was seeing an illusion. Something was trying to fool me into thinking nothing was wrong. I focused on that thought, on the illusion, and with the thoughts it faded. I stumbled back at what I saw then.

                It was black. Everything around him was black. The whole office. No more of the magical, flowing colors. Only nothing, pure, impenetrable blackness with the boy at its center. I stared into the darkness, looking for a source, for something, for anything, and then I saw those ruby eyes, saw a gaping, yellow-toothed maw opening underneath, perched just above the boy’s head. I stepped forward again, closer, and I knew I had to get rid of whatever that thing was, otherwise, yeah, the kid would die. It’d kill him, whatever it was. I thought hard, pathetic and desperate thoughts, every banishing spell I’d ever learned, and finally I thought of one, one based on light, that might work against the thing. The words fell from my mouth thoughtlessly, instinctually, and the magic flowed from me towards the thing. And then it was gone, just like that. The kid’s true aura, a pale pinkish red still with flecks of white, shown through comfortingly. I shut my Sight and for the hundredth time wished that I could forget what I saw. The memory of that thing, that thing that only put off waves of dark and destroy and feed, would stay with me forever. I didn’t want to see it ever again. The kid gasped.

                “It’s gone? It’s gone! You got rid of it? What was it, anyway?” I shook my head.

                “I… I don’t know, kid. Hell’s Bells. Murph, were you, like, aware of anything? Did you see any of what happened there?”

                “I saw you stumble, so it must’ve been bad. I saw the light when you got rid of it, too, but then that was just your magic.” It didn’t appear to mortals unless it wanted to, then, and it hadn’t wanted to. Of course, it didn’t like light, whether or not it could theoretically appear in it or not, so maybe it just hadn’t wanted to go anywhere near Murphy and her fiery sword.

                “Not… not the worst thing I’ve ever Seen, but not the best, either. I don’t know what it was, but it’s got something against light, probably of any type. It had the whole room dark. Kid, when did that start? Something like that… it’s not a lesser thing that just attaches to whoever. Were you messing around with anything? Something weird, or someone weird, or anything like that?” He shook his head.

                “No more than usual. Everyone here’s weird. You’re a private dick, you ought to know that.” I nodded and laughed, ran one hand through my admittedly too long, messy hair. I wondered, not for the first time, if maybe I should just cut it short and buy a fedora. Murphy would probably kill me if I did, though; she had an irrational hatred of the things, which was really funny because pretty much every man in the city had one. Of course, if I did do it just to piss her off, she would probably just buy one of those stupid flapper dresses to piss me off in return. I have no idea why people say she and I belong in another time, by the way. We’re obviously very in touch with the trends of today.

                “That’s true enough, kid. Do you have anywhere to stay tonight? Somewhere warm, I mean.” He bit his lip and I could see what he was thinking through his face. Should I tell the truth? Should I lie? I don’t trust him. Should I just run without answering? I really don’t trust him. I’d had the same things on my own face before, I knew I had. It’s a small world, I guess.

                “Not… exactly. Not too many flops that have heat, ya know? I got somewhere warm enough, though.” I rolled my eyes.

                “It’s going to be way below zero tonight, kid. Murphy, is your extra bedroom still free? I’d let him stay the night with me, but you know where I live, so you know why I can’t.” She rolled her eyes.

                “Bleeding Heart Dresden strikes again. Yeah, I’ve still got room. Kid can stay with me if he wants. And you could too, you know. I don’t know how the hell you live down there in that basement.” I shrugged.

                “Well, I get it all to myself. Only downside is that the boarders upstairs are loud and usually drunk. And also they call me a bat for living in the basement, which actually doesn’t make that much sense, when you think about it, but whatever, I guess. They’re drunk.” She snickered.

                “You could always call the cops on them; get them taken in for drunkenness and all that.” I shook my head.

                “I like a drink or two myself, every now and again. I’m not going to get someone else arrested for partaking.” Murphy stared, and so did the kid.

                “Partaking?”

                “Shut up, Murph.” She laughed, and a tiny smile spread over the kid’s cheeks. “So, kid, do you want to stay with her for the night?” He nodded slowly, carefully, cautiously, and then smiled.

                “I think its swell that you and your secretary get on so well,” he said, quietly, and Murphy’s eyes narrowed.

                “Do you see whose name is on the door besides his? I’m his partner, not his secretary, damn it.” He looked understandably horrified.

                “Oh! I thought that that Murphy might’ve been your, uh, brother, maybe, or your dad. Sorry, um, real sorry.” She snorted in a perfectly undignified manner that made me smile.

                “No problem. Karrin Murphy, at your service. The Private Dick over there is Harry Dresden. Now, can we have your name so we can stop calling you kid?” He nodded, slow, calming down with the laughter and the joking and the freedom I’d brought him.

                “Jack Warren.” Murphy nodded.

                “Alright. Well, it’s getting late, so why don’t I take you to my place? Can you lock up tonight, Dresden?” I nodded.

                “Sure thing, Murph. I did work here by myself for a while, remember?”

                “And you nearly ran it into the ground and almost got yourself killed every other week.” I shrugged.

                “Details.” She laughed again and walked out, after which I did get everything straightened up and got the office locked up. And that was that, or so I thought; the end to some tiny, not inconsequential but not world altering case. It wasn’t, though. By that point I can’t say I’d even scratched the surface of what had really started going on. It took about a week before it all became clear.


 

                Kids were getting infected. Ever since Jack, I had at least three kids come in every day, some of them so afraid of the thing following them that they were in tears. I had Murphy ask Jack about it (he’d taken to her pretty well; one could almost say he lived with her, except he came and went as he pleased. Some nights he stayed, some nights he didn’t) and he knew every last one of them. They were each from the same makeshift community/family of kids, although they were pretty scattered over the city. It was… worrying, to say the least, and I had no idea of what was going on. The kids didn’t either. None of them said they’d been doing anything different, and yet the Thing, as I’d taken to calling it, was attaching to each of them, draining them of youth and vitality and throwing up an illusory aura to hide itself from the common observer.

                The first time a girl who I’d seen before became a repeating customer, I realized what was going on. Well, Murphy did, actually, even though she didn’t realize it when she said it.

                “It’s like a cold or something,” she said, “except it keeps spreading because you can’t remove it from every kid at the same time.” I’d just finished up with the girl and had sent her on her way, honestly worried that what I’d been doing was only temporary fix, but if that had been so then Jack would’ve been afflicted again by then. Murphy, though… she’d just given me an answer. Jack was staying okay because he had started spending more time with us, Murphy specifically, than the other kids. The “disease” couldn’t get to him, but the other kids… they were sitting ducks to this thing.

                “Stones, Murph, that’s it! It’s spreading like a virus, person to person, through some kind of contact. That’s why it’s just these kids. That thing couldn’t have gotten from the Nevernever to here by itself, though, it’s too powerful, and stuff like that is bound good and tight to that side. Someone had to have summoned it here. Why, though? It’s not like a mortal Wizard could really control that thing, and what good would draining kids do them? And where the hell is the council? A summoning like that should’ve drawn them here right away.” She gaped for a second, but then she was all composed again.

                “From what you’ve said I don’t want that council here anyway. We can figure this out ourselves, right?” And there was the problem; I wasn’t… I wasn’t sure. Whatever this was, it was big. Bigger than me, probably. I mean, I could probably just keep healing the kids; maybe even just have Jack bring them all here and do a mass one so I could get rid of the thing entirely, stop the spread. It might not work, though, and if I did that then I couldn’t guarantee that one of the kids wouldn’t somehow spread it to Murphy or myself, since we’d probably get the thing farther than them. 

                “I don’t know, Murphy. If a Warlock did this, then that bastard is bad news. I’ve got wards all over the city, you know that, and none of them detected that summoning. Do you know how much skill it would take to hide that kind of power? I couldn’t manage it fifty years from now. Whoever this is, they’re old and they’re good.” I saw the defiant rise of Murphy’s chin before she spoke and I already knew what she’d say.

                “We can do it, Dresden. I never thought I’d see you running scared from something. Little Dresden scared of the monsters, now?” I raked my hand through my hair.

                “We can try, at the least. It isn’t like I can call the council myself anyway. Stars, I should probably just be glad that they’re not blaming me for this one.” Murphy nodded because she remembered the case not long ago where exactly that had happened, I’d nearly been separated from my head, and she’d lovingly smacked me over the head for about an hour when I weaseled my way out of it and came home in one piece yet again. She grinned up at me, a rare grin that made her look human, and I appreciated the attempt at reassurance.

                “Where do we start, then?” I thought about it for a minute.

                “Where everyone starts, when they’re in this business: Mac’s.” And I wasn’t lying. Mac’s was the Supernatural Speakeasy, the place where everyone with even an inkling of magical talent congregated to talk and to plan under Accorded safety and neutrality. Mac knew everyone in town with supernatural ties; he knew who to talk to if you had the Council or the mortal police on your ass. He was, quite honestly, one of the largest, most important information hubs in America. He was also a good friend of mine, which, you’ve got to admit, is pretty useful. We went outside and climbed into Murphy’s car, since I didn’t have one, or a license, for that matter, and she drove us to Mac’s Steakhouse.


 

                When we got inside, Mac gave us a nod, and Murphy, as was custom, went to grab us a table. She’d never been quite as comfortable in here as me; all the magic sort of unnerved her. She trusted me with it, even though periodically the sheer force I could control made her a little wary of me, but she didn’t trust the other people here. She liked staying on her guard, here, and she couldn’t do that if she was chatting with a man who generally refused to say more than three words in a day. Either way, Mac and I had something of a repertoire, so it might’ve been better that way anyway.

                “Hey, Mac,” I told him, a tiny wave forming itself with my left hand. He nodded again in return. “Look, I need to get right to the point today, okay? Have you heard about anything odd going on, recently? Something dark?” He raised his eyebrows, which could’ve been yes, no, or neither. I sighed. “I don’t have time to pry it out of you, okay? There’s a lot of kids involved, and some kind of monster that’s spreading among them like a virus.” It took him a few minutes, but finally he nodded.

                “The 1914,” he said, “Tell the guy at the front you know me and he’ll let you in the back. Look for the lady in the black shroud.” And that was all he’d say on the matter, before he handed me two teacups full of the finest ale in Chicago (and likely the only stuff made in-house, no ties to gangsters or runners) and two plates of steak. I performed a truly admirable balancing act in order to bring them to Murphy’s and my table. She took a gulp of her “tea” and nearly downed the whole damned thing. I just sipped at mine, since it’d been a while since I could afford it and apparently Mac had decided to be amiable and put it on my tab today, which basically meant that he didn’t expect any payment.  I would pay the thing off one day, though. I began to speak as I cut my steak, keeping my voice low in the tradition of Mac’s. The thirteen wooden pillars scattered throughout the room were good for misdirecting magic, and noise, but it was just a matter of politeness. No one got roaring drunk here, Mac didn’t allow it. Instead, people maybe got a little buzzed and chatted with friends or allies or associates or enemies or strangers, and they did it quietly. That was how Mac liked it, and Mac’s customers tried to keep Mac happy to keep him in Chicago.

                “You ever heard of a place called the 1914?” She stabbed at her own meat and nodded.

                “A few times. Been invited once or twice, but I’ve never been. Why?”

                “Mac told me I might be able to find something out there, from some lady in a black shroud. I’ve never heard of it before, though, so I have absolutely no idea where it is, and you know Mac isn’t the most forthcoming guy around. He probably risked something or another telling me what he did.” She took another sip of her beer and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand thoughtlessly. I did pretty much the same a few moments after.

                “I know where it is. I’ve heard that it’s a little dicey, though. A lot of gangsters hang around there.” I rolled my eyes.

                “Like we haven’t crossed swords with a few of them before. We’ll be alright; you’ve just got to look at them funny and they’ll let us be.” She grinned.

                “I can agree with that, yeah. Still, can you at least try not to pick a fight while we’re there? And, you know, try to talk normally?” I played at being offended, because we’d had this conversation more than once before.

                “I do talk normally! And I’m a pacifist; why ever would I pick fights?” She heaved a long-suffering sigh that she was probably really deserving of, at this point.

                “No Hell’s Bells, no Stars and Stones, and no twisting your sentences and your words around to mess with people. Yes, even if they really, really deserve it.” I snickered.

                “I’ll be good, promise.”

                “I’ll hold you to that,” she replied, and we ate together in companionable silence. Murphy left Mac enough money to cover a little over half the meal, so I was nice and refrained from opening the door for her as we left so she wouldn’t get all mad at me. After that, we just sort of drove around town aimlessly until nine, at which point she drove us to the restaurant that apparently hid the 1914.


 

                On the surface, the place was just like any other fancy restaurant, with nice, clean wood tables and lights that didn’t buzz and people that screamed stock market wealth. Hadn’t Murphy said the place was sort of sleazy, though? Like, gangsters and cheap bootleg abound? Maybe that was just the back room or something. Look, the only speakeasy I’ve ever been to is Mac’s, okay? And most people don’t even consider him to be one, alcohol or not. Anyway, I walked up to the host, a short, squat little man in a nice penguin suit. He raised his eyebrow at me, which I could understand, considering my shirt was stained, not tucked in, and my pants were about an inch too short for my legs. I most certainly didn’t fit in in a place like this, and he knew it. Which, Murphy was probably a sight too. She had the short, flapper girl haircut, but rather than ridiculous dresses and other over-the-top stuff like them, she wore plain slacks and plainer shirts. Hers did at least fit her well, though.

                “Can I help you?” he asked me, and I nodded.

                “Mac, the owner of McAnally’s, sent me here. My name’s Harry Dresden.” He looked surprised for a quick moment, but then he nodded and led me behind the bar that had been converted to dining space for those desiring a less formal seating arrangement. I had no idea why, or what he was doing, until he slid a shelf out of the way and revealed a whole other room into which he ushered Murphy and me.

                “Please, do enjoy yourselves, sir, miss.” And then he stepped back out and put the shelf back where it was. I took that moment to look around the place; it was packed with men in suits, some of which fit poorly and some of which had obviously been tailor made. Some played pool, some chatted at the bar, and some simply sat and drank. I recognized one guy from my boardinghouse doing that with some people who were apparently his friends. From my cursory look, however, I didn’t see a woman in a black shroud. Still, Mac had never led me astray before, so I made up my mind to look around more.

                “Why the hell would anyone invite me here?” Murphy grumbled quietly, and I laughed.

                “Obviously they think you like a better time than you do,” I told her, and she punched me softly. We walked farther into the establishment, and not three minutes had passed before the guy I recognized from the boardinghouse recognized me back and drew attention to himself.

                “Hey, Bat! C’mon over here,” he hollered, and I tried for all of ten seconds to pretend I hadn’t heard him, but then he just walked over to me and grabbed my arm. Murphy looked vaguely shocked for a second before she followed after me and the guy.

                “Uh, look, I appreciate the offer and all, but I’m working, so yeah. You could tell me if you’ve seen a lady in a black shroud, though. A friend of mine told me I could find her here, and that she might have some information I could use.” The guy (look, I can’t be expected to remember the names of everyone who lives above me. There’s a lot of them and they change around every month or so) looked thoughtful as we stopped at his table, where a bunch of men I didn’t recognize sat.

                “I dunno, Bat. There’s a lotta dames that come through here. Most of ‘em don’t hang around, though. I mighta seen a girl like that over in the corner about an hour ago, but she left about ten minutes before you came in,” he said, before he shoved me down in an empty chair and Murphy caught up with us.

                “You know, I don’t really like it when someone kidnaps my partner. Think I can have it back?” she asked, pointing at me, and I grinned, getting ready to stand. The guy shoved me back down.

                “Dry up, doll. He can sit with us, he’s a big boy, ain’t he? He don’t need you looking after him. Besides, he lives with me! I ain’t gonna do nothing to him.” I squirmed.

                “Don’t insult her, please. She’s a good friend of mine, and we are here to work. If you saw the lady, tell me so, and if you didn’t, I need to go.” Murphy crossed her arms over her chest; she didn’t like it much when I started mouthing off to people we didn’t know well.

                “Hey, hey, yeah, I said I seen her. She ain’t here now, though. I think she comes in about every day, though, same time. Just come about an hour earlier tomorrow and you’ll catch her. Today, though… fetch him some hooch, boys!” I shook my head and tried to get up again, but his hand was heavy on my shoulder.

                “I really shouldn’t; I’ve got more work to do today. I’d rather not be intoxicated while I do it.” He raised his eyebrows and Murphy looked ready to hit herself. Apparently I’d said something she disapproved of, somehow. Already. Hell’s Bells. The guy seemed to consider commenting for a minute, but then apparently decided not to.

                “It’s alright, Bat! Just one little drink with me and the boys! I’ve told ‘em all about you, you know! You’re a funny guy, I like you. Let’s have a party, huh? Your little dame can stay if she likes.” I was about to say something else, and Murphy was about to protest at being called “my dame”, when some man I didn’t recognize came up to the table.

                He was tall, but not as tall as me, although he was broader about the chest and shoulders. He had one of the tailored suits, a fancy number that probably cost about three or four months of office rent. One of the ones crime or the market or both or everything had been good to. A fedora sat neatly on his hair, which was black but going a little gray at the temples, and he had to have had the greenest eyes I’d ever seen. They were a funny shade, too, a little like the crumpled dollar bills in my wallet, what most people I knew called my emergency funds. He had faint laugh lines around his eyes and his mouth, too. All in all, I’d probably describe him as distinguished, a refined sort of handsome that had aged like wine. Murphy tells me I should be a part time poet, by the way.

                “Is there a problem here, gentlemen?” he asked, voice smooth as snake oil, those eyes glinting in the shadow formed by the hat that I could tell Murphy wanted to flick off of his head. I sort of did too, for some reason; I think it’s because I had this weird, almost instinctual urge to piss that man right off. The guy, the one I lived with, stepped away from me suddenly.

                “No trouble, Johnny. Just trying to get my boarding buddy there to have a little drink with me and my boys,” he said, hands held out peaceably. I stood up and moved to stand next to Murphy again. She stood a little in front of me, almost protective even though she’d never admit to it. She’d gotten understandably nervous in situations involving me and vanillas that might have weapons, after a regular case we’d worked the previous year that had resulted in my taking a bullet wound from some made guy I’d pissed off one way or another. To be honest, I couldn’t even remember what it was I’d done, although that might’ve been because of the blood loss. Murphy probably has an itemized list somewhere of literally every incorrect thing I’d said to the asshole, and to like everyone else we’ve ever met. I didn’t really care, though; I’d helped save the day in that case, and usually that was all I cared about.

                “Is that so? Seems like he wanted to get up. Must not be too close, hm?”

                “Well, it ain’t my fault he’s so damn hard to loosen up. He lives in the basement, see; he don’t talk to me or none of the other boarders, even if we yell for him. Always holed up in some book or another,” he said, sounding vaguely disgusted. I shifted a little. Murphy hip-checked me to keep me still. I rolled my eyes. The new guy, Johnny I think the guy called him, turned his eyes to me. I kept mine on his throat. He looked a little annoyed by that, but if I were him I’d be glad. A free peek at my soul isn’t something most people want, especially not if they’ve never met me before in their life. See, Wizards have this thing they can do; if they look someone in the eye for long enough, they get a sneak peek at that person’s soul, and that person gets the same for the Wizard. It’s not something most people really want to do once they know what it is; Murphy certainly hadn’t, when I told her why I never looked her in the eye. You see, I don’t know what’s in my soul. I’ve never looked and I’ve never asked anyone I’ve shared a Soul Gaze with. I don’t really want to know, to tell the truth. My life hasn’t exactly been all rainbows, and that kind of thing can leave stains that I don’t like thinking about. I heard some of the guy’s ‘boys’ mumbling in the background.

                “Look at him, hiding behind his dame! What a coward!” Murphy obviously heard it too, because she was gritting her teeth hard and glaring at the wall to keep from snapping at them. I really did admire her control, a lot of the time.

                “Are you quite all right, sir? These fools are rather stupid at the best of times. I should hope they’ve not done anything to you or your companion.” I shook my head.

                “No, he was telling the truth; we do live at the same boardinghouse, and I’m kind of a recluse. I can understand what he was doing, and I’d be perfectly inclined to go along with it on any other day, but today I’m working.” He stepped around to our other side and slowly herded us into the direction he’d come from without us really noticing until we’d gotten over there.

                “Is that so? What sort of work are you doing?” His smile and his voice were amiable, but his eyes weren’t. He was testing me. Probably scared I was a cop or something.

                “I’m looking for someone, a lady in a black shroud. My friend told me that she’d probably know something I could use.” He laughed.

                “I meant what you did in general, Mister…”

                “Dresden,” I finished for him, “And I’m a PI. This is my partner Murphy. You can look us up if you want. We’re in the phone book.” He relaxed minutely. PI’s didn’t normally do alcohol raids. He nodded and his smile became marginally more genuine.

                “Ah. Well, I wish you better luck tomorrow, as that woman leaves every day at the same time, and that time happened to be minutes before you arrived here. However, she also arrives every day at five. I’ll welcome your return at that time, Mr. Dresden, Ms. Murphy.” I blinked.

                “Oh. Well, um, alright. Thanks. Uh, what’s your name, by the way? I never caught more than Johnny.”

                “I’ve only got your last name, Mr. Dresden. I think it’s only fair that you’ve only got my first.” I blinked.

                “Okay then. Bye, then, Johnny. You wanna try one of your contacts next, Murph? Since mine were a bust today, I mean.” She snorted.

                “You have a contact, Dresden. A good one, I’ll give you that, but still just one. Anyway, maybe Kincaid will know something.” I might’ve pouted a little, but probably not, so the thought really isn’t worth considering.

                “Hey, I’ve got more than one, I just can’t contact my others too regularly or else they’ll start getting annoyed at me. Or, more annoyed at me, I guess, but yeah. Maybe Kincaid will have heard about this. I’ll let you handle that, though, since he likes you better than me. You can drop me off at my place and I’ll do some research there instead.” We were turning to leave when Johnny stopped us with a hand hard on my elbow.

                “You’ve only got one vehicle? I’m leaving, you understand, so perhaps I could be of some assistance.” I blinked.

                “Huh?”

                “A car, Mr. Dresden. If you two are going to different locations, I can take one of you. Save time, save fuel, all that.” I decided to stare at him instead of blinking. Murphy did too.

                “I, um, don’t think my place is going to be on the way to wherever you’re going, and it’s Murphy’s car, considering I never learned to drive.” He looked vaguely surprised by that, but I just shrugged.

                “I can make a side trip, if that’s the case. Don’t worry yourself over it. If you’re in any sort of rush, I believe it’d be best.” Finally I nodded even though Murphy glared daggers in my side for it.

                “Don’t worry about it, Murph. You know I can take care of myself, and besides, my place is way out of the way of Kincaid’s and if you get there too late then Ivy will be in bed, and I don’t like having to wake her up.” Murphy relented at my mention of Ivy, since she’d found out long ago that I was fond of the little girl, that, hell, I’d essentially named her, and finally nodded too.

                “Alright. Just be safe, yeah? We don’t know him.”

                “We don’t know most people.” She laughed.

                “Yeah, and most of those most people try to kill us. You, mostly.”

                “I already told you I’d be good.” She smiled at that, stretched up high and clapped me on the shoulder, then walked out. Shortly after, I walked out with Johnny. His car was a pretty thing done in cherry red, but I had no idea of its name or its make or its engine or anything else. The seats were soft, though, and it actually had a roof, unlike Murphy’s cheap Model T, which had indeed come with a roof, but said roof had been made of a type of cloth and had met with a very unfortunate fiery accident that I know nothing about. Anyway, this meant that yeah, I liked the car. It fit Johnny, too, his high class demeanor and his nearly royal face. He offered me another small, almost fatherly smile as he started the thing up and drove off.

                “So, you’re a Private Investigator, you said? What sort of case are you involved in that that woman would know anything? She’s always seemed the type to keep her nose clean, to me.” I shrugged again.

                “She probably is. My friend Mac is the one who told me to talk to her, though. See, you’re probably going to think I’m insane and throw me out of your car for saying this, but I’m not exactly your average P.I.; I’m a Wizard.” He nodded.

                “I realize as much. I’ve seen your advertisements. Dresden and Murphy, supernatural investigations. I assumed you both had some sort of… talent, or professed talent, in that regard.” I shook my head.

                “Murphy doesn’t. She’s as Vanilla as they come, magic wise. I’ve known her almost since I moved here, though, and she’s been one of the few to stick with me through hell or high water. Plus she can kick, like, anyone’s ass, which is pretty helpful. I seem to annoy people terribly, no idea why or how.” He chuckled softly.

                “Is that so? Might I see a bit of your talent, or is that only brought out on special occasions?” I shrugged.

                “If you want, I guess. You should probably pull over, though, so I don’t mess anything up.” He did so surprisingly quickly, and I climbed out of the car. He followed after me. “You want to check my sleeves or something? Make sure I’m not hiding a lighter on me?” He did so, a careful, thorough pat down of my arms and my pockets and my legs. I then proceeded to hold my hand out in front of me, steady and calm like always, like how I’d been taught long before. “Ignus, infusiarus,” I mumbled, and a little ball of light appeared in my hand. Carefully, I allowed it to drift forward, and he stared at it, obviously almost in shock. He reached out towards it and pulled away as he got close and felt its heat. I dismissed it.

                “Something else,” he said, and I nodded.

                “Forzare,” I whispered, and funneled a tiny bit of force through my hands towards him. He stumbled back a few steps and looked like a little boy discovering a treasure trove.

                “More,” he said again, and I sighed.

                “Vento Servitas.” A little cyclone sprouted up in front of me, swirled some dead leaves and grass and dirt around, ruffled his clothes, and then disappeared. “Don’t ask for more. Pretty much everything else I know is dangerous, and I don’t know you well enough to know whether or not I want to fry you just yet.” He nodded and we climbed into his car again. He was silent for a little bit, even as I directed him towards my boarding house, and stayed that way until we were about half a mile from it.

                “Have you considered… branching out a bit, Mr. Dresden?” I cocked my head.

                “Huh?”

                “Working for someone else, I mean. I’d certainly enjoy having a man like you on my side,” he said, and I was quick to shake my head.

                “This is nothing against you or anything, but no. You seem like a pretty nice guy, I swear, but I promised a long time ago that I’d stay my own man.” Strangely enough, he let it drop and changed the subject.

                “You never did tell me what sort of case you were working,” he said. I was confused for a second before I realized that he was right, that I never had explained.

                “There’s something attaching itself to a group of kids living on the streets around town. I don’t know quite what it is, but it’s spreading like a virus and draining them. I can remove it, yeah, but it just keeps spreading, and if it hooks to one of them and they don’t come to me quickly enough, they’ll die. It had to have been sent out by someone. I’m trying to figure out who it was.” Something dark, a curtain, a wall, fell across his eyes.

                “If you need my help, I’ll give it,” he told me, and then slipped a piece of paper into my pants pocket as we pulled up to my boarding house.

                “Thanks, Johnny,” I told him, and he nodded and drove away. Anticlimactic though it seems, that was my first encounter with the notorious crime lord Gentleman Johnny Marcone, although I didn’t know it at the time. Later on, I’d find myself unsure about whether or not I wished it had been the last.