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I.


I used my phone call to contact Ebenezar, who, wonders of wonders, actually picked up from his ranch. “You didn’t tell me that there were wizards in the mafia!” 

“What mafia?” Ebenezar began, and then he paused, and added ruefully, “Oh. That guy.”

“Yes. ‘That guy’.” 

“So, Hoss,” Ebenezar said, cheerfully this time, “What have you been up to?” 

“I got framed for murder,” I gave the hulking, sullen policeman watching me from the end of the room a little wave and a thumbs-up sign, and he scowled at me, folding his arms. “Or actually I think it was probably an accident, I was just at the wrong place at the-”

“Wrong time? That’s just like you, Hoss,” Ebenezar laughed, then he added, a little more seriously, “And you used your one phone call to contact me and complain?” 

“Well,” It suddenly occurred to me that that had not been a particularly amazing idea. “I don’t know any lawyers.”

“Neither do I, but I could ask around. Or do you want me to come and get you?”

“No.” I could get out if I really, really wanted to, but I was hoping that Murphy had gotten over her little snit about withheld information and was working things out on her end. “I just wanted to know about ‘that guy’.” 

“Council suspects that he’s a warlock, but they don’t really have proof. They’ve been watching him for a while. He’s one of those rare ones, Hoss, a sorcerer born with serious firepower from the start, like the first Merlin, natural gifts that don’t need props or words of power to refine.” The line buzzed into static for a moment as I blinked in shock, then Ebenezar said, “Hoss? You’re breaking up,” and I concentrated.

“Sorry.” 

“I gather one of the first tricks he did when he was a really little kid was teleportation, or something akin to the same. Nobody really knows, but he ended up from the White Council crèche near our stronghold to the Vargassi family’s villa in Chicago, when he was about six years old. They took him in, and he worked for them for some time. Years later they disappeared, and now he’s top dog in the Chicago mafia. We get Wardens to check in now and then, but it’s dangerous.” 

“I gathered.” Having Wardens attempt to tail a mafia boss to check if he was breaking any of the Laws of Magic was probably mildly suicidal, even for a posse of Wardens, especially if said mafia boss was… “Why didn’t anyone try to get him back when he was six?”

“There were a few attempts. A few casualties. He didn’t leave the villa very much. Injun Joe got close, once, when the kid was out with Vargassi, but then the boy promptly disappeared.”

“Veil?”

“Or something else. In the end, the Merlin decided retrieval was too much trouble when the kid clearly didn’t want to come back, and we set to watching him instead.”

“Is he as powerful as the first Merlin?”

“Nobody knows. So far, he doesn’t seem interested in the White Council, or Council politics. Might be a relief.” 

“A relief? Why?”

“Nobody here really wants to check if Marcone has broken any of the Laws of Magic, Hoss. Since nobody knows how powerful he really is, it might turn out to be a magical takedown that nobody wants to be part of. Personally, I think he probably has. He was a little kid when he joined up with the Vargassi. I heard they got some of the local, small time practitioners to tutor him, but I doubt he’d have the same priorities as you or me.” 

“So why didn’t you ever tell me about him?” I felt a little betrayed. Someone that powerful had been living on my doorstep and I’d never felt or heard a breath of it.

“I didn’t want you to do something stupid like walk into his office and throw it in his face?” Ebenezar suggested, a little wryly. “Which I sense that you might be about to do.”

“You’re developing a healthy sense of precognition.”

“Be careful, Hoss.” Ebenezar said, seriously again. “Don’t make me come down there and save your ass. I don’t know any spells for changing frogs back into people, and the Merlin might leave you as one just to spite you.”

“I will.” The policeman was making indistinguishable gestures at me, and I added, “Have to go. I think the cavalry’s here.” 

“Okay, Hoss. Don’t do anything stupid.” 

I hung up, and turned around. “Murphy?”

Instead of the sullen policeman guard, or my hoped-for unwilling Special Investigations angel in disguise, there was an officious looking, skinny man in a suit with a black suitcase. “Mister Dresden?”

“That’s me.”

“I have secured your release on bail, pending further investigation,” Clearly-Some-Breed-Of-Lawyer said, looking at his watch. “This way, please. You may collect your belongings from the front desk.”

“I don’t have a lawyer.”

“For now, you do. My name is Malcolm Tischer.” Tischer didn’t hold out a hand to shake. “I am pleased to meet you.” 

“Who called you? Was it Ebe?” 

“May we have this conversation outside, Mister Dresden?”

Grudgingly, I followed Tischer out, picking up my staff on the way. Murphy was nowhere to be seen, so I slunk out of the police station at Tischer’s heels, following him down a block until he turned into a sleek little French café. I ordered coffee, he ordered tea, then he clasped his hands on the white tablecloth. “I am on retainer for another half an hour, Mister Dresden. Please ask your questions, if you have any.”

“So I have a lawyer for half an hour more?” I grinned. “Can I start suing people?”

“I assure you it takes more than half an hour to file a suit, Mister Dresden.” Tischer seemed to lack a sense of humor.

“Who sent you?”

“Client confidentiality, I am afraid,” Tischer said, businesslike and clipped. “But I may add that cases like yours are not… unfamiliar to me. I have assisted in the release of other practitioners who came into difficulties with the police due to a misunderstanding of… abilities.”

Possibly Murphy, then. Or Ebenezar, even. “Well, uh, then, thank you. Do you do this often?”

“Most of the time, practitioners are careful of the law,” Tischer said delicately. “But the firm does assist in more mundane aspects of everyday practitioner life that may come off as … eccentric… to another firm. Purchase and sale of real estate, minor legal disputes, wills and probate, for example. Here is my card.” Tischer sounded a little friendlier now that he was in a marketing spiel, sliding a sleek white card across the table. Tischer Mayhew Playford LLC, the card read, then beneath it, Attorneys at Law in neat text, then at the corner, Malcolm Tischer, Partner, a phone number, fax and email. 

“Hell’s Bells.” I pocketed the card. “I haven’t heard of you before.”

“Thankfully, Mister Dresden,” Tischer inclined his head neatly, “We have heard of you.”



II.

Insanity saw me eventually being ushered into Marcone’s plush office. The hulking guard – Hendricks, I think his name was – eyeballed me as I tried to walk like I owned the place, but made no comment as he closed the door behind me and folded his arms. Vaguely, I wondered if he too had some form of magic. It was probable in the circumstances. Hells, I had suspicions about the receptionist.

“Please have a seat, Mister Dresden,” Gentleman Johnny Marcone didn’t sound like a man who’d just had an unforeseen walk-in appointment foisted on him with no notice. “What can I do for you?”

“I’ve been told about you,” I said, though I grudgingly sank into the sleek leather chair before the neat desk.

“That must have taken a while.” 

I ignored the charming smile as much as I could. I wasn’t usually drawn to men, even those as handsome as Johnny Marcone, but the electric aura of power that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time that I had sensed when speaking to Marcone in the car had shaken that quite thoroughly. “I know why you knew about soulgazing.” 

“Quite so, Mister Dresden.” Marcone had refused the soulgaze, which hadn’t struck me as entirely unusual at that point in time. “Since you weren’t fully aware of what I am, it wasn’t suitable for my purposes as yet. Now since the cat appears to be out of the bag, however, should you still be curious I would not mind obliging you.”

“All right.” I said, wondering if I was just about to stab myself in the foot.

Ten minutes later I was nursing a glass of iced water, and Marcone was leaning back in his chair, pale but speculative where he had only seemed reserved before. When I finished the glass and dropped it back on the table, he said, quietly, “You are a little more interesting than I had originally thought, Harry.”

“You can call me ‘Mister Dresden’, thank you,” I said, a little hoarsely, still dizzy. I had looked into the eyes of a tiger, whose every breath sleeted ruthless power, far more than enough for the White Council to be considerably wary, if it ever knew. And yet there had been something else; some sort of sorrow or regret, a vague afterimage of a girl, looking back sharply over her shoulder, like an overexposed photograph in the background. Something haunted Johnny Marcone to the depths of his soul. 

“Perhaps I should have contacted you before,” Marcone mused. “Certainly Tischer may have been useful to you in the past.” 

You were the one who called that lawyer?” 

“Tischer Mayhew Playford was set up with a specific purpose,” Marcone smiled thinly. “A little community service to our kind. Fully confidential, of course. Subsidized only where requested.”

“I don’t believe that you’re doing it out of the kindness of your heart.”

“Perhaps.”

“So what’s your game, Marcone? Do you know who killed Hendry and Thom? What the hell were they even doing in Chicago?” I didn't know much about Hendry, but Thom was a healer who spent most of his time in the Amazon Basin. 

“I called them here,” Marcone said, after a brief pause. “I intend to sign onto the Accords as a freeholding lord. As you are aware, that needs three signatures. I now only have one.”

“Someone’s been killing your signatories?” I frowned, then added, as the news finally caught up to me, shocked, “You want to sign on as a lord? Isn’t your criminal enterprise sufficient for kicks?”

“I am not signing on for ‘kicks’, Mister Dresden,” Marcone said, severely, though his lips twitched up, briefly. “I intend to create, among other things, a haven, on my rules.” 

“For practitioners?” I frowned at him. “You can’t get me to believe that you’re doing that out of altruism.”

“Perhaps not,” Marcone narrowed his eyes. “But whether you believe me or not is none of my concern. Suffice to say that someone, or something, is murdering the people who have been willing to come to Chicago to sign me into the Accords. I will find out who, or why.”

“You could watch the last signatory you have, whoever he is.”

“I think he is far more capable than I to ‘watch’ himself,” Marcone said, recovering a little of his humor. 

“I think I should talk to him anyway.” I retorted.

“What’s your interest in this, Mister Dresden?”

“People are getting murdered in my city. And I knew Thom.” The man had passed through Ebenezar’s house, a couple of years after I’d first come to live with him, and he had been… nice. Funny, even. That had been a first. Practitioners and wizards tended to treat warlocks, even warlocks who had made their mistakes when they were only kids, with contempt or suspicion. “He called me two weeks ago, saying that he was coming by, and whether I could meet him for coffee. The next I saw him, he was in several pieces in a crime scene.” 

“I hear you were assisting Special Investigations.” Marcone inclined his head, relaxing almost imperceptibly. “Very well. I will arrange a meeting with the third signatory for you, if you are truly interested. His current name is Donar Vadderung.”

Vadderung?” I blinked. “Stars, why didn’t you just call in Drakul and Titania to complete your set? Then we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Your levity is not amusing, Mister Dresden,” Marcone said reproachfully, though his lips twitched again. “I am prepared to also offer you a retainer in your capacity as a private investigator-”

“I’m not working for criminal scum,” I interrupted. “I’m looking into this because I knew Thom.”

“Very well.” Marcone seemed unaccountably pleased at my answer; he smiled this time, a handsome, genuine smile, and I had to curl my fingers quickly into the armrests and swallow hard, hoping that he didn’t notice. Power sometimes called to power. “I look forward to seeing results.”

Bastard.



III.

I had managed to drive the Blue Beetle down a few blocks before the residual buzz of adrenaline faded out with a bang. The car died with a series of ugly coughs, thankfully at the curb, a short walk from a public payphone. I leaned back against the side of my car and squinted up at the sky as I waited for the tow truck to come. 

It looked like I would have to talk to Ebenezar about Thom, and see if he knew about Hendry, who I’d never heard of before: an old, African-American man, stooped over and almost painfully thin. There were a few freeholding lords of the Accords, scattered around the world, usually as claimants of territories. I hadn’t exactly been keeping up with the news outside of Chicago, mundane or magical, and I’d always figured that the narrow-minded focus would come back and bite me in the arse one day. 

I also had no idea how or why Thom would even have agreed to come all the way to Chicago to sign for Marcone; the crimelord had refused to answer any further questions, citing ‘important appointments’. What could a healer possibly have had in common with a crime boss? Admittedly, I had only met Thom once, and heard Ebe talk about him a handful of times, but as far as I gathered he was only really interested in the preservation of endangered species. A conservationist wizard, of all things.

As to Vadderung…

“Dresden.” 

I looked back down from the skyline quickly, in time to see my personal bogeyman lurking in the alley, a long, wrapped bundle slung across his back, scowling his special I-Know-You’re-It scowl, the crow’s feet at the edges of his hard eyes deeper than usual. Well. At least Morgan knew better than to carry his blade unwrapped in the middle of the day in Chicago; to the average commuter he probably only now rated a ‘Crazy Old Bum’, a sight better than ‘Crazy Armed Bum’. 

“Morgan. What can I do for you today?” 

“I know that you’ve been talking to Marcone.” 

“Talking’s not against the Laws of Magic,” I reminded Morgan with as much cheer as I could summon.

Morgan’s special scowl deepened, until it looked like a craggy rift spreading across his brow. “He’s a warlock.” 

“Apparently you guys don’t have proof.” 

“He’s killed at least nineteen men. Some of them under dubious circumstances.” 

The number made me feel a little sick inside, and I retorted, a little sharper than usual, “If you’d been in the office with me, you’d have heard me trying to find out about the murders. Not talking about the Superbowl over a cup of tea.”

“And?”

“And what?” 

“What. Did. He. Tell. You,” Morgan said slowly and carefully, as though talking to a particularly stupid child, and I grit my teeth. I knew at this point that it would probably make Morgan slightly less of a bastard if I told him everything that I had discussed with Marcone, but hells, Ebe had always told me that I was a contrary bastard. 

“He wasn’t helpful. Apparently the problem was that I didn’t book an appointment in advance. Whoever knew that warlocks were such a stickler for bureaucracy?” 

“He called that lawyer for you.” Morgan smiled thinly when I stared at him, surprised. “We Wardens are aware of that firm. And the power behind it.”

“Well, good for you,” I replied, as calmly as I could. “Maybe you could ask him about how it so happens I was indeed at the crime scene out of sheer coincidence. Look, Morgan,” I growled, when Morgan didn’t reply, “Why, Stars, why would I murder the only one out of two people who were ever nice to me after the judgment?”

“The truth will come,” Morgan said, with a hard glance, turning to walk back down the alley. “And when it does, I will be there.” 

“Wait,” I said impulsively, and Morgan paused, with an angry glare – evidently I had ruined a good, Movie-Magic quality throwaway moment. One that he had probably practiced, come to think of it. 

“What do you want, Dresden?”

“That orphanage that Marcone was placed in – it was one of those Warden ones, wasn’t it?” I was vaguely aware that the Wardens kept orphanages near the Council’s seat of power – it had been a common, if ineffectual, early threat by Ebe to send me off to one of them if I didn’t bloody do my homework instead of mouthing off.

Morgan stared at me warily, then he said, slowly, “Yes.”

“Then you must know why he left. Look,” I continued, as placating as possible, thinking quickly, as Morgan’s big fists curled, “He’s one of the suspects – he was the one who called both Hendry and Thom to Chicago. If he has some sort of motive against Council representatives or something, I need to know. I don’t care if you don’t believe that I liked Thom. He was murdered, Morgan. If anything, if you know anything, I could get the police to make it difficult for Marcone to do much else. And if he uses magic, you’ll be watching him, won’t you?”

“Hendry wasn’t a wizard,” Morgan said, grudgingly, after a long and sour silence, as though it gave him gallstones just to provide me with an iota of useful information. I could tell that logic and perhaps even his sense of duty were warring with his long-standing loathing of me. “He was one of the Loa’s hosts. We don’t deal with them. As to Marcone, we don’t know why he left the orphanage. He disappeared, without talking to anyone.”

The Loa? Whoever had killed Hendry was either unaware, or stupid, or very, very confident. “What about the other kids? He must have been friends with someone.”

Morgan folded his arms, his tone turning flat. “According to the reports – I was away at that time – he was acquainted with two girls.” 

“And?” 

“They were executed as warlocks for breaking the Laws of Magic.”

“Hell’s bells. And I suppose Marcone disappeared shortly after.” I kept a tight hold on an old anger. Pissing Morgan off now would clam him up tighter than an old shell. 

“Before. He disappeared before.” Morgan corrected, as an afterthought. “Just before.”

“Would you know anyone else who might know about it? Or look at the records?”

“No.” Morgan snapped shortly, his Good Samaritan quota apparently satisfied for the day. “Are you finished?”

“Isn’t this a good motive by your books?” I couldn’t help myself. “Enough to start gunning for him, maybe?”

“He was six years old. It has been a long time since, and he has made no move against the Council. And as far as we know, as you have said so yourself, he has apparently broken none of the Laws.” Morgan eyed me coldly. “Unlike some others.”

“Let’s not have this conversation any longer,” I suggested tightly, curling my fingers tightly into my arms. Morgan nodded contemptuously at me, and then stalked away back into the alley.

This seemed to be a very good day for attracting bastards. I slumped back against the Blue Beetle with a groan. With my luck, the Merlin would be next, perhaps popping by in a cab to make disparaging comments on my dress sense.



IV.

I was single and lived by myself with a cat. This apparently meant that I batted for the home team, according to my research skull. A couple of weeks ago I had tried lessening the pressure on my wallet from the purchase of Bob’s usual spectrum of acceptable bribes via recycling a pile of trashy women’s magazines that I had found stacked behind a hairdresser while returning from a client’s house, and had regretted it ever since.

“It makes sense, Harry,” Bob said, as I entered my research lab, wrapped up tight in the flannel robe, one of the trashy magazines propped up in front of the eyeholes of the skull. 

“Are we still on this topic?”

“I mean, that’s why all your relationships flame out so spectacularly. You’re trying to be someone you’re not.”

“It’s been two weeks, Bob. I’m thinking it’d soon be claw hammer time.”

“Hey,” Bob even managed to somehow seem hurt. “I only have your best interests at heart. I mean, look at your social calendar. Who did you talk to today?”

“There was Murphy in the morning,” I said, defensively.

“A police officer. And let me guess, you were in jail at that time. Totally romantic, boss. After that?”

“I talked to a mob boss and my personal stalker.”

“Was the mob boss hot?”

“He was Gentleman Johnny Marcone, Bob,” I growled, just as I realized how stupid that sounded. Bob probably didn’t keep tabs on the Chicago underworld, no more than I did. 

To my surprise, Bob’s eye lights brightened briefly, as though in surprise. “Oh. That guy.”

“Stars and stones, does everyone know about Marcone except me?”

“Harry, not knowing about That Guy is sort of like… knowing about whales, but not about Moby Dick, or… uh… knowing about women, but not about Pamela Anderson-”

I didn’t want to compare analogies, and rubbed at the bridge of my nose. “All right. Talk. And I’m not in the mood to start by having to offer you a Harlequin romance.”

“Fine,” Bob said, sulkily. “The first rule about That Guy is, you don’t ever talk about That Guy.”

“I don’t remember you ever reading Fight Club.”

“The last time I was let out of this skull? The sorority party I, uh, observed, they were running it in the background while they were… exercising. Whatever rocks their boat,” Bob added, meditatively. “But it was sure rocked totally har-”

“So you mean he can listen in when his name is mentioned? Like certain Fae?” I didn’t know any human who could do that. 

“Nobody knows,” Bob said, in a conspirator’s tone. “Nobody knows what he can do. Summer and Winter both tried to get their hands on him when he was a kid. He got away from them both through the Nevernever.”

“When he was six?” And had managed to land in Vargassi’s house, instead of in a pit full of lava? “I don’t believe that.”

“Maybe he had help. I heard that your godmother may have been involved,” Bob conceded, reluctantly. “It was the topic of Faerie for a while. You could ask her about it.”

“No, thanks.” I wasn’t that desperate yet. “He’s looking to sign on as a freeholding lord. The murder victims were people coming in to sign the Accords for him. Hendry of the Loa, and Thom.”

“The Loa? That’s bad business. Depending on which one, they can take vengeance very seriously.” 

“I’ll try and find out.” Somehow. “Thom and Hendry had been burned, but it was just them and the spot they’d been sitting on. Nothing else in the hotel rooms that they had been found in. The sprinklers hadn’t been set off, either – each hotel reported a localized blackout around midnight. The cleaners found them in the afternoon. Hendry on a Tuesday, Thom on a Friday. Different hotels.” 

“That breaks the Laws.”

“Probably not. It looked like their throats had been cut, beforehand, somewhere else. The murderer or an associate – different people each time – checked in to the hotels with assumed names and phone numbers. The body gets dumped on a chair, and then set alight. Burned until even the teeth couldn’t be used as dental records.”

“Then how did you know that it was Thom?”

“The killer had left a typed sheet of paper on the side table beside each victim, with their full name and title. That’s why Murphy ended up calling me in.” 

“It’s a warning.” Bob concluded, after a moment’s thought. “That sort of localized, intense fire spell is difficult to keep so controlled. Thaumaturgy, maybe.”

“Less difficult if the target’s already dead. It might not even have been a fire spell.” A circular ward, then a chemical fire, perhaps. 

“True.” Bob almost sounded disappointed at the prospect. “Was there anything else you wanted? A potion, maybe?”

“The last potion we made knocked me out for three hours!”

“I did tell you to go easy on the mandrage dust,” Bob said, hurt.

I sighed. “Just tell me more about Marcone. Who were his parents?”

“It’s said that-”

“Facts, Bob.”

“This sort of attitude is another reason why you’re still single. Other than the obvious.” 

I reached for the hammer.



V.

I had been gearing up to give Marcone a piece of my mind about frogmarching the unwilling over from their offices by the time Interchangeable Hired Muscle had given way to Miniature ‘Hendricks’ Mountain at the door to the mobster’s office, but astonishment does terrible things to a person’s memory. 

A second chair had been pulled up before Marcone’s desk, and within it, sitting primly with two wrinkled hands crossed over his lap, was a monk. Tibetan, by the look of it, with the full saffron regalia, thin and small and wrinkled, two bright, nut-brown eyes watching me under a good-natured crease of wispy white hair. Behind him was a younger monk, also dressed in robes, standing with his hands held loosely at either side, and seated beside the old monk was the biggest dog I had ever seen, its gray muzzle flecked with specks of white. Standing up on its hind paws, it would have been taller than me. It looked like an old dog from the focus of its eyes and its careful air of dignity, but I wasn’t an expert by any means.

Also, I was using ‘dog’ as a loosely descriptive term. It was possibly a bear. Or perhaps a bear-creature from the Nevernever, or something new that the Erlking had just bred up for his Hunt, or a primitive dogasaurus throwback. It looked me over solemnly, and I had an uncomfortable feeling that I was being intelligently assessed. Finally, it glanced over at the old man, and – I swear I kid you not – inclined its head, very slightly. The old man seemed to sit a little straighter, as though satisfied.

Marcone nodded calmly at me, as though having Tibetan monks in his office deferring to a dog was an everyday occurrence. “Mister Dresden, may I introduce Abbot Tenzin Trungpa, Guardian Losang Dorje, and Brother Wang.” 

The younger monk nodded politely at the last word, and I blinked at Marcone – the dog had been introduced before the Brother? At my glance, he smiled faintly, as though amused. “I was advised earnestly by Brother Wang that the Guardian holds a more senior position than he.” 

The dog’s massive muzzle parted, his tongue lolling out, as though laughing, and I ceded the field of sanity, sitting down. To think that I’d started the day thinking it was a little more normal than usual. “You could have called me instead of sending hired muscle to drag me out here.”

“I thought a more forceful invitation was necessary.”

“I could have refused to come.” Frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure why I hadn’t.

“But you did.” Marcone sounded pleased by this. 

Irritably, I growled, “What did you want, Marcone?”

“Abbot Trungpa approached me with a serious problem. I think that your skills are more suited to solving it,” Marcone said, unflappable. “Brother Wang will explain.”

“The sons and daughters of the latest litter of the Guardian have been kidnapped,” Brother Wang said gravely. “The Abbot has reasons to believe that they are being held in this city.” 

“The timing is also suspicious,” Marcone added, as I stared blankly at him. “I had previously approached the monastery for a potential signatory. But I was declined, as there were matters of importance. The kidnap of the litter, however, overrides matters.”

“How do I know that you didn’t… dognap… the puppies?” I asked, suspiciously. A puppy litter was of utmost importance?

Marcone smiled thinly, dangerously, but his benign tone was unchanged. “Because if I had, the Guardian would have known.” 

I stared at the dog, which wagged its tail, very slightly, somehow managing to seem mildly condescending even as it did so. “Is it really a dog?”

Brother Wang looked scandalized, but the Abbot chuckled, in a huffing, papery sound, and Marcone now seemed amused. “You should read up on matters beyond Chicago, Dresden. The Guardian is a Foo Dog. Ask Ancient Mai about them, some time.” 

“I know she has statues of them.” I thought she’d just liked the designs. “All right. I’ll find the puppies. In the meantime, if the Abbot’s a signatory, you might want to keep an eye on him.”

The dog tilted its head, and its tongue lolled out again, even as Marcone said, dryly, “Dresden, Guardian Dorje is the signatory.”

Hell’s bells.



VI.

As it turned out, the Abbot’s entourage had come prepared with a small sealed bag of puppy fur, which had led me to a warehouse in Elk Grove. I was skulking in an alley, watching the armed guards patrolling the high, barbed wire gate and the compound within and wondering how the hell was I meant to get in and rescue a pack of puppies, when Marcone said, mildly and behind me, “Evidently, they were expecting us.”

It took all of my self-control not to yelp in surprise. Whirling around, I hissed, “What are you doing here?”

“I had you followed,” Marcone said, as though that was self-explanatory. “And after I ensured that the Guardian and his companions were safely deposited at Monoc Securities' Chicago branch, I came after you.”

“And why did you think that was necessary?”

“Whoever took the puppies is very likely one and the same as the murderer, Dresden.” Marcone pointed out amiably, though his eyes were hard and narrowed. “And I would like to see who that is for myself. Explain to him how thoroughly I dislike people interfering with my plans.”

Marcone only needed to be petting a large, fat white cat in his hands to complete the picture.

“Then why call me in? You could have found the puppies,” I retorted challengingly. “And gotten them out just as easily, if any of the reports about what you’re capable of are to be believed.”

Marcone looked a little pained. “Unfortunately, thaumaturgy is not my strong point. Perhaps because it needs a little too much fine tuning, but I’ve had… adverse side effects occur before to people whom I’ve tried to find using hairs or blood. And I had no one on hand this morning with the ability, either.”

“Lucky me.”

“Lucky you,” Marcone echoed, with his charming smile, dialing up the charisma, even with us in an alley that smelled of weeks’ old rubbish and a warehouse full of armed guards before us to tackle. I grit my teeth, and turned back to glower at the guarded warehouse. This close, even with the unsavory background overlay, I could smell a hint of expensive cologne, smooth velvet, and felt again that strange, soul-deep tug that disturbed me on a fundamental level. I probably needed to get my head checked. 

“So do you have any idea how to get in?”

“The first trick I ever learned, Dresden, was a veil.” 

True. “That should be fun to watch if we run into a wall of wards.”

“Thankfully, wards will not be a problem either.” 

All that self-confidence, deserved or not, was getting on my nerves. “Are you normally so annoying or is it just my lucky day?” 

Marcone blinked at me, owlishly, then he said, amused, “I must say that it is rather refreshing to speak to someone with your attitude, Harry.”

“Don’t call me Harry,” I corrected, then added, suspiciously, “What attitude?”

“I am used to respect. Whether because of my position, or who I am,” Marcone observed dryly, though the amusement stayed laced in his tone. “Having someone speak to me as you did is… unusual.”

“I’m sure I had a spare tissue somewhere for you to cry in.” I knew I was treading on dangerous ground before Mr. ‘Wards will not be a problem’, but I was irritable and there were puppies to rescue. “So we’re just going to barge in, rescue the puppies, beat down on the bad guy, and leave? Is that your plan? Where’s your hired muscle?”

“They’ll secure the area when we’re in. Hendricks is leading them. Once we find the puppies, you’ll be leaving. If the area isn’t secured before then, wait somewhere safe. Getting the animals to safety will be your priority.”

“And you?” I asked snidely, bristling. I wasn’t used to taking orders, let alone from a mobster, and I wasn’t enjoying the experience.

“I’ll be having that long talk with the culprit that I mentioned to you before.” Marcone curled his elegant hands briefly into fists, meaningfully. “And you would do well to be safely away from this area when I begin. There’ll be a driver waiting for you on the corner block. He’ll take you to Monoc Securities. Wait for me there.”

I snarled, “Stars and stones, if you think-”

“Puppies, Harry. Focus.”

Bastard had a point, but I didn’t want to admit it. “We’ll see about that.” 

Apparently deciding not to argue any further, Marcone grabbed me by the wrist and started walking, and I had to stifle my yelp of surprise by gritting my teeth. He didn’t seem to be doing anything, or even concentrating, but none of the patrolling guards even gave us a second glance as we sidled around the security barrier, gave an oncoming patrol a wide berth, and approached the warehouse. 

We ducked under the half-raised metal roller door and found ourselves in some sort of storage warehouse full of large, stacked wooden crates in neat towers reaching almost up to the ceiling. The place was crawling with guards, all dressed in security drab blues and grays. 

I could hear puppy yaps and barks coming from the center of the warehouse, and Marcone was already heading purposefully towards it, pulling me behind him, despite my irritated tugging at his sleeve.

The puppies were in a cardboard box lined with newspaper on a large crate, thankfully looking none the worse for wear, and I counted ten tiny, furry squirming creatures before breathing out a sigh of relief and lifting the box, awkwardly balancing it along with my staff in my hands. 

Then there was a sudden, electronic beep, and Marcone said a filthy word.

Days later I would look back on the incident with a sense of horrified wonder at how close I had come to being blown into blood spatter over the nearest crate wall. Somehow, Marcone had managed to yank me and the box bodily back two steps, even as he held up his right hand before him, palm up. The big crate shattered in a roar of fire and a thunder of sound that smashed up against an invisible wall before Marcone and splashed out in an unseen shockwave before him in a blinding wall of fire. Dimly, my ears ringing, I couldn’t even make out the yipping from the puppies in the box; I could only see their little jaws moving.

Marcone was already on the move, dragging me behind him even as he pulled a revolver out from within his suit. “No killing,” I tried shouting at him, but he didn’t seem to hear me – probably his ears were also shot. Grimly, I activated my shield bracelet, just in time for bullets from automatic fire to slam into it. Marcone whirled, squeezing off five precise shots, and I watched, horrified, as men slumped dead against crates. The other guards quickly took cover, but even as I rounded angrily on Marcone, he was already pulling me impatiently towards the nearest wall.

Furious, but knowing that argument was futile until we were safe, I kept up the shield as we backed towards the wall. Marcone pushed a palm against the concrete, and a rectangular slab abruptly fell back, sectioned away neatly as though carved out by a precise laser.

My hearing was coming back, and outside was a scene of absolute chaos. Marcone’s men were taking out the guards in an efficient raid, and it looked like they had the winning hand. It turned into a slaughter, and eventually the guards were fleeing, Marcone’s thugs giving chase. I glared at Marcone as he walked confidently towards the secured compound. “You’re just going to murder them all?”

“No. We need to follow the small fish to see if they’ll lead us towards the big one,” Marcone said, so very reasonably, and I flinched as Hendricks abruptly appeared next to him. Another veil user. Stars and stones. “Hendricks.”

“Area secure, Mister Marcone. I’ve assigned Phillips and his team to follow them. The ones in the warehouse are packing it up. The fire department and the cops are already on their way.”

“That’s our cue to leave, Harry.”

“That’s ‘Mister Dresden’ to you.” I said, wearily. There was a decidedly acrid smell coming from the cardboard box, and one of the puppies had a remarkably guilty expression for a little dog.

“I help you save half a dozen puppies and I still don’t warrant a first name basis?”

That smile had to be rated an A-grade psychological weapon. It was a good thing that I was holding a whole box of S-grade cute as a counter agent, or I might even have caved. “Just get us to Monoc Securities before the cops show up to the party.”



VII.

The puppies went into the front passenger seat, and if Hendricks was dismayed at all at the noise and the smell he didn’t show it. The car was a modified Mercedes, all sleek, black lines, leather and hidden compartments, and Marcone produced two squat crystal glasses, ice, and a Macallan. Adrenaline still fading and trying to concentrate on not shorting out the car, I didn’t object when he poured me a glass.

“Don’t you have problems with cars?” I asked Marcone, watching as he put everything away and took a sip from his glass. 

“I did for a while. But I found some people who were working on a solution.” 

I’d heard from my mechanic that the Mercedes was the car of choice for mobsters, apparently because of the position of the fuel tank and various other safety features, including brake assists and crumple zones. Thinking about a modified Mercedes for a magic-using Godfather figure made me bite down on a snigger. It was becoming that sort of day. 

Thankfully, Marcone was looking out of the bulletproof window and didn’t seem to notice. “Monoc Securities usually operates only from Oslo, but Vadderung decided to attend to signing personally instead of sending a representative. They’ve rented a temporary office space near the Riverfront Plaza.”

“Stars and stones, how did you get these sorts of favors?”

“Legitimately, I assure you.” I stared hard at Marcone when he said this, but grudgingly decided that he wasn’t lying. Someone with that much natural firepower would be easily useful to any spectrum of magical entity. Especially the ones fondest of trading favors. 

“I’m surprised that you didn’t try the Fae.” 

Marcone’s charming smile faded, and his expression hardened visibly. “My early experience with Faerie was not a pleasant one.” 

Ebe had once said that I lacked a sense of self-preservation once my curiosity was fully invoked. “When you were six years old?” Marcone inclined his head, his hands curling slightly in his lap, as though in warning, and I went for the whole hog, hell take the consequences. “I heard that your friends in the orphanage were executed.” 

“Dresden,” Marcone said, with a touch of ice and fire, “This is not a topic that I will discuss.”

The background burble of the car radio abruptly died, and puppies whined and barked from the front passenger. Marcone closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and abruptly the tiger was gone and the composed, polite Gentleman Don was back. I took the breath that I didn’t realize I had been holding, wondering whether or not to back down. In the meantime, I finished the whisky and handed the cup wordlessly back to Marcone, and the cups disappeared back into the hidden compartment.

“I’m not unfamiliar with the Wardens,” I began. “So-”

“I am aware of your past. That is why I originally decided to approach you. I thought perhaps we may have some common ground upon which to reach an understanding about territory.”

“Seriously?” 

“And I was quickly dissuaded of that possibility,” Marcone conceded, if with a charming smile. “At that time.”

“And now. We have nothing in common.” 

“Certainly we have different aims.” 

“And what are yours? You want to be king of the hill in Chicago? The White Council doesn’t usually take kindly to wizards setting up as part of the Accords without White Council backing.” 

“That is precisely the reason.” Marcone smiled thinly. “I want to present an alternative.”

“An alternative to the Council?”

“I am building a foundation for a power base. A Grey Council, if you will,” Marcone said, looking back out of the window. “The Laws of Magic are all very well, but just as murder is not an absolute liability offense, neither should the Laws of Magic be in absolute. That is one of my reasons. Building a negotiable position with the rights of sanctuary.”

“And the White Council knows that you are doing this?”

“They may.” Marcone looked me over, calculating. “That is why I had originally decided to try and drive you off – or pay you off. But you are nothing if persistent.”

“They wouldn’t have killed Thom or Hendry. That would have broken the Laws.” Or would it? I added, more hesitantly, “Thom was a respected wizard. They wouldn’t have killed him.”

“You know very little about the White Council.” Marcone shook his head slowly, as if in pity.

“And you think you’ll do better than them?” I asked sarcastically.

“I think that any practitioner should deserve a say in matters that determine their affairs,” Marcone retorted calmly. “Regardless of their personal ability. Membership of the White Council is seniority – and power. They view small scale, low powered practitioners with contempt, even though there are far more of them about than people who would qualify as wizards.”

“And you’re trying to tell me that you feel sorry for all those born with a thimbleful of magic?”

“There are far more of them than there are wizards,” Marcone repeated. “And I am building a power base.”

“To go against the White Council? For equal rights and hot cocoa for everyone?”

“There is a war coming,” Marcone said, after a moment’s pause, and he seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “A Black Council, if you will, looking to overthrow the Merlin. They are very powerful.”

“And you know this why?”

“Because they approached me to join their ranks. As they will approach anyone with a grievance against the Council. When you someday shake off your Warden tail, I think they will come for you as well.” Marcone said quietly. “I have no interest in overthrowing the Council; even as they are now, I believe that they are necessary. But as Baron of Chicago, I can stay neutral. And anyone else who wants to weather the storm can come to me.”

“So you think that this Black Council is the one doing the killing.”

“It’s possible.”

“And they’re stronger than you?”

“Individually? No.” Marcone smiled, shark-like now. “Together, if I am not expecting them? I think it’s quite possible.”

“You’re not only building a power base,” I guessed. “You’re building a network. A spider web of informants. Canaries in a mine.” This made more sense to me than all the platitudes about the betterment of others. Being magic-sensitive or having some version of Sight was one of the most common, ‘low powered’ abilities, after all. If Marcone controlled Chicago and all of its practitioners, he would see the storm coming from miles away.

“If that’s what you prefer to believe.” Marcone glanced at me again, thoughtfully. “Footage from security cameras of you saving all those Foo Dog puppies has been sent to the White Council. And I do believe Warden Morgan had been following you. So I think you could soon be a free man. Perhaps the Black Council will contact you shortly.”

“Sent to the Council? By you?” I asked incredulously.

“Of course.”

“Why would you do that? What do you want?”

“I’ll be willing to concede that much of your skeptical nature comes from having had to live under Morgan’s watch for most of your adult life, Harry,” Marcone said dryly, with another of his charming smiles, “But I doubt it forgives obliviousness to the obvious.” 

“Obvious? What obvious?” 

Marcone let out a sigh, then pointedly leaned forward and placed his hand on my right thigh, kneading gently. I yelped, flinching, and grabbed at his wrist instinctively to dislodge him, touching skin to skin for the first time.

I’m not sure what happened, but we went from a mild (and unwanted) grope to full on twisting on the back seat of the Mercedes like schoolkids; Marcone growling and pinning me down with his weight as I clenched my fingers over his shoulders and dragged him closer, kissing each other hungrily, roughly, teeth scraping and my tongue forced deep in his mouth to taste his, smooth whisky and warm spice. Skin to skin, the feel, taste, scent of him was electric, like a drug; I could sense that some part of me, the logical part, was trying to get my brain’s attention but all I could really concentrate on was how to fumble the knot of Marcone’s tie undone.

Then the car came to an abrupt stop and we tumbled a sprawl of awkward limbs off the car seat, with another yelp from me and a harsh curse from Marcone. Around and behind us, the horns from other cars squealed and squawked angrily, and I could dimly hear other drivers swearing at us.

“Boss?” Hendricks asked warily, from the driver’s seat, as I tried to disentangle my knees. Marcone blinked slowly, as though waking up from a deep sleep, cheeks flushed and his lips swelling.

The astonishment, however, was quickly swept away back under his composure. “Carry on, Hendricks.”

I could just imagine the dubious expression Hendricks had to be wearing as I pulled myself back up on the car seat and tried to will away my hard on with a set of strangled breaths. Marcone recovered with considerably more dignity, readjusting his tie; the only hint of whatever the hell had happened was the tiger in his eyes, watching me, waiting. I wasn’t sure if he was deciding whether or not to jump me again or kill me.

I cleared my throat once the spark of heady lust finally faded out of my system. “Maybe it was a good thing that you got my duster when you grabbed my wrist previously.”

Marcone stared at me, expressionless, then he inclined his head and seemed to relax a fraction against the seat, though his eyes still seemed a little wild. “What was that?”

“I’m not sure.” I rubbed at my temple, trying to mentally delete the last five minutes. No such luck. “Stars know who else you’ve pissed off recently. Also, you killed the ‘magic proof’ car,” I added helpfully.

Marcone seemed to decide not to point out that I was probably equally culpable, glancing out of the window instead even as Hendricks tried futilely to restart the engine. “We’re close enough. We’ll walk.”

VIII.

The Abbot and Brother Wang greeted the return of the puppies with a great show of ceremony, and the offending box was quickly disposed of, leaving ten none-too-clean puppies tumbling around the meeting room of Monoc Securities’ temporary office. There was a nice river view, even. I was left to puppy sit, somewhat to my irritation, but Marcone disappeared into Vadderung’s office and the way was promptly barred by some sort of blonde Amazonian-esque lady, who, despite being dressed neatly in a suit, blouse and high-heeled patent black shoes, radiated the impression that if she truly wanted to, she could drop kick me out of the office at a bat of an eyelash. I decided not to chance the issue and retreated to the meeting room.

The Abbot sat in a chair facing the river, watching it contentedly with a puppy in his lap, while Brother Wang busied himself brewing some sort of strange-smelling tea outside in the kitchenette.

How did such tiny little things become so huge? Also, it was hard to imagine the little terrors growing up into the dignified creature sitting on its haunches beside the Abbot, seemingly happy to leave the puppy sitting fully in my hands. I ended up having to round up all of them in my duster, hoping that none of them needed to go to the bathroom in the immediate future, with one particularly scrappy puppy tucked in my shirt pocket. 

I was wondering whether or not stowing them all in the rubbish bin would be respectful when Brother Wang reappeared with a tray of tea, trailed by another slim, extremely tall blonde lady holding a large plastic box lined with bedding. Gratefully, I deposited my duster-load of puppies in the box, and the lady left it next to the Guardian before retreating out of the room and closing the door.

I pulled the remaining puppy out of my pocket, and it whined and struggled, yipping and turning pleading eyes on me. “Shirt bad,” I told it, “Box full of unidentifiable cloth good.”

The puppy made a series of high pitched barks at the Guardian, who looked up to eye me curiously, then the puppy, then it got ponderously to its feet, stepping over to touch noses. The Guardian then sniffed at me, its nose big and wet over my wrist. “Hey,” I told it warily, “I’m returning it, see.”

The puppy barked again, and eventually, the Guardian shook its head, slowly, and padded back to sit down beside the Abbot, who reached down to stroke its massive head gently. I was just about to deposit the puppy in the box when Brother Wang tugged at my sleeve.

“The thirteenth son of the Guardian of Tenzin stays with you, Wizard Dresden. It is decided.”

“Decided?” I said, blankly, and the puppy squirmed in my grip, barking. “Decided by who?”

“They choose their way.” Brother Wang said, arranging teacups. “Tea?”

“No, wait, I never agreed to take care of a baby dogasaurus!” The puppy made a whining sound, and looked plaintive. I melted a little.

Damn, it was cute.

“They choose their own way,” Brother Wang repeated, pouring the strange smelling tea into three cups, and one bowl. “In Tibet it is considered good luck to be chosen. Tea?”

I gave up. The day was crazy enough without having to argue with a monk about a dog making its own choices about a master. I put the puppy back in my pocket, pulled a chair up next to the Abbot, leaning my staff on the ground, and accepted a small ceramic cup of molten temperature tea.

Power calls to power - come to think of it, I had first heard that from the Leanansidhe. I had never thought to ask her about it at that time – granted, I was somewhat occupied when she had mentioned it, but now perhaps it was a bit of an oversight. And besides, I was fairly sure she didn’t mean it in… this… sense. Maybe it was some sort of curse on Marcone, albeit one with a purpose that I couldn’t quite imagine. It did seem to have taken him by surprise, though, and I gathered thatthat was a rare occasion. 

After thanking the Abbot for the tea and the Guardian (awkwardly) for the puppy, I left to hitch a cab. I had puppy supplies to buy and rumors to chase up. Talking to Vadderung would have to wait. 



IX.

Ebe wasn’t answering his phone, the Loa community seemed to have gone into collective hiding, Murphy had been called as backup into an unrelated domestic dispute that had gone ugly, and there were thirty-three messages on the answering machine. Five of them were from telemarketers, and as far as I could make it out until the machine started to stutter and I had to retreat away from it, all of the rest seemed to be from Marcone.

I left from the back of the office to avoid the black car at the front and managed to flag down a cab. I didn’t feel like being frogmarched back to Mafia, Inc., and besides, at present I had no further questions for Marcone. Or so I told myself. And in any regard, until he got rid of whatever that curse or compulsion was on him, it was probably better for all parties involved if I stayed clear for the foreseeable future.

There was another black car on the street opposite my place, but the puppy was beginning to look furtive, and I decided to chance it. Mister greeted me plus puppy with a supercilious air of betrayal, trotting out to the garden with its tail held high, and I made a mad dash for some newspaper as the puppy made an uncomfortable burbling sound in my pocket.

Some time later, puppy settled in the kitchen, I went down to the lab, biting back the yawns. I smelled strongly of puppies, I needed a shower, and I didn’t remember whether I had eaten anything other than breakfast the whole day. Resolving to sleep once I had finished in the lab, I blinked dumbly instead when Bob’s eye lights flickered once I got closer.

“Wow, Harry. Congratulations.”

“Congratulations?” I repeated, looking down at myself. Admittedly, I probably looked a little like a wreck. “Sarcasm attracts the hammer, Bob.”

“No, seriously. You’ve got someone else’s magic laced all over you. You finally got laid? And you didn’t even tell me you were working on some tail on the side?” Bob sounded hurt. “Who is it? Has to be Senior Council level from the strength of the trace. I didn’t think you were into older birds. Not that I’m judging-”

Bob.” I rubbed at my eyes. “What are you talking about?”

“You know tantric magic? It’s like that, but when two wizards are doing it, the soot from the fireworks is pretty damn obvious. So who was it, Harry? ‘Fess up.”

“I didn’t!” I said defensively, thinking wildly. But that- “And it was only a kiss! Wait, you’re telling me Marcone did the magical equivalent of pissing on my leg?” 

“It was That Guy?” Bob whistled. “Harry, I didn’t realize you got off on screwing nuclear missiles. But hey, that must have been pretty hot-”

“Nothing like that happened,” I snapped. “One minute I touch his hand, and the next minute we’re… he’s probably under some sort of curse.”

“Sure, Harry,” Bob said dryly. “No wonder you never get laid, if every time you get to the good times you think you’re being cursed.”

“I’m telling you there was some sort of compulsion,” I growled, looking around pointedly for the hammer.

“All right, Harry, all right,” Bob said hastily. “So why didn’t you check him in the Sight? That should tell you what’s up.”

I hadn’t thought of that. I rubbed a palm slowly down my face, with a groan. Mentally, I blamed the puppies. “Okay. Never mind. Ultimately, it’s his problem, and we have our own. Have you heard of a Black Council?”

“You mean, like rival wizards seeking to overthrow the White Council? Happens now and then,” Bob said, somewhat to my surprise. “There’s usually some sort of throw down, here or in the Nevernever, and then life returns to normal. It’s a human thing, I think.”

“With a lot of casualties?”

“Sometimes. Usually, the Wardens are pretty good at rooting out the problem before it gets too big. If you think there’s going to be one coming up,” Bob added, “You might want to make a new shield bracelet.”

I was putting the finishing touches on the new bracelet when someone knocked sharply on the door. I ignored it, concentrating on Bob’s instructions, and then I heard the puppy yipping, along with the sound of the door being unlocked. None of the wards went off. Warily, I put down the bracelet and picked up my staff, creeping as silently as I could up the stairs, ready to activate my rings.

Marcone was standing just outside the threshold, looking at the barking puppy, holding a plastic bag of stacked takeaway boxes, then he glanced up as I stalked forward and slammed the door shut in his face, drawing the chain across it. 

Admittedly, it was a childish thing to do, but I was tired, and whatever Marcone was holding somehow managed to smell good even through the door, warm and spicy and delicious. 

“Harry,” Marcone said patiently. “You haven’t eaten since the morning, if at all.”

Well, that answered one of my questions. “I don’t do peace offerings with mobsters. And if you break my wards again I’ll throw a brick through your office window.”

“I just wanted to talk.”

“You can talk to the puppy.” I nudged the yapping, mousy little thing with my foot and it sat down and wagged its tiny tail at me. “I’m working.” 

“About what happened in my car-”

“Nothing happened in your car!” I growled, and I could hear Bob sniggering from the lab. I edged to the window, peeking out from the shutters, and used the Sight. 

Marcone’s power was more obvious in the Sight, like a sleeting corona of multihued fire that shimmered and writhed around him like a living flame, outlining him in a white-hot nimbus of pure magic. Wreathed around the edges, threaded through, was an echo of another energy, the feel of which was instantly and depressingly familiar, especially when I looked down at my own hands. 

Hell’s bells.

“Harry?” Marcone had noticed me watching him through the window, and I blinked rapidly, rubbing my eyes. 

“Go away. Harry’s not home to mobsters.”

“Harry,” Marcone said reasonably, “You haven’t eaten, and I have dinner for you. If you don’t want to discuss what happened earlier, I can wait. I wanted to talk to you about the White Council representative that they are sending here as a signatory.”

What? Who?” 

“His name is Samuel Peabody.”

“Never heard of him,” I said, after a moment’s thought.

“Neither have I. May I come in now? Rather than talk to you about it through the door?”

“Fine.” I fumbled for the latch and pulled the door open. “But no touching.”

Marcone smiled, amused, as he stepped through the threshold, and I locked it behind him, after making a little wave at the black car parked across the street. “Very well.” 

“You’re letting That Guy into your apartment?” Bob called from the lab. “Let me out of here if you’re going to have sex! I don’t want to get caught up in any sort of backlash!”

Marcone arched an eyebrow at me, and I groaned. “Resident research spirit of intellect. Please ignore him. Bob,” I shouted down to the basement, “We are not doing anything, and if you don’t shut up I will throw you into the rubbish compactor. I, uh, I’ll clear the kitchen table."

Esoteric experiments cleared onto the kitchen counter, I helped Marcone unpack boxes of Vietnamese grilled pork, rice, spring rolls and salad. My stomach growled loudly in appreciation, and I ate industriously, ignoring my unwanted dinner companion as much as possible. At some point, the puppy ambled in to lie down at the doggy bed in the corner of the kitchen, and Mister padded in through the window, glancing once at Marcone before deciding to ignore him, leaping down to drink at his water bowl.

“So,” Marcone said, when I wiped my mouth, full and fuzzy with contentment. “The Council’s representative.”

“I thought they hated you.”

“So did I. The offer came through a few hours ago.”

“And you didn’t refuse?” 

“It’s a signature,” Marcone said calmly.

“Or a chess gambit.”

“I play chess fairly well.” Marcone said, sounding unconcerned. “But I prefer not to play unless I know the stakes.”

“You want me to ask around.”

Marcone nodded. “Peabody will be accompanied by a complement of Wardens. That will be a concern.”

“You think he’s just looking to get up close before striking?” I frowned. “If that was the case, they’d have sent someone with firepower. I’ve never heard of Peabody.”

“We’ll see,” Marcone said, unconvinced. “In the meantime, I’ll like to have a truce.”

“With the Council?”

“With you.” 

“Why,” I said dryly, “You intend to piss me off at some point?”

“I think that we did not get off on a good start,” Marcone observed wryly. “And while that cannot be helped-”

“I’m in this to find Thom’s murderer. That hasn’t changed,” I cut in quickly. “I don’t care whose toes I step on while I do it, yours, or anyone else’s. No deal, no truce. Thanks for dinner, though,” I added, as I wasn’t totally bereft of good manners. 

“You are a most unforgiving man,” Marcone said, and though there was a touch of exasperation there, he seemed indulgent rather than irritated. “Should you however encounter the Black Council, call me.” He dropped a white business card on the table. I made no move to pick it up, and Marcone sighed. “I am not casting any aspersions, Harry, but you will need my help.”

“I’m ‘Dresden’ to criminal overlords,” I reminded him, folding my arms, and the tiger glared briefly at me as Marcone rose to his full height, then it disappeared again as he inclined his head. 

“Good night.”



X.

“Senior Council held a vote, Hoss,” Ebenezar said, when he finally called me back. “Previously, Thom would have been there to sign. Even if he wasn’t there on behalf of the Council, his presence could be spun into a good light. Now it looks as though a wizard is going to become a freeholding lord in clear defiance of the Council. We’ve got good information that Marcone has a few more favors up his sleeve from other members of the Accords. The Merlin doesn’t like that.” 

“I hate politics,” I told Ebenezar, rubbing my eyes. I was in the office, balancing my phone against my shoulder and cheek while sorting through my piles of junk mail, invoices and enquiries. There were even job applications by (what practitioners sometimes called) vanilla mortals. I had no idea the job market in Chicago was this bad. “But why send someone nobody’s ever heard of?”

“It’s still a snub,” Ebenezar pointed out, as though this was obvious. “Someone from Administration had to go, but not one of the Senior Council members, so lots were drawn and Peabody was It.” 

“And if he gets himself killed?”

“He’s there with a set of Wardens. Including Luccio,” Ebenezar added, thinking. “Plus Ramirez and Mio, and Morgan is already around. Speaking of Morgan,” Ebenezar perked up, “I hear your sentence is about to get revoked. Once the murderer in Chicago is sorted out and Morgan returns.”

“Really? I saved Chicago last summer from that flies demon and nobody came forward about anything. I save a bunch of puppies and everything is forgiven?”

“Foo Dog puppies, Hoss. Ancient Mai’s been trying to get one or two of them for the Council for a very long time. Revoking your sentence came with a strong recommendation from the Guardian Dorje.” 

Saved by the testimony of a magic dog. I stared at the puppy, which was ambling around my desk nudging a balled up poster advertising cheap curry. It wagged its tail. “Okay. So we’ve got three signatories now, Peabody plus five Wardens including the boss Warden, and Dorje is staying with Vadderung. Unless this Black Council that Marcone is talking about is strong enough to either take out the All-Father plus a magic dog, or a wizard and many Wardens, they’re stuck.”

“Peabody is also there to negotiate a deal with Marcone.”

“A deal?”

“Basically it runs as: we leave him alone, he leaves us alone.”

“He might just take that up,” I admitted, thinking over what Marcone had said to me. “Peabody left a message for me, said he wanted to meet. What’s he like?”

“I don’t spend that much time over at the White Council’s digs anymore, Hoss. He’s one of those bureaucrats. Loves documents more than doing magic.” Ebenezar said vaguely. “I’ve met him a couple if times. Seemed all right.”

Good. At least Peabody wasn’t another Morgan. Now that all three parties were around, Marcone could be signed into the Accords once he finished negotiations with Peabody, and I could get back to the immediate business of finding the murderer without having to worry about fresh casualties. Or so I hoped. “That’s good.”

“You sound tired, Hoss,” Ebenezar seemed concerned. “Remember what I said about working all the time?” 

“You’re turning into one of those interfering old relatives long before your time. And I don’t see you walking out with anyone.” 

“Ah, well,” Ebenezar coughed, sounding awkward. “You know how some people explain forces of attraction as ‘chemistry’? Like a psychic connection, almost, knowing instinctively what the other person likes, what he or she is going to say, some of them even knowing when the other one’s hurt?” 

“Yes?” I asked warily, ready to head off any awkward revelations. 

“When it’s between two powerful wizards, it’s a lot more than that. It can be very… inconvenient. But when you live long enough,” Ebenezar added, somewhat more cheerfully, “It matters less. And before you ask, I’m not telling you who she is. There’s a lot of water under the bridge.” 

“Inconvenient, how?”

“I hope you never learn what it’s like to lose control,” Ebenezar said soberly. “Let alone want to do so. People like you and me, Hoss, if we aren’t on top of what we have at our fingertips all the time, we can do serious collateral damage.”

I could feel a headache coming. Suddenly, Bob’s comment about a ‘backlash’ didn’t sound like crazy talk. “And this is common between wizards?”

“It’s why you never see a wizard and wizard pair at the Senior Council’s level. But in actual fact it’s not common, the same way two normal people meeting often don’t that instant sense of connection.” 

And I had thought that was because age, power, bloody-mindedness and politics had made everyone on the Senior Council asexual. It also figured that the first wizard I’d ever met with ‘chemistry’ was a mafia don. Fate hated me. “Sounds lonely.”

“When you’re young, sure. You’ll probably fall in love a few times, with normal humans. After you’ve watched them grow old and die while you haven’t even gotten much silver in your hair, the novelty tends to fade.”

That was a depressing thought. But thankfully, it wasn’t one that ever had been much of a concern. Before I could make a comment, however, Ebenezar continued, “Listen, Hoss, I have to go. I’ll discuss this ‘Black Council’ matter with Injun Joe and see if he knows anything about it. And if they approach you, be careful.”

“I will. Thanks.” I hung up, and then peered at the puppy, which had shredded the advertisement and was working on gumming an invoice. “I should quit,” I told it. “Leave this all behind and go and buy a farm in the middle of nowhere, like Ebe.”

The puppy barked, and wagged its tail. I scooped it up, placed it back in my pocket and pulled on my duster. Peabody and friends had booked rooms in a small hotel on the outskirts of the CBD. Thankfully, the Blue Beetle was back in business. The cab fares were beginning to dig deep into my already threadbare pockets.



XI.

Morgan stiffly opened the door to the rented terrace house, which I noted was already fully set up with wards. His expression was sour, as though he had been sucking on a fermented lemon, but he nodded curtly at me. “Dresden.”

“Morgan. I heard you’re about to do me a favor. Summer must be freezing over.”

Morgan’s expression somehow managed to become stormier, and his lip curled, but just at that moment, the puppy peeked out from my shirt pocket, with a sleepy yap. Morgan blinked in surprise, and the angry tension faded. “You stole one?”

I pinched at the bridge of my nose, even as the puppy barked angrily at Morgan, almost spilling out from my pocket. “Morgan, if I’d stolen one of the dogs, wouldn’t the Guardian have mentioned it?”

Morgan glared at me and took a step forward, but even as I braced myself to activate my rings, a female Warden appeared out of nowhere, stepping behind Morgan and around him, tall and severe, her hair iron-gray, dressed in a Kevlar jacket and slacks, a Warden’s sword strapped to her hip, a Warden’s gray cloak clasped at her throat. “Wizard Dresden? I am Anastasia Luccio. Pleased to meet you.”

“Captain.” I shook hands, wincing as I did so – she had a grip like a vise. “I’m glad to see that my experience with Wardens to date was probably against the norm.”

Morgan scowled, but Luccio smiled faintly. “We are all on our guard due to Wizard Thom’s murder, Dresden. The Guardian did mention in his recommendation that he had left a son to the White Council. I suppose perhaps that his specific meaning was lost in translation.”

“Don’t look at me, I was told by Brother Wang that the puppy had chosen me.” 

“Ah.” Luccio glanced at the puppy, which yipped. “Ancient Mai will be quite disappointed. This way, please. Wizard Peabody is expecting you.”

I smiled sweetly at Morgan as I stepped through the threshold, and he glowered at me as he closed the door sharply once I passed by. The terrace house had a narrow corridor and a stairway that led up to a second floor. A petite Japanese lady, her sword strapped to her back, nodded gently at me from where she perched on the banister, her hands in her lap, dressed in a flowery frock that looked decidedly out of place – Warden Mio, presumably.

The corridor led to a kitchen at the back and also to a living room at the right. Luccio turned briskly into the living room, announcing curtly as she did so, “Wizard Dresden.”

“Hi,” I said. Seated at the couch and rising to his feet was someone who looked like a Basic Chicago Office Drone. Behind him was a sharp-featured Hispanic man, presumably Warden Ramirez, who grinned boyishly at the puppy. 

“Ah, Wizard Dresden. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Peabody sank nervously back to the couch. “Please, take a seat.”

I went for the armchair. “Quiet walk through the Nevernever?”

“It was eventful as always,” Peabody said wryly, “But I had three Wardens with me.”

“Always helpful,” I agreed, “Unless they’re looking to execute you for sneezing the wrong way.”

Ramirez chuckled, and then swallowed it hastily, looking behind me to the door. Morgan had probably shown up. Peabody looked uncomfortable. “Wizard Dresden-”

“‘Harry’ is fine. Or ‘Dresden’.” 

“Uh, well,” Peabody said, awkwardly, “This matter is taking me away from my usual duties, as you imagine, and I feel rather like a fish out of water. I am due to present the White Council’s requirements to Mister Marcone this evening, and…”

“And you’re not sure how he’s going to react.” Hell’s bells, the White Council had really drawn lots. From all looks and appearances, Wizard Peabody was harmless administrative staff, kicked out to the wolves due to the Merlin’s desire to make a point. The tiger was going to eat him alive.

Peabody looked grateful. “Precisely. And since reports advise that you seem to be on friendly terms with Mister Marcone, the White Council would be much obliged to you if you could be present, to ward off any potential hostilities.”

“Does ‘much obliged’ include a free pass past Go, with two hundred dollars?”

Peabody looked taken aback, even as Ramirez made a choking sound. “If you want remuneration…”

“Sorry. It was a joke,” I cut in, just as Ramirez quickly covered his mouth and Luccio looked a little puzzled. “Warden Ramirez, do you need some water or something?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” Ramirez said, trying and failing to assume a stony expression. The kid seemed to be a good kid – or maybe a life as a Warden hadn’t yet hardened him into an asshole.

Peabody shot him a reproving look over his shoulder, then he said, cautiously, “I recognize that you may not be-”

“The Council’s done me no favors all my life,” I interrupted, “And contrary to your belief Marcone is not my friend. As amazing as it may sound, I prefer not to make friends with the mafia. I came here to talk to warn you to keep your doors and windows closed and so on, but it looks like the Wardens have it covered. Whatever you’re going to negotiate with Marcone, leave me out of it.”

Peabody looked stunned, blinking at me, and Ramirez said, dryly, “The Merlin warned you, Wizard Peabody.”

Ramirez seemed to snap Peabody out it. “So he did. Well then,” he added, as though as an afterthought, reaching for a leather-bound folder at the low table beside the couch, “I had some documents for you to sign, in any regard.”

“Documents? What documents?”

“A witness statement… the discharge of doom papers, and a residency document for Chicago.” Peabody presented me with a stack of papers.

“The video is sufficient, Morgan’s word is apparently good enough, and I obviously live here,” I growled, getting to my feet and shoving my hands into my pockets. “Good luck with Marcone. If someone attacks the house and you need help, Morgan has my number.”

Peabody showed the first sign of irritation since I had seen him, which figured – with a stack of documents to sign, he was back in his element. “Wizard Dresden, the Merlin-”

“The Merlin knows precisely where I would prefer him to put those documents,” I said shortly, ignoring Ramirez’s badly stifled snicker and Morgan’s growl.

I walked past Luccio and sidled around Morgan, expecting to get tackled at any moment, but Luccio said, “Let him leave,” and Morgan stepped out of my way with a scowl.

It was late evening as I started up the Blue Beetle, and the puppy gave me a sleepy yap when I poked it. “Need the bathroom? No? Then let’s go talk to the police.”

XII.

Hell hath no fury like a mildly concussed policewoman on enforced sick leave kept out of the loop, but Murphy’s diatribe cut short abruptly when the puppy peeked sleepily out of my shirt pocket. 

“That’s a dog.” Murphy stared, astonished. 

“It’s my mascot. And he may not look like it, but he’s really a baby dogasaurus.”

Murphy never got my jokes. She stared at me with a slight frown, as if wondering whether to kick my ass, then seemed to decide it wasn’t worth it, pushing away from the doorframe and shuffling back into her house. “Just come in, Dresden.” 

I closed the door behind me and followed the small flannel-robed painkillers zombie. Murphy was sporting a rakish bandage across her forehead, apparently from a close encounter with a frying pan. I gathered that this hadn’t stopped her from arresting the culprit, and quite possibly kicking his ass in the process. 

In the kitchen, fortified with some biscuits and tea, I told Murphy that no, I didn’t know who did it, yes, there might be more casualties, and yes, I was still working on it. Murphy groaned and rubbed at her temples. “And somehow you got a pet out of the mix.”

“Mascot.” The puppy was now asleep beside the biscuits, tired out from exploring the kitchen. From this angle, it really looked like a… “I think I’ll call it Mouse.” I never did like future-descriptive names, anyway.

“Call it whatever the hell you want, find me the murderer,” Murphy growled. “Why else do we pay your goddamned retainer?”

“I should be able to find out anytime soon,” I protested. “Then I’ll let you know.” I decided to leave out the part where I was about to find out who did it by putting myself out as recruitment material. Murphy sometimes got strange ideas in her head about civilian involvement as bait.

“You do that. I might be on enforced recuperative leave at the moment, but I can get some of the others to back you up.”

The ‘others’ mostly tended to be jaded or in denial or worse, and usually disliked me outright as a rule, but I kept that opinion to myself as well. Besides, it was the thought that counted. “Thanks, Murphy.”

Obligatory visit complete, I made my way to the office, expecting ominous forces at every turn. It was somewhat of a letdown to get to my destination without any greater incident than having to swerve around a jaywalking elderly lady with armfuls of shopping bags.

Thirteen messages. Four duds, the rest from Marcone: caller ID was a lifesaver. Some people never learned. I deleted the lot without listening to them and sorted my mail. One was a prospective client, asking about getting rid of a haunting in a house that she had just purchased; that one I folded and slipped into my duster. 

Just as I was about to call it a day, the phone rang. Hoping that it wasn’t any one of my usual stalkers, I picked up. “Harry Dresden, wizard for-”

“Wizard Dresden.” The voice was male, and unfamiliar. “So pleased to be able to catch up with you at last without your shadow.”

My shadow…? Oh. Morgan. “Who is this?” I asked, warily.

“You would not recognize my name-”

“That’s why people usually introduce themselves at the start of polite conversation,” I pointed out, getting ready to scoop up Mouse and make a run for the window if necessary.

There was a long, wintry pause, then a chilly answer. “You may call me Torque.”

“As in the necklace? Is that a Black Council thing? Do you have some other guys called Scarf, Gloves and Cowl?” I had possibly forgotten about lunch, and it was beginning to make me mildly cranky.

“I see that you are not about to be reasonable.”

“That depends. Did you guys kill Thom?”

“Wizard Thom was of no further use to us. I am aware that you are… sentimental, Dresden,” Torque continued idly. “I was hoping that you would also be practical. A storm is coming, and you may prefer to be on the winning side.”

“I’ve always only had one side. Mine.” I pointed out, trying to think. Unfortunately, due to my lethal lack of affinity with machines, there was no way that I could trace this call on the fly. “And just a word of warning: past tonight, you guys might want to stay out of Chicago. The tiger’s building up its den.”

There was a harsh, barking laugh. “The tiger is no longer a concern. And if you continue to be difficult, Dresden, or get in our way, you too will be brushed out of our path.”

Torque hung up, losing points by forgetting the obligatory evil cackle and/or rumble of ominous thunder, and I quickly fumbled in my pockets. I had kept Marcone’s card – just in case, not because of anything involving the back seats of Mercedes Benz cars – and I quickly dialed the number printed on the back. 

Marcone picked up on the third ring. “Marcone.”

“You’re…” alive, I wanted to say, but that wouldn’t come out too well. “Everything went well?”

“Yes,” Marcone said, after a pause, his voice oddly flat, as though tired. “All three signatures on the Accords, duly witnessed.”

“Ah. Never mind then,” I said, a little awkwardly, and hung up quickly before he got any ideas, feeling cheered. 

Maybe evil got its planning wrong now and then, or maybe any one of the high powered beings had stopped Torque’s nefarious plans in time without me having to be there. I called Murphy next, told her that there weren’t going to be any more murders, and then dialed the number on the lady-with-a-ghost’s letter. Marcone was now Baron of Chicago, and I didn’t think that the Black Council would hang around unless they had contingency plans. My schedule for finding Thom’s murderer could wait until I earned next month’s rent.



XIII.

Life returned to normal. Special Investigations eased off on the case once it seemed to have gone cold, and Murphy stopped harassing me for answers once it became obvious to her that I had run out of leads. I refused my retainer anyway, to help her with internal SI politics about the waste of funding. Besides, the haunted lady’s fee plus a nice token of appreciation meant that I could pay off this month’s bills. 

Mouse was growing at a noticeable rate – scary – but a quick contact through the White Council advised that Foo Dogs were non-refundable. If he continued eating at the rate that he did, I was going to have to think of a better way to advertise than just through the yellow pages, but particularly once Mister had gotten used to him, I had to admit that I rather liked having the rapidly growing, still bumbling puppy around. 

And best of all, Marcone stopped trying to call me. 

I was working on tracing some rich kid’s runaway pet cockatoo, walking briskly down a street with a white feather in my hand, when the black Mercedes pulled up at the sidewalk. I froze, instinctively raising my staff, then the window scrolled down and Hendricks looked out. “Get in the car.”

I looked behind him into the empty car. “Your master finally taught you how to fetch?”

“Dresden.” Hendricks was actually sweating gently, his eyes darting to the side, then back to me. “Get in the car.”

Something about the sharp edge to his tone caused me to do something very stupid. I got in the car, albeit in the front passenger seat, and let Mouse into the back, and the car pulled smoothly into traffic. “I’ll have you know that I’m being paid hourly right now to find a parrot.” That came out far more inanely than I had hoped.

Hendricks tossed an envelope into my lap. “That should cover it.”

I looked into the envelope, and narrowed my eyes. “I won’t take Marcone’s money.”

“It’s not Marcone’s. It’s from a pool. My money, and from some of the others under his employ. If it’s not enough, let me know, I’ll think of something.”

It was far more than what I had earned over the past four months, easily, but I wasn’t about to say that. “Depends on what you want me to do.”

Hendricks scowled at the road before him, as though he had a grudge against the driver in front, his big hands clenched tight on the wheel. “There’s something up with the boss. Ever since that night when he signed into the Accords.” Hendricks seemed to misinterpret my frown. “This thing’s warded against listeners,” He rapped his knuckles on the steering wheel. “So while you’re in here, we can talk. I’m not expected back for at least another hour.”

“What do you mean, ‘something’s up’?”

“He seemed a little off for a few weeks. That wizard from the White Council is still hanging around. The Wardens have gone.”

“Peabody’s still there?” I blinked. That was surprising. “Why?”

“He’s self-appointed as the boss’ new secretary. Everything goes through him now before it reaches the boss. Few days ago, there was a major reshuffle of the inner circle. The bodyguards, most of the administrative staff, hell, even the receptionists have been fired.”

“People change,” I said, warily.

“Not the boss.” Hendricks retorted adamantly. “And before you argue with me, I have the Sight. Some of the boys managed to create a distraction, and I made it into the boss’ office this morning. He was just… sitting there,” Hendricks said, his voice becoming rougher for a moment, as though he was trying to control his temper. “At his desk. Staring out into Chicago. Didn’t even notice me coming in. Didn’t look back at me. And in the Sight, there was some sort of… dark blue taint, all around him, especially over the fingers of his right hand.” 

“Hell’s bells.” So Torque had gotten to Marcone after all. Either that, or the White Council’s representative had broken one of the Laws, maybe under the Merlin’s direction. Both thoughts didn’t bear exploring. “And you left him there?”

“Peabody arrived. And then the boss told us to leave.” Hendricks continued to glare at the traffic. 

“Why did you come to me?”

“You’re the closest source of help,” Hendricks said, a little evasively.

“Vadderung can be anywhere he wants if he really wanted to.”

“All right,” Hendricks admitted, reluctantly. “I looked you up in the Sight that time you broke the boss’ car-”

“It wasn’t me!”

“-and I’m quite good at recognizing magical signatures,” Hendricks ignored the outburst. “Before I got pushed out of the office with the rest of the boys, I noticed something else in the aura. It looked like the only reason why Marcone’s magic hadn’t been tainted completely through is because yours is twisted around it somehow, like some sort of preventative net.”

“It’s been weeks!” And it had only been a kiss. Stars and stones! “All right. I need to see this for myself. Can you get me into his office?”

“You’re going to help?” Hendricks looked like he was too relieved to fully believe me.

“I think the alternative will be much, much worse.” 



XIV.

A janitor hanging nervously around the service delivery lot of Marcone’s sleek office block headquarters nodded at Hendricks once the bulky man got out of the car. There was a collection of equally burly men hulking behind the janitor, and even a few women, but I gathered that they weren’t the reason why the janitor looked so nervous; once Mouse and I followed Hendricks out of the car, they relaxed. The packet of money felt like it was burning a hole through the pocket of my duster. 

“All right,” Hendricks said quietly. “Dresden needs a way into the office. Where’s Peabody, Micky?”

“He went out. Judy said he was talking about going to meet someone.” The janitor, Micky, clutched his broom to himself protectively, and behind him, a dumpy woman looked defiant. 

“I offered to make him some tea, and he ‘tole me he was going,” Presumably-Judy told Hendricks. “Did as you said and made sure to watch ‘till he was gone. Drove off in one of Mister Marcone’s nice cars, he did!”

“It was the Porsche. I got the tracker under the bumper like you said,” one of the women, a thin, pale middle-aged lady said. “When I was sweeping up.”

Somehow, it didn’t surprise me that Marcone managed to command loyalty all the way down to his cleaning staff. Peabody had probably made a mistake by forgetting to fire them as well. 

“Jimmy?” Hendricks turned to one of the Interchangeable Muscle. 

‘Jimmy’ checked a handheld device. “He’s across the city. At least an hour to get back by car.”

“He might not use a car. Assuming he could get back at any time, what’s the best and fastest way up?” I asked. I didn’t think that Peabody had broken any of the rules – he hadn’t seemed like the sort who could even dare. Chances were, Torque was behind it somehow, and if Marcone’s estimate of the Black Council’s abilities were accurate, there would be a serious problem soon. 

Hendricks nodded at Micky, who presented me with a backpack. Half open, I could see a folded janitor’s uniform within it. “Put those on.”

“My duster makes me bulletproof,” I protested. “And what about my dog?”

“Judy will make sure your dog stays here,” Hendricks said, “And you asked about the fastest way up through all the new guards. This is it. The other way involves us fighting our way up level by level until we reach the top. Going to be a lot of bloodshed. Besides, we’ll hide your duster and your staff in the janitor trolley. You can put your duster back on once you’re in Marcone’s office.”

Obviously, it was a good day for being very stupid; I couldn’t think of a better idea, not with Torque possibly about to start breathing down our necks. Because there were women around and we were more or less in public, I passed Mouse’s lead to Judy and got back into the car to change, self-consciously. The janitor’s uniform didn’t fit very well, but it could pass muster if I had a broom in my hands, and the sleeves and heavy rubber gloves could go over my bracelets.

Wordlessly, Judy handed me her broom, completing the picture of a too-tall new janitor. At least the clothes were clean, even if my shoes looked a little out of place. “Now what?”

“Micky is going to take you up. It’s time for his top floor rounds, so nobody’s going to notice if he does them in the usual order. Hope you don’t mind helping him empty out dustbins.”

“It won’t be safe for him if-”

Micky scowled at me, skinny old man and all, but Hendricks spoke for him. “We all have a lot invested in this, Harry. Besides, if the guards see you and not Micky, they’ll think something’s come up.”

Hendricks had a point. “What about the rest of you?”

“Micky has a phone. If that fails, he’ll set off the fire alarm. We’ll come for the both of you.” Hendricks said flatly. 

I didn’t want to think of what a firefight plus a magical firefight would look like when mixed together. “No. If something happens, don’t come for me. I’ll make sure Micky can leave, but don’t come. Call Vadderung instead. If he won’t leave, tell him…” I paused, thinking wildly, “Tell him I promise I’ll owe him a big favor if we could just borrow a couple of Valkyries.” 

“Fine.” Hendricks, however, didn’t look convinced. “Good luck, Dresden. Thank you.”

I didn’t want to raise anyone’s hopes. “Just take care of my dog.”



XV.

Getting around to Marcone’s office seemed to take an age. Micky evidently had a very fixed dustbin schedule, puttering around the mostly empty lines of desks, checking them even though it was obvious that no one had been sitting at them for a while. The new bodyguards didn’t even give us a second glance. 

On the top floor, Micky checked the empty receptionist’s desk, watered the plants, then shuffled towards the two thickset men standing outside the big frosted glass door with the discreet name plate, with me towing the janitor trolley behind me.

“New guy?” one of the guards jerked his head at me, and I had to force myself to keep my eyes fixed on the floor as my heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t as though I wouldn’t be able to handle them, especially if they weren’t expecting a magical kick in the gut, but that would probably raise the alarm.

“Nephew,” Micky said, with a shrug, as if he took acting classes every day of his life. “He’s a little slow, but I told his mama that I’d take care of him, see if I can get him useful somewhere. He’s tall, so he can dust where I can’t reach, and-”

“Sure, old man.” The guard said, disinterested, and opened the door. I tried not to make it too obvious that I was holding my breath as we went through.

Once inside, Micky began to unload a vacuum cleaner, whispering as he plugged it into the wall, “This should make enough noise to cover whatever you need to do.” 

I nodded at him, pulling on my duster and picking up my staff from the jumble of mop handles, and hurried over to the desk. Just like Hendricks had said, Marcone sat in the chair, facing the cityscape, so still that for a moment I thought he was dead, until I got close enough to see his eyes.

Marcone was sitting still as a doll, but inside, he was clearly furious about it. The tiger was raging, and I was surprised that somehow or other, the magic wasn’t leaking out all over. Whatever Torque or Peabody had done had bottled it all up, and thinking about how they could have gone about doing that was unpleasant. It was probably fortunate that Hendricks evidently hadn’t gotten this close; I rather doubted that Marcone’s loyal bodyguard would have agreed to leave had he done so, and he would then be dead.

Recalling Hendrick’s encounter, I looked down at Marcone’s right hand. The tips were stained black, as though with ink or old blood, and I went back to the janitor’s trolley, fishing out a rag and hastily squeezing some detergent and spraying a spot of water onto the cloth. Marcone relaxed into his chair once I cleaned off the black stains and tossed the cloth onto the table, along with my gloves, just to be safe, but he still seemed frozen to the chair. He stared at me, hopeful, but I was stumped, and all too aware that once Micky finished vacuuming, we would probably be out of time.

I looked up again in the Sight, and almost gagged. The feel of the taint was oily, black and viscous and loathsome up this close, curling insidiously around Marcone’s white nimbus, twisting it. I could, however, see what Hendricks had been referring to; with me standing before Marcone, my personal magic seemed to be reaching out for the remnants woven into Marcone’s, pushing the taint back slowly.

“Stars and stones,” I told Marcone, knowing in a moment of clarity what I had to do next. “Don’t take this the wrong way when you wake up.”

Staying in the Sight when I kissed Marcone was a very bad idea. The white nimbus shrank, then imploded outwards, making me yelp in surprise and pain, stumbling backwards, barking my hip against Marcone’s heavy desk and flailing awkwardly. My undignified loss of balance was abruptly halted by strong fingers closing tightly on my shoulders and hauling me up, then Marcone was bending me back over his desk with his hands fisted in the collar of my duster and kissing me back, roughly and possessively, growling deep in his throat. I was grabbing desperately at his shoulders, pulling him closer, and it took me a moment of fuzzy, astonished lust to realize that the eager, muffled moans were coming from me.

Marcone eventually pulled back, reluctantly, as I lay panting, breathless on the desk and thanking all available deities for Micky and his vacuum cleaner for the lack of interruption. Prince Phillip probably didn’t get it this good.

“Who?” Marcone asked, suspiciously, as though he was jealous, and I realized that I had spoken out loud.

“You don’t watch Disney movies?” 

“I-” Marcone paused, tilting his head, then he straightened up. “Micky, go and sit in the bathroom. Don’t come out until it’s quiet. Now,” he added, when the janitor looked like he was going to argue. Micky scurried away quickly, leaving the vacuum cleaner running.

“Care to explain?” I looked around quickly, rings and shield bracelets at the ready, but I didn’t sense anything untoward.

“Someone’s coming.” Marcone said coldly. “Harry, follow Micky. Try to get him out of here.”

“I refuse,” I told Marcone stubbornly. “Someone killed Thom. Probably mind controlled you in the process. There’s a Black Council wizard around called Torque, he called me on the night of the signing.”

“I heard Peabody mention him, yes.” Marcone’s tone turned icy. “They are both in the Black Council.” 

Hell’s bells. The rot ran far deeper than I thought. “I need to make a call to Ebe.”

“Are you so sure that you can trust him?” 

“Got to start somewhere.” I edged over for the phone on the desk, but Marcone abruptly gripped my elbow. A rift opened over in the corner, and Peabody stepped out, followed by a tall, broad man, hooded and robed in Classic Villain Black. 

Peabody blinked and swore when he saw us both, but the tall man merely clasped pale hands together. “Dresden. Perhaps we should have removed you when we had the chance.”

“Is this where I get invited over to the Dark side again? Or when you tell me that you’re really my father?” I quipped. I wasn’t very good at gauging another wizard’s strengths, but by Torque’s confidence, he either had another card up his sleeve, or he was confident of facing the Baron of Chicago on his home ground.

Torque smiled, and raised his palm. “Forzare.” 

I instinctively opened my mouth to voice outrage that Torque was also using the same spells, when wind slammed into me and forced me a step back. Around my wrist, the shield bracelet that I had worked on with Bob flared brightly, then the charms crumbled into dust.

Well, that had been useful.

“My turn,” Marcone said calmly, flicking his left wrist, and fire roared forward from his palm. Torque grunted as he held out his hands, chanting something that I couldn’t hear over the flames, then Marcone casually held up his right hand to the side even as sharp fingers of ice abruptly stabbed up from the walls, smashing to pieces inches around us.

Having front row seats to a magical throwdown at this magnitude counted as very, very stupid even in the sum of the day’s events. I could see Peabody come to the same conclusion; the wizard made a dash for the door, to his right. It was a mistake; Marcone made a contemptuous gesture, and abruptly, Peabody seemed to be dragged back, screaming, by an unseen force, and was smashed through the glass windows out and over Chicago. 

Marcone had just broken one of the Laws. 

Or perhaps not yet, not if I could… I ran for the gap and jumped, going for the second most idiotic act of the day on instinct. I could hear Marcone shout my name behind me, just as I concentrated on the space just beneath the falling, flailing Peabody and screamed into the wind, “Aparturum! 

That was the most idiotic act of the day, on hindsight.

Peabody and I fell through into the Nevernever, and out high into a sky that was an unnatural, even robin’s egg blue, far above a thick sea of clouds. 

Fantastic. 

I could see the wizard’s eyes, wide and frightened as we continued to fall, and I twisted awkwardly, trying to aim a well-placed ventas that could push me down fast enough to grab his hand. 

I got it right on the third go, and managed to grab hold of Peabody and drag the shaking, screaming wizard up against me, ignoring the flailing and the struggling the best I could. We fell down like a stone, past the clouds, and out into the silent, gorgeous white vistas of a seemingly endless black forest, cloaked in the pristine veil of Winter. 

Fantastic.

If I survived the fall, I probably wasn’t going to survive a journey back. Shouting “Veni che, veni che, veni che!” I managed to slow down our descent, even with the added weight, enough that landing in a snowdrift only rattled my teeth and bruised me all over rather than smashing us both into gore splatters.

I sat up, spitting snow, and grabbed Peabody by the collar as he screamed and thrashed, shoving him back into the snowdrift. “Shut up,” I hissed. “We’re in Winter.” And I had just used quite a noticeable amount of magic.

Sure enough, in the distance, I could hear hounds beginning to bay and howl.



XVI.

The Leanansidhe looked amused when she caught up to us toiling through the seemingly endless forest of dead trees. “Really, Harry. Where did you think you would go?”

Frankly, I wasn’t too sure, not wanting to chance another aparturum when it could land us, say, in the middle of tons of rock under the subway or something. Distance and space was strange in the Nevernever, and didn’t usually correspond with the mortal world, but even though Torque and Peabody had exited a rift right into the office, I wasn’t sure whether or not to risk it.

Lea seemed to glean my answer from my face; she laughed, all tinkling silver. “And who is your friend?”

“Wizard Peabody. He’s a bit shell-shocked right now,” I patted the silent, still shaking wizard affably on the shoulder, “But he gets right along to sneaky mind-control dark magic when he’s on his normal groove. He’s just your type, Godmother.”

Her hounds slavered and snarled in the tight circle that they paced around me, and Lea’s latest mount snorted and pawed at the snow; a beautiful gray stag, its bridle and saddle adorned with gold and precious gems. Lea, however, chuckled. “You could stand to make better friends. And to think your Godmother once went to all that trouble to make sure you could meet your heart’s desire.”

“My what? You mean a cup of hot cocoa?” I deadpanned, trying to kick my mostly frozen brain into working. Bob had said something about Lea…

“That ridiculously powerful wizard known as Johnny Marcone, dear.” Lea smirked. “Who else stole him away from the heart of Summer and returned him to the mortal world?”

“Wait. He’s older than me. You can’t have known anything about this while he was six years old.” Fae words were famously multi-faceted.

“True,” Lea said, unruffled at being caught out at duplicity. “True and true again, godson. But it does so appear that an act of mischief to thwart Summer’s tip of the balance has borne such delightful rewards.”

“What rewards? I haven’t asked you for aid.” I glared at the hellhounds. “And if you’re going to kill me, you’ll just waste your three wishes.”

“I could still change you into a hound,” Lea pursed her perfect lips.

“Sure, if your three wishes involve digging for bones, barking at strangers and wagging my tail.”

“The older you grow, the less good humor you have,” Lea said reproachfully. “I was about to offer you a way back to the mortal world, on solid ground, where you last were.”

“And I find it very convenient that you happened to be more or less just a couple of hours away when I fell into that snowdrift.”

“We always keep a close eye on children of fate,” Lea shrugged one delicate shoulder. “The first Merlin we finally stole away, but this one is proving to be a little more wary of favors and pretty faces. By fair chance you fell through instead of he. Three debts you owe me, godson, and now you are lost and alone.”

“Can we at least get Peabody out to the nearest Warden outpost?” I wasn’t in any shape to get away from my dearest Godmother right now, nor in a good position now that she had me surrounded.

“Only if you want to owe me another favor, Harry.” 

I didn’t know how the Laws of Magic worked in this sort of situation, if Peabody froze to death in the Nevernever. Possibly, though, the Wardens would simply prefer to take a hostile view of the chain of causation. With a deep sigh, I took a step back, ready to summon flame to my defense and buy enough time to open another rift. Lea raised a hand, her eyes narrowing, and then she paused as a rift abruptly opened ten feet to her right.

Mouse bounded through, barking excitedly, followed by Marcone, Hendricks, and the gang of Indistinguishable Muscle(s). He frowned when he saw my predicament, stepping forward menacingly, and Lea reined her stag over to face him, a lazy smile playing over her lips.

Bitch. She had been waiting for this. “Marcone, don’t say anything to her,” I said quickly. “I’m handling this.”

“What a pleasure to meet you again, Johnny,” Lea purred, ignoring me. “It has been so very long, in mortal terms.”

“The pleasure is entirely yours, I assure you,” Marcone retorted curtly. “Return Harry to me, and the traitor, and walk away.”

“At least that has not changed, your strange sense of personal invulnerability even within the depths of true Winter,” Lea chuckled, unimpressed, even as Hendricks cocked his pistol “I hear the human wizards killed those two sweet friends of yours who tried to cover your absence when you were in the Summer Court. So many ways to pretend, and they had to use their spells to make your minder look the other way, thus breaking one of your curious little mortal rules. Tragic.”

Something haunted Marcone to the depths of his soul... Marcone bared his teeth, but somewhat to my surprise, no explosion of magic occurred. “Then you know that I have no fondness for your kind.”

“Not even for your onetime savior,” Lea shook her head, in mock pity. “You can have the human who is not known to me, but Harry Dresden is mine. Three favors he owes me, and now I call on my right and his word.” 

“Harry, is this true?” Marcone asked me, his tone deadly calm.

“Unfortunately, I was very stupid when I was younger. Take Peabody and find one of the Wardens. Ramirez seems reasonable. I’ve been in Winter before. I can get out again.” I shoved Peabody towards Marcone, and the wizard stumbled blindly past the line of still hellhounds, sprawling into the snow next to Hendricks. Marcone ignored him, addressing Lea instead.

“I have another proposal. Would a favor from me be worth three from Harry?”

Marcone,” I objected sharply, but Lea tapped one delicate finger against her perfect chin, pretending to think. 

“You place little worth on my godson’s abilities, Johnny. Three of his favors for two of yours, and he’ll be released from all his debt to me.”

“Done.” Marcone said grimly. “Now return him to me.”

“You’re an idiot,” I snarled at Marcone, “What did you do that for? Lea, don’t listen to him, you can’t just trade-”

“I’ll call on my debts some other time, Johnny.” Lea smiled with pretty malice, and waved at me, the hellhounds slinking back behind her steed. “Fare you well, godson.” 

“Lea!” 

My godmother merely laughed, as light and silvery as a soft dusting of evening snow, and turned her steed east. When she had faded away into the snow, I rounded on Marcone again, even as Hendricks and one of the Burly Muscle picked up an unresisting Peabody by dragging him up onto his feet. “You don’t know what she’s like!” 

“I’ve met her before.” Marcone returned mildly.

“I had it all under control!”

“Of course, Harry,” Marcone said, with a faint smile. “Then call it a return of a favor.”

I glanced at Peabody, and then I hesitated. “Wait. What did you do to Torque?”

“He’s dead. But I didn’t use magic to kill him,” Marcone added, almost as an afterthought.

That was a relief, but… “You can’t just go around killing people!” 

“As interesting as your position on a known murderer is, can we have this conversation out of Winter?”

Mouse barked at me and pawed at my knee, and I sighed, rubbing at my eyes. “How did you find me, anyway?”

“Your dog started barking and jumping in circles at a particular point on the second floor of my office.” 

Somehow, that figured, as impossible as it seemed that a puppy would be able to sense me through space. Saved twice by a Foo Dog. I scratched Mouse behind the ears, and then I shuffled towards the rift, behind the Burly Muscle. A few feet before it, my frozen knees buckled, and Marcone caught me as I stumbled. Growling, I tried to pull away, but he’d somehow gotten an arm around my waist.

“When was the last time you ate today, Harry?”

“Forgot,” I muttered, and my stomach rumbled loudly. I felt exhausted now; all the strung-out adrenaline first from jumping out of a tower, trying to think of ways on the fly to survive a fall from lethal height, then trudging for an indeterminable time through the forest through freezing snow in a desperate and futile attempt to get away from Lea was finally catching up with me. “Need to watch Peabody in case you kill him.”

“I need his testimony, so we won’t be.”

I wanted to tell Marcone that his words weren’t very reassuring, but Chicago felt so warm after Winter’s forest. The floor we emerged into seemed to be some sort of rec room, and I tottered over to sink gratefully into a plush armchair in a white leather couch arrangement before a blank flatscreen television, closing my eyes. The last thing I felt was Mouse curling up on my lap. 



XVII.

Someone had left a bowl of unidentifiable, cooling soup on the low glass table before me, and from Mouse’s slightly guilty expression I gathered that the dog had probably drunk some of it. Deciding that since I had parachuted out miles over Winter without a parachute and had still survived the process, a few dog germs wouldn’t kill me, so I drank the soup, picked up Mouse’s lead, and tried a veil. 

Surprisingly enough, it worked like a charm, getting me through to the street with nobody turning around to stop me. Maybe Marcone had rubbed off on me. Literally, in a sense. 

I dropped the veil a block or so away from Marcone’s office and hailed a cab.

Once home, I tried to call Ebe, who didn’t pick up. Shucking off my duster over a chair, I pulled off my shoes, and then didn’t manage to do anything about the rest of my clothes before stumbling into my bed and falling asleep again, burrowing under the quilts to get the last of Winter’s chill out from my bones.

I woke up disoriented and flailing when Mouse started barking, and pulled my pillow over my head. Someone was knocking on the door. I did my best to ignore whoever it was, curling up, then I yelped and flinched away when a hand closed on my shoulder. “Stars and stones!”

“Harry.” Marcone looked concerned, sleek an elegant in a gray suit and a freshly pressed white shirt. Even the green silk tie was impeccable. 

“Did you break my wards again?”

“I may have,” Marcone allowed, with a faintly playful smile as I sat up on the bed and rubbed at my eyes.

“Hell’s bells, and you came through the threshold without an invitation?” 

“Not a pleasant experience,” Marcone inclined his head, looking unruffled, “But I wanted to check on you.”

“Well, you have. Now go away,” I told him mulishly. “And if you broke my door, get someone to fix it.”

“Your door is fine, I picked the lock.” Annoyingly enough, Marcone sat down on the edge of the bed, and patted Mouse when the puppy planted its front paws on his knees. Evidently, Mouse had just decided that Marcone was a friend. I glared at the dog. Traitor. Mouse wagged its tail at me, and trotted away towards the kitchen. “And a couple of my men caught the cockatoo you were looking for and returned it to the owner.”

“That was my job,” I scowled at Marcone.

“So it was. The owner will mail you a cheque tomorrow morning,” Marcone replied calmly. 

“I don’t need you interfering with my work. You’ve gotten what you wanted. Now stay out of my life.” 

Marcone’s expressive green eyes narrowed a fraction, but his voice stayed even. “Harry, why did you jump after Peabody?” 

I swallowed the honest answer. “He was the mole in the White Council. Need him alive to undo all his tricks.”

“You don’t care much for the White Council.”

“I don’t, but at least they…” I paused before I could mention that they only killed people with a reason. That much could be said for the Black, as well. “Well, I’ve got nothing against most of them.”

“You wanted to prevent me from breaking one of the Laws of Magic,” Marcone concluded wryly.

“What? Uh, where did you get that idea from?” I fought the urge to slap my palm over my face. Low sleep, no food and a near case of hypothermia evidently were bad for the speech component of my brain.

“And you broke Peabody’s spell.”

“I was paid!” 

“Then there was that outburst when I took on your debt.”

I flushed – that one I didn’t have a ready answer for, but it didn’t mean I wasn’t going to give it a shot. “I don’t need the mafia’s helpnghf-” Marcone decided to dispense with verbal arguments, pinning me to the wall and climbing into my lap, and as I moaned and arched up into the kiss, opening my mouth, Marcone growled and ground his hips against mine with a jolt of pleasure. I nipped at his lower lip in response, raking my fingers down the tailored seams of his suit, and he somehow managed to roll me onto my back, pulling my shirt out of my pants. I bit again, this time just under the curve of his chin, hard enough that Marcone shuddered and let out a choked groan, then I licked back up and tried to roll back on top.

Unfortunately, the bed wasn’t exactly made for this sort of manhandling, and instead we landed in an ungainly heap of confused limbs and quilts on the hard floor. But at least I was on top.

“Déjà vu,” Marcone said breathlessly, his tone tight and hungry, but the bark of pain up my knees had snapped me out of my momentary insanity. I batted his hands away quickly. 

“I don’t put out on a first date. Especially one that sucked so epically.” At Marcone’s arched eyebrow, I elaborated, “Murderous wizards? Manipulative Sidhe? Extreme parachuting?” 

“That wasn’t a…” Marcone paused, then smiled, all intense charm again, even on his back beneath me and tangled in an old quilt. “Are you free for dinner, Harry? My shout, of course.”

“It’s the magic, our magic,” I told him, trying a last ditch effort in the name of logic. “I don’t know you. I don’t even like you.” 

“Harry-”

Oh, hells. Marcone’s tone was edged with worry, and his hands were curled gently but firmly on my arms, like he wasn’t ever going to let me go. He’d come to Winter for me, cleared my debt, Stars, he’d even filled in for me on my usual job when I was out for the count. It was the magic, but it wasn’t all because of synchronicity.

“There are going to be rules,” I told him, tugging lightly on his tie. “Lots of rules.”

Marcone appeared to give this some thought, even when he was only inches away. “Negotiable?”

“Shut up, Johnny.” The slow, unhurried kiss, all tender, mutual exploration broke the last of my reservations. Marcone stilled when I fumbled down his shirt to his belt, looking questioningly at me as I pulled back. “Change of plans,” I told him, hoping that I sounded suave instead of nervous as I undid the buckle.

He caught my fingers in his hands. “Not if you aren’t comfortable.” 

I rubbed my ass pointedly over the hard ridge between my thighs, and smirked as green eyes widened. “I’m hardly new to the playing field.”

Actually, it was bravado, given that I didn’t have much of a love life to begin with, and my last encounter on the same side of the fence was fumbled and partially drunken, but Marcone growled and flipped us neatly over, pinning me down with his palms on my shoulders. “Do not mention others.”

I grinned at the note of jealousy in his voice. “I’m still waiting to be impressed, Johnny.” 

The tiger looked up at me, and Marcone smiled lazily as he reached for the first button on my shirt.


postscript.

Bob had laughed for a whole five minutes when he finally cottoned on to all my deliberately vague queries about elephant strength dampener wards. “I told you about screwing nuclear missiles, boss,” the spirit of intellect said, when he finally calmed down enough to talk. “So, what happened?”

“None of your business,” I growled. Sucking Johnny off under his desk on a whim and a dare had caused the blackout of his building and the surrounding office buildings for a few hours, and the police had even been called from one of the unlucky neighboring buildings on a terrorism scare. Johnny hadn’t been amused. 

Come to think of it, it was probably lucky that he had previously entered my apartment with no invitation.

“Trouble in your happy ending?” 

“Condescension also attracts the hammer, Bob.”

“You could just restrict all your bedroom games to this place. Not inviting him in seems to put a decent enough damper on That Guy’s magic. Even though… Hells, Harry, I didn’t know you had so much caterwauling in you.”

I reddened. “Concentrate on wards, Bob.”

“The best ones I made were all broken when he last felt like it, remember?” Bob pointed out. “On your door? Twice?”

Bob had a point. I sighed. “Suddenly I see what Ebe meant.”

“You should try it anyway,” Bob said thoughtfully. “I mean, without wards. The full ten yards. You might literally rock his world. And everyone else’s, at the same time. Bring about Ragnarok.”

“It’s a good reason to keep the apartment, I guess.” Johnny had been very insistent about having me move into his damned mansion. I had been resisting it so far, if only because Murphy would probably never speak to me again. “Think, Bob.”

“You want me to come up with a solution so you can fuck your boyfriend in any location of choice without destroying the world?” Bob’s eyelights brightened briefly, and I groaned.

“You don’t have to put it that way.” 

“Harry, this is the best thing you’ve ever asked me to think about. I’m so touched. You’re the greatest slave driver ever.” 

I closed my hand meaningfully over the hammer. Thankfully for Bob, someone knocked on the door, and I trundled out of the lab, peering briefly out of the window. Johnny was perfectly on time – as usual. I opened the door, and Mouse bounded forward, already as big as a Labrador and still growing, wagging his tail and sniffing at Johnny’s hands.

Somehow I had ended up with a dog, in a gay relationship, and with a rich boyfriend to boot. According to Bob, Cosmo and Women’s Weekly had a lot to answer for. 

Johnny smiled at me. “Dinner?”

“I thought you’d never show up. My treat.”