“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” H.W. Longfellow
“The White Council are after me, Marcone. I’m dead if you don’t help.”
John Marcone, kingpin of Chicago’s criminal underworld, smiled at me — a mirthless upturning of his lips. “Then by all means, Mr Dresden,” he said, “die.”
Hendricks made a gurgling sound that assumed was gorilla for laughter. I bit back a snarl — I didn’t have time to exchange trash talk with Marcone.
We were in a back room of Saint Mary of the Angels. I’d chosen the location for two reasons: this was one of the last places the Council would come calling and, when they finally did, the church’s near impenetrable threshold would keep me as safe as the strongest of wards.
Thankfully, Father Forthill had disappeared into a side room the moment Marcone and his retinue has arrived. I was grateful for the man’s tact. The already volatile combination of a wizard, crime lord and his hired muscle could only be made worse by the addition of a catholic priest. Even without Father Forthill, the atmosphere was still tense. The abysmal weather reflected the mood well; rain lashed against the room’s small window and showed no sign of letting up. The darkness of the evening outside seemed to seep into the very corners of the room.
“Trust me,” I said, trying to maintain my customary facade of bravado. “Death almost looks tempting compared with asking you for help, but I can’t kick the bucket just yet.
Marcone brushed an imaginary speck of lint from the cuff of his business suit. “Oh? And why is that?”
I clenched my fists, hoping that would stop him from noticing my hands were shaking. My friends, my city, my home: all would be swallowed up by the darkness if I was too busy being dead to do anything about it.
“I have unfinished business.” I couldn’t keep my tone steady: there was just too much at stake.
There was something in my voice that Marcone’s attention. He stopped feigning disinterest and surveyed me coolly with eyes that were the colour of faded dollar bills. He took in the bloodstains on my ragged shirt, the absence of my blasting rod and exhausted, haggard appearance. I didn’t shrink under his gaze but met it head on. The memory of our first soul gaze rose within me, unbidden, and I brushed it to one side. Being reminded that the guy had the heart of a predator while I was trying to do business was an unhelpful distraction.
“I see,” he said before turning to his two bodyguards. “Mister Hendricks, Miss Gard, please leave us for a moment.”
Hendricks looked less than pleased with the request — he was undoubtedly unhappy about leaving his employer alone with the ‘big bad wizard’ — but Gard placed a guiding hand on his shoulder and steered him from the room. Cujo glared at me balefully right up until he left. I responded with a cheery little wave.
The door shut after them and I was alone with Marcone.
Now that I came to think of it, being alone with the man was a pretty rare occurrence. When we normally met, Marcone was very rarely without his two goons and — to be perfectly honest — it felt sort of weird without them. Gods, I never thought I’d miss the delightful company of none other than Cujo and Blondie, but it did raise an important question.
What did Marcone want to say to me that he needed to be alone for?
He got straight to it. “Alright, Dresden. I’ll defend you — but for a price.”
I sighed. Making deals with the ‘bad guys’, Mab, Leah and Marcone are to name just a few, always left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Yeah, I’m not so naive as to think that the divide between the virtuous and the immoral is as distinct as black and white, but that doesn’t mean I have to like the shades of grey in between.
“I guessed as much,” I said, bitterness seeping into my voice. “What do you want?”
His voice was clear over the incessant pounding of the rain. “There’s a girl I need you to help,” he said. “You should remember her.”
Ambiguous much? I had to restrain the urge to scoff at him. “Right. A girl. Can’t you be any more specific? I assume that you’re not talking about one of your Executive Priority chicks here.”
He flashed a glare at me and I was taken aback by its ferocity. “Her name is Amanda,” he said, tone curt and every syllable cold and crisp.
‘Amanda?’ I thought, nonplussed. ‘Who on earth is Amanda?’
Suddenly, my memory whirred into action. The image of a hospital room appeared in my mind’s eye, a sudden, powerful reflection as clear as if I had seen it only minutes ago rather than years. I remembered smooth white sheets, a teddy bear propped against a pillow, faded letters spelling out ‘Jane Doe’ on the door. I remembered the girl in that room, a skeletally thin figure who had been asleep for at least fifteen years, probably longer. Amanda: the girl who would never wake up.
I also remembered Marcone. Marcone sat by the bed, head bowed and praying desperately to somehow undo the damage done so many years ago.
He meant that girl. Stars and stones... Marcone’s uncharacteristic sensitivity on the subject suddenly made a whole lot more sense.
“I remember,” I said, trying my best to keep my tone neutral. “The kid that got caught in the crossfire. She’s still in a coma, right?”
“Correct. In exchange for my support, Dresden, I want you to save her.”
I blinked. “You want me to wake her up?”
“In exchange for my assistance, yes.”
Now, this... This was not what I had expected. I’d fully anticipated Marcone trying to strong-arm me into some sketchy contract that reduced me to little more than a guard dog, making a trio with Hendricks and Gard. But this? This was uncertain ground; I needed to tread carefully.
I considered my position. If the freaking Turin Shroud had failed to help her, I highly doubted that I could. On the other hand, without Marcone to vouch for me to the White Council, I was a dead man walking. I couldn’t afford to say no.
But, no matter how dire the situation, I wasn’t going to lie to the man. As much as I despised the guy, I wasn’t going to peddle him some snake oil when it came to a girl’s life. Moreover, I couldn’t deny that Marcone had always been truthful with me. Arrogant, and condescending, yes, but never deceitful. And I intended on returning that favour in kind.
I held my hands out in front of me, palm up. “Look, Marcone, I can try to help her, but I can’t guarantee anything. Haven’t you had Blondie try to help her?”
“Miss Gard’s talents were of no use in this instance, no.”
I breathed out heavily. “It’ll probably be the same for me. I specialise in combat magic — setting fire to things, blowing stuff up — this type of healing is something I’ve never even attempted before.”
The sound of the rain pounded down around us. Marcone turned to face me, cold determination clear on his face.
“Then you are going to learn, Dresden.”
Time passed and, as always, I was pulled back from the brink of total destruction by a hair’s breadth. Marcone, acting as Baron of Chicago, was able to keep the White Council off my back long enough for me to clear my name. All charges against me were dropped and, once again, I had escaped with my life — my life, and a debt.
As soon as my acquittal was formalised, spurred on by the wish not to be beholden to Johnny Marcone, I went to go and see the sleeping girl.
“Look Marcone, I’m sorry, but magic isn’t going to help here.”
We were in a private room the hospital provided for grieving families. I hated it. I hated the ‘homey’ fake plants right down to the jumble of leaflets on bereavement. In my opinion, no one could ever feel fully at ease in a hospital; it would take a lot more than calm pastel shades and a cushion or two to make this place welcoming. Anyway, I suppose we could have just talked in Amanda’s room. ‘It wouldn’t have made any difference,’ I thought bitterly.
Johnny Marcone observed me cooly and said nothing.
I sighed and flopped down onto the hideous sofa with its hideous cushions, rubbing my temples distractedly. Gods, I had a headache... Marcone, on the other hand, remained standing. Rather than wearing his customary bazillion dollar suit, he was dressed casually. It made him look younger, I vaguely noted, but he still had the same gravitas wearing jeans as in anything else.
In the face of the other man’s continued silence, I went on speaking. “Look, you’ve tried the shroud and I’ve tried everything I know of. Hell, I even tried to initiate a soul gaze.” I looked up at him from where I sat. “It didn’t work. I’m sorry but — if she’s in there — she’s well out of my reach.”
As I spoke, I’d needed to repress a shudder. Trying to soul gaze the girl had been a mistake. Peeling back her eyelids to stare into those baby blue eyes, as glassy and vacant as those of a doll, had been deeply disturbing. As the old saying goes, the eyes are the window to the soul. But, in Amanda’s case, they weren’t. This worried me even more than the fact the girl had been asleep for fifteen years.
When Marcone did finally speak, his voice was cold and hard and dangerous. “She is in there, Dresden. You are simply going to try harder to find her.”
Oh, so I hadn’t been trying hard enough, had I? The pain in my head intensified and I grit my teeth against it.
I tried to keep my tone neutral, but my obvious frustration still seeped through — all those nights of bad sleep in the motel were wearing me down. “Well, John, I’ve been here for two weeks and I’ve tried every spell I can think of and then some. There are just some things that can’t be fixed with magic. Don’t you think I would help her if I could?
Marcone waved a hand dismissively. “If you aren’t competent enough to help her, find someone who can. I thought you had contacts.”
Contacts? I frowned and glanced up at him, unsure if I had read the implication in his voice correctly. He already knew that I’d spoken to Listens-to-Wind, the best healer the White Council had to offer, but he couldn’t possibly want..? Could he..?
Marcone stood before me, arms crossed and expression unreadable.
“You thought I had contacts,” I repeated slowly. “Let’s be straight with each other. Are you implying that you want me to complete a summoning? You want demons involved in this?”
The man remained silent. That was answer enough itself.
“I want you to trust me on this, John,” I hissed, holding the other man’s gaze, “involving demons in this is one way to make things one hell of a lot worse. They manipulate — they deceive — it would probably end up with one of us dead and her losing her soul to one of the bastards. That is not an avenue I am willing to explore.”
I didn’t have to put it so bluntly, but by this point I was done sugar-coating things for the bastard.
Marcone didn’t miss a beat. “What of the other alternatives? I’ve heard you speak of the Faerie Courts — couldn’t you turn to them for assistance?”
I laughed, the sound of it hollow and sardonic. “Faeries? Fey magic is powerful, but making a deal with them has the same level of risk as involving demons. They’re creatures of the NeverNever — by human standards, most of them are hardly sane. Their way of helping out would be far too unpredictable. They’d probably end up turning the kid into a tree — or something equally crazy — and expect you to thank them for it.”
There was a pause. The faint hum of the ceiling light and the chatter of two nurses as they walked down the corridor outside filtered into the room.
When Marcone spoke, his voice was wintry cold. “So, you are telling me that you can do nothing? That, for the two weeks you have been here, you have totally failed to make any progress whatsoever?”
‘Keep it calm, Harry, keep it calm...’ I thought. ‘Making Marcone go ‘boom’ is a short term solution...’
Despite my attempts to quell my anger at Marcone’s goading, the memory of those blank blue eyes swam before me. If there was one word to describe anger, sadness and repulsion all at once, it would have summed up what those empty eyes did to me. Stars and stones, my head hurt...
“I am telling you that I have done all I can,” I finally managed, speaking through gritted teeth. “The other option would be impossible.”
Interest kindled in Marcone’s eyes.
“The other option?” he repeated. “What’s the alternative, Dresden?”
It was my turn to remain silent. You know, keeping my mouth shut is a skill I haven’t quite yet been able to master.
Without warning, Marcone darted forward to grab the front of my shirt. Gods, I’d forgotten how fast the man could move. He yanked me forwards — I half stumbled and nearly fell on the other man in the process — and I was suddenly face to face with him.
Those eyes the colour of faded dollar bills bored into me.
“What else can you do, Dresden?” he said, every syllable clipped and carefully enunciated.
I was taller than Marcone, but he didn’t seem the least intimidated. His grip on my shirt was firm and his coolness infuriated me. Anger curled in my belly, fuelled by my frustration and the bitterness I felt at my own impotence. My temper flared, but I was still in control.
“Well, John, our other option is a bit of human sacrifice.” I spoke to him in a sing song voice, as if talking to a particularly dim witted child. “Say we rounded up a few people — the homeless, drug addicts and so on, people no one would miss — and cooked up some dark magic. Once we’d stored up enough energy, around fifteen deaths would probably be enough, we’d pour all of that into Amanda.”
Marcone was silent, but I could see that I had got to him.
I went on. “What do you think all that dark magic would do to that little girl? How old was she when she went into the coma? Five? Six? We’d be subjecting a child to some of the most dangerous magic in existence. Yeah, it might make her look alive — but she’d either be a puppet to darker forces than we can handle or an absolute monster.”
The grip on my shirt was released. Marcone stepped back from me, sneer clear on his face: the only other people who had looked at me with such disdain were all dead...
“If I had known you were going to be so totally useless,” he snapped, “I would have let the White Council take you.”
Blame it on Marcone’s needling, the sleepless nights or two weeks of being reminded daily of my own powerlessness to help a little girl, but I lost it. My head still hurt, but it was background noise in the face of my anger. My grip on my temper, which had already started to weaken, faltered.
“Yeah, well maybe you should have,” I spat, “but at least I’m not the one with that girl’s blood on my hands.”
As soon as the words left my lips, I regretted them. Amanda was the driving force behind everything Marcone did: I knew that from our soul gaze. She was the bedrock upon which he built his empire, the motivating factor that would push him to steal even the Turin Shroud. He would do anything to try and save her, and I’d just thrown it all back in his face.
Marcone’s posture went rigid. When he looked at me, there was murder lurking in those eyes that were normally so expressionless.
“What did you say?” he breathed.
Memories of our soul gaze pummelled into me. I knew Marcone was dangerous, knew that he had the soul of a predator: what I’d just done was equivalent to slipping into the zoo’s tiger enclosure with an apple in my mouth and wearing a t-shirt that read ‘lunch’. Yeah, I had a policy of talking big around Marcone, but there are some boundaries I knew that I couldn’t cross. Until now.
Anger forgotten, I stumbled over myself to apologise. “Look, Marcone, I didn’t mean that. I didn’t mean to—”
I was unable to finish my sentence as I suddenly found myself dodging the man’s fist.
I ducked to the side on instinct. He’d aimed straight for my face, so the blow landed on my shoulder instead. Pain lanced through me — he wasn’t pulling his punches. Unfazed, Marcone swiftly followed it up with a savage kick to my mid section. It winded me — the guy was strong — but I managed to stay on my feet. I did not want to go to the floor with Marcone like this.
“Jesus, John, calm the fuck down!” I half panted, half gasped. I ducked away from him, trying to put some distance between us. “You’re not thinking rationally,” I snapped, dodging another blow. “I can do magic, remember? Magic! Are you really going to make me set fire to you?”
“Shut your mouth, Dresden,” he snarled, lunging for me.
Marcone moved with the speed of a striking snake. He reached forward with unbelievable speed to grab me and slam me bodily against the nearest wall. My head connected with a sharp thud and my vision swam for a moment, the force of the impact leaving me breathless.
He moved in close to me. Strong hands gripped the fabric of my shirt and I found myself staring into green eyes that burned with a cold fury.
For a moment, I forgot that I had powers. I forgot that I could call upon my magic and get myself out of this situation in one of a hundred ways. I could taste my guilt and adrenaline and fear and... something else. At the sight of Marcone so incensed, something thrummed through my veins to a rhythm I couldn’t quite place.
“How dare you, Dresden,” Marcone breathed, dangerously close. “How dare you.”
I could feel the warmth of his hands against me. Could he feel my heart’s stuttering staccato beat? Did he feel the shiver that ran through me at his words?
I could smell his cologne, the scent rich, dark and expensive. I was suddenly painfully aware of his proximity — he was so close that I could see the darker flecks of green in his irises, hear his short and sharp breathing, matching the erratic rhythm of my own.
Something in the air had shifted. I sure as hell had felt it, and it seemed like Marcone had too. His eyes were blown and his usually meticulous appearance was mussed — several loose strands of hair hung down over his forehead.
Our eyes met. A shiver of electricity thrummed through me and I nearly forgot to breathe. I darted out my tongue to wet my suddenly dry lips.
And then Marcone was on me.
It was a biting kiss. His lips pressed against mine, tongue pushing into my mouth. I let him in willingly, responding with a passion and urgency I hadn’t felt for a long time. It was messy and awkward and glorious. There were more teeth involved than I think is strictly advised, but I couldn’t remember the last time a kiss had ignited such a heat within me. I moaned into it, losing myself in the sensation.
Marcone pulled back for a moment, moving to bite and suck at the nape of my neck. It hurt — a delightful pain — and the man was clearly aiming to leave a mark. I gasped at the feeling of his mouth on me, reaching up to run my hands through his hair, encouraging him. He growled something against my skin, but I couldn’t quite make it out.
When he was done with my neck, Marcone captured my lips once again in a kiss. He clasped me in his arms; I gripped him with equal ferocity, the fabric of his clothes smooth against my skin. His hands moved lower, stopping to grip my ass through the fabric of my jeans. I gasped at the sensation, an aching heat pooling in my belly.
“Only you, Dresden,” Marcone murmured, pushing against me. “Only you...”
I didn’t hear the rest of what Marcone said: the sensation of his body pressed against mine, his hardness pushed against my own aching desire eclipsed everything else. A moan escaped me and I bucked against him, desperate for more of that delicious pressure.
And then, just as suddenly as it began, it was over.
Marcone jerked himself away from me. He stepped back and turned away swiftly, concealing his expression.
What the hell had we just done? I was glad I was leaning against the wall for support, because I think my knees may have buckled in the face of my shock. I simply stood there, panting as though I was starved for air.
When Marcone spoke, there wasn’t a trace of the sultry tone of mere moments ago. His voice was cold and firm: back to business.
“This discussion is not over,” he said, still facing away from me. “You say you can’t find a way to help her — I say you haven’t looked hard enough. You have one week, Dresden. I expect to hear of your progress then.”
The door shut after him with a click.