“The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” Oscar Wilde
Heaven is a place on earth. To be more specific, heaven is a pub on earth: McAnally’s. Let’s be honest here, when choosing between pearly gates and a chorus of angels, a beer and one of Mac’s steak sandwiches wins every time.
I was sat with Thomas at a corner table. I had good company, good food and good beer and — for a guy who spends most of his life being nearly killed and eaten by more supernatural bad guys than you can shake a stick at — it was a pretty nice state of affairs. The ceiling fans hummed gently, probably doing something to dispel some of the lingering magic in the room, and the thrum of comfortable chatter filled the air.
I sat back in my chair and took another swig of my drink. Perfection.
Some things, however, are simply too good to last. Happiness is fleeting, joy is a fickle friend and Thomas, my delightfully irritating brother, just had to go and spoil it.
“Hey,” he said, leaning forward, “don’t you think it’s about time you got laid?”
I choked and only narrowly avoiding spraying beer all over his pretty-boy face. Hell, it probably only would have made him look more attractive anyway. Bastard.
My brother’s eyes sparkled with wicked amusement, a smile tugging at his lips. He continued to speak as I sputtered. “It’s been a while, man,” he said. “As your big brother, it’s my job to look out for you. I’d never forgive myself if your ‘thing’ went and fell off from lack of use.”
Having finally recovered from my coughing fit, I tried to muster up as much wizardly dignity as I could (not a lot) and fixed him with a steely glare. “As much as I appreciate your concern, asshole, go and stalk someone else. My sex life is my business,” I growled. “And don’t talk about my dick — it’s weird.”
Thomas looked at me, expression blank. With a deliberate movement, he pointed a finger at his chest. “White Court Vampire,” he said. “I am a literal sex demon. Talking about your dick is my equivalent of chatting about a day in the office.”
I pulled a face. “Gross. You’re my brother — any more talk about my wang and I’m out of here.”
He laughed and pulled back, raising his hands in an appeasing gesture. “Okay, okay,” he said. “No more dicks. Anyway, I had something else to talk to you about.”
I took another sip of my beer. “Yeah?”
Thomas flashed me a dazzling grin — it was the kind of smile that could make any chick within a five mile radius swoon. “I have a wager for you.”
Now that piqued my interest.
Making bets with Thomas had been a bit of a habit for a while now. Among other things, he’d already challenged me to wear a Burger King Crown to a White Council meeting (done), enchant an army of pigeons to compulsively crap on cars and buildings belonging to the White Court (done) and, last but not least, call Murphy ‘honey bunch’ to her face. Now, that one had been a close call — I’d just about got away with all my limbs intact. I’d challenged Thomas to do some equally dumb stuff, but my personal favourite was getting him to spend a week dressed up as me. Thomas had looked stunning as always (he’s the kind of guy who can wear a trash bag and look ready for the red carpet), but how much he obviously despised wearing my duster had made it all worthwhile.
Yeah, the bets were stupid. But they were a fun kind of stupid. The world would probably be a much nicer, happier place if people had a bit more of the stupid variety of fun in their lives.
Thomas went on. “Look, the task’s not easy, but going against the odds is one of your specialties. If you manage to pull it off, I’ll pay your beer tab for an entire year.”
My eyebrows rose. Now that prize was a hell of a lot bigger than usual. Five bucks had, as of yet, been the going rate. “A year’s worth of beer?”
“A year’s worth of beer,” he repeated. “White Court Vampire, remember? It’ll be less than small change to Lara.”
I hesitated: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. The offer was as tempting as it was suspicious. “And if I fail?”
Thomas’ eyes sparkled. “Then I get to give you a full Raith makeover.” I scoffed but he ignored me. “Look, man, your hair is a disaster and half of your wardrobe needs incinerating. A bit of my help could transform you from ‘shabby’ to ‘stallion’ in a day.”
“Right. You’re going to transform me into a ‘stallion’? Not weird at all, big brother, not weird at all.” I smiled wryly. “The whole makeover idea is a bit teenage girl of you, but I guess I can go with it. What’s the bet?”
Eyes shining with mischief, Thomas leaned over to whisper in my ear.
“Seduce Johnny Marcone.”
There are some moments in a man’s life that encourage reflection, moments that beg the question ‘what poor decisions have I made to end up in this horrific train wreck of a situation’? It’s the kind of thing a man asks himself on the way into court or after initiating a three car pile up.
And I, about to sweet talk Chicago’s resident crime lord, found myself asking the same question.
The terms of the wager were as follows: I had two weeks to seduce John Marcone, the biggest, baddest mobster the city had to offer. The use of magic was strictly off limits (I couldn’t just whip up a love potion and roofie the bastard), but any other skills of seduction were fair game.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Don’t you hate, Marcone, Harry? Why are you going to try and get into bed with a guy you spend most of your time bitching and moaning about?
Don’t get me wrong, Marcone is a bastard, but he’s a sexy bastard. Worst of all, the guy knows it. I won’t lie and say that certain... thoughts about the man had never crossed my mind. His audacity, his impenetrable aura of cool control, the way he wore his bazillion dollar business suits like a second skin: I wanted him. I wanted to break through the veneer of his coolness; I wanted him beneath me, urging me on with that infuriating mouth of his as he wrapped his legs around me and dug his fingernails into the skin of my back.
Heat curled in my belly and I glanced down at myself. Oh. I hadn’t quite realised I’d wanted him that much.
I sighed and waited for sound of blood pounding in my ears to subside. “Down, Harry, down,” I murmured. “Get your head in the game. Your brain is what you need to use right now, not your dick.”
I picked up the phone in my apartment and dialled a number. After a few rings, the call connected to one of Marcone’s innumerable secretaries.
“Hi there, the name’s Harry Dresden,” I drawled, cutting through the secretary’s spiel. “You’ll have heard of me. After I end this call, you’re going to tell big, bad Marcone to call me back ASAP. He has my number.”
With that, I put the phone down. As they say, brevity is the soul of wit, and being a real douche sometimes can be fun.
It was time to wait.
Ten minutes dragged by. I spent most of it lounging on the sofa pretending to read. Hell, I wasn’t even fooling myself and certainly not Mouse. My dog sat and stared at me with an expression that can only be described as an odd combination of pity and distaste. I threw a cushion at him.
Fifteen more laborious minutes passed. I frowned in irritation and tossed my book to one side: I hadn’t read a word anyway. Calling back the secretary and defining exactly what an angry wizard means when they say ‘ASAP’ was a tempting prospect.
And then the phone rang.
My first instinct was to answer immediately, but I restrained myself. That would look desperate, right? I waited a few agonising seconds, calmly walked over to it, and then picked up the receiver. Play it cool, Harry, play it cool...
“Harry Dresden speaking.”
Marcone’s tone was as icy as a frozen lake. “What do you want?”
I tried to fill my voice with as much warmth as possible. “John, it’s been a while. How are you?”
There was a slight pause. Had I gone overkill? I suppose charm wasn’t exactly what he had come to expect from me...
“How am I?” His voice was incredulous and more than a little frosty. “To be perfectly frank, I am far too busy to make small talk with the likes of you, Dresden. What do you want?”
Not a good start, but I could work with it. “Look, we need to meet up. I’ve got information for you.”
“I see,” he said. “How uncharacteristically generous of you. Unfortunately, however, I do not need to meet with you. Like I said, I’m busy.”
Playing hard to get, eh? I decided to turn up the charm. “Come on, John, there’s always time for your favourite wizard in Chicago.”
“You’re the only wizard in Chicago,” he corrected, “and the answer’s still no.”
I frowned. This was not how I imagined this conversation playing out. It was time to go for the hard sell. “Look, we both know that you’ll meet with me,” I said, trying to sound sultry. “The only question is how much of a tease you’re going to be.”
There was another pause.
“Did you just call me a ‘tease’, Dresden?”
I couldn’t quite work out if he sounded pissed off or amused, but anything was an improvement from his ‘ice queen’ routine.
“You heard me,” I said. “Look, I’ve got information, information you’ll want. Why don’t you play nice for once and let me give it to you?”
There were a few seconds of silence.
“I never play nice.”
And then the bastard hung up on me.
Molly glared down at me as I sat on the couch: I’d decided to call in the cavalry.
“Let me get this straight,” she said. “Because of a stupid bet with your brother, you need my help to seduce the biggest asshole the city has to offer?”
“When you put it like that, it does sound kind of dumb,” I said, feeling a little deflated, “but that is the general idea, yeah.”
Her eyes narrowed. “It doesn’t sound ‘kind of dumb’, Harry. It sounds insane. I thought you hated the guy.”
I shrugged and held out my hands, palm up. “I know, I know,” I said. “Look, are you going to help me or not? Because if you can’t help, them I’m going to have to go to Murphy — and I’m not sure I’d come out alive after that conversation with her.”
Yeah, bringing Murphy into it was a dirty trick, but I needed Molly’s help. I’d seen the girl wrap men around her little finger with little to no effort! She had the skills that I needed, and I was willing to do what was necessary to get them.
Molly’s expression twisted into a frown. She looked at me for a long moment before sighing deeply.
“Well, I am your apprentice,” she said. “I don’t think I’m allowed to let my teacher get vivisected by petite blondes with anger issues.”
I beamed at her. “I that’s why I like you, grasshopper!”
She flopped down beside me on the couch; Mouse sidled over to have his ears scratched. “Okay,” she said, tone resigned. “What have you considered so far?”
I held up a finger. “Well, we could get Gard out of the way for a couple of weeks? Then, if I got Marcone to hire me as a bodyguard, I figure getting into his pants would be easy.”
Molly stared at me, expression frozen. “Harry, are you seriously telling me that you’ve considered ‘disappearing’ Sigrun Gard? The one you think is a freaking Valkyrie?”
I thought for a moment before answering. “Maybe?”
She rubbed at her temples with one hand. “You know, I think I’m actually glad you asked for my help. You wouldn’t be much of a teacher after getting decapitated.”
“Right,” I said, keen to move the conversation swiftly on. “And what would you suggest?”
Molly hesitated for a moment before responding. I could see a range of emotions flick across her features, but all of them were indecipherable to me. She eventually came to some sort of decision.
Her tone was suddenly smooth as silk and she looked me directly in the eyes. “Well, when I try to seduce a guy,” she purred, “I go about it like this.”
She stood gracefully and turned her back to me in one smooth movement. I watched, stunned, as she slipped an arm inside of her oversized t-shirt only to have it reappear moments later, a lacy black bra clutched in her hand. She held it out for a moment, letting me get a good look, before dropping it to the floor with a soft sound. She turned slowly, nipples clearly visible under the thin fabric of her shirt, a pink tongue darting out to lick at her lips. She ran her hands down her body to rest at the top of her jeans. She popped the top button open.
I gulped, mouth suddenly dry as a desert. “Err, Molly—” I began, but she shushed me and slunk over to press a finger against my lips.
She leaned over the loose neck of her shirt gaping open to give ample opportunity to get a good look at her ‘assets’ (for the record, I didn’t) and her breath was hot against my ear.
“In my experience,” she breathed against me, “a direct approach is always best.”
Gods, I could smell her perfume...
“Molly?” I said, my voice sounding raspy even to my own ears.
“Last time I checked, I’m a dude. Taking off my bra isn’t really an option.”
Molly made an exasperated sound — somewhere between a snort and a growl — and pulled back abruptly. She crossed her arms and glared down at me, expression thunderous.
“Look, clever-dick, if you want to seduce someone, you’ve got to give them a taste of what they’re missing. You’ve got to make them want you.” A complicated expression flashed over her features. “And as you’ve got the same level of innate charm as a brick — and an obnoxious brick at that — you’ll have to let your body do some of the talking.”
I began to laugh, absurdly relieved that Molly had given up her ‘sex kitten’ act. “Let my body do the talking?” I scoffed. “Grasshopper, this is me we’re talking about. I don’t think I’ve got a whole lot to show off.”
There was another awkward silence. She glanced away for a moment, fingers gripping the fabric of her t-shirt tightly.
“I think you do,” she said quietly.
Well, that shut me up pretty quickly. Oh, crap... I’d thought we’d gotten past this...
“Look, I’ll tell you what to wear and give you a few pointers,” she said, tone now crisp and businesslike. She did up her jeans and then picked her bra up from the floor. Once again, she turned away and did a few more gymnastics to get the think back on. “Anything else is down to you.”
“Right,” I said. “That’s great. Thanks, Molly. I mean it.”
She smiled ruefully at me. “You can thank me a whole lot better by going and taking a shower. No one’s going to be tempted by you looking like you just crawled out of bed.”
I bristled, but didn’t rise to the bait. Hell, she was probably right.
I got to my feet. “You always know how to flatter me.”
Molly smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. It was out of place on her normally so sunny features. I suddenly felt more than a little guilty for asking for her help.
“Go shower, idiot,” she said, that odd half smile still tugging at her features. “But go get me a coke first — I’ve got work to do.”