Scrambling around a corner, I managed to stay just this much ahead of a pair of flashing claws, and burst into the last of the fading sunlight. Hissing in displeasure (a sound that was not exactly feline and not exactly the screech of a rock slide), the remaining maulk still on my tail darted back into the safety of the shadowy alleyway. There went the last time I assumed that a nasty wasn't going to chase me out of the lair I'd redecorated for them just because it was still (technically) daylight. Maulks can walk about in the daylight, but they really don’t like it – their eyes are not well suited for bright sunlight, and they maintain some of their semi-feline aversion to prowling during the day. Unfortunately for me, a city like Chicago casts a whole lot of shadows. This particular nasty was less-nasty than, say, a vampire, but not by a big margin. Maulks are to cats what sharks are to fish – similar overall shape, vastly different outcome.
I'd tried to get the maulks to leave peacefully, but they decided to respond to my request by kidnapping a four year-old girl. I'm still not sure how they managed it considering that they have neither hands nor opposable thumbs, but there she was when I went to check on the nest, tiny with her pigtails eschew, wiping her red nose on the sleeve of a purple sweater. After retrieving the girl and dropping her off at a police station (I wasn't going to fall for that same trick that caught Nick and I a few years back with the parents deciding we were the ones who took the child), I returned to the maulk's nest to tell them not-as-politely that they needed to amscray. Turns out they didn't feel like it. Who would have guessed?
Sticking to the brightest patches of sunlight and very well aware of the snarling presence glaring great big steaming holes through my back, I hurried across the street and around the corner. The Blue Beetle, my trusty not-quite-blue-anymore Volkswagen looked even more ridiculous than usual shoehorned between a red Mustang and a silver Volvo. I was surprised that I hadn't been towed just to protect the sensibilities of the wealthy. Believe me, I would have parked just about anywhere else, but downtown doesn't offer a lot of parking options, and you take what you can get. Keeping one eye on the quickly fading sunbeams, and one eye straining over my shoulder to see if the maulk was pissed enough to venture into sunlight after me, I put my long legs to use. At just over six and a half feet tal, believe me when I say I've definitely got the legs to use.
Jerking the driver’s door open, I wrestled my wizard's staff in the back seat and folded myself into the Beetle. I purchased the Blue Beetle because my mechanic, Mike, assured me that it was absolutely the easiest thing in the world to fix, not because it fit my body well. I'd just learned to be flexible. Jamming the key in the ignition, I took a breath, held it, and turned the key. The Beetle tried hard to do what I asked, and when I gave it some gas and turned the key again, it tried harder still. Even as my heart rate skyrocketed, I had to admit that the car really did give me its best effort. It gave an almost apologetic cough and seemed to sag, giving it up.
“Not now,” I hissed at the steering wheel. It was really tempting to start hitting things and wrench the key in the ignition, but it wouldn't help and the Beetle didn't deserve the abuse. I threw myself out of the car instead, barely avoiding ending up as someone's hood ornament, and paced a small circle on the sidewalk while the shadow from the building across the street stretched out toward me. “Not the best time for this!” I told the car. The Beetle didn't respond, but someone else did, and I about jumped out of my skin.
“Car trouble?” A smooth, pleasant baritone asked.
“No,” I snapped on reflex, because I'm a wizard and I'm allowed to be grumpy and snappy when startled. “I just thought my car could use some conversation – you know, it gets kinda lonely sitting outside alone all day.” I glanced over at the speaker, who looked mildly surprised, but not outright enraged. “Sorry,” I mumbled begrudgingly.
“Quite alright. It was a foolish question. Would you like me to have a look?” he asked, and by his expression, he was just as startled to make the offer as I was to hear it.
“Um...” I gave him a once-over. Comfortably settled in early middle age, he looked like someone's favorite football coach: broad shouldered, obviously fit, but perhaps going a touch soft in the middle. He had attractive salt and pepper hair, lines on his face that suggested frequent smiles, and a prominent boater's tan. His green eyes were sharp, and intelligent, and the color of old bills, almost luminescent in the fading light. He was also wearing more than the total worth of the aforementioned Blue Beetle. “No offense,” I said slowly, “But you don't look like much of a mechanic.”
The businessman smiled warmly at me. “Call it a hobby,” he said enigmatically and took off his jacket. Without another word, he handed the fine gray suit jacket over to me, removed his cufflinks (actual cufflinks, no kidding), and rolled his sleeves up. His arms were finely corded in muscle and, I noticed with surprise, a tracery of silvery scars. The stranger stepped off the curb and unlatched the engine compartment without so much as a fumble. Drawing a tiny flashlight out of his pocket, he poked around the engine, leaning over far enough that he was doubtlessly getting dirt and grease on his expensive gray pants. Stars, how was I supposed to handle a dry cleaning bill? I wasn't even going to make the rent on the office this month.
“I think I can at least get it started,” he said after a moment, “But you'd best drive it straight to the mechanic – you probably won't get it back on again.” He left the hood up and stepped back onto the sidewalk. He moved very close to me and I shuffled backwards an uncertain step, but he only reached into the pocket of his jacket and drew out a set of keys. He pointed a tiny remote at the Volvo and clicked it. Nothing. I winced – wizards are hard on technology, and even harder on the newer, more complicated bits like fancy remotes. Frowning, the businessman/mechanic tried again, and then sighed and opened the trunk with the key. He rustled around for a minute before he came back up with a toolkit. I watched what he was doing avidly, but I’m completely lost when it comes to cars. I often decide that I’m going to learn automechanics so I could keep the Beetle running myself, but then who would feed Mike's kids if I wasn't bringing the Beetle in every other week for maintenance?
“Give it a try,” my unexpected rescuer said after some mysterious pulling, clattering, and clanking.
I wasn't expecting much, but I obligingly got into the driver's seat and put the key back in the ignition. Maybe it was exactly because I wasn't expecting it to start that it turned over on the first try, sputtering back to life and rattling under my hands. “Would you look at that?” I asked the steering wheel in wonder. Leaving the car running, I stepped back out and handed over the man's jacket. I felt like I should be offering him a wet wipe or at least a bottle of water, but he had it under control. A container of baby wipes came out of the trunk after the tools were replaced. I wondered what else he had in his magical trunk, but decided not to ask.
“Thanks, man, you really saved my life.” And he actually had (or at least saved me potentially severe maiming) because there was still a bright corridor of sunlight on the sidewalk. “Anything I can do to repay you?” I asked awkwardly. I didn't exactly have much to offer, though I guessed I could spring for a beer.
“Not necessary,” he said with casual dismissiveness. I didn't feel that he was dismissing me because I obviously couldn't afford to repay him as much as he wasn't bothered about payment. A good Samaritan in a fancy business suit outside one of the poshest banks in Chicago? Miracles do happen.
“Well, here,” I said hurriedly, digging around in my duster's pockets until I came up with a business card, one of my last. It was a little worse for wear, but I handed it over anyway after a surreptitious check that that it didn't have bubblegum stuck to the back or blood staining the corners.
He glanced over it and then looked back up at me. “Harry Dresden. Wizard?”
“That would be me! I'm in the yellow pages and everything – look under 'wizard' if you lose the card.” I grinned at him and rocked back on my heels, waiting for the incredulous sneer, or the bark of laughter, or the demand to be let in on the joke. My green-eyed savior was either one of the most controlled men I'd ever encountered, or he was really that open, because he only nodded and pulled out a wallet to slide the card in among a stack of others in much better condition.
“Ever need anything found, or help escaping a bunch of blood thirsty faeries... whatever, give me a call.”
At that he did smirk, and I remembered that 'fairy' in modern parlance didn't refer to creatures from the Nevernever. I cleared my throat, offered my hand for a shake, and beat a retreat before the sunlight vanished entirely. I would need to chat with Bob about a kitty-keep-away potion or something when I got home.
It was only after I made it safely back to my basement apartment that I realized I’d never asked for the guy's name.