Harry crouched in the bushes and peered through the gate at the large house, then back down at his tracking compass. Yep. The creature he was tracking - he hadn't been able to figure out much about it, except that it could shape-shift, it was from somewhere in the NeverNever, and children disappeared around it - was definitely in that house.
He was pretty sure the house belonged to Gentleman Johnny Marcone, leader of the Chicago mob. Which meant that the intelligent thing to do was find some place to stake out the entrance and wait for it to emerge, or go back, report to Nick at Ragged Angels, and pick the trail up again tomorrow, without taking the risk of coming to Marcone's attention. He'd even been picking up rumors lately, around Mac's, that Marcone knew about magic and had been dealing with the White Council, and attention from that quarter was the last thing he needed.
He was even about to do the smart thing, when he heard a high-pitched shriek come from the grounds of the house, and looked reflexively toward it. There were some people walking out on the lawn, coming from the direction of the main entrance. They were moving fairly slowly, or two of them were: a woman, looking middle-aged and unremarkable, was pulling along a girl, maybe thirteen or fourteen, who was moving with a weak shuffling gait. A smaller person was orbiting them: Harry thought it was a girl, maybe a toddler, but it was moving too quickly and erratically to be sure. His locator spell was going bonkers.
Hell's bells. There were kids in there with it. What was Johnny Marcone doing with a couple of kids in one of his less-frequented houses? Maybe one of the kids was the creature, and Marcone was on the case too; that was one of his people trying to drag them out. Marcone was known to have a soft spot for children.
Then the older girl stumbled, and the woman yanked her harshly upright again by her hair. She cried out, wordlessly, and in pain, and the smaller child ran up and tried to grab on to the woman, but was bounced away by some sort of shield. It was had to tell from this distance, but she looked like she was about to cry, too.
Well, he could hardly have just left them there.
He used a very targeted jet of flame from his smallest focus to melt through the rusted-over latch on a side gate, and was running across the grounds to where the kids were, by the time the 'woman' had so much as looked up. When she saw him, though, she pushed the children behind her and glared at him.
"Who are you, and what are you doing on this property?" she asked him severely.
"I'm Harry," he told here. "Who are you, and what are you doing with these kids?"
"I'm their nanny. Properly hired and cleared by Mr. Marcone," she told him. "And we're going for a walk."
"She's not really our nanny," said the little girl, peering out around her legs, and the nanny yanked her roughly back and hissed, "Shut up, and stay out of the way, or you'll be sorry."
That tore it. "No, I don't think she is your nanny," Harry said. "Do you know what I think she is?"
The little girl screwed her face up adorably, and said in a childish lisp, "I think she is a sheoque," she said. "She's probably working on orders from Lady Cleena, who is cultivating favors with Aurora right now. There is a Way to Summer near the big oak tree, which is likely what she was obliquely referring to when she said she was taking us to a magical fairyland for a picnic."
Harry decided to ignore this, for his sanity. "Well, I think she's a bad person," he said, and raised the miniature version of his staff that he usually carried everywhere other than Mac's.
The fairy growled at him, literally, and said, "Wizzard," in a voice that didn't belong in a human throat. "What business of yours is this?"
"They're innocent kids," Harry said. "I'm making it my business."
The fairy started laughing at him, a grinding gravelly noise that turned into a half-choke. While she was distracted, Harry threw the spell Bob had helped him work out. Bob had claimed that it should either make the creature take her true form, or lose her grip on physical form entirely, forcing her to return to the NeverNever. If she really was a human nanny, it wouldn't do anything, and Harry could try to slink away before she called the police. Since it didn't to any actual harm, Bob claimed that it would even slip through a lot of shields.
Bob must have been right. For once, the spell actually worked on the first try, and mid-guffaw, the creature dissolved into ectoplasm right there, the goo slowly seeping into the lawn.
Harry took a deep breath, and turned to the kids. Doing what he did, with Nick's Ragged Angel detective agency, he spent a lot more time with scared and traumatized kids than really anyone should, but someone needed to be there, and at least Harry knew all about being a scared and traumatized kid. He expected crying, panic, anger. Instead, they were both staring blankly at the place where the 'nanny' had disappeared.
The older girl looked... utterly blank. Like whoever might live behind her eyes had just checked out. She was standing, sort of hunched, it the same position she'd been shoved.
The younger one, though, looked up at him. "That was very neatly done, Mr. Harry. How did you do that? Can you teach it to me?"
"Uh," Harry said. "A friend of mine taught me. And probably not, at least until you're older."
"Yes, that's probably correct," the girl said sadly, "They told me my brain is still developing, and I won't reach full capacity for several more years. She's not really dead, you know."
This was a little girl who had clearly seen people die before, and Harry ached in one of his old sore places. He squatted a little, so he wasn't looming over them quite so much. "I know, but she's gone for now, and I can do some stuff to make it hard for her to come back, okay? Um, do you have parents? Or somebody else I can call?"
She looked clear-eyed at him. "We don't have parents. My mother died when I was born, and then Kincaid took care of me, but one day he didn't come back. Amanda's father is in prison, and her mother didn't want her back, so now John takes care of both of us. But nobody is allowed to know that we're his little girls, so we have a nanny, only they keep quitting, and then the Sheoque came today, and the night nurse didn't listen to me about her. I guess you'll have to take care of us for now, Harry."
"Just Harry," he told her, and then checked on the other girl, who must be Amanda. Her face still looked vague, but she was panting, as if she was having trouble standing, and he stepped over, and held out an arm, not quite touching her, but she leaned into him easily, took several deep breaths, and then said, struggling with every sound, "Th- th- ank."
"No problem," said Harry. Looking at her more closely, he realized it wasn't her expression that was blank, but something wrong with her facial muscles. "Are you okay?" he asked. "Did she do something to you?"
Amanda shook her head, hard, but didn't manage to say anything else.
"She has Severe Traumatic Brain Injury," the little girl said. "From a .22 caliber bullet, many years ago. I would give you more information, but it's impolite to share medical details without a person's permission. She shouldn't be standing up for this long," she added, "But Mrs. O'Donovan said that all the shiny metal in her chair was tasteless and made her leave it inside."
"Well, we definitely need to get you back to your chair then," Harry told Amanda. "Do you think you can walk up to the house if I help you?"
Amanda took a hesitant step in response, then another, still leaning heavily on his arm, and he did his best to help her across the lawn, the little girl holding on to his other hand. Inside, though, his mind was alternating between profanity and racing. Shit. He clearly couldn't leave them here alone. Maybe there would be an emergency number for John in the house - his brain stuttered. He couldn't just call Gentleman Johnny, and say what, 'Sorry I melted your nanny?'. What was the head of the Outfit doing with two secret foster daughters anyway? Two foster daughters, at least one of which, and probably both-- he'd take bets the other one was ASD, or something that could pass for it-- were obviously special needs. Either Marcone was secretly a saint, or his 'interest' in children was way more sinister than even the worst of the rumors had suggested. Given the statistics about abuse of children with disabilities - and he'd slept a lot better at night before Nick showed him that report - add on the abuse rate for foster kids, which Harry had way too much personal experience with - and he wasn't going to bet on the 'Marcone is a saint' explanation.
He couldn't leave them here, then. But he obviously couldn't just walk out with them, either; leaving aside whatever Marcone would do in response, he wouldn't be able to take care of even one of them himself, and throwing them back into the foster system wouldn't necessarily be better. At least here they seemed to be well-cared for physically - very well-cared-for, judging by Amanda's chair. It was delicate and lightweight, for a power chair, with a ton of adjustable parts, an arm-rest mounted joystick and eye-searing pink-and-black pleather upholstery. He couldn't help complimenting her on it as he helped her arrange herself in it, and her lips twitched in what he decided had to be a smile.
"Okay," he said, with a deep breath, once that was done. "I'm going to get us all some water, to help us calm down, and then I'll figure out who to tell about Mrs. O'Donovan. Do you need help to drink?" he asked Amanda.
Amanda seemed to have run out of energy. Her eyes met his, then darted to the younger girl, and back, but that was it. "She gets the pink cup and I get the purple one," the little girl said.
"I'll-- keep that in mind," Harry said. "Do you think you can stay in here with Amanda while I do that-- what's your name, anyway?"
"I don't have a name," she said. "My mother didn't give me one, and Kincaid said a name is a weakness," and Harry was filled with the urge to punch this Kincaid, whoever he was, until she added, "Amanda and John call me Ivy, though. You can call me Ivy."
"Ivy," Harry tried it out, pushing the anger down - it wouldn't help him with the kids, and he might need it later. "That's a pretty name. I like it."
Ivy dipped her head and blushed a little, losing her self-possession for the first time since he'd met her. "Thanks," she said in a tiny voice, and curled herself up on an armchair near Amanda.
The room where Ivy had led him was an expensively-decorated, but comfortable-looking sitting room just off the foyer, and he took the opportunity to poke his nose around the rest of the house. It was large enough to be a statement, but not ridiculously so, and looked like a place where two kids lived - there was a more formal sitting room with a coat of dust on the table, a dining room, a large bathroom with hand-rails around the toilet and what appeared to be a hot tub; six bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, two of which were obviously Ivy's and Amanda's, and one of which was done up as a playroom, with lots of foam blocks; a mostly-empty garage with two tricycles in it, a large and a small; and a sunroom annex full of what he realized eventually wasn't torture gear, but physical therapy equipment.
The kitchen had that same appearance of a layer of happy home over the sterile accoutrements of wealth. There was a small wooden table, big enough for four, covered with a faded-but-cheery vinyl tablecloth and home to the normal scatter of things on a family kitchen table, ruled by a red plastic toy car. The fridge was papered with children's art, precise schematic-like drawings of machinery mixed with wild uncontrolled smears of color, held in place by alphabet magnets.
He'd crossed a threshhold on the way in, too. Not as strong as the very old ones, not enough to make him worry about being able to defend himself, but it was the kind of threshhold that meant something that might be a family called this place home. He was starting to have trouble believing it was a den of unspeakable abuse. That scared him.
Nestled among the drawings was a print-out of a weekly schedule; he found today on it, and discovered that Amanda had spent the morning with a visiting speech therapist, which explained why the fairy had waited until afternoon to try to take them. There was nothing else scheduled until the next evening - Friday - which said "John-dinner," and was circled in purple crayon. Did that mean that with no nanny, there would be nobody else here for the kids until the next evening? No, wait, Ivy had mentioned a night nurse - so there would be somebody else for an evening shift, probably, and he could go and talk to some people he knew and try to figure something out.
There was a telephone on the counter, and next to it a list labeled 'emergency contacts,' and Harry grabbed it, but it was mostly doctors, and something labeled "Special Care for Special Kids" which must have been the agency that sent 'Mrs. O'Donnell', and then a number under the line "Hendricks - ABSOLUTE EMERGENCIES ONLY".
He also found, in the sink, two sippy cups decorated with polka dots, one with a translucent pink lid, one with purple. While he was rinsing them out, he considered whether this was an ABSOLUTE EMERGENCY worthy of calling 'Hendricks', and decided probably not. Instead he filled the two cups, and a plastic tumbler with a cartoon lion on it, with water from the dispenser on the fridge, and then left a message on the Ragged Angels answering machine saying he wasn't sure when he'd be back in the office but he wasn't in danger.
When he got back to the sitting room juggling the cups, someone had turned on the television. Ivy uncurled a little on the armchair to accept her drink and said, "You took approximately 4.5 times longer than necessary to find and fill three cups of water."
"I called a friend of mine, so he wouldn't be worried about where I was," Harry told her, and she made a 'mrph,' sound, then stared at him assessingly over her sippy cup as she drank. She wasn't pulling a tantrum or accusing him of kidnapping yet though, so Harry decided to let it be, and gave Amanda hers.
"You want your tray?" he asked, gesturing to where it was slid beside the couch, and she nodded. Once it was on the chair she picked up the cup and seemed fine drinking on her own, so he got his own glass and settled onto the couch.
Then he did a spit-take. "Is that the Larry Fowler Show? Aren't you too little for that?"
Amanda rolled her eyes at him, which at least proved he'd been right at pegging her as post-adolescent.
"Amanda's not too little, and the therapist said if she likes it, it's fine. And John said I should expose myself to a greater variety of real-life human behavior and responses, so I can become more comfortable with navigating social situations."
"Larry Fowler is not real life," Harry told her severely. "And I really, really hope you aren't teaching yourself social interaction from that," he said, gesturing at the screen where a woman in pink spandex was screaming at a man with a greasy ponytail and a potbelly, but he found himself drawn against his will into the suspense over whether the man or his twin brother had fathered either or both of the woman's twins.
Before they found out, Amanda had finished her water and fallen into a light doze in the chair, and Harry found himself almost hypnotized into sleep by the rising and falling voices from the TV, too, as he watched Ivy stare with fascination at the screen. They were all jolted back to consciousness at a particularly loud bleep that resulted from the spandex woman's sister's ex-girlfriend being dragged off-stage, cursing.
Amanda squirmed and made a face, and then she balled one of her hands up into a fist and shook it at the screen.
"Yeah, they're kind of messed up," Harry agreed.
"She's saying 'bathroom,'" Ivy told him superciliously, mimicking the gesture. "It's sign language."
"Oh! Do you... need help going to the bathroom?"
Amanda shrugged lopsidedly.
"She needs the tray off so she can get out of the chair. And you should probably go with her, just in case she can't manage the door or her clothes."
Amanda shook her head emphatically. Ivy sighed. "She knows what her limits are, Harry, but she doesn't want you along because she has a crush on you."
Amanda stuck her tongue out and raspberried Ivy, and said, "No... you..."
"Don't be silly," Ivy said, hands on her hips, "I can't have a crush on him, I'm three years old. That's too young for crushes."
"You're three?" Harry asked incredulously. He'd known she seemed small for someone with her vocabulary, and he was bad a judging ages, but "Three? Never mind, Amanda, let's get you where you need to be. I promise I'm a gentleman."
She rolled her eyes at him again, but she managed almost all of it by herself, and when they got back to the sitting room, she wanted to be put on the couch instead of her chair. Ivy was already there, so when Harry sat down, he ended up with a girl leaning on him from either side. It was almost nice, until Ivy pulled out a remote control from between the couch cushions and put on a The Price Is Right rerun.
Harry tried to snatch the remote away from her and there was an uncoordinated three-way slapfight until he managed to hold it up out of either of their reach and turn the tv off, then drop the batteries behind the couch.
Ivy stood up and looked down where they'd gone, obviously assessing her chances, until Harry pulled her down and said firmly, "No more bad daytime TV. It defiles your character. I don't even own a TV, and look how I turned out."
Amanda stared at him aghast. "No?"
"No TV at all," he said. "There's lots of other things to do."
"Well, can we watch bad primetime TV then?" Ivy said.
"Only if someone's doing re-runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Harry said. "I mean, no. I mean, when does your night person get here, anyway?" he asked, holding his breath that there actually was a night-time person coming.
Ivy clammed up, and ducked under his arm to make eye-contact with Amanda. They shared some sort of silent sisterly conversation for awhile, and then she said, firmly, "Five-thirty or six. She makes us dinner."
It was three o'clock now, which meant he had about three hours to keep them busy. He glanced down to where Ivy was still half on his lap, then rummaged around in his other pocket and said, "Hey, do you want to see a real magic trick?"
"Yes!" she said, so Harry pulled a rolled-up dollar bill out of Amanda's nose.
Amanda laughed and clapped her hands, but Ivy was frowning at him. "That wasn't a real magic trick," she said.
"Yes it was!" Harry told her, and pulled some Starburst candies that he'd pocketed in the kitchen out of one of her shoes.
Amanda laughed again. Harry wasn't sure if it was at the trick, or at the expression on Ivy's face. Then she reached over to one of the Starburst, touched it with two fingers, and it lit up with pink sparkles. Harry blinked and then closed his hand quickly around it, putting out the spell.
"That was-- You have a talent?" he asked Amanda. She nodded, and made some more sparks, then pressed her lips together as they sputtered out unevenly.
"We both do, Harry," Ivy said. "Only Amanda can't always control hers, and I'm not very good either because my brain's not developed all the way yet, and besides, John said I shouldn't use it around people other than him."
"Amanda, yes," Harry said. "She's the right age. You can't have a talent. You're three, remember?" His brain was racing, shifting gears from "Marcone is abusing them," to "Marcone is raising up his own ultra-loyal practitioners," and he liked that one even less. That was happening to Amanda and Ivy over his dead body.
"I'm a very special three-year-old," Ivy told him, no idea what was going on in his head. "And that wasn't real magic you did. That was sleight-of-hand."
"Who says sleight-of-hand isn't real magic?" Harry demanded. "Before he died my dad was the greatest magician in the Midwest, and that was the only kind of magic he did."
"I ...didn't think of it that way," Ivy said.
"Well, now you did," Harry said. "You want me to teach you some? Three years old is old enough for that, I bet."
"I know the theory," Ivy said. "But it's not really something you can learn from what's written in books, without someone to practice on, to see if you're doing it right."
Harry filed away the part about a three-year-old who had read books on stage magic. "You can practice with me. I bet Amanda can be our captive audience, if she doesn't mind."
Amanda didn't mind, so Harry found himself traveling from the dining room, where he helped Ivy work through the motions and the misdirections for some very basic magic tricks, and the sitting room, where Ivy tried to fool Amanda into thinking it was real magic, to a lot of fumbles and girlish giggles and accusations of cheating. Eventually Ivy went and fetched them a pack of cards from the playroom, and he dredged up some old card tricks, too. The cards had Sesame Street characters on them, but he supposed that didn't matter. He even remembered a few that required an assistant to pass messages, and he and Amanda had a turn trying to fool Ivy. Then Ivy and Amanda had a turn fooling him, which worked a lot better, especially since they both knew Sign and he didn't, and also Ivy apparently knew some card tricks he hadn't heard of.
The gist of it was that, come 5:30, he was lying flat on the floor, loudly wondering what he had unleashed on the world, with Ivy draped exhausted across his legs and Amanda trying to kick them to get them up, Bert and Ernie themed playing cards scattered all over him and the floor. He tensed up at the unexpected sound of the front door closing, until he noticed the time, and realized it must be the night nanny coming. He sat up, not dislodging Ivy, just in case, which meant he was in a slightly more dignified position when the new person came through the door.
He didn't look like a nanny - he looked like a menswear ad's idea of a football coach, handsome and just muscular enough, all square chin, graying temples, expensive sweater, and bright green eyes - but then Harry didn't really fit the 'nanny' mold either. "Hi," he said. "You must be the night shift. Sorry about the mess--"
The man crossed his arms. "I'm not the night shift. I'm John Marcone, and this is my house. Who are you?"
"This is Harry," Ivy said, bouncing off of Harry and into a hug around Marcone's knees. "He took care of us today after our other nanny melted! He's teaching us magic!"
Marcone looked at him a little harder then, and Harry hastily pulled his eyes away. Amanda was watching the whole scene avidly. Then Ivy produced a paper flower from Marcone's pants pocket and he relaxed a little. "Sleight-of-hand?" he asked Harry.
He shrugged. "They're quick learners."
"That they are," Marcone, and gave Harry a hand to pull himself off the floor. "You must be the new day shift carer."
"There was a last-minute change of personnel," Harry said, thinking 'screw it'. "I'm really sorry about that."
"I just got a little bit worried when I didn't get my afternoon check-in call from my little girls, that's all," he said lightly.
"Phone call? I didn't know were were supposed to," Harry babbled. "Sorry? There must have been a mix-up, they said there would be instructions here but I couldn't find--"
Marcone interrupted him, glaring down. "IVY," he said.
"What?" she asked.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Dresden, it's not your fault. Ivy knows she's supposed to remind a new nanny if they forget."
"I didn't tell him because we wanted you to come home tonight," Ivy muttered, sulking.
"Ivy--" he said again, and then kneeled down in front of her for a hug. "You know I wish I could come home every night," he said into her hair. "But you know I can't, that if I start developing a pattern it will be dangerous for all of us."
"Tonight isn't a pattern," she said, not conceding defeat.
He sighed and stood up, then pointed at Amanda. "And don't think you're getting out of it, either. You both know better."
Amanda turned her head and refused to look at him.
"Sorry about this, Mr. Dresden," he said. "But with six carers in two months, some things are slipping a little. I hope they didn't give you too much trouble."
"They didn't give me any trouble at all," Harry said sincerely. "They were delightful."
Marcone blinked. "Really?"
"They're great kids," Harry said. "You're lucky to have them." He tried to put a little threat in that - 'you'd better be appreciating what you've got' - but he wasn't sure it worked. It was just hitting him that this was Gentleman Johnny Marcone chatting with him about his daughters.
"That's not what most of them have said," Marcone admitted, glancing over where Ivy had climbed up next to Amanda, and they were doing something involving passing a card back and forth between them. "'Creepy', 'weird', 'impossible', 'I am frightened for my life,' yes. 'Delightful' and 'lucky' and 'great', not so much."
Harry shrugged. "I grew up in the foster system. Part of it in the track for 'special' kids who didn't work out in the normal homes. I guess I understand some of what they've been through."
He was pretty sure Marcone did get the subtext there, about what foster parents did to disabled kids sometimes, but he acted like he was pleased rather than defensive or angry about it, which was puzzling.
"I'm glad," Marcone told him. "It looks like you had a good day. If you want to take off a little earlier, I can get them dinner and stay until the night shift at seven. Since I'm here anyway," he added pointedly at Ivy, who glanced up at him momentarily but refused to react otherwise.
"Ivy told me the night person handled dinner," Harry said.
"Yes, well, clearly Ivy thought she was being clever," Marcone said. "She knew that if I didn't get a phone call, I'd come straight here after five o'clock. They must like you," Marcone said. "That's pretty mild compared to what she sometimes pulls."
Harry shrugged again, not sure what to say. He debated insisting on staying until another adult showed up, but he didn't really believe Marcone was going to suddenly turn into a monster as soon as he walked out the door. He grabbed his coat from the back of one of the armchairs and settled for, "Thank you for taking dinner, then, Mr. Marcone. I'm sorry to say goodbye to the girls, but I'm sure you want time with them."
Amanda called out to him at that, and reached up for a hug, so he hugged her goodbye. Then he had to hug Ivy, only she didn't let go, and he found himself walking to the door, accompanied by Gentleman Johnny Marcone, with a three-year-old clinging to his chest like a barnacle. Sometimes his life was just weird. And he hadn't even done anything supernatural since lunchtime.
"Come back and teach me more magic," Ivy said as he opened the door and Marcone tried to peel her off him.
"Yes, are you a temporary, or will I see you tomorrow?" Marcone asked.
"Um, I'm not sure," Harry admitted. "I'll have to check with the agency."
"I'll speak to the agency, then," Marcone said. "You must understand that there aren't many carers who are willing to work with Amanda and Ivy. Finding someone they've bonded with this quickly--" He put Ivy down and she immediately latched on to Harry's legs. Marcone spread his hands. "It's amazing. They've both lost so much already, and of course I can't be with them as often as I should."
"I-- well-- if you really want me back," Harry said. "Don't bother the agency." Please don't bother the agency, since they've never heard of me, he thought. "I'll talk to my supervisor, I'm sure I can be back tomorrow."
"Wonderful!" Marcone said and turned to Ivy. "Did you hear that? He'll be here tomorrow. Why don't you go tell Amanda?"
Ivy gave him a dark look, but ran off to the sitting room. Harry stamped his legs, trying to get circulation back.
"I really can't thank you enough, Mr. Dresden," Marcone said, looking him firmly in the eyes. "This could make all the difference to them." Harry hastily looked away - the last thing he needed right now was a soul-gaze with Gentleman Johnny.
It wasn't until he was two blocks down, back in the Blue Beetle, that he realized he'd never given Marcone his last name. But he still drove slowly around the property, replacing the paper-thin fake wards that somebody had cheated Marcone into with something that might work against the shape-shifter.
Then he freaked the fuck out.