It seems like this story should kick off with “I never did get the hang of Thursdays,” or something like that, but truth is, I kind of like Thursdays. The week’s winding down, that’s when you start looking around to make plans for the weekend. Finding yourself a hot date for Friday, and all that.
Granted, it had been longer than I cared to admit since I’d had a hot date, and my Friday evening plans involved Mouse—my extremely ironically named dog—and a Frisbee at the park. A little well-deserved R&R after my last case, which wasn’t quite as traumatic as some of my, shall we say, adventures have been, but still pretty damn gross. Let’s just say I won’t be eating quiche again anytime soon.
In any case, I’d just finished eating lunch at my desk, instant ramen for the third day in a row, when the phone rang.
“Dresden,” I answered on the second ring. No point in volunteering excess information, since anyone calling me ought to know what they’re looking for.
“Mr. Dresden,” came the smooth, pleased voice that I had come to know all too well, much to my chagrin. It spoke volumes that Marcone didn’t even bother to state his name, confident that I would recognize him. “And how are you doing this fine afternoon?”
The tempting answer was, It was fine, until you called, but I try not to take my dialogue from daytime TV, or fifth graders. I smothered a sigh, crumpling the empty ramen cup and chucking it ineffectually at the wastebasket.
“Doing great,” I replied caustically. “Only one call from a known crime lord, I’m still well under quota.”
I could hear him chuckle. “I suppose I could call back if you’d like to inflate your numbers, but I’d rather not.” Requisite bickering dispensed with, his tone turned businesslike. “Mr. Dresden, I was wondering if I could have a few hours of your time tomorrow evening.”
Huh. I supposed it was a comfort to know that I wasn’t the only one flying solo on Friday nights, though Gentleman John putting in overtime wasn’t the company I would have chosen.
“No rest for the wicked, I see,” I taunted, knowing he wouldn’t rise to the bait. I bobbed twice in my office chair, wishing I could tell him to take a long walk off a short pier. However, I was also uncomfortably aware that when supernatural trouble went down in this city, he was all too often in the thick of it and for reasons of his own, would seldom tell me straight-out. So I asked bluntly, “What for?”
“My plans are not set in stone, but I was considering steak at Morton’s and then a show at the Siskel Film Center. Pending your approval, of course.”
I blinked. Boggled at it. Replayed it, checking for sarcasm. Wondered briefly if he’d called the wrong number. Then said, intelligently, “What?”
“Dinner and a movie, Mr. Dresden, I believe it’s traditional. And I have it on good authority that you are a traditional sort of man.” He was smirking so broadly I could hear it, which meant anyone else would have been rolling on the floor and howling with laughter.
“Are—” I began, then stopped, trying to think of a better way to phrase it, vaguely offended that he was even making me ask this ridiculous question to start with. Since there wasn’t one, the best I could do was to try to sound appalled instead of confused as heck, which was kind of a losing effort. “Are you asking me out on a date?” I demanded.
Now he was laughing, damn him, and probably taping this conversation so he could use it to laugh himself to sleep at night. “And when anyone asks what I see in you, I shall be sure to tell them that it was your keen deductive reasoning that won my heart.”
I took the phone away from my ear and held it about six inches off, as though that could give me some objective distance from a conversation that was rapidly sinking into the Twilight Zone. He was still laughing when I put it back to my ear.
“Okay, what’s really going on?” I asked, trying for businesslike.
“I invited you on a date. The ball is now in your court, and I await your answer with bated breath.”
“Is this about business that you don’t want to discuss over the phone?”
That would be like him, to psych me out into thinking it was a date date and then just happen to mention that, oh by the way, I hear that there are vampires in town making a bid for world domination, or something to that effect.
“I assure you, it is not.” He wasn’t laughing anymore, and his voice had neatly slipped back into unreadability.
I stared hard at the pencil holder on my desk and winced when a ballpoint pen exploded with an inky pop. “Are you being held hostage?” I offered. “If they have a gun or something on you, just answer with yes or no.”
There was a huff of laughter that was the verbal equivalent of an eye-roll. “No, there is nobody holding a gun on me.”
“Are you possessed?”
“Have you eaten or drunk anything strange in the past twenty-four hours—”
“No, I have not, and Mr. Dresden, diverting as it is to play twenty questions with you, I do have other business to attend to,” he cut me off, finally sounding a touch exasperated. “Dinner and a movie tomorrow night, yes or no?”
I blinked and answered automatically. “Ah—no.”
“That’s a shame,” he said mildly. “It’s generally agreed that Morton’s serves the best prime steak in Chicago, and I understand your finances have been tight recently—”
Son of a bitch. Because steak, as my unsatisfied stomach took that opportunity to loudly remind me, beat cup noodles by a landslide.
“—but I’m sure you have your reasons and I won’t take up any more of your time. Good day, Mr. Dresden.”
He hung up, politely, but it took another ten seconds before the silence penetrated and I replaced the headset.
“Huh,” I ventured aloud, tipping back in my chair. Then again, for good measure and because I really couldn’t think of anything else, “Huh.”
Once I recovered from my bemusement, the first thing I did was call my pet skull, Bob. Not with a telephone, of course—convenient as that might have been, with a wizard on one end and a spirit of air and intellect on the other, we’d be lucky not to fry Chicago’s entire switchboard. I pushed aside the lost property case that I should have been working on and rigged up a quick and dirty little contact spell with paper clips, a salt shaker, and a half-empty bottle of mouthwash.
“This is Bob’s phone sex hotline, what’s your pllllleasure?” he answered when the spell connected.
“Glad to see you’ve found your own way of paying the rent,” I said.
“Well, some people haven’t been pulling their weight recently.”
“Let me guess, you give great head.”
“Har, har. I take it from your lack of theatrics that you’re not calling with any great emergency?”
“Not a great one, no,” I acknowledged. “Though this might qualify as a minor emergency.”
Bob waited. I suddenly found it much harder to get the words out than I had anticipated. Eventually I managed to spill it.
“Marcone asked me out. On a date.”
“Ohohoho,” Bob chortled. “And now you’re worried because you don’t own a single article of clothing that would pass muster with everyone’s favorite crime lord.”
“I—no! That’s not the problem. I turned him down!”
“Uh… boss?” Bob said dubiously. “I hate to point out the obvious, but I haven’t noticed you getting any better offers lately.”
“That is totally not the point. Also, none of your business.”
“Except that you just called me,” Bob pointed out.
“I was looking for… uh…” I made some vague hand gestures, which were even less help than usual, given that Bob couldn’t see them. “I don’t know, a professional opinion on the matter.”
“Professional opinion?” Bob guffawed. “He wants to do you. I could have told you that since the incident with the werewolves.”
“He does not—wait, what?” I could remember the ‘incident with the werewolves,’ as he put it, quite clearly, but I didn’t see how that lent any credence to his assertion that Marcone wanted to ‘do me.’
Bob heaved a sigh, which was usually his way to let me know that I was a moron for not already knowing what he was about to tell me. “He wanted you alive, right? He wanted them to turn you over to his custody before you were mangled beyond recognition, right?”
“That is not evidence of any deep-seated affection,” I protested. “You may also remember that I told you he was actively trying to recruit me back then. He didn’t want me dead because he wanted me working for him.”
Bob just cackled. “Ah, padawan, you have much still to learn.”
“What? No—there are many people, dozens perhaps, who don’t want to kill me, and past evidence would indicate that it’s not because they want to ‘do’ me.”
“Fine, fine,” Bob conceded, in a skeptical tone that clearly said he was humoring me. “I’ll defer to your superior judgment on this matter, though you might want to ask yourself one thing…”
When he spoke, I could hear the leer. “When’s the last time I was wrong?”
I hung up on him.
Drummed my fingers on the desk.
Then picked up the phone and dialed Murphy’s cell, feeling uncomfortably like a teenage girl who, after being asked out by the quarterback, proceeds to call up all her friends (in my case, all two of them) and spread the word. In point of fact though, I was calling around to make sure that rivers were still running downhill and there hadn’t been any scattered showers of frogs lately.
“Sergeant Murphy, Special Investigations,” Murphy rapped out after barely a ring and a half. You know how sometimes you can tell, from the first word out of their mouth, that you called at a bad time? Yeah, I was getting that now.
“Uh… hi, Murph,” I said, wondering if it might have been the better part of valor to ask if her refrigerator was running, and then hang up pronto.
“Harry,” she said in confirmation, her voice neutral and businesslike. Behind her I could hear the background noise that accompanies phone calls, clatter and human voices and what sounded like an intercom somewhere. “I take it from your impeccable timing that this mess is a spillover from your side of the fence?”
“I—what?” I stammered, caught off-guard. “What happened?”
“Some sort of freaky mass hypnosis, or that’s the current working theory—about thirty or forty people hanging out on North Avenue Beach just up and tried to drown themselves. All of a sudden, these people dropped what they were doing and walked straight into the lake. Fortunately there were enough bystanders that most of them got hauled out before they could finish the job, but we’ve got four dead, seven on life support with probable brain damage, and none of the survivors have any memory of walking into the water.”
“Sounds like a kelpie,” I suggested, and my mouth was open to continue when I suddenly realized that it didn’t.
“What’s a kelpie?” Murphy prompted at my silence.
I frowned and tapped out a staccato rhythm on the table. “A monster from faerie, they lure their victims into water and then eat them. But I don’t think that would account for the memory loss—I’ve never heard of them being able to do that before, though I guess I could be wrong. I’d have to ask someone.”
“I see,” she replied, in the tone of voice that meant she was taking notes. “Well, I was going to call and get your opinion as soon as some of the chaos died down here, but right now I’m still dripping lake water onto the hospital floor. I won’t ask how you found out so fast, but if we’re going to be seeing more incidents like this, tell me now.”
“Uh, well actually I was calling about something else—I didn’t know about North Avenue Beach turning into a suicide club until you just told me.” Though I had no doubt the news would have reached me in short order, whether I heard it from Murphy or not.
“You didn’t?” she echoed with some surprise. “Then why’d you call?”
Crap. This kelpie thing had succeeded in distracting me from my original purpose, and now I felt it was a wee bit juvenile to continue harping about having been propositioned by a mob boss, when Murphy was sodden and tired and probably dealing with the unenviable cop guilt of not having been able to save everyone.
“Look, it’s nothing important,” I said, trying to sound considerate and soothing but just coming off as uncomfortable and a little guilty. “Nothing that can’t wait until later.”
“Harry,” she said, and I didn’t need to be looking at her to know the flat, sardonic look she was leveling at me now. “You’ve seen enough predictable thrillers to know that the guy who says that always has the critical information, and moreover, after those ironic last words he always gets offed before he can tell anyone. Out with it.”
“No really,” I insisted, a little desperately. “It’s really not important. A waste of your time and mine. Look, you’re probably exhausted, you should grab a shower and a bite to eat and—”
“Harry,” she growled.
The silence on her end would have been ringing, if not for the hospital background noise that picked up the slack. “Murphy?” I ventured after a few moments.
“Sorry, I must have water in my ear or something, because it sounded like you just said that Marcone—and we are talking about the same Marcone, right? Gentleman John, resident criminal mastermind Marcone?—asked you out on a date.”
Her surprise would have been more gratifying if her tone hadn’t implied that Marcone was way out of my league.
“The same Marcone,” I confirmed grudgingly.
“Well, what’d you say?”
“I said no, of course!” Seriously, Bob and Murphy both, why did they even need to ask? “He’s scum and I don’t trust him as far as I could throw him. Every minute spent in his presence is a minute too long. I don’t want to be a civil acquaintance of the man, much less his…”—I groped for a word that didn’t start with boy and end with friend—“…date.”
“Harry, are you telling me you thought he was serious?” Murphy demanded in disbelief. “Don’t get me wrong and all, you’re a great guy and I love you like a particularly stupid brother, but Marcone could do better than you in his sleep. Assuming he even bats for the home team, and there hasn’t been even the suggestion of a rumor that he does.”
Well, when she put it that way, I did feel a little silly. “He sounded serious,” I muttered, somewhat abashed.
I could practically hear her eyes rolling. “Of course he did, because he just loves to screw with your head. And then in a fit of homophobic pique you shot him down and flounced off before you could find out what was really going on.”
“I… no…” I managed. Homophobic pique wasn’t the problem here—stay tuned, full story at 11!—but this wasn’t the opportune time to share that with Murphy. And anyway, she wasn’t done talking yet.
“I suppose it could be coincidence that a supernatural attack hits at the same time that you get propositioned by Marcone, but my instincts say it’s not—so swallow your offended heterosexuality and go find out what he wants.”
He wants to do you! a voice in my head suggested brightly, sounding remarkably like Bob. I ignored it, same as I do the real Bob.
Murphy was the detective; she had good instincts, and they agreed with my first instinct—that something fishy was going on here. Surely that was it. He probably had something he wanted to discuss off-the-record, as I’d done with many a questionable associate over beers at Mac’s.
It was harder to ignore the other voice, the one that sounded an awful lot like Bob and was challenging me to remember the last time he’d been wrong.
I got off the phone with Murphy, then spent the next couple hours shuffling unpaid bills and tinkering with the unsteady leg on my desk. I was dragging my feet on calling Marcone back, on the off-chance that the apocalypse would intervene and spare me the indignity. When the end of the world failed to oblige, however, I finally caved and called him at half past six.
I didn’t have caller ID, since it never would have stayed working in my office anyway, but he’d managed to slip me his card a while back and I knew his number. Numbers, plural, actually—which, to a wizard who was lucky to keep one phone in working order, much less half a dozen, seemed excessive.
“This is John,” he answered after a couple rings, his voice as crisp and businesslike as a newly minted $100 bill.
“Uh… hi. This is Harry Dresden.” Like he was going to forget my name, or confuse me with one of the numerous other Dresdens running around town.
“Mr. Dresden, an unexpected pleasure.” His voice had slid seamlessly into something smooth and perhaps a touch acquisitive. “I hadn’t thought I’d be hearing from you again so soon.”
“Yeah, well…” And so much for making that segue sound casual and spontaneous. “I changed my mind about your earlier offer.”
The silence that followed was long enough to have been a tell in poker, if only I could have seen the facial expression that accompanied it.
“Have you now,” he said at last, and his tone made it clear that he hadn’t been expecting that, and was powerfully curious. “May I ask what brought about this change of heart?”
“Magic,” I said flippantly.
“I sincerely hope not,” he replied, and a wary, guarded note dipped briefly into his voice, there for a moment then gone just as fast. “So, Friday evening—would you rather I picked you up from your apartment or your office?”
“Hey whoa, who said we were taking your car?” I protested, rapidly backpedaling. As stated above, I didn’t trust Marcone as far as I could throw him, and the last thing I wanted was to be stuck relying on him for transportation when he brought trouble down on my head.
“Considering that I’m the one initiating and assuming financial responsibility for this excursion, I believe it’s traditional that I also provide the vehicle.”
“To hell with tradition—” I began, but Marcone smoothly cut me off.
“I do realize, however, that our somewhat... eventful history sets us apart from the usual standards of courtship. Which is why I’m willing to declare a truce—I, John Marcone, Freeholding Lord of the Unseelie Accords, do hereby swear that no harm will come to you, by my hand or by my negligence, for the duration of the date.”
He didn’t have to, really. I knew he wasn’t going to do anything to me, first because that would be gauche and unsubtle, and second because—despite my own grave reluctance to admit any association between us—I’d been his ally more often than I’d been his enemy and he knew it. Still, it was a polite offer, and a pointed reminder that he was a major player on ‘my side of the fence’ now, with the authority to make pacts using the Accords and the power to back them up.
“Alright,” I allowed. “Then I swear the same. I won’t gank you and I won’t let anyone else do it either. For the duration of the date.”
And yeah, it kinda sorta made me wince to say ‘date’ out loud.
“Settled, then. Dress casual, I’ll pick you up from your house at seven.”
Oh, the things I do for great justice.
Now it may seem like I was taking this whole business of being asked out by another man with remarkable aplomb—but the truth was, I was far more troubled by the part where he was a crime lord and, by common consensus, one of the bad guys rather than because he was a guy.
See, I’d always liked to think of myself as theoretically bisexual; I’d just never had the chance to put theory into practice. Because while everyone else was in college, smoking pot and exploring their sexuality, I was on a farm in Kansas with a five-hundred-year-old wizard learning how to control my powers so I didn’t accidentally blow up the world. So while I obviously wasn’t gay—I liked women far too much for that—I also knew that I enjoyed checking out the occasional guy.
Like Thomas, for example, before I knew we were related, because hot damn, he is good-looking, which is more a statement of fact than a statement of intent. I thought I’d caught him eyeing me a couple times too, White Court vampire and all that; I figured that he’d probably make a move eventually, and I hadn’t quite decided whether I would go along with it when he did, but I was leaning toward yes. I’m a wizard, after all—I have a lot of years to spare, and by all accounts, the White Court can make it worth your while.
It was a little freaky when I found out he was my brother, partially because sexual interest isn’t a switch you can just flip to “off” after suddenly discovering an uncomfortable degree of consanguinity, and partially because sometimes I still got the vibe from Thomas that he’d be willing to go for it anyway. (White Court vampires, Christ almighty.)
The only person I’d admitted it to was Bob, who had proceeded to load me down with information about genetic sexual attraction and his favorite twin porn. I’d told him he was forbidden to bring up the subject ever again.
In the long run though, once I got over the sexual tension, I preferred to have Thomas as a brother. I’d never had family before, and I would take that over a gay fling any day of the week.
Marcone, on the other hand, was a slightly different story.
I’d known of him long before I ever met the man, knew that he’d been the one responsible for a slew of gangland murders during his rise to power, and that since settling into the job he’d taken control of a narcotics industry (among other things) that generated countless millions of dollars. In the dog-eat-dog world of organized crime, I’d given him long odds on lasting out a year before someone bigger and meaner came along to unseat him, and good riddance.
But then… it didn’t happen. Not only was Marcone here to stay, but the man had Ideas about how Chicago ought to be run and damned if he didn’t make good on them. Petty crime plummeted, with offenders either discreetly removed or taken into the fold where their talents could be put to more productive use. Police corruption was at an all-time high, but I seemed to be the only one in the city who cared, everyone else too busy fêting Marcone for doing what three generations of police chiefs couldn’t.
Fine, so he was a megalomaniac mobster. Five years tops, I thought, before he overreaches himself and digs his own grave, Capone-style. Power corrupts—and Marcone had enough of that to corrupt a saint, which he sure as hell wasn’t.
But then I met the man, got tricked into a soulgaze, and discovered that what I didn’t know about Marcone could have filled a book. That he didn’t think he was a bad guy came as no surprise, because they never do—it’s not like anyone wakes up and says, Hey, you know what would be fun? Being evil!!—but the lack of brutality did. And while nobody was about to accuse him of being a bleeding heart, he was staunchly, one might say ethically, opposed to collateral damage and to letting uninvolved bystanders get hurt. “Bad for business,” he was fond of saying, since in his line of work it was safer to be seen as business-savvy than as hampered by conventional morality, but I had seen the man’s soul and I knew it was just a line. He was relentless in his pursuit of power, but he wasn’t selling his soul to do it—literally, since Nicodemus had put that exact offer to him, quite persuasively, and Marcone hadn’t given in. He wanted power, but only on his own terms.
I didn’t want to like him, damn it, because everything he had made was built on human misery, but with the relentless patience of the predators he so reminded me of, he had spent the intervening years wearing down my resistance. He was charming, deceptively affable, and unfairly good-looking, making it hard to remember why I wasn’t allowed to respond in kind. He also seemed to genuinely like me, despite my own best efforts. He indulged the lip I gave him and met my constant needling with amused equanimity—as steadfast an ally as I’d never wanted. He helped me whether I asked for it or not, far beyond the call of duty, and carried out his particular brand of gangland justice on the bad guys who were even badder than him.
And meanwhile he continued to engage in drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion, smuggling, gun-running, and any number of other rackets. Needless to say, I was somewhat conflicted when it came to John Marcone—and here I’d agreed to dinner and a movie with him.
As my apprentice would say in the idiom of youth: fuck me sideways.
Friday was, by turns, stretching out forever and going by too damned fast. I ended up starting work early, since I’d woken up at five and been unable to get back to sleep, for reasons totally unrelated to date anxiety. To keep my mind off it I went ahead and got busy, starting with a quick jaunt down to North Avenue Beach to see if I could pick up any trace of what had caused the incident yesterday. The police had cordoned off a large section of the beach, with a vague but ominous warning about dangerous wildlife, but nobody was around to enforce it when I slipped down for a look.
I lingered out there for nearly half an hour, going so far as to strip a sock off and poke my foot in the water to tempt whatever might be lurking down there, but there was no sign of anything even remotely amiss. Even daring to flick on my Sight didn’t help because the people who died had done so offshore, and moving water is to magical remains as an eraser is to a chalkboard. Discouraged, and with absolutely nothing to show for my time, I got back in my car and drove off.
I felt a little better after wrapping up two easy retrieval cases I’d had on my plate, tracking down an heirloom locket to the lost and found in Grand Central Station, and a stolen music box to the briefcase of a south side thug. The briefcase happened to still be connected to the thug in question, which might have posed difficulties for some people since he looked like a pit bull in flannel and acted about like one too, but being a wizard up against a plain vanilla human tips the scales a bit. I left him napping in a warehouse, briefcase chained to his wrist, and phoned in an anonymous tip to the police. I’d briefly entertained the idea of calling Marcone instead and letting him handle it, but he tended to be even tougher on petty crime than the police and I didn’t necessarily want to get the guy killed.
Feeling more benevolent toward the world at large, I even tossed in free home delivery to my two satisfied customers, getting coy and innuendo-laden thanks from the elderly widow who’d lost her locket, and more subdued gratitude from the sour-faced antiques dealer who’d been robbed. Four-hundred and fifty dollars in the green, I treated myself to lunch at Subway and was back in my office enjoying a ham on wheat before I remembered that I’d agreed to a date with John Marcone.
With nothing else to occupy me for the afternoon, time ground to a halt, until at last I resigned myself to the fact that everyone else had taken an early weekend and I might as well do the same. I was outside in the hallway locking up when I heard the trudging, exhausted gait of someone unused to climbing six flights of stairs, which is most everyone except me. A moment later a pretty, slightly plump young woman appeared on the landing, glancing once at the floor number, and then her eyes slid unerringly down the hallway to land on me.
“Ah—Are you Mr. Dresden?” she stammered out, obviously not having expected to find me standing in the hallway. I immediately pegged her as the type who might well have chickened out before working up the nerve to knock, but here I’d gone and taken the choice away from her.
“That’s me,” I confirmed, giving her what I hoped was a reassuring, professional smile. Just when I’d started looking forward to going home early…
I flicked the key again, turning the lock as if I’d been on my way in instead of on my way out, and then held the door open for her. She flashed me a skittish smile and dipped her head in a polite nod as she ducked into my office. I followed a step behind, flicking on the lights as I went.
I could see her looking around the office with a mixture of apprehension and curiosity, clearly uneasy here but looking more embarrassed than afraid—which was unfortunately par for the course for a lot of my clients. They came to me when they had problems that no one else could fix, but on the list of things that people don’t like to acknowledge in public, I tended to rank down there with embarrassing rashes.
“Uhm… so you’re supposed to be a real wizard, right? Not one of those guys who do magic shows for birthday parties?” she asked, sounding a little distracted as she scanned the room as if expecting to see proof in the form of a framed diploma. Certified Wizard, from Accredited University, etc.
“Yeah, I don’t mix well with birthday parties,” I agreed. “Why don’t you have a seat, tell me your name, and then we can get started.”
“Oh, right,” she said, startled out of her fascination with my office and turning to offer me a hand. “Sorry, I’m Tabetha Williams. You can call me Tabby though, most people do.”
I was only a shade wary at taking her hand, but her face was candid and open, without the slightest hint that she might know what it meant to touch a wizard’s hand, or to offer up her real name so carelessly. Because I could tell that it had been her real name, the easy cadence with which it rolled off her tongue and on a deeper level, a sub-audible rumble as the magic associated with names recognized that as hers.
I took her hand. There was no telltale flicker of magic to identify her as another practitioner. She had a firm handshake and would have readily met my eyes if I hadn’t been avoiding it. Innocent as a babe in the woods.
“Call me Harry,” I offered, letting go of her hand and moving to settle behind my desk. “So what seems to be the problem?”
“Ah, right, yes,” she stammered, taking the chair opposite me, her hands squeezing the purse in her lap. “I—I’m very sorry, I’m just not used to this. I’ve never met anyone who claimed to be a wizard before, and I’m not sure if this is your sort of thing or not, but…”
“Ms. Williams,” I interrupted gently. “Why don’t you just explain the situation, starting from the beginning, and I’ll see what I can do to help.”
She took a deep breath, fixed her eyes on the corner of my desk, and blurted out, “My husband’s been acting strange recently.”
I mentally upgraded her to Mrs. Williams and wondered if this was going to be one of those divorce cases that real PIs always bitched about.
“In what way?” I asked encouragingly.
“He’s been away from home a lot,” she answered, slowly gaining momentum now that the ice had been broken. “He won’t tell me where he’s going. He hasn’t been sleeping well lately and he’s become a lot more distant.”
Which was practically taken from the handbook of extramarital affairs.
I sighed. “Mrs. Williams, this doesn’t sound like the type of case I deal with. If you’re looking for a detective to investigate your husband I can give you some recommendations, but that’s not my specialty.”
She glanced up at me, a spark of annoyance flaring in her eyes, and I saw a little more of her hesitation fall away. “Mr. Dresden, are you implying that my husband is cheating on me? First of all, when he does come home late, he comes in smelling like rotten eggs, not perfume. Second, when I say ‘acting strange,’ I mean that he’s been hammering the silverware into bizarre shapes and hiding them under the couch cushions. And third, I only came to you because he’s been leaving the phone book open on the kitchen table for the past two weeks straight, with your listing circled. Let me assure you, an affair is the least of my worries.”
Okay, she won. That sounded like my kind of weird.
“Your silverware wouldn’t happen to be real silver, would it?” I asked.
She looked startled, as if she’d been expecting more skepticism, or at least a question that bore some superficial relevance to the topic at hand. “Ah—yes, actually. It was a wedding present from my mother, which is why I was so angry when he started tearing it up. Why, what difference does that make?”
I didn’t want to tell her that I thought her husband was making wards against face-eating supernatural beasties, not yet anyway. It would have been helpful if I could have examined one of them in person, but I could tell from the non-reaction of my wards that she wasn’t carrying any such device with her.
“Does he tend to use more spoons or knives?”
“Ah—I don’t know. Spoons, I think,” she answered warily, as though she thought I might be making fun of her.
So it was reflective, defensive magic then. Probably a good idea if he was going to be leaving them around where his wife could stumble across them. As for going out at night and coming back smelling like rotten eggs (aka sulfur) in my world that tended to mean only one thing—hellfire. Which was just what I needed to make my weekend complete.
“Mr. Dresden?” Tabby prompted cautiously. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“I have some ideas,” I said, not willing to commit to a theory yet. “Have you ever known him to do anything quirky like this in the past? Odd, ritualized behavior?”
She shook her head immediately. “No, nothi—” Then promptly cut herself off as something occurred to her. “Well, he has this thing where he puts salt in the corners of the room, but his mother was Irish and it’s just an old superstition he picked up from her.”
Just a superstition, right, that an independent, 20th century son married to an educated American woman would probably have been all-too-willing to let lapse—unless he knew what it was for. I also took note of the past tense when she spoke of his mother.
So far the evidence pointed to her husband being a magic practitioner, probably a hereditary one if he’d picked up cleansing rituals from his mother. The only questions left were how powerful he was, and why he wanted me involved in his business when it didn’t sound like it could possibly be anything legit.
“Does your husband have a cellphone? Or a computer?”
She nodded readily. “Of course. He’s a paralegal.”
“Have they broken down recently?”
That earned me a stunned silence, and for the first time she really looked at me, her intelligent brown eyes sharpening with suspicion or maybe the first hint of belief. “How did you know that?”
I motioned around the office with one hand. “Notice my lack of delicate electronic equipment? I don’t know what the physics behind it are, but wizards have a sort of anti-technology field that makes machines go haywire. Really high tech things like laptops and cellphones are the first to go.”
She breathed out a short, disbelieving laugh. “Mr. Dresden, are you telling me that you think my husband is a wizard?”
“Mrs. Williams, this goes beyond ‘think’—judging from what you’ve said, I’m almost certain of it.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she declared flatly, and I could see her reeling back in whatever faith I had started to garner. “I’ve known him for six years. My husband is not a wizard.”
I thought about Charity and Michael, married for more than twenty, and the dirty little secret that she still hadn’t told him.
“It sounds like he’s been non-practicing for most of your marriage,” I acknowledged. “He never used his power until now, so it was dormant, which is why there was never anything strange for you to notice before. Except now for some reason he’s started again, and I’ll be honest with you, what he’s doing sounds really shady.”
Tabby huffed out a sigh and slumped in her chair a little. “Unbelievable,” she said without conviction.
“Well if it’ll make you any happier, you don’t have to believe me,” I offered. I suspected that a lot of my clients didn’t, or didn’t want to, anyway. “As long as you follow my instructions, we can still get the job done.”
She forced a brave face. “If you can help, then it doesn’t matter whether I want to believe it or not, because I don’t know who else to turn to. If he’s been dragged into something dangerous then I want to help him, but if it’s illegal I don’t want to get him in trouble by involving the police. I don’t know who else to ask—I tried telling a friend that I was worried about how he’d been acting, but she just freaked out and thought he’d gone crazy. She wanted me to leave him before he did something to hurt me.”
“Well, if it is illegal, the police aren’t the ones he should be worried about,” I told her honestly.
The people to watch out for were the trigger-happy White Council, whom I was in no hurry to call even though rogue wizards were technically their jurisdiction. In their eyes though, ignorance of the law is no excuse and standard operating procedure is to shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. If Jonathan didn’t know that what he was doing was a crime—as Molly hadn’t, as I hadn’t, once upon a time—then I wanted to give him a heads up before siccing the wardens on him. (Technically I was a warden myself, but that didn’t mean I had to be a dick about it.)
“Anyway,” I pushed on, “erratic as his behavior may seem, it’s not because he’s crazy. Or at least there’s a method to the madness, as the bard would say.”
Tabby cracked her first real smile in our acquaintance, wry but genuine. “Actually he said, ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.’ I teach Brit lit at Loyola,” she added by way of explanation.
I upgraded her again to Dr. Mrs. Williams.
She seemed to find her equanimity in that, because she drew in a breath and then said, “Okay, so what we do?”
I was touched that she considered this a joint endeavor—how were we going to fix this, rather than flailing in distress and dumping the mess at my feet. I was also a little worried, because getting her more involved would invariably put her at higher risk of getting hurt or killed. Possibly even by him, if he took exception to her snooping in his affairs.
“Well, first I’m going to need to know everything you can tell me about your husband, starting with his full name.”
Tabby had plenty to tell me about her husband, her affection for him evident in every word—she just didn’t have much that was useful. His name was Jonathan Ailill Williams (I had to get her to spell that middle name for me). She’d met him while she was on vacation in LA as an undergrad, they’d hit it off immediately and proceeded to maintain a long distance relationship for six months until he moved to Chicago to be closer to her. He’d been estranged from both his parents since before she came into his life—which, I noted silently, was unfortunately rather common for families with magic—and the only relative of his she’d ever met was his uncle, a handsome and affable (if slightly eccentric) man named Cary. The name didn’t ring any bells, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything.
“Has he asked you to do anything... strange since this started?” I asked carefully, my gut tightening as I remembered the last woman who’d gotten dragged into her husband’s necromancy.
But Tabby’s face showed no flicker of comprehension and she just shook her head blankly. “Nothing that I can think of. Like what?”
“You’d know if he had,” I said grimly. “In any case, I’m not sure how much I can tell you without seeing them in person, but if you can remember what his silverware creations looked like, then I might be able to get some idea of what they’re for.”
It turned out she could do one better than that, and given a pencil and blank sheet of paper, she set to sketching a shaky but detailed diagram of the device.
“They’d been twisted around into a sort of spiky ring,” Tabby explained as she drew, brow furrowed with concentration. “Tied together with copper wire, and there was some stuff wrapped around it that looked like hair. Wrapped around on purpose, I mean, not just hair that got caught on it.”
That made sense because it could give the ward a specific target to guard, or to be on guard against. “What color hair?”
“Dark brown. Maybe black.” Which narrowed it down not at all.
She added a few finishing details to the drawing, glanced over it critically, then slid it across the desk to me. “I hope that’s helpful,” she said apologetically. “Sorry I don’t remember it better.”
My mouth had gone dry and for a moment I just stared at the innocuous-looking pencil sketch. “Are you sure this is it?” I asked, voice oddly muted.
“Pretty sure, yeah. Why?”
I said nothing, because the deceptively benign wreath on the paper before me was the most aggressively deadly defensive spell that I had ever seen. This wasn’t a ward—it was a landmine.
Much as my first instinct was to go tearing hell-for-leather after this wizard who was making bombs capable of blowing greater Chicago into a doughnut, I had to check it with the knowledge that, oh yeah, I had dark-brown-maybe-black hair—which meant dangerously high odds that the target was me. Call me cynical and paranoid, but this whole thing sounded like exactly the sort of con that could be expected to work on me: the wife gets primed, all-unknowing, to take this problem to the only man in town who can help: Harry Dresden, world’s biggest sucker for women in distress, who gallantly rides to the rescue and proceeds to blow himself to smithereens when he triggers what he thought was a simple defensive ward.
Hoo. I wasn’t sure I liked Jonathan Williams anymore.
The only consolation was that this particular spell was a last resort, panic-button sort of self-destruct, the kind of spell that doesn’t transport well; it uses the energy from the threshold to fuel the blast and thus can only be employed on the wizard’s home turf. In other words, as long as I didn’t go into his house I was safe—there was no danger of finding this particular prize shoved up the Beetle’s tailpipe.
I was reluctant to send Tabby home after that, not to a booby-trapped house and a husband like that, but she wouldn’t hear of it when I tried to suggest that she stay at a hotel for a while. The best I could do was give her a short lecture on Supernatural Defense 101, with a brief explanation of the power of thresholds and why she shouldn’t invite anyone, anyone into the house, not even people she thought she knew, until this mess was resolved. Interestingly, she told me that her husband had recently given her the same order, though he had declined to explain why.
Then, with nothing else to be done for the moment, I sent her off with instructions to find and dismantle as many of the damned things as she could. They were no danger to her, seeing as she’d already picked them up and moved them around to no effect, but the same couldn’t be said for me or anyone else.
Then I tried to call Murphy, but she wasn’t answering her cellphone. I left a message on her voicemail asking if she could run a background check on Jonathan Ailill Williams for me, paying close attention to his family and being on the lookout for an uncle Cary in particular.
Then I glanced at the clock and realized that Marcone was expecting to pick me up in half an hour.