It was partially my fault. I should have taken a closer look at the handful of tawdry romances I bought for Bob. He'd just mentioned being taken with one author in particular -- something about pirates and booty and other things that I really didn't want to hear about -- and in a fit of generosity, I'd picked up an anthology.
"You're frenemies," Bob said with altogether too much relish.
"We -- what?" I asked, looking up from the potion that was bubbling away.
A spirit inhabiting a skull should not be able to clear their throat, and they especially shouldn't be able to do it with that much ridiculous drama. "Frenemies. It's in the book you gave me. You and Marcone are supposedly enemies, but you're involved in a relationship that's mutually beneficial."
"Oh, we are not," I scoffed. "I mean, sure. I've saved his life a few times. He's saved my life a few times. A few instances of mutual life-saving does not a relationship make."
"Plus he totally wants to bone you," Bob added cheerfully.
"I am never buying you anything by that author ever again," I told him, after I recovered from trying to cough out a lung.
"Aw, that wasn't in the book!" Bob protested. "That's just my own intutition."
"Well, stop intuiting. I mean, intuit about important things, not...that. Marcone has a city full of beautiful women -- he can do a hell of a lot better than my scrawny ass, that's for sure."
"Worried you won't be invited to the prom?"
"Shut up, seriously."
Unfortunately, I wasn't really building up any credibility against Bob's argument by having lunch with Marcone the next day.
In my defense, though, it was strictly a working lunch. The restaurant in question wasn't one of Marcone's establishments, but it was clearly one that didn't mind seating a mob boss and his small entourage of bodyguards in a private corner in back.
I pointed at the map between us on the table. "It looked to me like they were setting up shop there. I'm not totally opposed to people making their own chemical recreational fun, but I really would rather they went some place else. There's a leaky pocket dimension there and even I don't know what'll happen when you mix that with hallucinogens."
Marcone touched the area of the map next to where I was pointing. "You're certain it's a factor of location?"
I nodded emphatically. "Positive."
Marcone sipped his drink thoughtfully. "Well, Mr. Dresden, I think we can arrive at some sort of agreement."
"I thought we already agreed," I said, frowning. "They're in a bad mojo kind of place. Your guys go rustle them out. End of story."
"And why should I do you this favor, exactly?"
I took a sip of my drink to avoid snapping at him. "Look, you don't like competitors. Without that zone, they'll just be some two-bit hacks."
Marcone's tiger-eyes narrowed. "In which case, you could merely call the police and have them investigate. I repeat, Mr. Dresden: why should I do you this favor?"
Dammit. I'd been hoping to just slide this one through, but Marcone hadn't gotten where he was by being inattentive. I sighed. "Look. It would take your guys two seconds and a little gun-waving to run them out of there. Any cops who get involved are going to want to stake out the place and investigate, and they shouldn't be hanging around for any longer than they have to. I can't do it myself -- there's no way I can get close enough. What can I trade you for letting your boys do a little outside contracting?"
"What, indeed," Marcone said, smiling.
"I don't have a lot of money," I warned him.
He cast one cool eye at my clothes. "As you're a bit underdressed for this luncheon, I assumed as much."
I looked down at my clothing, and then looked at Marcone's impeccable suit. "Okay, you have a point."
Marcone looked at me, his gaze calculating. "I'll send my men out this evening if you'll join me for dinner."
"We just had lunch," I said inanely.
"At my home, I think. You, of course, will want to make certain that those I send out come back with no harm done."
I would have hollered at him for ordering me to his home for dinner, but he was right -- I wouldn't send his goons to a place I couldn't go without making sure they were in more or less one piece afterward, metaphysically speaking.
"I suppose you'll want me to dress up," I said glumly, rolling up the map.
Marcone took it from me, his fingers lingering near mine for a moment. "Ah, no. You may come as you are, Harry."
"Don't call me that," I said automatically.
"I'm sorry, did you want to pay for lunch?"
"Oh, for Christ's sake," I muttered. "I'll see you tonight."
"Eight o'clock will do nicely. Try not to be tardy."
I kind of hated myself for it, but I did actually dress up. I mean, for me. And I sure as hell didn't make any side trips down to the lab before I left for Marcone's, because if Bob saw me, I was really never going to hear the end of it.
I did get a kick out of driving the Blue Beetle up to the front of Marcone's mansion. The valet looked a little wild around the eyes when I told him to disregard any sounds and/or minor explosions that might occur while he was parking my car.
I'd never seen the inside of Marcone's place, although I did have some extensive experience with the grounds out back after the whole werewolf affair. Still, one thing was for certain: crime really did pay. The foyer alone was the size of my entire apartment.
"Right on time, Mr. Dresden," Marcone called from the top of the stairway at the end of the foyer. He was adjusting the cuffs of his shirt as he came down -- it looked like I wasn't the only one who got a little gussied up. Granted, Marcone had actually dressed down a little to meet me, but still.
"I just sent my men out. If all goes well, they should be back before the last course," he said, as if sending out some thugs to threaten some underground chemists was like having the neighbor boy walk the dog.
I tried to keep in mind that he really was doing me a favor, and it wouldn't kill me to play nice for an evening, especially if dinner was all he wanted in return.
Well, that, and I really was pretty damn hungry.
We only made it to the middle of the second course -- who knew bacon-wrapped quail existed, let alone would taste that good? -- before Marcone's phone rang.
He paused from gently baiting me and answered it, listening to whoever was on the end of the line, before saying, "Retreat. We'll be right there."
Well, that really didn't sound good.
"It seems there was a problem," Marcone said after hanging up.
I put down my knife and fork, and sighed. "Welcome to my world."
Hendricks drove us to the site in a menacing black Caddy with windows so tinted they were opaque. When we arrived, it was pretty clear what the problem was.
Let me say it right now: leaky pocket dimensions of unknown origin and hallucinogenic chemistry don't mix in the really, really special way. I had been hoping that Marcone's goons could roust these guys before something like this could happen.
The two chemists looked more like human versions of Gumby than like actual people, and they had two of Marcone's guys pinned down.
"Why can't you get near this place?" Marcone asked softly and precisely.
"If you think what's happened to them is bad, you don't want to know what will happen to me," I told him. "You're not high, right?"
"Mr. Dresden," Marcone said reprovingly.
"Just checking. It really does matter, you know."
"My men emptied their clips into these people to no effect. Are you certain this will work?"
I handed him a super soaker filled with mineral oil. "Let's call it a well-reasoned hunch, and tell your guys to close their eyes. Ready?"
We burst out of the car and drenched the stretchy men, who made some kind of awful noise before their stretchy limbs hardened and began to crack, like rubber after it had been dropped in liquid nitrogen. I was possibly so elated over the success of my guess (well, okay, Bob helped), that I completely neglected to see the third chemist, who took my feet out from under me and started to drag me closer.
I already knew that my aura was not going to interact well with the fuzzy, half-realized laws of the leaky pocket dimension, and that any attempt to use magic on my part would blow us all sky high -- and that's if I was lucky.
Hell's bells, the creep dragging me closer was muttering crazy talk about eating my aura. I really didn't want to take the chance that he could. "John!" I yelled, scrabbling with my hands at the concrete I was being dragged across.
My oil gun was god knew where, and Marcone's face tightened as he realized his was empty. He started towards the Cadillac, but I didn't think we'd brought any extra -- hell, I hadn't thought it was going to take even half a Super Soaker to put these guys out.
Jesus Christ, he wasn't going to leave me here, was he?
He popped the hood, grabbed the handle of a dipstick and pulled it out.
No way. He wasn't going to...
Well, clearly he was. The dipstick was coated with red transmission fluid and John Marcone held it out in front of him like a sword. He sliced through the Gumby arm wrapped around me, much to the shrieking of the guy to whom it used to be attached, and then ran him through.
It really shouldn't have been possible for anyone to look dashing while holding a dipstick, but Marcone was managing, somehow.
I struggled out of the rubber wrapped around me and made my way back to the car, far from any possible contact with the pocket dimension. Marcone's guys looked fine, if a little freaked out. That changed to something pretty damn close to hero worship when Marcone came up behind me.
"That's quite enough for one evening, I think," he said.
He got into the car (after one of the guys replaced the dipstick to its proper place), and I slid in next to him.
I gave a heavy sigh of relief as Hendricks pulled the car out of the driveway and started down the road. "My hero," I said, half-smartass, half-serious.
"I'm really not in the business of being so," Marcone said, flashes of streetlight briefly illuminating his face. "You owe me three times over now, Mr. Dresden -- our dinner was interrupted, my men were seriously endangered, and I saved your life."
I turned my head to face him. "If we go back and finish dinner, does that knock my debt down to two?"
"I'll consider it clear if we skip to dessert," Marcone said, his dollar-green eyes still managing to glint in the low light.
That took me a second or two to work out, but in my defense, I'd just been flattened and dragged down a driveway. Also, I was still pretty hungry.
Jesus Christ. Bob was right. I was really never going to hear the end of this.
Before I thought better of it, I leaned over and kissed him softly. The angle was a little awkward, but hell, it's not like I go around kissing men in cars a lot.
Marcone solved the problem by tilting my head and pushing me back against the seat, one warm, callused hand holding my jaw while he deepened the kiss into something a lot more forceful with a lot more tongue.
"This is coercion," I informed him, when I got a chance to breathe.
"You kissed me first," he pointed out reasonably.
"Oh, right," I said, and our lips met again.
If someone had asked me before, I don't think would have pegged John Marcone as someone who played for the home team. He did, however, strike me as man who got what he wanted, no matter what, and apparently, he wanted me.
But this was Gentleman Johnny, after all, and he never used force when persuasion would work. Bad for business, and all that. Probably also bad when you're trying to trip a wizard into bed. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your perspective), he was very persuasive.
"You really ought to be more careful," he murmured critically, examining my scraped-up fingertips before pressing a kiss to the inside of my wrist.
Call me old-fashioned, but I didn't really think that it was the time to seriously discuss my inability to avoid trouble while we were both mostly naked and in his bed.
"Speak for yourself, Mr.-I-Was-Classically-Trained-In-Fencing," I muttered, trying to pull him closer.
It had been awhile since I'd done this -- truthfully, only once, and that was with an archivist and we may have been under some sort of influence. But that didn't seem to matter in the face of Marcone's predatory intent and persuasive attention to, ah, detail.
"I assure you, I endeavor to take all" -- he went back to my neck, licking and sucking at a very sensitive spot below my ear -- "necessary precautions."
"Part friggin' vampire," I said, gasping a little when he scraped his teeth over the same spot.
"Hardly," he murmured. "I don't need addictive saliva to keep you here, do I, Harry?"
I think we were both waiting for me to object to his use of my first name, but hell -- it seemed sort of ridiculous to deny him that intimacy when his hips were cradled between my thighs. When no protest was forthcoming, Marcone kissed me again, his lips curved slightly in a triumphant smile, and reached over to nightstand, fishing a few things out without breaking the kiss.
I admit I tensed up a little when I saw the condom and lube, because I had zero problem with Marcone wrapping his hand around both of our cocks and stroking them together, and okay, I really was fine with him doing his vampire impression and using my first name, but I was a little less sanguine about actually letting him do me.
He smoothed one warm hand down my hip. "Relax," he said. "You trusted me to save your life -- what's this, in comparison?"
Sometimes I really can't keep my mouth shut. It's a problem, I know. "Well, hopefully this will feel a lot better."
"That I will guarantee," Marcone said, and he was as good as his word and as efficient with the preparations at his reputation. I mean, sure, it was a little uncomfortable at first, but you don't get to be a wizard without having a little extra control over your body's reactions. And even if I hadn't been able to dissipate that tension on my own, Marcone kept a sharp eye on the rhythm of my breathing and the grip of my hands in the bedsheets, and adjusted his pace accordingly.
And when he wrapped my legs around his waist and slid in, and it was both strange and amazing, but what I really couldn't tear my eyes away from was the expression on his face -- it wasn't coolly calculating, nor was it a self-satisfied, victorious smirk, but something I don't think I've ever seen on him before.
If I'd known what a little bit of honest pleasure looked like on John Marcone's face, I would have thrown in the towel a long time ago.
It went from nice to great in about the time it took John to throw my legs over his shoulders, tilt my hips up, and dive right back in. I was really past caring about anything extraneous at that point -- everything was the shifting muscles of his back, his heavy breathing above me, and the slick slide of my fist against his hard stomach as I tried to get myself off.
But never let it be said that Gentleman Johnny didn't earn his name, because he tangled his fingers with mine around my cock, even as he slowed to sharp, hard thrusts. I think that surprised moan was mine when I came, because I swear I felt more than I heard his deep groan when his body stilled in my arms some time later.
We were both quiet, trying to catch our breath, when my stomach took that moment to reassert itself and gurgle loudly.
Marcone dropped his face down to my shoulder and I felt his body shake a little with laughter. "You're nothing but surprises, Harry," he said.
"Hey," I said, feeling drowsy despite my protesting stomach. "I had one course of beef carpaccio, John, before all this excitement. This is actually the least surprising part of the night."
"We never did get to the ossobuco alla milanese," Marcone said regretfully.
He may have learned a few new things tonight about me, but hell if I was ever going to tell him what the slight Italian purr under his Chicago accent did to me.
"Don't you have flunkies who can raid the kitchen for you?" I asked, stretching out a little.
"Conveniently, yes," he said, and reached across me for the phone, dropping a kiss on my mouth before pressing a button.
"Well, well, well. Look what the cat dragged in," Bob said. "Of course, when I say cat, I mean 'mafia lord.'"
I decided to go the bullshit route first. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Oh, sure, depend on me for all your research needs, but you think I'm going to look at that shirt you're wearing and believe it belongs to you?"
Well, crap. So much for that. The shirt I had been wearing when I left my apartment was a victim of Gumby, transmission fluid, and John Marcone. In other words, I'd been lent something that probably had three times the thread count of my bedsheets.
"I was saving some drug chemists from a pocket dimension, I'll have you know. Things got messy," I said.
"How amazing that you walked away from your heroic deed with at least one visible hickey," Bob said.
"All right," I said. "You win. Your intuition is top-notch. I present you with your spoils of victory." I handed him a book that I'd picked up on my way over.
"Harry, you really shouldn't have -- translated Japanese porn, just for me? Ooh, it has pictures."
"Enjoy, and please don't tell me about it," I said.
"Woah, wait, Harry, you're going to share details, right? You can't leave me hanging -- inquiring minds want to know!"
I let the door to the sub-basement slam shut over Bob's protests. It may be true what they say about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. That's short and simple -- I like that. But believe me, the minute someone figures out what to do when you frequently are your own worst enemy, your friends are incorporeal and annoying, and you're sleeping with your frenemy? Do me a favor and let me know.