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Blood Magic

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I stepped out of my bedroom and immediately knew it was going to be one of those days. The kind where I spend most of it barely keeping my head on straight through the lust and the guilt and the sheer annoyance that all instead of coming to a head somehow melts down into a hapless affection at the end of the day.

Thomas had come home sometime after I had gone to bed (he’s a big boy so I don’t wait up for him, though I never sleep easy when I don’t know where he’s at) and he’d brought with him another one of his ‘dates,’ if that word can be applied to a one-night-stand. The clothes this one had left on my floor looked too classy for her to be called anything less. She was a young woman with a heart-shaped face rendered angelic by the halo of tousled blonde hair spread out around her head, though the image was slightly tarnished by the line of hickies running down her neck. She was lying on my couch wrapped in a blanket and nothing more, and her head was resting on Thomas’s shoulder.

My brother was in a similar state, his black hair disheveled and lipstick smeared down the side of his neck and at the corner of his mouth. The arm his date was lying across had been thrown out straight rather than wrapped around her- even asleep, he wasn’t one for physical affection. But sleep had been able to smooth the pride and care from his features, gorgeous on the worst of days, and it had left behind a near-godlike perfection. He had apparently lost the struggle over the blankets, because miles of porcelain skin and sculpted muscle were on display for anyone who might happen to wander by, and the only corner of fabric covering him wasn’t doing much to preserve his modesty.

Yikes.

I ducked back into my bedroom and made for the adjoining bath, intent on claiming the only shower before either of them could wake and demand the privilege. I stepped in and turned the water on cold. There wasn’t any other temperature to be had, since I’d stopped trying to keep a working water heater in the apartment years ago, but after that kind of start to my day I wanted the extra guarantee of icy water.

It wasn’t about the girl. I wish I could say it was, but with due respect to her comeliness, she was no White Court vampire. And even your average White Court vamp couldn’t get the kind of reaction out of me that Thomas could.

I’d been attracted to Thomas from the moment I met him, though I had made an effort to keep it under wraps. You don’t go telling sex vampires that you’re into them; not if you want your mind to remain under your own control for very long. Thomas was a predator by nature, and a predator that had shown unusually high levels of interest in me. Between that and his family’s at least outwardly civil relations with the Red Court vampires I’d kicked off a war against, I’d been determined to keep him at arm’s length out of suspicion if nothing else.

In spite of all of that, he’d managed to endear himself to me as an ally and tentative friend. He’d saved my life several times- even when it couldn’t have gotten him anything except maybe dead. And as suspicious as I was about his motives, I’d found that it was spectacularly hard to mistrust someone after they’d had your back in the heat of battle. We had even shared a kiss, once, as part of a desperate bid to get out of a life-or-death situation when I couldn’t make use of my magic and Thomas needed to feed. The White Court’s method of feeding involves a mixing and mingling of power and can leave a psychic link if done enough times, so it wasn’t something I’d wanted to do with someone I wasn’t sure I could trust, but like I said, we were desperate. It had been hands down the most earth-shattering kiss of my entire life.

And have I mentioned he’s my brother?

Well, half-brother. Before my mother married Malcolm Dresden, professional stage magician, she had been married to Lord Raith, King of the White Court of Vampires. I’d learned that almost two years ago, after I’d made it a condition of doing him a favor that Thomas tell me why he’d been helping me. The same favor had ended with a change in power within the White Court and Thomas out on his ass, hence why he was sleeping on my couch.

I wish I could say it had changed the way I felt about him.

Of course, it had, in a lot of ways. I now felt totally confident trusting him with my all, and accordingly I had let him in on a dozen different secrets that would have meant my life if certain people found out. He’d returned my trust by dropping the multi-layered act he’d cultivated in order to keep himself safe within the White Court- including the part of the act that had been designed to win me over (because I didn’t doubt for a minute that the way he’d behaved toward me before then had been a seduction of one form or another). He was no longer a mysterious, brooding, and potentially hostile tentative ally; instead he was a likable if irritating roommate who could never manage to clean up after himself and admittedly did still tend to brood a bit.

As much as things had changed between us, a lot of things had also stayed the same. Like the ones that had drawn me to him in the first place. He was still good in a fight, still made me laugh, still loved to exchange good-natured barbs, still had a razor-sharp smirk that made me want to lick it off his mouth and-

Well.

That was the problem, really. Some things that should have changed hadn’t, namely my attraction to him. He was my brother, my only blood family since I’d been orphaned at seven years old. A family I’d been longing for ever since, with a child’s desperation that time had turned into a bone-deep ache. It should have been enough for me.

It wasn’t.

And that was where the lust, guilt, and annoyance came in. Maybe it would have been easier to push the indecent thoughts from my mind if Thomas wasn’t bringing home a different girl every night and giving me an eyeful every morning. I couldn’t actually begrudge him his different partners, though. He was White Court; he needed sex, literally needed it to stay alive. He’d explained it to me once, what living with the Hunger felt like. I didn’t think I could have coped with it half as well as he had. I knew that spreading his nibbling around and not feeding on the same person twice was for their safety rather than his convenience, so I held my tongue and suffered in silence.

And I do mean suffered. If you’ve never lived with a freaking sex god who walks around shirtless and screws literally everyone except for you, you can’t know how maddening it is. If you have, you’ve got my sympathies. We should compare notes some time.

I’d once tried to list out all the reasons I needed to get over him. I gotten up to two hundred and fifty-four, neatly sorted into sub-groups like “why it’s wrong,” “how other people would react,” “why he won’t feel the same,” and “why it won’t work out even if he did.” It hadn’t changed anything, though. My libido doesn’t respond well to logic.

Thomas was my brother. I didn’t know exactly what passed for familial relations within the White Court, but the little I’d heard from Thomas hadn’t been anything pleasant. The White King had killed all of his male children before Thomas, and fed upon his own daughters to gain control over them, until my mother put a stop to it with her death curse. Thomas’s upbringing had been twisted, to say the least, and I think he had longed for a normal, loving family. People who didn’t manipulate each other, keep secrets from each other. People who didn’t use sex appeal -or even actual sex- to influence everyone, including their own kin. And when he had found me, he’d hoped to have a chance at that.

Thomas was trying, really trying, in spite of his upbringing to have a normal, healthy fraternal relationship with me, as much as he could given that we hadn’t grown up together. I was the one creating a problem with my gruesome, unwanted desires.

Thomas had tried to get a job, for the first year he’d lived with me. He could never hold one down for more than a couple weeks without someone –his boss, a co-worker, a customer- literally throwing themselves at him. Granted, he did need sex to survive, so having no lack of willing partners was convenient in its way, but Thomas didn’t get a choice in how he affected people. It might be an ego boost to catch people’s eyes, but I’d imagine having every single person you come across look at you like a piece of meat gets old fast. Especially when they start to sexually assault you.

Mine was just one more unwanted sexual gaze, made all the worse by the fact that we were brothers. It was ironic, in a way. He was the incubus from a family without sexual boundaries, and I was the one whose depraved desire might as well have been mental rape.

Thomas deserved a better brother than me.

The worst part was that if he found out, instead of being disgusted with me I knew he would blame himself. He would blame what he was, something he couldn’t control, for corrupting me. He would think that it was because of that one kiss we’d shared, the one he hadn’t wanted to have but I had demanded; that it had given him some sort of power over me and that he was the one guilty of mental rape.

Thomas already carried a lot of guilt over being what he was. No way in hell was I going to give him a reason to hate himself more.

I turned off the water and rested my head against the wall of the shower. I had to fight down the urge to slam my forehead against it, like that might somehow fix my thoughts. Now that the water had stopped, I could hear movement outside. Cabinets banged shut and a frying pan clanged down on my wood-burning stove. Thomas and his date were up, which meant that any minute now I would be ousted from the bathroom. No time to waste wallowing in self-pity, or self-disgust. I stepped out of the shower and grabbed a towel.

Sure enough, a moment later there was a knock on the bathroom door. “Harry,” Thomas’s voice said.

“Out in a minute,” I replied.

“Someone’s on the phone for you. Should I have them call back?”

Well. That was unexpected.

My curiosity piqued, I opened the bathroom door, towel firmly wrapped around my waist. I had steeled myself mentally for the sight of Thomas in the nude, but he had thrown on the pair of pants I’d seen tossed over the back of my couch. I tried not to be disappointed. “Was it Murphy?” I asked, naming the police lieutenant whose consulting jobs kept my private investigator business above water.

 “It was a man,” Thomas said. “He’s on hold.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder towards the kitchen. My phone is an old rotary number with a wire connecting the handset to the base, so it can’t be carried around. Technology and wizards don’t get along so well, and the newer the tech the higher the chances it would break if it was around me for any length of time. I could short out a touch-screen cell at twenty paces, so I kept to old reliable, myself.

“Client?” I asked Thomas while I dug through my dresser for some clothes. Business had been going unusually well lately; I had even paid this month’s rent on time.

“He wouldn’t say,” Thomas replied. “He seemed surprised that someone else was answering your phone, though.”

“Tell him I’ll be there in a minute.” Thomas nodded and stepped out of the room to give me some privacy, closing the door behind him. I dropped my towel on the floor and started pulling on clothes.

When I came out of the room I found Thomas standing at my stovetop cooking bacon while my dog sat at his feet begging for scraps and his date leaned against the counter nearby and scratched the dog’s ears. She was still wrapped in the blanket, and she pulled it off really well. Mouse, the dog, looked over at me when I came in and then rose to his paws and came over, mouth open in a happy doggie grin. Thomas’s date followed him with her eyes and smiled when she saw me, then pushed herself away from the counter and went to lay a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “I’ll be in the shower.” She leaned in to whisper in his ear. “If you want to join me.”

I turned away and picked up the phone. Mouse shoved his head up under my other hand and I scratched his ears, even though it kind of ruined my sulking. The young woman strolled past me towards the bedroom, her blue eyes raking over me as she passed, the satisfied sway of her hips accentuated by the folds of my blanket. I judiciously ignored her. “This is Dresden; who’s calling?”

“Didn’t know you were into guys, Dresden,” a cheerful voice said. “Hope you didn’t get the wrong idea last Halloween; I know I’m terribly attractive, but I’m afraid I belong to the ladies.”

“Don’t kid yourself, Ramirez,” I answered. “He’s my roommate. But between the two of you, he wins in the looks department.” I glanced over at Thomas, who arched an eyebrow at me and smirked. I winked at him. It wasn’t the first time we’d been mistaken for a couple, and while I’d been rather horrified the last time Thomas had been highly amused. Since it didn’t seem to bother him I was trying to take it in better stride these days, but at the moment I was getting uncomfortably close to flirting. I turned away from Thomas, wrapping the telephone cord around my finger as I listened to Ramirez’ response.

“Lies,” he said, his tone no less cheerful than before. “Your vision must be going, Harry. Everyone knows I’m God’s gift to women.”

“And modest, too,” I said, glancing back at Thomas when I heard the rustle of kibble as he put out food for Mouse and Mister, my big gray tom. Kneeling down to fill the bowls did interesting things to the fit of his jeans on his hips, and I turned away again. Mouse left me to go get his breakfast. “What did you want, Carlos?”

The man on the other end of the line sobered immediately. “First I need your security code, Warden Dresden.” I gave it to him. Having Thomas listening in didn’t give me a moment’s pause. “We’ve been tracking a series of thefts,” Ramirez continued,” and it looks like the thief is headed to Chicago.”

“The wardens track thefts?” I asked, genuinely surprised. Hey, I was new to this whole warden business. Sue me.

The grey-cloaked wardens were like the police force of the White Council of Wizards, or its army. They enforced the Laws of Magic and fought against any creatures of the Nevernever that dared to prey on wizard-kind. They’d had it in for me since I was sixteen, and recently they’d been decimated in a war I had helped start. They had drafted me last fall to help fight a group of necromancers trying to turn themselves into gods, and since then I had been given a command post over the eastern US. Ramirez, who had fought with me against the necromancers, was in charge of the western US, which suited me just fine because he was one of the few wardens I could work with civilly.

“We do when they’re done with magic, or when they involve artifacts of significant power,” Ramirez told me. “This one’s both. The thief summons up some kind of monster from the Nevernever and uses it to pull a smash and grab, doesn’t worry too much about causing a scene. In spite of that, we’ve never actually managed to get a security picture of him, or even a reliable eye-witness statement. He stays in the shadows and lets his demon do the dirty work.”

“What kind of monster?” I asked, my private investigator instincts kicking in as I snatched up the notepad that lay by the phone and started jotting things down.

“We’ve only got the word of mortals, and you know how they can be, but it sounds like some kind of werewolf.”

I stopped writing mid-word. “Hexenwolf? Lycanthrope? Not a loup-garou,” I said, as much a horrified question as a statement. I’d faced one of those before, and it had nearly killed me. It had killed a lot of other people.

“No, por suerte,” Ramirez confirmed. “This thing is a lot smaller, almost man-shaped, furry, and it appears any time in the lunar cycle.” That didn’t sound like any werewolf I’d ever seen, but it did jog some kind of memory.

“I might know what you’re talking about,” I said, “but I don’t know its name.”

“If it ran into you and got away, it must be a bad-ass.”

“Hey, I dropped a building on it! This must be a different one.”

“That or you’re slipping.” I rolled my eyes while Ramirez chuckled.

“So what is it stealing that has the wardens’ panties in a knot?” I demanded.

“Careful; those are your panties too,” Ramirez pointed out, a smile evident in his voice. It disappeared in his next words. “Among other things, it’s been taking Mayan religious artifacts from museums. Once upon a time those artifacts were used in rituals of human sacrifice. We’re not quite sure what they add up to, but whatever it is, it’s big, and bad. They haven’t appeared on any black markets yet, so we have to assume our thief or whomever he’s working for plans to use them.”

“That is bad,” I muttered. Not that I’d been expecting something innocuous. The Wardens were charged with enforcing the seven Laws of Magic, which covered things like murder, mind control, and necromancy. They might take note of magical thefts, but they wouldn’t waste resources trying to stop them; especially not in the middle of a war. The only reason these thefts were getting attention now was because someone had put together enough puzzle pieces to realize that the big picture might be pretty bad.

“And you think he’s coming to Chicago next?”

“Right. That’s where the ‘among other things’ part comes in. In addition to the artifacts, the thief’s MO has been connected to a string of smaller robberies. Jewels, paintings, priceless family heirlooms, you know. Little things like that.”

“Things with no magical significance,” I supplied.

“Exactly. And some items that weren’t worth a lot but had a lot of emotional value to one party or another. So instead of a warlock doing his own supply shopping, we figure we’ve got the warlock and another rogue sorcerer working as a thief for hire.”

“The artifact thefts were all in big cities,” Ramirez continued. “New York, Dallas, San Diego, Orlando, Memphis- in that order. But over the past couple of days there have been several smaller thefts in cities along Interstate 57, headed up from Memphis to Chicago. We think the thief is headed there, and taking local jobs along the way. None of the other thefts have happened in the same area twice, so we think it means something.”

I pieced it together. “Something like that our thief has hooked up with our warlock and is traveling with him to Chicago for the big event.” Ramirez made a noise of agreement, and I sighed. “Of course it’s here. You know, with all the weird things that have been happening over the years, I’m starting to think Chicago was built on top of a Hellmouth.”

I heard Thomas snort as he slid some eggs onto a plate. Of course the vampire got the Buffy reference.

“If it’s vampires you want, we’ve got them worse in other places,” Ramirez said. Apparently he got it too. “But the trouble in your area is no joke, Dresden. There’s been a lot happening there, especially in the past few years. Some of the older wardens keep saying it’s only started since you’ve been there.”

“So some wardens think I’ve gone darkside,” I said bitterly. “Tell me something I don’t know. This is the thanks I get for trying to keep my city safe.”

“Hey, I’m just letting you know what’s up,” Ramirez said. I sighed. He was right. He was just trying to warn me; there was no reason to bite his head off for it.

“Yeah, I know. Thanks, ‘Los. Don’t worry about this one, okay? I’ll take care of Random Warlock #295.”

I heard a puff of static as he laughed. “Right. About that, we think he’s still got some more pieces to collect before it goes down. There’s not much distance between the last sighting and Chicago, so it’ll probably be in the city itself. I’m thinking private collection; nothing in the museums fits the same time period as the artifacts he’s taken so far.”

I groaned. Private collections often meant private homes, and private homes of the rich and locally-famous. Dealing with bystanders was bad enough; dealing with rich ones was just obnoxious. Besides that, there were dozens of people in Chicago wealthy enough to have unwittingly purchased a magic artifact. “Can you be more specific?”

“A Mr. Quintin Edwards recently acquired a piece from about the right time period,” Ramirez informed me, in a tone like he was reading from a report. “It’s a knife used in Mayan bloodletting ceremonies. Supposedly he’ll be donating it to the Field Museum at the next charity gala, but right now it’s in his private home.”

I scribbled down notes while Ramirez spoke. I’d heard the name before. Edwards was old money, from a family of steel magnates back during the industrial revolution. These days he mostly only made the news when he donated to some local charity. I’d seen him hobnobbing with John Marcone, the city’s biggest mob boss, a few years ago at an art auction put on by Marcone’s Chicago Historical and Art Society, which I was reasonably sure was a front for a smuggling operation. I’d had run-ins with Marcone before, and though I still regarded him as unmitigated scum, we had ended up on the same side of the chess board a few times. I wouldn’t invite him to Christmas dinner, but I might talk to him about his pal Edwards.

What was the world coming to, if a lowly private dick like me could call upon Chicago’s mob boss on a whim?

“Heard of him,” I told Ramirez. “I’ll watch the place. This thing likes to hit at night, right?”

“Early to mid-evening, never before six or after ten,” Ramirez confirmed. “Probably won’t be there until tomorrow night, either.”

“Got it.”

“And Harry,” he trailed off, hesitant. It wasn’t like him and I took notice, a nervous tension gathering in my shoulders. “There won’t be any help coming on this one,” Ramirez said at last. “None of the other wardens are taking this threat seriously; they can’t, won’t, spare anyone to help you if things go south.”

I frowned. “Even for something involving magic powered by human sacrifice?”

“They say there isn’t any proof that it would involve human sacrifice,” Ramirez muttered.

“A warlock’s stealing a Mayan bloodletting knife, and they don’t see human sacrifice? Bullshit.”

“Damn right,” he all but growled. “Dammit, man, everything I’ve been able to find about these artifacts says they’re some kind of massive power channel, and that they require blood sacrifice in order to work. But they were already taken by the time I started looking into them, so all I have to go on are pictures, documented histories, and folklore.”

“And the wardens don’t think it’s credible,” I supplied.

“I’ve tried to explain it to them,” Ramirez said, his tone bitter, “and I was told to focus on more urgent cases. We’ve got chatter on Red Court activity in Las Vegas, and there might be a warlock in Salt Lake City, and on top of that I’ve gotten reports of potentially gifted children going missing; it’s all a big mess.” He broke off with an explosive sigh.

“Harry,” Ramirez began again, hesitated for just for a moment, then confessed, “there is no ‘we’ on this. It’s just me. None of the other wardens have been watching this case; I pieced it together myself. My intel hasn’t been approved by the chain of command, so I’m not even supposed to be passing it on to you like this. But I know this is real. As real as last Halloween, and a lot of people might die if nobody stops it.”

I sighed. Frustrating as the situation was, it honestly tracked better than thinking that the wardens as a whole followed petty magical crimes and had pieced this plot together. Most of the wardens I’d encountered, members of the old guard, wouldn’t bother with anything less than a violation of one of the Seven Laws. But Ramirez was young, and even if he played the jaded veteran he still had some idealism left in him. He’d probably been tracking the thefts, the missing kids, and a dozen other cases like them.

If he was telling me off the record, he really couldn’t offer me any backup. It was even possible that he would get in trouble just for telling me, if it got back to the other wardens that he’d been keeping close tabs on our thief when he should have had all eyes on the vampire threat. He knew that, and he had come to me anyway, because the situation was desperate and there was no one else who would believe him and be willing and able to do something about it.

“Got it,” I said briskly. “I’m on my own, like always. Don’t sweat it, Carlos. I’ll handle it like I always do. Good work finding the pattern.”

“Yeah.” The word came out like a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Harry, I owe you one. Next time I’m in town, first round is on me.”

“I’ll hold you to it. See you, Ramirez.”

“Good luck, Dresden.” There was a click and a dial tone as he hung up the phone, and I put my handset back in the cradle and looked down at my notes.

“Trouble?” Thomas asked. He set a plate of eggs, bacon, and toast on the counter next to me and then leaned against the edge, watching me with concern in his grey eyes.

“When isn’t there?” I said, and snatched up a piece of bacon. I chewed it while I read over my notes and considered my conversation with Ramirez.

It was true enough that I’d had to deal with an unusually high number of warlocks (not really 295- that was just hyperbole), but that didn’t mean it had gotten any easier. The last time I thought a case had ended simply, my warlock had killed himself in prison and become a vengeful spirit that had threatened me and many of my allies- with disastrous consequences.

I shuddered at the memory of Mickie Malone, a good cop who had helped me take down the warlock, lying chained to his bed with his own cuffs, driven mad by a spell that had tortured his psyche with ice-cold barbed wire. I’d had to open my wizard’s Sight to see what was eating at him, and anything you see with the Sight remains fresh in your mind with perfect detail for years down the line.

Thomas bumped his shoulder against mine, and I looked over at him. He raised his eyebrows, asking without words if I was alright. I’d opened my mouth to answer when his date walked back in, wrapped in one of my towels which was really too small to be up to the job of covering her properly. I grabbed another piece of bacon and edged away, moving to the ice box to get myself a glass of orange juice.

“This was fun,” she told Thomas, her voice a little husky. “I’d say we should do it again, but-”

“But you’re not usually that type of girl, and you’re surprised it happened, really, but you don’t regret it and wish him all the best,” I suggested dryly, then bit my tongue before it could say anything else without checking in with my brain.

“Harry,” Thomas said, but his tone was more amused than admonishing.

“Well, no, that just about covers it,” his date admitted. She didn’t sound particularly put out by my comment. “I’ll just get dressed and see myself out, then.” She sauntered over to the living room, her movements unhurried, and dropped the towel on the couch.

Thomas turned back to me, his expression somewhat guarded, like he expected a lecture. I shrugged. I’d gotten used to the revolving door of women, and Thomas was a lot better about doing his share of the house work and making sure they didn’t mess the place up too badly than he had been in the past. It was just that sometimes I felt jealous, or possessive, or whatever word can be used to describe when you want your brother to sleep with you and no one else, and that manifested itself in cattiness towards his dates.

I was turning into a teenaged girl. A twisted, perverse teenaged girl.

Mouse finished licking his bowl and came over to lean against my side, tail thumping heavily against the cabinets. I scratched his ears. “Don’t worry about it,” I told Thomas without looking at him.

We stood silently in the kitchen while the young woman put on her clothes. I ate the food Thomas had prepared, since neither of them seemed to want it, and tossed bits of scrambled egg to Mouse until it was gone. Maybe it was crass of me to eat something that had probably been made for the girl, but she wasn’t sticking around for it and there was no reason to let it go to waste. I certainly wasn’t jealous that Thomas never cooked me anything unless I’d been too horribly injured to do it myself.

The young lady in question finished getting dressed and went to the door of my basement apartment to leave. Thomas gave me an almost apologetic look before going to help her with the door. It was of heavy steel construction, designed to keep out burglars and the occasional demon, but it hadn’t been able to stand against a hoard of zombies, and it was bent out of its frame. It took me a lot of heaving and grunting to make it open, and the girl didn’t look like she was up to the task. Thomas opened it with a single sharp tug, and motioned her through like a gentleman. She smiled and murmured something I couldn’t hear before stepping out, and he closed the door behind her with the same ease. Vampires.

“So,” Thomas said as he came back to the kitchen. “We’ve got trouble?”

I nodded. “You remember that time when ran into each other at Mac’s, and then the streetlights started going out?”

Thomas frowned. “I remember the thing responsible seemed to shake off all your spells,” he replied. “It’s back?”

“It will be tomorrow night.” I filled him in on what Ramirez had told me; from the little thefts to the blood magic someone would be working with the artifacts, to the wardens’ apparent lack of interest. Thomas listened without saying anything, his expression dark. “I’ll do some research tonight,” I concluded. “See if I can’t figure out what we’re dealing with and how to kill it. Then tomorrow night I’ll stake out Edwards’ place.”

“Do you think your warlock will be there too?” Thomas asked.

“I hope not,” I said. “It’ll be bad enough just dealing with this thing and the person controlling it.”

“You want me to come with?”

I hesitated. Thomas was right about the way this thing had shaken off my magic during our last encounter. Only dropping it five stories down and collapsing a building on top of it had stopped it, and that was magic aimed at the structural supports, not the creature itself. If there were people in the building with it, or if we were on open ground, that tactic wouldn’t work. Thomas had been with me when I ran into it, and he had dealt the beast more damage with his knife than I had with my fire and force spells. Still, the thing had been a good match for him, and it was all he could do just to hold it off. It had inflicted wounds that drained his reserves to heal, and he’d been running on empty by the end of it. I didn’t want to ask him along on a suicide run.

I didn’t really want to make one alone either.

“Let me see what I can find out first,” I told him. “We ran in blind last time; if I can figure out what it is and what it’s vulnerable to, I should be able to handle it myself.”

Thomas nodded slowly. I knew he was thinking something similar- he would wait and see what I found out before he decided whether or not to follow me all the same. He’d turned up at just the right moment enough times in the past year that I had gotten used to the fact that he kept tabs on me when he knew I was handling a risky case, whether I’d asked him onto it or not. I’d never confronted him, and given that I had needed his help on more than one occasion I probably never would, but I generally tried to let him in on my plays now, instead of letting pride or misguided concern persuade me to keep him in the dark. It was incredibly reassuring to know that Thomas was watching my back even when he wasn’t walking at my side.

“I’ll ask Bob about our mystery monster,” I told him. “After that, I’ll see if Marcone can give me anything on Edwards and his knife.”

“You think he’ll just give you that information?” Thomas asked, which was a good point.

“I think he’ll act in the way that most benefits him,” I replied. “And if I can convince him that helping me help Edwards will mean he doesn’t have to worry about a super-powered warlock tearing up his city, I think he’ll go for it.” Thomas gave me a skeptical look. I shrugged.

“What about Murphy?” he asked. I blinked.

“What about her?”

Thomas rolled his eyes. “Come on, Harry. Chicago PD probably has all of Marcone’s lines tapped. If you contact him, it’ll probably get back to her. She’ll be pissed that you didn’t run it by her before making your move. And if she knows there’s a warlock in her jurisdiction and you went to Marcone instead of her…” He let the sentence hang like that, which was somehow worse than whatever he might have said. I didn’t want to imagine Murphy’s wrath.

“That would be bad,” I said simply, and Thomas nodded.

“It’ll go better for you if you bring her in now,” he said. “She won’t let you keep her off this case once she finds out about it, and the longer you wait the angrier she’ll be. Just talk to her, Harry.”

I had the sneaking suspicion that the whole ‘just talk to her’ thing was part of another attempt to bring Murphy and me closer together. Thomas had gotten the idea into his head awhile back that Murphy and I could be the perfect love match if we just got over ourselves, in spite of all the things standing in our way. The obnoxious part was that he had the right sense of things- or at least, how things had been up until my tentative feelings for Murphy had been eclipsed by some very certain and very un-actionable feelings for him.

I grimaced. I didn’t want to have the conversation about me and Murphy again. But I had to admit, nothing Thomas had said just now had been wrong.

If there was a wizard or a being from the Nevernever stirring up trouble in Chicago, Lieutenant Karrin Murphy of Special Investigations wasn’t going to stand by and let other people take care of it. She had proven herself against werewolves, vampires, faerie creatures, and a dozen other things, and while I’m personally of the opinion that a tiny blonde woman with the face of a high school cheerleader doesn’t belong in front of raging monsters no matter how well she handles a gun, I respect Murphy enough to let her decide for herself whether she wants in on a case. To say nothing of the fact that I knew she’d be livid if she found out I tried to keep her clear of it.

She also wouldn’t be happy about bringing Marcone on, and that part was unavoidable.

“I’ll deal with that after I talk to Bob,” I said.

Thomas shook his head at me. “You can’t avoid her forever.”

“Not forever. Just until later today!”

Thomas laughed. “Look at you. The great wizard Harry Dresden, afraid to talk to a girl.” His lips curved into a smirk, and his grey eyes glittered with amusement. Mockery looked good on him. Really good. That didn’t mean I had to take it.

I rolled my eyes. “I’m going to go research this monster. You, I don’t know, walk the dog, or something.” Mouse, who had laid down on the rug on the kitchen floor, perked up his ears and wagged his tail. I retreated to my bedroom, the sound of Thomas’s laughter following me until I shut the door.