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I would like to thank a whole bunch of people for their continuing support, encouragement, and tolerance of me personally: June and Joy Williams at Buzzy Multimedia, Editor Jen, Agent Jen, Contracts Jen, and any other Jens out there whom I have missed, the members of the McAnally’s e-mail list, the residents of the Beta-Foo Asylum, the artists (of every stripe) who have shared their work and creative inspiration with me and lots of other folks, and finally all the critics who have reviewed my work—even the most hostile reviews have provided valuable PR, and I’m much obliged to y’all for taking the time to do it.
I need to mention my family and their continued support (or at least patience). Now that I’m settled back at Independence, I have a whole ton of family doing too many things to mention here—but I wanted to thank you all for your love and enthusiasm. I’m a lucky guy.
Shannon and JJ get special mention, as always. They live here. They deserve it. So does our bichon, Frost, who makes sure that my feet are never cold while I’m writing.
The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.
My boots slipped and slid on the tile floor as I sprinted around a corner and toward the exit doors to the abandoned school building on the southwest edge of Chicagoland. Distant streetlights provided the only light in the dusty hall, and left huge swaths of blackness crouching in the old classroom doors.
I carried an elaborately carved wooden box about the size of a laundry basket in my arms, and its weight made my shoulders burn with effort. I’d been shot in both of them at one time or another, and the muscle burn quickly started changing into deep, aching stabs. The damned box was heavy, not even considering its contents.
Inside the box, a bunch of flop-eared grey-and-black puppies whimpered and whined, jostled back and forth as I ran. One of the puppies, his ear already notched where some kind of doggie misadventure had marked him, was either braver or more stupid than his littermates. He scrambled around until he got his paws onto the lip of the box, and set up a painfully high-pitched barking full of squeaky snarls, big dark eyes focused behind me.
I ran faster, my knee-length black leather duster swishing against my legs. I heard a rustling, hissing sound and juked left as best I could. A ball of some kind of noxious-smelling substance that looked like tar went zipping past me, engulfed in yellow-white flame. It hit the floor several yards beyond me, and promptly exploded into a little puddle of hungry fire.
I tried to avoid it, but my boots had evidently been made for walking, not sprinting on dusty tile. They slid out from under me and I fell. I controlled it as much as I could, and wound up sliding on my rear, my back to the fire. It got hot for a second, but the wards I’d woven over my duster kept it from burning me.
Another flaming glob crackled toward me, and I barely turned in time. The substance, whatever the hell it was, clung like napalm to what it hit and burned with a supernatural ferocity that had already burned a dozen metal lockers to slag in the dim halls behind me.
The goop hit my left shoulder blade and slid off the protective spells on my mantled coat, spattering the wall beside me. I flinched nonetheless, lost my balance, and fumbled the box. Fat little puppies tumbled onto the floor with a chorus of whimpers and cries for help.
I checked behind me.
The guardian demons looked like demented purple chimpanzees, except for the raven-black wings sprouting from their shoulders. There were three of them that had escaped my carefully crafted paralysis spell, and they were hot on my tail, bounding down the halls in long leaps assisted by their black feathered wings.
As I watched, one of them reached down between its crooked legs and . . . Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but it gathered up the kind of ammunition primates in zoos traditionally rely upon. The monkey-demon hurled it with a chittering scream, and it combusted in midair. I had to duck before the noxious ball of incendiary goop smacked into my nose.
I grabbed puppies and scooped them into the box, then started running. The demon-monkeys burst into fresh howls.
Squeaky barks behind me made me look back. The little notch-eared puppy had planted his clumsy paws solidly on the floor, and was barking defiantly at the oncoming demon-chimps.
“Dammit,” I cursed, and reversed course. The lead monkey swooped down at the puppy. I made like a ballplayer, slid in feetfirst, and planted the heel of my boot squarely on the end of the demon’s nose. I’m not heavily built, but I’m most of a head taller than six feet, and no one ever thought I was a lightweight. I kicked the demon hard enough to make it screech and veer off. It slammed into a metal locker, and left an inches-deep dent.
“Stupid little fuzzbucket,” I muttered, and recovered the puppy. “This is why I have a cat.” The puppy kept up its tirade of ferocious, squeaking snarls. I pitched him into the box without ceremony, ducked two more flaming blobs, and started coughing on the smoke already filling the building as I resumed my retreat. Light was growing back where I’d come from, as the demons’ flaming missiles chewed into the old walls and floor, spreading with a malicious glee.
I ran for the front doors of the old building, slamming the opening bar with my hip and barely slowing down.
A sudden weight hit my back and something pulled viciously at my hair. The chimp-demon started biting at my neck and ear. It hurt. I tried to spin and throw it off me, but it had a good hold. The effort, though, showed me a second demon heading for my face, and I had to duck to avoid a collision.
I let go of the box and reached for the demon on my back. It howled and bit my hand. Snarling and angry, I turned around and threw my back at the nearest wall. The monkey-demon evidently knew that tactic. It flipped off of my shoulders at the last second, and I slammed the base of my skull hard against a row of metal lockers.
A burst of stars blinded me for a second, and by the time my vision cleared, I saw two of the demons diving toward the box of puppies. They both hurled searing blobs at the wooden box, splattering it with flame.
There was an old fire extinguisher on the wall, and I grabbed it. My monkey attacker came swooping back at me. I rammed the end of the extinguisher into its nose, knocking it down, then reversed my grip on the extinguisher and sprayed a cloud of dusty white chemical at the carved box. I got the fire put out, but for good measure I unloaded the thing into the other two demons’ faces, creating a thick cloud of dust.
I grabbed the box and hauled it out the door, and then slammed the school doors shut behind me.
There were a couple of thumps from the other side of the doors, and then silence.
Panting, I looked down at the box of whimpering puppies. A bunch of wet black noses and eyes looked back up at me from under a white dusting of extinguishing chemical.
“Hell’s bells,” I panted at them. “You guys are lucky Brother Wang wants you back so much. If he hadn’t paid half up front, I’d be the one in the box and you’d be carrying me.”
A bunch of little tails wagged hopefully.
“Stupid dogs,” I growled. I hauled the box into my arms again and started schlepping it toward the old school’s parking lot.
I was about halfway there when something ripped the steel doors of the school inward, against the swing of their hinges. A low, loud bellow erupted from inside the building, and then a Kong-size version of the chimp-demons came stomping out of the doorway.
It was purple. It had wings. And it looked really pissed off. At least eight feet tall, it had to weigh four or five times what I did. As I stared at it, two little monkey-demons flew directly at demon Kong—and were simply absorbed by the bigger demon’s bulk upon impact. Kong gained another eighty pounds or so and got a bit bulkier. Not so much monkey Kong, then, as Monkey Voltron. The original crowd of guardian demons must have escaped my spell with that combining maneuver, pooling all of their energy into a single vessel and using the greater strength provided by density to power through my binding.
Kongtron spread wings as wide as a small airplane’s and leapt at me with a completely unfair amount of grace. Being a professional investigator, as well as a professional wizard, I’d seen slobbering beasties before. Over the course of many encounters and many years, I have successfully developed a standard operating procedure for dealing with big, nasty monsters.
Run away. Me and Monty Python.
The parking lot and the Blue Beetle, my beat-up old Volkswagen, were only thirty or forty yards off, and I can really move when I’m feeling motivated.
Kong bellowed. It motivated me.
There was the sound of a small explosion, then a blaze of red light brighter than the nearby street lamps. Another fireball hit the ground a few feet wide of me and detonated like a Civil War cannonball, gouging out a coffin-sized crater in the pavement. The enormous demon roared and shot past me on black vulture wings, banking to come around for another pass.
“Thomas!” I screamed. “Start the car!”
The passenger door opened, and an unwholesomely good-looking young man with dark hair, tight jeans, and a leather jacket worn over a bare chest poked his head out and peered at me over the rims of round green-glassed spectacles. Then he looked up and behind me. His jaw dropped open.
“Start the freaking car!” I screamed.
Thomas nodded and dove back into the Beetle. It coughed and wheezed and shuddered to life. The surviving headlight flicked on, and Thomas gunned the engine and headed for the street.
For a second I thought he was going to leave me, but he slowed down enough that I caught up with him. Thomas leaned across the car and pushed the passenger door open. I grunted with effort and threw myself into the car. I almost lost the box, but managed to get it just before the notch-eared puppy pulled himself up to the rim, evidently determined to go back and do battle.
“What the hell is that?” Thomas screamed. His black hair, shoulder length, curling and glossy, whipped around his face as the car gathered speed and drew the cool autumn wind through the open windows. His grey eyes were wide with apprehension. “What is that, Harry?”
“Just drive!” I shouted. I stuffed the box of whimpering puppies into the backseat, grabbed my blasting rod, and climbed out the open window so that I was sitting on the door, chest to the car’s roof. I twisted to bring the blasting rod in my right hand to bear on the demon. I drew in my will, my magic, and the end of the blasting rod began to glow with a cherry-red light.
I was about to loose a strike against the demon when it swooped down with another fireball in its hand and flung it at the car.
“Look out!” I screamed.
Thomas must have seen it coming in the mirror. The Beetle swerved wildly, and the fireball hit the asphalt, bursting into a roar of flame and concussion that broke windows on both sides of the street. Thomas dodged a car parked on the curb by roaring up onto the sidewalk, bounced gracelessly, and nearly went out of control. The bounce threw me from my perch on the closed door. I was wondering what the odds were against finding a soft place to land when I felt Thomas grab my ankle. He held on to me and drew me back into the car with a strength that would have been shocking to anyone who didn’t know that he wasn’t human.
He braced me with his hold on my leg, and as the huge demon dove down again, I pointed my blasting rod at it and snarled, “Fuego!”
A lance of white-hot fire streaked from the tip of my blasting rod into the late-night air, illuminating the street like a flash of lightning. Bouncing along on the car like that, I expected to miss. But I beat the odds and the burst of flame took Kongtron right in the belly. It screamed and faltered, plummeting to earth. Thomas swerved back out onto the street.
The demon started to get up. “Stop the car!” I screamed.
Thomas mashed down the brakes and I nearly got reduced to sidewalk pizza again. I hung on as hard as I could, but by the time I had my balance, the demon had hauled itself to its feet.
I growled in frustration, readied another blast, and aimed carefully.
“What are you doing?” Thomas shouted. “You lamed him; let’s run!”
“No,” I snapped back. “If we leave it here, it’s going to take things out on whoever it can find.”
“But it won’t be us!”
I tuned Thomas out and readied another strike, pouring my will into the blasting rod until wisps of smoke began emerging from the length of its surface.
Then I let Kong have it right between its black beady eyes.
The fire hit it like a wrecking ball, right on the chin. The demon’s head exploded into a cloud of luminous purple vapor and sparkles of scarlet light, which I have to admit looked really neat.
Demons who come into the mortal world don’t have bodies as such. They create them, like a suit of clothes, and as long as the demon’s awareness inhabits the construct-body, it’s as good as real. Having its head blown up was too much damage for even the demon’s life energy to support. The body flopped around on the ground for a few seconds, and then the Kong-demon’s earthly form stopped moving and dissolved into a lumpy looking mass of translucent gelatin—ectoplasm, matter from the Nevernever.
A surge of relief made me feel a little dizzy, and I slid bonelessly back into the Beetle.
“Allow me to reiterate,” Thomas panted a minute later. “What. The hell. Was that.”
I settled down onto the seat, breathing hard. I buckled up, and checked that the puppies and their box were both intact. They were, and I closed my eyes with a sigh. “Shen,” I said. “Chinese spirit creatures. Demons. Shapeshifters.”
“Christ, Dresden! You almost got me killed!”
“Don’t be a baby. You’re fine.”
Thomas frowned at me. “You at least could have told me!”
“I did tell you,” I said. “I told you at Mac’s that I’d give you a ride home, but that I had to run an errand first.”
Thomas scowled. “An errand is getting a tank of gas or picking up a carton of milk or something. It is not getting chased by flying purple pyromaniac gorillas hurling incendiary poo.”
“Next time take the El.”
He glared at me. “Where are we going?”
I waved vaguely at the backseat. “Returning stolen property to my client. He wants to get it back to Tibet, pronto.”
“Anything else you’re neglecting to tell me? Ninja wombats or something?”
“I wanted you to see how it feels,” I said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Come on, Thomas. You never go to Mac’s place to hang out and chum around. You’re wealthy, you’ve got connections, and you’re a freaking vampire. You didn’t need me to give you a ride home. You could have taken a cab, called for a limo, or talked some woman into taking you.”
Thomas’s scowl faded away, replaced by a careful, expressionless mask. “Oh? Then why am I here?”
I shrugged. “Doesn’t look like you showed up to bushwhack me. I guess you’re here to talk.”
“Razor intellect. You should be a private investigator or something.”
“You going to sit there insulting me, or are you going to talk?”
“Yeah,” Thomas said. “I need a favor.”
I snorted. “What favor? You do remember that technically we’re at war, right? Wizards versus vampires? Ring any bells?”
“If you like, you can pretend that I’m employing subversive tactics as part of a fiendishly elaborate ruse meant to manipulate you,” Thomas said.
“Good,” I said. “ ’Cause if I went to all the trouble of starting a war and you didn’t want to participate it would hurt my feelings.”
He grinned. “I bet you’re wondering whose side I’m on.”
“No.” I snorted. “You’re on Thomas’s side.”
The grin widened. Thomas has the kind of whiter-than-white boyish grin that makes women’s panties spontaneously evaporate. “Granted. But I’ve done you some favors over the past couple of years.”
I frowned. He had, though I didn’t know why. “Yeah. So?”
“So now it’s my turn,” he said. “I’ve helped you. Now I need payback.”
“Ah. What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to take a case for an acquaintance of mine. He needs your help.”
“I don’t really have time,” I said. “I have to make a living.”
Thomas flicked a piece of monkey flambé off the back of his hand and out the window. “You call this living?”
“Jobs are a part of life. Maybe you’ve heard of the concept. It’s called work? See, what happens is that you suffer through doing annoying and humiliating things until you get paid not enough money. Like those Japanese game shows, only without all the glory.”
“Plebe. I’m not asking you to go pro bono. He’ll pay your fee.”
“Bah,” I muttered. “What’s he need help with?”
Thomas frowned. “He thinks someone is trying to kill him. I think he’s right.”
“There have been a couple of suspicious deaths around him.”
“Two days ago he sent his driver, girl named Stacy Willis, out to the car with his golf clubs so he could get in a few holes before lunch. Willis opened the trunk and got stung to death by about twenty thousand bees who had somehow swarmed into the limo in the time it took her to walk up to the door and back.”
I nodded. “Ugh. Can’t argue there. Gruesomely suspicious.”
“The next morning his personal assistant, a young woman named Sheila Barks, was hit by a runaway car. Killed instantly.”
I pursed my lips. “That doesn’t sound so odd.”
“She was waterskiing at the time.”
I blinked. “How the hell did that happen?”
“Bridge over the reservoir was the way I heard it. Car jumped the rail, landed right on her.”
“Ugh,” I said. “Any idea who is behind it?”
“None. Think it’s an entropy curse?” Thomas asked.
“If so, it’s a sloppy one. But strong as hell. Those are some pretty melodramatic deaths.” I checked on the puppies. They had fallen together into one dusty lump and were sleeping. The notch-eared pup lay on top of the pile. He opened his eyes and gave me a sleepy little growl of warning. Then he went back to sleep.
Thomas glanced back at the box. “Cute little furballs. What’s their story?”
“Guardian dogs for some monastery in the Himalayas. Someone snatched them and came here. A couple of monks hired me to get them back.”
“What, they don’t have dog pounds in Tibet?”
I shrugged. “They believe these dogs have a foo heritage.”
“Is that like epilepsy or something?”
I snorted and put my hand palm-down out the window, waggling it back and forth to make an airfoil in the wind of the Beetle’s passage. “The monks think their great-grandcestor was a divine spirit-animal. Celestial guardian spirit. Foo dog. They believe it makes the bloodline special.”
“How the hell should I know, man? I’m just the repo guy.”
“Some wizard you are.”
“It’s a big universe,” I said. “No one can know it all.”
Thomas fell quiet for a while, and the road whispered by. “Uh, do you mind if I ask what happened to your car?”
I looked around at the Beetle’s interior. It wasn’t Volkswagen-standard anymore. The seat covers were gone. So was the padding underneath. So was the interior carpet, and big chunks of the dashboard that had been made out of wood. There was a little vinyl left, and some of the plastic, and anything made out of metal, but everything else had been stripped completely away.
I’d done some makeshift repairs with several one-by-sixes, some hanger wire, some cheap padding from the camping section at Wal-Mart, and a lot of duct tape. It gave the car a real postmodern look: By which I meant that it looked like something fashioned from the wreckage after a major nuclear exchange.
On the other hand, the Beetle’s interior was very, very clean. My glasses are half-full, dammit.
“Mold demons,” I said.
“Mold demons ate your car?”
“Sort of. They were called out of the decay in the car’s interior, and used anything organic they could find to make bodies for themselves.”
“You called them?”
“Oh, hell, no. They were a present from the guest villain a few months ago.”
“I hadn’t heard there was any action this summer.”
“I have a life, man. And my life isn’t all about feuding demigods and nations at war and solving a mystery before it kills me.”
Thomas lifted an eyebrow. “It’s also about mold demons and flaming monkey poo?”
“What can I say? I put the ‘ick’ in ‘magic.” ’
“I see. Hey, Harry, can I ask you something?”
“Did you really save the world? I mean, like the last two years in a row?”
I shrugged. “Sort of.”
“Word is you capped a faerie princess and headed off a war between Winter and Summer,” Thomas said.
“Mostly I was saving my own ass. Just happened that the world was in the same spot.”
“There’s an image that will give me nightmares,” Thomas said. “What about those demon Hell guys last year?”
I shook my head. “They’d have let loose a nasty plague, but it wouldn’t have lasted very long. They were hoping it would escalate into a nice apocalypse. They knew there wasn’t much chance of it, but they were doing it anyway.”
“Like the Lotto,” Thomas said.
“Yeah, I guess. The genocide Lotto.”
“And you stopped them.”
“I helped do it and lived to walk away. But there was an unhappy ending.”
“I didn’t get paid. For either case. I make more money from flaming demon monkey crap. That’s just wrong.”
Thomas laughed a little and shook his head. “I don’t get it.”
“Don’t get what?”
“Why you do it.”
He slouched down in the driver’s seat. “The Lone Ranger impersonation. You get pounded to scrap every time you turn around and you barely get by on the gumshoe work. You live in that dank little cave of an apartment. Alone. You’ve got no woman, no friends, and you drive this piece of crap. Your life is kind of pathetic.”
“Is that what you think?” I asked.
“Call them like I see them.”
I laughed. “Why do you think I do it?”
He shrugged. “All I can figure is that either you’re nursing a deep and sadistic self-hatred or else you’re insane. I gave you the benefit of the doubt and left monumental stupidity off the list.”
I kept on smiling. “Thomas, you don’t really know me. Not at all.”
“I think I do. I’ve seen you under pressure.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, but you see me, what? Maybe a day or two each year? Usually when something’s been warming up to kill me by beating the tar out of me.”
“So that doesn’t cover what my life is like the other three hundred and sixty-three days,” I said. “You don’t know everything about me. My life isn’t completely about magical mayhem and creative pyromania in Chicago.”
“Oh, that’s right. I heard you went to exotic Oklahoma a few months back. Something about a tornado and the National Severe Storms Lab.”
“I was doing the new Summer Lady a favor, running down a rogue storm sylph. Got to go all over the place in those tornado-chaser geekmobiles. You should have seen the look on the driver’s face when he realized that the tornado was chasing us.”
“It’s a nice story, Harry, but what’s the point?” Thomas asked.
“My point is that there’s a lot of my life you haven’t seen. I have friends.”
“Monster hunters, werewolves, and a talking skull.”
I shook my head. “More than that. I like my apartment. Hell, for that matter I like my car.”
“You like this piece of . . . junk?”
“She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”
Thomas slouched down in his seat, his expression skeptical. “Now you’ve forced me to reconsider the monumentally stupid explanation.”
I shrugged. “Me and the Blue Beetle kick ass. In a four-cylinder kind of way, but it still gets kicked.”
Thomas’s face lost all expression. “What about Susan?”
When I get angry, I’d like to be able to pull off a great stone face like that, but I don’t do it so well. “What about her?”
“You cared about her. You got her involved in your life. She got torn up because of you. She got attention from all kinds of nasties and she nearly died.” He kept staring ahead. “How do you live with that?”
I started to get angry, but I had a rare flash of insight and my ire evaporated before it could fully condense. I studied Thomas’s profile at a stoplight and saw him working hard to look distant, like nothing was touching him. Which would mean that something was touching him. He was thinking of someone important to him. I had a pretty good idea who it was.
“How’s Justine?” I asked.
His features grew colder. “It isn’t important.”
“Okay. But how is Justine?”
“I’m a vampire, Harry.” The words were cold and distant, but not steady. “She’s my girlfri—” His voice stumbled on the word, and he tried to cover it with a low cough. “She’s my lover. She’s food. That’s how she is.”
“Ah,” I said. “I like her, you know. Ever since she blackmailed me into helping you at Bianca’s masquerade. That took guts.”
“Yeah,” he said. “She’s got that.”
“How long have you been seeing her now?”
“Four years,” Thomas said. “Almost five.”
“Burger King,” I said.
Thomas blinked at me. “What?”
“Burger King,” I said. “I like to eat at Burger King. But even if I could afford to do it, I wouldn’t eat my meals there every day for almost five years.”
“What’s your point?” Thomas asked.
“My point is that it’s pretty clear that Justine isn’t just food to you, Thomas.”
He turned his head and stared at me for a moment, his expression empty and his eyes inhumanly blank. “She is. She has to be.”
“Why don’t I believe you?” I said.
Thomas stared at me, his eyes growing even colder. “Drop the subject. Right now.”
I decided not to push. He was working hard not to give anything away, so I knew he was full of crap. But if he didn’t want to discuss it, I couldn’t force him.
Hell, for that matter, I didn’t want to. Thomas was an annoying wiseass who tended to make everyone he met want to kill him, and when I have that much in common with someone, I can’t help but like him a little. It wouldn’t hurt to give him some space.
On the other hand, it was easy for me to forget what he was, and I couldn’t afford that. Thomas was a vampire of the White Court. They didn’t drink blood. They fed on emotions, on feelings, drawing the life energy from their prey through them. The way I understood it, it was usually during sex, and rumor had it that their kind could seduce a saint. I’d seen Thomas start to feed once, and whatever it was that made him not quite human had completely taken control of him. It left him a cold, beautiful, marble-white being of naked hunger. It was an acutely uncomfortable memory.
The Whites weren’t as physically formidable or aggressively organized as the Red Court, and they didn’t have the raw, terrifying power of the Black Court, but they didn’t have all the usual vampire weaknesses, either. Sunlight wasn’t a problem for Thomas, and from what I’d seen, crosses and other holy articles didn’t bother him either. But just because they weren’t as inhuman as the other Courts didn’t make the Whites less dangerous. In fact, the way I saw it, it made them more of a threat in some ways. I know how to handle it when some slime-covered horror from the pits of Hell jumps up in my face. But it would be easy to let down my guard for someone nearly human.
Speaking of which, I told myself, I was agreeing to help him and taking a job, just as though Thomas were any other client. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’d ever done. It had the potential to lead to lethally unhealthy decisions.
He fell silent again. Now that I wasn’t running and screaming and such, the car started to get uncomfortably cold. I rolled up the window, shutting out the early-autumn air.
“So,” he said. “Will you help me out?”
I sighed. “I shouldn’t even be in the same car with you. I’ve got enough problems with the White Council.”
“Gee, your own people don’t like you. Cry me a river.”
“Bite me,” I said. “What’s his name?”
“Arturo Genosa. He’s a motion-picture producer, starting up his own company.”
“Is he at all clued in?”
“Sort of. He’s a normal, but he’s real superstitious.”
“Why did you want him to come to me?”
“He needs your help, Harry. If he doesn’t get it, I don’t think he’s going to live through the week.”
I frowned at Thomas. “Entropy curses are a nasty business even when they’re precise, much less when they’re that sloppy. I’d be risking my ass trying to deflect them.”
“I’ve done as much for you.”
I thought about it for a moment. Then I said, “Yeah. You have.”
“And I didn’t ask for any money for it, either.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll talk to him. No guarantees. But if I do take the case, you’re going to pay me to do it, on top of what this Arturo guy shells out.”
“This is how you return favors, is it.”
I shrugged. “So get out of the car.”
He shook his head. “Fine. You’ll get double.”
“No,” I said. “Not money.”
He arched an eyebrow and glanced at me over the rims of his green fashion spectacles.
“I want to know why,” I said. “I want to know why you’ve been helping me. If I take the case, you come clean with me.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I did.”
“That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”
Thomas frowned, and we drove for several minutes in silence. “Okay,” he said then. “Deal.”
“Done,” I responded. “Shake on it.”
We did. His fingers felt very cold.
We went to O’Hare. I met Brother Wang in the chapel at the international concourse. He was a short, wiry Asian man in sweeping robes the color of sunset. His bald head gleamed, making his age tough to guess, though his features were wrinkled with the marks of someone who smiles often.
“Miss sir Dresden,” he said, breaking into a wide smile as I came in with the box of sleeping puppies. “Our little one dogs you have given to us!”
Brother Wang’s English was worse than my Latin, and that’s saying something, but his body language was unmistakable. I returned his smile, and offered him the box with a bow of my head. “It was my pleasure.”
Wang took the box and set it down carefully, then started gently sorting through its contents. I waited, looking around the little chapel, a plain room built to be a quiet space for meditation, so that those who believed in something would have a place to pay honor to their faith. The airport had redecorated the room with a blue carpet instead of a beige one. They’d repainted the walls. There was a new podium at the front of the room, and half a dozen replacement padded pews.
I guess that much blood leaves a permanent stain, no matter how much cleaner you dump on it.
I put my foot on the spot where a gentle old man had given up his life to save mine. It made me feel sad, but not bitter. If we had it to do again, he and I would make the same choices. I just wished I’d been able to know him longer than I had. It’s not everyone who can teach you something about faith without saying a word to do it.
Brother Wang frowned at the white powder all over the puppies, and held up one dust-coated hand with an inquisitive expression.
“Oops,” I said.
“Ah,” Wang said, nodding. “Oops. Okay, oops.” He frowned at the box.
“Is it that all the little one dogs are boxed in?”
I shrugged. “I got all of them that were in the building. I don’t know if anyone moved some of them before I did.”
“Okay,” Brother Wang said. “Less is more better than nothing.” He straightened and offered me his hand. “Much thanks from my brothers.”
I shook it. “Welcome.”
“Plane leaving now for home.” Wang reached into his robe and pulled out an envelope. He passed it to me, bowed once more, then took the box of puppies and swept out of the room.
I counted the priest’s money, which probably says something about my level of cynicism. I’d racked up a fairly hefty fee on this one, first picking up the trail of the sorcerer who had stolen the pups, then tracking him down and snooping around long enough to know when he went out to get some dinner. It had taken me nearly a week of sixteen-hour days to find the concealed location of the room where the pups were held. They asked me to go get them, too, so I had to identify the demons guarding them, and work out a spell that would neutralize them without, for example, burning down the building. Oops.
All in all, my pay amounted to a couple of nice, solid stacks of Ben Franklins. I’d logged a ton of hours in tracking them down, and then added on a surcharge for playing repo. Of course, if I’d known about the flaming poo, I’d have added more. Some things demand overtime.
I went back to the car. Thomas was sitting on the hood of the Beetle. He hadn’t bothered moving it to the actual parking lot, instead taking up a section of curb at the loading zone outside the concourse. A patrol cop had evidently come over to tell him to move it, but she was a fairly attractive woman, and Thomas was Thomas. He had taken off her hat and had it perched on his head at a rakish angle, and the cop looked relaxed and was laughing as I came walking up.
“Hey,” I said. “Let’s get moving. Things to do.”
“Alas,” he said, taking off the hat and offering it back to the officer with a little bow. “Unless you’re about to arrest me, Elizabeth?”
“Not this time, I suppose,” the cop said.
“Damn the luck,” Thomas said.
She smiled at him, then frowned at me. “Aren’t you Harry Dresden?”
The cop nodded, putting on her hat. “Thought I recognized you. Lieutenant Murphy says you’re good people.”
“It wasn’t a compliment. A lot of people don’t like Murphy.”
“Aw, shucks,” I said. “I blush when I feel all flattered like that.”
The cop wrinkled her nose. “What’s that smell?”
I kept a straight face. “Burned monkey poo.”
She eyed me warily for a second to see if I was teasing her, then rolled her eyes. The cop stepped up onto the sidewalk and began moving on down it. Thomas swung his legs off the car and pitched my keys at me. I caught them and got in on the driver’s side.
“Okay,” I said when Thomas got in. “Where do I meet this guy?”
“He’s holding a little soiree for his filming crew tonight in a condo on the Gold Coast. Drinks, deejay, snacks, that kind of thing.”
“Snacks,” I said. “I’m in.”
“Just promise me you won’t fill up your pockets with peanuts and cookies.” Thomas gave me directions to a posh apartment building a few miles north of the Loop, and I got moving. Thomas was silent during the drive.
“Up here on the right,” he said finally, then handed me a white envelope. “Give this to the security guys.”
I pulled in where Thomas told me to and leaned out of my car to offer the envelope to the guard in the little kiosk at the entrance of the parking lot.
A squeaky, bubbling growl erupted from directly below my seat. I flinched.
“What the hell is that?” Thomas said.
I pulled up to the guard kiosk and stopped. I reached for my magical senses and extended them toward the source of the continuing growl. “Crap. I think it’s one of the—”
A sort of greasy, nauseating cold flooded over my perceptions, stealing my breath. A ghostly charnel-house scent came with it, the smell of old blood and rotting meat. I froze, looking up at the source of the sensation.
The person I’d taken to be a security guard was a vampire of the Black Court.
It had been a young man. Its features looked familiar, but dessication had left its face too gaunt for me to be sure. The vampire wasn’t tall. Death had withered it into an emaciated caricature of a human being. Its eyes were covered with a white, rheumy film, and flakes of dead flesh fell from its decay-drawn lips and clung to its yellowed teeth. Hair like brittle, dead grass stood out from its head, and there was some kind of moss or mold growing in it.
It snatched at me with inhuman speed, but my wizard’s senses had given me enough warning to keep its skeletal fingers from closing on my wrist—just barely. The vampire caught a bit of my duster’s leather sleeve with the tips of its fingers. I jerked my arm back, but the vampire had as much strength in its fingertips as I did in my whole upper body. I had to pull hard, twisting with my shoulders to break free. I choked out a shout, and the sudden rush of fear made it high and thready.
The vampire rushed me, slithering out through the guardhouse window like a freeze-dried snake. I had a panicked instant to realize that if the vampire closed to wrestling range with me inside the car, they’d be harvesting my organs out of a mound of scrap metal and spare parts.
And I wasn’t strong enough to stop it from happening.
Thomas’s senses evidently didn’t compete with mine, because the Black Court vampire was up to its shoulders in the Beetle before he choked out a startled, “Holy crap!”
I threw my left elbow at the vampire’s face. I couldn’t hurt the creature, but it might buy me a second to act. I connected, snapping its head to one side, and with my other hand I reached into a box on the floor between the seats, right by the stick, and withdrew the weapon that might keep me from getting torn to shreds. The vampire tore at me with its near-skeletal hands, its nails digging like claws. If I hadn’t laid those spells on my duster, it would have shoved its hand into my chest and torn out my heart, but the heavy, spell-reinforced leather held out for a second or two, buying me enough time to counterattack.
The vampires of the Black Court had been around since the dawn of human memory. They had acres of funky vampire powers, right out of Stoker’s book. They had the weaknesses too—garlic, tokens of faith, sunlight, running water, fire, decapitation. Bram Stoker’s book told everyone how to kill them, and the Blacks had been all but exterminated in the early twentieth century. The vampires who survived were the most intelligent, the swiftest, the most ruthless of their kind, with centuries of experience in matters of life and death. Mostly death.
But even with centuries of experience, I doubted any of them had ever been hit with a water balloon.
Or with a holy-water balloon, either.
I kept three of them in the box in my car, in easy reach. I snatched one up, palmed it, and slammed it hard against the vampire’s face. The balloon broke, and the blessed water splattered over its head. Wherever it struck the vampire, there was a flash of silver light and the dead flesh burst into white, heatless flame as bright as a magnesium flare.
The vampire let out a dusty, rasping scream and convulsed in instant agony. It began thrashing around like a half-squashed bug. It slammed a flailing arm into my steering wheel and the metal bent with a groan.
“Thomas!” I snarled. “Help me!”
He was already moving. He tore his seat belt off, drew up his knees, and spun to his left. Thomas let out a shout and drove both feet hard into the vampire’s face. Thomas couldn’t have matched the Black Court vampire’s physical power, but he was still damned strong. The double kick threw the vampire out of the car and through the flimsy wooden wall of the guard kiosk outside.
The squeaky growling turned into ferocious little barks while the vampire struggled weakly. It tried to rise, its white-filmed eyes wide. I could see the damage the holy water had inflicted. Maybe a quarter of its head was simply gone, starting above its left ear and running down to the corner of its mouth. The edges of the holy-water burns glowed with faint golden fire. Viscous globs of gelatinous black fluid oozed forth from the wounds.
I picked up another water balloon and lifted my arm to throw it.
The vampire let out a hissing shriek of rage and terror. Then it turned and darted away, smashing through the back wall of the kiosk without slowing down. It fled down the street.
“He’s getting away,” Thomas said, and started getting out of the car.
“Don’t,” I snapped over all the barking. “It’s a setup.”
Thomas hesitated. “How do you know?”
“I recognize that guy,” I said. “He was at Bianca’s masquerade. Only he was alive back then.”
Thomas somehow grew even paler. “One of the people that creepy Black Court bitch turned? The one dressed like Hamlet’s shrink?”
“Her name is Mavra. And yeah.”
“Crap,” he muttered. “You’re right. It’s a lure. She’s probably hiding out there watching us right now, waiting for us to go running down a dark alley.”
I tried the steering wheel. It felt a little stiff, but it still functioned. Hail the mighty Blue Beetle. I found a parking space and pulled into it. The puppy’s barks became ferocious growls again. “Mavra wouldn’t need a dark alley. She’s got some serious talent for veils. She could be sitting on the hood and we might not see her.”
Thomas licked his lips, keeping his eyes on the parking lot. “You think she’s come to town for you?”
“Sure, why not. I cheated her out of destroying the sword Amoracchius, and she was an ally of Bianca’s up until I killed her. Plus we’re at war. I’m surprised she hasn’t shown up before now.”
“Christ on a crutch. She spooks the hell out of me.”
“Me too.” I bent over and reached beneath the driver’s seat. I felt a fuzzy tail, grabbed it, and drew the puppy out as gently as I could. It was the insane little notched-eared pup. He ignored me, still growling, and started shaking his head back and forth violently. “Good thing we had a stowaway. Vamp might have gotten us both.”
“What’s that he’s got in his mouth?” Thomas asked.
The puppy lost hold of whatever he was savaging, and it landed on the floor of the Beetle.
“Ugh,” I said. “It’s that vamp’s ear. Holy water must have burned it right off.”
Thomas glanced down at the ear and turned a bit green. “It’s moving.”
The puppy snarled and batted at the wriggling bit of rotted ear. I picked it up as lightly as I could and tossed it out. The grey-and-black puppy was evidently satisfied with that course of action. He sat down and opened his mouth in a doggie grin.
“Nice reflexes, Harry,” Thomas said. “When that vamp came at you. Real nice. Faster than mine. How the hell did you manage that?”
“I didn’t. I was trying to feel out this little nuisance after he started growling. I felt the vamp coming a couple seconds before it jumped me.”
“Wow,” Thomas said. “Talk about strokes of luck.”
“Yeah. It’s sort of a first for me.”
The pup abruptly spun, facing the direction the vampire had fled. He growled again.
Thomas went rigid. “Hey, Harry, you know what?”
“I’m thinking we should get indoors.”
I picked up the puppy and scanned the darkness, but saw nothing. “Discretion is the better part of not getting exsanguinated,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Thomas and I went into the apartment building, and found the guard who should have been in the booth outside drinking a cup of coffee with a second man behind a desk. We took the elevator to the top floor. There were only two doors in the hall, and Thomas knocked on the nearest. Music rolled and thumped inside while we waited, and the spotless carpet had been cleaned with something that smelled like snapdragons. Thomas had to knock twice more before the door finally opened.
A pretty woman somewhere around her mid-forties answered Thomas’s knock, and a tide of loud music came with her. She was maybe five-foot-six and had her dark brown hair held up with a couple of chopsticks. She held a pile of discarded paper plates in one hand and a couple of empty plastic cups in the other and wore an emerald knee-length knit dress that showed off the curves of a WWII pinup girl.
Her face lit with an immediate smile. “Thomas, how wonderful to see you. Justine said you’d be coming by.”
Thomas stepped forward with his own brilliant smile and kissed the woman on either cheek. “Madge,” he said. “You look great. What are you doing here?”
“It’s my apartment,” Madge replied, her tone dry.
Thomas laughed. “You’re kidding me. Why?"
“The old fool talked me into investing in his company. I need to make sure he doesn’t throw the money away. I’m keeping an eye on him.”
“I see,” Thomas said.
“Did he finally talk you into acting?”
Thomas put a hand on his chest. “A modest schoolboy like me? I blush to think.”
Madge laughed, a touch of wickedness to it, resting her hand lightly on Thomas’s biceps as she did. Either she liked speaking with Thomas or the hallway was colder than I thought. “Who is your friend?”
“Madge Shelly, this is Harry Dresden. I brought him by to talk business with Arturo. Harry’s a friend of mine.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.” I smiled a bit and offered my hand.
She fumbled with plates and cups for a moment, and then laughed. “I’ll have to give you a rain check. Are you an actor?” Madge asked, her expression speculative.
“To be or not to be,” I said. “How now brown cow.”
She smiled and nodded at the puppy, who was riding in the curl of my left arm. “And who is your friend?”
“He’s the dog with no name. Like Clint Eastwood, but fuzzier.”
She laughed again, and said to Thomas, “I see why you like him.”
“He’s mildly amusing,” Thomas agreed.
“He’s up past his bedtime,” I said. “Don’t mean to be rude, but I need to talk to Arturo before I fall asleep on my feet.”
“I understand,” Madge said. “The music’s a little loud in the living room. Thomas, why don’t I show you both to the study, and I’ll bring Arturo to you.”
“Is Justine here?” Thomas asked. His voice held a note of quiet tension to it that I doubted Madge noticed.
“Somewhere,” she said vaguely. “I’ll tell her you’ve arrived.”
We followed Madge inside the apartment suite. The living room was fairly dim, but I saw maybe twenty people there, men and women, some of them dancing, others standing and drinking or laughing or talking, like most parties. There was a haze of smoke, and only some of it was from cigarettes. Colored lights shifted and changed in time with the music.
I watched Thomas as we walked through the room. His manner changed subtly, something I could sense without being able to define. He didn’t move any more quickly, but his steps became more fluid somehow. He looked around the room as we went through, his eyelids a little heavy, and he started drawing the eyes of every woman we walked past.
I drew no such looks, even with the grey puppy sleeping in the crook of my arm. It’s not like I’m Quasimodo or anything, but with Thomas walking through the room like a predator angel, it was tough to compete.
Madge led us past the party room and into a small room with bookshelves and a desk with a computer. “Have a seat and I’ll go find him,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said, and settled down onto the chair at the desk. She left, her eyes lingering on Thomas for a moment before she did. He perched on a corner of the desk, his expression pensive. “You look thoughtful,” I said, “which seems wrong somehow. What is it?”
“I’m hungry,” Thomas said. “And thinking. Madge is Arturo’s first ex-wife.”
“And she’s hosting a party for him?” I asked.
“Yeah. I never thought she liked the guy much.”
“What did she mean about investing?”
Thomas shrugged. “Arturo broke off from a larger studio on the West Coast to found his own. Madge is real practical. She’s the kind of person who could despise someone while still being professional and working with him. Acknowledging his talents. If she thought it was a winning bet, she wouldn’t be worried that she didn’t like the person in charge. It wouldn’t be out of character for her to have invested money in Arturo’s new company.”
“What kind of money are we talking about?”
“Not sure,” Thomas said. “Seven figures, maybe more. I’d have to get someone to look.”
I whistled. “Lot of money.”
“I guess,” Thomas said. Thomas was rich enough that he probably didn’t have much perspective on the value of a buck.
I started to ask him more questions, but the door opened, and a tall and vigorous man in his fifties entered, wearing dark slacks and a grey silk shirt rolled up over his forearms. He had a head of magnificent silver locks framing a strong face with a dark, short beard. He had a boater’s tan, pale smile lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth, and large, intelligent dark eyes.
“Tommy!” the man boomed, and strode to Thomas. “Hey, I was hoping I would see you tonight.” His voice had a thick accent, definitely Greek. He clapped both hands on Thomas’s shoulders and kissed him on either cheek. “You’re looking good, Tommy boy, real good. You should come work with me, huh?”
“I don’t look good on camera,” Thomas said. “But it’s good to see you, too. Arturo Genosa, this is Harry Dresden, the man I told you about.”
Arturo looked me up and down. “Tall son of a bitch, huh?”
“I ate my Wheaties,” I said.
“Hey, pooch,” Arturo said. He scratched the grey puppy behind the ear. The little dog yawned, licked Arturo’s hand once, and promptly went back to sleep. “Your dog?”
“Temporarily,” I said. “Recovered him for a client.”
Arturo nodded, his expression calculating. “You know what a strega is, Mr. Dresden?”
“Practitioner of Italian folk magic,” I responded. “Divinations, love potions, fertility blessings, and protections. They also can manage a pretty vicious set of curses with a technique they call the malocchio. The Evil Eye.”
His eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Guess you know a thing or two, huh.”
“Just enough to get me into trouble,” I said.
“But do you believe in it?”
“In the Evil Eye?”
“I’ve seen stranger things.”
Arturo nodded. “Tommy boy tell you what I need?”
“He said you were worried about a curse. Said some people close to you died.”
Arturo’s expression flickered for a second, and I saw grief undermine his confidence. “Yes. Two women. Good souls, both.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Assuming there is a curse involved, what makes you think it was meant for you?”
“They had no other contact with each other,” Arturo said. “Far as I know, I was the only thing they had in common.” He opened a drawer in his desk and drew out a couple of manila file folders. “Reports,” he said. “Information about their deaths. Tommy says maybe you can help.”
“Maybe,” I agreed. “Why would someone curse you?”
“The studio,” Arturo said. “Someone wants to stop the company from getting off the ground. Kill it before the first picture gets made.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Protection,” Arturo said. “I want you to protect the people on my crew during the shoot. Don’t want anything else to happen to anyone.”
I frowned. “Can be a tough job. Do you know who would want to stop production?”
Arturo scowled at me and stalked across the room to a cabinet. He opened it and withdrew an already opened bottle of wine. He pulled out the cork with his teeth and took a swig. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t need to hire an investigator.”
I shrugged. “I’m a wizard, not a fortune-teller. Got any guesses? Anyone who might want to see you fail?”
“Lucille,” Thomas said.
Arturo glanced at Thomas, scowling.
“Who is Lucille?” I asked.
“My second ex-wife,” Arturo answered. “Lucille Delarossa. But she is not involved.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“She would not,” he said. “I am certain.”
He shook his head and stared down at his wine bottle. “Lucille . . . well. Let us say that I did not marry her for her mind.”
“You don’t have to be smart to be hostile,” I said, though I couldn’t really think of the last time someone stupid had pulled off powerful magic. “Anyone else? Is there another ex-wife around?”
Arturo waved a hand. “Tricia would not try to stop the picture.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“She is the star.”
Thomas made a choking sound. “Christ, Arturo.”
The silver-maned man grimaced. “No choice. She had a standing contract. Could have killed me in court if I did not cast her.”
“Is there an ex-wife number four?” I asked. “I can keep track of three. If there’s four, I have to start writing things down.”
“Not yet,” Arturo muttered. “I am single. So far just the three.”
“Well, that’s something,” I said. “Look, unless whoever is bringing this curse onto you does something right in front of me, there’s not a lot I can do. We call a spell like the Evil Eye an entropy curse, and it’s damned near impossible to trace any other way.”
“My people must be protected from the malocchio,” Arturo said. “Can you do that?”
“If I’m there when it goes down, yes.”
“How much does that cost?” he asked.
“Seventy-five an hour, plus expenses. A thousand up-front.”
Arturo didn’t hesitate. “Done. We start shooting in the morning, nine o’clock.”
“I’ll have to be close. Within sight, if possible,” I said. “And the less anyone knows about it, the better.”
“Yeah,” Thomas agreed. “He’ll need a cover story. If he stands around in the open, the bad guy will just wait until he leaves or goes to the bathroom or something.”
Arturo nodded. “He can boom for me.”
“Boom?” I asked.
“Boom microphone,” Thomas supplied.
“Oh. That isn’t such a hot idea,” I said. “My magic doesn’t get on so well with machines and such.”
Arturo’s face clouded with annoyance. “Fine. Production assistant.” Something in his pants made a chirping sound, and he drew a cell phone from his pocket. He held up a hand to me and stepped over to the other side of the room, speaking in low tones.
“Production assistant. What’s that?” I asked.
“Gofer,” Thomas said, “Errand boy.” He stood up, his movements restless.
There was a knock at the door, and it opened to admit a girl who may not have reached drinking age. She had dark hair, dark eyes, and was a little taller than average. She wore a white sweater with a short black skirt that showed off a lot of leg, and even compared to the pretty people outside, she was a knockout. Of course, the last time I’d seen her she’d been naked except for a red, Christmas-present-type bow, so it was possible that I was biased.
“Justine,” Thomas said, and there was the kind of relief in his voice that I would usually have associated with historical sailors shouting, “Land ho.” He took a step over to the girl and pulled her to him in a kiss.
Justine’s cheeks colored and she let out a breathless little laugh before her lips touched his, and then melted into the kiss like there wasn’t anything else in the whole world.
The puppy in the curl of my arm vibrated, and I glanced down to see him staring at Thomas, an inaudible, disapproving growl shaking his fuzzy chest.
They didn’t kiss for a long time, really, but when Thomas finally lifted his mouth from hers, she was flushed and I could see the pulse beating in her throat. Nothing remotely like thought or restraint touched her face. The heat in her eyes could have scorched me if I’d been a little closer, and for a second I thought she was about to drag Thomas to the carpet right there in front of me.
Instead Thomas turned her so that she stood with her back to his chest, and drew her against him, pinning her there with his arms. He looked paler, and his eyes had become an even fainter shade of grey. He rested his cheek on her hair for a moment, and then said, “You’ve met Harry.”
Justine regarded me with heavy, sultry eyes and nodded. “Hello, Mister Dresden.” She inhaled through her nose, and made a visible effort to draw her thoughts together. “You’re cold,” she said to Thomas. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” Thomas said, his tone light.
Justine tilted her head and then took a tiny step away from him. Thomas blinked at her, but didn’t try to keep her there. “Not nothing,” she said. She touched his cheek with her fingers. “You’re freezing.”
“I don’t want you to worry about it,” Thomas told her.
Justine looked over her shoulder at me.
I checked on Arturo, who was still in his conversation on the phone, then said in a low voice, “Black Court. I think it was one of Mavra’s goons.”
Justine’s eyes widened. “Oh, God. Was anyone hurt?”
“Only the vampire,” I said. I gave the puppy, now silent, a vague wave. “The pup saw him coming.”
“Thomas,” Justine said, looking back at him. “You told me you didn’t have to worry about Mavra.”
“In the first place, we don’t know it’s Mavra,” Thomas said. He gave me a look over Justine’s head that warned me to shut the hell up. “And in the second place, they were after Dresden. He’s here under my invitation, so I helped him out a little.”
“Boot to the head,” I agreed. “Ran him off.”
“My God. I’m glad you are all right, Mister Dresden, but this shouldn’t have happened. Thomas, we shouldn’t even be in town. If you don’t—”
Thomas put a finger under Justine’s chin and drew her eyes up to his.
Justine shuddered, her lips faltering to a halt, her mouth partly open. Her pupils dilated until there was practically no color showing around them. She swayed a little on her feet.
“Relax,” Thomas said. “I’ll take care of things.”
Her brow furrowed with a tiny line, and she stammered, “But . . . I don’t want you to . . . get hurt.”
Thomas’s eyes glittered. Deliberately he raised one pale hand and touched a fingertip to the pulse in Justine’s throat. Then he drew it down in a slow, lazy spiral that stopped half an inch under her collarbone. She shuddered again, and her eyes slipped entirely out of focus. Whatever thought had been in her head, it died a silent little death, and left her swaying on her feet making soft, mindless sounds between quick breaths.
And she loved it. From the looks of things she didn’t have a choice.
The puppy’s silent growl buzzed against the skin of my arm. Anger flashed through me in a wave of silent outrage.
“Stop it,” I said in a quiet voice. “Get out of her head.”
“This doesn’t concern you,” Thomas replied.
“Like hell it doesn’t. Back off on the mind-mojo. Right now. Or you and I are going to have words.”
Thomas’s gaze moved to me. Something vicious in his eyes flashed with a cold fury and one of his hands closed into a fist. Then he shook his head and closed his eyes for a moment. He spoke before they opened.
“The less she knows about the details,” he said in a rough, strained voice, “the safer she’s going to be.”
“From who?” I demanded.
“From anyone who might not like me or my House,” Thomas said. The words were laced with a hint of a feral snarl. “If she doesn’t know any more than any other doe, there’s no reason to target her. It’s one of the only things I can do to protect her. Back off, wizard, or I’ll be happy to start the conversation myself.”
Just then Arturo finished his call and turned back to us. He blinked and stopped short of conversation distance. “I’m sorry. Did I miss something?”
Thomas arched an eyebrow at me.
I took a deep breath and said, “No. We just stumbled onto an uncomfortable topic. But we can put a lid on it until later.”
“Good,” Arturo said. “Now where were we?”
“I need to take Justine home,” Thomas said. “She’s had a little too much tonight. Best of luck, Arturo.”
Arturo nodded to him and managed to smile. “Thank you, Tommy boy, for your help.”
“It’s nothing.” He slipped an arm around Justine, drawing her with him, and nodded to me as he left the room. “Later, Harry.”
I rose too, and asked Arturo, “Where do you want me tomorrow?”
He sat down his bottle of wine, grabbed a memo pad off the desk, and scribbled down an address. Then he withdrew a roll of money, peeled off ten bills and slapped a thousand dollars cash down on top of the address. I collected all of it.
“I do not know if I believe in your sincerity, Mr. Dresden,” Arturo said.
I waved the bills. “As long as you’re paying, I don’t really need you to believe in me. See you in the morning, Mr. Genosa.”
I shambled back to my place around late o’clock. Mister, the bobtailed grey tomcat who shares my apartment, hurled himself at my legs in a shoulder-block of greeting. Mister weighs twenty-five or thirty pounds, and I had to brace myself against his ritual affection.
Mister tilted his head at me and sniffed at the air. Then he made a low, warning sound of his imperial displeasure. As I came in, he bounded up onto the nearest bit of furniture and peered at the puppy still sleeping in my arm.
“Temporary,” I assured him. I sat down on the couch. “He isn’t staying.”
Mister narrowed his eyes, prowled over to me, and swatted at the puppy with an indignant paw.
“Take it easy. This little lunatic is a featherweight.” I murmured a minor spell and lit a few candles around my apartment with my will. I dialed the number where I had been contacting Brother Wang while he was in town, but got only a recording telling me the number had been disconnected. The phones are occasionally wacky when it’s me using them, so I tried again. No success. Bah. My bones ached and I wanted to rest, safe and cozy in my lair.
Said lair was in the basement of a creaky old boardinghouse built better than a hundred years ago. It had sunken windows high up on its walls, and largely consisted of a single living area around a fireplace. I had old, comfortable furniture—a sofa, a love seat, a couple of big recliner-type chairs. They didn’t match, but they looked soft and inviting. The stone floor was covered with a variety of area rugs, and I’d softened the look of the concrete walls with a number of tapestries and framed pictures.
The whole place was sparkling clean, and the air smelled of pine boughs. Even the fireplace was scoured down to a clean stone surface. You can’t beat the Fair Folk as housekeepers. You also can’t tell people about them, because they’ll pack up and clear out. Why? I have no idea. They’re faeries, and that’s just how it works.
On one side of the living room there was a shallow alcove with a wood-burning stove, an old-fashioned icebox, and some cabinets that held my cooking ware and groceries. On the other, a narrow doorway led to my bedroom and bath. There was barely enough room for my twin bed and a secondhand dresser.
I pulled up the rug that covered the entrance to the subbasement, a trapdoor set into the floor. It was deep enough underground to keep a subterranean chill the year-round, so I juggled the puppy while putting on a heavy flannel robe. Then I got a candle, opened the trapdoor, and descended the folding stepladder into my laboratory.
I had forbidden the cleaning service to move around my lab, and as a result it had been slowly losing the war against entropy for a couple of years. The walls were lined with wire racks, and I’d filled them with Tupperware, boxes, bags, tubs, bottles, cups, bowls, and urns. Most of the containers had a label listing their contents, ingredients for any number of potions, spells, summonings, and magical devices I had occasion to make from time to time. A worktable ran down the middle of the room, and at its far end was a comparatively recent concrete patch that did not match the rest of the floor. The patch was surrounded by the summoning circle set into the stone. I’d splurged on replacing the old ring with a new one made of silver and I’d moved everything in the room as far from it as I could.
The thing I’d locked up under the circle had been quiet since the night I had sealed it into a spirit-prison, but when it came to entombing a fallen angel, I was pretty sure that there was no such thing as too much caution.
“Bob,” I said as I lit some more candles. “Get up.”
One shelf didn’t match the rest of the room. Two simple metal struts held up a plain wooden plank. Mounds of old candle wax spread in multicolored lumps at either end of the board, and in the middle rested a human skull.
The skull shivered a little, teeth rattling, and then a dim glow of orange light appeared in its empty eye sockets. Bob the Skull wasn’t really a skull. He was an air spirit, a being with a great deal of knowledge and centuries of magical experience. Since I’d stolen him from Justin DuMorne, my own personal childhood Darth Vader, Bob’s knowledge and skills had let me save lives. Mostly my own, maybe, but a lot of other lives, too.
“How did it go?” Bob asked.
I started rummaging through the various and sundry. “Three of the little bastards slipped through that paralysis charm you were so sure of,” I said. “I barely got out in one piece.”
“You’re so cute when you whine,” Bob said. “I’d almost think that—Holy cats, Harry!”
“You stole one of the temple dogs?”
I petted the puppy’s fur and felt a little offended. “It wasn’t anything I meant to happen. He was a stowaway.”
“Wow,” Bob said. “What are you going to do with him?”