Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasyby Ellen Datlow (Editor)
In this thrilling collection of original stories some of today's hottest paranormal authors delight, thrill, and captivate readers with otherworldly tales of magic and mischief. In Jim Butcher's "Curses" Harry Dresden investigates how to lift a curse laid by the Fair Folk on the Chicago Cubs. In Patricia Briggs' "Fairy Gifts," a vampire is called home/b>/b>
In this thrilling collection of original stories some of today's hottest paranormal authors delight, thrill, and captivate readers with otherworldly tales of magic and mischief. In Jim Butcher's "Curses" Harry Dresden investigates how to lift a curse laid by the Fair Folk on the Chicago Cubs. In Patricia Briggs' "Fairy Gifts," a vampire is called home by magic to save the Fae who freed him from a dark curse. In Melissa Marr's "Guns for the Dead," the newly dead Frankie Lee seeks a job in the afterlife on the wrong side of the law. In Holly Black's "Noble Rot," a dying rock star discovers that the young woman who brings him food every day has some strange appetites of her own.
Featuring original stories from 20 authors, this dark, captivating, fabulous and fantastical collection, Naked City, is not to be missed! Edited by award-winning editor Ellen Datlow.
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)
Read an Excerpt
A DRESDEN FILES SHORT STORY BY JIM BUTCHER
Jim Butcher is the bestselling author most known for his urban fantasy series The Dresden Files. He also writes the Codex Alera series. Butcher lives in Missouri with his wife, son, and a ferocious guard dog.
Most of my cases are pretty tame. Someone loses a piece of jewelry with a lot of sentimental value, or someone comes to me because they’ve just moved into a new house and it’s a little more haunted than the seller’s disclosure indicated. Nothing Chicago’s only professional wizard can’t handle—but the cases don’t usually rake in much money, either.
So when a man in a two-thousand-dollar suit opened my office door and came inside, he had my complete attention.
I mean, I didn’t take my feet down off my desk or anything. But I paid attention.
He looked my office up and down and frowned, as though he didn’t much approve of what he saw. Then he looked at me and said, “Excuse me, is this the office of—”
“Dolce,” I said.
He blinked. “Excuse me.”
“Your suit,” I said. “Dolce and Gabbana. Silk. Very nice. You might want to consider an overcoat, though, now that it’s cooling off. Paper says we’re in for some rain.”
He studied me intently for a moment. He was a man in his late prime. His hair was dyed too dark, and the suit looked like it probably hid a few pounds. “You must be Harry Dresden.”
I inclined my head toward him. “Agent or attorney?”
“A little of both,” he said, looking around my office again. “I represent a professional entertainment corporation, which wishes to remain anonymous for the time being. My name is Donovan. My sources tell me that you’re the man who might be able to help us.”
My office isn’t anything to write home about. It’s on a corner, with windows on two walls, but it’s furnished for function, not style—scuffed-up wooden desks, a couple of comfortable chairs, some old metal filing cabinets, a used wooden table, and a coffeepot that is old enough to have belonged to Neanderthals. I figured Donovan was worried that he’d exposed his suit to unsavory elements, and resisted an irrational impulse to spill my half cup of cooling coffee on it.
“What you need and whether you can afford me.”
Donovan fixed me with a stern look. I bore up under it as best I could. “Do you intend to gouge me for a fee, Mr. Dresden?”
“For every penny I reasonably can,” I told him.
He blinked at me. “You … you’re quite up front about it, aren’t you?”
“Saves time,” I said.
“What makes you think I would tolerate such a thing?”
“People don’t come to me until they’re pretty desperate, Mr. Donovan,” I said, “especially rich people and hardly ever corporations. Besides, you come in here all intriguey and coy, not wanting to reveal who your employer is. That means that in addition to whatever else you want from me, you want my discretion, too.”
“So your increased fee is a polite form of blackmail?”
“Cost of doing business. If you want this done on the down low, you make my job more difficult. You should expect to pay a little more than a conventional customer when you’re asking for more than they are.”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “How much are you going to cost me?”
I shrugged a shoulder. “Let’s find out. What do you want me to do?”
He stood up and turned to walk to the door. He stopped before he reached it, read the words HARRY DRESDEN, WIZARD backward in the frosted glass, and eyed me over his shoulder. “I assume that you have heard of any number of curses in local folklore.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I suppose you’ll expect me to believe in their existence.”
I shrugged. “They’ll exist or not exist regardless of what you believe, Mr. Donovan.” I paused. “Well. Apart from the ones that don’t exist except in someone’s mind. They’re only real because somebody believes. But that edges from the paranormal over toward psychology. I’m not licensed for that.”
He grimaced and nodded. “In that case…”
I felt a little slow off the mark as I realized what we were talking about. “A cursed local entertainment corporation,” I said. “Like maybe a sports team.”
He kept a poker face on, and it was a pretty good one.
“You’re talking about the Billy Goat Curse,” I said.
Donovan arched an eyebrow and then gave me an almost imperceptible nod as he turned around to face me again. “What do you know about it?”
I blew out my breath and ran my fingers back through my hair. “Uh, back in 1945 or so, a tavern owner named Sianis was asked to leave a World Series game at Wrigley. Seems his pet goat was getting rained on and it smelled bad. Some of the fans were complaining. Outraged at their lack of social élan, Sianis pronounced a curse on the stadium, stating that never again would a World Series game be played there. Well, actually he said something like, ‘Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more,’ but the World Series thing is the general interpretation.”
“And?” Donovan asked.
“And I think if I’d gotten kicked out of a Series game I’d been looking forward to, I might do the same thing.”
“You have a goat?”
“I have a moose,” I said.
He blinked at that for a second, didn’t understand it, and decided to ignore it. “If you know that, then you know that many people believe that the curse has held.”
“Where the Series is concerned, the Cubbies have been filled with fail and dipped in suck sauce since 1945,” I acknowledged. “No matter how hard they try, just when things are looking up, something seems to go bad at the worst possible time.” I paused to consider. “I can relate.”
“You’re a fan, then?”
“More of a kindred spirit.”
He looked around my office again and gave me a small smile. “But you follow the team.”
“I go to games when I can.”
“That being the case,” Donovan said, “you know that the team has been playing well this year.”
“And the Cubs want to hire yours truly to prevent the curse from screwing things up.”
Donovan shook his head. “I never said that the Cubs organization was involved.”
“Hell of a story, though, if they were.”
Donovan frowned severely.
“The Sun-Times would run it on the front page. CUBS HIRE PROFESSIONAL WIZARD TO BREAK CURSE, maybe. Rick Morrissey would have a ball with that story.”
“My clients,” Donovan said firmly, “have authorized me to commission your services on this matter, if it can be done quickly—and with the utmost discretion.”
I swung my feet down from my desk. “Mr. Donovan,” I said. “No one does discretion like me.”
* * *
Two hours after I had begun my calculations, I dropped my pencil on the laboratory table and stretched my back. “Well. You’re right.”
“Of course I’m right,” said Bob the Skull. “I’m always right.”
I gave the dried, bleached human skull sitting on a shelf amidst a stack of paperback romance novels a gimlet-eye.
“For some values of right,” he amended hastily. The words were conciliatory, but the flickering flames in the skull’s eye sockets danced merrily.
My laboratory is in the subbasement under my basement apartment. It’s dark, cool, and dank, essentially a concrete box that I have to enter by means of a folding staircase. It isn’t a big room, but it’s packed with the furnishings of one. Lots of shelves groan under the weight of books, scrolls, papers, alchemical tools, and containers filled with all manner of magical whatnot.
There’s a silver summoning circle on the floor, and a tiny-scale model of the city of Chicago on a long table running down the middle of the room. The only shelf not crammed full is Bob’s, and even it gets a little crowded sometimes. Bob is my more-or-less-faithful, not-so-trusty assistant, a spirit of intellect that dwells within a specially enchanted skull. I might be a wizard, but Bob’s knowledge of magic makes me look like an engineering professor.
“Are you sure there’s nothing you missed?” I asked.
“Nothing’s certain, boss,” the skull said philosophically. “But you did the equations. You know the power requirements for a spell to continue running through all those sunrises.”
I grunted sourly. The cycles of time in the world degrade ongoing magic, and your average enchantment doesn’t last for more than a few days. For a curse to be up and running since 1945, it would have had to begin as a malevolent enchantment powerful enough to rip a hole through the crust of the planet. Given the lack of lava in the area, it would seem that whatever the Billy Goat Curse might be, I could be confident that it wasn’t a simple magical working.
“Nothing’s ever simple,” I complained.
“What did you expect, boss?” Bob said.
I growled. “So the single-spell theory is out.”
“Yep,” Bob said.
“Which means that either the curse is being powered by something that renews its energy—or else someone is refreshing the thing all the time.”
“What about this Sianis guy’s family?” Bob said. “Maybe they’re putting out a fresh whammy every few days or something.”
I shook my head. “I called records in Edinburgh. The wardens checked them out years ago when all of this first happened, and they aren’t practitioners. Besides, they’re Cub-friendly.”
“The wardens investigated the Greek guy but not the curse?” Bob asked curiously.
“In 1945 the White Council had enough to do trying to mitigate the bad mojo from all those artifacts the Nazis stockpiled,” I said. “Once they established that no one’s life was in danger, they didn’t really care if a bunch of guys playing a game got cursed to lose it.”
“So what’s your next move?”
I tapped my chin thoughtfully with one finger. “Let’s go look at the stadium.”
* * *
I put Bob in the mesh sack I sometimes tote him around in and, at his petulant insistence, hung it from the rearview mirror of my car, a battered old Volkswagen Beetle. He hung there, swinging back and forth and occasionally spinning one way or the other when something caught his eye.
“Look at the legs on that one!” Bob said. “And whew, check her out! It must be chilly tonight!”
“There’s a reason we don’t get out more often, Bob,” I sighed. I should have known better than to drive through the club district on my way to Wrigley.
“I love the girls’ pants in this century,” Bob said. “I mean look at those jeans. One little tug and off they come.”
I wasn’t touching that one.
I parked the car a couple of blocks from the stadium, stuck Bob in a pocket of my black leather duster, and walked in. The Cubs were on the road, and Wrigley was closed. It was a good time to knock around inside. But since Donovan was evidently prepared to deny and disavow all knowledge, I wasn’t going to be able to simply knock on the door and wander in.
So I picked a couple of locks at a delivery entrance and went inside. I didn’t hit it at professional-burglar speed or anything—I knew a couple of guys who could open a lock with tools as fast as they could with a key—but I wasn’t in any danger of getting a ticket for loitering, either. Once I was inside, I headed straight for the concourses. If I mucked around in the stadium’s administrative areas, I would probably run afoul of a full-blown security system, and the only thing I could reliably do to that would be to shut it down completely—and most systems are smart enough to tip off their home security company when that happens.
Besides. What I was looking for wouldn’t be in any office.
I took Bob out of my pocket so that the flickering golden-orange lights of his eyes illuminated the area in front of me. “All right,” I murmured. I kept my voice down, on the off chance that a night watchman might be on duty and nearby. “I’m angry at the Cubbies and I’m pitching my curse at them. Where’s it going to stick?”
“There’s really no question about that, is there?” Bob asked me.
“Home plate,” we said together.
I started forward, walking silently. Being quiet when you sneak around isn’t difficult, as long as you aren’t in any rush. The serious professionals can all but sprint in perfect silence, but the main thing you need isn’t agility—it’s patience and calm. So I moved out slowly and calmly, and it must have worked, because nobody raised a hue or a cry.
The empty, unlit stadium was … just wrong. I was used to seeing Wrigley blazing with sunlight or its lights, filled with fans and music and the smell of overpriced, fattening, and inexplicably gratifying food. I was used to vendors shouting, the constant sea-surge of crowd noise, and the buzz of planes passing overhead, trailing banners behind them.
Now Wrigley Field was vast and dark and empty. There was something silently sad about it—acres of seats with no one sitting, a green and beautiful field that no one was playing on, a scoreboard that didn’t have anything on it to read or anyone to read it. If the gods and muses were to come down from Olympus and sculpt unfulfilled potential as a physical form, they wouldn’t get any closer than that hollow house did.
I walked down the concrete steps and circled the infield until I could make my way to the seats behind home plate. Once there, I held Bob up and said, “What have we got?”
The skull’s eyelights flared brighter for a second, and he snorted. “Oh, yeah. Definitely tied the curse together right there.”
“What’s keeping it going?” I asked. “Is there a ley line passing underneath or something?”
“That’s a negative, boss,” Bob said.
“How fresh is it?”
“Maybe a couple of days,” the skull replied. “Maybe more. It’s an awfully tight weave.”
“This spell resists deterioration better than most mortal magic. It’s efficient and solid—way niftier than you could manage.”
“I call ’em like I see ’em,” Bob said cheerfully. “So either a more experienced member of the White Council is sponsoring this curse, and refreshing it every so often, or else…”
I caught on. “Or else the curse was placed here by a nonmortal being.”
“Yeah,” Bob said. “But that could be almost anything.”
I shook my head. “Not necessarily. Remember that the curse was laid upon the stadium during a game in the 1945 World Series.”
“Ah, yes,” Bob said. “It would have been packed. Which means that whatever the being was, it could blend in. Either a really great veil or maybe a shapeshifter.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Why?” I repeated. “Why would this theoretical being have put out the curse on the Cubs?”
“Plenty of beings from the Nevernever really don’t need a motivation.”
“Sure they do,” I said. “The logic behind what they do might be alien or twisted beyond belief, but it makes sense to them.” I waved my hand at the stadium. “This being not only laid a curse on a nexus of human emotional power, it kept coming back week after week, year after year.”
“I don’t see what you’re driving at, boss.”
“Whoever’s doing this is holding a grudge,” I said thoughtfully. “This is vengeance for a genuine insult. It’s personal.”
“Maybe,” Bob said. “But maybe the emotional state of the stadium supercharged Sianis’s curse. Or maybe after the stadium evicted Sianis, who didn’t have enough power to curse anybody anyhow, someone decided to make it stick.”
“Or maybe…” My voice trailed off, and then I barked out a short bite of laughter. “Oh. Oh, that’s funny.”
Bob spun in my hand to look up at me.
“It wasn’t Sianis who put the whammy on the Cubs,” I said, grinning. “It was the goat.”
* * *
The Llyn y Fan Fach Tavern and Inn was located down at the lakeside at the northern edge of the city. The place’s exterior screamed “PUB” as if it were trying to make itself heard over the roar of brawling football hooligans. It was all whitewashed walls and heavy timbers stained dark. The wooden sign hanging from a post above the door bore the tavern’s name, and a painted picture of a leek and a daffodil crossed like swords.
I sidled up to the tavern and went in. The inside matched the outside, continuing the dark-stained theme on its wooden floors, walls, and furnishings. It was just after midnight, which wasn’t really all that late, as bar scenes went, but the Llyn y Fan Fach Tavern was all but empty.
A big red-haired guy sitting in a chair by the door scowled at me. His biceps were thick enough to use steel-belted radials as armbands. He gave me the fisheye, which I ignored as I ambled on up to the bar.
I took a seat on a stool and nodded to the bartender. She was a pretty woman with jet-black hair and an obvious pride in her torso. Her white renaissance shirt had slipped entirely off both of her shapely shoulders and was only being held up by her dark leather bustier. She was busy wiping down the bar. The bustier was busy lifting and separating.
She glanced up at me and smiled. Her pale green eyes flicked over me, and the smile deepened. “Ah,” she said, her British accent thick and from somewhere closer to Cardiff than London. “You’re a tall one, aren’t you?”
“Only when I’m standing up.”
Her eyes twinkled with merry wickedness. “Such a crime. What are you drinking, love?”
“Do you have any cold beer?” I asked.
“None of that colonial piss here,” she replied.
“Snob,” I said, smiling. “Do you have any of McAnally’s dark? McAnally’s anything, really.”
Her eyebrows went up. “Whew. For a moment, there, I thought a heathen walked amongst us.” She gave me a full smile, her teeth very square and straight and white, and walked over to me before bending over and drawing a dark bottle from beneath the bar.
I appreciated her in a polite and politically correct fashion. “Is the show included in the price of the drink?”
She opened the bottle with an expert twist of her wrist and set it down in front of me with a clean mug. “I’m a generous soul, love,” she said, winking. “Why charge when I can engage in selfless charity?”
She poured the beer into the mug and set it on a napkin in front of me. She slid a bowl of bar nuts down my way. “Drinking alone?”
“That depends on whether or not you’ll let me buy one for you.”
She laughed. “A gentleman, is it? Sir, you must think me all manner of tart if you think I’d accept a drink from a stranger.”
“I’m Harry,” I said.
“And so we are strangers no longer,” she replied, and got out another bottle of ale. She took her time about it, and she watched me as she did it. She straightened, also slowly, and opened her bottle before putting it gently to her lips and taking a slow pull. Then she arched an eyebrow at me and said, “See anything else you like? Something tasty, perhaps?”
“I suppose I am kind of an aural guy at the moment,” I said. “Got a minute to talk to me, Jill?”
Her smile faded swiftly. “I’ve never seen you in here before. How is it you know my name?”
I reached into my shirt and tugged out my pentacle, letting it fall down against my T-shirt. Jill studied that for a few seconds, then took a second look at me. Her mouth opened in a silent “ah” of understanding. “The wizard. Dresden, isn’t it?”
“Harry,” I said.
She nodded and took another, warier sip of her beer.
“Relax,” I said. “I’m not here on Council business. But a friend of mine among the Fair Folk told me that you were the person to talk to about the Tylwyth Teg.”
She tilted her head to one side, and smiled slightly. “I’m not sure how I could help you, Harry. I’m just a storyteller.”
“But you know about the Tylwyth Teg.”
“I know stories of them,” she countered. “That’s not the same as knowing them. Not in the way that your folk care about.”
“I’m not doing politics between members of the Unseelie Accords right now,” I said.
“But you’re one of the magi,” she said. “Surely you know what I do.”
“I’m still pretty young, for a wise guy. And nobody can know everything,” I said. “My knowledge of the Fair Folk pretty much begins and ends with the Winter and Summer Courts. I know that the Tylwyth Teg are an independent kingdom of the Wyld. Stories might give me what I need.”
The sparkle returned to her eyes for a moment. “This is the first time a man I’ve flirted with told me that stories were what he needed.”
“I could gaze longingly at your décolletage while you talk, if you like.”
“Given how much trouble I go to in order to show it off, it would seem polite.”
I lowered my eyes demurely to her chest for a moment. “Well. If I must.”
She let out a full-bodied laugh, which made attractive things happen to her upper body. “What stories are you interested in, specifically?”
I grinned at her. “Tell me about the Tylwyth Teg and goats.”
Jill nodded thoughtfully and took another sip of beer. “Well,” she said. “Goats were a favored creature among them. The Tylwyth Teg, if treated with respect by a household of mortals, would often perform tasks for them. One of the most common tasks was the grooming of goats—cleaning out their fur and brushing their beards for Sunday morning.”
I took a notebook from my duster’s pocket and started making notes. “Uh-huh.”
“The Tylwyth Teg were shapeshifters,” Jill continued. “They’re a small folk, only a couple of feet tall, and though they could take what form they wished, they usually changed into fairly small animals—foxes, cats, dogs, owls, hares, and—”
She lifted her eyebrows. “And goats, aye. Though the stories can become very odd at times. More than one Welsh farmer who managed to capture a bride of the Tylwyth Teg found himself waking up to a goat beside him in his bed, or took his wife’s hand only to feel the shape of a cloven hoof beneath his fingertips.”
“Weregoats,” I muttered. “Jesus.”
“They’re masters of deceit and trickery,” Jill continued. “And we mortals are well advised to show them the proper respect, if we intrude upon them at all.”
“What happens if we don’t?”
Jill shook her head. “That would depend upon the offense, and which of the Tylwyth Teg were offended. They were capable of almost anything if their pride was wounded.”
“The usual Fair Folk response?” I asked. “Bad fortune, children taken, that sort of thing?”
Jill shook her head. “Harry, love, the Queens of Winter and Summer do not kill mortals, and so frown upon their followers taking such action. But the high folk of the Tylwyth Teg have no such restrictions.”
“They’d kill?” I asked.
“They can, have, and will take life in acts of vengeance,” Jill said seriously. “They always respond in balance—but push them too far and they will.”
“Damn,” I said. “Those are some hard-core faeries.”
Jill sucked in a sharp breath and her eyes glittered brightly. “What did you say?”
I became suddenly aware of the massive redhead by the door rising to his feet.
I swigged a bit of beer and put the notebook back in my pocket. “I called them faeries,” I drawled.
The floorboards creaked under the weight of Big Red, walking toward me.
Jill stared at me with eyes that were hard and brittle like glass. “You of all, wizard, should know that word is an insult to … them.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “They get real upset when you call them that.” A shadow fell across me. I sipped more beer without turning around and said, “Did someone just put up a building?”
A hand the size of a Christmas ham fell onto my shoulder, and Big Red growled, “You want me to leave some marks?”
“Come on, Jill,” I said. “Don’t be sore. It’s not as though you’re trying all that hard to hide. You left plenty of clues for the game.”
Jill stared at me with unreadable eyes and said nothing.
I started ticking off points on my fingers. “Llyn y Fan Fach is a lake sacred to the Tylwyth Teg over in the Old World. You don’t get a lot more Welsh than that leek-and-daffodil emblem. And as for calling yourself ‘Jill,’ that’s a pretty thin mask to cover the presence of one of the Jili Ffrwtan.” I tilted my head back to indicate Big Red. “Changeling, right?”
Big Red’s fingers tightened enough to hurt. I started to get a little bit concerned.
Jill held up a hand and Big Red let go of me at once. I heard the floor creaking as he retreated. She stared at me for a moment more, then smiled faintly and said, “The mask is more than sufficient when no one is looking for the face behind it. What gave us away?”
I shrugged. “Someone has to be renewing the spell laid on Wrigley Field on a regular basis. It almost had to be someone local. Once I remembered that the Fair Folk of Wales had a rather singular affinity with goats, the rest was just a matter of legwork.”
She finished off the beer in a long pull, her eyes sparkling again. “And my own reaction to the insult was the cherry on top.”
I drained my mug and shrugged modestly. “I apologize for speaking so crudely, lady. It was the only way I could be sure.”
“Powerful, clever, and polite,” she murmured. She leaned forward onto the bar, and it got really hard not to notice her bosom. “You and I might get along.”
I winked at her and said, “You’re trying to distract me, and doing it well. But I’d like to speak to someone in authority over the enchantment laid on Wrigley.”
“And who says our folk are behind such a thing?”
“Your cleavage,” I replied. “Otherwise, why try to distract me?”
She let out another laugh, though this one was softer and more silvery, a tinkling and unearthly tone that made my ears feel like someone with fantastic lips was blowing gently into them. “Even if they are, what makes you think that we would alter that weaving now?”
I shrugged. “Perhaps you will. Perhaps you won’t. I only request, please, to speak to one with authority over the curse, to discuss what might be done about it.”
She studied me through narrowed eyes for another silent moment.
“I said please,” I pointed out to her. “And I did buy you that beer.”
“True,” she murmured, and then gave me a smile that made my skin feel like I was standing close to a bonfire. She tossed her white cloth to one side and said, toward Big Red, “Mind the store for a bit?”
He nodded at her and settled back down into his chair.
The Jili Ffrwtan came out from behind the bar, hips swaying in deliciously feminine motion. I rose and offered her my arm in my best old-fashioned courtly style. It made her smile, and she laid her hand on my forearm lightly, barely touching. “This,” she said, “should be interesting.”
I smiled at her again and asked, “Where are we going?”
“Why, to Annwn, my love,” the Jili Ffrwtan said, pronouncing it “ah-noon.” “We go to the land of the dead.”
* * *
I followed the Jili Ffrwtan into the back room of the pub and down a narrow flight of stone stairs. The basement was all concrete walls and had a packed-earth floor. One wall of the place was stacked with an assortment of hooch. We walked past it while I admired the Jili Ffrwtan’s shape and movement, and wondered if her hair felt as soft as it looked.
She gave me a sly look over one bare shoulder. “And tell me, young magus, what you know of my kind.”
“That they are the high ladies of the Tylwyth Teg. And that they are surpassingly lovely, charming, and gracious, if you are any example, lady.” And that they could be psycho bitches from hell if you damaged their pride.
She laughed again. “Base flattery,” she said, clearly pleased. “But at least you do it well. You’re quite articulate—for a mortal.”
As we got farther from the light spilling from the staircase, the shadows grew thick, until she made a negligent gesture with one hand, and soft blue light with no apparent source filled the room around us. “Ah, here we are.”
She stopped beside a ring of large brown mushrooms that grew up out of the floor. I extended my otherworldly senses toward the ring and could feel the quiver of energies moving through the air around the circle like a silent hum of high-tension electrical lines. The substance of mortal reality was thin here, easily torn. The ring of mushrooms was a doorway, a portal leading to the Nevernever, the spirit world.
I gave Jill a little bow and gestured with one hand. “After you, lady.”
She smiled at me. “Oh, we must cross together, lest you get lost on the way.” She slid her fingertips lightly down my forearm. Her warm fingers intertwined with mine, and the gesture felt almost obscenely intimate. My glands cut my brain out of every decision-making process they could, and it was an effort not to adjust my pants. The part of my head that was still on the job got real nervous right about then: There are way too many things in the universe that use sexual desire as a weapon, and I had to work not to jerk my hand away from the Jili Ffrwtan’s.
It would be an awful idea to damage her pride with that kind of display.
And besides, my glands told me, she looks great. And smells even better. And her skin feels amazing. And …
“Quiet, you,” I growled at my glands under my breath.
She arched an eyebrow at me.
I gave her a tight smile and said. “Not you. Talking with myself.”
“Ah,” she said. She flicked her eyes down to below my waist and back, smirking. Then she took a step forward, drawing me into the ring of mushrooms, and the basement blurred and went away, as if the shadow of an ancient mountain had fallen over us.
Then the shadow lifted, and we were elsewhere.
It’s at this point that my senses pretty much broke down.
The darkness lifted away to light and motion and music like nothing I had ever seen before—and I’ve been to the wildest spots in Chicago and to a couple of parties that weren’t even being held inside our reality.
We stood inside a ring of mushrooms and in a cave. But that doesn’t really cover it. Calling the hall of the Tylwyth Teg a cave is about the same as calling the Taj Mahal a grave. It’s technically accurate, but it doesn’t begin to cover it.
Walls soared up around me, walls in the shape of natural stone but somehow surfaced in the polished beauty of marble, veined with threads of silver and gold and even rarer metals, lit by the same sourceless radiance the Jili Ffrwtan had summoned back in Chicago. They rose above me on every side, and since I’d just been to Wrigley, I had a fresh perspective with which to compare them: If Wrigley was any bigger, it wasn’t by much.
The air was full of music. I only call it “music” because there aren’t any words adequate to describe it. By comparison to any music I’d ever heard played, it was the difference between a foot-powder jingle and a symphony by Mozart, throbbing with passion, merriment, pulsing between an ancient sadness and a fierce joy. Every beat made me feel like joining in—either to weep or to dance, or possibly both at the same time.
And the dancers … I remember men and women and silks and velvets and jewels and more gold and silver and a grace that made me feel huge and awkward and slow.
There aren’t any words.
The Jili Ffrwtan walked forward, taking me with her, and as she went she changed, each step leaving her smaller, her clothing changing as well, until she was attired as the revelers were, in a jeweled gown that left just as much of her just as attractively revealed as the previous outfit. It didn’t seem strange at the time that she should grow so much smaller. I just felt like I was freakishly huge, the outsider, the intruder, hopelessly oversized for that place. We moved forward, through the dancers, who spun and flitted out of our path. My escort kept on diminishing until I was walking half hunched over, her entire hand covering about half of one of my fingers.
She led me to the far end of the hall, pausing several times to call something in a complex, musical tongue aside to one of the other Fair Folk. We walked past a miniature table laid out with a not-at-all-miniature feast, and my stomach suddenly informed me that it had never once taken in an ounce of nutrition, and that it really was about time that I finally had something. I had actually taken a couple of steps toward the table before I forced myself to swerve away from it.
“Wise,” said the Jili Ffrwtan. “Unless, of course, you wish to stay.”
“It smells fine,” I replied, my voice hoarse. “But it’s no Burger King.”
She laughed again, putting the fingers of one hand to her still proportionately impressive bosom, and we passed out of the great hall and into a smaller cavern—this one only the size of a train station. There were guards there—guards armored in bejeweled mail, faces masked behind mail veils, guards who barely came up over my knee, but guards nonetheless, bearing swords and spears and bows. They stood at attention and watched me with cold, hard eyes as we passed them. My escort seemed delightedly smug about the entire affair.
I cleared my throat and asked, “Who are we going to see?”
“Why, love, the only one who has authority over the curse upon Wrigley Field,” she said. “His Majesty.”
I swallowed. “The king of your folk? Gwynn ap Nudd, isn’t it?”
“His Majesty will do,” rang out a voice in a high tenor, and I looked up to see one of the Fair Folk sitting on a throne raised up several feet above the floor of the chamber, so that my eyes were level with his. “Perhaps even, His Majesty, sir.”
Gwynn ap Nudd, ruler of the Tylwyth Teg, was tall—for his folk, anyway—broad shouldered, and ruggedly handsome. Though dressed in what looked like some kind of midnight-blue fabric that had the texture of velvet but the supple sweep of silk, he had large-knuckled hands that looked rough and strong. Both his long hair and beard were streaked with fine, symmetrical lines of silver, and jewels shone on his fingers and upon his brow.
I stopped at once and bowed deeply, making sure my head went lower than the faerie king’s, and I stayed there for a good long moment before rising again. “Your Majesty, sir,” I said, in my politest voice. “You are both courteous and generous to grant me an audience. It speaks well of the Tylwyth Teg as a people, that such a one should lead them.”
King Gwynn stared at me for a long moment before letting out a grunt that mixed disbelief with wry satisfaction. “At least they sent one with half a sense of manners this time.”
“I thought you’d like that, sire,” said the Jili Ffrwtan, smiling. “May I present Harry Dresden, magus, a commander of the Order of the Grey Cloak, sometime mortal Champion of Queen Mab and Esquire of the Court of Queen Titania. He begs to speak to you regarding the curse upon the Field of Wrigley in the mortal citadel of Chicago.”
“We know who he is,” Gwynn said testily. “And we know why he is here. Return to your post. We will see to it that he is safely returned.”
The Jili Ffrwtan curtsied deeply and revealingly. “Of course, sire.” Then she simply vanished into a sparkling cloud of lights.
“Guards,” King Gwynn called out. “You will leave us now.”
The guards looked unhappy about it, but they lined up and filed out, every movement in sync with the others. Gwynn waited until the last of them had left the hall and the doors boomed shut before he turned back to me.
“So,” he said. “Who do ye like for the Series this year?”
I blinked my eyes at him several times. It wasn’t one of those questions I’d been expecting. “Um. American League, I’m kind of rooting for Tampa Bay. I’d like to see them beat out the Yankees.”
“Aye,” Gwynn said, nodding energetically. “Who wouldn’t. Bloody Yankees.”
“And in the National League,” I said, “the Cubs are looking good at the moment, though I could see the Phillies pulling something out at the last minute.” I shrugged. “I mean, since the Cubbies are cursed and all.”
“Cursed?” Gwynn said. A fierce smile stretched his face. “Cursed, is it?”
“Or so it is widely believed,” I said.
Gwynn snorted then rose and descended from his throne. “Walk with me.”
The diminutive monarch walked farther back into the cavern, past his throne, and into what resembled some kind of bizarre museum. There were rows and rows of cabinets, each with shelves lined in black velvet, and walls of crystalline glass. Each cabinet had a dozen or so artifacts in it: ticket stubs were some of the most common items, though there were also baseballs here and there among them, as well as baseball cards, fan booklets, team pennants, bats, batting gloves, and fielders’ gloves.
As I walked beside him, careful to keep my pace slow enough to let him dictate how fast we were walking, it dawned on me that King Gwynn ap Nudd of the Tylwyth Teg was a baseball fan—as in fanatic—of the original vintage.
“It was you,” I said suddenly. “You were the one they threw out of the game.”
“Aye,” King Gwynn said. “There was business to attend, and by the time I got there the tickets were sold out. I had to find another way into the game.”
“As a goat?” I asked, bemused.
“It was a team-spirit thing,” Gwynn said proudly. “Sianis had made up a sign and all, proclaiming that Chicago had already gotten Detroit’s goat. Then he paraded me and the sign on the field before the game—it got plenty of cheers, let me tell you. And he did pay for an extra ticket for the goat, so it wasn’t as though old Wrigley’s successors were being cheated the price of admission. They just didn’t like it that someone argued with the ushers and won!”
Gwynn’s words had taken on the heat that you can only get from an argument that someone has rehearsed to himself about a million times. Given that he must have been practicing it since 1945, I knew better than to think that anything like reason was going to get in the way. So I just nodded and asked, “What happened?”
“Before the game was anywhere near over,” Gwynn continued, his voice seething with outrage, “they came to Sianis and evicted him from the park. Because, they said, his goat smelled too awful!”
Gwynn stopped in his tracks and turned to me, scowling furiously as he gestured at himself with his hands. “Hello! I was a goat! Goats are supposed to smell awful when they are rained upon!”
“They are, Your Majesty, sir,” I agreed soberly.
“And I was a flawless goat!”
“I have no doubts on that account, King Gwynn,” I said.
“What kind of justice is it to be excluded from a Series game because one has flawlessly imitated a goat!?”
“No justice at all, Your Majesty, sir,” I said.
“And to say that I, Gwynn ap Nudd, I the King of Annwn, I who defeated Gwythr ap Greidawl, I the counselor and ally to gods and heroes alike, smelled!” His mouth twisted up in rage. “How dare some jumped-up mortal ape say such a thing! As though mortals smell any better than wet goats!”
For a moment, I considered pointing out the conflicting logic of Gwynn both being a perfect (and therefore smelly) goat and being upset that he had been cast out of the game for being smelly. But only for a second. Otherwise, I might have been looking at coming back to Chicago about a hundred years too late to grab a late-night meal at BK.
“I can certainly see why you were upset and offended, Your Majesty, sir.”
Some of the righteous indignation seemed to drain out of him, and he waved an irritated hand at me. “We’re talking about something important here, mortal,” he said. “We’re talking about baseball. Call me Gwynn.”
We had stopped at the last display cabinet, which was enormous by the standards of the furnishings of that hall, which is to say, about the size of a human wardrobe. On one of its shelves was a single outfit of clothing; blue jeans, a T-shirt, a leather jacket, with socks and shoes. On all the rest were the elongated rectangles of tickets—season tickets, in fact, and hundreds of them.
But the single stack of tickets on the top shelf sat next to the only team cap I’d seen.
Both tickets and cap bore the emblem of the Cubs.
“It was certainly a serious insult,” I said quietly. “And it’s obvious that a balancing response was in order. But, Gwynn, the insult was given you unwittingly, by mortals whose very stupidity prevented them from knowing what they were doing. Few enough there that day are even alive now. Is it just that their children be burdened with their mistake? Surely that fact also carries some weight within the heart of a wise and generous king.”
Gwynn let out a tired sigh and moved his right hand in a gesture that mimed pouring out water cupped in it. “Oh, aye, aye, Harry. The anger faded decades ago—mostly. It’s the principle of the thing, these days.”
“That’s something I can understand,” I said. “Sometimes you have to give weight to a principle to keep it from being taken away in a storm.”
He glanced up at me shrewdly. “Aye. I’ve heard as that’s something you would understand.”
I spread my hands and tried to sound diffident. “There must be some way of evening the scales between the Cubs and the Tylwyth Teg,” I said. “Some way to set this insult to rights and lay the matter to rest.”
“Oh, aye,” King Gwynn said. “It’s easy as dying. All we do is nothing. The spell would fade. Matters would resume their normal course.”
“But clearly you don’t wish to do such a thing,” I said. “It’s obviously an expenditure of resources for you to keep the curse alive.”
The small king suddenly smiled. “Truth be told, I stopped thinking of it as a curse years ago, lad.”
I arched my eyebrows.
“How do you regard it, then?” I asked him.
“As protection,” he said. “From the real curse of baseball.”
I looked from him to the tickets and thought about that for a moment. Then I said, “I understand.”
It was Gwynn’s turn to arch eyebrows at me. “Do ye now?” He studied me for a time and then smiled, nodding slowly. “Aye. Aye, ye do. Wise, for one so young.”
I shook my head ruefully. “Not wise enough.”
“Everyone with a lick of wisdom thinks that,” Gwynn replied. He regarded his tickets for a while, his hands clasped behind his back. “Now, ye’ve won the loyalty of some of the Wee Folk, and that is no quick or easy task. Ye’ve defied Sidhe queens. Ye’ve even stuck a thumb into the Erlking’s eye, and that tickles me to no end. And ye’ve been clever enough to find us, which few mortals have managed, and gone out of your way to be polite, which means more from you than it would from some others.”
I nodded quietly.
“So, Harry Dresden,” King Gwynn said, “I’ll be glad t’consider it, if ye say the Cubs wish me to cease my efforts.”
I thought about it for a long time before I gave him my answer.
* * *
Mr. Donovan sat down in my office in a different ridiculously expensive suit and regarded me soberly. “Well?”
“The curse stays,” I said. “Sorry.”
Mr. Donovan frowned, as though trying to determine whether or not I was pulling his leg. “I would have expected you to declare it gone and collect your fee.”
“I have this weird thing where I take professional ethics seriously,” I said. I pushed a piece of paper at him and said, “My invoice.”
He took it and turned it over. “It’s blank,” he said.
“Why type it up when it’s just a bunch of zeroes?”
He stared at me even harder.
“Look at it this way,” I said. “You haven’t paused to consider the upside of the Billy Goat Curse.”
“Upside?” he asked. “To losing?”
“Exactly,” I said. “How many times have you heard people complaining that professional ball wasn’t about anything but money these days?”
“What does that have to do—”
“That’s why everyone’s so locked on the Series these days. Not necessarily because it means you’re the best, because you’ve risen to a challenge and prevailed. The Series means millions of dollars for the club, for businesses, all kinds of money. Even the fans get obsessed with the Series, like it’s the only significant thing in baseball. Don’t even get me started on the stadiums all starting to be named after their corporate sponsors.”
“Do you have a point?” Donovan asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Baseball is about more than money and victory. It’s about facing challenges alone and on a team. It’s about spending time with friends and family and neighbors in a beautiful park, watching the game unfold. It’s…” I sighed. “It’s about fun, Mr. Donovan.”
“And you are contending that the curse is fun?”
“Think about it,” I said. “The Cubs have the most loyal, diehard fan following in Major League ball. Those fans aren’t in it to see the Cubs run rampant over other teams because they’ve spent more money hiring the best players. You know they aren’t—because they all know about the curse. If you know your team isn’t going to carry off the Series, then cheering them on becomes something more than yelling when they’re beating someone. It’s about tradition. It’s about loyalty to the team and camaraderie with the other fans, and win or lose, just enjoying the damned game.”
I spread my hands. “It’s about fun again, Mr. Donovan. Wrigley Field might be the only stadium in professional ball where you can say that.”
Donovan stared at me as though I’d started speaking in Welsh. “I don’t understand.”
I sighed again. “Yeah. I know.”
* * *
My ticket was for general admission, but I thought I’d take a look around before the game got started. Carlos Zambrano was on the mound warming up when I sat down next to Gwynn ap Nudd.
Human size, he was considerably over six feet tall, and he was dressed in the same clothes I’d seen back at his baseball shrine. Other than that, he looked exactly the way I remembered him. He was talking to a couple of folks in the row behind him, animatedly relating some kind of tale that revolved around the incredible arc of a single game-deciding breaking ball. I waited until he was finished with the story, and turned back out to the field.
“Good day,” Gwynn said to me.
I nodded my head just a little bit deeply. “And to you.”
He watched Zambrano warming up and grinned. “They’re going to fight through it eventually,” he said. “There are so many mortals now. Too many players and fans want them to do it.” His voice turned a little sad. “One day they will.”
My equations and I had eventually come to the same conclusion. “I know.”
“But you want me to do it now, I suppose,” he said. “Or else why would you be here?”
I flagged down a beer vendor and bought one for myself and one for Gwynn.
He stared at me for a few seconds, his head tilted to one side.
“No business,” I said, passing him one of the beers. “How about we just enjoy the game?”
Gwynn ap Nudd’s handsome face broke into a wide smile, and we both settled back in our seats as the Cubs took the cursed field.
Copyright © 2011 by Ellen Datlow
Meet the Author
Multiple award-winning editor Ellen Datlow has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for almost thirty years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and has edited more than fifty anthologies, including the horror half of the long-running The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. She lives in New York.
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