This story occurs between Small Favor and Turn Coat The first thing I thought, looking at the roomful of baby Wardens, was They all look so darned young. The close second was, My God, am I getting old?
“Okay, children,” I said, closing the door behind me. I had rented an alleged conference center in a little Chicago hotel not too far from the airport, which amounted to a couple of rooms big enough for twenty or thirty people-if they were friendly-plus several dozen chairs, and a few rickety old folding tables.
They didn’t even provide a cooler of water-just directions to their vending machines.
After me and my fellow Warden-Commander in the United States, Warden Ramirez, had gotten done learning the little Warden-kind up on their mayhem, for the sake of getting them killed in a war as quickly as possible, we thought it might be nice to give them a little instruction in other things, too. Ramirez was going to cover the course on relations with mortal authorities, which made sense-Ramirez got on just fine with the cops in LA, and hadn’t been shot by nearly as many law enforcement personnel as I had.
The kids had all come to Chicago to learn about independent investigation of supernatural threats from me-which also made sense, because I’d done more of that, relative to my tender years, than any other wizard on the planet.
“Okay, okay,” I said to the room. The young Wardens became silent and attentive at once. No shock, there-the disruptive ones who didn’t pay attention during lessons had mostly been killed and maimed in the war with the Red Court. Darwin always thought that it paid to be a quick learner. The war had simply made the penalty for not learning quite a bit steeper.
“You’re here,” I said, “to learn about investigating supernatural threats on your own. You’ll learn about finding and hunting Warlocks from Captain Luccio, whenever the Reds give us enough time for it. Warlocks, our own kind gone bad, aren’t the most common opponent you’ll find yourself facing. Far more often, you’re going to run up against other threats.”
Ilyana, a young woman with extremely pale skin and eyes of nearly white ice-blue, raised her hand and spoke in a clipped Russian accent when I nodded to her. “What kinds of threats?” she asked. “In the practical sense. What foes have you faced?”
I held up my hands and flipped up a finger for each foe. “Demons, werewolves, ghosts, faeries, fallen angels, Black Court vampires, Red Court vampires, White Court vampires, cultists, necromancers,” I paused to waggle one foot, standing with three limbs in the air, “zombies, specters, phobophages, half-blood scions, jann…” I waved my hands and foot around a bit more. “I’d need to borrow a few people to do the whole list. Get the picture?”
A few smiles had erupted at my antics, but they sobered up after a moment’s consideration.
I nodded and stuck my hands into my pockets. “Knowledge is quite literally power and will save your life. When you know what you’re facing, you can deal with it. Walk into a confrontation blind, and you’re begging to get your families added to the Wardens’ death-benefits list.” I let that sink in for a few seconds before continuing. “You can’t ever be sure what you’re going to come up against. But you can be sure about how to approach the investigation.”
I turned to the old blackboard on the wall behind me and scribbled on it with the stub of a piece of chalk. “I call it the Four As,” I said, and wrote four As down the left side of the board. “Granted, it doesn’t translate as neatly to other languages, but you can make up your own nativetongue mnemonic devices later.” I used the first A to spell “Ascertain.”
“Ascertain,” I said, firmly. “Before you can deal with the threat, you’ve got to know that it exists, and you’ve got to know who the threat’s intended target is. A lot of times, that target is going to cry out for help. Whatever city you’re based in, it’s going to be your responsibility to work out how best to hear that scream. But sometimes there’s no outcry. So keep your eyes and ears open, kids. Ascertain the threat. Become aware of the problem.”
My car didn’t make it all the way to Kansas City. It broke down about thirty miles short of town, and I had to call a wrecker. I had planned on being there before dark, but between walking eleven miles to find an increasingly rare pay phone and dumping most of my cash into a tow-truck driver’s pocket, and the collapse of an office computer network that delayed picking up a rental car for an extra hour and a half, I wound up pulling to the curb of a residential address a couple of minutes before nine in the evening.
I’d gotten the address from a contact on the Paranet-the organization made up mostly of men and women who didn’t have enough magical power to be accepted into the ranks of the White Council or to protect themselves from major predators, but who had more than enough mojo to make them juicy targets. For the past year, I and others like me had been working hard to teach them how to defend themselves-and one of the first things they were to do was notify someone upstream in the Paranet’s organization that they were in trouble.
One such call had been bucked up to me, and here I was, answering.
Before I had closed the door of the car, a spare, tense-looking man in his forties came out of the house and walked quickly toward me.
“Harry Dresden?” he called.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Car trouble,” I said. “Are you Yardly?”
He stopped across the hood of the car from me, frowning severely. He was average height, and wore most of a business suit, including the tie. His black hair was cut into a short brush. He looked like the kind of guy who solved his problems through ferocious focus and mulish determination, and who tolerated no nonsense along the way.
“I’m Yardly,” he said. “Can you show me some ID?”
I almost smiled. “You want to see my American Association of Wizards card?”
Yardly didn’t smile. “Your driver’s license will do.”
“If I was a shapeshifter,” I said, passing him the license, “this wouldn’t help.”
Yardly produced a little UV flashlight and shined it onto the license. “I’m more concerned about a simple con man.” He passed me the license back. “I’m not really into my sister’s group. Whatever they are. But she’s had it rough lately and I’m not going to see her hurt any more. Do you understand?”
“Most big brothers stop making threats about their little sisters after high school.”
“I must be remedial,” Yardly said. “If you abuse Megan in any way, you’ll answer to me.”
I felt my mouth lift up on one side. “You’re a cop.”
“Detective Lieutenant,” he said. “I asked Chicago PD for their file on you. They think you’re a fraud.”
“And you don’t?”
He grunted. “Megan doesn’t. I learned a long time ago that a smart man doesn’t discount her opinion out of hand.”
He stared at me with hard and opaque eyes and I realized, in a flash of insight, that the man was tense because he was operating on unfamiliar ground. You couldn’t read it in his face, but it was there if you knew what to look for. A certain set of the shoulders, a twitch along the jawline, as if some part of him was ready to whirl around and sink his teeth into a threat that he could feel creeping up behind him.
Yardly was afraid. Not for himself, maybe, but the man was terrified.
“Megan says shrinks can’t help with this one,” he said quietly. “She says maybe you can.”
“Let’s find out,” I said.
“Second A,” I said to the Wardenlets, writing on the chalkboard as I did. “Analysis.”
“How do you get an ogre to lay down on the couch, Harry?” called a young man with the rounded vowels of a northern accent in his speech. The room quivered with the laughter of young people.
“That’s enough out of you, there, McKenzie, you hoser,” I shot back, in a parody of the same accent. “Give me a break here, eh?”
I got a bigger laugh than the heckler. Which is how you make sure the heckler doesn’t steal the show from you.
“Pipe down,” I said, and waited for them to settle. “Thank you. Your second step is always analysis. Even when you know what you’re dealing with, you’ve got to know why it’s happening. If you’ve got an angry ghost, it’s generally angry for a reason. If a new pack of ghouls has moved in down the block, they’ve generally picked their spot for a reason.”
Ilyana raised her hand again and I pointed at her.
“What does it matter?” she asked. “Ghost or ghoul is causing problem, still we are dealing with them, yes?” She pointed her finger like a gun and dropped her thumb like the weapon’s hammer on the word “dealing.”
“If you’re stupid, yeah,” I said.
She didn’t look pleased at my response.
“I used to have a similar attitude,” I said. I held up my left hand. It was a mass of old scars, and not the pretty kind. It had been burned, and badly, several years before. Wizards heal up better than regular folks, over the long term. I could move it again, and I had feeling back in parts of all the fingers. But it still wasn’t a pretty picture. “An hour or two of work would have told me enough about the situation I was walking into to let me avoid this,” I told them. It was the truth. Pretty much. “Learn everything you possibly can.”
Ilyana frowned at me.
McKenzie raised his hand, frowning soberly, and I nodded at him.
“Learn more. Okay. How?”
I spread my hands. “Never let yourself think you know all the ways to learn,” I said. “Expand your own knowledge base. Read. Talk to other wizards. Hell, you might even go to school.”
That got me another laugh. I went on before it gathered much momentum.
“Warden Canuck there was onto something earlier, too. People are people. Learn about what makes them tick. Monsters are the same way. Find ways to emulate their thinking,”-I wasn’t even going to try a phrase like Get into their heads, thank you-“and you’ll have insight into their actions and their probable intentions.
“Information-gathering spells can be darned handy,” I continued, “but if you’ll forgive the expression, they aren’t magic. The information you get from them can be easily misread, and it will almost never let you see past one of your own blind spots. You can seek answers from other planes, but if you go bargaining with supernatural beings for knowledge, things can get dangerous, fast. Sometimes what you get from them is invaluable. Most of the time, it could be had another way. Approach that particular well with extreme caution.”
To emphasize those last two words, I stared slowly around the room in pure challenge, daring anyone to disagree with me. The young people dropped their eyes from mine. Eye contact with a wizard is tricky-it can trigger a soulgaze, and that isn’t the kind of thing you want happening to you casually.
“Honestly,” I said into the silence, letting my voice become gentler, more conversational, “the best thing you can do is communicate. Talk to the people involved. Your victims, if they can speak to you. Their family. Witnesses. Friends. Most of the time, everything you need is something they already know. Most of the time, that’s the fastest, safest, easiest way to get it.”
McKenzie raised his hand again, and I nodded.
“Most of the time?” he asked.
“That’s the thing about people,” I said, quietly, so they would pay attention. “Whether it’s to you or to everyone or just to themselves-people lie.”
Megan Yardly was a single mother of three. She was in her early thirties and looked it, had gorgeous red hair and bright green eyes. She and her children lived in a suburb that was more “sub” than “urb,” southeast of KC, named Peculiar.
Peculiar, Missouri. You can’t make these things up.
Megan opened the door, nodded to her brother, looked up at me and said, “You’re him. You’re the wizard.” Her eyes narrowed. “Your… your car broke down. And you think the name of our town is a bad joke…” She nodded, like a musician who has picked up on a beat and a chord progression. “And you think this probably isn’t a supernatural problem.”
I lifted my eyebrows. “You’re one hell of a sensitive.”
She nodded. “You were expecting someone who was good at cold reading.”
“A lot of professional psychics are,” I said. I smiled. “So are you.”
She arched an eyebrow at me.
“There’s at least a fair chance that if someone is late to what is perceived as an important appointment that car trouble is to blame, particularly if they show up in a rental car. Most people who hadn’t grown up around a town named Peculiar would think the name was odd.” I grinned at her. “And gosh. A lot of professional investigators are just a tad cynical.”
Her expression broke and she laughed. “Apparently.” She turned from me and kissed her brother on the cheek. “Ben.”
“Child services was here again today,” she said, her tone neutral.
“Dammit,” Yardly said. “How’s Kat?”
She waggled a hand in the air, but her face suddenly aged ten years. “The same.”
“Meg, the doctors-”
“Not again, Ben,” she said, closing her eyes briefly. She shook her head once, and Yardly shut his jaws with an audible click. Megan looked down at the ground for a moment and then up at me. “So. Harry Dresden. High Mucketymuck of the White Council.”
“Actually,” I said, “I’m a fairly low mucketymuck. Or maybe a mucketymuck militant. High mucketymucks-”
“Wouldn’t come to Peculiar?”
“You’re really into interruption, aren’t you?” I said, smiling. “I was going to say, they wouldn’t have a problem with their car.”
“Oh, God,” she said. “I think I like you.”
“Give it time,” I said.
She nodded, slowly. Then she said, with gentle emphasis, “Please, come into my home.”
She stepped back, and I came into the little house, crossing over the threshold, the curtain of gentle, powerful energy that surrounds every home. Her invitation meant that the curtain parted for me, letting me bring my power with me. I exhaled, slowly, tightening my metaphysical muscles and feeling my power put a silent, invisible strain on the air around me.
Megan inhaled suddenly, sharply, and took a step back from me.
“Ah,” I said. “You are a sensitive.”
She shook her head once, and then held up her hand to forestall her brother. “Ben, it’s fine. He’s…” She looked at me again, her expression pensive, fragile. “He’s the real deal.”
We sat down in the little living room. It was littered with children’s toys. The place didn’t look like an animal pit-just busy and well-loved. I sat in a comfy chair. Megan sat perched at the edge of her couch. Yardly hovered, evidently unable to bring himself to sit.
“So,” I said quietly. “You think something is tormenting your daughters.”
“How old are they?”
“Kat is twelve. Tamara is four.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “Tell me about what happens.”
Sometimes I seem to have the damnedest sense of timing. No sooner had I asked the question than a high-pitched scream cut the air, joined an instant later by another one.
“Oh, God,” Megan said, and flew up to her feet and out of the room.
I followed her, but more slowly, as the screaming continued. She hurried down a short hallway to a room with a trio of large cartoon girl-figures I didn’t recognize. They had freaking huge eyes, though. Megan emerged a moment later, carrying a dark-haired moppet in pink and white striped footy pajamas. The little girl was clinging to her mother with all four limbs and kept screaming, her eyes squeezed tight shut.
The sound was heart-wrenching. She was terrified.
I had to stop short as Megan immediately took two quick steps toward me and plunged through the next doorway. This one had a poster of a band of young men on it I didn’t recognize. One looked rebellious and sullen, one wacky and lighthearted, one sober and stable, and one handsomely vogue. Another Monkees reincarnation, basically.
I went to the door and saw Megan, with her clinging moppet, sit down on the bed and start gently shaking the shoulder of a girl with her mother’s hair, presumably Kat. She was screaming, too, but she broke out of it a moment later, the instant her eyes fluttered open.
The moppet, presumably Tamara, stopped screaming, too, and at exactly the same time. Then they both burst into less-hysterical tears and clung to their mother.
Megan’s face was anguished, but her voice and her hands were gentle as she touched them, spoke to them, reassured them. If she was an empath as sensitive as her file and her reaction to my test suggested, then she had to be in terrible psychic pain. She pushed enough of it aside to be there for her kids, though.
“Dammit,” I heard Yardly breathe from the hall behind me. It was a tired oath.
“Interesting,” I said. “Excuse me.”
I turned and paced down the hallway to the younger child’s room, and nearly tripped over a dark-haired child, a boy who might have been eight. He was wearing underwear and a T-shirt with a cartoon Jedi Knight on it, which raised my opinion of his mother immediately. The kid’s eyes weren’t even open, and he raised his arms blindly.
I picked him up, and carried him with me into the little bedroom.
It wasn’t large-nothing about Megan’s house was. One of the beds was pink and festooned with the same three big-eyed girls. The other was surrounded in the plastic shell of a Star Wars landspeeder. I plopped the young Jedi back into it, and he promptly curled into a ball and went to sleep.
I covered him up with a blanket and turned to examine the rest of the room. Not much to it. A lot of toys, most of them more or less put away, and a dresser which the two kids evidently shared, a little table and chairs, and a closet.
A nice, shadowy closet.
I grunted and got on the floor to peer beneath the little pink bed. Then I squinted at the closet. If I was four and lying on the girl’s bed, the closet would be looming right past the ends of my toes.
I closed my eyes for a moment and reached out with my wizard’s senses, feeling the flow and ebb of energy through the house. Within the defensive wall of the threshold, other energy pulsed and moved-emotions from the house’s inhabitants, random energies sifting in from outdoors, the usual.
But not in the closet. There wasn’t anything at all in that closet.
“Ah hah,” I said.
“Third A,” I said, writing on the board. “Assemble.”
“Avengers…” said McKenzie.
“Assemble!” crowed the young Wardens in unison.
They’re good kids.
“That is, in fact, one potential part of this phase of the investigation,” I said, taking the conversation back in hand as I nodded my approval. “Sometimes, once you’ve figured out what’s going on, you go and round up reinforcements. But what assembling really means, for our purposes, is putting everything together. You’ve got your information. Now you need to decide what to do with it. You plan what steps you need to take. You work out the possible consequences of your actions.”
“Here’s where you use your brain. If the foe has a weakness, you figure out how to exploit it. If you’ve got an advantage of terrain, you figure out how to use it. If you need specialized gear or equipment to help, here’s where you get it.” I started a stack of papers around the room. “There’s recipes on these handouts for a couple of the most common things you’ll use: an antidote for Red Court venom, which you’re familiar with, and an ointment for your eyes that’ll let you see through most faerie glamour, which you may not know about. Get used to making these.”
I took a deep breath. “This is also the stage where sometimes you do some math.”
The room was very quiet for a moment.
“Yeah,” I said. “Here’s where you decide whose life to risk, or whose isn’t worth risking. Here’s where you decide who you can save and who is already gone past saving. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for a while. Some of my seniors in the Council would call me foolish, or arrogant, and they could be right-but I’ve never met anyone who was breathing who I thought was too far gone to help.”
“You’ve got a boogeyman,” I told Megan an hour later.
Megan frowned at me. “A… a…?”
“A boogeyman,” I said. “Sometimes known as a boggle or a boggart. It’s a weak form of phobophage-a fear-eater, mostly insubstantial. This one is pretty common. Feeds on a child’s fear.”
Yardly’s eyebrows tried to climb into his hair.
“That isn’t possible,” Megan said. “I’d… I’d sense something like that. I’d feel it. I’ve felt things like that before. Several ghosts. Once, a poltergeist.”
“Not this one,” I said. “You’re too old.”
She cocked an eyebrow at me. “Excuse me?”
“Ahem. I mean, you’re an adult.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“Only kids can sense them,” I said. “Part of their nature conceals them from older awarenesses.”
“The threshold,” Meg said. “It should keep such things out.”
“Sometimes they ride in with someone in the family. Sometimes if a child has a vivid enough dream, it can open up a window in the Nevernever that the boggart uses to skip in. They can use mirrors, sometimes, too.”
“Nevernever?” Yardly asked.
“The spirit world,” I clarified.
“Oh, what bullshit, Meg-” Yardly said.
Megan stood up, her eyes blazing. “Benjamin.” The tension between them crackled silently in the air for several seconds.
“Crap,” he snarled, finally, and stalked out the front door. He let it slam behind him.
Megan stared at the door, her lips tight. Then she turned back to me. “If what you say is true, then how can you sense it?” she asked.
“I can’t,” I said. “That was the giveaway. The rest of your house feels normal. The closet in the younger kids’ room is a black hole.”
“Jesus,” Megan said, turning. “Tamara and Joey are asleep in there.”
“Relax,” I said. “They’re safe for now. It already ate tonight. It isn’t going to do it again. And it can’t physically hurt them. All it can do is scare them.”
“All it can do?” Megan asked. “Do you have any idea what they’ve gone through? She says she never even remembers waking up screaming, but Kat’s grades are down from straight As to Cs. She hasn’t slept a solid night in six months. Tamara has stopped talking. She doesn’t say more than a dozen words a day.” Her eyes shone, but she was too proud to let me see tears fall. “Don’t tell me that my children aren’t being hurt.”
I winced and held up my hands placatingly. “You’re right. Okay? I’m sorry, I picked the wrong words.” I took a deep breath and exhaled. “The point is that now that we know about it, we can do something.”
“It will be better if someone in the family helps with the exorcism, yeah.”
“Exorcism?” she asked. She stared at the doorway Yardly had gone out.
“Sure,” I said. “It’s your house, not the boogeyman’s. If I show you how, are you willing to kick that thing’s ass?”
“Yes,” she said. Her voice was hard.
“Might be dangerous,” I said. “I’ve got your back, but there’s always a risk. You sure?”
Megan turned to face me and her eyes blazed.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I thought.”
“Last A,” I said, writing. “Act.”
“That seems obvious,” Ilyana said.
“Sure,” I said. “But it’s where everything gets decided. And it’s always a gamble. You’re betting that you’ve seen everything clearly, that you know everything that’s going on.”
“Yes,” Ilyana said, her tone somewhat exasperated. “That is the purpose of the first three ahs.”
“Ays,” McKenzie corrected her absently. “Eh?”
Ilyana speared him with an icy gaze. “Whatever. Already we are discovering what is happening. That was the point of the methodology.”
“Ah,” I said, lifting a finger. “But do you know everything? Are you so sure you know exactly what’s happening? Especially when you’re about to put the safety of yourself or others on the line?”
Ilyana looked confused. “Why would I not be sure?”
I smiled faintly.
The next evening, the children went to bed at nine. They stopped asking for drinks, searching for the next day’s clothing, waving glow-in-the-dark light sabers in the air, and otherwise acting like children by nine-thirty. They were all sleeping by nine thirty-five.
Megan, a surly Yardly, and I immediately got ready to ambush the boogeyman.
While Megan collected clipped hairs from her childrens’ heads, Yardly and I cleared off enough carpet for me to take a container of salt and pour it out into a circle on the carpet. You can use just about anything to make a magic circle, but salt is often the most practical. It’s a symbol of the earth, and of purity, and it doesn’t draw ants.
You only use sugar to make a circle on the carpet once. Let me tell you.
Meg returned and I nodded toward the circle. “In there.”
She went over to the circle, being careful not to disturb it, and dropped the locks of hair from her children, bound together by long strands of her own coppery curls, into the center of the circle.
“Right,” I said. “Meg, stand in the circle with them.”
She took a deep breath and then did it, turning to face the open, darkened closet. Her breathing was slow, but not steady. She was smart enough to be scared.
“Remember what I said,” I told her quietly. “When you feel it on you, close that circle and think of your children.”
She nodded tightly.
“I’m right here,” I told her. “It gets bad, I’ll step in. You can do this.”
“Right,” she said, in a very thin voice.
I nodded to her, trying to look calm and confident. She needed that. Then I stepped back out into the hallway. Yardly came with me, and closed the door behind him, leaving Megan and her children in the dark.
“I don’t get it,” he said in a low, quiet voice. “How’s it supposed to help the kids if they’re asleep?”
I gave him a look. “By destroying the creature that’s attacking them?”
His lips twisted sourly. “It’s a prophylactic effect thing, right?”
“Placebo effect,” I sighed. “And no, it isn’t.”
“Because there’s a real monster,” he said.
I nodded. “Sure.”
He eyed me for a while. “You’re serious. You believe it.”
Yardly looked like he wanted to sidle a few more feet away from me. He didn’t.
“How’s this supposed to work?” he asked.
“The kids’ hair is going to substitute for them,” I said. “As far as the boogeyman is concerned, the hairs are the children. Like using a set of clothes you’ve worn to leave a false scent trail for something following your scent.”
Yardly frowned. “Okay.”
“Your sister’s hair is bound around them,” I said. “Binding her to the kids. She’s close to them, obviously loves them. That’s got a kind of power in it. She’s going to be indistinguishable from the children, to the boogeyman.”
“She’s a decoy?”
“She’s a damned land mine,” I said. “Boogeymen go after children because they’re weak. Too weak to stand up to an adult mind and will. So once this thing gets into the circle, she closes it and tears it to shreds.”
“Then why is she afraid?” he asked.
“Because the boogeyman has power. It’s going to tear at her mind. It’ll hurt. If she falters, it might be able to hurt her bad.”
Yardly just stared at me for a long, silent moment. Then he said, “You aren’t a con man. You believe it.”
“Yeah,” I said, and leaned back against the wall. It might be a long wait.
“I don’t know what’s scarier,” Yardly said. “If you’re crazy. Or if you’re not.”
“Kids are sensitive,” I said. “They’ll take the lead from their mom. If mom is scared and worried, they will be, too. If it helps, think of this as my way of giving the kids a magic feather.”
Yardly frowned and then nodded. “Like Dumbo.”
“Yep,” I said. “Couple months from now, that will be the easiest way to understand it.”
He let out a short, bitter bark of laughter. “Yeah?”
“You do this a lot.”
We waited in silence for about half an hour. Then Yardly said, “I work violent crimes.”
I turned my head to look at him.
“I helped get my sister set up out here in Peculiar to get her away from the city. Make sure her kids are safe. You know?”
“I hear you.”
“I’ve seen bad things,” Yardly said quietly. “I don’t… It scares the hell out of me to think of my nieces, my nephew, becoming another one of the pictures in my head.”
I nodded and listened.
“I worked this case last week,” Yardly said a moment later. “Wife and kids got beaten a lot. Our hands were tied. Couldn’t put this guy away. One night he goes too far with a knife. Kills the wife, one of the kids. Leaves the other one with scars all over her face…” His own face turned pale. “And now this is happening. The kids are falling apart. Child services is going to take them away if something doesn’t change.”
I grunted. “I grew up in the system,” I said. “Orphan.”
“Something’s going to change,” I said.
He nodded again, and we went silent once more.
Sometime between eleven thirty and midnight, a scream erupted from the older child’s room.
Yardly and I both looked up, blinking.
“Kat,” he said.
“What the hell,” I muttered.
A few seconds later, the little girl started screaming, too, that same painfully high-pitched tone I’d heard the night before.
And then Megan started screaming, too.
“Dammit!” Yardly said. He drew his gun and was a step behind me as I pushed open the door to Joey and Tamara’s room.
Megan was crouched in the circle of salt, swaying. The lights were flickering on and off. As I came in, Joey sat up with a wail, obviously tired and frightened.
I could see something in the circle with Megan, a shadow that fled an instant after the lights came up, slower than the rest. It was about the size of a chimpanzee and it clung to her shoulders and waist with indistinct limbs, its head moving as if ripping with fangs at her face.
Megan’s expression was twisted in pain and fear. I didn’t blame her. Holy crap, that was the biggest boogeyman I’d ever seen. They usually weren’t much bigger than a raccoon.
“Meg!” Yardly screamed, and started forward.
I caught his arm. “Don’t break the circle!” I shouted. “Get the kids out of here! Get the kids!”
He only hesitated for a second before he seized Tamara and Joey and hauled them out of the room, one under each arm.
I went to the edge of the circle and debated what to do. Dammit, what had this thing been eating? If I broke the circle, it would be free to escape-and it was freaking supercharged on the dark spiritual equivalent of adrenaline. It would fight like hell to escape and come back the next night, bigger and hungrier than ever.
Nasty as the thing was, Megan still ought to be able to beat it. She was a sensitive, feeling the emotions and pieces of the thoughts of others thanks to a naturally developed talent, something that would manifest as simple intuition. It would mean that she would have developed a certain amount of defensive ability, just to keep from going nuts in a crowd.
“Megan!” I said. “You can beat this thing! Think of your kids!”
“They’re hurting!” she screamed. “I can feel them!”
“Your brother has them, they’re fine!” I called back. “That’s a lie it’s trying to push on you! Don’t let it trick you!”
Megan glanced up at me, desperate, and I saw her face harden. She turned her face back into the shadowy assault of the flailing boggart and her lips peeled back from her teeth with a snarl.
“They’re mine,” she spat, the words sizzling with vitriol. “My babies. And you can’t touch them anymore!”
“Begone!” I called to her. “Tell it to begone!”
“Begone!” Megan screamed. “Begone! BEGONE!”
There was a surge of sound, a thunderous non-explosion, as if all the air in the room had suddenly rushed into a ball just in front of Megan’s pain-twisted face. Then there was a flash of light, a hollow-sounding scream, and a shockwave lashed out, scattering the salt of the circle, rattling toys, and pushing against my chest. I staggered back against the wall and turned my face away as a fine cloud of salt blasted out and rattled against the walls with a hiss.
Megan fell to her knees and started sobbing. I reached out around me with my senses, but felt no inexplicable absence in the aura of the house. The boogeyman was gone.
I went to Megan’s side at once and crouched down to touch her shoulder. She flung herself against me, still sobbing.
Ben Yardly appeared in the doorway to the room a few moments later. He had Joey in one arm, and Tamara in the other. Kat stood so close she was practically in his pocket, holding onto the hem of his jacket as if he was her own personal teddy bear.
“Okay,” I said quietly. “It’s okay. The thing is gone. Your mom stopped it.”
Kat stared at me for a moment, tears in her eyes, and then ran to Megan and flung herself against her mother. That drove Joey and Tamara into motion, and they both squirmed out of Yardly’s arms and ran to their mother.
“Thank you,” Megan said. She freed one hand from her children long enough to touch my arm. “Wizard. Thank you.”
I felt a little bit sick. But I gave her my best, modest smile.
I finished the recounting for the young Wardens and let the silence fall.
“What was my mistake?” I asked.
No one said anything.
“I trusted the process too much,” I said. “I thought I had already analyzed the whole situation. Found the problem. Identified the source of the danger. But I was wrong. You all know what I did. What happened?”
No one said anything.
“The boggart I’d identified wasn’t the source of the attacks. It was just feeding on the fear they generated in the kids. It hadn’t needed to expend any energy at all to generate nightmares and fear in them. All it had to do was feed. That’s why it was so large.
“The source of the attacks wasn’t an attack at all,” I said. “Ben Yardly’s job had exposed him to some pretty bad things-memories and images that wouldn’t go away. Some of you who fought in the war know what I’m talking about.”
McKenzie, Ilyana, and a few others gave me sober nods.
“Kat Yardly was the eldest daughter of her mother, a fairly gifted sensitive. She was twelve years old.”
“Damn,” McKenzie said, his eyes widening in realization.
“Yes, of course,” Ilyana said. The other students turned to look at her. “The eldest daughter was a sensitive, too-perhaps a skilled one. She had picked up on those images in her uncle’s mind and was having nightmares about them.”
“What about the little girl?” I asked.
McKenzie took over. “Kat must have been a pusher, too,” he said, using the slang for someone who could broadcast thoughts or emotions to others. “She was old enough to be a surrogate mother to the younger daughter. They were probably linked somehow.”
“Exactly, Warden McKenzie,” I said quietly. “All the pieces were in front of me, and I just didn’t put them together. I figured the situation for a simple boogeyman infestation. I set up Megan to do the heavy lifting because I thought it would be relatively safe and would work out the best for the family. I was wrong.”
“But it did work out,” Ilyana said, something tentative in her voice for the first time that day.
“You kidding?” I asked. “That big boggart inflicted mental trauma on Megan that took her most of a year to recover from. She had her own nightmares for a while.” I sighed. “I went back to her and gave her and her daughter some exercises to do that would help insulate them both. Kat’s problems improved, and everything worked out fine-but it almost didn’t. If Yardly had panicked and used his gun, if someone had broken the circle, or if Megan Yardly hadn’t bought my lie about the boggart pushing a falsehood on her, it might have ripped out her sanity altogether. I might have put three kids into the foster care system.
“Arrogance,” I said quietly, and wrote it on the board, beneath the rest. “That’s the fifth A. We carry it around with us. It’s natural. We know a lot more than most people. We can do a lot more than most people. There’s a natural and understandable pride in that. But when we let that pride get in the way, and take the place of truly seeing what is around us, there can be horrible consequences. Watch out for that fifth A, children. The Yardlys turned out all right mostly out of pure luck. They deserve better from me. And from you.
“Always keep your eyes open. Learn all that you can-and then try to learn some more.”
I took a deep breath and then nodded. “Okay. We’ll break for lunch, and then we’ll look at another case I didn’t screw up quite as badly. Back here in an hour. Dismissed.”
The young Wardens got up and dispersed-except for McKenzie and Ilyana. The two came down to stand beside me.
“Commander,” McKenzie said. “This girl, Kat. Most of the talented mortals only demonstrate a single talent. She demonstrated at least two.”
“I’m aware,” I said.
“This girl,” Ilyana said. “Her talents were born in trauma and fear. This is one of the warning signs of a potential warlock.”
“Yeah,” I said. My talents had started in a similar fashion. “I heard that once.”
“So… she is under surveillance?” Ilyana asked.
“I drop in on her once in a while,” I said.
“That poor kid,” McKenzie said. “What do we do?”
I spread my hands. “It’s an imperfect world, Wardens. We do what we always do.” I smiled at them lopsidedly. “Whatever we can.”
They both looked down, frowning, concerned-concerned for a little girl who had no idea of what might be waiting for her.
The lesson hadn’t been wasted.
“Okay, guys,” I said. “Burger King?”
That perked them both up, though Ilyana, benighted soul that she was, didn’t react with joy at the utterance of the holy name of the Mount Olympus of fast food. We left together.
You do whatever you can.
BOGGARTS: These things flee when confronted unless they’re trapped. They’re Spirit Form creatures, with Incite emotion, Feeding Dependency on fear, a constant high quality veil that adults can’t see through but kids can, and a Physical Immunity. Not much of a Catch on that either-you have to confront them psychically, using Conviction or Discipline to attack. But once they’re seen, they’re vulnerable to those attacks from nearly anyone.
This story occurs between AAAA Wizardry and Changes A successful murder is like a successful restaurant: ninety percent of it is about location, location, location.
Three men in black hoods knelt on the waterfront warehouse floor, their wrists and ankles trussed with heavy plastic quick-ties. There were few lights. They knelt over a large, faded stain on the concrete floor, left behind by the hypocritically named White Council of Wizards during their last execution.
I nodded to Hendricks, who took the hood off the first man, then stood clear. The man was young and good-looking. He wore an expensive yet ill-fitting suit and even more expensive yet tasteless jewelry.
“Where are you from?” I asked him.
He sneered at me. “What’s it to y-”
I shot him in the head as soon as I heard the bravado in his voice. The body fell heavily to the floor.
The other two jumped and cursed, their voices angry and terrified.
I took the hood off the second man. His suit was a close cousin of the dead man’s, and I thought I recognized its cut. “Boston?” I asked him.
“You can’t do this to us,” he said, more angry than frightened. “Do you know who we are?”
Once I heard the nasal quality of the word “are,” I shot him.
I took off the third man’s hood. He screamed and fell away from me. “Boston,” I said, nodding, and put the barrel of my.45 against the third man’s forehead. He stared at me, showing the whites of his eyes. “You know who I am. I run drugs in Chicago. I run the numbers, the books. I run the whores. It’s my town. Do you understand?”
His body jittered in what might have been a nod. His lips formed the word “yes,” though no sound came out.
“I’m glad you can answer a simple question,” I told him, and lowered the gun. “I want you to tell Mr. Morelli that I won’t be this lenient the next time his people try to clip the edges of my territory.” I looked at Hendricks. “Put the three of them in a sealed trailer and rail-freight them back to Boston, care of Mr. Morelli.”
Hendricks was a large, trustworthy man, his red hair cropped in a crew cut. He twitched his chin in the slight motion that he used for a nod when he disapproved of my actions but intended to obey me anyway.
Hendricks and the cleaners on my staff would handle the matter from here.
I passed him the gun and the gloves on my hands. Both would see the bottom of Lake Michigan before I was halfway home, along with the two slugs the cleaners would remove from the site. When they were done, there would be nothing left of the two dead men but a slight variation on the outline of the stain in the old warehouse floor, where no one would look twice in any case.
Location, location, location.
Obviously, I am not Harry Dresden. My name is something I rarely trouble to remember, but for most of my adult life, I have been called John Marcone.
I am a professional monster.
It sounds pretentious. After all, I’m not a flesh-devouring ghoul, hiding behind a human mask until it is time to gorge. I’m no vampire, to drain the blood or soul from my victim, no ogre, no demon, no cursed beast from the spirit world dwelling amid the unsuspecting sheep of humanity. I’m not even possessed of the mystic abilities of a mortal wizard.
But they will never be what I am. One and all, those beings were born to be what they are.
I made a choice.
I walked outside of the warehouse and was met by my consultant, Gard-a tall blond woman without makeup whose eyes continually swept her surroundings. She fell into step beside me as we walked to the car. “Two?”
“They couldn’t be bothered to answer a question in a civil manner.”
She opened the back door for me and I got in. I picked up my personal weapon and slipped it into the holster beneath my left arm while she settled down behind the wheel. She started driving and then said, “No. That wasn’t it.”
“It was business.”
“And the fact that one of them was pushing heroin to thirteen-year-old girls and the other was pimping them out had nothing to do with it,” Gard said.
“It was business,” I said, enunciating. “Morelli can find pushers and pimps anywhere. A decent accountant is invaluable. I sent his bookkeeper back as a gesture of respect.”
“You don’t respect Morelli.”
I almost smiled. “Perhaps not.”
I did not answer. She didn’t push the issue, and we rode in silence back to the office. As she put the car in park, I said, “They were in my territory. They broke my rule.”
“No children,” she said.
“No children,” I said. “I do not tolerate challenges, Ms. Gard. They’re bad for business.”
She looked at me in the mirror, her blue eyes oddly intent, and nodded.
There was a knock at my office door, and Gard thrust her head in, her phone’s earpiece conspicuous. “There’s a problem.”
Hendricks frowned from his seat at a nearby desk. He was hunched over a laptop that looked too small for him, plugging away at his thesis. “What kind of problem?”
“An Accords matter,” Gard said.
Hendricks sat up straight and looked at me.
I didn’t look up from one of my lawyer’s letters, which I receive too frequently to let slide. “Well,” I said, “we knew it would happen eventually. Bring the car.”
“I don’t have to,” Gard said. “The situation came to us.”
I set aside the finished letter and looked up, resting my fingertips together. “Interesting.”
Gard brought the problem in. The problem was young and attractive. In my experience, the latter two frequently lead to the former. In this particular case, it was a young woman holding a child. She was remarkable-thick, rich, silver white hair, dark eyes, pale skin. She had very little makeup, which was fortunate in her case, since she looked as if she had recently been drenched. She wore what was left of a gray business skirt-suit, had a towel from one of my health clubs wrapped around her shoulders, and was shivering.
The child she held was too young to be in school and was also appealing, with rosy features, white blond hair, and blue eyes. Male or female, it hardly mattered at that age. They’re all beautiful. The child clung to the girl as if it would not be separated, and was also wrapped in a towel.
The girl’s body language was definitely protective. She had the kind of beauty that looked natural and… true. Her features and her bearing both spoke of gentleness and kindness.
I felt an immediate instinct to protect and comfort her.
I quashed it thoroughly.
I am not made of stone, but I have found it is generally best to behave as if I am.
I looked across the desk at her and said, “My people tell me you have asked for sanctuary under the terms of the Unseelie Accords, but that you have not identified yourself.”
“I apologize, sir,” she answered. “I was already being indiscreet enough just by coming here.”
“Indeed,” I said calmly. “I make it a point not to advertise the location of my business headquarters.”
“I didn’t want to add names to the issue,” she said, casting her eyes down in a gesture of submission that did not entirely convince me. “I wasn’t sure how many of your people were permitted access to this sort of information.”
I glanced past the young woman to Gard, who gave me a slow, cautious nod. Had the girl or the child been other than they appeared, Gard would have indicated in the negative. Gard costs me a fortune and is worth every penny.
Even so, I didn’t signal either her or Hendricks to stand down. Both of them watched the girl, ready to kill her if she made an aggressive move. Trust, but verify-that the person being trusted will be dead if she attempts betrayal.
“That was most considerate of you, Justine.”
The girl blinked at me several times. “Y-you know me.”
“You are a sometimes associate of Harry Dresden,” I said. “Given his proclivities about those he considers to be held under his aegis, it is sensible to identify as many of them as possible. For the sake of my insurance rates, if nothing else. Gard.”
“Justine, no last name you’ll admit to,” Gard said calmly, “currently employed as Lara Raith’s secretary and personal aide. You are the sometimes lover of Thomas Raith, a frequent ally of Dresden’s.”
I spread my hands slightly. “I assume the ‘j’ notation at the bottom of Ms. Raith’s typed correspondence refers to you.”
“Yes,” Justine said. She had regained her composure quickly-not something I would have expected of the servitor of a vampire of the White Court. Many of the… people, I suppose, I’d seen there had made lotus-eaters look self-motivated. “Yes, exactly.”
I nodded. “Given your patron, one is curious as to why you have come to me seeking protection.”
“Time, sir,” she replied quietly. “I lacked any other alternative.”
Someone screamed at the front of the building.
My headquarters shifts position irregularly, as I acquire new buildings. Much of my considerable wealth is invested in real estate. I own more of the town than any other single investor. In Chicago, there is always money to be had by purchasing and renovating aging buildings. I do much of my day-to-day work out of one of my most recent renovation projects, once they have been modified to be suitable places to welcome guests. Then, renovation of the building begins, and the place is generally crowded with contractors who have proven their ability to see and hear nothing.
Gard’s head snapped up. She shook it as if to rid herself of a buzzing fly and said, “A presence. A strong one.” Her blue eyes snapped to Justine. “Who?”
The young woman shuddered and wrapped the towel more tightly about herself. “Mag. A cantrev lord of the fomor.”
Gard spat something in a Scandinavian tongue that was probably a curse.
“Precis, please,” I said.
“The fomor are an ancient folk,” she said. “Water dwellers, cousins of the jotuns. Extremely formidable. Sorcerers, shape changers, seers.”
“And signatories,” I noted.
“Yes,” she said. She crossed to the other side of the room, opened a closet, and withdrew an athletic bag. She produced a simple, rather crude-looking broadsword from it and tossed it toward Hendricks. The big man caught it by the handle and took his gun into his left hand. Gard took a broad-bladed axe out of the bag and shouldered the weapon. “But rarely involved in mortal affairs.”
“Ms. Raith sent me to the fomor king with documents,” Justine said, her voice coming out quietly and rapidly. Her shivering had increased. “Mag made me his prisoner. I escaped with the child. There wasn’t time to reach one of my lady’s strongholds. I came to you, sir. I beg your protection, as a favor to Ms. Raith.”
“I don’t grant favors,” I said calmly.
Mag entered in the manner so many of these self-absorbed supernatural cretins seem to adore. He blasted the door into a cloud of flying splinters with what I presumed was magic.
For God’s sake.
At least the vampires would call for an appointment.
The blast amounted to little debris. After a few visits from Dresden and his ilk, I had invested in cheap, light doors at dramatic (as opposed to tactical) entry points.
The fomor was a pale, repellent humanoid. Seven feet tall, give or take, and distinctly froglike in appearance. He had a bloated belly, legs several inches too long to be proportionately human, and huge feet and hands. He wore a tunic of something that resembled seaweed beneath a long, flapping blue robe covered in the most intricate embroidery I had ever seen. A coronet of coral was bound about his head. His right hand was extended dramatically. He carried a twisted length of wood in his left.
His eyes bulged, jaundice yellow around septic green, and his teeth were rotted and filthy. “You cannot run from me,” he said. His wide mouth made the words seem somehow slurred. “You are mine.”
Justine looked up at me, evidently too frightened to turn her head, her eyes wide with fear. A sharper contrast would have been hard to manage. “Sir. Please.”
I touched a button on the undersurface of my desk, a motion of less than two inches, and then made a steeple of my hands again as I eyed Mag and said, “Excuse me, sir. This is a private office.”
Mag surged forward half a step, his eyes focused on the girl. “Hold your tongue, mortal, if you would keep it.”
I narrowed my eyes.
Is it so much to ask for civility?
“Justine,” I said calmly, “if you would stand aside, please.”
Justine quickly, silently, moved out from between us.
I focused on Mag and said, “They are under my protection.”
Mag gave me a contemptuous look and raised the staff. Darkness lashed at me, as if he had simply reached into the floorboards and cracks in the wall and drawn it into a sizzling sphere the size of a bowling ball.
It flickered away to nothingness about a foot in front of my steepled hands.
I lifted a finger and Hendricks shot Mag in the back. Repeatedly.
The fomor went down with a sound like a bubbling teakettle, whipped onto his back as if the bullets had been a minor inconvenience, and raised the stick to point at Hendricks.
Gard’s axe smashed it out of his grip, swooped back up to guard, and began to descend again.
“Stop,” I said.
Gard’s muscles froze just before she would have brought down the axe onto Mag’s head. Mag had one hand uplifted, surrounded in a kind of negative haze, his long fingers crooked at odd angles-presumably some kind of mystic defense.
“As a freeholding lord of the Unseelie Accords,” I said, “it would be considered an act of war if I killed you out of hand, despite your militant intrusion into my territory.” I narrowed my eyes. “However, your behavior gives me ample latitude to invoke the defense of property and self clause. I will leave the decision to you. Continue this asinine behavior, and I will kill you and offer a weregild to your lord, King Corb, in accordance with the conflict resolution guidelines of section two, paragraph four.”
As I told you, my lawyers send me endless letters. I speak their language.
Mag seemed to take that in for a moment. He looked at me, then Gard. His eyes narrowed. They tracked back to Hendricks, his head hardly moving, and he seemed to freeze when he saw the sword in Hendricks’s hand.
His eyes flicked to Justine and the child and burned for a moment-not with adoration or even simple lust. There was a pure and possessive hunger there, coupled with a need to destroy that which he desired. I have spent my entire life around hard men. I know that form of madness when I see it.
“So,” Mag said. His eyes traveled back to me and were suddenly heavy-lidded and calculating. “You are the new mortal lord. We half believed that you must be imaginary. That no one could be as foolish as that.”
“You are incorrect,” I said. “Moreover, you can’t have them. Get out.”
Mag stood up. The movement was slow, liquid. His limbs didn’t seem to bend the proper way. “Lord Marcone,” he said, “this affair is no concern of yours. I only wish to take the slaves.”
“You can’t have them. Get out.”
“I warn you,” Mag said. There was an ugly tone in his voice. “If you make me return for her-for them-you will not enjoy what follows.”
“I do not require enjoyment to thrive. Leave my domain. I won’t ask again.”
Hendricks shuffled his feet a little, settling his balance.
Mag gathered himself up slowly. He extended his hand, and the twisted stick leapt from the floor and into his fingers. He gave Gard a slow and well-practiced sneer and said, “Anon, mortal lordling. It is time you learned the truth of the world. It will please me to be your instructor.” Then he turned, slow and haughty, and walked out, his shoulders hunching in an odd, unsettling motion as he moved.
“Make sure he leaves,” I said quietly.
Gard and Hendricks followed Mag from the room.
I turned my eyes to Justine and the child.
“Mag,” I said, “is not the sort of man who is used to disappointment.”
Justine looked after the vanished fomor and then back at me, confusion in her eyes. “That was sorcery. How did you…?”
I stood up from behind my desk and stepped out of the copper circle set into the floor around my chair. It was powered by the sorcerous equivalent of a nine-volt battery, connected to the control on the underside of my desk. Basic magical defense, Gard said. It had seemed like nonsense to me-it clearly was not.
I took my gun from its holster and set it on my desk.
Justine took note of my reply.
Of course, I wouldn’t give the personal aide of the most dangerous woman in Chicago information about my magical defenses.
There was something hard and not at all submissive in her eyes. “Thank you, sir, for…”
“For what?” I said very calmly. “You understand, do you not, what you have done by asking for my help under the Accords?”
“The Accords govern relations between supernatural powers,” I said. “The signatories of the Accords and their named vassals are granted certain rights and obligations-such as offering a warning to a signatory who has trespassed upon another’s territory unwittingly before killing him.”
“I know, sir,” Justine said.
“Then you should also know that you are most definitely not a signatory of the Accords. At best, you qualify in the category of ‘servitors and chattel.’ At worst, you are considered to be a food animal.”
She drew in a sharp breath, her eyes widening-not in any sense of outrage or offense, but in realization. Good. She grasped the realities of the situation.
“In either case,” I continued, “you are property. You have no rights in the current situation, in the eyes of the Accords-and more to the point, I have no right to withhold another’s rightful property. Mag’s behavior provided me with an excuse to kill him if he did not depart. He will not give me such an opening a second time.”
Justine swallowed and stared at me for a moment. Then she glanced down at the child in her arms. The child clung harder to her and seemed to lean somewhat away from me.
One must admire such acute instincts.
“You have drawn me into a conflict which has nothing to do with me,” I said quietly. “I suggest candor. Otherwise, I will have Mr. Hendricks and Ms. Gard show you to the door.”
“You can’t…,” she began, but her voice trailed off.
“I can,” I said. “I am not a humanitarian. When I offer charity it is for tax purposes.”
The room became silent. I was content with that. The child began to whimper quietly.
“I was delivering documents to the court of King Corb on behalf of my lady,” Justine said. She stroked the child’s hair absently. “It’s in the sea. There’s a gate there in Lake Michigan, not far from here.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “You swam?”
“I was under the protection of their courier, going there,” Justine said. “It’s like walking in a bubble of air.” She hitched the child up a little higher on her hip. “Mag saw me. He drove the courier away as I was leaving and took me to his home. There were many other prisoners there.”
“Including the child,” I guessed. Though it probably didn’t sound that way.
Justine nodded. “I… arranged for several prisoners to flee Mag’s home. I took the child when I left. I swam out.”
“So you are, in effect, stolen property in possession of stolen property,” I said. “Novel.”
Gard and Hendricks came back into the office.
I looked at Hendricks. “My people?”
“Tulane’s got a broken arm,” he said. “Standing in that asshole’s way. He’s on the way to the doc.”
“Thank you. Ms. Gard?”
“Mag is off the property,” she said. “He didn’t go far. He’s summoning support now.”
“How much of a threat is he?” I asked. The question was legitimate. Gard and Hendricks had blindsided the inhuman while he was focused upon Justine and the child and while he wasted his leading magical strike against my protective circle. A head-on confrontation against a prepared foe could be a totally different proposition.
Gard tested the edge of her axe with her thumb and drew a smooth stone from her pocket. “Mag is a fomor sorcerer lord of the first rank. He’s deadly-and connected. The fomor could crush you without a serious loss of resources. Confrontation would be unwise.”
The stone made a steely, slithery sound as it glided over the axe’s blade.
“There seems little profit to be had, then,” I said. “It’s nothing personal, Justine. Merely business. I am obliged to return stolen property to signatory members of the Accords.”
Hendricks looked at me sharply. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. I already knew the tone of whatever he would say. Are there no prisons, perhaps. Or, No man is an island, entire of itself. It tolls for thee. On and on.
Hendricks has no head for business.
Gard watched me, waiting.
“Sir,” Justine said, her tone measured and oddly formal. “May I speak?”
“She isn’t property,” Justine said, and her voice was low and intense, her eyes direct. “She was trapped in a den of living nightmares, and there was no one to come save her. She would have died there. And I am not letting anyone take her back to that hellhole. I will die first.” The young woman set her jaw. “She is not property, Mr. Marcone. She’s a child.”
I met Justine’s eyes for a long moment.
I glanced aside at Hendricks. He waited for my decision.
Gard watched me. As ever, Gard watched me.
I looked down at my hands, my fingertips resting together with my elbows propped on the desk.
Business came first. Always.
But I have rules.
I looked up at Justine.
“She’s a child,” I said quietly.
The air in the room snapped tight with tension.
“Ms. Gard,” I said, “please dismiss the contractors for the day, at pay. Then raise the defenses.”
She pocketed the whetstone and strode quickly out, her teeth showing, a bounce in her step.
“Mr. Hendricks, please scramble our troubleshooters. They’re to take positions across the street. Suppressed weapons only. I don’t need patrolmen stumbling around in this. Then ready the panic room.”
Hendricks nodded and got out his cell phone as he left. His huge, stubby fingers flew over its touchscreen as he sent the activation text message. Looking at him, one would not think him capable of such a thing. But that is Hendricks, generally.
I looked at Justine as I rose and walked to my closet. “You will go with the child into the panic room. It is, with the possible exception of Dresden’s home, the most secure location in the city.”
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
I took off my coat and hung it up in the closet. I took off my tie and slipped it over the same hanger. I put my cuff links in my coat pocket, rolled up my sleeves, and skinned out of my gun’s holster. Then I slipped on the armored vest made of heavy scales of composite materials joined to sleeves of quite old-fashioned mail. I pulled an old field jacket, olive drab, over the armor, belted it, holstered my sidearm at my side, opposite a combat knife, and took a military-grade assault shotgun-a weapon every bit as illegal as my pistol in the city of Chicago-from its rack.
“I am not doing it for you, young lady,” I said. “Nor am I doing it for the child.”
“Then why are you doing it?” she asked.
“Because I have rules,” I said.
She shook her head gently. “But you’re a criminal. Criminals don’t have rules. They break them.”
I stopped and looked at her.
Justine blanched and slid a step farther away from me, along the wall. The child made a soft, distressed sound. I beckoned curtly for her to follow me as I walked past her. It took her a moment to do so.
Someone in the service of a vampire ought to have a bit more fortitude.
This panic room looked like every other one I’ve had built: fluorescent lights, plain tile floor, plain dry wall. Two double bunks occupied one end of the room. A business desk and several chairs took up the rest. A miniature kitchen nestled into one corner, opposite the miniature medical station in another. There was a door to a half-bath and a bank of security monitors on the wall between them. I flicked one switch that activated the entire bank, displaying a dozen views from hidden security cameras.
I gestured for Justine to enter the room. She came in and immediately took a seat on the lower bunk of the nearest bed, still holding the child.
“Mag can find her,” Gard told me when we all rendezvoused outside the panic room. “Once he’s inside the building and gets past the forward area, he’ll be able to track her. He’ll head straight for her.”
“Then we know which way he’ll be moving,” I said. “What did you find out about his support?”
“They’re creatures,” Gard said, “actual mortal beings, though like none you’ve seen before. The fomor twist flesh to their liking and sell the results for favors and influence. It was probably the fomor who created those cat-things the Knights of the Blackened Denarius used.”
I twisted my mouth in displeasure at the name. “If they’re mortal, we can kill them.”
“They’ll die hard,” Gard warned me.
“What doesn’t?” I looked up and down the hallway outside the panic room. “I think the primary defense plan will do.”
Gard nodded. She had attired herself in an armored vest not unlike my own over a long mail shirt. Medieval looking, but then modern armorers haven’t aimed their craft at stopping claws of late. Hendricks, standing watch at the end of the hall, had on an armored vest but was otherwise covered in modified motorcyclist’s armor. He carried an assault shotgun like mine, several hand grenades, and that same broadsword.
“Stay here,” I said to Justine. “Watch the door. If anyone but one of us comes down the stairs, shut it.”
I turned and started walking toward the stairway. I glanced at Gard. “What can we expect from Mag?”
Hendricks grunted. Skeptically.
“He’s ancient, devious, and wicked,” Gard clarified. “There is an effectively unlimited spectrum of ways in which he might do harm.”
I nodded. “Can you offer any specific knowledge?”
“He won’t be easy to get to,” she said. “The fomor practice entropy magic. They make the antitechnology effect Dresden puts off look like mild sunspot activity. Modern systems are going to experience problems near him.”
We started up the stairs. “How long before he arrives?”
From upstairs, there was the crash of breaking plate glass. No alarm went off, but there was a buzzing, sizzling sound and a scream-Gard’s outer defenses. Hendricks hit a button on his cell phone and then came with me as I rushed up the remaining stairs to the ground floor.
The lights went out as we went, and Hendricks’s phone sputtered out a few sparks. Battery-powered emergency lights flicked on an instant later. Only about half of them functioned, and most of those were behind us.
Mag had waited for nightfall to begin his attack and then crippled our lights. Quite possibly he assumed that the darkness would give him an overwhelming advantage.
The hubris of some members of the supernatural community is astonishing.
The nightvision scopes mounted on my weapon and Hendricks’s had been custom-made, based off of designs dating back to World War II, before nightvision devices had married themselves to the electronics revolution. They were heavy and far inferior to modern systems-but they would function in situations where electronic goggles would be rendered into useless junk.
We raised the weapons to our shoulders, lined an eye up with the scopes, and kept moving. We reached the first defensive position, folded out the reinforced composite barriers mounted there, and knelt behind them. The ambient light from the city outside and the emergency lights below us was enough for the scopes to do their jobs. I could make out the outline of the hallway and the room beyond. Sounds of quiet movement came closer.
My heart rate had gone up, but not alarmingly so. My hands were steady. My mouth felt dry, and my body’s reaction to the prospect of mortal danger sent ripples of sensation up and down my spine. I embraced the fear and waited.
The fomor’s creatures exploded into the hallway on a storm of frenzied roars. I couldn’t make out many details. They seemed to have been put together on the chassis of a gorilla. Their heads were squashed, ugly-looking things, with wide-gaping mouths full of sharklike teeth. The sounds they made were deep, with a frenzied edge of madness, and they piled into the corridor in a wave of massive muscle.
“Steady,” I murmured.
The creatures lurched as they moved, like cheap toys that had not been assembled properly, but they were fast for all of that. More and more of them flooded into the hallway, and their charge was gaining mass and momentum.
“Steady,” I murmured.
Hendricks grunted. There were no words in it, but he meant, I know.
The wave of fomorian beings got close enough that I could see the patches of mold clumping their fur and tendrils of mildew growing upon their exposed skin.
“Fire,” I said.
Hendricks and I opened up.
The new military AA-12 automatic shotguns are not the hunting weapons I first handled in my patriotically delusional youth. They are fully automatic weapons with large circular drums that rather resembled the old tommy guns made iconic by my business predecessors in Chicago. One pulls the trigger and shell after shell slams through the weapon. A steel target hit by bursts from an AA-12 very rapidly comes to resemble a screen door.
And we had two of them.
The slaughter was indescribable. It swept like a great broom down that hallway, tearing and shredding flesh, splattering blood on the walls and painting them most of the way to the ceiling. Behind me, Gard stood ready with a heavy-caliber big-game rifle, calmly gunning down any creature that seemed to be reluctant to die before it could reach our defensive point. We piled the bodies so deep that the corpses formed a barrier to our weapons.
“Hendricks,” I said.
The big man was already reaching for the grenades on his belt. He took one, pulled the pin, cooked it for a slow two count, and then flung it down the hall. We all crouched behind the barriers as the grenade went off with a deafening crunch of shock-wave-driven air.
Hendricks threw another one. He might disapprove of killing, but he did it thoroughly.
When the ringing began to fade from my ears, I heard a sound like raindrops. It wasn’t raining, of course-the gunmen in the building across the street had opened fire with silenced weaponry. Bullets whispered in through the windows and hit the floor and walls of the headquarters with innocuous-sounding thumps. Evidently Mag’s servitors had been routed and were trying to flee.
An object the size of Hendricks’s fist appeared from nowhere and arced cleanly through the air. It landed on the floor precisely between the two sheltering panels, a lump of pink-and-gray coral.
Gard hit me with a shoulder and drove me to the ground even as she shouted, “Down!”
The piece of coral didn’t explode. There was a whispering sound, and hundreds of tiny holes appeared in the bloodstained walls and ceiling. Gard let out a pained grunt. My left calf jerked as something pierced it and burned as though the wound had been filled with salt.
I checked Hendricks. One side of his face was covered in a sheet of blood. Small tears were visible in his leathers, and he was beginning to bleed through the holes.
“Get him,” I said to Gard, rising, as another coral spheroid rose into the air.
Before it could get close enough to be a threat, I blew it to powder with my shotgun. And the next and the next, while Gard dropped her rifle, got a shoulder under one of Hendricks’s, and helped him to his feet as if he’d been her weight instead of two hundred and seventy pounds of muscle. She started down the stairs.
A fourth sphere came accompanied by mocking laughter, and when I pulled the trigger again, the weapon didn’t function. Empty. I slapped the coral device out of the air with the shotgun’s barrel and flung myself backward, hoping to clear the level of the floor on the stairwell before the pseudo-grenade detonated. I did not quite make it. Several objects struck my chest and arms, and a hot blade slipped across my unscarred ear, but the armor turned the truly dangerous projectiles.
I broke my arm tumbling backward down the stairs.
More laughter followed me down, but at least the fomor wasn’t spouting some kind of ridiculous monologue.
“I did my best,” came Mag’s voice. “I gave you a chance to return what was mine. But no. You couldn’t keep yourself from interfering in my affairs, from stealing my property. And so now you will reap the consequences of your foolishness, little mortal…”
There was more, but there is hardly a need to go into details. Given a choice between that egocentric drivel and a broken arm, I prefer the latter. It’s considerably less excruciating.
Gard hauled me to my feet by my coat with her spare hand. I got under the stunned Hendricks’s other arm and helped them both down the rest of the stairs. Justine stood in the doorway of the safe room, at the end of the hallway of flickering lights, her face white-lipped but calm.
Gard helped me get Hendricks to the door of the room and turned around. “Close the door. I may be able to discourage him out here.”
“Your home office would be annoyed with me if I wasted your life on such a low-percentage proposition,” I said. “We stick to the plan.”
The valkyrie eyed me. “Your arm is broken.”
“I was aware, thank you,” I said. “Is there any reason the countermeasure shouldn’t work?”
Mag was going on about something, coming down the steps one at a time, making a production of every footfall. I ignored the ass.
“None that I know of,” Gard admitted. “Which is not the same answer as ‘no.’ ”
“Sir,” Justine said.
“We planned for this-or something very like it. We don’t split up now. End of discussion. Help me with Hendricks.”
“Sir,” Justine said.
I looked up to see Mag standing on the landing, cloaked in random shadows, smiling. The emergency lights on the stairwell blew out with a melodramatic shower of dying sparks.
“Ah,” I said. I reached inside the safe-room door, found the purely mechanical pull-cord wrapped unobtrusively around a nail head on the wall, and gave it a sharp jerk.
It set off the antipersonnel mines built into the wall of the landing.
There were four of them, which meant that a wash of fire and just under three-thousand-round shot acquainted themselves with the immediate vicinity of the landing and with Mag. A cloud of flame and flying steel enveloped the fomor, but at the last instant the swirling blackness around him rose up like a living thing, forming a shield between Mag and the oncoming flood of destruction.
The sound of the explosions was so loud that it demolished my hearing for a moment. It began to return to me as the cloud of smoke and dust on the landing began to clear. I could hear a fire alarm going off.
Mag, smudged and blackened with residue but otherwise untouched, made an irritated gesture, and the fire alarm sparked and fizzled-but not before setting off the automatic sprinklers. Water began pouring down from spigots in the ceiling.
Mag looked up at the water and then down at me, and his too-wide smile widened even more. “Really?” he asked. “Water? Did you actually think water would be a barrier to the magic of a fomor lord?”
Running water was highly detrimental to mortal magic, or so Gard informed me, whether it was naturally occurring or not. The important element was quantity. Enough water would ground magic just as it could conduct electricity and short-circuit electronics. Evidently Mag played by different rules.
Mag made a point to continue down the stairs at exactly the same pace. He was somewhat hampered in that several of the stairs had been torn up rather badly in the explosion, but he made it to the hallway. Gard took up a position in the middle of the hallway, her axe held straight up beside her in both arms like a baseball player’s bat.
I helped Hendricks into the safe room and dumped him on a bunk, out of any line of fire from the hallway. Justine took one look at his face and hurried over to the medical station, where she grabbed a first-aid kit. She rushed back to Hendricks’s side. She broke open the kit and started laying out the proper gear for getting a clear look at a bloody wound and getting the bleeding stopped. Her hands flew with precise speed. She’d had some form of training.
From the opposite bunk, the child watched Justine with wide blue eyes. She was naked and had been crying. The tears were still on her little cheeks. Even now, her lower lip had begun to tremble.
But so far as anyone else knew, I was made of stone.
I turned and crossed the room. I sat down at the desk, a copy of the one in my main office. I put my handgun squarely in front of me. The desk was positioned directly in line with the door to the panic room. From behind the desk, I could see the entire hallway clearly.
Mag stepped forward and moved a hand as though throwing something. I saw nothing, but Gard raised her axe in a blocking movement, and there was a flash of light, and the image of a Norse rune, or something like it, was burned onto my retina. The outer edge of Gard’s mail sleeve on her right arm abruptly turned black and fell to dust, so that the sleeve split and dangled open.
Gard took a grim step back as Mag narrowed his jaundiced eyes and lifted the crooked stick. Something that looked like the blend of a lightning bolt and an eel lashed through the air toward Gard, but she caught it on the broad blade of her axe, and there was another flash of light, another eye-searing rune. I heard her cry out, though, and saw that the edges of her fingernails had been burned black.
Step by step she fell back, while Mag hammered at her with things that made no sense, many of which I could not even see. Each time, the rune-magic of that axe defeated the attack-and each time, it seemed to cost her something. A lightly singed face here. A long, shallow cut upon her newly bared arm there. And the runes, I saw, were each in different places on the axe, being burned out one by one. Gard had a finite number of them.
As Gard’s heels touched the threshold of the safe room, Mag let out a howl and threw both hands out ahead of him. An unseen force lifted Gard from her feet and flung her violently across the room, over my desk, and into the wall. She hit with bone-crushing force and slid down limply.
I faced the inhuman sorcerer alone.
Mag walked slowly and confidently into my safe room and stared at me across my desk. He was breathing heavily, from exertion or excitement or both. He smiled, slowly, and waved his hand again. An unpleasant shimmer went through the air, and I glanced down to see rust forming on the exposed metal of my gun, while cracking began to spread through the plastic grip.
“Go ahead, mortal,” Mag said, drawing out the words. “Pick up the gun. Try it. The crafting of the weapon is fine, mortal, but you are not the masters of the world that you believe yourselves to be. Even today’s cleverest smiths are no match for the magic of the fomor.”
I inclined my head in agreement. “Then I suppose,” I said, “that we’ll just have to do this old school.”
I drew the eighteenth-century German dragoon pistol from the open drawer beside my left hand, aimed, and fired. The ancient flintlock snapped forward, ignited the powder in the pan, and roared, a wash of unnatural blue white fire blazing forth from the antique weapon. I almost fancied that I could see the bullet, spinning and tumbling, blazing with its own tiny rune.
Though Mag’s shadows leapt up to defend him, he had expended enormous energy moving through the building, hurling attack after attack at us. More energy had to be used to overcome the tremendous force of the claymores that had exploded virtually in his face. Perhaps, at his full strength, at the height of his endurance, his powers would have been enough to turn even the single, potent attack that had been designed to defeat them.
From the beginning, the plan had been to wear him down.
The blue bolt of lead and power from the heavy old flintlock pierced Mag’s defenses and body in the same instant and with the same contemptuous energy.
Mag blinked at me, then lowered his head to goggle at the smoking hole in his chest as wide as my thumb. His mouth moved as he tried to gabble something, but no sound came out.
“Idiot,” I said coldly. “It will be well worth the weregild to be rid of you.”
Mag lurched toward me for a moment, intent upon saying something, but the fates spared me from having to endure any more of him. He collapsed to the floor before he could finish speaking.
I eyed my modern pistol, crusted with rust and residue, and decided not to try it. I kept a spare.45 in the downstairs desk in any case. I took it from another drawer, checked it awkwardly one-handed, and then emptied the weapon into Mag’s head and chest.
I am the one who taught Hendricks to be thorough.
I looked up from Mag’s ruined form to find Justine staring at me, frozen in the middle of wrapping a bandage around my second’s head.
“How is he?” I asked calmly.
Justine swallowed. She said, “He m-may need stitches for this scalp wound. I think he has a concussion. The other wounds aren’t bad. His armor stopped most of the fragments from going in.”
“Gard?” I asked without looking over my shoulder. The valkyrie had an incredible ability to resist and recover from injury.
“Be sore for a while,” she said, the words slurred. “Give me a few minutes.”
“Justine, perhaps you will set my arm and splint it,” I said. “We will need to abandon this renovation, I’m afraid, Gard. Where’s the thermite?”
“In your upstairs office closet, right where you left it,” she said in a very slightly aggrieved tone.
“Be a dear and burn down the building,” I said.
She appeared beside my desk, looking bruised, exhausted, and functional. She lifted both eyebrows. “Was that a joke?”
“Apparently,” I said. “Doubtless the result of triumph and adrenaline.”
“My word,” she said. She looked startled.
“Get moving,” I told her. “Make the fire look accidental. I need to contact the young lady’s patron so that she can be delivered safely back into her hands. Call Dr. Schulman as well. Tell him that Mr. Hendricks and I will be visiting him shortly.” I pursed my lips. “And steak, I think. I could use a good steak. The Pump Room should do for the three of us, eh? Ask them to stay open an extra half an hour.”
Gard showed me her teeth in a flash. “Well,” she said, “it’s no mead hall. But it will do.”
I put my house in order. In the end, it took less than half an hour. The troubleshooters made sure the fomorian creatures were dragged inside, then vanished. Mag’s body had been bagged and transferred, to be returned to his watery kin, along with approximately a quarter of a million dollars in bullion, the price required in the Accords for the weregild of a person of Mag’s stature.
Justine was ready to meet a car that was coming to pick her up, and Hendricks was already on the way to Schulman’s attentions. He’d seemed fine by the time he left, growling at Gard as she fussed over him.
I looked around the office and nodded. “We know the defense plan has some merit,” I said. I hefted the dragoon pistol. “I’ll need more of those bullets.”
“I was unconscious for three weeks after scribing the rune for that one,” Gard replied. “To say nothing of the fact that the bullets themselves are rare. That one killed a man named Nelson at Trafalgar.”
“How do you know?”
“I took it out of him,” she said. “Men of his caliber are few and far between. I’ll see what I can do.” She glanced at Justine. “Sir?”
“Not just yet,” I said. “I will speak with her alone for a moment, please.”
She nodded, giving Justine a look that was equal parts curiosity and warning. Then she departed.
I got up and walked over to the girl. She was holding the child against her again. The little girl had dropped into an exhausted sleep.
“So,” I said quietly. “Lara Raith sent you to Mag’s people. He happened to abduct you. You happened to escape from him-despite the fact that he seemed to be holding other prisoners perfectly adequately-and you left carrying the child. And, upon emerging from Lake Michigan, you happened to be nearby, so you came straight here.”
“Yes,” Justine said quietly.
“Coincidences, coincidences,” I said. “Put the child down.”
Her eyes widened in alarm.
I stared at her until she obeyed.
My right arm was splinted and in a sling. With my left hand, I reached out and flipped open her suit jacket, over her left hip, where she’d been clutching the child all evening.
There was an envelope in a plastic bag protruding from the jacket’s interior pocket. I took it.
She made a small sound of protest and aborted it partway.
I opened the bag and the envelope and scanned over the paper inside.
“These are account numbers,” I said quietly. “Security passwords. Stolen from Mag’s home, I suppose?”
She looked up at me with very wide eyes.
“Dear child,” I said, “I am a criminal. One very good way to cover up one crime is to commit another, more obvious one.” I glanced down at the sleeping child again. “Using a child to cover your part of the scheme. Quite cold-blooded, Justine.”
“I freed all of Mag’s prisoners to cover up the theft of his records at my lady’s bidding,” she said quietly. “The child was… not part of the plan.”
“Children frequently aren’t,” I said.
“I took her out on my own,” she said. “She’s free of that place. She will stay that way.”
“To be raised among the vampires?” I asked. “Such a lovely child will surely go far.”
Justine grimaced and looked away. “She was too small to swim out on her own. I couldn’t leave her.”
I stared at the young woman for a long moment. Then I said, “You might consider speaking to Father Forthill at St. Mary of the Angels. The Church appears to have some sort of program to place those endangered by the supernatural into hiding. I do not recommend you mention my name as a reference, but perhaps he could be convinced to help the child.”
She blinked at me, several times. Then she said quietly, “You, sir, are not very much like I thought you were.”
“Nor are you. Agent Justine.” I took a deep breath and regarded the child again. “At least we accomplished something today.” I smiled at Justine. “Your ride should be here by now. You may go.”
She opened her mouth and reached for the envelope.
I slipped it into my pocket. “Do give Lara my regards. And tell her that the next time she sends you out to steal honey, she should find someone else to kill the bees.” I gave her a faint smile. “That will be all.”
Justine looked at me. Then her lips quivered up into a tiny, amused smile. She bowed her head to me, collected the child, and walked out, her steps light.
I debated putting a bullet in her head but decided against it. She had information about my defenses that could leave them vulnerable-and more to the point, she knew that they were effective. If she should speak of today’s events to Dresden…
Well. The wizard would immediately recognize that the claymores, the running water, and the magic-defense-piercing bullet had not been put into place to counter Mag or his odd folk at all.
They were there to kill Harry Dresden.
And they worked. Mag had proven that. An eventual confrontation with Dresden was inevitable-but murdering Justine would guarantee it happened immediately, and I wasn’t ready for that, not until I had rebuilt the defenses in the new location.
Besides, the young woman had rules of her own. I could respect that.
I would test myself against Dresden in earnest one day-or he against me. Until then, I had to gather as many resources to myself as possible. And when the day of reckoning came, I had to make sure it happened in a place where, despite his powers, he would no longer have the upper hand.
Like everything else.