I owe another round of thanks to the usual suspects: the inmates of the Beta Foo Asylum, both long-term and recent arrivals. The Dresden Files's new editor, the warm and gracious Anne Sowards-are you sure you actually live in NYC, Anne? My agent, Jennifer Jackson, who has been doing ten kinds of running around getting various deals put together and for whom I am most grateful.
More thanks to my family, for their continuing support and love. To Shannon for being who she is, and whose good opinion I would work ten. . . well wait, no maybe three times as hard to keep-Okay, okay, five, tops, (ten would be more hours than exist, babe, and besides, when could I play Halo?) Also thanks to my son JJ, whose boundless energy, enthusiasm, and love are wonderfully intimidating.
Oh, and also for my ferocious furry bodyguard, Frost, who supports my career by frightening away any bad guys long before they get near enough to actually bother me, and by helping me eat any potentially distracting snacks.
For my son.
The best thing that ever happened to me. I love you, Short-stuff.
On On the whole, we're a murderous race. According to Genesis, it took as few as four people to make the planet too crowded to stand, and the first murder was a fratricide. Genesis says that in a fit of jealous rage, the very first child born to mortal parents, Cain, snapped and popped the first metaphorical cap in another human being. The attack was a bloody, brutal, violent, reprehensible killing. Cain's brother Abel probably never saw it coming.
As I opened the door to my apartment, I was filled with a sense of empathic sympathy and intuitive understanding.
For freaking Cain.
My apartment isn't much more than a big room in the basement of a century-old wooden boardinghouse in Chicago. There's a kitchen built into an alcove, a big fireplace almost always lit, a bedroom the size of the bed of a pickup truck, and a bathroom that barely fits a sink, toilet, and shower. I can't afford really good furniture, so it's all secondhand, but comfortable. I have a lot of books on shelves, a lot of rugs, a lot of candles. It isn't much, but at least it's clean.
Or used to be.
The rugs were in total disarray, exposing bare patches of stone floor. One of the easy chairs had fallen over onto its back, and no one had picked it up. Cushions were missing from the couch, and the curtains had been torn down from one of the sunken windows, letting in a swath of late-afternoon sunshine, all the better to illuminate the books that had been knocked down from one of my shelves and scattered everywhere, bending paperback covers, leaving hardbacks all the way open, and generally messing up my primary source of idle entertainment.
The fireplace was more or less the epicenter of the slobquake. There were discarded clothes there, a couple of empty wine bottles, and a plate that looked suspiciously clean-doubtless the cleanup work of the other residents.
I took a stunned step into my home. As I did my big grey tom, Mister, bounded down from his place on top of one of the bookshelves, but rather than give me his usual shoulder-block of greeting, he flicked his tail disdainfully at me and ghosted out the front door.
I sighed, walked over to the kitchen alcove, and checked. The cat's bowls of food and water were both empty. No wonder he was grumpy.
A shaggy section of the kitchen floor hauled itself to its feet and came to meet me with a sheepish, sleepy shuffle. My dog, Mouse, had started off as fuzzy little grey puppy that fit into my coat pocket. Now, almost a year later, I sometimes wished I'd sent my coat to the cleaners or something. Mouse had gone from fuzz ball to fuzz barge. You couldn't guess at a breed to look at him, but at least one of his parents must have been a wooly mammoth. The dog's shoulders came nearly to my waist, and the vet didn't think he was finished growing yet. That translated into an awful lot of beast for my tiny apartment.
Oh, and Mouse's bowls were empty, too. He nuzzled my hand, his muzzle stained with what looked suspiciously like spaghetti sauce, and then pawed at his bowls, scraping them over the patch of linoleum floor.
"Dammit, Mouse," I growled, Cain-like. "It's still like this? If he's here, I'm going to kill him. "
Mouse let out a chuffing breath that was about as much commentary as he ever made, and followed placidly a couple of steps behind me as I walked over to the closed bedroom door.
Just as I got there, the door opened, and an angel-faced blonde wearing nothing but a cotton T-shirt appeared in it. Not a long shirt, either. It didn't cover all of her rib cage.
"Oh," she drawled, with a slow and sleepy smile. "Excuse me. I didn't know anyone else was here. " Without a trace of modesty, she slunk into the living room, pawing through the mess near the fireplace, extracting pieces of clothing. From the languid, satisfied way she moved, I figured she expected me to be staring at her, and that she didn't mind it at all.
At one time I would have been embarrassed as hell by this kind of thing, and probably sneaking covert glances. But after living with my half brother the incubus for most of a year, I mostly found it annoying. I rolled my eyes and asked, "Thomas?"
"Tommy? Shower, I think," the girl said. She slipped into jogging wear-sweatpants, a matching jacket, expensive shoes. "Do me a favor? Tell him that it-"
I interrupted her in an impatient voice. "That it was a lot of fun, you'll always treasure it, but that it was a onetime thing and that you hope he grows up to find a nice girl or be president or something. "
She stared at me and then knitted her blond brows into a frown. "You don't have to be such a bast-" Then her eyes widened. "Oh. Oh! I'm sorry-oh, my God. " She leaned toward me, blushing, and said in a between-us-girls whisper, "I would never have guessed that he was with a man. How do the two of you manage on that tiny bed?"
I blinked and said, "Now wait a minute. "
But she ignored me and walked out, murmuring, "He is such a naughty boy. "
I glared at her back. Then I glared at Mouse.
Mouse's tongue lolled out in a doggy grin, his dark tail waving gently.
"Oh, shut up," I told him, and closed the door. I heard the whisper of water running through the pipes in my shower. I put out food for Mister and Mouse, and the dog partook immediately. "He could have fed the damned dog, at least," I muttered, and opened the fridge.
I rummaged through it, but couldn't find what I was after anywhere, and it was the last straw. My frustration grew into a fire somewhere inside my eyeballs, and I straightened from the icebox with mayhem in mind.
"Hey," came Thomas's voice from behind me. "We're out of beer. "
I turned around and glared at my half brother.
Thomas was a shade over six feet tall, and I guess now that I'd had time to get used to the idea, he looked something like me: stark cheekbones, a long face, a strong jaw. But whatever sculptor had done the finishing work on Thomas had foisted my features off on his apprentice or something. I'm not ugly or anything, but Thomas looked like someone's painting of the forgotten Greek god of body cologne. He had long hair so dark that light itself could not escape it, and even fresh from the shower it was starting to curl. His eyes were the color of thunderclouds, and he never did a single moment of exercise to earn the gratuitous amount of ripple in his musculature. He was wearing jeans and no shirt-his standard household uniform. I once saw him answer the door to speak to a female missionary in the same outfit, and she'd assaulted him in a cloud of forgotten copies of The Watchtower. The tooth marks she left had been interesting.
It hadn't been the girl's fault, entirely. Thomas had inherited his father's blood as a vampire of the White Court. He was a psychic predator, feeding on the raw life force of human beings-usually easiest to gain through the intimate contact of sex. That part of him surrounded him in the kind of aura that turned heads wherever he went. When Thomas made the effort to turn up the supernatural come-hither, women literally couldn't tell him no. By the time he started feeding, they couldn't even want to tell him no. He was killing them, just a little bit, but he had to do it to stay sane, and he never took it any further than a single feeding.
He could have. Those the White Court chose as their prey became ensnared in the ecstasy of being fed upon, and became increasingly enslaved by their vampire lover. But Thomas never pushed it that far. He'd made that mistake once, and the woman he had loved now drifted through life in a wheelchair, bound in a deathly euphoria because of his touch.
I clenched my teeth and reminded myself that it wasn't easy for Thomas. Then I told myself that I was repeating myself way too many times and to shut up. "I know there's no beer," I growled. "Or milk. Or Coke. "
"Um," he said.
"And I see that you didn't have time to feed Mister and Mouse. Did you take Mouse outside, at least?"
"Well sure," he said. "I mean, uh. . . I took him out this morning when you were leaving for work, remember? That's where I met Angie. "
"Another jogger," I said, once more Cain-like. "You told me you weren't going to keep bringing strangers back here, Thomas. And on my freaking bed? Hell's bells, man, look at this place. "
He did, and I saw it dawn on him, as if he literally hadn't seen it before. He let out a groan. "Damn. Harry, I'm sorry. It was. . . Angie is a really. . . really intense and, uh, athletic person and I didn't realize that. . . " He paused and picked up a copy of Dean Koontz's Watchers. He tried to fold the crease out of the cover. "Wow," he added lamely. "The place is sort of trashed. "
"Yeah," I told him. "You were here all day. You said you'd take Mouse to the vet. And clean up a little. And get groceries. "
"Oh, come on," he said. "What's the big deal?"
"I don't have a beer," I growled. I looked around at the rubble. "And I got a call from Murphy at work today. She said she'd be dropping by. "
Thomas lifted his eyebrows. "Oh, yeah? No offense, Harry, but I'm doubting it was a booty call. "
I glared. "Would you stop it with that already?"
"I'm telling you, you should just ask her out and get it over with. She'd say yes. "
I slammed the door to the icebox. "It isn't like that," I said.
"Yeah, okay," Thomas said mildly.
"It isn't. We work together. We're friends. That's all. "
"Right," he agreed.
"I am not interested in dating Murphy," I said. "And she's not interested in me. "
"Sure, sure. I hear you. " He rolled his eyes and started picking up fallen books. "Which is why you want the place looking nice. So your business friend won't mind staying around for a little bit. "
I gritted my teeth and said, "Stars and stones, Thomas, I'm not asking you for the freaking moon. I'm not asking you for rent. It wouldn't kill you to pitch in a little with errands before you go to work. "
"Yeah," Thomas said, running his hand through his hair. "Um. About that. "
"What about it?" I demanded. He was supposed to be gone for the afternoon so that my housecleaning service could come in. The faeries wouldn't show up to clean when someone could see them, and they wouldn't show up ever again if I told someone about them. Don't ask me why they're like that. Maybe they've got a really strict union or something.
Thomas shrugged a shoulder and sat down on the arm of the couch, not looking at me. "I didn't have the cash for the vet or the groceries," he said. "I got fired again. "
I stared at him for a second, and tried to keep up a good head of steam on my anger, but it melted. I recognized the frustration and humiliation in his voice. He wasn't faking it.
"Dammit," I muttered, only partly to Thomas. "What happened?"
"The usual," he said. "The drive-through manager. She followed me into the walk-in freezer and started ripping her clothes off. The owner walked through on an inspection about then and fired me on the spot. From the look he was giving her, I think she was going to get a promotion. I hate gender discrimination. "
"At least it was a woman this time," I said. "We've got to keep working on your control. "
His voice turned bitter. "Half of my soul is a demon," he said. "It can't be controlled. It's impossible. "
"I don't buy that," I said.
"Just because you're a wizard doesn't mean you know a damned thing about it," he said. "I can't live a mortal life. I'm not made for it. "
"You're doing fine. "
"Fine?" he demanded, voice rising. "I can disintegrate a virgin's inhibitions at fifty paces, but I can't last two weeks at a job where I'm wearing a stupid hairnet and a paper hat. In what way is that fine?"
He slammed open the small trunk where he kept his clothes, seized a pair of shoes and his leather jacket, put them on with angry precision, and stalked out into the gathering evening without looking back.
And without cleaning up his mess, I thought uncharitably. Then I shook my head and glanced at Mouse, who had lain down with his chin on his paws, doggy eyes sad.
Thomas was the only family I'd ever known. But that didn't change the truth: Thomas wasn't adjusting well to living life like normal folks. He was damned good at being a vampire. That came naturally. But no matter how hard he tried to be something a little more like normal, he kept running into one problem after another. He never said anything about it, but I could sense the pain and despair growing in him as the weeks went by.
Mouse let out a quiet breath that wasn't quite a whine.
"I know," I told the beast. "I worry about him too. "
I took Mouse on a long walk, and got back in as late-October dusk was settling over Chicago. I got my mail out of the box and started for the stairs down to my apartment, when a car pulled in to the boardinghouse's small gravel lot and crunched to a stop a few steps away. A petite blonde in jeans, a blue button-down shirt, and a satin White Sox windbreaker slipped the car into park and left the engine running as she got out.
Karrin Murphy looked like anything but the head of a division of law enforcement in charge of dealing with everything that went bump in the night in the whole greater Chicago area. When trolls started mugging passersby, when vampires left their victims dead or dying in the streets, or when someone with more magical firepower than conscience went berserk, Chicago PD's Special Investigations department was tasked to investigate. Of course, no one seriously believed in trolls or vampires or evil sorcerers, but when something weird happened, SI was in charge of explaining to everyone how it had been only a man in a rubber mask, and that there was nothing to worry about.
SI had a sucky job, but the men and women who worked there weren't stupid. They were perfectly aware that there were things out there in the darkness that were beyond the scope of conventional understanding. Murphy, in particular, was determined to give the cops every edge they could get when dealing with a preternatural threat, and I was one of her best weapons. She would hire me on as a consultant when SI went up against something really dangerous or alien, and the fees I got working with SI paid the lion's share of my expenses.
When Mouse saw Murphy, he made a little huffing sound of greeting and trotted over to her, his tail wagging. If I had leaned back and kept my legs straight I could have gone skiing over the gravel, but other than that, the big dog left me with no option but to come along.
Murphy knelt down at once to dig her hands into the fur behind Mouse's floppy ears, scratching vigorously. "Hey, there, boy," she said, smiling. "How are you?"
Mouse slobbered several doggy kisses onto her hands.
Murphy said, "Yuck," but she was laughing while she did. She pushed Mouse's muzzle gently away, rising. "Evening, Harry. Glad I caught you. "
"I was just getting back from my evening drag," I said. "You want to come in?"
Murphy had a cute face and very blue eyes. Her golden hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and it made her look a lot younger than usual. Her expression was a careful, maybe even uncomfortable one. "I'm sorry, but I can't," she said. "I've got a plane to catch. I don't really have time. "
"Ah," I said. "What's up?"
"I'm going out of town for a few days," she said. "I should be back sometime Monday afternoon. I was hoping I could talk you into watering my plants for me. "
"Oh," I said. She wanted me to water her plants. How coy. How sexy. "Yeah, sure. I can do that. "
"Thanks," she said, and offered me a key on a single steel ring. "It's the back-door key. "
I accepted it. "Where you headed?"
The discomfort in her expression deepened. "Oh, out of town on a little vacation. "
"I haven't had a vacation in years," she said defensively. "I've got it coming. "
"Well. Sure," I said. "Um. So, a vacation. By yourself?"
She shrugged a shoulder. "Well. That's sort of the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. I'm not expecting any trouble, but I wanted you to know where I was and with who in case I don't show up on time. "
"Right, right," I said. "Doesn't hurt to be careful. "
She nodded. "I'm going to Hawaii with Kincaid. "
I blinked some more.
"Um," I said. "You mean on a job, right?"
She shifted her weight from one hip to the other. "No. We've gone out a few times. It's nothing serious. "
"Murphy," I protested. "Are you insane? That guy is major bad news. "
She glowered at me. "We've had this discussion before. I'm a grownup, Dresden. "
"I know," I said. "But this guy is a mercenary. A killer. He's not even completely human. You can't trust him. "
"You did," she pointed out. "Last year against Mavra and her scourge. "
I scowled. "That was different. "
"Oh?" she asked.
"Yeah. I was paying him to kill things. I wasn't taking him to b-uh, to the beach. "
Murphy arched an eyebrow at me.
"You won't be safe around him," I said.
"I'm not doing it to be safe,'" she replied. Her cheeks colored a little. "That's sort of the point. "
"You shouldn't go," I said.
She looked up at me for a moment, frowning.
Then she asked, "Why?"
"Because I don't want to see you get hurt," I said. "And because you deserve someone better than he is. "
She studied my face for a moment more and then exhaled through her nose. "I'm not running off to Vegas to get married, Dresden. I work all the time, and life is going right by me. I just want to take the time to live it a little before it's too late. " She pulled a folded index card out of her pocket. "This is the hotel I'll be at. If you need to get in touch or anything. "
I took the folded index card, still frowning, and full of the intuition that I had missed something. Her fingers brushed mine, but I couldn't feel it through the glove and all the scars. "You sure you'll be all right?"
She nodded. "I'm a big girl, Harry. I'm the one choosing where we're going. He doesn't know where. I figured he couldn't set anything up ahead of time, if he had any funny business in mind. " She made a vague gesture toward the gun she carried in a shoulder holster under her jacket. "I'll be careful. I promise. "
"Yeah," I said. I didn't even try to smile at her. "For the record, this is stupid, Murph. I hope you don't get killed. "
Her blue eyes flashed, and she frowned. "I was sort of hoping you'd say something like, 'Have a good time. ' "
"Yeah," I said. "Whatever. Have fun. Leave me a message when you get there?"
"Yes," she said. "Thanks for looking out for my plants. "
"No problem," I said.
She nodded at me, and lingered there for a second more. Then she scratched Mouse behind the ears again, got in her car, and drove off.
I watched her go, feeling worried.
Really, really jealous.
Was Thomas right after all?
Mouse made a whining sound and pawed at my leg. I sighed, stuck the hotel information in a pocket, and led the dog back to the apartment.
When I opened my door, my nose was assaulted with the scent of fresh pine-not pine cleaner, mind you. Real fresh pine, and nary a needle in sight. The faeries had come and gone, and the books were back on the shelves, the floor scrubbed, curtains repaired, dishes done, you name it. They may have weird bylaws, but faerie housecleaning runs a tight ship.
I lit candles with matches from a box I had sitting on my coffee table. As a wizard, I don't get on so well with newfangled things like electricity and computers, so I didn't bother to try to keep electric service up and running in my home. My icebox is a vintage model run on actual ice. There's no water heater, and I do all my cooking on a little wood-burning stove. I fired it up and heated some soup, which was about the only thing left in the house. I sat down to eat it and started going through my mail.
The usual. The marketing savants at Best Buy continued in their unabated efforts to sell me the latest laptop, cell phone, or plasma television despite my repeated verbal and written assurances that I didn't have electricity and that they shouldn't bother. My auto-insurance bill had arrived early. Two checks came, the first a token fee from Chicago PD for consulting with Murphy on a smuggling case for an hour the previous month. The second was a much meatier check from a coin collector who had lost a case of cash from dead nations over the side of his yacht in Lake Michigan and resorted to trying out the only wizard in the phone book to locate them.
The last envelope was a big yellow manila number, and I felt a nauseating little ripple flutter through my guts the second I saw the handwriting on it. It was written in soulless letters as neat as a kindergarten classroom poster and as uninflected as an English professor's lecture notes.
There was no rational reason for it, but that handwriting scared me. I wasn't sure what had triggered my instincts, unless it was the singular lack of anything remarkable or imperfect about it. For a second I thought I had gotten upset for no reason, that it was a simple printed font, but there was a flourish on the last letter of " Dresden " that didn't match the other Ns. The flourish looked perfect, too, and deliberate. It was there to let me know that this was inhuman handwriting, not some laser printer from Wal-Mart.
I laid the envelope flat on my coffee table and stared at it. It was thin, undeformed by its contents, which meant that it was holding a few sheets of paper at the most. That meant that it wasn't a bomb. Well, more accurately, it wasn't a high-tech bomb, which was a fairly useless weapon to use against a wizard. A low-tech explosive setup could have worked just fine, but they wouldn't be that small.
Of course, that left mystical means of attack. I lifted my left hand toward the envelope, reaching out with my wizard's senses, but I couldn't get them focused. With a grimace I peeled the leather driving glove off of my left hand, revealing my scarred and ruined fingers. I'd burned my hand so badly a year before that the doctors I'd seen had mostly recommended amputation. I hadn't let them take my hand, mostly for the same reason I still drove the same junky old VW Beetle-because it was mine, by thunder.
But my fingers were pretty horrible to look at, as was the rest of my left hand. I didn't have much movement in them anymore, but I spread them as best I could and reached out to feel the energies of magic moving around the envelope once more.
I might as well have kept the glove on. There was nothing odd about the envelope. No magical booby traps.
Right, then. No more delays. I picked up the envelope in my weak left hand and tore it open, then upended the contents onto the coffee table.
There were three things in the envelope.
The first was an eight-by-ten color photo, and it was a shot of Karrin Murphy, director of Chicago PD's Special Investigations division. She wasn't in uniform, though, or even in business attire. Instead she was wearing a Red Cross jacket and baseball hat, and she was holding a sawed-off shotgun, an illegal model, in her hands. It was belching flame. In the picture you could also see a man standing a few feet away, covered in blood from the waist down. A long, black steel shaft protruded from his chest, as if he'd been impaled on it. His upper body and head were a blur of dark lines and red blobs. The shotgun was pointing right at the blur.
The second was another picture. This one was of Murphy with her hat off, standing over the man's corpse, and I was in the frame with her, my face in profile. The man had been a Renfield, a psychotically violent creature that was human only in the most technical sense-but then the camera shot of his murder was a most technical witness.
Murphy and I and a mercenary named Kincaid had gone after a nest of vampires of the Black Court led by a deadly vampire named Mavra. Her minions had objected pretty strenuously. I'd gotten my hand badly burned when Mavra herself took the field against us, and I had been lucky to get away that lightly. In the end, we'd rescued hostages, dismembered some vampires, and killed Mavra. Or at least, we'd killed someone we were meant to think was Mavra. In retrospect, it seemed odd that a vampire known for being able to render herself all but undetectable had lurched out at us from the smoke and ash of her ruined stronghold to be beheaded. But I'd had a full day and I had been ready to take it on faith.
We tried to be as careful as we could during the attack. As a result, we saved some lives we might not have if we'd gone in hell-for-leather, but that Renfield had come damn close to taking my head off. Murphy killed him for it. And she'd been photographed doing it.
I stared at the photos.
The pictures were from different angles. That meant that someone else had been in the room taking them.
Someone we hadn't even seen.
The third item that fell to the coffee table was a piece of typewriter paper, covered in the same handwriting as the address on the envelope. It read:
I desire a meeting with you, and offer a truce for the duration, bound by my word of honor to be upheld. Meet with me at seven P. M. , tonight at your grave in Graceland Cemetery, in order to help me avoid taking actions that would be unfortunate to you and your ally in the police.
The final third of the letter had a lock of golden hair taped to it. I held the picture up next to the letter.
The hair was Murphy's.
Mavra had her number. With pictures of her committing a felony (and with me aiding and abetting, no less), Mavra could have her out of the cops and behind bars in hours. But even worse was the lock of hair. Mavra was a skilled sorceress, and might have been as strong as a full-fledged wizard. With a lock of Murphy's hair, she could do virtually anything she pleased to Murph, and there wouldn't be squat anyone could do about it. Mavra could kill her. Mavra could worse than kill her.
It didn't take me long to make up my mind. In supernatural circles, a pledge of truce based upon a word of honor was an institution- especially among the old-world types like Mavra. If she was offering a truce so that we could talk, she meant it. She wanted to deal.
I stared down at the pictures.
She wanted to deal, and she was going to be negotiating from a position of strength. It meant blackmail.
And if I didn't play along, Murphy was as good as dead.