Of course, it wasn’t just over after that. Attenborough may have been vanquished, the day may have been saved, but we didn’t get to clock out and go home. He’d made a royal mess of things, and we had a lot of loose ends to tie up.
On the chugboat ride back to Chicago, we compared notes on the previous night’s excitement, finally getting to put the pieces together now that the spell was lifted and Marcone could say whatever he wanted to.
Turned out, he’d managed to escape the ordeal virtually unscathed. The worst he’d gotten was a bit of roughing up from Torelli’s people; Attenborough evidently preferred reckless laws-of-magic breakage to gratuitous violence. When Attenborough had gotten ahold of Marcone, they’d shaken him down for information, business-like, then locked him up and more or less left him alone. The hut they kept him in was hardly secure and Marcone had picked the lock ages before we got there—for all the good it did him, since he was still trapped inside a bubble with a dozen hostile wizards.
We also got, decidedly after the fact, the last piece of information that Marcone hadn’t been able to communicate to Bob: that Attenborough was supercharged. Marcone was familiar enough with me to know what the baseline for really powerful wizard was, and when he’d seen the way Attenborough was slinging magic around with no thought for conservation, he guessed that the man must have found a way to augment himself somehow. It would have been helpful to learn that sooner, but such is life. And hey, we still won.
When Thomas was steering us into port, Marcone disappeared below deck. A covert glance around showed that Molly was with Thomas, getting a practical lesson in boating, and Gard was standing out on the deck, making this the only moment of privacy we were likely to get before things got busy again. I was dreading the conversation that would follow, but it wasn’t something I could risk putting off.
I found Marcone taking stock of the clothes he’d shed the night before, filthy from their misadventures, but dry from having hung over the heater for a few hours. I hovered in the doorway for a few moments, wrestling with my own reluctance, before making myself ask, “Are you still mad about Helen?”
He’d been trying to brush off some of the grit caked to his jeans, but at that, his hands stilled. I could feel his awareness shifting to me, though his eyes stayed resting lightly on the fabric.
“Mad lacks sufficient nuance to describe my feelings at the moment,” he replied in his signature tone of dry irony, the one that usually means heads are going to roll.
“She helped me find you, you know,” I said. “Without her help, I wouldn’t have known to look at the Torelli house and I wouldn’t have realized that Attenborough had you.”
“And she volunteered that information out of the goodness of her heart, did she? Let me guess—you told her that her daughter was alive and offered to trade my location for Amanda’s.”
Of course he knew how I’d done it, because that’s exactly what he would have done, if our situations had been reversed. The thought occurred to me, an uncomfortable idea that I didn’t want to believe, that maybe this was why he hadn’t told her about Amanda sooner: that he’d been saving the secret for a situation exactly like this one, when he would need the only leverage possible against a woman who didn’t care about anything else.
“I did,” I said evenly.
“And did you happen to mention the condition that she was going to find her daughter in?” He looked up then, his pale gaze razor-sharp and nearly rooting me in place. At the look on my face, he smiled, and not pleasantly. “Of course you didn’t.”
“I know I wasn’t fair to her,” I said, feeling my own temper rising as guilt transmuted itself into defensive anger. “And I’m not proud of it, but I would do it again if I had to, because your life was on the line and the clock was ticking.”
“Commendable, to be sure. But it would have been completely unnecessary if you’d thought to inform me of Helen’s betrayal sooner.”
“And I’ll shoulder some of the blame for that, but not all of it. Stars and stones, I can’t believe you trusted her in the first place! How much loyalty did you seriously expect from a sociopath?”
“I was well aware that she had no loyalty to me personally, I just didn’t think she’d found anyone better to throw her lot in with yet. So, tell me—how long had you known?”
“How long, Mr. Dresden?” he bit out.
Ouch, the unironic “Mr.” treatment. I sighed. “Since you came back from the Denarians. I thought it was suspicious how quickly they’d been able to find your safehouse—when I cornered Helen, she admitted that she’d been the one to let it slip.”
He expelled a harsh breath and cut his gaze away from me in disgust.
“Listen, I know I should have told you. But then I would have had to explain how I knew, and...” I paused uncomfortably, “I was afraid that you might kill her.”
I wanted him to deny it. I wanted him to get mad at me just for suggesting it, for entertaining the idea that he would even consider such a thing—but we’d always understood each other, even when we didn’t agree. Especially when we didn’t agree. I’d known from the start why I was keeping that secret.
“Yes,” he said bluntly, eyes blazing as they came back up to meet mine, anger lending a sharp edge to his voice. “After what I endured at the hands of her associates? Yes, Dresden, I would kill her in a heartbeat. And you have yet to talk me out of it.”
“Goddamn it, Marcone, she’s sick! You knew that when you made the decision to hire her! She’s sick and broken and incapable of loyalty, and you kept her around anyway because you felt guilty.”
“You are not privy to my motives, Dresden,” he said curtly. “Yes, I knew that she was a sociopath—which is why her betrayal isn’t the one that matters.”
No, it was mine. Because somehow, in all this mess, I’d forgotten that Marcone cared as much about loyalty as I did, and I was only just realizing how this must feel to him. Like a slap in the face; like he’d started to open up to me, but I was still playing my own game with him.
I had my mouth open to explain, or apologize—frankly, I wasn’t sure what was about to come out—when the hatch opened, letting in sunlight and Thomas’s voice.
“We’re here!” he called down the stairs. “You guys about ready to go?”
“Give us a moment,” Marcone replied, lifting his voice only slightly but packing them with such steely authority that Thomas shut the hatch again without another word. Marcone’s eyes rested briefly on the hatch, as if making sure it would stay closed, then looked back to me. “Well, Harry? Have you anything else to say on her behalf?”
A dozen crazy ideas flashed through my head, plans for storming Marcone’s base and getting Helen out, or for talking him out of it, getting him to trade her life for something he wanted more, there were things I had, chips I could barter with. Every stupidly chivalrous impulse in my body was screaming at me to save her, to do whatever it took, to lay it on the line, to tell him, If you kill her, then you lose me—
But I wasn’t going to do it. I wasn’t going to make that ultimatum, not for her sake. She’d already had her chance; I’d kept her secret the first time around, saved her life, and all she’d done was squander it on more violence, more death.
This wasn’t even about Helen, really. God knew I wasn’t much happier with her than Marcone was. It was about him—about how he was a man with no qualms about killing, and I wasn’t. Even though I knew that he wasn’t going to change, no matter how this turned out, it was easier to ignore, in some way, easier to justify when the killings were abstract—nameless rival mobsters with consciences as black as his, not a woman whose only original sin was to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, to have outlived everyone she cared about.
And, looking him in the eye, I could tell that he knew that too. He understood me well enough to know that if we didn’t find some way to compromise here, if he did kill Helen, then this would be the beginning of the end—the first blow, laying the first, splintering cracks in our fragile rapport, and that there would be only so many blows it could take before it broke.
“Please don’t kill her,” I said, quiet and tired, past any artifice. “Send her away, put her someplace where she won’t bother you anymore. Just... don’t kill her. Have mercy, Marcone—life dealt her a crap hand, it’s not her fault that she turned out like this.”
Marcone was silent for a long moment. He drew in a breath, then smiled and gave a short huff as something amusing occurred to him.
“Tell me, Mr. Dresden—are you familiar with the maxim of choosing your battles wisely?” he asked.
“I think I’ve heard it a time or two,” I replied cautiously.
He lifted his eyes to me again, his smile and his equanimity back in place. “I’m choosing to concede this one. You have my word that I will not execute Ms. Helen Beckitt, no matter how richly she may deserve it.”
I breathed an internal sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
Marcone shrugged. “There’s nothing to thank me for. I lose nothing by letting her live except vengeance, which would have been petty, if satisfying.” The smile he gave me wasn’t even intended to be reassuring. “I would advise you, however, not to expect such easy capitulation in the future.”
Well, that seemed like a pretty good deal to me, even if he was making ominous noises about the future. That was then, and this was now, and I’d never been great shakes at planning ahead anyway.
Thomas dropped Molly off at her house, then went on to take Marcone and Gard, per his request, to a nondescript address in Lincoln Park.
Marcone and I didn’t say much to each other as he was getting out, not in front of the others, but he shot me a look, guarded and inscrutable, and I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to mean something. In any case, the moment passed before I could seize on it, and then they were gone and we were pulling away again.
Thomas tried to insist on taking me to the hospital, but I refused—I told him I was bruised, battered, and exhausted, but it was nothing a week of sleep wouldn’t fix, and there was no point in driving up my insurance premiums. Which was true, though what I didn’t mention was an odd, queasy sense that left me feeling tired, off-balance and weirdly hollow, like a bad hangover. It didn’t take a genius to guess that it had something to do with the soul-sapping number that Attenborough had done on me, nor did it take a genius to guess that a hospital visit wouldn’t help; an evil wizard trying to suck the life out of me wasn’t exactly something that a doctor was equipped to deal with.
I did consent to let him hang around my apartment a while longer, which he insisted on doing, making sure that I didn’t die in my sleep, even though I could tell he would rather have gone home to his own bed. Whatever small reserve of energy I’d accumulated while sleeping on the boat had been depleted by the morning’s exertions, and by the time we finally got home I was dead on my feet. I remember stumbling across the living room, where Mister showed his affection by making a spirited effort to trip me, and seeing some of Bob’s porn mags strewn carelessly across the coffee table. Light bedtime reading for Thomas, apparently, and I was at a stage of bizarre lucidity where it made perfect sense. Like people who read cookbooks, I thought sagely, right before falling into bed and passing out.
I slept for nearly twenty hours straight and when I woke it was to the fading traces of a dream that felt like a memory, though it was no memory of mine—a dream about secrets, and a friend’s spiraling madness, and a child’s bones buried on the island’s lonely shore.
Great, I thought, blinking away hallucinations in the cavernous darkness of my bedroom, scrubbing my hands over my face, my skin still cold and prickling with sweat. Apparently it wasn’t enough for me to be haunted by my own guilty conscience; I seemed to have inherited the island’s memories as well. Some people have all the luck, right?
I changed out of my sweat-soaked shirt and ventured out into the living room, but it was as empty and quiet as a house with two animals of that size gets. I saw that Thomas had made a half-assed effort to clean up and found a note on the coffee table saying that he’d had to go to work, that he’d checked in on me and I seemed to be doing fine so he’d decided to let me sleep myself out.
He also dropped the not-so-subtle hint that if I did wake up and happen to find myself with some free time, he’d really appreciate it if I could get my ass to the police office and clear up this whole “dead” thing so he could go home.
Going to the police station would mean seeing Murphy—and considering that we hadn’t parted on the best of terms, I owed her a heads up, one which would probably take the form of a very uncomfortable phone call. Delaying wasn’t going to make it any easier, as Ebenezar was fond of telling me, but I decided that it could wait until after coffee.
I set some water boiling for coffee, fried up an egg, and generally exhausted the culinary capabilities of my kitchen before I gave in and dialed her work number, only to be told that she’d pulled the late shift last night and wasn’t due in until after lunch. After a minute’s consideration, I got up and got dressed, then drove over to her house, making a brief stop along the way.
“Dresden,” she said flatly when she opened the door and her eyes fell on me. I knew I hadn’t woken her up because I could hear the TV going behind her, but she was still wearing her pajamas and looking at me as if I ranked pretty low on the list of people she’d wanted to find on her doorstep. “What’s on fire this time?”
“Nothing’s on fire,” I assured her. “No emergency. I just wanted to explain what happened, and let you know that it’s over and we won.”
I drew in a breath. “I also, uhm... wanted to apologize. And maybe grovel a little.” I held up the box, spoils of my earlier stop off, and brandished it hopefully. “I brought you chocolate?”
The corner of her mouth quirked, and in that moment, a tension that I hadn’t even realized I was carrying eased. She might make me sweat and plead and jump through hoops, but she would forgive me eventually. I hadn’t screwed things up beyond repair, not this time, not yet anyway.
“Well, it’s a start,” she allowed, opening the door wider and stepping aside for me to enter. “Come on in then.”
We settled in at her dining room table and over coffee I recapped the past few days’ events. I didn’t name any names, just told her that there had been a wizard trying for a coup and to set the stage he’d been causing a lot of chaos—how he’d been responsible for the suicides on the beach, how he’d been manipulating Marcone, and how the business with the golem had been Marcone’s way of getting out.
Murphy listened without interruption, eating chocolate in lieu of breakfast and making her businesslike “mm-hm” noises.
I finished by saying that I didn’t know if the police had come across any other odd incidents recently—and Murphy didn’t jump to enlighten me—but if so, they’d probably seen the end of them for a while.
“So this guy is definitely dead?” she asked after I’d finished. “Not just ‘mostly’ dead or ‘probably’ dead?”
“Yeah. I saw it happen.”
“Saw it. I’m sure you did.” Her tone made it clear she thought I’d done more than that, but knew better than to ask.
“Them’s the facts, ma’am—he lost control of the demons he’d summoned and they turned on him. I didn’t have to do a thing.”
“A karmic ending worthy of a Disney movie,” she said dryly, but she didn’t push the issue. Taking a sip of her coffee, she asked, “So does the groveling commence now?”
I scratched the back of my head ruefully. “Might as well. Alright, so—I was an idiot. Again. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that Marcone was alive and I was hanging out with him. I should have trusted you with that information, but I didn’t, and you have every right to get mad at me for that.”
She set her cup down abruptly, the ceramic clunking hard against the tabletop, though her face looked more frustrated than angry.
“Harry,” she said. “Far be it from me to head off your little self-recrimination train—but do you actually understand why I was angry, or are you just apologizing to get me off your back?”
When I couldn’t answer that right away, she pressed her advantage, leaning forward. “You can’t claim it just slipped your mind. You had the chance to tell me, and you didn’t. So explain to me what was going on in your head, why you decided not to.”
I’d been expecting her to lay the guilt on heavy, and while it was a relief that she hadn’t, the question she was putting to me now was equally difficult in its own way.
“I was doing what I thought would keep both of you safe,” I admitted at last. “Marcone was better off being assumed dead, and if you’d known anything about his whereabouts, it could have put you in danger too.”
“Dresden, I’m a cop,” she began, exasperated. “I deal with danger every day, and if you think that I’m not capab—”
“Murphy, this isn’t about being weak or being strong!” I burst out, fighting the urge to pull my hair out. “Stars, I know you’re no pushover. After the number of times you’ve saved my sorry ass, believe me, I know. But these weren’t guys that you could have taken down with guns, or aikido, or even a heaping helping of good, old-fashioned Murphy stubbornness. They would have ransacked your head for whatever information they wanted and then killed you, and there’s no way for you to defend yourself against an enemy like that!”
I broke off when I realized that this probably wasn’t the best way to apologize. But this wasn’t just chivalry, or chauvinism, or whatever you wanted to call it—I would have been telling the same thing to any other plain vanilla human in her position. And I knew just how galling this was for her, to be told that there was nothing she could do about her helplessness but swallow it; it was so antithetical to everything she was as a person and as an officer of the law, but it was only the truth.
She watched me with pursed lips for a long, tense moment, then asked, “Weren’t you supposed to be groveling?”
“Ah, crap.” I sighed “I’m no good at this.”
“Maybe you should practice more,” she suggested dryly, but when she leaned back, lacing her fingers behind her head, her face was resigned. Only so many times you can retread the same ground, I guess. “Besides, as much as I complain, I’d rather have you shooting straight with me than telling me what you think I want to hear.”
“I’m sorry, Murph,” I said again.
“I know. And I’m sure you’ll be sorry next time too.”
Ouch. Especially because she was probably right.
Seeing the look on my face, she set her cup aside and laid her hand over mine. “Harry, look,” she said gently. “I know that trusting people isn’t your first instinct. But you’ve got to learn how to do it sometime.”
“I’ll try.” That was the most I could promise. “As long as you’ll be there to give me a kick in the pants when I screw up.”
“What else are friends for?” Murphy asked rhetorically. She inclined her mug toward me and I met her silent toast.
“Alright,” she went on after taking another drink. “So where’s Marcone now, if you got all this evil wizard business squared away?”
“Beats me,” I said with a shrug. Then, seeing her eyebrow start to climb, I added quickly, “No really, God’s honest truth—we dropped him off downtown yesterday morning, and that’s the last I saw of him.”
She tsked, looking amused. “For shame, Dresden, aiding and abetting a murder suspect. I should have you booked for collusion.”
“I should let you. Nothing would clear his name faster, I’m sure.”
“Aha, and now we get to the real reason why you showed up on my doorstep.”
I spread my hands. “Guilty as charged. Thomas is about to kill me for real if I don’t get this straightened out so he can go home. Do you mind if I tag along when you go in to work later?”
She shook her head, chuckling. “Man, you don’t do anything by halves, do you? Chief’s gonna have kittens when our stiff strolls in the front door. Cornick—that’s the guy on Marcone’s case—he’s going to be screaming conspiracy and trying to say that this was some stunt of mine.”
“I can leave you out of it, if you’d rather.”
“What, and miss out on this prime time entertainment? Not on your life.” She downed the last of her coffee and got up to put her mug in the sink. “Give me a few minutes to get my cop on; you can buy me breakfast and then we’ll head over to the station.”
That could have gone worse.
However, it wasn’t until after we’d eaten and were driving to the station that it occurred to me I had another secret I should probably get off my chest.
“Sooo,” I began, too casually, feeling Murphy’s attention perk up immediately. “In the interests of keeping this newfound resolution of full disclosure, etc... you should probably know that I’m, uh... sleeping with Marcone.”
We were lucky that the car happened to be stopped at a red light when I dropped that particular bombshell, and even then the car gave a hiccupping lurch forward as Murphy’s foot momentarily came off the brake and she had to slam it down again.
“What?” she said, her head coming round to stare at me in disbelief. “I—what?”
“You heard me,” I muttered, feeling myself turning beet red.
“I did, but you’ll have to forgive me for having trouble processing that. I—you’re joking,” she said flatly, then took in the look on my face and dismissed the idea just as quickly. “Okay you’re not. Just—seriously, what? Did you trip? Did he?”
“Oh hey look, the light’s green,” I pointed out desperately, just as the irritated blare of a horn from the car behind us brought her attention back to traffic. Blinking back to the present, she moved her foot to the gas distractedly.
“Harry,” she began slowly. “I didn’t know that you even liked men, much less that you liked him. Enough to—Christ.” She squeezed her eyes shut for a brief second, like she was expecting the world to make sense when she opened them again, or like she was trying to purge a particularly distressing mental image. “I guess my question is... why now?”
Why now might have been the icing, but why him was the cake. Good questions—and it’d be nice if someone could answer them for me, because I sure as heck couldn’t offer much, much less anything that Murphy would accept.
“I think,” I said carefully, keeping my attention fixed on the road, “that if we’d met under different circumstances”—if we’d been different people, with different lives—“this would have happened years ago.”
In the corner of my eye I saw Murphy steal another glance at me, but she didn’t interrupt.
“It’s not as sudden as it seems,” I continued. “I’ve always liked him, even when I didn’t want to. Even when I don’t like what he does, as a person he’s always been...”
“Likeable,” Murphy supplied dryly when I found myself groping for a word, saving me the embarrassment of having to repeat myself like an ineloquent teenager. When I didn’t reply, she added, “Yes, I have met the man, Harry. He’s a suave, charismatic, well-spoken scumbag. And you know that as well as I do—so what gives?”
I felt my jaw tighten. “So maybe I decided that it’s no one’s business but mine who I want to date.”
“Easy there, tiger, I’m not trying to put your back up,” she said, keeping her tone mild. “I’m just calling it like I see it.”
That defused my anger, and I sighed. “I know. And I know you’re going to think I’ve been... compromised or something, but trust me, I don’t like his business any more than I ever have. I don’t plan on helping him with it or even getting involved, but the fact is, it’s been a long time since he was a black-and-white bad guy, and he’s been on our team more often than not.”
“No, he’s been on your team,” she corrected me. “I get that the lines have blurred for you, but in the world I live in, I’m still a cop and he’s still a criminal.”
Fair enough. But while Murphy was still my cop, somewhere along the line he’d become my criminal. Hell’s bells.
We pulled into the station parking lot. Murphy was silent for a while, scanning the rows for an empty space, before she said, “You realize this is going to change some things, right?”
I steeled myself. “What do you mean?”
“Well, for one, you’re never going to work for S.I. again,” she said, not cruelly, but not beating around any bushes either. “That’s not a threat, it’s just a fact. Even if you break up with him in the end, we already get enough shit for putting a wizard on accounts—there’s no way I’m going to risk the fallout of having a mob-affiliated wizard on the payroll. I’m sorry, Harry.”
I winced, but I could see where she was coming from. “I understand,” I said. “S.I. hasn’t had that much work for me lately anyway.”
She sighed. “I know. I wish I could use you more, but it’s never my call.”
“I’ll still help you out if you need it, of course. Just, off-the-record-like.”
“You’re a stand-up guy, Harry,” she said, pulling into a space and putting the car in park. “Sometimes. Usually.” I caught her smiling though.
“I do my best,” I said. “So, we ready to do this?”
“Yeah,” she said, but stopped before turning off the car, her hand on the ignition and her eyes troubled where they rested on the steering wheel. “Harry, listen. I’m not going to try to convince you that dating Marcone is a bad idea, even though I think it is, or tell you that you ought to watch yourself around him—because frankly, if you haven’t figured that out by now then you never will. But I want you to promise that you’ll remember something.”
“What?” I asked, hearing the defensive edge in my voice.
“That there’s a reason why you weren’t friends with him before.” She looked up and watched me while that sank in. “I don’t know what he did or said to change your mind—and I don’t need to know, that’s your business. But I want you to remember that there was a time, not so long ago, when you hated him and everything he stood for, and I want you to think long and hard about whether anything’s really changed.”
“You really think I haven’t been asking myself that?”
“Harry,” she said patiently. “I think that your synapses are so fried from the first sex you’ve had in what—three years? Four?—that you’re not thinking all that straight right now.”
I wasn’t even sure I could argue with that, and she didn’t give me the chance to before she was shutting off the car and unlocking her door.
“In any case—you’re an adult, and who you choose to be with is your decision. Just keep in mind, Harry, that if you’re on Marcone’s side, then I won’t always be on yours.”
Our entrance made quite the splash. Murphy had called ahead and left a message for homicide guy Cornick, telling him that she was coming in with a lead on the Dresden case, so he was hanging out right there at the front desk when we came in. I don’t know what he’d been expecting, but it sure as hell wasn’t me, because the look on his face was priceless when I ambled in on Murphy’s heels.
Rawlins was there too, buying a coke from the machine in the lobby. He noticed Murphy first, but when his eyes fell on me he stopped in his tracks, blank shock all over his face. It was replaced a moment later with a thoughtful expression as he attempted to bite back a smile. “Well, gosh-darn,” he drawled, popping the lid on his coke and taking a lazy swig. “Here I thought we’d finally gotten rid of you.”
Cornick found his tongue and immediately declared all of this to be some sort of hoax (which Rawlins was obviously party to, judging from his lack of surprise) and demanded that Murphy stop playing with his toys—I mean, interfering with his investigation. He wanted me handcuffed. He wanted me arrested, though on what grounds, he wasn’t exactly clear.
The ruckus attracted at least half a dozen other officers and staff, poking their heads in to see what all the hoopla was, and it had all the makings of a circus before the exasperated chief of police arrived to take things in hand. He took one look at me and wisely issued a summary dismissal to the gawkers. Apparently there wasn’t any police procedure to fall back on when the alleged murder victim wanders in off the street, go figure, but the chief declined to handcuff me, and didn’t let Cornick send Murphy away. (“Everyone knows she’s his handler, let her be,” were his words, jerking a thumb at me as if I were some kind of zoo animal. Homo magicus. Please do not feed the wizard.)
They did stick me in an interrogation room, though they left the door open as a concession to the fact that I wasn’t actually a prisoner, while several officers rotated through with questions that they couldn’t seem to believe they were asking.
For the first hour or so I was only peripherally aware of what was going on, since no one was making an effort to keep me in the loop. I know they called the morgue to verify that the body was still on ice, then somebody came in and snapped a picture of me to email over for comparison. They wanted a bajillion forms of ID, then fingerprints, retinal scans, dental records, the works. They wanted to know where I’d been on the night of the murder, if I was aware that Marcone had been arrested for it; then one person would leave and someone else would come in and ask mostly the same questions again.
I told them the truth up to the point where Marcone dropped me off at home after the date—though I noticed everyone was scrupulously avoiding that particular word—but then played dumb for the rest of it. I told them that Marcone had been framed—which was sort of true, even if he’d done it himself—and that if they let me see the body, I could prove it. Which, again, wasn’t a request they had a procedure for, and provoked a fresh round of dithering each time I asked.
Murphy brought me coffee in a lull between interrogations, leaning in the doorway as she drank hers and looking altogether too amused by the uproar around her.
“So are you supposed to be the good cop, huh, little lady?” I asked in my best tough-guy growl.
She gave me a wolfish smile. “I’m the not-on-this-case cop, or my blood pressure would be a hell of a lot higher right now.” She shook her head, still grinning. “Oh man, I’ve never seen that ass Cornick with so much egg on his face. You keep this up and I might be buying you chocolate.”
And then it was back to the questions again. One thing that I noticed over the course of the afternoon was the number of officers from SI who found an excuse to wander through and exchange a bit of meaningless conversation with me, and how they didn’t ask the questions that everyone else was, just came by to see if the rumors were true.
They were all thinking it, but only one put words to it—a younger man that I’d seen around a time or two. “So, the body they found,” he said, all cool and casual where he leaned in the door. “More of your voodoo stuff?”
“Not mine, but yeah—voodoo.”
“Goddamned magic,” he muttered, shaking his head and wandering out again. That magic was real was the great unspoken truth that everyone in SI came to understand sooner or later, but it took a certain bravado to admit it. It was frustrating, even though I understood why—when magic always got proven to be a hoax, who wanted to be the sucker that had admitted to believing in it, right?
It took forever and a day, but eventually they agreed to let me see the body and arranged for a squad car to take me over to the forensic center.
We were met by the head pathologist, a middle-aged woman who was introduced as Dr. Foster, tall and bony with red hair and skin that was vampire-pale under the fluorescent lights. She looked unimpressed with my miraculous revival, as if she’d already written me off as a fraud and resented being dragged from her work to deal with this monkey business.
Down at the slabs, Dr. Foster had already pulled the body for viewing. It wasn’t looking so hot, and from a wide, T-shaped incision on the chest I gathered that they’d already done the internal autopsy. It made my stomach give an unpleasant lurch, and I wasn’t the only one in the room looking sort of queasy.
“Alright,” I said, helping myself to a pair of rubber gloves while Dr. Foster glared disapprovingly. “So, ladies and gentlemen, for my next trick, I am going to reveal to you that this body is not a body at all.”
“If you read my autopsy report, I think you’ll find that it is,” Dr. Foster snapped, folding her arms impatiently. Tough crowd. It was people like her that made me glad I didn’t do birthday parties.
Wearing the pilfered gloves, I carefully turned the corpse’s head so that I could examine the back of the scalp for the hair that anchored the illusion. Rigor mortis had come and gone, so I didn’t have to force it, but it was still unnerving to be touching my own dead body. I didn’t want to get close to it, but had to swallow my reluctance and bend over close enough to peer at the hairline.
“What are you looking for?” Dr. Foster demanded. “There was no head trauma, the victim died on a bed.”
“Not looking for trauma,” I muttered—found it. Marking the spot with my finger, I looked up. “Can I get some tweezers? Perhaps a magnifying glass?”
Someone in a lab coat produced both.
“Alright,” I said. “Next, I would like a volunteer from the audience? Anyone? Dr. Foster?”
She’d apparently decided that the fastest way to get me gone was to humor me, because she stepped up but didn’t lose her sour expression. “What do you want?” she asked flatly.
“You see that hair, right there?”
She lowered her glasses to the tip of her nose to peer over the rims. “I see lots of hair.”
“No, right here.” The tweezers were very sharp and I could point it out with precision. “There’s one strand that’s not growing out of the scalp, it’s been stitched into it. Do you see it?”
Her brows clamped into a frown when she saw it, because there was no explanation for why a hair was doing that. I handed her the tweezers and the magnifying glass and stepped back.
“I want you to pull it out,” I said.
She shot me a deeply mistrustful look, but took my place beside the body and lifted the magnifying glass to find it again.
One of the officers, on my suggestion, had brought a camcorder. I doubted it would survive the encounter, but figured it couldn’t hurt to try, except in the sense that it was my tax dollars at work. I looked at him now. “Is that rolling?”
“Alright, Dr. Foster, whenever you’re ready.”
She huffed an annoyed sigh, shaking her head as if she planned to have strong words with whoever had been dumb enough to let me through the doors, and bent down to squint at the corpse. With steady hands, she set the tweezers in place and made a sharp tug.
It all happened at once. The corpse jerked, giving a sudden, full-body spasm and Dr. Foster, cool as a cucumber until confronted with that, let a small shriek and leapt back, the magnifying glass going skittering across the floor. The illusion sloughed off the golem like sand and the whole thing seemed to darken and wither right before our eyes, brittle limbs curling in on themselves like an insect in its death throes before it shuddered into stillness.
It was over in seconds, and where my doppelganger had been there now lay a... thing. It was vaguely human-shaped, but the trunk of its body was made of dried, cracking mud and its curling limbs were made of sticks. A stained square of linen with Sanskrit lettering was pinned to the chest. The head was made of leather, drawn tight over some kind of frame, with two jagged holes punched in it to suggest eyes and a mouth that was stitched shut. That, I recalled distantly, was an eastern practice to ensure that no bodiless spirits took up residence in the golem.
Granted, I was the only one (with the possible exception of Murphy) who had the presence of mind to note the finer points of Veda’s golem-crafting. Everyone else was busy with variations on a theme of “what the hell?!”
In the end, no one was willing to put the golem in their report. There’s human nature for you—twenty people see the impossible happen right in front of their eyes, and not a one of them wants to be the first one to admit it. Still, it’d give them something to think about the next time the unexplainable threw itself on SI’s doorstep.
But that’s getting ahead of myself. I wasn’t around for much of the fallout from that, because after the police finished with me, I had to go deal with the other fallout—that is, someone still had to break the news about Attenborough’s untimely demise to the White Council, and since I was the only wizard in our merry band of adventurers, that job fell to me. Seriously, this is the thanks I get? They should have been pinning a freaking medal on me, but knowing the White Council, I was more likely to get an Inquisition.
I ended up driving out to visit Ebenezar first, to see if maybe I couldn’t get him on my side before all hell broke loose. His farm is a good six hours away, but that was fine by me—I had a lot on my mind, and I didn’t object to a nice, quiet drive to think things over.
Or it was nice, until the Beetle broke down on Highway 34, leaving me stranded approximately a million miles from anywhere. Other drivers showed a remarkable reluctance to pick up a scruffy, trenchcoat-clad hitchhiker, imagine that, and I was starting to wonder if I’d be walking to Missouri when a blessedly friendly truck driver offered me a lift.
We arrived near sundown. Ebenezar was standing at the end of his drive, arms folded over his chest like a dad waiting in ambush for a teenager sneaking in after curfew. I didn’t even ask how he’d known I was coming.
“Word is, you’ve been kicking up a ruckus, is that right?” he asked as the truck roared off into the setting sun. Never much of one for pleasantries, Ebenezar.
“No keeping anything from you,” I sighed, hitching my bag higher on my shoulder. “What have you heard?”
“How ’bout you tell me what you done, boy, and we’ll see if they square up.”
He led me inside, where the table in his rustic kitchen was set for two and a pot was keeping warm on his wood-burning stove. He sat me down without a word and gave me a plate, and so over a simple, hearty dinner I told him the whole story.
It took the better part of an hour, because I kept forgetting parts—like my first meeting with Tabby, and then the M.A.G.I.C. people—and having to backtrack, but he listened without interrupting, his weathered face unreadable.
And yeah, I told him about Marcone. About me and Marcone. It didn’t have anything to do with what I had to testify to the White Council, but, well… I figured that he ought to know. That he deserved to know—as family, or the closest thing I had to it. Also, it wouldn’t have been fair if I got to escape the excruciating awkwardness that is coming out to your parent-figures, now would it? Apparently I’m a masochist.
I admit, I was a little worried about how he would take the news of my somewhat-less-than-rigidly-straight sexuality. He was usually a pretty live-and-let-live guy, but he’d also been born in a very different century, and sex is one of those subjects that otherwise rational people can fall apart on sometimes. Was he going to react badly? If so, how badly, and what was I going to do about it? I’d never had the opportunity or inclination to sound out his opinion on the topic before, so I had no way to guess.
Not to mention that this wasn’t just some random cabana boy I’d picked up, it was Baron John Marcone. Even if Ebenezar didn’t object to me dating dudes, he couldn’t possibly be thrilled by that one in particular.
Though as it turned out, I needn’t have worried. “Hoss, you ain’t got a patch on my younger days,” he snorted.
And seeing as I really didn’t want to know, we both left it at that.
When I’d finished and fallen silent, Ebenezar at last folded his arm and leaned back in his chair, his expression distant. “So, Attenborough, huh? I must admit, I never would have expected it from him.”
“Do you believe me?” I ventured.
“Oh yes, I believe you. Not least ’cause you know I’d tan your hide if you lied to me.”
Thirty-seven years old, and I didn’t doubt him for a second.
“So what are we going to do next?” I asked.
“Well, you’re gonna go patch up some holes in the back fence that I been saving for you,” he said, pushing himself to his feet and gathering up the dishes. “I’m going to go have a chat with our good friend the Merlin. You just leave this to me, boy.”
I stayed the night on his farm, though Ebenezar was elsewhere for most of it. The next morning he packed me off on a bus to Chicago, promising that he would handle the White Council, but getting a tow truck for the Beetle was on me.
I’d been expecting to find myself on trial again—I mean, it was one dead, highly respected older wizard versus a bunch of slander being spouted by my punk self—but Ebenezar was as good as his word. With him going to bat for me, I was scarcely involved in the White Council’s investigation at all, and when I finally did get called in it was as a witness—for the prosecution. The prosecution. Will wonders never cease.
Sure, the usual suspects made the usual round of insinuations during my testimony, but somewhere along the line that had lost the power to aggravate me. I just sat it out, mostly bored, while they sniped about my dangerously lax morality, suspicious history, manifestly psychotic tendencies, sub-par grooming habits, juvenile sense of humor, and so on and so forth.
The evidence backed me up though, as did the testimony that Marcone and Jonathan provided. They both represented signatories of the Accords whose rights Attenborough had violated, and the White Council may not have been Marcone’s biggest fans, but they could recognize a major player when they saw one—when he took the stand, they didn’t give him half the grief they gave me.
It was surreal seeing Marcone in Edinburgh—like someone with a really bizarre sense of humor had spliced frames from The Godfather into a Lord of the Rings movie. He wore the voluminous robes traditionally provided for witnesses (wore them well, improbably enough) and seemed perfectly at home with everything; Jonathan just looked green around the gills.
Luccio was there too. Ebenezar had put out orders for her to be taken into custody, her and the other wardens who had tried to arrest me, but apparently she’d beaten him to the punch—immediately after Attenborough’s death, before the wardens even came looking for her, she’d turned herself in. It emerged in short order that she and a dozen others, mostly younger wizards, had been mind-controlled. None of them were being prosecuted, since they hadn’t been collaborating with Attenborough willingly, absolving them of his guilt, and now that he was dead the spell was broken.
Or so the theory went.
For my part, I listened to their testimony and couldn’t help remembering Attenborough’s final words. How much better it would serve my purposes to lie. Listened as they answered every question in the negative—no, Attenborough was the only one. No one else had helped. No one else had known. No, no, no.
I worked alone.
How easy would it be for someone to dictate their answers even now? Their minds had been compromised, their defenses knocked down and the foundation laid for someone else’s will to take up residence. That didn’t just disappear because the original puppet-master was dead, and I couldn’t possibly have been the only one in the room thinking it.
In the end, no one was surprised—least of all me—when after an expeditious trial the Council concluded that Attenborough was guilty of breaking both the Accords and the Laws of Magic, and moreover, that he alone was guilty. No co-conspirators. Case closed, game over, go home, don’t look behind the curtain.
I worked alone.
Sure you did, I thought bitterly as I fell into step with the mass of people shuffling out of the hall.
Marcone and I hadn’t been allowed to speak before the trial—standard operating procedure, as they didn’t want us to discuss the case and possibly influence each other’s testimony—but then we didn’t get a chance to talk afterwards either. I caught a glimpse of him briefly, but he was deep in conversation with the Merlin and I decided it could wait. When Marcone wound up ditching the after-party to go deal with “pressing business” in Chicago, I wondered if he was avoiding me on purpose.
And he wasn’t the only one. You’d think that after heading off a supernatural battle royale on the scale that Attenborough had been orchestrating, people could find something to be happy about, but in the wake of the trial the mood around Edinburgh was grim and subdued. I remarked to Ebenezar that they probably would have been happier to pin it on me.
“I don’t deny that,” he allowed after a long moment’s consideration. “But not for the reasons you think. Attenborough was a fair man and a principled one, and just about the last person anybody would have pegged for a move like this. No one’s saying you didn’t do right in stopping him, but it ain’t much to celebrate. The way these folks see it, if a man like Attenborough could go rotten, who can you trust?”
Maybe. Though it wouldn’t have killed them to say thanks. I decided to leave before I overstayed my welcome, or before one of Attenborough’s old drinking buddies decided to punch me in the face.
I came across Jonathan outside the gates, apparently forgotten. He was back in his regular clothes now—presumably his regular clothes, though I was no fashion palate and even I could tell that the flannel was ill-advised—bumming around on the steps and smoking a cigarette. Maybe they expected him to buy his own plane ticket home; gods knew the wardens didn’t like his kind much more than they liked me.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” I remarked.
Jonathan gave me a look, like what I’d said was almost funny “When the occasion warrants it,” he replied mildly. He held out the pack in an implicit offer.
I waved it aside. “No thanks. If I smoked when the occasion warranted it, I’d never stop.”
He didn’t reply to that, and an awkward silence rushed in to fill the space. I still wasn’t at ease with Jonathan, since I got a suckerpunch of guilt every time I looked at him—he was the walking, talking reminder of a moral failure that would stick with me for a long time to come.
“Listen...” I broke out at last, just as Jonathan started to say, “About your...”
I stopped. “You first.”
“About your fee.” Jonathan pointedly flicked his spent cigarette butt onto the middle of the Council steps and lit another. “I know Tabby’s the one who contracted you, but send the bill to my office and I’ll take care of it.”
“You really don’t have to pay me,” I protested uncomfortably. Even though I had rent, and utilities, and car insurance coming due, and I hadn’t been making any other money recently... I could kick myself for being so noble sometimes. “Look, if anything, I should be apologizing to you. I wanted to say again that I’m really sorry for the way we treated you. We thought you were working for the bad guys, but… that shouldn’t have made a difference. We still shouldn’t have done it, and I’m sorry.”
He shrugged, as if the subject were a dreary one that he not-so-subtly wished I would stop bringing up. “It doesn’t matter,” he said carelessly. “And I insist that you get paid for your time. You can count any time you spent investigating Attenborough as billable hours. Money isn’t an object.”
And, well... it was for me. Practicality triumphed, clubbing shame into submission, and I gave in as gracefully as I could.
“Thanks, I appreciate it,” I said. Though no way was I going to charge him in full.
“Oh and also...” Jonathan said, his voice offhand. “Tabby would like you to drop by the house if you get the chance, to make sure all the wards have been disabled. There shouldn’t be any danger now that Attenborough’s gone, but—still. Better safe than sorry.”
“You know I don’t mind racking up more billable hours,” I said. “But can’t you do that yourself? You’re the one who built them in the first place.”
Jonathan glanced away. “No,” he replied, his voice quiet and tight. “I’m not welcome there anymore.”
“She threw me out.”
I blinked, taken aback. “I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“I finally told her the truth,” he continued without prompting, speaking quickly now as his voice started to shake, still not looking at me. “I told her everything—”
“And she said she didn’t know me, and told me to get out.” He fell abruptly silent, as though his mind had only just caught up with his mouth. He took a medicinal drag off his cigarette to steady his ragged breathing.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. Inadequate, but all that anyone ever can say.
“God, I’m such an idiot,” he breathed out in a sigh, closing his eyes. “Just like the rest of my family. We always want to think of our parents as wiser than we are, you know? But mine were both so foolish.”
I nodded cautiously; I could relate, since my mother had apparently been many things, but no one had ever accused her of being wise.
I was more than a little uncomfortable at being thrust into the role of confidant, since Jonathan was essentially a stranger. But just as it crossed my mind to wonder why he wasn’t telling this to someone else, the question answered itself—there was no one else.
He’d been living as a human so thoroughly and for so long that there was almost no one in his life who knew about the White Court. And he couldn’t confide this to his kin, since vampires have little understanding of love and even less use for it.
“My father was human. An artist.” The words tumbled out of him in an uncertain torrent, the confession that he couldn’t make to anyone else. “He fell for my mother because... well, she was the masterpiece he’d always wanted his name on. Or that’s what Isaiah told me, anyway. I never knew my father well—there wasn’t much left of him by the time I was old enough to know the difference. My mother fed on him for over a decade, until one day she looked up and realized what she’d done, and decided much too late that she was actually in love with him.”
Jonathan snorted softly, recrimination in his bitter smile. “And that’s the sort of creature I am. It’s in my blood. Tabetha deserved to know that before she chose me, but I was too afraid to tell her. I was afraid I’d lose her.”
“You’ll work it out somehow,” I said. I wanted to believe that saying so could make it true. “You love her, and she loves you. It can’t just end like this.”
Because call me a hopeless romantic, but I believe in true love and I’d had too much heartbreak in my own life to wish it on anyone else. I couldn’t imagine that they had beaten the odds, escaped the White Court curse on love and happiness, only to have their relationship break the same way as any other—on a lie.
“I hope you’re right,” Jonathan allowed without optimism.
With nothing left to say that would do any good, I clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on,” I said bracingly. “I’ll give you a lift back to Chicago.”
The Borlais stuck around for the trial, ostensibly providing moral support for their traumatized grandson, but eventually they ran out of excuses to linger. Lara strong-armed me into going to the airport to see them off—possibly to serve as extra muscle in case they showed any reluctance to go. I would have been happy never to see them again and I was pretty sure that the feeling was mutual, but etiquette, go figure. I never did find out what deal Lara ended up cutting with them, but there didn’t seem to be any hard (hah) feelings between them.
Everyone had been looking a little worse for the wear last time I’d seen them, but now they were scrubbed clean, well-rested and well-fed (which I didn’t want to dwell on), back to their usual immaculate standards.
Lara and Carolinus drifted apart from the group to give each other smoldering looks out of earshot, while Catelyn wandered over to make light conversation with me. She didn’t come straight out and say it, but after a while I got the idea that she was talking her way around to a grudging apology. Maybe she was wary of my power, or wary of the influence I might have on Lara, or maybe an apology was just the done thing after a feeding faux pas, but apparently she was reluctant to burn her Chicago bridges entirely. I decided that Marcone had made his point loud and clear, she’d gotten her whack on the nose for it, and I could afford to be magnanimous.
“Hey, what’s a little soul-sucking between friends?” I asked with false joviality. “Besides, I don’t mind having the head of the Borlais clan owing me a favor.”
Catelyn’s smile froze, just briefly enough that if I hadn’t been watching for it I wouldn’t have noticed. But there it was.
See, I’d had a hunch, ever since I’d watched her use her wiles to take down Attenborough’s shield. I don’t care what people say about men thinking only with their dicks (I’ll even be generous and admit that it happens on occasion)—she shouldn’t have been able to do that. It doesn’t matter how hot a woman is—no man is willing to throw himself on a grenade for a pretty face he just met. Just, no. Not unless there’s a lot of heavy duty magic working to back up that compulsion. Meanwhile, Catelyn had not only svengali’d sixteen people at once, she had done it to sixteen wizards, whose mental defenses should have been up to the challenge of resisting that.
“Beg pardon?” she asked, innocent incomprehension.
“Carolinus isn’t the real head of the Borlais clan, is he?” I said, not even really a question. “It’s you. He’s the one standing out front, soaking up the limelight and catching the potshots, but you’re the one pulling the strings.”
Maybe I should have seen it sooner. It is the White Court’s standard M.O., after all—pride isn’t their sin, and they’re perfectly happy to let themselves be underestimated if it keeps them out of the line of fire.
Catelyn’s gaze had sharpened speculatively, and she pressed one perfectly manicured talon against her scarlet lips. “Now Harry, what could possibly have put that notion in your head?” she murmured in a throaty purr. Maybe she wasn’t trying, or maybe I was building up a tolerance, but it wasn’t doing anything for me and that was a relief.
“Carolinus doesn’t have the juice for what you pulled on the island. Holding that many wizards in thrall? Don’t even pretend like it’s a trick that anyone could do.”
Her sleek smile didn’t confirm or deny, but I knew I was right. “What a male thing to believe,” she said, just shy of a scoff. “Blaming the woman for your weakness, mistaking the potency of your own lust for sorcery.”
I just shook my head. “You can sing that tune till the cows come home. But I know who to keep my eye on if the two of you come back to Chicago, and I’ll make sure Ramirez does too. He is the regional commander in your area, right? Though if you behave yourself, we might keep it between the two of us.”
Her mask slipped again and for a moment the glower she gave me was outright venomous, but Carolinus and Lara rejoined us then, averting whatever response she might have made. Instead she resumed her placid former expression and transferred herself to her husband’s arm, arranging herself there like an ornament and settling her head faux-adoringly on his shoulder. He automatically shifted to accommodate her, both of their movements so long-practiced as to have become second nature. They made the very picture of a loving couple, but love played no part in their courtship, only the reptilian chemistry with which snakes choose their mates. I wondered if he was her willing accomplice, or if, like Lara and Lord Raith, every word he spoke was only a vehicle for her thoughts.
“It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, wizard,” Carolinus said, with polished sincerity that was far too perfect to have been genuine. “And a shame that I didn’t get the opportunity to speak with your lover. He seemed like a most... resourceful man.”
“And you are so lucky that he adores you the way he does,” Caitlin cooed, her voice saccharine though the glint in her eye was razored. “You simply must give him our regards.”
That caught Lara’s interest and I could feel as she perked up. “Lover?” she inquired, as though being presented with a tantalizing piece of gossip. “Why Harry, my dear, have you been holding out on us?”
“Oh, you didn’t know?” Catelyn asked, all innocent surprise. “He’s found himself a lovely older gentleman. John Marcone, I believe the man’s name was? He absolutely dotes on Harry.”
Right, and there went any doubt that this little performance hadn’t been staged entirely for Lara’s benefit. White Court vampires aren’t graceful losers, and outing me to the Raith was just one petty jab before they left, subtle revenge for Catelyn’s humiliation over the kiss.
Lara’s perfectly arched eyebrows rose. “Well, well.” Her eyes gleamed as she recalculated the degrees of separation between kingpin Marcone and la familia del Raith—and found them to her liking. “Now that is quite the catch. My felicitations, Harry.”
Finally, I drove over to Tabby’s house in Logan Square to see about cleaning up the last of Jonathan’s land mines. She sounded tired when we spoke over the phone and didn’t look much better when she met me at the door.
“Thanks for coming out here,” she said, rallying a smile for me. “I really appreciate it.”
“Not a problem.”
“You want tea? Coffee?” she asked, turning away into the house and leaving the door open for me behind her. “There are cookies too if you want some.”
She obviously intended me to follow her, but the lack of an explicit invitation stopped me cold. They’d been a family—the strength of the threshold testified to that—and as far as it was concerned, they still were. That was the most hopeful sign I’d seen for them yet.
“Uhh, coffee would be great,” I said. “But I need you to invite me in.”
“What?” she stopped and turned back around to look at me, hovering on the other side of the threshold.
“Remember I told you not to invite anyone in? Well, that’s still good advice, but I’m going to need you to make an exception for me.”
“Really? Even now?” She peered at the inside of the doorframe as if expecting to see some visible evidence of it.
My first thought was a mildly exasperated, why wouldn’t it still apply even now, but then with a jolt of unhappy sympathy, I realized what she meant by that. She’d been willing to play along before with whatever magic mumbo-jumbo I told her, because her husband was in trouble and it was a state of emergency. Now that things were going back to normal, she’d expected that it would all just go away and she could forget about it.
“Rules are rules,” I said with an apologetic smile and a small shrug. “I could enter without an invitation—I’m not a vampire—but I’d be leaving all my power at the door. Essentially impotent.”
She gave me a ghost of a smile. “Takes a strong man to admit that. Well then, come on in, I guess.”
The threshold parted and I stepped over it onto the parqueted floor of their hallway, then followed her through the living room and into the kitchen. A handful of the wards were laid out on the kitchen table, newspaper conscientiously spread beneath to keep them from scratching the finish.
Tabby picked one up with the unconcern of someone who truly had no idea what they were capable of, though she noticed my flinch and put it down a little more circumspectly. “Are they really that dangerous? Jonathan told me they were targeted on only one guy, and he’s dead now.”
“He is, but there’s a slim chance it could also react to someone of his bloodline. Better safe than sorry.”
She glanced over at me, eyes taking note of the way I stayed well back from them. “Does that mean you?”
“Not that I know of, but... well, stranger things have happened.”
I talked her through the steps to properly dismantle the ones on the table, I fired up a spell that I’d worked out myself (with Bob’s help) for locating concentrations of thaumaturgical potential. That turned up four more, all cleverly hidden in places where an invader searching the house would be likely to find and trigger them before noticing the danger.
It was nerve-wracking work, and even Tabby was looking a little pale by the time we finished. I swept the house once more, just to make sure, before tentatively declaring our work done, then took Tabby up on her offer of cookies—apparently a family remedy for times of trouble, one I approved of.
“So I guess it’s really over, then,” Tabby said at last, her eyes drifting unhappily over the living room as if she expected another unpleasant surprise to pop out at her.
“That’s all of them.” I could tell her that much, at least, though I knew that wasn’t all she was talking about.
I could feel her struggling with herself for a moment and then she asked, with unconvincing nonchalance, “Have you talked to Jonathan recently?”
“Yeah. There was a trial for the wizard responsible for this,” I answered with a nod toward the ratty little ball of hair sitting on the newspaper. “We were both called in to testify—”
Ah. And suddenly I understood the reason for his unexpected oversharing, why he’d loaded me up with all the words that were on his soul before I went to see Tabby—me, the only emissary he could send that she might listen to.
Vampires , I thought with an inward sigh. Never can quit with their relentless scheming. I guess some things are just in the blood. I couldn’t begrudge it to him though; you work with what you’ve got.
“He misses you a lot,” I told her quietly. “He knows that he should have told you from the start, and I think he’d do anything to get you back now.”
Tabby gave an odd, bitter twist of a smile. “You mean he should have told me that he was a sex vampire?” she asked, practically spitting the words, like she wanted to get them away from her. “It’s ridiculous. It’s all just... it’s stupid and impossible, and I don’t see why I should believe any of it for a moment, except it makes sense!
“I knew he was different.” She huffed a bitter laugh. “Like I hadn’t noticed that much. I knew he had a secret, but do you know what I thought it was? You’ll probably think this is stupid, but—” She had to stop, closing her eyes and taking another breath before forcing out her next words. “I thought that he’d been sexually abused. And that was why he never talked about his family. I mean, all the signs were there—how he would sexualize everything without even thinking about it, without even noticing that he was doing it. He didn’t seem to realize that normal people just don’t think that way. But then when we were together, he was always at such a loss—like he had no idea what he was supposed to do with me. Like whatever had made him see sex in everything hadn’t taught him how to love or even how to touch, and so I assumed that... yeah.
“I thought that one day, when he was ready to trust me, then he would tell me, and that was why I never pushed him about his family. This, though...” She shook her head, lost and angry and looking on the verge of tears. “This isn’t the secret I was expecting, and I don’t know what to do with this! How am I supposed to deal with the fact that my husband has been lying to me since the day we met? That all this time I thought I knew him, and then it turns out that he’s not what I thought he was at all, he’s not even human, of all ridiculous nonsense! And... and...”
“Mrs. Wi—Tabby,” I said gently, catching her elbow. “He is human. He’s not like the others.” Not in the ways that mattered. “He gave up that life so that he could be with you.”
“So you say, so he says, but how am I supposed to know whether that’s true or not? I don’t understand any of this, all I know is what you people tell me!”
“You need to talk to him,” I said. “Give him a chance to explain himself, and hear him out.”
“But that’s just the thing,” she spat, frustrated. “I don’t want to talk to him. Because when he’s in the room, I can’t think rationally anymore. I can’t hold onto the thoughts in my head, all I want to do is forgive him for everything.” She snorted. “I suppose now I know why.”
“No, listen.” I leaned across the table. “You have to believe me when I say this—you’re not in love with him because he’s an incubus. That’s not the way it works. They can make you want them, sure, but there’s nothing they can do to make you fall in love.”
She sat in rebellious, unhappy silence, but didn’t try to argue.
“Just talk to him,” I pushed gently. Give him a chance to remind you that you love him.
The skin around her mouth was white with tension, and a ripple passed over her face as if she would cry. But apparently she wasn’t going to let herself cry in front of a near-stranger, because she took a deep breath, visibly bringing herself under control, and then rose to her feet.
“Thank you for your help, Mr. Dresden,” she said formally, offering her hand to shake as I stood too. “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me. For us.”
And that was my cue to get gone. I’d done what I could for them, but the rest of it wasn’t my choice to make, wasn’t for me to fix.
I left Tabby’s neighborhood, heading vaguely eastward in the direction of home and then turning south when that dead-ended at the water. I hadn’t been aware of any particular destination, but it didn’t feel like an accident when I found myself passing by the stretch of shore where the M.A.G.I.C. practitioners had died. It was fitting, I decided, to go pay my respects at the place where this whole misadventure had begun for me. Where it had ended for seven others.
It was a cloudy weekday afternoon, still too early in the year to attract many beachgoers, so there was no one on that stretch of shore except a man playing frisbee with his dog in the distance. I parked my car in one of a line of empty parking spots and walked the rest of the way to the crime scene.
There was no trace of it left, and the police cordons were long gone. The only thing to show for it was a small memorial up at the edge of the beach, where grass was starting to mingle with the sand. It was simple, nothing more than a bronze plaque set into a rough-hewn slab of stone, with an untranslated Latin inscription to make passerby wonder:
Cineri miseratio sera venit.
Or roughly, Pity paid to ashes comes too late. Bitter condemnation for the institution that had never found the time to bother with the powerless until the damage was already done.
I sat down at the base of it, leaning my back against the rock and settling in to gaze out across the lake. I trusted that any unquiet souls hanging around this spot wouldn’t begrudge me a moment to do some thinking, since the dead tend to be more binary in their view of justice than the living, and I had indirectly been the one to avenge them.
The shore was pretty here, as the dappled clouds overhead filtered patchy sunlight down over sand and water. The wind, strong as it rolled in off the lake, swallowed up the noise of the city and lent it an isolated, almost lonely feel. I might have been alone in the world except for the distant, disconnected sounds of traffic that reached me, batted about by the wind.
I let my eyes close and leaned my head back, the rock cool against my scalp, the sunlight warming my face.
My mind felt over-full, busy with competing worries. Thoughts of Jonathan and Tabby and their unresolved heartache. Thoughts of the White Council and enemies lurking in plain sight. There wasn’t anything I could do about them either except wait, and hope for luck.
And, of course, thoughts of Marcone—of the great question mark that hung over us, the big what happens now that I still had no answer for. It had been there in the back of my mind while I went about my other business, unspoken but still shaping my feelings, guiding my actions, tied up inextricably with my desire to make things right between Tabby and Jonathan, because by god, I might not be able to get what I wanted, but surely someone deserved to.
Talk to him, I’d told Tabby.
Maybe I should have been taking my own advice. I hadn’t spoken with Marcone since that last morning on the boat, and while I had a pretty good idea that he’d been avoiding me, I suspected it had more to do with giving me space than trying to get rid of me. After all, he’d told me point blank that it wouldn’t be over until I ended it.
Well, this was the test that we’d known was coming, right? To see whether this fragile, improbable thing that had sprung up between us could last when transplanted out of the stolen alliance we’d built, whether it could survive being thrust, all unprepared, back into the real world. We’d never been lovers here before; we’d never even been friends, not in any conventional sense of the word.
Murphy hadn’t been entirely off the mark when she voiced her concerns about him—there was a reason we hadn’t been friends before. And in a real sense, things were no different from how they’d ever been. It wasn’t as if I’d learned something about him that had changed my mind—I’d already known everything that he was, the good and the bad. Maybe it’s that I was finally learning how to reconcile the two, to understand that one man can be both, to accept that the good doesn’t excuse the bad, but the bad doesn’t negate the good either.
I’d always wanted morality to be simple. To believe that good people did good things, and evil people did evil things, and that everyone could be put into neat little boxes. Easy bookkeeping.
Only it wasn’t that simple, and it hadn’t been for a long time. I’d seen far too much in the intervening years to sustain any belief in binaries of good and evil. I wasn’t the man that I’d been when I first locked eyes with Marcone and got a taste of his soul. Maybe he wasn’t the man he’d been then either. Since then I’d seen basically good people make decisions that were logical, considered, and entirely immoral. I’d made some myself. And I had also seen people that I’d thought were irredeemably evil surprise me with acts of senseless charity.
Like Attenborough. Had he been a villain whose goal of stopping the Black Council only happened to coincide with mine—or a good man who simply took things too far? I wasn’t sure where to draw the line. Or whether there was even a line to be drawn.
I didn’t know where to draw the line with Marcone either. I wasn’t comfortable with a lot of the things he did, and I didn’t want to get comfortable with them. He was relentlessly pragmatic, calculating acceptable losses and taking collateral damage in stride; I was an idealist, always looking for a way to save everyone. He didn’t tilt at windmills, and I couldn’t stop.
This will be over when you end it.
When he eventually, inevitably did something I couldn’t forgive him for? He’d grudgingly spared Helen, but I hadn’t forgotten his final words: Don’t expect such easy capitulation in the future. Reminding me that he was, and always would be, a man capable of murder. That sooner or later there would be a Helen he wouldn’t suffer to live, not even if I asked him to. Would that be the end of it, then? Was anything we made for ourselves in the interim on borrowed time?
I thought about what I’d said to Molly, my fatalistic prediction about the success of a relationship with Marcone—honestly, how long could it last once things were back to normal, when under “normal” circumstances there was an ideological chasm between us? Her retort—I can’t decide if that’s stupid, or tragic, or both—had rolled off me because she was still so young, young enough to believe that true love could conquer all. She didn’t have the years or the experiences to realize that sometimes it just doesn’t. That sometimes love, even true love, has to yield to cold hard reality.
That’s life, I’d told her. I would know; I’d learned it the hard way.
And it’s true—that is life. Sometimes tragic, often stupid, but also full of joy and beauty and love for people brave enough to ask for it. It reminded me of that old line about “better to have loved and lost.” I couldn’t speak for anyone else, but I knew, without needing even a moment’s thought, that given all my choices to make again, I wouldn’t give up the happiness I’d shared with Elaine, and then with Susan, in order to spare myself the heartbreak that followed. And I wouldn’t do it with Marcone either.
Maybe we couldn’t keep life from being tragic. Maybe Marcone would die tomorrow, or maybe I would. Maybe it was only a matter of time before he did something that I couldn’t forgive him for, but was that any excuse for giving up without giving it a chance? Maybe it really was just as simple as I’d put it to Murphy—that I didn’t need her permission, or anyone’s, to live and love the way I wanted to.
Which was when it occurred to me that I’d essentially made up my mind already; I was just the last person to notice. What else do you call coming out to your nearest and dearest about dating John Marcone, if not commitment? I’d told Ebenezar, told Murphy, and while I hadn’t exactly been anticipating any meltdowns, there had always been the off-chance that Eb would disinherit me (or whatever it is you do with cocky young wizards who aren’t your actual heir), or that Murphy would blacklist me for sleeping with the enemy. But I’d told them anyway, prepared to deal with the fallout, if it happened.
The only person I hadn’t told was Marcone.
In the beginning I’d said no. Then I’d said, Maybe. Then, For now. But I couldn’t remember if I’d ever just said yes. Yes, this is what I want. You are what I want. Yes, I’m brave enough to take a chance on this. Yes, you’re worth it.
I knew what I needed to do.
I was half-expecting my momentum to fail me before I actually got there, but surprisingly enough it didn’t, and fifteen minutes later I was standing in front of the reception desk at Executive Priority, talking to the same brunette who had taken me to see Helen on that fateful day, and trying to be less of an asshole this time.
“Howdy,” I said affably. It was probably too little and too late to make up for first impressions, but a little politeness never hurt. “Is Marcone in?”
“Yes sir, he’s upstairs.” She sounded so happy to be able to give me that good news. “Would you like me to call and see if he’s available?”
“Nah, I’ll surprise him. You know how he loves surprises.”
Her smile slipped. “Yes sir, but I believe he’s busy right now...”
“He’s always busy, but he’ll make time for me.” He always did, and maybe I wasn’t the hotshot detective that I liked to think I was, if it had taken me this long to figure out why.
Her expression said, It’s your funeral, but all her lips said was, “Very good, sir. Right this way.”
Well, Marcone was certainly back to business as usual, it seemed. I knew that he’d finished getting his name cleared—I’d been visiting Ebenezar at the time, but Murphy had told me about it afterward. He’d showed up at the station with a phalanx of lawyers, and the police hadn’t even been able to keep him overnight, not without any evidence that a crime had been committed in the first place. The tabloids had an absolute field day when they got wind of that, because no one in the CPD could satisfactorily explain why they’d suddenly dropped the murder charges against John Marcone, and the conclusion that every logical person jumped to was that he’d bought his way out of it somehow.
The brunette escorted me to the elevators, as usual, but then unlike the previous times I’d been here, she pushed the button for the top floor instead of the third.
That’s different , I thought absently, my mind elsewhere, and didn’t realize how different until the doors chimed and parted to reveal a pair of very burly thugs caught in the moment of being surprised—where “surprised” meant simultaneously reaching for guns and turning around to see who had been unwise enough to surprise them.
You know, come to think of it, I didn’t actually have to talk to him right now.
“Here we are, Mr. Dresden,” the girl said brightly. She had been smart enough to stay on one side of the elevator, out of anyone’s line of fire, and was somehow managing to keep any hint of I told you so out of her immaculately professional smile. “Enjoy your surprise.”
I’d ignored her tactful hints—and Harry Dresden protocol in the training manual says to give that idiot whatever he asks for—so here I was, with a handful of unfamiliar thugs looming up on me like I’d just made their day more interesting with my arrival, and they wanted to return the favor. I don’t think I’d ever been happier to see Hendricks.
The two at the elevator reluctantly parted to allow Hendricks, who took one look at me and holstered his gun, resigned to the fact that he was still not allowed to shoot me. “It’s Dresden,” he rumbled back, and then lifted his eyes to shoot me a Well, come on then look.
Shoving my hands in my pockets and going for “insouciant,” as though strolling through a gauntlet of armed thugs was something I did every day, I followed Hendricks through the wide atrium.
The ceiling was high and vaulted, made entirely of glass and tinted like sunshades, reducing the hard glare of the afternoon sun from blinding to merely bright. The floor was broad and open to enhance the impression of space and light, and sunk in the center was a totally gratuitous fountain, surrounded by greenery and filling the room with the pleasant, expensive ambient noise of running water. Oh, ye who say that crime does not pay—methinks you’re doing it wrong.
Hendricks led me around the miniature rainforest, past an immaculate bar where a lone, pencil-thin female bartender stood idly polishing bottles, the rows of varicolored liquors behind her catching the light like stained glass, over to a handful of tables arrayed informally before the wall of windows. Only one was occupied, Marcone sitting across from two strangers, while the rest stood empty like a hotel bar during the mid-afternoon lull.
Marcone rose as we approached, a wide, easy smile on his face as he sauntered over to greet me.
“Mr. Dresden,” he said warmly, mischief in his eye as he clasped my hand like an old friend. “I’m glad you could make it. Please, have a seat.”
I swear, that man either had Dresden-radar or a seriously under-appreciated talent for improv. Or else every plan of his included a contingency for being gatecrashed by scruffy wizards, which wasn’t necessarily flattering.
“You are too kind,” I said dryly. “Really.”
I did take a seat though, across from two politician-looking types who I felt I ought to recognize from the newspaper or something. They both looked as if my arrival had thrown them off their game, and were now fidgeting in their seats like kids waiting to be dismissed from the dinner table.
Marcone ignored them both, settling into, his chair and signaling the bartender to bring me a drink. I knew there was no way he was actually drunk, but he was putting on a good show of a man relaxed after a few drinks, his posture loose and expansive, his smile less sharklike than usual.
“So, what brings you to my side of town?” he asked, leaning back and crossing his legs to rest his ankle against his knee.
As if every side weren’t his side of town.
I met his casual tone and shrugged. “I was in the neighborhood. Thought I’d drop by and offer my congratulations on using your get-out-of-jail-free card.”
“Indeed. I couldn’t have done it without you,” Marcone agreed, sounding terribly pleased with himself.
“You know, you’re what’s wrong with the American criminal justice system,” I informed him.
“ ‘Mob Boss Gets Away With Murder.’ ‘Chicago Corruption Hits New Low.’ It says so on the internet; it must be true.”
He laughed, deep and rich. “Oh dear, people on the internet don’t like me,” he said, still chuckling. “How ever will I console myself?”
“With fast cars and supermodels, I suppose.”
“Cliched.” He brushed the suggestion away with a dismissive wave. “So what can I do for you on this fine day?”
“Well, I just stopped by to... chat.” My eyes cut briefly to his two associates; he still hadn’t introduced them, which could be either protecting their privacy or some sort of mind game. From the uncomfortable, we’re-being-ignored-what-do-we-do-now looks on their faces, I was guessing it was the latter. “But if you’re busy, I could come back later.”
His gaze sharpened, and no, he wasn’t drunk at all. “Not at all,” he said easily, glancing over at his pet politicians. “We were just finishing here, weren’t we, gentlemen?”
From their stammer-stop agreement, it was obvious that now they were. The bartender brought me a frosted, icy-cold glass of beer while they got up to leave and I was happy to concentrate on that while Marcone saw them off to the elevator, their conversation thick with veiled allusions to things I probably didn’t want to know about.
The other voices gradually fell away to silence, and a few moments later I heard Marcone’s footsteps returning over the patter of the fountain. I looked up in time to see him slide into the chair next to me and draw it up to the table.
“Alright, so that’s taken care of,” he said, balling up a cocktail napkin and dropping it in an empty glass. His previous show of informality was gone, discarded like other men would shed a coat. “I admit, when I didn’t hear from your sooner, I’d begun to think that our last discussion had perhaps frightened you off.”
I put my feet up on one of the empty seats that his erstwhile associates had vacated. “Like you could get rid of me that easily.”
He gave me a practiced smile, lacing his fingers in his lap. “Indeed. So was there a matter you wanted to discuss, or was this merely a clever ruse to get free drinks?”
There was something off-putting about his manner, a deliberate distance he was maintaining even though we were alone now. For an uncertain moment I wondered if perhaps he hadn’t thought the better of a relationship with me after all, and was subtly trying to communicate that sentiment. Then the answer hit me like a bag of bricks landing on my head.
He wasn’t breaking up with me. He thought I’d come here to break up with him.
And since it wasn’t his style to beg or bully or pitch a fit, he was steeling himself to take it gracefully, to maintain his stately dignity in the face of rejection. In retrospect, I could see how a week and a half of radio silence followed by barging in and “wanting to chat” might sound all kinds of ominous.
And so, wanting to put that idea to rest once and for all, I leaned over to close the distance between us and kissed him.
I knew I’d read him right, because he stiffened with initial surprise before I felt his lips curl into a smile, and he lifted a hand to touch my jaw so he could kiss me properly.
We’d had a lot of first kisses along the way, landmarks in the changing terrain between us, and this was another—our first kiss in the real world, so to speak. And the angle was awkward, lips not fitting quite right and me about to overbalance, but here we were, kissing on the top floor of his office with Chicago spread out before us like a promise.
He released me when I drew back, his hand sliding down my shoulder before he let me go, his expression gone thoughtful and speculative.
“I want to give it a try,” I said, all in a rush, trying to get it out before what I was saying really registered and embarrassment caught up with me.
He raised a brow. “‘It’...?”
I rolled my eyes. “Come on, you know what I mean. It. You and me. Do I have to draw a diagram?”
Indulgent smile. “I merely wanted to make certain that we were on the same page.”
“Pages, right,” I said. Speaking of... “Marcone—about what happened on the island, with Catelyn.”
“Ah,” he said, short and significant, leaning back and folding his arms. “We don’t have to talk about that, you know.”
“What, you think I want to?” I retorted. “But we can’t just pretend like it didn’t happen.”
“Yes, I rather think we can. Dresden—” He paused, his eyes moving to the window and narrowing as though something out there had offended him. “In the world that I come from, people are allowed the privacy of their own emotions, and allowed the discretion to choose when, if at all, we confide them. That was not information I would have chosen to burden you with at this early stage, and I admit I’m quite vexed with the Borlais woman for having gone and taken the choice away from me. So as far as I’m concerned, I haven’t made any such declarations and you’re under no obligation to respond as if I had.”
I could see his point. I’d already known he was a deeply private man, and I understood how much it must rankle him not to be allowed such privacy, but... “But I do know, now. I can’t un-remember it.”
“True,” he allowed. “But I see no reason why you ought to change your behavior to accommodate for it. Frankly, I don’t know what I would do with you if you ceased being your uniquely abrasive self. Flowers and chocolate, solicitude and sweet nothings? Mr. Dresden, I would call security on you.”
That startled a laugh from me, and I raised my hands in surrender. “Alright, fine—no singing telegrams for you, then. And I swear, we never have to have this conversation again, but...” I stopped, swallowed hard. “But I have to make sure we’re on the same page, and... okay, here it is: I like you a lot. I do. And I want to be with you. I want to see where this goes. But,” I forced myself to say it, “I’m not in love with you.” I knew it was the coward’s route to keep my eyes glued on the table but I was taking it anyway, because I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the face. “Not—not like that”
Not in the way that the White Court defined it, not in the way that he was in love with me. And maybe it was only a not yet—but it could also be a not ever, and as much I didn’t want to be telling him this, he had to know.
“Harry,” Marcone said patiently, and when I ventured to look up, he was giving me his patented, dealing-with-Harry-Dresden look. “This hardly comes as a surprise. After all, until just recently you had invested a great deal of energy into loathing me.”
I blinked. For all my introspection, I hadn’t thought of it that way.
“Besides,” he continued, sounding entirely undismayed as he rose to his feet and offered me a hand. “That has a way of changing.”
“Oh?” I asked, amused despite myself by his confidence.
I took the proffered hand and let him pull me up. We were standing close now, my hip leaning into his, closer than I was really used to or comfortable with yet, in this world. All of a sudden we were playing for keeps—when the things we said and did could have repercussions, could change the course of our lives.
“Yes indeed,” he said easily. “There’s a reason why we talk about falling in love. I have faith that I can trip you yet.”
And as I looked at him, at the fond, unexpectedly gentle light in his eyes and feeling an answering curl of warmth in my chest, I thought that perhaps he just might.