“I hope there are no hard feelings,” Martin told me as he pulled out of the little gravel lot next to the house I board in.
Susan had yielded the passenger seat of the rental car to me, in deference to my storklike legs. “Hard feelings?” I asked.
“About our first meeting,” Martin said. He drove the same way he did everything–blandly. Complete stops. Five miles an hour under the limit. Wherever we were headed, it was going to take forever to get there.
“You mean the way you used me to attempt to assassinate old Ortega?” I asked. “Thereby ensuring that the Code Duello was broken, the duel invalidated, and the vamps’ war with the White Council continued?”
Martin glanced at me, and then into the rearview mirror at Susan.
“I told you,” she said to Martin. “He’s only dense in the short term. He sees everything eventually.”
I gave Susan a slight, wry tilt of my head in acknowledgment. “Wasn’t hard to realize what you were doing in retrospect,” I said. “The Red Court’s war with the White Council must have been the best thing to happen to the Fellowship in ages.”
“I’ve only been with them for slightly over one hundred years,” Martin said. “But it was the best thing to happen in that time, yes. The White Council is one of the only organizations on the planet with the resources to seriously threaten them. And every time the Council won a victory–or even survived what should have been a crushing defeat, it meant that the Red Court was tearing itself to shreds internally. Some of them have had millennia to nurse grudges with rivals. They are appropriately epic in scale.”
“Call me wacky,” I said, “but I had to watch a few too many children die in that war you helped guarantee. No hard feelings?” I smiled at him–technically. “Marty, believe me when I say that you don’t want me to get in touch with my feelings right now.”
I felt Martin’s eyes shift to me, and a little tension gather in his body. His shoulder twitched. He was thinking about his gun. He was pretty good with firearms. The night of my duel with the Red Court vampire named Ortega, Martin had put a round from one of those enormous sniper rifles into Ortega about half a second before the vampire would otherwise have killed me. It had been a gross violation of the Code Duello, the set of rules for resolving personal conflicts between individuals of the nations who had signed the Unseelie Accords.
The outcome of a clean duel might have put an early end to the war between the Red Court and the White Council of Wizards, and saved a lot of lives. It didn’t turn out that way.
“Don’t worry, guy,” I told him. “Ortega was already in the middle of breaking the Code Duello anyway. It would have fallen out the way it did regardless of what you had done that night. And your being there meant that he ate a bullet at the last second instead of me. You saved my life. I’m cognizant of that.”
I kept smiling at him. It didn’t feel quite right, so I tried to do it a little harder. “I’m also aware that if you could have gotten what you wanted by putting the bullet in my back instead of his chest, you would have done it without blinking. So don’t go thinking we’re pals.”
Martin looked at me and then relaxed. He said, “It’s ironic that you, the mustang of the White Council, would immediately cling to its self-righteous position of moral authority.”
“Excuse me?” I said quietly.
He spoke dispassionately, but there was a fire somewhere deep down behind the words–the first I’d ever heard in him. “I’ve seen children die, too, Dresden, slaughtered like animals by a threat no one in the wise and mighty Council seemed to give a good goddamn about–because the victims are poor, and far away, and isn’t that a fine reason to let them die. Yes. If putting a bullet in you would have meant that the Council brought its forces to bear against the Red Court, I would have done it twice and paid for the privilege.” He paused at a stop sign, gave me a direct look, and said, “It is good that we cleared the air. Is there anything else you want to say?”
I eyed the man and said, “You went blond. It makes you look sort of gay.”
Martin shrugged, completely unperturbed. “My last assignment was on a cruise ship catering to that particular lifestyle.”
I scowled and glanced at Susan.
She nodded. “It was.”
I folded my arms, glowered out at the night, and said, “I have literally killed people I liked better than you, Martin.” After another few moments, I asked, “Are we there yet?”
Martin stopped the car in front of a building and said, “It’s in here.”
I eyed the building. Nothing special, for Chicago. Twelve stories, a little run-down, all rented commercial space. “The Reds can’t– Look,
it can’t be here,” I said. “This building is where my office is.”
“A known factor, for Red Court business holdings purchased it almost eight years ago,” Martin said, putting the car in park and setting the emergency brake. “I should imagine that was when you saw that
sudden rise in the rent.”
I blinked a couple of times. “I’ve… been paying rent to the Red Court?”
“Increased rent,” Martin said, with the faintest emphasis. “Duchess Arianna apparently has an odd sense of humor. If it’s any consolation, the people working there have no idea who they’re really working for. They think they’re a firm that provides secure data backups to a multi-national import-export corporation.”
“But this is… my building.” I frowned and shook my head. “And we’re going to do what, exactly?”
Martin got out of the car and opened the trunk. Susan joined him. I got out of the car on general principles.
“We,” said Martin, definitely not including me, “are going to burgle the office and retrieve files that we hope will contain information that might point the way toward Arianna’s locations and intentions. You are going to remain with the car.”
“The hell I will,” I said.
“Harry,” Susan said, her tone brisk and reasonable, “it’s computers.”
I grunted as if Susan had nudged me with her elbow. Wizards and computers get along about as well as flamethrowers and libraries. All technology tends to behave unreliably in the presence of a mortal wizard, and the newer it is, the wonkier it seems to become. If I went along with them, well… you don’t take your cat with you when you go bird shopping. Not because the cat isn’t polite, but because he’s a cat. “Oh,” I said. “Then… I guess I’ll stay with the car.”
“Even odds we’ve been spotted or followed,” Martin said to Susan. “We had to leave Guatemala in a hurry. It wasn’t as smooth an exit as it could have been.”
“We didn’t have days to spare,” Susan said, her voice carrying a tone of wearily familiar annoyance. It was like listening to a husband and wife having an often-repeated quarrel. She opened a case in the trunk and slipped several objects into her pockets. “Allowances have to be made.”
Martin watched her for a moment, selected a single tool from the case, and then slid the straps of a backpack with a hard-sided frame over his shoulders. Presumably it had computer things in it. I stayed on the far side of the car from it and tried to think nonhostile thoughts.
“Just watch for trouble, Harry,” Susan said. “We’ll be back out in twenty minutes or less.”
“Or we won’t,” Martin said. “In which case we’ll know our sloppy exit technique caught up to us.”
Susan made a quiet, disgusted sound, and the pair of them strode toward the building, got to the locked front doors, paused for maybe three seconds, and then vanished inside.
“And I’m just standing here,” I muttered. “Like I’m Clifford the Big Red Dog. Too big and dumb to go inside with Emily Elizabeth. And it’s my building.” I shook my head. “Hell’s bells, I am off my game. Or out of my mind. I mean, here I am talking to myself.”
I knew why I was talking to myself–if I shut up, I would have nothing to think about but a small person, terrified and alone in a den of monsters. And that would make me think about how I had been shut out of her life. And that would make me think about the beast in my chest that was still clawing to get out.
When the local Red Court badass, the late Bianca, had stolen Susan away and begun her transformation into a full-fledged vampire of the Red Court, it had been the vampire’s intention to take my girlfriend away from me. One way or another she had succeeded. Susan as she had been–always joking, always laughing, always touching or kissing or otherwise enjoying life in general and life with me in particular–was gone.
Now she was somewhere between Emma Peel and the She-Hulk. And we had loved each other once. And a child had been born because of it. And Susan had lied to–
Before I could begin circling the block a few more times on that vicious cycle, a cold feeling went slithering down my spine.
I didn’t even look around. Several years of tense missions with Wardens not old enough to buy their own beer had taught me to trust my instincts when they went insane in a darkened city at two in the morning. Without even thinking about it, I crouched, reached into the air surrounding me, and drew a veil around myself.
Veils are subtle, tricky magic, using one of several basic theories to render objects or people less visible than they would be otherwise. I used to suck so badly at veils that I wouldn’t even try them–but I’d had to bone up on them enough to be able to teach my apprentice, Molly Carpenter, how to use them. Molly had a real gift and had learned quickly, but I’d been forcing her to stretch her talents–and it had taken a lot of personal practice time for me to be able to fake it well enough to have credibility in front of the grasshopper.
Long story short–fast, simple veils were no longer beyond my grasp.
The street darkened slightly around me as I borrowed shadow and bent light. Being under a veil always reduced your own ability to see what was happening around you, and was a calculated risk. I figured it was probably worth it. If someone had a gun pointed my way, I had a long damned run before I could get around the corner of a nice thick building. It would be better to be unseen.
I crouched next to the car, not quite invisible but pretty close. The ability to be calm and still was critical to actually using a veil. It is hard to do when you think danger is close and someone might be planning to part you from your thoughts in a purely physical fashion. But I arrested the adrenaline surge and regulated my breathing. Easy does it, Harry.
So I had a dandy view of half a dozen figures that came darting toward the office building with a hideous, somehow arachnid grace. Two of them were bounding along rooftops, vaguely humanoid forms that moved as smoothly as if they were some kind of hunting cat. Three more were closing on the building from different angles at ground level, gliding from shadow to shadow. I couldn’t sense much of them beyond blurs in the air and more shivers along my spine.
The last form was actually scuttling down the sides of buildings on the same street, bounding from one to the next, sticking to the walls like an enormous spider and moving with terrible speed.
I never got more of a look than that–flickering shadows moving with sinister purpose. But I knew what I was looking at.
Red Court vampires.
They closed on my office building like sharks on bloody meat. The tempest in my chest suddenly raged, and as I watched them vanish into the building–my fricking building–like cockroaches somehow finding a way to wriggle into places they shouldn’t be, the anger rose up from my chest to my eyes and the reflections of streetlights in the window glass tinted red.
I let the vampires enter the building.
And then I gathered up my fury and pain, honing them like immaterial blades, and went in after them.