My brain locked up for a good ten seconds as I stared down at my former lover. I could smell the scent of her hair, the subtle perfume she= wore, mixing with the new-leather scent of her jacket and another, new smell–new soap, maybe. Her dark eyes regarded me, uncertain and nervous. She had a small cut on the side of her mouth, beading with drops of blood that looked black in the red light of the blasting rod’s fire.
“Harry,” Susan said, her voice quiet and steady. “Harry. You’re scaring me.”
I shook myself out of my surprise and lowered the blasting rod, stepping over to her. “Stars and stones, Susan. Are you all right?”
I offered her my hand and she took it, rising easily to her feet. Her fingers were feverishly warm, and wisps of winter steam curled from her skin. “Bruises,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
“Who was that?”
Susan glanced the way her attacker had run and shook her head. “Red Court. I couldn’t see his face.”
I blinked at her. “You ran off a vampire? By yourself?”
She flashed me a smile that mixed weariness with a sense of pleasure. She still hadn’t taken her hand from mine. “I’ve been working out.”
I looked around a bit more, and tried to reach out with my senses, to detect any trace of the unsettling energy that hovered around the Reds. Nothing. “Gone now,” I reported. “But we shouldn’t hang around out here.”
I started to agree, and then paused. A horrible suspicion hit me. I let go of her hand and took a step back.
A line appeared between her eyebrows. “Harry?”
“It’s been a rough year,” I said. “I want to talk, but I’m not inviting you in.”
Susan’s expression flickered with comprehension and pain. She folded her arms over her stomach and nodded. “No. I understand. And you’re right to be careful.”
I took another step back and started walking towards my reinforced steel door. She walked a few feet away, and at my side, where I could see her. I went down the stairs and unlocked the door. Then I pushed out an effort of will to temporarily disable the protective spells laid over my house that amounted to the magical equivalent of a land mine and burglar alarm all in one.
I went in, glanced at the candle holder on the wall by the door and muttered, “Flickum bicus.” I felt a tiny surge of energy flowing out of me, and the candle danced to life, lighting my apartment in dim, soft orange.
My place is basically a cave with two chambers. The larger one was my living area. Bookshelves lined most of the walls, and where they didn’t I had hung a couple of tapestries and an original Star Wars movie poster. I’d scattered rugs all over my floor. I had laid down everything from hand-made Navajo rugs to a black area rug with Elvis’ face, fully two feet across, dominating the piece. Like the Beetle, I figured some people would call my rag-tag assembly of floor coverings eclectic. I just thought of them as something to walk on besides freezing cold stone floor.
My furniture is much the same. I got most of it second hand. None of it matches, but it’s all comfortable to sprawl on, and my lights are dim enough to let me ignore it. A small alcove held a sink, an icebox, and a pantry for food. A fireplace rested against one wall, the wood all burned down to black and grey, but I knew it would still be glowing under the ash. A door led to my tiny bedroom and the apartment’s single bath-and-a-half. The whole place may have been ragged, but it was very tidy and clean.
I turned to face Susan, and didn’t put down my blasting rod. Supernatural creatures cannot lightly step across the threshold of a home unless one of the rightful residents invites them in. Plenty of nasties can put on a false face, and it wasn’t inconceivable that one of them had decided to try to get close to me by pretending to be Susan.
A supernatural being would have a hell of a time getting over a threshold without being invited in. If that was some kind of shapeshifter rather than Susan or, God help me, if Susan had gone all the way over to the vampires, she wouldn’t be able to enter. If it was the real Susan, she’d be fine. Or at least, the threshold wouldn’t hurt her. Getting paranoid suspicion from her ex-boyfriend might do its own kind of damage.
On the other hand, there was a war on, and Susan probably wouldn’t be happy to hear I’d gotten myself killed. Better safe than exsanguinated.
Susan didn’t pause at the door. She stepped inside, turned around to close and lock it, and asked, “Good enough?”
It was. Relief, coupled with a sudden explosion of naked emotion roared through me. It was like waking up after days of anguish to find that the pain was gone. Where there had been only hurt, there was suddenly nothing, and other feelings rushed in to fill the sudden void. Excitement, for one, that quivering teenaged nervousness that accompanies expectation. A surge of warm emotion, joy and happiness rolled together with a chittering glee.
And in the shadows of those, a few things darker but no less vibrant. Sheer, sensual pleasure in the scent of her, in looking at her face, her dark hair again. I needed, to feel her skin under my hands, to feel her pressed to me.
It was more than mere need–it was hunger. Now that she was standing there in front of me, I needed her, all of her, as much as I needed food or water or air, and possibly more. I wanted to tell her, to let her know what it meant to me that she was there. But I’d never been very good at expressing myself verbally.
By the time Susan turned around again, I was already pressed up against her. She let out a quiet gasp of surprise, but I leaned gently into her, pressing her shoulders to the door.
I lowered my mouth to hers, and her lips were soft, sweet, fever-hot. She went rigid for a second, then let out a low sound and wound her arms around my neck and shoulders, kissing me back. I could feel her, the slender, too-warm strength and softness of her body. My hunger deepened, and so did the kiss, my tongue touching hers, lightly teasing. She responded as ardently as I did, her lips almost desperate, low whimpers vibrating through her mouth and into mine. I started to feel a little dizzy and disoriented, and though some part of me warned against it, I only pressed harder against her.
I slid one hand over her hip, beneath the jacket, and slipped up under the t-shirt she wore to curl around the naked sweetness of her waist. I pulled her hard against me, and she responded, her breath hot and quick, lifting one leg to press against mine, winding around my calf a little, pulling me nearer. I lowered my mouth to her throat, tongue tasting her skin, and she arched against me, baring more of her skin. I drew a line of kisses up to her ear, gently biting, sending quivering shockwaves through her as she shook against me, throat letting out quiet sounds of deepening need. I found her eager lips again, and her fingers tightened in my hair, drawing me hard against her.
My dizziness grew. Some kind of coherent thought did a quick flyby of my forebrain. I struggled to take notice of it, but the kiss made it impossible. Lust and need murdered my reason.
A sudden, shrieking hiss startled me, and I jerked back from Susan, looking wildly around.
Mister, my bobtailed, battle scarred tomcat, had leaped up onto the stones before the fireplace, his luminous green eyes wide and fixed on Susan. Mister weighs about thirty pounds, and thirty pounds of cat can make an absolutely impossible amount of noise.
Susan shuddered and pressed her palm against my chest, turning her face away from me. She pushed, something gentle rather than insistent. My lips burned to touch hers again, but I closed my eyes and took slow shuddering breaths. Then I backed away from her. I had meant to go stir up the fire–not that fire, the literal one–but the room tilted wildly and it was all I could do to stumble into an easy chair.
Mister leapt up into my lap, more daintily than he had any right to be able to do, and rubbed his face against my chest, rumbling out a purr. I fumbled up one hand to pet him, and after a couple of minutes the= room stopped spinning.
“What the hell just happened,” I muttered.
Susan emerged from the shadows and crossed the candlelit room to take up the fireplace poker. She stirred through the ashes until she found some glowing orange-red, and then began adding wood to the fire from the old iron hod beside the fireplace. “I could feel you,” she said, after a minute. “I could feel you going under. It . . .” She shivered. “It felt nice.”
Boy did it. And I bet it would feel even nicer if all those clothes hadn’t been in the way. Aloud, all I said was, “Under?”
She looked over her shoulder at me, her expression hard to read. “The venom,” she said quietly. “They call it their Kiss.”
“I guess I can’t blame them. It sounds a lot more romantic than ‘narcotic drool’.” Some parts of me lobbied for a cessation of meaningless chat and an immediate resumption of any line of thought that would lead to discarded clothing upon the floor. I ignored them. “I remember. When . . . when we kissed before you left. I thought I’d imagined it.”
Susan shook her head, and sat down on the stones before the fireplace, her back straight, her hands folded sedately into her lap. The fire began to grow, catching onto the new wood, and though the light of it curled around her with golden fingers, it left her face veiled in shadow. “No. What Bianca did to me has changed me already, in some ways. Physically. I’m stronger now. My senses are sharper. And there’s . . .” She faltered.
“The Kiss,” I mumbled. My lips didn’t find the word to thei r liking. They liked the real thing a lot better. I ignored them, too.
“Yes,” she said. “Not like one of them can do. Less. But still there.”
I mopped at my face with my hand. “You know what I need?” Either a naked, writhing, eager Susan or else a liquid nitrogen shower. “A beer. You want one?”
“Pass,” she said. “I don’t think lowering my inhibitions would be healthy right now.”
I nodded, got up, and went to my icebox. It’s an actual icebox, the kind that runs on honest to goodness ice rather than Freon. I got out a dark brown bottle of Mac’s home-brewed ale and opened it, taking a long drink. Mac would be horrified that I drank his beer cold, since he prided himself on an old-world brew, but I always kept a couple in there, for when I wanted it cold. What can I say. I’m an unlettered, barbaric American wizard. I drank off maybe half of it and put the cold bottle against my forehead after.
“Well,” I said. “I guess you didn’t come over to, uh.”
“Tear your clothes off and use you shamelessly?” Susan suggested. Her voice sounded calm again, but I could sense the underlying tone of her own hunger. I wasn’t sure whether I should be unsettled by it or encouraged. “No, Harry. It isn’t . . . that isn’t something I can afford to do with you. No matter how much either of us wants it.”
“Why not?” I asked. I knew why not already, but the words jumped from my brain to my mouth before I could stop them. I peered suspiciously at the beer.
“I don’t want to lose control,” Susan said. “Not ever. Not with anyone. But especially not with you.” There was a silence in which only the fire made any noise. “Harry, it would kill me to hurt you.”
More to the point, I thought, it would probably kill me too. Think about her instead of yourself, Harry. Get a grip. It’s just a kiss. Let it go.
I drank the rest of my beer, which wasn’t anywhere near as nice as other things I’d done with my mouth that night. I checked the fridge and asked Susan, “Coke?”
She nodded, looking around. Her gaze hesitated on the fireplace mantle, where I kept the card and two postcards I’d received from her, along with the little grey jewelry box that held the dinky little ring she’d turned down. “Is someone else living here now?”
“No.” I got out a couple of cans, and took one over to her. She took it from me without touching my fingers. “Why do you ask?”
“The place looks so nice,” she said. “And your clothes smell like fabric softener. You’ve never used fabric softener in your life.”
“Oh. That.” You can’t tell people about it when faeries are doing your housework, or they get ticked off and leave. “I sort of have a cleaning service.”
“I hear you’ve been too busy to clean up,” Susan said.
“Just making a living.”
Susan smiled. “I heard you saved the world from some kind of doom. Is it true?”
I fiddled with my drink. “Sort of.”
Susan laughed. “How do you sort of save the world?”
“I only saved it in a Greenpeace kind of way. If I’d blown it, there might have been a historically bad storm, but I don’t think anyone would have noticed the real damage for thirty or forty years–climate change takes time.”
“Sounds scary,” Susan said.
I shrugged. “Mostly I was just trying to save my own ass. The world was a twofer. Maybe I’m getting cynical. I suspect the only thing I accomplished was to keep the faeries from screwing up the place so that we could screw it up ourselves.”
I sat down on the chair again, and we opened the Cokes and drank in silence for a bit. My heart eventually stopped pounding quite so loudly.
“I miss you,” I said finally. “So does your editor. She called me a couple of weeks ago. Said your articles had quit coming in.”
Susan nodded. “That’s one reason I’m here. I owe her more than a letter or a phone call.”
“You’re quitting?” I asked.
“You find something else?”
“Sort of,” she said. She brushed her hair back from her face with one hand. “I can’t tell you everything right now.”
I frowned. For as long as I’d known her, Susan had been driven by a passion for discovering the truth and sharing it with other people. Her work at the Arcane had arisen from her stubborn refusal to deny things she saw as the truth, even if they had seemed insane. She was one of the rare people who stopped and thought about things, even weird and supernatural things, instead of dismissing them out of hand. That’s how she’d begun work at the Arcane. That was how she had originally met me.
“Are you all right?” I asked. “Are you in trouble?”
“Relatively speaking, no,” she said. “But you are. That’s why I’m here, Harry.”
“What do you mean?”
“I came to warn you. The Red Court–”
“Sent Paolo Ortega to call me out. I know.”
She sighed. “But you don’t know what you’re getting into. Harry, Ortega is one of the most dangerous nobles of their Court. He’s a warlord. He’s killed half a dozen of the White Council’s Wardens in South America since the war started, and he’s the one who planned and executed the attack on Archangel last year.”
I sat straight up at that, the blood draining from my face. “How do you know about that?”
“I’m an investigative reporter, Harry. I investigated.”
I toyed with the Coke can, frowning down at it. “All the same. He came here asking for a duel. A fair fight. If he’s serious, I’ll take him on.”
“There’s more that you need to know,” Susan said.
“Ortega’s opinion on the war is not the popular one within the Red Court. A few of the upper crust of the vampires support his way of thinking. But most of them like the idea of a lot of constant bloodshed. They also like the idea of a war to wipe out the White Council. They figure that if they get rid of the wizards, once and for all, they won’t have to worry about keeping a low profile in the future.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Think about it,” Susan said. “Harry, the White Council is fighting this war reluctantly. If they had a decent excuse, they’d end it. That’s Ortega’s whole plan. He fights you, kills you, and then the White Council sues for peace. They’ll pay some kind of concession that doesn’t involve the death of one of their members, and that will be that. War over.”
I blinked. “How did you find out–”
“Hello, Earth to Harry. I told you, I investigated.”
I frowned until the lines between my eyebrows ached. “Right, right. Well, as plans go, I guess it sounds good,” I said. “Except for that middle part where I die.”
She gave me a small smile. “Much of the rest of the Red Court would rather you kept on breathing. As long as you’re alive, they have a reason to keep the war going.”
“Swell,” I said.
“They’ll try to interfere with any duel. I just thought you should know.”
I nodded. “Thanks,” I said. “I’ll–”
Just then, someone knocked firmly at my door. Susan stiffened and rose, poker in hand. I got up a lot more slowly, opened a drawer in the night table beside the chair, and drew out the gun I kept at home, a great big old Dirty Harry Callahan number that weighed about seventy five thousand pounds. I also took out a length of silk rope about a yard long, and draped it over my neck so that I could get it off in a hurry if need be.
I took the gun in both hands, pointed it at the floor, drew back the hammer, and asked the door, “Who is it?”
There was a moment’s silence and then a calm, male voice asked, “Is Susan Rodriguez there?”
I glanced at Susan. She straightened more, her eyes flashing with anger, but she put the poker back in its stand beside the fireplace. Then she motioned to me and said, “Put it away. I know him.”
I uncocked the revolver, but I didn’t put it away as Susan crossed to the door and opened it.
The most bland-looking human being I had ever seen stood on the other side. He was maybe five nine, maybe one seventy five. He had hair of medium brown, and eyes of the same ambiguous shade. He wore jeans, a medium-weight brown jacket, and worn tennis shoes. His face was unmemorable, neither appealing nor ugly. He didn’t look particularly strong, or craven, or smart, or particularly anything else.
“What are you doing here?” he asked Susan without preamble. His voice was like the rest of him — about as exciting as a W-2.
Susan said, “I told you I was going to talk to him.”
“You could have used the phone,” the man pointed out. “There’s no point to this.”
“Hi,” I said in a loud voice, and stepped up to my door. I towered over Blandman. And I had a great big gun in my hand, even if I did keep it pointed down at the floor. “I’m Harry Dresden.”
He looked me up and down and then looked at Susan.
Susan sighed. “Harry, this is Martin.”
“Hi, Martin,” I said. I switched my sidearm to my other hand and thrust mine at him. “Nice to meet you.”
Martin regarded my hand and then said, “I don’t shake hands.” That was evidently all the verbal interaction I merited, because he looked back at Susan and said, “We have to be up early.”
I looked at Susan, who flushed with embarrassment. She glared at Martin and then said to me, “I need to go, Harry. I wish I could have stayed longer.”
“Wait,” I said.
“I wish I could,” she said. “I’ll try to call you before we go.”
There was that we again. “Go? Susan–”
“I’m sorry.” She stood up on tiptoe and kissed my cheek, her too-warm lips soft. Then she left, brushing past Martin just hard enough to jostle him into taking a little step to keep his balance.
Martin nodded to me and walked out too. After a minute, I followed them, long enough to see them getting into a cab on the street outside.
“Hell’s bells,” I muttered, and stalked back inside my house . I slammed the door behind me, lit a candle, stomped into my little bathroom, and turned on the shower. The water was only a couple degrees short of becoming sleet, but I stripped and got in anyway, simmering with several varieties of frustration.
We, we, we. Which implied she and someone else together. Someone who was not me. Was she? Susan, with the Pedantic Avenger there? That didn’t track. I mean, Hell’s bells, the guy was just so dull. Boring. Blase.
And maybe stable.
Face it, Harry. Interesting you might be. Exciting you might be. Stable you ain’t.
I pushed my head under the freezing water and left it there. Susan hadn’t said they were together. Neither had he. I mean, that wouldn’t be why she had broken off the kiss. She had a really good reason to do that, after all.
But then again, it wasn’t like we were together. She’d been gone for better than a year.
A lot can change in a year.
Her mouth hadn’t. Or her hands. Or the curve of her body. Or the smoldering sensuality of her eyes. Or the soft sounds she made as she arched against me, her body begging me to–
I looked down at myself, sighed, and turned the water to its coldest setting.
I came out of the shower shriveled and turning blue, dried off, and got into bed.
I had just managed to get the covers warm so that I could stop shivering when my phone rang.
I swore sulfurously, got out of bed into the freezing air, snatched up the phone and growled, “What.” Then, on the off chance it was Susan, forced some calm into my voice and said, “I mean, hello?”
“Sorry to wake you, Harry,” said Karrin Murphy, the head of Chicago P.D.’s Special Investigations division. S.I. routinely handled any crime that fell between the cracks of the other departments, as well as being handed the really smelly cases no one else wanted. As a result, they wound up looking into all kinds of things that weren’t easily explained. Their job was to make sure that things were taken care of, and that everything typed up neatly into the final report.
Murphy called me in as a consultant from time to time, when she had something weird that she didn’t know how to handle. We’d been working together for a while, and Murphy had gotten to where she and S.I. could handle your average, everyday supernatural riff-raff. But from time to time, she ran into something that stumped her. My phone number is on her quick dial.
“Murph,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Unofficial business,” she said. “I’d like your take on something.”
“Unofficial means not paid, I guess,” I said.
“You up for any pro bono work?” She paused and then said, “This could be important to me.”
What the hell. My night had pretty much been shot anyway. “Where do you want me?”
“Cook County morgue,” Murphy said. “I want to show you a corpse.”