I never used to keep close track of the phases of the moon. So I didn’t know that it was one night shy of being full, when the young woman sat down with me in McAnally’s pub, and asked me to tell her all about something that could get her killed.
“No,” I said. “Absolutely not.” I folded the piece of paper, with its drawings of three concentric rings of spidery symbols, and slid it back over the polished oak wood table towards the young woman sitting across from me.
Kim Delaney frowned at me, and brushed some of her dark, shining curtain of hair back from her forehead. She was a tall woman, buxom and lovely in an old-world way, with pale, pretty skin and round cheeks well used to smiling. She wasn’t smiling now.
“Oh come on, Harry.” she told me. “You’re Chicago’s only practicing professional wizard, and you’re the only one who can help me,” she said. She leaned across the table towards me, her eyes intent. “I can’t find the references for all of these symbols. No one in local circles recognizes them either. You’re the only real wizard I’ve ever even heard of, much less know. I just want to know what these others are.”
“No,” I told her. “You don’t want to know. You’re better off forgetting this circle and concentrating on something else.”
Mac caught my attention from behind the bar by waving a hand at me, and slid a couple of plates of steaming food onto the polished surface of the crooked oak bar. He added a couple of bottles of his home-made brown ale, and my mouth started watering.
My stomach made an unhappy noise. It was almost as empty as my wallet. I would never have been able to afford dinner, tonight, except that Kim had offered to buy, if I’d talk to her about something during the meal. A steak dinner was less than my usual rate, but she was pleasant company, and a sometime apprentice of mine. I knew she didn’t have much money, and I had even less. I couldn’t have afforded the dinner.
I didn’t rise at once and go to pick up the food. In McAnally’s pub and grill, there aren’t any service people. According to Mac, if you can’t get up and walk over to pick up your own order, you don’t need to be there at all. I looked around the room for a moment, with its annoying combination of low ceilings and lazily spinning fans, its thirteen carved wooden columns and its thirteen windows, thirteen tables, arranged haphazardly to defray and scatter the residual magical effects that sometimes surrounded hungry (read, angry) wizards. McAnally’s was a haven in a town where no one believed in magic. A lot of the crowd ate there.
“Look, Harry,” Kim said. “I’m not using this for anything serious, I promise. I’m not trying any summoning or binding. It’s an academic interest only. Something that’s been bothering me for a while.” She leaned forward and put her hand over mine, looking me in the face without looking me in the eyes, a trick that few non-practitioners of the Art could master. She grinned, and showed me the deep dimples on her cheeks.
My stomach growled again, and I glanced over at the food on the bar, waiting for me. “You’re sure now,” I asked her. “This is just you trying to scratch an itch? You’re not using it for anything?”
“Cross my heart,” she said, doing so.
I frowned, looking back at her. “I don’t know. . .”
She laughed at me. “Oh, come on, Harry. It’s no big deal. Look, if you don’t want to tell me, never mind. I’ll buy you dinner anyway. I know you’re tight for money, lately. Since that thing last spring, I mean.”
I glowered, but not at Kim. It wasn’t her fault that my main employer, Karrin Murphy, the director of Special Investigations with the Chicago P.D., hadn’t called me in for consulting work in more than a month. Most of my living for the past few years had come from serving a special consultant to S.I., but after a fracas the previous spring involving a dark wizard fighting a gang war for control of Chicago’s drug trade, work with S.I. had slowly tapered off—and with it, my income.
I didn’t know why Murphy hadn’t been calling me in as often. I had suspicions, but I hadn’t gotten the chance to confront her about it yet. Maybe it wasn’t anything I’d done. Maybe the monsters had gone on strike.
In any case, Kim was right. I was strapped for cash. I’d been eating ramen noodles and soup for too many weeks. The steaks Mac had prepared smelled like heaven, even from across the room. My belly protested again, growling its neolithic craving for charred meat.
But I couldn’t just go and eat the dinner while not giving Kim the information she was after. It’s not that I’ve never welched on a deal, but I’ve never done it with anyone human—and definitely not with someone who looked up to me.
Sometimes I hate having a conscience, and a stupidly thorough sense of honor.
“All right, all right,” I sighed. “Let me get the dinner and I’ll tell you what I know.”
Kim’s round cheeks dimpled again. “Thanks, Harry. This means a lot to me.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I told her, and got up to weave my way towards the bar, through columns and tables and so on. McAnally’s had more people than usual, tonight, and though Mac rarely smiled, there was a contentment to his manner that indicated that he was happy with the crowd. I snatched up the plates and bottles with a somewhat petulant attitude. It’s hard to take much joy in a friend’s prosperity when your own business is about to go under.
I took the food back to the table, steaks and potatoes and green beans, and sat down again, placing Kim’s plate in front of her. We ate for a while, myself in sullen silence and she in hearty hunger.
“So,” Kim said, after a moment. “What can you tell me about that?” She gestured towards the piece of paper with her fork.
I finished my bite, took a sip of the rich ale, and picked up the paper again. “All right. This is a figure of High magic. Three of them, really, one inside the other, like layered walls. Remember what I told you about magical circles?”
Kim nodded. “That they either hold something out or keep it in. Either magic energies or creatures of the Nevernever, but that mortal creatures can cross the circle and break it.”
“Right,” I said. “That’s what this outermost circle of symbols is. It’s a barrier against creatures of spirit and magical forces. These symbols here, here, here, are the key ones.” I pointed out the squiggles in question.
Kim nodded eagerly. “I got the outer one. What’s the next?”
“The second circle is more of a spell barrier to mortal flesh. It wouldn’t work if all you used was a ring of symbols. You’d need something else, stones or gems or something, spaced between the drawings.” I took another bite of steak.
Kim frowned at the paper, and then at me. “And then what would that do?”
“Invisible wall,” I told her. “Like bricks. Spirits, magic, could go right through it, but mortal flesh couldn’t. Neither could a thrown rock, bullets, anything purely physical.”
“I see,” she said, excited. “Sort of a force field.”
I nodded. “Something like that.”
Her cheeks glowed with excitement, and her eyes shone. “I knew it. And what’s this last one?”
I squinted at the innermost ring of symbols, frowning. “A mistake.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that it’s just gobbledygook. It doesn’t mean anything useful. Are you sure you copied this correctly?”
Kim’s mouth twisted into a frown. “I’m sure, I’m sure. I was careful.”
I studied her face for a moment, and believed her. “If I read the symbols correctly, it’s a third wall. Built to withhold creatures of flesh and spirit. Neither mortal nor spirit but somewhere in between.”
She frowned. “What kind of creatures are like that?”
I shrugged. “Nothing,” I said, and officially, it was true. The White Council of wizards did not allow the discussion of demons that could be called to earth, beings of spirit that could gather flesh to themselves. Usually, a spirit-circle was enough to stop all but the most powerful demons or Elder Things of the outer reaches of the Nevernever. But that’s what the third circle was for. It was built to stop things that could transcend those kinds of boundaries. It was a cage for demonic demigods and archangels.
Kim wasn’t buying my answer. “I don’t see why anyone would make a circle like this to contain nothing, Harry.”
I shrugged. “People don’t always do reasonable, sensible things. They’re like that.”
She rolled her eyes at me. “Come on, Harry. I’m not a baby. You don’t have to shelter me.”
“And you,” I told her, “Don’t need to know what kind of thing that third circle was built to contain. You don’t want to know. Trust me.”
She glowered at me for a long moment. Then sipped at her ale and shrugged. “All right. Circles have to be empowered, right? You have to know how to switch them on, like lights?”
“Something like that. Sure.”
“How would a person turn this one on?”
I stared at her for a long time.
“Harry?” she asked.
“You don’t need to know that, either. Not for an academic interest. I don’t know what you’ve got in mind, Kim, but leave it alone. Forget it. Walk away, before you get hurt.”
“Harry, I am not—”
“Save it,” I told her. “You’re sitting on a tiger cage, Kim. That’s what that thing is a blueprint for.” I thumped a finger on the paper, for emphasis. “And you wouldn’t need it if you weren’t planning on trying to stick a tiger in there.”
Her eyes glittered, and she lifted her chin. “You don’t think I’m strong enough.”
“Your strength’s got nothing to do with it,” I said. “You don’t have the training. You don’t have the knowledge. I wouldn’t expect a kid in grade school to be able to sit down and figure out college calculus. And I don’t expect it of you, either.” I leaned forward. “You don’t know enough yet to be toying with this sort of thing, Kim. And even if you did, even if you did managed to become a full-fledged wizard, I’d still tell you not to do it. You mess this up and you could get a lot of people hurt.”
“If I was planning to do that, it’s my business, Harry.” Her eyes were bright with anger. “You don’t have the right to choose for me.”
“No,” I told her. “I’ve got the responsibility to help you make the right choice.” I curled the paper in my fingers and crushed it, then tossed it aside, to the floor. She stabbed her fork into a cut of steak, a sharp, vicious gesture. She didn’t say anything in reply. “Look, Kim,” I said. “Give it some time. When you’re older, when you’ve had more experience. . .”
“You aren’t so much older than me,” Kim said.
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “I’ve had a lot of training. And I started young.” My own ability with magic, far in excess of my years and education, wasn’t a subject I was comfortable with. So I tried to shift the direction of the conversation. “How is this fall’s fund raiser going?”
“It’s not,” she said. She leaned back wearily in her seat. “I’m tired of trying to pry money out of people to save the planet they’re poisoning or the animals they’re killing. I’m tired of writing letters and doing marches for causes no one believes in any more.” She rubbed at her eyes. “I’m just tired.”
I felt bad, for not being more open with her, but I knew too much that was dangerous, that could get people hurt. “Look, Kim. Try to get some rest. And please, please don’t play with that circle. Promise me.”
She tossed her napkin down, left a few bills on the table, and stood up. “Enjoy your meal, Harry,” she said. “And thanks for nothing.”
I stood up as well. “Kim,” I said. “Wait a minute.”
But she ignored me. She stalked off towards the door, her skirts swaying along with her long hair. She cut an impressive, statuesque figure. I could feel the anger bubbling off her. One of the ceiling fans shuddered and let out a puff of smoke as she went under it, then whirled down to a halt. Kim stalked up the short flight of stairs and went out, banging the door shut behind her. People watched her leave, then glanced back to me, speculation on their faces.
I sat back down, frustrated. Dammit. I hated doing that to her. Kim was one of several people I had coached through the difficult period around the discovery of their innate magical talents. It made me feel like crap to hold information away from her, but she had been playing with fire. I couldn’t let her do that. It was my responsibility to help protect her from such things, until she knew enough to realize how dangerous they were.
To say nothing of what the White Council would think of a non-wizard toying with major summoning circles. The White Council didn’t take chances with things like that. They just acted, decisively, and they weren’t always particular about people’s lives and safety when they did it.
I had done the right thing. Keeping that kind of information out of Kim’s hands had been the right decision. I had been protecting her from danger she didn’t, couldn’t fully appreciate.
I had done the right thing—even if she had trusted me to provide answers for her, as I had in the past, when teaching her to contain and control her modest magical talents. Even if she had trusted me to show her the answers she needed, to be her guide through the darkness.
I’d done the right thing.
My stomach was soured. I didn’t want any more of Mac’s delicious meal, steak or no steak. I didn’t feel like I’d earned it.
I was sitting there, sipping ale and thinking dark thoughts when the door opened again. I didn’t look up, occupied as I was with brooding, a famous past time of wizards everywhere. And then a shadow fell across me.
“Sitting here pouting,” Murphy said. She bent over and absently picked up the wadded scrap of paper, tucking it tidily into her coat pocket rather than letting it lay about as clutter on the floor. “That’s not much like you, Harry.”
I glanced up at Murphy. I didn’t have far to look. Karrin Murphy wasn’t much more than five feet tall. She’d gotten her golden hair cut, from shoulder-length to something far shorter, and a little longer in front than in back. It was a punky sort of look, and very appealing with her blue eyes and upturned nose. She was dressed for the weather in what must have been her at-home clothes: dark jeans, a flannel shirt, hiking boots, and a heavy woodsman’s jacket. She was wearing her badge on her belt.
Murphy was extremely cute, for a grown adult—she also held a black belt in Aikido, and had several marksmanship awards from Chicago P.D.. She was a real professional, one who had fought and clawed her way up the ranks to become full lieutenant. She’d made enemies along the way and one of them had seen to it that she was put in charge of Special Investigations soon after.
“Hello there, Murphy,” I told her. I took a swig of ale, and said, “Long time, no see.” I tried to keep my voice even, but I’m pretty sure she heard the anger in it.
“Did you read the editorial in the Tribune? The one criticizing you for wasting the city’s money hiring a ‘charlatan psychic named Harry Dresden?’ I guess you must have, since I haven’t heard from you since it came out.”
She rubbed at the bridge of her nose. “I don’t have time for this.”
I overrode her. “Not that I blame you. I mean, not many of the good taxpayers of Chicago believe in magic, or wizards. Of course, not many of them have seen what you and I have. You know. When we worked together. Or when I was saving your life.”
Her eyes tightened at the edges. “I need you. We’ve got a situation.”
“You need me? We haven’t talked for more than a month, and you need me all of a sudden? I’ve got an office and a telephone and everything, Lieutenant. You don’t need to track me down here while I’m having dinner.”
“I’ll tell the killer to be sure to operate during business hours, next time,” Murphy said. “But I need you to help me find him.”
I straightened in my chair, frowning. “There’s been a murder? Something in my field?”
Murphy flashed a hard smile at me. “I hope you didn’t have anything more important to be doing.”
I felt my jaw grow tense. “No. I’m ready.” I stood up.
“Well then,” she said, turning and walking away. “Shall we go?”