I dropped Billy off at his apartment near campus. I didn’t think the ghoul would be filing a police report, but I wiped down the shotgun anyway. Billy wrapped it in a towel I had in the back seat of the Beetle, and took it with him, promising to dispose of the weapon. His girlfriend Georgia, a willowy girl a foot taller than him, waited on the apartment’s balcony in dark shorts and a scarlet bikini top, displaying a generous amount of impressively sun-bronzed skin to view in a manner far more confident and appealing than I would have guessed from her a year before. My, how the kids had grown.
The moment Billy got out of the car, Georgia looked up sharply from her book, her nostrils flared. She headed into the house, and met him at the door with a first aid kit. She glanced at the car, her expression worried, and nodded to me. I waved back, trying to look friendly. From Georgia’s expression, I hadn’t managed better than surly. They went into the apartment, and I pulled away before anyone could come out to socialize with me.
After a minute I pulled over, killed the engine, and squinted up at myself in the rear view mirror of the Beetle.
It came as a shock to me. I know, that sounds stupid, but I don’t keep mirrors in my home. Too many things can use mirrors as windows, even doors, and it was a risk I preferred to skip entirely. I hadn’t glanced at a mirror in weeks.
I looked like a train wreck.
More so than usual, I mean.
My features are usually kind of long, lean, all sharp angles. I’ve got almost-black hair to go the dark eyes. Now I had grey and purplish circles under them. Deep ones. The lines of my face, where they weren’t covered by several months of untrimmed beard, looked as sharp as the edges of a business card.
My hair had grown out long and shaggy—not in that sexy-young-rock-star kind of way, but in that time-to-take-Rover-to-the-groom kind of way. It didn’t even have the advantage of being symmetrical, since a big chunk had been burned short in one spot where a small incendiary had been smuggled close to me in a pizza delivery box, back when I could still afford to order pizza. My skin was pale. Pasty, even. I looked like death warmed over, provided someone had made it run the Boston Marathon. I looked tired. Burned out. Used up.
I sat back in my seat slowly.
I hate it when I’m wrong. But it looked like maybe Billy and the werewolves (stars and stones, they sounded like a bad rock band) had a point. I tried to think of the last time I’d gotten a haircut, a shave. I’d had a shower last week. Hadn’t it been?
I mopped at my face with my hands. They shook. The days and nights had been blurring, lately. I spent my time in the lab under my apartment, researching day and night. The lab was in the sub-basement, all damp stone and no windows. Circadian rhythms, bah. I’d pretty much dispensed with day and night. There was too much to think about to pay attention to such trivial details.
About nine months before, I’d gotten my girlfriend nearly killed. Maybe more than killed.
Susan Rodriguez had been a reporter for a yellow journal called the Midwestern Arcane when we met. She was one of the few people around who were willing to accept the idea of the supernatural as a factual reality. She’d clawed for every detail, every story, every ounce of proof she could dig up so that she could try to raise the public consciousness on the matter. To that end, she’d followed me to a vampire shindig.
And the monsters got her.
Billy had been right about that, too. The vampires, the Red Court, had changed her. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that they infected her. Though she was still human, technically, she’d been given their macabre thirst. If she ever sated it, she’d turn all the way into one of them. Some part of her would die, and she’d be one of the monsters, body and soul.
That’s why the research. I’d been looking for some way to help her. To create a vaccine, or to purge her body. Something. Anything.
I’d asked her to marry me. She told me no. Then she left town. I read her syndicated column in the Arcane. She must have been mailing them in to her editor so at least I knew she was alive. She’d asked me not to follow her and I hadn’t. I wouldn’t, until I could figure out a way to get her out of the mess I got her into. There had to be something I could do.
Had to be. There had to be.
I bowed my head, suddenly grimacing so hard that the muscles of my face cramped, ached and smoldered. My chest suddenly felt tight, and my body seemed to burn with useless, impotent flame. I’m a wizard. I should have been able to protect Susan. Should have been able to save her. Should have been able to help her. Should have been smarter, should have been faster, should have been better.
Should have told her you loved her before it was too late. Right, Harry?
I tried not to cry. I willed myself not to with all of my years of training and experience and self-discipline. It would accomplish nothing. It wouldn’t put me anywhere closer to finding a cure for Susan.
I felt so damned tired.
I left my face in my hands. I didn’t want someone walking by to see me bawling.
It took a long time to get myself back under control. I’m not sure how long it was, but the shadows had changed and I was baking in the car, even with the windows down.
It occurred to me that it was stupid to be sitting there on the street for more vampire thugs to come find, plain as day. I was tired and dirty and hungry, but I didn’t have the cash to get anything to eat, and by the sun I didn’t have the time to go back to the apartment for soup. Not if I was to keep my appointment with Ms. Sommerset.
And I needed that appointment. Billy had been right about that too. If I didn’t start earning my keep again, I’d lose the office and the apartment. I wouldn’t get much magical research done from a cardboard box in an alley.
Time to get moving, then. I raked my fingers uselessly through my mop of hair and headed for my office. A passing clock told me that I was already a couple of minutes late for the appointment. Between that and my appearance, boy was I going to wow the client. This day just kept getting better.
My office is in a building midtown. It isn’t much of a building, but it still looked too good for me that day. I got a glare from the aging security guard downstairs, and felt lucky that he recognized me from previous encounters. A new guy probably would have given me the bum rush without blinking. I nodded at the guard and smiled and tried to look businesslike. Heh.
I walked past the elevator on my way to the stairs. There was a sign on it that said it was under repair. The elevator hadn’t ever been quite the same since a giant scorpion had torn into one of the cars and someone had thrown the elevator up to the top of its chute with a torrent of wind in order to smash the big bug against the roof. The resulting fall sent the car plummeting all the way back to the ground floor and had wreaked havoc with the building in general, raising everyone’s rents.
Or that’s what I heard, anyway. Don’t look at me like that. It could have been someone else. Okay, maybe not the orthodontist on four, or the psychiatrist on six. Probably not the insurance office on seven, or the accountant on nine. Maybe not the lawyers on the top floor. Maybe. But it isn’t always me when something goes catastrophically wrong.
Anyway, no one can prove anything.
I the door to the stairwell and headed up the stairs to my office on the fifth floor. I headed down the hall, past the quiet buzz of the consulting firm that took up most of the space on the floor, to my office door.
The lettering on the frosted glass read “HARRY DRESDEN — WIZARD.” I reached out to open the door. A spark jumped to my finger when my hand got within an inch or three of the doorknob, popping against my skin with a sharp little snap of discomfort.
I paused. Even with the building’s AC laboring and wheezing, it wasn’t that cool and dry. Call me paranoid, but there’s nothing like a murder attempt in broad daylight to make a man cautious. I focused on my bracelet again, drawing on my apprehension to ready a shield should I need it.
With the other hand, I pushed open the door to my office.
My office is usually pretty tidy. Or in any case, I didn’t remember it being quite as sloppy as it looked now. Given how little I’d been there lately, it seemed unfair that it should have gotten quite that bad. The table by the door, where I kept a bunch of flyers with titles like MAGIC FOR DUMMIES and I’M A WIZARD—ASK ME HOW, sat crookedly against the wall. Flyers spewed carelessly over its surface and onto the floor. I could smell the faintest stink of long-burnt coffee. I must have left it on. Oops. My desk had a similar fungus-coating of loose papers, and several drawers in my filing cabinets stood open, with files stacked on top of the cabinets or thrust sideways into their places, so that they stood up out of the drawers. My ceiling fan whirled woozily, clicking on every rotation.
Someone had evidently tried to straighten things up. My mail sat neatly stacked in three different piles. Both metal trash cans were suspiciously empty. Billy and company, then.
In the ruins of my office stood a woman with the kind of beauty that makes men murder friends and start wars.
She stood by my desk with her arms folded, facing the door, hips to one side, her expression skeptical. She had white hair. Not white-blonde, not platinum hair. White as snow, white as the finest marble, bound up like a captured cloud to bare the lines of her slender throat. I don’t know how her skin managed to look pale beside that hair, but it did. Her lips were the color of frozen mulberries, almost shocking in a smooth and lovely face, and her oblique eyes were a deep green that tinted over to blue when she tilted her head and looked me over. She wasn’t old. Wasn’t young. Wasn’t anything but stunning.
I tried to keep my jaw from hitting the floor and forced my brain to start doing something by taking stock of her wardrobe. She wore a woman’s suit of charcoal grey, the cut immaculate. The skirt showed exactly enough leg to make it hard not to look, and her dark pumps had heels just high enough to give you ideas. She wore a v-neck of bone-white beneath her jacket, the neckline dipping just low enough to make me want to be watching if she took a deep breath. Opals set in silver flashed on her ears, at her throat, glittering through an array of colors I wouldn’t have expected from opals—too many scarlets and violets and deep blues. Her nails had somehow been lacquered in the same opalescence.
I caught the scent of her perfume, something wild and rich, heavy and sweet, like orchids. My heart sped up, and the testosterone-oriented part of my brain wished that I’d been able to bathe. Or shave. Or at least that I hadn’t worn sweat pants.
Her mouth quirked into a smile and she arched one pale brow, saying nothing, letting me gawk.
One thing was for certain—no woman like that would have anything less than money. Lots of money. Money I could use to pay the rent, buy groceries, maybe even splurge a little and get a wheelbarrow to help with cleaning my apartment. I only hesitated for a heartbeat wondering if it was proper for a full-fledged Wizard of the White Council to be that interested in cash. I made up my mind fast.
Phenomenal cosmic powers be damned; I have a lease.
“Uh. Ms. Sommerset, I presume,” I managed, finally. No one can do suave like me. If I was careful, I should be able to trip over something and complete the image. “I’m Harry Dresden.”
“I believe you are late,” she replied. Sommerset had a voice like her outfit; rich, suggestive, cultured. Her English had an accent I couldn’t place. Maybe European. Definitely interesting. “Your assistant informed me when to arrive. I don’t like to be kept waiting, so I let myself in.” She glanced at my desk, then back at me. “I almost wish I hadn’t.”
“Yeah. I didn’t hear you were coming until, uh . . .” I looked around at my office, dismayed, and shut the door behind me. “I know this looks pretty unprofessional.”
I moved over to one of the chairs I keep for clients, facing my desk, and hurriedly cleaned it off. “Please, sit down. Would you like a cup of coffee or anything?”
“Sounds less than sanitary. Why should I take the risk?” She sat, back straight, on the edge of the chair, following me with her eyes as I walked back around the desk. They were a cool, palpable weight on me as I moved, and I sat down at my desk, frowning.
“Are you the kind who takes chances?”
“I like to hedge my bets,” she murmured. “You, for example, Mister Dresden. I have come here today to decide whether or not I shall gamble a great deal upon your abilities.” She paused and then added, “Thus far, you have made less than a sterling impression.”
I rested my elbows on my desk and made a steeple of my fingers. “Yeah. I know that all this probably makes me look like—”
“A desperate man?” she suggested. “Someone who is clearly obsessed with other matters.” She nodded towards the stacks of envelopes on my desk. “One whom is shortly to lose his place of business if he does not pay his debts. I think you need the work.” She began to rise. “And if you lack the ability to take care of such minor matters, I don’t you will be of any use to me.”
“Wait,” I said, rising. “Please. At least let me hear you out. If it turns out that I think I can help you—”
She lifted her chin and interrupted me effortlessly. “But that isn’t the question, is it?” she asked. “The question is whether or not I think you can help me. You have shown me nothing to make me think that you could.” She paused, sitting back down again. “And yet . . .”
I sat back down across from her. “Yet?”
“I have heard things, Mister Dresden, about people with your abilities. About the ability to look into their eyes.”
I tilted my head. “I wouldn’t call it an ability. It just happens.”
“Yet you are able to see within them? You call it a soulgaze, do you not?”
I nodded, warily, and started adding together lots of small bits and pieces. “Yes.”
“Revealing their true nature? Seeing the truth about the person upon whom you look?”
“And they see me back. Yes.”
She smiled, cool and lovely. “Then let us look upon one another, Mister Dresden, you and I. Then I will know if you can be of any use to me. Surely it will cost me nothing.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s the sort of thing that stays with you.” Like an appendectomy scar, or baldness. When you look on someone’s soul, you don’t forget it. Not ever. I didn’t like the direction this was going. “I don’t think it would be a good idea.”
“But why not?” she pressed. “It won’t take long, will it Mister Dresden?”
“That’s really not the issue.”
Her mouth firmed into a line. “I see. Then if you will excuse me—”
This time I interrupted her. “Ms. Sommerset, I think you may have made a mistake in your estimations.”
Her eyes glittered, anger showing there for a moment, cool and far away. “Oh?”
I nodded. I opened the drawer to my desk and took out a pad of paper. “Yeah. I’ve had a rough time of things lately.”
“You can’t possibly know how little that matters to me.”
I drew out a pen, took off the lid, and set it down beside the pad. “Uh huh. Then you come in here, rich, gorgeous. Kind of too good to be true.”
“And?” she inquired.
“Too good to be true,” I repeated. I drew the .44 caliber revolver from the desk drawer, leveled it at her, and thumbed back the trigger. “Call me crazy, but lately I’ve been thinking that if something’s too good to be true, then it probably isn’t. Put your hands on the desk, please.”
Her eyebrows arched. Those gorgeous eyes widened enough to show the whites all the way around them. She moved her hands, swallowing as she did, and laid her palms on the desk. “What do you think you are doing?” she demanded, her voice tense with sudden fear.
“I’m testing a theory,” I said. I kept the gun and my eyes on her and opened another drawer. “See, lately, I’ve been getting nasty visitors. So it’s made me do some thinking about what kind of trouble to expect. And I think I’ve got you pegged.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about, Mister Dresden, but I am certain—”
“Save it.” I rummaged in a drawer and found what I needed. A moment later, I lifted an old, plain nail of simple metal out of the drawer and put it on the desk.
“What’s that?” she all but whispered.
“Litmus test,” I said.
Then I flicked the nail gently with one finger, and sent it rolling across the surface of my desk and toward her perfectly manicured hands.
She didn’t move until a split second before the nail touched her—but then she did, a simple blur of motion that took her two long strides back from my desk and knocked over the chair she’d been sitting on. The nail rolled off the edge of the desk and fell to the floor with a clink.
“Iron,” I said. “Cold iron. Faeries don’t like it.”
The expression drained from her face. One moment, there had been arrogant conceit, haughty superiority, blithe confidence. But that simply vanished, leaving those features, cold and lovely and remote and empty of all emotion, of anything recognizably human.
“The bargain with my Godmother has months yet to go,” I said. “A year and a day, she had to leave me alone. That was the deal. If she’s trying to weasel around it, I’m going to be upset.”
She regarded me in that empty silence for long moments more. It was unsettling, to see a face so lovely look so wholly alien, as though something lurked behind those features that had little in common with me, and did not care to make the effort to understand. That blank mask made my throat tighten, and I had to work not to let the gun in my hand shake. But then she did something that made her look even more alien, more frightening.
She smiled. A slow, slow smile, cruel as a barbed knife. When she spoke, her voice sounded just as beautiful as it had before. But it was empty, quiet, haunting. She spoke, and it made me want to lean closer to her to hear her more clearly. “Clever,” she murmured. “Yes. Not too distracted to think. Just what I need.”
A cold shiver danced down my spine. “I don’t want any trouble,” I said. “Just go, and we can both pretend nothing happened.”
“But it has,” she murmured. Just the sound of her voice made the room feel colder. “You have seen through this veil. Proven your worth. How did you do it?”
“Static on the doorknob,” I said. “It should have been locked. You shouldn’t have been able to get in here, so you must have gone through it. And you danced around my questions rather than simply answering them.”
Still smiling, she nodded. “Go on.”
“You don’t have a purse. Not many women go out in a three thousand dollar suit and no purse.”
“Mmmm,” she said. “Yes. You’ll do perfectly, Mister Dresden.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, “But I’m having nothing more to do with faeries.”
“I don’t like being called that, Mister Dresden.”
“You’ll get over it. Get out of my office.”
“You should know, Mister Dresden, that my kind, from great to small, are bound to speak the truth.”
“That hasn’t slowed down your ability to deceive.”
Her eyes glittered, and I saw her pupils change, slipping from round, mortal orbs into slow, feline lengths. Cat-eyed, she regarded me, unblinking. “Yet have I spoken. I plan to gamble. And I will gamble upon you.”
“I require your service. Something precious has been stolen. I wish you to recover it.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You want me to recover stolen goods for you?”
“Not for me,” she murmured. “For the rightful owners. I wish you to discover and catch the thief, and to vindicate me.”
“Do it yourself,” I said.
“In this matter, I cannot act wholly alone,” she murmured. “That is why I have chosen you to be my emissary. My agent.”
I laughed at her. That made something else come into those perfect, pale features—anger. Anger, cold and terrible, flashed in her eyes, and all but froze the laugh in my throat. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m not making any more bargains with your folk. I don’t even know who you are.”
“Dear child,” she murmured, a slow edge in her voice. “The bargain has already been made. You gave your life, your fortune, your future, in exchange for power.”
“Yeah. With my Godmother. And that’s still being contested.”
“No longer,” she said. “Even in this world of mortals, the concept of debt passes from one hand to the next. Selling mortgages, yes?”
My belly went cold. “What are you saying?”
Her teeth showed, sharp and white. It wasn’t in a smile. “Your mortgage, mortal child, has been sold. I have purchased it. You are mine. And you will assist me in this matter.”
I set the gun down on my desk, and opened the top drawer. I took out my letter opener, one of the standard machined jobs with a heavy, flat blade and a screw-grip handle. “You’re wrong,” I said, and the denial in my voice sounded patently obvious, even to me. “My godmother would never do that. For all I know, you’re trying to trick me.”
She smiled, watching me, her eyes bright. “Then by all means. Let me reassure you of the truth.”
My left palm slammed down onto the table. I watched, startled, as I gripped the letter opener in my right, slasher-movie style. In a panic, I tried to hold back my hand, to drop the opener, but my arms were running on automatic, like they were someone else’s.
“Wait!” I shouted.
She regarded me, cold and distant and interested.
I slammed the letter opener down onto the back of my own hand, hard. My desk is a cheap one. The steel bit cleanly through the meat between my thumb and forefinger, and sank into the desk, pinning me there. Pain washed up my arm, even as blood started oozing out of the wound. I tried to fight it down, but I’d been panicked, in no condition to exert a lot of control. A whimper slipped out of me. I tried to pull the steel away, to get it out of my hand, but my arm simply twisted, wrenching the opener counter-clockwise.
The pain flattened me. I wasn’t even able to get enough breath to scream.
The woman, the faerie, reached down and took my fingers from the letter opener. She withdrew it with a sharp, decisive gesture, and set it down flat on the desk, my blood gleaming all over it. “Wizard, you know as well as I. Were you not bound to me, I would have no such power over you.”
At that moment, most of what I knew was that my hand hurt, but some dim part of me realized that she was telling the truth. Faeries don’t just get to ride in and play puppet master. You have to let them in. I’d let my Godmother, Lea, in years before, when I was younger, dumber. Even dumber. I’d given her the slip last year, forced an abeyance of her claim that should have protected me for a year and a day.
But now she’d passed the reins to someone else. Someone who hadn’t been in on the second bargain.
I looked up at her, pain and sudden anger making my voice into a low, harsh growl. “Who are you.”
The woman ran an opalescent fingernail through the blood on my desk. She lifted it to her lips, and idly touched it to her tongue. She smiled, slower, more sensual, and every bit as alien. “I have many names,” she murmured. “But you may call me Mab. Queen of Air and Darkness. Monarch of the Winter Court of the Sidhe.”