Freckles turned out to be Violet Lauder. I could tell by the way she said her name with her mouth twisted that she didn't feel like a Violet. When I asked her what she liked to be called, she told me Trish, and that seemed to fit a bit better. Names are funny like that – the one you were born with isn't always the one you identify with the most. The two blondes with her were indeed cousins – Emma and Abigail Reiss, Boyfriend was one Noah Weatherholt, and the gangly newly-gained-five-inches was Caleb Petty.
"What's going to happen to us, Mr. Dresden?" Trish asked. She sat up very straight, perched up towards the front of the sofa with Abigail and Emma pressed all the way to the back and the two boys standing behind. They would make a formidable group someday, if they stayed together and none of them strayed back to the Black.
"None of you appear to have actually broken any of the Laws, and that saved your lives." I wasn't going to be gentle with this, not because I didn't want to be gentle, but because these kids had to understand how close they had come to the same fate as their erstwhile 'friend.'
"We didn't know about any laws!" Abigail complained. Now that the terror of being captives had faded and they'd had a few good meals to dispel any fear of starvation or torture, the two cousins showed a tendency for bratty and sullen.
"I am not your high school guidance counselor!" I snapped, startling them. "Sit up and pay attention. What you decide to do with your magic from this point forward will deturmine whether you grow up to be successful people with families and die in your bed of old age, or whether you find yourself kneeling on a concrete floor with a sword at your neck! This is not a game, and if you fail here it will not just lose you a scholarship, you will die."
I had their attention now. The fear was back and they stared at me wide-eyed, struggling to pull up that teenage Devil-May-Care bravado that got them through most conversations with adults.
"Is that what happened to Klause?" Trish asked softly in the silence that followed.
So that was his name..."Yes."
A shudder went through the group and they seemed to pull in even tighter. Emma started sniffling and I resolutely did not look at her for fear that I would cave and try to comfort her. Maybe one day I could be the mentor they would unburden their souls to, but today I had to be Authority.
"He was kind of an asshole, and he killed all those girls, but..." Trish's face twisted a few times in misery. "But it's weird that he's gone. It could have been us." Her boyfriend reached over and squeezed her shoulder. She lifted one hand absently to cover his.
"It could have been," I agreed, "But it wasn't. And it doesn't ever have to be as long as you don't do anything stupid. There are ways out there for minor talents like you to get more power, and if you look hard enough you'll find another Klause who is willing to help you do it. And every single one of those paths will put you on the wrong end of a Warden's sword."
"So what... you're our babysitter now?" Caleb asked, mustering up some machismo.
I glared at him. "If you're going to keep up that attitude, that's exactly what I'll have to be. Until you turn eighteen and then you're on your own to hang a sign over your head that says, 'here I am, Wardens, I'd really like to lose six inches off the top' and I won't be able to do a damn thing to help you." He glared back at me, angry because he was sixteen, and I was an Adult, and he, like all sixteen year-olds ever, was convinced that he knew better than I did any day of the week. "But if you act like responsible adults, I will be happy to treat you that way. Believe me, I don't want to be a babysitter. I want to help you discover what your talents are, and I want to make sure you know enough about the world to protect yourself and stay out of trouble."
"What should we do then?" Trish asked.
"I'm to tell you about the Laws and why they're important, and then we're going to get you home to your parents. Next Friday, the six of us are going to meet up and we'll figure out what you want to do with your lives and your magic. You have less than a week to think about it."
"What if we don't want it at all?" Emma asked very softly.
"Magic is like a muscle. If you don't work it, eventually it will atrophy and just fade. If you decide that you want nothing to do with magic, all you have to do is never touch it again. Do you think you could do that?"
She nodded, but she looked uncertain. All young wizards asked themselves that question at one point or another. In many ways magic could make life in a modern world more difficult. If the practitioner had more than just a smattering of magic, most technology was out – no cellphones or video games, or DVD players, or any of those fancy black boxes I saw regularly in the BestBuy and Circuit City ads that I got with the junk mail and spread out under Mister's litterbox. It meant knowing things about the world that modern devotees of the biggest cult in the world – Science- didn't really want to know about. It meant being different from friends and family, not being able to discuss interests and successes over Thanksgiving dinner. For a teenager, being different was no cake walk.
"Well, think about it. Whatever you decide, you have to stay in contact with me until you're eighteen – after that, I can't make you do anything."
"What if we don't?" Trish asked. "Stay in contact, I mean." She didn't ask like she was planning on skipping town, but more on the full disclosure front, the borrower taking out a loan.
"Then the Wardens track you down. If you've broken a Law, they behead you. If you haven't, they take you away from your families and put you in the care of a wizard far older and more crotchety than me until you prove you aren't going to go crazy and start sacrificing young women to demons with names you can't even pronounce."
They all winced and looked away from me as one body. I saw Abigail go green and worried that we would need a bucket in a hurry, but she swallowed down hard and took breaths in through her nose to keep from vomiting.
"What you have all seen," I said softly, "It's not fair that anyone should have to see that, and it's going to eat at you. At least if you stay in contact with me and with each other, you have someone to share the burden with before it consumes you completely."
Trish nodded in understanding and agreement, but Abigail looked like she wanted to just crawl into a hole and die. Emma didn't look much better, but I had trouble getting a read on the boys. They were so determined not to show how horrified they were of what happened in that lair. Looking at Abigail, I added a new worry to my list. Suicide was a real possibility considering what they'd seen and helped carry out. I didn't know how to bring that up to them, or how to let someone in their lives know to look out for it at home. Trish slipped an arm around Abigail's shoulders and the way the smaller girl curled into her made me relax.
"Do you guys need a break before we talk more?"
They did and I gave it to them.
I sat quietly with John in front of his sprawling estate. The kids were all back with their parents and I had a promise from each that they would report to me on Friday after school. I mentally rearranged my schedule to make sure I could get to the other side of town to our designated pizza place meet up.
"You will be good for those children," John said into the silence. We hadn't talked since our little deal in the library over fine brandy.
I rubbed at the back of my neck. "I'm not so sure. I've tutored a few kids before who found my ad in the phone book and wander in for help, but this... if I screw up, they could die."
"So don't screw up," John said and it seemed as simple as that. I laughed faintly and rested my head on the steering wheel.
"Why didn't I think of that?"
John patted my shoulder briefly and got out of the van. I did the same, leaving the keys in the ignition for one of the goon squad to take it away to where ever they stored the prisoner transports.
"This has been a very weird two days," I said, leaning back to look up at the dusky sky. "And I need to get home before my cat destroys the apartment."
John nodded. "I'll call you when I have a free evening and see if you're available."
"My, my, I haven't even left yet and you're already asking me on a second date? I hope it will be half as much fun as the first," I teased.
He smiled indulgently, and didn't respond to my teasing. Instead, he made a gesture to the Beetle, chugging around the driveway and said, "Drive safely."
"Always," I lied. He didn't call me on the lie either and turned back to the house, already pulling out his gadgets.
The flat and watery Coke was gone, replaced by a cold plastic bottle of the same. I grinned at it and took a long swallow before I even made it out of the driveway. The tank was full, the car seemed to have been cleaned, and it also sounded better than when I handed it off. Apparently John's goon took the 'no harm' to heart and decided to hedge his bets by giving it back in better condition than he got it. I didn't know whether to be amused and grateful, or scared that one look from John brought out this kind of response in his people.
A To-Go box sat on the passenger's seat and I peeked inside just as I pulled out to the main street. Four canolli sat nestled in a bed of butcher paper, dusted in powdered sugar. They were cold, so I surmised had been in a refrigerator, and a touch soggy, but I ate all four of them before I was even half way home.
Mister threw all thirty pounds of irritated tabby into my shins on his way out the door, pausing briefly at the top of the stairs to twitch his tail stump at me. He disappeared into the growing darkness and I went inside. I had a stack of paperbacks to read, wood in the fire, and it turned out that I did have some food in the cupboards. All in all, it wasn't a bad end to the day.
The next day I received a package from John with my clothes washed and smelling like expensive laundry detergent. In between the folds was an envelope stuffed with cash and a note in John's neat hand that read, Your fee plus danger pay. Don't try to return it, I'll just deposit it directly into your bank account if you do.
Apparently just to show off, he listed the last five digits of the aforementioned bank account. I counted up the bills and nearly choked on the number, but the sad face over next Wednesday wasn't looking quite as intimidating any more. Neither was the sad face for next month for that matter.
The kids did show up on Friday with backpacks slung over their shoulders and notebooks out and ready. I talked to them more about Klause and asked what they knew about the four victims who hadn't made it out. To my disappointment, they knew nothing except that Klause mentioned having help – probably what left the sprig of holly in Denise's room. This did not fill me with warm and fuzzies. The four pieces of jewelery sat in a box in my lab and I had no idea how I was supposed to return them to the families or what I would say. We talked more about the Laws, and two Fridays later they brought another boy with them who had a little talent. A trickle of an idea started to form in my head then, but it would take a lot of work. I remembered the Council's directive to let them know when I found a way to catch warlocks before they became warlocks and felt like this might be the beginning of an answer, if I could just wiggle it out of my head.
I didn't see John for another month, but he called me just as I was getting ready to leave and asked me to meet him at the pizza place. It amused him to no end, but I insisted on paying for our dinner and we talked like normal people for a while before he started asking questions about things normal people didn't talk about. This is apparently my life – tutoring children and mob bosses on Sidhe politics.
Well, at least it won't be boring.