D: No Love for Vash. Finally finished chapter three after my host trashed what I had started earlier. It isnt anything like what I had planned before, but I'll work the minor details of what happened between Chapter Two and here into other chapters as Backstory and what not.

This is betaed very little, so excuse what mistakes you do find. Also, most of it was inspired by canon, so excuse the similarites as well. But Rest assured I've all intentions of going a different route than canon and already have a few other arcs planned out and Proven Guilty getting an entirely new plot all together. More of this Vincent here as well. And probably the revelation of who, exactly, he is.

So without further ado: The Chapter that almost Never was:


"Lah-REE, Lah-REE, Lah-REE!"

I tried to smile at Mortimer through the thick makeup and overwhelming heat of the spotlights. Behind the audience's chant of the host's name, the show's theme played its monotonous tune as camera lights winked into life. I could hardly see beyond the glaring lights hanging from the ceiling.

Not the ideal place to meet a contact, but Mortimer Lindquist had refused to be seen near me on the streets. Most people wouldn't blame him, and I couldn't say I did either. I don't have the safest reputation in the world, you see. From the Loup-Garou three years prior to a near end-of-the-world war between the faerie courts just a year ago, I was the center of more of Chicago's heavy hitting supernatural shitstorms than nearly all other wizards were.

Porcelain white smile plastered on his face as he appeared in the studio's rear door, the show's host, Larry Fowler, shook the hands of dozens of seated fans as he made his way to the stage. He was a short man, dressed in a faultless suit. Beneath my jacket and shirt, I could feel sweat dripping as the noise of the whistling and hooting crowd set me on the edge of my seat. It was enough to make me consider jumping up and running to the hills.

But it wasn't like I had stage fright or anything. Because I didn't. It was just way too hot on stage. My lips felt dry, and I had the nervous habit of licking them as I checked and rechecked all of the fire exists, just to be safe. Always good to know where they were in case you needed to break a hasty exit. The noise and lights made it hard to concentrate as it was, and I had felt my spell wobble twice already. Never could tell what would happen if it did manage to break up and start wreaking havoc on the electronics around me.

Mortimer sat in the chair beside me, a polite smile on his face, but muttered, "You okay?" He was a near-fifty dumpy, balding man dressed in a suit that looked a lot better than mine.

"Yeah," I answered, "But I've been in burning buildings I liked more…"

He frowned as Fowler lingered over a young woman, whispering; "Showboat," before turning back to me. "You asked for this meeting."

"Think this will take long?" I asked, ignoring his last comment.

"Could go on for a while," he answered nodding discreetly at an empty chair beside me and another to his side. "They tend to shoot extra footage and just edit it down to the best bits. And two surprise guests?" He shrugged in a what-you-going-to-do fashion.

I sighed. Mort had been on shows like this before. I had even been on Fowler's show once before; just after I'd gone into business. It had probably been the worse of my fledgling career. I'd had to struggle with the ill-renowned name I'd gained from my time on the show.

"What'd you find out?" I asked, pushing away bad memories.

Mort's eyes flicked nervously at me, "Not much." I began to push for more, when he cut me off. "Not now, wait for commercial."

I grunted, put out, and turned to look towards Larry Fowler prancing up to us, shaking a hand with each, before he turned to the crowed with his handheld mic. "Welcome to the show," he bellowed in exagerated cheer as I turned a disappointed look at Mortimer for his equally-false enthusiasm. The balding man simply shruged.

"Our topic today is 'Witchcraft and Wizardy – Phoney or Fabulous?' With us in order to share views is medium and psychic counselor, Mortimer Lindquist." A polite applause drifted from the crowed at his mention. "And beside him, Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard." I received the same polite response, though there was some snickering mixing in.

I couldn't say it was shocking. Hardly anyone believed in the supernatural anymore. It was more comfortable to rest knowing that vampires were only real in the movies, that demons were just dysfunctions, and that it wasn't possible to quietly kill you from miles away. Something as terrifying as a werewolf had to be a makeup trick or some computer generated model.

It was completely wrong, but it was much more appealing.

And despite the relative levels of denial, my face heated up. Something from my youth; I hated to be laughed at. The old ache adding to the dancing nervousness made it that much more difficult to hold the suppression spell.

See, in spite of snide comments questioning my sanity, and not-so-hidden snickers, I really am a wizard. It wasn't just drummed up stories and fanciful hoaxes to get a name for myself, I really could do magic. I'd already started a wizard-vampire war, and have summoned up a demon or two. To be fair to Chauncy, though, he wasn't such a bad demon after he finished all of his showmanship. There were just laws demonic beings had to follow, and he was only doing his job. I'd earned a lot of scars to show for all of it too.

The problem was that technology didn't play well with magic. Get a wizard worth is salt around and computers start crashing, light bulbs burn out, and car alarms start blaring for no damned reason. I'd worked out a spell that suppressed my magic though, at least temporarily, so I'd have a chance to show up and not blow out the lights or cameras and not get the fire alarms going.

I was never good with the difficult, delicate stuff, and by luck that's what the suppression spell was. But so far so good. Only the nearest cameraman had been affected so far; wincing and jerking his headset away from his ear as whining feedback sounded minutely from the earpiece.

I closed my eyes and with concentration, reined in my discomfort and embarrassment. The feedback died away as I managed to wrestle the spell back under control.

"Now," Larry said, after his idle chat was finished, "Morty, you've been on the show several times before. Would you remind us a little about what you do?"

Theatrically, Mortimer's eyes widen and in a stage whisper, answered, "I see dead people." The audience laughed.

"But seriously. Mostly, I conduct séances, Larry. "I do what I can to help those who have lost a loved one or who need to contact them in the beyond in order to resolve issues left undone in life. I also offer prediction services to help clients make important decisions on upcoming issues and to warn them against any dangers."

"Really," Larry answered, "could you give us a demonstration?"

In the same showman's exaggerated method, Mort closed his eyes and rested the fingers of his right hand directly between his eyes and answered in a hollow voice, "The spirits tell me … two more guests will arrive soon." As the audience laughed, he gave them an easy grin and nodded at them. He knew how to play a crowd well.

Larry gave him a tolerant, easy smile. "And why are you here today?"

"Well, I just wanted to raise public awareness about the psychic and the paranormal. Almost eighty percent of Americans stated they believe in the existence of spirits and ghosts. I want to help the people understand that these entities do exist. And help those who've had strange and inexplicable encounters understand and cope with them."

"Thank you, Morty. And Harry – May I call you Harry?"

"Sure," I tried to answer casually and comfortably, relaxing back into my cushy chair. "You're nickel."

Fowler's smile turned brittle. "Can you tell us a little about what you do?"

"I'm a wizard," I told him bluntly. "I find lost articles, investigate paranormal episodes, and train people who find themselves with the sudden onset of their own powers."

Which was technically true; it had been, and still was, the list of services printed in my phonebook advert. About a year ago I had signed on with the Winter Court of the Sidhe as the Knight of the three queens, though. And that had opened a lot of new avenues of work. The Knight's arrangement had left me in more of a Jack-of-All-Trades position. I was a sort of bounty hunter, hire thug, negotiator, and executioner all in one; though I hadn't had to fill the last part of that yet, thankfully.

But it hadn't stopped the three Queens from using me in any other facility though. Three months after my appointment, Maeve had decided a rival company to one of her mortal … acquaintances was far too aggressive in their negotiations and required a talking to. Being that Maeve was one of the Queens, the youngest, she'd had to abide by the laws that govern such high positions; in this case, she was barred from interfering with mortal affairs that had no connection to the Winter Court. No one in the in crowd knew about me being the newest Knight, so it was just a common assumption I had been paid to deal with the matter.

It had hurt my reputation though. Business was terribly slow recently because most of those who would have come weren't quite sure of how to deal with this new persona of mine. And any newer customers eventually found out about rumors when they were looking for the right guy for the job. But money wasn't really an issue, considering Mab, middle and most powerful of the three, had arranged to have my pills taken care of. She had offered a more grandeur home and office even, but the old ones just held too many memories. Setting sentimentality aside, it made them that much safer when you look at the principals of thresholds.

"Don't you also offer consultation for the Special Investigations department of the Chicago PD?"

"Occasionally," I answered cautiously. I didn't want to draw more attention to the CPD or the SI that I had to. And the last thing either needed was to be advertised on the Larry Fowler Show. "I offer consultation to anyone who wants to enlist my services. Many police departments use the same sort of consultants when more viable leads have failed, as well."

"And why are you here today?"

"Business is slow, and your producer is paying double the standard fee," I answered with a sort of smirk.

Fowler's eyes flashed with an impatient look as the crowd gave a warmer laugh. For an instant, I could see his teeth gnashing slightly behind his smile. "No, really, Harry. Why?"

"Same reason as Morti—as Morty here," I answered, shrugging at the dumpy man. It was true as well. I'd come here to meet Mort and get some information form him, and he'd come to meet me. Like I said, he'd refused to be seen in the streets with me.

"And you claim to be able to do magic?" Larry asked.

"Mhmm," I answered with a distant nod.

"Could you show us?" He prompted.

"I could, but it probably wouldn't be practical."

Larry nodded and gave the audience a wise look. "And why is that?"

"All this equipment looks sort of expensive," I gave Fowler a grin. "And I know you're always eager to have me around your show; but that might raise the price a little too much. Not that I'm not worth it, mind you. It just seems a shame to cancel the show because I wrecked your studio equipment."

Fowler's smile jerked in place as the audience gave a half laugh. "Of course," he answered saccharinely. "We wouldn't want that, would we?" Turning away, Larry carried on with the talk part of the show, discussing crystals and ESP and similar mediums. Mort did most of the talking. I only replied when I had to, and preferably in monosyllabic answers.

Presumably, he had been given a signal for commercials, as he turned away when Mortimer finished. "We'll be right back after these announcements." Stagehands held up Applause signs as the cameras panned and zoomed over the hooting and hollering audience.

Larry gave me a last annoyed look, before storming off to the wings and tearing into one of the makeup girls over his hair. I suppressed a groan as I leaned over to Mort. "Okay. Now what did you find out?"

"I'm still getting used to contacting the dead again," the ectomancer answered with a shake of his head, "So I didn't find much. Not sure how much of what I did find is accurate, either."

"Still, you've got better connections in this area than me. Mine don't keep close track of who's died lately, so I'll take whatever I can get. Is she alive, at least?"

Mortimer nodded, "Yeah. She's in Peru."

It was relieving to know she was alive at the least, but in Peru? "That's Red Court territory?"

"Parts, though most of them are in Brazil and the Yucatan," he corrected. "I was blocked when I tried to find out exactly where she was."

"Know who was doing it?"

"Sorry, there's no way for me to tell."

"It's okay," I answered with a bland reply. "Thanks, Mort." I settled back uncomfortably to mull over the news.

Susan Rodriguez was a reporter for a regional yellow paper called the Midwestern Arcane. She'd grown interested in me just after I opened my practice. She had been relentless about hounding me for stories about the things that went bump in the night. A long story short, we had gotten involved. On our first date, she had ended up naked in a thunderstorm as lightning cooked a nasty toad-demon into more of a toad-demon stew.

A few years later, I got an invitation to a Red Court celebration, and despite my refusal to bring her, she had managed to make an appearance anyway. One of the nobles had grabbed her and she was left somewhere between human and vampire. Bianca, the noble, had done it as a means of payback. She'd thought her standing made her untouchable and that I wouldn't fight to get Susan back. I had, and in the end caused a war between the entire Red Court and the White Council.

The vampires still hadn't forgiven me for taking Susan back. Something about a bunch of them, including one noble, being incinerated in all the commotion.

I had started to look for Susan about two weeks ago when her editor called. The columns she usually sent were late and he wanted to know if I could get in touch with her. After turning up nothing, I went to Mortimer to see if any of his spirit contacts would have better luck. It wasn't much, but at least now I knew she was alive.

I looked up when the theme started to play again, Fowler walking back on stage. The squealing of the speakers made me realize my control had slipped and my suppression spell had nearly fall. It was a hell of a lot harder than I thought it would be, and only getting harder. When I had managed to squash it back into place, they quieted to an occasional pop.

"Welcome back to the show," Larry's cheerful voice echoed in the speakers. "Today we're talking with practitioners of the paranormal, who've come to share their views with the studio audience and the viewers at home. In order to explore these issues in depth, I've invited two experts of opposing viewpoints to join us, and here they are."

The audience applauded politely as the two emerged from either side of the studio.

The first, who sat in a chair beside Morty, was a little over average height and thin. His skin hand been turned to a tanned leather by the sun. His clean-cut hair was short and graying. He could have been forty or sixty for his appearance. The black suit he wore was adorned with a clerical white collar sharing space with a rosary and crucifix.

Outwardly, there was absolutely nothing odd about the older man, but when he nodded to Mort and I, a sort of chill ran down my spine and my skin tingled vaguely with … something. But it didn't feel like something dangerous, though. It was the sort of vague tingle I could feel from Michael, but different some how. It was similar to that of Michael, though seemed dulled and impersonalized. Where Michael had that aura around him in everything he did, Vincent's seemed separate from him. It was a constant, subtle force in the Knight of the Cross. The priest seemed to wear his as a part of his metaphysical attire, the same his rosary were a part of his physical attire.

"Allow me to introduce Father Vincent," Larry commented as I watched the priest carefully. "A leading scholar and researcher of the Catholic Church, both historically and from a psychological perspective, on the subject of witchcraft and magic, he's come all the way from the Vatican to be with us today. Welcome to the show Father."

His voice was a little rough, but it had the sort of cultured accent that indicated an expensive education. "Thank you, Larry. I'm pleased to be here."

The second of the men wasn't as much of a stranger to me as Father Vincent. Broad shoulders and a deep chest, his heavy build sat on an average height. In a stylish grey and silver suit, his neatly brushed black hair and dark complexion contrasted tastefully. Just his presence sent my heart form zero to sixty in a second, and fear racing down my limbs.

Emotions fuel a lot of magic; they're a sort of built in amplification system for your own natural power. The fear hit me and the strain of maintaining my suppression spell doubled and re-doubled. The operator of the nearest camera staggered back as it gave a flash of light and a puff of smoke. They'd probably have to edit out the curse he used as he threw his headset to the ground. No one heard it over the shrieking feedback from the studio monitors, though.

"And please welcome the world-renowned researcher and debunker of the supernatural, Dr. Paolo Ortega, from the University of Brazil at Rio de Janeiro."

He was also a duke of the Red Court. Smiling less than an arm's length away, was an ancient and exceptionally deadly vampire.

"Nice to meet you again, Mr. Dresden," Ortega whispered.

I swallowed nervously and fumbled for a couple of wizard gadgets I had with me for self defense. I was stopped when Ortega rested his hand on my arm in what looked like a casual gesture. And while it appeared that way, his fingers closed around my wrist like a vice. Flashes of pain stormed through my elbow and shoulder. And my luck, I noticed looking around; everyone was staring in amazement at the malfunctioning camera.

"I'm not going to kill you on television, wizard." His accent was think and vaguely Latinate. "Relax, I only wish to talk."

"Get off me," I told him in a thin and shaky voice. Damned stage fright.

He released me as the crew rolled the smoking camera back, a director type motioning to Fowler with one hand. Larry nodded and turned to Ortega. "Sorry about that. We'll edit it out later."

"It's no trouble," the vampire assured him easily.

Larry paused for a moment then continued the show, "Welcome to the show, Dr. Ortega. You've a reputation as one of the World's premier analysts of paranormal phenomena. A wide variety of so-called supernatural occurrences have been proven to be nothing but clever hoaxes by your research. Can you tell us a little about that?"

"Certainly. I've yet to find one event that cannot be explained adequately with proper investigation. Such as crop circles; they've turn out to be little more than a favored pastime for British farmers. Events may seem odd or unusual, but are by no means supernatural. Even in Chicago, you've had a rain of toads with hundreds of witnesses. And as it turned out, it was nothing more than a freak windstorm having scooped them from elsewhere and depositing them in the park they were found in."

Larry nodded with a serious expression, "Then you don't believe in such events?"

The duke's smile turned patronizing as he addressed the host. "There is too little true magic in the world, Larry. I would love to believe such fanciful tales true. But much as our hearts wish these wondrous beings and fantastic powers were real, the reality is that it's simple, primitive superstition."

"Then in your opinion, practitioners of the supernatural—"

"With no offense to current company," Ortega nodded with a polite smile, "Frauds. All of these so-called mediums, presuming they aren't merely self-deluded, are skilled actors who've acquired a fundamental grasp of human psychology and how to exploit it. The gullible are easily convinced these individuals can contact the dead, read thoughts, or that they are preternatural beings. I'm certain I could, with a few moments of effort and the right settings convince anyone in this room that I was in fact, a vampire."


I had just managed to get my coat from a small room used for guest makeup, keys to my old Beetle, when Ortega had appeared in the doorway. His posture wasn't outwardly hostile, though. He stood with an arm folded across his midsection, a silvery-white coat folded over it. He had an old smile, the confidence and slight arrogance that came with age and knowing his prowess at its front.

"Before you go, Mr. Dresden," the Duke said softly as he closed the door behind him. "I'd like a private word with you."

"I'm not sure that's all you want," I told him shakily, sliding my own coat on. "I'm on a schedule though, so let's make this quick."

"Indeed it is not. I've come to Chicago to kill you," his words were casual, as if talking about the latest Bears game, but the way his eyes looked made it completely clear he intended to do just as much. "But I have a proposal for you first."

"You know, Borders probably has books on beginners Negotiations pretty cheap." I tried to keep the shrug I made offhanded and casual, "I only say so, because you're technique is kind of bad."

"Dreadfully so," he admitted humorlessly. "But I'm referring to this war between our peoples, Dresden. Too many of our brethren have died for naught. It is undesirable and unprofitable to either."

"War is war, and Hell is Hell." I said. "War is the worst of the two, though."

"And this war was begun over a point of principle, by you."

"I began it over a human life."

"But how many could be saved by ending this foolishness now? The suffering it causes is not restricted to wizards alone. With so much of our attention focused upon the war, the less desirable elements of our Court remain unchecked. We frown upon reckless killing, but those of the Court who've become wounded or leaderless kill without reason or need. Ending all of this now could save hundreds, if not thousands of lives."

"Killing every vampire on the planet could, too."

"A tactic your council has not shied away from, if I recall." Ortega mused somewhat aggressively. "The Black Court's numbers have dwindled to near nothing. But that is not the point. The point, Dresden, is that neither of our people desire this senseless war. And as you are symbolically its cause to my people, all that is needed to end it is your death. Once you've been slain, The Council and the Court will accept peaceful overtures."

"You really should look into one of those books, Ortega. 'Lie down and Die' isn't much of an offer."

"I am giving you a chance to die an honorable death, Dresden. I offer you the chance to face me in single combat."

"Why the hell would I do that?" I almost barked with laughter. "I'm pretty attached to living, and the whole dying thing doesn't seem too honorable."

His neutral expression turned to one of polite regret. "Because it would mean my warriors needn't target your friends and allies. That the mortal assassins retained to eliminate a number of past clients are unnecessary. Names need not be mentioned, yes?"

Anger joined the fear that had welled in my chest. "Keep it with me if that's what you're here for. There's no reason for that."

"I agree. Such tactics are beneath us. However, the times do not allow for methods of great care and subtlety. Face me under the dueling laws of the Accord and I guarantee their safety."

"So you win, and the war ends. What happens on the odd chance I win? Am I supposed to wait around for the next hotshot Red Duke to try the same thing?"

"Defeat me," Ortega spoke in a calmly confident voice that told me he thought it was impossible for me to win, "and the Court has agreed to label the city Neutral Territory. You and your associates will be free of attack, so long as you remain here."


"Pardon?" he inquired, a puzzled expression on his face.

"Nothing, after your time I suppose." My palms had become sweaty and my fingers gave an odd twitch as they stayed wrapped in my coat. "It's just stupid of you to fight me. Even if you manage to win, you'd have to deal with my death curse."

He shrugged nonchalantly. "A risk I am willing to bare. I am not as important as the whole of the Court."

The last thing I wanted was to stick myself with another supernatural beastie to fight, especially a dedicated, honorable, self-sacrificial loony beast. Vampires scared the hell out of me, the Red's more than the others. They had saliva as addictive as any narcotic and I'd tasted enough to wonder what another would be like. The superhuman strength and speed was annoying as well. There was an enormous yuck factor to them too.

I watched him for a moment with slightly narrowed eyes. Ortega was arrogant and confident, but not to the extremes I had come to expect from other vampires. Something in his eyes said as long as I wasn't alive, he'd care very little how it happened. Clichéd villainy at its worst, I believe he would have made due on his threats too. And it was an undeniably effective lever.

"I'd have to have it in writing. The Council gets a copy as well. All of it has to be official, by the Accords."

"Then you agree to a duel?"

I wasn't so sure I wanted to agree still, but I didn't have a choice. And it wasn't just the thought of my friends being hurt that brought the lack of a choice. Nobody knew I was the Winter Knight yet, but it wouldn't stay that way for long. And with Mab throwing in with the Council, she was already an enemy of the Reds. They weren't dumb enough to move against her though. She was Damned Powerful, capital D and P. Ortega may have been a dangerous man, but Mab made the guy look like a kid. She'd crush him like he was nothing very easily.

And if I went running off now, she'd do the same to me. An enemy of Winter intimidating the Knight? Doesn't look good, no matter how you cut it.

"Fine," I agreed reluctantly. "Get it to me in writing and you've got a deal."

With a smiling assent, the Duke nodded and left without another word. Letting out a deep breath, I ran a free hand through my hair, and fished my keys out of my pocket, where I'd placed them during the conversation. That should fill my quota for supernatural baddies ruining an otherwise terrible day.

Though the show had ended, a large number of people were still mulling around the studio. Most of the lagging crew seemed to be following some sort of general maintenance routine. Large light fixtures were being carted to the front to replace those that may have been affected by my earlier episodes.

Waiting when I arrived at the studio's exit was the thin priest, Vincent. He stood with a slight look of nervousness as he twirled the crucifix round his neck in his fingers. That vague feeling returned and I could feel it tingling more in my skin.

"Padre," I greeted as I moved to pass.

"Mr. Dresden," Vincent replied, "If I might have a moment of your time."

"Let me guess, you didn't really come to Chicago for the show?" I retorted dryly, absently trying to rub away the feeling dancing up my arm.

"Not entirely," the priest admitted. "You must understand, that I must insist upon confidentiality, due to the nature of my problem."

I frowned and stopped rubbing my arm, "You think I'm a crackpot or a charlatan." I motioned for him to follow and took a slow pace to my old car. "So why would you want to hire me?" Not that I would turn him down. My bills may have been taken care of courtesy of the Winter Court, but any debts occurred before were mine to clear.

"An associate advised me, that you were the best investigator in Chicago for my dilemma."

I almost stopped to give him a questioning look. "You've something of the supernatural kind going on?"

"Naturally not," Vincent replied with casual skepticism. "I am not quite so naïve, Mr. Dresden. But I am told you know more of the occult community than any other investigator."

"Ah, that," I replied intelligently.

That's probably true. Though, he was talking more about the tarot card and palm reading New Age crowd that pops up in most large cities. Most of them were harmless, and some even had a small potential for true magic. Of course, your standard issue occult community comes rife with feng-shui artists, wiccans, voodoo practitioners, Santerians, a smidgen of Satanists, a couple of slightly gifted practitioners who mix religion and magic, and a whole lot of people who like wearing way too much black. But all of your generally harmless crowds have your really dangerous sorts. Occasionally, you get your sorcerer and necromancer, or even a monster or demon or two.

The types that regard a crowd the same way kids do Christmas.

"So, if you don't mind me asking, who referred you, padre?"

"A local priest," Vincent answered casually. "Father Forthill, of Saint Marry of the Angels. I believe you're acquainted with him?"

Forthill didn't always agree with the whole religious scene, but he was a decent guy. He could be a bit prudish, but I liked him well enough. And that didn't have anything to do with my owing him for past favors. "Yeah, I know Father Forthill. You should have just said that in the first place."

"You'll take the case then?" Vincent asked as my old beetle crept into view.

"I'd prefer to know the details first, but if Forthill thinks I can help, I will. Standard fees apply."

"Naturally," he agreed smoothly, toying with the crucifix around his neck. "I might assume that you'll spare me the magician's palaver?"

"Wizard," I corrected absently.

"Is there a difference?" An arched eyebrow accompanied his accented skepticism.

"Certainly; Magicians perform tricks and stage magic and wizards do real magic."

"I've no need of entertainers, Mr. Dresden." The padre spoke with patient exasperation and a neutral expression. "Only an investigator."

"You don't have to believe me, padre. Just pay me and there won't be any problems." Vincent nods politely, expression unchanging as he turns towards the battered old car I stop at.

"What happened?"

The old Volkswagen Bug affectionately named The Blue Beetle had seen better days. I think it has a lot of character and individuality. It's a car that holds more value than mere materialism. Other people think it a mish-mash of a lot of replacement parts.

When it began its life, it had been entirely blue. Now, bits of green, white, and red VW's had been swapped for the damaged originals. All that kept the hood from flying open when the car was jolted was the bent piece of coat hanger wire. And I had yet to fix the front bumper form last summer's attempt at vehicular monster-slaughter.

"I hit trees."

"You drove your car into a tree?"

"Ahh.. No," I answered, glancing at him self-consciously, "plural. Trees, but they were only little ones. There might have been a dumpster too. But in my defense," I added hastily. "They all jumped out at me. Wasn't really my fault."

"Ah," he muttered in response, and I thought there might have been actual worry hidden in his face.

I unlocked the door, though I wasn't really worried about anyone stealing it. I'd had two offers to have it replaced (One from the only car thief who'd attempted to steal it, and the second from Mab, my now-permanent employer. Something so disgraceful looking was not befitting of any in Winter, she sad.) But the old bug had some sentimental value. And she had very little electrical equipment, which was a large plus.

"It'd probably be best to talk somewhere a little more private."

"Agreed," Vincent nodded. "My hotel might be best. I have some photographs and—"

I only caught the scuffing sound in time to catch sight of a gunman taking aim from behind a pair of cars a row over. The clap of gunfire and shattering glass echoed in the garage as I threw myself on over the hood, away from him. A second clap and a painful, frightened scream followed. As I tumbled down from the hood, Vincent was a second behind joining me on the ground. Blood stained the shoulder of the dark clothes he wore.

"Are you already?" I asked quickly, inspecting his shoulder.

"I …" he stuttered, shock on his face. "I think so. What… what's going on?"

I turned away, ignoring Vincent and focusing on the gunman. He was cautiously venturing from behind his cover, dark metal gun trained on the mismatched car. I guess I could consider myself lucky he only had a small caliber pistol with a manufactured silencer. It wasn't likely to pierce the entire car. But I was still left almost defenseless. My blasting rod and hand gun were locked in the Beetle, and I was left with my shielding bracelet and a ring with only enough juice for one spell.

"Mr. Dresden…" Vincent called again, having pulled himself together and taken cover against the VW as I had.

"Be quiet," I told him gruffly. I'd have time to feel sorry for being rude later, but now I needed to figure out how to get out of this.

Dark pants and jacket that resembled some sort of civilian militia hung loosely on the gunman's frame. Medium height and build, he looked mid-thirties. From the way this one was dressed, I'd be willing to wager he was an outfitted hitter. And that probably meant he wasn't alone and the exits were covered. So I had to get rid of this one quickly and get out of here before more came along.

And since I only had my ring and shield bracelet, it meant I only had one shot. Decisions, decisions.

In as quick a motion as I could, I stood and hefted my ringed hand toward the assailant. Just as I had, however, his dark grey gun turned at me. I had managed to dive to one side just as he fired, the clap ringing through the garage. But that left me in the open and uncovered.

The concrete sparked briefly as I rolled away from another shot and away from the Bug. Of course, that would have to leave me trapped in the open between isles. And it would drain the last charge from my bracelet to shield a fourth shot as I slid in between a pair of S.U.V.'s.

I'd like to say that I had performed some astonishing feat of wonder and calculated all sorts of mathematical equations inside my head as I leapt out again, hand already raised. That my dive back into the open, and the subsequent shot from my ring had been planned and elegant. But, the truth is that it had been entirely luck,

The product of mail order lessons in Latin and all of the creativity I possess in the thick of life threatening situations, the incantation came quick and the spell's effect quicker. "Stiria!"

The ring I wore grew icy cold to the point of physically burning as a sliver of white flew forward. An instant later the gunman fell to his knees with a gurgle as the tiny dart of ice splashed the concrete floor with his blood. Reluctant to go without a fight, he managed to squeeze a final, wide shot before dropping his gun.