Title: Child's Play
Spoilers: None in this chapter
Summary: Harry's latest case is uncomfortably familiar and starts him on another quixotic crusade. The only trouble is, how do you stop a killer when you're stuck baby-sitting?
Disclaimer: Harry's world does not belong to me. It belongs to Jim Butcher and SciFi. I merely frolic around merrily in it.
When you've been around magic for as long as I have, you start to be able to feel it. Whenever, wherever. Especially the black kind. Black magic leaves a taste in the air, like the ozone before a thunderstorm. You know it's there, though it may be hard to put your finger on.
I had to end my date early because of that taste. It was outside the restaurant where we'd just eaten dinner. I took her home and she wasn't pleased. Neither was I. When I kissed her goodnight, I didn't expect I'd be hearing from her again. It was unfortunate because she was definitely someone worth hearing from.
I circled back home to grab my drumstick, which is standard procedure when investigating black magic. Actually, my hockey stick was my preferred choice, you could do some serious damage with it, but it's hard to conceal in your pocket. It's also tough to explain why you need to carry it around with you, should a police officer inquire. Bob was doing some sort of operatic performance in the lab, so I didn't disturb him.
I got back to the restaurant and stood outside it, closing my eyes and feeling around with my other senses. The alley beside it tasted like black magic. It's a metallic, salty-sweet tang, with a touch of black licorice. I've never been able to enjoy black licorice since I discovered that taste and I've always wondered if it doesn't have some nefarious purpose in the world. When I walked down the alley, I got a jolt through my fingertips.
She was well back, away from the light over the door that led to the restaurant's kitchen. She was very dead, blue dead and her eyes were white and milky. She had no marks on her that I could see with a quick glance, just the taste of black licorice hovering in the air. There was also a pentacle flower necklace lying on the ground nearby, its chain snapped. I made a rough guess that if she herself wasn't of the magical persuasion, she certainly hung around with those who were. Or she had, when she was alive.
I was preparing to go to call the cops when something tickled at the back of my brain. It was a magic sort of tickling and I raised my drumstick in front of me as I turned to investigate. As far as I could see, there was no one else around but me and the dead woman. I Listened carefully and heard a very faint clacking noise. I reached out with my magical senses again and brushed up on something weak. It wasn't sinister this time, but I remained on guard nonetheless. Paranoid is never a bad thing.
I snuck towards the back of the alley, ready to fight if necessary. I followed the clacking noise and the magic tickling to the very back wall. It was hard to see, but I eventually found the source. There was a very small person tucked between a crate and the wall, well hidden. The clacking seemed to be teeth chattering.
I crouched down slowly and tried to get a closer look. It was a girl, a child, I could see that much. Her knees were drawn up to her chest and her forehead was touching them, hiding her face from me. She had no coat on; it was no wonder she was shivering. I imagine fear had something to do with it too.
"Hi there," I said, softly.
She looked up in alarm and pushed herself back against the wall as far as possible. With her head up, I could see the source of the magic tickling. She had a Celtic shield knot on a cord around her neck that let off an aura which was gently pressing on me to stay back, like a weak poke to the chest.
"Are you cold?" I asked.
I was trying to be non-threatening as she looked petrified. If she had witnessed what had gone on to make that girl so dead, I didn't blame her. I took off my coat and reached to wrap it around her like a blanket. She flinched back like she was expecting to be hit. I tucked it around her shoulders and she snuggled into it, but didn't look any less afraid of me.
"My name's Harry," I explained, as I worked. "Are you hurt?"
She looked me in the eyes, a thing a lot of people tend to avoid if they can. Apparently I have something scary in my eyes, it makes them nervous. Or they don't want to encourage the nutter who thinks he's a wizard, one or the other. I held her gaze and tried to present myself as someone she could trust.
"I cut my knee," she whispered, finally.
I could see the blood on her pant leg shining in the moonlight, now that I looked. I pulled some of the fabric out of the gash and tried to see how bad it was, but I didn't have much light to go by. I retrieved a handkerchief that I always carried in my pocket, a habit my father instilled in me. I pressed gently on the cut, which made her hiss and flinch.
"How long have you been here?" I asked her.
"Do you...do you know that lady back there?"
Her eyes were huge and shone with the moon in them, accentuating her fear and her innocence. Again, she stopped to judge me, staring me hard in the face. I kept my eyes still.
"She's my mommy."
I winced. It was the sort of answer I was expecting but really didn't want to hear. I was at a loss of what to do. I should call the cops, but I couldn't leave the girl there with a dead body, in the cold, in the night. The pay phone was at the far end of the block. If I took her with me, she'd have to walk past her dead mother and I wasn't going to inflict that trauma on her either. I was silent, contemplating this. I felt a bit nauseous, remembering the image of my father dying before my eyes. Being helpless. I wondered if that's what I looked like. Dead in the eyes, shocked, lost. I didn't really have a response for her, other than 'well, that sucks a lot, doesn't it?' and somehow I didn't think that would help.
"I'm sorry," I said, which was just as useless, but it's what you say. She shrugged a little, looking down at her feet. "What's your name, kiddo?"
"Grey-lynne," she mumbled. "G-R-A-Y-L-I-N."
"Graylin," I repeated. "Cool name. I'm Harry. H-A-R-R-Y."
"You said your name already."
"I know, but I didn't spell it," I pointed out, absently.
I got the tiniest hint of a smile, directed at her shoe. It disappeared very quickly. Still, it made me relax slightly. If she'd been hysterical or sobbing, I would have been way out of my element, but she looked more in shock. I could deal with shock. Once I figured out what to do.
"Did you see what happened?" I asked, tentatively.
She shrugged again. "Yeah." She reached out suddenly and stroked one of the shields on my bracelet, then looked up from her shoes to stare into my eyes again. "Do you got magic?" She leaned in a little, conspiratorially. "My mommy's got magic." She frowned and blinked several times. "She did."
"I got magic, too," I confirmed. "I'm a wizard." I hesitated a moment, before asking, "Did a wizard do that to your mommy?" She nodded. "Did he hurt you?" She shook her head.
"He tried," she said, softly. "Mommy stopped him."
"Okay." I blew out a long breath to calm my anger and thought. "Alright, we need to call the police, Graylin. If I hold your hand and you close your eyes and follow me, would you come out of the alley with me?"
"Are you gonna hurt me?" She asked, eyes very huge again.
They made me want to go and hurt someone very badly. I shook my head and made sure to keep eye contact with her.
"No, I'm gonna help you," I promised. Her expression remained unsure. "What do you want me to swear on?"
She had to think about that for a second. "Ice cream."
"Ice cream?" I repeated. I made a serious face. "Okay. I solemnly swear on...ice cream, that I'm not going to hurt you." I made a motion of crossing my heart and sticking a needle in my eye. "Okay?"
She nodded and grabbed a hold of my hand with a sudden, desperate movement. "Okay."
I helped her to her feet and then uncrouched. I'm a tall guy and I'm used to towering over people, but she didn't even reach my hip. She was a very small person and she had to tilt her head way back to look at me. My coat around her shoulders hung to her ankles. I felt more sick than ever. She was too small for this to happen to her.
"Close your eyes tight," I requested. "And don't open them until I tell you to, okay?"
She obediently squeezed her eyes shut. She grabbed onto my hand with her other one as well and I walked slowly out of the alley, avoiding anything that might trip her. She limped slightly, because of her knee and my cumbersome coat but we got to the mouth of the alley without incident.
"Okay, you can open your eyes now," I said.
She opened one tentatively and then the other, relaxing her grip once she saw she was out on the main street again. She looked up, way up, at me expectantly.
"We're gonna go to a payphone now," I said, gesturing down the road.
She walked beside me, hands still clutched in one of mine. She stuck close by my legs and stared straight ahead, as though looking anywhere else might show her things she didn't want to see. I stopped at the payphone and went to reach into my coat pocket for change, only to remember I wasn't wearing it. I crouched down again, my knees kindly reminding me that I wasn't a frog.
"I have to get something from my pockets," I explained to Graylin.
She nodded an assent and I rummaged in one of the pockets which was levelled around her knee. We were in the light of the street lamp now and I could see her more clearly. She had a button nose and long, messy brown curls. She was white as a sheet. I placed her at maybe five or six and noted that she was aptly named. Her eyes, which watched me without really seeing me, were a medium grey colour and shone with the glassy look of someone who wasn't fully in the moment. I hoped wherever her mind had retreated to was better than this mess.
I found a quarter and managed to make my call with one hand, the other firmly belonging to Graylin at the moment.
"Kirmani," a voice barked on the other end.
I could have called 911, that would have been free, but I figured that I'd have a better response time if I just called the police directly. It wasn't like I didn't have the number memorized.
"Hey Kirmani," I responded.
"Oh God, Dresden," Kirmani groaned. "How many bodies are there this time?"
I winced a little. "Just one."
"Murphy's gonna kill you."
"Yep, I figured."
"Where are ya?"
I rubbernecked around to find a street sign, then gave him my location.
"Alright. Stay put. You know the drill," Kirmani said.
"Yeah," I sighed. "I know it."