I have travelled a lot of different ways. By car, by foot. Lots of cabs, a few trains. A couple planes, big enough I could sit well away from the engines. I even rode a helicopter once. It was fun until I had to be lowered out on a winch. A little scary, but at least I was still attached to the helicopter.
You see, I have never, until this moment, been skydiving.
Falling through the air at a little over a million miles an hour is exhilarating, I'll give you that. I just don't get why anyone would willing throw themselves out of a perfectly good plane, which is capable of flying, and replace it with tablecloth stuffed in a backpack, which is not.
Which is probably why I didn't. Kincaid had to push me. As I fell, I let out a battle cry that sounded suspiciously like a little girl's scream, though using words no child should even know. Kincaid couldn't hear me; I could barely hear myself. The line connected to the plane from my parachute caught, and the oh-so-thin piece of fabric I'd just entrusted my life to ballooned out above me. With my blind panic easing back to barely controlled terror, and my full-on tremors reduced to violent shakes, I tried to remember what Kincaid had told me above how to control the flimsy kite I was strapped to.
Of course, my memory hadn't quite caught up with me, (much like I hadn't caught up to my stomach,) and it skipped back a little far. Two days, to be precise.
I was sitting in my office. I like sitting my office. It makes me feel like I'm doing something, really contributing to the economy. In truth, I was avoiding responsibility.
My door says Harry Dresden – Wizard. Yeah, wizard. As in, 'wizened.' I can use honest-to-goodness magic, but more than that, I'm supposed to be smart and capable. But somehow I always manage to get people I know hurt. Or worse.
My friend Michael got shot. My friend Kim was torn apart by a loup-garou a few years back. Karrin Murphy, who in many ways is my best friend, (and in other ways, might be more than that – maybe… I don't know,) has been injured more times than I care to count on my watch. And my brother had just lost his soul.
Hell's bells, not literally. It was still in there, somewhere. But his desire to keep it, his humanity, was gone. Thomas was a vampire of the White Court. His inner demon, his Hunger, fed on human emotion, specifically lust. Now, Thomas is the type of guy who can make crawling out of barn while covered in cow dung the sexiest thing in the world (don't ask how I know, just don't). But until recently, he'd always exercised self-control. He'd only killed one person with his hunger, the very first time he fed, when his father had manipulated him into it. But recently, he'd been tortured to the brink of death and forced to feed, over and over, killing several women in the process.
And he didn't care. What ever humanity he'd had, whatever control our mother had instilled in him, was gone. There had to be a way to give it back to him, but none of my brainstorming had come up with anything.
I thought magic might help, but I had no idea where to start (and I studied vampires in great detail a few years ago.) When speaking with Murphy about it, she pointed out the obvious; physically, Thomas hadn't changed, it was just his attitude. I realised Thomas' problem was psychological.
Murph told me she'd be out of town for a few days, so I figured I'd have time to read up on the wonderful world of the human mind. So, I'd gone to the public library, and got several really thick books with really long titles designed for skulls less thick than mine. The library was closer to my office than my house, so I went there and sat down. I was reading one of those books, my head full of words I couldn't fully understand, when I got a call.
"Harry Dresden," I said, still trying to sound out a sentence in my head.
A gruff voice answered, "Meet me in the diner across the street in five minutes."
"Wha-?" I got out. The phone went dead. The brief call had the effect of clearing my mind. Demands and threats both do that to me. This had been one of the former, but it carried the latter within it. I stared at the phone for a minute, replaying the call in my mind. I knew the voice, of course.
I made up my mind pretty quickly. It's easy to do when you know the voice on the other end of the phone is a professional killer. I put down the phone and the book, crossed the room and threw on my leather duster. I grabbed my staff from beside the coat rack, and locked the door on my way out. I took the stairs (the elevator had just started working again, and I didn't want to jinx it – literally) and got into the diner with 30 seconds to spare.
Kincaid was waiting for me at a table he had claimed in the corner farthest from the door. He was easy to spot. He looked about 40, though I knew he was at least 10 times that, with hair the colour of a lion's coat. His eyes were also those of an animal, constantly shifting and checking, but relaxed about it, and always coming back to rest on me. His clothes defined business casual – grey slacks and matching sport coat, over a dark shirt. A leather bomber, about the same colour and consistency as my duster, hung on a hook on the wall beside him. He looked relaxed, but so did most people I knew right before they kicked someone's ass.
I walked over. "Kincaid. You're looking well. Your oh-so-polite call implied this was urgent."
Just then, a waitress appeared, glass in hand. "Coke for someone?"
I looked at her. Looked at Kincaid. He raised an eyebrow. "Thanks," I said, and took the glass. I leaned my staff against the wall.
"I took the liberty," he said, and waved me into a chair. I took a gulp and a seat.
"Alright. I'm intrigued. You're not usually this nice to me."
"No harm in being polite, Dresden. Particularly to someone you respect." I caught the tone of his voice, and realised his right hand was under the table.
"There's a gun pointed at me right now, isn't there?" I asked, casually.
"Yeah," he said, also casually, "but only one, 'cause we're friends."
"Friends? Never thought I'd hear that out of you. What's this about?"
He studied me for a moment. Then he leaned forward, and slid a small handgun into a shoulder rig, eyes never leaving me. He stared at my nose, of course. Neither of us wanted to trigger a soulgaze. "Do you remember what you said when you hired me a few years back? To clean out that vampire scourge?"
"I believe it was something along the lines of, 'Nothing says flattery like a gun to the head.'"
He smiled, tight and short. "After, when I told you my price."
"You mean after I asked for a coupon? I think I said – " I stopped. I leaned in, too. "I said I would owe you one. Are you cashing in?"
"I came to you because this is partly personal."
"I don't want to know about your jock itch – wait." I looked at his face again. I saw something I had never seen on him before – the rough beginnings of a beard. He was worried and distracted. "This is about Ivy, isn't it?"
He leaned back again. That was all the answer I needed. For Kincaid to be this restless, something had to be gnawing at him. And Ivy was his only weak spot. Believe me - his only weak spot. I've looked.
Ivy is short for Archive. I gave her the name. She has a thousand or so generations worth of memories, passed down from her mother, and her mother before her, etc., and is aware of everything that has ever been written down, by any hand on Earth. Pretty heavy for a sweet-natured 16-year-old girl. She's a guardian of knowledge. Kincaid had been her bodyguard for her entire life, and even if he'd never admit it, he loved her like a daughter. For Kincaid, this was as much personal as it was about professional pride.
The big brother/Victorian gentleman/Neanderthal in me awoke. I hate it when bad things happen to women, and I hate it worse when bad things happen to kids. Ivy was both, 1000 generations of memories or not.
I leaned back, too, serious. I also cared about Ivy. Stars and stones, so did my cat. "I thought you were the best, Kincaid. What happened?"
"I took a job last week." That was code for, 'I killed someone last week.' "She was left with some sub-contractors." Meaning, 'I got some other mercenaries to baby sit.' "And when I went to retrieve her, she was gone and they were dead." Ah - a clever way of saying, 'She was gone and they were dead.'
My voice was tight as I answered. "You know who did it?"
He nodded, but put a finger to his lips and glanced left and right. The walls have ears.
I nodded, knowing a more complete explanation would follow. "I'm in. When?" I asked.
He allowed himself a tiny, little smile. "Tomorrow morning. Before sunrise."
"Couple days' travel."
"One more. You want to drag that apprentice of yours along, it might not hurt, either."
"Here," he said, and pulled an envelope out of his inner coat. "Some details. Read it at home." He put it flat on the table along with a 10-spot, and stood. He took his bomber off the rack.
"Nice jacket," I said, finishing my Coke.
"What can I say? You're an inspiration, Dresden." He left. I sucked on some ice for a minute, then got up myself and headed for my car. I wasn't going to get anymore psycho-babble reading done today, as the thought of Ivy in trouble had pushed everything else from my mind. I got into the Blue Beetle – a misnomer now more than ever, as Mike, my mechanic, now tells me he's had to start improvising parts from across the automotive spectrum to keep it running, so not only is it a rainbow of colours, but also not entirely a Volkswagen – and headed home, lost in thought.
Kincaid didn't recruit lightly. I'd once seen him take apart a half-dozen Red Court vampires without breaking stride – or missing a shot, all by himself. He wasn't entirely human. He didn't scare easily, and he didn't leave things to chance. Whoever – or, I thought with a sigh, whatever – had taken Ivy, this wasn't going to be a cakewalk.
I pulled into my driveway. I live in the basement of a large, old boarding house. I don't see the other residents much, except when I catch a glimpse of them yanking their curtains shut. Can't really blame them. Lots of bad things have happened to my house, and thus, the people in it. I keep protective wards up and freshen them about once a month, but the thing about bad guys is they don't always respect things like wards, or thresholds, or windows or walls. Jerks.
I checked the mail, then went down my stairs, jingling my keys as I went. As I got to the door, one hand against it to disable the wards, and one inserting a key and turning the knob, I was suddenly pummelled in the legs by a small, furry boulder. Mister, my 30+ pound short-tailed tabby, greeted me the same way everyday. "What are you so happy about?" I asked him as the door opened. "Get up to some good carousing? Raise some rabbles? Of course you did." Mister hit me one last time with his head, then assumed his usual place of honour on a book shelf, forgetting all about me.
Meanwhile, Mouse, my dog-shaped personal earth-mover, greeted me far more affectionately. I barely had to bend to pet his ears, and I'm six and a half feet tall. "Come on, big guy. You can have a trip to the backyard, then I have some phone calls to make." I pulled the envelope Kincaid had given me out of my pocket as Mouse led me outside. "And some reading to do."
Twenty minutes later, all calls of nature (and a few of the artificial kind) having been answered, I sat down and opened Kincaid's envelope. Three things came out. There were two train tickets, to Denver, covered in computer type. There wasn't a whole lot on the single other sheet of paper inside. A name, Japanese by the sound: Yamohito Hai. And there were two other words: Jade Court.
I climbed down the rickety ladder into my lab, in the sub-basement. With a gesture, and the quiet words, "Flickum bickus," I lit a half-dozen candles. "Bob," I said, looking at an ancient human skull on a shelf, "wake up."
One of the eye sockets in the skull turned orange, then the other, as though they were really eyes, slowly opening. The jaw stretched open, and a huge yawning sound came out. The skull then bounced to face me as I sat down with a pad and pencil. "Heya, Harry," Bob the skull said. "I hope this is important. I was having a great dream about Trixie Vix – "
"Don't give me any details, Bob. The last time you described a 'skull-job' I thought I would throw up."
"That would have been absolutely disgusting," Bob said, with far too much cheer.
I shook my head. "I need to know everything you can tell me about the Jade Court of vampires."
If Bob had eyebrows, I'm sure they would have shot up. "Wow. Been a while since I heard that one. What's up?" I described my day so far. "Huh. You say she's 16 now?"
"Right, Jade Court! Here goes." Bob cleared his throat, which was impressive for someone without a tongue… or a throat. "Jade Court vampires are much like White Court vampires in many respects."
"Pretty darn attractive, for one thing. Mostly Asian, too. Hot. Also, manipulative. Secretive. Maybe the most secretive of the courts. And very formal. Always stand on ceremony, no matter what's going on."
"Okay. How are they different?"
"Diet, mostly. Black Court eat flesh, Red Court eat blood, White Court eat emotions, and Jade Court eat memories."
"Your short-term would be very tasty, Boss."
I was confused. "How… how do they eat memories, Bob?"
The orange orbs rolled in their sockets. "Same as Whites. They get close to their victim, and just kind of siphon them off, psychically. The process is mostly painless as I understand it. I have heard of them being sought out by some people, hoping to be rid of a painful memory, but of course, if they feed too much, the person is left a blank slate, with no skills or sense of identity. And of course, they can read the memory before they eat it."
"They… enter and ruin people's minds," I said. For the first time in my life, I was actually aghast.
"Technically, they empty the minds, not ruin them."
"That's…" I tried to imagine having my whole sense of self ripped away. Everything I'd ever done, ever seen, every friend I had… every friend I'd lost, every horrible image burned into my mind. I suppose I could see the appeal for some people, getting rid of pain…
No. My pain was part of who I was. Losing it would be a relief, but also wouldn't allow me to be me. And dammit, I like me. Mostly.
"That's horrible. It's worse than killing a person. It's… it's rape of the mind."
"No argument," Bob said, for once completely serious. "As a spirit of knowledge, I'm nothing but memories. Meeting one of them would end me, sure as sunlight. Oh, speaking of which, they can go about in daylight. However, they are the source of the 'no-reflection' legend."
"They can't be seen in a mirror?"
"Or any reflective surface. It's a weird sort of permanent veil. Helps them stay secret. Hard to see unless you're looking right at them, or they want to be seen."
My mind started working with that. "Weaknesses?"
"Again, similar to the White Court. Their bodies are essentially human. They can take massive trauma and recover, but they need time. They burn and squish real good, but no court-specific weaknesses."
"Anything else I should be aware of?"
"There's not much else to tell. They keep their number low, maybe less than 100 world-wide. They rarely gather in numbers. They only concentrate in Asia, but they spread out so to keep from attracting attention. Oh, and they can eat Sight memories, too."
That shocked me. "I thought nothing could remove a memory from a wizard's Sight."
"Oh, yeah, sure, nothing. Except a Jade Court vampire."
I thought about that. There were a few things burned into my Sight I wouldn't mind getting rid of. Or at least letting fade.
"Oh, and Harry? Don't go writing Ivy a note, like you did last time to let her know you were coming. Jades can eat her memories, though since they're not really hers, they should grow back. But they can still read them."
No wonder Kincaid had written so little down. "Thanks Bob," I said, heading back upstairs. I extinguished the candles with a word. "By the way, your Fredrick's of Hollywood catalogue came today." I took it out of my back pocket and tossed it in his general direction. It stopped in midair and fluttered to Bob's shelf, vanishing in the darkness.
"Oh, this wasn't supposed to be out until next week! Thanks Boss!" I closed the trap door over the sub-basement, drowning out his happy cries.
There was a knock on the door as I threw the rug back over the trapdoor. "Who's there?" I called through it.
"Come on in," I said.
The door opened, and a tall, blonde girl with far too many piercings entered. She was wearing heavy hiking boots, a pair of jeans with the knees missing, and a shirt that didn't leave enough to the imagination. She also wore a medallion I'd given her to get through my wards, one of only four I'd made. My own jeans and flannel get-up left me feeling over dressed. Over her shoulder was a good-sized backpack, fairly overflowing with various nick-knacks. "Hi, Harry," Molly said, excitement in her voice.
"Greetings, Grasshopper. You come with… much more than I thought you would." Molly had been my apprentice for a few years now. I'd been saddled with the duty after I volunteered. It was either that or let her be executed for violating the Third Law of Magic – Thou Shalt Not Invade the Mind of Another. Yeah, capital letters. The White Council of Wizards – the secretive governing body for all mortal magic-users – only had seven Laws, and they all started with 'Thou Shalt Not." And they all ended with 'under punishment of death.' Admittedly, she did it before she realised she was working magic, and she was just trying to help a couple friends, in that arrogant, teenager-y way. That, plus me speaking up was the only thing that kept her alive that day.
"Mom kind of insisted. Clothes, foci, survival gear, etc."
"She wasn't mad? You made it clear to her that I didn't demand you come along, right?" Charity Carpenter was best described as a lioness when it came to her family, but without all the kind, calm, fuzziness one associates with vicious hunters. We'd been getting along better of late, but she still scared me a little. "She's not outside, is she?"
"I took the bus. And are you kidding? I was in the second you said Ivy was in trouble. She's a great kid. The only thing they objected to was me spending the night here. Then I reminded them I'm an adult, and you and I have a very professional relationship." I rolled my eyes and she put the bag down. "Dad offered to come along, but Mom absolutely forbid it." I winced. Michael Carpenter's gunshot injury had happened the last time we'd gone on a rescue mission for Ivy. In spite of that, he'd do it again in a heartbeat. I'd recently learned from a higher authority that Michael getting shot was the more pleasant of two outcomes that night might have held, but as with Thomas, while I may not have done the damage myself, I still felt guilty.
"He wouldn't be your dad if he didn't."
She nodded. "So, what's the plan?"
"We're leaving early, aiming for 5:30. Train leaves at 6:15. Butters is watching the boys – " I gestured to Mouse and Mister, " – I called him right after you. And we have some work to do before hitting the hay."
"Whatever you say, Teach."
"Have a seat, first. I'll fill you in on the details. Then we have a few tools to sharpen."
The following morning, I was up and had the blankets off the couch before Molly was awake in my bedroom. Neither of us had gotten a lot of sleep; we'd been up late, trying to perfect one of my ideas.
I assembled my tools of the trade and prepared a quick breakfast while Molly showered. I don't have a water heater, since magic + technology = kablooie far too often, so she was out quick. I was super-wizard smart and showered the night before. Mouse and Mister each got a few morsels, and the eggs and toast were sitting on the counter, ready when she came out, mostly dry and completely dressed. "How you doing, Grasshopper?"
"I'll be honest," she said with a yawn, "I've had field trips that started out better."
I smiled. "I'll keep it simple. Eat. Coke. Car."
She shook her head. "Not hungry yet."
"You'll regret it," I said quietly as I put the last of our collective stuff together. We each had a back pack, with various magical implements, and two days' worth of clothes. I brought my staff and blasting rod, and put two silver rings on each hand. I touched the silver pentacle at my throat my mother had left me, and checked my duster. We both wore shield bracelets around our left wrists, composed of many different metals and enhanced by many different spells. She had swapped out a couple of her piercings for more ornate, magically enhanced ones.
Once we were decked out, we headed outside. The Blue Beetle coughed to life on the third try, and after we located a parking lot with decent rates, we arrived only 2 minutes late at Union Station.
Clearing security was the only hassle remaining to us, since we already had our tickets. There were no metal detectors, so I guess I could have brought my gun. The only thing the guard asked about was my staff.
"My niece and I are going hiking," I said.
"So where's her walking stick?"
"She has better balance than I do."
The guard raised an eyebrow, and I knew I'd played the whole situation wrong, but I was tired. Sue me.
Then, Molly came in off the bench. "Uncle Harry, can I go get a candy bar?"
I smiled and turned to her. "Sure, go ahead." I turned back to the guard.
"Um, Uncle Harry?" I turned back to her. "Can I have some money to go get a candy bar?"
I turned back to the guard again, and rummaged in a pocket. I found a five. "Sure," I said with a sigh, and handed it over my shoulder. "Grab me a Snickers while you're at it."
She bounced away, we both watched her go, and I shook my head, as if to say, Kids.
The guard snorted. "Just be glad she isn't your daughter," he said, and waved me through.
Molly joined me a minute later, and passed me chocolate. She's a dear girl. She kept the change, however. Ah, what the hell? She'd earned it. "So," she said, shovelling M&M's into her mouth, "why do I have to be your niece? Why not your girlfriend, or something?"
I gave her a quelling look. At least I aimed for quelling. I was tired and my mouth was full of peanuts and peanut-butter nougat, so I may only have given annoyed.
She raised her hands. "Okay, sorry, touchy subject."
"I thought you had a thing for Ramirez."
"Carlos? He was nice… but he hasn't called me yet."
I shook my head. Young love. And virgins.
It didn't take long to locate Kincaid. He was at the end of the platform, back to a wall, eyes restless. "Glad you could make it." He sounded bored.
"We're here for Ivy," Molly said.
His eyes stopped on her for a moment, and a ghost of a smile touched his face, then they were moving again.
"So where's the other hired hand?" I asked. I was looking forward to meeting someone Kincaid could trust with his most sensitive job ever. Someone who wouldn't lose respect for him in the industry. His eyes settled again, a little behind me. I turned around.
I honestly shouldn't have been surprised. Molly and I both smiled. "Good to see you, Harry," the figure said.
"You, too, Murph." The toughest cop in Chicago was five-foot-nothing, blonde, and had a button nose. Swear to God.
She stepped past us, greeting Molly as she went, then put a hand on Kincaid's shoulder.
I felt a sudden, inexplicable twinge of jealousy, coupled with the need to beat Kincaid to death with my bare hands. Then it passed. How very strange.
He smiled, and there was something ferocious about it. "I've got the last car reserved for us."
"The whole thing?" Molly asked.
"For privacy," he said, picking up his own bag. "And the further you two are from the engine, the better."
"But… the whole thing?" She looked at the car, which about the same size as her house.
"Deep pockets, Grasshopper," I said in her ear, and we boarded.