A light, fluffy chapter to fill in before Proven Guilty. Some minor edits have been made to this chapter since it was first posted.
I sat in my office chair, glared at the distance between it and the desk, and reluctantly slid it a few inches forward.
"Sorry about the mess," I said, lifting this week's mail and setting it on top of last week's mail. "Harry's pretty messy, and I haven't had a chance to tidy up yet." For the first time, the mess was demonstrably not my fault…in a certain twisted way. I inclined my head to Sonja Cormac, and did my best to look professional while wearing a deep red leather jacket. "You mentioned a problem with your students."
"Ah, yes." Sonja Cormac, Dean of Students at Chicago U, shifted in her chair. She was elegant in a navy pantsuit and delicate silver earrings, slightly out of place in the middle of my office mess. "Some of my students…well, many of them drop out over the course of semester, for one reason or another. Some of them don't bother informing us or their RA, so from our point of view they simply disappear. A few every year, that's normal." She paused.
"But something abnormal has happened," I prompted.
"Yes." She licked her lips. "Five disappearances. All their belongings gone with them. After the first few, I thought…I pulled their files. All of them are orphans. And they weren't spread out, they only started going after—"
"Halloween," I finished for her. My half-healed gut wound twinged. "Have you spoken to the police about this?"
"I tried, but," she shrugged, "There's no evidence of anything. College student drops out, takes their things with them…it doesn't shout 'kidnapping'."
"Huh." I tapped the desk as I thought. Maybe the huge necromantic ritual that had almost happened at Halloween had attracted something that was preying on students. Or maybe it had nothing to do with magic at all. "Just to clarify, Dean, you want me to find evidence that your students are being kidnapped?"
"I want you to find them," she said flatly. She looked more than a little desperate, as so many of my clients do. The people under her protection were disappearing, and she didn't know why. "But I don't think you can. So yes, I want you to find some evidence."
"All right. My fee is fifty dollars an hour, plus reasonable expenses. I'll need copies of their files, and if they left any possessions behind, I'll need those." I scratched my chin, then remembered that I didn't have any stubble.
"Certainly. I can get them together this afternoon. If you come by my office at five-thirty? I don't—" Cormac shook her head. "Without evidence, the Vice-Chancellor hasn't been taking me seriously – the only person who has is my assistant—"
"I do understand the meaning of the word 'confidential', Dean," I said with a small smile. "I need to make some calls, and pick up some equipment. I'll meet you at your office at five-thirty."
"Wake up, Bob," I said, and lit the candles in my lab with a murmur and application of will. "I need to talk to you."
"A little foundation wouldn't go amiss, but honestly, boss, it's your hair that's—"
"Bob." My voice was glacial, and I was a little surprised by how angry I was. "The sartorial advice wasn't funny the first time." The blue light in Bob's eyesockets flickered uncertainly.
"Uh, right. So…"
"Somebody's been kidnapping students from Chicago U." I raised my eyebrows at Bob. "Somebody…or some thing. Anything attracted to necromantic energy that feeds on orphans?"
"There are some Irish spirits that prefer orphans," he said immediately. "But they don't really care about lingering mojo. And everything that might, wouldn't care about parental status."
"So they were picked because no one would miss them," I concluded. "Which means someone spent some time finding out who to take. What can you do with five college students?"
"Nothing that requires virgin blood," said Bob, leering despite not having a face. "Some of the hardcore binding rituals need a death at each of the five points…most death curses are powered by death. Human sacrifice is a broad area, Harry. It's powerful stuff."
"Yeah," I breathed. I'd called Billy – who had been very casual about the change in my voice, which made me wonder if Thomas had already briefed him. The Alphas hadn't caught any unusual smells around campus, or heard anything strange, and they usually kept their ears and noses close to the ground. "Alright, let's test the new shield before I expose myself to Chicago again."
All of my magical foci had been useless after the change, designed for a different body with different magic. The shield bracelet had required the least reworking, so I had focused on that, along with a second project. I picked up the bracelet from the counter and slipped over my left hand. The silver chain wrapped around my wrist twice now, the charm-sized shields strung along it bumping against my skin. I had remade the bracelet with five different shields: iron, bronze, silver, copper, and one laboriously carved from an offcut of oak. I pushed my will into it, and the air in front of me rippled. It wasn't the flat plane of force that I had produced before, but a swirl of power designed to deflect bullets and blasts.
"Looks pretty good," Bob said grudgingly. "You've got a much more delicate touch now, Harry. Almost feminine."
"Shut it, Bob." I relaxed my will, and the shield faded. "Now the other thing."
A shield keeps you alive, but without something to hit back with it just delays the inevitable. I fastened my second project around my right wrist: a simple length of iron chain, very neo-Goth. But I had spent hours carving tiny runes into the links and building up a power structure inside the chain. I swept my right hand out and murmured "Conligatio." The two folders that I had concentrated on flew towards each other, slapped together, and dropped to the bench. I released my will, and they stopped quivering.
"It's the coolest thing you've ever made," Bob said reverently. "You lucked out with the body, boss. And I don't just mean—"
"Thank you, Bob," I said, lowering my arm and moving it about a bit. The bracelet still didn't feel natural the way my shield bracelet did. Bob was right. It had been a little unnerving, how quickly I had adjusted to the change in my magic; it made me worry that a certain someone might be messing with the inner workings of my mind. "Alright. Time to clandestinely meet my employer during the day in her office."
I parked the Beetle in a corner of the covered area next to the Unviersity's admin building. I sat for a moment, thinking, then put on the shoulder holster, checked the Glock, and holstered it. It was quite a contrast to my old .44, sleek and smooth where the revolver had been curved and bulky. I was still faintly concerned it would jam, but Murph had assured me that the Glock was no less reliable than a revolver. The papers for my new identity had included a concealed carry permit, which was actually quite scary when I thought about it., so I pulled on the wine-red jacket Murph had bought me to cover the holster and walked across the street to the admin building.
There was no one at the reception desk, but there was a list of room numbers and occupants so I found Cormac's office pretty easily. She was sitting at her desk, talking to a squirrelly-looking young man with wiry hair.
"Ms Dresden," said Cormac, standing up. "This is my assistant, Jackson."
"Er, hello," Jackson said nervously. He held out a file folder. "Here are the enrolment applications, room allocations and student survey responses."
"Sounds…complete," I replied, taking the folder with a grunt. I propped it on my left arm and flicked through the first few pages before tucking it under my elbow. "Did you get any personal possessions?"
"Only from one of the students." Cormac pulled a zip-lock plastic bag from unde rher desk, and handed it to me. There was a comb inside, and I grinned at seeing hair caught in it. I had somewhere to start, now. "It had fallen behind the washstand," Cormac said with a shrug.
"This will help," I said with a nod, tucking the bag into a pocket. Jackson's eyes went from me to the pocket and back; I ignored him. It was never worth explaining my methods to straights; they didn't really want to know. "I'll call you the day after tomorrow, let you know what progress I've made." I teetered on the edge of asking for the first two days in advance, but shrugged instead. "Afternoon, Dean. Jackson."
I was just entering the car park when someone called my name. I turned, reaching for a weapon, and Jackson holding a manila folder.
"Miss Dresden," he panted, jogging up to me. "Sorry, I forgot to include the academic records. Not sure how much help it will be, but…" he paused to take several deep breaths as he handed me the folder.
"Thanks," I said, puzzled, and then his hand dipped into his pocket and came out with a Taser. I tossed the two folders in my arms at him, and he took a step back, giving me time to reach for my blasting rod on reflex…which was in my lab at home, and useless even if I did have it. My new binding bracelet was cool against my wrist, and I gathered my will to freeze Jackson in his tracks. Then the Taser dug into my side, and I was shaking and falling to my knees as pain tore at my insides.
I blacked out.
I regained consciousness to the sound of two voices: one in my ears, the other in my head.
"…well what the fuck did you bring her here for?" said a strong, male voice. "We've done the job, we've paid you for your help…why didn't you just let her fucking investigate?"
Harry, I can help you recover…please! They will soon decide to kill you!
I would have made a witty remark about how that's what everyone decided to do eventually, but my brain wasn't really working and my entire body ached. My back ached worse than anything else, from which I deduced that I was lying face-up on a flat surface of some kind. It felt warm.
"Her name is Dresden," Jackson said anxiously. I couldn't tell what direction his voice was coming from. "She's related to Harry Dresden. You don't know about Harry Dresden? He can find anything!"
"Yeah, and now he's going to be finding his fucking cousin, who you've kidnapped!" snarled the first voice.
"Not if she disappears like the others," said Jackson. There was a long silence, which I spent trying, and failing, to open my eyes.
"Somehow I doubt you'd volunteer to do the deed," said a third voice, also male. It sounded amused, rather than panicked as both Jackson and the first voice did. "But the boy has a point. Choosing this location paid off after all…take her downstairs and pop her in the furnace."
"Pop her first?" said the first voice, sounding a little uncomfortable.
"No. The bullets won't ash," said the third voice.
"Alright," said Jackson. "I'll just—"
"You'll go nowhere," the third voice growled. "You and me need to talk about you bringing this stuff to our door."
My host, please. Self-destruction serves no one.
Shut up! I snarled back.
There was pressure on my armpits, and I began to slide. I concentrated as much as I could, given the way my brain seemed to be too large for my skull, and forced my eyes open. The concrete ceiling sliding past overhead made me nauseous, and I swallowed against the urge to vomit. The man was facing me and walking backwards as he dragged me, so I could see him bobbing in and out of my vision. He was young, wearing a button-up shirt and jeans. He would fit right in on a college campus, I thought fuzzily. Except for the gun stuck through his belt…I blinked. That was my gun.
The young man bent down and lifted me up a little, so I leaned against his legs as he backed down a flight of stairs, presumably to the furnace. I was desperately trying to pull my wits together, push my mind through the pain so I could disable him. We reached the bottom of the stairs, and the man swung me around and propped me against a wall. I could see the furnace, a large metal thing taking up most of the room.
"Sorry about this, miss," the man said, no real emotion in his voice. He crossed to the furnace, and began to open some kind of hatch. The room went from very warm to hot.
Please, Harry, said Lasciel, sounding desperate.
"Oh, shut up," I said out loud. The man spun around and drew my gun from his belt. I gathered my will, raised my right hand and clenched it tight. The tiny runes scratched into the chain bracelet flickered into light. "Manacus," I whispered, and bound the man's right hand so he couldn't pull the trigger. I could see him trying, straining against the binding. His eyes were wide, flickering from me to his hand. I didn't dare look up the stairs, it was taking all my concentration to maintain the binding. I took active control of his hand, and began to turn the gun away from me. The thought of what I was about to do made me sick, but I didn't really have a choice.
The gun was was pointing at the young man's head, and now he was desperately trying to get his finger away from the trigger, but it was a contest of will and he was no match for me. I pushed my will into the binding, using every scrap of concentration, every last shred of the self-control that I had built up in myself over years of loss and pain. The young man was tall and strong, but he had never really been hurt. He had always done the hurting.
The gunshot was shockingly loud in the room, echoing off the huge metal furnace. Blood and other fluids spattered over a good third of the room. I levered myself to my feet, using the wall as a prop, and staggered over to the man's body. I forced myself to look at him – I owed him that. I picked up my gun, and wiped it on his jeans.
With my assistance, you could have bound him not to hurt you, said Lasciel, sounding vaguely reproachful.
Shut up, I thought viciously. If you really wanted to help me, you would have warned me about Jackson. I should have realised that the kidnappers had to have access to student files, there's no way you didn't know.
If I wished to hinder you, you would not have awoken, she shot back.
"Of course not," I said under my breath, staring down at the man I had just forced to shoot himself. "You wanted me alive but in danger."
"Damn it, Vince," yelled the man who had said not to shoot me, "I told you not to pop her." His voice came from up the stairs, and it was getting closer.
I turned to face the stairs, and raised the Glock, braced in both hands. A man strode into the doorway, wearing slacks and a sports jacket. He saw me standing and reached for something, and I started shooting. My aim was not spectacular. Two shots spalled off the railing on the stairs, one bit into the wall beside the man, and then two struck the man in the chest and knocked him to the ground. He made gasping, spluttering sounds for a few moments, then fell silent. I trudged up the stairs, swaying between the wall and the railing.
The man in the sports jacket was definitely dead. He had been reaching for a gun in a shoulder holster. I glanced around the room, but didn't see Jackson. There were a couple of camp beds, a desk with some folders that looked a lot like the one Jackson had given me. It looked like Jackson's two acquaintances had been camping out in a University sub-basement. I saw my shoulder holster sitting on the desk, the straps cut. I scanned the room again, and flopped down on one of the camp beds. I needed to find a phone and call Murph, get them to arrest Jackson wherever he had run off to. Needed to check for leads on the kidnapping, even though I was pretty sure I had just killed them both.
I needed to stop being an idiot.
It was three days before everything was wrapped up. There had been a few bad moments, but I was a young woman and the two dead guys were toughs with significant history with the law. Self defence it was. Jackson was arrested, Jackson talked, but he didn't know anything I hadn't found out. The toughs had needed inside information on students who were orphans, but that was all he knew. One of the toughs had an e-mail address in the contacts on his phone, but it was an anonymous account.
I came home late in the afternoon on the third day, and decided to take Mouse for a walk. I had been neglecting him. Halfway around the block he paused and lifted his nose, so I raised a shield around the two of us.
"One bark for vampire, two barks for human," I whispered to him as I stared into the half-shadows along the street. He went whuff three times, and then Morgan dropped his veil and was standing five feet away from me.
"Sloppy, Warden Dresden," he said drily. "What if I had meant you ill?"
"Yeah, that's a really implausible scenario," I snapped. I didn't lower the shield. "What do you want?"
Morgan smiled – bared his teeth, to be more accurate. "I bring you something you've earned, Dresden." He reached under his coat slowly, brought out an envelope and held it out to me.
"Let me guess, I could be a winner?" I dropped the shield and took the envelope, Mouse leaning comfortingly against my leg. If Morgan really wanted to kill me, he wouldn't have showed himself until I was dead. Morgan's smile grew a sliver wider.
"Your first paycheque as a Warden. Monthly." I tore the envelope open, and blinked at the cheque inside. It wasn't exactly the big bucks, but it would sure ease the strain on my budget. "I am sorry for your wounds, Dresden," Morgan went on, the smile gone. "It is not something one wishes upon a…colleague."
I stared at him. It was possibly the friendliest thing he'd ever said to me, in that it was the least suspicious or angry thing he'd ever said to me.
"Captain Luccio wished to deliver this, but a situation developed in Cyprus," said Morgan. "She asked me to enquire what blade you are most comfortable with."
I stared at him some more, before I understood what he was asked. "Oh. My Warden sword. Right. Uh, I'm not much of a swordsman. I'd probably use it more to break spells than stab people."
"Hmm." Morgan ran his eyes over me, his expression something like a foreman sizing up a new employee. "A shortsword, perhaps?"
I shrugged. "You're the expert."
"Captain Luccio is the expert," said Morgan. "I will convey your preference." He turned to go, then stopped for a moment. "Good day, Warden Dresden." And he walked on, raising the veil after a moment.
"Ah-whruff," said Mouse.
"You said it, buddy," I murmured, scratching his ears. Morgan being nonconfrontational. The world was obviously about to end.
I finished Mouse's walk, and found Thomas drinking a beer on the couch. "Hey," I said shortly, taking Mouse off his leash and flopping down next to Thomas.
"Murph called," said Thomas in a bland voice. "She told me about some trouble you got into."
"Hell's bells." I leaned my head back against the couch. "I was going to tell you once it was done, and now it's done."
"I don't understand it," Thomas said, frowning. "She said there were two of them, and you shot them? What the hell happened?"
"I reached for my blasting rod, he got me with a Taser," I said shortly. "If I hadn't woken up in time, they would have tossed me in the furnace."
Thomas blinked. "You don't have a bl—oh."
"New body, but the old reflexes," I said, and sighed. There was a pile of mail on a side table; I sorted through a couple of bills to the envelope I didn't recognise. A few moments later I sneered, then blinked in confusion.
"What's that?" said Thomas, standing up to get another beer.
"Present from Marcone," I said, handing him the letter. "I guess he doesn't want me to feel hostile while I'm inside buildings he owns. Permanent reservation for me and a guest…but I've never heard of this place, the Crimson Lotus." I looked up. There were crinkles around Thomas's eyes, and he was biting his lip to keep from laughing. I stared at him for a moment, until enlightenment struck. "It's a lesbian nightclub, isn't it?"