Chapter 1

I'm not making a lot of money these days. I get a paycheck as a Warden, but it's only enough to keep me right on the edge of bankruptcy instead of dead in the middle of it. And since Murphy got busted down to Sergeant, Special Investigations doesn't—can't afford to—call me in for help much any more. So when the young woman on the phone asked me if I was indeed Harry Dresden, professional wizard, and if so, if I could help her find a place to hide, I really didn't have any choice but to say yes. Even though it set off every instinctual alarm bell in my head at once, I needed the money badly. Not to mention that when a girl needs help, the annoyingly old-fashioned part of my brain takes over and makes me do many, many stupid things.

Even if the girl in question can level a city block by blinking.

I don't think of Murphy as looking like "someone's kid sister" any more. She's gotten a little too old for that. Which is good, because it left the description available for use on the young woman who walked into my office ten minutes later. She couldn't have been a day older than Molly, and was probably a year or two younger. Her face immediately bothered me, and it took me a moment to realize why: her reddish-brown hair and baby blue eyes said Irish or Scottish or something European, but every other feature on her face was definitely some kind of East Asian, probably Japanese. She was dressed simply, in a pair of jeans, a pink T-shirt, and a White Sox cap.

I spoke first. "Hello. Miss, uh, Takamachi, right?" I winced as I realized I had probably botched the pronunciation badly. She didn't respond immediately, but pulled out a small necklace with some kind of red orb at the end from underneath her shirt. She mumbled something I couldn't hear clearly, and I almost jumped a little as I felt a wave of magical energy pass through me and the rest of my office. This girl knew magic. She was In On It. That was unexpected.

She looked up at me and smiled warmly (never meeting my eyes, of course). "Hello. Sorry, I just had to make sure nobody was listening in. Yes, I'm Nanoha Takamachi. Call me Nanoha." She offered her hand, and I shook it, suppressing a frown. Maybe she wasn't completely In On It, if she was so willing to give me her Name at the drop of a hat.

"Harry Dresden. What can I help you with, Nanoha? You needed a place to hide, right?" I was about to make a gentle and perhaps ever-so-slightly-smartass remark about how that kind of thing wasn't really my specialty, but she responded quickly.

"Yes. Somewhere heavily protected, magically speaking. A home with a solid threshold would probably be best, but it's also probably too much to ask. A church, perhaps? Or does the White Council have—no, no, probably best not to get them involved."

I blinked. She knew a lot. Which meant that the reason she was all right with giving me her Name was that she was utterly unafraid of the consequences. This situation looked more likely to devolve into one of those days with every passing minute. Still, woman in need, chivalry not dead, Harry Dresden idiot. I recovered and maintained a smile.

I knew a couple good places for her to hide, but I needed to know more. "Well, that depends on who you're trying to hide from."

"I can't tell you that," she said, her warm, friendly smile never faltering.

Well. There went that line of inquiry. And something was really bothering me about the way she was talking. For one thing, she didn't have the attitude one would expect of a woman on the run—she seemed very calm and friendly, as if she was asking me to help her find a lost cellphone, not protect her from unknown and apparently unnameable pursuers. But there was something else, something I couldn't quite pin down. "Why not? I want to help you, Miss T—uh, Nanoha."

"I can't get you involved. Can't let anyone here know too much. There'd be trouble."

So that's how it feels to be on the receiving end of that line. Now I sympathized with Murphy. And the Alphas. And, well, everyone. "I assure you, I know pretty much all there is to know about the supernatural." A gross exaggeration, but one I felt comfortable making—I was on the White Council and she pretty clearly wasn't, after all.

Nanoha didn't respond except to put a hand over her mouth, clearly trying to suppress a laugh. Most likely, she was completely convinced that she knew something I didn't. Oh, well, might as well humor her. "A church is probably your best bet. If you're staying in Chicago, I'd recommend St. Mary of the Angels in Bucktown. Father Forthill there is, well, informed. And it's not the first time he's given shelter to people on the run from the supernatural."

"A church may not be ideal, actually. It's not so much that I need to prevent...the ones chasing me from entering. I need to prevent them from finding me at all. Do you know any place that might be warded like that?"

My home, I thought, but there was no way I was just letting her crash there. "I can't think of any public place like that, no." Her face fell, so I added: "If you can find an apartment to rent, though, I might be able to help you set up something like that. I don't know how effective it will be in a temporary residence, but it should at least make your trail a little colder." Though not if you keep giving your Name to every two-bit conjurer you run into, I didn't add.

She nodded. "Hm...Yes, I think that might work. Especially with...yes, I think staying in Chicago for the foreseeable future would work out the best. And I would certainly appreciate your help with setting things up, Mr. Dresden." I barely noticed her last few words—I had worked out what was wrong with her speech.

Her lips didn't quite match her words, like we were in a badly dubbed kung fu movie. There were only a few reasons that would be the case, and none of them were good. After pausing for a moment, I said, "Miss Takamachi. I'm not sure how to put this, but...are you actually saying what I'm hearing you say?"

She frowned for a moment. "Oh! Right. I have a translation spell active on you. My English isn't very good. Sorry, I probably should have mentioned it to you." She held up a hand as I started to respond. "Technically a violation of the Third Law, I know, but I have bigger problems than the Council right now."

"And technically, as a member of the Wardens, I'm obligated to put you under arrest immediately, Miss Takamachi. So I suggest you give me a very good reason not to."

Her smile grew a bit strained. "That's funny. The way I heard it, you're the last person who should be trying to arrest me on a technicality."

I shrugged. "Times change. And you don't seem to be trying too hard to stay on my good side." We stared each other down for a moment. She broke first, her friendly smile finally dropping as she looked away.

When she spoke again, her English was halting and heavily Japanese-accented. (Grammatically almost perfect, though. She was selling her linguistic skills a bit short.) "I apologize, Dresden-sa—Mr. Dresden. I am under a lot of, uh, stress at this time. But I need your help, and I will pay you for it."

"Which still isn't explaining why I shouldn't turn you in to the Council right now."

"I do not think you would be able to, Mr. Dresden." Her smile returned, with a somewhat Mona Lisa-esque quality to it this time. I could hear it in her voice: whether it was true or not, she was convinced she could take me on and win. Then it fell away, just as quickly. "I will...ehto...summarize the best I can. I am wanted for a murder I did not commit. There is enough evidence to convict me if I am found, including a motive. I have traveled a very long way to escape the authorities, but they will track me down if I am not magically hidden. While I have considerable training and experience with magic, most of it is combat-focused—I would not even know where to begin with a hiding spell."

Well, that was a lot more than she had told me before. Still not enough, though, not by a long shot. "Who, exactly, is chasing you?"

"I cannot tell you that."
Okay, now she was pissing me off. Just a bit. "Why not?"

"You would not believe me."

So. Much. Deja vu. "Assume I would."

She hesitated. "I will say that there are...authorities—human authorities—that are aware of the supernatural, and are not affiliated with the White Council or with any government on Earth. They are the ones who are pursuing me. And they are very, very dedicated to their jobs. In fact, I'd be surprised if they haven't tracked me to Chicago by now. So if you do decide you're going to help me, Mr. Dresden, we need to hurry," she said, a note of pleading entering her voice by the end.

I sighed. The sane course of action would have been to say "no" and leave it at that. There was no reason to trust any of her words, and if I did help her, it would probably end up getting me in a lot of trouble later on. But my instincts said to help her, that it would be the Right Thing To Do.

"I'll do it," I said, regretting the words the instant I said them.

"Thank you, Mr. Dresden," she said, giving me what must have been her best heart-melting smile.

"But not for free."

"Of course, of course...What are your fees?"

As we discussed how much cash would be exchanged (and she seemed to have quite a lot), I couldn't shake the feeling that she, at least, believed she was telling me the absolute truth about all this. But that was ridiculous, right? The White Council was the only (major) human representation in the supernatural world, right? And if there were others, I'd know, right?