I'm not making a lot of money these days. The monthly paycheck from the White Council keeps the bills paid, but only just. You'd think a job as dangerous as Warden...ing would be worthy of at least one more figure, but apparently the Council doesn't see things that way. And my other well of income has run bone-dry since Murphy got busted down to sergeant. So I'll take just about any job I can get right now.

And a young woman looking for a way to hide herself? Well, that's right up my alley, sure, come on in as soon as you can and we'll talk, yes, half an hour is just fine.

I'd like to say that if I had known what I was getting myself into, I wouldn't even have bothered picking up the phone. But that would be a blatant lie; I know myself well enough to know that I would have charged in head-on anyway. That's just who I am: Harry Dresden, professional wizard, private investigator, and—when a woman needs help—the last white knight.

Even if the woman 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 couple years too old for it—she'd probably kill me for saying so, but there you go. 'Someone's favorite aunt' fits her better these days. Which is good, because the old phrase was a perfect fit for the young woman who walked into my office precisely thirty minutes later. She was about five foot two, with the kind of body you get from knowing exactly how many calories you need every day—not excessively skinny, but definitely missing a little thickness in areas where it might have been interesting. She looked to be in her mid-twenties at the absolute oldest, and probably a couple years 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 Asian. Her clothes made up for it, though—the jeans, the pink Hello Kitty T-shirt, and the White Sox cap made her just about as inconspicuous as you could get in Chicago.

And she was tired. That much I could tell from a quick glance—the shadows under her eyes, the long, slow blinks, the way she was carrying herself all made it obvious she hadn't had a good night's sleep in a while. She didn't speak immediately, but held up a hand as soon as I started to greet her. She pulled out a small necklace with a red jewel at the end from underneath her shirt, then mumbled something I couldn't hear clearly. I jumped a little as I felt a wave of energy pass through me and the rest of my office. This girl knew magic. She was In On It.

She looked up at me without meeting my eyes (yes, she was definitelyIn On It) and put on a slightly strained-looking smile. "Sorry; I had to make sure nobody was listening in. Harry Dresden, right?"

"That's what people keep calling me," I said, grinning. I offered my hand, and she shook it. "Nice to meet you, Miss...uh...I don't think I got your name on the phone?"

"Indeed you didn't. Call me...Alisa, for now." She wasn't giving up her Name easily, then. Good. It'd make things a hell of a lot easier if she knew what she was doing. "I'm going to cut to the chase here, Mr. Dresden. I need a way to hide myself as completely as possible from any magical search techniques. I know some magic, as you've probably guessed already, but this sort of thing is outside my experience. I'm told you're one of the best ma...practitioners in America, and possibly the world; certainly, you're the best one I've been able to find whose services are for hire. I figure that if anyone can help me, you're the one."

Well, she was definitely pouring on the flattery; whoever she was, she really did need my help. "I see. Well, I'll give you some free advice: hiding like that would take a special ward, one that would be very closely linked to your home's threshold." A threshold was a home's magical boundary, and was often good for stopping all kinds of magic. Many beings had to be explicitly invited inside to pass it at all; even humans with magic power like wizards or White Court vampires had to get an invitation if they didn't want to leave all their power at the door. One could create a ward that would use that effect to absorb and dissipate the magic used by a tracking spell, like a stealth fighter absorbing a radar wave. But... "And even setting up that ward could be extremely hard, depending on how you're being tracked. Do you know what they would be using to track you? Your Name? A hair or a...clipping, maybe?"

She frowned. "Eh...I'm not completely sure about that. It would be best to assume they have anything and everything short of a street address, though."

I sighed. As much as I needed the money... "There's not a whole lot I can do for you, in that case. I know some wards that can jam one or two tracking spells at a time, but anything stronger would require a home with the kind of threshold you'd get from it being handed down through about five generations of family. Not to mention that this isn't something I could just do for you. The person trying to hide has to be the one who sets up the ward. I could show you how, but...you already said you aren't very experienced with that kind of magic. I can't guarantee how well it would work."

For a long moment, 'Alisa' didn't say anything. Then she looked up, desperation apparent on her face. "Look, I know how little chance this has of working. I really do. But I don't really need to hide forever. It'll be enough if there's something you can do, or show me how to do, that will buy me five or six hours. Do you think you can manage that, Mr. Dresden?"

I didn't need to guess what she'd use those five or six hours for; the shadows under her eyes told that story well enough. But there was something else that was bothering me. "Maybe," I said. "That depends on who, exactly, is trying to find you."

She chuckled a little. There wasn't much humor in it. "I guess it does, doesn't it? There was a...a bit of a misunderstanding with some people I work for. I thought it had all blown over, but, well, it hadn't, and things got a little bit ugly at a very awkward time for me."

"I think that may just be the most artfully vague non-answer anyone's ever given me," I said after a moment. I could probably have toned down the smartass just a bit, but since I was no longer convinced I was getting any money out of this woman... "I understand you've got secrets to keep, but if you want me to help you, you're going to have to give me a little more information." For all I knew, she could be an assassin the Red Court no longer needed or something.

'Alisa' didn't say anything for what felt like an eternity. Finally, slowly, she spoke. "These people...If they find me, I don't know what's going to happen to me. I...I've been framed for murder, Mr. Dresden. Not in a way that would let them send the local police after me, but...people I once thought were my allies are searching for me, and even my closest friends can't help me. Literally everything in my life has gone wrong, and all I'm asking you for is a chance to sleep for the first time in four days. Please, Mr. Dresden. Help me."

The rational part of my brain noted that she still hadn't actually told me anything, besides that she was supposedly framed for murder, which didn't do a whole lot to make her less suspicious.

The rational part of my brain is not the majority, however. The part that reacts to a pretty woman begging for my help with tears in her eyes, unfortunately, is.

Motel 6 rooms do not have very strong thresholds. In point of fact, under normal circumstances, they don't have thresholds. Period. This is something that is obvious to anyone with the slightest bit of training in magic, but it bears repeating. Especially since what we were about to do depended primarily on such a threshold.

"Just to make sure...'Alisa', you do know that a motel room doesn't count as your home for any serious magic, right?" I asked her as my old Volkswagen bug coughed to a stop in the motel's parking lot.

"Even if it's paid for for six months?"

I blinked. How much money did this woman have? She'd already paid me up front, incash. "I...Well. Yeah, I guess that might do it. Your threshold is still going to be flimsier than soggy Kleenex until you've lived here for a while, though."

"That's okay. Like I said, I only need to buy time."

"You'd be lucky to buy an hour or two under these circumstances."

"Mr. Dresden, I don't have a lot of options at this point. The least I can do is try."

The motel room was pristine: bed made, stationery in place, TV cabinet closed, etc., etc. There was a duffel bag in the corner with some wrinkled clothes poking out, but otherwise there was no evidence the room had even been used. Surprisingly enough, there was a threshold, albeit a barely noticeable one.

Once inside, 'Alisa' shut the door and looked expectantly at me. "Okay. How do we do this?"

"Well, the first thing we need to do is create a circle that encompasses as much of the room as possible. Normally I'd use chalk, but that doesn't really work on carpeting; not to mention we might have to move some furniture around—"

"Don't worry. I have that covered." She grasped the red jewel on her necklace, whispered something, and suddenly a perfect circle of pink light traced itself out on the floor, touching three of the four walls of the motel room.

"That's...convenient. How'd you do that?" Light-based thaumaturgic circles could solve so many of my problems, and—from what little I'd read—had been suggested more than a few times over the years, but as far as I knew had never been done successfully.

"Photon capture, preservation and vector alteration via Elsen-Betko mana fields."

"Ah. Right. Of course." I did not understand a single word of that. I'd have to ask her to explain later.

I walked her through the process of creating the hiding ward. A lot of wards were simply evocation spells with delayed activation—something that would set an intruder on fire if they opened a door, for example. This one was far more complex—it was actually a form of containment circle that would, theoretically, prevent the eldritch energy connecting 'Alisa' to whatever they were using to track her from either entering or leaving the room. It was a pretty tough thing to accomplish, even for me, but 'Alisa' was a startlingly fast learner.

It was just before she finished putting a copy of the circle on the third wall—the ward had to be on each wall, the floor, and the ceiling to be effective—that we realized we were too late. I felt a wave of magic pass through the whole room, wrecking the precisely constructed circle 'Alisa' was putting the finishing touches on. It passed just as quickly as it came, but was replaced by something more disturbing yet: an unearthly, rainbow-colored glow coming through the blinds.

I had no idea what that could be. It was, however, almost certainly trouble, and most likely trouble coming for either me or the mysterious woman with me. I spun towards the door, readied my staff—

And the world went white.