If being Chicago's only professional wizard meant I could mess with the weather, I'd have done it in a heartbeat. Rain pounded and lashed and shrieked at the windows. It had seemed to fall endlessly for the past three days.
At this point, I was almost sure that getting rid of the rain would have been a public service. Gutters were overflowing; streets had begun to flood. I didn't even want to think about what was happening on the subway, not that I used it much.
But getting rid of the rain, though it might have improved my mood, would not pay nearly as well as the woman sitting across from me promised to.
She was a blue-eyed blonde. I suspected that at this point in her life, the color came from a bottle, but her eyes were a steady, natural color. I'd heard talk about blue eyes seeming 'clear' before, but Irene Williams was the first person I'd ever met whose eyes seemed crisp.
"It's my step-daughter," she said, eyes wet with tears and hands trembling with fear. I heard a rush of air as if a thousand fairy tales had been turned upside down at once.
"Your step-daughter," I said, and was very glad Bob wasn't around.
The woman reached for the box of tissues I kept on my desk. I slid them toward her and waited. You'd be surprised what people with problems will say to fill the silence.
But Irene didn't say anything. She just blotted her eyes, blew her nose, and dropped the tissue in the wastebasket.
I waited some more.
She used another tissue.
I'm a wizard, not a saint. I reserve the right to be grumpy and lose patience. So I said, as gently as I could, "And by 'it,' you mean...?"
"My step-daughter is the Goblin Queen."
I had a sudden urge not only to tell Irene Williams to get out of my office, but to nail cold-forged horseshoes over every door and window in my home. I thought lovingly about cold iron and salt, but my stomach thought lovingly about deep dish pizza and buffalo wings.
Those aren't free. Neither is rent. And I can't just magic up a roof to cover my head.
So rather than 'Get the hell out of my office and take your insane faerie problems with you and try to forget you ever even heard my name,' I said, "Your step-daughter is the Erlkoenigin."
"No. Well, maybe. I don't know what that means." Irene blotted her eyes again. "Do you know Jareth?"
"Can't say that I do," I said, wracking my brains trying to find a link between 'Jareth' and 'Goblin Queen.'
I did remember hearing, about a year ago, that some little-liked Lord of the Nevernever had taken a mortal bride. The process had made her something more than human and less than sidhe. The Winter Court had been up in arms, the Summer Court had been all in favor...
"He's the Goblin King," Irene whispered. "We've tried to understand. Sarah says was desperate. She was only twenty years old, she says we almost died in a car crash. She made a deal with him to save us."
I almost whistled. The girl had to have been one powerful practicioner if she could summon up the elusive Goblin King at the tender age of twenty.
"How did she even know to make a deal with him?"
Irene's mouth twisted into a brittle, ironic smile. Her lips said, "She wished away her younger brother six years ago."
Her expression said, 'Would you fucking believe it?'
"And the Goblin King took him?"
"For thirteen hours. But Sarah won him back. At least until now." Irene shuddered. "She made a bad bargain. I don't really blame her for it; she would have been much too young to look after Toby. Much too young to lose her father."
I noticed, though I politely pretended I hadn't, that Irene didn't mention not wanting to die. Was she trying to make sure I was sympathetic to her step-daughter, or was her life enough of a living hell that she wished Sarah had never made her devil's bargain?
I played obtuse. "The Goblin King wants Toby again?"
Irene shook her head. "No, no. Sarah's bargain is that she can only return here to visit Toby. My son. Her half-brother. If Toby ever forgets her, or if she ever can't find him, she'll have to stay in the Labyrinth."
And things began to fall into place. I promise, I'm not nearly as dumb as I look. Or as Thomas says I look.
For those of you keeping score at home, my name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I'm the only professional wizard in Chicago, and the only public, open wizard I know of in North America.
I wouldn't actually pit myself against a fae king, but I knew enough of how Faerie worked to have a good idea of what was going on.
Thing is, I wouldn't want to tangle with a once-mortal Goblin Queen, either.
Just to make sure I was very, very wrong, I asked, "Okay, how about you start from the beginning? I've never heard of a fifteen year old being able to summon faerie lords."
Irene shrugged helplessly. "By all accounts, Linda - Sarah's mother - was… well, she was the one who insisted that Sarah's middle name be 'Galadriel.' And she had this red leather-bound book called Labyrinth. It was her prized possession. These are all things that David or Sarah have told me, by the way."
Galadriel? Oh, ouch. That would draw the attention of any faerie who'd been paying attention to mortals in the last fifty years.
Irene kept on. "David says Sarah was different before the divorce. She had been practical where her mother was flighty. Less interested in fairy tales. But then Sarah spent two years with her mother. She came back very quiet, very withdrawn, and with a red book called Labyrinth."
I'd never heard of it. But there's a lot of things I haven't heard of. I said nothing.
"David thinks it was some sort of bribe or payment or something. That she gave it to Sarah out of guilt. That book is how she knew about the goblins, how she knew to make her first wish." Irene blotted away more tears. "We didn't get along in those days. One night, when we were out, she used it. She won Toby back, of course, but the King apparently asked her to stay with him."
I wanted to ask why David Williams thought the book was a bribe, but I was a bit caught up in the idea that the Goblin King had asked a fifteen year old girl to stay in his kingdom. As a rule, faeries look at us like we're mayflies: kind of icky, don't live long, tend to get caught in weird nasty lumps. It's pretty rare for an adult human to catch a faerie lord's interest (though it's rarer for the interest to last longer than a season).
I've definitely never heard of faeries being attracted to withdrawn jailbait. At least, not the 'marry me and live forever in my magical kingdom' kind of attracted.
"Fast forward… what, five years? You and David nearly die in a car crash, Sarah makes a desperate bargain, and now Toby is her only window to the world she used to live in?"
Sounded like undiluted, high octane faerie cruelty. And just a touch of their very sharp, very unkind kindness: after all, Sarah got what she asked for. And as the days and seasons and years passed, her inhumanity and isolation from the mortal world would matter less and less to her.
"At first, her visits didn't bother us. We would just reset our electronics when she left. But then she started bringing these... these fairy godmother gifts."
I didn't ask what Irene meant by that. I assumed she was thinking of the fairy godmothers in Sleeping Beauty. At least, I hoped she was; my own fairy godmother is crazier than a sack of meth-addicted weasels with their tails on fire. God only knows what kind of gifts she would bring me (and god only knows how I'd get rid of them).
At my expression, Irene gave the brittle, ironic smile again. "You know. 'Do you want glasses, Toby? Then you'll never need them.' 'You'll never be clumsy again.' 'You'll never lose your socks or any other small item.' That sort of thing."
Yep, definitely Sleeping Beauty type fairy godmothers. Lea's would probably involve the blood of my enemies. Or her Queen's enemies.
"And now Toby's starting to do it too. With the electronics, I mean. He can't even touch my laptop and I have to make very sure to keep my smart phone away from him. And really, he's my son. I wouldn't mind so much if..." Irene wrung her hands, looked away. At last, time for the dramatic reveal.
In barely a whisper, Irene said, "Dave has a pacemaker now."