Part #12 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
I answered the phone, and Susan Rodriguez said, "They've taken our daughter. "
I sat there for a long five count, swallowed, and said, "Um. What?"
"You heard me, Harry," Susan said gently.
"Oh," I said. "Um. "
"The line isn't secure," she said. "I'll be in town tonight. We can talk then. "
"Yeah," I said. "Okay. "
"Harry . . . " she said. "I'm not . . . I never wanted to - " She cut the words off with an impatient sigh. I heard a voice over the loudspeaker in the background, saying something in Spanish. "We'll have time for that later. The plane is boarding. I've got to go. About twelve hours. "
"Okay," I said. "I'll . . . I'll be here. "
She hesitated, as if about to say something else, but then she hung up.
I sat there with the phone against my ear. After a while, it started making that double-speed busy-signal noise.
She said our daughter.
I hung the phone up. Or tried. I missed the base. The receiver clattered to the floor.
Mouse, my big, shaggy grey dog, rose up from his usual napping spot in the tiny kitchenette my basement apartment boasted, and came trotting over to sit down at my feet, staring up at me with dark, worried doggy eyes. After a moment, he made a little huffing sound, then carefully picked the receiver up in his jaws and settled it onto the base. Then he went back to staring worriedly at me.
"I . . . " I paused, trying to get my head around the concept. "I . . . I might have a child. "
Mouse made an uncertain, high-pitched noise.
"Yeah. How do you think I feel?" I stared at the far wall. Then I stood up and reached for my coat. "I . . . think I need a drink," I said. I nodded, focusing on nothing. "Yeah. Something like this . . . yeah. "
Mouse made a distressed noise and rose.
"Sure," I told him. "You can come. Hell, maybe you can drive me home or something. "
I got honked at a lot on the way to McAnally's. I didn't care. I made it without crashing into anyone. That's the important thing, right? I pulled my battered, trusty old Volkswagen Bug over into the little parking lot next to Mac's place. I started inside.
Mouse made a whuffing sound.
I looked over my shoulder. I'd left the car door open. The big dog nosed it closed.
"Thanks," I said.
We went into the pub.
Mac's place looks like Cheers after a mild apocalypse. There are thirteen wooden pillars irregularly spaced around the room, holding up the roof. They're all carved with scenes of Old World fairy tales, some of them amusing, more of them sinister. There are thirteen ceiling fans spinning lazily throughout the place, and the irregularly shaped, polished wooden bar has thirteen stools. There are thirteen tables in the room, placed in no specific pattern.
"There're a lot of thirteens in here," I said to myself.
It was about two thirty in the afternoon. No one was in the pub except for me and the dog - oh, and Mac. Mac is a man of medium height and medium build, with thick, bony wrists and a shining smooth pate that never shows signs of growing in. He could be anywhere between thirty and fifty and, as always, he was wearing a spotless white apron.
Mouse stared intently at Mac for a moment. Then he abruptly sat down in the entryway at the top of the little stairs, turned around once, and settled down by the door, his chin on his paws.
Mac glanced toward us. "Harry. "
I shambled over to the bar.
Mac produced a bottle of one of his microbrews, but I shook my head. "Um. I'd say, 'Whiskey, Mac,' but I don't know if you have any whiskey. I need something strong, I think. "
Mac raised his eyebrows and blinked at me.
You've got to know the guy. He was practically screaming.
But he poured me a drink of something light gold in a little glass, and I drank it. It burned. I wheezed a little, and then tapped a finger next to the glass.
Mac refilled it, frowning at me.
I drank the second glass more slowly. It still hurt going down. The pain gave me something to focus on. Thoughts started to coagulate around it, and then to crystallize into definite shape.
Susan had called me. She was on the way.
And we had a child.
And she had never told me.
Susan had been a reporter for a yellow rag that covered supernatural news. Most of the people who worked there thought they were publishing fiction, but Susan had clued in to the supernatural world on her own, and we'd crossed trails and verbal swords several times before we'd gotten together. We hadn't been together a terribly long time - a little less than two years. We were both young and we made each other happy.
Maybe I should have known better. If you don't stand on the sidelines and ignore the world around you, sooner or later you make enemies. One of mine, a vampire named Bianca, had abducted Susan and infected her with the blood thirst of the Red Court. Susan hadn't gone all the way over - but if she ever lost control of herself, ever took another's lifeblood, she would.
She left me, afraid that if she didn't, I'd be the kill that turned her into a monster, and set out into the world to find some way to cope.
I told myself that she had good reason to do so, but reason and heart-break don't speak the same language. I'd never really forgiven myself for what had happened to her. I guess reason and guilt don't speak the same language, either.
It was probably a damned good thing I had gone into shock, because I could feel emotions that were stirring somewhere deep inside me, gathering power like a storm far out to sea. I couldn't see them. I could only feel their effects, but it was enough to know that whatever was rising inside me was potent. Violent. Dangerous. Mindless rage got people killed every day. But for me, it might be worse.
I'm a professional wizard.
I can make a lot more things happen than most people.
Magic and emotions are tied up inextricably. I've been in battle before, and felt the terror and rage of that kind of place, where it's a fight just to think clearly through the simplest problems. I'd used my magic in those kinds of volatile circumstances - and a few times, I'd seen it run wild as a result. When most people lose control of their anger, someone gets hurt. Maybe someone even gets killed. When it happens to a wizard, insurance companies go broke and there's reconstruction afterward.
What was stirring in me now made those previous feelings of battle rage seem like anemic kittens.
"I've got to talk to someone," I heard myself say quietly. "Someone with some objectivity, perspective. I've got to get my head straight before things go to hell. "
Mac leaned on the bar and looked at me.
I cradled the glass in my hand and said quietly, "You remember Susan Rodriguez?"
"She says that someone took our daughter. She says she'll be here late tonight. "
Mac inhaled and exhaled slowly. Then he picked up the bottle and poured himself a shot. He sipped at it.
"I loved her," I said. "Maybe love her still. And she didn't tell me. "
"She could be lying. "
"I've been used before. And I'm a sucker for a girl. "
"Yes," he said.
I gave him an even look. He smiled slightly.
"She'd be . . . six? Seven?" I shook my head. "I can't even do the math right now. "
Mac pursed his lips. "Hard thing. "
I finished the second glass. Some of the sharper edges had gotten softer. Mac touched a finger to the bottle, watching me. I shook my head.
"She could be lying to me," I said quietly. "If she's not . . . then
Mac closed his eyes briefly and nodded.
"Then there's this little girl in trouble," I said. I felt my jaw clench, and the storm inside me threatened to come boiling up. I pushed it down. "My little girl. "
He nodded again.
"Don't know if I ever told you," I said. "I was an orphan. "
Mac watched me silently.
"There were times when . . . when it was bad. When I wanted someone to come save me. I wished for it so hard. Dreaming of . . . of not being alone. And when someone finally did come, he turned out to be the biggest monster of all. " I shook my head. "I won't let that happen to my child. "
Mac folded his arms on the bar and looked at me intently and said, in a resonant baritone, "You've got to be very careful, Harry. "
I looked at him, shocked. He'd . . . used grammar.
"Something like this will test you like nothing else," Mac said. "You're going to find out who you are, Harry. You're going to find out which principles you'll stand by to your death - and which lines you'll cross. " He took my empty glass away and said, "You're heading into the badlands. It'll be easy to get lost. "
I watched him in stunned silence as he finished his drink. He grimaced, as though it hurt his throat on the way down. Maybe he'd strained his voice, using it so much.
I stared down at my hands for a moment. Then I said, "Steak sandwich. And something for the pooch. "
He grunted in the affirmative and started cooking. He took his time about it, divining my intentions with a bartender's instincts. I didn't feel like eating, but I had a little time to kill while the buzz faded.
He put my sandwich down in front of me. Then he took a bowl with some bones and some meat out to Mouse, along with a bowl of water. I ate my sandwich and idly noted that Mac never carried food out to anyone. Guess he was a dog person.
I ate my sandwich slowly and paid Mac.
"Thanks," I said.
He nodded. "Luck. "
I got up and headed back for the car. Mouse followed beside me, his eyes lifted, watching me to see what I would do.
I marshaled my thoughts. I had to be careful. I had to be wary. I had to keep my eyes open. I had to keep the storm inside me from exploding, because the only thing I knew for certain was that someone - maybe Susan, maybe my enemies - was trying to manipulate me.
Either way, Mac was right.
I was heading into the badlands.
Susan arrived at around one in the morning.
I had gone back home from the pub and straight to my lab in the subbasement, and made with the wizardry, which demanded an intense focus on my tasks. Over the next several hours, I prepared a couple of things that might come in handy in the immediate future. Then I went back up the stepladder to my apartment and put on my force rings. Each of them is a braid of three individual rings, and I had enchanted them to store up a little kinetic energy every time I moved my arm. They were pretty efficient, but it wouldn't hurt to top them off, so I spent half an hour beating the tar out of the heavy bag hanging in one corner of my apartment's living area.
I showered, cleaned up, made some dinner, and generally never stopped moving. If I did that, thoughts might start to creep in, and I wasn't sure how I would deal with them.
I didn't even consider trying to sleep. It just wasn't going to happen.
So I stayed in motion. I cleaned the kitchen. I bathed Mouse and brushed out his coat. I picked up my living room, my room, my bathroom. I changed out my cat Mister's litter box. I tidied up the fireplace, and set out fresh candles to illuminate the room.
It took me a couple of hours of that to realize that I was trying to make my apartment look nice because Susan was coming over. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
I was debating with myself whether or not I might need to clean Mister up (and having a narrow-eyed glare bestowed upon me from his perch atop my highest bookshelf) when there was a polite knock at the door.
My heart started being faster.
I opened the door and found Susan facing me.
She was a woman of medium height, which meant she was about a foot shorter than me. Her features were leanly angular, except for her mouth. She had dark, straight hair and even darker eyes, and her skin had a sun-bronzed tone to it far deeper than I had ever seen on her before. She looked thinner. I could see the tendons and muscles beneath the skin of her neck, and her cheekbones seemed starker than they had before. She wore black leather pants, a black T-shirt, and a leather jacket to complement the pants.
And she had not aged a day.
It had been most of a decade since I had beheld her. In that time, you expect people's appearances to change a little. Oh, nothing major. A few more pounds, maybe, a few more lines, a few silver hairs. People change. But Susan hadn't changed. At all.
I guess that's a nifty perk of being a half-turned vampire of the Red Court.
"Hi," she said quietly.
"Hi," I said back. I could meet her eyes without worrying about triggering a soulgaze. She and I had looked upon each other already.
She lowered her eyes and slipped her hands into her jacket pockets. "Harry . . . can I come in?"
I took half a step back. "I dunno. Can you come in?"
Her eyes flickered with a spark of anger. "You think I crossed over?"
"I think that taking unnecessary chances has lost its appeal to me," I said.
She pressed her lips together, but then nodded in acquiescence and stepped over the threshold of my apartment, the barrier of magical energy that surrounds any home - an action that simply would not have been possible for a vampire without first receiving my permission.
"Okay," I said, backing up to let her enter before I shut the door again. As I did, I saw a sandy-haired, plain-looking man seated casually on the top step of the concrete stairwell that led down to my apartment. He wore khakis, a blue denim jacket, and was reclining just enough to display the lines of a shoulder holster beneath the jacket. He was Susan's ally and his name was Martin. "You," I said. "Joy. "
Martin's lips twitched into the faint and distant echo of a smile. "Likewise. "
I shut the door on him and, just to be obnoxious, clacked the dead bolt closed as loudly as I could.
Susan smiled a little and shook her head. She looked around the apartment for a moment - and then suddenly froze as a growl came rumbling from the darkened alcove of the minikitchen. Mouse didn't rise, and his growl was not the savage thing I had heard once or twice before - but it was definitely a sound of polite warning.
Susan froze in place, staring at the kitchen for a moment. Then she said, "You got a dog. "
"He kind of got me," I replied.
Susan nodded and swept her eyes around the little apartment. "You redecorated a little. "
"Zombies," I said. "And werewolves. Place has been trashed a few times. "
"I never understood why you didn't move out of this musty little hole. "
"Musty? Little? My home this is," I said. "Get you something? Coke, beer?"
"Sure. Have a seat. "
Susan moved silently over to one of the easy chairs framing the fireplace and settled down on its edge, her back straight. I got her some ice water, fetched myself a Coke, and brought the drinks over to her. I settled down in the other chair, so that we partly faced each other, and popped the tab on my drink.
"You're really going to leave Martin sitting outside?" she asked, amusement in her voice.
"I most certainly am," I said calmly, and took a sip of my drink.
She nodded and touched her glass to her lips. Maybe she sipped a little water.
I waited as long as I could stand it, maybe two or three whole seconds, before I broke the heavy silence. "So," I asked casually, "what's new?"
Her dark eyes regarded me obliquely for a moment before her lips thinned slightly. "This is going to be painful for
"Okay. Our child?" I asked. "Yours and mine?"
"How do you know?"
She smoothed her face into a nonexpression. "There hasn't been anyone else, Harry. Not since that night with you. Not for more than two years before that. "
If she was lying, it didn't show. I took that in for a moment and sipped some Coke. "It seems like something you should have told me. "
I said it in a voice far calmer than I would have thought possible. I don't know what my face looked like when I said it. But Susan's darkly tanned skin became several shades lighter. "Harry," she said quietly, "I know you must be angry. "
"I burn things to ash and smash holes in buildings when I'm angry," I said. "I'm a couple of steps past that point right now. "
"You have every right to be," she said. "But I did what I thought was best for her. And for you. "
The storm surged higher into my chest. But I made myself sit there without moving, breathing slowly and steadily. "I'm listening. "
She nodded and took a moment to gather her thoughts. Then she said, "You don't know what it's like down there. Central America, all the way down to Brazil. There's a reason so many of those nations limp along in a state of near-anarchy. "
"The Red Court," I said. "I know. "
"You know in the abstract. But no one in the White Council has spent time there. Lived there. Seen what happens to the people the Reds rule. " She shivered and folded her arms over her stomach. "It's a nightmare. And there's no one but the Fellowship and a few underfunded operatives of the Church to stand up to them. "
The Fellowship of St. Giles was a collection of the supernatural world's outcasts and strays, many of them half vampires like Susan. They hated the Red Court with a holy passion, and did everything in their power to confound the vampires at every opportunity. They operated in cells, choosing targets, training recruits, planting bombs, and funding their operations through a hundred shady business activities. Terrorists, basically - smart, quick, and tough because they had to be.
"It hasn't been Disneyland in the rest of the world, either," I said quietly. "I saw my fair share of nightmares during the war. And then some. "
"I'm not trying to belittle anything that the Council has done," she said. "I'm just trying to explain to you what I was facing at the time. Teams from the Fellowship rarely sleep in the same bed twice. We're always on the move. Always planning something or running from something. There's no place for a child in that. "
"If only there had been someone with his own home and a regular income where she could have stayed," I said.
Susan's eyes hardened. "How many people have gotten killed around you, Harry? How many hurt?" She raked her fingers through her hair. "For God's sake. You said yourself that your apartment has been under attack. Would that have gone any better if you'd had a toddler to watch over?"
"Guess we'll never know," I said.
"I know," she said, her voice suddenly seething with intensity. "God, do you think I didn't want to be a part of her life? I cry myself to sleep at night - when I can sleep. But in the end, I couldn't offer her anything but a life on the run. And you couldn't offer her anything but a life under siege. "
I stared at her.
But I didn't say anything.
"So I did the only thing I could do," she said. "I found a place for her. Far away from the fighting. Where she could have a stable life. A loving home. "
"And never told me," I said.
"If the Red Court had ever learned about my child, they would have used her against me. Period. As a means of leverage, or simple revenge. The fewer people who knew about her, the safer she was going to be. I didn't tell you, even though I knew it was wrong. Even though I knew that it would make you furious because of your own childhood. " She leaned forward, her eyes almost feverish from the heat in her words. "And I would do a thousand times worse than that, if it meant that she'd be better protected. "
I sipped some more Coke. "So," I said. "You kept her from me so that she would be safer. And you sent her away to be raised by strangers so that she would be safer. " The storm in me pushed up higher, tingeing my voice with the echo of its furious howl. "How's that working out?"
Susan's eyes blazed. Red, swirling tribal marks began to appear on her skin, like tattoos done in disappearing ink, only backward - the Fellowship's version of a mood ring. They covered the side of her face, and her throat.
"The Fellowship has been compromised," she said, her words crisp. "Duchess Arianna of the Red Court found out about her, somehow, and had her taken. Do you know who she is?"
"Yeah," I said. I tried to ignore the way my blood had run cold at the mention of the name. "Duke Ortega's widow. She's sworn revenge upon me - and she once tried to buy me on eBay. "
Susan blinked. "How did . . . No, never mind. Our sources in the Red Court say that she's planning something special for Maggie. We have to get her back. "
I took another slow breath and closed my eyes for a moment.
"For your mother," Susan whispered. "Margaret Angelica. " I heard her fumble at her pockets. Then she said, "Here. "
I opened my eyes and looked at a little wallet-sized portrait of a dark-eyed child, maybe five years old. She wore a pink dress and had purple ribbons in her dark hair, and she was smiling a wide and infectious smile. Some calm, detached part of me filed the face away, in case I needed to recognize her later. The rest of me cringed away from looking any closer, from thinking about the image as anything but a bit of paper and ink.
"It's from a couple of years ago," Susan said quietly. "But it's my most recent picture. " She bit her lip and offered it to me.
"Keep it," I told her quietly. She put it away. The red marks were fading from her skin, gone the way they had come. I rubbed at my eyes. "For now," I said slowly, "we're going to forget about your decision to edit me out of her life. Because chewing over it won't help her right now, and because her best chance is for us to work together. Agreed?"
I spoke the next words through my teeth. "But I haven't forgotten. Will never forget it. There will be a reckoning on that account later. Do you understand?"
"Yes," she whispered. She looked up at me with large, shining dark eyes. "I never wanted to hurt you. Or her. I was just . . . "
"No," I said. "Too late for that now. It's just wasting time we can't afford to lose. "
Susan turned her face sharply away from me, to the fire, and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, her expression was under control. "All right," she said. "For our next step, we've got some options. "
"Diplomacy," she said. "I hear stories about you. Half of them probably aren't true, but I know you've got some markers you could call in. If enough of the Accord members raise a voice, we might get her back without incident. "
I snorted. "Or?"
"Offer reparations to the Red King in exchange for the child's life. He doesn't have a personal interest in this matter, and he outranks Arianna. Give him a bribe big enough and she'll have to let Maggie go. "
"Right off the top of a building, probably," I growled.
Susan watched me steadily. "What do you think we should do?"
I felt my lips do something that probably didn't look like a smile. The storm had settled somewhere around my heart, and heady tendrils of its fury were curling up into my throat. It was a good ten seconds before I could speak, and even then it came out in a snarl.
"Do?" I said. "The Reds stole our little girl. We sure as hell aren't going to pay them for that. "
A hot and terrible hunger flared up in Susan's eyes in response to my voice.
"We find Maggie," I said. "We take her back. And we kill anyone who gets in the way. "
Susan shuddered and her eyes overflowed. She bowed her head and made a smal
I caught her fingers and squeezed hard. She settled her fingers against mine and did the same. We held hands for a silent moment.
"Thank you," she whispered. Her hand was shaking in mine. "Thank you, Harry. "
I nodded. I was going to say something to stiff-arm her and keep the distance, but the warmth of her hand in mine was suddenly something I couldn't ignore. I was furious with Susan, furious with an intensity you can feel only when someone you care deeply about hurts you. But the corollary of that was unavoidable - I still cared, or I wouldn't be angry.
"We'll find her," I said. "And I will do everything in my power to bring her back safe. "
Susan looked up at me, tears streaking her face, and nodded. Then she lifted a hand and traced her fingers lightly over the scar on my cheek. It was a newer one, still angry and colorful. I thought it made me look like some old-school German character from Golden Age Hollywood with a dueling scar on his cheek. Her fingertips were gentle and warm.
"I didn't know what I was going to do," she said. "There was no one willing to stand up to them. There was no one. "
Our eyes met, and suddenly the old heat was there between us, quivering out from our joined hands, from her fingertips against my face. Her eyes widened a little, and my heart started pounding along rapidly. I was furious with Susan. But apparently my body just read that as "excited" and didn't bother examining the fine print. I met her eyes for a long moment and then said, through a dry throat, "Isn't this how we got into this mess?"
She let out a shaking sound that was meant to be a laugh, but was filled with awareness of the inherent irony, and drew her hands away. "I . . . I'm sorry. I didn't mean to . . . " Her voice turned wry. "It's been a while for me. "
I knew what she meant. I took several slow, deep breaths, separating mind from body. Then I said quietly, "Susan. Whatever happens from here . . . we're done. " I looked up at her. "You know that. You knew it when you chose not to tell me. "
She looked brittle. She nodded slowly, as if something might break off if she moved any more quickly than that. She folded her hands in her lap. "I . . . know that. I knew it when I did it. "
"Right," I said finally. "Now . . . " I took another deep breath, and told myself it would help. "The way I see it, you didn't fly into Chicago just for a chat with me. You wouldn't need Martin for that. "
She lifted an eyebrow at me and nodded. "True. "
She seemed to gather herself, her voice more businesslike. "There's a Red outpost here. It's a place to start. "
"Okay," I said, rising. "Let's start. "
Changes by Jim Butcher / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on36 votes