Some things just aren’t meant to go together. Things like oil and water. Orange juice and toothpaste.
Wizards and television.
Spotlights glared into my eyes. The heat of them threatened to make me sweat streaks through the pancake makeup some harried stage-hand had slapped on me a few minutes before. Lights on top of cameras started winking on, the talk show theme song began to play, and the studio audience began to chant, “Lah-REE, Lah-REE, Lah-REE!”
Larry Fowler, a short man in an immaculate suit, appeared from the doors at the rear of the studio and began walking to the stage, flashing his porcelain smile and shaking the hands of a dozen people seated at the ends of their rows as he passed them. The audience whistled and cheered as he did. The noise made me flinch in my seat up on the stage, and I felt a trickle of sweat slide down over my ribs, beneath my white dress shirt and my jacket.
It isn’t like I have stage fright or anything, see. Because I don’t. It was just really hot up there. I licked my lips and checked all the fire exits, just to be safe. No telling when you might need to make a speedy exit.
In the chair beside me sat a dumpy, balding man in his late forties, dressed in a suit that looked a lot better than mine. Mortimer Lindquist waited calmly, a polite smile on his face, but muttered out of the corner of his mouth, “Showboat.”
“Think this will take long?” I asked Morty.
He glanced beside him at the empty chair there, and at another beside me. “Two mystery guests. I guess this one could go for a while.”
“What did you find out?” I asked.
Mort flicked a nervous glance at me and said, “Not now.”
Larry Fowler pranced up to the stage and pumped my hand, then Mort’s with equally exaggerated enthusiasm. “Welcome to the show,” he said into a hand-held microphone, then turned to face the nearest camera. “Our topic for today is Witchcraft and Wizardry–Phony or Fabulous? With us in order to share their views are local medium and psychic counselor Mortimer Lindquist.”
The crowd applauded politely.
“And beside him, Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard.”
There was a round of snickering laughter to go with the applause this time. I couldn’t say I was shocked. People don’t believe in the supernatural, these days. Supernatural things are scary. It’s much more comfortable to rest secure in the knowledge that no one can reach out with magic and quietly kill you, that vampires only exist in movies and that demons are mere psychological dysfunctions.
It was completely inaccurate but much more comfortable.
Despite the relative levels of denial, my face heated up. I hate it when people laugh. An old, quiet hurt mixed in with my nervousness and I struggled to control my emotions, to remain calm.
I really am a wizard. I do magic stuff. I’ve run into vampires and demons and a lot of things in between, and I’ve got the scars to show for it. The problem was that technology doesn’t seem to enjoy coexisting with magic. When I’m around, computers crash, light bulbs burn out, and car alarms start screaming in warbling, drunken voices for no good reason. I’d worked out a theory that because magic was so associated with emotion, if I could control my emotions, keep them level and calm, I might be able to reel in my magic enough to keep it from blowing out the studio lights and cameras, or setting off the fire alarms. So far so good, but as I took a deep breath and tried to calm down, I saw the nearest cameraman wince, and jerk his headset away from his ear. Whining feedback sounded tinnily from the headset.
I closed my eyes and reined in my embarrassment. The feedback died away.
“Well then,” Larry said, after half a minute of happy talk. “Morty, you’ve been a guest on the show several times now. Would you care to tell us a little bit about what you do?”
“Mostly I conduct seances, Larry,” Morty said. “I do what I can to help those who have lost a loved one or who need to contact them in the beyond in order to resolve issues left undone back here on earth. I also offer a predictions service in order to help a client make decisions on upcoming issues, and to try to warn them against possible danger.”
“Really,” Larry said. “Could you give us a demonstration?”
Morty closed his eyes and rested the fingertips of his right hand on the spot between his eyes. Then in a hollow voice he said, “The spirits tell me . . . that two more guests will soon arrive.”
The audience laughed, and Morty nodded at them with an easy grin. He knew how to play a crowd.
Larry gave Morty a tolerant smile. “And why are you here today?”
“Larry, I just want to try to raise public awareness about the realm of the psychic and paranormal. Nearly eighty percent of a recent survey of American adults stated that they believed in the existence of the spirits of the dead, in ghosts. I just want to help people understand that they do exist, and that there are other people out there who have had strange and inexplicable encounters with them.”
“Thank you, Morty. And Harry–may I call you Harry?”
“It’s your nickel,” I responded.
Larry’s smile got a shade brittle. “Can you tell us a little bit about what you do?”
“I’m a wizard,” I said. “I find lost articles, investigate paranormal occurrences, and train people who find themselves struggling with a sudden development of their own abilities.”
“Isn’t it true that you also consult for the Special Investigations department at Chicago P.D.?”
“Occasionally,” I said. I wanted to avoid talking about S.I. if I could. The last thing C.P.D. would want was to be advertised on the Larry Fowler Show. “Many police departments across the country employ such consultants when all other leads have failed.”
“And why are you here today?”
“Because I’m broke and your producer is paying double my standard fee, Larry.”
The crowd laughed again, more warmly. Larry Fowler’s eyes flashed with an impatient look behind his glasses, and his smile turned into a gnashing of teeth. “No, really, Harry. Why?”
“For the same reasons as Morty here,” I answered. Which was true. I’d come here to meet Mort and get some information from him. He’d come here to meet me, because he refused to be seen near me on the street. I guess you could say I don’t have the safest reputation in the world.
“And you claim to be able to do magic,” Larry said.
“Could you show us?” Larry prompted.
“I could, Larry, but I don’t think it’s practical.”
Larry nodded, and gave the audience a wise look. “And why is that?”
“Because it would ruin your studio equipment.”
“Of course,” Larry said. He winked at the audience. “Well, we wouldn’t want that, would we?”
There was more laughter and a few catcalls from the crowd, and my emotions started climbing towards the red zone again. Passages from Carrie and Firestarter sprang to mind but I restrained myself. Master of self-discipline, that’s me. I gave the fire door beside the stage another longing look.
Larry carried on the talk part of the talk show, discussing crystals and ESP and Tarot cards. Mort did most of the talking. I chimed in with monosyllables from time to time.
After several minutes of this, Larry said, “We’ll be right back after these announcements.” Stage hands help up signs that read “Applause,” and cameras panned and zoomed over the audience as they whistled and hooted.
Larry gave me an annoyed look and strode off stage. In the wings, he started tearing into a make-up girl about his hair.
I leaned over to Mort and said, “Okay. What did you find out?”
The dumpy ectomancer shook his head. “Not much that is concrete. I’m still getting back into the swing of things in contacting the dead.”
“I’ll take whatever I can get,” I said.
He nodded. “She’s alive. That much I know. She’s in Peru.”
“Peru?” What the hell was Susan doing in Peru? “That’s Red Court territory.”
“Some,” Mort agreed. “Though most of them are in Brazil and the Yucatan. I tried to find out exactly where she was, but I was blocked.”
Mort shrugged. “No way for me to tell. I’m sorry.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s okay. Thanks, Morty.”
I settled back in my seat, mulling over the news.
Susan Rodriguez was a reporter for a regional yellow paper called the Midwestern Arcane. She’d grown interested in me just after I opened up my practice, hounding me relentlessly to find out more about all the things that go bump in the night. We’d gotten involved, and on our first date she wound up lying naked on the ground in a thunderstorm while lightning cooked a toad-like demon to gooey bits. After that, she parlayed a couple of encounters with things from my cases into a widespread syndicated column.
A couple of years later, she wound up following me into a nest of vampires holding a big to-do, despite all my warnings to the contrary. The Red Court of Vampires had grabbed her and begun the transformation from mortal to vampire on her. They told me the only way I’d get her back would be to start a world-wide war between the White Council of wizards and the vampire Red Court.
So I did.
The vampires hadn’t forgiven me for taking Susan back from them, probably because a bunch of them, including one of their nobility, had been incinerated in the process. That’s why Morty didn’t want to be seen with me. He wasn’t involved in the war, and he intended to stay that way.
In any case, Susan hadn’t gone all the way through her transformation, but the vamps had given her their blood thirst, and if she ever gave into it, she’d become one of the Red Court. I’d asked her to marry me, promising her that I’d find a way to restore her humanity. She turned me down and left town, trying to sort things out on her own, I guess. I still kept trying to find a way to remove her affliction, but I’d received only a card and a postcard or three since she’d left.
Two weeks ago, her editor had called me to say that the columns she sent in for the Arcane were late, and asked if I knew how to get in touch with her. I hadn’t, but I started looking. I got zip, and went to Mort Lindquist to see if his contacts in the spirit world would pay off better than mine.
I hadn’t gotten much, but at least she was alive. Muscles in my back unclenched a little.
I looked up to see Larry come back on stage to his theme music. Speakers squealed and squelched when he started to talk, and I realized I’d let my control slip again. It was a hell of a lot harder than I thought it would be. I tried to wind down, and the speakers quieted to the occasional fitful pop.
“Welcome back to the show,” Larry told a camera. “Today we are speaking with practitioners of the paranormal, who are here to share their views with the studio audience and our viewers at home. In order to explore these issues further, I have asked a couple of experts with opposing viewpoints to come with us today, and here they are.”
The audience applauded as a pair of men emerged from either side of the stage.
The first man sat down in the chair by Morty. He was a little over average height and thin, his skin burnt into tanned leather by the sun. He might have been anywhere between forty and sixty. His hair was greying and neatly cut, and he wore a black suit with a white clerical collar sharing space with a rosary and crucifix at his throat. He smiled and nodded to Morty and me and shook hands with Larry.
Larry said, “Allow me to introduce Father Vincent, who has come all the way from the Vatican to be with us today. He is a leading scholar and researcher within the Catholic church on the subject of witchcraft and magic, both historically and from a psychological perspective. Father, welcome to the show.”
Vincent’s voice was a little rough, but he spoke English with the kind of cultured accent that seemed to indicate an expensive education. “Thank you, Larry. I’m very pleased to be here.”
I looked from Father Vincent to the second man, who had settled in the chair beside me, just as Larry said, “And from the University of Brazil at Rio de Janeiro, please welcome Dr. Paolo Ortega, world renowned debunker of the supernatural.”
Larry started saying something else, but I didn’t hear him. I just stared at the man beside me as recognition dawned. He was of average height and slightly heavy build, with broad shoulders and a deep chest. He was dark-complected, his black hair neatly brushed, his grey and silver suit stylish and tasteful.
And he was a Duke of the Red Court–a ancient and deadly vampire, smiling at me from less than an arm’s length away. My heart rate went from sixty to a hundred and fifty million, fear sending silver lightning racing down my limbs.
There was a flash of light and a puff of smoke from the nearest camera, and the cameraman staggered back from it, tearing off his headphones with one of the curses they have to edit out of daytime TV. Smoke began to rise steadily from the camera, along with the smell of burning rubber, and the studio monitors started shrieking with feedback.
“Well,” Ortega said, under his breath. “A little tense, are we Mister Dresden?”
I swallowed and fumbled at my pocket, where I had a couple of wizard gadgets I used for self defense. Ortega put his hand on my arm. It didn’t look as if he was exerting himself, but his fingers closed on my wrist like manacles, hard enough to send flashes of pain up through my arm and shoulder. I looked around, but everyone was staring at the malfunctioning camera.
“Relax,” Ortega said, his accent thick and vaguely Latinate. “I’m not going to kill you on television, wizard. I’m here to talk to you.”
“Get off me,” I said. My voice was thin, shaky. God damned stage fright.
He released me, and I jerked my arm away. The crew rolled the smoking camera back, and a director-type with a set of headphones made a rolling motion with the fingers of one hand. Larry nodded to him, and turned to Ortega.
“Sorry about that. We’ll edit that part out later,”
“It’s no trouble,” Ortega assured him.
Jerry paused for a moment, and then said, “Dr. Ortega, welcome to the show. You have a reputation as one of the premier analysts of paranormal phenomena in the world. You have proven that a wide variety of so-called supernatural occurrences were actually clever hoaxes. Can you tell us a little about that?”
“Certainly. I have investigated these events for a number of years, and I have yet to find one that cannot be adequately explained. Alleged alien crop circles proved to be nothing more than a favorite pastime of a small group of British farmers, for example. Other odd events are certainly unusual, but by no means supernatural. Even here in Chicago, you had a rain of toads in one of your local parks witnessed by dozens if not hundreds of people. And it turned out, later, that a freak windstorm had scooped them up from elsewhere and deposited them here.”
Larry nodded, his expression serious. “Then you don’t believe in these events.”
Ortega gave Larry a patronizing smile. “I would love to believe that such things are true, Larry. There is little enough magic in the world. But I am afraid that even though we each have a part of us that wishes to believe in wondrous beings and fantastic powers, the fact of the matter is that it is simple, primitive superstition.”
“Then in your opinion, practitioners of the supernatural–”
“Fakes,” Ortega said with certainty. “With no offense meant to your guests of course. All of these so-called mediums, presuming they aren’t self-deluded, are simply skilled actors who have acquired a fundamental grasp of human psychology, and who know how to exploit it. They are easily able to deceive the gullible into believing that they can contact the dead or read thoughts or that they are in fact supernatural beings. Why, with a few minutes effort and the right setting, I am certain that I could convince anyone in this room that I was a vampire myself.”
People laughed again. I scowled at Ortega, frustration growing once more.
A second cameraman yelped and jerked off his squealing earphones, while his camera started spinning about slowly on its stand, winding power cables around the steel frame it rested on.
The on-air lights went out. Larry stepped to the edge of the stage, yelling at the poor cameraman. The apologetic-looking director appeared from the wings, and Larry turned his attention to him. The man bore the scolding with a kind of oxen-like patience, and then examined the camera. He muttered something into his headset, and he and the shaken cameraman began to wheel the dead camera away.
Larry folded his arms impatiently, then turned to the guests and said, “I’m sorry. Give us a couple of minutes to get a spare camera in. It won’t take long.”
“No problem, Larry,” Ortega assured him. “We can just chat for a moment.”
Larry peered at me. “Are you all right, Mister Dresden?” he asked. “You look a little pale. Could you use a drink or something?”
“I know I could,” Ortega said, his eyes on me.
“I’ll have someone bring them out,” Larry said, and strode off-stage towards his hair stylist.
Morty had engaged Father Vincent in quiet conversation, his back very firmly turned towards me. I turned back to Ortega, warily, my back stiff, and fought down the anger and fear. Usually being scared out of my mind is kind of useful. Magic comes from emotions, and terror is handy fuel. But this wasn’t the place to start calling up gales of wind or flashes of fire. There were too many people around, and it would be too easy to get someone hurt, even killed.
Besides which, Ortega was right. This wasn’t the place to fight. If he was here, he wanted to talk. Otherwise, he would have simply jumped me in the parking garage.
“Okay,” I said, finally. “What do you want to say?”
He leaned a little closer so that he wouldn’t have to raise his voice. I cringed inwardly, but I didn’t flinch away. “I’ve come to Chicago to kill you, Mister Dresden. But I have a proposal for you that I want you to hear, first.”
“You really need to work on your opening technique,” I said.
He gave me a humorless smile. “The war, Dresden. The war between your people and mine is too costly, for both of us.”
“War’s a pretty stupid option to take, generally speaking,” I said. “But I didn’t start it.”
“You did,” Ortega said. “You began a war over a point of principle.”
“I began a war over a human life.”
“And how many more would you save by ending it now?” Ortega asked. “Not merely wizards suffer from this. Our attention to the war leaves us less able to control the wilder elements of our own Court. We frown upon reckless killings, but wounded or leaderless members of our Courts often kill when they do not truly need to. Ending the war now would save hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives.”
“So would killing every vampire on the planet. What’s your point.”
Ortega smiled, showing teeth. Just regular teeth, no long canines or anything. The vampires of the Red Court looked really human right up until they turned into something out of a nightmare. “The point, Dresden, is that the war is unprofitable, undesirable. You are the symbolic cause of it to my people, and the point of contention between us and your own White Council. Once you are slain, the Council will accept peace overtures, as will the Court.”
“So you’re asking me to lay down and die? That’s not much of an offer.”
“Hear me out. Face me in single combat, Dresden.”
I didn’t quite laugh at him. “Why the hell should I do that?”
His eyes were expressionless. “Because if you do it would mean that the warriors I have brought to town with me will not be forced to target your friends and allies. That the mortal assassins we have retained will not need to receive their final confirmations to kill a number of clients who have hired you in the past five years. I’m sure I need not mention names.”
Fear and anger had been about to settle down, but they came surging back again. “There’s no reason for that,” I said. “If your war is with me, keep it with me.”
“Gladly,” Ortega said. “I do not approve of such tactics. Face me under the dueling laws in the Accords.”
“And after I kill you, what?” I said. I didn’t know if I could kill him, but there was no reason to let him think I wasn’t confident about it. “The next hotshot Red Duke does the same thing?”
“I’m willing to extend you an offer. Defeat me, and the Court has agreed that this city will become neutral territory. That those living in it, including yourself and your friends and associates, will be free of the threat of attack so long as they are in it.”
I stared hard at him for a moment. “Chicago-blanca, eh?”
He quirked a puzzled eyebrow at me.
“Never mind. After your time.” I looked away from him, and licked sweat from my upper lip. A stage hand came by with a couple of bottled waters, and passed them to Ortega and to me. I took a drink.
“You’re stupid to fight me,” I said. “Even if you kill me, my death curse would fall on you.”
He shrugged. “I am not as important as the whole of the Court. I will take that risk.”
Hell’s bells. Dedicated, honorable, courageous, self-sacrificial types are absolutely the worst people in the world to go up against. I tried one last dodge, hoping it might pay off. “I’d have to have it in writing. The Council gets a copy too. I want this all recognized, official under the Accords.”
“That done, you will agree to the duel?”
I took a deep breath. The last thing I wanted to do was square off against another supernatural nasty. Vampires scared me. They were strong and way too fast, and had an enormous yuck factor. Their saliva was an addictive narcotic, and I’d been exposed to it enough to make me twitch once in a while, wondering what it would be like to get another hit.
I barely went outside after dark these days, specifically because I didn’t want to encounter any more vampires. A duel would mean a fair fight, and I hate fair fights. They’re too easy to lose.
Of course, if I didn’t agree to Ortega’s offer, I’d be fighting him anyway, probably at a time and place of his choosing–and I had the feeling that Ortega wasn’t going to show the arrogance and overconfidence I’d seen in other vampires. Something about him said that so long as I wasn’t breathing, he wouldn’t care much how it happened. Not only that, but I believed that he would start in on the people I cared about if he couldn’t have me.
I mean come on. Cliched villainy at its worst.
And an undeniably effective lever.
I’d like to say that I carefully weighed all the factors, reasoned my way to a level-headed conclusion, and made a rational decision to take a calculated risk, but I didn’t. The truth is, I thought of Ortega and company doing harm to some of the people I cared about, and suddenly felt angry enough to start in on him right there. I faced him, eyes narrowed, and didn’t bother to hold the anger in check. There was a cough of static from the speakers on the stage before they died with loud pops. The floodlights overhead suddenly burst with flashes of brilliance and clouds of sparks that fell down over everyone on the stage. One of the two surviving cameras exploded into fire, blueish flames rising up from out of the casing, and heavy power-outlets along the walls started spitting orange and green sparks. Larry Fowler yelped and leapt up into the air, batting at his belt before pitching a smoldering cell-phone to the floor. The lights died, and people started screaming in startled panic.
Ortega, lit only by the falling sparks, looked grim and somehow eager, shadows dancing over his features, his eyes huge and dark.
“Fine,” I said. “Get it to me in writing and you’ve got a deal.”
The emergency lights came up, fire alarms started whooping, and people started stumbling towards exits. Ortega smiled, all teeth, and glided off the stage, vanishing into the wings.
I stood up, shaking a little. A piece of something had apparently fallen and hit Morty’s head. There was a small gash on his scalp, already brimming with blood, and he wobbled precariously when he tried to stand. I helped him up, and so did Father Vincent on the other side of him. We lugged the little ectomancer towards the fire doors.
We got Morty down some stairs and outside the building. Chicago P.D. was on the scene already, blue and white lights flashing. Fire crews and an ambulance or three were just then rolling up on the street. We settled Morty down among a row of people with minor injuries, and stood back. We were both panting a little as the emergency medtechs started triage on the wounded.
“Actually, Mister Dresden,” Father Vincent said, “I must confess something to you.”
“Heh,” I said. “Don’t miss the irony on that one, padre.”
Vincent’s leathery mouth creased into a strained smile. “I did not really come to Chicago merely to appear on the show.”
“No?” I said.
“No. I really came here to–”
“To talk to me,” I interjected.
He lifted his eyebrows. “How did you know?”
I sighed, and got my car keys out of my pocket. “It’s just been that kind of day.”