I came out of the doors of the FBI building to find a ring of paparazzi surrounding it, waiting with predatory patience to get more material for their stories. A couple of them saw me and hurried toward me, beginning to ask me questions, thrust microphones toward me, that sort of thing. I winced. I was still pretty tired, but it was going to play merry hell with their gear if I got too close to it.
I looked around for a way to get down the sidewalks without messing up anybody's equipment, and that was when they tried to kill me.
I'd been the target of a drive-by attempt once before. This one was considerably more professional than the first. There was no roar of engines to give me a warning, no wildly swerving vehicle. The only tip-off I had was a sudden prickling of the hairs on the back of my neck and a glimpse of a dark sedan's passenger window rolling down.
Then something hit me in the left side of my chest and hammered me down onto the stairs. Stunned, I realized that someone was shooting at me. I could have rolled down the stairs and into the news crowd, put them between myself and the shooter, but I had no way of knowing whether the shooter wanted me bad enough to fire through a crowd in hopes of getting me. So I curled into a defensive ball and felt two more heavy blows land against me: one of them on my ribs, the second on my left arm, which I'd raised to cover my head.
There was an exclamation from below, and then there were several people standing over me.
"Hey, buddy," said a potbellied cameraman in a hunting jacket. He offered me a hand to help me up. "Nasty fall, there. You still in one piece?"
I just stared at him for a second, the adrenaline coursing through me, and realized that the cameraman - all of the newsies, in fact - didn't even know what had just happened.
It made a creepy kind of sense. I hadn't heard anything. The assassin must have been using a suppressor. There hadn't been any flashes, so he must have done it right, aiming at me through the car window while sitting far enough back to make sure the barrel of his gun didn't poke out suspiciously - and that he never became a highly visible target. I had helped, too, by denying the onlookers the subtle clue of a dead body with little holes in the front of it and big ones in the back. No sound, no sight, and no victim. Why should they think that murder had just been attempted?
"Move!" I said, hauling myself up by the cameraman's paw. I struggled to get higher, to look over the crowd and get a plate off of the dark sedan. It didn't take much more than stepping around a couple of people and standing on tiptoe to get a view of the shooter's vehicle, cruising calmly away, without roaring engines, without crashing up onto the sidewalk or running red lights. It just vanished into the traffic like a shark disappearing into the depths. I never got a clear look at the plates.
"Dammit," I growled. Pain was starting to register on me now, especially in my arm. The protective spells I'd woven over my duster had held out against the bullets, but the leather had been pulled pretty tight over my skin and as a result it felt like someone had smashed a baseball bat into my forearm. The fingers of my left hand were tingling and refused to do more than twitch. I felt similar throbs from the other two hits, and ran my hands over the duster, just to be sure none of them had gone through without my noticing.
I found a bullet caught in the leather of my left sleeve. It hadn't penetrated more than maybe a quarter of an inch, but it was trapped in the leather and deformed from the impact. I pulled a handkerchief out of my pocket, wrapped the bullet in it, and put it back again, managing to do the whole thing unnoticed while about a dozen people looked at me like I was a lunatic.
From the street came a wheezy little beep-beep! The Blue Beetle came slowly down the street and stopped in front of the building. Molly was behind the wheel, waving at me frantically.
I hurried down to the street and got in before the mismatched color scheme of my car sent the obsessive-compulsive federal personnel in the building behind me into a conniption. As Molly pulled away, I buckled up, then got a sloppy kiss on the face from Mouse, who sat in the backseat, his tail going thump-thump-thump against the back of the driver's seat.
"Ick!" I told him. "My lips touched dog lips! Get me some mouthwash! Get me some iodine!"
His tail kept wagging and he smooched me again before settling down and looking content.
I sagged back into my seat and closed my eyes.
Maybe two minutes passed. "You're welcome," Molly said abruptly, her tone frustrated. "No problem, Harry. Whatever I can do to help."
"Sorry, padawan," I said. "This has been a long day already."
"I came back from the church and saw a bunch of guys and cops were going in and out of your apartment. The door was broken down and the whole place looked like it had been ransacked." She shuddered and clenched the wheel. "God. I was sure you were dead or in trouble."
"You were about ninety percent right," I said. "Someone told the feds I was the one who blew up the office building. They wanted to talk to me."
Molly's eyes grew wide. "What about the Swords? We've got to tell my dad, right away, or - "
"Relax," I said. "I stashed them. They should be safe for now."
Molly puffed out a breath and subsided in relief. "You look terrible," she said, after a minute. "Did they beat you up or something?"
I swept my eyes left and right as we went on, searching. "Giant centipede."
"Oh," Molly said, drawing the word out, as though I had explained everything. "What are you looking for?"
I'd been scanning the traffic around us for a dark sedan. I'd found about thirty of them so far, being a master detective and all. "The car of the guy who just shot at me." I produced the bullet, a little copper-jacketed round more slender than my pinkie and a little under an inch long.
"What is that?" Molly asked.
"Two-twenty-three Remington," I said. "I think. Probably."
"What's that mean?"
"That it could have been almost anybody. It's the round used in most NATO assault rifles. A lot of hunting rifles, too." A thought struck me and I frowned at her. "Hey. How did you know where to find me?"
"I let Mouse drive."
Thump, thump, thump.
I was tired. It took my brain a second to sort out the humor in her tone. "It isn't funny when everyone does it, Molly. Not ready for the burden of constant wiseassery are you."
She grinned widely, evidently pleased at having scored the point on me. "I used a tracking spell and the hair you gave me in case I ever needed to find you."
Of course she had. "Oh, right. Well-done."
"Um," she said. "I'm not sure where we're driving. As far as I know, your apartment is still crawling with guys."
"Priorities, grasshopper. First things first."
She eyed me. "Burger King, huh?"
"I'm starving," I said. "Then back to the apartment. They should be gone by the time we get there, and it's the only place where I'm sure Susan and Martin will be trying to make contact."
She frowned. "But . . . the wards are down. It's not safe there anymore. Is it?"
"It never was," I said calmly. "If someone really wants to come kill you, it's hard to stop them. All you can do is make it expensive for them to try it, and hope that they decide the price is too high."
"Well, sure," Molly said. "But . . . without the wards, aren't you kind of having a super discount sale?"
Kid had a point. Anyone who ever wanted to take a whack at me had a peachy opportunity now. Attention, shoppers! Discount specials on Harry Dresden's life. Slightly used, no refunds, limit one per customer. Shop smart. Shop S-Mart.
I leaned my head against the window, closed my eyes, and said, "What'd Forthill tell you?"
"What he always says. That he couldn't make any promises, but that he'd do whatever he could to help. He said to call him back in a few hours and he'd see what he could get from his peeps."
"Pretty sure that Roman Catholic priests don't have peeps," I said gravely. "Too trendy and ephemeral. Like automobiles. And the printing press."
Molly didn't return fire against my comments, though I'd made them lightly. She was conflicted on the whole issue of the Church, which I thought was probably a fine state for her mind to be in. People who ask questions and think about their faith are the last ones to embrace dogma - and the last to abandon their path once they've set out on it. I felt fairly sure that the Almighty, whatever name tag He had on at the moment, could handle a few questions from people sincerely looking for answers. Hell, He might even like it.
"Harry," she said. "We could talk to my father."
"No," I said in a calm and final tone. "That isn't even on the table."
"Maybe it should be. Maybe he could help you find Maggie."
I felt a sharp stab of anger and pain go through me - a vivid memory. Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Sword and unflagging friend, had gotten his body torn and beaten to bits trying to help me with one of my cases. Bearing a Sword melded to one of the nails of the Crucifixion, given him by an archangel, he had been a bulwark against very real, very literal forces of evil in the world. It was incredibly comforting to have him on your side. We'd waded into all kinds of ridiculously lethal situations together and come out of them again.
Except that last time.
He was retired now, and happy, walking only with the aid of a cane, out of the evil-smiting business and spending his time building houses and being with his family, the way he'd always wanted to. So long as he stayed retired, I gathered that he had a certain amount of immunity against the powers of supernatural evil. It would not surprise me at all if there were literally an angel standing over his shoulder at all times, ready to protect him and his family. Like the Secret Service, but with swords and wings and halos.
"No," I said again. "He's out of the fight. He deserves to be. But if I ask for his help, he'll give it, and he'll have chosen to accept the consequences. Only he can't protect himself or your family from them anymore."
Molly took a very deep breath and then nodded, her worried eyes focused on the road. "Right," she said. "Okay. It's just . . ."
"I'm used to him being there, I guess. Knowing that . . . if I need him, he's there to help. I guess I always had it in my head that if things ever went really, truly bad, he'd Show Up," she said, putting gentle emphasis on the last words.
I didn't answer her. My father had died when I was young, before I learned that there was anything stronger than he was. I'd been operating without that kind of support for my whole life. Molly was only now realizing that, in some ways, she was on her own.
I wondered if my daughter even knew that she had a father, if she knew that there was someone who wanted, desperately, to Show Up.
"You get yourself an apartment and your plumbing goes bad, he'll still be there," I said quietly. "Some guy breaks your heart, he'll come over with ice cream. A lot of people never have a dad willing to do that stuff. Most of the time, it matters a hell of a lot more."
She blinked her eyes several times and nodded. "Yeah. But . . ."
I got what she didn't say. But when you need someone to break down the door and commence kicking ass, you really need it. And Michael couldn't do that for his daughter anymore.
"Tell you what, Molly," I said. "You ever need a rescue, I'll handle that part. Okay?"
She looked at me, her eyes blurred with tears, and nodded several times. She clasped my hand with hers and squeezed tight. Then she turned her face back to the road and pressed down on the accelerator.
We hit a drive-through and went on back to my apartment.
At the top of the stairs that led down to my door, I felt myself starting to get angry. They'd hammered the door flat. There were some scuff marks on it, but not much more than that. Tough door. But the wooden frame around it was shattered. There would be no way to get the door mounted again without extensive repairs that were probably beyond my skill level.
I stood there shaking with rage. It wasn't like I lived in an ivory tower or Bag End. It was just a dingy little hole in the ground. It wasn't much of a place, but it was the only home I had, and I was comfortable there.
It was my home.
And Rudolph and company had trashed it. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm down.
Molly touched my shoulder for a second. "It's not so bad. I know a good Carpenter."
I sighed and nodded. I already knew that when all this was over, Michael would be Showing Up for me.
"Just hope Mister will be back soon. Might have to board him somewhere until the door is fixed." I started down the stairs. "I just hope that - "
Mouse let out a sudden, deep growl.
I had my blasting rod out and my shield up in less than two seconds. Mouse is not an alarmist. I've never heard him growl outside the presence of danger of one kind or another. I checked to my right, and saw no Molly standing there. The grasshopper had vanished from view even more quickly than I'd readied my defenses.
I swallowed. I'd heard many variants on my dog's snarl. This one wasn't as threatening as it might have been - as it would be, in the presence of dark threats. His body posture was a balance of tension and relaxation, simple wariness rather than the fighting crouch he had exhibited before. He'd smelled something that he thought was extremely dangerous, but not necessarily something that had to be immediately attacked and destroyed.
Slowly, I went down the steps, shield at the ready, my left hand extended before me, my fingers in a warding gesture, my thumb, pinkie, and index fingers stiff and spread wide apart, center fingers folded. My right hand held the blasting rod extended before me, seething scarlet power boiling out from the carved runes and the tendril of bright flame at its tip, simultaneously ready to destroy and lighting my way. Mouse came down the stairs with me, his shoulder against my right hip. His growl was a steady tone, like the engine of a well-tuned car.
I came down the stairs and saw that there was a fire crackling in the fireplace. Between that and my blasting rod and the stray bits of afternoon sunlight, I could see fairly well.
The FBI could have done worse to my apartment, I supposed. Books had been taken off my bookshelves, but at least they had been stacked in piles, more or less, rather than tossed on the floor. They'd moved my furniture around, including taking the cushions off, but they'd put them back. Incorrectly, but they were back. Similarly, my kitchen had been dismantled with a kind of cursory courtesy, but not destroyed.
All of that was secondary in my mind, next to the pair of coffin-sized cocoons of what looked like green silk. One of the cocoons was stuck to my ceiling, the other to the wall beside the fireplace. Susan's face protruded from the second cocoon, sagging in something near unconsciousness, her dark hair hanging limply. On the ceiling, I could see only a man's mouth and part of his chin, but I was pretty sure it was Martin. They'd come back to my apartment, presumably after the feds left, and been captured.
"Mouse," I murmured. "You smell any cordite?"
The dog shook his head as if to shed it of water, and his tags jingled.
"Me neither," I said. So. Whatever had been done to them, it had happened fast, before an extremely quick Susan or an extremely paranoid Martin could employ a weapon.
One of my old recliners was faced away from the door. As I stepped across the threshold, it spun around (completely ignoring the fact that it was neither meant to spin nor mounted on any kind of mechanism that would make such a thing possible) and revealed, in firelight and shadow, an intruder and my cat.
She was tall and beyond beautiful - like most of the Sidhe are. Her skin was fair and flawless, her eyes enormous, slightly oblique orbs of emerald green. In fact, they almost mirrored Mister's eyes as he sat primly in the Sidhe woman's lap. Her lips were full and very red, and her long red hair, accented with streaks of pure white, spilled down in silken coils and waves over her dress of emerald green.
When she saw me she smiled, widely, and it revealed neatly pointed canine teeth, both dainty and predatory. "Ah," she said warmly. "Harry. It's been such a long time since we've spoken."
I shivered and kept my blasting rod trained on the Sidhe woman. She was a faerie, and I'd learned, from long experience, that the folk of Faerie, Summer and Winter alike, were not to be underestimated. Only a fool would trust them - but on the other hand, only a madman would offend them. They set great store by the forms of courtesy, etiquette, and the relationship of guest to host. One flouted the proper forms at peril of . . . rather extreme reactions from the Sidhe, the lords of Faerie.
So instead of opening up with fire and hoping I got in a sucker punch, I lowered my blasting rod, gave the Leanansidhe a precise, shallow bow without ever taking my eyes off of her, and said, "Indeed. It's been a while, Godmother."