I never used to keep close track
of the phases of the moon. It was one night shy of being full, when the young
woman sat down with me in McAnally's pub, and asked me to tell her all about
something that could get her killed.
"No," I said.
"Absolutely not." I folded the piece of paper, with its drawings of
three concentric rings of spidery symbols, and slid it back over the polished
oak wood table towards the young woman sitting across from me.
Kim Delaney frowned at me, and
brushed some of her dark, shining curtain of hair back from her forehead. She
was a tall woman, buxom and pretty in an old-world way, with pale, pretty skin
and round cheeks well used to smiling. She wasn't smiling now.
"Come on, Harry," she
told me. "You're Harry Dresden, aren't you? Chicago's only practicing
"Only one in the country, as
far as I know," I mumbled.
"You're the one who can help
me, then," she said. She leaned across the table towards me, her eyes
intent. "I can't find the references for all of these symbols. No one in
local circles recognizes them either. You're the only real wizard I've ever even
heard of. I just want to know what these others are."
"No," I told her.
"You don't want to know. You're better off forgetting this circle and
concentrating on something else."
Mac caught my attention from
behind the bar by waving one lanky hand at me, and slid a couple of plates of
steaming food onto the polished surface of the crooked oak bar with its thirteen
stools. He added a couple of bottles of his home-made brown ale, and my mouth
My stomach made an unhappy noise.
It was almost as empty as my wallet. I would never have been able to afford
dinner, tonight, except that Kim had offered to buy, if I'd talk to her about
something during the meal. A steak dinner was less than my usual rate, but she
was pleasant company, and a sometime student of mine. I knew she didn't have
much money. And I couldn't have afforded dinner on my own. Money was too tight.
I didn't rise at once and go to
pick up the food. In McAnally's pub and grill, there aren't any service people.
According to Mac, if you can't get up and walk over to pick up your own order,
you don't need to be there at all. I looked around the room for a moment, with
its annoying combination of low ceilings and lazily spinning fans, its thirteen
carved wooden columns and its thirteen windows, thirteen tables, arranged
haphazardly to defray and scatter the residual magical effects that sometimes
surrounded hungry (read, angry) wizards.
"Look, Harry," Kim
said. "I'm not using this for anything serious, I promise. I'm not trying
any summoning or binding. It's an academic interest only. Something that's been
bothering me for a while." She leaned forward and put her hand over mine,
looking me in the face without looking me in the eyes, a trick that few
non-practitioners of the Art could master. She grinned, and showed me the deep
dimples on her cheeks.
My stomach growled again, and I
glanced over at the food on the bar, waiting for me. "You're sure
now," I asked her. "This is just you trying to scratch an itch? You're
not using it for any practice?"
"Cross my heart," she
said, doing so.
I frowned, looking back at her.
"I don't know. . ."
She laughed at me. "Oh, come
on, Harry. It's no big deal. Look, if you don't want to tell me, never
mind. I'll buy you dinner anyway. I know you're tight for money, lately. Since
that thing last spring, I mean."
I glowered, but not at Kim. It
wasn't her fault that my main employer, Karrin Murphy, the director of Special
Investigations with the Chicago P.D., hadn't called me in for consulting work in
more than a month. Kim was right. I was strapped for cash. I'd been eating ramen
noodles and soup for too many weeks. The steaks Mac had prepared smelled like
heaven, from clear across the room. My belly protested again, expressing a
caveman craving charred meat.
But I couldn't just go and eat
the dinner while not giving Kim the information she was after. That wasn't the
deal I'd made with her over the phone, earlier today: She'd buy the dinner and
in return she got my consulting services during the meal. I couldn't welch on
the deal, and then eat the dinner anyway.
Sometimes I hate having a
conscience, a stupidly thorough sense of honor.
"All right, all right,"
I sighed. "Let me get the dinner and I'll tell you what I know."
Kim's round cheeks dimpled again.
"Thanks, Harry. This means a lot to me."
"Yeah, yeah," I told
her, and got up to weave my way towards the bar, through columns and tables and
so on. McAnally's had more people than usual, tonight, and though Mac rarely
smiled, there was a contentment to his manner that indicated that he was happy
with the crowd. I snatched up the plates and bottles with a somewhat petulant
attitude. It's hard to take much joy in a friend's prosperity when your own
business is about to go under.
I took the food back to the
table, steaks and potatoes and green beans, and sat down again, placing Kim's
plate in front of her. We ate for a while, myself in petulant silence and she in
"So," Kim said, after a
moment. "What can you tell me about that?" She gestured towards the
piece of paper with her fork.
I finished my bite, took a sip of
the rich ale, and picked up the paper again. "All right. This is a figure
of High magic. Three of them, really, one inside the other, like layered walls.
Remember what I told you about magical circles?"
Kim nodded. "That they
either hold something out or keep it in. Either magic energies or creatures of
the Nevernever, but that mortal creatures can cross the circle and break
"Right," I said.
"That's what this outermost circle of symbols is. It's a barrier against
creatures of spirit and magical forces. These symbols here, here, here, are the
key ones." I pointed out the squiggles in question.
Kim nodded eagerly. "I got
the outer one. What's the next?"
"The second circle is more
of a spell barrier to mortal flesh. It wouldn't work if all you used was a ring
of symbols. You'd need something else, stones or gems or something, spaced
between the symbols." I took another bite of steak.
Kim frowned at the paper, and
then at me. "And then what would that do?"
"Invisible wall," I
told her. "Like bricks. Spirits, magic, could go right through it, but
mortal flesh couldn't. Neither could a thrown rock, bullets, anything purely
"I see," she said,
excited. "Sort of a force field."
I nodded. "Something like
Her cheeks glowed with
excitement, and her eyes shone. "I knew it. And what's this last
I squinted at the innermost ring
of symbols, frowning. "A mistake."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that it's just
gobbledygook. It doesn't mean anything useful. Are you sure you copied this
Kim's mouth twisted into a frown.
"I'm sure, I'm sure. I was careful."
I studied her face for a moment,
and believed her. "If I read the symbols correctly, it's a third wall.
Built to withhold creatures of flesh and spirit. Neither mortal nor
spirit but somewhere in between."
She frowned. "What kind of
creatures are like that?"
I shrugged. "Nothing,"
I said, and officially, it was true. The White Council of wizards did not allow
the discussion of demons that could be called to earth, beings of spirit that
could gather flesh to themselves. Usually, a spirit-circle was enough to stop
all but the most powerful demons or Elder Things of the outer reaches of the
Nevernever. But that's what the third circle was for. It was built to stop
things that could transcend those kinds of boundaries. It was a cage for demonic
demigods and archangels.
Kim wasn't buying my answer.
"I don't see why anyone would make a circle like this to contain nothing,
I shrugged. "People don't
always do reasonable, sensible things. They're like that."
She rolled her eyes at me.
"Come on, Harry. I'm not a baby. You don't have to shelter me."
"And you," I told her,
"Don't need to know what kind of thing that third circle was built to hold
in. You don't want to know. Trust me."
She glowered at me for a long
moment. Then sipped at her ale and shrugged. "All right. Circles have to be
empowered, right? You have to know how to switch them on, like lights?"
"Something like that.
"How would a person turn
this one on?"
I stared at her for a long time.
I didn't answer her.
"Harry?" she asked.
"You don't need to know
that. Not for an academic interest. I don't know what you've got in mind, Kim,
but leave it alone. Forget it. Walk away, before you get hurt."
"Harry, I am not--"
"Save it," I told her.
"You're sitting on a tiger cage, Kim. That's what that thing is a blueprint
for." I thumped a finger on the paper, for emphasis. "And you wouldn't
need it if you weren't planning on trying to stick a tiger in there."
Her eyes glittered, and she
lifted her chin. "You don't think I'm strong enough."
"Your strength's got nothing
to do with it," I said. "You don't have the training. You don't have
the knowledge. I wouldn't expect a kid in grade school to be able to sit down
and figure out college calculus. And I don't expect it of you, either." I
leaned forward. "You don't know enough yet to be toying with this sort of
thing, Kim. And even if you did, even if you did managed to become a
full-fledged wizard, I'd still tell you not to do it. You mess this up and you
could get a lot of people hurt."
"If I was planning to do
that, it's my business, Harry." Her eyes were bright with anger. "You
don't have the right to choose for me."
"No," I told her.
"I've got the responsibility to help you make the right choice." I
curled the paper in my fingers and crushed it, then tossed it aside, to the
floor. She stabbed her fork into a cut of steak, a sharp, vicious gesture. She
didn't say anything in reply. "Look, Kim," I said. "Give it some
time. When you're older, when you've had more experience. . ."
"You aren't so much older
than me," Kim said.
I shifted uncomfortably in my
seat. "I've had a lot of training. And I started young." My own
ability with magic, far in excess of my years and training, wasn't a subject I
was comfortable with. So I tried to shift the direction of the conversation.
"How is this fall's fundraiser going?"
"It's not," she said.
She leaned back wearily in her seat. "I'm tired of trying to pry money out
of people to save the planet they're poisoning or the animals they're killing.
I'm tired of writing letters and doing marches for causes no one believes in any
more." She rubbed at her eyes. "I'm just tired."
I felt bad, for not being more
open with her. But I knew too much that was dangerous, that could get people
hurt. "Look, Kim. Try to get some rest. And please, please don't play with
that circle. Promise me."
She tossed her napkin down, left
a few bills on the table, and stood up. "Enjoy your meal, Harry," she
said. "And thanks for nothing."
I stood up as well.
"Kim," I said. "Wait a minute."
But she ignored me. She stalked
off towards the door, her skirts swaying along with her long hair. She cut an
impressive, statuesque figure. I could feel the anger seething off her. One of
the ceiling fans shuddered and let out a puff of smoke as she went under it,
then whirled down to a halt. Kim stalked up the short flight of stairs and went
out, banging the door shut behind her. People watched her leave, then glanced
back to me, speculation on their faces.
I sat back down, frustrated.
Dammit. I hated doing that to her. Kim was one of several people I had coached
through the difficult period around the discovery of their innate magical
talents. It made me feel like crap to hold information away from her, but she
had been playing with fire. I couldn't let her do that. It was my responsibility
to help protect her from such things, until she knew enough to realize how
dangerous they were.
To say nothing of what the White
Council would think of a non-wizard toying with major summoning circles. The
White Council didn't take chances with things like that. They just acted,
decisively, and they weren't always particular about people's lives and safety
when they did it.
I had done the right thing.
Keeping that kind of information out of Kim's hands had been the right decision.
I had been protecting her from danger she didn't, couldn't fully appreciate.
I had done the right thing--even
if she had trusted me to provide answers for her, as I had in the past, when
teaching her to contain and control her modest magical talents. Even if she had
trusted me to show her the answers she needed, to be her guide through the
I'd done the right thing, in
letting her down.
But I still felt like crap. My
stomach was soured. I didn't want any more of Mac's delicious meal, steak or no
steak. I didn't feel like I'd earned it.
I was sitting there, sipping ale
and thinking dark thoughts when the door opened again. I didn't look up,
occupied as I was with brooding, a famous past time of wizards everywhere. And
then a shadow fell across me.
"Sitting here pouting,"
Murphy said. She bent over and absently picked up the wadded scrap of paper,
tucking it tidily into her coat pocket rather than letting it lay about as
clutter on the floor. "That's not much like you, Harry."
I glanced up at Murphy. I didn't
have far to look. Karrin Murphy wasn't much more than five feet tall. She'd
gotten her golden hair cut, from shoulder-length to something far shorter, and a
little longer in front than in back. It was a punky sort of look, and very
appealing with her blue eyes and upturned nose. She was dressed for the weather
in what must have been her at-home clothes: dark jeans, a flannel shirt, hiking
boots, and a heavy woodsman's jacket. She was wearing her badge on her belt.
Murphy was extremely cute, for a
grown adult--she also held a black belt in Aikido, and had several marksmanship
awards from Chicago PD. She was a real Modern Woman, one who had fought and
clawed her way up the ranks to become full lieutenant. She'd made enemies along
the way and one of them had seen to it that she was put in charge of Special
Investigations soon after.
"Hello there, Murphy,"
I told her. I took a swig of ale, and said, "Long time, no see." I
tried to keep my voice even, but I'm pretty sure she heard the anger in it.
Her eyes tightened at the edges.
"I need you. We've got a situation."
"You need me? We haven't
talked for more than a month, and you need me all of a sudden? I've got an
office and a telephone and everything, Lieutenant. You don't need to track me
down here while I'm having dinner."
"I'll tell the killer to be
sure to operate during business hours, next time," Murphy said. "But I
need you to help me find him."
I straightened in my chair,
frowning. "There's been a murder? Something in my field?"
Murphy flashed a hard smile at
me. "I hope you didn't have anything more important to be doing."
I felt my jaw grow tense.
"No. I'm ready." I stood up.
"Well then," she said,
turning and walking away. "Shall we go?"