By Jim Butcher
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,
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. I
briefly considered running away screaming.
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.
The lights and noise made it a little difficult to keep up my
concentration, and I felt the spell I’d woven around me wobble.
I closed my eyes for a second, until I had stabilized it
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, “You okay.”
“I’ve been in house fires I liked better than this.”
“You asked for this meeting, not me,” Mortimer said.
He frowned as Fowler lingered over shaking a young woman’s
“Think this will take long?” I asked Morty.
He glanced beside him at an empty chair, and at another
beside me. “Two
mystery guests. I guess
this one could go for a while.
They shoot a extra material and edit it down to the best
I sighed. I’d been on the Larry Fowler Show just after I’d gone
into business as an investigator, and it had been a mistake.
I’d had to fight my way uphill against the tide of infamy
I’d gotten by association with the show.
“What did you find out?” I asked.
Mort flicked a nervous glance at me and said, “Not much.”
“Come on, Mort.”
He opened his mouth to answer, then glanced up.
Larry Fowler trotted on up the stairs and onto the stage.
“Not now. Wait
for a commercial break.”
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
The crowd applauded politely.
“And beside him, Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only
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
Completely inaccurate but much more comfortable.
Despite the relative levels of denial, my face heated up.
I hate it when people laugh at me.
An old, quiet hurt mixed in with my nervousness and I
struggled to maintain the suppression spell.
Yeah, I said spell. See,
I really am a wizard. I
do magic. 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 spell to suppress the magic I carried with
me, at least temporarily, so
that I might at least have a chance to keep from blowing out the
studio lights and cameras, or setting off the fire alarms.
It was delicate stuff by its very nature, and extremely
difficult for me to hold in place.
So far so good, but 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 discomfort and
embarrassment, focusing on the spell. The feedback died away.
“Well then,” Larry said, after half a minute of happy
you’ve been a guest on the show several times now.
Would you care to tell us a little bit about what you do?”
Mortimer widened his eyes and whispered, “I see dead
The audience laughed.
“But seriously. Mostly
I conduct seances, Larry,” Mortimer 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
“Really,” Larry said.
“Could you give us a demonstration?”
Mortimer 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 Mortimer nodded at them with an
easy grin. He knew how
to play a crowd.
Larry gave Mortimer 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?”
“Sure. 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
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 Mort–uh, 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
“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 probably wreck 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.
Passages from Carrie and Firestarter sprang to
mind but I restrained myself and maintained the suppression spell.
Master of self-discipline, that’s me.
But I gave the fire door beside the stage another longing
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
Larry gave me an annoyed look and strode off stage.
In the wings, he started tearing into a make-up girl about
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.”
“Even so, you’ve got more contacts in this area than I
do,” I said. “My
sources don’t keep close track of who has or hasn’t died lately,
so I’ll take whatever I can get.
Is she at least alive?”
He nodded. “She’s alive. That
much I know. She’s in
“Peru?” It came as a vast relief to hear that she wasn’t dead, but
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
Mort shrugged. “No
way for me to tell. I’m
I shook my head. “No,
it’s okay. Thanks, Mort.”
I settled back in my seat, mulling over the Codex Alera.
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. A noble of
the Red Court of Vampires had grabbed her and begun the
transformation from mortal to vampire on her.
It was payback for something I’d done.
The vampire noble thought that her standing in the Red Court
made her untouchable, that I wouldn’t want to start trouble with
the entire Court. She told me that if I fought to take Susan back, I would be
starting a world-wide war between the White Council of wizards and
the vampires 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 Mort didn’t want to be seen with me.
He wasn’t involved in the war, and he intended to stay that
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 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
squealed and squelched when he started to talk, and I realized I’d
let my control slip again. The
suppression spell was a hell of a lot harder than I thought it would
be, and getting harder by the minute.
I tried to focus, and the speakers quieted to the occasional
“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 Mort 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 researcher and debunker of the
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.
Emotions have power. They
fuel a lot of my magic. The
fear hit me, and the pressure on the suppression spell redoubled.
There was a flash of light and a puff of smoke from the
nearest camera, and the operator 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 shrieked with feedback.
“Well,” Ortega said, under his breath.
“Nice to see you again, 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 elbow and shoulder.
I looked around, but everyone was staring at the
“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?”
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
“Frauds,” 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 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, putting more
pressure on the suppression spell.
The air around me started to feel warmer.
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
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.
Mort 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
“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,
“You really need to work on your opening technique,” I
said. “I read a book
about negotiations. I
could loan it to you.”
He gave me a humorless smile.
“The war, Dresden. The war between your people and mine is too costly, for both
“War’s a pretty stupid option to take, generally
speaking,” I said. “I
never wanted it.”
“But you began it,” Ortega said.
“You began it over a point of principle.”
“I began it 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
“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 look human–right up until
they turn 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.
You really need to read that book.”
“I’m making you an offer.
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?”
“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
I stared hard at him for a moment.
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. The
pressure of the spell made flickering colored dots float across my
“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 loonies 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.
In the words of a murderous faerie queen, they’re too easy
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. It
was 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. The suppression
spell began to crack, and I didn’t bother to keep it going.
The spell shattered, and the buildup of wild energy rushed
silently and invisibly over the studio.
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
Ortega, lit only by the falling sparks, looked grim and
somehow eager, shadows dancing over his features, his eyes huge and
“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 Mort’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 Mort 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 Mort 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
think I missed 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
“No?” I said.
“No. I really came here to--”
“To talk to me,” I interjected.
lifted his eyebrows. “How
did you know?”
sighed, and got my car keys out of my pocket.
“It’s just been that kind of day.”