“For the third time: I’m not interested. Please go away.” Katie Vasser slowly reached for her purse, and the can of pepper spray contained within. Mentally, she was cursing her brother-in-law for taking so long. Jack was supposed to be here already. They were meeting up, here at the edge of this fairly unsavory part of San Francisco, to see if they couldn’t pry loose any more information about Dan.
It wasn’t unusual for Dan to disappear, not even for a few days. But it had been a long time since he disappeared entirely without warning. For the last five years, he had gotten enough warning before travelling off that he had been able to leave some kind of message. And he had done so. Except this time. He’d just vanished somewhere around this part of town. Not a part he regularly visited either.
Of course, the regular disappearances and the fact that it wasn’t really a good idea to have people looking into Dan’s whereabouts meant that reporting him missing hadn’t done much good. Afterwards, Jack had used his connections within the police force and with the FBI to the best of his ability – all of it off the record. That hadn’t gotten them much either. Except for the fact that for the past year, the number of disappearances had risen exponentially. And a lot of them happened around this neighborhood. So she’d agreed to meet up with Jack and a friend of his here. But Jack was late, and all she had was a very persistent creep trying – well, something. His suggestions varied, but none of them were appetizing. Her hand closed around the pepper spray. She’d give him one more chance.
A man’s hand landed on the creep’s shoulder. “The lady said ‘get lost’,” the man said. “Why don’t you take that advice?”
The creep twisted around. “Who the hell do you think you a-- …” he started, and then he went quiet. He’d gone pale all of a sudden, too. The new guy was gripping the creep’s hand. By the look of it, he was squeezing hard. Creepy guy couldn’t do anything but whimper.
“Name’s Harry Dresden. Nice to meet you.” The man’s smile was polite and nothing more. But something about the glint in his eyes seemed to indicate he was enjoying this. He put his other arm around the creep’s shoulder and resolutely steered him toward the door. “So sorry you have to leave already.”
The creep hightailed it out the door, clutching his hand. The stranger turned back to her and caught a glance of the pepper spray still halfway out of her handbag. “Oh, you had the situation in hand.” He smiled, more genuinely now. “Can’t see a lady in trouble, it’s always been my problem.” He leaned against the bar next to Katie. “So what brings you here?”
Katie shot him a look. “Mr… Dresden. If I’m not interested in the attentions of one man, what makes you think I would be interested in yours?” She deliberately pulled her handbag a little closer. “I’m waiting for someone. Please leave.”
Dresden blinked, his eyebrows shooting up. Surprise was followed by something else that was suppressed so quickly Katie had only picked up on it because she’d dealt with mercurial personalities all too often in the past years. Dresden had been angry at the rejection, but he’d controlled himself almost instinctively. “Fair point. Sorry for the intrusion.”
He picked up a big and heavily stuffed duffel bag. He dropped the bag, with an audible thump, near the wall. He seated himself at the closest bar stool there, a fair distance from her and even further from the door. He had plenty of places to choose from. Several people, having caught the altercation, were getting up and leaving. The bartender supplied him with a beer without any comment, though she supposed the glare might be enough.
Katie couldn’t help study him a little further. Somehow, the man drew the eye. It certainly wasn’t because of his dress sense. Faded black jeans, scuffed boots and a t-shirt that might once have had a print on it didn’t scream ‘style’ anywhere, but at least they had the comfort of mundanity. Katie should have stood out more than Dresden in this neighborhood. And yet…
He looked just a little larger-than-life. He was a little larger than life, in fact, at well over six feet tall, but that wasn’t it. He was thin for his height, and now that he’d sat down at the bar, he’d hunched down over his beer. Everything almost calculated to make him seem smaller. It didn’t actually work.
Somewhere in the back of her head, a nagging feeling told Katie she’d seen this man before. Not looking like this, however. That might be why recognition was eluding her. But she had a good memory for faces, and it had served her well over the years. The slight slouch fit. His hair had been shorter and he’d had fewer, or at least fewer visible, scars. His clothing was different. He’d been better dressed. A suit, at least a button-down shirt.
Her memory clicked, connecting the name and the face. Harry Dresden. He’d been a guest on Larry Fowler a few years back. Something had gone spectacularly wrong during that episode. She’d caught a repeat a little while ago of ‘Fowler’s Filming Flubs’ on a night when Dan had done his normal disappearing act and Zach had gone to study with a friend from school. Fowler’s studio had just about collapsed around him on the show where Dresden had been an interview guest. As a wizard.
That sparked her curiosity. Jack still hadn’t shown up, and she had to pass the time somehow, didn’t she? She picked up her glass of wine and went over to him. Dresden raised a single eyebrow at her approach, but turned toward her without any further comment.
Direct was probably the best way. “You said your name was Harry Dresden, right? Is that the same Harry Dresden that was on the Larry Fowler show? The wizard?”
Dresden frowned, then nodded. “Yeah, that was me.” His eyes drifted off, as if he was remembering something. “Those were the days,” he finally said with a smile.
“So you’re no longer a wizard?”
“Nope, still a wizard” Dresden shook his head. “Looks like that’s one of the few constants.” He frowned again, looking closer at Katie. He didn’t meet her eyes, however. “Why would you want to know?”
Katie had to think about that one for a while. Part of it was the incongruity. Dresden looked, at first glance, utterly normal, if a little down on his luck. He’d looked that way on the Larry Fowler show, too, and although everyone in the audience from Fowler on down had seemed ready and willing to mock him for it, he hadn’t turned the interview into a special effects show, either. The minor earthquake that led to the collapsing studio had provided that.
And then there was Dan… who also usually looked completely normal. Except that he tended to disappear and then reappear at random moments, sometimes still looking normal, other times carrying stolen objects or sporting bullet wounds. Dan hadn’t chosen to do what he did, not initially. He’d accepted it now, but there was still the mystery of what caused him to go back in time. Maybe Dresden could provide some perspective on that.
And while he was at it and while Jack still hadn’t shown up, maybe he could help with finding Dan, too. “Curiosity, some of it,” she started. “But I also heard you specialized in finding people.”
“Ah.” Dresden sounded remarkably unsurprised. “And you want someone found?” He looked her over again, meeting her eyes for the barest fraction of a second before his glance moved on to take in the rest of the bar. “Is that why you’re hanging around in a place like this?”
“My brother-in-law is helping me with the search. He said he had a lead and asked me to meet him here.”
Dresden frowned, his eyes focusing past her. “Tall guy, nice suit, greying a little… probably a cop?”
“Yes.” Katie couldn’t help be a little impressed. “How did…”
Dresden immediately gave away the trick, and she felt a little silly. “He just walked through the door.” He kept looking, and his lips curled up in a smile. “And he brought a friend. His lead, I’ll bet.” He raised a hand and waved.
A woman, short enough to only come to Katie’s shoulder and with short blonde hair, walked up to stand next to Katie. She folded her arms. “Going to a party without me, Harry?”
Dresden smiled wider. “Wasn’t my party to send out invitations to, Karrin. But I’m sure nobody would mind if you gatecrashed. Especially not with your date.” He nodded at someone standing behind Katie. “Hey, Sanya. What brought you here?”
The woman’s ‘date’, wasn’t Jack. One more person had joined their little group. He grinned at Dresden. “We meet at airport. My flight was diverted to San Francisco. Is amazing coincidence!” He had a thick Eastern European, probably Russian, accent. It sounded very strange coming out of the mouth of a big black guy. But he looked sympathetic enough.
Dresden shook his head, suddenly serious again. “I’m not sure I believe in coincidence where you’re concerned.”
“Okay, what the hell is going on here?” That was Jack. He sounded confused and annoyed. “Katie, who is this?”
“Harry Dresden,” Dresden said as he stood up to shake Jack’s hand. “I’m a friend of Murphy’s.”
Ignoring Dresden’s hand, Jack now turned to the woman, apparently called Murphy. He still didn’t look happy. “You asked him to come here? How many friends were you going to bring?”
Murphy shook her head. “Harry, meet Inspector Jack Vasser.” She took a breath and turned back to Jack. “Inspector, I did not ask Harry to come here. He is, however, a friend, and I believe he would be well suited to help you with your problem.” She turned back, frowning at Harry. “If you’ve got the time, that is. Are you under orders?”
Dresden shook his head. “Not as such. Carlos called in a favor. I was supposed to meet him here.” He frowned. “He’s running late.” He shot another sharp look at both Murphy and Sanya. “On the other hand, you guys showing up here right now might well mean the two cases are related.”
“I’m lost,” Jack interrupted again, sounding on the edge of losing his temper. “Tilly didn’t say anything about this.” He looked at Katie for support, and she backed him up. “Can someone please explain what’s going on?”
Murphy and Dresden exchanged A Look. Katie knew that look. She’d shared it with Dan a number of times, usually when the topic of his disappearances came up and the two of them had to decide whether to conceal it or explain. “How about we swap stories,” Murphy suggested in the end. “I’ll start, and we’ll see where we end up.”
Murphy, as it turned out, had come to San Francisco at the request of one of Jack’s FBI friends, Agent Tilly. By the sound of it, he might as well be called ‘Mulder’, since he’d called in Murphy on the strength of nothing more than being convinced Jack wasn’t telling all he knew about the disappearance of his brother.
Dresden, as he’d already said, had come to San Francisco on the invitation of a friend, another wizard, who needed his help to tackle a problem. He made it sound almost trivial, but Katie’s journalistic instincts told her that wasn’t the whole story, either. Especially not since Dresden was now dividing his attention between their group, the other people in the café, and the clock.
“… and then we started talking about me finding people, and you came in, Inspector,” Dresden finished his part of the story. He now looked at Jack and Katie in turn, giving them an expectant look. “If you expect me to help, I’ll need to know a little more than just ‘my husband disappeared’, Mrs. Vasser.”
“But what about…” Katie didn’t know how to finish that sentence. She tried again. “You said you thought what your friend asked you to do and Dan’s disappearance might be related. Why?”
Dresden hesitated. “It’s a long story,” he said. “The short version is that there’s a group out there kidnapping people with a fraction of magical talent, and my friend had a lead on one of their hiding places. He’s gathering troops for a raid.” Suddenly, Dresden straightened, eyes narrowing.
“A raid? That’s…” Jack started to speak, but he didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence.
Dresden shoved him aside, extending his right hand past Jack. “Forzare!” Dresden shouted. On the other side of the room, one of the few remaining patrons seemed to fall off his chair and slam into the wall. Dresden, Sanya and Murphy were all standing over him before Katie had had time to blink.
Dresden pulled the guy to his feet while keeping the man’s arms pinned. It looked like that should be painful, but the victim didn’t flinch. Not that he didn’t struggle. But even though the man was almost as tall as Dresden and a lot broader in the shoulders, he couldn’t get free. “We’ve got trouble,” Dresden told nobody in particular.
“Trap?” Murphy asked, stepping it. She pulled at the black turtleneck the man was wearing, revealing – crazy as it might sound – a set of gills. “Trap,” she confirmed, nodding. “Fomor goon. I’ve seen them before.” The man’s mouth started to open. Murphy slammed a hand under his chin and covered his mouth. “Watch it. They spit acid.”
Dresden clamped his own hand over the goon’s mouth and turned him toward the door. He used the struggling goon as a shield while he looked out. “Damn. More of them outside.” He looked over to Sanya, who was returning from the back of the bar. Somewhere, he’d gotten hold of a sword. One of those big, heavy curved ones, with a large guard. Cavalry sabre, that was it. “Any out back?”
“Many. Are we trapped?”
“Hmm… I have one more way out, but we’d better use it quick, while they’re still gathering their courage out there.” He shoved the goon out the door and pulled it shut behind him. “That won’t buy us long. Let’s go.”
He picked up his big duffel bag, looked at it and then at the door for a second. Apparently he’d made some sort of a time estimate, because he quickly zipped open the bag and pulled out its contents. The first thing to come out was a big leather coat, which he put on. Then a full ammunition belt for some pretty large-caliber rounds. And then the gun the rounds were probably for. It was a big, old-fashioned rifle that looked more suited for decoration than actual shooting. Especially because both stock and barrel had been elaborately carved and etched with all sorts of symbols. Then again, it was still a gun.
“Hang on, you can’t just carry a gun like that,” Jack started to protest. He was cut short when Dresden snapped the gun up and fired it. Instead of a bullet, a lance of blue fire shot out and hit the thing (it didn’t look like a person anymore) coming through the remains of the door. With another word, he conjured a sheet of ice over the door opening.
“Argue later, Inspector. Go now.” Dresden slung the ammo belt and the gun over his back. He then waved a hand in the air near one of the beer commercials. A blue flash, and some sort of doorway opened where before there had been a solid wall.
Katie’s heart almost stopped. The door was new, but the blue flash was identical to the flash she’d seen those few times when she’d been just too late to actually see Dan leaving. “That’s…”
“Sorry, Mrs. Vasser. I can’t keep this thing open for long,” Dresden said as he gently pushed her through the portal.
On the other side was… the other side. It certainly wasn’t anywhere in San Francisco. As soon as everyone in the group was through, the doorway closed and disappeared. From this side, it seemed like it had floated in midair. Dresden actually looked relieved. “Good, we are where I thought we’d end up.”
“You weren’t sure?” Murphy asked, shaking her head. She was clearly more used to this sort of thing.
Dresden shrugged. “About ninety percent. Close enough in an emergency.” He looked around while Murphy shook her head. “This place is pretty safe, but I’m pretty sure those guys can follow us here once they figure out where we’ve gone. We’d better get moving.”
“Where are we?” Katie asked, at the same time Jack did.
“The Nevernever.” Dresden took pity on their blank looks at his response. “All those worlds on the edge of reality… they’re connected. Connected to the real world, too, if you know how to travel between them. This is one of those worlds.”
Jack still looked incredulous. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Maybe not on the surface, Inspector.” Dresden was looking around again. “But I don’t think this is the time to go into a lecture about the theory of magic. I doubt I’m the right person to give that lecture anyway.” He picked a direction and started walking. Murphy followed him. Sanya gave a slight bow to Katie and motioned for both her and Jack to follow as well.
“That blue light…” Katie started, as they were walking.
“Did that look familiar?” It was Murphy who spoke this time. She’d fallen back a bit to walk alongside Katie, so now their party had Dresden leading, Katie and Murphy in the middle, and Jack and Sanya bringing up the rear. But Dresden was listening, Katie could tell.
“I’ve seen it before, yes. Whenever Dan went on one of his trips.”
“Trips?” Murphy was clearly drawing her out. Katie didn’t mind. In some ways, the weirdness of the situation made it easier to talk about. Besides, Murphy really did seem interested.
“He goes back in time. He says…”
Katie didn’t get to finish that sentence. Dresden had stopped in his tracks and turned around. He was frowning. “That’s impossible.”
“Says the guy who’s taking us across a parallel world,” Jack backed her up.
Dresden shrugged, giving him a rueful nod. “Good point. Let me rephrase that. Time travel takes a whole lot of power. The people I know who could even get that kind of power together wouldn’t risk messing with time. If your husband really does travel in time, I can see why our ‘friends’ are so interested in him.” He shook his head. “Perhaps you’d better tell the whole story, Mrs. Vasser. It’s a long walk back to San Francisco.”
Dresden was right. It was a long walk, through several of the strange portals. Every time they went through them, the landscape changed significantly. She told the group of how Dan had started to disappear suddenly, only to reappear at a random time and place, and she told them how he had dug up her own wedding ring from the garden –from ground that had been untouched for at least thirty years. The full description of the kinds of things Dan did when he went back in time had Dresden turn around again, this time to share a look with Sanya. He didn’t say anything, and Sanya didn’t do anything but shrug, either.
They finally stepped back on what Katie considered to be familiar ground, in the little grass play area that passed for a park in this part of town. From there, she led the party to their home. Everything remained quiet.
Dresden was looking around very intently. “Doesn’t look like they have any surveillance in your neighborhood. That’s weird.” Katie noticed how his eyes lingered a little on Murphy every time his glance passed her, but he was very carefully avoiding looking at either her or Jack. Then he caught sight of their house, and he smiled. “Ah, that explains something.”
“Looks pretty normal to me,” Murphy said. “What are you seeing?”
Dresden closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Well, yeah. It is normal. For you. For Michael.” He gave a sideways glance at Sanya. “Maybe even for Sanya, if he has a home somewhere.”
“I move around,” Sanya answered that quip. “But I see what you mean. I think I would like to meet this Dan Vasser.”
“I think you’ll get the chance.” Dresden clapped his hands together. “I’m guessing that if Mermaid-boy showed up instead of Carlos, it’s up to us to play cavalry. Who’s with me?”
“So long as it’s not the Light Brigade,” Sanya said, shifting his grip on the sword he was still holding.
“You know me, always a heavy hitter.”
“Slow, too.” Murphy was shaking her head again. If there had been any doubt in Katie’s mind that these three knew each other, this would have dispelled it. “You two need someone along to provide the brains of the organization.” Murphy patted her pockets. “Although… did either of you happen to bring an extra gun along for those of us who actually have to abide by regulations about weapons on airplanes?”
Dresden didn’t hesitate long. He just handed the big gun over, along with the ammunition belt. “I can manage without. Just stick close.”
“Right behind you all the way.” Murphy started loading shells into the gun – apparently it hadn’t been fully loaded. Then she stopped, and frowned. “Where are we going, anyway?”
“Right.” Dresden turned to her. “Mrs. Vasser, I wonder if I could borrow your wedding ring.”
What a strange question. Katie’s hand went to her ring. “What do you want that for?”
Dresden gave a slight smile. More of a grimace, really. “I’d like to use it to find your husband. From what you’ve told us, it should have a very strong connection to both you and him. I can use that.”
Katie played a little more with her ring. It was just a thing. But it was the most important symbol of the connection between her and Dan. Dresden had just admitted that very same thing. Not only that, it also represented a not insignificant monetary value. Dan had upgraded the ring from a plain gold band to an actual diamond ring, way back when.
Dresden had seen her doubt. “You’ll get it back, I promise. I don’t need to do anything to it what won’t wash off, after.”
Katie reluctantly handed over the ring. Dresden nodded his thanks, then pulled a silver chain from under his shirt. It had a pendant already on it, set with a red stone that was too large to be an actual ruby. He put the ring on the chain as well. He took a piece of chalk from a pocket and drew a circle on the asphalt. Then he put the ring and chain in one hand, holding the other over it. He murmured something Katie couldn’t understand, and finally scuffed the circle with his foot. Now, Katie felt something. There was suddenly some kind of tension in the air, pulling her eye to the ring on the chain.
The ring was floating, pulling the chain along. It seemed to want to go down the street.
“Oh yeah, that works all right.” Dresden smiled again, a fully genuine one this time. “I’ve still got it.”
“And I’ve had about enough weird to last me a lifetime,” Jack interrupted. “Do you need our help for anything else?”
“Thank you for the offer, Inspector,” Dresden said. “We’ve had some experience with handling this kind of thing. Probably best to stay out of our line of fire.” He nodded at the house. “Stay behind your threshold and don’t open the door to anyone you don’t personally know. That should keep you safe for just about anything short of an apocalypse.”
“Make it more ominous, that’ll help.” Sanya grinned, just as Murphy rolled her eyes. “It’s not as dramatic as that, Mrs. Vasser. But staying in your house will protect you better than you might think. You would do well to stay inside. We’ll bring your husband back.”
It took four hours before noise in the back garden made Katie go and see what was going on. Then she didn’t know how fast she could actually run.
They’d brought Dan back. He wasn’t in good shape. Sanya had been supporting most of his weight, but as soon as Katie approached, Dan freed himself and started hugging her. He was holding on for dear life, it seemed. Not that he was very coherent, otherwise.
He was still wearing the clothes he’d worn three days ago. Whatever parts of his face that weren’t bruised or bloodstained were pale, grey almost. And he stared at her with glassy unbelief.
“You’re here…” he said, vaguely.
“You’re home, Dan. It’ll be okay,” she gave another squeeze on the hug, then tried to work free. “Let’s go inside, get you cleaned up.”
Murphy came to Dan’s side and took over, guiding him to the door and inside into the kitchen. Sanya asked something Katie barely heard about coming in, and she nodded her assent. She was about to follow all of them inside when Dresden called for her.
He had stayed back in all of this. Mostly because he was supporting someone else, Katie now realized. The man looked, if possible, in even worse shape than Dan. Long black hair hung loose, covering his face, but he didn’t have much of a shirt left and his torso and upper arms were covered in cuts and scorch marks. Even Dresden hadn’t escaped entirely unscathed, though the damage there seemed to have been limited to a black eye and a cut on his leg, just above his boots. He looked exhausted, though. He was holding out her wedding ring. “As promised.”
Katie took the ring. “Thank you.”
“I’d love to talk more, Mrs. Vasser. But I’d better get Carlos to Edinburgh. I think Murphy and Sanya can handle most of the talking, anyway. Murphy can get in contact with me, if it’s necessary.” He was silent for a while. “Sorry for the chaos, too.”
Katie frowned. “You didn’t cause it, Mr. Dresden.”
“Maybe not, but I’m fairly sure I made it worse.” Dresden smiled again, but it wasn’t genuine this time. “Long story. Goodbye, Mrs. Vasser. Take care of your husband. And yourself.”
Katie straightened. “I will.” But Dresden had already turned around and started walking away.
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