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Of Hotels, Warlocks, and Go Fish

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People aren’t nearly as complicated as they want you to think they are. Oh, sure, they want you to believe that they’re mysterious, that their motives are pure but hard to read, hard to explain, but they’re not. People are easy.

Look, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I know all of this because I’m a wizard.

(See? Like I said. People are easy.)

But you’re wrong. I am a wizard, sure, but that’s not why I know that people are easy. I know that because I’m a hotel front desk clerk.


Justin DuMorne was a grade-A asshole, and he sure thought he was sneaky, enigmatic, and impossible to predict.

But you know the drill by now.

Elaine was harder than Justin, but only because women are, by nature, a bit more complicated than men. She wasn’t so hard to read that I didn’t notice that her behavior was wonky and work out that things were about to go sideways, but it took me a little longer than it probably should have.

I knew that Justin was planning something bad, because people don’t just do things out of the goodness of their hearts (well, okay, some do, but they don’t do it for me). That wariness (given to me by multiple foster homes), coupled with the ability to plan ahead (given to me by Justin himself, ironically enough), allowed me to set a trap within his trap.

I’m not stupid enough to think I caught the guy because I was better, because I wasn’t. Hell’s bells, I’m still not. I’m not smarter, either, or faster. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that life and magic aren’t always about being the stronger, faster, smarter, better man.

Sometimes, a lot of the time, it’s about being the luckier man.

No small amount of luck led to Justin being bound in a complicated, inescapable trap right around the time that an old acquaintance of his, Ebenezar McCoy, stormed the castle, as it were. I had no idea what the White Council was, but I was banking on Justin’s general disdain for normal humans to mean that none of them would be in his little black book.

Luckily, I was right.

The stuttering, whispering voicemail I left must have accurately conveyed how pants-wetting terrified I was, because McCoy brought the cavalry.

The scene they broke in on was probably quite a shock. Justin DuMorne, one of the most powerful wizards on the White Council, bound in an enspelled straight-jacket (one that he’d intended for me, not that anyone asked), in a huge circle, screaming obscenities as he fought his bonds. Elaine was on the ground, unconscious and bleeding sluggishly from a blow to the head. Me, standing just outside the circle, pale and shaking and probably looking a little feral.

The… Trial? Conference? Meeting of very confused and angry wizards? Whatever you want to call it, it was short and loud. It was pretty obvious that Justin had some shady stuff planned, and a very short examination made it even more obvious that Elaine’s mind had been the victim of some nasty compulsions.

Once Justin was executed (the singular most terrifying and somehow satisfying experience of my life) and Elaine was whisked off to a healer, the Council wasn’t sure what to do with me. On the one hand, Justin was clearly a warlock, and I was his apprentice. On the other hand, I had turned him in and it was obvious that I was against whatever he’d been doing. Normally, I’d either be on the chopping block, or I’d be an apprentice in need of a new master.

While there was some intense arguing in one of Justin’s upper bedrooms, I decided that I wasn’t a big fan of my odds.

Veils aren’t my biggest strength or anything, but Elaine, bless her, was an exhibitionist, so I was decent at them. I think the Warden they left guarding the door was young, painfully unobservant, underestimating me to a stupid degree, or a horrible combination of all three. Whatever the reason, I veiled the hell out of myself, grabbed the knapsack I’d stuffed full of clothes, grabbed Bob from Justin’s lab, and then I ran.

… Look, I could tell you the whole sad story of how I spent the next few years scraping by. Of picking pockets and day-laborer jobs and all the unsavory things I did to get money. The nights I spent outside in the dead of winter or the height of summer. Or the way my only friend was Bob, a goddamn talking skull, who also had to become my mentor and teacher.

I could, but I won’t. Just know this: it sucked, I got through it, and I ended up in Chicago, working in an old-fashioned hotel as the overnight front desk clerk for the charmingly old and almost offensively deaf Mrs. Spunkelcrief.


The job is easy, pays decently, and Mrs. S. lets me stay in any empty rooms we have if I end up needing to (I almost always do). Best of all, my boss is one of the last remaining holdouts against the age of technology. We don’t have a computer, just a big register book and an old rotary phone. Wizards and any sort of advanced technology do not play nice together, so the lack of a computer is also the lack of me frying anything and getting fired for it.

Is it kind of boring? Sure. My shift starts at eleven at night. Do you know how many people check into the kind of hotel I work at after eleven at night? Not many.

I manage just fine, though. I’ve had enough excitement to last a lifetime, thanks. Besides, the people who do check in after eleven? They’re plenty interesting, at least to me.

Take Karrin Murphy for example. She’s a cop, a lieutenant or something. At some point, she saw something that clued her into the supernatural world. She tracked me down through word of mouth (I’ve been known to help a person or two find a thing or two using magic). Now, if she gets a case that looks funny, she’ll book a room for the night, then hang out until I get off of work and show me the files. I point her in the right direction and she buys me breakfast if my tip pans out. It’s nice.

Susan Rodriguez books a room when she needs a quiet place to write. She’s cute, but a little intense for me. I keep the flirting up, but she damn near trapped me in a soulgaze once, and no, thank you. But she’s good people, too, mostly, and she always leaves the room neat.

Mortimer Lindquist, on the other hand, has never gotten away without paying an extra cleaning fee. He uses the rooms for seances that he anticipates being particularly destructive (does no one use hotel rooms for sleeping anymore?). Mort’s an ectomancer. Like me, he has no particular urge to join, interact with, or really meet the White Council. We keep an eye out for anything that might bring the Wardens down on Chicago (although I’m always the one haring off to go fight them), and Mort’s helped me learn how to hide my powers a little better in the day-to-day. The guy is a coward, but at least he’s upfront about it. And he does always pay the cleaning fee without a fuss.

The only person I know for sure uses the bed he books for sleeping is Michael Carpenter. The man is a literal paragon of virtue. He works as a Knight of the Cross, adores his wife faithfully, and dotes on the two rugrats at home (I think there are plans for a whole lot more, between you and me). He’s forgiving and kind and gentle. He always makes me feel better for being in his presence, but worse for sullying him with a homeless punk like me. Michael doesn’t seem to mind. He books rooms only when the other Knights, Shiro and Sanya, are in town. He’s working on adding a couple of bedrooms to his house, though, so I doubt I’ll be seeing him after that. It’s a shame. I like the guy, and his wife, Charity, usually sends him with a plate of leftovers for me.

So that’s my life. It’s off-beat, but I like it. Mrs. S gives me weekends off, which I use to take Bob out to find an isolated place to work on my magic. I almost always have a roof over my head, and when I don’t, I have the Beetle. And I have a few interesting people to talk to between the books I read while I’m on the clock.

It’s a weird one, but it’s mine.


Then Gentleman Johnny Marcone walked in.


I have two boxes behind the front desk that are full of books. One says “To Read” and the other says “Free” in my scrawling handwriting. I was in the process of tossing the mystery novel I’d just finished into the “Free” box, because it wasn’t that good (the good ones stay in a box in the trunk of the Beetle, because someday I’ll have bookshelves) when the bell Mrs. S had me install over the door let out a little ding as it was opened.

The guy was older than me by anywhere from ten to twenty years, he just had one of those faces that made it hard to tell. His eyes were sharp, intelligent, the color of old dollar bills. When they landed on me, they sent a zing of interest down my spine.

(Oh, yeah, the bi thing hasn’t freaked me out for years. Living out of your car really puts things into perspective.)

With him was a dude whose father was a gorilla and whose mother was probably a building. Short-cropped red hair, a face only his building of a mother could love, and a dark scowl on his features.

The boss and the guard dog, I thought as I pulled my feet off the desk and stood to face them.

Money Eyes smiled the smile of a shark. “Hello. I’m meeting someone here?”

I blinked. We don’t have meeting space or anything. Just regular rooms. “Uh. Good for you?”

Guard dog growled a little (I promise, an actual growl) and Money Eyes’ smile got sharper.

“I’d like to go ahead and check into the room he’s reserved so we can set everything up for him.”

I blinked again. Boss is used to getting his way. Then, heh. Too bad for him.

“Afraid I can’t do that. But you’re welcome to have a seat- uh, I’ll find you some chairs- and wait for your friend to get here.”

One slow blink, then a pretty blatant once-over from Money Eyes. “What is your name?”

Right. I wasn’t wearing a name tag because I wasn’t a lost German Shepherd. I was also not about to give this guy my name. Names, with a capital N, have power. And this guy, though I couldn’t sense any magic from him, oozed power in a way that did not make me want to give him any over me.

“You can call me Dresden.” See? Compromise. I have a manner or two.

He smiled. “Dresden, I’m conducting a business meeting in your fine establishment tonight, trying to offer someone a job.” His hand reached into his jacket pocket. I tensed, but otherwise didn’t react. I didn’t think he was about to shoot me, but I readied the new shield bracelet Bob helped me make by shaking it low onto my wrist.

Money Eyes was still talking.

“He’s reluctant to take the position, and I’d like to make the room appropriately comfortable for him.”

He pulled out a wallet of all things, and from it removed two crisp one-hundred dollar bills.

“So, is there any way I could convince you to let me check into the room on his behalf?”

Listen. I’m not proud of this, but I thought about it. Mrs. S paid me as much and as fairly as she could, but we were a hotel that didn’t accept online reservations in a bad part of the city. There was more than one paycheck that I hadn’t cashed, and more than a few shifts I’d worked knowing the only pay I’d get was a room (probably) at the end of the night.

Two hundred bucks buys a lot of secondhand books. Or potion ingredients. Or more practically, socks that are more socks than hole.

Unfortunately, I also have a moral compass. It’s not a great one, since both major mentors in my life have been a sociopath and a morally ambiguous spirit, but it’s there, and it’s ironclad.

My father, as clear an image as a six-year-old’s mind can preserve, flashed into my mind. He was a man who had more kindness than sense. He spent more time putting on magic shows (sleight of hand, not the real stuff) for children’s hospital for charity than earning money.

Mrs. S came next, and the real regret in her eyes when she had to tell me (shout at me) there were no more rooms for me to sleep in on any given night.

Murphy, working her ass off to keep the streets of Chicago as safe as one cop could.

Dammit.

I slid the money back across the counter with real regret. Surprise flashed in those green eyes, but I was resolute.

“Look, man,” I said firmly. “I don’t know who you think you are, but this isn’t something you can bribe your way into. I’ve got no way of knowing if you’re telling the truth, for one.” I nodded to the muscle standing just behind and to the right of Money Eyes. “Although even I know that friendly meetings probably don’t involve the six feet of Cujo you’ve brought with you.” I looked at the point just between Money Eyes’ eyebrows. A soulgaze would throw me off of my righteous speech, and that would suck. I was on a roll.

“So, no, I’m not gonna let you into some poor schmuck’s room to terrorize him into working for you.” I crossed my arms.

There were a few moments of silence before Money Eyes tilted his head trying in vain to meet my eyes. “You honestly don’t know who I am, do you?”

I snorted. “Well, now I know you’re kind of an asshole. Answer’s no, no matter who you are.”

“Mister Dresden-”

I held a hand up. “And no, you cannot convince me that you’ve got good, peaceful intentions.”

Money Eyes’ smirk grew into a smile and my libido, a no-good traitor who has no moral compass whatsoever, sat up again to pay attention.

“I’d like to introduce myself then, Mr. Dresden. My name is John-”

Before he could finish, the door was flung open violently.

Right after that, I was hit with the coldest, spine-tingliest wave of dark aura magic I’d ever felt in my life. And I lived with Justin.

The man standing in the doorway wasn’t tall or short, skinny or heavy. He was almost painfully average. He was wearing a black, billowing robe (the dweeb) and carrying a staff with what appeared to be a baseball-sized piece of quartz on the end. He was white and his mousy brown hair was thinning.

Only his eyes were anything remarkable. They were deeply, vibrantly batshit crazy.

“Marcone!” he bellowed. “You seek to entrap me? You seek to use some middling knowledge of the forces of the universe to enslave me?”

Oh, my God. Some people watched too many made for TV movies about wizards growing up.

Despite the fact that I tend to be unfailingly sarcastic at every opportunity, I was a little nervous. Overenthusiastic geek or not, this guy had power. Hell’s bells, it was leaking all over the place. Not only did that show a dangerous lack of discipline, but the energy itself was also dark as hell. This guy was bad news, and he had enough oomph to back it up.

Well, shit.

John had frozen, and turned around slowly, his hands up in a placating fashion. “Now, Alan,” he said genially, but with a little bit of bite in it, “we agreed on this meeting place, and you insisted on the time.”

My eyes darted to the clock, which showed it as about one-thirty in the morning.

“I said two!” Alan snapped, robes swishing around indignantly as he stepped further into the office. “There is no reason for you to be here so early unless something nefarious was afoot!” Nefarious, afoot, hell’s bells. “You and your… Guard dog,” he sneered at John’s muscly friend.

And, all right, listen. That was my joke, dammit. No one else was allowed to make it.

I opened my mouth to be irritated out loud, but Alan’s staff swung around to point at John, and the instincts that once told me that my teacher was not to be trusted and my lover was not herself started screaming at me.

Given their track record, I tend to listen to my instincts.

Before Alan could do much more than open his mouth, I’d hauled myself up onto my arms and swung myself around and over the counter so I was standing next to John. I grabbed him, shoved him closer to Cujo, and stepped closer myself. Then I lifted my left hand, focused my will, and brought forth a shield using the bracelet dangling on my wrist.

Just before a sort of sickly green lightning came shooting out of Alan’s staff (heh), a light, pulsing blue half dome covered the three of us. I angled the shield so that the light rebounded off of it and into the ceiling. The lights went out in a shower of sparks, plunging all of us into darkness. Suddenly the only light was emanating from my shield.

John’s quick intake of breath was the only betrayal of whatever he was feeling, although it’s an important point that it didn’t seem to be fear, per se. Cujo growled again, and I felt him shove John behind him where he was standing behind me.

I was just irritated. “Hey, man!” I snapped. “Do you know how high those damn light bulbs are? They’re a pain in the ass to replace, I’ll tell you that.”

Alan’s eyes were bulging out of his head. “You-you-you’re-”

I rolled my own eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I’m a wizard, too. Some of us are just classy enough not to go spilling energy all over the place, you jackass.”

“I-I don’t, I’m not-”

“Yes, yes, you are, Alan. Also, for a bad guy name? Terrible choice.”

“His last name is Plume,” John said from behind me, remarkably calm.

I nodded. “See, there’s a bad guy name. Alan, don’t tell people your name is Alan. Tell them your name is Plume.”

Alan Plume (whose parents did not love him, apparently, take that), seemed to shake himself a little and drew himself up to as tall as he could. It lost some effect since I’m well over six and a half feet tall and it’s damn hard to look your nose down at me, but the effort was noted.

“What are you doing in my town?”

Well, then.

See, I’ve kinda got this thing about Chicago. She has been a stone-cold bitch to me. I’ve been kicked when I’m down, had literal rocks thrown at me, and in general mocked by people who don’t believe in magic. I’ve been forced to sleep on cold concrete in sleet and snow, and I’ve had to sweat out some of the hottest summers in city history in my car. She’s not a forgiving mistress, Chicago.

But she’s also been kind. Strangers here have given me food, blankets, coats, when they’ve noticed that I’m homeless. The day-labor jobs I’ve worked were alongside good people, men and women doing honest work to put an honest meal on the table for their families. Chicago was the first choice I made, where my seventeen-year-old self stopped and said, “Enough running. This place will be home now.”

Chicago, in short, is mine, and this sloppy upstart wanted to claim it as his. And believe you me, I had some thoughts to share with him about that.

Unfortunately, my shield had never been field-tested, and the effort of holding it up was starting to wear me down. I can usually hold it for several minutes before even getting winded, but whatever Alan had thrown at us was nasty and powerful, and the hit took more out of me than I was used to.

In short, my shield was going to start failing very, very soon.

Get the people out, I told myself. You can deal with him afterward, but get the humans out.

The front office has a tiny backdoor if you go through the little office area. I didn’t have a good way to tell John and Cujo that without telling Alan the same thing, but I managed to kick John in the ankle and yank my head back as I spoke again.

“Well, Alan, see, there’s a problem with that.” When I took a step to the side, John and Cujo seamlessly moved with me. Finally, something goes right. “See, Chicago is kinda my town, and I’m a little irritated about you throwing around dark magic.”

Alan scowled. “Why, you little-” He threw another bolt of lightning and my shield took the hit, but it sputtered a little. Dammit.

Alan’s stupid face cleared and a smarmy sort of satisfaction perked up his features. He took a step toward us.

“You look like you’re wearing a little thin, brat,” Alan sneered.

“Oh, don’t you worry, sweetheart,” I muttered, walking slowly and carefully with John and Cujo to angle them toward the door and hoping they’d gotten the hint. “I’ve got plenty left for you.”

Alan cried out and hit us with another bolt, a big one this time. Exhaustion hit me like a freight train, pulling at my limbs and making it hard to concentrate. The shield flickered again, and it took longer to bring it back up this time, and what felt like considerably more effort.

“Do you?” Alan asked sweetly, advancing. Nothing more than a few feet separated us now. “Looks like your age is catching up with you. Does baby need a nap?”

For a second, I was shocked out of my tiredness to stare at him incredulously. “What kind of bad guy school did you go to? That’s some of the worst smack-talk I have ever heard, it’s like you-”

I was interrupted by another sharp cry from Alan as he slung another bolt of lightning at us. It was another big one, and I staggered under the weight of it. John caught me and steadied me. I shamelessly leaned back a little, letting him hold me up. My head was starting to pound at the temples and my breathing was labored. I hauled the shield back into place with a great force of will. The bracelet was starting to burn my wrist.

“Just a few moments more, Mr. Dresden,” John murmured in my ear, which is quite a feat considering my height.

I nodded. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but my tired mind latched onto the words. Just a few more moments and I’d be able to collapse and sleep for thirty hours. Just a few more moments.

John was guiding me to step sideways again, and I managed to stumble along.

“I’m just trying to help your monologuing,” I said, sounding less absolutely wiped out than I really was by some sort of miracle. “Jeeze, Alan, you think you’d be grateful. You kind of need all the help you can get.”

“You little whelp,” Alan snarled. “I don’t know how that shield is still standing, but by God, I will-”

There was a sort of pop sound, then a dark spot appeared on Alan’s forehead. I watched, perplexed, as Alan stood for only another second before he crumpled to the ground.

I turned to look at Cujo as I dropped my shield. He was calmly unscrewing what looked like a silencer from a pistol.

“You… You… What?” My brain was sluggishly trying to put the pieces together. “What?”

A gentle finger on my chin turned me so I was looking at John. I carefully kept my eyes on his eyebrows, utterly certain that a soulgaze was the last thing I wanted from this man.

“Dresden,” John said solemnly. “I’m John Marcone.”

Gentleman Johnny Marcone, the up and coming leader of the Outfit, Chicago’s organized crime organization.

“Oh, well, sure,” I said amiably as my vision greyed out. “That makes sense.”

I passed out rather gratefully.


“Is Harry gon’ be okay?”

The first thing I was aware of was Lottie’s sweet voice.

The second thing was ow.

I was still so tired I ached with it, and my head was still thudding with pain in a rhythm I assumed was my heartbeat. The altercation with Alan hadn’t been long, but he’d been undisciplined and had been throwing heavy-hitter spells. I’d held a shield longer, but not by much, and not against opposition like that. No wonder I went down. I wondered what Bob would say when I told him.

“‘Cause Harry watches me ‘fter school,” Lottie’s voice continued, “‘cause Mama has to work and Lenny says we gotta get the rent and ‘cause I’m still too little.”

“Does he, now?” said the smooth voice of Gentleman Johnny Marcone.

Stars and stones. Maybe I should have let Alan take a whack at the guy. Jesus. Johnny Marcone.

It was hard to live in the kind of neighborhood I lived in (well… “lived in”) and not know the name. John ran the Outfit with a cool, polite, absolutely iron fist. He tolerated no unnecessary violence, no excessive waste, and absolutely no upstarts or territory encroaching. He’d never even come close to being charged with anything, but the cops didn’t even try that hard. Marcone was the lesser of two evils, I guess. He made the criminals more efficient, but less innocent bystanders got hurt with him in charge.

Stars and stones.

I managed to pry my eyes open to see the ceiling of one of the hotel rooms. Judging by the water stain next to the doorway to the bathroom, it was the one I tended to stay in when we had room.

That explained Lottie being there. Her mom a sweet, overworked woman named Hannah, sometimes had to book a room when her landlord was being an asshole about giving her a break. I wasn’t sure if she knew how many nights I paid for her room out of my own pocket to try to help them out (okay, I have a thing about single parents, sue me), but she always gave me a warm smile and a kiss on the cheek when she saw me.

I also watched Lottie in the few hours between when she got out of school and when Hannah got off of work. It looked like I’d been asleep for quite a while, then.

I turned my head (ouch) to see Marcone crouched in the doorway of the room. The door was open just enough to see Lottie standing in front of him, looking earnestly into his handsome face as she told him way too much about me.

To my surprise, he was listening to her intently, seriously. I couldn’t see his whole face, but his eyes were sparkling as he let her ramble on about how much she didn’t like the landlord and how I usually snuck her out for ice cream.

That was interesting. There were rumors, of course, that Marcone’s only hard line was kids. No drugs dealt to them, no violence around schools, bus routes kept clear of drive-bys. Here was proof, then, that he liked kids. There was real joy in his eyes. What I could see of them, anyway.

Gentleman Johnny Marcone, letting my babysitting charge talk his ear off. Wonders will never cease.

I decided to stop Lottie before she could do much more blabbing. I don’t like kids on a whole, but one-on-one they tend to grow on me. Sort of like a fungus.

I could barely move, but I managed to crack a smile. “Heya, Lots-Monster,” I croaked.

“Harry!” she cried, sending a merciless spike of agony through my temples. She swerved around Marcone and made to run to me, probably to jump on me.

Like a painful, terrible fungus.

Before she could get far, though, John’s arm shot out to catch her. Instead of just stopping her, she bounced off of his arm somehow and immediately erupted into giggles. I watched, vaguely incredulous, as John scooped her up and stood, bouncing the laughing girl a few times before settling her in the crook of his arm.

John hefted her closer, causing another squeal of delight. The smallest possible smile danced on his lips when he leaned close to murmur in Lottie’s ear.

“Mr. Dresden is still recovering. Let’s leave him to it, shall we?”

John made to turn, but I snapped, “No!” before he could. He obligingly turned back, eyebrows raised.

I glared as much as I could. “You’re not taking her out of my sight.”

His face became immediately unreadable, a polite, impenetrable mask. “You think I would harm her?’

“Well… I mean, no, not really. But I’m the one who’s supposed to be taking care of her. It would be hard to explain leaving her with someone of your… Uh, profession, Marc-uh, John.” I remembered the little ears in time to stop myself from saying his last name. Lottie had proven herself to be a real snitch in the last few minutes (see who got ice cream next time, huh?) and I didn’t trust her at all.

Marcone’s face didn’t relax, per se, but his expression thawed a little. “Ah.”

Hell’s bells. Had I… Hurt him? Upset him with the suggestion that Lottie was less than safe with him?

Wonders never cease, indeed.

“But if you don’t have anywhere to be,” I said slowly. “I’m, uh… A little out of commission.”

Marcone’s gaze zeroed in on me, and I barely yanked my own away before the soulgaze started.

“My meeting was cut short,” he said dryly.

“You’re welcome,” I volleyed back. Fighting with him felt natural, easy. “And besides, that was hours ago.”

Even though I wasn’t looking him in the eye, I could feel Marcone’s gaze sharpen.

“Something infinitely more intriguing has presented itself. I decided that it would be prudent to stay and… See it through.”

It took a beat for my brilliant wizard’s brain to make sense of that.

Job offer. Wizard. Something more intriguing.

Gulp.


And so began what I can safely say was the most surreal two hours of my life.

Gentleman Johnny Marcone, kingpin of Chicago’s organized crime. He owned politicians. He was the deciding factor for many a law, bill, or ordinance passed in this town. He was ruthless but savvy, reserved but absolutely merciless when the situation called for it. He had cleaned up the crime of Chicago, made it more efficient and neat, less likely to kill people, but better at ruining lives.

He absolutely sucked at Go Fish.

Look, give me a break. Lottie’s six. Go Fish was big stuff during the Dresden Babysitting Hours.

“Do you have any threes?” Lottie asked, wicked delight shining in her little eyes.

“Agh!” I cried out dramatically, flinging myself back against the pillows. We were sitting on the bed of the room, me against a few pillows propped up on the headboard. I’d tried to can the dramatics in deference to our adult company, but Lottie saw right through me, and Marcone was no help at all.

“Are you sure you don’t want to ask for a different card?” I asked, trying out Lottie’s puppy dog eyes on her. Of course, a big, gangly wizard is, by nature, less cute than a cute little kid, but I had to try.

“Don’t give in, Charlotte,” John advised dryly. “I’ve seen his type. Give him an inch, he’ll take a mile.”

Lottie nodded once, seriously, at John, before turning to me and holding out a hand imperiously. “Threes, please!”

While I groaned again, John said, “Very good, Charlotte. Manners are always a must.” His eyes were damn near sparkling in amusement.

I handed over my threes while wailing and thought about John.

Not Marcone. I’d seen Marcone already. He was ruthless, used to getting his way. He was calculating odds and analyzing numbers and percentages from the moment he’d walked into the door of the lobby. Likelihood of me letting him into the room, how much was likely to pay me off, likelihood of getting through me some other way, likelihood of dying if Alan (still a stupid bad guy name) got through, likelihood of me holding that shield up in time for Hendricks (I learned his name in the hall when Marcone told him to keep watch) to shoot Alan.

I already knew what Marcone wanted. It was kind of obvious, now that I’d been able to take some time to think about it. Marcone wanted a wizard. Something had happened to him, maybe recently, maybe not, that made him believe in the world I lived in, in my world, and he wanted in. He wanted someone who lived there, maybe to guide him through it, to teach him how to harness it, maybe to defend him against it, maybe even as a sort of boogie-man-slash-attack-dog. Marcone wanted a pet wizard.

See? People are easy.

No, I was thinking about John.

John, who had been hurt by the implication that he’d be a danger to Lottie. John, who had stayed with us, maybe for his own means, sure, but at least in part because I was down for the count, energy-wise. John, who played board games with Lottie like they were a serious proposition, and who maybe didn’t let her win, but who gave her a run for her money before he soundly beat her almost every time (it was getting close, though, those last few times, the kid’s no slouch in the brains department).

I wanted to see more of that guy.

So, yeah. John was gonna offer me a job. He was gonna offer me a job, probably with a lot of money. And I thought, as I watched him gravely inform Lottie that he did not, in fact, have any threes, that I was probably gonna take it.

With some conditions, of course. I’m not easy, like others are. Sometimes, my motives run a little deeper than those on the surface.

They should be.

I’m a wizard, after all.