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SIDE JOBS: STORIES FROM THE DRESDEN FILES

An excerpt from A RESTORATION OF FAITH
Takes place before Storm Front

I struggled to hold on to the yowling child while fumbling a quarter into the pay phone and jamming down the buttons to dial Nick’s mobile.

‘Ragged Angel Investigations,’ Nick answered. His voice was tense, I thought, anxious.

‘It’s Harry,’ I said. ‘You can relax, man. I found her.’

‘You did?’ Nick asked. He let out a long exhalation. ‘Oh, Jesus, Harry.’

The kid lifted up one of her oxford shoes and mule-kicked her leg back at my shin. She connected, hard enough to make me jump. She looked like a parent’s dream at eight or nine years old, with her dimples and dark pigtails – even in her street-stained schoolgirl’s uniform. And she had strong legs.

I got a better hold on the girl and lifted her up off the ground again while she twisted and wriggled. ‘Ow. Hold still.’

‘Let me go, beanpole,’ she responded, turning to glower back at me before starting to kick again.

‘Listen to me, Harry,’ Nick said. ‘You’ve got to let the kid go right this minute and walk away.’

‘What?’ I said. ‘Nick, the Astors are going to give us twenty-five grand to return her before nine p.m.’

‘I got some bad news, Harry. They aren’t going to pay us the money.’

I winced. ‘Ouch. Maybe I should just drop her off at the nearest precinct house, then.’

‘The news gets worse. The parents reported the girl kidnapped. The police band is sending two descriptions around town to Chicago PD, and they match guess who.’

‘Mickey and Donald?’

‘Heh,’ Nick said. I heard him flick his Bic and take a drag. ‘We should be so lucky.’

‘I guess it’s more embarrassing for Mr and Mrs High-and-Mighty to have their kid run away than it is to have her kidnapped.’

‘Hell. Kidnapped girl gives them something to talk about at their parties for months. Makes them look richer and more famous than their friends, too. Of course, we’ll be in jail, but what the hell?’

‘They came to us,’ I protested.

‘That won’t be the way they tell it.’

‘Dammit,’ I said.

‘If you get caught with her, it could be trouble for both of us. The Astors got connections. Ditch the girl and get back home. You were there all night.’

‘No, Nick,’ I said. ‘I can’t do that.’

‘Let the boys in blue bring her in. That’ll clear you and me both.’

‘I’m up on North Avenue, and it’s after dark. I’m not leaving a nine-year-old girl out here by herself.’

‘Ten,’ shouted the girl, furious. ‘I’m ten, you insensitive jerk!’

She started kicking again, and I kept myself more or less out of the way of her feet.

She sounds so cute. Just let her run, Harry, and let the criminal types beware.’

‘Nick.’

‘Aw, hell, Harry. You’re getting moral on me again.’

I smiled, but it felt tight on my mouth, and my stomach churned with anger. ‘Look, we’ll think of something. Just get down here and pick us up.’

‘What happened to your car?’

‘Broke down this afternoon.’

‘Again? What about the El?’

‘I’m broke. Nick, I need a ride. I can’t walk back to the office with her, and I don’t want to stand here in a public booth fighting her, either. So get down here and get us.’

‘I don’t want to spend time in jail because you can’t salve your conscience, Harry.’

‘What about your conscience?’ I shot back. Nick was all bluster. When it came down to the wire, he couldn’t have left the girl alone in that part of town, either.

Nick growled out something that sounded vaguely obscene, then said, ‘Fine, whatever. But I can’t get across the river very easy, so I’ll be on the far side of the bridge. All you have to do is cross the bridge with her and stay out of sight.

Police patrols in the area will be looking for you. Half an hour. If you’re not there, I’m not waiting. Bad neighborhood.’

‘Have faith, man. I’ll be there.’

We hung up without saying good-bye.

‘All right, kid,’ I said. ‘Stop kicking me and let’s talk.’

‘To hell with you, mister,’ she shouted. ‘Let me go before I break your leg.’

I winced at the shrill note her voice hit and stepped away from the phone, half dragging and half carrying her with me while I looked around nervously. The last thing I needed was a bunch of good citizens running to the kid’s aid.

The streets were empty, the gathering dark rushing in quickly to fill the spaces left by the broken streetlights. There were lights in the windows, but no one came out in response to the girl’s shouting. It was the sort of neighborhood where people looked the other way and let live. Ah, Chicago. You just gotta love big, sprawling American cities. Ain’t modern living grand? I could have been a real sicko, rather than just looking like one, and no one would have done anything.

It made me feel a little nauseated. ‘Look. I know you’re angry right now, but believe me, I’m doing what’s best for you.’

She stopped kicking and glared up at me. ‘How should you know what’s best for me?’

‘I’m older than you. Wiser.’

‘Then why are you wearing that coat?’

I looked down at my big black duster, with its heavy mantle and long canvas folds flapping around my rather spare frame.

‘What’s wrong with it?’

‘It belongs on the set of El Dorado,’ she snapped. ‘Who are you supposed to be, Ichabod Crane or the Marlboro Man?’

I snorted. ‘I’m a wizard.’

She gave me a look of skepticism you can really only get from children who have recently gone through the sobering trauma of discovering there is no Santa Claus. (Ironically, there is, but he can’t operate on the sort of scale that used to make everyone believe in him.)

‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ she said.

‘I found you, didn’t I?’

She frowned at me. ‘How did you find me? I thought that spot was perfect.’

I continued walking toward the bridge. ‘It would have been, for another ten minutes or so. Then that Dumpster would have been full of rats looking for something to eat.’

The girl’s expression turned faintly green. ‘Rats?’

I nodded. With luck, maybe I could win the kid over. ‘Good thing your mother had your brush in her purse. I was able to get a couple of hairs from it.’

‘So?’

I sighed. ‘So, I used a little thaumaturgy, and it led me straight to you. I had to walk most of the way, but straight to you.’

‘Thauma-what?’

Questions were better than kicks any day. I kept answering them. Heck, I like to answer questions about magic.

Professional pride, maybe. ‘Thaumaturgy. It’s ritual magic. You draw symbolic links between actual persons, places, or events, and representative models. Then you invest a little energy to make something happen on the small scale, and something happens on the large scale as well—’

The second I was distracted with answering her question, the kid bent her head and bit my hand.

I yelled something I probably shouldn’t have around a kid and jerked my hand away. The kid dropped to the ground, agile as a monkey, and took off toward the bridge. I shook my hand, growled at myself, and took off after her. She was fast, her pigtails flying out behind her, her shoes and stained kneesocks flashing.

She got to the bridge first. It was an ancient, two-lane affair that arched over the Chicago River. She hurled herself out onto it.

‘Wait!’ I shouted after her. ‘Don’t!’

She didn’t know this town like I did.

‘Sucker,’ she called back, her voice merry. She kept on running. That is, until a great rubbery, hairy arm slithered out from beneath a manhole cover at the apex of the bridge and wrapped its greasy fingers around one of her ankles. The kid screamed in sudden terror, pitching forward onto the asphalt and raking the skin from both knees. She turned and twisted, kicking at her attacker. Blood was a dark stain on her socks in the glow of the few functioning streetlights. I cursed beneath my breath and raced toward her along the bridge, my lungs laboring. The hand tightened its grip and started dragging her toward the manhole. I could hear deep, growling laughter coming from the darkness in the hole that led down to the understructure of the bridge.

She screamed, ‘What is it? What is it? Make it let go!’

‘Kid!’ I shouted. I ran toward the manhole, jumped, and came down as hard as I could on the hairy arm, right at the wrist, the heels of both hiking boots thumping down onto the grimy flesh.

A bellow erupted from the manhole, and the fingers loosened. The girl twisted her leg, and though it cost her one of her expensive oxfords and one kneesock, she dragged herself free of its grasp, sobbing. I gathered her up and backpedaled away, turning so that I wasn’t leaving my back to the manhole.

The troll shouldn’t have been able to squeeze his way out of a hole that small, but he did. First came that grimy arm, followed by a lumpy shoulder, and then his malformed head and hideous face. He looked at me and growled, jerking his way out of the hole with rubbery ease, until he stood in the middle of the bridge between me and the far side of the river, like some professional wrestler who had fallen victim to a correspondence course for plastic surgeons. In one hand, he held a meat cleaver approximately two feet long, with a bone handle and suspicious-looking stains of dark brown on it.

‘Harry Dresden,’ the troll rumbled. ‘Wizard deprive Gogoth of his lawful prey.’ He whipped the cleaver left and right. It made a little whistling sound.

I lifted my chin and set my jaw. It’s never smart to let a troll see that you’re afraid of him. ‘What are you talking about, Gogoth? You know as well as I do that mortals aren’t all fair game anymore. The Unseelie Accords settled that.’

The troll’s face split into a truly disgusting leer. ‘Naughty children,’ he rumbled. ‘Naughty children still mine.’ He narrowed his eyes, and they started burning with malicious hunger. ‘Give! Now!’ The troll rolled toward me a few paces, gathering momentum.

I lifted my right hand, forced out a little will, and the silver ring upon my third finger abruptly shone with a clear, cool light, brighter than the illumination around us.

‘Law of the jungle, Gogoth,’ I said, keeping my voice calm. ‘Survival of the fittest. You take another step and you’re going to land smack in the “too stupid to live” category.’

The troll growled, not slowing, and raised one meaty fist.

‘Think about it, darkspawn,’ I snarled. The light pouring from my ring took on a hellish, almost nuclear tone. ‘One more step and you’re vapor.’

The troll came to a lumbering halt, and his rubber-slime lips drew back from fetid fangs. ‘No,’ he snarled. Drool slithered down his fangs and spattered on the asphalt as he stared at the girl. ‘She is mine. Wizard cannot interfere in this.’

‘Oh yeah?’ I said. ‘Watch me.’ And with that, I lowered my hand (and with it the fierce silver light), gave the troll my best sneer, and turned in a flare of my dark duster to walk back to North Avenue with long, confident strides. The girl stared over my shoulder, her eyes wide.

‘Is he coming after us?’ I asked quietly.

She blinked back at the troll, and then at me. ‘Uh, no. He’s just staring at you.’

‘Okay. If he starts this way, let me know.’

‘So you can vapor him?’ she asked, her voice unsteady.

‘Hell, no. So we can run.’

‘But what about . . . ?’ She touched the ring on my hand.

‘I lied, kid.’

‘What!?’

‘I lied,’ I repeated. ‘I’m not a good liar, but trolls aren’t too bright. It was just a light show, but he fell for it, and that’s all that counts.’

‘I thought you said you were a wizard,’ she accused me.

‘I am,’ I replied, annoyed. ‘A wizard who was at a séance-slashexorcism before breakfast. Then I had to find two wedding rings and a set of car keys, and then I spent the rest of my day running after you. I’m pooped.’

‘You couldn’t blow that . . . that thing up?’

‘It’s a troll. Sure I could,’ I said cheerfully. ‘If I weren’t so wornout, and if I were able to focus enough to keep from blowing myself up along with him. My aim’s bad when I’m this tired.’

We reached the edge of the bridge, and, I hoped, Gogoth’s territory. I started to swing the girl down. She was too big to be carrying. Then I saw her one bare foot dangling and the blood forming into dark scabs on her knees. I sighed and started walking along North Avenue. If I could go down the long city block to the next bridge, cross it, and make my way back down the other block within half an hour, I could still meet Nick on the other side.

‘How’s your leg?’ I asked.

She shrugged, though her face was pained. ‘Okay, I guess. Was that thing for real?’

‘You bet,’ I said.

‘But it was . . . It wasn’t . . .’

‘Human,’ I said. ‘No. But hell, kid. A lot of people I know aren’t really human. Look around us. Bundy, Manson, those other animals. Right here in Chicago, you’ve got the Vargassis working out of Little Italy, the Jamaican posses, others. Animals. World’s full of them.’

The girl sniffed. I glanced at her face. She looked sad, and too wise for her years. My heart softened.

‘I know,’ she said. ‘My parents are like that, a little. They don’t think about anyone else, really. Just themselves. Not even each other – except what they can do for each other. And I’m just some toy that should get stuck in the closet and dragged out when people come over, so I can be prettier and more perfect than their toys. The rest of the time, I’m in their way.’

‘Hey, come on,’ I said. ‘It’s not that bad, is it?’

She glanced at me, and then away. ‘I’m not going back to them,’ she said. ‘I don’t care who you are or what you can do. You can’t make me go back to them.’

‘There’s where you’re wrong,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to leave you down here.’

‘I heard you talking to your friend,’ she said. ‘My parents are trying to screw you over. Why are you still doing this?’

‘I have another six months to work for a licensed investigator before I can get a license of my own. And I got this stupid thing about leaving kids in the middle of big, mean cities after dark.’

‘At least down here, no one tries to lie and tell me that they care, mister. I see all these Disney shows about how much parents love their kids. How there’s some sort of magical bond of love. But it’s a lie. Like you and that troll.’ She laid her head against my shoulder, and I could feel the exhaustion in her body as she sagged against me. ‘There’s no magic.’

I fell silent for several paces as I carried her. It was hard to hear that from a kid. A ten-year-old girl’s world should be full of music and giggling and notes and dolls and dreams – not harsh, barren, jaded reality. If there was no light in the heart of a child, a little girl like this, then what hope did any of us have?

A few paces later, I realized something I hadn’t been admitting to myself. A quiet, cool little voice had been trying to tell me something I hadn’t been willing to listen to. I was in the business of wizardry to try to help people; to try to make things better. But no matter how many evil spirits I confronted, no matter how many would-be black magicians I tracked down, there was always something else – something worse – waiting for me in the dark. No matter how many lost children I found, there would always be ten times as many who disappeared for good.

No matter how much I did, how much trash I cleaned up, it was only a drop in the ocean…