This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
One of the very, very few good things about my job is the eye candy.
Granted, most of that eye candy is the colorful crunchy shell hiding the incredibly nasty evil ick beneath just waiting to subvert me, feed off me, or kill me, but it's still nice to look at.
It's even better when it offers to pay me.
No, not for that. Get your mind out of the gutter. It's crowding mine.
When she walked into my office I had begun having thoughts about locking up and going home. She stopped those thoughts like a certain kind of brick house. The drab little affair with the worn out desk, battered coffeepot, and sad filing cabinets sagging against each other got a little brighter. Not an actual glowy thing, it was a metaphorical banishing of shadows.
I feel I should clarify, as the non-metaphorical was always a possibility. No, she was the proverbial breath of fresh air.
She was tall, which for me is saying something. I guessed her height to be six feet or six-one, which would still leave me looking down at her if I were to stand next to her. I snuck a peek. Her height wasn't increased by heels, she was wearing sensible, but somewhat stylish, grey ballet flats.
Platinum blond hair, which looked natural, bound up in a sleek style into a chignon at her crown. The pearl grey business suit she wore fit her nicely. Instead of a skirt, she wore wide-legged trousers, and the jacket hit her mid-thigh. She wore a cream colored silk shirt beneath it, modestly buttoned. It looked nice, mid-range expensive, but wasn't exquisitely tailored or designed to showcase features.
The features were there if she chose to display them. The suit could not camouflage the curves that belonged to another time; impressive bosom, tiny waist, flaring hips. Not quite a Rubens.
The curves were 1940s pin-up girl, the face from Lothlórien. Wide, crystal blue eyes fringed with snowy lashes, full lips, high cheekbones, buttery pale skin. She looked to be about my age, but she had that timeless quality some women do, which made it hard to be more specific. As her hair was up, I was at least able to see she didn't have pointed ears.
No jewelry, and it didn't look like those rounded ears were even pierced. No accessories either, like a scarf or something. If she was wearing makeup, it was so lightly I couldn't see it.
She shut the door behind her and I revised my initial evaluation. A refreshing breath of air, but a frigid one. Bracing, but remote. She was also perfectly composed, which was unusual. Most people who come to see me, if they're, y'know, actually people, are riding the high edge of anxiety.
I was a private investigator, and one with a perfectly unique method of advertising so far as I knew. At least in Chicago. Someone had copied the idea for themselves in Los Angeles, but I didn’t begrudge them. I specialized in finding things. Or at least I tried to. My life is…complicated.
And normally I wasn't so focused on the physical, I swear I wasn't. But it had been a while since I'd been with anyone, my apprentice was out of town, and I hadn't really hung out with my friends in a while aside from a few hours on Friday nights. I supposed I was feeling a bit of the lonelies and it was coming out in less than chivalrous ways.
Not to mention I am a guy. We tend to notice such things. It's our way.
I wasn't something the dogs howled at—well, maybe I was, now. Six foot six, with shaggy brown hair in dire need of a cut. Having someone cut my hair was always something I had to steel myself for. Hazard of the job. But at least I was clean shaven today.
My mug could be called austere, with stubborn square jaw, and a bit of the cheekbone thing going on myself. They weren't the razor-edged planes they could be when I was hurt, exhausted, or anxious, which happened with disconcerting regularity. I'd had a few months of relative quiet, and the rest had done a lot to restore my dashing good looks. Or at least make it so I didn't look so much like Bela Lugosi. In full makeup. On a very bad day.
Of course, now I wore badges of honor on my face that I would have preferred getting a medal for instead, a lot of nicks from all kinds of interesting shrapnel. My left hand also bore evidence of my exciting, thrilling past. It no longer looked like something out of a Hellbound movie, but it still wasn't pretty. I wore a black leather glove over it. Severe scars from massive burn trauma that leave the docs wanting to amputate tend to linger. I had kept the hand.
My hand. Not yours. You can't has.
My white with blue stripes button down shirt and black trousers covered a good many more souvenirs of my wide and varied travels.
I tried to convince myself they were more Indiana Jones than Leatherface. Chicks dig scars, right?
"Mister Dresden?" she inquired. Her voice was lower than I thought it would be, a pleasant, bell toned alto.
"That's me," I said with a practiced, reassuring smile, gesturing to the rickety wooden office chair in front of my desk. A relic of days gone by, at least it was clean. I was used to clients giving my office a supercilious eye, but she just took it all in stride as she crossed over and took the seat, one of those leather attaché cases in her lap. It was all of a piece with the rest of her wardrobe, not too expensive, not too inexpensive, and new.
"How can I help you, miss—?"
"Nadeanenko. Varya Nadeanenko." I could hear now the faintest accent. It was the kind of accent where it sounded like she was tasting the words, rolling them around in her mouth before speaking them, giving her an odd cadence. Bai Ling with a Russian lilt. It was vaguely erotic. "I would like to hire you to find someone."
"Of course," I said, grabbing up a legal pad and a pencil. "Can you give me the details?"
"His name is Dimitri Ilyvich. It is very important I locate him. He is six foot five, the last time I saw him he looked to weigh around two-hundred-sixty pounds. Muscular build, not overweight. Brown hair, brown eyes. Classically handsome. He has a long, thin scar across his throat, over his clavicle." She rattled off the facts in the iciest damned manner I'd seen. Except from a Valkyrie I knew.
As a matter of fact, she had a lot in common with that Valkyrie, physically speaking. Tall, hot, blond haired, blue eyed, generating an aura that could save the polar ice caps. Hopefully she wasn't a thousand years old, too.
It was evident Ms. Nadeanenko was not pining for him. Probably not a girlfriend or a wife. She wasn't acting like a woman scorned, either. That left possibilities my mind explored in a definitive nonprofessional manner.
Down boy, she's a client. And probably cousins with what sank the Titanic.
I grunted, scribbling down notes. "And what is his relationship to you? Family?"
A hint of…sad revulsion washed over her cool features. I nearly missed it, catching it as I happened to glance up at her from jotting down the information. It was one of the weirdest expressions I'd ever seen.
Oh. Goody. A story.
Which she did not choose to share at this time. I sincerely hoped it would not become relevant.
Hope springs eternal, after all. No matter how useless you know it is, hope refuses to back down. It's a stubborn little snot.
"He is known as a business entrepreneur and philanthropist, and likes to move in those circles, and he had begun to dabble in politics."
"He sounds like kind of a big gun, Ms. Nadeanenko. Wouldn't he have people looking for him?"
"Please, call me Varya," she said, I nodded and she continued. "He…likes to reinvent himself every so often. He escapes and takes up a new name, a new identity, and starts rebuilding his empire from scratch."
"And you think he's in Chicago?"
She paused for a moment. "Before we continue, I must have your assurance that you will adhere to my request to the letter."
"I always abide by what my client wants," I said, brow wrinkling. That was mostly true. I didn't think lightning would strike me for saying it, anyway.
"This is imperative. I just want you to find him. Discretely. He must not know you are looking for him. If you do find him, you absolutely must not make contact. Under any circumstances. If he discovers you, you are to break off the investigation immediately."
She didn't want to spook him. I gave a mental shrug. M'kay. No biggie.
"If that's your wish, then that's what the contract will say, and I'll stick to it," I said reassuringly. "Chicago?"
"Chicago. I managed to trace him here and then his trail just…ends. The last known location I have for him is a gala held by a local businessman a few weeks ago."
"Do you know the businessman?"
"A Mr. John Marcone."
My gut clenched. Gentleman Johnny Marcone. Excuse me, Baron John Marcone. He was a businessman, all right. The business that had made Chicago so notorious for so long. He ran the organized crime for Chicago and all of the Great Lakes region.
He was a reptile in human skin. Not literally. He would have been easier to deal with if it were literal. I'd had to work with him before. Stars and stones, he was where he was because I helped put him there. And in a few other places he shouldn't have been, to boot.
Don't ask. It had been a day full of nothing but bad choices.
Was big bad Harry Dresden afraid of little old vanilla Johnny Marcone?
Darn skippy I was.
But that wasn't why my advice to her was probably going to rob me of a retainer I desperately needed. Fighting a war with vampires and handling the odd crime against magic didn't pay enough to cover my growing expenses.
"This might be better handled by the police," I told her. I tried to be gentle, but if he was involved with Marcone, I was pretty sure I knew what happened to him and where to find him. Vaguely. But I didn't want to troll Lake Michigan to get the specific location.
She shook her head. "No, Mr. Dresden—"
"Harry. I can't go to the police."
They never could.
"They have resources I don't, Varya," I explained, trying for compassionate. No reason to be brutal in turning her down. If he were mixed up with Marcone, then in all likelihood he was no longer among the living. "They would be able to put a lot more towards finding him."
"You misunderstand. It's not that I won't go to the police. I can't."
"Kidnapping? Have they demanded you not contact the authorities?"
"No. Mr. Dresden—Harry, your advertisement said you were a wizard." She said it like 'ad-verr-tiss-ment'. She hadn't learned English in the States, then. It was kinda sexy. "That is why I need to hire you. Dimitri Ilyvich is a powerful demon."
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