Book excerpt

Naked City

Tales of Urban Fantasy

edited by Ellen Datlow

St. Martin's Press

An Excerpt from
CURSES
a Dresden Files short story
by Jim Butcher

            Most of my cases are pretty tame.  Someone loses a piece of jewelry with a lot of sentimental value, or someone comes to me because they’ve just moved into a new house and it’s a little more haunted than the seller’s disclosure indicated.  Nothing Chicago’s only professional wizard can’t handle--but they don’t usually rake in much money, either.

            So when a man in a two-thousand dollar suit opened my office door and came inside, he had my complete attention.

            I mean, I didn’t take my feet down off my desk or anything.  But I paid attention.

            He looked my office up and down, and frowned, as though he didn’t much approve of what he saw.  Then he looked at me and said,  “Excuse me, is this the office of--”

            “Dolce,” I said.

            He blinked.  “Excuse me.”

            “Your suit,” I said.  “Dolce and Gabbana.  Silk.  Very nice.  You might want to consider an overcoat, though, now that it’s cooling off.  Paper says we’re in for some rain.”

            He studied me intently for a moment.  He was a man in his late prime.  His hair was dyed too dark and the suit looked like it probably hid a few pounds.  “You must be Harry Dresden.”

            I inclined my head toward him.  “Agent or attorney?”

            “A little of both,” he said, looking around my office again.  “I represent a professional entertainment corporation which wishes to remain anonymous for the time being.  My name is Donovan.  My sources tell me that you’re the man who might be able to help us.”

            My office isn’t anything to write home about.  It’s on a corner, with windows on two walls, but it’s furnished for function, not style--scuffed-up wooden desks, a couple of comfortable chairs, some old metal filing cabinets, a used wooden table, and a coffee pot that was old enough to have belonged to Neanderthals.  I figured Donovan was worried that he’d exposed his suit to unsavory elements, and resisted an irrational impulse to spill my half-cup of cooling coffee on it.

            “That depends.”

            “On what?”

            “What you need, and whether you can afford me.”

            Donovan fixed me with a stern look.  I bore up under it as best I could.  “Do you intend to gouge me for a fee, Mister Dresden?”

            “For every penny I reasonably can,” I told him.

            He blinked at me.  “You… you’re quite up front about it, aren’t you?”

            “Saves time,” I said.

            “What makes you think I would tolerate such a thing?”

            “People don’t come to me until they’re pretty desperate, Mr. Donovan,” I said, “especially rich people and hardly ever corporations.  Besides, you come in here all intriguey and coy, not wanting to reveal who your employer is.  That means that in addition to whatever else you want from me, you want my discretion, too.”

“So your increased fee is a polite form of blackmail?”

“Cost of doing business.  If you want this done on the downlow, you make my job more difficult.  You should expect to pay a little more than a conventional customer when you’re asking for more than they are.”

            He narrowed his eyes at me.  “How much are you going to cost me?”

            I shrugged a shoulder.  “Let’s find out.  What do you want me to do?”

            He stood up and turned to walk to the door.  He stopped before he reached it, read the words HARRY DRESDEN, WIZARD backwards in the frosted glass, and eyed me over his shoulder.  “I assume that you have heard of any number of curses in local folklore.”

            “Sure,” I said.

            “I suppose you’ll expect me to believe in their existence.”

            I shrugged.  “They’ll exist or not exist regardless of what you believe, Mr. Donovan.”  I paused.  “Well.  Except for the ones that don’t exist except in someone’s mind.  They’re only real because somebody believes.  But that edges from the paranormal over toward psychology.  I’m not licensed for that.”

            He grimaced and nodded.  “In that case--“

            I felt a little slow off the mark as I realized what we were talking about.  “A cursed local entertainment corporation,” I said.  “Like maybe a sports team.”

He kept a poker face on, and it was a pretty good one.

“You’re talking about the Billy Goat Curse,” I said.

            Donovan arched an eyebrow and then gave me an almost imperceptible nod as he turned around to face me again.  “What do you know about it?”

            I blew out my breath and ran my fingers back through my hair.  “Uh, back in 1945 or so, a tavern owner named Sianis was asked to leave a World Series game at Wrigley.  Seems his pet goat was getting rained on and it smelled bad.  Some of the fans were complaining.  Outraged at their lack of social élan, Sianis pronounced a curse on the stadium, stating that never again would  a World Series game be played there--well, actually he said something like, ‘Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more,’ but the World Series thing is the general interpretation.”

            “And?” Donovan asked.

            “And I think if I’d gotten kicked out of a series game I’d been looking forward to, I might do the same thing.”

            “You have a goat?”

            “I have a moose,” I said.

            He blinked at that for a second, didn’t understand it, and decided to ignore it.  “If you know that, then you know that many people believe that the curse has held.”

“Where the Series is concerned, the Cubbies have been filled with fail and dipped in suck sauce since 1945,” I acknowledged.  “No matter how hard they try, just when things are looking up, something seems to go bad at the worst possible time.”  I paused to consider.  “I can relate.”

“You’re a fan, then?”

“More of a kindred spirit.”

He looked around my office again and gave me a small smile.  “But you follow the team.”

“I go to games when I can.”

            “That being the case,” Donovan said, “you know that the team has been playing well this year.”

            “And the Cubs want to hire yours truly to prevent the curse from screwing things up.”

            Donovan shook his head.  “I never said that the Cubs organization was involved.”

            “Hell of a story, though, if they were.”

Donovan frowned severely.

“The Tribune would run it on the front page.  Cubs Hire Professional Wizard to Break Curse, maybe.  Rick Morrissey would have a ball with that story.”

            “My clients,” Donovan said firmly, “have authorized me to commission your services on this matter, if it can be done quickly--and with the utmost discretion.”

            I swung my feet down from my desk.  “Mr. Donovan,” I said.  “No one does discretion like me.”

###

            Two hours after I had begun my calculations, I dropped my pencil on the laboratory table and stretched my back.  “Well.  You’re right.”

            “Of course I’m right,” said Bob the Skull.  “I’m always right.”

            I gave the dried, bleached human skull sitting on a shelf amidst a stack of paperback romance novels a gimlet eye.

            “For some values of right,” he amended hastily.  The words were conciliatory, but the flickering flames in the skull’s eye sockets danced merrily.

            My laboratory is in the sub-basement under my basement apartment.  It’s dark, cool, and dank, essentially a concrete box that I have to enter by means of a folding staircase.  It isn’t a big room, but it’s packed with the furnishings of one.  Lots of shelves groan under the weight of books, scrolls, papers, alchemical tools, and containers filled with all manner of magical whatnot. 

There’s a silver summoning circle on the floor, and a tiny scale-model of the city of Chicago on a long table running down the middle of the room.  The only shelf not crammed full is Bob’s, and even it gets a little crowded sometimes.  Bob is my more-or-less faithful, not-so-trusty assistant, a spirit of intellect that dwells within a specially enchanted skull.  I might be a wizard, but Bob’s knowledge of magic makes me look like an engineering professor.

“Are you sure there’s nothing you missed?” I asked.

“Nothing’s certain, boss,” the skull said philosophically.  “But you did the equations.  You know the power requirements for a spell to continue running through all those sunrises.”

I grunted sourly.  The cycles of time in the world degrade ongoing magic, and your average enchantment doesn’t last for more than a few days.  For a curse to be up and running since 1945, it would have had to begin as a malevolent enchantment powerful enough to rip a hole through the crust of the planet.  Given the lack of lava in the area, it would seem that whatever the Billy Goat Curse might be, I could be confident that it wasn’t a simple magical working.

“Nothing’s ever simple,” I complained.

“What did you expect, boss?” Bob said.

I growled.  “So the single-spell theory is out.”

“Yep,” Bob said.

“Which means that either the curse is being powered by something that renews its energy--or else someone is refreshing the thing all the time.”

“What about this Sianis guy’s family?” Bob said.  “Maybe they’re putting out a fresh whammy every few days or something.”

I shook my head.  “I called records in Edinburgh.  The Wardens checked them out years ago when all of this first happened, and they aren’t practitioners.  Besides, they’re Cub-friendly.”

            “The Wardens investigated the Greek guy but not the curse?” Bob asked curiously.

            “In 1945 the White Council had enough to do trying to mitigate the bad mojo from all those artifacts the Nazis stockpiled,” I said.  “Once they established that no one’s life was in danger, they didn’t really care if a bunch of guys playing a game got cursed to lose it.”

            “So what’s your next move?”

            I tapped my chin thoughtfully with one finger.  “Let’s go look at the stadium.”

###

            I put Bob in the mesh sack I sometimes tote him around in and, at his petulant insistence, hung it from the rear-view mirror of my car, a battered old Volkswagen Beetle.  He hung there, swinging back and forth and occasionally spinning one way or the other when something caught his eye.

            “Look at the legs on that one!” Bob said.  “And whew, check her out!  It must be chilly tonight!”

            “There’s a reason we don’t get out more often, Bob,” I sighed.  I should have known better than to drive through the club district on my way to Wrigley.

            “I love the girls’ pants in this century,” Bob said.  “I mean look at those jeans.  One little tug and off they come.”

            I wasn’t touching that one.

            I parked the car a couple of blocks from the stadium, stuck Bob in a pocket of my black leather duster, and walked in.  The Cubs were on the road, and Wrigley was closed.  It was a good time to knock around inside.  But since Donovan was evidently prepared to deny and disavow all knowledge, I wasn’t going to be able to simply knock on the door and wander in.

            So I picked a couple of locks at a delivery entrance and went inside.  I didn’t hit it at professional burglar speed or anything--I knew a couple of guys who could open a lock with tools as fast as they could with a key--but I wasn’t in any danger of getting a ticket for loitering, either.  Once I was inside, I headed straight for the concourses.  If I mucked around in the stadiums administrative areas, I would probably run afoul of a full-blown security system, and the only thing I could reliably do to that would be to shut it down completely--and most systems are smart enough to tip off their home security company when that happens.

            Besides.  What I was looking for wouldn’t be in any office.

            I took Bob out of my pocket, so that the flickering golden-orange lights of his eyes illuminated the area in front of me.  “All right,” I murmured.  I kept my voice down, on the off chance that a night watchman might be on duty and nearby.  “I’m angry at the Cubbies and I’m pitching my curse at them.  Where’s it going to stick?”

            “There’s really no question about that, is there?” Bob asked me.

            “Home plate,” we said together. 

I started forward, walking silently.  Being quiet when you sneak around isn’t difficult, as long as you aren’t in any rush.  The serious professionals can all but sprint in perfect silence, but the main thing you need isn’t agility—-- patience and calm.  So I moved out slowly and calmly, and it must have worked, because nobody raised a hue or a cry.

            The empty, unlit stadium was… just wrong.  I was used to seeing Wrigley blazing with sunlight or its lights, filled with fans and music and the smell of overpriced, fattening, and inexplicably gratifying food.  I was used to vendors shouting, the constant sea-surge of crowd noise, and the buzz of planes passing overhead trailing banners behind them.

            Now, Wrigley Field was vast and dark and empty.  There was something silently sad about it--acres of seats with no one sitting, a green and beautiful field that no one was playing on, a scoreboard that didn’t have anything on it to read or anyone to read it.  If the gods and muses were to come down from Olympus and sculpt unfulfilled potential as a physical form, they wouldn’t get any closer than that hollow house did.

            I walked down the concrete steps and circled the infield until I could make my way to the seats behind home plate.  Once there, I held Bob up and said, “What have we got?”

            The skull’s eyelights flared brighter for a second, and he snorted.  “Oh, yeah.  Definitely tied the curse together right there.”

            “What’s keeping it going?” I asked.  “Is there a ley line passing underneath or something?”

            “That’s a negative, boss,” Bob said.

            “How fresh is it?”

            “Maybe a couple of days,” the skull replied.  “Maybe more.  It’s an awfully tight weave.”

            “How so?”

            “This spell resists deterioration better than most mortal magic.  It’s efficient and solid--way niftier than you could manage.”

            “Gee.  Thanks.”

            “I call ‘em like I see ‘em,” Bob said cheerfully.  “So, either a more experienced member of the White Council is sponsoring this curse, and refreshing it every so often, or else…”

            I caught on.  “Or else the curse was placed here by a non-mortal being.” 

“Yeah,” Bob said.  “But that could be almost anything.”

            I shook my head.  “Not necessarily.  Remember that the curse was laid upon the stadium during a game in the 1945 World Series.”

            “Ah, yes,” Bob said.  “It would have been packed.  Which means that whatever the being was, it could blend in.  Either a really great veil, or maybe a shapeshifter.”

            “Why?” I asked.

            “What?”

            “Why?” I repeated.  “Why would this theoretical being have put out the curse on the Cubs?”

            “Plenty of beings from the Nevernever really don’t need a motivation.”

            “Sure they do,” I said.  “The logic behind what they do might be alien or twisted beyond belief, but it makes sense to them.”  I waved my hand at the stadium.  “This being not only laid a curse on a nexus of human emotional power, it kept coming back week after week, year after year.”

            “I don’t see what you’re driving at, boss.”

            “Whoever’s doing this is holding a grudge,” I said thoughtfully.  “This is vengeance for a genuine insult.  It’s personal.”

            “Maybe,” Bob said.  “But maybe the emotional state of the stadium supercharged Sianis’ curse.  Or maybe after the stadium evicted Sianis, who didn’t have enough power to curse anybody anyhow, someone decided to make it stick.”

            “Or maybe…”  My voice trailed off, and then I barked out a short bite of laughter.  “Oh.  Oh, that’s funny.”

            Bob spun in my hand to look up at me.

            “It wasn’t Sianis who put the whammy on the Cubs,” I said, grinning.  “It was the goat.”

###

            The Llyn y Fan Fach Tavern and Inn was located down at the lakeside at the northern edge of the city.  The place’s exterior screamed “PUB” as if it was trying to make itself heard over the roar of brawling football hooligans.  It was all whitewashed walls and heavy timbers stained dark.  The wooden sign hanging from a post above the door bore the tavern’s name, and a painted picture of a leek and a daffodil crossed like swords.

            I sidled up to the tavern and went in.  The inside matched the outside, continuing the dark-stained theme on its wooden floors, walls, and furnishings.  It just after midnight, which wasn’t really all that late, as bar scenes went—but the Llyn y Fan Fach Tavern was all but empty.

            A big red-haired guy sitting in a chair by the door scowled at me.  His biceps were thick enough to use steel belted radials as armbands.  He gave me the fisheye, which I ignored as I ambled on up to the bar. 

I took a seat on a stool and nodded to the bartender.  She was a pretty woman with jet-black hair and an obvious pride in her torso.  Her white renaissance shirt had slipped entirely off both of her shapely shoulders and was only being held up by her dark leather bustier.  She was busy wiping down the bar.  The bustier was busy lifting and separating.

She glanced up at me and smiled.  Her pale green eyes flicked over me, and the smile deepened.  “Ah,” she said, her British accent thick and from somewhere closer to Cardiff than London.  “You’re a tall one, aren’t you?”

“Only when I’m standing up.”

Her eyes twinkled with merry wickedness.  “Such a crime.  What are you drinking, love?”

“Do you have any cold beer?” I asked.

“None of that colonial piss here,” she replied.

“Snob,” I said, smiling.  “Do you have any of McAnally’s dark?  McAnally’s anything, really.”

Her eyebrows went up.  “Whew.  For a moment, there, I thought a heathen walked amongst us.”  She gave me a full smile, her teeth very square and straight and white, and walked over to me before bending over and drawing a dark bottle from beneath the bar.

I appreciated her, in a polite and politically correct fashion.  “Is the show included in the price of the drink?”

She opened the bottle with an expert twist of her wrist, and set it down in front of me with a clean mug.  “I’m a generous soul, love,” she said, winking.  “Why charge when I can engage in selfless charity?”

She poured the beer into the mug and set it on a napkin in front of me.  She slid a bowl of bar nuts down my way.  “Drinking alone?”

“That depends on whether or not you’ll let me buy one for you.”

She laughed.  “A gentleman, is it?  Sir, you must think me all manner of tart if you think I’d accept a drink from a stranger.”

“I’m Harry,” I said.

“And so we are strangers no longer,” she replied, and got out another bottle of ale.  She took her time about it, and she watched me as she did it.  She straightened, also slowly, and opened her bottle before putting it gently to her lips and taking a slow pull.  Then she arched an eyebrow at me and said, “See anything else you like?  Something tasty, perhaps?”

“I suppose I am kind of an aural guy at the moment,” I said.  “Got a minute to talk to me, Jill?”

Her smile faded swiftly.  “I’ve never seen you in here before.  How is it you know my name?”

I reached into my shirt and tugged out my pentacle, letting it fall down against my T-shirt.  Jill studied that for a few seconds, then took a second look at me.  Her mouth opened in a silent “ah” of understanding.  “The wizard.  Dresden, isn’t it?”

“Harry,” I said.

She nodded and took another, warier sip of her beer.

“Relax,” I said.  “I’m not here on Council business.  But a friend of mine among the Fair Folk told me that you were the person to talk to about the Tylwyth Teg.”

She tilted her head to one side, and smiled slightly.  “I’m not sure how I could help you, Harry.  I’m just a storyteller.”

“But you know about the Tylwyth Teg.”

“I know stories of them,” she countered.  “That’s not the same as knowing them.  Not in the way that your folk care about.”

“I’m not doing politics between members of the Unseelie Accords right now,” I said.

“But you’re one of the magi,” she said.  “Surely you know what I do.”

“I’m still pretty young, for a wiseguy.  And nobody can know everything,” I said.  “My knowledge of the Fair Folk pretty much begins and ends with the Winter and Summer Courts.  I know that the Tylwyth Teg are an independent kingdom of the Wyld.  Stories might give me what I need.”

The sparkle returned to her eyes for a moment.  “This is the first time a man I’ve flirted with told me that stories were what he needed.”

“I could gaze longingly at your décolletage while you talk, if you like.”

“Given how much trouble I go to in order to show it off, it would seem polite.”

I lowered my eyes demurely to her chest for a moment.  “Well.  If I must.”

She let out a full-bodied laugh, which made attractive things happen to her upper body.  “What stories are you interested in, specifically?”

I grinned at her.  “Tell me about the Tylwyth Teg and goats.”

Jill nodded thoughtfully and took another sip of beer.  “Well,” she said.  “Goats were a favored creature among them.  The Tylwyth Teg, if treated with respect by a household of mortals, would often perform tasks for them.  One of the most common tasks was the grooming of goats--cleaning out their fur and brushing their beards for Sunday morning.”

I took a notebook from my duster’s pocket and started making notes.  “Uh huh.”

“The Tylwyth Teg were shapeshifters,” Jill continued.  “They’re a small folk, only a couple of feet tall, and though they could take what form they wished, they usually changed into fairly small animals--foxes, cats, dogs, owls, hares and…”

“And goats?”

She lifted her eyebrows.  “And goats, aye.  Though the stories can become very odd at times.  More than one Welsh farmer who managed to capture a bride of the Tylwyth Teg found himself waking up to a goat beside him in his bed, or took his wife’s hand only to feel the shape of a cloven hoof beneath his fingertips.”

“Weregoats,” I muttered.  “Jesus.”

“They’re masters of deceit and trickery,” Jill continued.  “And we mortals are well advised to show them the proper respect, if we intrude upon them at all.”

“What happens if we don’t?”

Jill shook her head.  “That would depend upon the offense, and which of the Tylwyth Teg were offended.  They were capable of almost anything if their pride was wounded.”

“The usual Fair Folk response?” I asked.  “Bad fortune, children taken, that sort of thing?”

Jill shook her head.  “Harry, love, the Queens of Winter and Summer do not kill mortals, and so frown upon their followers taking such action.  But the high folk of the Tylwyth Teg have no such restrictions.”

“They’d kill?” I asked.

“They can, have, and will take life in acts of vengeance,” Jill said seriously.  “They always respond in balance--but push them too far and they will.”

“Damn,” I said.  “Those are some hardcore faeries.”

Jill sucked in a sharp breath and her eyes glittered brightly.  “What did you say?”

I became suddenly aware of the massive redhead by the door rising to his feet.

I swigged a bit of beer and put the notebook back in my pocket.  “I called them faeries,” I drawled.

The floorboards creaked under the weight of Big Red, walking toward me.

Jill stared at me with eyes that were hard and brittle like glass.  “You of all, wizard, should know that word is an insult to… them.”

            “Oh, right,” I said.  “They get real upset when you call them that.”  A shadow fell across me.  I sipped more beer without turning around and said, “Did someone just put up a building?”

            A hand the size of a Christmas ham fell onto my shoulder and Big Red growled, “You want me to leave some marks?”

            “Come on, Jill,” I said.  “Don’t be sore.  It’s not as though you’re trying all that hard to hide.  You left plenty of clues for the game.”

Jill stared at me with unreadable eyes and said nothing.

I started ticking off points on my fingers.  “Llyn y Fan Fach is a lake sacred to the Tylwyth Teg over in the Old World.  You don’t get a lot more Welsh than that leek and daffodil emblem.  And as for calling yourself ‘Jill,’ that’s a pretty thin mask to go cover the presence of one of the Jili Ffrwtan.”  I tilted my head back to indicate Big Red.  “Changeling, right?”

Big Red’s fingers tightened enough to hurt.  I started to get a little bit concerned.

Jill held up a hand and Big Red let go of me at once.  I heard the floor creaking as he retreated.  She stared at me for a moment more, then smiled faintly and said, “The mask is more than sufficient when no one is looking for the face behind it.  What gave us away?”

I shrugged.  “Someone has to be renewing the spell laid on Wrigley Field on a regular basis.  It almost had to be someone local.  Once I remembered that the Fair Folk of Wales had a rather singular affinity with goats, the rest was just a matter of legwork.”

She finished off the beer in a long pull, her eyes sparkling again.  “And my own reaction to the insult was the cherry on top.”

I drained my mug and shrugged modestly.  “I apologize for speaking so crudely, lady.  It was the only way I could be sure.”

“Powerful, clever and polite,” she murmured.  She leaned forward onto the bar and it got really hard not to notice her bosom.  “You and I might get along.”

I winked at her and said, “You’re trying to distract me, and doing it well.  But I’d like to speak to someone in authority over the enchantment laid on Wrigley.”

“And who says our folk are behind such a thing?”

“Your cleavage,” I replied.  “Otherwise, why try to distract me?”

She let out another laugh, though this one was softer and more silvery, a tinkling and unearthly tone that made my ears feel like someone with fantastic lips was blowing gently into them.  “Even if they are, what makes you think that we would alter that weaving now?”

I shrugged.  “Perhaps you will.  Perhaps you won’t.  I only request, please, to speak to one with authority over the curse, to discuss what might be done about it.”

She studied me through narrowed eyes for another silent moment.

“I said please,” I pointed out to her.  “And I did buy you that beer.”

“True,” she murmured, and then gave me a smile that made my skin feel like I was standing close to a bonfire.  She tossed her white cloth to one side and said, toward Big Red, “Mind the store for a bit?”

He nodded at her and settled back down into his chair.

The Jili Ffrwtan came out from behind the bar, hips swaying in deliciously feminine motion.  I rose and offered her my arm in my best, old-fashioned courtly style.  It made her smile, and she laid her hand on my forearm lightly, barely touching.  “This,” she said, “should be interesting.”

I smiled at her again and asked, “Where are we going?”

“Why, to Annwn, my love,” the Jili Ffrwtan said, pronouncing it, ah-noon.  “We go to the land of the dead.”


Copyright © 2011 by Jim Butcher

Multiple award-winning editor Ellen Datlow has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for almost thirty years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and has edited more than fifty anthologies, including the horror half of the long-running The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. She lives in New York. Visit her on the web at www.datlow.com.