Small FavorJim Butcher
Many folks deserve thanks as usual, particularly my family, who has to put up with my insanity during deadline crunches; my agent, Jenn, who has to make excuses to my editor when I'm late; and my editor, Anne, who in turn has to make excuses for me to her bosses; plus the Beta Asylum, who have the ongoing task of pointing out warts on my babies. The lunatics.
This time I have to add new folks to the list-the local and visiting players at NERO Central, who were good enough to step around me during various roleplay and combat actions, while I finished off the last few chapters of Small Favor in the corner of the tavern.
W inter came early that year; it should have been a tip-off.
A snowball soared through the evening air and smacked into my apprentice's mouth. Since she was muttering a mantra-style chant when it hit her, she wound up with a mouthful of frozen cheer-which may or may not have been more startling for her than for most people, given how many metallic piercings were suddenly in direct contact with the snow.
Molly Carpenter sputtered, spitting snow, and a round of hooting laughter went up from the children gathered around her. Tall, blond, and athletic, dressed in jeans and a heavy winter coat, she looked natural in the snowy setting, her cheeks and nose turning red with the cold.
"Concentration, Molly!" I called. I carefully kept any laughter I might have wanted to indulge in from my voice. "You've got to concentrate! Again!"
The children, her younger brothers and sisters, immediately began packing fresh ammunition to hurl at her. The backyard of the Carpenter house was already thoroughly chewed up from an evening of winter warfare, and two low "fortress" walls faced each other across ten yards of open lawn. Molly stood between them, shivering, and gave me an impatient look.
"This can't possibly be real training," she said, her voice quavering with cold. "You're just doing this for your own sick amusement, Harry. "
I beamed at her and accepted a freshly made snowball from little Hope, who had apparently appointed herself my squire. I thanked the small girl gravely, and bounced the snowball on my palm a few times. "Nonsense," I said. "This is wonderful practice. Did you think you were going to start off bouncing bullets?"
Molly gave me an exasperated look. Then she took a deep breath, bowed her head again, and lifted her left hand, her fingers spread wide. She began muttering again, and I felt the subtle shift of energies moving as she began drawing magic up around her in an almost solid barrier, a shield that rose between her and the incipient missile storm.
"Ready!" I called out. "Aim!"
Every single person there, including myself, threw before I got to the end of aim, and snowballs sped through the air, flung by children ranging from the eldest, Daniel, who was seventeen, down to the youngest, little Harry, who wasn't yet big enough to have much of a throwing arm, but who didn't let that stop him from making the largest snowball he could lift.
Snowballs pelted my apprentice's shield, and it stopped the first two, the frozen missiles exploding into puffs of fresh powder. The rest of them, though, went right on through Molly's defenses, and she was splattered with several pounds of snow. Little Harry ran up to her and threw last, with both hands, and shrieked merry triumph as his bread-loaf-sized snowball splattered all over Molly's stomach.
"Fire!" I barked belatedly.
Molly fell onto her butt in the snow, sputtered some more, and burst out in a long belly laugh. Harry and Hope, the youngest of the children, promptly jumped on top of her, and from there the lesson in defensive magic devolved into the Carpenter children's longstanding tradition of attempting to shovel as much snow as possible down the necks of one another's coats. I grinned and stood there watching them, and a moment later found the children's mother standing beside me.
Molly took after Charity Carpenter, who had passed her coloring and build on to her daughter. Charity and I haven't always seen eye-to-eye-well, in point of fact, we've hardly ever seen eye-to-eye-but tonight she was smiling at the children's antics.
"Good evening, Mister Dresden," she murmured.
"Charity," I replied amiably. "This happen a lot?"
"Almost always, during the first real snowfall of the year," she said. "Generally, though, it's closer to Christmas than Halloween. "
I watched the children romping. Though Molly was growing quickly, in a number of senses, she reverted to childhood easily enough here, and it did me good to see it.
I sensed Charity's unusually intense regard and glanced at her, lifting an eyebrow in question.
"You never had a snowball fight with family," she said quietly, "did you?"
I shook my head and turned my attention back to the kids. "No family to have the fight with," I said. "Sometimes the kids would try, at school, but the teachers wouldn't let it happen. And a lot of times the other kids did it to be mean, instead of to have fun. That changes things. "
Charity nodded, and also looked back at the kids. "My daughter. How is her training progressing?"
"Well, I think," I said. "Her talents don't lie anywhere close to the same areas mine do. And she's never going to be much of a combat wizard. "
Charity frowned. "Why do you say that? Do you think she isn't strong enough?"
"Strength has nothing to do with it. But her greatest talents make her unsuited for it in some ways. "
"I don't understand. "
"Well, she's good with subtle things. Delicate things. Her ability at handling fine, sensitive magic is outstanding, and increasing all the time. But that same sensitivity means that she has problems handling the psychic stresses of real combat. It also makes the gross physical stuff a real challenge for her. "
"Like stopping snowballs?" Charity asked.
"Snowballs are good practice," I said. "Nothing gets hurt but her pride. "
Charity nodded, frowning. "But you didn't learn with snowballs, did you. "
The memory of my first shielding lesson under Justin DuMorne wasn't a particularly sentimental one. "Baseballs. "
"Merciful God," Charity said, shaking her head. "How old were you?"
"Thirteen. " I shrugged a shoulder. "Pain's a good motivator. I learned fast. "
"But you aren't trying to teach my daughter the same way," Charity said.
"There's no rush," I said.
The noise from the children stopped, dropping to furtive whispers, and I winked at Charity. She glanced from the children to me, amusement evident in her face. Not five seconds later Molly shouted, "Now!" and multiple snowballs came zipping toward me.
I lifted my left hand, focusing my will, my magic, and drew it into the shape of a broad, flat disk in front of me. It wasn't a good enough shield to stop bullets, or even well-thrown baseballs, but for snowballs it was just fine. They shattered to powder on my shield, revealing it in little flashes of pale blue light as a circular plane of force centered on the outspread fingers of my extended left hand.
The children laughed as they cried out their disapproval. I shouted, "Hah!" and lifted a triumphant fist.
Then Charity, standing behind me, dumped a double handful of snow down the neck of my coat.
I yelped as the cold ate my spinal cord, jumped up out of my tracks, and danced around trying to shake the snow out from under my clothes. The children cheered their mother on and began flinging snowballs at more or less random targets, and in all the excitement and frivolity I didn't realize that we were under attack until the lights went out.
The entire block plunged into darkness-the floodlights illuminating the Carpenters' backyard, house lights in every nearby home, and the streetlights were all abruptly extinguished. Eerie, ambient werelight reflected from the snow. Shadows suddenly yaw
ned where there had been none before, and the scent of something midway between a skunk and a barrel of rotting eggs assaulted my nostrils.
I yanked my blasting rod out of its holder on the inside of my coat and said to Charity, "Get them inside. "
"Emergency," Charity said in a far calmer voice than I had managed. "Everyone into the safe room, just like in practice. "
The children had just begun to move when three creatures I had never seen before came bounding through the snow. Time slowed as the adrenaline hit my system, and it felt like I had half an hour to study them.
They weren't terribly tall, maybe five-foot-six, but they were layered with white fur and muscle. Each had a head that was almost goatlike, but the horns atop them curled around to the front like a bull's rather than arching back. Their legs were reverse-jointed and ended in hooves, and they moved in a series of single-legged leaps more than running. They got better air than a Chicago Bull, too, which meant I was dealing with something with supernatural strength.
Though, thinking about it, I couldn't actually remember the last time I'd dealt with something that didn't have supernatural strength, which is one of the drawbacks of the wizard business. I mean, some things are stronger than others, sure, but it wouldn't much matter to my skull if a paranormal bruiser could bench-press a locomotive or if he was merely buff enough to juggle refrigerators.
I trained the tip of my blasting rod on the lead whatsit, and then a bunch of snow fell from above in my peripheral vision, landing on the ground beside me with a soft thump.
I threw myself into a forward dive, rolled over one shoulder, and came to my feet already moving laterally. I was just in time to avoid the rush of a fourth whatsit, which had knocked the snow loose just before it dropped down onto me from the tree house Michael had built for his kids. It let out a hissing, bubbling snarl.
I didn't have time to waste with this backstabbing twit. So I raised the rod as its tip burst into scarlet flame, unleashed my will, and snarled, "Fuego!"
A wrist-thick lance of pure flame leapt from the blasting rod and seared the creature's upper body to blackened meat. The excess heat melted snow all around it and sent up a billow of scalding steam. Judging by the tackle hanging between the thing's legs as the steam burst up from the snow, it probably inflicted as much pain as the actual fire.
The whatsit went down, and I had to hope that it wasn't bright enough to play possum: The Carpenter children were screaming.
I whirled around, readying the rod again, and didn't have a clear shot. One of the white-furred creatures was running hard after Daniel, Molly's oldest brother. He'd begun to fill out, and he ran with his fingers locked on the back of the coats of little Harry and Hope, the youngest children, carrying them like luggage.
He gained the door with the creature not ten feet behind him, its wicked-looking horns lowered as it charged. Daniel went through the door and kicked it shut with his foot, never slowing down, and the creature slammed into it head-on.
I hadn't realized that Michael had installed all-steel, wood-paneled security doors on his home, just as I had on mine. The creature probably would have pulverized a wooden door. Instead it slammed its head into the steel door, horns leading the way, and drove a foot-deep dent into it.
And then it lurched away, letting out a burbling shriek of pain. Smoke rose from its horns, and it staggered back, swatting at them with its three-fingered, clawed hands. There weren't many things that reacted to the touch of steel like that.
The other two whatsits had divided their attention. One was pursuing Charity, who was carrying little Amanda and running like hell for the workshop Michael had converted from a freestanding garage. The other was charging Molly, who had pushed Alicia and Matthew behind her.
There wasn't time enough to help both groups, and even less to waste over the moral dilemma of a difficult choice.
I turned the rod on the beastie chasing Charity and let it have it. The blast hit it in the small of its back and knocked it from its hooves. It flew sideways, slamming into the wall of the workshop, and Charity dashed through the door with her daughter.
I turned my blasting rod back to the other creature, but I already knew that I wouldn't be in time. The creature lowered its horns and closed on Molly and her siblings before I could line up for another shot.
"Molly!" I screamed.
My apprentice seized Alicia's and Matthew's hands, gasped out a word, and all three of them abruptly vanished.
The creature's charge carried it past the space they'd been in, though something I couldn't see struck its hoof and sent it staggering. It wheeled around at full speed, kicking up snow as it did, and I felt a sudden, fierce surge of exaltation and pride. The grasshopper might not be able to put up a decent shield, but she could do veils like they were going out of style, and she'd kept her focus and her wits about her.
The creature slowed, head sweeping, and then it saw the snow being disturbed by invisible feet, moving toward the house. It bawled out another unworldly cry and went after them, and I didn't dare risk another blast of flame-not with the Carpenters' house in the line of fire. So instead I lifted my right hand, triggered one of the triple-layered rings on it with my will, and sent a burst of raw force at the whatsit.
The unseen energy struck it in the knees, throwing its legs out from under it with such strength that its head slammed into the snow. The disturbance in the snow rushed around toward the front door of the house. Molly must have realized that the deformation of the security door would make it difficult, if not impossible, to open, and once again I felt fierce approval.
But it faded rather rapidly when the whatsit that had been playing possum behind me slammed into the small of my back like a sulfur-and-rotten-egg-driven locomotive.
The horns hit hard and it hurt like hell, but the defensive magic on my long black leather duster kept them from impaling me. The impact knocked the wind out of me, snapped my head back sharply, and flung me to the snow. Everything got confusing for a second, and then I realized that it was standing over me, ripping at the back of my neck with its claws. I hunched my shoulders and rolled, only to be kicked in the nose by a cloven hoof, and an utterly gratuitous amount of pain came with a side order of whirling stars.
I kept trying to get away, but my motions were sluggish, and the whatsit was faster than me.
Charity stepped out of the workshop with a steel-hafted ball-peen hammer in her left hand, and a heavy-duty contractor's nail gun in her right.
She lifted the nail gun from ten feet away and started pulling the trigger as she walked forward. It made phut-phut-phut sounds, and the already seared whatsit started screaming in pain. It leapt up wildly, twisting in agonized gyrations in midair, and fell to the snow, thrashing. I saw heavy nails sticking up out of its back, and the smoking wounds were bleeding green-white fire.
It tried to run, but I managed to kick its hooves out from under it before it could regain its footing.
Charity whirled the hammer in a vertical stroke, letting out a sharp cry as she did, and the steel head of the tool smashed open the whatsit's skull. The wound erupted with greyish matter and more green-white fire, and the creature twitched once before it went still, its body being consumed by the eerie flame.
I stood up, blasting rod still in hand, and found the remaining beasties wounded but mobile, their yellow, rectangular-pupiled eyes glaring in hate and hunger.
I ditched the blasting rod and picked up a steel-headed snow shovel that had been left lying next to one of the children's snow forts. Charity raised her nail gun, and we began walking toward them.
Whatever these things were, they didn't have the stomach for a fight against mortals armed with cold steel. They shuddered as if they had been a single being, then turned and bounded away into the night.
I stood there, panting and peering around me. I had to spit blood out of my mouth every few breaths. My nose felt like someone had superglued a cou
ple of live coals to it. Little silver wires of pain ran all through my neck, from the whiplash of getting hit from behind, and the small of my back felt like one enormous bruise.
"Are you all right?" Charity asked.
"Faeries," I muttered. "Why did it have to be faeries?"
"W ell," Charity said, "it's broken. "
"You think?" I asked. The light touch of her fingers on my nose was less than pleasant, but I didn't twitch or make any sounds of discomfort while she examined me. It's a guy thing.
"At least it isn't out of place," Michael said, knocking snow off of his boots. "Getting it set back is the sort of thing you don't mind forgetting. "
"Find anything?" I asked him.
The big man nodded his head and set a sheathed broadsword in a corner against the wall. Michael was only a couple of inches shorter than me, and a lot more muscular. He had dark hair and a short beard, both of them peppered with silver, and wore blue jeans, work boots, and a blue-and-white flannel shirt. "That corpse is still there. It's mostly a burned mess, but it didn't dissolve. "
"Yeah," I said. "Faeries aren't wholly beings of the spirit world. They leave corpses behind. "
Michael grunted. "Other than that there were footprints, but that's about it. No sign that these goat-things were still around. " He glanced into the dining room, where the Carpenter children were gathered at the table, talking excitedly and munching the pizza their father had been out picking up when the attack occurred. "The neighbors think the light show must have come from a blown transformer. "
"That's as good an excuse as any," I said.
"I thank God no one was hurt," he said. For him it wasn't just an expression. He meant it literally. It came of being a devout Catholic, and maybe from toting around a holy sword with one of the nails from the Crucifixion wrought into the blade. He shook himself and gave me a short smile. "And you, of course, Harry. "
"Thank Daniel, Molly, and Charity," I said. "I just kept our visitors busy. Your family's who got the little ones to safety. And Charity did all the actual smiting. "
Michael's eyebrows went up, and he turned his gaze on his wife. "Did she now?"
Charity's cheeks turned pink. She briskly swept up the various tissues and cloths I'd bloodied, and carried them out of the room to be burned in the lit fireplace in the living room. In my business, you don't ever want samples of your blood, your hair, or your fingernail clippings lying around for someone else to find. I gave Michael the rundown of the fight while she was gone.
"My nail gun?" he asked, grinning, as Charity came back into the kitchen. "How did you know it was a faerie?"
"I didn't," she said. "I just grabbed what was at hand. "
"We got lucky," I said.
Michael arched an eyebrow at me.
I scowled at him. "Not every good thing that happens is divine intervention, Michael. "
"True," Michael said, "but I prefer to give Him the credit unless I have a good reason to believe otherwise. It seems more polite than the other way around. "
Charity came to stand at her husband's side. Though they were both smiling and speaking lightly about the attack, I noticed that they were holding hands very tightly, and Charity's eyes kept drifting over toward the children, as if to reassure herself that they were still there and safe.
I suddenly felt like an intruder.
"Well," I said, rising, "looks like I've got a new project. "
Michael nodded. "Do you know the motive for the attack?"
"That's the project," I said. I pulled my duster on, wincing as the motion made me move my stiffening neck. "I think they were after me. The attack on the kids was a diversion to give the one in the tree a shot at my back. "
"Are you sure about that?" Charity asked quietly.
"No," I admitted. "It's possible that they're holding a grudge about that business at Arctis Tor. "
Charity's eyes narrowed and went steely. Arctis Tor was the heart of the Winter Court, the fortress and sanctum sanctorum of Queen Mab herself. Some nasty customers from Winter had stolen Molly, and Charity and I, with a little help, had stormed the tower and taken Molly back by main force. The whole mess had been noisy as hell, and we'd pissed off an entire nation of wicked fae in the process of making it.
"Keep your eyes open, just in case," I told her. "And let Molly know that I'd like her to stay here for the time being. "
Michael quirked an eyebrow at me. "You think she needs our protection?"
"No," I said. "I think you might need hers. "
Michael blinked. Charity frowned quietly, but did not dispute me.
I nodded to both of them and left. Molly wasn't rebelling against everything I told her to do purely upon reflex these days, but fait accompli remained the best way of avoiding arguments with her.
I shut the door to the Carpenter household behind me, cutting off the scent of hot pizza and the sound of loudly animated children's voices, raucous after the excitement.
The November night was silent. And very cold.
I fought off an urge to shiver and hurried to my car, a beat-up old Volkswagen Beetle that had originally been powder blue, but was now a mix of red, blue, green, white, yellow, and now primer grey on the new hood my mechanic had scrounged up. Some anonymous joker who had seen too many Disney movies had spray-painted the number 53 inside a circle on the hood, but the car's name was the Blue Beetle, and it was going to stay that way.
I sat looking at the warm golden light coming from the house for a moment.
Then I coaxed the Beetle to life and headed for home.
"A nd you're sure they were faeries?" Bob the skull asked.
I scowled. "How many other things get their blood set on fire when it touches iron and steel, Bob? Yes, I think I know a faerie when I get my nose broken by one. "
I was down in my lab, which was accessed by means of a trapdoor in my basement apartment's living room and a folding wooden stepladder. It's a concrete box of a room, deep enough under the rest of the boardinghouse I live in to be perpetually cool. In the summer that's nice. Come winter, not so much.
The lab consisted of a wooden table running down the center of the room, and was surrounded on three sides by tables and workbenches against the outer wall of the room, leaving a narrow walkway around the table. The workbenches were littered with the tools of the trade, and I'd installed those white wire shelving units you can get pretty cheap at Wal-Mart on the walls above the benches, creating more storage space. The shelves were covered with an enormous variety of containers, from a lead-lined box to burlap bags, from Tupperware to a leather pouch made from the genital sac of, I kid you not, an actual African lion.
It was a gift. Don't ask.
Candles burned around the room, giving it light and twinkling off the pewter miniature buildings on the center table, a scale model of the city of Chicago. I'd brought down a single writing desk for Molly-all the room I had to spare-and her own notebooks and slowly accumulating collection of gear managed to stay neatly organized despite the tiny space.
"Well, it looks like someone is holding Arctis Tor against you," Bob said. The skull, its eye sockets glowing with orange flickers of light like candles you couldn't quite see, sat on its own shelf on the uncluttered wall. Half a dozen paperback romance novels littered the shelf around it, and a seventh had fallen from the shelf and now lay on the floor, obscuring a portion of the silver summoning circle I'd installed there. "Faeries don't ever forget a grudge, boss. "
I shook my head at the skull, scooped up the fallen book, and put it back on the shelf. "You ever heard of anything like these guys?"
"My knowledge of the faerie realms is mostly limited to the Winter end of things," Bob said. "These guys don't sound like anything I've run into. "
"Then why would they be holding the fight at Arctis Tor against me, Bob?" I asked. "Hell, we weren't even the ones who really
assaulted Winter's capital. We just walked in on the aftermath and picked a fight with some of Winter's errand boys who had swiped Molly. "
"Maybe some of the Winter Sidhe hired out the vengeance gig as contract labor. These could have been Wyldfae, you know. There's a lot more Wyld than anything else. They could have been satyrs. " His eyelights brightened. "Did you see any nymphs? If there are satyrs, there's bound to be a nymph or two somewhere close. "
"No, Bob. "
"Are you sure? Naked girl, drop-dead gorgeous, old enough to know better and young enough not to care?"
"I'd have remembered that if I'd seen it," I said.
"Feh," Bob said, his eyelights dwindling in disappointment. "You can't do anything right, Harry. "
I rubbed my hand against the back of my neck. It didn't make it hurt any less, but it gave me something to do. "I've seen these goat guys, or read about them before," I said. "Or at least something close to them. Where did I put those texts on the near reaches of the Nevernever?"
"North wall, green plastic box under the workbench," Bob provided immediately.
"Thanks," I said. I dragged out the heavy plastic storage box. It was filled with books, most of them leather-bound, handwritten treatises on various supernatural topics. Except for one book that was a compilation of "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strips. How had that gotten in there?
I picked up several of the books, carried them to the part of the table that was modeled as Lake Michigan, and set them down. Then I pulled up my stool and started flipping through them.
"How was the trip to Dallas?" Bob asked.
"Hmmm? Oh, fine, fine. Someone was being stalked by a Black Dog. " I glanced up at the map of the United States hanging on the wall beneath Bob's shelf on a thick piece of poster board. I absently plucked a green thumbtack from the board and poked it into Dallas, Texas, where it joined more than a dozen other green pins and a very few red ones, where the false alarms had been. "They contacted me through the Paranet, and I showed them how to give Fido the bum's rush out of town. "
"This support network thing you and Elaine have going is really smart," Bob said. "Teach the minnows how to gang up when a big fish shows up to eat them. "
"I prefer to think of it as teaching sparrows to band together and chase off hawks," I said, returning to my seat.
"Either way, it means less exposure to danger and less work for you in the long run. Constructive cowardice. Very crafty. I approve. " His voice turned wistful. "I hear that they have some of the best strip clubs in the world in Dallas, Harry. "
I gave Bob a hard look. "If you're not going to help me, at least don't distract me. "
"Oh," Bob said. "Check. " The romance I'd put back on the shelf quivered for a second and then flipped over and opened to the first page. The skull turned toward the book, the orange light from its eyes falling over the pages.
I went through one old text. Then two. Then three. Hell's bells, I knew I'd seen or read something in one of these.
"Rip her dress off!" Bob shouted.
Bob the skull takes paperback romances very seriously. The next page turned so quickly that he tore the paper a little. Bob is even harder on books than I am.
"That's what I'm talking about!" Bob hollered as more pages turned.
"They couldn't have been satyrs," I mumbled out loud, trying to draw my thoughts into order. My nose hurt like hell and my neck hurt like someplace in the same zip code. That kind of pain wears you down fast, even when you're a wizard who learned his basics while being violently bombarded with baseballs. "Satyrs have human faces. These things didn't. "
"Weregoats?" Bob suggested. He flipped another page and kept reading. Bob is a spirit of intellect, and he multitasks better than, well, pretty much anybody. "Or maybe goatweres. "
I stopped for a moment and gave the skull an exasperated look. "I can't believe I just heard that word. "
"What?" Bob asked brightly. "Weregoats?"
"Weregoats. I'm fairly sure I could have led a perfectly rich and satisfying life even if I hadn't heard that word or enjoyed the mental images it conjures. "
Bob chortled. "Stars and stones, you're easy, Harry. "
"Weregoats," I muttered, and went back to reading. After finishing the fifth book, I went back for another armload. Bob shouted at his book, cheering during what were apparently the love scenes and heckling most of the rest, as if the characters had all been live performers on a stage.
Which would probably tell me something important about Bob, if I were an astute sort of person. After all, Bob himself was, essentially, a spiritual creature created from the energy of thought. The characters within a book were, from a certain point of view, identical on some fundamental level-there weren't any images of them, no physical tangibility whatsoever. They were pictures in the reader's head, constructs of imagination and ideas, given shape by the writer's work and skill and the reader's imagination. Parents, of a sort.
Did Bob, as he read his books and imagined their events, regard those constructed beings as. . . siblings, of some sort? Peers? Children? Could a being like Bob develop some kind of acquired taste for a family? It was entirely possible. It might explain his constant fascination with fictional subject matter dealing with the origins of a mortal family.
Then again, he might regard the characters in the same way some men do those inflatable sex dolls. I was pretty sure I didn't want to know.
Good thing I'm not astute.
I found our attackers on the eighth book, about halfway through, complete with notes and sketches.
"Holy crap," I muttered, sitting up straight.
"Find 'em?" Bob asked.
"Yeah," I said, and held up the book so he could see the sketch. It was a better match for our goatish attackers than most police sketches of perpetrators. "If the book is right, I just got jumped by gruffs. "
Bob's romance novel dropped to the surface of the shelf. He made a choking sound. "Um. Did you say gruffs?"
I scowled at him and he began to giggle. The skull rattled against the shelf.
"Gruffs?" He tittered.
"What?" I said, offended.
"As in 'The Three Billy Goats Gruff '?" The skull howled with laughter. "You just got your ass handed to you by a nursery tale?"
"I wouldn't say they handed me my ass," I said.
Bob was nearly strangling on his laughter, and given that he had no lungs it seemed gratuitous somehow. "That's because you can't see yourself," he choked out. "Your nose is all swollen up and you've got two black eyes. You look like a raccoon. Holding a dislocated ass. "
"You didn't see these things in action," I said. "They were strong, and pretty smart. And there were four of them. "
"Just like the Four Horsemen!" he said. "Only with petting zoos!"
I scowled some more. "Fine, fine," I said. "I'm glad I can amuse you. "
"Oh, absolutely," Bob said, his voice bubbling with mirth. "'Help me, help me! It's the Billy Goats Gruff!'"
I glared. "You're missing the point, Bob. "
"It can't be as funny as what has come through," he said. "I'll bet every Sidhe in Winter is giggling about it. "
"Bet they're not," I said. "That's the point. The gruffs work for Summer. They're some of Queen Titania's enforcers. "
Bob's laughter died abruptly. "Oh. "
I nodded. "After that business at Arctis Tor, I could understand if someone from Winter had come after me. I never figured to do this kind of business with Summer. "
"Well," Bob pointed out, "you did kind of give Queen Titania's daughter the death of a thousand cuts. "
I grunted. "Yeah. But why send hitters now? She could have done it years ago. "
"That's faeries for you," Bob said. "Logic isn't exactly their strong suit. "
I grunted. "Life should be so simple. " I thumped my finger on the book, thinking. "There's more to this. I'm sure of it. "
"How high are they in the Summer h
ierarchy?" Bob asked.
"They're up there," I said. "As a group, anyway. They've got a reputation for killing trolls. Probably where the nursery tale comes from. "
"Troll killers," Bob said. "Trolls. Like Mab's personal guard, whose pieces you found scattered all over Arctis Tor?"
"Exactly," I said. "But what I did there ticked off Winter, not Summer. "
"I've always admired your ability to be unilaterally irritating. "
I shook my head. "No. I must have done something there that hurt Summer somehow. " I frowned. "Or helped Winter. Bob, do you know-"
The phone started ringing. I had run a long extension cord from the outlet in my bedroom down to the lab, after Molly had nearly broken her neck rushing up the stepladder to answer a call. The old windup clock on one shelf told me that it was after midnight. Nobody calls me that late unless it's something bad.
"Hold that thought," I told Bob.
"It's me," Murphy said when I answered. "I need you. "
"Why, Sergeant, I'm touched," I said. "You've admitted the truth at last. Cue sweeping romantic theme music. "
"I'm serious," she said. Something in her voice sounded tired, strained.
"Where?" I asked her.
She gave me the address and we hung up.
I barely ever got work from Chicago PD anymore, and between that and my frequent trips to other cities as part of my duties as a Warden, I hadn't been making diddly as an investigator. My stipend as a Warden of the White Council kept me from bankruptcy, but my bank account had bled slowly down to the point where I had to be really careful to avoid bouncing checks.
I needed the work.
"That was Murphy," I said, "making a duty call. "
"This late at night, what else could it be?" Bob agreed. "Watch your back extra careful, boss. "
"Why do you say that?" I said, shrugging into my coat.
"I don't know if you're up on your nursery tales," Bob said, "but if you'll remember, the Billy Goats Gruff had a whole succession of brothers. "
"Yeah," I said. "Each of them bigger and meaner than the last. "
I headed out to meet Murphy.