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Summer Knight, Page 12

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twelve

  I got out of the old apartment building and back to the Blue Beetle without being mugged by any attackers, inhuman or otherwise. As I pulled out, a patrol car rolled up, blue bubbles flashing. I drove away at a sedate pace and tried to keep my shaking hands from making the car bob or swerve. No one pulled me over, so I must have done all right. Score one for the good guys.

  I had time to think, though I wasn't sure I wanted to. I'd gone to Reuel's apartment on a simple snoop, not really expecting to find much, if anything. But I'd gotten lucky. Not only had I shown up at the right place, I'd done it at the right time. Someone obviously wanted to hide something there - either more pictures like the one I'd found or other papers from somewhere in the place. What I needed to determine now was what Grum had been trying to collect or - nearly as good - why he was trying to make some kind of evidence vanish. Failing that, knowing who he was working for would do almost as well - ogres aren't exactly known for their independent initiative. And given what was going on, it would be ludicrous to assume that one of the heavyweight thugs of the lands of Faerie just happened to be doing an independent contract in the home of the recently deceased.

  Ogres were wyldfae - they could work for either Winter or Summer, and they could have a range of personalities and temperaments running the gamut from jovially violent to maliciously violent. Grum hadn't seemed to be on the cheerful end of that particular scale, but he had been both decisive and restrained. The average walking mountain of muscle from Faerie wouldn't have held back from beating me to a pulp, regardless of what the neighbors shouted. That meant that Grum had more savvy than the average bear, that he was dangerous - even if I didn't take into account how easily he had ignored the spells I'd hurled at him.

  All ogres have an innate capacity for neutralizing magical forces to one degree or another. Grum had grounded out my spells like I'd been scuffing my feet on the carpet to give him a little static electricity zap. That meant that he was an old faerie, and a strong one. The quick and thorough shapeshifting supported that assessment as well. Your average club-swinging thewmonger couldn't have taken human form, complete with clothing, so ably.

  Smart plus strong plus quick equals badass. Most likely he was a trusted personal guard or a highly placed enforcer.

  But for whom?

  At a stop light I stared at the photograph I'd taken from Grum.

  "Damn," I muttered, "who are these people?"

  I added it to the list of questions still growing like fungus in a locker room.

  Ronald Reuel's funeral had already begun by the time I arrived. Flannery's Funeral Home in the River North area had been a family-run business until a few years before. It was an old place, but had always been well kept. Now the carefully landscaped shrubbery had been replaced with big rocks, which were no doubt easier to maintain. The parking lot had a lot of cracks in it, and only about half of the outdoor lights were burning. The sign, an illuminated glass-and-plastic number that read QUIET ACRES FUNERAL HOME, glared in garish green and blue above the front door.

  I parked the Beetle, tucked the photo into my pocket, and got out of the car. I couldn't casually take my staff or my blasting rod into the funeral home. People who don't believe in magic look at you oddly when you walk in toting a big stick covered with carvings of runes and sigils. The people who know what I am would react in much the same way as if I had walked in draped in belts of ammo and carrying a heavy-caliber machine gun in each hand, John Wayne-style. There could be plenty of each sort inside, so I carried only the low-profile stuff: my ring, mostly depleted, my shield bracelet, and my mother's silver pentacle amulet. My reflection in the glass door reminded me that I had underdressed for the evening, but I wasn't there to make the social column. I slipped into the building and headed for the room where they'd laid out Ronald Reuel.

  The old man had been dressed up in a grey silk suit with a metallic sheen to it. It was a younger man's suit, and it looked too big for him. He would have looked more comfortable in tweed. The mortician had done only a so-so job of fixing Reuel up. His cheeks were too red and his lips too blue. You could see the dimples on his lips where thin lines of thread had been stitched through them to hold his mouth closed. No one would have mistaken this for an old man in the midst of his nap - it was a corpse, plain and simple. The room was about half full, people standing in little knots talking and passing back and forth in front of the casket.

  No one was standing in the shadows smoking a cigarette or looking about with a shifty-eyed gaze. I couldn't see anyone quickly hiding a bloody knife behind his back or twirling a moustache, either. That ruled out the Dudley Do-Right approach to finding the killer. Maybe he, she, or they weren't here.

  Of course, I supposed it would be possible for faeries to throw a veil or a glamour over themselves before they came in, but even experienced faeries have trouble passing for mortal. Mab had looked good, sure, but she hadn't really looked normal. Grum had been much the same. I mean, he'd looked human, sure, but also like an extra on the set of The Untouchables. Faeries can do a lot of things really well, but blending in with a crowd generally isn't one of them.

  In any case, the crowd struck me as mostly relatives and business associates. No one matched the pictures, no one seemed to be a faerie in a bad mortal costume, and either my instincts had the night off or no one was using any kind of veil or glamour. Bad guys one, Harry zero.

  I slipped out of the viewing room and back into the hallway in time to hear a low whisper somewhere down the hall. That grabbed my attention. I made the effort to move quietly and crept a bit closer, Listening as I went.

  "I don't know," hissed a male voice. "I looked for her all day. She's never been gone this long. "

  "Just my point," growled a female voice. "She doesn't stay gone this long. You know how she gets by herself. "

  "God," said a third voice, the light tenor of a young man. "He did it. He really did it this time. "

  "We don't know that," the first man said. "Maybe she finally used her head and got out of town. "

  The woman's voice sounded tired. "No, Ace. She wouldn't just leave. Not on her own. We have to do something. "

  "What can we do?" the second male said.

  "Something," the woman said. "Anything. "

  "Wow, that's specific," the first male, apparently Ace, said with his voice dry and edgy. "Whatever you're going to do, you'd better do it fast. The wizard is here. "

  I felt the muscles in my neck grow tense. There was a short, perhaps shocked silence in the room down the hall.

  "Here?" the second male echoed in a panicky tone. "Now? Why didn't you tell us?"

  "I just did, dimwit," Ace said.

  "What do we do?" the second male asked. "What do we do, what do we do?"

  "Shut up," snapped the female voice. "Shut up, Fix. "

  "He's in Mab's pocket," said Ace. "You know he is. She crossed over from Faerie today. "

  "No way," said the second voice, presumably Fix. "He's supposed to be a decent sort, right?"

  "Depends on who you hear it from," said Ace. "People who get in his way have had a habit of getting real dead. "

  "God," said Fix, panting. "Oh God, oh God. "

  "Look," said the woman, "if he's here, we shouldn't be. Not until we know what it means. " Furniture, maybe a wooden chair, creaked. "Come on. "

  I slipped back down the hall and around the corner into the lobby as I heard footsteps leaving the small side room. They didn't come toward me. Instead, they moved further down the hall, away from the lobby. They had to be heading for a back door. I chewed on my lip and weighed my options. Three very apprehensive folks, maybe human, maybe not, heading down a darkened hall toward a back door that doubtless led into an equally dark alley. It sounded like a recipe for more trouble.

  But I didn't think I had any options. I counted to five and then followed the footsteps.

  I saw only a retreating shadow at the far end of the hall. I
looked into the room the three had been in as I went past it and found a small lounge with several upholstered chairs. I hesitated for a moment at the corner and heard the soft click of a metal door opening, then closing again. As I rounded the corner, I saw a door with a faded sticker spelling EXIT.

  I went to the door and opened it as quietly as I could, then poked my head out into the alley it opened into and rubbernecked around.

  They were standing not five feet away - three of the young people from Reuel's photo. The small, skinny man with the blond-white hair and dark tan was facing me. He was dressed in what looked like a secondhand brown suit and a yellow polyester clip-on tie. His eyes widened almost comically, and his mouth dropped open in shock. He squeaked, and it was enough to let me identify him as Fix.

  Beside him was the other young man, Ace. He was the one with the dark curly hair and goatee, wearing a grey sport coat with a white shirt and dark slacks. He still had his sunglasses on when he turned to look at me, and he clawed at the pocket of his jacket upon seeing me.

  The third was the brawny, homely young woman with the muddy green hair and heavy brow. She had on a pair of jeans tight enough to show the muscles in her thighs and a khaki blouse. She didn't hesitate. She didn't even look. She just turned, her arm sweeping out as she did, and fetched me a blow to my cheek with the back of one shovel-size hand. I managed to move with it a bit at the last second, but even so the impact threw me out of the doorway and into the alley. Stars and cartoon birdies danced in my vision, and I rolled, trying to get clear before she could hit me again.

  Ace pulled a small-caliber semiautomatic from his jacket pocket, but the woman growled at him, "Don't be stupid! They'd kill us all. "

  "Hebbity bedda," I said, by way of attempting a greeting. My mouth had gone rather numb, and my tongue felt like a lead weight. "Jussa hangonna sayke hee. "

  Fix jumped up and down, pointing at me, his voice shrill. "He's casting on us!"

  The woman kicked me in the ribs hard enough to knock the wind out of me. Then she picked me up by the back of my pants, grunting with the effort, and threw me into the air. I came down ten feet away in an open Dumpster and crunched down amid cardboard boxes and stinking refuse.

  "Go," the woman barked. "Go, go, go!"

  I lay in the garbage for a minute, trying to catch my breath. The sound of three sets of running feet receded down the alley.

  I had just sat up when a head popped into view over me, vague in the shadows. I flinched and threw up my left arm, willing power through the shield bracelet. I accidentally made the shield too big, and sparks kicked up where the shield intersected the metal of the Dumpster, but by their light I saw whose head it was.

  "Harry?" Billy the Werewolf asked. "What are you doing in there?"

  I let the shield drop and extended a hand to him. "Looking for suspects. "

  He frowned and hauled me out of the trash. I wobbled for a second or two, until my head stopped spinning quite so quickly. Billy steadied me with one hand. "You find any?"

  "I'd say so, yeah. "

  Billy nodded and peered up at me. "Did you decide that before or after they hit you in the face and threw you in the garbage?"

  I brushed coffee grounds off my jeans. "Do I tell you how to do your job?"

  "Actually, yeah. All the time. "

  "Okay, okay," I muttered. "Did you bring the pizza?"

  "Yeah," Billy said. "Got it back in the car. Why?"

  I brushed at my shaggy hair. What I hoped were more coffee grounds fell out. I started walking down the alley toward the front of the building. "Because I need to make a few bribes," I said, looking back over my shoulder at Billy. "Do you believe in faeries?"