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Changes, Page 13

Jim Butcher

Chapter 32~33

  Chapter 32

  I was tied down, but my hands weren't. I flexed the fingers of my right hand into the mystic position of attack - holding them like a pretend gun - and snapped, "Arctis!"

  The spell tore the heat from all around the gun and drew water from the air into an instant, thick coating of ice, heaviest around the weapon's hammer. The shooter twitched in reaction to the spell and pulled the trigger.

  The encrusting ice held the hammer back and prevented it from falling.

  The gunman blinked and tried to pull the trigger several more times, to no avail. Forthill hit him around the knees. Both men went down, and the gun came loose from the gunman's cold-numbed fingers as they hit the floor, and went spinning across the room. It struck a wall, cracked the ice around its hammer, and discharged harmlessly into the wall with another roar.

  The gunman kicked Forthill in the face and the old priest fell back with a grunt of pain. Molly threw herself at him in pure rage, knocking him flat again, and began pounding her fists into him with elemental brutality and no technique whatsoever. The gunman threw an elbow that got her in the neck and knocked her back, then rose, his eyes searching the floor, until he spotted his weapon. He started for it.

  I killed the light from the amulet. He tripped and fell in the sudden darkness. I heard him scuffling with the dazed Forthill.

  Then there was a single bright flash of light that showed me the gunman arching up in pain. Then it was gone and there was the sound of something large falling to the floor. Several people were breathing heavily.

  I got my fingers onto my amulet again and brought forth light into the room.

  Forthill sat against one wall, holding his jaw, looking pale. Molly was in a crouch, one hand lifted as if she'd been about to do something with her magical talents, the way she should have at the first sound of the shots, if she'd been thinking clearly. The gunman lay on his side, and began to stir again.

  Butters wheezed, "Clear," and touched both ends of the naked wires in his hands to the gunman's chest.

  The wires ran back to the emergency defib unit. When they'd been melted off the paddles, it had left several strands of pure copper naked on the ends of both of them. The current did what current does, and the gunman bucked in agony for a second and sagged into immobility again.

  "Jerk," Butters wheezed. He put a hand on the small of his back and said, "Ow. Ow, ow, ow, OW!"

  "Butters!" Molly croaked, and hugged him.

  "Urgckh," Butters said. "Ow. " But he didn't look displeased at the hug.

  "Grasshopper, don't strain him until we know how bad it is," I said. "Dammit. " I started fumbling with the straps, getting them clear of my upper body so I could sit up and work on my legs. "Forthill? Are you all right?"

  Father Forthill said something unintelligible and let out a groan of pain. Then he heaved himself to his feet and started helping me with the buckles. His jaw was purple and swollen on one side. He'd taken one hell of a hit and stayed conscious. Tough old guy, even though he looked so mild.

  I got off the backboard, onto my feet, and picked up the gun.

  "I'm all right," Butters said. "I think. " His eyes went wide and he suddenly seemed to panic. "Oh, God, make sure I'm all right!" He started clawing at his shirt. "That maniac freaking shot me!"

  He got the scrubs top off and turned around to show Molly his back. He was wearing an undershirt.

  And on top of that, he was wearing a Kevlar vest. It was a light, underclothing garment, suitable only for protection against handguns - but the gunman had walked in with a nine- millimeter. He'd put both shots onto the centerline of Butters's lower back, and the vest had done its job. The rounds were still there, flattened and stuck in the ballistic weave.

  "I'm hit, aren't I?" Butters stuttered. "I'm in shock. I can't feel it because I'm in shock. Right? Was it in the liver? Is the blood black? Call emergency services!"

  "Butters," I said. "Look at me. "

  He did, his eyes wide.

  "Polka," I said, "will never die. "

  He blinked at me. Then he nodded and started forcing himself to take slower, deeper breaths. "I'm all right?"

  "The magic underwear worked," I said. "You're fine. "

  "Then why does my back hurt so much?"

  "Somebody just hit it twice with a hammer moving about twelve hundred feet per second," I said.

  "Oh," he said. He turned to look at Molly, who nodded at him and gave him an encouraging smile. Then he shuddered and closed his eyes in relief. "I don't think I'm temperamentally suited for the action thing. "

  "Yeah. Since when are you the guy in the bulletproof vest?" I asked him.

  Butters nodded at Molly. "I put it on about ten seconds after she called me and said you needed help," he said. He fumbled a small case from his pocket and opened it. "See? I got chalk, and holy water, and garlic, too. "

  I smiled at him, but felt a little bit sick. The gunman had put Butters down for the simple reason that he had been blocking the shooter's line of sight to the room. If he'd been trying for Butters, the two shots to clear his sight line would have included a third shot to the back of Butters's head. Of course, if Butters hadn't been in the way, my head wouldn't have fared any better than his.

  We're all so damned fragile.

  Footsteps sounded outside the door, and I raised the gun to cover it, taking a grip with both hands, my feet centered. I was lining up the little green targeting dots when Sanya came through the door carrying a platter of sandwiches. He stopped abruptly and lifted both eyebrows, then beamed broadly. "Dresden! You are all right. " He looked around the room for a moment, frowning, and said, "Did I miss something? Who is that?"

  "I don't think there's anything broken," Butters told Forthill, "but you'd better get an X-ray, just to be sure. Mandibular fracture isn't anything to play around with. "

  The old priest nodded from his chair in the living quarters of the church's residents, and wrote something down on a little pad of paper. He showed it to Butters.

  The little guy grinned. "You're welcome, Father. "

  Molly frowned and asked, "Should we take him to the emergency room?"

  Forthill shook his head and wrote on his notepad: Things to tell you first.

  Now I had a pair of guns I'd swiped from bad guys: the security guard's . 40-caliber and the gunman's nine-millimeter. I was inspecting them both on the coffee table, familiarizing myself with their function, and wondering if I should be planning to file off the serial numbers or something. Mouse sat next to me, his flank against my leg and his serious brown eyes watching me handle the weapons.

  "You found out something?" I asked Forthill.

  In a way, he wrote back. There are major movements afoot throughout South and Central America. The Red Court's upper echelon uses human servitors to interface with mortals. Many of these individuals have been sighted at airports in the past three days. All of them are bound for Mexico. Does Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢ have any significance to you?

  I grunted. Donar Vadderung's information seemed to have been solid, then. "Yeah, it does. "

  Forthill nodded and continued writing. There is a priest in that area. He cannot help you with your fight, but he says he can offer you and your people sanctuary, care, and secure transportation from the area when you are finished.

  "It seems like begging for trouble to plan for our victorious departure before we know if we can get there in the first place," I said. "I can get us to the general area, but not into the ruins themselves. I need to know anything he can find out about the security the Red Court will be setting up in the area. "

  Forthill frowned at me for a moment. Then he wrote, I'll ask him. But I'll need someone to talk for me.

  I nodded. "Molly, you're with the padre. Get a little sleep as soon as you can. Might not get a chance to before we move out, otherwise. "

  She frowned but nodded instead of trying to talk me out of it. It
's nice how brushes with violent death can concentrate even the most stubbornly independent apprentice's better judgment.

  Forthill held up a hand. Then he wrote, First, I need to know how it is that you are back on your feet. Dr. Butters said that you would be too injured to get out of bed.

  "Magic," I said calmly, as if that should explain everything.

  Forthill eyed me for a moment. Then wrote, I hurt too much to argue with you. Will make the calls.

  "Thank you," I said quietly.

  He nodded and wrote, God go with you.

  "Thank you," I repeated.

  "What about me?" Butters asked. There were equal measures of dread and excitement in his voice.

  "Hopefully, we won't need any more of your help," I said. "Might be nice if you were standing by, though. Just in case. "

  "Right," Butters said, nodding. "What else?"

  I clenched a hand and resisted the urge to tell him that he would be better off hiding under his bed. He knew that already. He was as frightened as a bunny in a forest full of bears, but he wanted to help. "I think Father Forthill has a car. Yes, Father?"

  He started to write something, then scratched it out and held out his hand in a simple thumbs-up.

  "Stay with them," I said. I slapped magazines into both guns, confident that I knew them well enough to be sure they'd go bang when I pulled the trigger. "Soon as Forthill is done, get him to an emergency room. "

  "Emergency room," Butters said. "Check. "

  Forthill frowned and wrote, Are you certain we shouldn't turn our attacker over to the police?

  "Nothing in life is certain, Father," I said, rising. I stuck a gun in either pocket of my duster. "But if the police get involved, they're going to ask a lot of questions and take a long time trying to sort everything out. I can't spare that time. "

  You don't think this gunman will go to the authorities?

  "And tell them what?" I asked. "That he got kidnapped off the street by a priest from St. Mary's? That we beat him up and took his illegal weapon away?" I shook my head. "He doesn't want the cops involved any more than we do. This was business to him. He'll make a deal to fess up to us if it means he gets to walk. "

  And we let a murderer go free?

  "It's an imperfect world, Father," I said. "On the other hand, you don't hire professional killers to take out nice old ladies and puppy dogs. Most of the people this guy has an appointment with are underworld types - I guarantee it - mostly those who are going to turn state's evidence on their organization. Sooner or later one of them gets lucky, and no more hit man. "

  Live by the sword, die by the sword, Forthill wrote.

  "Exactly. "

  He shook his head and winced as the motion caused him discomfort. It will be hard to help a man like that.

  I snorted. "It's a noble sentiment, padre, but a guy like him doesn't want any help. Doesn't see any need for it. " I shrugged. "Some men just enjoy killing. "

  He frowned severely, but didn't write down any response. Just then, someone rapped on the door, and Sanya opened it and poked his head in. "Dresden," the Knight said. "He's awake. "

  I rose, and Mouse rose with me. "Cool. Maybe get started on those calls, padre. "

  Forthill gave me another thumbs-up rather than nodding. I walked out, Mouse stolid at my back, and went to the utility closet with Sanya to talk to our . . . guest, I suppose.

  The blocky hit man lay on the backboard, strapped down to it, and further secured in a cocoon of duct tape.

  "Stand him up," I said.

  Sanya did so, rather casually lifting the gunman, backboard and all, and leaning it back at a slight angle against the wall.

  The gunman watched me with calm eyes. I picked up a wallet from the little folding card table we had set up and opened it. "Steven Douglas," I read from the license. "That you?"

  "Stevie D," he said.

  "Heard of you," I said. "You did Torelli a couple of years back. "

  He smiled, very slightly. "I don't know any Torelli. "

  "Yeah, I figured," I said.

  "How is he?" Stevie D asked.

  "Who?"

  "The little guy. "

  "Fine," I said. "Wearing a vest. "

  Stevie D nodded. "Good. "

  I lifted an eyebrow. "Professional killer is happy he didn't kill someone?"

  "Had nothing against him. Wasn't getting paid for him. Don't wanna do time for hitting the wrong guy. Isn't professional. But everything I heard about you said I shouldn't dick around waiting to get the shot off, so I had to get him out of the way. "

  "Stevie," I said, "this can go a couple of different ways. The simplest is that you give me who hired you, and I let you go. "

  His eyes narrowed. "No cops?"

  I gestured at his bound form with one hand. "Does it look like we want cops all over this? Spill and you're loose as fast as we can take the tape off. "

  He thought about it for a moment. Then he said, "Nah. "

  "No?"

  He made a motion that might have been a shrug. "Did that for you, I might never work again. People get nervous when a contractor divulges personal information about their clients. I gotta think long-term. "

  I nodded. "I can respect that. Honoring a bargain and all. "

  He snorted softly.

  "So we can go to option two. I'm going to go call Marcone. I'm going to tell him what happened. I'm going to ask him if he's interested in talking to you, Stevie. I'm sure he'll want to know who is purchasing hits in his territory, too. What impact will that have on your long-term productivity, do you think?"

  Stevie's nerve cracked. He licked his lips. "Um," he said. "What's option three?"

  Sanya stepped forward. He beamed at Stevie D, picked the backboard up off the floor without too much trouble, and in his lowest voice and thickest Russian accent said, "I pick up this board, break in half, and put both halves into incinerator. "

  Stevie D looked like a man who suddenly realizes he is sitting near a hornets' nest and is trying desperately not to run away screaming. He licked his lips again and said, "Half of what I hear about you says Marcone wants you dead, that you hate his guts. The other half says you work for him sometimes. Kill the people he thinks need killing. "

  "I wouldn't pay much attention to rumors if I were you, Stevie," I said.

  "Which is it?" he asked.

  "Find out," I said. "Don't tell me anything. "

  Sanya put him back down again. I stood facing him expectantly. "Okay," he said, finally. "A broad. "

  "Woman, huh. Who?"

  "No name. Paid cash. "

  "Describe her. "

  Stevie nodded. "Five-nine, long legs, brown eyes," he said. "Some muscle on her, weighed maybe one fifty. Long dark hair. Had these tattoos on her face and neck. "

  My heart just about stopped in my chest.

  I closed down every doorway and window in my head, to shut out the gale that was suddenly whipping up in my heart. I had to stay focused. I couldn't afford to let the sudden tide of emotion drown my ability to think clearly.

  I reached into my pocket and drew out my own wallet. I'd kept a picture of Susan in there for so long that when I pulled it out some of the image's colors stuck to the plastic sleeve. I showed him the picture.

  The hit man squinted and nodded. "Yeah," he said. "That's her. "

  Chapter 33

  "Give me the details," I said quietly.

  "She said you'd be here. Gave me twenty thousand up front, twenty more held in escrow until delivery was confirmed. "

  Mouse made a soft, uncomfortable noise that never quite became a whine. He sat watching my face intently.

  "When?" I asked.

  "Last night. "

  I stared at him for a moment. Then I tossed Stevie's wallet back onto the folding card table and said, "Cut him loose. Walk him to the door. "

  Sanya let out what seemed like a disappointed
sigh. Then he produced a knife and began cutting Stevie free.

  I walked down the hall, back toward the living area with my head bowed, thinking furiously.

  Susan had hired a gunman to kill me. Why?

  I stopped walking and leaned against a wall. Why would she hire someone to kill me? Or, hell, more to the point - why would she hire a gunman to kill me? Why not someone who stood a greater chance of success?

  Granted, a gunman could kill even a wizard if he were taken by surprise. But pistols had to be fired at dangerously short ranges to be reliable, and Stevie D had a reputation as a brazen sidearm specialist. It meant that the wizard would have more time to see something bad coming, as opposed to being warned only when a high-powered rifle round hit his chest, and would have an easier time responding with hasty defensive magic. It was hardly an ideal approach.

  If Susan wanted me dead, she wouldn't really need to contract it out. A pretext to get me alone and another one to put us very close to each other would just about do it. And I'd never see that one coming.

  Something about this just wasn't right. I'd have called Stevie a liar, but I didn't think he was one. I was sure he believed what he was saying.

  So. Either Stevie was lying and I was just too dim to pick up on it, or he was telling the truth. If he was lying, given what kind of hot water I could get him into, he was also an idiot. I didn't think he was one of those. If he was telling the truth, it meant . . .

  It meant that either Susan really had hired someone to kill me, or else someone who could look like Susan had done business with Stevie D. If Susan had hired someone to kill me, why this guy, in particular? Why hire someone who didn't have better than even chances of pulling it off? That was more the kind of thing Esteban and Esmerelda would come up with.

  That worked a lot better. Esmerelda's blue and green eyes could have made Stevie remember being hired by Mister Snuffleupagus, if that was what she wanted. But how would she have known where to find me? Had they somehow managed to tail Sanya back to the church from my apartment without being noticed by Mouse?

  And just where the hell were Susan and Martin? They'd had more than enough time to get here. So why weren't they?

  Someone was running a game on me. If I didn't start getting some answers to these questions, I had a bad feeling that it was going to turn around and bite me on the ass at the worst moment imaginable.

  Right, then.

  I guessed that meant it was time to go get some answers.

  Paranoia is a survival trait when you run in my circles. It gives you something to do in your spare time, coming up with solutions to ridiculous problems that aren't ever going to happen. Except when one of them does, at which point you feel way too vindicated.

  For instance, I had spent more than a couple of off hours trying to figure out how I might track someone through Chicago if I didn't have some kind of object or possession of theirs to use as a focus. Basic tracking magic is completely dependent upon having a sample of whoever it is you want to follow. Hair, blood, and nail clippings are the usual thing. But let's say you don't have any of those, and you still want to find someone. If you have a sample of something in their possession, a piece snipped from their clothing, the tag just torn out of their underwear, whatever, you can get them that way, too.

  But let's say things are hectic and crazy and someone has just burned down your house and your lab and you still need to follow somebody.

  That's when you need a good, clear photograph. And minions. Lots of minions. Preferably ones who don't demand exorbitant wages.

  There's a Pizza 'Spress less than two blocks from St. Mary's. Sanya and I went straight there. I ordered.

  "I do not see how this helps us," Sanya said, as I walked out from the little shop with four boxes of pizza.

  "You're used to solving all your problems the simple way," I said. "Kick down the door, chop up everybody who looks fiendish, save everyone who looks like they might need it. Yeah?"

  "It is not always that simple," Sanya said, rather stiffly. "And sometimes I use a gun. "

  "Which I applaud you for, very progressive," I said. "But the point is, you do your work directly. You pretty much know where you're going, or get shown the way, and after that it's just up to you to take care of business. "

  "Da," Sanya said as we walked. "I suppose. "

  "My work is sort of the same," I said. "Except that nobody ever points the way for me. "

  "You need to know where to go," Sanya said.

  "Yes. "

  "And you are going to consult four large pizzas for guidance. "

  "Yes," I said.

  The big man frowned for a moment. Then he said, "There is, I think, humor here which does not translate well from English into sanity. "

  "That's pretty rich coming from the agnostic Knight of the Cross with a holy Sword who takes his orders from an archangel," I said.

  "Gabriel could be an alien being of some kind," Sanya said placidly. "It does not change the value of what I do - not to me and not to those whom I protect. "

  "Whom," I said, with as much Russian accent as I could fit into one word. "Someone's been practicing his English. "

  Sanya somehow managed to look down his nose at me, despite the fact that I was several inches taller. "I am only saying that I do not need the written code of a spiritual belief to act like a decent human being. "

  "You are way kookier than me, man," I said, turning into an alley. "And I talk to pizza. "

  I laid out the four pizza boxes on top of four adjacent trash cans, and glanced around to be sure no one was nearby. It was getting near to lunch break, and it wasn't the best time for what I was about to do, but it ought to work. I turned to look up and down the alley as best I could, drew a breath, and then remembered something.

  "Hey, Sanya. Stick your fingers in your ears?"

  The big Russian stared at me. "What?"

  "Your fingers," I said, wiggling all of mine, "in your ears. " I pointed to mine.

  "I understand the words, obviously, as I am someone who has been practicing his English. Why?"

  "Because I'm going to say something to the pizza and I don't want you to hear it. "

  Sanya gave the sky a single, long-suffering glance. Then he sighed and put his fingers in his ears.

  I gave him a thumbs-up, turned away, cupped my hands around my mouth so that no one could lip-read, and began to murmur a name, over and over again, each utterance infused with my will.

  I had to repeat the name only a dozen times or so before a shadow flickered overhead, and something the size of a hunting falcon dropped out of the sky, blurred wings humming, and hovered about two feet in front of me.

  "Bozhe moi!" Sanya sputtered, and Esperacchius was halfway from its sheath by the time he finished speaking.

  I couldn't stop myself from saying, "There's some real irony in your using that expression, O Knight of Maybe. "

  "Go ahead!" piped a shrill voice, like a Shakespearean actor on helium. "Draw your sword, knave, and we will see who bleeds to death from a thousand tiny cuts!"

  Sanya stood there with his mouth open and his sword still partly in its sheath. "It is . . . " He shook his head as if someone had popped him in the nose. "It is . . . a domovoi, da?"

  The little faerie in question stood nearly fifteen full inches in height, appearing as a slender, athletic youth with the blurring wings of a dragonfly standing out from his shoulders and a tuft of hair like lavender dandelion fluff. He was dressed in garments that looked like they'd been thugged from someone's old-school G. I. Joe doll, an olive-drab jump-suit with the sleeves removed and holes cut through it for his wings. He wore a number of weapons about his person, most of them on nylon straps that looked like they'd been lifted from convention badges. He was carrying one letter opener shaped like a long sword at his side and two more, crossed over each other, on his back. I'd given him the letter opener set last Christmas, advising him to ke
ep half of them stashed somewhere safe, as backup weapons.

  "Domovoi?" the little faerie shrilled, furious. "Oh, no, you didn't!"

  "Easy there, Major General," I said. "Sanya, this is Major General Toot-toot Minimus, the captain of my house guard. Toot, this is my boon companion Sanya, Knight of the Cross, who has faced danger at my side. He's okay. "

  The faerie quivered with outrage. "He's Russian! And he doesn't even know the difference between a domovoi and a polevoi when he sees one two feet away!" Toot-toot let out a blistering string of words in Russian, shaking a finger at the towering Knight.

  Sanya listened in bemusement at first, but then blinked, slid his sword away, and held up both hands. He said something that sounded somber and very formal, and only then did Toot's ire seem to abate. He said one or two more harsh-sounding words toward Sanya, added a flick of his chin that screamed, So there, and turned back to me.

  "Toot," I said. "How is it that you speak Russian?"

  He blinked at me. "Harry," he said, as if the question made no sense at all, "you just speak it, don't you. I mean, come on. " He gave me a formal bow and said, "How may I serve you, my liege?"

  I peered at him a bit more closely. "Why is half your face painted blue?"

  "Because we're Winter now, my liege!" Toot said. His eyes darted to the side and down several times. "And . . . say, that doesn't mean we have to eat the pizza cold, does it?"

  "Of course not," I said.

  Toot looked relieved. "Oh. Good. Um. What were we talking about?"

  "I have a job for you," I said, "and for everyone you can get to help. " I nodded at the pizza. "Standard rates. "

  "Very good, my liege," Toot said, saluting. His eyes slid down again. "Maybe someone ought to check the pizza. You know. For poison and things. It would look real bad if someone poisoned your vassals, you know. "

  I eyed him askance. Then I held up a finger and said, "All right. One piece. And after - Ack!"

  Toot hit the pizza box like a great white shark taking a seal. He slammed into it, one bright sword slashing the top off of the box. Then he seized the largest piece and began devouring with a will.

  Sanya and I both stood there, fascinated. It was like watching a man try to eat a pizza slice the size of a small car. Pieces flew up and were skewered on his blade. Sauce got everywhere, and it gave me a gruesome little flashback to the Stone Table.

  "Harry?" Sanya asked. "Are you all right?"

  "Will be soon," I said.

  "This creature serves you?" Sanya asked.

  "This one and about a hundred smaller ones. And five times that many part-timers I can call in once in a while. " I thought about it. "It isn't so much that they serve me as that we have a business arrangement that we all like. They help me out from time to time. I furnish them with regular pizza. "

  "Which they . . . love," Sanya said.

  Toot spun in a dizzy, delighted circle on one heel, and fell onto his back with perfectly unself-conscious enthusiasm, his tummy sticking out as far as it could. He lay there for a moment, making happy, gurgling sounds.

  "Well," I said. "Yes. "

  Sanya's eyes danced, though his face was sober. "You are a drug dealer. To tiny faeries. Shame. "

  I snorted.

  "What was that he said about Winter?" Sanya asked.

  "Harry's the new Winter Knight!" Toot-toot burbled. "Which is fantastic! The old Winter Knight mostly just sat around getting tortured. He never went on adventures or anything. " He paused and added, "Unless you count going crazy, I guess. "

  "Toot," I said. "I'm . . . kind of trying to keep the Winter Knight thing low-profile. "

  "Okay," Toot said. "Why?"

  I glanced from the little faerie to Sanya. "Look, I, uh . . . It's personal, okay, and - "

  "Because every creature in Faerie got to see the ceremony," Toot said proudly. "Mab made sure of it! It was reflected in all the streams and ponds and lakes and puddles and every little drop of water!"

  I stared at the engorged faerie, at something of a loss for words. "Um," I said. "Oh. How . . . very, very disturbing. "

  "Did it hurt when you kissed Mab?" Toot asked. "Because I always thought her lips looked so cold that they would burn. Like streetlamps in winter!" Toot sat up suddenly, his eyes wide. "Ooooooh. Did your tongue get stuck to her, like on that Christmastime show?"

  "Okayyyyy," I said with forced cheer, clapping my hands. "Way, way too personal. Um. The job. I have a job for you. "

  Toot-toot leapt up to his feet. His stomach was already constricting back toward its normal size. "Yes, my liege!"

  Where the hell did he put it all? I mean . . . it just wasn't possible for him to eat that much pizza and then . . . I shook my head. Now wasn't the time.

  I produced my picture of Susan. "This human is somewhere in Chicago. I need your folk to find her. She's probably accompanied by a human man with blond hair, about the same size she is. "

  Toot took to his wings again and zoomed down to the picture. He picked it up and held it out at arm's length, studying it, and nodded once. "May I have this, my lord, to show the others?"

  "Yeah," I said. "Be careful with it, though. I want it back. "

  "Yes, my liege!" Toot said. He brandished his sword with a flourish, sheathed it, and zipped straight up into the October sky.

  Sanya stood looking steadily at me.

  I coughed. I waited.

  "So," he said. "Mab. "

  I grunted vaguely in reply.

  "You hit that," Sanya said.

  I did not look at him. My face felt red.

  "You" - he scrunched up his nose, digging in his memory - "tapped that ass. Presumably, it was phat. "

  "Sanya!"

  He let out a low, rolling laugh and shook his head. "I saw her once. Mab. Beautiful beyond words. "

  "Yeah," I said.

  "And dangerous. "

  "Yes," I said, with emphasis.

  "And you are now her champion," he said.

  "Everybody's gotta be something, right?"

  He nodded. "Joking about it. Good. You will need that sense of humor. "

  "Why do you say that?"

  "Because she is cold, Dresden. She knows wicked secrets Time himself has forgotten. And if she chose you to be her Knight, she has a plan for you. " He nodded slowly. "Laugh whenever you can. Keeps you from killing yourself when things are bad. That and vodka. "

  "That some kind of Russian saying?" I asked.

  "Have you seen traditional folk dances?" Sanya asked. "Imagine them being done by someone with a bottle of vodka in them. Laughter abounds, and you survive another day. " He shrugged. "Or break your neck. Either way, it is pain management. "

  His voice sounded almost merry, though the subject matter was grim as hell. If not more so.

  I had expected him to try to talk me out of it. Or at least to berate me for being an idiot. He didn't do either. There was a calm acceptance of terrible things that was part and parcel of Sanya's personality. No matter how bad things got, I didn't think anything would ever truly faze him. He simply accepted the bad things that happened and soldiered on as best he could.

  There was probably a lesson for me in there, somewhere.

  I was quiet for a while before I decided to trust him. "I get to save my girl first," I said. "That was the deal. "

  "Ah," he said. He seemed to mull it over and nodded. "That is reasonable. "

  "You really think that?"

  He lifted both eyebrows. "The child is your blood, is she not?"

  I nodded and said quietly, "She is. "

  He spread his hands, as if it were a self-evident fact that needed no further exploration. "As horrible fates go, that is a good one," he said. "Worthwhile. Save your little girl. " He clapped me on the shoulder. "If you turn into a hideous monster and I am sent to slay you, I will remember this and make it as painless as I can, out of respect for you. "

 
I knew he was joking. I just couldn't tell which part of it he was joking about. "Uh," I said. "Thanks. "

  "It is nothing," he said. We stood around quietly for another five minutes before he frowned, looking at the other pizza boxes, and asked, "Is there some purpose for the rest of th - "

  A scene out of The Birds descended upon the alley. There was a rush of wing-beaten wind, and hundreds of tiny figures flashed down onto the pizza. Here and there I would spot one of the Pizza Lord's Guard, recognizable thanks to the orange plastic cases of the box knives they had strapped to their backs. The others went by in twinkles and flashes of color, muted by the daylight but beautiful all the same. There were a lot of the Little Folk involved. If I'd been doing this at night, it might have induced a seizure or something.

  The Little Folk love pizza. They love it with a passion so intense that it beggars the imagination. Watching a pizza being devoured was sort of like watching a plane coming apart in midair on those old WWII gun camera reels. Bits would fleck off here and there, and then suddenly in a rush, bits would go flying everywhere, each borne away by the individual fairy who had seized it.

  It was over in less than three minutes.

  Seriously. Where do they put it?

  Toot came to hover before me and popped a little fistful of pizza into his mouth. He gulped it down and saluted.

  "Well, Major General?" I asked.

  "Found her, my liege," Toot reported. "She is a captive and in danger. "

  Sanya and I traded a look.

  "Where?" I asked him.

  Toot firmly held up the picture, still in one piece, and two strands of dark hair, each curled into its own coil of rope in his tiny hands. "Two hairs from her head, my liege. Or if it is your pleasure, I will guide you there. "

  Sanya drew his head back a little, impressed. "They found her? That quickly?"

  "People underestimate the hell out of the Little Folk," I said calmly. "Within their limits, they're as good as or better than anything else I know for getting information - and there are a lot of them around Chicago who are willing to help me out occasionally. "

  "Hail the Pizza Lord!" Toot-toot shrilled.

  "Hail the Pizza Lord!" answered a score of piping voices that came from no apparent source. The Little Folk can be all but invisible when they want to be.

  "Major General Minimus, keep this up and I'm making you a full general," I said.

  Toot froze. "Why? Is that bad? What did I do?"

  "It's good, Toot. That's higher than a major general. "

  His eyes widened. "There's higher?"

  "Oh, yeah, definitely. And you're on the fast track for the very top. " I took the hairs from him and said, "We'll get the car. Lead us to her, Toot. "

  "Yes, sir!"

  "Good," Sanya said, grinning. "Now we know where to go and have someone to rescue. This part I know how to do. "