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Summer Knight, Page 16

Jim Butcher

Chapter Sixteen

  Being held up by your neck hurts. Trust me on this one. I lifted my hands by way of attempting to convey compliance and said, "Billy, get off him. "

  Billy took a step back from the pale-haired young man he'd knocked down. Fix whimpered and scuttled away on his hands and butt. His borrowed brown suit was soiled and torn, and his yellow polyester tie hung from his collar by only one of its clips. He put his back against the alley wall, eyes wide beneath his shock of white dandelion hair.

  Billy's eyes flicked from my assailant to Fix and back. He squinted at her for a moment, then set his jaw in an expression of casual determination. "Harry? You want me to take her?"

  "Wait a minute," I managed to say. "Okay, he's off. Put me down. "

  The grip on the back of my neck relaxed, and as I touched ground again I took a step toward Billy, turning to face the woman who had held me.

  As I expected, it was the tall, muscular young woman from the funeral home, her muddy green hair hanging lankly over her eyes and one cheek. She folded her arms and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Fix? Are you okay?"

  The smaller man panted, "My lip is cut. It isn't bad. "

  The woman nodded and faced me again.

  "All right," I said. "Who the hell are you?"

  "My name's Meryl," she said. Her voice was surprisingly quiet, contrasting with her size. "I wanted to apologize to you, Mr. Dresden. For hitting you and throwing you into the Dumpster. "

  I raised my eyebrows. "Are you sure you got the right guy, Meryl? No one ever apologizes to me for anything. "

  She pushed at her hair with one hand. It fell right back over her face. "I'm sorry. I was scared earlier, and I acted without thinking. "

  I traded a glance with Billy. "Uh, okay. I'm pretty sure lurking in a dark alley to mug me with your apology isn't the usual way to go about saying you're sorry. But I didn't read that Mars-Venus book, so who knows. "

  Her mouth twitched, and she relaxed her stance by a tiny degree. "I didn't know how else to find you, so I was just waiting near your car. "

  "Okay," I said. My neck still throbbed where her fingers had clamped on. Five to one I would have wonderful stripy bruises the next day. I nodded and turned away. "Apology accepted. Now if you'll excuse me, I have things I need to do. "

  A note of panic crept into her voice. "Wait. Please. "

  I stopped and looked back at her.

  "I need to talk to you. Just for a minute. " She took a deep breath. "I need your help. "

  Of course she did.

  "It's very important. "

  Of course it was.

  The headache started coming back. "Look, Meryl, I've got a lot on my plate already. "

  "I know," she said. "Investigating Ron's death. I think I can help you. "

  I pursed my lips. "You were close to Reuel?"

  She nodded. "Me. Fix. Ace. And Lily. "

  I flashed back on the photo of Reuel and the four young people. "Green-haired girl? Very cute?"

  "Yes. "

  "Where's Ace?"

  "He had to go to work right after the funeral. But Lily's why I need to talk to you. She's missing. I think she's in trouble. "

  I started filling in context on the conversation I'd overheard between them. "Who are you?"

  "I told you. My name is Meryl. "

  "Okay, fine. What are you, Meryl?"

  She flinched at the question. "Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't know what you meant. " She raked at her hair again. "I'm a changeling. We all are. "

  "A what?" Billy asked.

  I nodded, getting it. "Changeling," I said to Billy. "She's half mortal and half fae. "

  "Aha," Billy said. "Which means what?"

  I shrugged. "It means that she has to choose whether to remain a mortal or become wholly fae. "

  "Yes," she said. "And until then I'm under the rule of the Court of my fae father. Winter. The others too. That's why the four of us stuck together. It was safer. "

  Billy nodded. "Oh. "

  "Meryl," I said, "what makes you think your friend is in trouble?"

  "She's not very independent, Mister Dresden. We share an apartment. She doesn't have a very good idea of how to take care of herself, and she gets nervous if she's out of the apartment for too long. "

  "And what do you think happened to her?"

  "The Winter Knight. "

  Billy frowned. "Why would he hurt people in his own Court?"

  Meryl let out a brief, hard laugh. "Because he can. He had a thing for Lily. He would hurt her, frighten her. He got off on it. He was furious when Maeve told him to back off. And once Ron was gone . . . " Her voice trailed off and she turned her head to one side.

  "How does Reuel fit into this?" I asked.

  "He was protecting us. Maeve had been torturing us for fun, and we didn't know where to turn. Ron took us in. He put us under his protection, and no one in Winter was willing to cross him. "

  "What about your fae dad?" Billy asked. "Didn't he do anything to look out for you?"

  Meryl gave Billy a flat look. "My mother was raped by a troll. Even if he'd been strong enough to do anything about Maeve hurting us, he wouldn't have. He thinks he's already done enough by not devouring my mom on the spot. "

  "Oh," Billy said. "Sorry. "

  I frowned. "And with the Summer Knight gone, you think Slate grabbed the girl. "

  Meryl said, "Someone broke into the apartment. It looked like there had been a struggle. "

  I let out a sigh. "Have you contacted the police?"

  She eyed me. "Oh, yeah, of course. I called them and told them that a mortal champion of the fae came and spirited away a half-mortal, half-nixie professional nude model to Faerieland. They were all over it. "

  I had to admire the well-placed sarcasm. "It doesn't take a supernatural studmuffin to cause something very bad to happen to a cute girl in this town. Your plain old mortal kidnappers and murderers can manage just fine. "

  She shook her head. "Either way, she's still in trouble. "

  I lifted a hand. "What do you want from me?"

  "Help me find her. Please, Mister Dresden. "

  I closed my eyes. I didn't have time, energy, or brainpower to spare for this. The smart thing would be to blow her off entirely, or to promise her I'd do it and promptly forget about it. "This just isn't a good time. " I felt like crap the second I said it. I didn't look at the changeling's face. I couldn't. "There's too much trouble already, and I don't even know if I can help myself, much less your friend. I'm sorry. "

  I turned to go, but Meryl stepped in front of me. "Wait. "

  "I told you," I said. "There's nothing I can - "

  "I'll pay you," Meryl said.

  Oh, right. Money.

  I was about to lose the office and the apartment, and this faerie work only paid in misery. I needed to pay some bills. Go to the grocery store. My mouth didn't actually water, but it was close.

  I shook my head again. "Look, Meryl, I wish I could - "

  "Double your fee," she said, her voice urgent.

  Double. My. Fee. I hesitated some more.

  "Triple," she said. She reached for her back pocket and produced an envelope. "Plus one thousand cash, up front, right now. "

  I looked back at Fix, still trembling and leaning against the alley wall, a handkerchief pressed to his mouth. Meryl continued to rock from one foot to the other, her eyes on the ground, waiting.

  I tried to look at things objectively. A thousand bucks wouldn't spend if I got myself killed while distracted by the additional workload. On the other hand, if I lived through this thing the money would be necessary. My stomach growled, and a sharp pang of hunger made me clench the muscles of my belly.

  I needed the work - but more to the point, I needed to be able to live with myself. I wasn't sure I was comfortable with the idea of looking back on this particular patch of memory and seeing myself leave some helpless gir
l, changeling or not, to the metaphoric wolves. People don't ask me for help if they're anything less than desperate. The changelings had been terrified of me only a few hours before. If they had turned to me for help now, it was because they were out of options.

  And they also had money.

  "Dammit, dammit, dammit," I muttered. I snatched the envelope. "All right. I'll look into it and do what I can - but I can't make you any promises. "

  Meryl let out a shuddering breath. "Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Dresden. "

  "Yeah," I sighed. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a slightly crumpled business card. "Here's my office number. Call and leave a message to let me know how I can reach you. "

  She took the card and nodded. "I don't know if I can pay your fees all at once. But I'll be good for it, even if it takes a while. "

  "We can worry about that later, when we're all safe and sound," I said. I nodded to her, then to Fix, and started walking down the alley again. Billy kept an eye on the pair of them and followed me.

  We reached the parking lot of the funeral home a few minutes later. The lights were all out, and the Blue Beetle was the only car left in the lot. No one had bothered to steal it. What a shock.

  "So what's next?" Billy asked.

  "I'll call Murphy. See what she can tell me about Lloyd Slate. "

  Billy nodded. "Anything I can do to help?"

  "Actually, yeah," I said. "Get out the phone book and call the hospitals. See if the morgues have a green-haired Jane Doe. "

  "You think she's dead, then?"

  "I think it would be a lot simpler if she was. "

  He grimaced. "Calling morgues? There must be about a million of them in Chicagoland. Isn't there anything else I could do?"

  "Welcome to the glamorous world of private investigation. You want to help or not?"

  "Okay, okay," Billy said. "My car's a block over. I'll get back to you as soon as I'm done making calls. "

  "All right. I'll probably be at my place, but if not you know the drill. "

  Billy nodded. "Be careful. " Then he walked quickly down the street without looking back.

  I fumbled my keys out and walked to the Beetle.

  I didn't smell the blood until I was close enough to touch the car. Through the window I saw a form, more or less human-shaped, curled up on my passenger seat. I circled cautiously to the other side of the car, then abruptly opened the door.

  Elaine fell out of the car onto the pavement of the parking lot. She was drenched in blood that had soaked through her T-shirt, matted her golden-brown hair on one side, and run down her flanks to saturate her jeans to mid thigh. Her silver pentacle shone with liquid scarlet. The bare skin of her forearms was covered with long slashes and blood, and her face looked white. Dead.

  My heart hammered in my chest, and I leaned down to her, fumbling at her throat. She still had a very slow pulse, but her skin felt cool and waxy. She started shuddering and whispered, "Harry?"

  "I'm here. I'm here, Elaine. "

  "Please," she whispered. "Oh, God, please help me. "