Cold days, p.21
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       Cold Days, p.21

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  The occupants of the gold SUV didn’t come leaping out with guns blazing. The engine stopped. Then, several seconds later, the driver’s door opened, and someone got out. He walked calmly around the front of the SUV.

  It was a slender man, a bit below average height. His hair was a blond so pale that it was nearly white. He wore faded blue jeans and a green silk shirt. He had a gun belt a lot like Thomas’s number, fitted with an automatic pistol on one hip and a sword on the other. He wasn’t a particularly good-looking man, and he didn’t carry himself aggressively, but his jaw and his eyes were both hard. He stopped at a point where he could see both of us and stood there, his arms akimbo, his hands not quite entirely relaxed by his sides—and near his weapons.

  “Harry,” he said quietly.

  “Fix,” I said. I knew him. He was my opposite number on the Summer side of things. His predecessor had been murdered by my predecessor.

  “I heard that Mab had recruited you to be the new Winter Knight,” he said. “I was sure that it was a wild rumor. The man I knew would never have bowed to a creature like Mab.”

  “I had my reasons,” I said.

  He looked me up and down, slowly. Then he said, “You’ve been given instructions.”

  “Maybe,” I said.

  “You have,” he said. “Mab’s sent you to kill someone, hasn’t she?”

  “It’s none of your concern,” I said quietly.

  “The hell it isn’t,” Fix said. “The Winter Knight exists to execute people Mab can’t kill herself. You think I don’t know that?”

  “I think that there’s an awful lot of glass in your house, Fix,” I said. “You’re in the same business as me.”

  “Never,” Fix said. “The Summer Knight’s job isn’t to do Titania’s killing.”

  “No? What is it, then?”

  “To stop you,” he said simply. “Not even Mab should get to decide who lives and who dies, Harry. Life is too precious to be wasted that way. So when she sends you to kill someone, someone gets in the way. That’s me.”

  I didn’t say anything for a minute. I had assumed that the Summer Knight would have the same job I did, just for a different crew. I hadn’t really thought about actually crossing swords with Fix—metaphorically or otherwise. Ten years ago, that possibility wouldn’t have fazed me. But Fix wasn’t the same guy he had been back then. He was the Summer Knight, and he was currently standing up to a champion of the White Court and the Winter Knight without batting an eye. I recognized the calm in him, the stillness that was almost like serenity—it was focus and confidence. He knew the danger, he didn’t want to fight, but he was quietly ready for it, and ready to accept whatever consequences it might bring.

  It’s generally a really bad idea to fight guys who are in that particular mental space.

  “You want me to run him off?” Thomas asked.

  Fix’s eyes didn’t move from me, but he directed his words at Thomas. “Come try it, vampire.”

  “Stars and stones.” I sighed. I took the Winchester and put it gently back into the Hummer. “Fix, can we stop the High Noon routine? I’m not going to fight you.”

  He frowned slightly. “That sort of remains to be seen.”

  “Thomas,” I said, “get back in the truck, please.”

  “What?”

  “I want to talk to Fix, and it isn’t going to be a real productive conversation if he has to keep one eye on each of us and his fingers by his gun in case you draw on him.”

  Thomas grunted. “Suppose he draws and shoots you as soon as I’m not backing you up.”

  “If that happens, and if it’ll make you feel better, you can come fight him, I suppose.” I regarded Fix for a moment and then said, “But he won’t.”

  “Harry,” Thomas said.

  “He won’t,” I said quietly. “I know him. He won’t.”

  Thomas let out a low growling grumble—but he got back into the Hummer and shut the door.

  Fix eyed me warily, and checked his surroundings quickly, as though expecting some kind of ambush.

  I sighed and sat down on the rear bumper of the Hummer. “Fix,” I said. “Look, I’ve been doing this job for about six hours now. I haven’t gone all dark side. Yet.”

  Fix folded his arms. His fingers were still close to his weapons, but a little farther away than they’d been a moment before. “You’ve got to understand. Lloyd Slate was a real monster, man.”

  “I know.”

  “You don’t know. Because you never had to face him without power, the way we did.”

  I spread my hands. “I didn’t always have power, Fix. And even with it, there are plenty of big, scary things out there that I’m just as helpless against. I know.”

  “Then you know what my problem is,” he said.

  “Let’s assume for a moment that I’m sometimes an idiot,” I said. “What’s your problem?”

  He gave me a brief smile. “You were dangerous enough without Mab’s hand on you. Now? You can make Lloyd Slate look like a grade-school bully.”

  “But I haven’t,” I said.

  “But you could.”

  “Maybe I won’t.”

  “Maybe you will.”

  “If I’m as powerful as you seem to think,” I said, “then what makes you think you can stand up to me?”

  He shrugged. “Maybe I can’t. But at least I have a chance. The people behind me wouldn’t.”

  “Ah,” I said. We both sat for a moment. Then I said, “So I guess it won’t be enough for me to assure you that I’m not up to no good.”

  “You know how you could tell when Slate was lying?”

  “How?”

  “His lips were moving.”

  I smiled briefly. “Well. It seems to me you’ve got a couple of choices.”

  “Oh?”

  “You do the math. You see what I have the potential to do, and you plan for what I could do, rather than what you think I will do.”

  “Might be smart,” Fix said. “Von Clausewitz would say so.”

  “If this was a war and I was the enemy, sure.”

  “What else do you think I could do?”

  “Extend a little trust, maybe,” I said. “That’s the illusion here, man. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t need to be enemies. We don’t need to be at war.”

  Fix pursed his lips. Then he said, “Here’s the problem with that. You belong to Mab. I like Harry. Maybe I could even trust him. But I know what Mab is like—and Harry belongs to Mab now.”

  “The hell I do,” I said. “Just because I took this job doesn’t mean I’m all cozy with her.”

  “You, uh, looked kinda cozy, man. With Mab. On the stone table.”

  Sealing a contract like the one with Mab isn’t something you do with an impersonal handshake. I felt my cheeks heat up. “Oh. You saw that.”

  “All of Faerie did,” Fix said.

  “God, that’s humiliating,” I muttered.

  “I know what you mean,” he said. “At least it wasn’t on pay-per-view.”

  I snorted.

  “Okay,” I said finally. “I’m under some time pressure here, so I think you need to make a decision.”

  “Yeah?”

  I nodded. “Who is going to make this call? You? Or von Clausewitz?”

  Fix looked away. Then he said, “I hate this kind of crap. This is the first time I’ve had a job I’ve held down for more than six months.”

  “I hear you.”

  He gave me another brief smile. “I want to believe you,” he said. Then he took a steadying breath and faced me, lowering his arms to his sides again. “But there are people depending on me to keep them safe. I can’t afford to do that.”

  I stood up, very slowly and reluctantly. “Fix, I don’t want this fight.”

  “And you’ll get a chance to avoid it,” he said. “I’m going to give you until noon to get out of town, Harry. If I see you after that, I’m not going to spend any more time talking, and I’m not going to challenge you to a fai
r fight. If you’re really serious about being your own man, if you really want to keep the peace between us—you’ll go.”

  “I don’t think I can do that,” I said.

  “I didn’t think you could,” he said quietly. “You have until noon.”

  We exchanged a nod. Then he moved back to his SUV, never taking his eyes off me. Once he was in, he started it and drove away.

  I sank back down onto the Hummer’s back bumper again and closed my eyes.

  Great.

  One more thing.

  I liked Fix. He was a decent guy. He’d become the Summer Knight, and as far as I knew, he’d never abused his power. People in the supernatural community liked and respected him. I’d even seen him in action once. He was a hell of a lot more formidable than he’d been as the scared young man I’d first met.

  I didn’t want to fight him.

  He might not give me a choice.

  Mab was not about puppies and kittens, and I’d known that when I signed on. Even if she wasn’t evil, exactly, she was vicious, violent, and ruthless. I had no doubt that Mab had done for a number of decent people in her time, one way or another. There were stories about the Winter Knight stretching back for centuries, and various vile personalities had held the title. Some of them had even been famous. Gilles de Rais. Andrei Chikatilo. John Haigh. Fritz Haarmann. If I were in Fix’s shoes, and he were in mine, I might well have pulled the trigger without thinking twice.

  I leaned my head back against the truck with a little thunk.

  Thomas sat down next to me, and the Hummer settled a little more. “Well?”

  “Well, what?”

  “He going to back off?”

  “Doesn’t matter,” I said.

  “Sure it does.”

  I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter because he’s a decent guy, and I’m not going to hurt him.”

  “He might not give you much choice.”

  “There’s always a choice,” I said. “That’s the thing, man. There’s always, always a choice. My options might really, truly suck, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a choice.”

  “You’d let him kill you?” Thomas asked.

  I looked up at him. “No. But I won’t hurt him.”

  My brother gave me a tight-lipped look and then got up and walked away.

  There was a shimmer in the air, and Molly appeared, standing about ten feet behind what had been Fix’s position during our conversation. She watched Thomas go with an unhappy expression.

  I blinked at her. “How long have you been standing there?”

  “I got out of your side of the car when Thomas got in,” she said. “You know. Just in case something happened. It seemed like a good idea to make sure he went down quick if a fight broke out, so you wouldn’t have to kill him.”

  I smiled at her. “Totally unfair.”

  “I had this teacher who kept telling me that if I was ever in a fair fight, someone had made a mistake,” she said.

  “Sounds like a jerk.”

  “He has his moments,” she said. She squinted after Thomas and said, “He’s just afraid, you know. He doesn’t want to lose his brother twice.”

  “I know,” I said.

  “But I’m really proud of you, boss,” she said, her voice quieter. “I mean . . . I know you’ve had some hard calls to make lately. But my dad would say that you were right about this one. There’s always a choice.”

  I grunted. “If I get into it with Fix,” I said, “I don’t want you to get involved.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because faeries keep score,” I said. “And they’ll never leave a score unsettled.”

  “If I told you that, you’d tell me that wasn’t my choice to make.”

  “And I’d be right,” I said, and sighed. “But I have enough worries already, grasshopper. Leave it alone. For me.”

  She looked like I’d just asked her to swallow a bug. “I’ll try,” she said.

  “Thanks,” I said, and extended my hand.

  She helped me up. “What’s next?”

  “A phone call. Let’s go.”

  Chapter

  Twenty

  “I don’t care how busy he is,” I said into the phone. “I need to talk with him. Period.”

  We were in Thomas’s living room. Thomas was sprawled on a recliner. The hideous high-tech brushed-steel look that had been the place’s trademark had been softened with window dressings and various bits of decoration—Justine’s touch. Thomas, like most men, regarded a throw pillow as something to throw.

  One bounced off of my chest. “Way to turn on the charm, Harry,” he murmured.

  I covered the phone’s receiver with one hand. “Polite gets you nowhere with these people. Trust me.” I turned back to the phone. “No,” I said. “Not over this line. It’s bugged. Just tell him that Doughnut Boy needs to speak to him or an informed high-level operative in person, within the hour.”

  Thomas mouthed the word operative at me, his fingers spread in a gesture meant to convey spooky importance. I kicked the pillow back at him.

  “Don’t give me excuses,” I said. “He can get here if he damned well wants to and we both know it. Call me back at this number.” I thunked the phone down.

  “Earlier today,” Molly said, from where she sat on the floor, “someone said something to me about not burning my bridges. Let me think. Who was that?”

  “Ixnay,” I growled. “I know what I’m doing.” I turned to Thomas. “How many bugs does Lara have on this place?”

  “Harry,” Thomas said in a scandalized tone—one that was just a little bit too well projected to be meant for me. “I’m her brother. She would never behave that way toward her own flesh and blood, her own kin, her own dear sibling.”

  I growled. “How many?”

  He shrugged. “It changes. New ones come in sometimes when I’m not home.”

  I grunted. I put the phone on the counter, unplugged it, and grabbed a pepper shaker. I put a circle of pepper around the phone, and sealed it with a gentle effort of will. “You’re set for money, right?”

  “With Lara’s money, yes.”

  “Good,” I said, and then I unleashed a burst of will with a mutter of, “Hexus,” that burned out every bit of electronics within fifty feet. The apartment’s lightbulbs all winked out at the same instant.

  Thomas groaned, but he didn’t otherwise complain.

  “Grasshopper,” I said.

  “On it,” Molly said. She rose to her feet, frowning, her eyes mostly closed, and began walking slowly around the apartment.

  While she did that, I broke the circle of pepper with a brush of my hand and plugged the phone back in.

  “If you were going to do that,” Thomas asked, “why not do it before you made the phone call that absolutely did set off every flag Lara’s security teams have to wave?”

  I held up a hand for silence, until Molly had wandered down the hall and back. “Nothing,” she said.

  “No spells?” Thomas asked.

  “Right,” I said. “Anyone who came in uninvited wouldn’t be able to make that kind of spell stick. And no one you’ve invited in has . . .” I frowned. “Molly?”

  “I didn’t,” she said quickly.

  “. . . has planted a spell to listen in on you,” I finished. “And I wanted Lara’s people to know who I contacted. When they try to follow up on it, they’ll betray their presence and he’ll be alerted to how they operate.”

  “It was a payment,” Thomas said.

  I shrugged. “Call it a friendly gesture.”

  “At my sister’s expense,” Thomas said.

  “Lara’s a big girl. She’ll understand.” I considered things for a moment and then said, “Everyone be cool. Something might happen.”

  Thomas frowned. “Like what?”

  “Cat Sith!” I called in a firm voice. “I need you, if you please!”

  There was a rushing sound, like a heavy curtain stirred by a strong wind, and then, from the fresh,
dark shadows beneath Thomas’s dining table, the malk’s alien voice said, “I am here, Sir Knight.”

  Thomas jerked in reaction, despite my warning, and produced a tiny semiautomatic pistol from I knew not where. Molly drew in a sharp, harsh breath, and backed directly away from the source of the voice until her shoulder blades hit a wall.

  It was just possible that I had understated how unsettling a malk sounds when it speaks. I’d clearly been hanging around creepy things for way too long.

  “Take it easy,” I said, holding a hand out to Thomas. “This is Cat Sith.”

  Molly made a sputtering noise.

  I gave her a quelling glance and said to Thomas, “He’s working with me.”

  Cat Sith came to the edge of the shadows so that his silhouette could be seen. His eyes reflected the light from the almost entirely curtained windows. “Sir Knight. How may I assist you?”

  “Empty night, it talks,” Thomas breathed.

  “How?” Molly asked. “The threshold here is solid. How did it just come in like that?”

  Which was a reasonable question, given that Molly didn’t know about my former cleaning service and how it had interacted with my old apartment’s threshold. “Beings out of Faerie don’t necessarily need to be invited over a threshold,” I said. “If they’re benevolent to the inhabitants of the house, they can pretty much come right in.”

  “Wait,” Thomas said. “These freaks can walk in and out whenever they want? Pop in directly from the Nevernever? And you didn’t tell us about it?”

  “Only if their intentions are benign,” I said. “Cat Sith came here to assist me, and by extension you. As long as he’s here, he’s . . .” I frowned and looked at the malk. “Help me find the correct way to explain this to him?”

  Sith directed his eyes to Thomas and said, “While I am here, I am bound by the same traditions as would apply were I your invited guest,” he said. “I will offer no harm to anyone you have accepted into your home, nor take any action which would be considered untoward for a guest. I will report nothing of what I see and hear in this place, and make every effort to aid and assist your household and other guests while I remain.”