Cold days, p.22
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       Cold Days, p.22

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 
I blinked several times. I had expected Sith to hit me with a big old snark-club rather than actually answering the question—much less answering it in such detail. But that made sense. The obligations of guest and host were almost holy in the supernatural world. If Sith truly did regard that kind of courtesy as the obligation of a guest, he would have little choice but to live up to it.

  Thomas seemed to digest that for a few moments and then grunted. “I suppose I am obliged to comport myself as a proper host, then.”

  “Say instead that I am under no obligation to allow myself to be harmed, or to remain and give my aid, if you behave in any other fashion,” Sith corrected him. “If you began shooting at me with that weapon, for example, I would depart without doing harm, and only then would I hunt you, catch you outside the protection of your threshold, and kill you in order to discourage such behavior from others in the future.”

  Thomas looked like he was about to talk some smack at the malk, but only for a second. Then he frowned and said, “It’s odd. You sound like . . . like a grade-school teacher.”

  “Perhaps it is because I am speaking to a child,” Cat Sith said. “The comparison is apt.”

  Thomas blinked several times and then looked at me. “Did the evil kitty just call me a child?”

  “I don’t think he’s evil so much as hyperviolent and easily bored,” I said. “And you started it. You called him a freak.”

  My brother pursed his lips and frowned. “I did, didn’t I?” He turned to Cat Sith and set his gun aside. “Cat Sith, the remark was not directed specifically at you or meant to insult you, but I acknowledge that I have given offense, and recognize that the slight puts me in your debt. Please accept my apologies, and feel free to ask a commensurate service of me should you ever have need of it, to balance the scales.”

  Cat Sith stared at Thomas for a moment, and then inclined his head. “Even children can learn manners. Done. Until such time as I have need of you, I regard the matter as settled, Thomas Raith.”

  “You know him?” I asked.

  “And your apprentice, Molly Carpenter,” Sith said, his voice impatient, “as well as the rest of your frequent associates. May I suggest that you get on with the business at hand, Sir Knight? Tempus fugit.”

  One of Winter’s most dangerous creatures—most dangerous hunters—knew all about my friends. That was something that a smart man would be concerned about. I reminded myself that just because someone is courteous, it does not necessarily mean that they aren’t planning to vivisect you. It just means that they’ll ask whether the ropes holding you down are comfortable before they pick up the scalpel. Cat Sith might be an ally, for the moment, but he was not my friend.

  “In a few minutes, we’re going to be leaving,” I said. “I’ve got a hunch that we’ll be under observation, and I don’t want that. I want you to distract anyone who has us under direct surveillance.”

  “With pleasure.”

  “Without killing them or causing significant bodily harm,” I said. “For all I know there’s a cop or a PI watching the place. So nothing permanent.”

  Cat Sith narrowed his eyes. His tail twitched to one side, but he said nothing.

  “Think of it as a compliment,” I suggested. “Any idiot could murder them. What I ask is far more difficult, as befits your station.”

  His tail twitched the other way. He said nothing.

  “After that,” I said, “I want you to get word to the Summer Lady. I want a meeting.”

  “Uh, what?” Thomas said.

  “Is that a good idea?” Molly asked at the same time.

  I waved a hand at both of them, and kept talking to Sith. “Tell her it’s got to happen before noon. Can you contact her?”

  “Of course, Sir Knight,” said Sith. “She will wish to know the reason for such a meeting.”

  “Tell her that I’d prefer not to kill her Knight, and I’d like to discuss how best to avoid it. Tell her that I’ll meet her wherever she pleases, if she promises me safe conduct. Bring me her answer.”

  Sith eyed me, then said, “Such a course is unwise.”

  “I’m not asking you to do it. What do you care?”

  “The Queen may be less than pleased with me if I break her newest toy before she’s gotten sufficient use from it.”

  “Gosh,” I said.

  Sith flicked an ear and managed to do it contemptuously. “I will bear this message, Sir Knight. And I will . . . distract . . . those who hunt you. When will you be departing?”

  Behind me, Thomas’s phone began to ring.

  “Tell you in a second,” I said. I answered the phone. “Go for Doughnut Boy.”

  A woman with a voice cold enough to merit the use of the Kelvin scale spat, “He will meet you. Accorded Neutral Ground. Ten minutes.”

  “Cool,” I said. “I haven’t had a beer in forever.”

  There was a brief, perhaps baffled silence, and then she hung up on me.

  I turned back to Thomas and Molly and said, “Let’s go. Sith, please be—”

  The eldest malk vanished.

  “—gin,” I finished, somewhat lamely.

  Thomas swung to his feet and slipped the little automatic into the back of his pants, then pulled his shirt down over it. “Where are we going?”

  “Accorded Neutral Ground,” I said.

  “Oh, good,” Molly said. “I’m starving.”

  Chapter

  Twenty-one

  In the lobby, we found the doorman sitting on the ground grimacing in pain. A CPD patrol officer was next to him with a first-aid kit. As we passed, I saw several long, long slices in the back of one of the doorman’s legs, running from just above his heel to the top of his calf. His slacks and socks alike were sliced in neat, parallel strips. The wounds were painful and bloody, but not life-threatening.

  Both men were both too preoccupied to pay an instant of attention to the three of us as we calmly left the building.

  I winced a little as we went by them. Dammit. I hadn’t wanted to turn even the gentlest of Cat Sith’s attentions upon any of my fellow Chicagoans, but I hadn’t worded my command to him tightly enough. Of course, that was a rabbit hole I didn’t want to start down—experience has taught me that you do not win against supernatural entities at lawyering. It just doesn’t happen. I didn’t even want to think about what Sith might have done if I hadn’t forbidden him the use of deadly force.

  Maybe this was the malk’s way of telling me to beware the consequences if I kept giving him commands like a common servant. Or maybe this was his idea of playing nice. After all, he hadn’t slashed up the cop and every passerby. For all I knew, he thought he’d been a perfect gentleman.

  Molly checked out the parking garage from beneath a veil while Thomas and I waited. Once she pronounced the garage villain-free, we got into my brother’s troop transport and left.

  * * *

  In Chicago, you can’t swing a cat without hitting an Irish pub (and angering the cat), but McAnally’s place stands out from the crowd. It’s the favored watering hole for the supernatural scene of Chicago. Normals never really seem to find their way in, though we get some tourists once in a while. They rarely linger.

  Morning traffic was roaring at full steam, and even though Mac’s wasn’t far, it took us a little time to get there. Clouds had swallowed up the bright dawn, thick and grey. A light rain was falling. Occasionally I could see flashes of distant lightning glowing through the clouds overhead, or hear a subtle growl of low thunder.

  “And it was supposed to be nice today,” Molly murmured.

  I smiled a little, but didn’t say anything.

  Thomas pulled into the little parking lot adjacent to Mac’s, parking his Hummer next to an old white Trans Am. He stopped, frowning at it.

  “I thought Mac usually opened up at noon,” he said.

  “Eleven,” I said. My old office building hadn’t been far away. I’d eaten many a lunch at Mac’s place. “Guess he came in early today.”

  “That
’s handy,” Thomas said.

  “Where does that saying come from?” I asked.

  “Uh,” Thomas said. “Handy?”

  I blinked as we walked. “Well, yeah, that one, too, but I was thinking of the phrase, ‘You can’t swing a cat without hitting something around here.’”

  Thomas gave me a steady look. “Don’t you have important things to be thinking about right now?”

  I shrugged. “I wonder about these things. Life goes on, man. If I stop thinking about things just because some psycho or crew of psychos wants me dead, I’ll never get to think about anything, will I?”

  Thomas bobbed his head to one side in acknowledgment of my point.

  About thirty feet from the door, Molly abruptly stopped in her tracks and said, “Harry.”

  I paused and looked back at her.

  Her eyes were wide. She said, “I sense . . .”

  I narrowed my eyes. “Say it. You know you want to say it.”

  “It is not a disturbance in the Force,” she said, her voice half-exasperated. “There’s a . . . a presence here. Something powerful. I felt it in Chichén Itzá.”

  “Good,” I said, nodding. “He’s here. Seriously, neither of you guys knows where that saying comes from? Damn.”

  I hate not knowing things. It’s enough to make a guy wish he could use the Internet.

  * * *

  Mac’s pub was all but empty. It’s a place that looks pretty spacious when empty, yet it’s small enough to feel cozy when it’s full. It’s a study in deliberate asymmetry. There are thirteen tables of varying sizes and heights scattered irregularly around the floor. There are thirteen wooden columns, placed in similarly random positions, their faces carved with scenes from old-world nursery tales. The bar kind of meanders, and there are thirteen stools spaced unevenly along it. Just about everything is made from wood, including the paneled walls, the hardwood floors, and the paneled ceiling. Thirteen ceiling fans hang suspended from the ceiling, ancient things that Mac manages to keep running despite the frequent presence of magical talents.

  The decor is a kind of feng shui, or at least something close to it. All that imbalance is intended to scatter the random outbursts of magical energy that cause problems for practitioners. It must work. The electric fans and the telephone hardly ever melt down.

  Mac stood behind the bar, a lean man a little taller than average, his shaven head gleaming. I’ve patronized his establishment for most of my adult life and he still looked more or less like he had when I first met him: neat, dressed in dark pants, a white shirt, and a pristine white apron that proved its ongoing redundancy by never getting messy. Mac was leaning on the bar, listening to something the pub’s only other occupant was saying.

  The second man was well over six feet tall, and built with the kind of broad shoulders and lean power that made me think of a long-distance swimmer. He wore a dark grey business suit, an immaculate European number of some kind, obviously custom-made. His hair was the color of old steel, highlighted with sweeps of silver, and his sharp chin and jawline were emphasized by the cut of a short silver-white beard. The man wore a black eye patch made of silk, and even against the backdrop of that suit, it gave him a piratical aura.

  The man in the eye patch finished saying whatever it was, and Mac dropped his head back and let out a short, hefty belly laugh. It lasted only a second, and then it was gone, replaced with Mac’s usual calm, genial expression, but the man in the suit sat back with an expression of pleasure on his face at the reaction.

  “It’s him,” Molly said. “Who is that?”

  “Donar Vadderung,” I told her.

  “Whoa,” Thomas said.

  Molly frowned. “The . . . the security company guy?”

  “CEO of Monoc Securities,” I said, nodding.

  “Empty night, Dresden,” Thomas said. “You just demanded that he come to see you?”

  “Is that bad?” Molly asked him.

  “It’s . . . glah,” Thomas said. “Think of doing that to Donald Trump or George Soros.”

  Molly winced. “I’m . . . not sure I can do that.”

  Thomas glared at me. “You set up Lara’s surveillance crew to go up against his guys?”

  I smiled.

  “Balls,” Thomas said. “She’s going to rip mine off.”

  “Tell her it wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have stopped me. She’ll get it,” I said. “You guys sit down; get some food or something. This shouldn’t take long.”

  Molly blinked, then looked at Thomas and said, “Wait a minute. . . . We’re his flunkies.”

  “You, maybe,” Thomas said, sneering. “I’m his thug. I’m way higher than a flunky.”

  “You are high if you think I’m taking any orders from you,” Molly said tartly.

  The two of them went to a far table, bickering cheerfully, and sat down, passing by the real reason we were meeting here—a modest wooden sign with simple letters burned into it: ACCORDED NEUTRAL TERRITORY.

  The Unseelie Accords had supported the various supernatural political entities over the past few turbulent decades. They were a series of agreements that, at the end of the day, were basically meant to limit conflicts between the various nations to something with a definite structure. They defined the rights of those lords who held territory, as well as the infractions that could be committed against those lords by other lords. Think of them as the Geneva Conventions of the spooky side. That’s kind of close.

  Mac had somehow gotten his place declared neutral ground. It meant that whenever any signatory of the Accords was here, he was obligated to be a good guest, to offer no harm or violence to any other signatory, and to take any violence that might erupt outside. It was a meeting ground, where there was at least a fair chance that you might actually get to finish a meal without being murdered by someone who might otherwise be a mortal enemy.

  Vadderung watched Molly and Thomas sit and then transferred his attention back to me. His single eye was an icy shade of blue, and unsettling. As I approached him, I had an instinctive impression that he could see more of me than I could of him.

  “Well, well, well,” he said. “Rumors of your death, et cetera.”

  I shrugged. “I’m sure it isn’t an uncommon play among wizards,” I said.

  Something in his eye flashed, an amused thought that went by almost before I could see it. “Fewer try it than you might think,” he said.

  “I didn’t try anything,” I said. “It just happened.”

  Vadderung reached out and lazily collected a cup of coffee. He sipped it, watching me. Then he leaned forward slightly and said slowly, “Nothing that significant just happens, Dresden.”

  I squinted at him. Shrugged. Then I said, “Mac, can I get a beer?”

  Mac had sauntered a discreet distance down the bar. He eyed me, and then a slowly ticking clock on the wall.

  “I haven’t had a drink in a lifetime,” I said. “If I go all nutty about it, you can sign me up for AA.”

  Mac snorted. Then he got me a bottle of one of his microbrewed ales. They are nectar and ambrosia. He opened it and passed me the bottle (since he knew I rarely drink beer out of a glass), and I tilted it toward him before drinking some.

  “Pretty early for that, isn’t it?” Vadderung asked.

  “I can smell the whiskey in yours from here,” I said, and held up my bottle.

  He smiled, lifted his coffee cup toward me in salute, and took a long sip as I put back some more ale. Then we both set our drinks down.

  “What do you need?” Vadderung asked.

  “Advice,” I said. “If the price is right.”

  “And what do you think a sufficient price would be?”

  “Lucy charges a nickel.”

  “Ah,” Vadderung said. “But Lucy is a psychiatrist. You realize that you’ve just cast yourself as Charlie Brown.”

  “Augh,” I said.

  Vadderung smiled. “You found it lonely where you were, I see.”

  “Why would you sa
y that?”

  “The banter. The talk. Unnecessary companions. Many would say that now is the time for rapid, decisive action. But you have spent precious time reconnecting with your allies.” He tilted his head slightly. “Therefore, if you have such a driving need for it, I can logically assume that you have spent your recent time apart from such company. Does that seem reasonable to you?”

  “Arctis Tor isn’t much of a vacation spot,” I said.

  “No? What is it?”

  I narrowed my eyes. “Wait. Are you trying to shrink me?”

  He sipped his coffee. “Why would you ask me that question?”

  “Because you keep asking questions,” I said. “Joke’s on you, Lucy. I don’t have a nickel.” I regarded my bottle. “I’ve got time for banter. Just not for games.”

  Vadderung set his coffee down and spread his hands. “I don’t work for free,” he said.

  “I haven’t earned enough money in my entire lifetime to afford your fees,” I said. “But you don’t need more money.”

  He waited.

  “I’ll owe you one,” I said.

  That seemed to amuse the hell out of him. Wrinkled topography appeared at the corner of his eye. “Given the caliber of your talents for making enemies, I hope you’ll understand if I don’t consider what you offer a sound long-term value.”

  I smiled and sipped some beer. “But it’s worth a few minutes of your time—or you wouldn’t have come here in the first place.”

  That drew a quick flicker of an amused smile. “I will accept your offer of one favor—and a nickel.”

  “I told you. I don’t have a nickel.”

  He nodded gravely. “What do you have?”

  I rummaged in my pockets and came out with the jeweled cuff links from my tux. I showed them to him.

  “Those aren’t a nickel,” he said soberly. He leaned forward again, as he had a moment before, and spoke slowly. “What do you have?”

  I stared at him for a second. Then I said, “Friends.”

  He sat back, his blue eye all but throwing off sparks, it was so bright.

  “Thomas,” I called. “I need a nickel.”