Cold days, p.38
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       Cold Days, p.38

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  “Who?” Molly asked, her voice worried.

  “Justine,” I said.

  “Oh, God.”

  I picked up the metal object. It was a plain bottle cap, slightly dented where it had been removed.

  “And Mac,” I said quietly. “He had someone following me everywhere I went. He took someone from each place.”

  “He told me to tell you,” Sarissa said, “that he’ll trade them all for you, if you surrender to him before sundown.”

  “And if I don’t?” I asked.

  “He’ll give their bones to the rawhead,” she whispered.

  Chapter

  Thirty-six

  Silence fell.

  “Okay,” I said into it. “I’ve just about had enough of that clown.”

  Molly looked up at me, her eyes worried. “You sure?”

  “Guy gets his jollies dipping his hat in people’s blood,” I said.

  “You can bargain with the Sidhe sometimes,” Molly said.

  “But not this time,” I said, my voice hard. “If we do, he’ll keep the letter of his word and he’ll make sure they don’t make it out anyway. The only way we’re getting our friends back is to take them away from him.”

  Molly grimaced, but after a moment, she nodded.

  I picked up the clumps of hair and put them in a neat row on the table. “Molly.”

  “On it,” she said, collecting them.

  “What are you doing?” Sarissa asked, her eyes wide.

  “The jerk was kind enough to give me some fresh cuttings from my friends,” I said. “I’m going to use them to track him down and thwart him.”

  “Thwart?” Sarissa asked.

  “Thwart,” I said. “To prevent someone from accomplishing something by means of visiting gratuitous violence upon his smarmy person.”

  “I’m pretty sure that isn’t the definition,” Sarissa said.

  “It is today.” I raised my voice. “Cat Sith. I need your assistance, please.”

  Sarissa went completely still when I spoke, like a rabbit who has sensed a nearby predator. Her eyes widened, then flicked around the room, seeking escape.

  “It’s okay,” I told her. “I’m getting along with him.”

  “You’re a wizard and the Winter Knight,” Sarissa hissed. “You have no idea how vicious that creature is, and I don’t have the Queen’s aegis protecting me.”

  “You have mine,” I said. I raised my voice, annoyed. “Cat Sith! Kittykittykittykitty!”

  “Are you insane?” Sarissa hissed.

  “He might not be able to get through, Harry,” Molly said. “It’s not just a threshold here. The svartalves have wards over the building as well.”

  “Makes sense,” I said. “Be right back.”

  I went out and looked around, but Sith didn’t appear. I called his name a third time, which as we all know is the charm. With beings of the Nevernever it’s a literal truth. I mean, it’s not an irresistible force, like gravity—it’s more like a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder that happens to be present, to varying degrees, in most of them. They respond, strongly, to things that happen in threes, be they requests, insults, or commands. So in a way, three really is a magic number.

  Hell. Just ask ménage-à-Thomas. Jerk.

  I waited for a while, even going so far as to turn about and take a few steps backward before turning forward again, just to give Sith some really rich opportunities to appear abruptly and startle me.

  Except he didn’t.

  I got a slow, squirmy feeling in the pit of my stomach. The rain was still falling in spits and showers, but the clouds had begun to gain the tint of a slow autumn sundown. Sith had always appeared almost instantly before.

  Had Mab been setting me up? Had she given me the eldest malk’s assistance so that she could pull the rug out from under me when I needed Sith the most? Had she gotten the Nemesis brainmold?

  I hadn’t seen Sith since the confrontation at the gardens. Had the enemy Sidhe brought him down?

  Or worse, the adversary?

  I felt actively sick to my stomach. If Cat Sith had been turned, there was no telling how much damage he might cause. Especially to me.

  I felt a little stupid about the kittykittykitty thing. Hopefully, he hadn’t been listening.

  I went back into the apartment, pensive.

  Molly gave me an inquiring look.

  I shook my head.

  Molly frowned at that; I could see the gears whirling in her brain.

  “Okay,” I said. “Plan B. Lacuna, come here, if you please.”

  After a moment, a little voice said from the direction of my room, “What if I don’t please?”

  “You come here anyway,” I stated. “It’s a human thing.”

  She made a disgusted noise and came zipping out of the room on her blurring wings. “What do you want me to do?”

  “You can read,” I said. “Can you read a map? Write?”

  “Yes.”

  “You’re on house duty, then,” I said. “If any of the Little Folk come back with a location where a rite is taking place, I want you to write down their descriptions and mark the location on the map. Can you do that?”

  Lacuna looked dubiously at the maps spread out on the table. “I think so. Probably. Maybe.”

  “And no fighting or duels.”

  “What about when I’m done writing things?”

  “No.”

  Lacuna folded her little arms and scowled at me. “You aren’t fun at all.”

  “Your breath smells like celery,” I replied. “Molly, how are those spells coming along?”

  “I think there’s some kind of counterspell hiding them,” she said. “It’s tricky, so stop bumping my elbow. I’m concentrating over here.”

  I let out an impatient breath and fought against a surge of anger. She was the apprentice and I was the wizard. There were wizards who would have beaten unconscious any apprentice who spoke to them like that. I’d always been kind to her—maybe too kind—and this disrespect was what I got in return? I should educate her to respect her betters.

  I made a low growling sound in my chest and clenched my fists. That impulse wasn’t mine. It was Winter’s. Molly and I had a relationship built on structure, trust, and respect—not fear. We had always bantered back and forth like that.

  But something in me wanted to . . . I don’t know. Put her in her place. Take out my frustrations on her. Show her which of us was the strongest. And it had a really primitive idea of how to make that happen.

  But that was unthinkable. That was the mantle talking. Loudly.

  Hell’s bells. As if I didn’t have enough trouble thinking my way past the influence of my own glands already.

  I heard a slight sound behind me and turned in time to see Sarissa vanish into the bathroom, moving in absolute silence. The rabbit had given up the statue routine and bolted.

  Sarissa had good instincts when it came to predators.

  I turned back to Molly to find her looking at me, her eyes wide. Molly was a psychic sensitive. She could feel emotions the way most of us can feel the temperature of a room. Sometimes she could even pluck someone’s thoughts out of the air.

  She knew exactly what I was feeling. She had all along.

  And she hadn’t run.

  “Are you okay?” she asked quietly.

  “It’s nothing,” I said. I forced myself to think my way past the mantle’s influence. “Find a steel needle to use as the focus,” I said. “Should give you an edge against whatever magic the Sidhe are using.”

  “Should have thought of that,” Molly chided herself.

  “That’s why they pay me the big bucks.” I turned and walked away from my apprentice to let her work without the distraction of my tangle of Winter’s urges blaring into her skull like an airhorn.

  I rummaged around in her fridge and made a sandwich from a bagel I split down the middle and a small mountain of two different-colored deli meats. I wolfed it down. Less than five minutes la
ter, Molly tied a needle onto a piece of wood with one of each of the human hairs. She then placed it gently into a bowl of water, and performed the tracking spell without a hitch.

  The needle slowly swung around to point east, directly toward my abducted friends. Probably. There were ways to futz about with tracking spells, but it appeared that the addition of steel to our own spell had overcome whatever the Redcap had cooked up. I extended my senses and checked the tracking spell. It was as solid as one of my own.

  “Good work,” I said. Then I walked over to the bathroom door and knocked gently. “Sarissa,” I said. “Can you hear me?”

  “Yes,” she answered.

  “We’re going out,” I said. “I hope we won’t be gone long. You should be safe here, but you’re free to leave if you want to do so. I think you might be followed if you do, but you aren’t a prisoner or anything. Okay?”

  There was a hesitant moment of silence and then she said, “I understand.”

  “There’s food in the fridge,” Molly called. “And you can sleep in my room if you’re tired. The door has a lock.”

  There was no answer.

  “Let’s get moving,” I said to Molly. “I want to make a stop before we track them down.”

  * * *

  The svartalves’ security guy stopped us before we could leave and informed us that my car had been repaired and delivered, and that they would bring it around for me. Molly and I traded a glance.

  “Um. How sure are you that the vehicle is secure?” Molly asked.

  “Mr. Etri personally requested a security sweep,” the guard said. “It’s already been screened for weapons, explosives, toxins, and any kind of enchantment, Miss Carpenter. Right now, they’re running it under a waterfall to wash away any tracking spells that might be on it. It’s the same procedure Mr. Etri uses to secure his own cars, miss.”

  “Who brought it?” Molly asked.

  The guard took a small notebook from his pocket and checked it. “A local mechanic named Mike Atagi. Think there’s a picture . . .” He thumbed through the pages, and then held up a color printout that had been folded into the notebook. “This is him.”

  I leaned forward to peer at the photo. Well, son of a gun. It was my old mechanic, Mike. Mike had been a miracle worker when it came to repairing the Blue Beetle, working with a talent that was the next-best thing to sorcery to bring the car back from the dead over and over again.

  “Did he say who delivered it to him?” I asked.

  The guard checked his notes. “Here. That it was waiting at his shop when he got there, along with a deposit and a rush order, reading, ‘Repair this for Harry Dresden and return it to the following address or suffer, mortal smith.’”

  “Cat Sith,” I said. “Well, at least he was on the job while we were out at the island.”

  There was a low growling sound and the Munstermobile came gliding up out of the parking garage, dripping water from its gleaming surface like some lantern-eyed leviathan rising from the depths. There were still a few dents and dings in it, but the broken glass had all been replaced, and the engine sounded fine.

  Okay, I’m not like a car fanatic or anything—but the guitar riff from “Bad to the Bone” started playing in my head.

  “Wheels,” I said. “Excellent.”

  The Munstermobile came gliding up to us and stopped, still dripping water, and another security guy got out of it, left the driver door open, and came around to open the passenger door for Molly.

  I touched Molly’s shoulder to stop her from moving to get in immediately, and spoke to her very quietly. “How much do you trust your friend Mr. Etri?”

  “Etri might oppose you,” Molly said. “He might break your bones. He might cut your throat in your sleep or make the ground swallow you up. But he will never, ever lie about his intentions. He’s not a friend, Harry. But he is my ally. He’s good at it.”

  I wanted to say something smart-ass about not trusting anyone who lived anywhere near the Faerie realms, but I held back. For one thing, svartalves take paranoia to an art form, and I had no doubt they would be listening to everything everyone said on their own property while not in private quarters. It would have been stupid to insult them. For another thing, they had an absolutely ironclad reputation for integrity and neutrality. No one crossed a svartalf lightly—but on the other hand, the svartalves rarely gave anyone a good reason to cross them, either. That garnered them a boatload of respect.

  They also had a reputation for rigid adherence to promises, to bargains, and to the law, or at least to the letters it consisted of. “What are the terms of your alliance?” I asked, walking around the car toward the driver side.

  “I get the apartment,” Molly said. “I mean, it’s mine. I own it. They handle any maintenance for the next fifty years, and as long as I’m on their property, they consider me to be a citizen of their nation, with all the rights and privileges that entails.”

  I whistled as we got in and shut the doors. “And what did you give them for that?”

  “Their honor. And there might have been this bomb problem I handled for them.”

  “Hell’s bells,” I said. “Look at you, all grown-up.”

  “You have been,” Molly said. “All day.”

  I tried not to give her a guilty glance as we pulled out. “Um.”

  “I feel it, you know,” she said. “The pressure inside you.”

  “I’ve got it buttoned down,” I said, and started driving. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to let it make me . . . take anything away from you.”

  Molly folded her hands in her lap, looked down at them, and said in a small voice, “If it’s given, freely offered, you can’t really take it away. All you’re doing is accepting a gift.”

  Part of me felt like something had torn in my chest, so deep was the ache I felt at the hope, the uncertainty in the grasshopper’s voice.

  And another part of me wanted to howl and attack her. Take her. Now. It didn’t even want to wait to stop the car. If I went purely by the numbers, there was no reason at all not to give in to that urge—except for the car crashing, I mean. Molly was an adult woman now. She was exceptionally attractive. I’d seen her naked once, and she was really good at it. She was willing—eager, even. And I trusted her. I’d taught her a lot over the years, and some of that had been extremely intimate. Master-apprentice relationships were hardly unheard-of in wizarding circles. Some wizards even favored that situation, because on the spooky side, sex can be a whole hell of a lot more dangerous than recreational. They regarded the teaching of physical intimacy as something as inextricably intertwined with magic as it is with life.

  It’s possible that, from a standpoint of pure, unadulterated reason, they might even have a point.

  But there was more to it than reason. I’d known Molly when she was wearing a training bra. I’d hung out in her tree house with her after she’d come home from high school. She was the daughter of the man I respected most in this world and the woman whom I least wanted to cross. I believed that people in positions of authority and influence, especially those in the role of mentor and teacher, had a mountainous level of responsibility to maintain in order to balance out that influence over less experienced individuals.

  But mostly, I couldn’t do it because Molly had been crushing on me since she was about fourteen years old. She was in love with me, or at least thought she was—and I didn’t feel it back. It wouldn’t be fair to her to rip her heart out that way. And I would never, ever forgive myself for hurting her.

  “It’s okay,” she almost-whispered. “Really.”

  There wasn’t anything much to say. So I reached over, took her hand, and squeezed gently. After a while, I said, “Molly, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. But if it ever does, the first time damned well isn’t going to be like that. You deserve better. So do I.”

  Then I put both hands back on the wheel and kept on driving. I had someone else to pick up before I gave the Redcap my version of a hostage cr
isis.

  * * *

  We got to Chez Carpenter around five, and I parked the Munstermobile on the street. It was the single gaudiest object for five miles in every direction, and it blended in with the residential neighborhood about as well as a goose in a crowd of puffer fish. I turned off the engine and listened to it clicking. I didn’t look at the house.

  I got out of the car, shut the door, and leaned back against it, still not looking at the house. I didn’t need to. I’d seen it often enough. It was a gorgeous Colonial home, complete with manicured landscaping, a pretty green lawn, and a white picket fence.

  The grasshopper got out of the car and came around to stand beside me. “Dad’s at work. The sandcrawler is gone,” Molly noted, nodding toward the driveway where her mother always parked their minivan. “I think Mom was going to take the Jawas trick-or-treating at the Botanic Gardens this afternoon. So the little ones won’t be home.”

  Which was Molly’s way of telling me that I didn’t have to face my daughter right now, and I could stop being a coward.

  “Just go get him,” I said. “I’ll wait here.”

  “Sure,” she said.

  Molly went up to the front door and knocked. About two seconds after she did that, something huge slammed against the other side of the door. The heavy door jumped in its frame. Dust fell from the roof over the porch, dislodged by the impact. Molly stiffened and backed away. A second later, there was another thump, and another, and the sound of the frantic scratching of claws on the door. Then more thumping.

  I hurriedly crossed the street to stand beside Molly on the lawn, facing the front door.

  The door wiggled, then opened unsteadily, as if being manipulated by someone with his hands full. Then the storm door flew open and something grey and shaggy and enormous shot out onto the porch. It cleared the porch railing in a single bound, hurtled across the ground and the little picket fence, and hit me in the chest like a battering ram.