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Small Favor, Page 7

Jim Butcher

Chapter 16~17

  Chapter Sixteen

  I was more than an hour late, and Murphy was not amused.

  "Your nose looks worse than it did yesterday," she said when I sat down at the table. "I think the black eyes have grown, too. "

  "Gosh, you're cute when you're angry," I responded.

  Her eyes narrowed dangerously.

  "It makes your little button nose all pink and your eyes get bloodshot and even bluer. "

  "Did you have any last words, Dresden, or should I just choke you now?"

  "Mac!" I called, raising a hand. "Two pale!"

  She fixed me with a steady look and said, "Don't think you can buy your way out of this with good beer. "

  "I don't," I said, rising. "I'm buying my way out of it with really, really good beer. "

  I walked over to the bar as Mac set two bottles of his microbrewed liquid nirvana down and took off the caps with a deft twist of his hand, disdaining a bottle opener. I winked at him and picked up both bottles, then sauntered back over to Murphy.

  I gave her my bottle, took mine, and we drank. She paused after the first taste and blinked at the bottle before drinking again more deeply. "This beer," she pronounced after that, "just saved your life. "

  "Mac's a master beeromancer," I replied. I'd never tell him, but at the time I wished he'd serve his brew cold. I'd have loved to hold a frosty bottle against my aching head for a moment. You'd think the pain from the damned broken nose would fade eventually. But it just kept on stubbornly burning.

  We had settled down at a table along one wall of the pub. There are thirteen tables in the room, and thirteen wooden pillars, each extensively carved with scenes mostly out of Old World fairy tales. The bar is crooked and has thirteen stools, and thirteen ceiling fans whir lazily overhead. The setup of the entire place is designed to diffuse and refract random magical energies, the kind that often gather around practitioners of magic when they're grumpy or out of sorts. It offers a measure of protection from accumulated negative energies, enough to make sure that annoying or depressing "vibes," for lack of a more precise term, don't adversely affect the moods and attitudes of the pub's clientele.

  It doesn't keep out any of the supernatural riffraff-that's what the sign by the door is for. Mac had the place legally recognized as neutral ground among the members of the Unseelie Accords, and members of any of the Accorded nations had a responsibility to avoid conflict in such a place, or at least to take it outside.

  Still, neutral ground is safe only until someone thinks they can get away with violating the Accords. It's best to be cautious there.

  "On the other hand," Murphy said, more quietly, "maybe you're too pathetic to beat to death right now. "

  "My nose, you mean. Compared to the way my hand felt, it's nothing," I said.

  "Still can't be much fun. "

  "Well. No. "

  She watched me through her next sip and then said, "You're about to play the wizard card and tell me to butt out. "

  "Not exactly," I said.

  She gave me her cop eyes, all professionally detached neutrality, and nodded once. "So talk. "

  "Remember the guys from the airport a few years back?"

  "Yeah. Killed the old Okinawan guy in the chapel. He died real bad. "

  I smiled faintly. "I think he'd probably argue the point, if he could. "

  She shrugged and said, tone quietly flat, "It was a mess. "

  "The guys behind it are back. They've abducted Marcone. "

  Murphy frowned, her eyes distant for a moment, calculating. "They're grabbing his business?"

  "Or forcing him onto their team," I said. "I'm not sure yet. We're working on it. "


  "You remember Michael?" I asked.

  "Charity's husband?"

  "Yeah. "

  "I remember that at the airport we found a couple of men with no tongues and fake identification. They'd been killed with long blades. Swords, if you can believe that in this day and age. It was messy, Harry. " She put her hands flat on the table and leaned toward me. "I don't like messy. "

  "I'm all kinds of sorry about that, Murph," I said. It's possible that a grain or two of sarcasm was showing in my reply. "I'll be sure to ask them to put on the kid gloves. If I survive asking the question, I'll let you know what they say. "

  Murphy regarded me calmly. "They're back, then?"

  I nodded. "Only this time they brought more friends to the party. "

  She nodded. "Where are they?"

  "No, Murph. "

  "Where are they, Harry?" Murph asked, her voice hard. "If they're that dangerous, I'm not waiting for them to choose their ground so that we have to rush into a hostile situation in response to them. We'll go after them right now, before they have a chance to hurt anyone else. "

  "It'd be a slaughter, Murphy. "

  "Maybe," she said. "Maybe not. You'd be surprised what kinds of resources the department has gotten its hands on, what with the whole War on Terror. "

  "Right. And you're going to tell your bosses what?"

  "That the same terrorists who attacked the airport and murdered a woman in the marina are in the city, planning another operation. That the only way to ensure the safety of its citizens is to preemptively assault them. Then show up with SWAT, SI, every cop in town, anyone we can get from the Bureau, and all the military backup available on short notice. "

  I sat back in my chair at that, startled at Murphy's tone-and at the possibilities.

  Hell. The kind of firepower she was talking about might give even the Denarians pause. And given the current climate, terrorist plot was all but synonymous with respond with overwhelming force. Oh, sure, most modern weaponry was far less effective on supernatural targets than anyone without knowledge of them would expect-but even reduced to the effectiveness of bee stings, enough bee stings can be just as deadly as a knife in the heart.

  Humanity, at large, enjoys a dichotomous role in supernatural politics. On the one hand they are sneered at and held in contempt for being patently unable to come to grips with reality, to the point where the supernatural world hardly needed to bother to hide from them. Given half a chance, the average human being would rationalize the most bizarre of encounters down to "unusual but explainable" events. They are referred to as herd animals by a lot of the things that prey on them, and often toyed with and tormented.

  On the other hand, no one wants to get them stirred up, either. Humanity, when frightened and angry, is a force even the supernatural world does not wish to reckon with. The torches and pitchforks are just as deadly, in their numbers and their simple rage, as they ever were-and it was my opinion that most of the supernatural crowd had very little appreciation for just how destructive and dangerous mankind had grown in the past century.

  Which is why I found myself sorely tempted to let the Denarians get a big old faceful of angry cop. Five or six rifles like Gard's might not kill Mantis Girl-but if you followed them up with thirty or forty pairs of stompy combat boots for all the little bugs, Little Miss Clamphands could go down for the count.

  Of course, all that was predicated on the idea that the humans involved a) knew what they were up against and b) took it seriously and worked together tightly enough to get the job done. Murphy and the guys in SI might have a pretty good grasp of the situation, but the others wouldn't. They'd be expecting a soldier movie, but they'd be getting something out of a horror flick instead. I didn't for one second believe that Murphy or Stallings or anyone else in Chicago could make everyone involved listen to them once they started talking about demons and monsters.

  I rubbed at my head again, thinking of Sanya. Maybe we could try to explain it in more palatable terms. Instead of "shapeshifting demons" we could tell them that the terrorists were in possession (ha-ha, get it?) of "experimental genetically engineered biomimetic armored suits. " Maybe that would give them the framework they needed to get the job done.

bsp; And maybe it wouldn't. Maybe they'd run into something out of a nightmare and start screaming in fear. Coordination and control would go right out the window, especially if the Denarians had anyone with enough magical juice to start blowing out technology. Then would come the panic and slaughter and terror.

  "It's an idea," I said to Murphy. "Maybe even a workable idea. But I don't think its time has come. At least, not yet. "

  Her eyes flashed very blue. "And you're the one who decides. "

  I took another sip of beer and set the bottle down again, deliberately. "Apparently. "

  "Says who?" Murphy demanded.

  I leaned back in my chair. "In the first place," I said quietly, "even if you brought in all that firepower, the best you could hope for is a hideously bloody, costly victory. In the second place, there's a chance that I can resolve this whole thing through Council channels-or at least make sure that when the fur starts flying, we're not in the middle of the bloody town. "

  "But you-"

  "And in the third place," I continued, "I don't know where they are. "

  Murphy narrowed her eyes, and then some of the tension abruptly left her features. "You're telling me the truth. "

  "Usually do," I said. "I could probably track them down, given a day or so. But it might not come to that. "

  She studied my face for a moment. "But you don't think that talk will stop them from whatever they're doing here. "

  "Not a chance in hell. But hopefully I'll talk them out of the woodwork to someplace a little more out of the way. "

  "What if someone gets hurt while you're scheming?" she asked. "Those encounters people were having last night are getting attention. No one's been hurt so far, but that could change. I'm not prepared to tolerate that. "

  "Those were something else," I said tiredly. "Something I don't think will be a threat to the public. " I told her about Summer's hitters.

  She drank the rest of her beer in a single tip, then sighed. "Nothing's ever simple with you. "

  I shrugged modestly.

  "Here's the problem, Harry," she said quietly. "Last time these maniacs were around, there were bodies. And there were reports. Several witnesses gave a fairly good description of you. "

  "And nothing came of it," I said.

  "Nothing came of it because I was in charge of the investigation," Murphy corrected me, her tone slightly sharpening. "The case was never closed. And if similar events bring it up again, there's no way I can protect you. "

  "Stallings wouldn't. . . ?"

  "John would probably try," Murphy said. "But Rudolph's been ladder climbing over in Internal Affairs, and if he gets an opening he'll start screaming about it and the case will get kicked up the line and out of SI's control. "

  I frowned at that, turning my bottle around slowly in my fingers. "Well," I said, "that could complicate things. "

  Murphy rolled her eyes. "You think? Dammit, Harry. A long time ago I agreed with you that there were some things that it was better the department didn't get involved in. I promised not to go blowing whistles and raising alarms every time things got spooky. " She leaned forward slightly, her eyes intent. "But I'm a cop, Harry. Before everything else. My job is to defend and protect the people of this city. "

  "And what do you think I'm doing?"

  "The best you know how," she said without heat. "I know your heart is in the right place. But you can be as sincere as hell and still be wrong. " She paused to let that sink in. "And if you're wrong it could cost lives. Lives I'm sworn to protect. "

  I said nothing.

  "You asked me to respect your limits and I have," she said quietly. "I expect you to return the favor. If for one second I think that letting you handle this is going to cost innocent lives, I'm not going to stand quietly in the wings. I'm going in and bringing everything I can get my hands on with me. And if I do that, I expect your complete support. "

  "And you're the one who gets to decide when that is?" I demanded.

  She faced me without flinching, not a millimeter. "Apparently. "

  I leaned back in my seat and sipped beer with my eyes closed.

  Murphy didn't know everything that was at stake here. More than anyone else on the force, sure, but she was operating under only partial knowledge. If she made the wrong call, she could really screw things up beyond all ability to conceive.

  She'd probably had that same exact thought about me, and on more than one occasion.

  I'd asked Murphy for a lot when I'd asked her to trust me.

  How could I not return the favor and still call myself her friend?


  I couldn't.

  Hell, if she decided to go in, she'd do it with or without me. In that circumstance my presence could mean the difference between a bloody victory and a disaster, and. . .

  And I suddenly felt a lot more empathy for Michael's confusion.

  I opened my eyes again and said quietly, "You decide to bring CPD in, you'll have my cooperation. But you've got to believe me: This isn't the time for that kind of solution. "

  She ran her thumb over a scar in the wooden table. "What if that building had been full of people, Harry? Families. These Denarians could have killed hundreds. "

  "Give me time," I said.

  She put her hands on the table's edge and rose, facing me with those same neutral eyes again. As she started to speak I got a twisty feeling in the pit of my stomach. "I wish I could," she said, "but-"

  The door to the pub slammed open hard enough to strain its hinges and leave marks against the old wooden wall.

  A. . . thing. . . came through the door. It was hard for me to tell what it was at first. Imagine a big man trying to squeeze into a doghouse. He has to crouch down and go in sideways, one shoulder at a time, moving very carefully to avoid harming himself on the door frame. That's what this huge, grey-furred thing looked like. But with horns and cloven hooves.

  The enormous gruff-several feet taller than any ogre or troll I'd ever seen-squeezed all the way through the door and then rose to a crouch. His head, shoulders, and the top part of his back pressed against the ceiling. Hunched awkwardly, he slowly scanned the room, his golden eyes gleaming around their rectangular pupils. Each knuckle of his closed fists was the size of a freaking cantaloupe, and a heavy, pungent animal scent filled the air.

  Thanks to the snow, the pub wasn't crowded-just a few regulars, plus Murphy and me. But even so, this wasn't something you saw every day, and the room went totally still.

  The gruff 's gaze settled on me.

  Then he duckwalked toward my table. Mac raced for the switch that turned off the fans, but the first couple of spinning blades the gruff passed struck sharply against his curling horns-and shattered. He did not so much as blink. He stopped beside my table and surveyed Murphy, then turned his huge, heavy gaze to me.

  "Wizard," he rumbled in a voice so deep that I could feel it better than I could hear it. "I have come hence to speak to thee about mine younger brothers. " The gruff 's huge eyes narrowed, and its knuckles creaked like shipping hawsers as its fists tightened. "And the harms thou hast wrought upon them. "

  Chapter Seventeen

  I picked up my staff and rose to face the enormous gruff.

  Murphy watched me with very, very wide eyes.

  "This is neutral ground," I said quietly.

  "Aye," the gruff agreed. "The Accords alone keep thy neck unbroken, thy skull uncracked. "

  "Or your enormous ass uncooked," I replied, staring up and setting my jaw. "Don't start thinking it would be easy, Tiny. "

  "Mayhap, and mayhap not," the gruff rumbled. "'Tis a question answered only by the field. "

  I breathed as shallowly as I could. The huge gruff didn't smell bad, precisely-but he sure as hell smelled a lot. "Speak. "

  "We find ourselves at odds, friend of Winter," the gruff rumbled.

  "Friend of Summer, too," I said. "They gave me jewel
ry and everything. "

  "Aye," the huge gruff said. "You have done good service to my Court, if not to my Queen. I am surprised, then, at your use of the bane 'pon two of my younger kin. "

  "The bane?" Murphy said quietly.

  "Iron," I clarified. I turned back to the gruff. "They were trying to kill me. I wanted to survive. "

  "No friend of either Court would so employ the bane, wizard," the gruff growled. "Did you not know this? It is more than a mere weapon, and the pain it causes more than simple discomfort. It is a poison, body and spirit, that you have used 'pon us. "

  I glared at the big idiot. "They were trying to kill me," I repeated, only more slowly, you know, so it would be all insulting. "I wanted to survive. "

  The gruff narrowed its eyes. "Then you intend to continue as you have begun?"

  "I intend to survive," I replied. "I didn't ask for this fight. I didn't begin it. "

  "Thou'rt fated to die in any case, mortal, soon or late. Why not face it with honor and make thy passing more peaceful thereby?"

  "Peaceful?" I asked, barely containing a laugh. "If I go down fighting, Tiny, I plan for it to be about as unpeaceful as things get. " I jabbed a finger at him. "I've got nothing against you and your brothers, Tiny, except that you keep trying to freaking kill me. Back off, and it won't have to get any uglier than it already has. "

  The gruff growled. It sounded like a dump truck grinding its gears. "That I will not do. I will serve my Queen. "

  "Then don't expect anything but more of the same from me," I replied.

  "You would behave this way in the service of Winter?" the gruff demanded, incredulous. "You, who struck the heart of Arctis Tor? What hold has the Dark Queen 'pon you, mortal?"

  "Sorry, Tiny, but you aren't nearly as special as you think you are. This is pretty much the way I behave every time someone tries to whack me. " I gestured at him with my staff. "So if you came here to try to talk me into lying down and dying, you can leave the way you came in. And if you're the one coming after me next, you'd better have more brains than your brothers did, or I'm going to leave you as a great big pile of cold cuts and spare ribs. "

  The gruff growled again and gave me a stiff nod. "Then come out. And let us settle this. "

  Uh. Uh-oh.

  Showing bravado to the bad guys-or the not-so-bad guys, as the case may be-is a given, a part of the territory. But I'd never taken on anything with the sheer mass of Tiny the gruff, and I really didn't think I'd care to try my hand against him without one hell of a lot of preparation first. I also had to remember that big didn't necessarily equal stupid, not given the circles he apparently moved in.

  In fact, most of the higher reaches of the Summer Court knew a formidable amount of countermagic. If Tiny here had half the ability I'd seen demonstrated in the past, I would be in real trouble in a straight fight. All he had to do was stand outside and wait. Mac's place had only the one door.

  Worse, Thomas and Molly were waiting outside in Thomas's barge, and they would be sure to join in. I wasn't sure what could happen at that point. Leaving totally aside the fact that we'd be brawling in the middle of Chicago in broad daylight, I had to think that the gruff might have backup waiting nearby to intervene if anyone outside the business of the Courts of Winter and Summer tried to interfere. Molly was of limited capability in a fight, and Thomas tended to believe that the best way to approach any given combat was with a maximum of power, speed, and aggressive ferocity.

  Things could get really messy, really fast.

  I was trying to think of a way of getting out of this without getting anyone killed when Murphy put her gun on the table and said in a very clear, loud, challenging tone, "I don't think so. "

  The gruff turned to stare at her in surprise.

  So did Mac.

  So did everyone else there.

  Heck, so did I.

  Murphy stood straight up and turned to face the enormous gruff with her feet spread. "I will not let this challenge to my authority pass. "

  The gruff tilted its head to one side. Its horns dug furrows in the wooden ceiling.

  Mac winced.

  "Lady?" it rumbled.

  "Do you know who I am?" Murphy asked.

  "A lady knight, a shield bearer of this mortal demesne," the gruff replied. "An. . . officer of the law, or so I believe it is called. "

  "That's right," she said calmly.

  "I make no challenge to your authority, Dame. . . "

  "Murphy," she said.

  "Dame Murphy," rumbled the gruff.

  "But you do," Murphy said. "You have threatened one I am sworn to protect. "

  The gruff blinked-a considerable gesture on his scale-and glanced at me. "This wizard?"

  "Yes," Murphy said. "He is a citizen of Chicago, and I am sworn to protect and defend him against those who would harm him. "

  "Dame Murphy," the gruff said stiffly, "this matter is not one of mortal concern. "

  "The hell it isn't," Murphy said. "This man lives in Chicago. He pays taxes to the city. He is beholden to its laws. " She glanced aside at me, and her mouth quirked wryly. "If he is to suffer the headaches of citizenry, as he must, then it is fair and lawful that he should enjoy the protections offered to every citizen. He is therefore under my protection, and any quarrel you have with him, you also have with me. "

  The gruff stared at her for a moment, eyes narrowed in thought. "Art thou quite certain of thy position, Dame Murphy?"

  "Quite certain," she replied.

  "Even knowing that the duty solemnly charged unto me and my kin might require us to kill thee?"

  "Master Gruff," Murphy replied, laying a hand on her gun for the first time, "consider for a moment what a steel-jacketed round would feel like as it entered your flesh. "

  The gruff flicked its ears in surprise. A number of napkins were blown from the surface of a nearby table. "Thou wouldst aim such weapons of the bane at a lawful champion of the Seelie Court?"

  "In your case, Master Gruff," Murphy said, "I would hardly need to aim. " Then she picked up the gun and aimed it at the gruff 's eyes.

  I started to panic. Then I saw where I thought Murph was going with this one, and I had to work to keep myself from letting out a cheer.

  The gruff 's knuckles popped again. "This," it growled, "is neutral ground. "

  "Chicago," she replied, "has never signed any Accords. I will fulfill my duty. "

  "Attack me here," the gruff said, "and I will crush you. "

  "Crush me here," Murphy said, "and you will have broken the Accords while acting on behalf of your Queen. Was that your intention in coming here?"

  The gruff ground its teeth, a sound like creaking millstones. "My quarrel is not with you. "

  "If you attempt to take the life of a citizen of Chicago, whom I am sworn to protect, you have made it my quarrel, Master Gruff. Does your Queen wish to declare war upon the mortal authorities of Chicago? Would she wish you to decide such a thing?"

  The gruff stared at her, evidently pondering.

  "Lady has a point, Tiny," I drawled. "There's nothing to be gained here but trouble, and nothing to be lost but a little time. Walk away. You'll find me again soon enough. "

  The gruff stared at Murphy, and then at me. If I'd been less intrepid and fearless, I would have held my breath, hoping I'd avoided a fight. As it was, I held my breath mostly to cut down on the smell.

  Finally the gruff bowed its head toward Murphy, with more scraping of ceilings and wincing of bartenders. "Courage," he rumbled, "should be honored. Though thou art less a man than I thought, wizard, hiding behind a mortal, however valiant she may be. "

  I let out a long breath as silently as I could and said, "Gosh. Somehow I'll try to live with myself. "

  "It will not o'erburden you long. This I promise. " The gruff nodded once to Murphy, then turned and scuttled out the way he'd squeezed in. He even shut the door behind him.

p; Murphy let out her breath and put her gun away in its shoulder holster. It took her two or three tries.

  I sank into my chair on weak legs. "You," I said to Murphy, "are so hot right now. "

  She gave me a weak smile. "Oh, now you notice. " She glanced at the door. "Is he really gone?"

  "Yeah," I said. "I figure he is. The Summer Court aren't exactly sweetness and light, but they do have a concept of honor, and if any faerie gives his word, he's good for it. "

  Mac did something I'd rarely seen him do.

  He got three black bottles out from beneath the bar and brought them over to the table. He twisted the tops off and put one down in front of me, and another in front of Murphy, then kept the third for himself.

  I took up the bottle and sniffed at it. I wasn't familiar with the brew, but it had a rich, earthy aroma that made my mouth water.

  Without a word Mac held up his bottle in a salute to Murphy.

  I joined him. Murphy shook her head tiredly and returned the salute.

  We drank together, and my tongue decided that any other brew it ever had would probably be a bitter disappointment from this day forward. Too many flavors to count blended together into something I couldn't describe if I'd had a week to talk about it. I'd never had anything like it. It was God's beer.

  Mac drained the bottle in a single pull, with his eyes closed. When he lowered it, he looked at Murphy and said, "Bravely done. "

  Murphy's face was flushed with relief and with a reaction to her beer that was at least as favorable as mine. I doubt Mac could have seen it, but I'd known Murph long enough to see that she started blushing, too.

  Mac went back to the bar, leaving Murphy and me to finish our bottled ambrosia.

  "Okay," Murphy said in a weak voice. "Where were we?"

  "You were about to tell me how you thought I was wrong and that the Chicago PD needed to intervene. "

  "Oh," Murph said. "Right. " She stared after the departed gruff for a moment. "You said that that thing was from the nicer of the two groups causing us grief?"

  "Yep," I said.

  "We've gone up against the supernatural three times," she said quietly. "It's ended badly twice. "

  We meaning the cops, of course. I nodded. One of those occasions had killed her partner, Ron Carmichael. He hadn't been an angel or anything, but he had been a good man and a solid cop.

  "All right," she said quietly. "I'm willing to hold off for now. On one condition. "

  "Name it. "

  "I'm in from here on out. You obviously need someone to protect you from the big, bad billy goats. "

  I snorted. "Yeah, obviously. "

  She held up the last of her beer. I held up mine.

  We clinked them, finished them, and went back out into the winter cold together.