Cold days, p.9
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       Cold Days, p.9

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  “Indeed,” Sith said. “In fact, this is, for the time being, the only way in or out of Faerie.”

  I blinked several times. “You mean Winter?”

  “Faerie,” Sith stated. “All of it.”

  I choked. “Wait. You mean all of Faerie is on lockdown?”

  “Indeed,” Sith said. “Until dawn.”

  “Why?” I asked.

  “One presumes it was done to give you a head start.” With that, Sith walked calmly through the door and onto the sidewalk. “Your car, Sir Knight.”

  I stepped through the door into the Chicago air, and it slugged me in the face with a legion of scents and sensations and sounds that were as familiar to me as my own breathing. After the cool, dry silence of Arctis Tor, I felt like I’d leapt into the middle of an active circus. There were too many sounds, scents, too much color, too much motion. Arctis Tor was as still as the deepest night of winter, twenty-four/seven. Chicago is . . . well, Chicago.

  I found myself blinking my eyes very rapidly.

  Home.

  I know. It’s corny. Especially since Chicago is what a polite person would call a colorful place. It’s a den of crime and corruption. And it’s a monument to architecture and enterprise. It’s violent and dangerous, and an epicenter of music and the arts. The good, the bad, the ugly, the sublime, monsters and angels—they’re all here.

  The scents and sounds triggered a mental avalanche of memories and I shivered at the intensity of it. I almost didn’t notice the car that pulled up to the curb beside me.

  It was an ancient hearse, a Caddy that must have been built sometime in the years immediately following World War II, complete with rounded tail fins. It had been painted dark, dark blue, and given a flame job in shades of electric purple. It wavered and bobbed drunkenly down the avenue, turned a bit too sharply toward the curb, lurched ahead with a roar of the engine, and then skidded to a halt with the brakes locked, missing the posts along the edge of the road, and the chains that hung between them, by maybe an inch.

  “Will there be anything else, Sir Knight?” Cat Sith asked.

  “Not right now,” I said warily. “Um. Who is driving that thing?”

  “I recommend it be you,” Sith said with unmistakable contempt, and then with a swish of his tail, he vanished.

  The engine roared once more, and the car lurched but didn’t move from its rest. The lights went on and then off, and then the wipers swept on a few times before the engine dropped to an idle and the brake lights shut off.

  I approached the car warily, leaned across the chains, and rapped on the driver’s-side window.

  Nothing happened. The windows were tinted a little, enough to make the dark interior invisible on the well-lit street. I couldn’t see anyone inside. I opened the door.

  “Three cheers, boys!” piped a tiny cartoon-character voice. “Hip, hip!”

  “Hip!” shrilled maybe a dozen more tiny voices.

  “Hip, hip!”

  “Hip!”

  “Hip, hip!”

  “Hip!” That was followed by a heartfelt chorus of “Yay!”

  Sitting in the driver’s seat of the hearse were a dozen tiny humanoids. Their leader, the largest of them, was maybe eighteen inches tall. He looked like an extremely athletic youth, drawn down to scale. He was dressed in armor made from castoff bits of garbage and refuse. His breastplate had been made from a section of aluminum can, a white one bearing a Coca-Cola logo. The shield on his left arm was made from the same material, this one sporting Coke’s seasonal Christmas polar bears. Part of a plastic toothpaste travel container had been fixed to his belt, and what looked like a serrated butter knife was thrust into it, its handle wrapped in layers of duct tape and string. His hair was violet, a few shades of blue darker than the lavender I remembered, silky, and nearly weightless, drifting around his head like dandelion down. Wings like a dragonfly’s hung from his back like an iridescent cloak.

  He was standing atop a formation of smaller sprites stacked up in a miniature human pyramid, and his hands rested on the wheel. Several weary-looking little wee folk were leaning against the gearshift, and several more were on the floor, holding the brake down in a dog pile of tiny bodies. They were all dressed in similar outfits of repurposed garbage.

  The leader gave me a sharp salute, beaming. “Major General Toot-toot of the Sir Za Winter Lord Knight’s Guard reporting for duty! It is good to see you, my lord!” His wings buzzed and he fluttered out of the hearse to hover in front of my face, spinning in circles. “Look, look! I got new gear!”

  “We’re all Winter and stuff!” piped up one of the smaller members of the guard. He brandished his shield, which was made out of a section of plastic that had come from a solid-stick deodorant container, bearing the words “Winter Clean.”

  “Go, Winter!” shouted Toot, thrusting a fist into the air.

  “Go, pizza!” echoed the others.

  Toot spun around and scowled at them. “No, no, no! We practiced this!”

  “GO, PIZZA!” they bellowed, louder and more in unison.

  Toot-toot sighed and shook his head. “This is why you’re all kernels and I’m a major general. ’Cause you got corn silk in your ears.”

  Toot and company were kind of my minions. I’d gotten along well with the Little Folk over the years, mostly by virtue of bribing them with pizza. A few snitches and stool pigeons had developed into a band of cute little moochers, and then into an army—and at some point after that, Toot had somehow gotten the idea to make them into a real army. And they tried—they honestly did—but it’s tough to form a disciplined military when most of the guys in it have an attention span about twenty seconds long. Discipline is boring.

  “Guys, guys,” I said. “Break it up and shove over. I’m in a hurry.”

  The wee folk complied at once, all of them scrambling into the passenger seat or over into the rear compartment. I got in as quickly as I could and shut the door behind me.

  I buckled in and pulled out into the sparse traffic. The big Caddy moved out with a satisfied rumble and way more power than I was used to in an automobile. My last car had been a vintage VW Bug with an engine about the size of a deck of cards.

  “Toot,” I said, “have you grown?”

  “Yes,” Toot said, disgusted. “Even though I stand around with weights on my head for, like, twenty whole minutes every day. I even got laundered. Twice! And nothing!”

  “I think you look dashing,” I said.

  He settled down at the center of the dashboard, his legs hanging off and kicking idly. “Thank you, my lord!”

  “So the pizza came on schedule while I was, uh, away?”

  “Yes, my lord! The Lady Leanansidhe provided it in your stead!” Toot lowered his voice and talked from between clenched teeth. “If she hadn’t, these knuckleheads would have deserted!”

  “Well, we do have a deal,” I said. “That’s what a deal means, right?”

  “Right,” Toot said firmly. “We trust you, Harry. You’re barely like a human at all!”

  I knew he meant it as a compliment, but something chilly slithered down my back at the statement. My faerie godmother, the Leanansidhe, had covered my obligations at home while I was gone? Man, that could get complicated. Among the Sidhe, favors are hard currency.

  But I was glad to see Toot and his gang. They were damned handy, and could be far more dangerous and capable than most, even in the supernatural world, I realized.

  “I never doubted you or the guard for a second, Major General.”

  Which was true: I had no doubt at all that as long as the pizza kept flowing, I’d have their absolute loyalty.

  Toot beamed at the compliment, and his body pulsed with a gentle aura of cool blue light. “How can the guard serve you, my lord?”

  They’d started off the evening nearly crashing the car, but it was impressive they’d managed it at all. “I’m on a case,” I said seriously. “I’ll need someone to watch my back.”

  “Lean forwa
rd a little, my lord,” Toot said instantly, and shouted, “Hey, Kernel Purpleweed! Come watch the Za Winter Lord Knight’s back!”

  I fought not to smile. “No, that’s a metaphor,” I said.

  Toot frowned and scratched his head. “I don’t know what it’s for.”

  Mustn’t laugh. Mustn’t. It would crush his little feelings. “In a minute, I’m going to pull over and go into a building. I want guards to stay inside and around the car, and I want a couple more to go with me and make sure no one sneaks up on me when I’m not looking.”

  “Oh!” Toot said. “That’s easy!”

  “Good,” I said, as I pulled the car over. “Make it so.”

  Toot saluted, leapt into the air, and zipped back to the rear compartment, piping orders as he went.

  I set the old Caddy’s parking brake and got out, wasting no time. I didn’t hold the door open any longer than I would have if I’d been alone. The Little Folk do not need that kind of coddling. They’re not always bright, but they’re fast, tough, and resourceful. I’d have had trouble keeping them in the car if I wanted to.

  Once I was out and moving, I was to all appearances alone. Whoever Toot had sent to watch my back would be silent and nearly invisible, and I didn’t bother rubbernecking around to try to spot them. One thing about the Little Folk that held as well with every faerie—when they made a deal, they stuck to it. They’d had my back before, and they had it now. Heck, since I was committing a felony, they probably thought it was fun to come along for the ride.

  It’s tough to get one of the Little Folk to care about discipline. On the other hand, they really aren’t terribly impressed with danger, either.

  I walked about a block to the right apartment building, a brownstone blockhouse that had all the flair and imaginative design of a brick of baking chocolate. It wasn’t an upscale place like where my brother lived, but it wasn’t one of the projects at their worst, either. It didn’t have a doorman, and the security wouldn’t be top-of-the-line, and that was, for now, the important thing.

  I got a little bit lucky on the way in—a resident, a man in his twenties who had apparently been out drinking, opened the door on his way home, and I called out, “Hold that, please?”

  He did. He probably shouldn’t have, but guys in tuxes, even without a tie, don’t strike anyone as a criminal upon first impression. I nodded to him and thanked him with a smile. He muttered something bleary and turned down a side hallway. I hit the elevators and took one up.

  Once I was on the right floor, the rest wasn’t too tough. I walked calmly down the hallway to the proper door and leaned against it.

  A ripple of gooseflesh washed up my arm, beginning on the back of my hand, and I jerked my fingers back in pure instinct. Huh. There were wards on the door, magical defenses. I hadn’t expected that. Wards can do all kinds of things to an intruder, from suggesting that he turn around and leave, to giving him a stiff push away, to frying him like a bug zapper.

  I took a moment to study the wards. They were a smooth patchwork of enchantment, probably the result of several lesser talents working together. Somebody like me can put up a ward that is like a huge iron wall. This was more like a curtain of tightly interwoven steel rings. For most purposes, both would serve fairly well—but with the right tool, the latter kind of wall is easily dealt with.

  “And I’m the tool,” I muttered. Then I thought about it, sighed, and shook my head. “One day,” I told myself, “one brave and magnificent day, I will actually be cool.”

  I rested my fingertips lightly on the door and went over the wards in my thoughts. Aha. Had I tried to break in, the wards would have set off an enormous racket and a bunch of smoke, along with a sudden, intense sensation of claustrophobia. Fire alarms would have gone off, and sprinklers, and the authorities would have been summoned.

  That was a nominally effective defense all by itself, but the claustrophobia bit was really masterful. The noise would trip off an instinctive adrenaline response, and that combined with the induced panic of the ward would send just about anything scurrying for the exit rather than take chances in what would have been a very noisy and crowded environment. That kind of subtle manipulation always works best amidst a flurry of distractions.

  Washington’s been doing it like that for decades.

  I cut the wards off from their power source one at a time, trying to keep the damage to a minimum so that it would be easy to fix. I already felt bad enough over what I was about to do. Then, once the wards were off-line, I took a deep breath and leaned against the door with a sudden thrust of my legs and body. I’d been working out. The doorframe splintered and gave way, and I slipped quickly and quietly into Waldo Butters’s apartment.

  It was dark inside, and I didn’t know it well enough to navigate without light. I left the door a little bit open so that the light from the hall would leak in. This was the dangerous part. If someone had heard the noise, they’d be calling the cops. I needed to be gone in the next five minutes.

  I crossed the living room to the short hallway. Butters’s bedroom was on the right, his computer room on the left. The bedroom door was closed. There was a faint light in the computer room. I entered. There were several computers set up around the walls of the room, which I knew Butters and company used for some kind of group computer game-related thingy they all did together. The computers were all turned off except for one, the biggest one in the corner, which sat facing out into the room. Butters called it the captain’s chair. He sat there and coordinated some kind of game activity. Raids, I think they were called, and they went on into the wee hours. His job required him to work nights, and he claimed it helped him keep circadian rhythm to play video games on his off nights.

  That monitor was on, and in the reflection in the glass of the room’s single window, I could see that the screen had been divided into maybe a dozen sections, and every single one of them was playing a different pornographic scenario.

  A human skull sat on the table, facing the monitor, and faint orange flickers of light danced in its eyes. Despite its utter inability to form any expression, it somehow gave the impression of a happily glazed look.

  I’d been in the room for about two seconds when the computer made an awful sound, coughed out a little puff of smoke, and the monitor screen went black. I winced. My fault. Wizards and technology don’t get along so well, and the more advanced the technology is, the sooner something seems to go wrong—especially with electronics. Butters had been cobbling together a theory to explain why the world worked like that, but I’d drawn the line at covering my head in a tinfoil hat in the name of science.

  The skull let out a startled, disappointed sound, and after several disoriented flickers, its eyelights panned around the room and landed on me.

  “Harry!” said the skull. It didn’t move its jaws to form the words or anything. They just came out. “Hell’s bells, you’re back from the dead?”

  “From the mostly dead,” I replied. “You made it out of Omaha Beach, huh?”

  “You kidding?” Bob said. “The minute you were clear, I ran like a bunny and hid!”

  “You could have taken that jerk,” I said.

  “Why would I want to?” Bob asked. “So when do we set up the new lab? And can I have broadband?” His eyes gleamed with avarice or something near it. “I need broadband, Harry.”

  “That’s a computer thing, right?”

  “Philistine,” Bob the Skull muttered.

  Bob wasn’t a skull, per se. He was a spirit of air, or intellect, or one of any of a great many other terms used to describe such beings. The skull was the vessel that he inhabited, kind of like a djinni’s bottle. Bob had been working as an assistant and adviser to wizards since before crossbows had gone out of style, and he’d forgotten more about the ins and outs of magical theory than I knew. He’d been my assistant and friend since I’d first come to Chicago.

  I hadn’t realized, until I actually heard his voice, how much I’d missed the demented litt
le perv.

  “When do we get to work?” Bob asked brightly.

  “I am working,” I said. “I need to talk to you.”

  “I’m all ears,” Bob said. “Except for the ears part.” Bob blinked. “Are you wearing a tux?”

  “Uh, yeah.”

  “Tell me you did not get married.”

  “I didn’t get married,” I said. “Except for the whole Mab thing, which is creepy and weird. She spent the last three months trying to kill me once a day.”

  “Sounds like her style,” Bob said. “How’d you get out of it?”

  “Um,” I said.

  “Oh,” Bob said. “Uh . . . oh. Maybe you should go, Harry.”

  “Relax,” I said. “I know you’ve had your issues with Mab, but I’m the only one here.”

  “Yeah. That’s kinda the part that bothers me.”

  I scowled at him. “Oh, come on. How long have you known me?”

  “Harry . . . you’re Mab’s hit man.”

  “Yeah, but I’m not here to hit you,” I said.

  “You could be lying,” Bob said. “Maybe the Sidhe can’t lie, but you can.”

  “Hell’s bells, I’m not lying.”

  “But how do I know that?”

  “Because I haven’t hit you already?” I frowned at him. “Wait a minute. . . . You’re stalling me, aren’t you?”

  “Stalling you?” Bob asked brightly. “What do you mean?”

  There was no warning. None at all. The door to Butters’s bedroom exploded outward, sending splinters of cheap plywood sailing everywhere. A missile of living muscle hit me in the back at almost the same instant, shoving my chest forward and whiplashing my head back. My spine lit up like a casino, and I felt myself driven hard to the ground.

  Something powerful and snarling and terribly strong came down on top of me, and I felt claws and fangs begin to rake at me.

  Guess I used up all my evening’s luck on the front door guy.