Sure you will. “You do that. But make sure you give the girl my number anyway? I know your crew can handle him, but humor me. I’d really like to get my hands on this guy.”
“Will do,” Keith said.
“Thanks.” I hung up. That was the best I was going to get. I slipped my fingers to the next number and dialed.
“Devil’s Pit,” a woman answered.
“Hey, Glenda, it’s Kate Daniels. How are you?”
“Good, how about yourself?”
“Still trucking. Listen, I’ve got this moron who just cruised into town. He likes to start fights and I want to head him off at the pass . . .”
In an hour and a half, I’d hit every tough-guy watering hole I could remember. I’d called PAD and apprised them of the situation. I’d called the regular cops and given them the description of the guy. I’d called the local gossips and asked them to spread the word around. I’d called the Guild, where the Clerk picked up the phone. I’d known the Clerk for years. A trim, middle-aged man, he manned the counter and all mercs saw him twice per every gig, first, when they got the job, and second, when they turned in their capture tickets at the end. Somewhere along the way he’d lost his name and the multitude of us knew him simply as “the Clerk.”
I gave him my spiel and he chuckled at me. “If he comes in here, I’ll just tell the fellas there is a gig ticket on his head. They’ll dismantle him to parts.”
“He’s a tough guy to deal with. Let Solomon know.”
I could tell by his voice that he would blow me off. Just as well. I doubted the Guild’s founder would pay me any mind. Solomon Red didn’t even know my name. But I had to try. “I tell you what, put me through to him.”
“Sorry, he’s on DND.”
Do Not Disturb. Fine. “Give me his voice mail, then.” “Suit yourself.”
I left a long and detailed message, explaining all about the Steel Mary and his penchant for picking fights. Fat good it would do me.
Solomon Red was a legend, the king of the mole hill that was the Mercenary Guild. If mercs did have to elect a king, he probably would’ve gotten the job, too: huge, rust-haired, with a bulky jaw and different color eyes, one blue, one brown. He lived in the Guild, but was almost never seen, save at the obligatory Christmas celebration, when he personally gave out bonuses to the best mercs. In my six-year tenure with the Guild, I had seen him exactly twice and not because I stood in the bonus line. I seriously doubted he’d listen to my warnings of a mysterious ass kicker in a torn cloak.
I called a couple of local dojos and the Red Guard and Fist & Shield, the other premier security guard outfit. I called to Biohazard and spoke to Patrice to bring her up to speed. Patrice liked what I had to say so much, she cursed for a full three minutes. She especially enjoyed the part where I explained how her staff had failed to make use of Jacksonville’s warning. I let her vent—it’s not often you got to hear the head of the Biohazard Rapid Response unit promise to rip out someone’s guts.
At two, I left to go home. I needed sleep and a new jaw, but if the guy in the cloak so much as showed his nose in one of Atlanta’s bars, I’d know about it first.
THE DOG AND I STOPPED AT THE OR DER’S STABLES and I checked out Marigold again. I did have a beat-up old truck by the name of Karmelion which ran on enchanted water, but it took a good fifteen minutes of intense chanting to get it started, and if the guy in the cloak attacked somewhere, I didn’t want to waste time begging my engine to start.
My apartment building came equipped with a set of garages, which the residents used for everything, from extra storage to makeshift stables. I used mine mostly to store wood for the winter and to put up an occasional mount I borrowed from the Order’s stables. With Marigold safely installed in the garage, the faithful canine and I went down to the store.
The corner store didn’t have clippers, so I generated a new plan, one that involved leaving the shaving of attack poodles to people who actually knew what they were doing. The dog and I jogged three miles to the groomer.
We stepped through the door, announced by a bell, and a smiling plump woman emerged from the depths of the place, glanced at the dog, and smiled wider. “What a lovely poodle.”
We both growled a little bit, I because of the poodle comment and the dog out of a sense of duty.
The happy woman, whose name was Liz, secured my poodle to a long iron pole and turned on the electric clippers. The moment the clippers touched his skin, the dog whirled about and tried to clamp his teeth on Liz’s arm. Instead I clamped my hand on his muzzle and turned him to face me.
“Pheew, you’re fast,” Liz said.
“I hold, you cut.”
Twenty minutes later Liz had swept away a rank mass of matted poodle fur, while I received a new dog: an athletic-looking mutt with smooth ears, long legs, and a build similar to an abnormally large German pointer. The dog got a homemade dog biscuit for suffering through the indignity and I was relieved of the awful burden of thirty dollars.
“Have you picked out a name yet?” the woman asked.
She nodded at the pile of black matted fur. “How does Samson sound?”
WE JOGGED HOME. THE MAGIC WAVE CAUGHT US on the way and I gave silent thanks to whoever it was upstairs that we’d managed to get the poodle trimmed before the magic rendered the electric clippers completely useless.
I let the chain sag as an experiment, but the dog seemed content to stay by my side. In the parking lot, he proved that not only did he have a stomach of steel, but his bladder was also magically connected to one of the Great Lakes. We made a circle, as he enthusiastically marked his territory. The sleepless night was catching up with me. My head swam and my legs kept trying to fold, pitching me into a horizontal position. I’d put a lot of effort into the wards around Joshua’s corpse and my body demanded a few hours of sleep.
The dog snarled.
I looked up. He stood with his feet planted wide, back humped, his body frozen stiff. Hackles rose on his spine. He stared left, where the parking lot narrowed between my apartment building and the crumbling wall of the ruins next door.
I pulled Slayer from the sheath on my back. The ruins had once been an apartment building as well. The magic had crushed it, chewing it down to rubble, and now crumbling brick walls served as purchase for ivy frosted with the cold. The greenery obscured my view.
The attack poodle bared his teeth, wrinkling his muzzle, and let loose a low, quiet growl.