"Give me the details," I said quietly.
"She said you'd be here. Gave me twenty thousand up front, twenty more held in escrow until delivery was confirmed."
Mouse made a soft, uncomfortable noise that never quite became a whine. He sat watching my face intently.
"When?" I asked.
I stared at him for a moment. Then I tossed Stevie's wallet back onto the folding card table and said, "Cut him loose. Walk him to the door."
Sanya let out what seemed like a disappointed sigh. Then he produced a knife and began cutting Stevie free.
I walked down the hall, back toward the living area with my head bowed, thinking furiously.
Susan had hired a gunman to kill me. Why?
I stopped walking and leaned against a wall. Why would she hire someone to kill me? Or, hell, more to the point - why would she hire a gunman to kill me? Why not someone who stood a greater chance of success?
Granted, a gunman could kill even a wizard if he were taken by surprise. But pistols had to be fired at dangerously short ranges to be reliable, and Stevie D had a reputation as a brazen sidearm specialist. It meant that the wizard would have more time to see something bad coming, as opposed to being warned only when a high-powered rifle round hit his chest, and would have an easier time responding with hasty defensive magic. It was hardly an ideal approach.
If Susan wanted me dead, she wouldn't really need to contract it out. A pretext to get me alone and another one to put us very close to each other would just about do it. And I'd never see that one coming.
Something about this just wasn't right. I'd have called Stevie a liar, but I didn't think he was one. I was sure he believed what he was saying.
So. Either Stevie was lying and I was just too dim to pick up on it, or he was telling the truth. If he was lying, given what kind of hot water I could get him into, he was also an idiot. I didn't think he was one of those. If he was telling the truth, it meant . . .
It meant that either Susan really had hired someone to kill me, or else someone who could look like Susan had done business with Stevie D. If Susan had hired someone to kill me, why this guy, in particular? Why hire someone who didn't have better than even chances of pulling it off? That was more the kind of thing Esteban and Esmerelda would come up with.
That worked a lot better. Esmerelda's blue and green eyes could have made Stevie remember being hired by Mister Snuffleupagus, if that was what she wanted. But how would she have known where to find me? Had they somehow managed to tail Sanya back to the church from my apartment without being noticed by Mouse?
And just where the hell were Susan and Martin? They'd had more than enough time to get here. So why weren't they?
Someone was running a game on me. If I didn't start getting some answers to these questions, I had a bad feeling that it was going to turn around and bite me on the ass at the worst moment imaginable.
I guessed that meant it was time to go get some answers.
Paranoia is a survival trait when you run in my circles. It gives you something to do in your spare time, coming up with solutions to ridiculous problems that aren't ever going to happen. Except when one of them does, at which point you feel way too vindicated.
For instance, I had spent more than a couple of off hours trying to figure out how I might track someone through Chicago if I didn't have some kind of object or possession of theirs to use as a focus. Basic tracking magic is completely dependent upon having a sample of whoever it is you want to follow. Hair, blood, and nail clippings are the usual thing. But let's say you don't have any of those, and you still want to find someone. If you have a sample of something in their possession, a piece snipped from their clothing, the tag just torn out of their underwear, whatever, you can get them that way, too.
But let's say things are hectic and crazy and someone has just burned down your house and your lab and you still need to follow somebody.
That's when you need a good, clear photograph. And minions. Lots of minions. Preferably ones who don't demand exorbitant wages.
There's a Pizza 'Spress less than two blocks from St. Mary's. Sanya and I went straight there. I ordered.
"I do not see how this helps us," Sanya said, as I walked out from the little shop with four boxes of pizza.
"You're used to solving all your problems the simple way," I said. "Kick down the door, chop up everybody who looks fiendish, save everyone who looks like they might need it. Yeah?"
"It is not always that simple," Sanya said, rather stiffly. "And sometimes I use a gun."
"Which I applaud you for, very progressive," I said. "But the point is, you do your work directly. You pretty much know where you're going, or get shown the way, and after that it's just up to you to take care of business."
"Da," Sanya said as we walked. "I suppose."
"My work is sort of the same," I said. "Except that nobody ever points the way for me."
"You need to know where to go," Sanya said.
"And you are going to consult four large pizzas for guidance."
"Yes," I said.
The big man frowned for a moment. Then he said, "There is, I think, humor here which does not translate well from English into sanity."
"That's pretty rich coming from the agnostic Knight of the Cross with a holy Sword who takes his orders from an archangel," I said.
"Gabriel could be an alien being of some kind," Sanya said placidly. "It does not change the value of what I do - not to me and not to those whom I protect."
"Whom," I said, with as much Russian accent as I could fit into one word. "Someone's been practicing his English."
Sanya somehow managed to look down his nose at me, despite the fact that I was several inches taller. "I am only saying that I do not need the written code of a spiritual belief to act like a decent human being."
"You are way kookier than me, man," I said, turning into an alley. "And I talk to pizza."
I laid out the four pizza boxes on top of four adjacent trash cans, and glanced around to be sure no one was nearby. It was getting near to lunch break, and it wasn't the best time for what I was about to do, but it ought to work. I turned to look up and down the alley as best I could, drew a breath, and then remembered something.
"Hey, Sanya. Stick your fingers in your ears?"
The big Russian stared at me. "What?"
"Your fingers," I said, wiggling all of mine, "in your ears." I pointed to mine.
"I understand the words, obviously, as I am someone who has been practicing his English. Why?"
"Because I'm going to say something to the pizza and I don't want you to hear it."
Sanya gave the sky a single, long-suffering glance. Then he sighed and put his fingers in his ears.
I gave him a thumbs-up, turned away, cupped my hands around my mouth so that no one could lip-read, and began to murmur a name, over and over again, each utterance infused with my will.
I had to repeat the name only a dozen times or so before a shadow flickered overhead, and something the size of a hunting falcon dropped out of the sky, blurred wings humming, and hovered about two feet in front of me.
"Bozhe moi!" Sanya sputtered, and Esperacchius was halfway from its sheath by the time he finished speaking.
I couldn't stop myself from saying, "There's some real irony in your using that expression, O Knight of Maybe."
"Go ahead!" piped a shrill voice, like a Shakespearean actor on helium. "Draw your sword, knave, and we will see who bleeds to death from a thousand tiny cuts!"
Sanya stood there with his mouth open and his sword still partly in its sheath. "It is . . ." He shook his head as if someone had popped him in the nose. "It is . . . a domovoi, da?"
The little faerie in question stood nearly fifteen full inches in height, appearing as a slender, athletic youth with the blurring wings of a dragonfly standing out from his shoulders and a tuft of hair like lavender dandelion fluff. He was dressed in garments that looked like they'd been thugged from someone's old-school G.I. Joe doll, an olive-drab jump-suit with the sleeves removed and holes cut through it for his wings. He wore a number of weapons about his person, most of them on nylon straps that looked like they'd been lifted from convention badges. He was carrying one letter opener shaped like a long sword at his side and two more, crossed over each other, on his back. I'd given him the letter opener set last Christmas, advising him to keep half of them stashed somewhere safe, as backup weapons.
"Domovoi?" the little faerie shrilled, furious. "Oh, no, you didn't!"
"Easy there, Major General," I said. "Sanya, this is Major General Toot-toot Minimus, the captain of my house guard. Toot, this is my boon companion Sanya, Knight of the Cross, who has faced danger at my side. He's okay."
The faerie quivered with outrage. "He's Russian! And he doesn't even know the difference between a domovoi and a polevoi when he sees one two feet away!" Toot-toot let out a blistering string of words in Russian, shaking a finger at the towering Knight.
Sanya listened in bemusement at first, but then blinked, slid his sword away, and held up both hands. He said something that sounded somber and very formal, and only then did Toot's ire seem to abate. He said one or two more harsh-sounding words toward Sanya, added a flick of his chin that screamed, So there, and turned back to me.
"Toot," I said. "How is it that you speak Russian?"
He blinked at me. "Harry," he said, as if the question made no sense at all, "you just speak it, don't you. I mean, come on." He gave me a formal bow and said, "How may I serve you, my liege?"
I peered at him a bit more closely. "Why is half your face painted blue?"
"Because we're Winter now, my liege!" Toot said. His eyes darted to the side and down several times. "And . . . say, that doesn't mean we have to eat the pizza cold, does it?"
"Of course not," I said.
Toot looked relieved. "Oh. Good. Um. What were we talking about?"
"I have a job for you," I said, "and for everyone you can get to help." I nodded at the pizza. "Standard rates."
"Very good, my liege," Toot said, saluting. His eyes slid down again. "Maybe someone ought to check the pizza. You know. For poison and things. It would look real bad if someone poisoned your vassals, you know."
I eyed him askance. Then I held up a finger and said, "All right. One piece. And after - Ack!"
Toot hit the pizza box like a great white shark taking a seal. He slammed into it, one bright sword slashing the top off of the box. Then he seized the largest piece and began devouring with a will.
Sanya and I both stood there, fascinated. It was like watching a man try to eat a pizza slice the size of a small car. Pieces flew up and were skewered on his blade. Sauce got everywhere, and it gave me a gruesome little flashback to the Stone Table.
"Harry?" Sanya asked. "Are you all right?"
"Will be soon," I said.
"This creature serves you?" Sanya asked.
"This one and about a hundred smaller ones. And five times that many part-timers I can call in once in a while." I thought about it. "It isn't so much that they serve me as that we have a business arrangement that we all like. They help me out from time to time. I furnish them with regular pizza."
"Which they . . . love," Sanya said.
Toot spun in a dizzy, delighted circle on one heel, and fell onto his back with perfectly unself-conscious enthusiasm, his tummy sticking out as far as it could. He lay there for a moment, making happy, gurgling sounds.
"Well," I said. "Yes."
Sanya's eyes danced, though his face was sober. "You are a drug dealer. To tiny faeries. Shame."
"What was that he said about Winter?" Sanya asked.
"Harry's the new Winter Knight!" Toot-toot burbled. "Which is fantastic! The old Winter Knight mostly just sat around getting tortured. He never went on adventures or anything." He paused and added, "Unless you count going crazy, I guess."
"Toot," I said. "I'm . . . kind of trying to keep the Winter Knight thing low-profile."
"Okay," Toot said. "Why?"
I glanced from the little faerie to Sanya. "Look, I, uh . . . It's personal, okay, and - "
"Because every creature in Faerie got to see the ceremony," Toot said proudly. "Mab made sure of it! It was reflected in all the streams and ponds and lakes and puddles and every little drop of water!"
I stared at the engorged faerie, at something of a loss for words. "Um," I said. "Oh. How . . . very, very disturbing."
"Did it hurt when you kissed Mab?" Toot asked. "Because I always thought her lips looked so cold that they would burn. Like streetlamps in winter!" Toot sat up suddenly, his eyes wide. "Ooooooh. Did your tongue get stuck to her, like on that Christmastime show?"
"Okayyyyy," I said with forced cheer, clapping my hands. "Way, way too personal. Um. The job. I have a job for you."
Toot-toot leapt up to his feet. His stomach was already constricting back toward its normal size. "Yes, my liege!"
Where the hell did he put it all? I mean . . . it just wasn't possible for him to eat that much pizza and then . . . I shook my head. Now wasn't the time.
I produced my picture of Susan. "This human is somewhere in Chicago. I need your folk to find her. She's probably accompanied by a human man with blond hair, about the same size she is."
Toot took to his wings again and zoomed down to the picture. He picked it up and held it out at arm's length, studying it, and nodded once. "May I have this, my lord, to show the others?"
"Yeah," I said. "Be careful with it, though. I want it back."
"Yes, my liege!" Toot said. He brandished his sword with a flourish, sheathed it, and zipped straight up into the October sky.
Sanya stood looking steadily at me.
I coughed. I waited.
"So," he said. "Mab."
I grunted vaguely in reply.
"You hit that," Sanya said.
I did not look at him. My face felt red.
"You" - he scrunched up his nose, digging in his memory - "tapped that ass. Presumably, it was phat."
He let out a low, rolling laugh and shook his head. "I saw her once. Mab. Beautiful beyond words."
"Yeah," I said.
"Yes," I said, with emphasis.
"And you are now her champion," he said.
"Everybody's gotta be something, right?"
He nodded. "Joking about it. Good. You will need that sense of humor."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because she is cold, Dresden. She knows wicked secrets Time himself has forgotten. And if she chose you to be her Knight, she has a plan for you." He nodded slowly. "Laugh whenever you can. Keeps you from killing yourself when things are bad. That and vodka."
"That some kind of Russian saying?" I asked.
"Have you seen traditional folk dances?" Sanya asked. "Imagine them being done by someone with a bottle of vodka in them. Laughter abounds, and you survive another day." He shrugged. "Or break your neck. Either way, it is pain management."
His voice sounded almost merry, though the subject matter was grim as hell. If not more so.
I had expected him to try to talk me out of it. Or at least to berate me for being an idiot. He didn't do either. There was a calm acceptance of terrible things that was part and parcel of Sanya's personality. No matter how bad things got, I didn't think anything would ever truly faze him. He simply accepted the bad things that happened and soldiered on as best he could.
There was probably a lesson for me in there, somewhere.
I was quiet for a while before I decided to trust him. "I get to save my girl first," I said. "That was the deal."
"Ah," he said. He seemed to mull it over and nodded. "That is reasonable."
"You really think that?"
He lifted both eyebrows. "The child is your blood, is she not?"
I nodded and said quietly, "She is."
He spread his hands, as if it were a self-evident fact that needed no further exploration. "As horrible fates go, that is a good one," he said. "Worthwhile. Save your little girl." He clapped me on the shoulder. "If you turn into a hideous monster and I am sent to slay you, I will remember this and make it as painless as I can, out of respect for you."
I knew he was joking. I just couldn't tell which part of it he was joking about. "Uh," I said. "Thanks."
"It is nothing," he said. We stood around quietly for another five minutes before he frowned, looking at the other pizza boxes, and asked, "Is there some purpose for the rest of th - "
A scene out of The Birds descended upon the alley. There was a rush of wing-beaten wind, and hundreds of tiny figures flashed down onto the pizza. Here and there I would spot one of the Pizza Lord's Guard, recognizable thanks to the orange plastic cases of the box knives they had strapped to their backs. The others went by in twinkles and flashes of color, muted by the daylight but beautiful all the same. There were a lot of the Little Folk involved. If I'd been doing this at night, it might have induced a seizure or something.
The Little Folk love pizza. They love it with a passion so intense that it beggars the imagination. Watching a pizza being devoured was sort of like watching a plane coming apart in midair on those old WWII gun camera reels. Bits would fleck off here and there, and then suddenly in a rush, bits would go flying everywhere, each borne away by the individual fairy who had seized it.
It was over in less than three minutes.
Seriously. Where do they put it?
Toot came to hover before me and popped a little fistful of pizza into his mouth. He gulped it down and saluted.
"Well, Major General?" I asked.
"Found her, my liege," Toot reported. "She is a captive and in danger."
Sanya and I traded a look.
"Where?" I asked him.
Toot firmly held up the picture, still in one piece, and two strands of dark hair, each curled into its own coil of rope in his tiny hands. "Two hairs from her head, my liege. Or if it is your pleasure, I will guide you there."
Sanya drew his head back a little, impressed. "They found her? That quickly?"
"People underestimate the hell out of the Little Folk," I said calmly. "Within their limits, they're as good as or better than anything else I know for getting information - and there are a lot of them around Chicago who are willing to help me out occasionally."
"Hail the Pizza Lord!" Toot-toot shrilled.
"Hail the Pizza Lord!" answered a score of piping voices that came from no apparent source. The Little Folk can be all but invisible when they want to be.
"Major General Minimus, keep this up and I'm making you a full general," I said.
Toot froze. "Why? Is that bad? What did I do?"
"It's good, Toot. That's higher than a major general."
His eyes widened. "There's higher?"
"Oh, yeah, definitely. And you're on the fast track for the very top." I took the hairs from him and said, "We'll get the car. Lead us to her, Toot."
"Good," Sanya said, grinning. "Now we know where to go and have someone to rescue. This part I know how to do."