Georgia took a startled step back when I jerked the door open and stalked past her, towards the SUV looming in my apartment building's little gravel parking lot. Once inside, she hesitated before turning the key, eyeing me and my mood.
I don't spend a lot of time looking in mirrors—too many things might be looking back—but I didn't need one to know I was a little the worse for wear. A shower had served to get rid of most of the bird crap in my hair despite what Thomas said; but there were scratches all over my arms and neck, and going by the stinging, my back as well—although that might have been friction burn, too. There were finger-shaped bruises on my ass and upper thighs, as predicted, and bite marks peppered across my chest that my tank top wouldn't have concealed. The one on my neck, the only one still visible, was almost big enough to pass off as blunt force trauma. I suppose I could have tried to cover it up, slap a bandage over it or something since any makeup I owned was minimal and over four years old, but the coat was going to be hot enough.
"Busy night," Georgia said at last.
"Is there any chance we can stick to business?" I asked plaintively.
Georgia kept looking at me for a long moment, then made a frustrated sound. "You are so lucky I'm not Will."
I must have sounded more pathetic than I thought. Georgia shifted into gear and pulled out.
"Were you followed last night?"
"No. Were you? Where did you go?"
"Short version, the sorcerer's a shapeshifter with fierce copyright infringement issues."
"One more time?"
"All the birds," I explained.
"O-okay. Any line on the kids?"
"More birds," I said. "He's turning them into birds and sending them across into the Nevernever."
"Not sure, possibly weird faerie stuff."
Georgia's expression grew serious. "Do you need backup?"
"You don't have to if you don't want to," I told her. "Last time I dragged you guys into weird faerie stuff, it came back to bite you in the ass in a big way."
"I'm aware," Georgia said, a little primly. "I'll ask everybody, but I can already tell you what they're going to say. Want me to follow you to the Taste?"
"No, I've got another stop to make. If you guys are in, meet me outside the north entrance in an hour. Bring a couple boxes of pizza."
"Pizza?" Georgia asked.
"Pizza," I repeated.
__ __ __
At the impound lot, I handed over a bunch of money and got my keys back. Then Mouse, the Beetle, and I sallied intrepidly forth to do valiant diplomacy. Accorded Neutral Territory—otherwise known as McAnally's Pub—wasn't open this early, so I found myself in another of Chicago's seemingly-endless parks. Secretly, I was thankful, being a little sore in the seat area this morning.
Chicago is really green for a city, and the fact that it's burned down and been rebuilt with wider streets gives it an odd feeling of openness, even in the heart of downtown. Standing where I was, with my back to the street, I could almost imagine I was out in the country.
When the Summer Knight showed up, he was accompanied by the Summer Lady. Surprise Faerie Queens, even nominally friendly ones, were still a shock to the system. I mean, there were literally flowers springing up where'er she trod.
We talked. Imagine my complete and total lack of surprise when I found out the Faeries were playing power-games. Again. Did they just have nothing better to do with their time?
And then, because I was apparently a masochist, I had Lily conjure up Maeve. Who, besides seconding Lily's frankly terrifying opinion that Mab was going off her rocker, insisted on commenting on my sex life. Again. Stars and stones, I could take a hint. I had learned my lesson, I really had: sex was just not worth the aggravation. I had reproduced; my biological clock could go suck it. It was all celibacy from here on out.
I was glad I hadn't brought Georgia along, at least. Maeve was the one who sent Jenny Greenteeth to kidnap Billy and mess up her wedding, and let me tell you: marrying one of the fair folk is not all beer and roses, and it takes a hell of a lot more than a good lawyer to get you out of it. And that's assuming you survive your wedding night.
I had at least succeeded in giving myself something bigger to worry about than recent developments in my love-life. Speaking of apocalypses. Although I supposed that was one way to handle global warming; maybe I should buy stock in Under Armor and Land's End. I thought I caught a glimpse of my tail again, but I shook him—less by actually trying than just in the natural process of looking for parking in the Loop. You can usually find something even just a few blocks off the main drags, but you might have to look for a while. Especially on a day like today.
I eventually found a spot on Wabash, right next to one of the electronic parking meters. All I was trying to do was get the goddamned thing to take my cash instead of demanding a credit card when all of a sudden the mechanism started making these grinding sounds sort of like dial-up internet looking for a connexion and the screen flickered into a block of purple dots and stayed that way.
"My, how convenient," Marcone said.
I jumped. "Stars and stones, Marcone. Wear a bell or something."
"I didn't mean to startle you."
Where went Marcone, there also went Cujo, although Cujo was paying more attention to the other dog on the block. I watched them for a second to see if they'd start growling and circling, but Mouse has better manners than that.
Marcone was impeccable as always, except for a nasty bruise on one cheekbone. I firmly squelched a stab of guilt: at least Marcone's was in a non-compromising location. I saw his eyes flick down to my hickey and the not-quite-high-enough neckline of the tee-shirt I was wearing.
"Good morning, Harry," Marcone said, zeroing back in on my eyes.
"Good morning, John," I said pointedly, not missing the flash of...satisfaction? that got me in reply. So Marcone liked it when I pushed him back. Well, gee, folks.
I brushed past Marcone and yanked open the Beetle's hood to get into the front storage compartment. Mouse, the traitor, walked over to Marcone, sniffed him for a minute, and allowed the biggest crook in the state to scratch his ears. Cujo looked like it was only the fact we were standing on a crowded public street that was keeping his hand away from the gun I knew he had to be wearing under his suit. Both of them, probably, or why bother with the formalwear in this weather?
"Some judge of character you are," I grumbled.
Mouse panted a grin at me. I huffed an exasperated sigh and tried to ignore Marcone looking over my shoulder as I grabbed my portable thaumaturgy kit. The braid Thomas had done for me was practical: hair is a really convenient, or inconvenient, handle in a fight. But I felt oddly vulnerable with my bent neck exposed and Marcone behind me, way more conscious of his body than I wanted to be.
I lifted my Warden's cloak, the blood from yesterday's execution dried to a nauseating red-brown splash on the grey wool, to make sure my .44 was still there—something I hadn't wanted to do, you know, actually in the impound lot. It was; I left it there, dropping the stained cloak over it again. Marcone and Hendricks might have concealed-carry permits or just be that convinced they were untouchable, but I didn't, and the FBI were likely to be all over the place today, too. I had other weapons law enforcement wouldn't think to confiscate, and a gun is a crappy one to take into a crowd in any case.
"I see what the officer was talking about," Marcone said.
I slammed the hood closed, which would have been more effective if I hadn't had to keep holding it down so I could twist the piece of hanger wire that kept it shut. "Stars, I should have offed you and taken the parking immunity when Murphy offered it to me," I snapped irritably.
One of Marcone's eyebrows lifted microscopically. "Ah, missed opportunities."
I could feel my ears burning. Unless I was lucky and it was the heatstroke. A train rattled deafeningly by on the El tracks overhead, and I started walking.
Marcone fell into step beside me. "Can I help you carry that?"
I had the tackle box with my right hand and my staff and Mouse's leash—I don't know, I think he just likes to keep track of me—with my left.
I said, "No."
"Were you able to discern anything further from what we saw last night?" Marcone asked. Apparently harassing-Harry time was over for now and we were back to business.
You mean other than that no one in my life has any respect for privacy? I narrowly avoided saying. "Some. Plan's still the same, wait for the bad guy to show up again and bag him."
Security was a couple of cops I knew, and apparently Izabylle Washington had told them to expect me, so I didn't have much trouble getting in before-hours. I managed to shake Marcone off long enough to collect the sample without freaking the poor girl the hell out. Izabylle was putting up a good front, but her eyes were red.
She'd managed to get hair, lots of tiny black curls I eventually figured out must have come off an electronic clipper. I thanked her, waiting until I was out of sight to kneel down and draw a circle on an out-of-the-way patch of asphalt. As I'd feared, my tracking spell got no traction.
In order to find something, I used magic to form a link between a part of an object and the object itself. Thaumaturgy. But you can't form the link if part of the equation isn't there. If it's, for example, currently in the Nevernever. There was a good chance that if I stepped across to the Nevernever right now and repeated the same spell, it would work like a charm; and I'd do it that way if I had to. There were a couple of problems with that plan, too, though, so it was the backup.
"Well?" Marcone asked. He'd found me again. What were the odds?
"Wasn't expecting anything, but it never hurts to double-check." I stuffed the baggie in a pocket and picked the tackle box up again. "Well, time to go inspect the troops."
__ __ __
The Alphas were waiting for me, a dozen or so young people in their mid-twenties wearing wife-beaters, board shorts, and those short knit dresses with elastic in the hems that everybody was wearing now. I wasn't sure about it as a fashion statement, but since the Alpha girls wouldn't be wearing anything underneath, it was probably just as well. Thankfully they were all in good enough shape to pull it off. I have to admit, the butterfly nets did look a little odd, though.
I was pretty sure that at least Billy and Georgia recognised Marcone trailing after me, but I zeroed in on the most important thing. "Greg! Mitchell! Unhand that pizza!"
College kids, I swear.
Looking at least as puzzled as they were guilty, the boys stopped fishing around in the top box, wiping their greasy fingers on their shorts. I dumped my wizardly encumbrances with Georgia and Billy, told Mouse to stay, and appropriated the three large pizzas, then turned around and shoved them at Marcone.
"Here, these should be safe with you, Melanie." I carefully extricated one piece, then looked around. "Right. Now I need someplace private."
Marcone was doing that thing where his eyebrow almost twitched again. Oh, come on. This was hardly the strangest thing he'd seen me do in the last twenty-four hours. I trotted over to a stand of trees big enough to provide some shelter from prying eyes. Faeries can be kind of shy.
The usual procedure, when you want to call up one of the Little Folk, is to lay out a circle and bait it with some bread and milk or honey laced with a tiny bit of your blood. Then, when you call the faerie's name and it shows up and consumes the blood along with the food, the circle springs up, trapping it. You can then negotiate its release in return for information or whatever.
I kept the equipment necessary for this type of summoning in one of my coat pockets, but I hesitated to take it out. My relationship with Chicago's Little Folk had evolved during the time I'd spent here. And—I wasn't just going to be asking them for information this time; they could get hurt. That wasn't the sort of thing I wanted to force them into, even a little bit.
So. I said before that the traditional bait for lesser fae is bread and milk and honey. It's not a gigantic leap then to understand why they're also nuts for pizza, especially the way they make it here, which has cheese like other pizzas have crust. Chicago-style pizza is a brick of bread and cheese with the toppings sinking into it, covered by chunky tomato sauce and sometimes another layer of crust. It is one of man's greatest creations and a light in these dark times.
I put my back to a tree, facing away from the street, and held my hand out flat with the slice of pizza oozing oil and cheese and sauce all over it. Then I spoke a Name.
Names are another bit of thaumaturgy. Every sentient creature, mortal or not, has a name which is as much a part of who they are as their blood or toenail clippings. If you say it just right, you open the same sort of link. You can control them, compel them. Call them.
I spoke the Name, but I didn't do anything with it. I just wanted to get in touch. So I stood there, repeating it softly until Toot arrived.
It didn't take him very long, much less time than it did when I was trying to lure him sneakily. He came rocketing down out of the sky like a blue-white bowling ball aimed at my head.
Toot was maybe half again as big as he'd been the last time I saw him, a few years ago. Otherwise he was the same, from the purple hair and recycling centre battle gear to his ernest but slightly cock-eyed ferocity. He's the leader of a small band of local Wee Folk, which may have something to do with him being the one I originally struck up the pizza-deal with, and my weekly offerings have earned me a special place in their tiny, attention-deficit hearts.
I explained to Toot-toot what I wanted. A few minutes later, Mouse and I returned to where Marcone and the Alphas were waiting minus one slice of pizza.
The Alphas, for all there were more than a few scars peeking out from their summery attire, still possessed the idealism of youth. It had occurred to me as I was walking into the trees that leaving them alone with Marcone might not have been my brightest idea ever, but I'd figured none of them would be stupid enough to start anything right out in the open. They weren't me, after all.
The scene I interrupted looked tense, but hadn't actually erupted into violence. The Alphas were massed behind Georgia and Billy, their posture not openly hostile but still clearly pack. They probably didn't even know they were doing it. Billy, for once, seemed to be deferring to Georgia. Not that he made a habit of steamrolling over her or anything, but Billy was nothing if not confrontational, and you usually had to sit on him for a while before he got over it.
Marcone had apparently handed the pizza off to Hendricks; figured. If he was at all worried about the prospect of facing down a dozen werewolves all by his lonesome, he didn't let on. I could practically see the gears turning behind his eyes as he analysed the Alphas' group dynamic.
"Okay, kids, follow me," I said brightly, busting up the uncomfortable silence.
"What is that you've gotten all over yourself?" Marcone asked.
"Pixie dust." I shrugged. "Cujo, bring the pizza."
I supervised the laying out of the pizza, then had everyone step back to the edge of the trees. I was just finishing filling everyone in on their parts in my scheme when several dozen globes of vari-hued light descended from every direction at once, homing in on their target.
"Jesus Christ," Hendricks swore, automatically reaching for his gun and moving to put Marcone behind him. I thought I saw a muscle jump in Marcone's jaw as he put out a hand to still Cujo. I could sympathise. Even expecting it, I had to suppress a flinch, especially after last night.
Marcone's eyes were alight with fascination. It was so akin to the Alphas' exclamations of holy shit! and seriously? that I had to bite my lip to keep a proper expression of wizardly dignity on my face. Shut up, I can put on a show when I have to.
"It's like watching a school of piranha strip a carcass."
Toot zipped over to me, still munching on a chunk of pizza. The slice I'd given him earlier had been about twice his mass; I wouldn't have believed it was possible for him to eat the whole thing if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. I'd have to tell Murphy about this the next time she complained about my metabolism.
"My lady!" Toot snapped me a salute. With the wrong hand, but, well, pizza.
"At ease, soldier," I told him gravely.
"The Za-Lady's troops have assembled," Toot reported.
"More like disassembled," one of the Alphas said in an awed voice.
"Excellent work, Toot," I complimented him. "These are the humans. Once you have the bird, find one of them and they'll take it in charge."
Toot looked at me like I was being slow. "But Harry, those aren't humans, they're wolves."
I blinked. Even I sometimes forget how much the Little Folk see. They're everywhere and pretty damn near invisible when they don't want to be seen. And all faeries, even the lesser fae, routinely see much more of magic than even wizards, if we're not specifically looking.
"Right you are. Bring news of the bird to the nearest wolf-human, then, once it's captured, and be careful not to do it harm. Everything else comes straight to me."
"Yes, my lady!" Toot-toot saluted again.
Marcone, Hendricks, and all of the Alphas except Billy, who'd seen something like this before, watched with various interpretations of bemusement as Toot-toot flew on his dragonfly wings over to the cloud of little lights swerving above the now slightly shredded pizza boxes and, drawing his orange box knife, uttered a high-pitched war cry and led them charging off. I could tell Marcone was just itching to ask me about the 'Za-Lady' thing and Billy was itching to ask me about Marcone, but tough luck. I reclaimed my staff and the tackle box.
"Alphas, to your places. Keep in touch with one another."
The young people dispersed, some to wait by the gates for the Taste to open and some to stand guard outside the barriers. Just me, Marcone, and our lucky chaperone. Because apparently we needed one. Hell's bells.
"Well, clean-up's your area of expertise, so I guess I'll leave you to it," I told Marcone. "I've got to go set up."
"Are you certain you don't require any assistance?" Marcone asked.
Hendricks had already gathered up the empty boxes and, unfortunately, the nearest trash can was in the same direction I was going.
"Yup," I said. "You can go back home and babysit your little mob friend; I've got this."
"Forgive me if I'd prefer to err on the side of caution. I have a vested interest in the success of this operation as well."
Hey, it was worth a try. "Well, Melanie, don't come crying to me if you get bird crap in your hair again."