“And you’re sure they were faeries?” Bob the Skull asked.
I scowled. “How many other things get their blood set on fire when it touches iron and steel, Bob? Yes, I think I know a faerie when I get my nose broken by one.”
I was down in my lab, which was accessed by means of a trapdoor in my basement apartment’s living room and a folding wooden stepladder. It’s a concrete box of a room, deep enough under the rest of the boarding house I live in to be perpetually cool. In the summer, that’s nice. Come winter, not so much.
The lab consists of a wooden table running down the center of the room, and is surrounded on three sides by tables and work benches, against the outer wall of the room, leaving a narrow walkway around the table. The work benches were littered with the tools of the trade, and I’d installed those white wire shelving units you can get pretty cheap at Wal-Mart on the walls above the benches, creating more storage space. The shelves were covered in an enormous variety of containers, from a lead-lined box to burlap bags, from Tupperware to a leather pouch made from the genital sac of, I kid you not, an actual African lion.
It was a gift. Don’t ask.
Candles burned around the room, giving it light, and twinkling off the pewter miniature buildings on the center table, a scale model of the city of Chicago. I’d brought down a single writing desk for Molly—all the room I had to spare—and her own notebooks and slowly accumulating collection of gear managed to stay neatly organized despite the tiny space.
“Well it looks like someone is holding Arctis Tor against you,” Bob said. The skull, its eye sockets glowing with orange flickers of light like candles you couldn’t quite see, sat on its own shelf on the uncluttered wall. Half a dozen paperback romance novels littered the shelf around it, and a seventh had fallen from the shelf and now lay on the floor, obscuring a portion of the silver summoning circle I’d put in the floor. “Faeries don’t ever forget a grudge, boss.”
I shook my head at the skull, scooped up the fallen book, and put it back on the shelf. “You ever heard of anything like these guys?”
“My knowledge of the Faerie realms is mostly limited to the Winter end of things,” Bob said. “These guys don’t sound like anything I’ve run into.”
“Then why would they be holding the fight at Arctis Tor against me, Bob?” I asked. “Hell, we weren’t even the ones who really assaulted Winter’s capital. We just walked in on the aftermath and picked a fight with some of Winter’s errand boys who had swiped Molly.”
“Maybe some of the Winter Sidhe hired out the vengeance gig as contract labor. These could have been Wyldfae, you know. There’s a lot more Wyld than anything else. They could have been satyrs.” His eyelights brightened. “Did you see any nymphs? If there are satyrs, there’s bound to be a nymph or two somewhere close.”
“Are you sure? Naked girl, drop dead gorgeous, old enough to know better and young enough not to care?”
“I’d have remembered that if I’d seen it,” I said.
“Feh,” Bob said, his eyelights dwindling in disappointment. “You can’t do anything right, Harry.”
I rubbed my hand against the back of my neck. It didn’t make it hurt any less, but it gave me something to do. “I’ve seen these goat guys, or read about them before,” I said. “Or at least something close to them. Where did I put those texts on the near reaches of the Nevernever?”
“North wall, green plastic box under the work bench,” Bob provided immediately.
“Thanks,” I said. I dragged out the heavy plastic storage box. It was filled with books, most of them leather-bound, hand-written treatises on various supernatural topics. Except for one book that was a compilation of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. How had that gotten in there?
I picked up several of the books, carried them to the part of the table that was modeled as Lake Michigan, and set them down. Then I pulled up my stool and started flipping through them.
“How was the trip to Dallas?” Bob asked.
“Hmmm? Oh, fine, fine. Someone was being stalked by a Black Dog.” I glanced up at the map of the United States hanging on the wall beneath Bob’s shelf on a thick piece of poster board. I absently plucked a green thumbtack from the board and poked it into Dallas, Texas, where it joined more than a dozen other green pins and a very few red ones, where the false alarms had been. “They contacted me through the Paranet, and I showed them how to give Fido the bum rush out of town.”
“This support network thing you and Elaine have going is really smart,” Bob said. “Teach the minnows how to gang up when a big fish shows up to eat them.”
“I prefer to think of it as teaching sparrows to band together and chase off hawks,” I said, returning to my seat.
“Either way, it means less exposure to danger and less work for you in the long run. Constructive cowardice. Very crafty. I approve.” His voice turned wistful. “I hear that they have some of the best strip clubs in the world in Dallas, Harry.”
I gave Bob a hard look. “If you’re not going to help me, at least don’t distract me.”
“Oh,” Bob said. “Check.” The romance I’d put back on the shelf quivered for a second and then flipped over and opened to the first page. The skull turned toward the book, the orange light from its eyes falling over the pages.
I went through one old text. Then two. Then three. Hell’s bells, I know I’d seen or read something in one of these.
“Rip her dress off!” Bob shouted. Bob the Skull takes paperback romances very seriously. The next page turned so quickly that he tore the paper a little. Bob is even harder on books than I am.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Bob hollered, as more pages turned.
“They couldn’t have been satyrs,” I mumbled out loud, trying to draw my thoughts into order. My nose hurt like hell and my neck hurt like someplace in the same zip code. That kind of pain wears you down fast, even when you’re a wizard who learned his basics while being violently bombarded with baseballs. “Satyrs have human faces. These things didn’t.”
“Weregoats?” Bob suggested. He flipped another page and kept reading. Bob is a spirit of intellect, and he multitasks better than, well, pretty much anybody. “Or maybe goatweres.”
I stopped for a moment and gave the skull an exasperated look. “I can’t believe I just heard that word.”
“What?” Bob asked brightly. “Weregoats?”
“Weregoats. I’m fairly sure I could have led a perfectly rich and satisfying life even if I hadn’t heard that word or enjoyed the mental images it conjures.”
Bob chortled. “Stars and stones, you’re easy, Harry.”
“Weregoats,” I muttered, and went back to reading. After finishing the fifth book, I went back for another armload. Bob shouted at his book, cheering during what were apparently the love scenes and heckling most of the rest, as if the characters had all been live performers on a stage.
Which would probably tell me something important about Bob, if I was an astute sort of person. After all, Bob himself was, essentially, a spiritual creature created from the energy of thought. The characters within a book were, from a certain point of view, identical on some fundamental level—there aren’t any images of them, no physical tangibility whatsoever. They’re pictures in the reader’s head, constructs of imagination and ideas, given shape by the writer’s work and skill and the reader’s imagination. Parents, of a sort.
Did Bob, as he read his books and imagined their events, regard those constructed beings as . . . siblings, of some sort? Peers? Children? Could a being like Bob develop some kind of acquired taste for a family? It was entirely possible. It might explain his constant fascination with fictional subject matter dealing with the origins of a mortal family.
Then again, he might regard the characters in the same way some men do those inflatable sex dolls. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know.
Good thing I’m not astute.
I found our attackers on the eighth book, about halfway through, complete with notes and sketches.
“Holy crap,” I muttered, sitting up straight.
“Find ’em?” Bob asked.
“Yeah,” I said, and held up the book so he could see the sketch. It was a better match for our goatish attackers than most police sketches of perpetrators. “If the book is right, I just got jumped by gruffs.”
Bob’s romance novel dropped to the surface of the shelf. He made a choking sound. “Um. Did you say gruffs?”
I scowled at him and he began to giggle. The skull rattled against the shelf.
“Gruffs?” he tittered.
“What?” I said, offended.
“As in the Billy Goats Gruff?” The skull howled with laughter. “You just got your ass handed to you by a nursery tale?”
“I wouldn’t say they handed me my ass,” I said.
Bob was nearly choking on his laughter, and given that he had no lungs it seemed gratuitous, somehow. “That’s because you can’t see yourself,” he choked out. “Your nose is all swollen up and you’ve got two black eyes. You look like a raccoon. Holding a dislocated ass.”
“You didn’t see these things in action,” I said. “They were strong, and pretty smart. And there were four of them.”
“Just like the Four Horsemen!” he said, “Only with petting zoos!”
I scowled some more. “Fine, fine,” I said. “I’m glad I can amuse you.”
“Oh, absolutely,” Bob said, his voice bubbling with mirth. “Help me, help me! It’s the Billy Goats Gruff!”
I glared. “You’re missing the point, Bob.”
“It can’t be as funny as what has come through,” he said. “I’ll bet every Sidhe in Winter is giggling about it.”
“Bet they’re not,” I said. “That’s the point. The gruffs work for Summer. They’re some of Queen Titania’s enforcers.”
Bob’s laughter died abruptly. “Oh.”
I nodded. “After that business at Arctic Tor, I could understand if someone from Winter had come after me. I never figured to do this kind of business with Summer.”
“Well,” Bob pointed out, “you did kind of give Queen Titania’s daughter the death of a thousand cuts.”
I grunted. “Yeah. But why send hitters now? She could have done it years ago.”
“That’s Faeries for you,” Bob said. “Logic isn’t exactly their strong suit.”
I grunted. “Life should be so simple.” I thumped my finger on the book, thinking. “There’s more to this. I’m sure of it.”
“How high are they in the Summer hierarchy?” Bob asked.
“They’re up there,” I said. “As a group, anyway. They’ve got a reputation for killing trolls. Probably where the nursery tale comes from.”
“Troll killers,” Bob said. “Trolls. Like Mab’s personal guard, whose pieces you found scattered all over Arctis Tor?”
“Exactly,” I said. “But what I did there ticked off Winter, not Summer.”
“I’ve always admired your ability to be unilaterally irritating.”
I shook my head. “No. I must have done something there that hurt Summer somehow.” I frowned. “Or helped Winter. Bob, do you know—”
The phone started ringing. I had run a long extension cord from the outlet in my bedroom down to the lab, after Molly had nearly broken her neck rushing up the stepladder to answer a call. The old wind-up clock on one shelf told me that it was after midnight. Nobody calls me that late unless it’s something bad.
“Hold that thought,” I told Bob.
“It’s me,” Murphy said, when I answered. “I need you.”
“Why Sergeant, I’m touched,” I said. “You’ve admitted the truth at last. Cue sweeping romantic theme music.”
“I’m serious,” she said. Something in her voice sounded tired, strained.
“Where?” I asked her.
She gave me the address and we hung up.
I barely ever got work from Chicago PD any more, and between that and my frequent trips to other cities as part of my duty as a Warden, I hadn’t been making diddly as an investigator. My stipend as a Warden of the White Council kept me from bankruptcy, but my bank account had bled slowly down to the point where I had to be really careful to avoid bouncing checks.
I needed the work.
“That was Murphy,” I said, “making a duty call.”
“This late at night, what else could it be?” Bob agreed. “Watch your back extra careful, boss.”
“Why do you say that?” I said, shrugging into my coat.
“I don’t know if you’re up on your nursery tales,” Bob said, “but if you’ll remember, the Billy Goats Gruff had a whole succession of brothers.”
“Yeah,” I said. “All of them bigger and meaner than the last.”
I headed out to meet Murphy.