Cold Days
Page 26

 Jim Butcher

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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!" 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 fewsnitches 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 forward a little, my lord," Toot said instantly, and shouted, "Hey, Kernel Purpleweed! Come watch the Za Winter Lord Knight's back!"