Home > Hounded (The Iron Druid Chronicles #1)(11)

Hounded (The Iron Druid Chronicles #1)(11)
Author: Kevin Hearne

Hal stopped chewing and regarded me steadily for a few seconds. “You don’t want to lie?” he said, completely off his guard.

“Of course I do! I just want to know what else I can do that I haven’t thought of already. That’s why I pay you, Hal. I mean, shit, come on.”

Hal smiled. “You really sound like one of these modern kids. I have no idea how you do it.”

“Blending in is the best survival skill I have. It’s just listening carefully and parroting, really. So tell me what to do if I’m forced to play it honest.”

“Honest as in the police can see through your camouflage spell and know that Oberon is right in front of them?”

“Sure. Pretend I’m an ordinary guy with no magic at my disposal. Then how do I protect Oberon?”

The werewolf took a long drink of Smithwick’s and belched discreetly as he thought about it. Then he placed his hands flat on the table and said, “Well, the only way they would be able to build a case without witnesses is to use DNA matching. Oberon has no rights, but as his owner you can demand they get a warrant before they do the whole unreasonable-search-and-seizure thing. If they come with a warrant, though, you pretty much have to let them do what they want. And judging from what you’ve told me, if they get a DNA sample from him, the case will be pretty solid.”

“That’s right,” I said, nodding.

“Well, another way we can delay things is to lodge some protest on religious grounds.”

“How’s that?”

“You protest against the DNA testing of your dog on the grounds that’s it’s against your religion.”

I looked at him as if he were trying to sell me the ShamWow and the Slap Chop for only $19.99 plus shipping and handling. “My religion has no objection to DNA testing. We didn’t know what the hell DNA was in the Iron Age.”

Hal shrugged. “They don’t know that.” Neither of us would ever get an award for ethics. “The Iron Age, eh?” Hal had been trying to guess my age for a good while, and I had carelessly given him another clue.

I ignored his query and frowned skeptically. “Will that argument work?”

“No, the judge will throw it out on the grounds that your dog cannot possibly share your religious views or something like that, but it will delay things for a good long while, long enough for you to figure out where to hide Oberon if, as you say in this entirely hypothetical situation, you can’t do it magically.”

“Good show, old sod,” I said in a cheerful accent straight out of Piccadilly Circus. “I knew there was a jolly good solicitor in you somewhere.”

“Oh, bugger off,” Hal replied in kind. “Just hide and lie and keep it simple for everyone, all right?”

I grinned at him. “Will do. Where is the Pack going to run next full moon?”

“In the White Mountains near Greer. Did you want to come along?” Occasionally the Pack would let Oberon and me run with them, and it was always a good time. The only touchy part was my status within the group, because werewolves are obsessed with status. Magnusson didn’t like to have me along, because technically he’d have to be submissive to me—if I gave a damn about such things—and alphas aren’t comfortable showing any kind of submission in front of their packs. I couldn’t blame him, of course, so we worked out a compromise where I was a “friend” of the Pack, a guest on equal footing with every member, essentially outside their hierarchy, and that kept everyone’s hackles from rising. But it also meant that Hauk, not Magnusson, had to be my lawyer. As a second, he was already submissive and did not have to worry about debasing himself by serving my legal needs.

“I would love to, but it falls around Samhain, and I have some of my own rituals to attend to,” I said. “I thank you for the offer, though.”

“My pleasure.” He extended a hand across the table to me. I shook it and he said, “I’ll take care of this bill and let Leif know you want to see him when he wakes for the night. You call me if you need anything else. And stay away from that redheaded bartender. I don’t know what she is besides trouble.”

“That’s like asking a bee to stay away from flowers.” I grinned back at him. “Thanks, Hal. Give my regards to the Pack. Come on, Oberon.” We both rose and headed for the door. Granuaile waved at me and smiled.

“Come back soon and see me, Atticus,” she called.

“I will,” I promised.

"You don’t even know if she really likes you," Oberon said as we exited and I unlocked my bike. "She could be doing her customer-service routine and stringing you along in hopes of a big tip the next time you come in. With dogs you just go up and smell their asses and you know where you stand. It’s so much easier. Why can’t humans do that?"

Perhaps if we had a better sense of smell, we would, I said. Nature clearly favored your kind in that regard.

When I returned to the store and told Perry he could take off for lunch, Emily the witch was already there waiting for me, drinking a cup of chamomile tea Perry had made for her. He wasn’t skilled behind the tea station, but he could boil some water and pour it on top of pre-made sachets as long as I labeled them carefully.

“Back so soon?” I said. “You must be eager to begin.”

“True enough,” she said. She stood from the table and minced over to me in her affected Barbie-doll stride. She waved a check at me before placing it in my hand and saying snarkily, “Here’s your danger pay, though there’s nothing dangerous about making some tea. I never figured Druids would be so avaricious.”

I took it from her hand and made a show of examining it carefully, because I knew it would annoy her. She’d deliberately tried to provoke me, and one cannot sass me with impunity. I saw her face flush and knew she wanted to say something about my dilatory manner, but she wisely kept her mouth shut and contained herself to huffing.

Eventually I said, “This appears to be in order. I will begin your treatment because your coven has done right by me in the past, but if this fails to clear the bank, then of course that will be a breach of contract.” Now, that was just unnecessary—even insulting—for me to say, but she was such a snot I felt she deserved it.

“Fine,” she ground out, and I smiled and went behind my counter to begin brewing her tea. I worked in silence for a while. We were the only people in the store, and neither of us was in the mood to make small talk. Oberon picked up on it.

"Genghis Khan would never put up with so much attitude," he said.

You speak the truth, my friend. But I’m as guilty as she is. We are not being very nice to each other.

"So I gathered. But why not? Isn’t she the sort of female you normally find attractive?"

If that was really what she looked like, sure, I said. But in reality she’s probably pushing ninety or so, and besides, I don’t trust witches.

"You think she’s going to try something? Should I move behind her?"

No, she knows you’re here. She can see through the camouflage. But I think she’s hiding something from me, and I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"When did she drop the first shoe? I missed it."

Never mind. Just listen. Once she drinks the tea, she will try to surprise me with something. She is waiting for the contract to be fully in effect before she says anything.

"Well, then, give her back the check and send her packing! We don’t need to play her witch’s games. They always want to get you and your little dog, too."

I knew I never should have let you watch The Wizard of Oz.

"Toto didn’t deserve that kind of trauma. He was so tiny."

When Emily’s tea was finished steeping, I set it on the counter for her. “Drink it as is,” I said. “No sweeteners, and nothing sugary for at least three hours afterward. Be careful from this day forward not to eat anything for three hours before drinking this tea either. Insulin will interfere with metabolizing the medicinal compounds in the tea.” That was complete bunk. I just made that up to mess with her. “And it will take a couple of hours for the results to show up, so don’t go hopping into his bed right away.”

“Fine,” she said, and she began chugging the tea as if it were an Irish Car Bomb, completely disregarding the damage the hot liquid might do to her tongue and throat. She really wanted to get this over with. She slammed it down forcefully, as if it were a shot glass instead of a teacup, and she smiled malevolently at me.

“And now, Druid, now that you have entered into a contract from which you cannot withdraw without severe consequences, I have the pleasure of informing you that the man you’re rendering impotent with this brew is none other than Aenghus Óg.”

Chapter 9

Now, that was a pretty good bomb to drop on me. It raised all sorts of questions, foremost among them, “Where is Aenghus Óg right now?” If he was already in town and diddling the local witches to pass the time, then my paranoia was well justified. It meant he was far more directly involved in last night’s mischief than I had thought. And it meant something else, which Emily was obviously waiting for me to realize: Providing her with the agent for his humiliation would make Aenghus Óg duty-bound to kill me as soon as possible. He would no longer feel comfortable in taking the occasional pot shot at me from a distance; he’d have to actively hunt me down and make me pay.

Yep, storm clouds are thrice cursed. First the Fae found out where I was hiding, then my dog killed a human, and now I’d earned the very personal enmity of a god who had been content for centuries to simply let his minions slap me around.

Emily wasn’t going to get an expression of even mild concern from me, though. She wanted to see terror in my eyes, but I walled that all off and pretended she was talking about someone harmless, like Snuffleupagus or Captain Kangaroo.

“So you’ve come to me to make him wilt like lettuce?” I said. “You could have done the job yourself by shedding that skin and showing him what you really look like.”

Wow. I couldn’t believe I’d just said that. Her eyes bulged with the offense, and she whipped her right hand toward my face for a slap. Now, a slap from a normal woman I could handle. Heck, I’d suggest I needed one after saying something like that to a regular college kid. But a slap from a witch is simply not permissible, because sure as the moon rises full once a month, she’d use her nails to scrape some skin off my cheek, perhaps even draw some blood, and then she’d have me. A friend of mine fell prey to precisely this sort of trick centuries ago, and it had poisoned me against witches ever since. She had goaded him into saying something rude, slapped him and left marks on his face, and then that very night his heart exploded inside his chest. I don’t mean he had a heart attack: His heart had literally blown apart as if someone had planted explosives in it, long before gunpowder was invented. Some other Druids and I had taken him to the grove and done a rudimentary autopsy to see if we could puzzle out why he’d dropped dead so abruptly, and we found this crater inside his rib cage. That’s when I realized he’d been killed the moment she slapped him.

I’d never avenged him—the witch got away—and it still stung centuries later. That’s why Emily’s attempt to slap me got a very violent reaction: I knocked her arm down by crossing my right hand over my face, then I backhanded her really hard, much harder than I should have. I shouldn’t have hit her at all; I should have just backed up out of her reach, but I tend to flare up when people try to kill me—which was what she was trying to do, make no mistake. She squealed and staggered back a few steps, holding her nose.

I had broken it, and I sort of felt like an a**hole even though she had planned to do much worse to me. While she was still in shock and processing what had happened, I took the opportunity to try to talk her down from escalating it. “You offered me violence and I defended myself. I know that a slap from you would have meant the end of my life, or at least the threat of it, and I could not permit that. And if you are thinking about using magic against me in my own shop, I would remind you that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.”

“And I would remind you that I am not powerless. Radomila will hear of this!”

“That’s fine. I’ll show her my security tape,” I said, gesturing to the video camera mounted on the wall above the register, “which clearly shows you swinging first. On top of that, you have now given me cause to believe you are a close associate of an old enemy of mine. I’d be within my rights to treat you as hostile.”

“Go ahead and try something!” she challenged, eyes blazing.

“I don’t need to try anything,” I chuckled. “I’m in control here.”

“You go on thinking you’re in control, Druid,” she spat, heading for the door in a fury, her flip-flops flapping noisily. “You’ll soon find out you are very mistaken.”

“See you tomorrow for tea,” I waved cheerily as she slammed through my door.

"Oh, she’s going to want some revenge," Oberon said after the door closed and we were alone.

“Don’t worry about her,” I said, grabbing a spoon and moving quickly around the counter. “She’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.”

"What are you doing?" Oberon asked. He followed me out to the floor, curious. I had squatted down on my haunches, examining the carpet.

“Ah, there we go.” I found a droplet of blood on the carpet that hadn’t soaked thoroughly into the weave; it was not much, but it would be enough. I scraped it off the surface and walked toward the door, peering through the glass window to see if Emily was visible. She was getting into her car, parked across the street a short distance north, a bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle. She would have to turn over her left shoulder to see me, so I darted outside, telling Oberon I’d return in a moment, and kicked off my sandals. I sank my toes into the same narrow strip of grass that had helped me heal my arm the day before, and I chanted a binding as I drew power from the earth. Emily felt the draw somehow, whipped her head around, and saw me standing there. I showed the spoon to her and smiled; her mouth dropped open in horror as she realized how careless she had been. I saw her lips move and her brow furrow in concentration, so I had no time to waste. I licked her blood off the spoon and completed the binding just in time. She flicked her fingers at me and I knew she had just hurled something my way, but all I felt was a gentle breeze.

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