"They're ruthless," Thomas said. "And they're everywhere. But between Marcone's hired goons, Lara's resources, and Murphy's people, they haven't gotten a solid foothold here. Other cities, it's bad. Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, and Boston are the worst off. They're grabbing anyone with a lick of magical ability and carrying them away. Thousands of people."
"Hell's bells," I muttered. "What about the White Council?"
"They're busy," Thomas said. "Word is that they're operating around the coasts of Europe, especially in the Mediterranean, fighting the Fomor there. Lara's people have been sharing a little information with the Council, and vice versa, but there's nothing like an alliance."
"They aren't working in the U.S. at all?" I asked.
Thomas shrugged. "Your Warden buddies are trying," he said. "Ramirez got hurt pretty bad last year. I don't think he's back in action yet. But the Wardens in Baltimore and San Diego are holding out, and the kid in Texas is giving them hell."
"Good for Wild Bill," I said. "So how come other cities haven't gone down?"
"Lara," Thomas said simply. His voice altered subtly and I could recognize the precise, enunciated tones that marked his sister's voice. "We labored for centuries to cultivate this herd. I will not abide a horde of toady, has-been poachers."
"She's a sweetheart," I said.
"She's done a lot," he said. "But she wouldn't have been able to do it without the Paranet."
"Knowledge is power," Thomas said. "There are tens of thousands of people on the Paranet. Eyes and ears in every city, getting more experienced every day. Something happens, one of the Fomor moves, and the entire community knows about it in minutes."
I blinked. "They can do that?"
"Internet," Thomas said. "The Netters are all low-grade talents. They can use computers and cell phones without hexing them up. So something starts happening, they tweet about it, and Lara dispatches a ready team."
"And she just happens to get to find out more about the magical talents in other cities. The ones who can't really defend themselves. In case she gets hungry later."
"Yeah," Thomas said. "But it's not like the Netters have a lot of choice in the matter." He paused for a couple of blocks and then said, "Lara's getting scary."
"Lara was always scary."
Thomas shook his head. "Not like this. She's getting involved in government."
"She was always doing that," I said.
"City officials, sure. A few key state bureaucrats. And she kept it gentle and invisible-manipulation, influence. But now she's going for something different."
It's funny how chilling one little word can be.
"I'll stick her on my to-do list, then," I said.
"Not like that," I said. "Pervert."
"Yeah. Because you think she's hideous."
"She's too scary to be pretty," I lied.
"If she knew I'd told you even that much, bad things would happen," Thomas said.
"Not me. I'm family." His jaw tensed. "To Justine."
"No, it won't," I said. "Because if she tries it, we'll protect Justine."
My brother looked at me. "Thanks," he said quietly.
"Whatever," I said. "It's getting cloying in here. Are we there yet?"
He smiled. "Jerk."
"Whiner . . ."
* * *
Thomas had just pulled the Hummer into a parking space in a garage across from his apartment building in the Loop when a gold SUV roared up and came to a sudden halt behind the Hummer. Thomas and I traded a fast look, and we were both thinking the same thing. A car meant that an attacker would probably be a mortal, using mortal weapons. That meant guns. That meant that if they started shooting at us while we were still in the car, Molly, asleep in the backseat, wouldn't have a prayer.
Both of us rolled out of the front seat, getting clear of the Hummer as fast as possible. Thomas had his handgun with him. I took the Winchester with me.
The occupants of the gold SUV didn't come leaping out with guns blazing. The engine stopped. Then, several seconds later, the driver's door opened, and someone got out. He walked calmly around the front of the SUV.
It was a slender man, a bit below average height. His hair was a blond so pale that it was nearly white. He wore faded blue jeans and a green silk shirt. He had a gun belt a lot like Thomas's number, fitted with an automatic pistol on one hip and a sword on the other. He wasn't a particularly good-looking man, and he didn't carry himself aggressively, but his jaw and his eyes were both hard. He stopped at a point where he could see both of us and stood there, his arms akimbo, his hands not quite entirely relaxed by his sides-and near his weapons.
"Harry," he said quietly.
"Fix," I said. I knew him. He was my opposite number on the Summer side of things. His predecessor had been murdered by my predecessor.
"I heard that Mab had recruited you to be the new Winter Knight," he said. "I was sure that it was a wild rumor. The man I knew would never have bowed to a creature like Mab."
"I had my reasons," I said.
He looked me up and down, slowly. Then he said, "You've been given instructions."
"Maybe," I said.
"You have," he said. "Mab's sent you to kill someone, hasn't she?"
"It's none of your concern," I said quietly.
"The hell it isn't," Fix said. "The Winter Knight exists to execute people Mab can't kill herself. You think I don't know that?"
"I think that there's an awful lot of glass in your house, Fix," I said. "You're in the same business as me."
"Never," Fix said. "The Summer Knight's job isn't to do Titania's killing."
"No? What is it, then?"
"To stop you," he said simply. "Not even Mab should get to decide who lives and who dies, Harry. Life is too precious to be wasted that way. So when she sends you to kill someone, someone gets in the way. That's me."
I didn't say anything for a minute. I had assumed that the Summer Knight would have the same job I did, just for a different crew. I hadn't really thought about actually crossing swords with Fix-metaphorically or otherwise. Ten years ago, that possibility wouldn't have fazed me. But Fix wasn't the same guy he had been back then. He was the Summer Knight, and he was currently standing up to a champion of the White Court and the Winter Knight without batting an eye. I recognized the calm in him, the stillness that was almost like serenity-it was focus and confidence. He knew the danger, he didn't want to fight, but he was quietly ready for it, and ready to accept whatever consequences it might bring.