The eighth book in the Iron Druid Chronicles, described by SFF World as ‘Neil Gaiman’s American Gods meets Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden’
I didn’t have time to pull off the heist with a proper sense of theatre. I didn’t even have a cool pair of shades. All I had was a soundtrack curated by Tarantino playing in my head, one of those songs with horns and a fat bass track and a guitar going waka-chaka-waka-chaka as I padded on asphalt with the uncomfortable feeling that someone was enjoying a voyeuristic close-up of my feet.
My plan wasn’t masterful either. I was just going to wing it with an iron elemental named Ferris who was ready to do anything I asked, because he knew I’d feed him magic for it down the road. A faery snack, perhaps, or an enchanted doodad of some kind. Ferris thought such things were sweet—magic might even give him something akin to a sugar rush. Before making my run, I contacted him through the earth in a park and filled him in on the plan. He’d have to filter through the dead foundations of Toronto to follow me until it was time for him to act, but this was easier for him than it would be for most elementals. Lots of concrete got reinforced with iron rebar these days, and he’s so strong at this point that he can afford to push through the lifeless underbelly of modern cities.
I dropped off Oberon and my shoes in a shaded alley and cast camouflage on myself before emerging into the busy intersection of Front and York Streets in Toronto, where cameras from many sources might otherwise track me, not only the ones from the Royal Bank of Canada. But into the bank I strode at opening time, ducking in the doors behind someone else. Ferris followed underneath the street; I felt him buzzing through the sole of my bare right foot.
Security dudes were present in the lobby but utterly unarmed. They were not there so much to stop people from committing a crime as to witness those crimes and provide polite but damning testimony later. The Canadians would rather track down and confront robbers when they were all alone than endanger citizens in a bank lobby. Some people might suggest you didn’t need security if they were just going to stand there, but that’s not the case. Cameras didn’t catch everything. In memories they sometimes didn’t work at all, because you were clever and had a snarky anarchist hacker in your crew with some kind of oral fixation on lollipops or whatever. But even if the cameras stayed on and recorded the whole crime, security guards would notice things the cameras might not—voices, eye color, details about clothing, and so on.
Off to the right of the teller windows, the vault door remained closed. No one had asked to visit the safety deposit boxes yet. I’d wait and sneak in with someone except that I could be waiting for far longer than my camouflage would hold out. And the clock was ticking on my target’s usefulness; the sooner I got hold of it, the more damage I’d be able to do. So I showed Ferris that vault door and asked him to take it apart. Let the alarms begin.
It’s magnificent, watching a vault door disintegrate and people lose their shit over it in real time. The soundtrack in my head kicked into high gear as I stepped over the melted slag to tackle the next obstacle: a locked glass door that showed me the safety deposit boxes beyond. It was bulletproof to small arms but lacked the thickness to stop heavy-caliber rounds. Ferris couldn’t help in taking apart the entire door like the vault, but that wasn’t necessary; the locking mechanism was metal and he could melt that quickly, and he did. I pushed open the door and began searching for Box 517, the number I’d been given. I found it on the left and near the floor. It was a wide, shallow, flat one, with one lock for the customer’s key and one lock for the bank’s. With another assist from Ferris, both locks were dispatched and I opened it, snatched out the slim three-ring binder inside, and shoved it into my camouflaged pack before anyone even stepped inside the vault. I kicked the box closed just as a couple of guards finally appeared at the melted vault door, peeking through and seeing the open glass door. One of them was a doughy dude, tall and pillowy, and the other was a hard, cut Latino.
“Hello?” the puffy one said. “Anyone in there?”
The fit guard assumed that someone was. “You’re on camera wherever you go in here. You can’t hide.”
“Why would he care about that?” Doughboy said. “Are you telling him to stop because he’s being surveilled?”
Hardbody scowled and hissed at his co-worker, “I’ve got to say something, don’t I? What would you say?”
“If you surrender to us now,” Doughboy called into the vault, “we won’t shoot you. Run away and they send the guys with guns.”
“You’re a twat, Gary,” Hardbody muttered.
Gary—a much better name than Doughboy—blinked. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
“I said you’re right, Gary. That’s what I should have said to the robber we can’t see.” Gary didn’t look convinced that he’d heard him incorrectly the first time, but the cut guard didn’t give him time to pursue it. He stepped past the threshold of the vault and said, “Maybe he’s in the private room in the back.”
I turned around to see what he was talking about and spotted another door in the rear of the vault. Normally when customers removed their safety deposit boxes, they would step into that private
room and fondle their deposits in safety until they were ready to return it. Hardbody was heading for that door, and I pressed myself against the row of boxes to let him pass by. Gary followed only to the glass doorway. He stood there, blocking my exit, and frowned at the dissolved lock.
“Somebody’s got to be here,” he said. “This doesn’t just happen by itself.”
Hardbody tried the door to the private room and found it secure. He punched in a code on a mounted keypad and peered inside once it opened.
“Anything there, Chuy?” Gary asked, finally giving me a better name for him.
“Well, what the hell is going on? Is this guy a ninja or something?”
Oberon would have loved to hear that, and I nearly made a noise that would have given me away had they the sense to turn off the alarm and listen. As it was, the electronic shriek gave me cover to sneak right up to Gary. Since I was fueling my camouflage on the limited battery of my bear charm, I couldn’t stick around for much longer and wait for him to clear out of my way. Proper police would be around soon, and I didn’t want to have to deal with them too.
I reached out with both hands and shoved Gary hard through the threshold and to the left, leaving me a clear path to the vault door.
“Chuy called you a twat, Gary,” I said as I ran past. “I heard him.” It made me laugh, because Gary would have to report what Chuy called him since the perpetrator had said it.
Much cursing and outrage followed in my wake from both of the guards. A manager type was just outside the vault on a cell phone, talking to police. “Yes, sorry. There’s something a bit odd going on here at the bank. Our door has been melted. Sorry.”
The front doors to the bank had been automatically locked as part of the security protocols once the alarm went off, but Ferris gave me one more assist and I was out in the street. Whatever movement
the cameras caught was fine; they would never get enough to identify me.
I thanked Ferris for his help and asked him to remain in the area for his reward. I’d have to scrounge up something suitably delicious for him before leaving.
<That was fast,> Oberon said through our mental link when I dropped my camouflage in the alley and chucked him under the chin. <I didn’t even get started on a nap.>
“Only way to do it. Every second at the scene increases chances of capture. Ready for a spot of breakfast?” Oberon’s last meal had been on the plains of Ethiopia, during the episode that revealed to me the existence of the binder I’d just stolen. A tyromancer friend of mine named Mekera had pointed the way here after we’d hunted up some rennet for her, but she didn’t offer any snacks to us in the hours afterward.
<Of course I’m ready! When have I ever been unprepared to eat, Atticus?>
I knew that it’s standard procedure to hole up in a nondescript warehouse or garage after robbing a bank, but I walked to Tim Hortons instead—affectionately known as Timmie’s—because I felt like having something hot and coffee-like and I didn’t have a big bag of money in a burlap sack to mark me as a dastardly villain. Instead, I had a backpack and an Irish wolfhound on a leash, so I looked like a local student instead of the mysterious thief who slipped past the security of the Royal Bank of Canada in downtown Toronto.
The Timmie’s on York Street sported a garish green-and-yellow-striped awning, a fire hydrant out front in case of donut grease fire, and a convenient signpost pointing the way to public parking. “What kind of ungodly breakfast meat do you want from here?” I asked Oberon as I tied him up to the sign.
<The religion of the meat doesn’t affect its taste,> my hound replied, a pedantic note creeping into his voice.
<Godly bacon and ungodly bacon taste the same, Atticus.>
“Bacon it is. Now be nice to people who look scared of you while I’m inside. Do not pee on the hydrant, and no barking.”
<Awww. I like to watch them jump. Sometimes they make squeaky noises.>
“I know, but we can’t draw attention to ourselves right now.” Sirens wailed in the glass and steel canyons of downtown as police converged on the bank. The cars would get there eventually, but the two bicycle cops I saw pedaling the wrong way down York Street would get there first. “I’ll be back soon and we’ll eat.”
The teenager working the register judged me for ordering five bacon and egg sandwiches and a donut frosted in colors normally reserved for biohazard warnings. I could see it in her eyes: “Nice looking for a ginger, but shame about the diet.”
Well, as Oberon might say, I deserved a treat. Taking my maroon cup of coffee and a bag of greasy sandwiches outside, I sat next to my hound on the curb of York Street and unboxed breakfast for him as people emerged from the shop and wondered aloud what had the police in such an uproar.
“Whadda yanno, Ed,” a man said behind me. He hadn’t been there when I entered, but a quick glance over my shoulder revealed him standing next to a friend in front of the window, both of them holding maroon cups like mine, both dressed in jeans and work boots and wearing light jackets. “Sirens! That means crime. In Trahno.” I smiled at the local tendency to reduce their three-syllable city to two.
“Yep,” Ed replied. I waited for more, but Ed seemed to have exhausted his thoughts on the subject.
<Hey!> Oberon said, his tone accusatory as he gulped down the first sandwich. <This is bacon, Atticus!>
Didn’t you say you wanted bacon? I answered him mentally since I didn’t want Ed or his friend to worry about my sanity if they saw me talking out loud to my hound.
<But I thought it would be Canadian bacon! Aren’t we in Canada?>
Yes, but maybe you were trying to be too clever there. People in Canada do not call that kind of meat Canadian bacon, the same way people in Belgium do not call their waffles Belgian waffles.
<Well, it’s still good. Thanks.>
I snarfed the donut and slurped up some coffee and then pulled out the cause of all the trouble: a binder full of names and addresses, many of them international. There was no handy title page announcing their significance, but they were alphabetized, and I flipped to the H’s. There I found an entry for Leif Helgarson, providing his former location in Arizona. It told me two things: This was, as I’d hoped, a directory of every vampire in the world, stored offline and therefore unhackable. But it was also months out of date at the very least. Leif had still nominally been the vampire lord of Arizona’s sun-kissed humans around the time of Granuaile’s binding to the earth, but he’d shown up twice in Europe since then—once in Greece and once in France. Germany too, if I counted a handwritten note. He was clearly on the move, and I had to assume the same would hold true for many other names on the list since I had started to pick off vampires via Fae mercenaries. Once word got out that this binder had been stolen, they would move for sure. So if it were to be of any use, I would have to move quickly, before they knew I had this. A USB drive with a file on it would have been more convenient, but since I was sure the idea was to make everything inconvenient for hackers and keep the speed of technology on their side, they had saved a hard copy only.
The two who would hear about it first and perhaps spread the word were the safety deposit box’s owners: the ancient vampire Theophilus and the arcane lifeleech, Werner Drasche. The latter was most likely in Ethiopia where I’d left him, swearing in German and arranging a flight to Toronto. Theophilus, I knew, wouldn’t be traveling across an ocean to chase me.
I flipped to the T’s but found no entry there for Theophilus. Damn. Either he was using a different name or wasn’t listed here at all.
“May I join you, Mr. O’Sullivan?” a voice with a Russian accent asked. I whipped my head around to find the speaker, because no one should be calling me by that name anymore. A Hasidic Jew dressed all in black stood there, cup of coffee in one hand and a small paper bag in the other. His beard had been black the last time I saw him, but now it was shot with streaks of gray that fell from either side of his chin.
“Rabbi Yosef Bialik,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“Sharing breakfast, I hope,” he replied. “I assure you that I have no wish to fight. Our past quarrels can remain in the past.”
“You’re alone?” I asked, scanning my surroundings for other figures in black with weaponized beards. The last time I’d seen him, more than a decade ago, he had ganged up on me with the rest of the Hammers of God.
“Well, sit down then, and tell me what you want.”
He tossed the bag down next to me and then used his free hand to steady himself as he half-sat, half-collapsed to the curb with a grunt. “Getting old is no fun,” he said. “You look very well. Unchanged, in fact. How do you do it?”
“I’ll tell you if you tell me how you knew where to find me. I’ve only been in town a few hours.”
“Ah! Easy. The Hammers of God are witch hunters, yes?”
“We are sensitive to the use of magic. Any kind. So while we cannot track you, whenever you use magic nearby, we can feel it. And your magic I have felt before. It has a particular flavor. You used quite a lot of it a couple blocks away.”
“And you just happened to be in Toronto?”
“Yes. I live here now. Retirement.”
He shrugged. “Toronto is great city. Many kinds of peoples, many kinds of food, few evils outside of the local government. The hockey team is bad, but you cannot ask for everything. And I am married now. My wife is from here.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Rabbi, it’s great to see you when you’re not trying to kill me, but . . . what do you want?”
He picked up his bag and fished out an everything bagel with cream cheese. The bag crackled loudly, and he didn’t speak until he had crumpled it into a ball and set it beside him. “I suppose what I want is fair warning if something horrible is going to happen here. You and horrible go together like pickle spears and sandwiches.”
I could say the same for him, but instead I said, “Nothing will happen. Nothing I’m planning anyway. I’ll be gone in a few days.”
“Then I wish to deliver an apology.”
“You do? For what?”
<For never giving me a snack.>
He hasn’t even met you yet, Oberon.
<That doesn’t matter. It’s only polite.>
We’ll review manners later.
“For my behavior years ago,” the rabbi said. “I did many things for which I may not be forgiven.”
“Like killing the youngest, weakest member of the Sisters of the Three Auroras with your fucking Cthulhu beard tentacles there—sorry, I didn’t mean to get so intense. It’s just that I still have nightmares about that.”
“Understandable. And deserved. It was that episode and the next one, with that man who claimed to be Jesus—”
“Uh, that really was Jesus.”
“As you say.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure he would say it too. And to be clear, Rabbi, his existence doesn’t negate or invalidate—much less eradicate—the existence of your god. Or any of my gods, or anyone else’s. He just is. As is Yahweh and Brighid and Odin and the rest.”
He nodded, and his beard, thankfully, did not move of its own volition. “I can accept that now. I couldn’t back then. It requires a flexibility of thought, yes? A certain openness to the idea that people must walk their own road to salvation and not necessarily follow me on mine. I had taken my faith too far.” He shook his head. “It is difficult for me, now, to think of my younger self. I wince at the memories. I was filled with so much anger and had lost the contemplative peace of Kabbalism. But those encounters with you—and watching, from afar, how the Sisters of the Three Auroras conducted themselves afterward, among other things—caused me to reevaluate. I saw that I was wrong to judge them. I should not have judged them. That is the business of a perfect being, yes?”
“I suppose it is. Does that mean the Hammers of God don’t hunt witches anymore, despite that line in Exodus about not suffering a witch to live?”
He sipped his coffee before answering. “Some still do. I personally do not. But I have convinced many of them that focusing on clear evil—demons walking this plane, for example—is much more morally defensible than pursuing witches who may yet be redeemed.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“Yes, I think it is good. I do not know if it will ever be enough to pay for what I did—guilt is a heavy burden. When a man leaps into the fire, how many steps must he take to walk out of it? Have you ever overstepped yourself, Mr. O’Sullivan?”
“Oh, gods below, yes. Horribly. Still paying for some of my missteps. I think there are some I haven’t paid for yet. Trying to make it right, though.”
“What’s the difficulty, if I may ask?”
I made a raspberry noise at the enormity of the question. “I have plenty of difficulties, but right now I’m worried most about the vampires. They all want to kill me, and I don’t think I can talk them out of it. They’re actively pursuing me now.”
The hedge of hair above the rabbi’s eyes dipped, and his mustache drooped in a frown. “There are vampires here? Is this why you are in town?”
“I’m sure there are some here, but I’m in town for this,” I said, pointing to the binder. “The names and addresses of vampires around the world.”
The rabbi froze except for his beard, which began to stir even though there was no wind. I was beginning to recognize that as an emotional tell and I had to suppress a shudder, because semi-sentient facial hair is viscerally disturbing.
“How did you acquire that?” the rabbi asked.
“Using the magic you sensed. I stole this from the bank on Front and York. There are thousands of names here. Maybe tens of thousands—the type is small. I’m not sure which ones are the leaders, though. And I’m also unsure how I’ll make much of a dent in the list before it becomes moot. The leadership will soon know that I have this list and alert everyone to move. But maybe some of them will be stupid enough to keep the same names. I can at least use that to track some of them.”
“Extraordinary.” Keeping his eyes on the binder, his hands moved that sad, smooshed everything bagel to his mouth. The schmear of cream cheese drooped out from the edges and some of it fell, ignored, onto the precipice of his beard, hanging. It bobbed up and down as he ate mechanically, thinking.
<Look at that, Atticus. Totally rude. Didn’t even offer me a bite.>
You just had five bacon sandwiches for breakfast.
<Yes, but what about second breakfast?>
I doubted the rabbi was a Tolkien fan, so I said to my hound, I don’t think he knows about that.
“Perhaps . . . well. Mr. O’Sullivan, I would like to offer my assistance if you would accept it.”
“You’d come out of retirement for this?”
“Absolutely. Vampires are one of the clear evils that the Hammers of God still fight. We would relish the chance to take advantage of this.”
“We? You’re speaking for all of them?”
“I believe I can safely say they will join us with enthusiasm. They have been finding more vampires recently in any case. Something has been disturbing them, making them move in the open.”
“That would be my doing. I’ve had mercenaries hunting them, and some are trying to hide while others are trying to fill the power vacuum left by those we already staked.”
“Admirable. We are on the same side, then.” He grinned at me, a brief flash of white underneath the hair. “Is refreshing, yes?” He nodded as he spoke, and the cream cheese fell onto his coat. I wanted to point it out to him but also didn’t want to let slip this moment of accord.
“Yes, it is,” I said. “How many of your friends might join in?”
“There are hundreds of us scattered around the world.”
“All right,” I said. “Rabbi Yosef, I’ll make you a deal. We’ll go scan this and you can send the file to your associates. For every thousand vampires the Hammers of God eliminate, I’ll give you five years of youth.”
“Immortali-Tea. It’s just natural herbs and some bindings, nothing diabolical about it. You see the results before you.”
“Hmm. We would stake a thousand vampires if we could in any case. It’s our duty.”
“Great, so it’s win-win. I guess you’re not able to sense vampires the way you can sense me?”
“No. Our power comes from the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, so they are invisible to us as dead things. And I should stress that we cannot sense you personally, only the use of your magic, which is very attuned to life.”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling at him, “being bound to Gaia will do that. Hey, uh, you got a little schmear there—”
“Oh! Thanks for telling me.”
We set about the scheme immediately. It would take us hours to scan and get the files out, and before the day was through, Werner Drasche would definitively know I had them. The Hammers of God would have a short window in which to act.
“If you move to catch the ones in this hemisphere before sundown,” I said, “that will be your best chance. The ones in Europe—the really old and powerful ones—are going to hear about the security breach while they’re awake and have a chance to move tonight.”
“We must take what the Almighty offers us, then.”
“Well, caution your people too,” I warned him. “There may be traps waiting at these addresses instead of vampires. I would vastly prefer this strike to be an unequivocal win for the good guys. Just once.”
“May it prove so,” the rabbi said, a quirk in his beard indicating that he might be happy. “Even if we fail to slay a single one, I am glad we met today, Mr. O’Sullivan. It confirms that I have done right to choose a calmer, quieter path. This great good we are about to do would not have been possible had I clung to my zealotry.”
I supposed that was a polite way of saying we couldn’t kill vampires together today if he had killed me twelve years ago, but I wasn’t about to say anything to make him feel more guilty about his past than he already did. I couldn’t judge him; the gods knew I had more to atone for in my long life than he did. We parted amiably and traded phone numbers like old friends.
With the vampires suitably placed in tumult by my actions and perhaps some of them facing a final mortality very soon thanks to the Hammers of God, I went shopping. There was an arcane lifeleech doubtless on the way, and I had preparations to make. Though you never want to be Nigel in Toronto, I would have to become him one last time if I wanted to take care of Werner Drasche. And, with luck, I would never be haunted by that chapter of my past again.
First I visited the Herbal Clinic and Dispensary on Roncesvalles for a few things and then traveled to Jerome’s on Yonge Street for a suitable costume—well, formal wear, which felt like a costume every time I crawled into it and cinched a tie around my neck. I was advised by the haberdasher that ascots were making a comeback, and I said, no, no, they weren’t, he’d been terribly misinformed. I did manage to pick up a gold pocket watch and a shaving kit while I was there—both essential to reprising my role as Nigel.
We took all to a hotel downtown, where in my room, under the glare of a white bulb attacking yellow wallpaper and a sulfurous curdled granite countertop, wearing an expression of acute chagrin, I shaved off my goatee while Oberon tried to comfort me with his improvised singing.
<In a beefless hotel! Where a man’s got a beard to lose!
Ain’t no gravy nowhere! Cause he’s got the Nigel blues!>
“Oberon, I appreciate the thought, but you’re not helping me feel any better about this.”
<I was just about to start in on my howling cat solo. That always makes me feel better.>
“Please don’t. Have mercy on me.” I washed and toweled off my naked chin and began step two, using my purchases from the Herbal Clinic, one of the hotel’s plastic cups, a few drops of Everclear, and a stir stick intended for coffee.
<Whoa, hey, what’s that you’re doing there? That’s not something nasty I have to drink, is it?>
“No, it’s not a tea. It’s a tincture. Remember when the Herbal Clinic let me use their mortar and pestle?”
<Yeah. They asked you a lot of questions.>
Yes, they’d been quite curious and I’d lied and told them it was for a salve, but in truth the blend of herbs would spur my beard growth for a short time. When I needed to age rapidly or grow something ridiculously ursine in a few days instead of waiting a few months, I used this mixture, which I altered with a little bit of alcohol and Gaia’s magic—much in the same way that Immortali-Tea was a blend of fairly common herbs with a little help. Taking an eyedropper and being very careful about where the drops fell, I applied the tincture to my cheek halfway down my jaw on either side. I’d have a few weeks’ growth of hair there in the morning, muttonchops straight out of the nineteenth century. Once I got all dressed up in my formal costume, pocket watch in my gray pinstriped vest, and slicked-down hair—I would look like the lad I’d been in 1953 who got into so much trouble.
“It’s just something to help me get into character. It’s a role I haven’t played for seventy years.”
<What’s this Nigel thing all about anyway? You still haven’t told me the whole story.>
“Oh, you want a story, do you? Well, we are in the bathroom and you are quite dirty from all that mud you picked up in Ethiopia . . .”
Oberon’s tail began to wag. <Do I get a bath-time story about historical Atticus?>
“Go on, hop in, and I will tell you why you never want to be Nigel in Toronto.”
<Okay!> Oberon’s entire back half began to sway back and forth, and he accidentally tore down the shower curtain in his haste to get into the tub. <Uh, that thing was ugly,> he explained. <And in the way.>