Home > The Grendel Affair (SPI Files #1)(3)

The Grendel Affair (SPI Files #1)(3)
Author: Lisa Shearin

I was about half a block from Ollie’s place, and had been looking over my shoulder almost constantly, when a tall, shadowy figure stepped out of the shop’s recessed doorway.

Aw crap.

At least I knew who the shadow belonged to, but I also knew that I’d been busted. Though right now, after what had already happened to me tonight, I was kind of relieved. Almost.

There was no mistaking Ian Byrne’s silhouette of relaxed readiness. If I’d been someone up to no-good, I’d have given serious thought to crossing the street right then, or better yet, turning and running like hell. Actually, who was I kidding? Those thoughts had just crossed my mind. Considering his professional background, Ian Byrne’s “Don’t even think about it; I can kick your ass from here” stance came naturally. The impression was strengthened by the fact that Ian was at least a head taller than me.

The powers that be at SPI had assigned him as my partner, though I think he saw himself as more of a combination of babysitter and bodyguard. One, I was a newbie; and two, I was a seer. Seers were rare enough that the New York office only had one in their employ at any given time. As a result, SPI felt the need to protect (and hopefully help preserve) their newest personnel investment. As much as I liked having my SPI-provided medical insurance, I tried not to think that I might actually need it.

Ian Byrne had never said it, but I knew he resented being assigned to me. And I would have liked him well enough, except I had no desire to be around people who didn’t want to be around me. He was constantly watching me, like he was just waiting for me to screw up.

Ian stepped out to where he knew I could clearly see and identify his tall, dark, and dangerous self. As I got closer, I could see that his arms were crossed in front of his chest. Yep, someone was most definitely not amused by my show of professional initiative this evening. I thought it might be a good idea to keep my two earlier encounters to myself, at least until I’d finished what I’d come here to do.

I hadn’t told Ian about my favor to Ollie, because I knew he had plans tonight, plans that didn’t involve playing bartender to a nachtgnome. The only people who knew I was here were Ollie and Sam, SPI’s armorer, the man responsible for the borrowed thermal NVGs. I’d tried to check out a gun as well, but that didn’t fly with Sam. Apparently, he liked job security and health insurance, too.

Ian was also my shooting instructor for the still-to-beissued company gun. Normally SPI didn’t issue guns to their seers, but since my predecessor’s exsanguination and subsequent departure to the great beyond, they’d adjusted the company policy. I’d been born and raised in a town where cough syrup meant moonshine and honey, and guns and hunting had been a big part of my upbringing. I mean, how many girls got a hand-me-down muscle car and a shotgun for their sixteenth birthday? I still wanted to kick myself for not hanging on to the 1970 Pontiac LeMans, but I still had the shotgun. I could shoot just fine. However, I was used to shooting beer cans off the back of an old washing machine, or at things that ran away from me that I intended to eat—not things that ran toward me with the intent of eating me.

I’d found that to be a significant difference.

I stopped. The bottles clinked.

His mouth was hard and unsmiling. “Agent Fraser.”

“Agent Byrne.”

“That’s quite the traveling party you’ve got there,” he said.

Back home, in my younger days, I’d been busted by our local sheriff for underage drinking, and it had only made it worse that she was my aunt. This felt exactly the same. Though I reminded myself that Ian Byrne was only a couple of years older than I was, and he could only make me feel like a delinquent teenager if I let him.

I wasn’t going to let him. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

“Told you I was fun,” I said.

Ian had what looked like a small camera bag slung over one shoulder. I looked closer. Nope, not a camera. NVGs. In a case identical to the one in my messenger bag. Apparently I hadn’t been the only one signing out gear.

“Looks like Sam ratted on me,” I said.

“I asked. He told. I’m not about to let you try to catch a nachtgnome by yourself.”

“Excuse me? Try to catch?”

“They’re mean.”

I snorted. “They get drunk from a couple shots of booze.”

“Then they’re mean drunks.”

It was too cold to stand out in the street and argue with him. “I didn’t tell you because Ollie needed this done tonight, and you had a date.” I grinned. “Or is this business before pleasure? Come here and bag a gnome; go there and bag a . . .”

“Lawyer.”

Oh.

“I happen to like smart women,” he continued.

There were only six words in that sentence; but to me, every last one of them felt like he was saying that he didn’t consider me to be smart and he didn’t like me. I squashed that line of thought. It seemed that every time I got around Ian Byrne, paranoia became my new best friend.

After a couple seconds of awkward silence, Ian jerked his head toward the door. “So what kind of liquor did you get for Shorty in there?”

“Three-fifths of Jack.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“Accidents happen,” I said. “I got some insurance.”

I stepped past Ian and started working on Ollie’s locks. He’d given me the keys and the code to deactivate the alarm system. Ollie had three dead bolts, each with a different key on what looked like a glass door with a wooden frame. Anyone trying to break in would be in for a surprise. The wood was steel and the glass was bulletproof.

I had to give the door a bit of hip action to get it open. A bell rang. I looked up. Ollie had one attached to the top of the door. Crap. So much for stealth.

“It’s your party,” Ian said. “After you.”

A round red light at the top of the alarm system keypad started flashing. I had ten seconds before flashing turned to banshee shrieking. I fumbled the piece of paper out of my pocket that I’d scribbled the numbers on, entered the deactivation code, and the red light went out.

Ollie had never had a break-in. No surprise there. Anyone looking to score something to steal had always given Ollie’s shop a wide berth. One, the place was spooky enough in the daytime; and two, when they went to fence what they’d stolen, the only person who’d buy stuff that bizarre was Ollie, which kind of defeated the purpose and the effort.

I closed the door behind us, successfully got the NVGs on and focused, and did a slow scan of the shop.

Nada.

Which meant absolutely nothing. From what I’d been taught in my classes, nachtgnomes tended to stay hidden—unless you made it interesting for them, either with whiskey or exposed skin. All my pieces and parts were covered and going to stay that way. I’d brought booze to this party, not snacks.

The gnome had to know we were here. Aside from the bell, it was virtually impossible to take more than three steps in Ollie’s place without bumping into something. My goggles were to ensure that I didn’t bump into anything that bit.

If I turned on the lights, we’d be able to see, but the nachtgnome would burrow his way into something dark and stay there. So the dark was to make him comfortable, and the Jack was to make him sociable. I scanned the area around the counter and froze. The mummy was registering red and orange—at least the head was. And the contents were . . . moving.

Sweet Mother of—

“Mice,” came Ian’s whisper at my left ear.

I damned near jumped out of my skin.

I shot him a glare that would have been a lot more effective if he could have seen my eyes, then something scurried over by a case of voodoo dolls, bare feet pitter-pattering like wet rubber on the wood floor. I had an immediate and overwhelming urge to jump on a chair, flap my hands, run in place, and squeal. I had to grit my teeth to keep from doing any and all of the above.

My thirsty customer had arrived.

It’s just a nachtgnome, Mac. Just one. A small one. And it’s probably more scared of you than you are creeped out by it. Get it drunk, get it caged, and go home.

There was a more or less clear area near the middle of the shop. Ollie had left the cage there, as promised. I quickly set up my nachtgnome bar—one cup at the cage door, another inside, and the bottle near the back. I sloshed some of the whiskey on the floor. I’d never poured Jack Daniel’s into Scooby-Doo cups while wearing night vision goggles. My shaky hands had nothing to do with it. Nachtgnomes loved whiskey; they just couldn’t hold it. The little guy should pass out after half a bottle, which was about what two Scooby cups held.

We didn’t have to wait for long.

I knew that Bavarian nachtgnomes didn’t look like that cute white-haired gnome with the British accent in the travel commercials, but this thing was closer to something out of Gremlins—and not the cuddly one. The drawing in my employee manual was accurate; however this specimen was larger than I expected. From the picture in the book, I knew that its skin was green, its wide ears rubbery, and its eyes yellow. From standing less than ten feet away, I knew that it had way too many fangs. Black claws curved on spindly hands and feet. No little blue jacket and pointed red hat for this thing; it was buck na**d. The gnome had to use both hands to pick up the Scooby-Doo cups, but it tossed back both like it was doing shots of water. Then it snatched the bottle right out of the cage and did the same to it. It lowered the bottle and just stood there outside the cage door. Staring. At us. Its yellow eyes glittering with barely contained pissed-offness.

Uh-oh.

“I’d kind of hoped to take care of this quietly,” I muttered. The chances of that happening were vanishing faster than the Jack had.

“Looks like you can kiss that big tip good-bye,” Ian told me.

That comment deserved a response, but I kept my eyes on the critter, resisting the urge to look for the nearest chair, countertop, or exit.

The nachtgnome’s upper lip peeled back to reveal jagged teeth that were thankfully less than clear in the NVGs. However, I got an all too good look at the lip rippling with a low snarl. The snarl increased to a growl.

   
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