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as if there was a fire lit  
as if there was a fire lit  
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A gray wolf padded through the snow before him 2016-02-29 00:14:02

A cold wind tugged at his clothes. The tiny snowflakes were little more than a crystalline dust that gusted and flurried in the wind.

There were trees, bare of leaves in the winter. There were high hills on each side of him. It was late on a winter's afternoon: the sky and the snow had attained the same deep shade of purple. Somewhere ahead of him-in this light, distances were impossible to judge-the flames of a bonfire flickered, yellow and orange.



Shadow stopped. The wolf stopped also, and turned, and waited. One of its eyes glinted yellowish-green. Shadow shrugged and walked toward the flames and the wolf ambled ahead of him.

The bonfire burned in the middle of a grove of trees. There must have been a hundred trees, planted in the rows. There were shapes hanging from the trees. At the end of the rows was a building that looked a little like an overturned boat. It was carved of wood, and it crawled with wooden creatures and wooden faces-dragons, gryphons, trolls, and boars-all of them dancing in the flickering light of the fire.

The bonfire was so high that Shadow could barely approach it. The wolf padded around the crackling fire.

In place of the wolf a man came out on the other side of the fire. He was leaning on a tall stick.

"You are in Uppsala, in Sweden," said the man, in a familiar, gravelly voice. "About a thousand years ago."

"Wednesday?" said Shadow.

The man continued to talk, as if Shadow were not there. "First every year, then, later, when the rot set in, and they became lax, every nine years, they would sacrifice here. A sacrifice of nines. Each day, for nine days, they would hang nine animals from trees in the grove. One of those animals was always a man."

He strode away from the firelight, toward the trees, and Shadow followed him. As he approached the trees the shapes that hung from them resolved: legs and eyes and tongues and heads. Shadow shook his head: there was something about seeing a bull hanging by its neck from a tree that was darkly sad, and at the same time surreal enough almost to be funny. Shadow passed a hanging stag, a wolfhound, a brown bear, and a chestnut horse with a white mane, little bigger than a pony. The dog was still alive: every few seconds it would kick spasmodically, and it was making a strained whimpering noise as it dangled from the rope.

The man he was following took his long stick, which Shadow realized now, as it moved, was actually a spear, and he slashed at the dog's stomach with it, in one knifelike cut downward. Steaming entrails tumbled onto the snow. "I dedicate this death to Odin," said the man, formally.

"It is only a gesture," he said, turning back to Shadow. "But gestures mean everything. The death of one dog symbolizes the death of all dogs. Nine men they gave to me, but they stood for all the men, all the blood, all the power. It just wasn't enough. One day, the blood stopped flowing. Belief without blood only takes us so far. The blood must flow."

























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smooth as a snake 2016-02-22 17:38:42

"I'm family. He knows I'm not going to rip him off, and I'm learning a little about the trade on the way. Until I figure out what it is I really want to do." It was coming out of him with conviction. He knew everything about big Mike Ainsel in that moment, and he liked Mike Ainsel. Mike Ainsel had none of the problems that Shadow had. Ainsel had never been married. Mike Ainsel had never been interrogated on a freight train by Mr. Wood and Mr. Stone. Televisions did not speak to Mike Ainsel ("You want to see Lucy's tits?" asked a voice in his head). Mike Ainsel didn't have bad dreams, or believe that there was a storm coming.

He filled his shopping basket at Dave's Finest Food, doing what he thought of as a gas-station stop-milk, eggs, bread, apples, cheese, cookies. Just some food. He'd do a real one later. As Shadow moved around, Chad Mulligan said hello to people and introduced Shadow to them. "This is Mike Ainsel, he's taken the empty apartment at the old Pilsen place. Up around the back," he'd say. Shadow gave up trying to remember names. He just shook hands with people and smiled, sweating a little, uncomfortable in his insulated layers in the hot store.

Chad Mulligan drove Shadow across the street to Lakeside Realty. Missy Gunther, her hair freshly set and lacquered, did not need an introduction-she knew exactly who Mike Ainsel was. Why, that nice Mr. Borson, his uncle Emerson, such a nice man, he'd been by, what, about six, eight weeks ago now, and rented the apartment up at the old Pilsen Place, and wasn't the view just to die for up there? Well, honey, just wait until the spring, and we're so lucky, so many of the lakes in this part of the world go bright green from the algae in the summer, it would turn your stomach, but our lake, well, come fourth of July you could still practically drink it, and Mr. Borson had paid for a whole year's lease in advance, and as for the Toyota 4-Runner, she couldn't believe that Chad Mulligan still remembered it, and yes, she'd be delighted to get rid of it. Tell the truth, she'd pretty much resigned herself to giving it to Hinzelmann as this year's klunker and just taking the tax write-off, not that the car was a klunker, far from it, no, it was her son's car before he went to school in Green Bay, and, well, he'd painted it purple one day and, ha-ha, she certainly hoped that Mike Ainsel liked purple, that was all she had to say, and if he didn't she wouldn't blame him...

Chief of Police Mulligan excused himself near the middle of this litany. "Looks like they need me back at the office. Good meeting you, Mike," he said, and he moved Shadow's shopping bags into the back of Missy Gunther's station wagon.

Missy drove Shadow back to her place, where, in the drive, he saw an elderly SUV. The blown snow had bleached half of it to a blinding white, while the rest of it was painted the kind of drippy purple that someone would need to be very stoned, very often, to even begin to be able to find attractive.

Still, the car started up on the first try, and the heater worked, although it took almost ten minutes of running the engine with the heater on full before the interior of the car changed from unbearably cold to merely chilly. While this was happening, Missy Gunther took Shadow into her kitchen-excuse the mess, but the little ones just leave their toys all over after Christmas and she just didn't have the heart, would he care for some leftover turkey dinner?

Well, coffee then, won't take a moment to brew a fresh pot-and Shadow took a large red toy car off a window seat and sat down, while Missy Gunther asked if he had met his neighbors yet, and Shadow confessed that he hadn't.











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Does he pay well 2016-02-22 17:38:05

Shadow paid for his own breakfast and, over Chad Mulligan's halfhearted protests, both hot chocolates.

Hennings Farm and Home Supplies was a warehouse-sized building on the south of the town that sold everything from tractors to toys (the toys, along with the Christmas ornaments, were already on sale). The store was bustling with post-Christmas shoppers. Shadow recognized the younger of the girls who had sat in front of him on the bus. She was trailing after her parents. He waved at her and she gave him a hesitant, blue-rubber-banded smile. Shadow wondered idly what she'd look like in ten years' time.

Probably as beautiful as the girl at the Hennings Farm and Home checkout counter, who scanned in his purchases with a chattering hand-held gun, capable, Shaded had no doubt, of ringing up a tractor if someone drove it through.

"Ten pairs of long underwear?" said the girl. "Stocking up, huh?" She looked like a movie starlet.

Shadow felt fourteen again, and tongue-tie and foolish. He said nothing while she rang up the thermal boots, the gloves, the sweaters, and the goose-down-filled coat.

He had no wish to put the credit card that Wednesday had given him to the test, not with Chief of Police Mulligan standing helpfully beside him, so he paid for everything in cash. Then he took his bags into the men's rest room, came out wearing many of his purchases.

"Looking good, big fella," said Mulligan.

"At least I'm warm," said Shadow, and outside, in the parking lot, although the wind burned cold on the skin of his face, the rest of him was warm enough. At Mulligan's invitation, he put his shopping bags in the back of the police car, arid rode in the passenger seat, in the front.

"So, what do you do, Mister Ainsel?" asked the chief of police. "Big guy like you. What's your profession, and will you be practicing it in Lakeside?"

Shadow's heart began to pound, but his voice was steady. "I work for my uncle. He buys and sells stuff all over the country. I just do the heavy lifting."

"I'm family. He knows I'm not going to rip him off, and I'm learning a little about the trade on the way. Until I figure out what it is I really want to do." It was coming out of him with conviction, smooth as a snake. He knew everything about big Mike Ainsel in that moment, and he liked Mike Ainsel. Mike Ainsel had none of the problems that Shadow had. Ainsel had never been married. Mike Ainsel had never been interrogated on a freight train by Mr. Wood and Mr. Stone. Televisions did not speak to Mike Ainsel ("You want to see Lucy's tits?" asked a voice in his head). Mike Ainsel didn't have bad dreams, or believe that there was a storm coming.

He filled his shopping basket at Dave's Finest Food, doing what he thought of as a gas-station stop-milk, eggs, bread, apples, cheese, cookies. Just some food. He'd do a real one later. As Shadow moved around, Chad Mulligan said hello to people and introduced Shadow to them. "This is Mike Ainsel, he's taken the empty apartment at the old Pilsen place. Up around the back," he'd say. Shadow gave up trying to remember names. He just shook hands with people and smiled, sweating a little, uncomfortable in his insulated layers in the hot store.























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