Cold days, p.10
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       Cold Days, p.10

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  Chapter

  Ten

  Claws shredded my tux, raking over my back, my buttocks, and the backs of my legs. Jaws would have bitten into my neck if I hadn’t gotten my hands in the way, clamping them over the back of my neck and squeezing them as tight as I could, hoping that a finger wouldn’t come up and be nipped off. Pain came in, hot and high, but the claws didn’t dig as deep as they would have if this had been a malk or a ghoul, and I had to hope the damage wouldn’t be too serious—unless the fight went on long enough for blood loss to weaken me.

  Some analytical part of my head was going over those facts in a detached and rational fashion.

  The rest of me went freaking berserk with anger.

  I got one arm beneath me to brace myself and threw the other elbow back in a heavy strike that slammed into something soft and drew a startled yelp out of my attacker. The teeth vanished for a second and the claws slowed. I rolled, shoving with a broad motion of that same arm, and threw a wolf the size of a Great Dane off of my back. It hit one of the computer tables with a tremendous racket, sending bits of equipment tumbling.

  I got my feet underneath me, seized a computer chair by its back, and lifted it. By the time the wolf with dark red fur was getting back onto its feet, the chair was already halfway through its swing, and I was snarling in incoherent fury.

  Only at the last second did I recognize my attacker through my rage and divert the arc of the descending chair. It broke into about fifty pieces when it hit the floor just in front of the wolf, plastic and metal tumbling in every direction.

  The wolf flinched back from the flying bits, and lifted its eyes toward mine. It froze in what was an expression of perfect shock, and in a pair of seconds the wolf was gone, its form melting rapidly into the shape of a girl, a redhead with generous curves and not a stitch of clothing. She stared at me, gasping in short breaths, her expression pained, before she whispered, “Harry?”

  “Andi,” I said, standing straighter and trying to force my body to relax. The word came out in a snarl. Adrenaline still sang along my arms and legs, and more than anything in the whole world, at that moment I wanted to punch someone in the face. Anyone. It didn’t matter who.

  And that was not right.

  “Andi,” I said, forcing myself to quiet and gentle my voice. “What the hell are you doing here?”

  “Me?” she breathed. “I . . . I’m not the one who’s dead.”

  The night is young, thought the furious part of me, but I fought it down. “Rumors, death, exaggerated,” I said instead. “And I don’t have time to chat about it.”

  I turned toward Bob at his desk, and heard Andi open a drawer behind me. The sound an automatic makes when someone racks the slide and pops a round into the chamber is specific and memorable—and gets your attention as effectively as if it were also really, really loud.

  “Get your hands away from the skull,” said Andi’s shortened, pained voice, “or I put a bullet in you.”

  I paused. My first impulse was to cover the floor of the computer room with frozen chunks of Andi, and what the hell was I thinking? It was the anger that kept on rolling through me in cold waves that was pushing for that, for action, for violence. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I exactly have an allergy to either of those things—but I’d always done a reasonably good job of keeping my temper under control. I hadn’t felt like this in years, not since the first days I’d nearly been killed by the White Council.

  I fell back on what I’d learned then. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths, reminding myself that the anger was just anger, that it was a sensation, like feeling hot or cold. It didn’t mean anything by itself. It wasn’t a reason to act. That’s what thinking was for.

  The old lessons helped, and I separated myself from the fury. I put my hands slowly out to my sides, making sure they were visible. Then I turned to face Andi. She stood with a pistol in a solid Weaver stance, like she’d learned how from someone who knew.

  I could deflect bullets if I had to do it, but I couldn’t stop them. And we were in a building full of innocent bystanders. “You know about the skull?” I asked.

  “Kind of hard not to,” she said. “Since I live here.”

  I blinked several times. “You and . . . Damn. Way to go, Butters.”

  Andi stared steadily down the sights of her gun. She was holding herself a little hitched, as if her right side pained her. That elbow I’d thrown must have caught her in the ribs. I winced. I don’t mind a little of the rough-and-tumble when necessary, but I don’t hit my friends, I don’t hit women, and Andi was both.

  “Sorry about that,” I said, nodding toward her. “I didn’t know it was you.”

  “And I still don’t know if it’s you,” she replied. “Especially with you dead and all. There are plenty of things that might try to look like Harry.”

  “Bob,” I said over my shoulder. “Tell her it’s me.”

  “Can’t,” Bob said in a dreamy tone. “Boobs.”

  Right. Because Andi was naked. I’d seen her that way before, because that was one of the hazards of being a werewolf. I knew several, and they’d been my friends. When they change form, clothes and things don’t go with, so when they change back, they’re stark naked.

  I’ll give Bob this much—the little creep had good taste. Changing into a wolf must be a really fantastic exercise regimen, because Andi and naked went really well together. Although at the moment, I was mostly impressed with her great big, slightly heaving gun.

  “Bob,” I said more urgently. I put my hand out, trying to get it between the skull and Andi without actually reaching for it.

  “Hey!” Bob demanded. “Dammit, Harry! It’s not like I get much of a chance to see ’em!”

  Andi’s eyes widened. “Bob . . . is it really him?”

  “Yes, but he works for the bad guys now,” Bob said. “It’s probably safest to shoot him.”

  “Hey!” I said.

  “Nothing personal,” Bob assured me. “What would you advise a client to do if the Winter Knight broke into her place, fought with her, and cracked two of her ribs?”

  “Not to shoot,” I said. “The bullet’s going to bounce and there are way too many people in the apartments around us.”

  At that, Andi took her finger off the trigger, though she left it extended and pressed against the guard. She exhaled slowly. “That’s . . . more like what I would expect from . . . from you, Harry.” She swallowed. “Is it really you?”

  “Whatever’s left of me,” I said.

  “We heard about your ghost. I could even sort of . . . sort of smell you, when you were near. I knew. We thought you were dead.”

  “Wasn’t really my ghost,” I said. “It was me. I just sort of forgot to bring my body along with me.” I coughed. “Think you could maybe point that somewhere else?”

  “My finger’s not on the trigger,” she said. “Don’t be such a baby. I’m thinking.” She watched me for a moment and said, “Okay, let’s assume it’s really you. What are you doing here?”

  “I came for the skull,” I said.

  “I’m invaluable!” Bob piped.

  “Useful.” I scowled at him. “Don’t get cocky.”

  “I know you came for the skull,” Andi said. “Why now? In the middle of the night? Why break in? Harry, all you had to do was ask.”

  I ground my teeth. “Andi . . . I don’t have a lot of time. So I’m going to give you the short answer. Okay?”

  “Okay.”

  “When I break in here and take something from Butters, he’s my victim and of no particular consequence. If I come here and ask him for help, he’s my accomplice, and it makes him a target for the people I’m working against.”

  She frowned. “What people?”

  I sighed. “That’s the kind of thing I’d tell an accomplice, Andi.”

  “Um,” she said, “isn’t that kind of what we are?”

  “It’s what you were,” I said, with gentle emphasis. “Bob’s right.
I’m not exactly on the side of the angels right now. And I’m not taking you and Butters down the drain with me.”

  “Say, Harry,” Bob asked, “who are you up against?”

  “Not in front of the eye-stander-bey,” I said.

  “Just trolling for info like a good lackey,” Bob said. “You understand.”

  “Sure,” I said.

  Andi frowned. “Bob isn’t . . . Isn’t he supposed to be yours?”

  “I’m not the present owner of the skull,” I said. “Whoever has the skull has Bob’s loyalty.”

  “Services,” Bob corrected me. “Don’t get cocky. And right now I’m working for Butters. And you, of course, toots.”

  “Toots,” Andi said in a flat voice. “Did you really just say that?” Her gaze shifted to me. “Bystander?”

  “If you don’t know anything,” I said, “there’s no reason for anyone to torture you to death to find it.”

  That made her face turn a little pale.

  “These people think the Saw movies were hilarious,” I said. “They’ll hurt you because for them, it feels better than sex. They won’t hesitate. And I’m trying to give you all the cover I can. You and Butters both.” I shook my head and lowered my hands. “I need you to trust me, Andi. I’ll have Bob back here before dawn.”

  She frowned. “Why by then?”

  “Because I don’t want the people I work for to get hold of him either,” I said. “He’s not the same thing as a human—”

  “Thank you,” Bob said. “I explain and explain that, but no one listens.”

  “—but he’s still kind of a friend.”

  Bob made a gagging sound. “Don’t get all sappy on me, Dresden.”

  “Andi,” I said, ignoring him. “I don’t have any more time. I’m gonna pick up the skull now. You gonna shoot me or what?”

  Andi let out a short, frustrated breath and sagged back against the table. She lowered the gun, grimaced, and slipped one hand across her stomach to press against her ribs on the other side.

  I didn’t look at what that motion did to her chest, because that would have been grotesquely inappropriate, regardless of how fascinating the resulting contours may or may not have been.

  I picked up the skull, an old, familiar shape and weight in my hand. There was a flitter in the flickering eyelights, and maybe a subtle change of hue in the flames.

  “Awright!” Bob crowed. “Back in the saddle!”

  “Pipe down,” I said. “I’ve got backup with me. The other team might have surveillance on me that is just as invisible. I’d rather they didn’t listen to every word.”

  “Piping down, O mighty one,” Bob replied.

  When I turned back to Andi, she looked horrified. “Oh, God, Harry. Your back.”

  I grunted, twisted a bit, and got a look at myself in the reflection in the window. My jacket was in tatters and stained with blots of blood. It hurt, but not horribly, maybe as much as a bad sunburn.

  “I’m sorry,” Andi said.

  “I’ll live,” I said. I walked over to her, leaned down, and kissed the top of her head. “I’m sorry about your ribs. And the computers. I’ll make up the damages to you guys.”

  She shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. Whatever, you know. Whatever we can do to help.”

  I sighed and said, “Yeah, about that. Um. I’m sorry about this, too.”

  She frowned and looked up at me. “About what?”

  I was going to deck her, clip her on the chin and put her down for a few moments while I left. That would do two things. First, it would prevent her from getting all heroic and following me. Second, if I was currently being observed, it would sell the notion that I had stolen Bob from her. It was a logical, if ruthless move that would give her an extra layer of protection, however thin.

  But when I told my hand to move, it wouldn’t.

  Winter Knight, Mab’s assassin, whatever. I don’t hit girls.

  I sighed. “I’m sorry I can’t deck you right now.”

  She lifted both eyebrows. “Oh. You think you’d be protecting me, I take it?”

  “As screwed up as it is to think that—yeah, I would be.”

  “I’ve been protecting myself just fine for a year, Harry,” Andi said. “Even without you around.”

  Ouch. I winced.

  Andi looked down. “I didn’t . . . Sorry.”

  “No worries,” I said. “Better call the police after I’m gone. Report an intruder. It’s what you’d do if a burglar had broken in.”

  She nodded. “Is it all right if I talk to Butters about it?”

  This whole thing would have been a lot simpler if I could have kept anyone from getting involved. That had been the point of the burglary. But now . . . Well. Andi knew, and I owed her more than to ask her to keep secrets from Butters, whom I owed even more. “Carefully,” I said. “Behind your threshold. And . . . maybe not anyone else just yet. Okay?”

  “Okay,” she said quietly.

  “Thanks.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I added another “I’m sorry.”

  Then I took the skull and hurried back out into the night.

  Chapter

  Eleven

  Once I was in the hearse again, I started driving. I had a silent and nearly invisible squadron of the Za Lord’s Guard flying in a loose formation around the car, except for Toot, who perched on the back of the passenger seat. Bob’s skull sat in the seat proper, its glowing eye sockets turned toward me.

  “So, boss,” Bob said brightly, “where we headed?”

  “Nowhere yet,” I said. “But I’m operating on the theory that a moving target is harder to hit.”

  “That’s a little more paranoid than usual,” Bob said. “I approve. But why?”

  I grimaced. “Mab wants me to kill Maeve.”

  “What?” Bob squeaked.

  Toot fell off the back of the passenger seat in a fit of shock.

  “You heard me,” I said. “You okay, Toot?”

  “Just . . . checking for assassins, my lord,” Toot said gamely. “All clear back here.”

  “That doesn’t make any sense,” Bob said. “Tell me everything.”

  So I did.

  “And then she told me to kill Maeve,” I finished, “and I decided to come looking for you.”

  “Wait, wait, wait,” Bob said. “Let me get this straight. Mab gave you a whole girl, all to yourself, and you didn’t even get to first base?”

  I scowled. “Bob, can you focus, please? This isn’t about the girl.”

  Bob snorted. “Making this the first time it hasn’t been about the girl, I guess.”

  “Maeve, Bob,” I said. “What I need to know is why Mab would want her dead.”

  “Maybe she’s trying to flunk you intentionally,” Bob said.

  “Why do you say that?”

  “Because you can’t kill Maeve, Harry.”

  “I don’t want to do it,” I said. “I’m not even sure if I’m going to.”

  “You’re too busy wrestling with your stupid conscience to listen to me, boss,” Bob said. “You can’t kill her. Not might, not shouldn’t. Can’t.”

  I blinked several times. “Uh. Why not?”

  “Maeve’s an immortal, Harry. One of the least of the immortals, maybe, but immortal all the same. Chop her up if you want to. Burn her. Scatter her ashes to the winds. But it won’t kill her. She’ll be back. Maybe in months, maybe years, but you can’t just kill her. She’s the Winter Lady.”

  I frowned. “Huh? I killed the Summer Lady just fine.”

  Bob made a frustrated sound. “Yeah, but that was because you were in the right place to do it.”

  “How’s that?”

  “Mab and Titania created that place specifically to be a killing ground for immortals, a place where balances of power are supposed to change. They’ve got to have a location like that for the important fights—otherwise nothing really gets decided. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and cannon fodder.”

  I’d see
n part of that place being created—with my Sight, no less—and it was burned indelibly into my memory. I saw the surging energy the two Queens of Faerie were pouring out, power on a level that defied description. And of course I had, in some sense, been in that place when I murdered Lloyd Slate and took his job as Mab’s triggerman.

  Memory. The ancient stone table, stained with blood. Stars wheeling above me, dizzying in their speed and clarity. Writhing, cold mist reaching up over the edges of the table, clutching at my bare skin, while Mab bestrode me, her naked beauty strangling me, raking my thoughts out through my eyes. Power surging through me, into me, from the blood in the swirling grooves of the table, from Mab’s hungry will.

  I shuddered and forced the memory away. My hands clenched the wheel.

  “So I can’t kill her,” I said quietly.

  “No,” Bob said.

  I glowered out at the road. “What is the point of telling me to do something she knows is impossible?” I wondered aloud. “You’re sure about this, Bob? There’s no way at all, without the stone table?”

  “Not really,” Bob said, his eyes flicking around the car. “And not in most of the Nevernever, either.”

  “Hey,” I said. “What’s with the shifty eyes?”

  “What shifty eyes?” Bob asked.

  “When you said ‘Not really,’ your eyes got all shifty.”

  “Uh, no, they didn’t.”

  “Bob.”

  The skull sighed. “Do I have to tell you?”

  “Dude,” I said. “Since when has it been like that between us?”

  “Since you started working for her,” Bob said, and somehow managed to shudder.

  I tilted my head, thinking as hard as I could. “Wait. This has to do with your feud with Mab?”

  “Not a feud,” Bob says. “In a feud, both sides fight. This is more like me screaming and running away before she rips me apart.”

  I shook my head. “Man, Bob. I know you can be an annoying git when you want to be one—but what did you do to make Mab mad at you?”

  “It isn’t what I do, Harry,” Bob said in a very small voice. “It’s what I know.”