Cold days, p.29
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       Cold Days, p.29

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  “A priceless intelligence asset,” I replied.

  Thomas lifted his eyebrows. “You’re going to interrogate that little guy?”

  “If Molly has a turkey baster, maybe you can waterboard him,” Murphy said in an acid tone.

  “Relax,” I said. “And drive. We need to . . .”

  I forgot what I had been about to say we needed to do. I guess all that cackling had really taken it out of me. The world turned sideways and the leather of the backseat pressed up against my unwounded cheek. It felt cool and nice, which was a stark contrast to the waves of pure ache and steady burn that pulsed through my body with every heartbeat.

  The world didn’t fade to black so much as turn a dark, restless red.

  Chapter

  Twenty-seven

  I woke up when someone shoved a branding iron into my neck.

  Okay, that isn’t what happened, but I was coming out of unconsciousness at the time, and that was what it seemed like. I let out a curse and flailed with my arms.

  “Hold him, hold him!” someone said in an intent voice. Hands came down on my arms, pressing them back against a smooth, rigid surface beneath me.

  “Harry,” Thomas said. “Harry, easy, easy. You’re safe.”

  There were lights in my eyes. They weren’t pleasant. I squinted against them until I could see Thomas’s upside-down head looming over me.

  “There you are,” Thomas said. “We were getting worried.” He lifted his hands from my arms and gave the side of my face something somewhere between a pat and a slap. “You weren’t waking up.”

  I looked around me. I was lying on the table in Molly’s apartment, the same spot where we’d seen to Toot’s injuries earlier in the day. There was the sharp smell of disinfectant in the air. I felt terrible, but less terrible than I had in the car.

  I turned my head and saw a wiry little guy with a shock of black hair, a beaky nose, and glittering, intelligent eyes. He picked up a metal bowl in one hand, and moved a pair of needle-nose pliers in the other, dropping something into the bowl with a clink. “And he just wakes up?” Waldo Butters, Chicago’s most polka-savvy medical examiner, asked. “Tell me that isn’t a little creepy.”

  “What are you talking about?” I said.

  Butters held up the metal bowl, tilting it so that I could see inside. Several tiny, bright, sharp, bloodied pieces of metal were inside. “Barbs from those fishhooks,” he said. “Several of them broke off in your skin.”

  I grunted. My collapse in the car made more sense now. “Yeah,” I said. “Any kind of iron gets under my skin, it seems to disagree with the Winter Knight’s bundle of awesome. Takes the gumption right out of me.” I started to sit up.

  Butters very calmly put his hands on my chest and shoved me back down. Hard. I blinked at him.

  “I don’t do assertive much,” he said apologetically. “I don’t really like doctoring people who are still alive. But if I’m going to do it, dammit, I’m going to do it right. So. You stay put until I say you can get up. Got it?”

  “I, uh . . .” I said. “Yeah, I guess.”

  “Smart,” Butters said. “You have two giant bruises where the lower halves of your arms usually go. You’re covered in lacerations, and a couple need sutures. Some are already inflamed. I need to clean them all out. That’ll work best if you hold still.”

  “I can do that,” I said. “But I’m feeling all kinds of better, man. Look.” I held up my hands and wiggled my fingers. They felt a little tight. I glanced down at them. They were a mottled shade of purple and swollen. My wrists and forearms were blotchy with bruises and swollen, too.

  “Harry, I once saw an addict pound his fist into concrete until he’d broken nearly every bone in his hand. He never even blinked.”

  “I’m not on drugs,” I said.

  “No? There’s damage to your body’s machinery. Just because you aren’t feeling it doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” Butters said firmly. “I’ve got a theory.”

  “What theory?” I asked, as he got to work on the cuts.

  “Well, let’s say you’re a faerie queen with a need for a mortal enforcer. You want the guy to be effective, but you don’t want to make him too powerful to handle. It seems reasonable to me that you might fiddle with his pain threshold. He’s not actually any more indestructible, but he feels like he is. He’ll ignore painful things like . . . like knife wounds or . . .”

  “Gut shots?” Thomas suggested.

  “Or gut shots, right,” Butters said. “And most of the time, that is probably a huge advantage. He can Energizer Bunny his way right through your enemies—and then, when it’s over, there he is. He feels great, but in reality he’s all screwed up and it’s going to take his body weeks or months to repair itself. If you don’t like the job he’s done, well, there he is all weakened and vulnerable. And if you do like it, you just let him rest and use him again another day.”

  “Wow, that’s cynical,” I said. “And calculating.”

  “I’m in the right ballpark, aren’t I?” Butters asked.

  I sighed. “Yeah, it sounds . . . very Mab-like.” Especially if what Maeve had said about me being dangerous to Mab was true.

  Butters nodded sagely. “So, as strong or quick or as fast to heal as it makes you, just remember: You aren’t any more invincible to trauma than before. You just don’t notice it when something happens. . . .” He was quiet for a moment and then asked, “You didn’t even feel that, did you?”

  “Feel what?” I asked, lifting my head.

  He put the heel of his hand on my forehead and pushed it down again. “I just stitched up a three-inch-long slice over one of your ribs. No anesthetic.”

  “Huh,” I said. “No, I didn’t. . . . I mean, I felt something; it just wasn’t uncomfortable.”

  “Supports my theory,” he said, nodding. “I already did that cut over your eye while you were out. That’s a beauty. Right down to the bone.”

  “Courtesy of Captain Hook,” I said. “He had this bitty sword.” I glanced up at Thomas. “We’ve still got Hook, right?”

  “He’s being held prisoner on a ceramic-lined cookie sheet in the oven,” Thomas said. “I figured he couldn’t jigger his way out of a bunch of steel, and it would give him something to think about before we start asking questions.”

  “That’s an awful thing to do to one of the Little Folk, man,” I said.

  “I’m planning to start making a pie in front of him.”

  “Nice.”

  “Thank you.”

  “How long was I out?” I asked.

  “About an hour,” Thomas said.

  Butters snorted. “I’d have been here sooner but someone broke into my house last night and I was cleaning up the mess.”

  I winced. “Uh, yeah. Right. Sorry about that, man.”

  He shook his head. “I’m still kind of freaking out that you’re here at all, honestly. I mean, we held your funeral. We talked to your ghost. It doesn’t get much more gone than that.”

  “Sorry to put a speed bump on your mental train track.”

  “It’s more of a roller coaster, lately, but a good mind is flexible,” Butters said. “I’ll deal with it; don’t worry.” He worked for a moment more before adding, in a low murmur, “Unlike some other people.”

  “Eh?” I asked him.

  Butters just looked up across the large apartment and then went back to work.

  I followed the direction of his gaze.

  Karrin sat curled up in a chair beside the fireplace, on the far side of the big apartment, her arms wrapped around her knees, her head leaning against the chair’s back. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was open a little. She was evidently asleep. The gentle snoring supported that theory.

  “Oh,” I said. “Uh. Yeah. She didn’t seem to handle it real well when I was ghosting around. . . .”

  “Understatement,” Butters breathed. “She’s been through a lot. And none of it made her a bit less prickly.”

  Thomas made a
low sound of agreement.

  “She’s run most of her friends off,” Butters said. “Never talks to cops anymore. Hasn’t been speaking to her family. Just the Viking crew down at the BFS. I’m hanging in there. So is Molly. I guess maybe we both know that she’s in a bad place.”

  “And now here I am,” I said. “Man.”

  “What?” Thomas asked.

  I shook my head. “You gotta know Karrin.”

  “Karrin, eh?” Thomas asked.

  I nodded. “She’s real serious about order. A man dying, she can understand. A man coming back. That’s different.”

  “Isn’t she Catholic?” Thomas asked. “Don’t they have a guy?”

  I eyed him. “Yeah. And that makes it so much easier to deal with.”

  “Medically speaking,” Butters said, “I’m pretty sure you were never dead. Or at least, never dead and beyond revival.”

  “What, were you there?” I asked.

  “Were you?” he countered.

  I grunted. “From my end, it went black, and then I woke up. Ghosty. Then it went white and I woke up. Hurting. Then did a bunch of physical therapy to recover.”

  “Wow, seriously, PT?” Butters asked. “How long?”

  “Eleven weeks.”

  “Yeah, that really leans things toward ‘coma’ for me.”

  “And all the angels and ghost stuff,” I said. “Which way does that make them lean? In your medical opinion?”

  Butters pressed his lips together and said, “No one likes a smart-ass, Harry.”

  “I never liked him anyway,” Thomas confided to him.

  “Why don’t you do something useful?” I said. “Go outside; see if anyone is lurking out there, waiting to kill us the second we walk out.”

  “Because Molly has to go with me each and every time or they won’t let me back in, and she’s out dealing with your scouts,” Thomas said. “You worried about that faerie crew using your blood to track you?”

  “Not sure. Using it is trickier than most people think,” I said. “You’ve got to keep it from drying out, and you’ve got to get it undiluted. It was raining, so if someone wanted my blood, they’d have had to get to it pretty quick—and it looked like Sith was keeping them busy.”

  “Sith?” Butters asked.

  “Not what you’re thinking,” I said.

  “Oh,” he said, clearly disappointed.

  “Besides,” I said to Thomas, “I’m less worried about them using it to follow me than using it to make my heart stop beating. Or you know . . . explode out of my chest.”

  Thomas blinked. “They can do that?”

  “Oh, my God,” Butters said, blinking. “Is that what that was?”

  “Yes, they can do that, and probably, if you mean all those murders around the Three-Eye drug ring bust,” I answered them. “Butters, what’s the story here? You done yet?”

  “Empty night,” Thomas said, his manner suddenly serious. “Harry . . . shouldn’t we be putting up circles or something?”

  “No point,” I said. “If they’ve got your blood, they’ve got you, period. Maybe if I ran and hid somewhere in the Nevernever, but even then it isn’t certain.”

  “How much blood do they need?” Butters asked.

  “Depends,” I said. “Depends on how efficient their magic is—their skill level. Depends on how fresh the blood is. Depends on the day of the week and the phase of the moon, for all I know. It isn’t something I’ve experimented with. The more energy they’re sending your way, the more blood they need.”

  “Meaning what?” Butters asked. “Sit up so I can dress these.”

  I sat up and lifted my arms out of the way as I explained. “A tracking spell is hardly anything, in terms of energy input,” I said. “They wouldn’t need much at all for that.”

  Butters wound a strip of linen bandage around my midsection several times. “But if they want to make your head explode, it takes a lot more?”

  “Depends how good they are,” I said. “They don’t have to crush your head into paste, sledgehammer style. Maybe they put an ice pick up your nose. Less force but concentrated into a smaller area, see?” I shuddered a little. “If they’ve got my blood and can use it, I’m fucked and that’s that. But until that happens, I’m going to assume that I still have a chance and proceed as if I do.”

  There was a silence then, and I realized that both Butters and Thomas were just staring at me.

  “What? Magic is dangerous stuff, guys,” I said.

  “Yeah, for all of us,” Butters said, “but, Harry, you’re . . .”

  “What? Bulletproof?” I shook my head. “Magic is like the rest of life. It doesn’t matter how much a guy can bench-press, or if he can break trees with his hands. You put a bullet through his brain, he dies. I’m pretty good at figuring out where to stand so as to avoid that bullet, and I can shoot back a lot better than most people—but I’m just as vulnerable as everybody else.”

  I frowned at that thought. As vulnerable as everybody else. Something nagged at me from beneath the surface of my conscious calculations, but I couldn’t poke it into visibility. Yet.

  “Point is,” I said, “if they were going to try to kill me with it, they’ve had time to do that already.”

  “Unless they’re saving it for the future,” Butters said.

  I made sure not to growl out loud. “Yes. Thank you. Are you finished yet?”

  Butters tore off a final piece of medical tape, stuck the end of the bandage down with it, and sighed. “Yeah. Just try not to . . . well, move, or jump around, or do anything active, or touch anything dirty, or otherwise do anything else that I know you’re going to do anyway in the next twenty-four hours.”

  “Twelve hours,” I said, swinging my legs down from the table.

  “Oy.” Butters sighed.

  “Where’s my shirt?” I asked, standing.

  Thomas shrugged. “Burned it. You want mine?”

  “After you got your guts all over it?” I asked. “Ew.”

  Butters blinked and looked at Thomas. “My God,” he said. “You’ve been shot.”

  Thomas hooked a thumb at Butters. “Check out Dr. Marcus Welby, MD, here.”

  “I’d have gone with Doogie Howser, maybe,” I said.

  “Split the difference at McCoy?” Thomas asked.

  “Perfect.”

  “You’ve been shot!” Butters repeated, exasperated.

  Thomas shrugged. “Well. A little.”

  Butters let out an enormous sigh. Then he picked up the bottle of disinfectant and a roll of paper towels and started cleaning off the table. “God, I hate this Frankenstein-slash–Civil War medicine crap. Give me a second. Then lie down.”

  I left them to pad across the apartment to my bedroom. To Molly’s guest bedroom. I opened the door as quietly as I could so that I wouldn’t wake Karrin, and went in to put on another secondhand shirt.

  I found one that was plain black, with the Spider-Man emblem on it in white. The black uniform. The one that made Spidey switch teams for a bit, and which eventually gave him all kinds of grief. It seemed fitting.

  I slipped into it and turned and nearly jumped out of my boots when Karrin quietly shut the bedroom door behind her.

  I stood there for a long moment. The only light was from a single small, glowing candle.

  Karrin faced me with an opaque expression. “You don’t call,” she said, one corner of her mouth quirked into an expression that wasn’t a smile. “You don’t write.”

  “Yeah,” I said. “Coma.”

  “I heard,” she said. She folded her arms and leaned back against the door. “Thomas and Molly both say it’s really you.”

  “Yeah,” I said. “How’d you find me?”

  “Scanner. The last time a bomb went off in this town, it was in your office building. I hear another one goes off in the street, and then reports of explosions and gunfire out over the lake just after dawn this morning. Math wasn’t hard to do.”

  “How’d you follow m
e?”

  “I didn’t,” Murphy said. “I staked out Thomas’s place and followed the guy who was following you.” She moved a foot absently, touching the back of her other calf with it as if scratching an itch. “His name was Ace . . . something, right?”

  I nodded. “You remember.”

  “I try to keep track of the bad guys,” she said. “And on an entirely unrelated note . . . I hear you belong to Mab now.”

  The words hit me like a slap in the face. Karrin had been a detective for a long time. She knew how to manipulate a suspect.

  I guessed I was a suspect, then.

  “I’m not a cocker spaniel,” I said quietly.

  “I’m not saying you are,” she said. “But there are creatures out there that can do things to your head, and we both know it.”

  “You think that’s what happened?” I asked. “That Mab’s bent my brain into new shapes?”

  Her expression softened. “I think she’ll do it slower,” she said. “You’re . . . an abrupt sort of person. Your solutions to problems tend to be decisive and to happen quickly. It’s how you think. I’m willing to believe that you found some kind of way to prevent her from just . . . I don’t know. Rewriting you.”

  “I told her if she tried it, I’d start being obstreperous.”

  “God,” Karrin said. “You haven’t started?”

  She half smiled. For a second, it was almost okay.

  But then her face darkened again. “I think she’ll do it slower. An inch at a time, when you aren’t looking. But even if she doesn’t . . .”

  “What?”

  “I’m not angry at you, Harry,” she said. “I don’t hate you. I don’t think you’ve gone bad. A lot of people have fallen into the trap you did. People better than either of us.”

  “Uh,” I said. “The evil-Queen-of-Faerie trap?”

  “Christ, Harry,” Murphy said quietly. “No one just starts giggling and wearing black and signs up to become a villainous monster. How the hell do you think it happens?” She shook her head, her eyes pained. “It happens to people. Just people. They make questionable choices, for what might be very good reasons. They make choice after choice, and none of them is slaughtering roomfuls of saints, or murdering hundreds of baby seals, or rubber-room irrational. But it adds up. And then one day they look around and realize that they’re so far over the line that they can’t remember where it was.”