Skin Game: Chapter 5


“To Mab’s credit,” Karrin Murphy said, “she is sort of asking you to do what you’re good at.”

I blinked. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“You have a tendency to weasel out of these bargains you get yourself into, Harry,” she said. “You have a history.”

“Like I shouldn’t fight them?” I demanded.

“You probably should focus more on not getting into them in the first place,” she said, “but that’s just one humble ex-cop’s opinion.”

We were sitting in Karrin’s living room, in the little house with the rose garden she’d inherited from her grandmother. She was sipping tea, her spring-muscle body coiled up into a lazy-looking ball at one end of the couch. I sat in the chair across from her. My big grey cat, Mister, was sprawled in my lap, luxuriating and purring while I rubbed his fur.

“You’ve taken good care of him,” I said. “Thank you.”

“He’s good company,” she said. “Though I wonder if he wouldn’t like it better with you.”

I moved from Mister’s back to rubbing behind his ears exactly the way he liked best. His purr sounded like a miniature motorboat. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed the little furball until he’d come running up and thrown his shoulder against my shins. Mister weighed the next best thing to thirty pounds. I wondered how the diminutive Karrin had managed to keep from being knocked down by his affection every time she came home. Maybe she had applied some principle of Aikido out of self-defense.

“He might,” I said. “I’m . . . sort of settled now. And there’s nothing on the island big enough to take him. But it’s cold out there in the winter, and he’s getting older.”

“We’re all getting older,” Karrin said. “Besides. Look at him.”

Mister rolled onto his back and chewed happily at my fingertips, pawing at my arms and hands with his limbs without extending his claws. Granted, he was a battle-scarred old tomcat with a stub tail and a notched ear, but damn if it wasn’t cute, and I suddenly felt my eyes threaten to get blurry.

“Yeah,” I said. “He’s kind of my buddy, isn’t he?”

Karrin’s blue eyes smiled at me over the rim of her teacup. Only attitude kept her from being an itty-bitty person. Her golden brown hair was longer than it had been since I could remember offhand, tied back into a ponytail. She wore yoga pants, a tank top, and a flannel shirt and had been practicing martial arts forms of some kind when I arrived.

“Of course,” she said, “you could do it the other way, too.”

“What do you mean?”

“You could live here,” she said. Then added, a beat too quickly, “In Chicago. You could, you know. Move back to town.”

I frowned, still playing with my cat. “I don’t . . . Look, when the next freak burns down my place, maybe I won’t get as lucky as I did last time.”

“Last time you wound up with a broken back and working for a monster,” Karrin said.

“Exactly,” I said. “And it was only because of literal divine intervention that none of my neighbors died.” I shook my head. “The island isn’t a kind place, but no one is going to come looking for trouble there.”

“Except you,” she said gently. “I worry about what will happen to you if you stay out there alone too long. That kind of isolation isn’t good for you, Harry.”

“It’s necessary,” I said. “It’s safer for me. It’s safer for everyone around me.”

“What a load of crap,” she said, without heat. “You’re just scared.”

“You’re damned right,” I said. “Scared that some bug-eyed freak is going to come calling and kill innocent people because they happen to be in my havoc radius.”

“No,” she said. “That isn’t what scares you.” She waved a hand. “You don’t want it to happen, and you’ll fight it if it does, but that isn’t what scares you.”

I frowned down at Mister. “I’m . . . really not comfortable talking about this.”

“Get over it,” Karrin said, even more gently. “Harry, when the vampires grabbed Maggie . . . they kind of dismantled your life. They took away all the familiar things. Your office. Your home. Even that ridiculous old clown car.”

“The Blue Beetle was not a clown car,” I said severely. “It was a machine of justice.”

I wasn’t looking at her, but I heard the smile in her voice—along with something that might have been compassion. “You’re a creature of habit, Harry. And they took away all the familiar places and things in your life. They hurt you.”

Something dark and furious stirred way down inside me for a moment, threatening to come out. I swallowed it back down.

“So the idea of a fortress, someplace familiar that can’t be taken away from you, really appeals to you right now,” Karrin said. “Even if it means you cut yourself off from everyone.”

“It isn’t like that,” I said.

It wasn’t.

Was it?

“And I’m fine,” I added.

“You aren’t fine,” Karrin said evenly. “You’re a long, long way from fine. And you’ve got to know that.”

Mister’s fur was soft and very warm beneath my fingers. His paws batted gently at my hands. His teeth were sharp but gentle on my wrist. I’d forgotten how nice it was, the furry beast’s simple weight and presence against me.

How could I have forgotten that?

(“I’m only human.”)

(“For now.”)

I shook my head slowly. “This is . . . not a good time to get in touch with my feelings.”

“I know it isn’t,” she said. “But it’s the first time in months that I’ve seen you. What if I don’t get another chance?” She put the cup of tea down on a coaster on the coffee table and said, “Agreed, there’s business to do. But you’ve got to understand that your friends are worried about you. And that is important, too.”

“My friends,” I said. “So this is . . . a community project?”

Karrin stared at me for a moment. Then she stood up and moved to stand beside the chair. She considered me for a few breaths, then pushed my hair back from my eyes with one hand, and said, “It’s me, Harry.”

I felt my eyes close. I leaned in to her touch. Her hand felt feverishly warm, a wild contrast to the brush of Mab’s cold digits earlier in the day. We stayed like that for a moment, and Mister’s throaty purr buzzed through the room.

There’s power in the touch of another person’s hand. We acknowledge it in little ways, all the time. There’s a reason human beings shake hands, hold hands, slap hands, bump hands.

It comes from our very earliest memories, when we all come into the world blinded by light and color, deafened by riotous sound, flailing in a sudden cavernous space without any way of orienting ourselves, shuddering with cold, emptied with hunger, and justifiably frightened and confused. And what changes that first horror, that original state of terror?

The touch of another person’s hands.

Hands that wrap us in warmth, that hold us close. Hands that guide us to shelter, to comfort, to food. Hands that hold and touch and reassure us through our very first crisis, and guide us into our very first shelter from pain. The first thing we ever learn is that the touch of someone else’s hand can ease pain and make things better.

That’s power. That’s power so fundamental that most people never even realize it exists.

I leaned my head against Karrin’s hand and shivered again. “Okay,” I said quietly. “Okay. This is important, too.”

“Good,” she said. She left her fingers in my hair for another moment, and then withdrew her hand. She picked up my teacup, and hers, and carried them back to the kitchen. “So. Where did you go after you left the Hard Rock?”

“Hmm?” I asked.

Her voice drifted in from the kitchen. “Given what you told me, you left the meeting with Nicodemus about three hours ago. Where have you been since then?”

“Um,” I said. “Yeah, about that.”

She came back into the room and arched a golden eyebrow at me.

“What if I told you that I needed you to trust me?”

She frowned and tilted her head for a moment before the hint of a smile touched her mouth. “You went digging for information, didn’t you?”

“Um,” I said. “Let’s just say that until I know more about what I’m up against, I’m playing things a lot closer to the chest than usual.”

She frowned. “Tell me you aren’t doing it for my own protection.”

“You’d kick my ass,” I said. “I’m doing it for mine.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I think.”

“Don’t thank me,” I said. “I’m still keeping you in the dark. But I believe it’s absolutely necessary.”

“So you need me to trust you.”


She spread her hands. “Yeah, okay. So what’s the play? I assume you want me to assemble the support team and await developments while you and Thomas go play with the bad guys?”

I shook my head. “Hell, no. I want you to go in with me.”

That shocked her silent for a moment. Her eyes widened slightly. “With you. To rob a Greek god.”

“Burgle, technically,” I said. “I’m pretty sure if you pull a gun on Hades, you deserve whatever happens to you.”

“Why me?” she asked. “Thomas is the one with the knives and the superstrength.”

“I don’t need knives and superstrength,” I said. “What’s the first rule to protecting yourself on the street?”

“Awareness,” she replied instantly. “It doesn’t matter how badass you are. If you don’t see it coming, you can’t do anything about it.”

“Exactly,” I said. “I need you because you don’t have supernatural abilities. You never have. You’ve never relied on them. I need extra eyes. I need to see things happening, someone to watch my back, to notice details. You’re the detective who could see that the supernatural was real when everyone else was explaining it away. You’ve squared off against the worst and you’re still here to talk about it. You’ve got the best eyes of anyone I know.”

Karrin took that in for a moment and then nodded slowly. “And . . . you think I’m crazy enough to actually do it?”

“I need you,” I said simply.

She considered that gravely.

“I’ll get my gun,” she said.