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Poker Face

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"I spy, with my little eye ..."

"Don't make me draw on you, Raith," Karrin said, tucking a hand beneath her shoulder holster.

The vampire just flashed a brilliant white grin at her and continued, undaunted. "... something starting with 'W'."

"Water," Karrin said after a moment.

"Nope, try again."

"Waves."

"Nope."

"White Court vampire who's about to get ventilated with a P-90."

There was a moment's silence. Rain and sleet lashed the windshield of the wheelhouse, sheeting the glass with ice. Above the steering console, a pentacle necklace identical to Harry's dangled from a small hook, spinning slowly with the boat's movement, but leaning unmistakably in the direction of their heading.

Thomas said, "How about 20 Questions instead?"

"How about I go up top and have a look around?"

"Suit yourself," he said with a shrug, and, rummaging in the storage area under the steering console, came up with the ugliest yellow rain slicker she'd ever seen in her life. "Here," he said, tossing it to her, "take this."

"I thought vampires were stylish," Karrin said, pulling it on. It fit her like a yellow plastic tent.

Thomas's white teeth flashed again. "I make anything look good. Don't blow away."

"Bite me, Raith," Karrin said, although the loose slicker billowing around her hips did feel uncomfortably like a parasail.

The wind caught her in its teeth as soon as she stepped outside the snug confines of the wheelhouse, and she squinted against the sleet stinging her face. It wasn't a good night to be out on Lake Michigan, not a good night at all. Blackness was all she could see. Wavetops flashed in the dim glow from inside the wheelhouse, and beyond about a ten-foot radius, there was nothing at all. Thomas had the Beetle's running lights off, in blatant defiance of maritime regulations, and she just hoped that if a 700-foot oil tanker cruised through the area, his sonar or radar or whatever was good enough to catch it before it hit them. If he caused an accident, she was totally giving him a ticket, proper jurisdiction or not.

She paused, bracing herself against the door, long enough to pull on gloves, and then slithered hand-over-hand along the ice-coated railing, making a circuit of the deck. She'd be able to get a better view from up top, but she eyed the narrow, icy stairs and decided against tempting fate as the deck pitched under her. Besides, there was nothing to see. Sometimes she thought she could hear the whump-whump of chopper blades shuddering through her chest -- somewhere up there, Gard's Huey would be circling in the murk, waiting for a signal just like they were -- but when she stopped to listen, it was impossible to distinguish the sound from the low throb of the Water Beetle's engines.

Slithering back into the wheelhouse, she slammed the door and shivered for a minute. The slicker crackled with ice when she took it off, and her jeans and shoes were dark with water. "Uh, thanks," she said, handing it back.

Thomas took it one-handed, without taking his other hand off the wheel, crumpled it and shoved it carelessly back into the mess under the console. "Nothing?"

"Nothing." She shivered and paced in the small space to keep her blood moving. Her cold toes tingled. Dresden was out in this mess in just that damn duster, the idiot.

Thomas glanced down at the CB by his elbow, tuned to a low-traffic band they'd agreed upon with Gard earlier. It hissed softly with static but nothing else. "I keep telling you," he said, "it's Harry. He doesn't do subtle. Inside, outside ... when he signals, we'll see it." If he was nervous, he didn't show it, but the lines of his body were tight. On Karrin's next circuit of the wheelhouse, he reached into a pocket of his hip-hugging jeans, pulled out a small square object and tossed it to her. Karrin caught it reflexively: a battered deck of cards.

"Enough word games," Thomas said, with a sharklike grin. "How about a man's game?"

"You were doing fine up until that last bit. Now you're going down."

 

******

 

"What I don't understand," Thomas said in a tone that was almost, but not quite, a whine, "is how you keep winning."

Karrin shrugged and reached a hand up to the cold, damp space just under the windshield, where a plywood shelf abutting the steering console bore a clutter of crumpled receipts, pencil stubs, candy bar wrappers -- and the small heap of Tic Tacs they were using for chips. She swiped down the pot and added it to her pile, then wiped off her hand. Was that a dead spider? Trust Harry to be related to the only vampire in the known universe who was a total slob. "Looks like that's another $15 you owe me. What can I say, I'm good at poker."

"So am I," Thomas said, and gave her a small snarl that she thought was playful. Probably. "You have a damn good poker face. Normally I can read people much better than that."

By people, she suspected he meant humans, and wasn't that a pleasant thought. "We could switch to a game that might be more your speed," Karrin said, baring her teeth back at him. "How about Fish?"

"I have a better one," Thomas said easily. "Old Maid."

"Oh my God, you want to die, don't you?"

"And higher stakes this time. Ten dollar ante?"

"You're just trying to win back what you lost," Karrin said, shuffling the slightly sticky cards. "How do you do rounds of betting in Old Maid, anyway?" -- and just then the waves around them lit up with a diffuse, ruddy glow.

Karrin jumped off the empty gas can she was using for a seat, and leaned past Thomas, resting her hand on the hard point of his shoulder. An orange glow was clearly visible on the horizon, lighting up the clouds and illuminating the foggy murk around them.

"Told you," Thomas said. "It's Harry. Subtle is not his middle name." He glanced at her. From only a foot away, his eyes were startlingly pale in the glow of the wheelhouse lights. "Ready to roll, Sergeant?"

Karrin stepped back quickly, before she could keep noticing how good his hair smelled. Damn it, she knew what he was, and she was also reasonably confident that he wouldn't make a move on her, because, well, Harry would kill him if he accidentally ate her. And she mostly trusted him not to. Mostly.

A deep whup-whup-whup of chopper blades vibrated behind her breastbone. They weren't the only ones who'd seen the signal. The Huey skimmed over them so low that its running lights flashed off the water, glinting through the sleet that was rapidly turning to fat flakes of snow. Then it was gone into the storm.

"With any luck, they won't need us," Thomas said, throttling the engines from their muted thumping into a low roar and heeling the boat around.

"But we're here if they do," Karrin said, reaching under her jacket to check her safety harness and holster. She picked up the P-90 and slung it over her shoulder.

"Damn straight we are," Thomas said.

 

******

 

Thomas halted their forward progress, the pentacle swinging on its cord and tugging gently to the right. As the Water Beetle rolled on choppy waves, he pointed out the reefs on the grainy little screen of the depthfinder.

"Looks like the time my cousin showed me what she claimed was a five-month-old baby girl on her sonogram," Karrin said. "I mean, pretty much exactly the same. Could be we're about to run aground, could be that you're having a boy."

Thomas snorted a small laugh, and Karrin offered a little smile in return. The tension in the wheelhouse was thick enough to cut with a knife. Melting snow on the windshield splintered the world outside, but flashes of colorful light could be seen, now and then, through the darkness and the storm. There was a hell of a fight going on over there.

The CB suddenly emitted a burst of static along with Gard's voice. "Water Beetle."

Thomas reached for the mike, his other hand white-knuckled on the Beetle's wheel as he fought the waves to keep from being driven onto the reefs. "We read you, over."

"Retrieval complete, all but one," Gard said, and added, with a darkly sardonic note in her voice, "Guess which one."

"Figures," Thomas said.

"Last I saw, he was mobile and unhurt, with hostiles in pursuit. We have serious casualties and we're returning to base. Good luck, Beetle. Good hunting."

"Nice working with you too. Beetle out." Thomas hung up the mike and met Karrin's eyes over his shoulder. "Ready to kick Denarian ass?"

Karrin flicked the P-90 from single shot to full auto. "I am so ready." She managed to smile. "Unhurt? Dresden? Seriously? That's new."

Thomas smiled with only one side of his mouth, his eyes on the instrument panel. "Maybe he's getting better at this. They say practice makes perfect."

Karrin checked the clip in the SIG, mostly out of habit, and tucked it away again beneath her jacket, tightening the harness over it. Getting to it in a hurry was going to be a hell of a thing, but falling off the boat in the middle of a firefight would be worse. Hopefully the P-90 would be enough. "Yeah, but most people actually learn from their mistakes."

"True."

Tense moments ticked by as the Beetle wallowed on the waves, making a slow clockwise circuit of the reefs while the pentacle continued to drift in a generally rightward direction. Thomas began to sing, softly at first and then more loudly. The song was "Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall." After about five or so bottles of beer, Karrin said, "Do I really need to point out that I have an assault rifle?"

Thomas just grinned and launched into the next chorus even louder.

"Well," Karrin said, glaring at him, "if you can't beat 'em," and launched into a counter-attack of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

After a couple of cheerfully discordant choruses, Thomas broke off suddenly and turned the boat so sharply to the right that they slewed heavily on their own wake. Karrin leaned forward, fingers clutching the instrument console, and peered through the windshield. The engines thumped heavily under her feet, pounding like war drums. Ahead and to the right, blue-white light glinted on the ruffled black water, and she curled her fingers around the P-90's stock.

If they've hurt him, there's going to be literal hell to pay.

 

******

 

One firefight and a couple of Denarians later, Karrin found herself helping one hypothermic and semi-incoherent wizard into the cabin of the Water Beetle, really nothing more than a closet-sized alcove a step down from the wheelhouse. Both of them left a trail of bloody water on the floor.

Harry kept mumbling about swords and angelic job offers. When Karrin told him to shut up, he actually did, sagging into her as six and a half feet of wizard turned into six and a half feet of limp noodle. After a moment's panic, she realized that he'd just fallen asleep, sitting up and soaking wet.

"Dammit, Dresden," she muttered, folding out one of the cabin's bench seats into a passable cot and then maneuvering a ridiculous amount of soaking-wet wizard onto it. After hunting around the cabin, she discovered a cabinet stuffed with blankets -- musty-smelling, but clean -- and piled them on top of Harry until they started sliding off onto the floor. Then all the blood on the floor caught her attention, and she swore and started pulling blankets off, until she'd satisfied herself that he wasn't actually bleeding to death, just banged up. Also, at least some of the blood appeared to be dripping from her own face.

"Goddamn Denarians," she growled under her breath, heaping the blankets onto Harry in a less haphazard manner this time. He was so deeply asleep or unconscious that he didn't stir. She laid a hand briefly against his cheek -- still alarmingly cold, but he turned his head a little, leaning into her touch. His breathing was slow but regular.

Karrin left him alone and went into the cabin's tiny head, where she found a first-aid kit and cleaned up her bloody cheek over the stainless steel, airline-bathroom-sized sink. The cut stung, but it was shallow and probably wouldn't scar. She checked on Harry one more time -- he was finally starting to warm up, his nose and ears turning pink -- and, after tucking the sword out of sight and mind under the bench seat, headed up to the wheelhouse. The glow of Chicago was already clearly visible even through the storm, lighting up the sky ahead of them. Their trip through the storm and the darkness had seemed interminable; it was hard to believe they'd been so close to the city all along, so close to warmth and civilization. But that was always how her excursions into Harry's world made her feel: like she'd taken a left turn from reality somewhere.

Thomas glanced over his shoulder, his usual mocking half-smile not quite covering up the worry in his gray eyes. "How is he?"

"Hypothermic, beat up, bleeding, looks like hell. You know. The usual." Karrin sank down on the overturned gas can. "He'll be all right."

"I'm pretty sure that my brother really does have nine lives." They motored into the harbor, bumping through a light skin of ice in the relatively still waters around the docks. Thomas cut the engines and jockeyed the drifting Water Beetle gently into its docking berth. "Know how to tie a knot?"

Under his direction, Karrin gave him a hand tying up the boat. The ropes were heavy and slick with ice. By the time they'd finished, her fingers had gone numb in her soaked gloves. It was still snowing gently, the falling flakes piling up on the boat's railings and covering up its scarred paint. Still, it had the tapering-off look that came at the end of a big snowstorm, not the middle-of-the-blizzard look that the city had been dealing with for days. Karrin stood for a moment with her head tilted back, letting the flakes drift down onto her face until the cold got to be too much, and then followed Thomas back into the relative warmth of the Beetle's cabin.

She discovered Thomas firing up a kerosene heater in one corner of the cabin; it was already pumping out a welcome blast of heat. Karrin groaned in bliss and stretched out her half-frozen fingers to the warmth. "Thomas, you are a prince among creatures of the night. Seriously."

"Also literally," Thomas pointed out. He was wearing the pentacle again; it rested against his chest, visible in silver glimpses through the open collar of his jacket. He sat down on the bench seat across from Harry and studied his sleeping half-brother for a moment. Karrin looked away, but not before she saw the weariness in the slump of his shoulders and his general spaced-out look, as if he'd all of a sudden hit the point where the lazy playboy facade began to slip away, and the tiredness had started showing through the cracks.

She and Thomas hadn't had anywhere near the hellish night that Harry and company had gone through, but fighting the storm and the cold, without sleep, could apparently take the wind out of even a vampire's sails. And there was, too, the shakiness that ebbing adrenaline leaves behind -- the relief that comes at the end of tense hours of waiting and worrying, when the crisis is over and everything is all right.

Mostly.

Karrin remembered Gard's words: We have casualties. She didn't want to think about that; soon, as dawn approached, she'd need to call and find out who'd been hurt and how bad it was. But, for now, she relaxed into the heater's warmth, cocooning herself in the knowledge that once again Harry had dodged near-certain death. And she was pretty sure that she wasn't the only person in that room feeling weak-kneed relief because of it.

"Wow, you're right," Thomas said at last. "He does look like shit. Where's the sword?"

Karrin pointed, stripping off her soaked gloves. "There. I'm not really sure what to do with it." The thing gave her the creeps. She didn't want to touch it, or even get near it. She'd seen how cavalier supernatural creatures could be about shanghaiing mortals for their own ends, and had no desire to be on the receiving end of some kind of archangel power grab.

Thomas hooked it with his foot and dragged it out. "I'll stash it for now. Harry can figure out what to do with it when he wakes up, but right now -- not really worth waking him for that. If it's even possible." He rose from the bench seat, and as he did, leaned over to lightly ruffle his brother's damp, scruffy hair. It was quick and subtle and she almost missed it, along with the smile that flickered on his lips. Most of Thomas's smiles were sharp as a razor's edge, designed to cut. This wasn't. It was soft and genuine. Then he opened the cabinet where she'd found the blankets and started tossing things onto the floor.

"He's soaking wet under there." Karrin was finally regaining some feeling in her hands, so she swiveled around to warm up her backside. "It'd probably be a good idea to get him into something dry."

"Way ahead of you." Thomas tossed some frayed sweats and a beat-up down comforter into the heap on the floor, and tucked the sword at the back of the cabinet, handling it carefully and only touching the sheath. There wasn't much room in there, but on the other hand, who was going to look for a magic sword on a beat-up fishing boat?

"Will your clothes actually fit him?"

"The general effect is hilarious, believe me, but it beats hypothermia."

Karrin rubbed her gritty eyes. "Well. It's been fun, but I should go check on Molly, and check in with Michael and Sanya. Plus, I'm sure there's the inevitable work-related damage control to be done. Even in the middle of Lake Michigan, people tend to notice when you start throwing military ordnance around. Will you two be all right here?"

"Well, let's see," Thomas said. "We've got Chicago's number one wizard, a heavily armed vampire, and one of the Almighty's own swords. I think we'll be okay."

Karrin flipped him off. "Ass. Call me when he wakes up."

"Yeah."

She turned to the door, and then looked back. Thomas was peeling the layers of blankets off Harry, his movements sure and gentle. She wanted to say a lot of things: Thanks, and I'm glad you had my back out there, and maybe, just maybe, He really means a lot to you, doesn't he?

Instead she said, "By the way, you still owe me $205." She shrugged as she slipped back into her clammy gloves. "But you're welcome to try to win it back anytime."

Thomas snorted. "Shoulda known you were a ringer. The cute button nose is a dead giveaway."

"Ha! Spoken like a sore loser, Raith. Your poker face is pretty good," she said, smiling at him, "but you can't fool me."

And she slipped out the door, into the crisp gray light of a winter dawn.