Skinner

by Charlie Huston

Skinner

Hardcover, 389 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $26 | purchase

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Book Summary

A fringe CIA agent unites with a roboticist to help bring down an elaborate cyber-terrorist attack that originated in Mumbai.

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Excerpt: Skinner

PROLOGUE

gravity of the sun

The cimetière Montmartre.

Skinner is staring at a headstone, puzzling at the name carved there.

Reistroff Guenard Spy.

No one to hear him, he sounds the name to himself. His French spoken with the accent and affect of an advanced language tape.

With a brief pause, he adds a silent comma to the name.

"Reistroff Guenard, spy."

Changing the last syllable into a profession. Smiling.

One hundred and fifty meters away, down the Avenue de la Croix in the 28th Division, he finds the mausoleum of the Lazarous family. That name, masoned from granite, Gothic script, arched, Lazarous. The cuteness of it was too much for someone to resist. The designer of the op. And too easy for someone else to recognize. He hardly needs to open the door to know what he will find. A suspicion further strengthened when he reaches into the stone urn on the step and finds that the key that is meant to be there is missing. Skinner reflects on one of his favorite metaphors, all too applicable in his life, Schroedinger's cat. Until he, Skinner, opens the mausoleum door, his asset is both alive and dead inside. He is tempted to turn his back and leave, allowing for the possibility that, unobserved, the man within will remain in a suspended state of uncertainty forever. But that is not the contract. So, an unlocked gate and behind it an unlocked door, and, behind that, a corpse that will never rise. By any reasonable standard his contract is now complete. Was complete the second his asset was shot and killed. Except that Skinner has special clauses in his contracts. Invisible codicils. But known to everyone.

So he inspects the body.

Someone was direct and professional, anonymously so. First two bullets in the chest, a large target for a shot from a handgun from over twenty meters away, and the final bullet in the head, a small target that offers a level of certainty when shooting from within five meters. Two shots to bring the asset down quickly from a distance; a third shot, after closing that distance, for peace of mind.

So to speak.

Skinner looks at the rectangle of sunlight that leads out of the mausoleum. It invites observation from without, encourages a watcher. In the box himself now, neither alive nor dead.

A definitive state will be arrived at on the other side of the rectangle.

A chest shooter. Conservative. Closing for the head shot.

Skinner considers, and steps through the rectangle into the sunlight, pauses on the step that leads down from the mausoleum, pulling tight the belt of the half-length khaki trench coat he chose to wear today because of the anonymity it offers in a city where the garment is ubiquitous every spring. He pushes his hands into his pockets and the first bullet hits him in the chest, pushing him back into the darkness of the mausoleum, the second bullet hitting within fifteen centimeters of the first before his upper body can quite disappear into the shadows. The shots are muffled but resonant, coughs from the throat of a large jungle cat (a cliché that Skinner knows to be accurate, having had occasion to hear a jungle cat cough). Pigeons fly from nearby horse chestnut trees, then settle again in the branches. Skinner's legs and feet, protruding from the stone mouth of the tomb, are motionless, the scuffed catspaw covering the leather soles of his dark brown oxford boots presented for inspection.

The man who emerges from the doorway of a 112-year-old maintenance hutch 27 meters down de la Croix trots with a directness that matches his methodology. Straight line, weapon held alongside his thigh so it won't be noticed by any tourists as they return from taking a rubbing of Truffaut's gravestone, eyes fixed on Skinner's feet, alert to any sudden movement.

Skinner can discern nothing specific of the man's features. Looking into the bright sun from within the tomb, all he sees is a black silhouette, its edge blurring in pulses as waves of pain continue to radiate from his chest.

Two meters from Skinner's feet, the silhouette raises its gun.

Skinner imagines that the assassin is now close enough that he can make out his own pale oval of face in the darkness. Target for one final bullet. Close enough to register also that Skinner's trench coat, while ripped open by the first two rounds, is unstained by blood. Does he, in fact, see the silhouette flinch as this revelation arrives in the assassin's brain? Doubtful. And, in any case, impossible to accurately determine, as the realization, if it exists at all, is reached at virtually the same instant that the silhouette registers the muzzle flash from the Bersa Concealed Carry pistol in Skinner's right hand, followed in an all but immeasurably short flicker of a moment by the sound of the shot as it echos from the mausoleum; any further thoughts cut short by the .380 subsonic bullet that trails the waves of light and sound.

Though tending toward conservatism in these matters himself, a fact attested to by the BAE Systems armored vest he wears under his trench coat, Skinner understands the value of taking a high-percentage, close-range head shot whenever circumstances present one. Rising to a seated position as the man is falling back, he takes a second bead on the ruined face, waits for the body to hit the ground, and squeezes off another round.

Certainty is all.

Stepping into the light, Skinner looks at the dead man. Any ID the man carries will be worse than useless; engineered to mislead. That doesn't matter. His face has been smeared by the impact of Skinner's bullet, but an ID is possible. The man's name was Lentz. Skinner has met him, a professional introduction, made by a friend. Recently.

A breeze moves the branches of a chestnut tree, sunlight flickers and tickles his ear, and Skinner knows he is being watched. He knows this, feels it as a kind of pressure, atmospheric. He looks and sees, several divisions away down de la Croix, a middle-aged man frozen in his track, ranks of gravestones between them. The man flaps his open mouth and runs. Standing near the two corpses, Skinner is painfully aware that he is in danger of playing out a scenario reminiscent of Eric Ambler. Man of mystery, fleeing through the aisles of the dead, pursued by gendarmes, his avenues of escape cut off at every turn by the flash of yet another blue uniform.

He tosses the Bersa away, skimming it over the stone floor into the mausoleum, leaving behind the dead, those entombed and those not, walking northward toward the wall that runs along the Rue Etex, stripping off the ruined trench coat as he goes, peeling the straps of Velcro that hold his armor in place, letting it drop, an audible thud that leaves him nearly two kilos lighter, a man in slacks, shirt collar peeking from the neck of his dark sweater. Against the chill he knots the scarlet scarf he'd worn tucked inside his coat, unharmed but for a burn that might easily have come from the coal of a too casually held cigarette.

As the sirens become audible, the Hôpital Bretonneau comes into view beyond the cemetery wall. A few quick steps and Skinner jumps, grabs fistfuls of green vines, the toes of his boots planted in notches between blocks of granite. He pulls, swings his legs up, lies flat atop the wall. Quiet street. After midday, high sun, the French are in the cafés, none of which are here. His chest hurts where the bullets embedded in the armor. He thinks about the gamble of having stepped into the light, trusting that the man outside the mausoleum would shoot him where he had shot the asset. Trusting that the man was as good a shot as the evidence suggested.

When did he start trusting such things? When did he start trusting anything?

To have died in the tomb of Lazarous.

That would have been foolish.

He smiles at the thought, rolls from the wall, and walks away.

Excerpted from the book SKINNER by Charlie Huston. Copyright 2013 by Charlie Huston. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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