Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton
“When can you do the job?”
“I'm booked solid this week. I might be able to squeeze you in next Wednesday. Maybe next Thursday.”
“What happened to next Monday and Tuesday?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Booked up.”
“You said, and I quote, âI'm booked solid this week.' Then you mentioned next Wednesday.”
I shrugged again. There was a time when I wasn't good at lying, even now I'm not great at it, but not for the same reasons. I felt my eyes going flat and empty, as I said, “I meant to say I was booked up for most of the next two weeks.”
He stared at me, hard enough to make me want to squirm. I fought off the urge and just gave him blank, vaguely friendly eyes.
“Next Tuesday is the night of the full moon,” he said in a quiet voice.
I blinked at him, fighting to keep the surprise off my face, and I think I succeeded, but I failed on my body language. My shoulders tensed, my hands flexed. Most people noticed your face, not the rest of you, but Harlan was a man who would notice. Damn it.
“So it's the full moon, yippee-skippy, what of it?” My voice was as matter-of-fact as I could make it.
He gave that small smile of his. “You're not very good at being coy, Ms. Blake.”
“No, I'm not, but since I'm not being coy, that's not a problem.”
“Ms. Blake,” he said, voice almost cajoling, “please, do not insult my intelligence.”
I thought about saying,
but it's so easy
, but didn't. First, it wasn't easy at all; second, I was a little nervous about where this line of questioning was going. But I was not going to help him by volunteering information. Say less, it irritates people.
“I haven't insulted your intelligence.”
He made a frown that I think was as true as that small smile. The real Harlan peeking through. “Rumor says that you haven't worked on the night of the full moon for a few months now.” He seemed very serious all of a sudden, not in a menacing way, almost as if I'd been impolite, forgotten my table manners, or something, and he was correcting me.
“Maybe I'm Wiccan. The full moon is a holy day for them you know. Or rather night.”
“Are you Wiccan, Ms. Blake?”
It never took me long to grow tired of word games. “No, Mr. Harlan, I am not.”
“Then why don't you work on the night of the full moon?” He was studying my face, searching it, as if for some reason the answer were more important than it should have been.
I knew what he wanted me to say. He wanted me to confess to being a shape-shifter of some kind. Trouble was I couldn't confess, because it wasn't true. I was the first human Nimir-Ra, leopard queen, of a wereleopard pard
in their history. I'd inherited the leopards when I was forced to kill their old leader, to keep him from killing me. I was also Bolverk of the local werewolf pack. Bolverk was more than a bodyguard, less than an executioner. It was basically someone who did the things that the Ulfric either couldn't, or wouldn't do. Richard Zeeman was the local Ulfric. He'd been my off-again, on-again honey-bun for a couple of years. Right now, it was off, very off. His parting shot to me had been,
“I don't want to love someone who is more at home with the monsters than I am.”
What do you say to that? What can you say? Damned if I know. They say love conquers everything. They lie.
As Nimir-Ra and Bolverk, I had people depending on me. I took the full moon off, so I'd be available. It was simple really, and nothing I was willing to share with Leo Harlan.
“I sometimes take personal days, Mr. Harlan. If they've coincided with the full moon, I assure you, it's coincidental.”
“Rumor says you got cut up by a shifter a few months back, and now you're one of them.” His voice was still quiet, but I was ready for this one. My face, my body, everything was calm, because he was wrong.
“I am not a shape-shifter, Mr. Harlan.”
His eyes narrowed. “I don't believe you, Ms. Blake.”
I sighed. “I don't really care if you believe me, Mr. Harlan. My being a lycanthrope, or not, has no bearing on how good I am at raising the dead.”
“Rumor says you're the best, but you keep telling me the rumors are wrong. Are you really as good as they say you are?”
“You're rumored to have raised entire graveyards.”
I shrugged. “You'll turn a girl's head with talk like that.”
“Are you saying it's true?”
“Does it really matter? Let me repeat: I can raise your ancestor, Mr. Harlan. I'm one of the few, if not the only, animator in this country that can do it without resorting to a human sacrifice.” I smiled at him, my professional smile, the one that was all bright and shiny and as empty of meaning as a lightbulb. “Will next Wednesday or Thursday be alright?”
He nodded. “I'll leave my cell phone number, you can reach me twenty-four hours a day.”
“Are you in a hurry for this?”
“Let's just say that I never know when an offer may come my way that I would find hard to resist.”
“Not just money,” I said.
He gave that smile again. “No, not just money, Ms. Blake. I have enough money, but a job that holds new interestsÂ .Â .Â . new challenges. I'm always searching for that.”
“Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Harlan. There's always someone out there bigger and badder than you are.”
“I have not found it so.”
I smiled then. “Either you're even scarier than you seem, or you haven't been meeting the right people.”
He looked at me for a long moment, until I felt the smile slide from my eyes. I met his dead eyes with my own. In that moment that well of quietness filled me. It was a peaceful place, the place I went when I killed. A great white static empty place, where nothing hurt, where nothing felt. Looking into Harlan's empty eyes, I wondered if his head was white and empty and staticky. I almost asked, but I didn't, because for just a second I thought he'd lied, lied about it all, and he was going to try and draw his gun from his jacket. It would explain why he wanted to know if I was a shape-shifter. For a heartbeat or two, I thought I'd have to kill Mr. Leo Harlan. I wasn't scared now or nervous, I just readied myself. It was his choice, live or die. There was nothing but that slow eternal second where choices are made and lives are lost.
Then he shook himself, almost like a bird settling its feathers back in place. “I was about to remind you that I am a very scary person all by myself, but I won't now. It would be stupid to keep playing with you like this, like poking a rattlesnake with a stick.”
I just looked at him with empty eyes, still held in that quiet place. My voice came out slow, careful, like my body felt. “I hope you haven't lied to me today, Mr. Harlan.”
He gave that unsettling smile. “So do I, Ms. Blake, so do I.” With that odd comment, he opened the door carefully, never taking his eyes from me. Then he turned and left quickly, shutting the door firmly behind him, and left me alone with the adrenaline rush draining like a puddle to my feet.
It wasn't fear that left me weak, but the adrenaline. I raised the dead for a living and was a legal vampire executioner. Wasn't that unique enough? Did I have to attract scary clients too?
I knew I should have told Harlan no dice, but I had told him the truth. I
raise this zombie, and no one else in the country could do itâwithout a human sacrifice. I was pretty sure that if I turned it down, Harlan would find someone else to do it. Someone else that didn't have either my abilities or my morals. Sometimes you deal with the devil not because you want to, but because if you don't, someone else will.
one of those new modern affairs, where all the headstones are low to the ground and you aren't allowed to plant flowers. It makes mowing easier, but it also makes for a depressingly empty space. Nothing but flat land, with little oblong shapes in the dark. It was as empty and featureless as the dark side of the moon, and about as cheerful. Give me a cemetery with tombs and mausoleums, stone angels weeping over the portraits of children, the Mother Mary praying for us all, her silent eyes turned heavenward. A cemetery should have something to remind the people passing by that there is a heaven, and not just a hole in the ground with rock on top of it.
I was here to raise Gordon Bennington from the dead because Fidelis Insurance Company hoped he was a suicide, not an accidental death. There was a multimillion dollar insurance claim at stake. The police had ruled the death accidental, but Fidelis wasn't satisfied. They opted to pay my rather substantial fee in the hopes of saving millions. I was expensive, but not that expensive. Compared with what they stood to lose, I was a bargain.
There were three groups of cars in the cemetery. Two of the groups were at least fifty feet apart because both Mrs. Bennington and Fidelis's head lawyer, Arthur Conroy, had restraining orders against each other. The third group of two cars was parked in between the others. A marked police car and an unmarked police car. Don't ask me to explain how I knew it was an unmarked police car, it just had that look.
I parked a little in back of the first group of cars. I got out of my brand new Jeep Grand Cherokee, which was partially purchased by money I got
from my now deceased Jeep Country Squire. The insurance company hadn't wanted to pay up on my claim. They didn't believe that werehyenas had eaten the Country Squire. They sent out some people to take photos and measurements, to see the bloodstains. They finally paid up, but they also dropped my policy. I'm paying month by month to a new company that will grant me a full policy, if, and only if, I can manage not to destroy another car for two years. Fat chance of that. My sympathies were all for Gordon Bennington's family. Of course, it's hard to have sympathy for an insurance company that is trying to squirm out of paying a widow with three children.
The cars closest to me turned out to be those of Fidelis Insurance. Arthur Conroy came towards me, hand outstretched. He was on the tall end of short, with thinning blond hair that he combed over his bald spot, as if that hid it, silver-framed glasses that circled large gray eyes. If his eyelashes and eyebrows had been darker, his eyes would have been his best feature. But his eyes were so large and unadorned that I thought he looked vaguely froglike. But then maybe my recent disagreement with my insurance company had made me uncharitable. Maybe.
Conroy was accompanied by a near-solid wall of other dark-suited men. I shook Conroy's hand and glanced behind him at the two six-foot-plus men.
“Bodyguards?” I made it a question.
Conroy's eyes widened. “How did you know?”
I shook my head. “They look like bodyguards, Mr. Conroy.”
I shook hands with the other two Fidelis people. I didn't offer to shake hands with the bodyguards. Most of them won't shake hands, even if you do offer. I don't know if it ruins the tough-guy image or they just want to keep their gun hands free. Either way, I didn't offer, and neither did they.
The dark-haired bodyguard, with shoulders nearly as broad as I was tall, smiled, though. “So you're Anita Blake.”
“And you are?”
“Rex, Rex Canducci.”
I raised eyebrows at him. “Is Rex really your first name?”
He laughed, that surprised burst of laughter that is so masculineâand usually at a woman's expense. “No.”
I didn't bother to ask what his real first name was, probably something embarrassing, like Florence, or Rosie. The second bodyguard was blond and silent. He watched me with small pale eyes. I didn't like him.
“And you are?” I asked.
He blinked as if my asking had surprised him. Most people ignored bodyguards, some out of fear of not knowing what to do, because they've never met one; some because they have met one and figure they're just furniture, to be ignored until needed.
He hesitated, then said, “Balfour.”
I waited a second, but he didn't add anything. “Balfour, one name, like Madonna or Cher?” I asked, voice mild.
His eyes narrowed, his shoulders a little tense. He'd been too easy to rattle. He had the stare down and the sense of menace, but he was just muscle. Scary looking, and knew it, but maybe not much else.
Rex intervened, “I thought you'd be taller.” He made it a joke, with his happy-to-meet-you voice.
Balfour's shoulders had relaxed, the tension draining away. They'd worked together before, and Rex knew that his partner was not the most stable cookie in the box.
I met Rex's eyes. Balfour would be a problem if things turned messy, he'd overreact. Rex wouldn't.
I heard raised voices, one of them a woman. Shit. I'd told Mrs. Bennington's lawyers to keep her home. They'd either ignored me or been unable to withstand her winning personality.
The nice plainclothes policeman was talking to her, his voice calm, but carrying, in a low, wordless rumble, as he, apparently, tried to keep her fifty feet away from Conroy. Weeks ago she'd slapped the lawyer, and he'd bitch-slapped her back. She'd then put a fist to his jaw and sat him on his ass. That was about the time the court bailiffs had had to step in and break things up.
I'd been present for all the festivities, because I was part of the court settlement, sort of. Tonight would decide the issue. If Gordon Bennington rose from the grave and said he'd died by accident, Fidelis had to pay. If he admitted to suicide, then Mrs. Bennington got nothing. I called her
. Bennington at her insistence. When I'd referred to her as
. Bennington, she'd nearly bitten my head off. She was not one of your liberated women. She liked being a wife and mother. I was glad for her, it meant more freedom for the rest of us.
I sighed and walked across the white gravel driveway towards the sound of rising voices. I passed the uniformed cop leaning against his car. I nodded, said, “Hi.”
He nodded back, his eyes mostly on the insurance people, as if someone had told him that it was his job to make sure they didn't start coming over. Or maybe he just didn't like the size of Rex and Balfour. Both men had him by a hundred pounds. He was slender for a police officer and still had that untried look in his face, as if he hadn't been on the job long, and hadn't yet quite decided whether he wanted to be on the job at all.
Mrs. Bennington was yelling at the nice officer who was barring her way. “Those bastards have hired her, and she'll do what they say. She'll make Gordon lie, I know it!”
I sighed. I'd explained to everyone that the dead don't lie. Pretty much only the judge had believed me, and the cops. I think Fidelis thought my fee had insured their outcome, and Mrs. Bennington thought the same.
She finally spotted me over the cop's broad shoulders. In her high heels she was taller than the officer. Which meant she was tall, and he wasn't very. He was maybe five nine, tops.
She tried to push past him, yelling at me now. He moved just enough so that he blocked her way, but didn't have to grab her. She banged against his shoulder and frowned down at him. It stopped her yelling, for a second.
“Get out of my way,” she said.
“Mrs. Bennington,” his deep voice grumbled, “Ms. Blake is here by order of the court. You have to let her do her job.” He had short gray hair, a little longer on top. I didn't think it was a fashion statement, more like he hadn't had time to go to the barbershop in awhile.
She tried to push past him again, and this time she grabbed him, as if she'd move him out of her way. He wasn't tall, but he was broad, built like a square, a muscular square. She realized quickly that she couldn't push him, so she moved to walk around him, still determined to give me a piece of her mind.
He had to grab her arm to keep her away from me. She raised a hand to him, and his deep voice came clear in the still October night, “If you hit me, I will handcuff you and put you in the back of the squad car until we're all finished here.”
She hesitated, her hand raised, but there must have been something in his face, still turned away from me, that said, clearly, that he meant every word.
His tone of voice had been enough for me. I'd have done what he said.
Finally, she lowered her arm. “I'll have your badge if you touch me.”
“Striking a police officer is considered a crime, Mrs. Bennington,” he said in that deep voice.
Even by moonlight you could see the astonishment on her face, as if somehow she hadn't quite realized any of the rules applied to her. The realization seemed to take a lot of the wind out of her. She settled back and let her cadre of dark-suited lawyers lead her a little away from the nice police officer.
I was the only one close enough to hear him say, “If she'd been my wife, I'd have shot myself too.”
I laughed, I couldn't help it.
He turned, eyes angry, defensive, but whatever he saw in my face made him smile.
“Count yourself lucky,” I said, “I've seen Mrs. Bennington on several occasions.” I held out my hand.
He shook like he meant business, good, solid. “Lieutenant Nicols, and my condolences on having to deal withÂ .Â .Â .” He hesitated.
I finished the sentence for him, “Â .Â .Â . that crazy bitch. I believe that is the phrase you're searching for.”
He nodded. “That is the phrase. I sympathize with a widow and children getting the money that is due them,” he said, “but she makes it awful hard to sympathize with her personally.”
“I've noticed that,” I said, smiling.
He laughed and reached into his jacket for a pack of cigarettes. “Mind?”
“Not out here in the open, I guess. Besides, you've earned it, dealing with our wonderful Mrs. Bennington.”
He tapped the cigarette out with one of those expert movements that longtime smokers use. “If Gordon Bennington rises from the grave and says he offed himself, she is going to go ballistic, Ms. Blake. I'm not allowed to shoot her, but I'm not sure what else I'm going to be able to do with her.”
“Maybe her lawyers can sit on her. I think there's enough of them to hold her down.”
He put the cig between his lips, still talking. “They've been fuÂ .Â .Â . freaking useless, too afraid of losing their fee.”
“Fucking useless, Lt. Fucking useless is the phrase you're searching for.”
He laughed again, hard enough that he had to take the cigarette out of his mouth. “Fucking useless, yeah, that's the phrase.” He put the cig between his lips again and took out one of those big metal lighters that you don't see much anymore. The flame flared orangey red, as he cupped his hands around it automatically, even though there was no wind. When the end of his cig was glowing bright, he snapped the lighter shut and slid it back into his pocket, then took the cig out of his mouth and blew a long line of smoke.
I took an involuntary step back to avoid the smoke, but we were outdoors and Mrs. Bennington was enough to drive anyone to smoke. Or would that be drink?
“Can you call in more men?”
“They won't be allowed to shoot her either,” Nicols said.
I smiled. “No, but maybe they can form a wall of flesh and keep her from hurting anyone.”
“I could probably get another uniform, maybe two, but that's it. She's got connections with the top brass because she's got money, and may end up having a lot more after tonight. But she's also been fucking unpleasant.” He seemed to relish saying the F-word almost as much as smoking the cigarette, as if he'd had to watch his language around the grieving widow, and it had hurt.
“Her political clout getting a little tarnished?” I asked.
“The papers plastered her decking Conroy all over the front page. The
powers that be are worried that this is going to turn into a mess, and they don't want the mess to land on them.”
“So they're distancing themselves in case she does something even more unfortunate,” I said.
He took a deep, deep pull off the cig, holding it almost like someone smoking a joint, then let the smoke trickle out of his mouth and nose as he answered me, “Distancing, that's one word for it.”
“Bailing, jumping ship, abandoning shipÂ .Â .Â .”
He was laughing again, and he hadn't finished blowing out all the smoke, so he choked just a little, but didn't seem to mind. “I don't know if you're really this amusing or if I just needed a laugh.”
“It's stress,” I said, “most people don't find me funny at all.”
He gave me a look sort of sideways out of surprisingly pale eyes. I was betting they were blue in sunlight. “I heard that about you, that you were a pain in the ass, and rub a lot of people the wrong way.”
I shrugged. “A girl does what she can.”
He smiled. “But the same people that said you could be a pain in the ass had no trouble working a case with you. Fact is, Ms. Blake,” he threw the cigarette on the ground, “most said they'd take you as backup over a lot of cops they could name.”
I didn't know what to say to that. There is no higher praise between policemen than that they'd let you back them up in a life or death situation.
“You're going to make me blush, Lt. Nicols.” I didn't look at him as I said it.
He seemed to be gazing down at the still-smoldering cigarette on the white gravel. “Zerbrowski over at RPIT says that you don't blush much.”
“Zerbrowski is a cheerfully lecherous shit,” I said.
He chuckled, a deep roll of laughter, and stomped out his cigarette, so that even that small glow was lost in the dark. “That he is, that he is. You ever met his wife?”