It was early September, a busy time of year for raising the dead. The pre-Halloween rush seemed to start earlier and earlier every year. Every animator at Animators Inc. was booked solid. I was no exception; in fact, I'd been offered more work than even my ability to go without sleep could supply.
Mr. Leo Harlan should have been grateful to get the appointment. He didn't look grateful. Truthfully, he didn't have the look of anything. Harlan was medium. Medium height, dark hair, but not too dark. Skin neither too pale nor too tan. Eyes brown, but an indistinguishable shade of brown. In fact the most remarkable thing about Mr. Harlan was that there was nothing remarkable about him. Even his suit was dark, conservative. A businessman's outfit that had been in style for the last twenty years and probably would still be in style twenty years down the road. His shirt was white, his tie neatly knotted, his not-too-big, not-too-small hands were well groomed but not manicured.
His appearance told me so little that that in itself was interesting, and vaguely disturbing.
I took a sip from my coffee mug with the motto, "If you slip me decaf, I'll rip your head off." I'd brought it to work when our boss, Bert, had put decaf in the coffeemaker without telling anyone, thinking we wouldn't notice. Half the office thought they had mono for a week, until we discovered Bert's dastardly plot.
The coffee that our secretary, Mary, had gotten for Mr. Harlan sat on the edge of my desk. His mug was the one with the logo of Animators Inc. on it. He'd taken a minute sip of the coffee, when Mary had first handed it to him. He'd taken the coffee black, but he sipped it like he hadn't tasted it, or it didn't really matter what it tasted like. He'd taken it out of politeness, not out of desire.
I sipped my own coffee, heavy on the sugar and cream, trying to make up for the late work the night before. Caffeine and sugar, the two basic food groups.
His voice was like the rest of him, so ordinary it was extraordinary. He spoke with absolutely no accent, no hint of region, or country. "I want you to raise my ancestor, Ms. Blake."
"So you said."
"You seem to doubt me, Ms. Blake."
"Call it skepticism."
"Why would I come in here and lie to you?"
I shrugged. "People have done it before."
"I assure you, Ms. Blake, I am telling the truth."
Trouble was, I just didn't believe him. Maybe I was being paranoid, but my left arm under the nice navy suit jacket was crisscrossed with scars--from the crooked cross-shaped burn scar, where a vampire's servant had branded me, to the slashing claw marks of a shape-shifted witch. Plus knife scars, thin and clean compared to the rest. My right arm had only one knife scar, it was nothing in comparison. And there were other scars hidden under the navy skirt and royal blue shell. Silk didn't care if it slid over scars or smooth, untouched skin. I'd earned my right to be paranoid.
"What ancestor do you want raised, and why?" I smiled when I said it, pleasant, but the smile didn't reach my eyes. I'd begun to have to work at getting my smiles to reach all the way up to my eyes.
He smiled too, and it left his eyes as unaffected as my own. Smile because you were smiled at, not because it really meant anything. He reached out to pick up the coffee mug again, and this time I noticed a heaviness in the left front of his jacket. He wasn't wearing a shoulder holster--I'd have noticed that--but there was something heavier than a wallet in his left breast pocket. It could have been a lot of things, but my first thought was, gun.I've learned to listen to my first thoughts. You're not paranoid if people really are out to get you.
I had my own gun tucked under my left arm in a shoulder holster. That evened things up, but I did not want my office to turn into the O. K. Corral. He had a gun. Maybe. Probably. For all I knew it could have been a really heavy cigar case. But I'd have bet almost anything that that heaviness was a weapon. I could either sit here and try to talk myself out of that belief, or I could act as if I was right. If I was wrong, I'd apologize later; if I was right, well, I'd be alive. Better alive and rude than dead and polite.
I interrupted his talk about his family tree. I hadn't really heard any of it. I was fixated on that heaviness in his pocket. Until I found out whether it was a gun or not, nothing else much mattered to me. I smiled and forced it up into my eyes. "What is it exactly that you do for a living, Mr. Harlan?"
He drew a slightly deeper breath, settling into his chair, just a bit. It was the closest thing I'd seen to tension in the man. The first real, human movement. People fidget. Harlan didn't.
People don't like dealing with people who raise the dead. Don't ask me why, but we make them nervous. Harlan wasn't nervous, he wasn't anything. He was just sitting across the desk from me, chilling, nondescript eyes pleasant and empty. I was betting he'd lied about his reason for coming here and that he'd brought a gun hidden on his person in a place that wasn't easy to spot.
I was liking Leo Harlan less and less.
I sat my coffee mug gently on my desk blotter, still smiling. I'd freed up my hands, which was step one. Drawing my gun would be step two; I was hoping to avoid that step.
"I want you to raise one of my ancestors, Ms. Blake. I don't see where my work has any relevance here."
"Humor me," I said, still smiling, but feeling it slide out of my eyes like melting ice.
"Why should I?" he said.
"Because if you don't, I'll refuse to take your case."
"Mr. Vaughn, your boss, has already taken my money. He accepted on your behalf."
I smiled, and this time it held real humor. "Actually, Bert is only the business manager at Animators Inc., now. Most of us are full partners in the firm, like a law firm. Bert still handles the business end of things, but he's not exactly my boss anymore."
His face, if it was possible, went quieter, more closed, more secretive. It was like looking at a bad painting, one that had all the technicalities down, yet held no feel of life. The only humans I'd ever seen that could be this closed down were scary ones.
"I wasn't aware of your change in status, Ms. Blake." His voice had gone a tone deeper, but it was as empty as his face.
He was ringing every alarm bell I had, my shoulders were tight with the need to pull my gun first. My hands slid downward without me thinking about it. It wasn't until his hands raised to the arms of his chair that I realized what I'd done. We were both maneuvering to a better position to draw down.
Suddenly there was tension, thick and heavy like invisible lightning in the room. There was no more doubt. I saw it in his empty eyes, and in the small smile on his face. This was a real smile, no fake, no pretense. We were seconds away from doing one of the most real things one human being can do to another. We were about to try to kill each other. I watched, not his eyes, but his upper body, waiting for that betraying movement. There was no more doubt, we both knew.
Into that heavy, heavy tension, his voice fell like a stone thrown down a deep well. His voice alone almost made me go for my gun. "I am a contract killer, but I'm not here for you, Anita Blake."
I didn't take my eyes from his body, the tension didn't slacken. "Why tell me then?" My voice was softer than his, almost breathy.
"Because I haven't come to St. Louis to kill anyone. I really am interested in getting my ancestor raised from the dead."
"Why?" I asked, still watching his body, still treading the tension.
"Even hitmen have hobbies, Ms. Blake." His voice was matter-of-fact, but his body stayed very, very still. I realized, suddenly, that he was trying not to spook me.
I let my gaze flick to his face. It was still bland, still unnaturally empty, but it also held something else . . . a trace of humor.
"What's so funny?" I asked.
"I didn't know that coming to see you was tempting fate."
"What do you mean?" I was trying to hold on to that edge of tension, but it was slipping away. He sounded too ordinary, too suddenly real, for me to keep thinking about drawing a gun and shooting up my office. It suddenly seemed a little silly, and yet . . . looking into his dead eyes that humor never completely filled, it didn't seem all that silly.
"There are people all over the world who would love to see me dead, Ms. Blake. There are people who have spent considerable money and effort to see that such a thing would happen, but no one has come close, until today."
I shook my head. "This wasn't close."
"Normally, I'd agree with you, but I knew something of your reputation, so I didn't wear a gun in my usual manner. You noticed the weight of it when I bent forward that last time, didn't you?"