"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 interests . . . 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 couldraise this zombie, and no one else in the country could do it--without 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.
Lindel Cemetery was 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 masculine--and 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.