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 Mrs.Bennington at her insistence. When I'd referred to her as Ms.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 with . . ." He hesitated.
I finished the sentence for him, ". . . 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 fu . . . 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 f**king 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 ship . . ."
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."