"Finished?" he said. "Finished what?"
I looked at him. I tried to make it an eloquent look.
"You don't mean..." he said.
"Mean what?" I asked.
He closed his eyes, opened them, and said, "If I don't want your boyfriend sitting in the waiting room, I sure as hell don't want you f**king him in your office." He sounded outraged, which was rare for Bert.
"I'm hoping it won't come to that," I said.
"Why is this a side effect of being a human servant to the Master of St. Louis?"
It was a good question, but I was so not willing to share that much with Bert. "Just lucky, I guess."
"I would say you're making it up, but if you were going to pull some elaborate joke on me, it wouldn't be this." That one comment proved Bert knew me better than I thought.
"No," I said, "it wouldn't."
"So you've become like a what, a nympho?"
Trust Bert to find just the right thing to say. "Yes, Bert, that's it, I've become a nymphomaniac. I need sex so often that I have to take a lover with me wherever I go now."
His eyes went wide.
"Calm down, boss man, I'm hoping today will be the exception, not the rule."
"What made today different?" he asked.
"You know, Mary told me to report to your office as soon as I hit the door. Before you could have possibly known that I'd brought my boyfriend with me, or worn a black skirt that is shorter than you would like. So you didn't call me in here to discuss my wardrobe or my love life. Why did you want this little meeting?"
"Did anyone ever tell you that you can be very abrupt?"
"Yes, now what's up?"
He sat up straighter, all professional and client-worthy again. "I need you to hear me out before you get upset."
"Wow, Bert, I can hardly wait for the rest of this little talk."
He frowned at me. "I turned the job down, because I knew you wouldn't take it."
"If you turned it down, why are we discussing it?"
"They doubled your consultation fee."
"Bert," I said.
"No," he put a hand up, "I turned it down."
I looked at him and knew my face said clearly, I didn't believe him. "I've never known you to turn down that much, Bert."
"You gave me a list of cases that you wouldn't handle. Since you gave me the list, have I sent anything your way that was on it?"
I thought about it for a second, then shook my head. "No, but you're about to."
"They won't believe me."
"They won't believe what?" I said.
"They insist that if you'd only see them, you'd do what they want. I told them you wouldn't, but they offered fifteen thousand dollars for an hour of your time. Even if you refuse, the money belongs to Animators, Inc."
When I said we worked like a law firm, I meant it. That meant that this money went into the kitty for everybody. The more we made, the more everyone made, though some of us got a higher or lower percentage of our fees. We'd based it on seniority. So my turning down money didn't just hurt me or insult Bert anymore, it affected the bottom line for everybody. Most of those everybodys had families, kids. They'd actually come to me en masse and asked for me to be more flexible on my consulting fees, i.e., take more of them. Manny had a daughter about to enter a very expensive college, and Jamison was paying alimony to three ex-wives. Sob stories, but most of them, except for Larry, had more overhead than I did. So I'd started being nicer about at least talking to people when they offered outrageous sums of money. Sometimes.
"What's the job?" I asked. I didn't sound happy, but I asked.
Bert was all smiles. Sometimes I suspected that he'd been behind that en masse meeting, but Manny and Charles swore up and down he hadn't been. Jamison I wouldn't have believed either way, so I didn't ask.
"The Browns' son died about three years ago. They want you to raise him and ask some questions."
My eyes were unfriendly slits. "Tell me all of it, Bert, so far I wouldn't have turned it down."
He cleared his throat and fidgeted. Bert didn't fidget much. "Well, the son was murdered."
I threw my hands into the air. "Damn it, Bert, I can't raise a murder victim. None of us here can. I gave you a list that you were supposed to refuse for all of us, for legal reasons, and that was one of them."
"You used to do it."
"Yeah, before I found out what happens when you raise a murder vic as a zombie, and that was before the new laws went into effect. A murdered person rises from the grave and goes after their murderer, no ifs, ands, or buts. They will tear through anyone and anything that tries to stop them. I had it happen twice, Bert. The zombies don't answer questions about who killed them, they just go rampaging off and try to find who did it."
"Couldn't the police just follow them, sort of like they do bloodhounds?"
"These bloodhounds will tear people's arms off and crash through houses. Zombies do a very straight line to their murderers. And the way the law reads now, the animator that raised the zombie would be liable for all the damage, including the deaths. If one of us raised this boy and he killed anyone, even his own murderer, we'd be charged with murder. Murder with magical malfeasance. That's an automatic death sentence. So no, I can't do it, and neither can anybody else."
He looked sad, probably about the money. "I told them you'd explain it to them."
"You should have explained it to them yourself, Bert. I've told you all this before."
"They asked me if I was an animator, when I said no, they wouldn't believe me. They said if they could just meet with Ms. Blake, they're sure they could change your mind."
"Jesus, Bert, this is really unfair. It can't be done, and watching their son rise from the grave as a shambling murderous zombie is not going to help them heal."
He raised eyebrows at that. "Well, I can't say I put it as well as you just did, but I swear to you that I did tell them no."
"But I'm meeting with them anyway, because they offered fifteen grand for an hour of my time."
"I could have gotten them to twenty grand. They're desperate. I could smell it on them. If we turn them down flat, they're going to try to find someone less reputable, less legal."
I closed my eyes and let the air out in a long slow sigh. I hated that he was right, but he was. When people get to a certain level of desperation, they'll do stupid things. Stupid, foolish, horrible things. We were the only animating firm in the Midwest. There was one in New Orleans and one in California, but they wouldn't take this job for the same reason we wouldn't. The new laws. I could say it was to save the clients pain, but in all honesty the idea that you could raise a murder victim from the grave and just ask them who killed them was so tempting that several of us had tried to do it. We'd thought it hadn't worked because of the trauma of the murder, or that the animators doing it weren't powerful enough, but that wasn't it. If you were murdered, you rose with only one thought in your dead brain: revenge. Until you got that revenge, you wouldn't listen to anyone's orders, not even the animator or voodoo priest or priestess that raised you from the grave.
But just because none of the reputable people would do it, didn't mean that a disreputable person wouldn't do it. There were people here and there across the country that had the talent without the morals. None of them worked for the professional companies because they'd either been fired as a liability, or they'd never been hired. Some because they didn't want to be hired, but most because what they did was secret and rarely something they wanted the authorities to know about. They kept a low profile, and didn't advertise much, but if you started waving twenty grand around, they'd come out of the woodwork. The Browns would find someone willing to do what they asked, if they were willing to pay for it. Someone who would give them a false name, raise the kid, and run with their money, and leave the bereaved parents to clean up the mess and explain things to the police. There was a test case in New England at state supreme court level that was seeking the death penalty for the person who paid a magical practitioner to kill someone by magic. I didn't know how it would go, and it would probably get to the Supreme Court before all was said and done. I'd never forgive myself if the Browns found someone less reputable and ended up on death row for it. I mean, that would just suck, especially if I could prevent it here and now.