I gave Bert the look he deserved. The one that said he was a greedy son of a bitch, and I knew he'd turned down their money for something other than humanitarian reasons. He just sat back and smiled at me, because he knew what that particular look meant. It meant I would do it, even if I hated it.
Mrs. Barbara Brown was blond, and Mr. Steve Brown was brunette with gray coming in at the temples. He's was taller than she was by about five inches, but other than that, they matched. You could still see the pretty round-faced cheerleader she'd been in high school. The handsome football player was still there in his shoulders and the edges of his face, but the extra weight and the extra years and the grief had covered over who they'd been. Their eyes were bright, but it was an unnatural brightness, almost shocky. She spoke too fast, and he spoke too slowly, as if he had to think about each word before he said it. She spoke as if talking about her son was something she had to do, or she'd explode, or break down.
"He was a straight A student, Ms. Blake, and here's the last picture he painted. It was a water color of his youngest sister. He had such talent." She held up the picture, which they'd brought in one of those art carriers that looks like a thin briefcase.
I dutifully looked at the painting. It was a very soft picture, all watery blues and delicate yellows, and the child's curls were almost white. The little girl was laughing, and the artist had caught a shine in her eyes that usually required a camera to capture. It was good. For a junior in high school, it was spectacular.
"It's a wonderful painting, Mrs. Brown."
"Steve didn't want me to bring it. He said that you didn't need to see it, but I thought if you saw what kind of person he was, that you'd be willing to do what we want."
"I don't think that seeing Steve's paintings will influence Ms. Blake, that's all, Barbara." He patted her hand as he finished, and she didn't react to it at all. It was almost as if he hadn't touched her. I began to understand who was the driving force behind this tragic farce. Because it was a farce. She wasn't talking like she wanted her son brought back as a zombie so he could say who'd murdered him. She was talking like she was trying to persuade me to do a Lazarus on him, to really bring him back. Had Bert heard that in her voice and ignored it, or had she saved it for me?
"He was a track star, and on the football team." She opened the yearbook to appropriate places, and I looked at Stevie Brown running in shorts with a baton in his hand, head thrown back, a look of utter concentration on his face. His hair was dark and not long. Stevie Brown kneeling on the ground in full football gear, helmet on the ground by his hand. He was grinning out at the camera, his bangs spilling over his eyes. He had his father's hair, and a thinner, younger, brighter version of his mother's face, except for the lips and the eyes, which, again, were his father's.
I saw a picture of him on the yearbook staff, bent over a layout table, face very serious. He looked like someone that would run track, thin, muscled, but not much bulk. I wouldn't have picked him for football, not beefy enough. But who knew if he might have filled out in the summer between junior and senior year. But he never got the chance.
Prom night, he and his senior girlfriend had been crowned king and queen. There was a picture of them in front of a background of fake silver stars and too many sequins. He was beaming into the camera. He'd cut his hair and styled it so it was neat and thick and flattered his face more than the way it had when he ran track. His shoulders were a little broader than in the yearbook or track photos. He looked taller in his white tux. The girl was blond and looked like a thinner, taller version of his mother. The girl looked confident and lovely, with a smile that was more mysterious than Stevie's had been. Looking at their pictures, it was obvious they didn't know that in less than six hours they'd be dead.
"Cathy and Stevie had been dating for almost two years. High school sweethearts, just like Steve and me." She leaned forward as she said it, her lips half parted, her tongue moistened them as if she was having trouble keeping her mouth from drying out.
Her husband kept patting her hand and looked at me out of his fine dark eyes, which were so like his dead son's. He told me with those eyes, and his so-tired face, that he was sorry. Sorry I had to see this, hear this, be here now.
I wasn't up to the subtle eye message thing, the best I could do was nod sympathetically and give him more eye contact than I gave her. He gave a small nod where Barbara couldn't see him. There, we'd had our moment, a very guy moment. I see you, I see you, too. I understand what you mean, I understand what you mean, too. If I'd been a better girl, I'd have said something out loud to be sure.
"He sounds like he was a wonderful person," I said.
She leaned forward a little more, she had a small photo album in her hands, one of those thick ones that grandmothers carry in their purses. She fumbled it open, and I was staring at pictures of a dark-haired baby, toddler, grade-schooler.
I put my hand over hers, stopped her from turning the pages. "Mrs. Brown, Barbara..."
She wouldn't look at me. Her eyes were getting shinier.
"Mrs. Brown, you don't need to prove to me that your son was a good kid. I believe you."
Mr. Brown stood up and tried to help her put the photo album back in her purse. She didn't want to do it, and he wouldn't fight her. He stood there, sort of helplessly, with his big hands hanging at his sides.
She leaned into the desk again and turned a page. "Here he is winning the fifth grade science fair."
I didn't know how to stop this without being cruel. I leaned back in my chair and stopped looking at the pictures. I made eye contact with Steve, and his eyes had grown shinier, too. If they both started crying I was going to leave. If I could have helped them, I would have, but I couldn't. And truthfully, I didn't think Barbara Brown had come to me to produce a zombie.
I looked back down at a picture of Stevie in eighth grade, his first year on the football team. That surprised me, I'd have thought his father would have put him in peewee league. It made me think better of Steve that he'd waited until his son wanted to play.
I covered her hands and the book with my hands. I pressed down enough that she had to finally look up at me. Her eyes were wild, as if tears were the least of our worries. There was something almost violent in that look.
I changed what I'd been going to say, because she wasn't ready to hear me say, Leave, I can't help you. "You told me that it happened on prom night, but you didn't give me any details." I didn't really want details, but anything to stop the pictures and the desperate flow of memories. Murder I could handle. The trip down memory lane was getting on my nerves.
Her eyes flicked right, then left, and she leaned back, leaving the album in my hands. I left it open to his thirteenth birthday party. The smiling faces of him and his friends clustered around a cake.
Her breath came out in a long, slow rattle. Not a sound that you hear out of the living much. She swallowed convulsively and reached for her husband's hand. He was still standing. His face relaxed a little just because she'd reached for him.
"They found Stevie's car off the road, as if they'd been run into the ditch. The police think that they were picked up trying to hitchhike," he said.
"Stevie wouldn't have gotten into a car with strangers," Barbara said firmly, "and neither would Cathy." Her eyes were a little less wild. "They were good kids."
"I'm sure they were, Mrs. Brown." People seemed to want to make saints of the dead, as if their very goodness should have protected them. Purity was not a shield against violence, in fact sometimes ignorance got you killed faster.
"I'm not saying they weren't good kids," Steve said.
She ignored him, and she'd taken her hand back. Both her hands were clasped around her purse, clutching it in her lap, as if she had to hold on to something, and his hand wasn't enough.
"They wouldn't have gotten in a car with strangers. Stevie was very protective of Cathy. He wouldn't have done it." She was so certain that there was nothing else to say about that particular speculation.
"Then did they know the people that gave them a ride?" I asked.
That seemed to throw her. She frowned, and her eyes darted from side to side, like something trapped. "No one we know would have harmed Stevie, or Cathy."
She'd been sure about the stranger thing, but she wasn't really sure about this one. Somewhere in her was enough logic to know that either they got into a car with strangers or they got into a car with people they knew. There were no other choices.