The door to Bert's office opened before I could run off to the bathroom. His face was very solemn, though there was something in his eyes, some flicker, that I didn't trust. Not suppressed laughter, but something.
"Anita, do you want to press assault charges on the Browns?" He said it straight-faced, in a serious voice. He spent a great deal of effort making me take all kinds of shit from clients and never before suggested we press charges.
I studied his face, trying to read where this was going. "No, I don't think that will be necessary."
Steve Brown showed at the door first, with his arm around his wife. "We are so sorry, Ms. Blake. Really, I don't know what came over us. It was... inexcusable."
"Thank you for not pressing charges, Ms. Blake," Barbara Brown said. She'd been crying, and the last of her makeup had worn away. She looked older than when she'd entered my office, and it wasn't just the lack of makeup. It was as if what had happened had sucked a little more of her life away.
"We just need our son's things, and then we'll go," he said. He looked horrible, too. Not that they shouldn't have looked horrible, but something else was going on. I didn't know what, but something wasn't right. Something beyond just grief and embarrassment, and fear of the cops.
"Mary will escort you into the other office for your things," Bert said.
Mary couldn't keep her opinion completely off her face, but she led them into my office. When they were out of earshot, I stepped up to Bert and said quietly, "What are you up to?"
He gave me innocent eyes, which meant he was lying.
"What did you do, Bert? You know I'll find out eventually, so just tell me."
He kept giving me that innocent blank face of his, with that false sincerity that was still in place for when the Browns came back out. I had an idea. But the act was so low I didn't think even Bert would have tried it.
"You pretended to call the cops, didn't you?"
He gave me a "who-me" look, which meant I was right.
"You took their check. The house check."
"Anita, even I wouldn't do that."
"Yeah, you would, if you thought you could get away with it."
His eyes thawed to their usually level of insincerity. "They're coming back, just smile and agree with me."
"Bert, either you tell me what you did, or I'll blow it all to hell."
He took hold of my arm, which he never does, and smiled over my head. "Ms. Blake needs a little more persuasion to agree to our deal."
"Oh, please, Ms. Blake, please, don't press charges. I don't want it in the papers that I'm crazy. Our daughters have seen enough bad publicity about us."
I turned and would have said something, but Bert whisked me into his office and closed the door. Unless I was going to put up a fight, I had no choice but to let him manhandle me a little.
He stayed by the door, with his back against it, as if he were afraid I'd bolt. "Anita, this is fair."
"What is fair?" I said, and my voice was already warming up, ready to be pissed.
"We could press charges against them," he said.
"But we're not going to," I said.
"But we could."
"Bert, either tell me the truth, or get away from the door."
"A bonus, Anita, for them beating the hell out of you. What's wrong with that?"
"How much?" I said.
He looked uncomfortable.
"Ten grand," he said, and then went on hastily, "he owns his own construction firm. He can afford it, and they did go way over the line."
I shook my head. "Bert, you bastard."
"The wife offered me the check for the refinancing of the house when I started to talk about pressing charges. I didn't take it. So I'm not quite as much of a bastard as you think I am."
"You can't take money not to press charges. That's illegal."
"I didn't say outright that that was what the money was for. Hinted at it, maybe, but I know better than to say something specifically. Give me a little credit."
I stared up at him. "You get as much credit from me as you deserve, Bert. If they calm down and tell the cops what you did, what will you say the money is for?"
"A retainer," he said.
"I can't raise their son, Bert, or his girlfriend."
"Can you at least talk to the detective in charge of their case?"
"So you can keep the money?"
"I was thinking more that you might offer your expertise to the police."
"I am not a specialist in murder, Bert, not unless there are monsters involved."
"Does a serial killer count as a monster?" he asked.
"What are you talking about?"
"Their son and his date were the first, but not the last. He killed a couple the year after."
"Are they sure it was the same person?" I asked.
He shrugged. "You'd need to talk to the police on the case, and for that you'll need the permission of the parents, since as you pointed out it's not a crime that you have jurisdiction over." He almost smiled.
"I'll make you a deal, boss man. I'll talk to the cop in charge. If they think they know who it is, but don't have proof, then I can't help, but if they're lost, then I have one idea."
Bert smiled full out. "I knew you would."
"But if my idea tanks, and they get nothing out of it, you will write them a personal check for ten grand."
"Anita, I'll just give back the money."
I shook my head. "No, your personal check for ten grand."
"You can't make me," he said.
"But I can start a vote to kick your ass out of here. You don't know shit about raising the dead, or crime, or vampires. You're the money man. But you're not the only money man in the world, are you?"
"Anita... you really mean it," he said, and he sounded surprised.
"You just cheated these people out of ten thousand dollars, Bert. It makes me wonder what else you've done. Makes me wonder if we need an audit of the books."
He was getting angry, it showed in his eyes and the tight line of his mouth. "That is out of bounds. I have never cheated anyone in this company."
"Maybe, but if a man will cheat in one way, he'll cheat in another."
"I cannot believe you would accuse me of that."
"I can't believe I haven't wondered about it before," I said.
His face was darkening with his effort not to explode. You could watch his blood pressure rise. "Audit and be damned."
"I'll make you a deal, Bert. I'll settle for you giving them back their check, instead of a personal check from you, but you have to stop this shit. We make enough money, Bert, you don't have to cheat people."
"They offered the money. I didn't ask for it."
"No, but I bet you made it so they'd think of it. Nothing said outright, like you said, but you put it out there, somehow, you made them think of it."
He opened his mouth, closed it, then leaned back against the door. "Maybe I did, but, Anita, they made it so easy."
"You just couldn't resist, could you?"
He let out his breath in a long shoulder moving sigh. "I lost my head, a little."
I shook my head and almost laughed. "No more losing your head, Bert, okay?"
"I'll try, but I can't promise. You wouldn't believe me."
I did laugh. "I can't argue that."
"Do you want me to tear up the check now?"
I watched his face for the signs of pain that parting with money usually cost him, but all I saw was a resignedness, as if he'd already given the money up for lost.
He looked up, hope showing momentarily in his pale eyes.
"Don't get excited. It's a slender little hope, but if it helps lead to something that can help the police then we'll have earned some money. If it doesn't, then we can return the money."
"Do I want to know what your plan is?" What he was asking was, was it illegal, and did he not want to know so he'd be able to deny it later. Bert knew that I stepped over lines that wouldn't just get jail time, but an execution notice. I knew that he was just this side of a con-man, a swindler, but he knew, or suspected, that I was just this side of a cold-blooded killer. There were bosses that couldn't have handled that doubt, or that almost knowledge. We stood and met each other's eyes, and we had an understanding, Bert and I.