Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Laurell K. Hamilton
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Electronic edition: February, 2004
Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter novels by Laurell K. Hamilton
THE LAUGHING CORPSE
CIRCUS OF THE DAMNED
THE LUNATIC CAFE
THE KILLING DANCE
NARCISSUS IN CHAINS
who says yes more than he says no; who never makes me feel like a freak, and who came up with the title for this book.
Thanks to Karen and Bear, who helped me find new places to hide the bodies. To Joanie and Melissa, who helped entertain Trinity when she needed more playtime than a hardworking mommy can supply. To Trinity, who helped me finish this book by being old enough to entertain herself. Every year just gets better. To Carniffex and Maerda, who helped me with research, and who should have been mentioned here books ago. To Darla, without whom so much would go undone. To Sherry, for keeping the place livable. To Sergeant Robert Cooney of the St. Louis City Police Mobile Reserve Unit, for answering my last-minute questions. He did not have time to read over this manuscript, so all mistakes are mine and mine alone. And, as always, to my writing group: Tom Drennan, N. L. Drew, Rhett McPhearson, Deborah Millitello, Marella Sands, Sharon Shinn, and Mark Sumner.
T WAS EARLY
September, a busy time of year for raising the dead. The pre-Halloween rush seemed to start earlier and earlier every year. Every animator at Animators Inc. was booked solid. I was no exception; in fact, I'd been offered more work than even my ability to go without sleep could supply.
Mr. Leo Harlan should have been grateful to get the appointment. He didn't look grateful. Truthfully, he didn't have the look of anything. Harlan was medium. Medium height, dark hair, but not too dark. Skin neither too pale nor too tan. Eyes brown, but an indistinguishable shade of brown. In fact the most remarkable thing about Mr. Harlan was that there was nothing remarkable about him. Even his suit was dark, conservative. A businessman's outfit that had been in style for the last twenty years and probably would still be in style twenty years down the road. His shirt was white, his tie neatly knotted, his not-too-big, not-too-small hands were well groomed but not manicured.
His appearance told me so little that that in itself was interesting, and vaguely disturbing.
I took a sip from my coffee mug with the motto, “If you slip me decaf, I'll rip your head off.” I'd brought it to work when our boss, Bert, had put decaf in the coffeemaker without telling anyone, thinking we wouldn't notice. Half the office thought they had mono for a week, until we discovered Bert's dastardly plot.
The coffee that our secretary, Mary, had gotten for Mr. Harlan sat on the edge of my desk. His mug was the one with the logo of Animators Inc. on it. He'd taken a minute sip of the coffee, when Mary had first handed it
to him. He'd taken the coffee black, but he sipped it like he hadn't tasted it, or it didn't really matter what it tasted like. He'd taken it out of politeness, not out of desire.
I sipped my own coffee, heavy on the sugar and cream, trying to make up for the late work the night before. Caffeine and sugar, the two basic food groups.
His voice was like the rest of him, so ordinary it was extraordinary. He spoke with absolutely no accent, no hint of region, or country. “I want you to raise my ancestor, Ms. Blake.”
“So you said.”
“You seem to doubt me, Ms. Blake.”
“Call it skepticism.”
“Why would I come in here and lie to you?”
I shrugged. “People have done it before.”
“I assure you, Ms. Blake, I am telling the truth.”
Trouble was, I just didn't believe him. Maybe I was being paranoid, but my left arm under the nice navy suit jacket was crisscrossed with scarsâfrom the crooked cross-shaped burn scar, where a vampire's servant had branded me, to the slashing claw marks of a shape-shifted witch. Plus knife scars, thin and clean compared to the rest. My right arm had only one knife scar, it was nothing in comparison. And there were other scars hidden under the navy skirt and royal blue shell. Silk didn't care if it slid over scars or smooth, untouched skin. I'd earned my right to be paranoid.
“What ancestor do you want raised, and why?” I smiled when I said it, pleasant, but the smile didn't reach my eyes. I'd begun to have to work at getting my smiles to reach all the way up to my eyes.
He smiled too, and it left his eyes as unaffected as my own. Smile because you were smiled at, not because it really meant anything. He reached out to pick up the coffee mug again, and this time I noticed a heaviness in the left front of his jacket. He wasn't wearing a shoulder holsterâI'd have noticed thatâbut there was something heavier than a wallet in his left breast pocket. It could have been a lot of things, but my first thought was,
. I've learned to listen to my first thoughts. You're not paranoid if people really are out to get you.
I had my own gun tucked under my left arm in a shoulder holster. That evened things up, but I did not want my office to turn into the O. K. Corral. He had a gun. Maybe. Probably. For all I knew it could have been a really heavy cigar case. But I'd have bet almost anything that that heaviness was a weapon. I could either sit here and try to talk myself out of that belief, or I could act as if I was right. If I was wrong, I'd apologize later; if I was right, well, I'd be alive. Better alive and rude than dead and polite.
I interrupted his talk about his family tree. I hadn't really heard any
of it. I was fixated on that heaviness in his pocket. Until I found out whether it was a gun or not, nothing else much mattered to me. I smiled and forced it up into my eyes. “What is it exactly that you do for a living, Mr. Harlan?”
He drew a slightly deeper breath, settling into his chair, just a bit. It was the closest thing I'd seen to tension in the man. The first real, human movement. People fidget. Harlan didn't.
People don't like dealing with people who raise the dead. Don't ask me why, but we make them nervous. Harlan wasn't nervous, he wasn't anything. He was just sitting across the desk from me, chilling, nondescript eyes pleasant and empty. I was betting he'd lied about his reason for coming here and that he'd brought a gun hidden on his person in a place that wasn't easy to spot.
I was liking Leo Harlan less and less.
I sat my coffee mug gently on my desk blotter, still smiling. I'd freed up my hands, which was step one. Drawing my gun would be step two; I was hoping to avoid that step.
“I want you to raise one of my ancestors, Ms. Blake. I don't see where my work has any relevance here.”
“Humor me,” I said, still smiling, but feeling it slide out of my eyes like melting ice.
“Why should I?” he said.
“Because if you don't, I'll refuse to take your case.”
“Mr. Vaughn, your boss, has already taken my money. He accepted on your behalf.”
I smiled, and this time it held real humor. “Actually, Bert is only the business manager at Animators Inc., now. Most of us are full partners in the firm, like a law firm. Bert still handles the business end of things, but he's not exactly my boss anymore.”
His face, if it was possible, went quieter, more closed, more secretive. It was like looking at a bad painting, one that had all the technicalities down, yet held no feel of life. The only humans I'd ever seen that could be this closed down were scary ones.
“I wasn't aware of your change in status, Ms. Blake.” His voice had gone a tone deeper, but it was as empty as his face.
He was ringing every alarm bell I had, my shoulders were tight with the need to pull my gun first. My hands slid downward without me thinking about it. It wasn't until his hands raised to the arms of his chair that I realized what I'd done. We were both maneuvering to a better position to draw down.
Suddenly there was tension, thick and heavy like invisible lightning in the room. There was no more doubt. I saw it in his empty eyes, and in the small smile on his face. This was a real smile, no fake, no pretense. We were
seconds away from doing one of the most real things one human being can do to another. We were about to try to kill each other. I watched, not his eyes, but his upper body, waiting for that betraying movement. There was no more doubt, we both knew.
Into that heavy, heavy tension, his voice fell like a stone thrown down a deep well. His voice alone almost made me go for my gun. “I am a contract killer, but I'm not here for you, Anita Blake.”
I didn't take my eyes from his body, the tension didn't slacken. “Why tell me then?” My voice was softer than his, almost breathy.
“Because I haven't come to St. Louis to kill anyone. I really am interested in getting my ancestor raised from the dead.”
“Why?” I asked, still watching his body, still treading the tension.
“Even hitmen have hobbies, Ms. Blake.” His voice was matter-of-fact, but his body stayed very, very still. I realized, suddenly, that he was trying not to spook me.
I let my gaze flick to his face. It was still bland, still unnaturally empty, but it also held something elseÂ .Â .Â . a trace of humor.
“What's so funny?” I asked.
“I didn't know that coming to see you was tempting fate.”
“What do you mean?” I was trying to hold on to that edge of tension, but it was slipping away. He sounded too ordinary, too suddenly real, for me to keep thinking about drawing a gun and shooting up my office. It suddenly seemed a little silly, and yetÂ .Â .Â . looking into his dead eyes that humor never completely filled, it didn't seem all that silly.
“There are people all over the world who would love to see me dead, Ms. Blake. There are people who have spent considerable money and effort to see that such a thing would happen, but no one has come close, until today.”
I shook my head. “This wasn't close.”
“Normally, I'd agree with you, but I knew something of your reputation, so I didn't wear a gun in my usual manner. You noticed the weight of it when I bent forward that last time, didn't you?”
“If we'd had to draw down on each other, your holster is a few seconds faster than this inner jacket shit that I'm wearing.”
“Then why wear it?” I asked.
“I didn't want to make you nervous by coming in here armed, but I don't go anywhere unarmed, so I thought I'd be slick, and you wouldn't notice.”
“I almost didn't.”
“Thanks for that, but we both know better.”
I wasn't sure about that, but I let it go; no need to argue when I seemed to be winning.
“What do you really want, Mr. Harlan, if that is your real name?”
He smiled at that. “As I've said, I really do want my ancestor raised from the dead. I didn't lie about that.” He seemed to think for a second. “Strange, but I haven't lied about anything.” He looked puzzled. “It's been a long time since that was true.”
“My condolences,” I said.
He frowned at me. “What?”
“It must be difficult never being able to tell the truth. I know I'd find it exhausting.”
He smiled, and again it was that slight flexing of lips that seemed to be his genuine smile. “I haven't thought about it in a long time.” He shrugged. “I guess you get used to it.”
It was my turn to shrug. “Maybe. What ancestor do you want raised, and why?”
“Why do you want to raise this particular ancestor?”
“Does it matter?” he asked.
“Because I don't believe the dead should be disturbed without a good reason.”
That small smile flexed again. “You've got animators in this town that raise zombies every night for entertainment.”
I nodded. “Then by all means go to one of them. They'll do anything you want, pretty much, if the price is right.”
“Can they raise a corpse that's almost two hundred years old?”
I shook my head. “Out of their league.”
“I heard an animator could raise almost anything, if they were willing to do a human sacrifice.” His voice was quiet.
I shook my head, again. “Don't believe everything you hear, Mr. Harlan.
animators could raise a few hundred years worth of corpse with the help of a human sacrifice. Of course, that would be murder and thus illegal.”
“Rumor has it that you've done it.”
“Rumor can say anything it damn well pleases, I don't do human sacrifice.”
“So you can't raise my ancestor.” He made it a flat statement.
“I didn't say that.”
His eyes widened, the closest to surprise that he'd shown. “You can raise a nearly two-hundred-year-old corpse without a human sacrifice?”
“Rumor said that, too, but I didn't believe it.”
“So you believed that I did human sacrifice, but not that I could raise a few hundred years worth of dead people on my own.”
He shrugged. “I'm used to people killing other people, I've never seen anyone raised from the dead.”
He smiled, and his eyes thawed just a little. “So you'll raise my ancestor?”
“If you tell me a good enough reason for doing it.”
“You don't get distracted much, do you, Ms. Blake.”
“Tenacious, that's me,” I said, and smiled. Maybe I'd spent too much time around really bad people, but now that I knew that Leo Harlan wasn't here to kill me, or anyone else in town, I had no problem with him. Why did I believe him? For the same reason I hadn't believed him the first time. Instinct.
“I've followed the records of my family in this country back as far as I can, but my original ancestor is on no official documents. I believe he gave a false name from the beginning. Until I get his true name, I can't track my family through Europe. I very much wish to do that.”
“Raise him, ask his real name, his real reason for coming to this country, and put him back?” I made it a question.
Harlan nodded. “Exactly.”
“It sounds reasonable enough.”
“So you'll do it,” he said.
“Yes, but it ain't cheap. I'm probably the only animator in this country that can raise someone this old without using a human sacrifice. It's sort of a seller's market, if you catch my drift.”
“In my own way, Ms. Blake, I am as good at my job as you are at yours.” He tried to look humble and failed. He looked pleased with himself, all the way to those ordinary, and frightening, brown eyes. “I can pay, Ms. Blake, never fear.”
I mentioned an outrageous figure. He never flinched. He started to reach into the inside of his jacket. I said, “Don't.”
“My credit card, Ms. Blake, nothing more.” He took his hands out of his jacket and held them, fingers spread, so I could see them clearly.
“You can finish the paperwork and pay in the outer office. I've got other appointments.”
He almost smiled. “Of course.” He stood. I stood. Neither of us offered to shake hands. He hesitated at the door; I stopped a ways back, not following as closely as I normally do. Room to maneuver, you know.