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Grave Peril by Tony

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Author's Chapter Notes:
To my lovely beta, Carla, fangs very much.
Bert was looking at me from across his desk. I couldn't see his statement because I was busy reading through the files he had just handed me, but I knew him well enough to bet my life on it being a mixture of naked greed and anticipation. Bert Vaughan had been born with a deep and insatiable lust for money in what passed for his soul. The possibility of amassing yet more filthy lucre is the only thing I have ever seen that was capable of making Bert sweat with excitement.

Me, I was an `enough money to live comfortably and independently' kind of girl. I liked having money to buy the things that I needed - like coffee, black Nikes and silver bullets by the dozen - but for Bert, money was the light at the end of the tunnel that he couldn't turn away from. His denomination was any denomination, as lost as there was lots of it. It struck me that what I was holding in my hands must be like some dirty magazine for Bert, a few pages guaranteed to raise his...

With an outward shudder I squashed that particular image down into the dark underbelly of my mind where things too horrible to be contemplated lurked and rotted. Five hours sleep in two nights, combined with the bone-deep ache you only get from short, repeated bursts of high-intensity combat, was not on any doctor's prescription for clarity of thought. I needed coffee, a bath and sleep, in that exact order. Somehow though, I knew that Bert was about to rearrange my schedule, and not for the better.

The files themselves were nothing special, just routine reports on animating jobs with typed copies of commentary stapled to the back. Some of the names were familiar, we animators are a pretty tiny community, even with the boom in preternatural services continuing to attract more and more otherwise unemployable people into the business. Three of them worked for The Resurrection Company based in Los Angeles, one for Essential Spark - I refused to call it `Elan Vital', sounds too much like a brand of perfume to me - in New Orleans. All of them were powerful and experienced animators. None of them had been able to do the job.

Two and two equals four. Bert was good at arithmetic, he just preferred more noughts in his sums. The fact that these files had been sent to St Louis was a clear indication that a lot of money was about to change hands. At least two of the animators mentioned in the files were more powerful than anyone else employed at Animators Inc. Which meant that yours truly was on the spot. Great.

The files came stamped with the name of a legal firm, Wolfram and Hart. Even I'd heard of them. Big time sharks who weren't afraid to represent openly preternatural clients. Their senior vice-president had spoken on preternatural rights at the last round of congressional hearings for Brewsters Law, making a case against issuing licensed vampire executioners like me with Federal badges. Some of what he had said made sense, even to me. But at the end of the day, being able to wave a badge would make my job a hell of a lot easier. I knew that the `shoot first, ask questions much later' mentality of all successful - for which read, still living - vampire hunters could - would - lead to problems after a while, but that didn't mean that it wasn't vital for us to have that ability to pull the trigger without pausing to consider our legal positions vis--vis potential violation of our target's civil rights.

Monsters didn't play fair, but they also didn't expect you to play fair. It was the human authorities that gave you the real problems, asked all the difficult questions. Federal Marshal status would help to give me protection from that. When moral doubts stand between me and survival I'm sad to say that I'll take survival any time. Whether that made me any different from the monsters was a question that I was spending a great deal of energy recently avoiding.

"When can you leave?"

If Bert had sounded any happier he'd have been wearing lederhosen and singing about the glory of the valleys. Call me anti-social, but I didn't feel the need to sound anything other that how I felt, which was exhausted and more that a little angry.

"Bert. I just got back from a two day vamp-staking in Nashville. I'm not due back to work until Monday. You signed off on the rescheduling remember? I only came in this morning to pick up a copy of next week's rota before going home and going to bed. If you think I'm going to jump on a plane to California at any point this weekend then you're in for a major disappointment."

Like someone had flicked a switch Bert's smile morphed into the disapproving frown that I'd been seeing a lot over the last few months. Bert thought that everyone should work the hours he did, but I had news for him, some of us knew when to say no.

My face must have given him a clue that getting into an argument right now would not be conducive to the health of our professional relationship. One day he would push too hard and I'd walk, simple as that. As of present neither of us had taken that final step. Bert needed me, as much for my profile as for my talent, and I needed him to run the business that kept me in coffee, Nikes and silver bullets. Pushing me wasn't profitable, so Bert didn't do it as much as he could. But the day would come, and I wasn't too worried about when. I was the `Executioner', the `Zombie Queen'; people who knew nothing about raising the dead had heard of me, and for those who did I was something of a legend at twenty-five. Getting work would not be a problem.

Bert sat back in his leather chair and stared at me for long seconds. Then, just as I was about to snap something devastatingly cutting to the effect that I didn't like being stared at, he bent down to get something from his briefcase. When he looked at me again I could see in his pale, grey eyes the flicker of something like excitement. He pushed a piece of paper towards me across the desk. I frowned, sensing a new tactic. The only time Bert looked pleased was when he was guaranteed to get what he wanted, and since I'd already said no, that meant that he was certain that whatever was written on the paper would change my mind. For some reason that pissed me off.

"What is it?"

"Read it."

"After you tell me what it is. If it's a chunky fee, don't bother." I let some of the anger bubbling up show on my face. Bert stoked the fire by smiling the smile reserved for cats and master-vampires when they are about to pounce on a helpless victim. I'd seen that look too many times to mistake it, usually just before I pulled a gun and changed the odds. I'd never yet drawn down on Bert, but if he kept yanking my chain I was going to see how he liked being on the business end of a Browning.

"If you insist, Anita." I hated it when Bert said my name like that, like he was the headmaster and I was the student who had let him down. What he said next though froze my anger down to brittle embers that cracked and shattered as my gut contracted.

"Fifty million dollars."

When I could breathe again I glared at Bert, but it was a half-hearted effort that skidded off his current aura like stones on calm water. He looked at me with eyes that saw something other than a suddenly speechless animator; rather, they saw the Holy Grail, the end of all striving. It couldn't be real. No one would pay that much to speak to the dead. How many zombies would fifty million dollars raise? That gave me a thought that I grabbed onto in desperation.

"You could raise all the dead from the Civil-War for that much, and still have change to do Vietnam. The files only talk about one grave. Who in God's name could they want to talk too that much?"

Bert came back from wherever it was that an offer so huge had sent him and pushed the sheet of paper towards me again. I didn't want to pick it up, I didn't even want to look at it, but somehow I found it in my left hand while my right reached blindly for the mug of coffee I had brought in from my office this morning. I sipped coffee, seeking calm in an old friend. Then, because whatever the ill-informed might say, I'm only human, I began reading.

"I, the undersigned, do attest that the sum total of the estate belonging to HOWARD GIDEON HARKNESS be kept in trust until such a date as the specifications of his last will and testament shall be fulfilled. Upon which date the sum total of the said estate will pass to whomever is legally responsible for said fulfilment."

Mortimer Leeton
Executor of the Estate

"The estate covers two hundred square kilometres of northern California." Said Bert, a little dreamily. " And there are properties in Europe, Australia and South Africa. Mr Harkness also had an account with a brokerage firm in Denver, which currently holds gilt-edged stocks in government bonds and long term securities. He died last year. No family, no other claimants. The Resurrection Company had first crack at it, but none of their people were powerful enough to raise the body. Elan Vital sent out their best animator, but that was a non-starter as well. So they sent the contract to us. To you. Raise this one corpse and it's all ours."

I was in a whirl, but from somewhere I found the strength to still the chaos in my head and think rationally. Bert still hadn't answered my question. The most anyone had ever offered in the past for a single raising was five million dollars. That had been in the `70's when a millionaire playboy had half-jokingly put up the sum for someone to raise Marilyn for a night of passion. To my knowledge there had been no takers, but for fifty million...

"Who did he want raised?"

"You'll take the job." It wasn't a question. For some reason that gave me some of my anger back. Another old friend that I can always turn to when the world gets crazy.

"Tell me who the fuck Harkness thought it that important to raise and I'll give you an answer."

"A monk." Bert shrugged, obviously he wouldn't give a shit if it was Mother Theresa. " Harkness's maternal grand-uncle. He ran a mission outside LA in the early 1800's. The old guy wanted him raised and asked a specific question."

"And what's the question?"

"Only the lawyers in LA know that. They just want you to raise the monk, they ask the question, we all go home a lot richer."

"Fifty million dollars richer, Bert. That's got to be one hell of a question."

"He couldn't take it with him. Maybe he thought it was funny. I don't know. All I do know is they want it done tomorrow night." Bert was quick enough to see the familiar question on my face and head me off at the pass. " And I don't know why tomorrow, you'll have to ask them yourself."

Bert leaned forward, his expensive silk suit straining as the still bulky former-footballer's muscles tensed beneath it. In his eyes was as much naked need as I have ever seen, before or since. That more than anything made it real to me. Bert was ready to beg. For fifty million dollars he'd crawl round on the floor and do backflips. Part of me wanted to see him do it, but the rest of me knew that I would probably do the same if the answer to all my hopes and dreams was dangled in front of me like this.

"Anita. For God's sake. Please."

It was real.

Fifty million dollars to raise one corpse from the grave. I'd get fifty percent of it. The prospect of that kind of wealth did unfamiliar things to my stomach. Like I said, I'm not one to go gaga over money, but there were limits to even my resolve. I'd been offered big payouts before, usually by bad guys who wanted me to do something illegal or immoral, I'd always said no. Maybe this was one of those occasions. No one sane would offer everything they had possessed just to ask a zombie a question to which they would never know the answer. There had to be more to it. I put the sheet of paper aside and picked up the filed reports, scanning through the commentaries again.

"Anita?" Bert sounded like he was in real pain, knowing him he probably was. I tossed the files onto his desk and sat back, sipping my coffee. The logo on the mug read, "Ice, Ice, Baby" and had a little caricature of a penguin in baggy Gangsta-Rap clothes with a stiff, blond quiff, dancing around an igloo. It was one of the few mugs I'd brought into the office that Bert had not objected to the second he saw it. I must be losing my touch. The taste and smell of the Colombian blend soothed me. I met Bert's gaze with a blank one of my own.

"Bert, if you'd stop drooling over the prospect of becoming even richer than you already are, you'd see that there was something not kosher about this. Phillipa Freestone may not be in my league when it comes to animating, but she's plenty strong enough to raise a 200 year-old corpse, and I've heard that the new guy Essential Spark hired can raise even older ones. If they couldn't do it with fifty mil on the line, then there has to be a damn good reason."

That gave Bert pause for thought. His flat, grey eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"Are you saying it can't be done?"

"No. I'm saying it already should have been done. If this monk wouldn't rise for either of them then something must be stopping it."

"You mean magic?"

I shrugged. "Possibly. Or some sort of holy sealing on the grave. A lot of the more esoteric religious orders used to use multiple blessings on their graveyards to stop just this sort of thing. Messing with them can be dangerous."

"But the reports don't mention anything like that. They just say that none of the other animators could get the corpse to rise."

"Which is suspicious in itself. Animators are a stubborn breed, Bert, we don't like it when the dead turn us down. It says there that none of them tried more than once and there should be at least some mention of why they failed." I had a thought. "Have you called LA or New Orleans? I'd like to hear from them what happened."

Bert flushed. The excitement of it all must have been getting to him for his self-control to slip this much. I knew what must have happened.

"You haven't called them, have you? Damn it, Bert! This isn't a race. If I can't raise this thing no one can. There's no fucking need to play corporate politics!" I stood up in a rush, glaring at him with something approaching my normal wattage. Being able to understand Bert was a little like being married. I knew just when to push and when to ride moral indignation out of the door. Fifty million or no fifty million, I wasn't going anywhere near Howard Harkness's legacy until I'd talked to the people who'd been there before me. In this game, there is only one hard and fast rule. Where magic might be concerned, tread very, very carefully.

"Call Patricia Freestone. Ask her what happened. If she has anything to tell me, I'll be taking calls around six."

Halfway to the door I turned on my heel and fixed Bert with a cold eyed stare. Just as I'd expected he was half out of his chair, his mouth just opening to call me back. Sometimes it's great to be perfect.

"And Bert, just for the record. Don't ever try to pull something like this on me again. Fifty million means a hell of a lot more to you than it ever will to me. And I'm the only person in this company who can get it for you."

Dagger thrown, I swept out of the office with what I hoped was an imperious strut. Jean-Claude had taught me a number of things that I sometimes tried to forget, but how to pull off a dramatic exit was one of the ones I'd always keep.

But low in my gut, in the place where you usually find your courage, I had a strange, cold feeling. Fifty million dollars for one corpse. No. That was not right. And, since what I'd said to Bert was true, that put me right where I least wanted to be. Slap, bang in the god damned middle. Again.
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