There were two cars parked in the visitor spaces. Joe dropped her off at the door and went off to park, and she put her phone away, straightened her jacket, and walked into the lobby.
No Riley Block yet, but there was a whole crowd of people waiting in the chairs near the desk of Lucy, the office administrator. Lucy was utterly warm and professional, with years of experience in the business; nothing much rattled her.
So when Bryn caught sight of the tight expression on Lucy’s perfectly made-up face, she had plenty of warning for what was to come.
She hadn’t even shut the front door before one of the people who’d been sitting shot to his feet and charged at her, red in the face. “You bitch!”
That was a mistake. Bryn wasn’t inclined to let people grab her; she slipped sideways, evading his attempt to seize her arm, and heard Lucy take in a deep, startled breath. Options presented themselves in fast flashes—she could drop him in three moves, even as big as he was; she could get out the door and let Fideli take care of it, which would be efficient and not too kind to the attacker; she could have Lucy call the cops, because as angry as this man was, they might well need them.
But she rejected all of them, in rapid succession. There were people watching, and she couldn’t afford to look weak or out of control—or less than understanding. She needed to handle it, quickly and quietly. So instead of decking him, Bryn stepped closer, grabbed his arm just above the elbow, at the nerve cluster, and squeezed. The man—over six feet, and built like he worked out—hadn’t expected that burst of pain, and it threw him off-balance…especially when she took his hand in hers and shook it firmly, while still maintaining that painful grip on his arm. “Sir,” she said, quietly. “I understand you must be very upset, but this isn’t the place to discuss things. Please, come with me.”
She’d taken the wind out of his sails. Her office was only a few steps away, and she ushered him in, shut the door, and let go of his arm at the same time. He rubbed it reflexively as he scowled at her. “Please,” she said. “Sit down. Can I get you anything?”
He was still struggling to figure out what had just happened—not the brightest bulb in the box, she saw, but there was no doubting his anger. “You can give me back fifty thousand dollars,” he shot back. “Right now. Or I go to the cops, you greedy bitch!”
That made her pause, just for a few seconds, but she got it together and sat down on the sofa at the far end of the office. He glared at her resentfully; she mutely gestured to the couch facing her on the opposite side of the low coffee table. After a few agitated seconds of pacing, he finally took a seat, leaned forward, and continued glaring as if he intended to do it all day.
“Let’s start over,” Bryn said. “I’m Bryn Davis. I don’t believe we’ve met, sir.”
“Don’t give me that crap,” he snapped. “Where’s Fairview?”
“He’s deceased, sir,” she said. “I inherited the funeral home about six months ago. He was my uncle.” Thankfully, that wasn’t true; she didn’t think there was enough mind-bleach in the world to imagine Lincoln Fairview polluting her family tree. It had been a cover to allow her to continue to operate the funeral home. Fiction, pure and simple. “And I still don’t know your name.”
“Tanner. George Tanner,” he said, through gritted teeth. “My brother David came here to bury his wife, Margaret.”
“I see,” Bryn said, in her calmest, quietest voice. “How long ago was this?”
“About a year ago, I guess. I don’t know. I was out of the country. Just got back and found out that my brother paid this rip-off artist Fairview fifty thousand dollars for a funeral! You can’t tell me that’s legit. No way.”
It wasn’t. Bryn recognized the Tanner name; he was right—David Tanner had been a Fairview customer—but the fifty grand hadn’t been to simply bury his wife in style. Most of that had been blackmail money. Fairview’s racket had been simple, but effective—revive the dead with Returné, the drug stolen from Pharmadene Pharmaceuticals’ top secret trials, then charge exorbitant rates for each additional shot to keep the deceased “alive”…as alive as Bryn was now. At thirty-five hundred a week for the shots, Tanner had hung in there quite a while before running out of resources. But eventually, he’d gone broke, just like the other unfortunates…and his wife had gone back to her natural state: dead.
Not before gruesomely decomposing. But she couldn’t tell Mr. Tanner any of this.
Bryn cleared her throat and said, “Have you spoken to your brother about this?”
“David’s dead,” George Tanner said. “Blew his brains out months ago. And I can promise you, I didn’t have him sent here.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said, still calm. She couldn’t afford to get angry, not now. “Sir, there were some accounting improprieties that happened under Mr. Fairview’s administration; there’s no denying that fact. I can certainly refund you thirty-five thousand dollars right now. Will that do?”
This was, sadly, not her first angry-relative rodeo. She’d been cleaning up after Fairview’s messes for six long months, and she’d learned fast—offering all the money back made people even more suspicious. But offering to return most of it and keeping a reasonable fee seemed to mollify them, weirdly enough. They felt that was more honest.
And just like that, it worked again, because George Tanner frowned at her for a moment, then blinked. “Thirty-five thousand back?”
“Yes sir. If there are expenses greater than fifteen thousand owed for her burial, I will happily take that cost. Is that acceptable to you? I can write you a check right now.”
He hadn’t expected that. He’d come prepared to do hand-to-hand combat, and instead she was offering him cash money. After a long moment, he said, “Okay. But don’t think I’m forgetting about this. You’re a bunch of crooks, you people.”
“These accounting issues are exactly why I changed the name and hired new staff. Sir, I must apologize for all that you and your family suffered, and I completely understand your anger and frustration. Please accept my personal apologies.” She kept on with it, talking softly and calmly until she could see the tension had gone out of him.
Then she wrote him a check and sent him on his way.
So much for turning a profit, she thought as she shook his hand. Joe Fideli was standing, apparently at ease, not far from her door in the hallway. He sent her a questioning look, and she shook her head to stand him down as Mr. Tanner left the building.
“Lucy let me know you had a hot one,” Fideli said. “Figured you might need a hand, but I see you’re doing fine.”
“Not so fine for our financial health,” Bryn said, “but it had to be done. Fairview not only robbed his family blind; his brother probably committed suicide over it.”
It wasn’t the first time. When Fairview’s victims stopped coming up with the money, Fairview had stopped giving the shots; it took a horrifying toll. Bryn had been forced to help one of those victims out of her agony, and it haunted her every night in her dreams. She hated to think how many family members had been given that same awful choice.
Fideli said nothing to that, just nodded; he was a good man, but all this was business to him. He wasn’t one of the Revived; he didn’t face the same terrifying dissolution she did if (when) the shots failed her. “So,” he said. “Just to make your day more fun, Riley’s waiting outside.”
“What about the other family that was waiting?”
“I’m on it. They’re looking over brochures right now. Want me to show her in?”
Not really, Bryn thought, but she nodded. There was no avoiding it, after all. Fideli nodded back and left, and in a few seconds he was holding the door open for FBI agent Riley Block. She’d changed her hair to a looser, more tousled style around her sharp face; with Riley’s English-rose coloring, it suited her, made her look less severe.
“You’re not wearing a patch,” Bryn said, and indicated the guest side of the sofa. “I assume your eye’s better?”
“Much,” Riley said. “Only a few scars from our last little outing together—thanks for asking.” She sat back and crossed her legs, looking casual and fiercely competent in her boxy pantsuit. “I’m back on active duty again. I see you’re looking well.”
Oh, aren’t we cordial today? Bryn thought. She gave Riley a calm professional smile that revealed nothing of how betrayed she still felt; Riley had come to work at Fairview Mortuary under false pretenses—spying on her, working against her—and she’d almost succeeded in destroying Bryn’s life, such as it was.
Just the job, Riley would have said. And she’d be right. That was the maddening thing.
“So, what exactly do you want, Riley?”
Riley smiled back, just as professionally. “I thought the script called for offering me some kind of refreshment before you dive in.”
“We’re not on a script.”
“I’d love some coffee.”
“And there are plenty of Starbucks in town. Just get to it.”
Riley considered her for a few seconds, then said, “You’ve changed.”
Bryn couldn’t keep a hollow laugh from escaping. “You think? All things considered?”
“Not the physical changes from the nanites,” Riley said. “You used to be less…bitter.”
“You mean back in the days when I was still in a state of shock and fighting for my life? I’ve had time to reflect. And I’ve taken control. If that seems bitter to you, well, I’ll try to contain my grief. Why are you stalling?”
“I’m not.” Riley shrugged. “I’m assessing, that’s all. To see if you still seem capable of carrying out what I’m going to ask you to do. Bitter sometimes means tough.” She studied Bryn with her head cocked to the side for a long moment. “And sometimes it just means fragile. I can’t really afford fragile.”