AND MEMORIES, LIKE DIAMONDS, SHINE
The first sound barely registered in her consciousness--a loud squeak of metal pushed and pressed aside. Growling under her breath, Janette stared at the three inch thick printout that rested on the table before her, trying to concentrate. She owed Nicola for his suggestion--Larry Merlin had done a fantastic job of transferring her inventory records from paper to diskette. And, once she was happy with the final totals and results, she'd never have to repeat this odious chore again.
It had started out innocently enough--a ring, a pendant, a set of earrings. How easy it was to keep a few trinkets in a pouch, then satchel, then small box. But LaCroix had balked at her lugging around that chest of jewelry . . . how long ago could it have been? Certainly, before Nicola had joined them. So she'd been forced to store her treasures, hiding them in places where mortals would not venture, or trusting them, at last resort, to mortal hands for safekeeping. And that's when she'd started her inventory.
Sighing, Janette lifted the glass of blood mixed with wine to her lips and leaned back in her chair. First tablets, then scrolls of papyrus, then parchment and vellum . . . so many ways to keep records so that she might have something to test her 'perfect' memory. Pieces acquired, then lost or stored, sold for quick cash when LaCroix tightened his purse strings or when she wanted to buy a present for herself or Nicola--everything was listed. And everything--descriptions, acquisition, value--was now in the computer. Everything . . . .
Except for the memories.
That was what kept her from gathering all of her treasure in one place.
This time, the sound was louder. Janette froze in place, then snarled lightly. Placing her glass on the table, she reached for the pack of cigarettes. It was almost dawn--probably Alma or one of the others had forgotten their keys, although she'd been fairly certain that they'd all returned earlier.
She hesitated, listening intently, but when there was no further sound, she lit the cigarette and took a drag. They'd been careful with her during these last two weeks of inventory, especially after she'd snapped at each of them in turn, at least ten times nightly. Nicola had learned long ago to absent himself during these times. Lack of sleep made her cranky. And how could she sleep with those memories so close at hand?
Yes, the objects were gold and silver, stones and gems and pearls, cut or bent or twisted or glossed to a perfect shine--but they were also a form of history. The memories rested within them. One, two, a handful at a time she could take. But when they were all brought together . . . the voices whispered in her dreams, screams and laughter rent the air, the scent of summer flowers or garlic or burning flesh might fill her nostrils. At most, she'd taken cat-naps, spending the daylight hours going over the inventory between yawns. When she nodded off, she'd awaken a few minutes later, shaken from sleep by the cries or calls or screams of which her memories were made.
But the inventory had to be brought up-to-date, who knew when Merlin might be in town again? If it meant suffering through a sleepless two weeks and leaving the club to the not-so-tender care of Alma and the others for that time, well, it would be worth it in the long run . . . at least until she was able to assess the damage they'd done to the clientele and her private stock. The blood and the cigarettes would see her through the last few nights.
Taking another puff of her cigarette, Janette watched the gray smoke curl into the air--then suddenly change direction. There was a draft from somewhere, an open door.
She dropped her cigarette into the ash tray and rose from her seat. Slipping quietly into the back room and the access to the alley, a quiet fury began to rage within her. If one of the fools had left the rear door open again, or Alma had slipped back out for a prolonged farewell from her current lover . . . .
Janette knew he was mortal even before she saw him--his heartbeat thrummed in her ears, fast and steady. Slipping back behind the door, she watched him for a moment, as he shined his flashlight through the street storage area. He was looking for valuables, no doubt. And what a surprise he would have found if she'd been paying even less attention, and he'd managed to make his way downstairs, where the sleepers waited . . . .
Frowning, she raised a finger to her lips. He was no real danger--disarming was one of her natural talents. She could easily bolt and lock this door before he could move--which meant that he'd either leave the way he entered or stay until the police arrived this evening. But when he'd broken into the Raven, he'd invaded her territory. And unwelcome visitors shouldn't be tolerated. It would set a bad example.
So, Janette took a few steps back and began to sing to herself. Not loudly, but something light and sweet and soft--a club owner returning to her storage area for supplies after a very profitable night. As she expected when she entered the room, he hid himself at her approach. And as she walked over to the box that held the spare coasters, she heard his heartbeat as he stalked her from behind.
A hand came over her mouth. The other held a gun, which was pressed beneath the underside of her chin. For effect, Janette managed a mumbled squawk.
The gun pressed tighter against her skin. "Quiet! Okay? Keep quiet! You do like I say, you won't get hurt, okay?"
Janette nodded, trying desperately not to smile. The thief released his hand from her mouth. She spit lightly--his hands had been dirty--then turned to look at him.
Not a bad face. A bit thin. Definitely lacking manners. And nervous. Very nervous--which could work for or against her. She'd have to be careful. The gun wouldn't kill her, but it could certainly put a dent in her profile, at least for a day or so.
Stepping back, he held out his palm. "Earrings! And the pearl pin. Let's go."
Janette removed the earrings and pin quickly, trying to maintain the appearance of a fearful mortal. "Here! Take them! Please, just don't hurt me . . . ."
The last bit stirred up echoes in her memory, but she forced them back, fixing her mind on her situation. It was all play acting and, in her way, she was as good at it as Nicola and LaCroix had ever been--better in some instances. But then, women were accustomed to pretending, at certain times and certain places.
The thief seemed to accept the role she was playing. His expression grim, he gestured toward the doorway with the barrel of the gun. "Where's the till?"
Janette let her eyes go wide. "There's not a lot there. It was a bad night--"
He took a step closer, the gun held to the side of her face. "I want it. Take me to it. Anybody else around?"
"Not a living soul."
"Good. Like I said, no sudden moves. Just do what I say, okay?"
Janette nodded. He grabbed her arm, pushing her before him, as they moved into the club, then behind the bar. Spying the cash register, he pushed her toward it. "Open it."
Turning the key, Janette unlocked the register and stepped back as the till door sprung open. It hadn't been all that bad a night--the thief's eyes went wide at the sight of the cash. He grabbed at the bills, stuffing everything into the pockets of his jacket, momentarily forgetting her presence. Sighing, she folded her arms and waited for him. If she'd had any idea he was going to take this long, she wouldn't have bothered . . . .
But he finished soon enough. Janette managed to replace her annoyance with a fearful expression. Holding her hands, palm outward, at shoulder height, she said, "That's it. That's all I have. Just . . . just don't take the rest of my jewelry. It's mostly fake anyway--"
His eyes lit at her words and he smiled. "Let's see what you got. And . . . no tricks!"
The muzzle of the gun nearly touched her nose. Starring down the barrel, Janette sighed inwardly--it was a wonder Nicola was still interested in fighting crime, if this was a sample of the average criminal. Pathetic!
Hands still held high, she led him back to her office. With any luck he wouldn't think about the possibility of there being a safe--he'd never get it open and then she'd have to kill him, if she planned on getting any work done.
At the sight of her small jewelry box open atop the cabinet, she frowned. It had been a foolish move on her part. Oh, she might feel a fondness for some of her vampire charges, but few of them could be trusted with such temptation close to hand. Watching the thief clean out the box, she made a mental note to take more care in future.
His pockets bulging, he turned before she thought he was ready, her mask of fear slipping over her features just in time. "Is that all?" he asked suspiciously.
Inwardly, she smiled--good, he'd gotten greedy. She let her gaze slide to the doorway, then shook her head. The gesture was hesitant.
The thief's eyes gleamed as he walked toward her. "Where's the rest of it?"
"There isn't any more! That's all of it!"
Reaching forward, he grabbed her arm. "Where's the rest of it?"
Janette stared into his eyes, forgetting herself for a moment. He was such an amateur! When he drew back, she continued to stare at him, hearing the sound of his heart, beat by beat, pounding in her ears. "It's in the cellar," she said softly. "You know it's in the cellar. If I've got this much up here, there must be so much more, hidden . . . ."
"So much more . . . in the cellar."
She could have snapped him like a twig, or drained him dry. Instead, she turned her gaze away and let her hand shake in his grip. "Please . . . don't hurt me."
Again, the phrase brought back echoes, but she crushed them before they could take hold. Instead, she concentrated on emphasizing her fear, on giving the thief the image he needed to see.
"It's in the cellar, isn't it?" he demanded, twisting her arm roughly behind her back. Pushing her ahead of him, they moved toward the door. "There's more down in the cellar, isn't there?"
"Yes," Janette gasped.
The thief continued to push her down the hall, never noticing how she led him past the other stairwell, where he might awaken the sleepers. Dimly, she made a mental note to change her dress later--she'd have a bruise on that wrist for a few hours and long sleeves would be necessary. Although she, and the current club fashion, preferred sleeveless garments, she'd learned long ago that long-sleeved garments could hide a multitude of sins, both real and imagined, as well as their consequences.
The stairs she took more carefully--no sense breaking her neck or impaling herself on a broken wooden balustrade--and he released his grip on her, needing his free hand to keep hold of the handrail. At the bottom, Janette ran a few steps away, but only those few, turning with her hands at shoulder height again. With a hesitant nod, she indicated the door of the strong room.
It was a heavy steel door, set back into the wall. The paneling she usually used to hide it had been set to one side--she'd had to make more trips back and forth during inventory than she'd cared to count and replacing the soundproofed, brick-backed false wall had become something of an inconvenience. When it was in place, not even the sharpest of vampire eyes or ears would be able to detect the presence of a room within . . . or any sounds from it. It was her bolt hole, easily sealed from the inside, where she had provisions to last a short siege.
For now, however, it was her treasure chamber. Janette stepped forward almost proudly as he gestured at her with the barrel of the gun, and pulled the door open. Flicking on the electric lights--it had its own generator--she moved to one side of the door and let the glow of the gold draw him inside.
Even she had to admit that it was an impressive sight, a collection of jewelry and ornament and trinkets, spanning a multitude of lifetimes and centuries. When she'd first begun the task and the enormity of it hadn't yet struck her, she'd group the jewelry by class--crowns and scepters in one pile, armlets and bracelets and anklets in another, earrings and ear pieces bordered by bejeweled headdresses, which were beside the necklaces and pendants. But she'd soon tired of that and now the ransom of nations was scattered about in boxes and chests, lying on or beneath tables, hanging from long poles suspended on sawhorses, and anything else she could find that made access easier. In this one place, this one last time, all of jewelry was gathered together. This was her existence, her history. And, with so many pieces assembled, it had a life of its own.
But the thief didn't know that. Nor did he care. His eyes were so wide and glowing with the shine of golden greed that she almost believed he could be a vampire. But no vampire heart would beat so quickly.
Abandoning the pretense of being the helpless victim, she walked over to a circlet and placed it lightly over her hair. "This belonged to a princess," she announced, like a tour guide. "Frankish, I think. It was her wedding night. She didn't live long enough to consummate her vows." Giving him a pretty curtsey, she walked past a table upon which were piled pins of all shapes and sizes. They whispered their stories, their histories, as she passed, but her hand rested on one.
Plucking it from the pile, she held it out to him. "And this belonged to a Grand Duchess. She thought to bribe me into saving her life." Tossing it back on the pile, she whirled away. "She would have been better if I'd let her die. I told her that no one would believe her, believe who she was. And, after I was through with her, she, herself, was never quite sure. A bit of mischief, but I was bored. There was no blood in the peasants and they'd killed all the aristocracy."
Item by item, Janette moved through the room, forgetting his presence. It was all too much to ignore. The whispers were quiet at first--a spare echo here and there--but soon they bit and clawed at her, each vying for her attention. The memories gnawed at her senses, gathering together to form great, cacophonous shouts that blistered her mind like the most casual beam of daylight might burn her skin. Turning, moving this way and that, she walked, then ran through the makeshift aisles, leaping over piles of earrings and necklaces, and bracelets, looking for an escape from time and the weight of the centuries.
Only at the door could she find respite, where she'd been clever enough to leave herself a clear space, where the cold cement was free of the refuse of gold and stones and images and sounds. Janette leaned against the sill of the door and took a deep breath. She closed her eyes and concentrated, blocking out the ancient cries and calls and screeches of history. And, when she'd finally cleared her mind, she turned.
The thief was not so lucky. She was sensitive to these things--it was her history, after all--but she also had defenses from this perfect memory. His mortal mind had no shield against the centuries of terror and joy and horror. He'd followed her into the room, had paused at a table covered with piles of crowns and necklaces, and been overwhelmed. If he'd screamed, she hadn't heard him cry out--her senses had been too overcome--but he was crouched on the floor, hands over his ears, eyes closed and mouth open in a silent scream.
The gun was lying on the floor. Carefully picking her way among the jewelry, she lifted it in her hands and held it to his forehead. It would be a mercy to take his life. His reason was gone and would not soon return, if ever.
Wearing a sharp smile, she lifted the gun to her lips and blew away invisible smoke from the barrel. She wasn't particularly good at mercy. It was one talent she'd never acquired and never cared to. The gun could be given to Nicola--she'd concoct a story of having taken it from a rowdy patron, which he'd believe readily enough.
But there was one more task before her. Backing away toward the door, Janette's smile faded. " I know you feel neglected and I'll soon care for you, as I've always done," she whispered, to the jewels and memories that gleamed in the darkness. "But for now, take him. He's my gift to you. Take him . . . and let me rest. The sooner this is over, the sooner you'll go back to your places, I promise you. But I need rest. I need . . . silence."
The echoes of memories that continued to wash over her lessened as she spoke, the waves crashing and drenching her mind becoming no more than a light mist. Janette paused at the doorway, looking back into the room. "Take your time with him, my loves. You have the day. Give me as much--the day, for his life. I'll be back at sunset. You know I will. You know I keep my promises."
Janette expected no answer and received none, save that the hurricane of memory that had battered at her defenses for the past two weeks had fallen to less than a gentle breeze. Feeling as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, she closed the heavy metal door, then replaced the paneling--he might start screaming at any time and she had no desire to waken the sleepers in the chamber beyond. They, too, would appreciate a day free of the ceaseless, formless whispers. Though she'd hardly tell them how or why it was accomplished. A girl had to have some secrets, after all.
For a moment, Janette paused at the door, wondering if she'd be better served by continuing her inventory. A yawn settled the inner argument. Smiling sleepily, she ascended the stairway, heading for the rear room and the alley entrance--there was only the broken door to make fast. The rest could be handled after sunset, when she was refreshed and ready to finish the project.
But for now--she headed for her resting place. Her memories had found fresher, mortals fields in which to graze this night. And she was assured of a day of rest, a day of peace, and silent, empty sleep of the dead.