Where There's No Smoking
Miklos stood as still as death itself as Janette placed the cigarette lighter atop the bar. He dared a glance at her, eyes cautious.
"It's only a mortal vice," she said carelessly. "It doesn't matter."
"As you say."
"And the fee is excessive." She half-turned and glanced across the club. "It would certainly affect trade. Still, one should be open to options . . . ."
"One should," he echoed, trying to hide the sarcastic note in his voice.
It didn't escape her--little did--and she let him know that with a look. Her expression was determined. He'd worked for Janette long enough to know that when she made up her mind, the decision was set and nothing short of an act of God or LaCroix could change it.
Still, her fingers caressed the lighter for a second more before sliding it across the bar and into his hands.
Miklos somehow managed not to sigh as she walked away, knowing that he had a long night ahead of him. But he turned back to wiping down the glasses and rechecking his stock. It was something to do, at least, until the fireworks began.
Nearly two hours passed before the first of the evening's main events. Up until then there had merely been an unfortunate number of glasses broken, two ashtrays smashed, and Alma reduced to tears--he regretted having missed most of the latter, having been busy with mortal customers, but he made a mental note to seek out Alma later and get the whole story. One should know these things. It was not only a matter of survival, but professional pride--a good bartender knew everything.
When Nick Knight walked in, heading directly for the bar, Miklos merely put on his most patient expression and removed a wine goblet from beneath the counter. He placed it on top of the bar as Nick approached.
Nick shook his head, smiling slightly. "No thanks, I'm on duty. Janette?"
"Is here. There." Miklos raised a hand to indicate the rear of the club, where Myra was now on the receiving end of Janette's latest mood--if this didn't end soon, they'd have to hire more staff, she was rapidly running out of victims.
But as Nick turned away, Miklos did the unthinkable--he reached over and touched Nick's arm, stopping him. "I wouldn't bother her just now."
Nick froze in place and looked down at the hand on his arm. Miklos was quick to release his grip on Nick's leather jacket, then busied himself by picking up a bottle that Janette kept on hand for her friend. Why he was bothering to warn Nick away was beyond him--the entertainment value alone . . . .
But Janette seemed to care about this demented vampire, who wanted to return to mortality. And Janette was the boss. Again, it was a matter of self-preservation. Besides, he felt some sympathy for Nick. Anyone who'd spent that many years in Janette's company and hadn't walked into the sun deserved more than a little consideration.
But Nick neither seemed to appreciate his consideration or the warning. "I can handle her," he answered, with misplaced confidence.
Miklos poured the cow's blood into the glass he'd set on the counter. "On the house." He pushed the glass toward Nick.
With a grin, Nick pushed it back toward him. "I don't need that to handle Janette."
"Suit yourself." Miklos left the glass where it was and watched Nick cross the club, shaking his head in disbelief. That one never seemed to know trouble until he was in the thick of it. It was almost pitiable.
He knew enough, of course, not to listen too closely. Or not to be seen to be listening. There was the mortal trade to attend, not to mention the fact that Myra had to be dealt with and Alma was still fixing her makeup--a task of monumental proportions. It meant that he was three times as busy as he should have been.
Most of their conversation drifted to his sensitive ears in scattered words and phrases. He winced, hearing the tautness of Janette's tone, the implied menace--which seemed to have eluded Nick entirely. But even he wasn't busy enough to miss the loud smack that eventually resounded through the club--the slap of flesh against flesh, Janette's palm striking Nick's face.
Miklos took the money offered to him by the mortal at the table, flashed the woman as much of a 'thanks for the tip' smile as his dour nature usually permitted, then headed back to the bar. That Janette had managed to land a blow meant that Nick hadn't been on his guard--so much for timely warnings. But he doubted Nick would stand still for another attempt.
Moving at full steam, Nick headed through the club and toward the door. He paused when he reached the bar and turned to glance back through the crowd, that red mark still lingering on his cheek, his expression changing from controlled fury to stunned disappointment.
Quietly, Miklos slid the glass of cow blood, which he'd kept to one side, to the counter just behind Nick. "Your drink?"
Nick turned, picked up the glass automatically, and lifted it to his lips. He looked over his shoulder again, toward the back of the club. Then he downed the glass of cow's blood in one, even motion, tossing it back into his throat.
As far as Miklos was concerned, that was the only way he'd be able to swallow cow's blood. But to his credit, Nick didn't blink or wince at the taste, still seeming somewhat dazed as he returned the empty glass to the bar.
"A refill?" Miklos picked up the glass and tilted it slightly.
Nick glanced over at him, but then turned again to stare at the rear of the club, where Janette was still seated, her back toward them. "No. No, thanks." He shook his head slightly, as if that slap had rattled the senses from him, then looked to Miklos again, reaching for his wallet. "What do I--?"
Miklos held up his hand, gesturing for Nick to stop. "As I said, on the house. You needed it." He gestured toward the rear of the club. "Try back tomorrow."
"Tomorrow." Nick echoed the word, eyes narrowing. "What's going--?"
"Tomorrow," repeated Miklos firmly, as he placed the empty glass beneath the counter and turned away. He owed Nick no explanations--nor would Janette want any provided for her. He washed out the glass and placed it with the others of their kind, knowing that Nick had left the club.
It had been a scene, but a small one--nothing dangerous, just something to break up the evening. On another night, it might have even been amusing, but with Janette in this mood and the main event yet to come . . . .
Who could say what would happen?
There were drink orders to be filled, cash to collect, tables to wipe, and ashtrays to empty . . . although there was one less of those tonight. So Miklos kept busy, barely noting when Alma returned to resume her duties, or when Myra managed to pull herself together enough not to spill a tray of drinks. It was a busy night, which Miklos might have expected if he'd thought about it--he believed the universe, in general, had a sense of humor, which was usually at his expense. In fact, he was so harried that time passed far more quickly than he'd assumed--it was late. Perhaps the universe had decided to let him off with nothing more than a mild chuckle after all?
LaCroix's entrance, as usual, was quiet. None of the mortal patrons looked up, a few of the younger vampires present merely shivered for some unknown reason. That was one of the first things Miklos had noticed about LaCroix . . . he was unobtrusive until he wished to make his presence known. It worked well for him.
But not for anyone who wished to avoid him, especially when he'd suddenly appear at their shoulder.
Miklos was neither a friend nor a foe of LaCroix--like Nick, that was part of Janette's world and only on the periphery of his own. Their conversations had been brief, if at all noticeable. But now Miklos waved Alma away--her eyes wide as she glanced toward the back of club, already anticipating fireworks--and he opened a fresh bottle.
The vintage was one Janette would have saved for herself; Miklos' mouth watered and he swallowed, having made it a policy not to drink while on duty and knowing that this bottle could be put to better use. With all the cunning and care he possessed, he took the glass of wine in hand and then stalked quickly across the club, following LaCroix's progress through the rabble and yet trying to intercept him.
LaCroix had paused, watching a pair of mortal dancers. As Miklos slipped up beside him, he said, "The crowd's getting younger. I approve."
"It's Friday," said Miklos, in an off-hand manner. "No school in the morning--college," he added quickly, as LaCroix's smile grew sharper. "We don't serve under-age."
"I'm certain Nicholas would approve." LaCroix took the glass Miklos offered and sniffed at it. "Good. Very good."
"On the house." He nodded toward the rear of the club, where Janette was seated--her back was straight and stiff, she'd sensed LaCroix's presence. "It's not a night for personal business."
LaCroix raised an eyebrow and sipped at the glass, his gaze turning toward Janette. "Isn't it?" he asked absently. "Should I take that as a warning?"
Miklos shrugged, pinned by those ancient eyes that suddenly turned toward him. "The club's busy--we want to avoid incidents. The back room is free, comfortable . . . ."
He knew when to slip away, returning to the bar with no sense of speed or urgency, and was gratified to hear the distant whispers of conversation between Janette and her master were at least cordial, if strained. Wiping down the top of the bar, he happened to glance in that direction . . . and saw LaCroix following Janette through the crowd and to the back room.
It was too much to ask that he escape notice entirely--LaCroix paused at the doorway and raised his glass to him. Miklos only nodded. If there was to be a scene, better for both the club and Janette that it happen in private. Damage control would be minimal, without an audience to hypnotize, and LaCroix would be less likely to seek revenge.
At least ten minutes passed, far more than he would have thought, before his sensitive ears picked up the sound of the splash and the breaking glass, followed by a muffled exclamation. Alma hurried over to the bar, frowning, but Miklos calmly pulled a clean towel from the rack and ran it quickly beneath the bar faucet, dampening it with warm water.
LaCroix had managed to wipe most of the blood from his eyes as he passed through the doorway and back into the club. He took the dampened towel from Miklos' hand without so much as a thank you and wiped his face, then blotted the crimson stain from his black shirt. Tossing the towel to the counter, he left without another word, although there was a gleam in his eyes and his expression could have been either a frown, or a very self-satisfied smile.
Only then did Alma take a breath. Knowing an occasion when he saw one--this being the avoidance of some very nasty business that might have endangered the club, Janette, and their current livelihood--Miklos gifted her with one of his rare, genuine smiles, then quickly turned back to his duties. Almost three hours, it wouldn't be much longer . . . .
He was right.
"Give me the form," Janette said sharply, as she approached.
Miklos did better than that--he produced the form, the pen, and her cigarette box in rapid succession, placing each upon the top of the bar within her reach.
No sooner was the pen visible than Janette had it in her hand, filling out the appropriate section with a few deft but indignant stokes. "Smoking? Definitely," she announced, to the form and the world in general. "Fee to be attached in the form of a cheque--take care of that."
She addressed the latter comment to Miklos and dropped the pen to the bar. With an attitude bordering on reverence, Janette opened the case that held her cigarettes. The holder she dismissed with a wave of her hand, turning her attention to the cigarettes in the box.
By the time she'd made her choice, Miklos was ready, lighter in hand. He held it to the edge of her cigarette, expression carefully blank as the end of the cigarette glared red. He took a step back.
Janette took a drag from the cigarette, then arched her neck and released the smoke in a steady stream. She watched the gray cloud rise into the air and sighed in satisfaction.
He must have made some sound--he hadn't meant to--because she glanced at him, eyes bright and sharp. "You're amused?"
"I'm a bartender."
His immediate concern was banished by her slight smile--she usually appreciated sarcasm. After having only taken a few puffs of the cigarette, she tapped it out into the ashtray and picked up another from the box, holding it between her fingers as if it were gold.
Then her smile disappeared and she studied the cigarette, as if she were suddenly disturbed by the power held over her by the small, insignificant object. "It doesn't matter," she said, her voice distant, almost apologetic. "It's a mortal vice."
"But," offered Miklos, "you're not mortal."
She stared at him as if startled, then lifted the cigarette to her lips again, smiling. "True. Very true." Catching the lighter from his hand and letting her movements match the music, Janette started across the club, her mood very obvious lightened, her moment of introspection instantly dismissed.
There was nothing to do but shake his head. Miklos picked up the dirtied ashtray with a sigh, then dumped the contents into the garbage. The drama was over. Janette would pay the exorbitant fee and the Raven would continue to be one of the few clubs in Toronto without a 'no smoking' section. It would have meant fewer ashtrays to clean at the end of the night, of course, but he wasn't entirely displeased with the outcome.
Because where there was 'no smoking,' there was bound to be fire . . . if Janette was in the area.