500 Channels and Nothing to Watch
The sign on the door said 'Closed for Inventory.'
Nick backed up a step and looked up at the sign for the Raven, which was no longer lit. Janette hadn't said anything to him about closing early tonight. Shrugging, he tried the door.
It opened. And Alma was suddenly standing in the open doorway--"Can't you read? We're--Oh, Nick! Thank God you're here! Janette's been locked in her office for days! We were just about to call you."
Before he could move, Alma grabbed his arm and dragged him into the club, calling, "Miklos! He's here!"
"Thank heavens!" The bartender threaded his way through a maze of boxes, stacked ceiling high in places. He walked up to Nick and grabbed his hand. "Please, you must do something about Janette. She's gone--well, she's gone mad!"
Raising a hand to his mouth, Nick wandered past them and into the forest of stacked boxes. "If Janette wants to do inventory, that's your problem."
"We wouldn't mind inventory," said Alma sharply, hurrying so that she could get past him. Hands on hips, she placed herself in front of him to stop his progress, then lifted her hand to push back a wisp of blond hair that fell from the sweatband around her head. "Inventory's usually fun. I mean, you have to check the bottles now and then, just to make certain none have gone bad--"
"She gets loaded," whispered Miklos sagely, from Nick's left.
Alma frowned at him, then turned her attention to Nick. "But this stuff--"
For the first time, Nick turned his attention to the boxes Alma was complaining about. He walked over and lifted one easily from the top of a stack and placed it on a table.
It evidently wasn't a wine box, or a box of napkins or glasses or other bar supplies. After a glance at Miklos and Alma, he reached down and tore the flap on the box, opening it. Then he withdrew a spray canister--black with red lettering.
"'Garlic Away'?" he read, astounded. Turning the can in his hand, he read the directions. "Hold can upright and spray. Repels garlic odor for up to two hours with initial application."
"We've got four cases," said Miklos glumly.
Nick looked up in horror at the boxes that filled the club. "And all of these boxes are filled with 'Garlic Away'?"
"Or 'Stake-Be-Gone.' Or 'Death Becomes You' makeup sets--although the little umbrella they give you with them is really cute," noted Alma. Her expression, for the first time since Nick had met her, was grave. "We've got just tons of this stuff."
Straightening, Nick took a look around the room, starting to understand the enormity of the situation. "And Janette knows about this?"
"Janette bought this," corrected Miklos. "All of it. She's been shopping."
He took another look around the room. Over the centuries, he knew Janette had developed the finely honed instincts of one of the world's greatest shoppers--barring certain individuals from Australia, who easily outdid her in the shoe department--and he also knew that she didn't buy trash. 'Garlic Away' was not Janette's style. Especially not four cases of it.
Nick looked at Alma. "How could she be shopping if she's been locked in her office for . . . you said 'days,' didn't you?"
Alma opened her mouth to answer, but Miklos put a hand on her shoulder and gestured toward the back room. "You'd better see for yourself."
At the best of times, Miklos wasn't much of a talker and his dour expressions were legendary. But the depth of despair in his voice and his eyes gave even Nick pause. "I'll be right back," promised Nick.
It took him a minute to find a path to the back room-- between the vampire oven mitts and daytime fang protectors--and a minute more to reach Janette's office (he'd decided by that point that he didn't want to know what those boxes contained, although one spilled small, plastic green things on the floor when he accidentally knocked it over--they croaked when he stepped on them). The door, oddly enough, was unlocked.
"I'll take a case--no, two cases," said Janette, as he peered into the room.
There was a wide screen television against one wall. Janette was sitting on the davenport in her bathrobe across from it, a case of blood beside her and empty bottles scattered across the floor. Illuminated only by the glare of the television screen, her pale skin seemed positively blue, her lips purple.
But her eyes glowed gold as she stared at the screen.
Nick couldn't help but look. It was some sort of sales show and the item being displayed was a porcelain reproduction of Bela Lugosi as Dracula, with a head on a spring that bobbed in place when you touched it.
"That's two cases, Janette," said the male announcer's voice from the television. "And I think you'll be very happy with them. They're the finest reproductions available. And they'll go so well with those Langella shot glasses--I believe you bought those yesterday?"
"Seven gross," agreed Janette, speaking into the phone she held at her ear.
"And what a price!" said the announcer. "You really got a bargain there--"
"What--" asked Nick, "is going on?"
Janette started guiltily, whispered, "I'll call you back, Ray. Gotta go," then pushed a button on the phone and smiled up at Nick happily. "Nicola, what a pleasant surprise! I wasn't expecting you."
"Obviously." Walking across the room, he kicked two empty glass bottles out of his way, then pointed toward the television. "What's that?"
"The Vampire Shopping Network." Janette didn't even blink. "Haven't you heard? They started last Friday. It's the most wonderful thing! You can get all sorts of bargains."
"On 'Garlic Away'?" He sat down on the davenport beside her, pushing away another empty bottle.
"Yes. Isn't that clever? And it's an exclusive," she informed him, lowering her voice to a near-whisper. "You can only get it through VSN."
"That's what we regulars call it," she confided. Then her eyes drifted back to the screen. "Oh, look at those adorable--"
Nick reached past her and picked up the remote, shutting off the television. Janette shot to her feet and glared down at him, eyes crimson. "Nicola! How dare you--!"
"It's junk," he informed her.
"Junk?" She snarled at him, then pointed toward the screen. "Now what would Ray think if he heard you say that? VSN sells only the finest, highest quality--"
"--Junk," finished Nick. He rose to his feet and was pleased to see the red begin to fade from her eyes. "Janette--'Stake-Be-Gone'?"
It was a low blow, but it worked. She glanced at the screen, then back at him, her eyes returning to their normal shade of blue. "But, we could use it, with all the mortals around here . . . ."
"And don't tell me you've actually bought clothing from these people?"
Janette turned her head as if he'd struck her, looking again to the blank screen. "They were originals. Well, almost originals. Oh, Nicola! What have I been doing?"
He tried to hide his smile as she fell back on the davenport, horrified. "Spending a small fortune, from the look of it."
"It's so . . . so seductive," she whispered, still staring in horror at the blank screen. "You call in your order and it's like they've known you for centuries--what a good bargain this is and how much money you're saving. Then you start chatting, and the next thing you know, you're buying five cases of vampire frog keychains!"
Nick looked over his shoulder toward the doorway. "Is that what those were?"
"Well, they do squeak."
"I heard them."
Janette covered her face with her hands. "Nicola, what I am going to do with all of this junk?"
"Send it back."
Her hands dropped from her face and she swallowed, eyes wide. "Oh, no--I couldn't. Steve would be so disappointed. And Ray would just be beside himself--"
Nick sat down on the davenport beside her and took her hands in his. "They only want your money--they don't care about you. You don't owe them anything. Send it all back."
Janette bit her lower lip. "Even the Van Helsing dart board?"
"But it's got his picture on it and if you're careful you can get him right in the--"
"Janette . . . ."
"All right," she relented, pouting.
That was a good sign. Nick placed his arm around her and hugged her lightly. "Good girl. Now, do you think you can handle this yourself, or do you want me to stay?"
"I'm more than capable of doing this by myself," said Janette, in that don't-mess-with-me-I've-got-fangs attitude that he'd grown fond of over the centuries. Then her eyes softened as she looked back at the television screen. "They have the return address in the corner--I've never really noticed it before. But if I turn it on again--"
"I'll stop you," promised Nick.
Janette took the remote from him and clicked on the television.
"--Those bookends will look fantastic in your library," said Ray's voice, as the camera focused on a pair of faux bronze coffin-shaped bookends.
"Look at the corner of the screen," prompted Nick, as Janette's eyes began to glaze over.
"How many sets of those did you want?" asked Ray.
"Oh, at least twelve dozen," answered a voice Nick knew all too well--LaCroix!
Janette straightened and stared at him. "But that can't be--"
It was safer not to look at her. Nick simply stared at the screen as Ray commented, "My, you must have a lot of books!"
"They're not all for me," said LaCroix's voice, smooth as silk. "I'm buying some for a friend, as a gift--"
"Turn-the-channel," instructed Nick, in a barely-controlled tone of voice. Then, when Janette simply stared at the screen, he added, "Now!"
His shout startled her and her finger hit the button. Nick looked down at the floor and shook his head. God only knew what else would end up on his doorstep. And LaCroix had a lot more disposable income than Janette, as well as a line of credit that would make even Bill Gates take a second look through his windows.
But then, if LaCroix was being a consumer, he wouldn't be free to make trouble, would he? So this dark cloud might definitely have a silver lining.
"Nicola?" asked Janette, in a very small voice. "Look at the screen."
It was an over-sized black beach towel, with the chalk-mark outline of a body imprinted on it. "And how many of these have you bought so far?" asked the female announcer's voice.
"About ten, Cindy," answered Natalie's voice. "They make really great gifts. I'll admit that I was kind of dubious when the Coroner's Shopping Network started, but now--"
Nick rose to his feet, eyes glued to the screen. "Janette, I've gotta go. Do you think you can handle--?"
"Of course." When he glanced down at her, she smiled, the perfect picture of innocence and charm combined with the guile of a serpent. "I have the address. And I'll return everything. Even the dart board."
"Good." Leaning down, he kissed her cheek. "I'll show myself out."
Before he could leave, she called, "Nicola?"
Nick turned at the door. "Yes."
Janette gestured toward the television screen with the remote. "There are over five hundred channels and more of these every day. You must know you can't save everyone. How will you manage?"
Swallowing, Nick stared at the screen, then walked back to her. He took the remote from her hand, clicked it at the screen to shut off the television, then crushed the remote in his hand until the black plastic crumbled and the batteries popped out. Handing the remains back to he, he said, "One channel at a time, Janette. One channel at a time."
God, why do you people make me write these things?