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7K Illustration, Window and Ladder


for Elisabeth, February 1997
last modified March 20, 1999

by Amy R.

PG-13.   This fanfiction occurs before Forever Knight's episode "The Black Buddha," after the flashbacks of "The Human Factor."  Please see the endnote for disclaimers, credits and all that good stuff.


        Alma sighed, staring at the gutted innards of the Raven.  Fully illuminated for day, the windowless nightclub looked somehow abandoned and violated; the construction workers she was supervising had all gone off on their lunch break, leaving her to a solitary bottle of Janette's finest.  And it was indeed Janette's finest, as Janette was not around to object.  Rot Lacroix, anyway, Alma thought, pouring herself another glass and vaguely regretting that a certain well-matured electrician had not returned alone to fetch the jacket he'd forgotten.  Next time, she would have to be sure he left something more significant behind -- his wallet, perhaps.

        Finishing her drink, Alma rose from her booth and carefully disposed of the bottle behind the bar, rather then in one of the construction crew's recycling bins lined up against the far wall.  It was not that she had anything against recycling -- in fact, having a vampire's more-than usual stake in the future, she considered herself quite "green," as the current term colored her opinions -- but while her ever-present goblet of red liquid might add something to the mystique of the exotic designer in black and gold who insisted on personally supervising the job, this was her second bottle of the day and she really could not allow the workmen to think her dependent on her drink for anything but effect.  That was something she had learned from Janette's example, before the Raven's last owner had finally tired of using mortal bartenders; human employees are so much less trouble when they think you are well above their own weaknesses.

        Lacroix would twist his lip halfway between a laugh and a sneer at that, Alma thought, glancing quickly around the Raven to confirm she was unobserved before flying up to check the view from the height the new stage would soon occupy.  He would approve of the superiority, yes, the dominance, but when it came to mortals, he would simply drain a problem and be done.  Management/labor relations at their most basic.  The old vampire never did properly appreciate that mortals were a limited resource, taking so long to breed and grow before they were useful for anything more than a quick snack.  It was probably due to his being brought across in the teeming countries of the south, the Scandinavian vampire flattered herself, where day never outlasted night, and life and labor were never more precious than the conquered inhabitants of the nation next-door.  She on the other hand, had learned as a mortal child that a full plate of tough meat was far preferable to a single mouthful of sweetbread.  She felt momentarily better for having a stand from which to disdain him.



        "No," she had told Lacroix when he had approached her that last night in Janette's Raven.  Unwilling to waste what she knew would be her final free evening in Toronto for a good, long time, Alma had spread her annoyance around with the current idioms she knew discomfited the ancient vampire: "N -- O.  What part of 'No' don't you understand?"

        "Alma," Lacroix had whispered, his tone hovering on the edge of warning like a radio tuned one frequency too short.  It was more menacing than even an outright threat could have been, and Alma had gulped down the rest of her drink just to give her hands something to do other than tremble.  This is ridiculous, she had thought; he's Janette's master, not mine.

        Alma had reached up to signal Miklos's replacement-in-training for another drink, but Lacroix had caught her wrist, clasping it just hard enough to deliberately impress upon her how gentle he was being.  "Hungry, my dear?  And why shouldn't you be, living forever on Janette's hospitality?  It does not have to be like that."

        "It is not like that, old man!" Alma had snapped, breaking his hold on her wrist in a gesture that would have shattered the arm of a human, and striding across the dance floor toward the exit.  Confronting him, she had felt her eyes burn and her fangs slip into place, and had not cared.

        The sure knowledge that it was not, in fact, "like that," had not been enough to ward off the embarrassment of appearing dependent.  Unlike most of the youngsters who roomed in the basement of the Raven, Alma was neither poor nor abandoned.  Well into her fourth century, she had created furniture for the Sun King and wallpaper with Morris.  But ever since a traumatic experience as a new convert, when a mortal servant -- foreign, and newly employed by her peripatetic master Nissa -- had unwittingly opened to the summer sun all the shutters in her bedchamber, Alma had had an absolute, irrational terror of sleeping alone.  When she and Terry had split up almost three years ago, she'd had to ask Janette for shelter, and though there had been a few friendships and flings in the meantime, she had still had to resort to the Raven as often as not.  She knew Janette did not hold it against her, but despite the bargain meant to salvage her pride -- in which she had remodeled the Raven just before that catalogue photo shoot -- the embarrassment of her weakness was compounded by the humiliation of how that weakness appeared to others.

        Alma shook her head at the memory now, and perched herself on the ladder in the center of the dance floor, under the new lighting system.  Locking her ankles around the top rung and reaching up into the fixtures to confirm that the heat sensors were wired to the sprinklers, she reflected that Lacroix never did anything without calculation.  When he had appeared at her business suite that next evening, he had done so with a proper appointment made through her assistant.  Colleen must certainly have been hypnotized, for she was too good an assistant to have forgotten and accepted a new client against orders; but Alma had appreciated the gesture, anyway, and the provocation of the previous night had played her directly into his hands.

        "Janette has given me the Raven," Lacroix had said urbanely, his long limbs somehow elegantly distributed even on the folding chair which was all she'd had to offer in her half-packed office.  "As you know."  He raised one eyebrow.  "Janette is leaving Toronto.  As you also know."  He had paused there, and had not continued until Alma nodded.  "You are preparing to leave as well, which your assistant was kind enough to tell me, so that I did not need to deduce it from the boxes near the door and the .  .  . accommodations .  .  . in here."  Lacroix had then fallen silent again.

        "Yeah, I'm leaving," Alma had confirmed, leaning back in her chair.  Here in her own office, on a working night, wearing a tailored suit rather than an evening gown, she had been neither predator nor prey, but master in her own right, and she had regretted that the scene she had allowed the night before would have an impact on the carefully-cultivated world of her craft.  At least the studio was already closed up, she had told herself.  "I'm glad you understand that, Lacroix, because then you'll see that there is no way I can do what you're asking in the time remaining."  Even if I wanted to do it at all, she had not added aloud.

        Lacroix had steepled his fingers.  "Janette has given me the Raven.  The Raven has a role in my plans to reclaim Nicholas.  For it to play that role, I need the stage properly set.  I would no more undertake the task myself with you available to me than I would remove a bullet in the presence of Nicholas's pet doctor."

        His pedantic tone had made Alma first bristle, then smile with condescension.  "I'm flattered, but the fact remains; I'm leaving too soon to complete the task, and you've offered nothing that could tempt me to stay."

        "Have I not?" he had asked, uncrossing his legs and leaning forward with an intense expression.  "Then allow me to do so now.  I meant what I said about your .  .  . dependence .  .  . on Janette's hospitality.  I know what your problem is, and I can lead you out of it."

        "Really."  Alma had remarked flatly, scraping her memory simultaneously for how he could know, and how far she could trust him.

        "Janette cannot keep from me anything I truly wish to know," he said patiently.  "And I am quite willing to pay in advance for this service, as it is .  .  . my abilities .  .  . in question, not yours.  Shall we say tomorrow, two hours before sunrise?  At my townhouse?  Feel free to bring .  .  . a friend."

        "I'll do that," Alma had answered, and then whipped a blank sketchpad out of the top drawer of her desk.  "So just how bad do you want the Raven to look?"



        Done examining the ceiling's electronic innards, Alma blinked to adjust her vision and then surveyed the embryonic Raven-"lite."  Lacroix was getting what he wanted.  The only things she had been unable to bring herself to touch were the chains -- the dear, elegant, post-industrial chains -- though even they looked cheap and tawdry in this new atmosphere.  More lights, more tables, garish colors, a stage that was more display case than performance venue: she was glad that Janette would not be around to see the grand re-opening.  The former proprietor might not stake her for her part in this .  .  . might not.

        And was it worth it?  Alma asked herself again, meditatively climbing down the ladder -- aluminum: she had insisted that metal equipment be substituted for wood whenever it could be -- and returning to the bar.  She had long since forgiven Nick Knight for his prissy attitude about that balding mortal detective; after all, she would be just as upset if someone tried to take her Colleen before she was finished with the woman.  So she was not getting any satisfaction out of furthering Lacroix's plans on that front.  And the artistic satisfaction in this job, what there was of it, was mainly of a perverse sort: dismantling and inverting all the work of her renovations two years before.

        Alma poured herself another glass of wine-laced blood and strolled slowly from the bar to the booth where her diagrams were laid out, thinking as she did that each step might be echoing in the dreams of the vampires who were even then asleep below.  Urs was down there, the sweet, eager newcomer who had pitched in when Alma had discovered that Miklos, Brianna, Mirah and Sylvia had all already left.  That must have been a very busy week for Aristotle, she thought, and Alma wondered if Janette had known how thoroughly her departure would destabilize their community.  They depended on her, more than she ever acknowledged.  Seating herself, Alma shivered at the thought of what it would mean to be a vampire in Toronto with this strange, new Lacroix in charge of this strange, new Raven.  She had done Urs no favors, introducing them like that.



        Urs and Alma had arrived at Lacroix's townhouse two hours before dawn, as specified.  They had waited on his porch like teenagers who had forgotten their keys until he arrived home from his shift at that radio station.  Nervousness had turned into embarrassment and then annoyance.  "About time, old man," Alma had snapped, earning herself a shocked look from Urs's wide eyes, and an amused glance from Lacroix's narrow ones.

        "My .  .  . apologies, ladies," he had said as he unlocked the heavy door.  "Traffic, you know."

        Urs had laughed at the sally -- Lacroix had flown, not driven -- but Alma had continued to glare.  He had wanted something from her, and it had been up to him to make her want to give it.  Tardiness was far from the best beginning to a working relationship.

        He had ushered them inside, not bothering to light the long, narrow entryway as he stepped in front of them to open a door to a room Alma deemed a parlor -- the contemporary term "living room" simply did not do it justice.  The furniture had seemed eclectic, from a perfectly-replicated Roman divan near the Elizabethan harpsichord, to an ultra-modern glass table perched on a steel pyramid, but somehow everything came together to define a gap that only Lacroix could fill.  Alma had approved.

        "So how do we go about this?" Alma had asked, seating herself on a sturdy chair behind the glass table and wondering idly if Lacroix would be keeping this house or moving into Janette's vacated apartments in the Raven.

        "First," Lacroix had replied, removing his coat.  "You take off your wraps.  Then you introduce your companion."

        "I'm Urs," the girlish American vampire had said, smiling and moving straightforwardly to shake his hand.  Instead, Lacroix had caught her by the fingers and turned her wrist, kissing her knuckle in a way that would have brought a blush to Urs's cheeks had she fed more recently.

        "And I .  .  . am Lucien Lacroix."  Releasing Urs's hand and gaze, Janette's master had moved over to the one unshuttered window in the room, and then turned again to Alma.  "Now if Urs will make herself comfortable over by the harpsichord, and you will come here, we can begin."

        "Why there?" Alma had asked, looking askance at the floor-to-ceiling expanse of unshielded glass.  "I mean, since you know my .  .  . situation .  .  . I thought you would hypnotize me."  Even as the words had come boldly out of her mouth, she had cursed herself for stupidity.  Just because he was older than the primordial ooze and his every step blasted power like a severed gas line did not mean that he could whammy other vampires, no matter what the stories said.  But what else could help her?  This is a mistake, she had told herself, and risen to go.

        "While I appreciate your estimate of my abilities," Lacroix had intoned unreadably, "nothing that intrusive will be necessary.  Do sit .  .  . Alma."  Faced with that iron command, she had obeyed.  "Now, it seems as if your .  .  . situation .  .  . is the direct result of a fledgling trauma, when you were trapped beneath the blankets of your bed for almost three days, under windows opened to the unsetting sun of the far-northern summer.  Your master had left you alone while she went on an impromptu trip, necessarily taking her household mortals with her for protection from that self-same sun.  Finally, driven by hunger, you made a mad dash across the room to the door, suffering severe burns in the process.  Is that an accurate summation?"

        Alma had nodded sharply, refusing to meet either his eyes or Urs's.  Her vampiric memory had presented her with the incident more vividly than could even the fiction of virtual reality, every detail fresh and painful: her throat again hoarse with unanswered screams, her nostrils again raw with the smell of her own burned flesh.  Her expression had not wavered, but she had been afraid it would if she saw either the scorn or compassion she expected from each, respectively.  It was bad enough that they knew her weakness; it was bad enough that she had a weakness at all.

        "How long had you been a vampire when this occurred?" Lacroix had asked.  "Weeks?  Days?"

        "A month," Alma had answered.  "Or six weeks.  Nissa brought me across just when the last of the snow had retreated to the tops of the mountains."  Lacroix's eyebrows had quirked briefly at that, and Alma had bristled.  "So?"

        "So, you were an infant in your vampire body, more fragile, in many ways, than even a mortal."  His words had dripped honey, and Alma had wondered if the fascinated Urs was aware of the bees which always come with that sweet.  "At that critical time, your emotions were dependent on your master for stabilization, as your body continued to reform itself level after level, system after system."  His tone had turned pedantic again, professorial.  "It is not widely known, but a vampire, come across by a matter of hours, is actually still capable of consuming food and withstanding sunlight, though the more and better blood taken in, the less time that intermediate -- pupae, if you will -- stage lasts.  Now, I know much of terror -- how to cause it, how to employ it.  Vampire or mortal, much the same.  There are many ways to combat it --"

        In mid-sentence, Lacroix had moved with more than vampiric speed, catching up Alma and carrying her to the unshuttered window before she could think to struggle.  As he had moved against the frame, she had recovered herself, her fangs dropping and her eyes swirling red; she had begun to kick and hit him.  Lacroix had set her on her own feet, but continued to hold her in front of the window in a grip she could not break, his arms pinning hers like a metal clamp on a block of soft wood.  Urs had moved to pull the string attached to the shutters, but the ancient vampire had warned her off, his voice calm and his eyes icy blue.

        "There is no need for that, Urs.  This is exactly what Alma needs.  I am standing here with her, if you doubt her safety."  The sun had begun to peek over the buildings across the street, and Alma had all but ceased her struggles as her old fear crept over her, dragging at her limbs like a bath of concrete.  Lacroix's words had poured into her as a sunbeam broke through a gap between buildings and hit them both.  "That hurts, does it not?  But not as badly as you remember.  Think, Alma.  Find the difference between the past and the present.  Your skin smokes now, but it does not yet burn.  See how much you can take?  See how strong you are?  You need no one to defend you from this.  You can withstand it alone. This cannot be used to trap you so, a vampire grown, ever again.  There are as yet no flames --"

        Alma had wailed as that statement was suddenly belied by the sun's growing intensity, and hearing her, Urs had yanked the shutters closed and knocked the two smoking vampires away from the window.  Kneeling at Alma's side and chanting the soothing falsehood that everything was okay now, Urs had checked her burns -- Alma's bare hands, face, and neck had all ignited in that final second -- and then stared up accusingly at Lacroix.  "What kind of monster are you?"

        "A very effective one, Urs," Lacroix had grunted, checking his own exposed skin and finding no damage.  "Judge me by the results of my actions, if judge you must.  There are two chambers to be found on this level, one with twin beds and one with a large, single bed.  Both are well-stocked with blood; both are prepared for you to use as you see fit today, a fitness I presume you will consider based on the goal of this .  .  . encounter."  He had nodded his head in a gesture which somehow resembled a bow, and then left the room.



        Sitting in the booth which served as the command center of the Raven's remodeling, Alma unthinkingly crushed the goblet in her fist as she struggled to free herself of the memory of that morning in Lacroix's home: Urs helping her to the nearest bedchamber, securing the shutters, practically pouring the blood into her.  Alma sighed at the spilled wine and broken glass now covering the corner of the table, and resignedly returned to the bar to look for a dustpan and towel.  At least the goblet had been almost empty; she had gulped its contents instinctively as her memory replayed her injuries in slow-motion agony.

        It had not been at all what she had expected and planned for, and her anger had been an even more effective analgesic than the undiluted human blood Lacroix had provided in generous quantities; but somewhere between the experience itself and the anger and humiliation it inspired, Lacroix's bizarre shock-treatment had actually wrought some good.  After they had both fed, Alma had sent Urs to the other room, promising to call if she needed her.  At first, Alma had wanted privacy only to rant at Lacroix in an archaic Norwegian dialect, but eventually she had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion, suffering, at last, no ill effects from having her ally in the next room, rather than in the next bed or on the next pillow.  It was not a cure, but it was a beginning.  Alma smiled absently, kneeling down to reach the cleaning-supplies cabinet under the bar.  Nissa always said that beginnings were like fish in a net.  The next time Alma tracked down her master, she would have to remember to ask what that was supposed to mean.  Something about being able to sell them, eat them, or pitch them back, if she recalled correctly.

        Caught up in her thoughts, Alma missed hearing the mortal's approach until he was well inside the Raven.  She cracked her head on the bottom of the bar as she jumped to her feet.  "Unh!" she grunted in annoyance, and then drew the sound out into a pained whimper when she noticed the mortal staring at her.  It was that middle-aged electrician who had forgotten his coat.  Dave something.  Grey?  No: Graham.  Dave Graham.

        "That's going to be a nasty bump, Ms. Narvik," he said consolingly.  "Would you like me to take a look?"

        "No!" Alma said, quickly placing her hand over the spot which would have been bruising badly had she been human.  "No, that's all right. I was just looking for a dustpan; I've managed to break a glass."  She gestured over toward her booth.

        "Well, that's easily dealt with," he smiled, reaching for a box near his feet.  He came up with a dustpan and hand-sized broom, and Alma waved him over to the mess she had made, smiling in return.  What wine there was, was nearly dry, and he meticulously swept the bench and floor as well as the table, not missing a fold or crack as he looked for stray shards.

        "Dave -- may I call you Dave?" Alma asked, leaning weakly against the booth to better play up the pain of her supposed injury.  "How much longer will this job last for you?"

        "Well," he said, carrying the dustpan carefully to a rubbish heap.  "The carpentry guys will be here well through next week, but I expect to be done tomorrow."

        "So you won't be coming here any longer?  This particular crew won't expect to see you?"

        "Pretty much." He flashed her a hesitant grin as he returned to the booth.

        "Well, then, Dave," Alma said, breaking out the most seductive smile in her repertoire that did not involve fangs.  "Are you free tomorrow night?"  She had worked long and hard to set the stage for the charade by which Lacroix planned to lure Nick back into the fold, and though she had accepted his payment, surely he would not object to her taking advantage of the .  .  . fringe benefits.  After all, she planned to get the maximum use out of this Dave before draining him.  Which reminded her: if she could hold her new fish, as it were, she would not need to worry about disposing of the body and making it back to the Raven by dawn.  Delighted at the thought, she leaned in close to him and whispered, "How about your place?"  I'll be happy to make it mine alone for the day, she did not add aloud.




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