"Market adjustments, my vampire ass," Josef grumbled to the young women surrounding him. He'd been called out of his freezer in the middle of the day to deal with business concerns, and those around him now were catching the brunt of his disgust with the situation. He sighed. It wasn't as though anything Wall Street could do would even scratch the surface of his worldwide holdings, but business was a game, his game, and as with any game he undertook, he hated to lose, even slightly, even temporarily.
"Josef, you're not even trying to relax," Lucky said from behind him. She had the strongest hands of the three attending him, and he'd delegated her to try and work the knots out of his shoulders.
Chaos leaned against one side, knees bent up, her concentration centered on applying a fresh coat of polish to her toenails. Josef thought the color was particularly noxious, but knew if he voiced that opinion, he would be seeing the same color non-stop for the next six months. He had visions of waking up in his freezer with his own toenails painted. He wouldn't put it past her.
On his other side, Faction was curled against him, pretending to listen while she was actually reading a novel. And the other freshie who should have been there tending to his every whim, Selena, had been called off to a meeting with her publisher.
Even with the market fluctuations, he should be happily soaking in all this human warmth, but he felt strangely restless. He was normally very good at compartmentalization, but tonight, he seemed to be waiting for another shoe to drop, when he wasn't even sure what the first one had been. If he had anything in particular on his mind, however, he wasn't sharing it with these girls. They were there to give him blood, and warmth, and happy vibes, and at the moment they were doing a pretty good job of it, even if he wasn't taking as much advantage of it as he might. He suspected he could've been delivering his discourse on the global economy in Sanskrit for all they cared. Not that he minded that, as long as he had someone to listen.
He was in the middle of giving directions for Lucky's shoulder massage when his cell phone began to shrill. Josef had to disturb Faction to get the phone out of his pocket, and he frowned as he saw the number.
The call was brief. Josef identified himself, asked a question or two, and said, "I'm on my way." Then he gave Faction and Eris each a quick caress and a smile, and stood, eyeing Lucky's short satin nightie. "You're coming with me, doll. Go throw on a few more clothes."
The freshie didn't bat an eye. "Certainly, Josef. What's the occasion?"
"We're visiting a sick friend. How fast can you be ready?"
"Make it five."
Lucky paused and gave him a searching look, but his face was revealing nothing. "What's going on, Josef?"
The vampire thinned his lips, and his gaze was distant. "It's Molly Chalmers," he said. "She's dying."
"M—molly?" Lucky faltered. "I knew she'd been ill, but I had no idea—"
Josef's face took on the mask of unconcern he often displayed when concealing his thoughts. He gave Lucky a little upward jerk of his eyebrows and a slight smile. "We can talk in the car, babe. Step it up."
"Of course." She disappeared in a flurry of motion.
Faction, who had risen with Josef, plucked his sleeve to get his attention.
"What is it, Formidable?"
The young woman looked down, eyes troubled. "Would you—would you please tell her, we're praying for her."
His smile to her was gentle, indulgent. "I'm sure she'll appreciate that, sweetheart. I'll tell her."
Faction nodded as he caressed her hair lightly, satisfied. If Josef didn't share her faith—and she had no reason to think that he did—at least he never mocked it. She came silently into his arms, and as odd as it seemed to be giving comfort to him, not receiving it, he seemed to welcome the contact. Eris made eye contact and nodded agreement, trusting him to know how she felt.
The ride to Sacred Angels Hospital was silent. Lucky had been a little surprised Josef had opted to take a town car and driver, but supposed he was just going low key. She knew he wasn't overly fond of leaving the Ferrari in parking garages. Watson held the door for him, and Josef gave her a hand out, as usual, but his face was quiet and it seemed obvious his mind was a million miles away as he walked with her into the hospital.
Josef hated hospitals. He hated the idea of mortality, and death, and it had always struck him as harshly ironic that he was so often confronted by the reality of it. The smell of dead, rotting blood was always present, in these places, even when it was overlaid heavily with the chemical stink of disinfectant and medicines. It assaulted his nostrils. As they walked down the hallway, he turned and put his nose as close to Lucky's hair as he could, inhaling the clean scent of it to try and put the smell of her living blood back in the front of his brain.
Somehow he ignored it all, the smell, the beating hearts, the palpable aura of death and pain.
327, that was the room number. Josef knocked softly, and pushed the door open. A young man, seated by the bedside of an elderly, sleeping woman, rose as they entered, and looked at them curiously.
"You are?" he said.
"Josef Kostan," the vampire replied, with a slight tug at his suit jacket. "I believe you're expecting me. And my—friend—Ms. Alexander."
A little surprised to be introduced by her last name, Lucky smiled and stepped forward, extending her hand. "Lucky, please," she said. "No need to be formal. You must be the grandson. Molly's often spoken of you." She turned to her escort. "Josef, this is Joe Chalmers."
Josef, his attention fixed on the shrunken form in the bed, barely spared a nod. "Yes, of course," he said absently.
"You're Kostan?" Joe asked. "I—I thought you'd be much older. Gran always said—"
"Lately, Molly sometimes confused me with my grandfather. I'm told I resemble him closely."
Joe's lips twitched. "I'd say you do."
That got Josef's attention. "Oh?"
The younger man motioned toward the bedside table. "She has a miniature portrait of you—I mean, your grandfather. I've seen it all my life."
Josef frowned. "Indeed," he said.
"I'm not surprised," Lucky interjected. "Your grandfather was a very charismatic man."
Josef listened as Lucky distracted the grandson. His namesake, he realized with a small start. But he'd had enough polite chitchat. He wanted to sit with Molly, that was why he'd come. He took the chair by the bed, nodding in approval when Lucky convinced Joe that they'd keep watch while he went down to the cafeteria.
The woman in the bed, the focus of his attention, retained something of the delicacy of feature he remembered from her youth, but now, weighed down by her years, crumpled and broken beneath them, the fire he had once loved in her had damped to a glimmering ember. He took her hand, and it may have been the indelible memory of his cool touch, or perhaps just the movement, but she awakened.
He forced a smile. "Molly."
"Josef, you came." Her voice was scarcely a whisper, and it struck him to the heart to see her so weak.
"I promised, didn't I? More than fifty years ago."
There was the ghost of a smile, of her old smile. "Should've known. You—never—break—your word."
Josef smiled back at her, and her heart took strength from it, as it always had. "You should rest, babe," he said. "No need to wear yourself out. You can't party all night the way you used to."
Molly laughed, a soft rasp that turned into a cough. When she'd recovered enough to speak, she said, "Now, what am I resting up for, Josef?" She squeezed his hand. "If you're here, then it must be—almost—time."
"Maybe it's a false alarm, Molly-o. Your boy could've called me here for nothing."
"Josef," she whispered, a faint remonstration, "it's not like you to deceive yourself."
"No, I suppose not." He looked down at her hand in his, and turned it slightly, so that her wrist was exposed. He could see the old marks, white and faint now on the pale skin, barely visible.
"A taste, for old time's sake?"
Josef chuckled. "I think perhaps you have more need of it than I, right now, sweetheart." But he leaned over and laid his lips lightly against the skin.
Lucky had come to stand silently unnoticed behind Josef's shoulder, but now a slight movement from her had caught Molly's eye, even in the low light of the room.
"Who's that there with you, Josef?" she asked.
"It's Lucky," he replied, reaching up to cover the hand his freshie had laid on his shoulder. "You know my Lucky, don't you, Molly?"
"I'm dying, I'm not senile," she snapped, and coughed again, harder. It seemed as though the force of it would fracture her very bones. "Of course I know Lucky. Sit down, dear, you'll make your vampire nervous, hovering over him like that." She met Lucky's eyes for just a second with the faded blue of her own, and the two of them smiled, sharing one of those moments that, rarely, two women who care very much for the same man can have. A moment of common understanding. No rivalry, no jealousy.
As Lucky turned away to get a chair, Josef noted the other picture on the bedside table, and picked it up, smiling, the heavy gold frame like a piece of fluff in his strong hands. "Molly. I haven't seen this in years."
Lucky, settling into her chair next to Josef, peered at the framed black and white photograph. Four young women, all in dresses with the tight-cinched waists and extravagantly full skirts of the New Look, danced laughing in a fountain that looked familiar. And off to one side, a blur marred the photo. "Josef, is that--?"
"Rome. Trevi fountain. 1953. About two minutes before the police showed up and threw us out. I forget how many thousand lira it took to make them forget we'd been there." He gave Molly a smirk. "As I recall, a particularly rowdy night. You four girls…"
Molly smiled back. "We had a summer, didn't we, Josef? The world was ours…or at least Europe. The five of us, you remember…you, Callie, Spitfire, Peggy, and me. We were something, weren't we?"
"Never a more beautiful bevy of freshies, doll," Josef said, although he reached over to give Lucky a light touch at the same time.
"Flatterer," Molly replied. "Josef, you remember that carriage in Paris, what the driver said?"
Josef snorted softly. "He said, 'Ah, le vampire americaine, et sa hirondelle.' He was so busy watching me feed, even though he thought it was something else, he nearly drove us right into the Seine." He paused. "But you, Molly-o, were making so much noise, it's no wonder you attracted his attention."
"That's right, Josef," she said, "he called you an American vampire, and I never knew if he was serious, or just making a joke. And I never knew why he'd call me a swallow."
He frowned thoughtfully. "It may not have been a metaphor. Although I'd like to know where he picked up that term 'hirondelle.' That was old when his great-grandfather was driving that carriage."
"Oh, but Josef, I can still feel the night breezes over the city." Her voice was drowsy with drugs and memory. "So much I can't remember, but the hooves of that tired old white horse clopping along the Champs Elysee, the Arc de Triomphe towering above us—I can see it now, hear it. I've never forgotten it."
He patted her hand, content for the memories to flow, if they comforted her now. She had owned the world, once, in his company, and now her life had narrowed to these four walls, this final bed. If her mind could open the world to her again, it was well.
But that happy, riotous summer had been all too brief, and Molly's road led on. "Those girls, they all went too young, Josef."
"I remember, Molly," he said, his own voice tinged with an unusual melancholy. "Spitfire dead less than a year later, when she turned over that damned convertible. I always told her she was trying to drive like a vamp, but she never listened." He glanced at Lucky, who was carefully staying silent. "Her hair was as red as yours, doll. Redder, even, and what a temper she had. She lived so fast, I guess it's really no surprise she died so young."
"And Callie," Molly said. "Poor, tragic Callie."
"I've always felt to blame for her."
Now it was Molly's turn to reassure Josef. "You couldn't have known. And really, we were happy for you, you know."
Josef snorted. "And how well all that turned out." He turned to Lucky again, explaining. "When I released all my freshies from their contracts, in 1955, Callie had a hard time dealing with it. She crawled into a bottle, and then a hypodermic. She OD'd in the summer of 1958—no, it was '57. Died in some little dive in Greenwich Village." He paused, looking off into some unseen past. "She was maybe the wittiest girl I ever met. Mind like a razor blade."
"I kept in touch with Peggy, you know," Molly said. "She's the one who really got away."
"I know," Josef replied. "I met her husband in '82, when she went. I was with her, Molly, just like I'm with you now. As I promised."
Molly looked over at the photo again, sitting where Josef had replaced it. "We were so pretty that summer. So free. And now it's just the two of us."
Josef's voice took up the cadence of reminiscence, gentle, soothing. Lucky listened, one hand resting lightly on his thigh, for comfort, or maybe just to remind him that not all good memories were dying here tonight. "You remember Venice?" he asked. "The gondolier?"
Molly's eyes drifted closed, but her lips curved in a half smile. She was listening to Josef's voice, the one voice she'd wanted to hear again before the final sleep. "Yes," she said. "The gondolier."
Josef glanced at Lucky. "The girls were shameless that night. We'd been living the dolce vita in Rome, and moved on to Venice, but the party never stopped. Venice was then what Venice has always been. Filthy, smelly, utterly decadent and completely charming."
"You called it 'a dream on the shores of the Adriatic,' once, Josef," Molly said.
"I must've been drunk. I don't recall ever being that poetic."
"You have your moments," Lucky murmured demurely.
He narrowed his eyes at her, but continued with his story. "I'd made the rather unpleasant discovery that trip that I couldn't drink from the local talent—and by local, I mean European. It took a good 14 years after the war for the Continental freshies to get back up to any kind of standard. Personally, I blame poor nutrition. Anyway, I was trying not to overfeed from my girls. And one night they took advantage of my weakened state to overpower me. Pleasantly, I must admit, but damned dicey to do in a boat."
"Josef," Molly said without opening her eyes, "you're making this up as you go. But do go on."
He spared a sardonic glance at Lucky. "You're not the first freshie to go underwear optional, you know. But these girls did you one better. It wasn't just bare under nightgowns for them."
"What makes you think," Lucky started, then blushed furiously, much to the vampire's amusement. "Never mind. So what did the gondolier say that was so memorable?"
Josef smiled. "After they'd finished having their evil way with me—" and Molly snorted, very softly—"he said, and I translate, of course, that signor was a very lucky man, and the good Lord save him from such luck, as it would probably kill a lesser fellow like himself."
"He was right, you know, Josef, he was right," Molly said, but her words were a barely a breathy wheeze. She was fading, Josef realized, fading quickly. Then she roused herself with an effort. "Lucky," she said, "take care. Take care of—" Her voice trailed to silence.
Josef knew she would not speak again, that no matter what the machines said, or the doctors, that she had departed.
He'd been in Japan once, well over 100 years ago, and one quiet evening outside Kyoto watched a boy, a child of six or eight, launching cleverly folded paper boats into a rushing stream. The boy had looked at each one carefully, turning it in his hands as though to memorize the tiny variations each offered, cherishing the uniqueness of each. But that done, he released them one by one into the current, to float or sink as fate decreed.
Josef had held Molly once thus, savoring her unique gifts, the benison of her blood. And now she was floating out of the reach of his hand, adrift in the great ocean beyond what he knew.
He waited in silence, very aware of Molly's quiet hand in his, the barest pulse still moving beneath her parchment skin, and Lucky's hand, warm and vital, resting on his thigh. He knew she was trying to comfort him, and strangely, it did help ease the pain he felt.
Joe returned a few minutes later, and as Lucky and Josef were preparing to take their leave, the machines whispered to a halt. Molly had slipped away forever. "Come on, sweetheart," Josef said to Lucky, "it's time for us to get out of the way."
Lucky paused at the door, looking back at the young man taking up the final vigil, the few moments of peace before the business of death kicked in, the stir and bustle the living made to cover the fact of departure.
"Joe," Lucky said, "your gran told us how proud she was of you."
He shook his head. "I doubt that," he said, "but thank you." He picked up the two pictures from the bedside table, the small portrait, and the laughing girls in their ruined dresses dancing in that timeless fountain. He looked from them to Josef, and then to Lucky, and handed the pictures to her. "Just a hunch," he said, "but I think she'd like you to have these."
Lucky had thought she could hold in her tears, but she could feel the moisture now on her cheeks. "I'll treasure them," she said softly.
Josef nodded approval, and guided Lucky out the door.
They sat close in the car on the way home, Lucky leaning her head on Josef's shoulder, his arm loosely around her.
"Josef," she said tentatively, "when my time comes—" It was the sort of thing you could only ask in the dark, she knew, but she really didn't even need to ask.
"I'll be there, doll," Josef said. "I'll be there."