“Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” — John Donne
“Erica!” Janette set her red wine glass on the bar and extended her hand. “Your supply order is in the back, naturally. May I have my bartender bring you the usual?”
“No, thank you.” Erica clasped Janette’s hand briefly. She moved into a distance plausible for conversation under the Raven’s pulsing sound system and around the tide of dancers on the floor. Erica’s expression was tranquil but shuttered. “I’m not thirsty. I am sorry for not answering the door when your employee tried to deliver the other day, making extra work for everyone. I just... didn’t hear the knock.”
Janette cocked her head. She took in the playwright’s shapeless coat, which covered a long polyester dress in the jewel tones of the previous decade. With Erica's brown hair in last year’s curls, and her now-antique ring overwhelming her left hand, everything about Erica’s appearance jarred Janette’s survival-honed fashion sense. Keep up; keep hidden. Fall behind; fall prey. That was why Janette herself wore the latest in little black dresses, accessorized with fads one step ahead of her club’s customers. “What do you mean, you’re ‘not thirsty’?”
Erica shrugged. “I’m tired.”
“Traditionally, our kind cures that with a drink.” Janette suppressed a twinge at the target Erica now presented, a beacon for those who would hunt them. Erica had not been this far gone the last time Janette had seen her, but that was one of the tricks time played when you lived forever. Perhaps it had been a year since Erica last stopped by the Raven with people from that theater. Perhaps it had been a decade. “At least, as long as the sun is down. I admit that even I prefer a bed to a beverage after dawn. Or bed with my beverage, as the case may be.”
Erica’s lips turned up, but the smile did not reach her eyes. “What do I owe you?”
Janette named the current figure for her ever-fluctuating commodity.
Erica pulled a vintage pocketbook from her coat. “I don’t want to be a bother with scheduled deliveries anymore. I’ll come in if I want something from now on, all right?”
Janette picked up her glass, drained it, and signaled for a refill. Crossing her arms, she looked past Erica, into the crowd of dancers. Each of them was chasing after life in one way or another, as Janette did herself. Erica alone was running the other direction. Well, it had taken long enough. Janette remembered the cutting-edge thespian she had met in England centuries ago, blazing with enthusiasm for art and life, embracing a new adventure on every road. Running away then from that which had finally overtaken her now? Recalling Erica's dreary doctrine from even those happy nights, Janette asked, “So you believe that you are no longer contributing more to life than you take, is that it?”
“I’ve been a burden for a while now. I think you know that.”
“You’re a fool.” Janette’s glass returned, full. Picking it up, she discovered that she did not care to meet Erica’s eyes. Janette depended on her cold heart to shield her, safe behind Lacroix’s harsh lessons. Compassion was a crime, regret a travesty. Yet the way Erica had smashed herself against the rocks of her unique ethics unsettled Janette. Even Nicolas’s abstinence did not carry him so far from the world that Janette understood.
Janette’s own philosophy was far simpler than either of theirs. Survival, first. Then revenge.
“I’m no longer afraid of the pain.” Erica toyed with her ring. “I can’t keep up. I can’t even catch up. My last play is in rehearsals; I can feel that there won’t be any more. I have nothing left to give. No one will notice when I'm gone.”
Janette pressed her lips together. Even the way Erica was currently existing, Janette doubted that was true. But Janette did not know the names of the people now around Erica, and she was not going to volunteer herself. “Nicolas is in town.”
“Oh.” Erica crossed her arms. For a moment, Janette saw Erica let herself loose in a memory, and Janette hoped that Erica might find a spark of renewal by reinhabiting those long-past nights, when Erica and Nicolas had together been a cyclone of laughter and excitement, when audiences had roared and horses had raced to reach the next village before sunrise. Janette had been there for some of it; it had been glorious. But no flare from old fires followed Erica back into the present. Erica’s expression closed again, serene and fey. “Does he know I’m here? I don’t want him to. I don’t want to infect him with my— foolishness.”
“You aren’t concerned about infecting me?”
Erica almost laughed. “I know you’re immune.” She counted off enough bills to close her account and set them on the bar. “Thank you, Janette, for everything. Always.”
Janette shrugged. Distance was defense. She flagged down Brianna and assigned her to escort Erica out the back, picking up that crate in the supply room on the way.
Once the Egyptian-handled doors swung shut after them, Janette automatically counted the cash and put it away behind the bar. There, the telephone caught her eye. She stared at it for the span of a song, the orbit of a dance.
Janette wanted to respect Erica’s decision. To honor her wishes. This was no impulse, but the ever-fixed mark of centuries. Mad to Janette, it was sanity itself to Erica. And when Erica finally got around to walking into the sun, Janette told herself, it would be better for everyone. Intervention could bring Janette only hazard and hassle. Not only might Nicolas be vulnerable to Erica’s unhinged moral accounting, but the entire community lay on the line with a slipping vampire. Enforcers, hunters... Wherever he had gotten to, Lacroix would approve this course, and it was always prudent to arrange Lacroix’s favor.
It was, after all, Erica’s choice.
If you call death a choice.
Janette did not.
Slowly, as if the telephone had grown heavier than the entire bar, Janette lifted the device onto the counter. Nicolas was stronger than many supposed; he was more likely to lead Erica out of her swamp than to lose himself in it. Even temporarily returning Erica to her senses would be enough to protect the community from attention for some time. Lacroix had nearly evaporated from Janette’s senses after his last confrontation with Nicolas, so perhaps the menace of his disfavor was negligible. And he need not know...
With the risks to her own survival reasoned to balance in her mind, Janette admitted the possible reward. She missed Erica — the vibrant woman she had known before, not this faded stranger tonight.
Janette could brazen out Erica’s loss, if she had to. Instead, she picked up the receiver and dialed. She chose not to have to.
“Nicolas?” Janette confirmed the connection. “Saving lives is in your current job description, n'est-ce pas? What is the protocol for a suicide watch?” Janette waited for the pieces to assemble themselves for him. “Yes, she is. Longer than you. Would you like her address?” Janette provided it. “And Nicolas? I will meet you there.”
— end —