"Old Vices Spent"

Old Vices Spent
by Sarah T.

It was obvious just how much importance Alexander Lucard placed on the precarious deal with Andersson GmbH. When their representatives arrived at his company's headquarters, he actually went out to meet them where they waited in the circular foyer of the top floor. The two men were standing near the receptionist's desk, looking at the intricate black and silver abstract sculpture that gleamed in the sunlight falling through the arc of glass wall opposite the elevators. Lucard had already had dealings with the CEO, Hotter, a tall, thin, uncomfortable-looking man who turned from the sculpture with an air of mild puzzlement to introduce his associate. "This is Herr Dowden, who is not enthusiastic." Dowden, Andersson's balding, mustached chief of finance, remained scoffing at the statue for a moment longer before looking over to acknowledge the introduction. Lucard knew Hotter well enough to know that the train journey down would have put him into an irritated state of mind--the man intensely disliked travelling. Dowden did not look as if he had made an amiable companion, either. As he grumbled in response to Lucard's civil greeting, "I did not commit myself by coming here--mind that!" Hotter cast him a look of barely veiled annoyance. Lucard swiftly decided that the first order of business would be to soothe the CEO's nerves.
           "Of course not," Lucard said calmly. "That was understood from the first. If you gentlemen will step into my office...?" As they followed him down the hallway, he said to Hotter, "Naturally you are tired from your journey. I have some of that coffee of which you are so fond." The CEO looked faintly pleased. The orderly, modern atmosphere of the Lucard Industries building, which hummed with well-regulated activity, was visibly reviving him. Dowden waddled on next to them, looking with great skepticism and attention at everything they passed, and occasionally wrinkling his nose. Lucard noticed this and had to suppress a caustic smile, thinking of the dingy steel-and-tile-dominated headquarters of Andersson.
           "Well," he said, passing through the glass doors to his office, "I think you gentlemen will find that this trip was worth--" He cut himself off abruptly as a woman who had been standing by the window turned around at the sound of his voice. She was young, perhaps only twenty or so, tall and raven-haired with dramatic blue eyes, wearing a dress that had clearly been cut to emphasize her charms as much as possible but just managed to be tasteful.
           "Alexander!" she trilled in a low voice, rushing towards him with hands extended. "I'm so happy to see you!" Startled, he did not move to ward her off, and she threw herself into his arms. "I've missed you so!" And then she burst into passionate tears.
           He stood there for a moment, unmoving, then looked down at the sobbing woman. "Hello, Caroline."

The next five minutes were not easy ones, and Lucard had the galling feeling that the only reason he had succeeded in easing the businessmen out of his office into the capable hands of his secretary Ariadne was that Hotter and Dowden were too amused to object. Trying to keep calm as the doors slid shut behind him again, he reflected that it was not, by any means, the worst scene Caroline had ever caused. This thought passed away quickly as she rose from the chair into which he had firmly placed her a few minutes before. There was no sign of the tears that she had just shed, except that her eyes were even more brilliant than normal; in fact, in an instant she had burst into laughter.
           "I thought the puffy one was going to faint dead away!" she exclaimed, putting out her hand to him. "You pick such curious people to associate with, Alexander!"
           With an ironic air, he kissed the proffered hand and, ignoring her comment, said, "You're looking exceptionally lovely today, Caroline. To what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit?"
           "Oh, some friends with a charming little place in the mountains nearby invited me to fly down, and the thought of you so very close, all alone in your marvellous castle which I've heard so much about--I couldn't stay away!"
           "I thought we had an agreement, Caroline, that you were going to try to tell me the truth from then on," he murmured patiently. As he spoke, he wondered who she had been talking to, and what sort of outlandish stories she had eagerly accepted. She had always attached herself most devotedly to the declasse, to the most tiresome, garish, and disreputable of the vampires, and none of them had ever set foot in his home. "Now, tell me what you want."
           "Want?" She looked hurt. "Do I have to want something?"
           "No, but somehow you always do. Although I admit you've done better than usual this time; it has been almost ten years since you last paid me a visit. That is surely a record."
           "You're not being fair." She smiled again. "But then, you never have been fair to me. Can't I simply have come to see my dear master?"
           "Ah, Caroline, I have too much faith in your virtue to believe that. Seeing me is one of the indulgences you are far too strict to allow yourself except in an emergency. I am fortunate that you have so many of them."
           "You're being terribly cynical," she said, taking his hand and gazing up at him with affectionate amusement. "If I didn't know your ways so well, I'd say you weren't happy to see me. It's a good thing that I know better. Another woman might be badly offended."
           "I am blessed indeed, then," he said, smoothly disengaging his hand from hers, "that you know me so well."
           He moved towards his desk, but she circled in front of him, preventing him from reaching his chair. "You're dreadfully formal today," she said in a wondering tone. "Did I--did I cause you much trouble just now? I'm so sorry if I did, but can you blame me for wanting to see you as soon as I got into town?" Her eyes grew very large and earnest, and her lip quivered slightly.
           Faced with this appeal to his gallantry, there was only one response he could make. He sighed. "No, Caroline. Of course you didn't cause me any trouble."
           Her face cleared immediately, and she clapped her hands together in childlike glee. "I knew you would be delighted to see me!"
           "Can you not make my delight complete by telling me what it is you want?"
           "Well"--she hesitated for a moment, and there was a flash of calculation in her eyes which Lucard noted wryly--"I'll tell you after dinner tonight."
           "Oh, but then I would be too distracted to enjoy your company. I probably wouldn't even notice your dress, and I know you wouldn't like that," he said with deliberate playfulness. He hoped that he might be rid of her at once if he could but bring her to make her request right away. Offering her hospitality was unavoidable, no doubt, but he did not relish the thought of spending any more time with those dazzling eyes and that charming smile aimed at him. "So tell me now. Is it money?"
           "Oh, no," she said proudly. "I could never ask you for money."
           The corner of Lucard's mouth twitched, but he did not challenge this statement. "Then what? I warn you"--he kept his tone light--"that I absolutely refuse to get involved in any grand schemes you may be hatching for revenge against the latest young man who has mistreated you."
           "I don't know where you get your ideas!" she declared, looking hurt again. "You know I pine for you too much ever to--"
           "Get to the point, Caroline," he said firmly. It was one thing for her to lie about her motives--that was only to be expected, it was in her interest to do so--but he wished that she did not feel compelled to lie about her sentiments. It was too obvious; it left him with a faint feeling of disgust. "What is it?"
           "Well...there is an exhibition touring Europe this year. Right now, it's here. Have you seen it? 'The Jewelry of Eighteenth-Century England'?"
           "Oh, for goodness' sake, Caroline," Lucard said, barely able to hide his distaste, taking his seat. "I am a capitalist, not a petty thief. I am not going to help you plunder the public treasure so you can shine at the next ball in Paris. I know you would never dream of accepting money from me, but just this once, let me give you enough to get the baubles copied. How much will it require? A hundred, two hundred thousand?" He reached for his checkbook.
           "But I need the jewels themselves!"
           He tilted his head skeptically. At that moment, it seemed fantastic to him that he had once found her caprice captivating. "May I know why?"
           "They have sentimental value."
           "Did they belong to some long-dead rival you wish to triumph over now? You sound like a creature out of one of those vampire romances the humans are so fond of writing these days! But I will indulge you this time, even if I must tell you yet again that your taste desperately needs maturing. There is a man you can call--"
           "It's not that," she said, suddenly timid, appealing to him with her eyes. "They were mine."
           A very faint crease appeared between Lucard's brows. "I see." His voice grew perfectly calm. "Let me guess: a matched pair of necklace and earrings, gold with--"
           "Yes, Alexander, yes," she said, backing up, looking frightened. "Don't be angry with me. It wasn't my fault."
           "It wasn't?" he said, still dangerously quiet. He had once thought that in the ten years she had been his companion he had exhausted the disagreeable surprises she was capable of giving him, but the experience of two centuries had proved him wrong. Now he marvelled afresh at the naivete of such an idea. This, however, went beyond the disagreeable into the intolerable. "How did it happen, then, that the gifts I gave you when I made you one of my own are now being flaunted in public exhibitions across Europe?" Seeing that she was again on the verge of tears, he added grimly, "I suppose you lost them."
           "No!" she said quickly. "I would never mislay them! But I've told you before how my bankers have taken advantage of me, again and again. It wasn't always easy keeping up my position in the world after you left me, you know. I had to pawn many of my most precious jewels. And when I went to redeem them, it was too late. The owner had promised to keep them, but--"
           Lucard shut his eyes. The tawdriness of the tale appalled him, and he did not wish to see her pretty mouth smile desperately as she brought out piece by piece her tarnished story, nor to hear that entrancing voice utter her petty lies. "He betrayed you and sold them. And somehow over the course of centuries, they found their way into a museum. Of course."
           "Yes, of course. You know I would never, never even think--even after all you did to me--"
           "That's quite enough, Caroline," he said levelly. She began to say something more, then stopped, unnerved by the way his mouth tightened. After a moment, he sighed and opened his eyes again. "Very well. I will call in someone who is skilled in this kind of work to help you. But I think I'd better come along myself to make sure nothing goes wrong." He paused and, with a slight effort, smiled. "You have always been plagued with bad luck, after all."
           The return of irony to his voice clearly relieved Caroline. "Oh, you are so kind to me! I knew you still cared!" she cried, and threw her arms around him.
           He rose, disentangling himself with some difficulty. "I will talk to the man tonight," he said. "Dinner is served at eight, and I will explain my plan to you afterwards. Until then, Caroline, I am afraid I must ask you to manage without me. I have business to attend to."
           "Of course," she said, radiant, apparently not at all offended by the rebuff. "I don't want to get in the way of all those important affairs of yours. Or to make that puffy man totter again." She took her hat and went for the door. As it opened for her, she turned on her heel and said, "My friends told me not to come, but I had faith in you. And I was right!"
           "Of course," he murmured, apparently absorbed in a paper on his desk. "You always are." The last thing he heard from her that afternoon was her enchanting, apparently thoroughly good-natured laughter as she went out the door.

A few hours later, Lucard stood alone again in his office, watching the sun set. He had done well that afternoon, he knew; he had brought Hotter almost to the point of a smile by first putting Dowden in his place, then winning him over completely. Under the circumstances, it had been a brilliant performance, and the agreement they had signed that day would raise many an eyebrow in the business community once the details became public. But that was not what the community would talk of tonight. At that very moment, any number of his colleagues were probably relaxing over their after-work drinks with the amusing story of how Alexander Lucard, who had always been astonishingly immune to such problems for a single man, had actually had some girlfriend ten years younger than him crash his most important meeting of the year. Hotter would not talk, but Dowden even at his friendliest would be only too happy to spread malicious gossip. Lucard sighed. It irritated him, but there was nothing to be done about it. He had seen the situation before in a hundred different variations, in courts and camps as well as business offices, and he knew it would be only a nine-days' wonder so long as he simply smiled at the jokes and changed the subject when he could. --And so long as he could prevent Caroline from doing anything else ridiculous while she was in town. That would be far harder than merely restraining himself.
           Well, at least he could keep her out of trouble tonight, he thought, as the sun sank behind the distant mountains. The last light faded from the air and, as always, he shut his eyes with a sharp, involuntary intake of breath, savoring the pleasure of the change as his vampire nature awoke fully. With that awakening came his particular hunger, intense tonight, but that would have to wait. He could not decently go hunting without Caroline, and he had no intention of letting her spill a single drop of blood in his territory. All his years of instruction had not sufficed to make her a skillful killer; she was too extravagant, both in cruelty and in compassion. He could not count the number of times he had had to track down and dispatch some victim of hers who had escaped her overly elaborate arrangements or persuaded her to let him go. She was fully capable of doing something that would expose them both to the world in a way that even Helsing had never been able to manage. That he would not endure. He had suffered her to live as a salutary reminder of his own fallibility, but there were limits to how sharp he would permit that reminder to be, and he certainly would not let her bring down his hard-won empire through her negligence.
           She had tried other means of doing this already that day; if her mere spending of his money did not bring him into ruin, it was not for want of trying. All that afternoon Ariadne had been fielding apologetic calls from the most expensive stores of the most exclusive shopping district in the city, inquiring gently whether Miss Caroline Posonby might truly be allowed to draw on Monsieur Lucard's credit to the extent that she had proposed to them. After the fourth note she had discreetly dropped on his desk during the conference, he had irritatedly signed to Ariadne that she might approve any charge that came through. He recognized in the barrage of calls Caroline's authentic style: in small things and large, she always arranged matters so as to make it easiest to let her have her way. With his extreme dislike of pettiness, he had long ago settled on a policy of indulging her whenever it did not actually inconvenience him. A more sensible woman might have done very well indeed with him on that basis, but Caroline never had known when to stop.
           With a weary shake of his head, he concluded yet again that she simply might not realize how dangerous that could be for her. He remembered well how on the day he had left her she had nearly provoked him to destroy her, despite his decision that abandoning her to her own devices was a far apter reward for the discomfort she had inflicted on him. Up until the very hour of his departure, she had been utterly sure that he would play the part of cynical but devoted husband no matter what she did, so long as she favored him with an occasional attention. How hurt and bewildered she had been to find out otherwise! She had wandered drowsily out of her rooms upstairs to see what the strange noises in the hall were, and her eyes had opened wide in astonishment and growing fear when she saw the servants removing his possessions. "I'm leaving the house to you, my dear," he had said coolly from where he stood, pocket watch in hand, at the base of the stairs. "I do apologize--I know it is a wretched little hovel--but I can't very well take it with me." The stricken expression which came over her face as she realized that he really was unceremoniously casting her off had given him enormous satisfaction. She had tried to protest, to bring out again her tired pack of promises and endearments and cajoleries, and he had relished hearing her out with an amused smile as he directed the servants, repeating calmly, "I'm sorry, my dear, but it can't be helped," every time she paused for breath. But when her voice grew shrill and she said, "You can't do this to me! I'll tell everyone, starting with the servants and ending with the Archbishop, just what sort of a man you are," he felt a sharp pinprick of anger. It would be death for her, too, but she was just enough of a fool to do it. He had plucked a vase from the arms of a passing servant and crushed it easily in one hand as she gasped. Then, letting the powder trail from his fingers, he glanced at her under half-closed eyelids and said in his most casual tone, "Caroline, is it not curious how easily beautiful things break?"
           Something in his manner must have made an impression, for since that day she had never strayed so close to the brink of destruction again. But sooner or later, he reflected coolly, Caroline would misjudge the distance, and then he would have to deal with the problem once and for all. She had never, however, betrayed in the slightest any awareness of this possibility. Certainly she had not earlier that afternoon. He could not tell--and it was this kind of ambiguity in her character that had led him to make his mistake in the first place--whether this apparent indifference was a fine show of bravery truly worthy of a companion to Dracula or a simple greedy unconsciousness that would have shamed a boy of Maximilian Townsend's age. Not that it mattered tonight. This would not be the time that he was obliged to solve the problem in the directest way. What she wanted was simple enough, if only--
           The phone rang. "Lucard."
           The connection was staticky. "Alexander? It's George. I'm on my way."
           "So you've come around. Good." Lucard cradled the phone on his shoulder and looked at his watch. "How long until you arrive?"
           "A few hours."
           "You'll miss dinner, then."
           "Don't worry about that; I don't travel unprovided. But I do travel under protest. You must remember that."
           "Come, George; I consider myself to be letting you off very easily in exchange for the favor I did for you in Amsterdam."
           "Tell me that again after I've succeeded in my task despite the personal complications you insist on burdening it with."
           "You have always objected to 'personal complications' too much, George," Lucard said with mild disapproval.
           "Of course I object to them, Alexander." George had audibly climbed onto his dignity. "I am a craftsman. I solve difficult technical problems for demanding clients like you, and I like to do so with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of unnecessary fuss. 'Personal complications' are distractions, if not positive difficulties. They are what bring down people in my profession nine times out of ten."
           "Caroline won't be a problem, George. I can assure you of that. Whereas, if she didn't come, she might well cause spectacular difficulties."
           "Very well, Alexander. You know your own business best. But I wash my hands of the matter if anything goes wrong."
           "Nothing will go wrong, George," Lucard said firmly. "I hired you to make certain of that."
           "Well, I'd hate to betray your faith in me, so I suppose everything will have to come off perfectly, then. If there's nothing else...?"
           "Then I will expect your car at my hotel tomorrow afternoon at four."
           "Very well."
           The line went dead and Lucard set the phone down. "Well, that should settle it," he said aloud. George had balked entirely when he had learned who the friend was that Lucard wanted to bring along on the job, and up to the moment he had called Lucard had not been certain he would actually take it on. Now that he had secured George's services, however, he was confident that he would indeed be able to dispose of Caroline's latest request with ease. With his combination of vampire powers, knowledge of high technology, and sheer experience, George was easily the most accomplished thief in the world. No one Julia Heisenberg could have provided him with would have been half so talented. Or so expensive, Lucard thought a little dryly, but, after all, nothing was too good for Caroline.
           Around the city, church-bells began to sound the hour, tolling in a harmonious confusion that the humans found charming but made Lucard's nerves tingle. He snapped his fingers and his computer shut down. Caroline would be at the castle by now. He doubted the ability of his staff to manage her, and he did not doubt at all her ability to throw his domestic arrangements into confusion. He remembered, with a half-smile, what a dreadful mistress she had once made of his own household. He tapped his window, and it slid open silently. In a moment, he had melted into the night.

Felix met him at the door, as impassive as ever, but Lucard fancied he saw a hint of dismay in his eyes.
           "Don't tell me," the master of the castle said, handing him his hat. "You have had some difficulty attending to Miss Posonby." He had called earlier to warn Felix, but naturally a zombie could not be expected to have the energy and imagination to keep up with Caroline.
           "Miss Posonby required a lady's maid, sir. We do not have any ladies' maids on staff at the moment, so I called the agency and requested one. Miss Posonby did not care for the first three whom they sent. The last one said that her lawyer would be speaking to yours. Her face had been scratched, sir."
           "What? She did not appreciate the necessity of sacrificing her beauty to Miss Posonby's? What is this world coming to?" Lucard said, letting him help him out of his coat.
           Felix did not respond to this sally, but continued on, dully, "Miss Posonby did not care for her room, either. We moved her twice. Miss Posonby also did not care for the cosmetics available. William took her shopping."
           "Well, I do hope she didn't scratch his face!" Lucard said in mock-alarm. The butler shook his head solemnly, and Lucard smiled. "Then we have nothing to worry about, Felix. Is she settled now?"
           "Yes, sir, but Miss Posonby particularly requested that I tell you that as a result of our incompetence, she will be late for dinner."
           Lucard chuckled and patted him on the shoulder. "Well, Felix, it will not be the first time. Don't take it so hard." Of course, there was no particular sign that the zombie was taking it any way at all. "I will be in the great hall after I dress, if Miss Posonby should ask."
           "Yes, sir." The zombie shambled off to dispose of Lucard's clothes. The vampire chuckled again as he sprang up the stairs to his own rooms to change for dinner. Caroline was certainly putting on a show for him; it seemed only fair that he reciprocate. "Jean," he said to his valet, pulling off his tie, "it seems that I will be required to look particularly splendid this evening. I mustn't disappoint the lady."
           "Yes, monsieur," Jean said, giving him an arch look. "Monsieur will not disappoint."
           A full hour later, Lucard was standing in the hall, waiting for Caroline, as confident as he could be that Jean had succeeded, considering he could not see for himself. As he gave an admiring glance at his immaculate cuffs, he thought, as he had so many times, that it was a great pity that he, one of the few people who could truly appreciate how fine he looked, would never again be able to see himself in all his glory. But he looked up quickly--and with some anticipation--as the door at the top of the stairs opened, and Caroline rustled in.
           She was lovely. He had an exceptionally clear and precise memory for beautiful things, and still she always surprised him with the sheer vividness and radiance of her face and form. Unlike her clothes of the afternoon, which had been sporty and flirtatious, this dress, of a deep, shimmering midnight blue that set off her glowing skin and dark hair to perfection, was dignified and yet somehow innocent. At least, he thought fleetingly, when he spent a fortune on her clothes, it was worth it. The same could not be said of all his creatures. He watched her descend the staircase with pure aesthetic pleasure. In the country and time from which he had taken her, girls received careful instruction in graceful motion, and those old lessons had never left her. Modern women had their own attractions, of course, but that elegance of gesture was not generally among them, and he was a man who could appreciate the entire range of feminine charm.
           She reached the bottom of the staircase and twirled slowly, smiling up at him, looking very much like the young girl he had been introduced to in a drawing room on a warm spring evening nearly two centuries ago. "Well? Do you like it?" she inquired, almost shyly.
           It was only a pose, of course, but what beauty was truly natural? He took her hands into his and kissed her on the cheek. "You look magnificent, my dear," he said. "Shall we go in?"

Concluded in "Old Vices Spent," second half.

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