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The Dark Chronicles
By Barbara Steiner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Barbara Steiner
All rights reserved.
The Lafayette Theater on Eighteenth Street was a turn-of-the-century relic that crouched like a sulking stone dinosaur at the end of a row of gift shops and art galleries.
At one time some enterprising citizen of Bellponte had decided to save it by renaming it the Blue Princess Theater and converting it into an entertainment mecca. It featured plays, art movies, live bands, and some dinner theater.
Inside, centered on the main floor, was a bar. At the front, a small dance floor huddled in the shadow of the stage. The stage was surrounded by tables and chairs on three levels. Just off the lobby the original, barely faded maroon carpet climbed a wide stairway to the balcony, which was pretty much like it had been in its early glory, dark and cozy.
Downstairs, occupying most of the basement rooms, was a ballet school. The presence of the new owner, Madame Leona Turva, lent to the old building a certain exotic flare that had been missing for many years.
Melanie Clark and Bryan Dorsey were a contrast to the flamboyant artists and actors often seen wandering the streets and at the theater and art show openings. They were laughing as Bryan maneuvered his bangedup green Camaro into a tight parking slot, jumped out, and made a ceremony of helping Melanie to the sidewalk.
"Welcome to the Holideck," Bryan said, trying to throw off the bad case of nerves he felt coming over him. Melanie didn't seem the least bit nervous, so why should he? "We have reproduced this authentic setting for a twenties musical. Note the art deco shops and the glittering theater marquee."
Melanie glanced around. "Oh, yes. You'll have to admit that this part of town has much more character than the mall, won't you?"
"No argument about that." Bryan made sure the car was locked, figuring there was about a fifty percent chance of its being painted pink and offered for sale in one of the funky art galleries.
"Hey, I park Mom's car here lots of times when I come for my ballet lesson." She laughed again. "Your precious car is safe."
"But is your mom's car an antique? You promise my car won't have a papier-mâché woman with long red fingernails sitting in it when we come back?"
"Promise." She laughed and skipped away.
The Arbuthnot, an antique and curio store, clung snugly to the theater like a child to its mother. It was the antique store, not Melanie's school, that was their destination.
Up the street to the left for a block and a half were more shops: a famous celebrities secondhand clothing store, an upscale pawn shop, an espresso bar, and a Hard Rock Café.
"You hungry?" Bryan was willing to stall for a few minutes.
"No, but you can probably get a burger down there for only twelve dollars, fries extra." Melanie shivered and Bryan felt it. She was nervous. No matter how much she pretended she wasn't, he could sense her fear.
He hooked his arm through hers and steered her in the direction of the old theater. "Mel, it's not too late to back out. Even if this works, I'm not real sure I want you to do it."
"It's a good idea, Bryan, and I'm determined to prove that Paulie was murdered. Don't try to stop me."
Whirling away, pretending again, she turned her mouth up and stuck out her tongue to taste the snow falling from the hard winter sky in soft, feather flakes. Bryan thought he'd never seen anything as beautiful as her face surrounded by her fuzzy yellow hat.
"You're wonderful, do you know that?" he whispered, pressing warm lips to her cool cheek.
She took a deep breath and looked away from him for a minute. "So are you, Bryan. Thanks for coming here with me."
"Thanks for going to the wrestling match this morning. Not many girls would sit through all that just to see me pin my opponent in thirty seconds flat."
"Are you kidding?" Melanie teased. "I saw more male flesh in those two hours than I've seen in my whole life."
"Hummm, I didn't think of that. I've changed my mind. You can't go anymore."
Melanie pushed him and danced, spun, furry angora mittens reaching for the sky. She was trying to act normal, but Bryan sensed she was putting off going into the shop.
Two old men, shuffling along the sidewalk, blowing out steam and scrunching far down into their coat collars, stopped to look at Melanie. Bryan felt like saying, "She's my girl. Isn't she beautiful?" But he didn't need to say it. He could see that they'd stopped because they thought so, too.
"You have competition," she teased.
"They know a beautiful woman when they see one."
On the corner of Eighteenth and Main, a small group of singers huddled around a kettle and a bell ringer. Melanie stopped to listen. Bryan stepped up beside her and hugged her close. She responded by circling his waist with her arm.
Ten lords a'leaping
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a'milking
Seven swans a'swimming,
Six geese a'laying,
"Five go-old rings," Melanie sang along with the choir.
Bryan looked at her, and she smiled at him, her green eyes sparkling. "I would like to give you a million gold rings," he said, "all on the third finger of your left hand."
"What about college?" she asked, not taking him seriously.
"Forget four tough years of college. I'll take you and we'll hide in some tiny town in Iowa. I'll run a filling station. I'll hurry home every day, greasy and grimy."
"But I won't care." She took up the fantasy. "I'll run to open the door, laugh, and say, 'I love you. How was your day?'"
"What about your being a famous ballerina?"
"This will be after I retire. Ballerinas retire early. You can learn mechanics while I'm being famous and making lots of money. I'll buy you your own garage." She giggled, loving the game. He hugged her again, and they finished listening to the chorus of the old song:
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.
Melanie spun away from Bryan, then leaped gracefully, even in her fur-lined boots. "Nine dancers leaping."
"That's lords." He corrected her.
"Sorry, my lord." She bowed gracefully, pretending to spread the bottom of her quilted down jacket.
Both of them dropped some change into the red kettle as the singers started singing, "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful." They moved on down the sidewalk towards the antique shop.
"Mel, get serious. I know you're scared. I know this means a lot to you. Let's talk again. What if you can't get Madame Leona's attention, or get in her troupe? You didn't get in it the first time you tried out."
Melanie took a deep breath. "Then I'll think of something else. I'll investigate from outside. But Laurie Roberts says Leona needs another dancer. And snooping around from the inside would be easier. I know it would. I know I can find out what happened to Paulie."
"Paulie was driving too fast. She wrecked her car. I don't know how you've come up with this idea that Leona Turva had anything to do with it. But, Melanie," Bryan took her arm in a firm grasp. "If you're right, and she did have something to do with Paulie's death, this is too risky. One person has already gotten killed."
"If I'm wrong, we'll all feel better about Paulie's death, won't we?" Melanie pulled away from Bryan.
The Arbuthnot Shop wasn't much to look at. The smudged window and cluttered, dusty display suggested they could get a bargain here easily. Bryan reached for the doorknob.
"Stop," Melanie commanded, going into the act she'd planned for when they got in the store. "I'll bet you a cup of hot chocolate there's a bell."
"No fair." Bryan went along with it. "You've been in here before."
"I'll swear I haven't. Unless I can get Mom's car, I swing off the bus in front of the theater, go in, come out, catch the bus back home in the same place. I've peeked in the windows, but I've never been inside."
"All right. I'll trust you." Bryan accepted the wager.
He could feel the ribs on the cold doorknob through his gloves. Pushing the heavy door open, they had taken only two steps into the shop when a tiny jangling sound from over their heads announced them.
"I win!" Melanie laughed. Only Bryan would know that her merriment wasn't real.
"You knew you would. You cheated."
Warm air, smelling of hot radiators and fresh incense, brushed Bryan's nose. After he closed the door it settled all around him, heavy and slightly musty. He took off his gloves and unbuttoned his jacket.
The shop was poorly lit, and little light came from outside since thick clouds and the snow had dimmed the afternoon. It was larger than he had anticipated, with part of the shop branching off to the right.
A painted plaster dragon crouched over the front door. It breathed incense from the snout. Its black marble eyes stared down on them contemptuously. Melanie giggled and clutched Bryan's arm, pretending to be frightened.
They gazed at a shelf of books, old and collectable. But the titles weren't what he would have expected: The Truth, Judas Underground, Devils Past and Present, Guide to Herbal Healing, Magic and the Maya. Not your run-of-the-mill library fare.
"Oh, I've read them all," Bryan said, acting disappointed and turning away, enjoying Melanie's laughter, even though he heard the nervous catch in it. "All right." He turned a corner. "Mother will love these." That was their story. They were shopping for a Christmas gift for Bryan's mother.
Where the shop doglegged to the right there was another room, different from the rest of the shop. Long and short swords shared a wall on the right with overlapping tapestries. Framed oil paintings and sketches were spread across the center wall. Shelves of colored candles lined the wall opposite the swords.
"Bryan, look." Melanie pointed at a stuffed owl in flight, going nowhere on an elevated platform. In the corner below the owl sat a tilted, convex mirror, the kind used to watch customers.
Melanie had meant for him to see the owl, but he was more aware of the mirror. He had the creepy feeling that someone was watching them explore.
The walls of the room had been designed to simulate grainy, unfinished stone. Bryan rapped twice on the sword wall and found it was plaster board. A curvy, snake-like dagger clinked, vibrating at his knock.
One painting in particular caught Bryan's eye, initially because of the ornate frame. It went so perfectly with the painting, Bryan could easily believe that the painting and the frame had grown old together over the years, or perhaps centuries.
#ARTH-37: ORIGINALLY FROM THE VILLEFORT COLLECTION, PARIS, 1874. THIS IS MADAME DE BECLIER, ALSO SISTER JEANNE DES ANGES, SAID TO HAVE BEEN POSSESSED BY DEVILS IN 1633 IN THE URSULINE CONVENT AT LOUDON, FRANCE. IT IS PROBABLY THE FIRST COMMISSIONED WORK OF BATISTE D'ALGORET, PAINTED IN 1621.
The picture was a study in blue. The nondescript background behind the young, pretty face was a very dark shade of blue, the plain garment and cap a clean, grayish-blue. The eyes were a blue so light and vulnerable as to give the whole face an ephemeral quality, making Bryan imagine she might vanish if he reached out and touched her cheek. Without meaning to, surprising himself, he started to do so.
"You can't have her." Melanie jerked his hand back. "I'd be jealous all the time."
"I—" Bryan felt his face heat up. He felt silly.
"She is a witch. Look at how she captivated you in seconds."
Bryan laughed, knowing he was blushing. He stepped back, inadvertently brushing the wall with the painting. To his surprise, the surface was cold and damp, real stone.
"Anyway, did you see the price?" asked Melanie, still talking about the painting. "You can't afford that picture. Let's go back and look at the jewelry. Your mom would rather have jewelry."
Bryan felt a shiver run over him, probably from the shock of the wall's surface. This place was spooky. And didn't anyone work here? He followed Melanie back into the main room.
Somewhere, violins were playing on a radio. The melody sounded like a Strauss waltz, but as Bryan was about to place it, the music was shut off. Thick maroon drapes covered a wide doorway behind the cash register. They parted in the middle, revealing an old woman in a black dress. She stood motionless and stared at them, her square face in a frown, as if they had disturbed her. Didn't she welcome customers?
"Frau Voska," Melanie said. "I didn't know you worked here. Is this your shop?"
"You know this woman?" Bryan whispered. "She looks like a refugee from ancient Russia." Even at Melanie's greeting, the woman didn't smile. And she said nothing.
"We came into the shop to look for a Christmas present—for Bryan's mother. Something unusual." Melanie spoke as if she were apologizing for disturbing the woman. As if she had to explain that a shop usually expected customers. Especially during the holidays.
"Look, look." Frau Voska waved at them. "I get you help. Do not take down the swords." She looked right at Bryan. "I have to get the ladder to put back the hooks."
"I won't touch anything, I promise." Bryan held up both hands and whispered again to Melanie when they were alone. "Who is that, anyway? Mother Russia?"
Melanie punched Bryan, holding a finger to her lips. "Mother Germany." She whispered, too. "She's the dance master at the ballet school. I guess she works here as well."
"She's a dancer?" Bryan raised his eyebrows.
"She was once. A very famous ballerina in Germany before the war."
"What war? World War One? You won't look like that someday, will you, Mel? Promise me. Otherwise I may have to curtail a lot of daydreams I'm having about us."
"I can't promise anything. Serves you right for thinking those kinds of thoughts."
"I can't help myself." Bryan pulled Melanie into his arms and for a moment held her green eyes captive. She twisted away.
"If Leona isn't here, my plan isn't going to work," Melanie whispered when Bryan joined her, staring into the glass cases of antique jewelry.
"Good," he whispered back. "Let's leave."
The music, now a piano sonata, began again, the volume muted.
Bryan rubbed the chin of a huge gray pouf pillow curled on the counter in front of him. The cat looked at Bryan, squinting blue eyes, and started to purr. But she leaped to life, jumped off the glass case, and disappeared at the sound of a voice behind them.
"Yes, may I help you?"
"Oh!" Melanie stepped backward into Bryan, making him catch his balance to support her. "Madame Leona."
"Do I know you?" the woman asked, her words formed with a slight accent.
She was tall, an inch or so taller than Melanie, but she had the same slim dancer's body, even though she was older—forty maybe. Her eyes were dark, intense, and captured Bryan's for longer than he felt comfortable. He felt partly drawn in, fascinated, by her. But another part felt as if he was trespassing, that he was violating Leona's personal space by entering the shop.
Despite his feeling, Bryan continued to stare. Leona's hair was drawn severely back into a bun on the back of her long neck. Her face reminded Bryan of Egyptian or Greek beauties he'd seen in paintings. Perfectly oval, it framed high cheek bones, a Roman nose, a strong chin, and full lips. An aura of confidence surrounded her, confidence in her beauty, herself, secure in the knowledge that she was in charge here.
"I—I'm in your dance school," Melanie stuttered. Bryan had never seen her so ill at ease.
"Of course," Madame Leona said, but Bryan felt sure Leona didn't recognize Melanie. "You are in the advanced class." The woman had perfect posture, perfect poise.
Melanie nodded and focused her attention on the case before her. "We need some jewelry for a special gift. Oh, look." She pointed, relaxing again, her attention on a necklace. "That, Bryan, how about that? It's lovely."
Madame Leona brought out a medallion on a silver chain, holding it gracefully in hands with incredibly long fingers.
The center of the medallion, a brilliant red stone, was circled by seven silver gargoyle-like figures. Bryan thought them rather grotesque, even though delicately carved. On the back of the disc was a panther, its head held proudly.
"I love it," Melanie said softly, obviously captivated by the piece now that she'd gotten a closer look.
"Then I'll buy it for you for Christmas. I don't think my mom would like it."
Excerpted from The Dance by Barbara Steiner. Copyright © 1995 Barbara Steiner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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