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"Melina Roscova," the slender blond woman said, extending a hand. "You must be Maxine Stuart?"
"It's Maxine Malone, and no, I'm not her." Stormy took the woman's hand. It was cool and her grip very strong. "Stormy Jones," she said. "Max and Lou are busy with another case, and we didn't think it would take all three of us to conduct the initial interview."
"I see." Melina released her grip and dug in her pocket for a business card. "I guess this must be out of date."
Stormy took the card, looked it over. The SIS logo superimposed itself over the words Supernatural Investigations Services. In smaller letters were their names, Maxine Stuart, Lou Malone, Tempest Jones and beneath that, in a fancy script, Experienced, professional, discreet and a toll-free number.
She handed the card back. "Yeah, that's pretty old. Maxie and Lou got hitched sixteen years ago now. Of course, we didn't get new cards made up until we'd used all the old ones. You have to be practical, you know."
"So why all the mystery?" Stormy asked. "And why did you want to meet here?"
As she spoke, they moved through the entrance and into the vaulted corridors of the Canadian National Museum. Their steps echoed as they walked. Melina paid the entry fee in cash, and led the way deeper into the building.
"No mystery. I want you to handle a sensitive case for me. Discretion--" she tapped the old business card against her knuckle "--is imperative."
"You can trust us on that," Stormy said. "We wouldn't still be in business after all this time if we didn't know how to keep our mouths shut." She looked at a threadbare tapestry on display inside a glass case. Its colors had faded to gray, and it looked as if a stiff breeze would reduce it to a pile of lint.
"So why this place?"
"This is where it is," Melina said, eyeing several tarnished silver pieces in another case. Bowls, urns, pendants.
"Where what is?"
"What you need to see. But it won't be here for long. It's part of a traveling exhibit. Artifacts uncovered on a recent archaeological dig in the northern part of Turkey."
Stormy eyed her, waiting for her to say more, but Melina fell silent and moved farther along the hall, among line drawings and diagrams of dig sites, framed like pieces of art. Then she turned to go through two open doors into a large room. There were items lining the walls, all of them safely behind glass barriers. Brass trinkets, steel blades with elaborately carved handles of bone and ivory. Stormy glanced at the items on display, then rubbed her arms, suddenly cold to the bone. "You'd think they'd turn on the heat in here. It's freezing," she muttered. Then, to distract herself from the rush of discomfort, she snatched up a flyer from a stack in a nearby rack and read from it. According to it, the items found didn't match the culture of the area in which they'd been located, and many were thought to be the spoils of war, brought home by soldiers who looted them from faraway lands and conquered enemies. The dig site was believed to have been a monastery of sorts--a place where men went to study magic and the occult.
"Here it is," Melina said.
Stormy dragged her gaze from the flyer to where the other woman stood a few yards away, in front of a small glass cube that sat atop a pedestal. Inside the cube, resting on a clear acrylic base, was a ring. It was big, its wide band more elaborately engraved than the gaudiest high school class ring she'd ever seen. Its gleaming red stone was as big as one of those, too, only she was pretty sure this stone was real.
"It's a ruby," Melina said, confirming Stormy's un-spoken suspicion. "It's priceless. Isn't it incredible?"
Stormy didn't reply. She couldn't take her eyes off the ring. For a moment it was as if she were seeing it through a long, dark tunnel. Everything around her went black, her vision riveted to the ring, her eyes unable to see anything else. And then she heard a voice.
"Inelul else al meu!"
The voice--it came from her own throat. Her lips were moving, but she wasn't moving them. The sensation was as if she had become a puppet, or a dummy in some ventriloquist act. Her body was moving all on its own, her hands reaching for the glass case, palms pressing to either side of it, lifting it from its base.
A hand closed hard on her arm and jerked her away. "Ms. Jones, what the hell are you doing?"
Stormy blinked rapidly as her body snapped back on line. She saw Melina holding her upper arm while looking around the room as if waiting for the Canadian version of a SWAT team to swarm in.
Stormy cleared her throat. "Did I set off any alarms?"
"I don't think so," Melina said. "There are sensors on the pedestal. They kick in only if the ring is removed."
Frowning as her head cleared, Stormy stared at her. "Why do you know that?"
"It's my job to know. Are you all right?" Nodding, Stormy avoided the other woman's eyes. "Yeah. Fine. I...zoned out for a minute, that's all."
But it wasn't all. And she wasn't fine. Far from it. She hadn't had an episode like that in sixteen years, but she knew the sensations that had swamped her just now. Knew them well. She would never forget. Never. She hadn't felt that way in sixteen years, not since the last time she'd been with him. With Dracula. The one and only. And though her memory of the specifics of that time with him was a dark void, her memories of...being possessed remained. And memories of Dracula or not, she'd heard his voice just a moment ago, whispering close to her.
Without the ring and the scroll, I'm afraid there is no hope.
What did it mean? Was he here? Nearby? And why, when she remembered so little about their time together, had that phrase come floating in to her memory now?
No. He wouldn't come back to her when he knew what it did to her mind and body. He'd let her go in order to spare her going through that madness anymore. Or so she liked to believe. She'd awakened in Rhiannon's private jet, on her way back home. And, like all of Vlad's victims before her, her memory of her time with him had been erased.
But not her feelings for him. Inexplicable or not, she had felt a deep sense of loss, and she'd been dying inside a little more with every single day that had passed since.
He wasn't here. He wouldn't put her through that again. Unless...
She looked again at the ring. God, could this be the ring he'd been talking about? And what had he meant by that cryptic phrase? It was hell not remembering. Sheer hell. She should hate him for playing with her mind the way he had. Over and over she'd struggled and fought to recall the time she'd spent with him, after he'd abducted her in the dead of night so long ago. She'd even tried hypnosis, but it hadn't worked. Nothing had. He'd robbed her of memories she sensed might be some of the best of her life. Damn him for that.
"Ms. Jones? Stormy?"
Turning slowly, she met Melina's far too curious brown eyes. "The ring is the reason you want to hire us?"
"Yes. What's your connection to it?"
Stormy frowned. "I don't know what you mean. I have no connection to it."
"You certainly had a strong reaction to it."
She shook her head. "I had a head injury a long time ago. Occasional blackouts are a side effect."
"Speaking in tongues is a side effect, as well?"
"It's gibberish. It doesn't mean anything. Look, the condition of my skull is really not the issue here. Are you going to tell me what this job entails or not?"
Melina looked at her, pursed her lips and lowered her voice. "I want you to steal it," she whispered. * * *
Stormy wasn't sure what she had said as she had made a hasty exit from the museum. She thought she had told Melina Roscova to do something anatomically impossible, and then she'd left. She hadn't stopped until she'd pulled up in front of the Royal Arms Hotel, where she handed her car keys and a ten-spot to a valet.
"Be careful with her," she told him. "She's special." He promised he would be, and she watched him as he drove her shiny black Nissan, with the customized plates that read Bella-Donna into the parking garage across the street. As he moved into the darkness, she heard tires squeal and winced. "One scratch, pal. You bring Belladonna back with one scratch..."
She turned to see a doorman with a question in his eyes. "You're going inside?" he asked.
"You tell that moron when he gets back that if he scratched my car, I'll take it out of his hide. And it's mademoiselle. Not every thirtysomething female is married, you know."
"Of course, mademoiselle." He opened the door, his face betraying no hint of emotion. It would have been much more satisfying if he'd been defensive or hostile or even apologetic. But...nothing.