Phantom of the French Opera (Chapter 4)

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    Chapter Four
    Jack Amestring was carefully inspecting his latest acquisition when the voices came to him again. He woke with a start from his daydreaming state when Alice, his assistant manager, shook his shoulder. He fumbled and nearly dropped the two hundred year old portrait, oil on canvas in an ornate lacquered mahogany frame. That would have been a shame, he thought. This piece had been difficult to acquire.
    “Yes, Alice, I’m fine,” said Jack in answer to the question asked by the worried looking woman, setting the painting down on the glass display counter surface.
    He blinked back into full wakefulness, not that he was actually asleep. He never truly slept. He’d felt something was wrong but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Yet, the feeling was a familiar one, something at the back of his mind, something besides the daydreams which had pervading his mind for a long time.
    Alice had come to him in response to the employment listing he’d posted online. She had been recently let go from her job with a big box retail store after a management downsizing and had come highly recommended. She considered herself very lucky. It wasn’t every day that you came across a job like this.
    The space in which Jack had opened his fairly large antique shop and art gallery hadn’t been closed long before he bought it and had transformed it into what it was. The former owner had died and had the previous tourist trap knick-knack shop closed and all the goods sold at auction or donated to charity.
    Alice’s job with Jack was definitely a choice find: a management position with all the rights and responsibilities entitled thereto. She did have to wonder why he’d hired someone who knew so little about antiques. But the job had come with something she didn’t expect out of a French Quarter shop – fantastic regular pay, so she didn’t question Jack’s hiring practices too closely. Something she had to give Jack real kudos for was his ability to sell.
    That man could sell the proverbial snow to the proverbial Eskimo, she thought as a customer left with a pocket watch. He’d been another customer claiming to come in “just to look around” and had left having bought something. And he was another one who’d left with something akin to confusion on his face, as if to wonder why he’d bought this…
    “Had me worried there, Jack,” said the portly blonde, a mid-thirties looking woman, her blue eyes relaxing from their anxious state from behind the simple black frame glasses as she returned to her duties.
    Alice’s primary task was inventory. It never ceased to amaze her just what Jack had in the shop. It was up to her to find out as much as possible and to arrange for an appraisal service to authenticate and value the items. She wasn’t too surprised to find that most of the items were very old but it puzzled her that many of them had some mystery involved.
    The shop itself was of what might be considered fairly large. Jack had hired contractors to remodel the space, following French Quarter Neighborhood Association regulations. He had to keep the large windows and the double doors with their large square windows and the original architectural features but they’d allowed him to update the lighting so it was a bright, well-lit space.
    Jack turned back to his work in the antique shop, an endeavor on which he had embarked a few weeks ago. He’d seen the rise of the T-shirt shops in the French Quarter and had wanted to put in something more tasteful. In that effort, his shop had actual antiques and real art.
    The open space had rows of off-white square columns, all of the same height, just below eye level for an average height person. They were each topped by clear glass cubes the each held an individual antique item: vases, coins, watches, eyeglasses, shaving kits, opera glasses, jewelry, and vanity sets. The walls were lined with a mix of antique and modern art, mostly paintings but also a fair amount of photographs, mostly black and white. The main counter was in the middle of the space, a small off-white square fortress with long, enclosed glass displays.
    Jack passed the reflective surface of a display case and thought about the image he saw there, the minor effort it cost him. He looked to be in his mid forties with an aristocratic, European face, a Roman nose and wavy graying dark hair. Maintaining the reflection had become as automatic as breathing. If one needed to breathe, he thought. There were those that didn’t, he knew.
    Alice wasn’t sure her boss was as fine as he claimed. This wasn’t the first time she’d seen him stop; head tilted as if listening to something, something only he could hear.
    “Must be one hell of a daydream,” Alice said as she turned a pocket watch over to inspect the case, looking for some clue to use in her search.
    Jack stood from his simple stool and brushed imaginary dust from his brown dress slacks and walked over to stand beside Alice, who was seated at a computer screen with a small pile of items to research. As he approached her, Alice felt a slight tingle of fear regardless of the gentle smile on his face. There was something about his dark eyes that didn’t hold that smile.
    “It was,” he said quietly, looking steadily into her eyes. Alice suddenly felt as if she were falling…
    “You okay, Alice?” a voice asked her.
    Alice shook her head, clearing cobwebs from what must’ve been a hell of a daydream. This was happening way too much these days, she thought.
    “Sorry, Jack,” she said sheepishly. “I was daydreaming again.”
    “I think it’s time to call it a day,” Jack said. “Go home, get some dinner.”
    “Yeah,” said Alice as she stood somewhat groggily from her chair.
    Somehow she brushed a pocket watch off the counter and flinched, expecting the clatter of metal on the tile floor. It never came. Jack set the pocket watch on the counter without expression. Somehow he’d caught the watch. And, in another of those curious moments which seemed to frequent her since she’d come to work for Jack, Alice couldn’t remember where the watch had come from. Was this something she was supposed to be researching?
    Her train of thought derailed when Jack asked, “Are you coming for the tour?”
    Alice knew Jack’s house was on some historic tour and the Metairie native had been of a couple of these when she was younger.
    “Maybe next time,” she smiled as she gathered her purse, having thrown a light, tan jacket over her smart white dress shirt and dark blue skirt. “Gotta help the kiddo with her homework.”
    “Have a good night, then,” Jack said, closing the door behind her.

    (This part is from a previous edit and I’ve left it here for character building and as a writing reference. Comments on this are welcome as well.)

    Jack had lived in New Orleans for a while, since the middle of the 20th Century. He’d witnessed so much history in this city since coming here. And he’d come to truly enjoy life here. It had been so long since he could honestly say he enjoyed living. Jack had made a life for himself in the French Quarter, his home the large house farther down Royal Street, at the corner of Ursulines Avenue.
    The Quarter provided pretty much everything he needed and Jack truly didn’t need much. Sure, summer was a beast with its long, hot days but he was used to that and could schedule his needs accordingly. He only had to be careful that his needs went mostly unnoticed or unsuspected.
    See, for Jack to meet his needs meant that someone had to die. It was the only way a vampire could live, through the deaths of others. It didn’t matter if it was the next door neighbor or the neighbor’s Dachshund, Jack had to feed and that meant someone or something had to die. The circle of life, he thought cheerfully.
    Jack thought about his long life and how things had progressed here. It had been nearly three hundred years since he’d come to this world. He’d spent a considerable amount of time in Europe, where he’d first arrived. He’d started simple but had gotten the attention of a nobleman, who’d taken him under his tutelage.
    And then it was a quick rise to court where his ideas had gained certain notoriety. Part of European society had believed he was an alchemist of extraordinary talent and that he possessed an elixir for eternal youth. They certainly noticed that he didn’t appear to be getting any older, after a while. Some began to believe he was something evil and he’d had to flee. Having taken ship to the new world, he disappeared from the face of Europe and had come to America.
    After spending a considerable amount of time wandering the country, he’d come to New Orleans and had immediately blended in. Jack set up his shop and had lived his life in relative anonymity. His resemblance to a certain local legend amused him to the point of considering changing his name to Jacque. He had, however, not given into the temptation.

    For some people, small, beautiful events are what life is all about!

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