If you must have a name for her, then you may call her Bella. It is not her proper name, but it is close enough for – the suggestion would earn you the shadow of a smile from her – close enough for government work. Only a shadow of a smile, because this is not government work. Say close enough, rather, for cash, for there is no denying that tonight is all about cash, oh yes. It has been sprayed around the foyer like air freshener around a locker room, and it has done just as little to conceal the underlying stench. Who yearns to be seen at a sponsored gala at a casino hotel on Christmas Eve, when they might spend this evening, if no other, with their family?
She hesitates for a moment on the threshold. It is in keeping, this pause for assessment, but for her unnecessary. She knows exactly what impression she will make as she crosses the busy room in a powder blue dress that is one of the last relics of her old life. No one is going to ask her for an invitation card, not here, not tonight. Even if someone marks her as an unfamiliar face, they will only write her off as a high class tart. A cheap tart, now, a cheap tart would have an altogether harder time of it, but a girl of her calibre is not here speculatively. Someone is waiting for her, surely. A rich man, a man who enjoys throwing his money around, a good tipper and a high roller. Not a man to cross, not a man to inconvenience.
She has the lift to herself, and finds herself gazing blankly at the hazy reflection in the black faux marble facing of the doors. For a moment it hardly seems to be her own image, but she shakes the feeling off. It is perfectly natural that her pale dress looks bone white in that false reflection, and as for the likeness to her mother, the family resemblance has never been in doubt, and for tonight she has consciously copied remembered hair and makeup. That expression, though, that will not do at all. As the doors slide open, she makes some effort with her smile.
The effect is wasted; she passes no one. She is alone, as she expected, but for her own image in the mirrors scattered along the corridor. Her dress is powder blue again in those multiple reflections, though she seems to trail a silver nimbus. She had expected better mirrors in so expensive an establishment, and the thought amuses her: perhaps the guests here are not so keen to see themselves clearly.
She does not hesitate when she reaches the room. A stolen pass card – hard cash, again – and as she has seen the room’s occupants amongst the brittle-cheerful crowd below there is nothing to stop her from crossing immediately to the rather ugly water-colour on the wall, pulling on gloves as she goes.
The painting moves aside easily, and the safe it reveals is the model she expects. With that last doubt removed she works smoothly, her mind freewheeling as her hands take over. Who is she, she wonders, to judge those revellers so easily, when she herself is working, and will not be returning to home or family? But she has no family to return to, and begins to push the thought away with practiced ease. For once that easy mental dodge fails her. Her uncle would offer her a home, she knows that. She has been careful to maintain the appearance of a law-abiding life; he need never know how far she has fallen. She sits back on her heels as the safe swings open, and considers. She can leave her current circle without guilt or fear. She has made no serious enemies, incurred no serious debts, she has –
She has entirely missed a sensor, not standard to the model, and she freezes in horror. It lasts only a moment. The room is silent, and she knows that the hotel favours audible alarms, not discreet systems sounding only at the desk. Besides, it is the work of a moment to drop the emeralds she has come for and another box into her bag. If there are security men already on their way, then to take the stones puts her less than a second closer to capture.
And they are nice stones, she thinks complacently, as she leaves the room without a backward glance, a good size, valuable but not uncommon. Out of their setting they will be untraceable. The box is a bonus – this year’s gift, not yet unwrapped. Chosen by the secretary, no doubt, and whatever Bella may think of that she knows that the secretary has a good eye.
Her thoughts recede down the passage, and her mother watches her go, dry eyed.
Ghosts have no tears to shed, else she might well weep for that insouciant figure tailgating a group of guests at the lift, blithely unaware that the reflections that follow her are now crisp and clear. Or she might better weep for herself. The rules, after all, are clear. One nudge, because it is Christmas Eve. No physical interference. No assistance, certainly, in an illegal act. She rehearses her excuses. Her one nudge, badly timed, almost got the girl caught, and an arrest will only set her on this course. Left alone, she might yet choose the right path of her own accord. She might!
The ghost stretches her awareness, seeking reassurance, and catches her daughter rehearsing excuses of her own. The inherited diamonds? Too well known. They would have to be expensively recut. The coral, that famous wedding gift? She chose to gamble on the new piece, she had not space for both.
She might …
The ghost lets go of the relay at last, and as she fades away the bells ring out, though they are not Christmas bells.