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In the Light of Day
last modified January 1, 2004
by Amy R.
PG-13. This parallel-reality fanfiction expects familiarity with Forever Knight, especially the episodes "Fever," "Dead of Night," "The Games Vampires Play" and "The Human Factor." Please see the endnote for disclaimers, citations and credits.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: The Happy Ending01
Natalie racked her brain for Nick's current alarm code as she rushed her car into his parking lot of a driveway. Half panicked by his message on her office voice mail, she could not remember the sequence. He had said he felt "not all right." What the heck was that supposed to mean? She had tried calling from her cellular phone as she drove, but only his machine picked up.
Grabbing her purse, regular pathologist's case and rarely-used medical bag from behind her seat, Natalie reflected that it had all seemed too good to be true, these past two months since Cal died -- that is, since Lacroix murdered Cal, and the vampire chanced on the ironic cure in his victim's HIV-infected blood for the fever then decimating his kind. A horrible juncture, but there it was. Since then, Nick and she had made such progress! Recovering from the fever, Nick had adhered scrupulously to her prescriptions. He had swallowed garlic pills, drunk protein shakes, consumed enzyme concoctions and progressively reduced his blood intake to nil. His pulse and temperature had increased -- slowly at first, but then geometrically, proportionate with the decline of the rogue RNA tag in his cells. Last week, Nick had witnessed only his second dawn in eight centuries -- this time with no drug fouling his perceptions. She had necessarily hustled him back indoors after hardly an hour, but what an hour! Even in her hurry toward Nick's door, Natalie wondered at how an old friend's death had coincided with a much dearer friend's closest approach to life.
Stubborn vampire. Before, he had never really believed that only the blood stood between him and his ancient dream of recovered humanity. Heck, even she had doubted. Simple abstinence had not eliminated his vampirism when Nick suffered amnesia earlier this winter, for example, nor when he joined that twelve-step program three years ago. But now, here they were, and what else could possibly explain it? Now . . . .
Now, Natalie pressed the button next to the old warehouse's elevator and hoped she was not too late. "It's me. Are you there, Nick? What's wrong?"
"Hey, Nat," his voice flowed through the speaker, sounding anxious, but otherwise as strong and clear as ever. Natalie released a breath she did not realize she had caught. "Come on up."
The exterior door unlocked with a click and Natalie stepped inside. "That didn't answer my question," she reprimanded the intercom over her shoulder as the door slid shut behind her. It did not even begin to answer her questions. What could have gone wrong? Everything had been so right! The vampire RNA factor had ceased to duplicate in his new cells, and its effects sloughed away with the old. Had Nick relapsed to the blood -- had someone made him relapse? Resentment of past interference by Lacroix boiled over and temporarily drowned her fears. How was Nick supposed to stay clean if that blood broker kept urging the stuff on him? How was she supposed to get accurate data if Lacroix kept sabotaging her experiments?
The elevator bumped into place with a clang. Nick slid open the heavy steel door from inside his loft before she could reach the handle. "Thanks for coming."
"Since when do you have so many lamps?" she asked, stepping into the cavernous room and goggling at the light. "Never mind." She shook her head against the dazzle and refocused on Nick. At first inspection, he looked as well as she had ever seen him. A tad pink, or maybe ginger -- an unexpected skin tint accentuated by his white dress shirt and black jeans. And his dark-blond hair appeared damp. Sweat? she wondered. But other than that and the slightly strained expression, she would have pronounced him the healthiest, fittest, thirty-something-looking man she had seen all week. "What's happened, and what can I do to help?"
"Do you want to set down your stuff?" He gestured at the table defining his dining room, halfway between his well-worn piano and like-new kitchen sink.
"You're not answering my questions, Nick," she pointed out, but went to deposit her bags on the table, anyway, avoiding the ivory-inlaid wood box currently serving as centerpiece. It was probably worth a king's ransom -- or had held a king's ransom -- or maybe Nick had picked it up last week at Pottery Barn. She just never knew. Shrugging out of her winter coat, Natalie said, "And you didn't answer your phone when I called from my car, either. What's up?"
"You called? I'm sorry; I didn't hear." Nick strode past his piano to look at the answering machine on the credenza behind his couch. One of his new lamps obscured the blinking red light. "I was in the shower."
Natalie planted her hands on her hips. "Why don't we start at the beginning?"
"Because all epics begin in the middle?" Nick bantered back, gesturing expansively, but a sudden pinch of pain snuffed his light smile. His hands retracted toward his chest, curled like claws.
"Nick!" Natalie ran across the room as he slumped against the back of his couch. Was he having a heart attack? Had he become human enough to be able to suffer myocardial infarction?
"I'm all right." He took a deep breath and waved a still-clenched hand self-deprecatingly. She caught it and began to take his pulse. Was that pure sunburn on his face, or part embarrassed blush?
"You didn't look all right. Where does it hurt?"
"Mainly my chest. But it's not what you're thinking. It's not cardiovascular or pulmonary --"
"Not to underestimate your nineteenth-century medical training," she interrupted, not raising her gaze from her watch, "or your stint with the Red Cross in Vietnam, for that matter, but the doctor who diagnoses himself . . . multiplied equals seventy-two beats per minute." Natalie looked up, her eyes wide. "That's normal human range! Normal!"
"I know." Nick's smile lit the loft more brightly than all his new lamps. "It hasn't dropped below fifty-eight all week -- while I'm awake, in any case. I was waiting for our appointment tomorrow night to tell you."
"Oh, Nick. Believe me, I want to know these things when they happen. That's outstanding progress!" Moving to embrace him, she saw the wince as her arm brushed his chest. "Sorry. Tell me again what hurts."
"It comes and goes, now more intense, then completely subsiding. It's like a burning, or maybe freezing, crackling across this thin layer right beneath my skin. Mainly here," he gestured across his pectorals, again with his fingers curled, "but also on my calves. I began noticing it around sunset. Like I said, it comes and goes. When I called you a few hours ago, it was as bad as it's been."
"I'm sorry it took me so long to get back to you," Natalie apologized, turning over the symptoms in her mind. "I was out on a case. Two-car collision -- one death -- completely accidental. It's an almost blind turn around a hill and, in the dark, and then the sudden glare of headlights, it seems each misjudged where the other was headed."
"I knew you were working tonight. I'm sorry for bothering you."
"Don't be. It's been, what, five, six years now since I signed on to this quest for a cure? We're in this together, all the way. Holmes and Watson, Bogey and Bacall, Lambert and Knight."
"Kong and Wray?"
"No way. You'll claim you're Wray and make me the monkey. Nick," she shrugged apologetically. "I will need you to take off your shirt, you know."
Natalie returned to the table, shuffling through her case to give him a moment. Mentally, she sorted Nick's symptoms, stifling the renegade bit of her brain that crawled out of its cave to promote a decidedly non-medical perspective on Nick disrobing. How dare she think of that just now? No merely attractive body would ever compromise her scientific detachment, she hoped, but somewhere along their strange journey to scientific breakthrough, she had fallen in love with this fascinating, driven man, and, she believed, he with her. But stolen moments, stifled declarations, unspoken understandings -- sometimes her life felt like a monument to confused frustration. For the same reason she could not do the ethical thing and resign this project into another scientist's hands, this patient to another doctor's care, she had never been able to simply ask him out on a date. As Nick's vampirism had brought them together, so it held them apart.
What second-rate horror fiction romantically dubbed "the vampire's kiss" proved invariably fatal in real life, Nick had carefully explained. Once, fast and clean, or repeatedly, slow and zombiefied -- the human was inevitably just as dead in the end. So she plugged away at the project of making Nick human, helpless to prevent the slow merging of her own emotional riddles with the scientific puzzle she had originally undertaken from him.
Professional and personal, all goals had combined in Nick. So close now to success in one, could she no longer entirely separate the two?
Turning to Nick, Natalie saw him folding his white t-shirt lengthwise before draping it over the back of his couch next to the button-down shirt already hanging neatly there. Crossing to set her notebook near his answering machine, she teased, "Preventing wrinkles?"
"Old habits, I suppose." Nick turned around then, and Natalie's breath hissed out through her teeth. Easily seen through his thin crop of chest hair, Nick's pale skin reddened beneath a lattice of white lines, accented periodically by rough flakes peeling away from their surroundings. The rusty tint of his face and hands testified to his exceeding her prescribed sun exposure, but sunburn fell short of explaining this.
"Does it itch?" she asked, leaning in. He had definitely been scratching.
"I wouldn't call it an itch. Itching stops after you scratch, right? Like brushing a bug off your skin?"
"Not necessarily," Natalie answered absently, on the verge of hypothesis. If he had forgotten the nature of mortal itches over his undead centuries, the simplest answer might indeed apply. "Nick, you said you were in the shower when I called. Did the water help?"
"Yeah, while I was in it, but then it was worse, after. How did you know?"
"What soap do you use?" Natalie persisted.
"What? Uh, it's called 'Magma.' It comes in yellow bars, and powder. It's great for removing blood . . ." Nick trailed off when Natalie failed to choke down her laugh at the product's name. "What's funny?"
She held up one finger as she raced to her bag, still swallowing a chuckle. Retrieving a stout plastic tube, she unscrewed the cap as she strode back to him. "I'm sorry, Nick. I shouldn't laugh; I'm sure it does hurt. But this isn't a set-back. This is actually a good thing! It looks like you're close enough to humanity now to suffer dry skin."
"Very dry skin." Natalie handed over the 'Intensive Care Moisturizing Lotion' for his inspection after squeezing some of the vaguely-botanical-smelling cream into her hand. "Exacerbated by industrial-strength soap. That stuff is for removing automotive oil from fingernails, Nick, not all-over body washing! You never do anything half-way." She gently set her palm on his chest, ready to pull back if it stung him. He gasped, then nodded, no doubt able to feel the parched skin soaking up the moisture. The driest, most irritated patches spread out where the shower spray must strike most and hardest, carrying away his skin's natural lubricants. Natalie avoided those, simply smearing off the lotion on her hand and stepping back.
Reaching up to rub it in, Nick noted, "It's not the most dignified affirmation of returned humanity, but I can say for certain that I've never heard of a vampire with dry skin."
"Did you have dry skin before?"
"Before Lacroix? I don't remember anything like this!" He squeezed more lotion into his hand. "But it's not like we had daily showers in the thirteenth century."
"A protective layer of sweat and grime would hold in the skin's oils," Natalie concurred. "Well, from now on, buy regular soap, please. Moisturizing. The kind marked 'for dry skin,' if at all possible." She started to cross her arms, then remembered the slick sheen of lotion still on her hand. Holding it up for him to see, she grinned. "If you want to sit down, I could help you with that."
Nick's right hand stilled over his heart, and his left extended the lotion tube to her. His slow, sly smile made her want to laugh even as it stole her breath away.
During his head-wound-induced amnesia months before, Nick had demonstrated how attractive he found her without the complications that made their relationship so unique. That had gone only so far, of course. On the one hand, even had they succeeded, sex would have proven possibly injurious to him, and inevitably hollow to her. She wanted his heart, not just his hormones. On the other hand, retrospectively certain, rediscovering his vampirism with his fangs in her neck would have represented a definite set-back to the experiment. So, trembling, still standing in front of his fireplace, she had called a halt when he suggested making love. But, ever since, every look, every touch, reminded her that he had asked, and she had wanted.
His full memory restored, and that one particular memory stroking her whichever way she turned, Nick's reticence had come to seem only caution, not the indifference -- or, worse, obligation -- she used to fear. In her triumphant discovery of the vampiric RNA's recession, a comradely, congratulatory kiss had become something more. Since then, his ingrained hesitation had peeled away with the vampirism that inspired it. When she smiled back at him and took the lotion tube, he circled to the front of his black leather sofa and sat down.
Shrugging out of her blazer to spare it moisturizer stains, Natalie draped it next to Nick's shirts and joined him on the couch. Treating his sorely parched skin was her first concern. But she let herself think about what was in his smile, and where they could take this now that the beast on his back no longer had the strength to overpower him when he reached for her. And, oh, she wanted him to reach for her! It had been so long. Natalie wondered if Nick had become too human to hear her pulse pick up speed.
"Nice blouse," he mused. "New?"
"Yes, thanks." She glanced down at her purple shirt before squeezing some of the tube's contents into her hand. Meeting his eyes, she smiled confidently into the humor and half-faked lasciviousness she found there. "It's called a 'shell,' actually, which is department-store-speak for 'overpriced silk tank-top,' but it matches my favorite suit." Natalie set the tube aside and began working her way systematically across Nick's chest with both hands.
"I went outside today," he offered.
"I guessed," she said. "Even with the new sunscreen, you still burn so easily! And I thought we agreed on a schedule for sun exposure? No, sorry. Never mind. That's the wrong question. The right question is, how was it?"
Rich, smooth and deep, the word rose up from the bottom of his lungs and probably the bottom of his soul. Natalie felt those three syllables ripple down her torso from her ears to her hips. If the day had been a fraction as pleasing as Nick's perception of it, she regretted sleeping through it. "But I thought today was overcast?"
"It was." She felt him shrug under her hands, and looked up to see him smile -- this time, the smile of a small boy to whom everything was new and good. "The clouds evened out the light, I think, reflecting it around. So the light was softer, with less sun, but not a shadow anywhere, not in a single corner. It was like the world to the horizon lit equally, every step of the way. Nat, it was the mirror opposite of night! And I walked through it."
"Oh." She smiled back, then returned her gaze to his chest. The less-damaged skin had already improved visibly, but some serious mid-thoracic scratches, on both sides, might take over a week to vanish entirely, without vampiric healing.
Without vampiric healing. Without the vampire.
Somehow, the realization startled her. She had known with her head, but now his skin warmed her hands. Placing one over his long-suffering heart, she slid her other up to his neck to feel his reborn pulse beating away, steady and strong and human. She looked up into his eyes, the same brave blue as before, but she fancied the sea now had a floor, the sky a limit. The vampire in him was not just restrained or suppressed; it was dead. The project was over, the adventure ended. As physically close to Nick as she had ever been, Natalie suddenly felt cryingly alone. "We really did it, didn't we?"
"Yes." His decisive smile conveyed the surety of experience endured and independence earned. "We've won."
"You sound awfully confident."
"I am," Nick answered. "C'mere." He tugged gently at her right arm with one hand and placed his other on her left thigh. Surprised but agreeable, she knelt over his lap so their eyes met straight on. He clasped his hands around her waist, dropping his voice until his words thrummed under her hands as well as in her ears. "A vampire's heart beats every ten minutes; mine beats every second. Vampires implode in sunlight; I'm starting a tan. Vampires drink blood; I had canned ravioli for supper -- with garlic toast. The Hunger --" and Natalie could hear the capitalization, the nuance that distinguished vampiric craving "-- is stanched. You're the one who explained the diminishing vampire RNA factor. You charted my food intake, sun tolerance, pulse rate, body temperature, and I don't know what all! I'd offer more dramatic proof, but somehow stabbing myself so we can watch me not heal doesn't seem proportionate."
Natalie gave him a sharp look and a slight punch in the arm for threatening himself, even in jest. "That's not funny, Nick."
"It is, too." He grinned, then continued gently. "This isn't just today, Nat. It's weeks now, and there's no lydovuterine, amnesia, or magic to praise or blame this time. This is real, and it's all your science."
"I know," she hesitated. Why did she not want to believe the evidence she herself had collected? "Of course I know! But we pretty much knew all this a few days ago, too, and you weren't this sure then. What changed?"
"Dry skin?" Nick grinned again. "No, of course not. I've known all day, Nat. I've just known. The one kind of evidence nothing and no one could fake or distort. I am human." He lifted his left hand to her hair where she could feel it slipping loose from its bun. "I went to Mass."
"Oh." Natalie's heart sank into her stomach as he invoked something so non-empirical as his final proof. She felt even more isolated than before. Well, at least this meant Nick believed in this new mortality. She doubted it demonstrated much else, but his reaction to religious objects and settings -- which she could only assume psychosomatic -- had persisted consistently before. "What made you think to do that?"
He laughed, and she felt reassured. "No credit to me, I was just out walking, watching the sun rise, and happened to pass St. John's while the organist was practicing beforehand. He's quite good, really. I listened at the door for a while, then snuck in to a pew way in the back. I just sat quietly there the whole time." Pausing, Nick placed his hand on hers, which still rested over his heart. "I don't claim any miracle or revelation, Nat. It's not like that. But I've felt what it was to invade a holy place as a vampire and, today, I felt what it is to be gathered in as a human."
"Human," she echoed wistfully. "So we really did it, huh? This is it?"
"Have I thanked you yet?" Nick leaned very close, running his hands up her back, tilting his head and meeting her eyes. His breath felt warm and smelled faintly of toothpaste. His nose brushed past hers, and his lips almost touched hers. Almost. Natalie hesitated, hovered and then closed the minute gap between them.
One soft, light kiss. A flock of feathery kisses, gentle, sweet. Undemanding. Natalie leaned back, caught Nick's eyes and mimed ripping a tag from his neck. Then she shredded the imaginary tag in front of his face.
"What was that?"
"Your 'handle with care, sharp edges' label."
Nick stared uncomprehending for a second, then began to laugh. "That's only for removal by the end consumer, you know."
"Guess that means I'm stuck with you." Natalie threaded her fingers into Nick's hair, angled his head, and offered a completely different species of kiss.
Surfacing for air an eternity later, Natalie found her hands tracing slick, tight circles against Nick's chest. Consciously redirecting one hand to his left ear and the other around his back, she leaned in for another kiss, if he would so oblige.
He did. At some point, it must have occurred to him that the lotion on his chest was damaging her new purple shell, however, because he tried to disengage and apologize. Kissing an earlobe, Natalie insisted that the shirt had given its life in a very good cause indeed, and then moved to dispense with it entirely. Nick, breathing heavily, stayed her hand.
"Nat, we do have to talk about a few things. Now. Before we go any further." She began to reply, but he laid a gentle finger across her lips. "We have talked, I know. But it's never been a . . . decision. You are my best friend, Nat. Your friendship is the most important relationship in my life now -- and now I even have a life! I don't want to risk our friendship if this . . . if . . ."
"What are you saying, Nick?" Natalie sat up a little straighter, and Nick's hand fell back to his side. She knew better than to believe that with the scientific puzzle solved, the emotional pieces would fall smartly into place as well, but -- she had hoped. And he had given every indication he had, too. Blast euphemism. And delicacy. Much better to get it clear. "Do you not want to have sex?"
"Of course I do! I know you haven't missed the evidence. I just don't . . . Nat, the amnesia uncovered it, and these past two months brought it home. I love you. I'm in love with you. And I want you. But what we want isn't always what's best. If this is for the wrong reasons, just because I'm human now . . . just because we can . . . Nat, after everything we've both been through, I don't want that for us. This should be for the right reasons, or not at all."
Natalie shut her eyes and swallowed. He had just said he was in love with her. And she could not possibly want anything more than she did him right now. He needed better reasons than those? She took a deep breath. Then another. Opening her eyes, Natalie said, "This is not like during the asteroid scare, or when you lost your memory. This is about life -- your new life. I love you, too, Nick. You have been my world for six amazing years. Please," she whispered, brushing her lips against his. "Make love with me."
She took his kiss for "yes," but then he pulled away again with that same worry hovering around his eyes. She sighed, and teased herself about discovering a downside to the self-denial she had pressed him so hard to practice as a vampire. "More to talk about?"
"A bit," he admitted, touching his forehead to hers and stroking the back of her neck with one hand while undoing what remained of her bun with the other. Her thick hair swung down to surround both their faces. "Excuse me my newly-human anxieties, but it's entirely possible something's damaged, after being a vampire . . . and eight centuries out of the gene pool . . . I know you can do the research -- maybe you already have? -- but if we become parents sooner rather than later, the child will have to live with whatever I pass on, and if that's something vampiric . . ."
"Oh." Natalie's thoughts raced. No form of birth control is infallible, of course, but children had been far from her mind, and vampirism's possible hereditary permutations even further. It embarrassed her. And what did he mean, "sooner rather than later"? Tossing back her hair and leaning off Nick's lap, Natalie shifted toward the arm of the couch and swung her legs around to set both feet on the floor. "You're right, Nick; we need to talk. I have done some research, and . . . But what else is worrying you, first?"
He swallowed. "As you remember, Cal's HIV-positive blood cured the vampire fever. It's been just a few months since you injected me with it. Now, you've said that the HIV obliterated the vampire-fever virus, and that the HIV then promptly died inside the vampiric system, as it would in a dead body, but --"
"Believe me, Nick, if I thought there were any possibility either of us was HIV-positive -- !"
Nick winced, and Natalie instantly apologized. "I'm sorry. You're being sensible, and I'm not being fair. My body's just running on a different track than my brain, and apparently my mouth with it." Regretting breaking physical contact, she clasped his right hand between both of hers and lifted it to her lips. "I've been checking you for HIV since Cal's death, Nick, and the current tests aren't subject to the old 'hiding' incubation gaps. There's a lag for the results, sure, but it's been straight negatives. The vampire immune system is -- was -- a marvelous thing. You're clear."
"I'm glad. I don't want to put you at risk."
"And here I thought the risks would end when you became human." Natalie smiled, touched by this manifestation of his habitual caution with the dangers he perceived himself to present.
"No." Nick's expression darkened, and he traced her lips with a finger. "The old risks just made way for new ones. Lacroix won't be happy about this -- my humanity or our relationship. He may consider our truce broken. He may even call in . . . older debts." Natalie released his hand, and kissed his finger when he left it on her lips. Nick smiled, but added to the warning. "And even if he leaves us alone, we're both now 'mortals who know,' targets for those who protect the vampires' secret should anyone report us. I have a few friends, but they may yet consider me as one dead, and if worse comes to worst, we may have no choice but to run -- maybe separately. More, I doubt I'm hypnotism-resistant, so my memory and identity sit vulnerable to the first vampire who cares to tamper. And even if the vampire community leaves us to ourselves, we'll have to be careful at work or we may get reassigned to prevent conflicts of interest." As his cautions escalated, so did the attention her mouth lavished on his hand. "I'm alive and human now, but Lacroix might destroy that tomorrow night, or a bullet the next day, or my new humanity may yet turn toward dust as it settles under the weight of eight centuries."
"I love you," Natalie assured him. "Whatever comes, Nick, I love you." Maybe everything was not over yet, after all. She kissed him again, floating on a sudden wave of excitement, then drew back with what she meant as a suggestive smile, but suspected was at best a rather silly grin. "Didn't you say your calves were in the same condition as your chest?"
"Yes," Nick confirmed, grinning back. "Yes, I believe I did."
"So some of this," Natalie picked up the lotion tube, "would be welcome there?"
"Oh, absolutely," he laughed, and kissed her shoulder just below the shell's hem.
"Shall we take this conversation upstairs and see about that?"
"I don't think I'm strong enough to carry you anymore."
"I'd planned on walking." Laughing back, she stood and pulled him up with her. "Besides, you'll need your strength for something else."
"As milady commands." Nick's elaborate, joking bow ended with him on one knee. Concerned, Natalie bent over to help him, but he gestured for her to stay up, and retrieved a black velvet pouch from his back pocket, which he untied and unfolded, revealing a ring. The delicate band shone with intricately entwined gold and platinum, and no jewel broke the smooth circle. "I have a human heart to give, now, but it's already been yours for some time. Natalie, will you make me your husband?"
"Oh!" she breathed. For a split second, all Natalie felt was surprise. They had never discussed this. Wasn't it just a bit sudden? Even quite a bit sudden? Then she looked up from the ring to his ardent expression. "Of course. Yes, of course I'll marry you, Nick."
Chapter Two: It's All Good
Never before had Nick felt the lack of a window in his bedroom. The closest he had come was the first time Tracy had seen the inside of his home. The rookie detective had jokingly threatened to report her partner to the appropriate authorities for the numerous fire codes violated by the windowless sleeping quarters and locking metal shutters, but since both obviously fell under the cover of Nick's "allergy" to sunlight, the observation passed lightly and never recurred. Nick had hidden many eccentricities under that allergy in recent years. Though he did not yet know how to present his "recovery" or explain those eccentricities that might prove impossible to shake even now, he could not have been happier to lose his excuse.
Except perhaps, he thought as he leaned against the glass in his living room and looked out into the misty dawn, if there were a window in his bedroom.
Until a few weeks ago, such a window would have exposed the vampire's refuge to its most persistent foe. Today, a bedroom window, with light creeping around the curtain edges and through the shutter cracks, would have allowed him to watch Natalie's face as she slept at his side, her thick, curling, brown hair spilling up and over the pillow, away from her head, so her shoulders would not trap it if she turned as she dreamed. Today, a window would have allowed him to confirm again with his eyes the almost unbelievable presence of the human woman beside whom he had spent the night.
But, human, he could no longer see in the dark and, with the lamp off, his bedroom remained very dark indeed. Reluctant to wake Natalie, reluctant to leave her, Nick's reluctance to wait in the blackness when sunlight beckoned had finally triumphed, and he had slipped away downstairs and raised all the shades. Leaving the living-room window to perch himself on his couch with a mug of orange juice, he stared at his pallid feet protruding into the cloudy light from under the cuffs of his pajama trousers and marveled at it all.
So much was so good that he could not even decide on the best part. At the moment, the leading contenders were the end of the vampire's all-consuming hunger, and, well, Natalie. Close behind came the sunlight, and freedom from the twin fears that he would not -- or would -- be heard if he dared to pray.
The unobtrusive little box on his coffee table caught his attention. Plain oak, one iron band for reinforcement, polished by time alone: it hardly looked the part of a reliquary. "I do not fear death any longer, Joan," Nick said quietly, setting aside his orange juice. "Not for itself. You were right; those who choose the night dwell in constant fear of death. Eventually, I chose the day. But it's been such a long road from that choice! On the other hand," he smiled, "the choice is everything, isn't it?"
Suddenly restless, Nick stood and strode to the window, scanning the overcast cityscape. Sun sliced some clouds, sending the pieces drifting. When a bright beam bumped into the last of the night's rain and poured down in red, yellow, green, blue and purple, Nick's turbulent thoughts spun into the simplest prayer. "Thank you."
"Talking to me?" Natalie yawned through a smile, leaning over the rail of the second-floor landing.
Nick jumped. "Uh, no." She had startled him, still complacent in habits of vampiric senses. His world had gotten a lot quieter over the past two months, but his expectations had yet to adjust. "Not that the words don't apply to you, too." He grinned up at her, admiring the angle at which his now wrinkled shirt skimmed her thighs, awed at the implications of his ring on her hand. "Come see the rainbow."
Yawning again, Natalie descended the steps and joined him at the window. Circling his back with one arm, she tilted her head up for a quick kiss before looking out where he pointed. The curving column of color bent away from the lake and vanished somewhere downtown. "Nice."
"That is one sight I truly haven't seen in eight centuries," Nick replied after a long moment drinking in the rainbow by sight and Natalie's closeness by scent and touch. Human senses might not stretch far, but right now they encompassed everything he wanted in this world. "Never again by flood."
He looked down into her drowsy puzzlement. "You know, Genesis. Noah. Sign of the first covenant."
"Oh, right." Natalie blinked. "Yeah, next time it's fire."
"Only before coffee. And I seem to recall someone else who's not usually at his best immediately on waking. Speaking of which, what are you doing up, anyway?"
"I like being up in the daytime, now." Nick grinned, exhilarated with his new freedom from the sun's cycle. Dawn and dusk chained the vampire, urging every blood-soaked cell toward deep, death-like sleep while the sun occupied the sky. Human, he could make his own hours however he chose. "And I seem to need a lot less sleep."
"You, maybe," Natalie yawned and closed her eyes, snuggling against his side. "Well, don't overdo it, especially before we get through the rest of that vaccination list. A lot of germs have evolved since 1228, and you need sleep and good food if you don't want to end up in hospital dying of some trendy new bacteria."
Nick kissed her forehead again. "Food sounds good. What would you like for breakfast?"
"Actually, I want to go back to sleep." Natalie opened her huge, owl-like eyes and looked up at him. "Come with me?"
"There's nothing I'd like better, Nat, but there are people I have to see today." She looked hurt, and he kissed her to show he had not meant a rejection.
She smiled and sighed. "I suppose I should probably go to my own home. Change clothes, feed Sidney, check messages. Do you remember how to use the coffee maker?"
A meal and a shower later, Nick circled the twenty-seventh precinct, seeking a parking space. When one finally opened up, he maneuvered his Caddie in, and caught himself yearning for power steering. His classic car had become increasingly difficult to drive as he shed vampiric strength and reflexes.
Nick had been back to the twenty-seventh only a few times since the city consolidated the homicide squad under Captain Cohen's command at the ninety-sixth almost two years ago, each instance strictly on police business, and not at all since Don Schanke, his first partner, had died last fall. Walking up to the building where he had spent nearly four years under Joe Stonetree's command, Nick felt almost as if he had stumbled back into an old life after beginning a new one, vampire style. The sense of disorientation was the same, the impression of intrusion, but most of all the acute awareness of time's passage.
It helped that it was daytime, he told himself. He had never seen the squad room in the day, and he should not be able to picture himself and Schanke at desks that now belonged to others. But the times there had been good, very good. And it was not from here that Don Schanke and Amanda Cohen had died. For nearly the first time in eight centuries, Nick was going to allow himself to walk back into his past, and pick up where he had left off.
The freshness of this familiar world took his breath away.
* * *
October 1226, Cairo
Sir Nicholas de Brabant, Knight of the Cross, scratched under his beard and tried to make out the women's agitated exchange. In his five years of captivity, he had picked up enough Arabic to grasp the sense of most simple speech, but it was harder now, here in this dungeon-like cellar. When Nicholas had first entered this wearying lot and had still hoped daily for ransom, those who held him had placed irons on his legs and used his strong back in constructing their strangely tall stone buildings in this timber-light land. Then, he had shared at least a gesture, a look, and the comradeship of common labor with the men at his side. Words had come more easily with their substance under his hands and before his eyes.
Now, words floated down from beyond the outbuilding under which he languished, sifted like flour through the walls and stairs to his earthen floor. He told himself again that he was glad of the dark coolness, a refuge from the withering summers, and relieved most of all to be spared the chains at last. But God had not meant man to dwell alone, and sometimes Nicholas feared he would go mad with only his own remorse and resentment for company. So he strained after the voices above, the first words of this day, snaring the whispers like slippery fish.
"Nar!" Fire! The women's dispute split into a shriek and a shout, a word Nicholas knew taken up by more and more voices. He pushed himself to his feet and listened even harder as dropped tools clattered and feet pounded all over the compound. Those who stirred fires, tended animals and prepared the morning meal had been at their tasks, but others were just now waking to the general din. A man's voice shouted about the smithy; a woman asserted something about the old clay oven. Nicholas wondered how much threat fire could present in this place of stone and sand, then remembered the spring growth and summer drought, the thin grasses ringing the outer walls, and the precious orchards beyond. He paced as the commotion swelled.
"You, wood-worshipper!" Nicholas froze in surprise at the familiar slur in unfamiliar French. Here, only Kemal, whom Nicholas judged the reeve of this manor, spoke the language of the Crusaders, and that official now flung open the door to his prison. "To the well! Hurry, or you shall burn in this life as well as the next."
Nicholas took the stairs three at a time and plunged headlong into the storehouse above, only to hesitate, blinking, on the threshold. The first light of dawn hurt his eyes and stirred his soul.
"Now, foolish Frank!" Kemal barked, tossing an empty bucket at him. Nicholas caught it and hastened to the covered well at the center of the courtyard. He joined a line of men passing full jars, pots and buckets out the north gate, where black smoke billowed and a ghastly roar underlay frightened shouts. Children ran in the opposite direction with the empty containers, and somewhere behind them Nicholas knew women carried the household's treasures out of danger. From the corner of his eye, he saw a slight, veiled girl clutching a huge tome as a taller woman lifted a kind of zither. Nicholas thought fleetingly of his sister at home in Brabant with her books, and then of his beloved Gwyneth, now cold in her grave, holding her harp in Carreg.
But his momentary distraction broke the rhythmic flow of buckets from hand to hand, and after a hard cuff from Kemal, Nicholas did not raise his gaze again until he reached out for the next water container and found none to hand. Stretching, then, he saw that the smoke had finally dwindled to a faint, white column, and realized he had edged closer and closer to the gate during the anxious effort to supply water to those laboring at the edge of the fire. All around, relieved men remarked on how more or less time had passed than they had thought during the crisis. Many clustered together, savoring the excitement, while others slowly scattered back to their accustomed labors.
Nicholas looked out the north gate. Open, it reminded him that he also stood unfettered this morning, and suddenly the world looked as new as the eighth day of creation. What he had seen a thousand times, he had never seen before. Nicholas stepped behind two workmen, followed them through the gate, then turned -- with purpose, but without haste -- toward the orchards. From the orchards, he could reach the river. From the river, he could reach . . . he did not know.
But he was free, if he could keep it.
And the world was more beautiful than he had ever known.
* * *
"Why, Detective Knight!" Norma Ellis greeted him from behind the front desk as he entered the precinct.
"Hi, Norma." He smiled gently and reached over to clasp her hand. He had not seen her since Schanke's funeral, either. The cloud-filtered light drifting in the windows showed her warm brown complexion to more advantage than the night-shift's fluorescents ever had. "So are you on days, now?"
"Oh, years now, ever since the big reshuffle. I have enough seniority -- and what are you doing out in the day? Have they finally found something for your allergies?"
"Finally." He confined his exuberance to a wide grin. "Hey, what's Captain Stonetree's schedule look like?"
"If you're just dropping in to say hello, you can probably go in now. If it's case related, though, you should go through Ka."
Norma pointed to a slender young man at a desk outside the captain's office. "Ka Hasegawa. Stonetree's secretary."
"Stonetree has a secretary?"
"Of course he does. Didn't you know?"
"Uh--" Nick cudgeled his memory.
Norma laughed. "It was Susie Peterson when you were here, but never mind. The administrative pool works days. It's been good to see you, detective."
"You too, Norma." Nick let her get back to her work, and headed for the young man's desk. On the way, however, he stepped past the open door of Stonetree's office, triggering an implacable, familiar bark.
"Wonders never cease." Joe Stonetree came to his doorway to stare down at his former subordinate, surely noting the lack of sunglasses, gloves, hat and Nick's other usual sun-protection measures. A genial smile spread from ear to ear. "So you come here to show off your allergy cure, or are you slumming with us non-homicide division types?"
"A little of both, Cap. Do you have a minute?"
"Do I, Ka?"
"You have twenty-five minutes," the slight young man answered seriously.
"You heard the man, Knight. Make yourself at home." Stonetree returned to the depths of his office, and Nick followed, closing the door behind him.
"I am glad to see you out in the daylight, Knight. Schanke . . . Schanke would be glad, too."
"Thank you, Captain." Nick dropped his eyes a moment. "I know Schanke would have loved to get the heck off night shift, and that he stayed really only because of me. That's one reason I'm here, actually."
"I heard a rumor that the Police Commission has decided to break up the homicide squad again, spread it out away from the ninety-sixth. The justification is closer familiarity with different parts of the city, but actually it's a cost-saver. They say it would never have gotten a hearing if Captain Cohen had lived."
Stonetree crossed his arms behind his head and leaned back, his chair squeaking disapprovingly under his solid bulk. "Rumor flies."
Nick measured his response. "When the split comes through, would you be willing to take on me and my partner here, on day-shift?"
Stonetree did not blink. "No."
"You're still partnered with Commissioner Vetter's kid."
"Tracy. I wouldn't call her a 'kid.'" Not anymore, he amended to himself. Not after this year.
"We're all someone's kid, Knight. I'm a father; I know what that's like. And I've been here longer than you can count on your fingers and toes; I know what Vetter is like. No offense to your partner, but I don't want her in my command if I can help it." He uncrossed his arms and dropped them to his desk, leaning forward. "If you want reassignment alone, I'll do what I can for you."
"I appreciate that, Captain." But Nick did not want reassignment alone. He wanted to bring Tracy with him, not only for the team he felt they were finally becoming, but to help lift her out of the dark world of vampires into which being his partner had introduced her. He could not leave her behind in that, even if he could no longer really defend her. As long as Tracy was stuck on the night shift, so was he. Nick swallowed bitterly, then found himself coughing; he could not breathe! His throat hurt and his lungs and -- and then it was over.
"Wrong pipe?" Stonetree asked.
"Uh, yeah. Wrong pipe." Shaken, Nick raised a hand to his throat and mentally reviewed the relevant anatomy from the inside out. For a split second of pain and fear, the entire world had contracted to that wayward swallow. But Stonetree's nonchalant response reminded him that this was just something that happened sometimes. He would get used to it. He had to. "Well, again, Captain, I appreciate it, but I'm not interested in a new partner." Nick stood and extended his hand.
Stonetree stood, too, but raised an eyebrow instead of accepting Nick's gesture. "Was that everything? You said that was 'part' of the reason you came."
Reminded, Nick grinned, and wondered if grins would be his habitual expression now that he was human. Despite dry skin, wrong pipes, and Stonetree's refusal, the world was a wonderful place. "Nat -- Doctor Lambert -- and I are engaged."
"Congratulations!" Now Stonetree shook his hand, and clapped him on the back. Dispensing praise of matrimony, Stonetree steered Nick into the squad room and called for attention to share the announcement. Those who had known Nick and Natalie under the old precinct organization came up to express their delight.
The stranger at what Nick could not help but think of as Don Schanke's desk was one of those who merely clapped politely and returned to their work.
Chapter Three: Urs Unexpected
"Massive internal trauma," Natalie sang to herself, making up a tune as she went. "Caused by impalement. Anomalously bruised upper thorax." Okay, so it would never make the top forty. Or four thousand. But with no disrespect intended to the departed inhabitant of the body currently under examination, ever since her engagement to Nick almost a week ago, she just could not prevent the joy in her own life from bubbling out. Grace had broadly hinted her willingness to serve as maid-of-honor, but Natalie had begged off thinking that far ahead. She just wanted to enjoy being engaged. And she found her thoughts straying to that pleasant topic at the most inappropriate times.
Luckily, she had already performed this autopsy and officially recorded her conclusions: accidental fall from a balcony onto an iron fence post. Nasty. Natalie was only back now because Captain Reese insisted they all take a fresh look at the case with the idea of it as a homicide firmly in mind. So there was no one to hear her singing the original findings.
Except possibly her grandmother's ghost.
Natalie banished the thought. Figment of her imagination. Overtired and overcaffeinated, with the crime scene the notoriously "haunted" nineteenth-century mansion known as Kessel House, she had thought she saw her deceased grandmother pleading to know why Natalie had never visited her in the hospital. As if she could possibly not know.
Natalie yelped, almost dropping her scalpel into the corpse's gaping chest cavity. A young woman in a navy-blue parka stood, hesitating, half-way in the door. Platinum blonde curls framed deeply haunted eyes. Natalie was sure they had never met. "Can I help you?"
"You're Doctor Lambert?" The young woman stepped all the way into the room, pulling the door shut behind her and then looking carefully around the lab.
"Yes, I'm Doctor Lambert." Suddenly, her visitor's abnormally pallid complexion registered on Natalie. Blast. While she did not like to jump to conclusions, paranoia had its place, and Natalie suspected she was alone with a vampire. She never had found a good place to stash stakes in the morgue.
"I'm Urs." The pale stranger smiled nervously at last, peeling off knit gloves and extending her hand. Natalie set down the scalpel and removed her latex gloves to shake, pushing her smooth engagement ring back from her knuckle when the plastic pulled it. Maybe she should take it off while she worked? Fresh in from the winter cold, Urs's grasp revealed nothing about whether to count her among the living. "I'm a friend of . . . well, that is, I know Detective Knight."
The smile faded for an instant, then returned, forcibly bright. Fake, Natalie noted. "I had the fever. Detective Knight said . . . . You saved us. You saved me."
"Oh?" Natalie's mind raced. She knew exactly what the young woman -- that is, the young-looking vampire; no doubt remained -- was talking about, of course. She also knew better than to discuss it with strangers. Nick had told her of those who protected the vampires' secret. She suspected he had told her only the half of what she had to fear from them, especially now that she had succeeded in restoring his humanity.
"Please, Doctor Lambert." Urs suddenly appeared on the verge of tears. "Please. I need your help. You're the only one who can help me." She glanced behind her, as if confirming the door was closed. Her voice shrank until she little more than mouthed her words. "I'm . . . sick."
"Let me get you a seat," Natalie said. Human, vampire, or pied purple people-eater, if Urs had come to her as a physician, she had an obligation. Besides, she was curious. Natalie pulled the sheet over the gentleman on her examining table and guided Urs to her desk chair. "Can I get you -- oh, um . . ."
Urs almost laughed. "Water or coffee? Thanks. But, no. Could I ask you to turn up the lights, though? It's really dark in here."
Natalie looked around, remembering that she had switched off the overheads earlier. No wonder she had thought she saw a ghost; keep an autopsy lab half-lit, and the subconscious will eventually visit the cemetery. But should Urs, a vampire, even notice? Natalie turned on all the lights. "Is that better?"
"Yes, thanks. Are we . . . Is it okay to talk in here?"
"That depends what you want to talk about."
Urs regarded Natalie quizzically. Then the vampire's eyes flew wider and her mouth stretched in a silent "oh." "You think I'm with the Enforcers."
Natalie leaned against her desk, controlling her expression. She had not even known that was what they were called.
"You must think I'm bait. Oh, I didn't even think of that. They do do that sometimes, don't they? Oh." Urs folded her arms in her lap and put her head down on them.
Natalie wished Nick were there. A minute passed.
"I'm sorry." Urs sat back up. "I get these dizzy spells, lately. I'm . . . sick, like I said. And we don't get sick. You know? That's why I'm here. But I don't know how to convince you I'm not an Enforcer shill. I think they'd kill me if they knew I was sick, they're so afraid of another fever. I should have gone to Detective Knight first, I guess. I should have asked his permission to talk to you, and --"
Something in Natalie snapped at that. "No one needs Nick's permission to speak with me! Not as his mortal 'pet' or however you people think of it, and certainly not as his--" She cut herself off. Nick's cure and their engagement were not for discussion with strange vampires. Natalie took a deep breath. "Urs, if you're sick, I'll help you. If that's a trap, it's one I could never avoid. You're safe to talk to me here, I promise. My safety talking to you is a risk I'll just have to take. Now, from the top. What are your symptoms, and when did they start?"
Urs sighed her relief, and reached out to press Natalie's hand. Her skin was at least room temperature -- probably warmer.
"Dizzy spells, like I said. They pass pretty quickly. Then there's something very wrong with my vision -- like for your lights? -- and I don't hear right, either. Taste, too. Blood always tastes like it's gone off, now, even if it's fresh, and when I can swallow it, sometimes I throw it up. Okay, not sometimes. Every night. And--" Urs stopped cold. The other symptoms had rushed out as if bursting a dam, but this wedged in her throat. Finally, she whispered, "I can't fly."
Natalie looked at her sympathetically. Nick had expressed relief as most of his vampiric abnormalities receded, but not flight. Losing the air had plunged him into a funk that had not lifted until he could stand in the sun. "When did this start?"
"I was cured of the fever," Urs said quickly. "This isn't that. I was well after the cure!"
"Okay." Natalie wondered if the fever had left this impression on other vampires, or if Urs's near-terror was a strictly personal response. Either way, she supposed it was not an irrational reaction. Nick had never really said how many had died, but Lacroix's involvement had hinted at a shocking toll. "So you had the fever, got well, and then became sick again -- separately -- with these symptoms. When?"
"It's been almost a week for the throwing up. Longer with my vision problems and hearing and stuff. I . . . last night, I couldn't fly. That's what decided me to come here."
"Okay," Natalie repeated reassuringly. "We'll need to run some tests, if that's all right with you?" Urs nodded. "Good. Now, in the meantime, is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable -- short of opening a vein?"
"I might like to try some of that water, actually."
Chapter Four: What He Said
"What were you thinking, Nick?" Tracy demanded from the passenger seat of his car.
Eyes on the road, Nick did not answer. After eight hundred years, he knew that question was rhetorical -- if he were lucky.
"You know I'm glad your allergies cleared up, and yeah, I'm all for getting back on day shift -- though we might do some nights, occasionally, you know, as cases warrant -- but how could you go to Captain Stonetree without me? That wasn't only rude, Nick -- really unthoughtful and inconsiderate -- but do you have any idea how you made me look?"
Nick hoped that question was rhetorical, too. He made a right onto the road that would take them past the infamously haunted Kessel House, last relic of a once-prestigious downtown neighborhood now largely given over to condominiums and apartments -- the same destiny the victims had planned for Kessel House, had they lived to buy it. The crime scene still rested secure behind the authority of yellow plastic tape.
So it was not rhetorical. Okay. "You're right, Tracy."
"You're right. I behaved thoughtlessly. I'm sorry. What can I do to fix it?"
"Not much! Don't you get it? You've made me look either like deadwood you're carrying in this partnership, or, worse, like someone who plays her connections, just like my--"
Nick's cell phone rang. He reached for it gratefully.
Tracy intercepted. "Not while you're driving and I'm in here with you. You're distracted enough as it is. And we're not done with this, just so you know." She flipped open the cover and answered. "Detective Knight's phone, Detective Vetter speaking. Sorry, Natalie, he's driving. Can I have him call you back?" A brief pause. "On the way to Kessel House." A longer pause. Nick fidgeted with frustration. As a vampire, he could have overheard what Natalie was saying first hand. Human, he had to wait. Impatiently. Tracy straightened in her seat and uncrossed her legs. Nick could almost feel his partner setting aside her annoyance with him and donning her professional demeanor. "Right. Got it. He'll call you from there." The phone clicked shut. "Nick, turn around at the next intersection. We need to go to the Raven -- that club on the corner of Duncan and Richmond."
"What? Nat's not at the Raven, is she?" Confirming quickly that the Caddie was the only car on the road, Nick made a recklessly rapid three-point turn. If the Enforcers had Natalie, she would not be able to phone him; they would certainly have killed her immediately. And Lacroix would only hurt Natalie with Nick present to witness it, he was sure. But the world he had just managed to escape held so many other dangers that he did not know where to begin listing them. And he could no longer protect her as he once had.
"No. She's at the morgue. It's a friend of yours named Urs. Natalie can't raise her on the phone, and wants us to go pick her up at the Raven. Apparently, this Urs has some sort of medical condition? Accidentally left her prescription with Natalie, and shouldn't be drinking? Anyway, Natalie's really worried."
"Did she say anything else?" Nick remembered Urs, of course, particularly from the Ekhart murder, of which he had mistakenly suspected her. But he had no idea how Natalie could be involved with the wistful American vampire who abhorred killing almost as much as he did.
"Yeah." Now Tracy sounded puzzled. "Natalie said that I should go find Urs and bring her out, and that you're to consider your condition. She emphasized that. 'Tell Nick to consider his condition.' Does that mean something to you?"
It did. Suddenly, Nick realized that he could never walk into Janette's old club again. Heart beating, skin warm, life spinning through his blood -- walking proof of the existence of a cure, he presented an irresistible target, one way or another. Not just to Lacroix, who would not concede the game, but to every vampire who knew what he had been. For the safety of everyone around him, he must cut cleanly with eight centuries of friends and family, acquaintances and adversaries. He must . . . hide.
Nick had known that, certainly, but never before had he felt it. He thought his heart should hurt, but instead his stomach did.
* * *
January 1227, the Nile Delta
As necessity had made his practice over the past few months, Sir Nicholas forsook the road after encountering the first traveler of the morning. He pressed on until the trader or peasant slipped out of sight, then edged down to the bank of the river, pushed through the scrub, and covered himself with branches and brushwood. Then he tried to sleep, so he might travel again that night and hide again the next day. Long since having resorted to stealing garments hung out to dry, and with his skin burned by sun, his hair darkened by grime, and his beard retained in the local style, Nicholas knew he could go unremarked at a distance, and his tolerable Arabic usually allowed him to pass as an Armenian Christian to an unobservant Egyptian or Turk, but up close his blue eyes and bad accent drew comment. He could not allow himself to be taken as an escaped slave.
And such he would be considered, if taken, for there were supposedly no Crusader prisoners left in Egypt.
Nicholas had heard about the surrender of Damietta following the disaster at Sharimshah, at which he had been captured. Even with no language he understood, in those early weeks of his captivity, he had been made to feel the Crusade's shameful retreat and disgraceful failure. He had not known, however, until this journey north, that the Sultan's settlement with Archbishop Pelagius had included the return of all prisoners on both sides. Nicholas should have been returned. Just two months after his capture, he should in all honor have boarded ship with his fellows.
But he had not.
And so Nicholas huddled on the riverbank, hoping to avoid notice, counting the wild figs remaining in his pouch from the tree he passed two days ago, and wishing for sleep. He tried not to think that he was the only Brabantine, the only Frank, the only knight, the only Latin Christian in all this broad country. He tried not to remember that he was approaching the sixth year since his capture, and that the law could declare dead a man lost seven years, passing on his patrimony and freeing his wife to remarry. Nicholas had no wife awaiting him, and he tried not to think he now never would.
Most of all, he tried not to think he was now so different from other men, so branded with failure and cowardice, that no one would ever take him in. His superiors had sent Nicholas to the Holy Land from Carreg to atone for Gwyneth's murder, and though he had not committed the foul crime, he had accepted the penance for not saving her, for not loving her better while she was with him, for all his sins that felt so weighty with her loss so close. But the Crusade's awful failure, his unlucky capture, his inexplicably prolonged imprisonment -- and what of the letter Kemal, the reeve, had sent mentioning Nicholas's father, the Duke of Brabant, and demanding ransom? Nicholas knew no one could fail to believe he reeked of the just punishment of Providence. His own word could never prevail over the evidence of his fate.
Silent under his scrub-brush cover, outcast, abandoned and alone, Nicholas cried.
* * *
"It's my allergy treatment," Nick temporized to Tracy. The old excuse still served him well. "Nat means that I shouldn't go into the Raven. This soon, the smoke and strobe lights would compromise my skin's recovery."
"Oh." Tracy shrugged. "Well, our shift's barely started, Kessel House isn't going anywhere, and I don't know what we expect to find that we didn't before, anyway. We'll just swing back after we help your friend. Now, are you going to describe her for me?"
Nick did, in detail sufficient for Tracy to identify Urs in a line-up. The minute physical observations, as if for a sketch artist, also served to put off questions to which he did not know the answers -- like how Natalie knew Urs, or why she should not be in the nightclub. When they reached the Raven, Nick was surprised to find no parking spaces empty on the street. Somehow, a prime spot had always been readily available before, but not tonight. He paused just long enough for Tracy to jump out, telling her he would park in the lot of the building behind the club. But he found no space big enough to accommodate his Caddie. Frustrated, Nick finally just blocked the alley by the Raven's back exit, where Tracy and Urs would come out. Then he retrieved his phone from Tracy's seat and dialed Natalie.
"Nat, are you all right?"
"Nick? Yeah, I'm fine. Where are you? You haven't gone into the Raven, have you?"
"No, I'm parked outside. Considering my condition. Tracy just went in for Urs. What's going on?"
"I think Urs may be in danger, Nick. She came to talk to me last night about the fever cure, and I took some samples . . . . Look, can you bring her here? I have to speak with her. Soon."
"Danger? Is the fever back -- Nat, tell me she's not contagious!"
"No! No, nothing like that," Natalie assured him.
"Thank God." Another round of plague, so soon, would wipe out the vampire community. Even if that might ultimately be for the best -- and Nick still accepted that it might, though Natalie had firmly argued otherwise -- he did not wish the individual suffering and loss on anyone, human or vampire. Funny, how illness affects attitude. Stricken then, Nick had found himself praying that if the fever were God's way of ridding the world of vampires, God might yet temper justice with mercy, even to them. Their eradication would be no less complete if they died in less pain. Nick could not bear to imagine Janette and Feliks and even Lacroix -- and himself; of course himself -- dissolving in agony as he had seen Screed suffer. He had not thought or dared or bothered to pray for centuries, through danger and loss of every sort. But sick, it had leaped to his lips. Nick was about to question Natalie further when Tracy tapped the passenger-side window. Nick leaned over to unlock both front and back. "They're here, Nat. Be there soon." He clicked off the connection.
"You're obstructing the fire lane," Tracy disapproved, tossing an olive duffel bag across the back seat and helping Urs in next to it before sliding into her own seat in front. "But convenient, I admit."
Nick started the engine and headed for the street. "How are you, Urs?"
The pretty vampire offered a wan smile, but it did little to diminish the worry lines in her brow or the shadows under her eyes. "I've been better." After a glance from Tracy, she added, "I haven't been out of my room for a few days, except to speak with Doctor Lambert. It's very kind of you to come fetch me."
"So you'll be okay now?" Tracy fished. "I wasn't entirely clear on the situation."
"Are you taking me to Doctor Lambert?" Urs softly diverted the question.
"Yes," Nick answered, forestalling Tracy's investigative instincts. "Nat would like to talk to you. I'm not sure what she has in mind, but do you have enough clothes there for a few days?"
"This is everything, actually. I'm used to leaving stuff behind." Urs patted the duffel. "Javier always insisted we travel light."
Nick caught his breath. Urs did not seem like the mortal-baiting type. That must mean Vachon had never told her about Tracy. He had assumed . . . . Blast.
"Javier?" Tracy asked, turning her head to face Urs in the back seat. "Javier Vachon?"
"Um, yeah." Too late, caution. Urs looked helplessly at Nick in the mirror. "I know Javier."
"Know," Tracy repeated.
Nick imagined he could hear the gears in her brain clicking over. He pretended to misunderstand. "You remember, Trace. The snitch who helped us during the Jerry Show case. The long-haired guy with the motorcycle."
"That's him." Urs caught Nick's pitch. "He's taken me riding on his motorcycle from the Raven a couple of times. He always makes me wear his helmet. He only has the one."
"That's illegal," Tracy said automatically, as if she could not help herself. "Canada's helmet laws are universal. All persons on two-wheel motor-driven cycles must wear certified head-protection at all times while the vehicle is in motion." Even vampires, Nick knew she was thinking.
Nick did not let himself hope that this would throw Tracy off Urs's trail permanently, but in his eight centuries of supernatural existence, he had learned that the human mind will always cling to the natural explanation, if one offers. Urs steered Tracy into the topic of Ontario's Motor Vehicle Code, and managed to keep her there until they reached the precinct.
"Let me out here, Nick," Tracy said. "I'm expecting some information from the town in Ohio where the victims were fraternity brothers. I'll just go check the fax machine, and then meet you at Kessel House later on, okay?" As she stepped out, Tracy looked at Urs. "It was nice meeting you."
"Thank you for your help, Detective Vetter."
The rest of the drive to the Municipal Coroner's Building passed quietly. When Nick glanced at her in the rearview mirror, Urs had closed her eyes and thrown back her head. She did not look asleep. Anxiously, Nick awaited the inevitable questions -- why was his heart beating? was he really human? how had he done it? and why? -- but as long as she held her silence, he would, too. Urs was one vampire he did not worry would betray him to the Enforcers. Even so, Nick found he both longed for and dreaded her judgment. She was the first of his kind -- his former kind -- to see him cured.
When Nick pulled into the parking lot, he was surprised to spot Natalie waiting just inside the glass doors of her building. By the time he fit the Caddie into a space and turned off the engine, she had almost reached them.
"You're both all right?" Natalie strode up on Nick's side of the car.
"We're okay." He dropped a quick kiss on her temple, breathed in the scent of her hair, and then went to assist Urs out the other side. He gestured her toward the building as he shouldered her duffel.
"Urs?" Natalie asked. "Are you both okay?"
"Um, I guess, yeah," Urs answered. "Should this wait until we get inside?"
"We're almost there." Natalie waved dismissively, then plunged her hand back into the pocket of her tan coat. Nick began planning to buy her a pair of gloves. Those fancy insulated ones advertised every December. Maybe several pairs, to match her clothes. "Look," she tried again. "Has either of you noticed anything odd about the other?"
Nick looked at Urs. She looked back.
"A simple 'no' will suffice." Natalie strode ahead, opening the outer set of doors for them, and then pushing through the inner ones when Nick held the first for Urs. "My lab is just down this hall -- but you both know that." Her urgent demeanor calmed once she shut her office door behind them, though it seemed no less purposeful to Nick as she helped Urs to her desk chair. "You might want to find a seat yourself, Nick."
Obligingly, he leaned against the counter on which he had set Urs's bag. "What's going on, Nat? You said that it was definitely not the fever again."
"It's not," Natalie confirmed. Glancing at the closed door, she took a deep breath. "You're both human."
Nick was glad of the counter's support.
"One-hundred-percent, cut-me-do-I-not-bleed mortal. Both of you. Urs didn't accept my initial diagnosis last night, and returned to the Raven. The data from the tests piled up today, though, incontestably. I take it you've changed your mind," she asked Urs, "since you're back now?"
Urs shook her head slowly. "I'm sorry, but that just doesn't make any sense. No one has ever crossed back. I'm sick. Are you . . . sick, too, Nick?"
"No. I'm human." He understood why Natalie had chosen to reveal her patients' conditions each to the other thus abruptly, and without permission. He had been seeking humanity for hundreds of years; whatever had happened to Urs had clearly ambushed her, such that she could not accept the truth. Her denial endangered her. Nick unbuttoned his winter coat, approached Urs, bent low at her chair, and lifted her hand over his beating heart.
She flinched back. He released her. Meeting his eyes, Urs slowly replaced her hand on his warm cotton shirt. After a moment, she slid it up to his neck to count his pulse, then laid her fingers on her own neck, and then her wrist. Then she began to cry, clear salt tears. Nick knelt and held her as she sobbed. He could not tell if the tears were of elation or terror. He would understand either. He had shed both, since he first began seeking a cure.
Eventually, Urs pushed him away and looked at Natalie. "How?"
Nick saw his fiancée press her lips into a flat line. Recognizing that hesitation as the boundary she had drawn on doctor-patient confidentiality in this bizarre scenario, Nick volunteered his own case. "I gave up blood, took garlic doses, vitamins, phototherapy --"
"You worked for it," Urs interrupted softly.
"I didn't. Trust me, I didn't. Doctor Lambert, what's happened to me?"
"Nick," Natalie said. "Will you wait for us in the break room?"
"No, it's okay," Urs disagreed. "I thought that if the Enforcers came, he could . . ." She shrugged. "But even so, I don't mind him. Really."
Natalie stared at the newly-human woman for a long moment, then sighed. Nick imagined her mentally throwing up her hands at the situation. "Urs, I can't substantiate the causal relationship yet, so it's only hypothesis on that score, but you need to know that you're not just human. You're pregnant."
Chapter Five: What She Said
Lurking in the dark, the vicious first step of Kessel House's grand staircase rose up and stubbed Nick's toe. Nick subdued the absurd but powerful urge to kick it back. Then he bit his tongue stifling a curse as he realized he had left his flashlight in his car. This was just not his night. According to Dispatch, Tracy should already be in here somewhere; she had headed over immediately after receiving a fax about the unsolved 1974 murder of a US Army nurse, a crime potentially related to this case's victims through both their proximity that year and the contemporary service star he had found near the first body. He did not want to face his partner without the regulation-required flashlight, if he could even find her without it. Trekking back to the Caddie, Nick knew he could not blame this one on human readjustment from vampirism. He was off his game tonight, pure and simple.
It had been a shock to find Urs human, but the news of her pregnancy then made perfect sense to him. Somehow, he concluded, Urs had stumbled into the legendary cure Serena had sought unsuccessfully the previous year, recovering humanity by conceiving a child under certain mystical circumstances -- by a "special" man, "at the peak of the fire," "higher than high," "under a perfectly full moon." Nick knew the child's father must be dead. Humans never survived sex with vampires. But he also believed that Urs could never have intended to kill her lover, whoever he had been, as Serena had deliberately done in pursuit of her goal, and as Nick had misguidedly let her. And who was he to condemn either of them? Despite his best intentions, people he had cherished with his whole heart had died in his vampiric embrace.
Like Alyssa. Her ghost had come to him here in this haunted mansion, as Natalie had seen her late grandmother, and Tracy a deceased childhood friend. Blonde, stately, solemn and generous Alyssa, with whom he had once had every intention of spending eternity, had died, drained, on their wedding night in 1528. Locking the Caddie behind him and returning to the interior staircase, Nick admitted that he had come back to this crime scene as much to see her as to discover the missing clue his instincts insisted the house still held. But his obligations were to that clue, to the lives that might still be in danger now, not the one he had destroyed so long ago.
At the top of the steps, Nick swung his flashlight's beam around the green-papered stairwell to illuminate all the turns and corners characteristic of such Queen Anne-style construction, sweeping briefly beneath the stained-glass window that shone inwards with the moonlight. It depicted a young woman, or long-haired young man, kneeling, pleading, before a standing authority, with a child between them. Nick stared at the child. Like the kneeling figure, sex was indeterminate, but that did not matter. It was a child. It was vulnerable. Which of those adults was on its side? He could not tell. Was either?
* * *
April 1227, Ascalon
When Sir Nicholas first entered Ascalon, he tripped over a pig in the street and came up laughing. Passers-by looked at him as if he were mad, picking himself out of the dust with smiles instead of curses, but it struck Nicholas that as much as the crosses on every corner, the pigs rooting through the city's refuse declared this a Christian realm. Ascalon guarded the southern tip of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, for all the Holy City itself had not seen a Latin ruler in living memory. He had made it. He was safe. He could go home.
And maybe he could have a thick slice of roasted ham.
But a few hours of wandering taught Nicholas that it was not only his laughter that had earned him odd looks. Franks, Italians and native-born Poulains alike all shaved their faces, and not even the meanest dockhand of European heritage deigned to wear the Egyptian dress that had brought Nicholas this far. He needed a barber and a tailor before he could hope for a ship's berth, and the money to pay them all. Swallowing his righteous pride in his rank and lineage, he declined to mention them where they could do him no good. But those he approached to offer his labor uniformly shrank from him, perhaps afraid he would upset their customers. One suggested he join a guild; another threatened to call the civil guards; finally, as morning wore on toward noon, a baker pressed a generous half loaf into his hands and steered him toward a small church adjacent to an arched market. "Now, just you ask for Father Joscelin right there in Saint Dymphna's, good sir. He takes care of men like you."
Nicholas thanked the baker from the bottom of his empty stomach. He stepped only around the corner before tearing into the bread, instead of proceeding all the way to the church, though he could easily see the statue over its lintel depicting its patroness with her foot on the chained dragon representing madness and despair. After bolting a few mouthfuls, Nicholas paused long enough to chew and reflect that perhaps desperate veterans were not uncommon in this frontier city. Perhaps he was less marked out from his fellow men than he had feared.
Crunching through the heel of the bread, Nicholas leaned against a convenient pillar and contemplated the long, loud arcade, busy with workshops and tradestalls, both temporary and permanent. A dark, still hollow between two booths drew his gaze. Resting there, his eye resolved on a tiny child in the shadow, its knees drawn up to its chin, its expression hollow and hopeless. Children were common enough about the city, unremarkable and interchangeable as they rushed errands, wheedled produce, or dawdled amusements. But this silent, motionless, little face drew Nicholas like kin to its bleak isolation. Hidden away, the child seemed neither boy nor girl, Christian nor Muslim, peasant nor gentry, but instead the very idea of the next link in a family line. It did no good to become attached to an individual child, even one's own, until it proved likely to survive; but every man worth his sword longed for a new generation to rise in his place and remember his name. Far from home, still a stranger, Nicholas felt for this child as if loneliness were their common heritage.
He stepped toward the shadowed nook. There was little enough he could do, but perhaps the child was only lost. Or perhaps it would come with him to this Father Joscelin; surely any parish equipped to sort stray soldiers could do something for mislaid children. Nicholas bent one knee. So near, he saw slender hands, dirty black hair and huge brown eyes above a shapeless, colorless tunic. "And what is your name?"
The child considered a long moment, watching him. Finally, it nodded. "Marta."
Ah, Nicholas thought, a girl. "I am pleased to meet you, mademoiselle Martha."
"Mar-ta! Not Mar-tha," she corrected, then shrank back. "Sorry, sir. Please."
"Marta," Nicholas repeated the Italian pronunciation and tried to gentle his voice. "My error, child, not yours. Please accept my apology. And please allow me to introduce myself. I am Nicholas of Brabant, a knight, and I am afraid I am lost in your fair city. I was told to go to Saint Dymphna's church. Do you suppose you could guide me there? I would be very grateful."
Little Marta stared, and her round eyes seemed to see everything about him. She pointed at the bread crust in his hand. "For that?"
It was all he had in this world. It was more than she had. He handed it over.
Marta clutched the crust with one hand, scrambled to her feet, and tugged him along behind her with her free hand on his clothes. "Over here, sir."
"Stop, thief!" The cry froze activity as far as it could be heard, and all eyes turned to a strong, ruddy-faced man in a green tunic bearing down on Nicholas and Marta. Eyes blazing, he ripped Nicholas's garment out of Marta's grasp. "That's my property you're making off with! And I have a caravan leaving today. I'll have the guards on you!"
"I don't understand," Nicholas said coldly. As an afterthought, spotting an unfamiliar device on the shoulder of the bright tunic, he added, "Monsieur merchant."
"The girl, man!" The merchant leaned over and inspected Marta's hands, finger by finger.
"Again, I fail to understand." Nicholas stepped between the ruddy man and Marta. "Is she your daughter?"
"Daughter!" the merchant sputtered. "She's my ware. Do you have any idea what hands like those bring from the silk farmers? Tiny fingers to collect the cocoons unbroken? Years of work out of a wiry child like this one! And a second use in a brothel in the fallow season, permanent if she survives to outgrow the silk trays? It's the most regularly profitable disposition of child slaves, and I am the best supplier to the silk trade in Ascalon. Now get out of my way."
"Slave?" Nicholas repeated, blankly. Though rare, slavery was not unknown in France. But his people restricted it to chronic debtors, prisoners, or criminals unable to pay their fines. Never children barely out of infancy.
Yet this merchant spoke, dressed, appeared in every way a Frank. The staring crowd seemed on his side, some laughing at Nicholas's ignorance. Was this the eastern decadence people said corrupted the Levant? Or had the whole world changed as much as he had since he left Brabant in Lord DeLabarre's service?
"I see you are a traveler." The merchant looked Nicholas over with a waxen smile and paused on his purse. "We know the needs of travelers, here. Perhaps you would like to rent the damsel until my caravan departs? My rates are entirely reasonable, especially for a wench costing me such bother."
Nicholas recoiled in disgust, but not shock. He had lost shock somewhere along the way, he thought, if not in a cellar in Cairo, or on the muddy battlefield at Sharimshah, perhaps beside a cold lake in Carreg. Nicholas shook his head and pressed his purse to show it contained nothing. "My hands are empty."
"Ah. Well, mine are not. Move, Martha!" The merchant grasped the back of Marta's neck, pulled her to him, and pushed her ahead of him down the narrow street. The last Nicholas saw of her, Marta was pushing her crust of bread into her mouth whole, as if afraid it would be taken away.
* * *
The child in the stained-glass window woke Nick to what was really distracting his attention from police work tonight. Not Urs's humanity. Not even Alyssa's ghost. No, it was Natalie, and what he had never suspected she could say.
"I'll make an appointment for you with an obstetrician-gynecologist friend of mine," Natalie had told Urs at a certain point in the conversation, as Nick would have expected. "She's a wonderful physician, and a very kind person, and you don't have to worry about her discovering you were a vampire. There's nothing of the vampire left to discover, not in a physical exam, anyway. Just answer her questions as truthfully as you can -- leaving out the blood."
"Thank you, Doctor Lambert," Urs had replied. "I guess . . . I guess there are a lot of things I need to start doing differently."
"Mortality is a big adjustment."
"Yes. No. I mean, for the baby."
"Oh." Natalie had leaned back against a counter, then, and crossed her arms high on her chest. "You don't need to make any decisions just yet, Urs -- you've got a little time to think -- but you do know, don't you, that you don't have to go through with this if you don't want to? You can terminate the pregnancy."
Reflexively, Urs had placed her hands on her abdomen. "Is something wrong with my baby?"
"No. Nothing I know of. I just want to ensure you know you have the option. It's medically sound; it's available; it's legal."
"Thanks." Urs had smiled. "Really. I appreciate it. But no. Absolutely not."
And that had been that.
Nick had not said anything at the time, but as the evening wore on, Natalie's comments bothered him more and more. He had known she did not object to abortion in theory, but this was the first time they had encountered the issue together in practice. He had assumed she considered it, as he did, a regrettable last resort, justified only by desperate circumstances. Right to be available, wrong to be availed of. That Natalie could raise it so casually shook him.
Nick knew better than to be surprised that there were things he did not know about Natalie after six years. After eight hundred, there were still things he did not know about Janette and Lacroix. But this was different, he told himself. While ideas about the beginning of life had fluctuated widely in his experience, like almost everything else, his personal code for a century had been absolute commitment to human life. While he had disappointed his ideal more than once -- the face of Serena's lover, whom he had not saved, swam before his eyes -- he believed, in his brighter moments, that it was his very remorse over his failures that guided him better through each successive choice. Natalie's suggestion made him deeply uncomfortable. How could she be so nonchalant?
Then again, perhaps she was not. She had said she knew of nothing wrong with the baby. But what if Natalie suspected the pregnancy endangered Urs's life? Her safety or sanity? Or -- and as Nick thought it, his flashlight fell through suddenly nerveless fingers -- the possibility also existed that Natalie believed the former vampiress had been raped. That should not be possible. But what if it were? This world abounded in despair, horror, dead ends and bitterly cut losses; he knew it as well as any, though he sometimes let his romanticization of humanity veil its harsh, self-inflicted degradation. Nick had presumed to make decisions for others too many times before, too often to mutual grief. He hoped he was beyond that now, on this clean slate of new humanity.
Even so, he remained troubled.
Retrieving his fallen flashlight, Nick stepped through the entrance at the top of the landing into the huge second-floor room in which he had seen his dead wife's ghost. "Alyssa, can you hear me?" He waited in silence, scanning the long chamber's amorphous, drop-cloth-covered clutter. When she did not respond, he walked past the cold black hole of the imposing fireplace and turned. Perhaps Alyssa could not hear him here any better than anywhere else, but he did believe she could hear him. He needed her to hear him. "I want you to understand, Alyssa. I did love you, very much. I wanted us to be together forever." Eloquence, he did not have. Just grief. "I'm so sorry."
Fire suddenly blazed in the hearth. And then she appeared, a nimbus of eldritch light edging, not the black dress in which they had buried her, but the white gown in which he had killed her. Angelic ghost. Ghostly angel.
"Nicholas, I know that what you say is true. I love you still." He had not realized how that wound still ached until her words soothed it. "But I must tell you, because I love you, that you should not have come here. You are in danger. You will die here tonight. And because of what you have been and done, you will not be with me. Ever."
He brushed aside her caution and prediction. She was here; she was all that mattered. His Alyssa. His fault. "Please forgive me for what I have done."
"I do! I forgive you. I needed to know that you remembered me and what we had together."
"What we almost had." The self-incriminating correction sank from his lips, weighted with all they had not shared, awkward with both the destinies -- mortal and immortal -- his impudence and ineptitude had closed to her.
"Seeing you again gives me great peace," Alyssa's spirit reassured him with the gently perceptive generosity that had enchanted him so long ago. Oh, her beauty and blood had caught his attention first, and the rebellious excitement of defying Lacroix, but Nick had lost his heart to the simple wisdom that never held a grudge. Tears in his eyes, Nick began to extend his hands to her, but dropped them as an angry wind suddenly wailed around the room. Alyssa's head jerked up, and her eyes tracked something he could not see. "You must go now, Nicholas. Others are coming. Some among them bear you ill will, souls you dispatched from this world who cannot be appeased. Go quickly!"
"Please. Come with me."
"Be with me a while longer," he pleaded. There was so much he wanted to say, to ask.
"I cannot!" She closed her eyes, calmed, then smiled faintly at him again. "Oh, Nicholas, I wish you only joy. But I am not the only one here." Alyssa's shade stepped toward the fire, casting no shadow. "Still, if you will not go, at least I can help you. I know what you seek. The answer is here, Nicholas. Come to me and see." Directly in front of the hearth, she vanished. The fire remained.
Nick swept his flashlight beam where she had stood. Something gleamed beneath the kindling debris spilling carelessly from the hearth. Retrieving a pearl earring, Nick remembered he had seen its mate the night of the first murder, on Shirelle St. Claire, the personal assistant to Kessel House's owner. But she had worn just that one, apparently not yet realizing the other's absence.
Before Nick could consider the earring further, the fire flared and the dark doors around the long room burst open, erupting ethereal light. It felt like the sun; Nick blinked, but did not flinch as a vampire would. Then the angry wind whipped up again, moaning accusingly ahead of the silent human figures now streaming through the doors, surrounding him. Nick pushed past these spirits of those he had killed, and ran out of the room, not wanting to harm them further even if he could. Closing the door behind him, he stumbled down the stairs, pausing on the landing to catch his breath. Humanity alone had not purged the sins he had committed as a vampire, the vengeful ghosts reminded him. Same old soul. A moaning face materialized in the wallpaper at his side, and Nick fell the rest of the way down the stairs.
Scrambling one step ahead of the ill wind now crying his name, and of the relentless ghosts -- he knew Danielle, Sergei and, oh! Jolene, but was shamed to recall no others, not even to the moment he had drained their life away -- Nick dashed into the front parlor and pulled the sliding doors closed behind him.
Not immediately spotting an exit, Nick realized the ghosts had herded him here. He stepped forward, and found himself face to face with Davis Ogden, the property owner. Dead.
At least, he looked dead, sitting inert in the one uncovered chair. A vampire would have known for sure. Nick checked vainly for a pulse, then, hearing a sound, spun around -- too late. The uniformed woman struck him in the center of his chest with a rod, an electrical-discharge weapon of some sort -- he could not think which. He could think of nothing but the pain as he slumped down against the doorway connecting the parlor to the dining room. He could not move. But he knew he still breathed, his heart still beat, and he was still alive. For the moment.
Alyssa had said he would die here, tonight, not yet redeemed from what he had been and done. No! Not like this. He had so much to do now! Natalie . . . .
Above him, the woman pulled off a brown wig, revealing Shirelle St. Claire's blonde hair. "They killed my mother," she explained, her eyes wide and mad. "Scally and Weintroff. She came to me here. She told me, they have to pay."
Nick could not muster the strength to ask why she had also murdered her employer. He was unconscious by the time she finished rambling and shot him.
Chapter Six: Downtime
The worst had been before they let her see him. Sitting helpless in a waiting room, of no use whatsoever, Natalie had panicked that the hospital staff might rely on the blood type in Nick's older files. Ironically, his human blood had turned out to be O, the universal donor, and certainly not the A-negative she had faked for his records as a vampire, matching that of his then-partner, Don Schanke. They had planned to "discover" the mistake during his first check-up with another doctor next month, and fix those records that had long since passed out of Natalie's hands. They had never expected to need it sooner. After a nurse repeatedly assured Natalie that the lab tech had properly typed Nick as O before surgery began, Natalie relaxed enough to begin obsessively re-evaluating every occasion some perp had taken a pot-shot at Nick in the past six years, tallying how many times over he would be dead had he been mortal then. She had reached twenty-three when the operating surgeon finally emerged to tell her that Nick would pull through.
Since then, taking family medical leave from work, Natalie had stayed with Nick as much as the hospital rules allowed. He spent little time conscious the first two days, but she was there to meet his eyes and answer his questions each time the pain medications wore off. Yes, they had caught the shooter. Yes, he was going to be all right. Yes, she would stay here with him. Then he would fall asleep again with the new dose, only to wake hours later with almost the same questions.
When he began remembering the answers and disputing the medication, a nurse appeared and offered him his first meal in days from a tray rather than an IV. Natalie was so relieved that she left him with the nurse and slipped down to the ladies' room to cry. She had not allowed herself that release since the moment Captain Reese had called to tell her to meet them at the hospital.
After washing her face, Natalie returned to Nick's room and greeted him with a light kiss and cheery, "Nice place you have here!" Reassured to find the room still effectively private, with Nick presently the only occupant, Natalie sat on the left side of his bed and tried not to stare at the new dressings on his right shoulder, where he had taken the bullet, and his right arm, bound up to prevent strain. The white bandages made his still-pale skin look almost tan, but the ugly contusions on his upper sternum continued purple. "How are you feeling?"
"You're kidding!" Natalie laughed at this unexpected response. "It must be thirty-five degrees Celsius in here."
"Maybe if I had a real shirt?" he prompted.
"Sorry," Natalie demurred, pulling up a blanket and carefully tucking it around him. "But they need access to those wounds. That's what you get for getting tasered in the chest and shot in the shoulder."
"So how long am I in for?"
"Here, just a few more days." If everything goes well, she did not add. "But your activities will have to be fairly restricted for a while, Nick. I'm sorry. You will heal, but . . . you're going to be a while mending. You're on full medical leave for at least two more weeks, and it's strictly desk work at least a month after that. Maybe part-time, at first."
His head slumped back against the pillows, a brave front deflating. Natalie watched with concern. She had phrased it as gently as she could; for some months yet, Nick could expect to tire easily, suffer recurrent pain, and lack full use of his dominant arm. And he was lucky, at that. Very lucky. That taser blow had stopped the hearts of Scalley and Ogden permanently, and stunned Weintroff long enough for the lunatic St. Clair to push him off the balcony onto that fence post. Finally, Nick smiled, though wanly, resignedly. "Well, I knew mortality wasn't going to be all chocolate-chip cookies. Have they partnered Tracy with someone in the meantime? She's not stuck on leave just because I got shot, is she?"
Natalie felt her eyes go wide in shock. Horror-stricken, she realized he did not know, that there had been no opportunity to tell him.
"Nat? What is it?"
"Tracy is also in the hospital." Natalie took his left hand between both of hers. "Nick, a car hit her. Right in front of Kessel House." They had all come in consecutive ambulances -- Nick, shot by the murderer; the murderer, shot by Reese; Tracy, hit by a car. With its two most prominent homicide detectives down for the count, and Captain Reese on the standard, Internal Affairs-directed leave that typically followed an officer-involved shooting, the ninety-sixth precinct was dejected and disoriented despite catching the criminal, a mood morbidly exacerbated by the exuberant media coverage solemnly comparing this incident to the loss of the precinct's previous captain, Amanda Cohen, with Detective Don Schanke in the plane bombing last fall. The press found a great story in the half-healed wounds of the men and women on the force, now ripped open again. Natalie was developing an extreme antipathy for the media as she strove to keep Nick's picture out of the coverage. No sense inviting the Enforcers. She was just grateful Lacroix had chosen not to show up this time.
"How bad?" Nick demanded.
"Multiple brakes, fractures, lacerations. Diffuse axonal tearing and petechial hemorrhages -- classical torpor. That is, she couldn't pass some simple cognitive tests, but her reflexes are normal. Her doctors are optimistic." Natalie recognized the clouds of guilt gathering in Nick's eyes. "There's nothing you could have done, Nick! You were unconscious when it happened, for goodness sake! And even if you'd been there, who knows what she was doing in the street? Maybe she spotted some evidence. It could as easily have been you!"
"No," Nick reflected quietly. Still clasping her hand, he ran his left thumb over her engagement ring. "No, I don't think it was evidence. I wonder if it was her ghost, the childhood friend she had been seeing since we first went into Kessel House."
"Ghost?" Natalie repeated. "You mean, in the street? Why?"
Nick began to shrug, then winced in pain. Natalie apologetically released his hand, but he took hers back. She warmed all over to feel that he wanted her touch. "Death doesn't seem to change a person's motivations. Love or hate, forgiveness or revenge, ghosts and vampires . . ." He dropped his voice on the last. Natalie looked around hesitantly at the half-open door, but Nick continued softly. "Nat, what did your grandmother apologize for? Why didn't you visit her when she was dying?"
Natalie pulled back. Dropping her hands in her lap, she stared at them. The ring, still so new, made them look briefly like someone else's hands. Finally, she asked, "Is that blanket warm enough? I can get another. Or maybe have someone turn up the thermostat--"
"Nat," Nick requested her attention gently. She felt his hand on her thigh, but she could not stay still, and slid off the bed.
Natalie went and found her sweater with her coat and bag. Nick was right; it was cold. She fastened the green cardigan's buttons, then wandered over to the wall that ought to have had a window, but did not. The empty bed in the two-patient room separated them, but she could feel Nick's eyes on her.
"Nanna took care of me when I was little," Natalie offered at last, tracing out the missing windowsill with her finger. "Me and Richard, after our parents died. She . . ." Natalie swallowed, and did not see the wall in front of her eyes. Sometimes, her grandmother had hit her. Had . . . hurt her. The specifics, she refused to dwell on. She clenched her fists and pushed it all away. "I'm sorry, Nick. I don't want to talk about it. Do you mind?"
She could tell by his eyes that he did mind, but he blinked them rapidly clear, leaving only compassion and apology. Nick held out his left hand to her and gathered her close when she came to his side. She rested her cheek on his head as she stood there, reversing their usual relative heights. "You never told me who your ghost was."
"Someone I loved, and lost," he said. "A long, long time ago." Natalie thought he would leave it there, evening their exchange, but Nick slowly pulled her down in front of him, apparently to meet her eyes. Then he continued, his voice low and earnest. "Her name was Alyssa von Linz, Nat. I -- the vampire -- killed her. It was an accident. I was stupid, arrogant. Young. I couldn't stop. And she died." Natalie nodded carefully. The story was sad, yes, but not a new one from Nick. Though she consciously avoided considering the numbers, she knew he had killed. "Nat, I don't think I could have told you this if I were still a vampire. But I loved Alyssa, Nat. And I married her."
"How?" Curiosity trumped surprise.
"Oh, the usual way, I suppose." He smiled faintly. "I asked her, then her father, then her again. Money changed hands, documents got signed, and there was food, and music, and dancing."
"No, I mean, you were a vampire?"
"It was still mainly a contract in those days. People commonly exchanged vows without the actual Mass, and we did. I flinched through." He started to shrug again, but remembered in time to stop, and raised an eyebrow instead. "After, I tried to bring her across. I failed. She trusted me, and I killed her. We had so little time together. She came to me at Kessel House to learn that I did remember her, that I had never forgotten her."
Natalie absorbed that. Though she usually avoided probing after the loves filling his protracted past, she considered asking about Alyssa, this woman -- this first wife -- with whom she apparently shared something she had previously thought would be hers alone. More, this woman he had been willing to make a vampire -- as he had not been willing to make Natalie, when she had asked last year, when they had thought that asteroid would extinguish humanity. But Nick, injured, looked tired, and there would be other times. She needed to ponder this herself, first, anyway, and not let jealousy make a fool of her. Natalie smoothed his hair away from his brow. "So your personal 'case' is closed, too?"
"Yeah. She won't be back; we made our peace." He paused a moment. "Nat, tell me, what do you make of all this? What we saw?"
"What we think we saw," she corrected automatically. For someone who had seen so much of the world, Nick displayed a disturbing tendency to fall for every crackpot superstition strewn in his path. "I don't know. What bothers me about this is that each of our 'ghosts' basically told us what we subconsciously wanted to hear."
"Projections of our own desires? Our needs for closure?"
"Well, I certainly won't go on record saying I saw a ghost. But if someone were to ask me if I'd had some kind of religious experience? I think I'd have to take the fifth on that one."
Nick smiled and leaned back further into the pillows. Relieved that it looked like he might be ready to take the rest he so clearly needed -- and no less grateful that he was finally dropping the uncomfortable subject of the so-called ghosts -- Natalie quietly got up to review the case clipboard at the foot of his bed.
"Speaking of religious experiences," Nick began. Natalie shushed him and mimed sleep. He grinned unrepentantly. "When I was at St. John's last week, their bulletin had a paragraph about marriage preparation classes. Want to sign up?"
Natalie laughed dismissively. "That's for kids, Nick. Don't you think we're a little beyond that?"
"Do you?" His eyes bored into her. "I want this to work, Nat. I love you so much I can barely think about it all at once, but I've seen love fail before. I've seen my love fail before. I'll take whatever help I can get."
"Okay," Natalie temporized, trying to pinpoint what about the idea made her uncomfortable. Surely they could find sessions somewhere in Toronto tailored to adults, not college students, so she would not feel old. And probably they could find a secular course, too, so she would not have to worry that someone would try to convert her to something if she let her guard down -- and Nick was just so vulnerable to that sort of thing! Most of all, she did not want some outsider crawling around in her personal life and judging her. It was none of their business. And she still did not see the point. "Our relationship isn't exactly a textbook case, Nick. The whole 'recovered vampire' thing . . . really, what do you think we'd learn that would apply to us?"
He smiled bashfully, a ridiculously unlikely but nevertheless utterly appealing expression. "Well, how many children do you want? I think four would be nice."
"Uh," Natalie reeled. "Not exactly the number I had in mind."
"No? How about six? Eight?"
Natalie stared. After a moment, she realized he was teasing her, and they both laughed. "If there were popcorn here, you'd get a face-full, buster, injuries or no injuries."
"And I would deserve it. But seriously, Nat, kids?"
"Oh, Nick, I don't know. I haven't really thought about it. I guess I just don't have the 'mother-longing' some women do."
"You'll be a wonderful mom," he assured her confidently. "And I'll do everything I can to be a good dad. It's amazing, just to talk about it, you know. I've wanted a family for so long! And I do think four is a good number."
"Honestly?" Four sounded overwhelming to Natalie. She retreated to the chair by her bag.
"Honestly. Even numbers promote diplomacy and compromise among siblings, even in an age hierarchy, since votes can tie. Also, there were just two of us most of my childhood -- my other brothers died young, and my sister wasn't born until later. You've really never thought about it before?"
"Academically, I suppose." Natalie fussed with the contents of her bag. When she was little, of course, she had assumed that someday she would be a mother, just as someday she would be married. It was simply something all adults were, in her small world. Growing up, however, Natalie had put in so much effort as Richard's big sister, trying to stand in for their deceased parents for him, that a part of her felt she had "done her time" as a mother by proxy. And then she had been in school, and at work, and always not married. Her whole life had happened so fast, it seemed. She did not think she had missed children. But Nick evidently had. Very much.
Natalie suddenly remembered Lisa Cooper, the little girl Captain Stonetree had placed in Nick's custody when she was a Mafia target. Having Lisa staying in his loft must have been so wonderful, and so terrible, for Nick, a tiny taste of the home and family for which he longed, helplessly, from inside his vampiric prison. Wrapped up in other concerns at the time, Natalie had not recognized the depth to which it would have affected Nick.
But a few days of protective custody was nothing compared to the lifetime commitment of parenthood. What if she died, as her parents had, leaving her child as she had been left? Accidents and illness create orphans every day. That familiar fear froze Natalie's gut, a welcome distraction from the unspeakable, unshakable dread lurking in her darkest nightmares: that she might, despite her best intentions, do to a child of her own what her grandmother had done to her.
"We'll start with one, and go from there?" Nick asked slowly, registering her hesitation. Natalie nodded, silent. It was not that she did not want children. It was that she did not want them. But Nick did. And it would be okay, with him. It had to be. Nick punctured the silence with a teasing grin. "If it's a girl, can we name her Joan? It doesn't have to be her first name; it can be her middle name."
"Whatever you want, Nick." Natalie laughed at his enthusiasm. "Look, were you planning to go to sleep again, ever?"
A knock sounded on the door, and Captain Reese stepped around the corner. He held his navy-blue blazer folded over one arm, and his loosened red tie stood out against his white shirt. "Good to hear your voice, Knight. Look, I thought you both might want to hear, Vetter's awake and talking. She knows what day it is and all that stuff. They say she's gonna be okay."
Chapter Seven: Just Starting Out
Nick woke reluctantly from a dream in which he was helping set the picnic table in the Schankes' back yard. No matter how many times he went back to Don at the grill or Myra in the kitchen, he always found more food to bring out under the late afternoon sun. Just as he woke enough to realize it was a dream, he also realized why consciousness lacked some of its usual appeal. Blast, but his shoulder hurt!
Wincing, Nick shifted his weight to the left and opened his eyes to the sterile hospital room and the unchanging electrical lighting that never revealed the time of day. The clock on the nightstand claimed it was morning. Urs sat, reading a newspaper, in the plastic chair he had come to think of as Natalie's. Nick watched her for a moment, taking in the tan slacks and pink blouse that mirrored the healthy human flush on her cheeks. She looked terribly serious, even as she gnawed on a pencil eraser. "Doing the crossword?"
"No: the help-wanted ads." Urs looked up. "How are you feeling? Do you need anything? Doctor Lambert just went home for a few hours. She says it's not that she doesn't believe that I've been feeding Sidney and myself properly, but she wants to restock the pantry herself before you come home tonight." Urs set her paper and pencil carefully under the chair. "Sidney's her cat, you know."
"Yeah, I do." Nick smiled.
"I guess you would. Sorry. I've never had a pet, so it's a completely new experience." Urs smiled, then asked again, "Do you need anything?"
"Patience. Just one more day here, but --" Nick raised an eyebrow in the gesture he had come to substitute for shrugs. Then he pushed back the covers, swung his cotton-clad legs around to the side of the bed, and reached for the matching blue top with his left hand. Natalie had thoughtfully bought him the new pajamas a few days before; his more usual black silk sleep attire might have proved conspicuous in this setting, and he was roundly tired of hospital gowns. "How about you?"
"Me?" Urs came up and gently assisted him with the top, draping the right side loosely over his injured shoulder and immobilized arm.
"Yes, you. We haven't had a chance to talk since the night you found out --" he glanced at the closed door "-- you were human. How are you doing? You're looking for a job?"
"Well, I had to quit at the Raven, of course. They have pretty high turnover -- it's almost normal for people to just not show up sooner or later -- but I did call before I missed a shift." Urs stepped back, appearing suddenly anxious. "I'm looking for an apartment, too! It's just that no one will rent to me until I have a job. I won't impose on you and Doctor Lambert too much longer."
"It's no imposition," Nick tried to reassure her, remembering her despondency as she first realized she had to build a whole mortal life from scratch. Her little savings would disappear all too quickly in the day-to-day world of grocery and heating bills, and she had no human friends to turn to.
* * *
September 1227, Ascalon
Sir Nicholas took his place in the corner of the small tavern's empty common room, adjusted his respectable brown tunic, and tuned the worn lute Father Joscelin had helped him buy.
"Ready, Nicholas?" Bernard, the pale proprietor, asked, with his hand on the front latch. Nicholas answered with a sweet cascade of notes, drifting into the ever-popular Chanson of Roland. Bernard smiled and threw the door wide to noontime custom.
Not permitted to play after sunset, when the customers paid more as they drank more and a jealous journeyman musician guarded his position, Nicholas was nevertheless grateful for the guild acceptance Father Joscelin and Bernard had inveigled on his behalf. For one in two of Nicholas's earnings, Bernard fed him, saved him a sleeping place by the fire, and allowed him to play from when the door first opened to when the first supper was served. Nicholas knew his playing brought in more business than Bernard spent on his food, more even than half his hard-earned coins, but he also knew his arrangement surpassed what he could have hoped anywhere but a port town on the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem, and Bernard was an even-tempered, pious master who did not sell either his barmaids' or his minstrels' favors.
That such a futile courtly skill as lute-playing was his most marketable ability had dismayed Nicholas at first. Surely a knight, once recognized as such, had more suitable prospects here? But Nicholas had neither horse, sword, nor armor, and Ascalon's baron already supported as many soldiers as he could afford. Besides, the whole world held its breath awaiting Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II's long-promised Crusade. Rumor claimed he would set out from Sicily this very month. If Nicholas were willing to wait? But as a survivor of Damietta's march on Cairo, where they had also awaited the emperor to no good end, Nicholas was not inclined to linger on his majesty's account. So he played, earning back his musician's calluses, and with them the funds to send home the letter that Father Joscelin had scribed for him. If the ransom demand Kemal sent had not reached Brabant, perhaps this would. And once Duke Henry knew his second son still lived, surely he would send someone with the price of passage home. Nicholas had Father Joscelin write that he would reach the larger port at Jaffa by the spring, God willing, and await an answer there.
"Ho, minstrel!" a bald, hefty regular cried. "Don't ye know anytheeng new?"
"Hush up, William," said his gray-haired companion. "I allus like thet un."
"Well, I'm tired of songs sung seence afore I's in my cradle, and he lips thet un this time every day. Come, minstrel, yer a young man; belike ye know a young tune? What's new from across the sea?"
"Alas," Nicholas said. "I have nothing fresher than this." He presented a dance melody he had learned shortly before entering Lord DeLabarre's service. He remembered playing it in his mother's solar one stormy afternoon -- when heavy rain had driven all game to ground, disappointing the hunt -- to amuse her and his sister and their maids.
"Not bad," the hefty man admitted while Nicholas rested. "But I heerd ye play thet the day afore yesterday, and afore thet, too. Have ye notheeng I've net heerd afore?"
"Ah, William, leave off the boy," the second customer said. "Songs don't jest grow wild-like, to pick 'em up fresh on a notion."
Challenged, Nicholas repositioned his hands, and raised his eyebrows. He strummed a sequence he had never tried with his fingers, though it had haunted his ears since he first heard it in Carreg. Hesitantly, he picked out a tune he had only ever known on Gwyneth's many-stringed harp. Inadequate as the lyre seemed, the music strengthened as he played, gathering around him like the mists of her home, and the end surprised him when it came. He stilled the strings with a lump in his throat. The room was silent.
"What on God's green earth was that?" a third customer whispered.
"It's from a place called Carreg, in the west of the island of the Britons. The people name their country Cymru."
"Thet's new to me, all right." The bald, hefty regular leaned back, satisfied. "Ye bin to this-un 'Kim-roo,' then?"
"Then teel us about it, lad. Teel us about it. A new story is like to 'come a new song, by 'n' by."
Nicholas looked around for Bernard, and received a nod of approval. As long as Nicholas sang or spoke over the room, men ate and drank more than they talked among themselves. "I'm not much of a storyteller."
"Don't ye mind William, now," the gray-hair admonished. "It's yer story. Jest start, like."
Nicholas did. He told them about leaving home for the first time, his knight's spurs new-won, and the strange land and people he came to over plains, sea and mountains. Cautiously, he told them about Gwyneth, her music, beauty, strength -- and her mysterious murder, of which he had been falsely accused. "She said she would be the last to play the songs of her people. But I think she was mistaken. I think the music lives there, in Cymru, and it will grow there always."
"An' ye play it too, now, don't ye, lad?" The grey-haired customer leaned forward. "So yer took the Cross then, belike, jest as yer Lord DeLabarre tol' ye. Were ye at Damietta, then, when John of Brienne took it?"
"No, I arrived later -- much later. I'm sure you've all heard that story before." Nicholas did not want to discuss the failed Crusade's humiliation, but Bernard waved him on. His tale of Gwyneth had made some men cry, and all those who cried had ordered another drink. Nicholas sighed. "I reached Damietta just in time for the march on Cairo. There must have been five thousand of us knights, and forty thousand foot soldiers, plus the archers, and pilgrims, and camp followers. We had six hundred ships on the Nile, the sailors said. The Sultan's men encamped at a place called Mansourah, then advanced to Sharimshah, then retreated behind the river. We took up their position at Sharimshah, curse the day."
"An' why a curse, lad?"
Nicholas shot his questioner a look, expecting scorn. He found only eagerness for a story, however familiar. "We crossed a dry canal into the corner formed by the Nile and the channel behind which the enemy had retreated, and fortified our position. Now, the Sultan had offered terms, even unto the restoration of Jerusalem, if we would only withdraw from his lands, but Archbishop Pelagius rejected them."
"An' so he should. No good never come of treatin' wit' them Musselmen."
"I take it you, sir, were not born here in the Levant?" Nicholas asked.
"No! Lad, I were born in Avignon," that customer declared proudly.
"Yes, I thought so," Nicholas said, then let it go. He had found distaste for negotiating with the Saracens almost directly proportional to the length of time a family had lived on this side of the sea. Poulains, the native-born Franks of these kingdoms, always seemed rather less inclined to suspect amity with the infidels an automatic blotch on their honor. Familiarity bred tolerance. Tolerance bred peace. Nicholas had come to favor that kind of thinking since Sharimshah. "In any case, it was around Saint Bartholomew's day, and the Nile had begun to rise, as it does every year at that time. The Poulains among us and the natives at the camp warned and warned, but Archbishop Pelagius wouldn't listen to them or to King John. Naturally, the rising river flowed into the dry canal behind us."
"A trap!" the whole room cried.
"Yes, we were trapped." Nicholas absently strummed the burden of the song of the Chetifs from the Chanson of Antioch. "We had not yet engaged the enemy, and yet we had no choice but to retreat. Orders came to abandon our fortifications and wade the canal as soon as the sun set, that the Sultan's army might not see what we were doing. Some soldiers, loathe to abandon their ale, drank it all. Some knights, loathe to leave supplies for the enemy, set them afire. And that, my friends," Nicholas twanged a chilling chord, "is when the Egyptians struck."
"Oh, yes. But first they cut the canal banks." Nicholas remembered the rushing water that preceded the mud, the endless, sucking mud, in which they had fought that cruel night. In the dark, knights' armor had reflected the burning supplies. Drunk infantrymen, unable to defend themselves, had fallen like rabbits to hounds. Archers quickly ran out of arrows, unable to retrieve their spent darts from the rushing water and churning muck. No horse showed a patch of coat mud-free below the withers. Underfoot, you could hardly tell the difference between the deepening mire and a soft body unless you looked. And you never had time to look. "The knights fought as valiantly as any could, a bulwark against the waves of Saracen attack."
"Then what, lad?"
Nicholas shrugged. "Then they cut down my horse and took me prisoner. That's the last I saw."
The hefty regular who had demanded something new stared at him for a long moment. "Yer right: yer not much of a storyteller, fer a minstrel." Then he grinned, fished in his pocket and flipped a copper denier toward the bowl sitting at Nicholas's feet for that purpose. "But yer a fine sight of a minstrel, fer a knight."
* * *
Well, if Urs had had no human friends before, she at least had Nick and Natalie now. Natalie had offered Urs the pull-out sofa in her apartment temporarily, and Nick had assumed Natalie and Sidney could move into his loft for the duration. They should be buying a new home soon, anyway. Their first home together. He wondered if Natalie would accept the symbolism of a white picket fence. He would give it up if she did not like it, but . . . . Dragging his thoughts back to the present, Nick thought again of establishing Urs financially through his de Brabant Foundation, but there had just been no time. "You're welcome as long as you like," he told her. "As long as you need. You know you've been a tremendous help to Nat since I got . . . since I've been in here. And I'm sure I can help you find a good job, as soon as I'm out."
Urs retreated to the chair, her eyes dry and wide, but pained enough for many tears. "Thank you."
"What's wrong?" Not the reaction he had expected. Careful not to jar his shoulder, Nick slid off the bed and knelt beside her.
"Nothing. I'm grateful. Really, I am. It's just -- I didn't ask for any of this! You know? I didn't ask to be made a vampire in the first place. I didn't ask to become mortal again. And I didn't ask . . ." Urs's right hand flickered half-consciously toward her abdomen, and Nick mentally finished the sentence for her. As a vampire, Urs had believed she could not conceive. "I know it's silly to protest that this isn't fair. But it isn't! That legend Doctor Lambert said you told her -- about a vampire woman becoming pregnant and human? I'd never heard it before. And even if I had, who would have believed it? And even if I had heard and believed, it didn't hint that the father could be a vampire. I still wouldn't have known. I'm one-hundred twenty-six this summer, Nick; it's never happened before. Why now?"
Nick remained hung up several sentences behind. "The father is a vampire?" he repeated incredulously.
"Unless you know some revolutionary new way of getting with child," Urs warned with uncharacteristic defiance, "don't you dare ask if I'm sure."
"No! That's not what I meant. I'm sorry." He began to reach out to her with his left hand, but changed his mind. He stood and leaned against the bed instead. "It's just that the legend said a human man. How could a vampire father a child?"
As soon as the words left his mouth, Nick felt foolish. It made no more or less sense for a vampire to sire a child than to bear one. It was just that when Serena had sought that cure, she and Lacroix had both emphasized his exclusion by his sex. Not available to men. But he was human now, anyway.
"Doctor Lambert says she can't speculate on causes because she doesn't have any evidence. She wants to talk to him, the father."
"But you haven't told him yet."
"Is he . . . dangerous?" Nick asked, keeping his voice neutral as he turned back to the bed and retrieved his socks from between the sheets. He did not presume to know with whom Urs kept company, much less judge, but he had seen Lacroix watch her. The obsessive master vampire might do almost anything on news of impending mortal fatherhood, anything except let Urs or the child go -- ever. Indeed, if Lacroix had some inkling of this permutation, it might well explain his nonappearance following Nick's recovery from vampirism. Nick had wondered about that.
"Oh, he won't turn me over to the Enforcers." Urs sounded resigned. "I guess I'd better tell him."
"You don't have to if you don't want to." Nick would want to know, if it were him. Desperately. But ideas of a father's rights withered at the possibility it might be Lacroix. Better they never discover how Urs became human than bind two more innocents to that monster.
"Thanks, Nick." He suddenly realized he had never seen her really smile before, because when she did, it took his breath away. "It helps to remember where I've got a choice. That first night, Doctor Lambert -- Natalie -- also pointed out that I can pretty easily become a vampire again, by finding someone to bring me across. If no one takes away my memory, and the Enforcers don't get me, and all the rest." Urs stopped, and Nick knew she was reacting to his expression; he could not help his surprised disapproval. "I'm not saying that's what I want. Just that it helps to know it's my decision, you know?"
"Yes. I think I do." Nick retrieved his wallet from the drawer in the bedside table and drew out the thin, gold, cross necklace Magda -- what was her last name? -- had given him after he and Schanke saved her from a pious psychotic in their second case together. Nick had originally handed it to Natalie, but she had returned it the next night, urging him to confront his fears. He had carried it ever since, periodically drawing it out to see how long he could hold it. Tracking his humanity. "Here." He handed the necklace to Urs. "If you decide to tell him, wear this. It's not much protection, but it could be the difference between your decision and his."
"Thank you." Urs suspended the necklace in front of her eyes for a moment, then coiled it up in her palm and slipped it into a trouser pocket. "What are you looking for over there?"
"My shoes. I want to go see Tracy. It is visiting hours, isn't it?"
"Yes. I'm sure she'll be glad to see you. Detective Vetter has all sorts of flowers in her room, but she never seems to have any guests, so I've stopped by every time I've been around." Urs went to the foot of the bed and retrieved Nick's sneakers with the loosely pre-tied laces. Straightening up to hand them over, she paused and tapped the clipboard displaying his case records. "Hey, guess what? My blood type is O, now, too."
Chapter Eight: Visiting Vachon
"Ready?" Natalie asked, clicking the new auto-lock mechanism on her keychain and admiring her parallel parking as she circled to the sidewalk. Excellent spacing. Her compact presented nowhere near the challenge of Nick's Caddie, but, then, she did not have eight decades of driving experience, either. She would take her triumphs where she found them.
"It's the first time I've seen it in the sun, you know," Urs said softly, shading her eyes.
Natalie followed Urs's gaze up the gray stone sides of the apparently abandoned church building. Condemned years ago for falling behind structural safety standards -- not to mention fire exits, wheelchair accessibility, and a host of other violations -- the building had been deconsecrated, stripped and sealed, its small congregation merging with another several blocks away. Periodically, Natalie recalled, the news would report this or that plan for the lot, but nothing ever seemed to come of the proposals except changes in the logo on the "for sale" sign. In the bright winter light, it looked . . . cold. Very cold. From a side-pocket of the soft case she carried, Natalie handed Urs her sunglasses.
"Thank you." The former vampire donned them gravely. "Does it look odd, sunglasses with the parka?"
"Not at all," Natalie assured her, thinking that Urs actually looked a little like a movie starlet -- with her pale curls shining in the noon sun and the glasses accenting her striking bone structure -- even in her bulky coat and old jeans. Natalie was dressed similarly herself, but thought with fond amusement that she surely never looked glamorous in any eyes but Nick's. "You've heard of snow-blindness? Never hesitate to protect your sight."
Urs nodded, briefly fingered a thin gold chain around her neck, then pointed past the corner of the building. "We want to go over there."
Natalie gave Urs what she hoped was a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder, and followed her across the winter-browned lawn. While Natalie had honestly come primarily in hopes of collecting revealing vampiric samples to shed light on Urs's transformation, she also intended to provide whatever emotional support she could. It would not be easy for Urs, telling Vachon. Not that she was human, nor that she carried his child. In fact, nothing about recovering from vampirism had come easily for this woman, whom Natalie had come to know as soft-spoken and eager to please. It made Natalie nervous, that eagerness; anything she asked, Urs did. This was the first thing Urs had asked of her.
When Natalie had returned to the hospital after setting up for Nick's release, she had found his space empty, with a note on the pillow directing her to Tracy's private room. There, after initial greetings and encouraging platitudes about Tracy's prognosis for eventual recuperation, Urs had drawn Natalie aside. She was ready to tell her family, Urs had said. She had apologized for the inconvenience, and warned it was not without danger, waking a vampire in the middle of the day -- even one you know well -- but would Natalie consider coming? They had left Nick and Tracy avidly -- not accusingly, thank goodness -- dissecting the clues they had both missed in the Kessel House case. Natalie had first stopped by her lab for the special, vampire-related forensic medical kit she had assembled over the years, relabeled some containers, and then asked Urs for directions.
The church building's inconspicuous side door was not locked. Urs neither knocked nor called out on entering, but the narrow wooden staircase they followed up two steep, dimly-lit flights squeakily announced their presence with every step. At the top, Urs removed the sunglasses and tucked them in a pocket. Then she opened another door and strode into pitch blackness. Natalie fumbled for a light-switch on the inside wall, found one, and clicked it back and forth without result.
"The electricity's out again." A male voice. Dry, detached. Amused?
"You're awake?" Urs's surprise floated in the dark.
"If you were trying to sneak up on me in my sleep, you should have flown. Much quieter." A match flared at about the height of Natalie's waist, and then a candle at about the height of her chin, illuminating the tall, wrought-iron candelabra supporting it. Javier Vachon's pale oval face appeared next to the candle, then sank to the edge of its glow as he settled down to a seated position on the rumpled bed against the back wall. Urs gasped. He tugged a dark-green quilt around him, over his leather jacket. Natalie had only seen this long-haired vampire once before, at the start of the fever epidemic. Then, he had been exhausted and drained from caring for his dying friend, Screed.
Natalie would swear Vachon looked worse now than Screed had then.
"I wasn't trying to sneak, Javier," Urs whispered. "I thought we'd have to wake you."
"Yeah, well, I haven't exactly been sleeping through the day, lately. Maybe the doc there can give me some pills, or something." He looked at Natalie, his eyes wide and black in the faint candlelight. The shadows under them were wide and black as well. "It's back, isn't it?"
"The fever." The words rolled through the room and lingered, like fog. Vachon leaned back against the unpainted drywall and closed his eyes. "When pestilence comes in waves, the second is often deadlier than the first. You must have studied the 1918 flu, right? That one wasn't so long ago. It's kinda like that, isn't it? Except this is taking out the survivors, too."
Natalie and Urs exchanged a glance, grim and anxious. If the original strain had not granted its survivors sufficient immunity to fight off related contagion, then Nick and Urs had apparently escaped vampirism just in time. Just. The antidote in the first outbreak had come through luck, pure and simple. And luck was notoriously unreliable about return engagements. Even Vachon's comparison to the horrific influenza pandemic during the first world war seriously underestimated the toll a second wave would take on Toronto's vampires. Indeed, why not much further than Toronto? Vampires moved around almost compulsively. What had ever made Natalie think they could have contained the disease to one continent, much less one city? She suddenly saw it spreading from one escaped lab rat to the ends of the earth. Dully, Natalie watched Urs advance toward Vachon.
"Back off, Urs!" He ducked weakly as she reached for him. "You look healthy, tu absurda. I don't want to infect you."
"Do what he says, Urs," Natalie instructed.
"Better safe than sorry. Do you want to light as many more candles as you can find?" After only slight hesitation, Urs nodded, straightened and backed away from Vachon. Blood-borne, the original pathogen had proven so innocuous to humans that Natalie ranked the odds of reversal on that front negligible. After all, it had been six months into formal human testing as a potential AIDS cure when it accidentally crossed into the vampire population. But what if Urs's child carried some as-yet-undetectable vampiric trait rendering it vulnerable across the placental barrier? Natalie took Urs's place in front of Vachon, set her bag on the bed and preliminarily put the back of her hand against his forehead. He flinched. She withdrew and crossed her arms. "Tell me about your symptoms."
"A lot like before. Like . . . Screed. No coughing this time, no puking up my lungs, but I feel just as lousy. Tired. Weak. Can't see right, can't smell right. I was really hot, at first, feverish, but now I'm cold. Always cold." He shivered. One candle after another around the cluttered room sprang to life under Urs's hands as he talked. "At first, I was hungry, no matter how much I drank. Now, though, blood tastes rank -- briney. I can barely get it down. It was all slower coming on, this time; just a little bit, then a little more, then . . . . I guess the fever mutated."
Natalie made a noncommittal sound. "May I examine you?"
"Will it do any good?" He met her eyes.
"Yes." It was a promise. Goodness only knew whether she could redeem it. Maybe they would be lucky a second time.
It did not take long. Vachon wearily closed his eyes for most of what he called "the poking and prodding," but Urs watched every move keenly, even anticipating Natalie's request for assistance drawing the blood sample. Of course, by the time they reached the blood sample, Natalie's wild surmise had coalesced into a firm hypothesis. Relieved and confounded in equal measure, Natalie knew this could not be the vampire fever. Not even a modified strain. She knew exactly what it was. She would bet Urs did, too. But Natalie lacked even the faintest clue as to how Vachon had contracted it.
"Are there any windows in here?" Natalie asked, zipping up the soft exterior of her case and trying to keep her expression neutral.
Vachon, holding a gauze pad to his arm, nodded toward the opposite corner on the same wall as his bed. Perfect. Natalie set her case safely out of the way, went to the corner, and ripped down the thick cloth nailed over it -- only to find corrugated cardboard duct-taped into the frame beneath.
"Hopeless case?" Vachon asked, sounding bemused. "Going to put me out of my misery?"
"Nope." With some effort, she ripped away a wide strip of cardboard. Light streamed in, filling one side of the room. Natalie stood in the sunlight; Urs and Vachon remained in the dark. "Urs, would you help me pull off the rest of this?"
Urs stepped forward, but Vachon suddenly hauled her back, mustering more strength than Natalie had thought he had, and also touching Urs for the first time that day. "Are you crazy?" he stormed. "Both of you? That's daylight!"
"It's all right, Javier." Urs kissed him lightly and disentangled herself from his arms. "This is part of what we came to tell you in the first place." She walked into the light.
Natalie and Urs pulled down the rest of the cardboard.
"SPF infinity?" Vachon said at last, sagging back to his bed. "You've perfected sunblock? No, wait. I'm delusional. That's it. Any moment now, Screed's going to walk in that door. And then the Inca will bring me flowers and little chocolate candies."
"I didn't mean to tell you this way, Javier. I had a . . . speech. I've been thinking for days. All the different ways to say it." Urs returned to the dark side of the room and knelt in front of Vachon. "I'm human."
"Yes, she is," Natalie corrected. "And so are you. You don't have the fever again. This is just a preliminary diagnosis, but in the simplest terms, you're making yourself sick by trying to live as a vampire when you're human. You're cold because there's no heat in here. You're hungry because you need some real food -- though, actually, I'd start you off on fluids, maybe an electrolyte/carbohydrate drink, or some vegetable broth."
"Natalie made me tomato soup for my first meal this century," Urs told him. "It was good. Oh, and here!" She displayed a blister on her right index finger. "I burned myself taking a pan out of the oven last night. Would a vampire?"
Vachon carefully examined the blister. He took Urs's pulse, then his own. Then, slowly, he slipped past her and edged cautiously into the light. "How?"
"There's the sixty-five-thousand dollar question," Natalie sighed. Nick had retrieved his humanity through her treatments. Urs's body had returned to humanity in order to nurture her child. Neither scenario applied to Vachon. But while two may be coincidence, three constitute pattern. Everything Natalie thought she knew about vampirism was suddenly up in the air again. Instead of dismay at this new puzzle, she discovered with a little embarrassment, excitement now spiced her every breath. This was the most interesting development since Nick had become human. It enthralled her. "Has anything unusual happened, Vachon? Did you ingest something out of the ordinary, maybe?"
"No, nothing," he insisted. "I was fine after the fever! Knight brought me the injection, you know, and a few hours later, I was fine. Everything went . . . back to normal. Until, oh, four days ago. Maybe more? I dunno. I got sick." He turned to Urs, now sitting on the bed. "How long have you known?"
"I found out almost a week ago. But I'd been . . . sick for a week or more before that. Doctor Lambert said . . ." Urs trailed off expectantly.
Natalie picked it up. "Urs became human over time, not all at once." This was an experience all three subjects shared, Natalie noted. No sudden magical transformation for Nick, Urs or Vachon, but slow replacement cell by cell, tissue by tissue, organ by organ. The exterior consequences, observable by the naked eye, evidently came last. She wished she had more than just Nick's data on that interim state. "Urs had to have been at least partially human no less than five weeks ago." Possibly more, depending whether conception had been catalyst or consequence, something Natalie now had to question. "It sounds as if your symptoms are on the same pattern as hers, about two weeks behind."
"Wait a minute. You've known Urs is mortal for over a week, and you don't have a theory yet? Do you even know if this is reversible?"
"All indications are that it's subject to the standard annulment; just find some vampire you trust to bring you over, instead of leaving you eligible for my department's one-to-a-customer exsanguinated-cadaver special. And I have a theory about Urs." Natalie looked at the other woman, trying to provide an opening for her revelation. "But it's inapplicable to you, Vachon."
"That's the other thing we came to tell you, Javier." Urs pulled up her knees and wrapped her arms around them. She remained silent. After one more look out the window, Vachon joined her on the bed, tiredly placing his arm around her shoulders.
Natalie wondered if Urs wanted privacy for this after all. "Why don't I make a quick run to the store while you two talk? Pick up some food for Vachon?"
Urs's look seemed grateful. Even so, she asked, "You will be back, won't you?"
"Of course. Half an hour, tops."
"Thank you," Urs said. Silent, Vachon's face remained unreadable. Natalie considered carrying her case back to the car with her, but decided that might send the wrong message. They were not done yet. Nodding decisively, she showed herself out.
At the grocery, Natalie picked up several bottles of Gatorade, a pack of foolproof instant soup cups -- just add water -- a bag of carrots, two loaves of bread and a jar of multivitamins. She had no idea what Vachon had eaten when he had originally been human, whenever that had been, but these basics should get him started again. Remedial sustenance for novice mortals? Nick, having returned to humanity by choice, had eased into its dietary requirements. His experience did not translate straightforwardly to Vachon. Extrapolating from Urs, on the other hand, Natalie predicted that Vachon's newly-human body would recover quickly from the equivalent of an extended fast, assuming he had not encountered significant contagions in any blood he drank after his vampiric immune system collapsed. Ludicrously, from Natalie's perspective, vampires neither pasteurized, irradiated nor even tested their bottled blood. In fact, they welcomed the rejects of the human medical system -- a public health disaster just waiting to happen. Except they were not really part of the public, were they? In a way, while Nick had been one of them, Natalie had felt Toronto's vampires were her personal preserve, and she their unpublished Jane Goodall. She had begun to miss that, she suddenly realized. The clerk ringing up the food had to tap Natalie's hand to call her attention back to completing her check.
With the groceries in her trunk, Natalie stopped briefly at a hardware store to acquire a space heater. Most were meant to be plugged in, but even if Vachon, informed of the necessity, were now willing to pay his building's electrical bill, perhaps the decrepit old place had substandard wiring, as well. She selected a battery-run campsite type, with a corresponding battery. Those went on her credit card.
Striding into Vachon's makeshift bedroom with the food in one hand and the heater in the other, Natalie found Vachon staring out the window from the edge of the shadow, and Urs sitting exactly as before. Silent. Natalie wondered how Vachon had taken the news of impending fatherhood. But his back was turned and Urs, her expression saturnine, immediately leapt up to take the plastic grocery bags.
"Thanks," Natalie told Urs, setting the heater's box down in the center of the room and opening it to begin assembly. "Give one of the drink bottles to Vachon, please?" Natalie kept one eye on the heater's instructions and one eye on Vachon, as he warily sniffed the Gatorade Urs opened for him.
"Sweet," he noted.
"It's supposed to be," Urs encouraged him. "Here." She took a sip, then handed the plastic bottle back to him. He imitated her, taking a tiny sip. Confusion crept over his face as he swallowed, and he held the bottle away from him for a moment. But then he sipped again, and again. One doubtful mouthful at a time, Vachon finished the bottle about the same time Natalie activated the heater.
"Not too bad," Vachon admitted. "Not great, either, but not disgusting, I guess."
"A drink is just a drink," Natalie quipped, satisfied with the heat beginning to come off the new appliance. "We mere mortals don't get the, uh, kick from our food that vampires do."
"I know that."
"Good. So have another."
Vachon watched her a moment, unblinking, then complied. Urs had spread the groceries on the bed, and handed him a fresh bottle in a different flavor. Natalie carried the heater to where Urs perched on one end of the bed, and tipped over a crate for a chair. While Vachon finished his second bottle of Gatorade, opened a third and began experimenting with the bread and carrots, she reprised the high points of her early discussions with Urs, regarding nutrition, infection, injury, inoculation, hygiene, sunburn, frostbite, aging, Canada's health system and safer sex.
"Of course, there is no such thing as 'safe sex,' just various levels of various risks." The emotional and ethical hazards were surely the same, human or vampire, and her audience was older and theoretically more mature than she, so Natalie skipped that part. "On the up side, no more bloodshed/orgasm linkage. The, um, biting habit does not instantly disappear, but it's controllable. On the down side, as a human, you can catch and spread any number of diseases, some fatal. And, up or down side depending, you can have children."
"Why us?" Vachon demanded suddenly. "Why now?"
"Pregnancy is a common consequence of sex."
"For mortals. We were vampires! Urs told me that little fairy tale about a vampire woman conceiving under certain circumstances, and her body going all mortal in chain-reaction. Maybe that makes some sense. Maybe we even hit all those garbled legendary conditions by accident that time. But how did this backlash on me? The myth doesn't say word one about the father coming down with mortality!"
"Actually, the way I heard it," through Nick, Natalie remembered, from Lacroix and Serena, "the father was supposed to die as a consequence. Instead of indicating he was supposed to be human and get drained in the act, maybe that was a poetic way of saying he was a vampire and would become human, too. Death is the universal consequence of life."
"Not quite universal." Vachon grinned in a way that would have shown off his fangs, if he still had fangs. Apparently realizing he did not, he snapped his jaw shut. "Look, Urs said you wanted some more samples. Haven't you already peeled or squeezed just about everything I've got?"
"Not quite everything." Natalie retrieved her case and handed Vachon some sturdy, clearly-labeled plasticware. With professional detachment, Natalie politely requested semen, urine and stool samples, and explained how to provide them.
Vachon's eyes widened.
"Hard data is our only shot at discovering how all of this happened," Natalie emphasized. "We have to know what's really involved, without this impractical, unempirical dependence on threadbare myths and suspect anecdotes, which I don't like any better than you do, for what it's worth."
Holding the containers, Vachon turned to Urs. "Anything else?"
"No, Javier. Just this."
"All right." He left for the bathroom.
The silence grew awkward. Natalie twisted the ring on the fourth digit of her left hand. Nick had chosen a flat, smooth band in consideration of her work, to minimize the occasions she would have to take it off. She wondered what kind of ring she would have selected had they picked it out together. Finally, Natalie asked, "How did it go?"
"Oh, you know, about what I expected." Urs flashed the bright smile Natalie had learned to read as defensive, but then relaxed into wistfulness. "He took me to Screed's grave that night, showing me where he buried him. We talked about old times, and good times, and then . . . went flying till dawn. I guess that was the 'higher than high' in the rhyme."
"You can do that?" Natalie had never asked Nick about that possible in-flight activity.
"Not anymore," Urs shrugged. "And it was, you know, just for old time's sake. I guess it's ironic that one nostalgic mood is changing my whole future."
Urs smiled, again too brightly. Then she rearranged the food so all the nutrition labels and instructions faced up. Natalie edged her feet closer to the heater and began planning the tests she would conduct on Vachon's various samples. The myth might or might not have any legitimacy, but surely what had reconverted Urs and Vachon to humanity had a biological basis she could document and duplicate. After all these years of searching -- her six, plus Nick's previous two hundred or more -- it was outrageous and engrossing to simply stumble onto two unplanned cures in a row. They had worked so hard for Nick's!
Not that she would have particularly wanted Nick to achieve humanity by this route. Natalie imagined Janette turning up at the loft one day last year to say she was carrying Nick's child, and, by the way, they were both human. Natalie shuddered. Then the imaginary Janette became Serena, who had once expressly wanted Nick's baby. With a sinking feeling, Natalie knew Nick would not only have done the right thing in either case by supporting his child, but would have almost immediately proposed marriage to the woman carrying it, if not otherwise entangled. And he would have done it enthusiastically, adoringly, honorably, for the humanity and family she brought him, if not for old and enduring loves, unresolved.
Natalie firmly blocked that train of thought. Nick was hers now. Jealousy of his interminable past would just drive her crazy, much less envy of things that had never happened and, now, never would. The focus of the moment was Urs's understanding with Vachon. Had they achieved one?
Vachon returned, presenting full containers to Natalie. She thanked him and tucked the containers securely in their slots in her case. He opened another Gatorade. "How much did all this cost?"
"Don't worry about it."
Vachon looked at her. Natalie fought down the sensation that it was some sort of staring contest, and glanced casually away. He retrieved the grocery receipt from one of the plastic bags Urs had tidily hung on the corner of the bed, and tipped over the heater box with his foot to see the price tag. Then he pulled a wallet out of his back pocket and counted out the cash. When Natalie did not immediately reach for it, Vachon pushed it into her hand. "That covers it?"
"Well, yes, but you don't have to--"
"Yes, I do. Thanks for the house call, Doctor Lambert. I'll admit it's better to be mortal than dead. Now, ladies, I don't mean to rush you, but --" He gestured toward the door.
Urs stood. "Are you going to be all right, Javier?"
She nodded, drew the sunglasses out of her pocket and stepped toward the door. Natalie, carrying her case, preceded Urs out and down the steps, but glanced back just in time to see Vachon sweep Urs into an embrace as she crossed the threshold. Natalie carefully did not watch, and continued down the stairs, but by all indications he was enthusiastic and adoring enough to satisfy anyone.
As Urs fastened her seatbelt in the passenger seat of Natalie's car, she sighed. "At least I'll have a good story for someday. 'The last time I saw your dad,' you know."
"The last time?" Natalie asked abstractedly, trying to pull out into traffic without tapping the car parked in front of her. It was a different car than before, and too close for her liking.
"Yeah. You see, Javier is charmingly hard to catch, but he's easy to hold. He'll do anything for a friend. Anything. The problem is, I've seen people hold him. They never guess . . ." In the corner of her field of vision, Natalie saw Urs wipe her eyes with the heel of her hand. "I know enough, now, to let him go. I'd be surprised if he's still here tomorrow."
"You don't have to see him if you don't want to, Urs, but he has obligations to your baby. Child support, for example."
Urs laughed. "Oh, Javier never has money. He usually just hypnotizes cashiers into giving him what he wants, when he wants something. Mostly, he thinks possessions are a trap. I wouldn't be surprised if that billfold held all the money he has in the world." Urs fell silent, and Natalie consciously concentrated on driving.
After a few blocks, Urs added, "I wonder what he's going to do, now that he can't hypnotize anybody anymore?"
Chapter Nine: Faith, Finances and Flowers
Nick strolled back to his loft in the crisp morning light, feeling everything was right with his world. Granted, his right arm continued in a sling, his shoulder throbbed like thunder, he remained on enforced medical leave, his partner faced the possibility she might never again pass a police physical, and the Enforcers could well be coming to get him and the woman he loved. On the other hand, there was nothing wrong with his legs, and he had walked kilometers in the sun to and from St. John's this clear Sunday morning, stopping to pick up a bag of fresh croissants for Natalie -- his fiancée! -- on the way back. The scent of hot bread pleasantly tickled a purely gastronomic hunger, the mild, tranquil successor to the vampire's wild ravening. Nick felt positively spoiled.
"Honey, I'm home!" he called as he stepped out of the elevator and dropped the croissants on the table. The cliché tickled him. It had been too long, much too long, since he had been in a position to wrap his life around another's, and he had been looking forward to this purely human life for generations. As he carefully, one-handedly extricated himself from his draped winter coat and straightened the loose knit shirt that best accommodated his injuries, Nick recalled when he and Janette had last lived together in the thirties and forties. He had been so comfortable then, their mutual understanding a fortress around which the mad and maddening world had broken and swirled. For a little while, they had even felt almost like a real family, with the war-orphan Daniel nearly like a son. Lacroix had shattered that illusion, dragging the boy into their darkness. This time, Nick trusted no illusion remained, and, with Natalie, he would build the family and future for which he had yearned.
Nick selected a croissant. Munching, he wandered over to Natalie's laptop on the coffee table. The Toronto Transit Commission website was up and not even behind the screen-saver, so she could not still be asleep. He drifted back to the kitchen and started the coffee machine.
"Where have you been?"
"I told you before I left." Surprised into defense, Nick turned to see Natalie descending the stairs. She wore jeans, and her brunette curls tumbled confidently loose around the turtleneck of a snug red sweater. But her expression looked shielded. Nick softened. "Did you forget when you went back to sleep? I said, I'm going to St. John's for Mass, and did you want to come. You turned over and burrowed under the pillows."
"Oh." Natalie blushed, closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Yeah, I remember now. Sorry! You didn't try to drive, did you? You can't shift with that arm."
"No, I walked. Beautiful day." Nick pointed to the table. "Croissant?"
"Thanks. I suppose I should have started making brunch or something." Natalie pulled a piece off the nearest bun and popped it in her mouth.
Nick regretted leaving her waiting for him, and wished he had thought to go to the nine o'clock Mass instead of the eleven. "Let me take you out to eat. You drive."
"The Caddie?" Natalie's eyebrows rose.
"Oh, right." Urs had taken Natalie's car back to Natalie's apartment the previous night. Nick had marveled that the blonde dancer had a perfectly legitimate Ontario driver's license, though he could not think why it surprised him; even Janette, who employed chauffeurs, and Lacroix, who scorned to travel moderate distances under any power but his own, maintained licenses. They were too useful to be without. But now, if he and Natalie wanted to go somewhere, she would have to drive his car. His Caddie. His. Not that she had not before -- with him in the trunk -- and not that she had ever crashed it, unlike some people he could mention, may they rest in peace -- but those scenarios had been unavoidable. Surely an alternative offered now. "Uh, how do scrambled eggs sound?"
"Fine, thanks." Natalie laughed, no doubt unerringly aware of his autophile thought process. She seated herself at the table as he assembled basic ingredients, and he was grateful she did not try to take over the task. With weeks of recovery to go, he was already bone-weary of being told he could not do things. Natalie took another croissant. "Nick, this, um, church thing? You've been, what, twice since your recovery from vampirism?"
"Well, I was a bit laid up last weekend. I suppose I should have asked about the hospital's chapel--"
"What? No! I mean, Nick, I know you haven't been able to do it for a long time, and you must want to experience this thing that's been unavailable to you, but do you think you're going to be doing this . . . from now on?"
"Probably," Nick replied, concentrating on the eggs. "I don't really know what to believe, Nat, but I know there's something to believe, and I know I want to find it. I went to St. John's first by chance, then because I knew Father Rouchefort from that serial killer case four years ago. Remember? You can just see how he truly believes. So it seemed like the place to start. But I'm picking up the pieces all out of order, I know." Nick glanced at Natalie, and a chill undercurrent of her question washed over him. Was she hinting that she wanted him to keep his frailly reawakening faith from intruding on her life? With sudden insight, he observed, "It makes you uncomfortable. Religion, I mean."
"Yes. No. I don't know. You know what I believe, Nick. But I don't feel a need to run it up a pole and wave it once a week to make me feel better about myself."
"Is that what you think I'm doing?"
"I hope not." He held her eyes as long as she permitted. Then he turned back to the eggs. "Maybe I do get a thrill from just being able to participate in worship again. Maybe it will wear off someday. I'm sure you're right. But I have to look for God, Nat. To be a vampire, I hid and fled from God. Now, I want to stand and serve, somehow. Not as a weekly spectator, but reliably on-call, if I can learn the way." Nick knew he would always have so much to make up for, a deficit of so many more vampiric sins than he could ever repay. But that was no reason to not try. He considered confiding how the sacraments and professions of his first humanity, baptism to knighthood, had loomed at the edges of his thoughts lately; or how, when he had wilted in the fever's grip, he had found himself praying for mercy, that if the disease must exterminate all vampires, it might be with less suffering. Not an ambitious appeal, perhaps. He had not even thought to ask for survival. But it had been his first such heartfelt prayer since . . . . But Natalie frowned, troubled. It was not a moment for the past.
Nick switched off the stove, divided the eggs between two plates, and joined Natalie at the table. "Almost everything about every religion is different on the surface now, wherever I look. I thought I was keeping up with the culture, but it -- it can make me feel so alien, Nat." Loosing that admission helped him find his next words. "But it also makes those things that are still the same inside stand out all the more. The word of God, the presence of God. I can't live a fully human life unless I embrace life's origin and end. I have to try. I want to."
"I'm not saying you shouldn't." She poked cautiously at the meal with her fork, and he wondered if he had miscooked the eggs somehow. "It's just, are you sure this is different from your magical Mayan jade cup, or cursed black Buddha statue, or Mississauga shaman faith healing -- or that Welsh harp you thought enchantedly summoned you, for that matter?"
"I don't see the connection."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
Nick picked up a croissant, and they ate in taut silence. He remembered the time Natalie had thought him brainwashed by a sun-worshipping cult during an undercover assignment. He had not been, of course, but the possibility had seemed real to her, and frightening. "Nat, you don't have to worry. I'm not going to choose lightly. I've come to understand that evil always results from people's choices. God never hurts anyone; we hurt each other. He lets us, only because that's how precious free will is, even to destruction. I know." Who could know that like a vampire? Nick reached for Natalie's right hand with his left across the table, and she let him clasp it. He stroked her fingers reassuringly. "Enthusiasms wane, appearances change, but the questions and answers are real. They endure. I have to seek them. I know I can't find them all on my own. And I don't believe any authority holds a monopoly on truth. I'll look for my teachers wherever and however you want. What do you want, Nat?"
"Don't make me the bad guy here."
"Never. No bad guys here; just us. What do you want?" Nick could see that she felt trapped. He wanted to free her, but could not seem to touch the snare.
"I don't think I can go wherever this religion thing takes you." Natalie withdrew her hand. "I've already made my peace with the meaning of life and lack thereof, Nick. If you're imagining us sitting in pews side-by-side for the rest of our lives, I'm sorry, but it just isn't going to happen. I'd manage Christmas and Easter at most."
"I'll take what I can get," he said softly. "I don't mean to try to change you, Nat."
"Funny, I've been doing nothing but trying to change you for six years. Hard habit to break." She smiled, cracking the tension at last.
"That was different." Nick smiled back, tremendously relieved. He wondered if this counted as their first fight as a couple. Odd how its slow, silent strain had not at all resembled their brisk, strident confrontations during his vampirism. He was not sure he liked the change. "So, any insights into Vachon's condition?"
"I set up a few tests before we brought you home yesterday. I'll go in this afternoon and see what they say. I can tell you that he now has O-type blood, just like you and Urs."
"Is that significant?"
"I have no idea!" Natalie's exasperation exploded, then she sighed. "Statistically, no. Forty-six percent of the population worldwide is homozygous recessive. It's the oldest human type -- 'O' for 'old' -- as well as the most common. Do you remember Cal?"
"Of course." Natalie's old friend Calvin Tucker had conspired with the thief who inadvertently murdered the researcher Linda Wyatt and released the fever virus into the vampire population. After Lacroix murdered Cal for his part in the epidemic, draining his HIV-infected blood, Natalie realized that HIV would destroy the fever virus. Cal became the cure; all surviving Toronto vampires owed their continued existence to a serum of his bodily fluids.
"He was type O, too." Natalie shrugged. "I want DNA profiles on you three, to get past the phenotypes, and not just for blood. Although, it is too bad none of you know whether this is your original type restored, or something entirely new."
"Blood types weren't discovered until 1900," Nick noted apologetically, awkwardly scraping the last of his eggs onto his fork and wishing he could use his right hand. Even Urs had been ten years in the night by the turn of the twentieth century.
"Did that discovery make any difference?"
"To vampires? No. Human is human, regardless of type, sex, race or anything like that." Immediately following the discovery's publication, Lacroix, fascinated, had briefly indulged a twisted whim for taste comparison, guessing his victims' blood types as they died. Luckily, no difference existed sufficient to endanger one group of humans more than another. "On the other hand, the development of long-term anti-coagulants after 1915 --"
"Yeah." Nick nodded, reminiscing. "That and refrigeration -- and, later, centrifugal separation, then cryoprecipitation -- changed everything. For some, anyway."
"Speaking of Vachon," Natalie recovered the subject. "Urs said something yesterday that really bothered me. I didn't know what to say, so I just let it drop, but she seemed to expect that Vachon would never contribute anything toward raising their child, neither his presence nor his money. Actually, she said he doesn't have any money."
"I wouldn't be surprised." Nick lay down his fork, giving up on the last of his eggs. "Vampirism doesn't come with a financial endowment, contrary to popular belief."
"Gee, I never would have guessed." Natalie grinned, tapping a finger against the chips sprouting around the rim of her plate. Nick's dishes, originally selected as props for the typical bachelor cop on base pay, with no thought of actual use, were not standing up well to daily wear.
"We'll register for new ones." Nick grinned back. "Admittedly, some of us -- them -- are wealthy, but most float just above destitution, unable to hold a regular job long, and too impatient or unstable for investment even if they can scrape up the capital. Almost all steal. What's a little theft to a murderer?" Nick recalled the royal ransom he had rashly plundered in the sixteenth century, to his everlasting regret. Then he thought of Anne Foley, the felonious stripper-cum-lawyer who had tried to tempt him with the thrill of theft, never imagining how quaint that transgression looked from his depraved vantage. "It's not right for Vachon to walk out on them, but I suppose I'm not surprised. I tried to force him to be responsible for Tracy last fall, you know; he was going to just leave then, too. But I should have known better. Everyone has to choose for himself, or it isn't real. I did." Nick stared at Natalie to communicate the choice he had made, and was elated to make her blush and grin. He measured the distance from their disagreement by her smiles. "I'm sorry things are so hard for Urs, and I would pull Vachon back here for her if she asked, but she hasn't asked. And I do think she is going to be just fine. I've been thinking, we could help her get started -- monetarily, that is."
"What do you mean?"
"I've never told you about the de Brabant Foundation, have I?" Natalie shook her head. Nick rose and picked up the plates. As he washed the dishes, he related the sordid story of what Lacroix had called his "blood money:" the conspiracy, ransom, murder -- the shameful betrayals his greed had urged, and the lingering taint they had left. No honor among thieves. Nick felt surprisingly divorced from those appalling actions, as if his new humanity had finally insulated him somewhat from their scorching recrimination. He used to writhe in humiliation when he thought of that affair. Now, as he passed over all those who had died or killed in pursuit of the money over the centuries, and turned to its modern disposition in charitable trusts, doing some good to requite the evil done for it, he spared a kind of pity for the man he had been, who had refused to know better.
"Wow." Natalie exhaled audibly. "Wow. You gave away forty million dollars last year? Forty million! That is one large load of loonies. And there's how much left?"
"Four-hundred-eighty million, at the moment. But a lot of that is invested in socially-responsible companies and struggling entrepreneurs who can't provide any returns. I'd give away more straight out, but it gets too conspicuous."
"I knew you weren't solely dependent on your police salary, Nick, but that's hard to take in." Natalie pinched the bridge of her nose, then crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. "Why not just let it go? Just let it fade into the past with the other remnants of your vampirism? It's not like we need money. Between us, we'd always be okay."
"It's my responsibility." Nick leaned against the counter and awkwardly dried his left hand by draping a dishtowel on his thigh and rubbing across it. "I'm not sure I can explain. I've ensured the foundation's self-sustaining, but, in the end, it's my fault. I picked up the burden -- Nat, I killed for the burden -- so I have to carry it." Torn, Nick wanted to share the benefits of his money with her, but none of its anguish. Perhaps that was not possible.
"That much money," she mused. "Everything I'll earn in my lifetime is barely a dewdrop to that lake."
"Everything I have is yours, Nat."
"It's not that easy, Nick! It's not your fault, but it's just not that easy. All those years and all that money and --" She waved her hand expansively. "Your life just swallows mine up. How can I stay whole?"
"Oh, Nat!" It was tricky to hug someone in a stiff, high-backed chair, and trickier yet with a perforated shoulder, but somehow Nick managed it. He could not think of the words to tell her that all his head-start had never yet brought him near the starting line of her courage, brilliance, independence, beauty, humanity, and everything he could not name that endeared her to him. So he just held her close and loved her as hard as he could. For an instant, he regretted that she would never feel his devotion through the unquestionable veracity of a vampiric link, the truth in the blood. Then he recognized his thought and, disgusted at himself, would have drawn back. But at that moment, Natalie melted against him, and they clung together, comforting one another.
After a while, Natalie pulled back and smoothed Nick's hair around the edges of his face. Then she looked at her watch. "I need to go in to the lab to check on those tests I started yesterday, and set up some more. If I'm going to catch the bus, I have to leave now -- unless you want to let me drive the Caddie after all? No?" The wry glimmer in her expression as she stood and retrieved her laptop and case told him she was teasing, and did not for a second expect him to yield his precious car. "Okay. I'll see you for dinner, then."
"Wait." Retrieving the Caddie's spare key from its special box in his kitchen junk drawer, Nick stared at it a moment, then carried it to Natalie and tenderly folded her fingers around it. "Drive safely."
Natalie's jaw dropped. Taking unfair advantage, Nick kissed her passionately. Reeling, she said, "I love you, too." Then she headed out.
Nick slipped a Springsteen CD into his stereo, punched up the volume and brooded. Staring out the window next to his cactus, he remembered his experience with the machine that induced near-death experiences. Since then, Nick had come to accept that physical humanity would not end his quest. He had slowly come to understand that, if he achieved mortality, he would still have to pick up the palm toward salvation. But he had never imagined Natalie would not accompany him up that spiritual road, as she had through the struggles of these last physical steps. It simply had not crossed his mind. Of course, why should she? He laughed sardonically at himself. A generous soul like Natalie's no doubt followed a gentler route to Heaven. Why should she wait for him as he struggled so far in her wake? But he had to begin at the beginning. And he needed all the help he could get. He had not thought it through before, but he supposed the very traditions that distressed Natalie were his life-preserver in this inexorable ocean of the spirit. Without that water, he might as well be a vampire. Without support, he would surely drown.
* * *
December 1227, Jerusalem
Like most pilgrims, Sir Nicholas circled the Holy City and approached from the north, the side on which the deep valleys surrounding Jerusalem swelled into the hill on which the prophet Samuel was buried. To Nicholas, it felt right to have to climb to his first view of Jerusalem. He sensed he was fulfilling his vow to bring his sword to its service, even if he now carried only a lute in place of his blade, and no sane hope remained for the city's reconquest by Christian arms. Though Jerusalem diverted him from the direct road to Jaffa, Nicholas never considered another route. And the closer he approached, the more nearly he felt as if he were come to pay homage to his Lord in His capitol, like an earthly king in the city from which he reigned. Not ill taught, Nicholas knew Christ dwelled wherever men gathered in His name, but Jerusalem loomed larger and larger in his mind the closer he came, an irresistible conflation. For this city, five mighty Crusades had risen and crashed on this shore. For this city, Nicholas himself had languished five years in captivity. In this city, Almighty God had willingly suffered and died, human, for the sins of all humans.
Nicholas crested the hill, and Jerusalem's sacred weight pulled him to his knees. He lowered his pack gently, to spare his lute, but spared no other thought from the vista below, where the city spread in flat-roofed houses, round-topped markets, and domed and towered Muslim worship places. Here and there, as allowed by the long-ago treaty between the Kurd Saladin and England's Richard II, crosses jutted up into the golden afternoon. Nicholas tried to guess which marked the Holy Sepulchre. Would it be the nearest, or the most distant? Behind the city, the Mount of Olives, place of the Lord's Ascension, rose on the horizon.
Overwhelmed, Nicholas found himself reciting a prayer customary for contemplating the Crucifixion. He felt a friendly hand on his shoulder, and heard a warm voice join him:
"Behold, kind and loving Jesus, I cast myself on my knees in Your sight, and beseech that You will press upon my heart faith, hope and charity, with true repentance for my sins and firm desire of amendment, while I ponder Your precious wounds."
Nicholas looked over into the crinkling black eyes of a tall, skinny, gray-robed friar kneeling at his side.
"Is it that the city is like a giant crucifix," the man asked, "or that all crosses are like little Jerusalems?" He offered Nicholas a hand up, and then got to his feet himself. Nicholas noticed that hand was empty, and those feet went bare. "They call this the Hill of Joy, you know, for this view and that reaction. My name is Leo, and I hazard the guess that this is your first visit here, yes? Would you object to company on your walk down?"
"Yes, it is my first visit, and no, I would welcome your company, Brother." Nicholas carefully shouldered his pack and stepped down the dusty road. "I'm Nicholas of Brabant, a knight . . . fallen on difficult times. You're from that new order of wandering friars, aren't you?"
Leo laughed. "Mendicant servants of the Lord through our fellow men in all the wide world, Sir Knight -- or so we strive. Wandering has not been my own portion of late, however. I'm come straight from Acre with the most troubling news." Leo shook his head, and the eager laugh-lines around his mouth and eyes flattened. "You had heard, perhaps, that the Emperor Frederick married our Princess Yolanda -- though he yet keeps his infamous, licentious harem in Palermo, and promptly immured her there, poor little damsel -- and proclaimed himself king of Jerusalem in her father John's place, though he yet lives?"
"Yes," Nicholas nodded. Word of that usurpation had swept worriedly down the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem the year before. Not especially beloved, King John was nevertheless their own, and rumor accused this emperor -- called "wonder of the world" and "baptized sultan" -- of strange habits and stranger blasphemies. Yet the emperor was the emperor, to whom all had already owed obedience through their monarch in the natural succession of vassals. Nothing had really changed. Nothing could change, Nicholas knew, in the order of the world, that mutual allegiance that mirrored divine fidelity. It was on that basis one accepted one's station and fate, striving to fulfill it rather than change it.
"The emperor once again reneged on his promise to lead a Crusade." Leo hesitated. "I hardly know how to say this. Some say he is ill . . . let us pray it is only a misunderstanding, a bad report, a confusion of the sort all men make and repair and --"
"What, Brother Leo? Pray what is a misunderstanding?"
The skinny friar stopped walking. "The Holy Roman Emperor, monarch of all Christendom -- king of Jerusalem -- has been anathematized. Excommunicated."
Nicholas stared. He could not have heard correctly. Such a judgment cleaved the order of obedience, the foundation of his world. Carried to its utmost, it could imperil the souls of any who obeyed those who obeyed the emperor, in the converging river of duty that was all of life. Would the militant orders stand against the imperial army? Chaos! How could the emperor have failed his people so? Whatever was said of him, if he did not owe his people, then they did not owe him, covenants were void, and all honor and value were madness. One could do anything, be anything. Nicholas felt shredded, cut and severed from sense. He felt fear.
And he felt betrayed. Deep down, a bitterness born by Gwyneth's corpse woke and fed and grew.
He looked up toward the ridge on which he had knelt. The afternoon sun blinded him, a curtain of fire between that moment and this.
"Don't look so stricken, Sir Nicholas." Leo clapped him on the shoulder. "You get used to the idea in a bit. It may come to nothing, after all. And if the bells do fall silent in the Holy City? Well, this world is passing away. Perhaps we'll be of the generation that sees it go."
* * *
The money issue subsided somewhat easier than the religious one, Nick hoped. Dialing down the music, he settled onto his couch and phoned Feliks Twist, his financial advisor. Amateur financial advisor, of course. Elegant and precise, Feliks conducted all the varied enthusiasms he took up in pursuit of Beauty and Truth strictly on the basis of accomplished amateurism, like the Victorian gentleman of leisure he had been when Nick first met him just over a century before. Nick could contact very few vampires with confidence now that he was human, but Feliks was one. Nick had not only trusted Feliks with his fortune, but also, as the saying went, his life and sacred honor. When Lacroix had tricked Nick into murdering his adored Sylvaine -- that vile joke that backfired, which stopped Nick killing altogether -- it had been Feliks who found the distraught Nick, sheltered him, and stayed by his side until he could face the night again.
After six rings, no one had answered, not even the machine. Nick hung up and tried again. Perhaps he had misdialed. He did not expect Feliks to be awake in the middle of the afternoon -- though sunset was not so far away this time of year -- but Feliks's answering machine dependably dispensed its owner's latest witty epigrams. Sometimes, Nick wondered whether Feliks were really more interested in the outgoing than incoming messages. Nick resolved to leave a simple request that Feliks apply his clever finesse to restricting Nick's access to the money without surrendering his final responsibility for it. He would explain the particulars in person.
Ten rings. No answer. Perhaps the power had surged, or the machine had broken. With nothing more pressing to do, Nick decided to drop in on his old friend. He threw a speculative look at his motorcycle in the corner, compared the location of the controls with his injuries and mortal balance, then sighed and took a cab.
Ever since his botanical obsession had superseded his jazz mania, Feliks's gardening pursuits had regularly rousted him from bed at the first shades of dusk. Interminable -- if often droll -- lectures on the twilight habits of assorted flora and their nemesis pests had impressed this on Nick, so when Feliks failed to answer his doorbell, Nick simply strolled around back of the sleek, international-style house to wait in the extensive, terraced garden.
No prudent human would surprise a vampire, even a close friend, so Nick found and switched on the exterior lights. Tiny, white bulbs materialized out of the lengthening evening shadows, rimming the looping garden paths like runways for fairy airplanes. Nick laughed at the image; he must remember to tell Feliks. Starting down a lane defined by frost-hardy evergreens and dormant box elder, Nick observed that even at the tail end of winter, with snow lingering stubbornly near some ornamental rock formations, Feliks's grounds abounded in green growing things. Some even bloomed. Nick supposed that the container-bound plants clustering at strategic points would rotate by turn through the artificial-light greenhouse Feliks had made of his snug basement, following a tour of duty outdoors with rest-and-recovery under the sunlamps Feliks so carefully shunned. The path curved toward a nook that Nick recalled offered two marble benches in Augustan-revival style: a good place to wait. At the corner, he paused to admire a potted and trellised tree sporting handsome mauve flowers all up its four-meter height. Hand-calligraphed, a little tag affixed to the edge of its huge clay pot read "A. vitifolium." Nick had to lean in and squint to distinguish the letters in the faint light. At least, he hoped it was just the faint light. Sighing, he resolved to visit an ophthalmologist.
That was when he saw it. The foot. Flung out toward the base of the pot. Then the ankle. The leg. Nick hurried around the containerized tree and knelt by Feliks, still and cold and blue. The botanist's brown eyes were open and unseeing, his moustache damp with condensation. But Nick could see no stake, no burns, nothing to harm a vampire -- except the sun still hovering just above the horizon, with no effect. The canine teeth in the open mouth were only teeth, not fangs. And dry blood matted the wavy brown hair where the liquid had not sunk into the soil, leaving stains and spatters all too easy to read. As the twilight closed into night, the cop in Nick pulled his cellular phone from his pocket and reported a dead body.
Another part of him continued trying to wake Feliks until a uniformed officer gently led him away.
Chapter Ten: Explanations
Natalie walked slowly into her lab, where Nick had insisted on awaiting the outcome of his friend Feliks Twist's autopsy. She wished someone had been able to convince him to go home, but instead he had persuaded the detectives on the case not to interview him until after the pathology results arrived, and the coroner on shift to allow Natalie to observe the examination. It was not like how Nick had sometimes persuaded people when he had been a vampire, of course, turning on the mesmerism; this was part sympathy, part solidarity. Nick knew his successes had earned respect, but Natalie suspected he had never entirely recovered from his ostracism following his embarrassing testimony on that snuff-video informant's murder. She wondered if he understood how profoundly his law-enforcement colleagues had taken him back into the "family" in their hearts through the succeeding years, sharing traumas like the asteroid scare and the music-box bomber, as well as the daily grind.
"Nick?" He raised his head at her voice, though he had not at her entrance. He sat at her desk, still wearing his long black winter coat after all these hours, his eyes bright and haunted. She embraced him, gently encircling his shoulders, and he clung to her with his uninjured left arm. She wished she knew what he was thinking. She had never heard of Feliks Twist before this afternoon, but she remembered Nick's reaction to his friend Erica's death -- a friendship spanning hundreds of years -- and of course their shared losses of Don Schanke and Amanda Cohen last fall. How did acquaintance duration affect bereavement? "I'm so sorry, Nick. So sorry."
"You made the right call, for what it's worth." Natalie stepped back, leaned on her desk and contemplated his expression. Sometime soon, she would get Nick to tell her about Twist, and find some appropriate memorial catharsis, like seeing the last play Erica wrote had been for Nick when he lost her, or like planting a tree near Cal's grave had been for Natalie when she lost him. But they had something else to face first. "Nick, your friend died completely human. There's nothing there to draw attention or raise suspicion about his . . . past condition. Cause of death is irrefutably cranial hemorrhaging from blunt-force trauma -- impact in a fall, probably collision with that marble bench you described, probably before sunrise this morning." Natalie saw no need to mention now that death had not been immediate, nor that Twist might have lived had someone been with him and called an ambulance when the accident occurred. Perils of living alone.
"I knew. That he's human. I could see." Despite his clipped delivery, Nick sounded unexpectedly calm. "But how? He wasn't on your treatments, like me. He certainly couldn't get pregnant, like Urs. Does that mean there must be someone out there carrying his child, making him like Vachon?"
"It's possible," Natalie acknowledged carefully. "But I don't think that's the reason. Nick, I missed the forest for the trees! Repeatedly. But I think I finally know what's going on. Each of your cases seemed so different, but there's one thing you all have in common."
Nick blinked. "Does -- did Feliks have type O blood, too?"
"Okay, two things in common." Natalie risked a small smile. "But it amounts to the same thing. No, I mean, you all survived the fever."
"I don't understand."
"Think about it. Theoretically, vampires are immune to disease. But along comes Linda Wyatt's escaped lab rat, freshly doped up on an unsuccessful, experimental, HIV treatment harmless to humans, and you guys -- I mean, vampires -- are dropping like anvils in a coyote cartoon. Wyatt's renegade retrovirus destroyed the vampire immune system, turned it against itself."
"I remember," Nick said dryly. "But what does that have to do with the four of us becoming human?"
"Wyatt's therapy was designed to promote immunity in impaired systems, but even an unhealthy or deprived vampire baselines with unexplained super-immunities. I think Wyatt's artificial retrovirus bonded with the genetic alteration you called the vampire 'virus' -- the RNA antisense molecules that distinguish vampirism on the cellular level -- and then gunned its engine, wrecking your metabolism and causing the fever and other symptoms. Left alone, like any other multiplying retrovirus, it would have used you up from the inside out."
"And killed me. Like Screed. And Alma and Merlin and all the others."
Natalie nodded. Screed, she had examined. Alma and Merlin, like Twist, she had never heard of before. Again, she wondered just how far the epidemic had spread. And, also not for the first time, she wondered if she would always be nodding cluelessly at names from Nick's other life.
"But the HIV serum cured the fever." Nick sounded skeptical. "Where does the humanity come in?"
"It's the combination." Natalie restrained her enthusiasm for the new paradigm, trying to make it clear for Nick even through the emotional fog of his friend's death. Deep down, she bubbled with excitement at this model's potential. But this was not the time to share that. "Remember, Linda Wyatt's treatment doesn't work; HIV destroys it in the body. But in vampires with the fever, Wyatt's retrovirus had bonded to the vampire antisense molecules. So as the HIV destroyed Wyatt's retrovirus, it also did something to the attached vampire antisense -- switched it off, damaged it, offered it a time-share in the Bahamas, I don't know. But that's when you all began becoming human. The moment you stopped dying of the fever, the vampire antisense started eroding in your body. Your humanity is iatrogenic -- that is, induced inadvertently by treatment for something else. And the less blood you consumed, the faster your body flushed vampiric patterns and rebuilt according to human configurations."
"So since I gave up blood, I was first."
"By a long shot."
"Then Urs, then . . . everyone else? Nat!" Nick suddenly stood up, as if unable to keep still. "Every vampire in Toronto caught the fever. Are you saying that anyone who survived is now human?"
"Bingo." She hoped it was not inappropriate to smile so widely. But she had solved the mystery of the cures, and the discovery thrilled her. No more "higher than high" mumbo-jumbo or "coincidence" gibberish. This answer made sense. Solid, scientific sense. "Hey, isn't this good news?"
Nick had staggered back, stunned. "I . . . never imagined. I mean, I supposed . . . . But . . . Lacroix!" He grasped her hand. "This is why he didn't react to . . . . Nat, I have to go to him."
"You don't owe him anything, Nick."
"Maybe not. But I owe more than I can measure to others who aren't around to collect." The corners of his lips flickered up briefly. "Besides, Urs and Vachon didn't understand what was happening to them. Feliks didn't know either, did he? Would he have been more careful, if he had known he could die? We've got to tell them, somehow -- and without alerting the Enforcers." Nick's eyes went grave again. He dropped her grasp and absently raised his left hand to his pierced right shoulder. She wondered if he were imagining what Enforcers might do to a city riddled with former vampires, mortals who knew what no mortal might. "I think the Nightcrawler is the answer."
The Nightcrawler, Natalie recalled, was Lacroix's talk-radio persona on CERK. She did not maintain his program of creepy, labyrinthine insinuations among her preset stations, but Nick remained incorrigibly willing to allow his vampire "master" to mess with his head over the airwaves. "All right. There's something else to consider, though. Since Lacroix killed Cal, he was the first cured of the fever. If I'm right, he's human now. If I'm wrong--"
"Wrong? Examining Feliks didn't solve it?"
"The examination gave me the idea. It fits my observations, but it's only hypothesis until it's demonstrated. If Lacroix is human, too, I'll happily call it a theory. But I would need a vampire to test the cure under controlled conditions before I'd promote it as conclusive fact."
"Then I'll go alone." Nick moved decisively toward the door.
"How?" Natalie pulled her key chain -- including the Caddie's spare key -- from her pocket and tossed it to him. "You can't drive. Or fly."
Nick caught the keys easily in his left hand. "If he's still a vampire, it's too dangerous for you, Nat!"
"No more than for you. You're human, now, too, Nick!"
"You don't understand."
"So explain it to me!" Natalie shouted with frustration. In the silence that followed, she lifted a hand to her mouth, then let it fall. She wanted to apologize for raising her voice, but not for her demand. Taking his word for it had sometimes been necessary when he had been a vampire. She had counted on it stopping when they were both human.
Nick stared at her through long moments. Finally, he dropped his eyes. "I can't. I'm sorry. Trust me?"
"That's not fair, Nick." She kept her voice soft but firm. "You don't trust me enough to explain, but on trust alone I'm supposed to let you walk into this danger that's too awful for me? Either we're a team, or we're not."
"Be straightforward, not sorry!" Natalie took a deep breath and crossed her arms. "Look, Lacroix didn't attack me when you had amnesia from that head-wound, remember? Or during the fever? Those're the only times I've met him in person. He was as eerie as early Ingmar Bergman, but nothing happened then. Why should it now?"
Nick looked stricken. Well, good, Natalie thought. She usually found his drive to protect her endearing, but defense through ignorance was as bad as attack. It stepped on her will, objectified her, disrespected her as a person. She despised nothing as much as an attempt to make her choices for her. In fact, it had become her greatest fear -- hapless subjectivity to someone else's will.
"Okay," Nick said at last. "We go in together. He broadcasts from a booth in the back of the Raven." He tossed the keys back. "But please, Nat, don't let your guard down."
"I won't." She had to stretch for the keys; Nick's left-handed pitch needed practice. Then she grabbed her coat, purse and forensic medical kit, and they headed out.
As they entered the Coroner's Building parking lot -- all but empty, as Sunday night usually left it -- Nick asked, "So why do we all have type O blood?"
"Well, I have a speculation. Vampires don't possess blood types -- you remember how that came up in the Weiss case?"
"Her stalker pretended to be a vampire."
"Right. Well, I speculate that vampires cured through the Wyatt retrovirus and HIV conjunction pick up and replicate the blood type associated with the HIV carrier. Poor Cal was type O, so everyone treated with his serum is now type O."
"Thank you. Of course, it may just be that you were all O to begin with, or that a once-vampiric system inevitably produces O blood when re-humanized. I need a vampire test subject to find out."
They crossed the rest of the lot in silence. Natalie pondered how long it would take to work up the DNA samples from all four recovered vampires. She also calculated the cost. For the first time, now that she knew about Nick's de Brabant Trust, she wondered why she had been researching on such a comparative shoestring all these years. Had she not explained the work to Nick sufficiently? Or were her efforts toward his cure not a worthy enough cause in his eyes?
When they reached the Caddie, Nick suddenly asked, "Do you really want one?"
"A vampire test subject."
"Of course. I need more data all around."
"Oh." He played idly with the passenger-side latch. "I suppose I always thought that the project would end with my cure."
"So did I." She could not resist a quick grin. "Isn't it wonderful that we were mistaken? There's so much yet to discover!"
They settled quietly into the car, and Natalie focused on maneuvering Nick's barge of an automobile into traffic. Having Nick in the passenger seat made her self-conscious and clumsy. She could sense his wince when she accidentally switched on the wipers on her way to the turn signal. As if to distract himself, he turned on the radio. The deejay announced CERK's station identification as he returned from commercials, but he was not Lacroix.
"That's odd," Nick noted. "They usually play music or reruns when he's not available."
The night's call-in topic was apparently sexual predators, sparked by Friday's judicial decision that the Raymond Pound trial would finally go forward. Caught after a terrifying string of rapes and murders three years ago, the "dating-service killer" had allowed his lawyers to attempt to have him declared unable to assist in his own defense by reason of insanity, the last of a long series of evasions and delays. Natalie knew this as well as anyone, because Nick had caught the butcher when he attempted to make her his next victim. Then, he had gone by Roger Jamison. She reached to switch off the radio.
Nick's hand was already there. The dial clicked, bringing silence.
"Thanks." Natalie knew Nick had seen little news in the past few days. He probably had not even heard of the decision before. Natalie had, but had not wished to discuss it. She did not care whether Roger were insane. If it were her call, madness presented no bar to the eternity in Hell he deserved. She supposed it was good that it was not her call. "The prosecutor phoned me on Friday with a preliminary schedule. I had assumed she contacted you, too, as arresting officer."
"Maybe she left me a message at the precinct." Out of the corner of her eye, Natalie could see Nick clenching his left hand. After a moment, he said, tentatively, "The physical evidence alone has that . . . perp . . . cold. Irrefutable DNA. Won't they let you just sign a deposition?"
"She promised to consider it. But I'm the only surviving victim." Natalie tried to say it lightly. "Apparently, there's nothing as convincing as someone sitting there, pointing, 'He's the one.'" He's the one, her thoughts repeated, starting a familiar round. He's the one who almost raped me. He's the one who nearly killed me. I trusted him, and he was a monster. I'll never trust like that again. And I'm the lucky one, she reminded herself. I lived. "I don't mind testifying," she blurted out in a sudden surge of anger, "but sometimes I wish Canada had the death penalty!"
"Nat!" Nick sounded shocked.
"That animal tortured and murdered four women, and almost made me the fifth. Isn't it natural I would wish him dead?"
"Vengeance?" Nick made the word mild.
"Justice! He takes four lives, and the system gives him life in prison. Where's the justice in that?"
"I respect your feelings, Nat." Nick's soft words crept out slowly, testing each step. "You know, though, pure justice scares me." He looked through the window, his gaze a hundred miles -- or years -- away from her. "Humanity has the privilege of tempering justice with mercy, and civilization that of protecting itself without descending to the level of its attackers. I learned, finally, that it's not my place to mete out justice. And I remember that I'm a far worse murderer than Roger Jamison will ever be."
"No. I just lived long enough to repent."
Natalie grimaced. Usually, she appreciated Nick's surpassing -- and convoluted and idiosyncratic -- reverence for human life. But if there were one thing she prized more than life, it was free will, and Roger Jamison had tried to take both from her. She did not really want to see her country revive the death penalty; if nothing else, she intimately knew the potential for procedural and evidentiary mistakes. In her own goddaughter's case, she had even seen a colleague deliberately falsify evidence, not to mention the time Lacroix framed Nick. But in this case, she knew what the system never could. Nick should understand, shouldn't he? Sighing, Natalie turned the Caddie in to the Raven's parking lot. Spaces along the street were surprisingly available, but she did not want to attempt to parallel-park Nick's behemoth of a car while he watched. Oddly, the parking lot offered a multitude of spaces as well.
"I know this isn't the hottest night of the week," Nick said as they left the Caddie and headed for the main entrance. "But it's too deserted out here."
Natalie tried the front door without success. "It looks like they're closed."
"With no sign?" Nick tried the door as well. "This doesn't make sense, unless Lacroix's tilted the staff and clientele even more than I thought. Janette was careful to keep it majority mortal. Safer, more profitable, and more amusing, she said."
"I don't suppose you have a key?"
"Not to this door. But maybe --" Nick led her around to the long side of the building, so close to its neighbor that Natalie thought it might as well have shared a wall. About halfway through, Nick stopped.
A short, shed-like roof connected the two buildings, blocking the light from the street as well as the moon and stars. She bumped into him in the dark. "Sorry. What's here?"
"Bolt hole." A latch clicked. "Come on." Suddenly Nick's hand was in hers, guiding, and she stepped up behind him. After a few paces, another latch clicked, and a bare bulb overhead illuminated a tidy, unpretentious storeroom, full of broken furniture, obsolete audio equipment and racks of supplies. Natalie had never considered how much the Raven must consume in cleaning fluid, paper towels and floor wax. "I guess Lacroix hasn't changed the locks. This way."
Natalie followed. A few twists and turns brought them from the storeroom through what looked like a break-room to the central club with which she was most familiar, illuminated only by neon exit signs and recessed safety lamps highlighting architecture patrons might otherwise bump into and sue over. But Nick walked past the empty bar and abandoned dance floor to an elaborate, wrought iron, filigree gate far at the back.
Peering through, Natalie was immediately grateful for the barrier, and the reassurance of Nick's warm hand in hers. Beyond the gate, in a candlelit parlor full of low furniture and heavy curtains, Lacroix sat in a velvet wingchair, drinking. The tall, middle-aged man's black suit and regal posture tried to convey an imposing air, as did the military cut of his white-blond hair, but she could smell the blood in his goblet. And his eyes seemed to glow independently of the reflected candle flames.
"Nicholas. Doctor Lambert." He greeted them without rising, without ceasing to sip at the undiluted blood. For just an instant, as Lacroix raised his inhumanly luminous gaze to Nick's matte mortal one, Natalie thought she saw desperation shadow that imperious face. The eerie glow, at least, flickered, deserting the pale blue eyes Natalie first remembered seeing during Nick's amnesia. But then his expression closed. "I assume you are responsible for this catastrophe. The question is, have you found a cure?"
"Yes." Nick stepped forward, grasping the gate. "I'm human. I'm cured."
"I do not mean for you, my dear, egotistical Nicholas." Lacroix drained his goblet, refilled it from a bottle on a nearby table, and drank. "I mean for me. Now, would you cease gawking on the other side of that gate as if I were a lion in a menagerie? I will not bite. Not anymore."
"He's turning human, Nick," Natalie realized, recognizing her hypothesis embodied in the pallid club owner. "He knows, and he's been staving it off with the blood, and maybe sheer will, but he can't hold out much longer."
"I will 'hold out' as long as necessary," Lacroix asserted. "What I require to know is, can you reduce that duration? Can you cure this creeping . . . humanity?"
"I don't know," Natalie admitted, spinning around the problem in her mind. "That wasn't exactly the thrust of the original research. May I examine you?" Lacroix nodded consent, and Natalie moved to open the gate.
Nick blocked her. "You don't need Nat to restore your vampirism, Lacroix. Just have someone bring you across again -- your friend Thomas, or even Janette."
Lacroix laughed. Hollowly at first, and then a roar, until he nearly choked on the blood he would not cease sipping. But the laughter pealed utterly devoid of joy, making Natalie cringe. "Oh, Nicholas. My sweet, simple Nicholas. Do you really not know?"
"I am the last."
"The last vampire?" Natalie pushed past Nick and opened the gate. She felt suddenly bereft, her investigation disintegrating in her hands. She had come so close to new discovery! "In Ontario?"
"Anywhere." Lacroix briefly closed his eyes. "Even if I were less averse to setting anyone over me in the position of a vampiric progenitor -- and you, Nicholas, should have some inkling how I regard that -- no one remains to oblige me."
"Dead?" Nick asked warily, following Natalie.
"Human," Lacroix replied.
"But the Enforcers--"
"Human. I told you. Although, to be precise, most of them have gone mad and a significant percentage have suicided, mad and sane alike. Whatever it is you have done to accomplish Nicholas's humanity, Doctor Lambert, it has spread around the world with the same hideous efficiency as the fever pandemic, sparing no land, no group. We are at an end. I am the last." His eyes flared with purely human enmity. "And I will never forgive you for it."
"Try forgiving yourself." Natalie crossed her arms, inclined her head and explained the cure. Linda Wyatt's artificial retrovirus had caused the fever; the HIV serum had killed that retrovirus and cured the fever; but together they had also disabled the vampiric genetic anomaly, eventually triggering humanity in all survivors. "You murdered Cal, Lacroix. You ingested his blood. You brought this on yourself -- on everyone, all the vampires. You, not me."
"So." Lacroix closed his eyes and slowly drained his drink. When he opened his eyes, he released his goblet for the first time that night. "Death by the fever then, or some other death at a time yet to come -- if we cannot restore my immortal wellbeing before that future point. I understand. My apologies, Doctor. And my query: can you cure me?"
"Make you a vampire again? I honestly don't know. Do you mind?" Natalie conducted a hasty, superficial examination. The she sighed and stepped back. "You're so close to human now, I don't know what to say. I suppose it depends whether you still have any of the vampire genetic anomaly viable in your system, and how long it will last." Natalie shook her head and crossed her arms reflectively, threading her paradigms backward through her mind's eye, from mortality to vampirism.
"Oh?" Lacroix prompted, drawing her silent musing into voice.
"What Nick once called the 'vampire virus' isn't exactly a virus, of course. It's more like antisense, which is laboratory-created microscopic bits of genetic material designed to bond to a cell's own DNA or RNA and stymie it in extremely specific ways. For example, antisense technology has recently been tried to deactivate the gene that makes tomatoes get squishy. But no laboratory created vampirism, of course. So I had been toying with the theory that this vampire antisense was really a rare but naturally-occurring transcription factor -- the switches that tell genes how and when to express themselves -- for basic genes we all carry in common. And then that Wyatt's retrovirus and the HIV together overrode the transcription factor's vampiric instructions, switching the affected genes back to the human default expression. So to make a vampire, the thing would be to introduce uncontaminated vampiric antisense molecules. But that's cutting-edge genetic speculation, brainstorming off the latest out of the genome project, not anything immediately practical."
"But it can be done?"
"Not in time. I'm sorry, Lacroix, but I can't imagine you can stave off humanity as long as it would take the research to catch up here, and the vampiric anomaly will not culture outside the vector -- that is, a vampire. Goodness knows, I've tried. If you're really the last?" She threw up her hands. "Without a vampire who never had the fever, I just don't think it's possible."
"And isn't that for the best?" Nick asked, leaning against the open doorway as if to convey casualness, though his expression remained tense and guarded. "No more vampires means no more vampiric murders. No more vampiric hypnotism. No more black market for blood. And vampirism has been eliminated with inexplicable mercy and gentleness, compared to what it's always inflicted! We've all been given one last chance to do life right, to live and die human."
"But at what cost?" Natalie asked. "Extinction? That can't be right, either."
"Vampirism's unnatural -- a mistaken choice. It was never meant to be."
"Bull!" Natalie glared at him. "Everything that exists, exists for a reason. That includes vampires. So the hunger for blood is a critical detriment. Okay, but what about the strength, the speed, the fantastic abilities? The immunity to aging? Don't you think there's something there we were supposed to learn from, instead of destroy?"
"Vampires were a blight on this world, a parasite on all that is good and innocent." Nick crossed his arms, refusing to meet her eyes. "I thought you understood."
In the stinging silence, Natalie could feel Lacroix studying both her and Nick. "I see," the last vampire finally said, ensnaring her left hand. "Doctor Lambert, may I offer my congratulations? I take it this is an engagement ring?"
"What? Oh, yeah," she answered absently, her eyes still on Nick. She saw him stiffen at Lacroix's question, as if bracing for a fight. "Nick and I got engaged about a month ago."
Lacroix kissed her hand and released it. "And you did not think to mention this, Nicholas? Oh, but of course, it cannot be all that significant. A marriage of convenience. I appreciate the situation. After all, you proclaimed so firmly that you do not love this woman."
"Don't listen to him, Nat." Nick kept his eyes fixed on Lacroix.
"And why not, Nicholas? You did say that very thing. Repeatedly. You explained clearly that you do not love Doctor Lambert, and how her infatuation with you is a useful convenience." Lacroix urbanely rearranged his hands on the chair arms. "You cannot have forgotten already. It was hardly a year ago, the night I first met your Natalie. And she looked so lovely in that dazzling black gown."
"Wait a minute," Natalie interrupted. She had nothing but suspicion for Lacroix's assertions about Nick's feelings. However, she did own a black gown she liked to think was dazzling. "I first met you just a couple of months ago, when Nick had amnesia."
"You don't remember? Has Nicholas not explained his situation to you at all?"
"Let's go, Nat." Nick growled.
"No." The back of her brain itched. "What is this? What don't you want me to hear?"
"You can't trust him, Nat!"
"I don't. Don't worry. But don't hide things from me, either, Nick."
"Really, Nicholas, your bride deserves to know her position. Or would you rather I tell her?"
Nick scowled at Lacroix. Then he sighed, and seemed to look out in the vicinity of Natalie's feet. "Forgive me. Valentine's Day last year."
"We had dinner." Natalie nodded, confused. She did not remember that night well, having inexplicably allowed herself to become intoxicated, but she did recall that although she had hoped the outing was a date, it had remained strictly platonic. And Nick had been a perfect gentleman about her mortifying lapse.
"No. It was a trap, Nat. Lacroix drugged you, in the champagne. He was going to kill you, because he thought I loved you. I had to convince him I didn't. I had to!" Nick began to reach for her, but his hand fell back. "Fleur -- my sister, my baby sister -- got to live human, because I traded --"
"You," Lacroix supplied, addressing Natalie when Nick's voice broke. "Or, rather, the mortal woman he truly loved. Fleur's life, then, for hers, whenever she should happen to come along. I had thought you filled the bill, but I was mistaken. Nicholas was quite convincing about not being in love with you. Why, he even agreed to bring you across, and you know how he feels about vampires. Believe me, Doctor Lambert, I would have known if he lied. I made him. I would have known."
Natalie ignored the vampire. "I was drugged? What drug? You let me think I got drunk! Is that why I don't remember any of this?"
"No," Nick whispered, meeting her gaze at last. In the dim light, his expanded pupils darkened his eyes to indigo. He looked at once forlorn and grimly determined. "I made you forget, Nat. I hypnotized you. I could only do it because the drug made you vulnerable. I couldn't let you remember what Lacroix and I said. I just couldn't."
"Because you thought I wouldn't help you with the cure anymore?" Natalie asked, painfully bewildered. She felt like she had been peppered with tiny darts, some poisoned, some already festering, but she could only randomly pull them out. She tugged at one. "Did you think I was that shallow? That I needed romance as a carrot?"
"No! Nat, he would have killed you!"
"Only if you love her, Nicholas," Lacroix said. "And you have me quite convinced you do not."
"If you were willing to bring me across then, why not when the asteroid came? And why not let me remember? Why not let me decide if I needed to forget? How much time did you take from me? And why--" Natalie pinched the bridge of her nose and stubbornly pushed the questions, and the hurt, away. Even just a year ago, she would have been yelling at him by now. But since Schanke and Cohen's deaths, then Cal and the fever, she had come to the end of something in herself. All gone. Still, she had some sort of obligation here. Once she fulfilled it, she could go home and scream, or cry, or both, or neither. One step at a time. "Nick, if this place has such a thing anymore, would you please go get me a glass of normal wine? Lacroix, let's talk Humanity for Dummies." She selected a low couch, settled into a corner, and delivered the lengthy lecture she had previously practiced on Urs and Vachon.
When Natalie finished, she left her single glass of wine empty on the bar on her way to exit through the front door. She could hear Nick hastily following. She supposed she could not leave him to walk home, but the idea tempted her. She caressed the impulse to petty reprisal for a second, then let it go. The disproportion gaped. He had ripped up all her emotions by the roots, and right now she did not trust him to help replant according to her design rather than his. How could she ever trust him? He had robbed her of something no less precious for being intangible. And she had thought he had volunteered to guard the very thing he had wrecked! She stopped when she reached his Caddie, smothered her fury and fear under all the dignity she could muster, and waited for him.
"Nat?" He came up behind her. "I'm so sorry."
"I know." She did not look at him. False dawn burnished the horizon. "But do you know what you're sorry for?"
He placed his left hand on her shoulder. "I do love you, Nat. Please believe that. I don't want to be without you. You are the human woman I love."
"Oh, Nick." She did not turn around. She did not want him to see the tears threatening in her eyes, and she struggled to keep them out of her voice. "You've told me you didn't fall in love with me until the amnesia. I knew that. So you told Lacroix the truth that you didn't love me then, because you weren't in love with me yet then. That's not it. That's not it at all. Do you have any idea how much it hurts that you think it is?"
Nick withdrew his hand. "I should never have hypnotized you." His muffled voice made her wonder if he were also fighting tears.
"You should have asked." She opened the Caddie, slipped inside, and leaned over to unlock his door. "By all you hold holy, Nick, you should have asked."
The drive to Nick's loft was cold, and not only because the car's heater had conked out yet again. Natalie concentrated on driving. Look ahead, look in the mirror, do this, then do that. It kept her balanced. It kept the tears back. Sometimes, she thought Nick moved as if to reach out to her, but he never did. Sunrise overtook them on the way, and she nearly forgot to turn off the headlights as she situated his Caddie in his ample driveway.
At his elevator door, she pulled out her cell phone and called Urs to request a ride to her apartment, relieved to find her already awake. "I'm sure Sidney misses me," Natalie observed distantly, switching off the phone and returning it to her purse. Then she took a deep breath, pulled off the ring, and held it out to Nick.
"Nat, please!" Now tears escaped his eyes. She could see them on his cheeks, glowing clear in the golden daybreak, even while she avoided his gaze. "We need to talk."
"We will," she promised. "But first I need to think. I need to be free to think." She kept her arm outstretched. Reluctantly, he allowed her to drop the ring in his hand. Then she turned her back and walked to the curb to await Urs. If she held her shoulders stiff and her head high, he would never know when her tears broke through.
Chapter Eleven: Pawns and Players
"Thanks." Nick offered his freshly sling-free right hand to Detective Del Singh as they left the interview room. Del had recorded Nick's formal eyewitness account of finding Feliks's body this morning, after Nick's requested delay the previous evening. Del had also been generous with case information Nick knew he would not have provided so casually had the case been less cut-and-dried. But there had been no foul play. Just misfortune. The forensic analyst had reconstructed the fatal slip before her coffee break last night. Feliks's answering machine had not picked up simply because its tape was full. And, as Nick would have expected of Feliks, he had provided meticulously for the event of his death or disappearance. Del had given Nick a photocopy of Feliks's lawyer-executor's business card.
"No trouble." Del clasped Nick's hand between both of his. Nick's twinging shoulder made him grateful Del did not shake vigorously, and he reconsidered his rash decision to abandon the sling. "I'm sorry about your friend. Especially on top of, you know, everything else."
"Yeah. Thanks." Del knew barely the half of it, of course. Besides Nick's injury, Tracy's incapacity, and Feliks's death, Nick still reeled from Lacroix's condition and Natalie's rebuff. It had been all he could do to not go after Natalie as she turned from him at dawn, and to not turn up on her doorstep every moment after. To pull her in, hold her to him, make her understand. He knew he could make her understand! Lacroix's twisted vendetta against Nick's mortal love in Fleur's name would never fade; everything Nick had done was to save Natalie from that retribution, even now. But she had asked for space. Freedom. In so many words. When Janette, needing that same breathing room, had left him in the Renaissance, she had broken his heart in a moment. Later, he realized he had been breaking hers slowly, through months, even years before, honestly unable to recognize her earlier, subtler pleas for space. He would never forget a lesson so hard-learned. So he had disciplined himself to attempt sleep until it was time to come in to the precinct.
Briefly, he wondered if he had smothered Janette into leaving again last fall. But she had left without a word, without a clue, after he had tried so hard to respect her space and independence.
"Oh, I almost forgot. I've got your mail." Del released Nick's hand and gestured for him to follow him to his desk across the squad room. "You should have received all the cards and assorted get-wells at the hospital -- did you? -- and Hanff and I have your casework covered, but there was this odd one that came in yesterday."
While Del rooted through an overflowing wooden in-box, Nick peered at what looked like a black walkman sitting in the middle of the desk, inexplicably attached to heavy gloves and wraparound sunglasses as well as headphones. "What's this?"
"Huh? Oh, just a dead end, I'm afraid." Del sighed. "It's a virtual reality game someone was playing when a murderer injected a real reality bullet in his temple. Not a wisp of a thread of a clue. The only person with any motive was giving an interview to an on-line magazine at the time of death."
"On-line? Could that have been faked?"
"Fulford from Computer Ops -- do you know her? -- says it could be done, theoretically, by someone who really knew his stuff. But without a weapon, we'd be stretching to call that opportunity and this motive. Like I said, dead end. The game's a bit of a creepy kick, though. Virtual vampires!"
"Vampires?" Intrigued, Nick picked up the equipment. "How is that motive? And how does it work?"
"Fulford says it's a revolutionary prototype, real next-generation stuff." Del helped Nick don the gear. "The hardware's got a high-speed wireless connection to the computers at the victim's company. As to motive, well, the vic invented it. Take a look, and tell me if you don't want a piece of the sales action this'll churn up."
Nick heard a slight click as Del turned on the unit. Suddenly, he stood somewhere else. A bedroom. Wood paneled, carpeted, it resembled a high-end motel room, except for the absence of windows. Then a woman appeared in front of him. Before he could take in her smooth brown skin, straight black hair, and the plunging neckline of her leather outfit, she smiled, revealing her fangs. Long, sharp, white, wet. Smiling. At him. Despite himself, Nick reacted. The virtual vampire's smile widened at his response, and she stepped up, a breath away from touching him. "Did you come to work," she asked, leaning even closer, raising her hand to cup his face and angle it to her lips, "or would you like to play?"
"So?" Del demanded. "Better than my kids' Nintendo, or what?"
"I think I'm being seduced," Nick admitted, trying to balance the world before his eyes with that from which Del's voice came. The virtual vampire licked her lips, then her fangs. Nick's breathing quickened. He wondered what was wrong with him. The idea of being bitten should repulse any human. He had not even admitted to Natalie how he had welcomed it as a vampire. But he could not rip his gaze away from that mouth, nor his thoughts from what that mouth could do. He was not a vampire anymore! This should not affect him! The virtual vampire caressed his neck -- yes, there, oh yes -- and his head cocked to one side to encourage her.
Then he tore off the glasses and unstrapped the gloves, dumping the gear on Del's desk.
"Hot babe, eh?" Del smirked.
"Very." Nick touched his neck, almost still feeling her fingers. With real contact, however, his skin reminded him that it itched, and that the moisturizer Natalie had provided him had run out that morning. "Unbelievable! The inventor must have been a gifted artist."
"It gets better. Which is to say, worse. Our so-so suspect? She owns the company, and modeled for that virtual vampire. But like I said, no weapon, no connection. She walked. I pray my instincts are wrong about her, and she didn't just get away with murder."
* * *
June 1228, Jaffa
"Ah, Nicholas! Why did you pick a rocky, risky port like Jaffa to rendezvous in?" Geoffrey drained his wine cup and gestured for another. "We could have celebrated this reunion a month past if you'd gone on to Acre."
"Jaffa's the natural port to Jerusalem." Sir Nicholas shrugged, regarding his genial, self-absorbed cousin with affectionate wonder. The arrival of the vividly-painted convoy with which Geoffrey had traveled had signaled a feast day for the entire city, bringing pilgrims, relatives, news, merchandise, currency and all the things on which commerce and culture thrive. Geoffrey behaved as if all the happy bustle this afternoon were entirely in his honor. "Besides, I didn't want to get lost again. I'm tired of being lost."
"No fear of that, now I'm here." Geoffrey took a fresh cup from the barmaid, and earned a sharp slap for trying to take something more. He grinned. He had discharged his sad and sober obligations at dockside, telling Nicholas of his father the Duke's death, and now clearly reveled in the cheery, easy news of tournaments, harvests, horses, births and marriages. "I bring you the love of your family, letters scribed by your sister -- you know, if someone doesn't stop her reading and writing all the time, she won't be fit for any life but a convent."
Nicholas's sister had received no more education than most girls of her rank, but she had taken to it with an ardor that flummoxed her older brothers and cousins. Yet Nicholas had always felt rather proud of his sister's cleverness. He joked, "And here I thought you fancied Fleur."
"When I was nine, maybe!" Geoffrey huffed. "No, give me a woman like my own Melisande, who values her psalter only as far as its binding matches her gown. Now, let's see, the love, the letters -- oh, yes, and, courtesy of your brother the new Duke, enough funds to outfit you properly to your rank and station, and to pay someone to read you those letters. Much better use than paying it to a Saracen in ransom, but on my honor and our family, Nicholas, we never received a word you survived that battle. Faith, we never heard a word after you set out from Carreg, except what your old squire had to say."
"Yeah, Lord DeLabarre sent him home about a year after he sent you to Egypt." Geoffrey leaned back and kicked his feet up on the plank table. "Pierre -- he's your brother's armsmaster now, you know -- he claims that as soon as you were gone on Crusade, DeLabarre ceased looking for the murderer of that woman, and said you did it after all. Pierre wouldn't stand for that, of course." Geoffrey waved negligently with his cup to dispel the resentment that had tensed Nicholas at the second-hand accusation. "He started slinking around after DeLabarre, and heard him boasting to one of his cronies that with the woman and you both permanently out of the way, nothing stood between him and the fiefdom. Pierre told his superior what he'd heard, and found himself on the next ship out. The next year's news, DeLabarre had married the Lord of Carreg's eldest daughter."
"And the Lord of Carreg has no sons." Nicholas swallowed bile. Lord DeLabarre had tried to paint the conflict in Carreg in religious shades, and Nicholas had believed him. But Gwyneth had presented an obstacle to DeLabarre's private advancement, he now saw. Nicholas's old conviction that none of her own people could have killed the bearer of the harp returned, sharp and swift, and this time Nicholas let it fly. DeLabarre had murdered Gwyneth.
What point loyalty, when his commander had murdered his love? What end justice, when Nicholas had suffered while a killer triumphed? He no longer saw any order in this mad world, that elevated men like DeLabarre and the Emperor Frederick -- or even Legate Pelagius. Nicholas had survived imprisonment, but had no strength to carry such betrayal from above.
He suddenly wondered if DeLabarre could have even prevented his repatriation with the rest of the Crusader prisoners after Sharimshah. A few coins, a name crossed off a list . . .
"Nicholas?" Geoffrey leaned forward. "Nicholas, are you all right?"
"Yes, coz, I'm as good as it gets." It was not a lie; Nicholas felt bitterly that he could never be all right again. He stood. "Come on. I know a place that sells marc brandy from Charente. We can be 'celebrated' out of our skulls by sunset."
* * *
"Hey, here's that letter I mentioned." Del handed Nick a standard white envelope, slit across the top. "It looked case-related, so I opened it. I hope you don't mind."
"No, of course not." The envelope had come from Captain Joe Stonetree at the twenty-seventh precinct. With Stonetree's customary gruff but perceptive competence, the letter reiterated the captain's willingness to find Nick a daytime position in his command when Nick came back on duty. This time, however, Stonetree offered to hold open the position of Nick's partner for Tracy, pending her return. In a way, the gesture was empty. After the collision, everyone knew Tracy would not get out from behind a desk for a long time, if ever. It simply put Nick back working solo, as he had before Stonetree first partnered him with Schanke. Nevertheless, Nick appreciated the offer. It gave him and Tracy both something to work for, in time. To be useful in the daylight world, to belong to it! And, after all, no vampire world remained to worry about leaving Tracy vulnerable to.
"Will you take it?" Del asked.
"Yes! I mean, no." Nick took a deep breath, folded the letter, and tucked it into his pocket. He did learn from his mistakes, he promised. "I'd like to. But I need to ask Tracy, first. Then Captain Reese. It's not my decision alone."
"Here or there, homicide or vice or corporate or whatever -- don't wait too long to get up and out once the medicos let you, you know? Back in the saddle, and all that?"
"I'll keep it in mind, Del. Thanks."
"Good. Look, I've got to catch up with Hanff. I know you came in by cab. Do you want a lift home?"
"How about half-way home? I need to pick up a couple of things at the grocery store."
Del dropped Nick off at a convenient Loblaw's market, and Nick wandered the food aisles like an explorer, deliberately ignoring the signs above his head until after he discovered the hygiene and personal-care items. Once he found the moisturizing lotion, he thought, he would try to remember what else appeared on the list Natalie had begun and taped to his refrigerator. But the store did not carry the skin-cream he knew. Confronted with two varieties of eight brands in three sizes, Nick bemusedly began comparing ingredients. Only the pain in his right shoulder when he lifted his arm prevented him from scratching his chest through his shirt as he examined the successive containers in his left hand.
"Fancy meeting you here."
Nick looked up from the jar he held to a full shopping cart pushed by a short, strong, friendly woman. "Myra!" Without replacing the lotion on the shelf, he immediately reached out for her right hand with his. He had not thought of his former partner's widow since flowers had arrived at his hospital room with a card signed by her and Jenny, her daughter. He had visited every week for months after Schanke's death, however, and Myra looked about the same as always: brown hair cajoled into curls by rollers, comfortably cushioned figure, trim casual clothes easily adapted to any situation.
"I can get you a hydrating lotion far superior to that, Nick." She smiled, her handshake firm and warm, but tender of his injured shoulder. "Or is there a specific ingredient in there that allows you to be out in the daytime?"
"Oh, Nat found a treatment for my allergies about a month ago." Not strictly true, Nick now knew, but close enough. "It's . . . miraculous. But it's left my skin --"
"Dry and cracked? Red and rough?" Myra laughed. "Ontario's premier Skin Pretty saleswoman stands ready to assist you, beyond the dreams of grocery-store assortments."
"It's so good to see you." Abruptly, Nick choked up. His and Myra's connection had always been through Schanke; speaking to her now, that absence tore raw again. "I've been meaning to thank you and Jenny for the flowers."
"You're welcome, and it's good to see you, too." Myra looked like she understood. "Now, I'm serious about that moisturizer. If that's by doctor's recommendation, I'd never interfere, but if you're just browsing?"
"I'm just browsing," Nick confirmed. "The kind Nat gave me before isn't here, and it wasn't a prescription. But I'm out and, well, it's not pleasant."
Myra situated her cart on the opposite side of the aisle, asked a few pointed questions about Nick's painfully dry skin, and retrieved a plastic jar marked "medicated strength" from the bottom shelf. "For today, get this. Longer term, let me order some of our new 'soft touch' line for you, soap as well as lotion. Maybe bath beads, too. And don't think for a minute it's not masculine. Good skin health is always sexy."
"You don't need to tell me." Nick grinned, wishing he could share a few choice reminisces about society and skin conditions back in the day.
"I've got everything on my list." Myra returned to her cart. "And I'm heading for the checkout. You?"
"Um, I need bread. Milk, I think. And -- an onion?"
"Bachelor. Or did your macrobiotic diet not go out with your skin condition? But speaking of single blessedness, I heard a rumor that you and Doctor Lambert are engaged. Truth?"
"I --" Nick did not want to say it, he thought, to make it true by giving it voice. But the words burst through, desperate to reach a sympathetic ear. "She returned the ring this morning. I think that means no, we're not engaged."
"Oh, Nick, I'm so sorry! Just this morning? Are you -- oh, and I was just about to ask if you were all right. Of course you're not." Myra pursed her lips. "Look, I know you're still on medical leave. If you don't have anything else this afternoon, would you like to come share some coffee in my kitchen?"
Nick swallowed. "I'd like that very much."
Driving to the Schanke home and unloading the groceries, Nick and Myra chatted through small, innocuous topics, like Jenny's school, Skin Pretty's new product line, Nick's amazing allergy cure, and his dubious decision to remove his sling without his doctor's permission. By the time the coffee was ready and Myra had cut a boxed cheesecake she retrieved from her freezer, they had spiraled up to a gentle dance around the subject of Don, and how they were all getting by without him.
"I've put the cottage on the market," Myra said. "We could use the money, but it's not so much that. I just don't think I can bear being there without him. Here at home, there was always both of our work, bowling, church, relatives, all Jenny's activities. But up there on holiday, fishing, skiing -- the only demands on our time were each other's."
"How does Jenny feel about selling the cottage?"
"Oh, she hates it. She hates every change, and fights it tooth and nail. If she weren't such a good-natured kid to begin with, easy-going like Don --" Myra broke off for a moment, then sipped her coffee and continued. "I can't give her what she wants -- what I want -- which is her dad back. And the world's just going to keep on changing."
Nick nodded. He almost mentioned Feliks's death, then, but bit it back at the thought of seeming to contest the primacy of Myra's loss. Nick took his coffee mug and plate of cake to the windowed breakfast nook at the end of the rectangular kitchen, seating himself at the small, round table.
"I wouldn't trade it, though, you know," said Myra, joining him. "The years for the pain. Some moments, most days, Don not being here still hurts worse than anything I'd ever imagined. But -- better to have loved and lost? There's both more and less to that than I used to think."
"And you have Jenny."
"Yes, I have Jenny." Myra sighed. "Not you, but -- so many people say that as if it makes everything okay. As much as I love my daughter, she can't even touch the hole where the joy and hope and dreams went with Don." Myra toyed with her cake, pushing a forkful along the yellow floral pattern rimming her plate. "What does make life bearable, I guess, is that Jenny has me. She needs me, so I get up every day and get on with living." Myra set down her fork, clasped Nick's left hand across the small table and met his eyes. "But tell me about you and Natalie."
Nick did. Censoring vampirism from his account, he still found surprising solace in turning his experience into words. Myra's attentive sympathy made him feel as if speaking could cast the mud of his recent turmoil into the solid bricks of a path out of this mire. He loved Natalie, and he had anticipated his new humanity flowing smoothly into their new life. But even apart from his injuries, the extinction of the vampires, and Lacroix's vicious allegations, something had come between them as never before. He would batter it down, if he could learn what it was.
"I know I should never have lied by omission that way," Nick concluded. "Not telling Nat about an ongoing threat to her life. But it's a very real menace. She has to understand that I was trying to protect her."
"It sounds like you've learned a lot of things about Natalie that you didn't recognize before you were engaged." Myra had finished her cheesecake and refilled both their mugs while he spoke. "Have those differences -- those priorities, beliefs -- made you see your life together any differently?"
"Of course not! I love her!"
"I know, Nick. I know. But do you suppose those things should change the way you feel, not about Natalie, but about your life with her?" Myra's voice was especially kind. "Forgive me for putting it like this, but consider -- are you trying to build a future together with Natalie for you both, or are you trying to fit her into a future you've pre-fabricated for yourself?"
Myra took the dishes and forks to her sink and washed them, leaving Nick to his thoughts and his coffee. There was truth in her charge, he realized. He had been dreaming of a human life since long before Natalie was born, a life that would end the vampire's bitter isolation and gnawing loneliness. Round and round in his own imagination, he had carved a rut. None of the countless experiences in his long night had filled the gaping cavity in his heart. Now, he rushed to overflow that old hurt with the companionship of the day. He wanted to be a husband. He wanted to be a father. And he wanted to seek God. All in the little time a mortal had. Was it wrong to want so much, so hard? "Does this mean I need to give up my dreams?"
"Of course not." Myra set the two plates on a wooden drying rack. "It does mean you need to want Natalie's dreams to come true as much as your own. What are Natalie's dreams, Nick? What makes her happy?"
For a terrible second, he did not know. Myra did not mean old movies, pet cats, or novels by Emily Weiss. She meant a reason for living. His cure had been Natalie's dream as well as his, as long as he had known her. They had shared that dream. But he had longed for the cure to free him; Natalie had yearned for the cure to answer a puzzle. "Scientific discovery. She comes alive, solving mysteries scientifically."
"Good! I know you support her career, Nick. Make sure she knows. If she's trying to publish the results of your cure, or get into a position where she can duplicate the treatment, whatever, make sure she knows you believe in her and her dreams, that you know what her dreams are and that you'd move mountains to make them real. Trust me, that's much more important than making her accept your reasons for not telling her about that psycho from your past."
Nick pushed his chair back from the table. "How badly did I mess up?"
"Pretty badly." Myra grinned. "But not irredeemably, if you learn from it. No grown woman really wants to marry Prince Charming, Nick. She wants a fellow human being, mistakes and all. Otherwise he wouldn't be able to understand or forgive her, and vice versa, you know? Pedestals are for statues."
The phone rang, and Myra excused herself to answer it, picking up the call on the wall at the other end of the kitchen. Nick looked out the window through the gauzy white curtains, and was surprised to find it dark outside.
"Jenny's choir practice just let out." Myra hung up the phone. "I need to pick her up."
Nick stood immediately, but reluctantly. He had not realized how late it was getting, and he did not want to inconvenience Myra any more, but it felt hard to have to leave this warm, bright, sympathetic cocoon for the cold, dark evening and his lonely loft. "I guess I'll call a cab."
"Don't be silly. Of course I'll drive you home." After a few quick steps down the kitchen and a bounce to her tiptoes, Myra hugged him. "It's been good having you here, Nick. Don't wait so long to come again."
Chapter Twelve: This for That
Natalie skipped up the stairs, light on her sneakers and looking forward to having her apartment all to herself again for a while. Well, herself and Sidney, to be precise. If she did not remember her cat's preeminence, he would surely remind her, probably in a manner requiring upholstery repair.
Natalie had given Urs a ride to Tracy's that afternoon, and had then parked down by the lakeshore and indulged in a long walk. Wearing an old 'eighties jacket from the back of her closet over a t-shirt and jeans made Natalie feel almost as young as Urs looked, despite its dismaying snugness, and she had tried to consider her situation as if she had her whole life before her, rather than, as she sometimes brooded, too many years slipping, barely-used, behind. After shutting her bedroom door between herself and Urs that morning, Natalie had smothered sobs with her pillow until, exhausted, she fell asleep. Walking by the water, no tears could keep up with her. She had pounded out her worries by the kilometer, measuring them against her needs, and Nick's.
She had soon found herself wishing she could bring this mess to him, cry on his shoulder and ask his advice, as if she could separate the friend on whom she depended from the lover who had violated her trust. But both were the same Nick. In fact, his original decision to take advantage of her memory had come when he had countered her romantic feelings for him with a merely brotherly affection. Or had he? Natalie hated that she could not remember! And she hated that he had made her suffer this alone, denying her his comfort by being the one who had hurt her.
She deeply repented the times she had condoned his use of vampire hypnotism on others, from Don Schanke to Emily Weiss. What had she been telling him, through that approval? Her past callousness disgusted her.
Step after step, back and forth along the park's shore path, Natalie had pondered. Forgiving Nick turned out to be the easy part. The questions that came next, came hard. They had been gathering just beyond her moods and dreams for a while, she now realized, but this shock hurled them forth as challenges at the center of her self-perception. Who was she, really? Who did she want to be? What did she want from life? What did she want from Nick? She had walked those questions, too. Stride into stride. By the time the setting sun had prompted Natalie to get in her car and drive home, she had thought she had at least the beginnings of answers, and wanted only a long soak in a warm tub to be sure of them, and of herself. Then, she had decided, she would call Nick.
At her front door, Natalie's key turned too smoothly. It was unlocked. But she never forgot to lock her apartment door, Natalie protested to herself as she stepped through. Her car door was another matter, but --
A bouquet rested on her couch, a profusion of long-stemmed white roses illuminated, in the darkness, by the shaft of light from the hall behind her. At her living-room window, Lacroix held open her gauzy drapes, the street-lamp's glow harmless on his white features and black suit.
Natalie dove for her phone. No dial tone.
"I took the precaution of disconnecting your line, Doctor Lambert. Undue haste might lead you to misinterpret my presence, and involve your law-enforcement colleagues unnecessarily. They are much better employed out stopping crime, wouldn't you say?"
"Breaking and entering is a crime." Natalie backed toward her door, regretting not carrying her purse today, with her cell phone inside.
"I entered, yes, but broke nothing." Lacroix turned toward her. "A word to the wise, you will want to replace your building manager. A few lies, a little cash . . . why, imagine if someone dangerous came along."
Natalie stopped backing when she felt the doorknob secure under her searching hand. The hall was empty, but her neighbors should begin arriving home from work at any moment, and she stood only a few steps from the stairs. He was just a mortal man now, she reminded herself, though she would have dearly liked daylight to confirm that. She flipped the light-switch nearest her; it illuminated her kitchen. Small comfort. "What do you want, Lacroix?"
"Please call me Lucien." He smiled, circling her couch to seat himself beside the flowers. "As we discussed last night, what I want is my immortality back. What will it take for you to provide it?"
"It's hardly mine to give."
He raised an eyebrow, as if in polite disbelief. "You said, in order to cure this humanity, you require a vampire never infected with the fever. Alive or dead?"
"Preferably alive. I suppose a cadaver could suffice, if -- hey, don't you guys always eventually go 'poof' into ashes when you die? And didn't you say there are no more vampires? That the fever infected them all?"
"Sunlight and fire always reduce a vampire to ashes. Death by . . . less usual means . . . may leave a corpse behind, in certain circumstances." Lacroix ignored her other questions. "So, you prefer a live vampire. What else?"
"Well, time, of course, and state-of-the-art equipment," Natalie answered, intrigued despite herself. "It's certainly possible to artificially induce vampirism. It should be much easier than curing it, actually, if my theories hold up. But that's a big 'if.' This is uncharted territory. And aren't you at all concerned that we're standing here with the door open, discussing all this?"
"The Enforcers are gone, Doctor Lambert." Lacroix spread his hands. "Now, at last, I make the rules. With your indulgence, of course."
"And why should I indulge you, exactly?" Nick's ferocious relief at the vampiric extinction came back to Natalie, then, his certitude that vampires offered the world only pain and fear. But Natalie could not help thinking again of their unaging longevity and virtual invulnerability. If only she could isolate and harness those gifts!
"Is that you asking, or Nicholas? No matter," Lacroix sighed. "In fact, that is the very question I came to ask you, Doctor -- may I call you Natalie?"
"Indeed. Well, Doctor Lambert, what may I offer you to persuade you to cure me of my mortality? Assume I can provide the practical implements and ingredients just named. What will induce you to accept them, and to use them in my restoration? For example, I know crass mammon will not sway you, or Nicholas would never have succumbed to your influence."
"I'm not greedy," Natalie acknowledged, puzzled. Did he mean Nick's de Brabant Foundation? "And no, you can't bribe me--"
"I would not dream of it, Doctor Lambert." Lacroix rose, and she stepped back. "A gesture of truce, only. See? I mean you no harm." He plugged her telephone back into the wall jack, turned on the living room's main light-switch, then returned to her couch. "Nicholas has worked with scientists before, you know. Not infrequently, he discovered them more committed to his wealth than his health. Why, I remember once in Berlin -- but I digress. When Nicholas finally learns a lesson, he does learn it well. If you had ever pressed him for money, we would not be where we are today. Is it love, then, that lures you?" He withdrew a rose from the white bouquet and stroked its outer petals.
"Nick isn't yours to offer, Lacroix."
"He is, actually, but that instruction is best postponed. No, I thought I would submit to mend your love for him, if my revelation did it violence last night. Your life was truly in danger on that Valentine's Day, Doctor. He acted in the only manner available to save your life. If Nicholas had not proven he was not in love with you, I would have killed you."
Natalie crossed her arms and leaned on the doorframe. "Would she appreciate this, Nick's sister? Murder in her name?"
Lacroix crushed the bloom in his hand. "Fleur would understand."
"She understood me perfectly. Purely. With her, I would have been -- but it is no consequence to you, who never knew her. Even Nicholas never really knew her." Lacroix withdrew another flower, seizing its stem tightly over the thorns. Blood droplets rolled down his wrist.
"Don't let that drip on my furniture." Despite her caustic tone, Natalie's curiosity intensified. An analytical muscle in her mind flexed through psychological profiles. To her surprise, she realized she could come to pity this ghastly, lost creature still in thrall to worlds that no longer existed. As long as she did not let that pity get in the way of her own survival. "You were willing to kill me to avenge her then, but not now?"
"Nicholas does not love you as I loved her. Besides," Lacroix released the flower, "you are now as much my hope as ever you were Nicholas's, and I prize you accordingly. Only you can restore my immortality. So tell me, Doctor Lambert, what is it Nicholas offered you when you undertook his cure? What do you lack but desire most dearly?"
Natalie had found that among her hard questions, down at the shore. It sat on the tip of her tongue. "Answers about vampirism."
Lacroix inclined his head. "Now we have something to discuss."
Natalie pushed the door shut behind her.
Chapter Thirteen: Homecoming
Home in his loft, Nick pondered Myra's advice as he turned on all his lamps, one by one. She had assured him Natalie would come see him when she was ready. He knew Natalie's temporary absence from his life compared in no way to Schanke death-parted from Myra. But there were so many absences, temporary and permanent, deliberate and involuntary. Janette had disappeared last fall without a word, widening the hollow in his heart as her absence always did. And while Feliks was the most recent friend to predecease Nick, loved as Feliks was, he was neither the most dear nor the most mourned. So many, and he had never learned how to deal with it well. Perhaps that was how it was supposed to be. With grim satisfaction, Nick activated his blinds to descend against the night, rather than the day.
Mingling thoughts of Natalie and Feliks, Nick prepared the most elegant solitary meal he could manage. Comparing the contents of his kitchen with the index of his beginner's cookbook, he eventually produced steamed peas, baked potato, microwaved fish, and rolls from a mix, all of which he arranged on his best plate and accessorized with a cloth napkin and goblet of unadulterated red wine. Some dishes had cooled as he prepared the others; while his bad shoulder had slowed him, he admitted meal planning required critical-path calculation skills. But Natalie had so many times urged him to eat proper human food, and Feliks had taught him the joys of making a grand production of the everyday. Sitting down to it, he wanted to say the blessing before meals, but could not remember the words. He settled for "Thank you."
After eating and washing up, Nick put some bluesy jazz Feliks had once recommended on the stereo. Then he refilled his goblet and contemplated the wine bottle. The taste on his tongue was familiar, but the possibility of purely alcoholic intoxication was not. Like many other belted knights of his day, Nick had not infrequently drunk himself insensible and claimed "indisposition," as no true knight would allow drink to fell him. But that was eight centuries gone. Was there any comfort to be had in that bottle now? For a moment, maybe, no more. He had no intention of tempting another addiction in place of vampirism, however mild in comparison. Besides, what if Natalie called in the middle of his bender? Shuddering, he capped the bottle and put it away in a cupboard. Pity for the wine, though.
Nick heard the stair door open, then. His heart jumped. Slowly, he stood up from the cabinet and turned. No one had that key but his partner, Tracy, who was still in the hospital, and Natalie . . .
. . . and Janette. She stood at the top of the few steps leading down from his secondary entrance, used so much less than the elevator. Her glossy black hair hung loose from a side part behind wispy bangs, and feathered slightly around her neck at shoulder length. She wore a denim jacket over an ivory sweater, long black skirt and high-heeled boots. She looked beautiful, self-contained and strong, as always, but her anxious, almost hesitant expression went through him like a bullet, and then kept on aching, like dry skin.
* * *
October 1228, Paris
Sir Nicholas stalked the autumn twilight, searching for something he could not name. He and Geoffrey had made port enough days past that not only had the other lodgers at their inn begun dodging Geoffrey's affably immodest version of their adventures in the Levant, Geoffrey had even begun to notice their lack of fascination, and the pleasures of the metropolis palled for him without an audience. He wanted to head home to Brabant. Nicholas, unaccountably, delayed.
That morning, he had left his cousin snoring indisposed in their chamber, checked their horses fidgeting in the stable, and then headed out into Paris on foot with his purse and his sword on his belt. Everything had returned to normal. All men recognized his rank and function, and he slid like a mended saddle strap back into his proper place and purpose. He should be content. But he had never felt so foreign, not even over the sea. Here, shops and homes alike covered their windows with murky waxed paper, when they could afford it, or wooden shutters, when they could not. Nicholas's eye still expected the glittering green and blue and even clear glass that filled windows in the east, but found it only high on cathedrals. Suddenly glass was dear and wood cheap, the opposite economy to that which had surrounded him so long.
Nicholas strode restlessly through the day, and at sunset found himself in the district of the clothiers. The rhyming cries of wandering menders had died away as the crowds thinned, and most shops had already let down the shutters that formed their awnings during the day, sealing themselves in for the night. Ahead, a cobbler argued with a lingering customer, his professional politeness worn thin.
"I told you, madam, please return tomorrow, and I will be delighted then to help you in every way! Besides, how can I take your measure in the dark? And how can you select the leather?"
"Monsieur merchant, I can see quite well now, and you will, too, if you will only light a candle." A strong, supple woman's voice soothed the artisan and arrested Nicholas's attention. Her words modulated clearly from note to note, a melody spoken rather than sung. He slowed so as not to pass too quickly by the elegant figure, nearly his own height in her heavy, hooded cloak of rich, black wool. "Besides, as I told you," she continued, "I came as early as I could, and I know without looking that I wish slippers of the fine scarlet cordwain you, and only you, obtained from Benoit the dyer last week. Did he not tell you to expect me?"
"But you must know the guild prohibits me from transactions when my brother shops are closed," the cobbler pleaded. "Imagine if we all set our own hours and labored by candlelight! Why, the workday would never end, from one end of the week to the other, and only those who could survive without sleep would prosper! A man would be used up before his years."
Nicholas stepped into the open shop, placing his hands casually on his swordbelt. "I'm sure your guild will forgive such a small favor, for a gentlewoman."
"Respectfully, Sir Knight," the cobbler disagreed, "I think you know little of guilds."
"Actually, I do know something of them." Nicholas opened his purse and withdrew three deniers of good Provins mintage. "Take these for your fine, if they levy one. And if they do, say an armed knight insisted most strenuously that the sun had not yet set, and quite convinced you."
The cobbler chuckled and accepted the coins. While the artisan lit candles and situated a stool, Nicholas bowed to the woman, and was rewarded with the sight of lips redder than the shoe leather she coveted, and eyes bluer than the eastern sea.
Unhappy blue. "I could have persuaded him myself," the woman said, her low tone a lash against Nicholas's presumption.
"Forgive me. I'm sure you could have," Nicholas agreed, fascinated. On the verge of the shop, on the cusp of the night, arguing for a break in custom and order, this pale woman seemed as strangely foreign as he felt himself, and closer to him than to the world neither of them matched. "My Lady -- has anyone ever told you that you have the most beautiful voice?"
"Voice?" Her eyes flew wide, startled, and searched his. Then her strong oval face relaxed into a smile that captivated him. "No, I do not think anyone has ever told me that, so I am truly indebted to you for the knowledge, Sir Knight."
"Sir Nicholas. Of Brabant." He bowed again.
"Janette. Of Paris." She laughed, and that pleased Nicholas, though he could not imagine what amused her. The cobbler drew her down to the stool so he could measure her feet on all sides. At first Nicholas watched covertly, admiring the graceful taper of her ankles, then openly, with forthright enjoyment, when she caught his gaze and challenged him with an arched brow.
"Three days," the artisan said at last. "Thursday. Please return for your slippers then -- during the day?"
"No." Janette replaced her old shoes and rose. "I will come following sunset. But you shall have double your price, for your trouble." She nodded at both men, then stepped into the street and disappeared in the night.
Nicholas watched her go. "Cobbler?"
"You shall have ten times your price, Thursday evening, if you delay that gentlewoman here until I join her. I have a fancy to see her in your merchandise."
"Hers is indeed a well-turned ankle, Sir Knight." The cobbler chuckled.
"Oh, yes," Nicholas breathed, still staring down the street. "Yes, it is indeed."
* * *
Janette stood on his threshold. His oldest friendship, his longest love. Sometime ally, sometime betrayer. She who had embraced her vampirism, now just as human as he was. Janette. Silence gathered between them like a storm.
"Feliks Twist died yesterday." It was the first thing Nick could think to say.
"Feliks? Oh, Nicolas." She descended the steps toward him, then hesitated in the middle of the room. "Was it murder? Surely not suicide!"
"Accident." Nick circled the dining table to reach her. He wanted to enfold her in his arms, bridge the gap she had opened between them when she disappeared last fall, and soothe away the apprehension creasing her wide brow. He also wanted to grab her shoulders and shake explanations out of her, for her departure, for her return. He did not touch her. This was the first time he had ever seen her human, though of course she had seen him so, all those centuries gone. She smelled different, human, he noticed. His mortal senses staggered from point to point as he took her in. "It's good to see you."
"I am glad you think so." She smiled a small, tight smile. "You may change your mind. I killed a man tonight, Nicolas -- a vile, contemptible man. But someone saw me, and certainly she has given a description to the police by now. I am aware of the position I put you in by coming here, but I need your help."
"Why?" His mind reeled. Why had she killed someone, now that she was human? Why had she left a witness? Why had she come to him? Not that he would have had her go to anyone else. "With your experience, all you have to do is leave."
"Not yet. There is evidence I must find before whoever shot at me tonight."
"Someone shot at you?" Nick's imagination lurched to a sickening image of Janette's body, cold and dead forever. Like Feliks. Like Schanke. Fragile human.
"Nicolas," Janette took a deep breath. "Arrest me or help me."
Nick studied her expression, reading it easily after centuries of practice, even without the vampiric threads that previously bound them through Lacroix's blood. She was tired, frightened, and emotionally wounded. Someone had hurt her so deeply she was almost willing to accept consolation; that shook him. Blast. She had killed someone! But she was Janette, and what they owed each other went beyond counting. "I'll help you." He saw her smile, and her relief. "Do they have anything on you other than a description?"
"No. I abandoned the car I used outside town. It is not registered to me. And I wore gloves, so left no prints."
"What's your name this time?"
"Janette de Brabant."
"Hey, that's my name!"
"You were not using it, Nicolas. You do need to air out these things every now and again, to prevent their becoming stiff and musty."
"Fine." He almost laughed. "I will help you, but not tonight. We have enough time. I haven't had much rest in two days, and you're clearly tired, too, so let's get some sleep. I'll find you some sheets, and me a pillow for the couch. You know where the bedroom is."
"I would prefer your sofa, Nicolas, if you do not mind?" Janette walked over and sat down on the furniture in question, turning her head to look back at him.
"Janette, I can't let you --"
"The sofa, Nicolas."
He raised his hands in surrender. Remembering the wine glass on the table, he picked it up and turned toward the sink, before he thought to ask if Janette were hungry. "I had something earlier. Can I get you anything now?"
"Ah, no." Janette stared at the red-filled goblet, then looked decidedly away. "I will be fine, thank you."
"Okay." Nick provided her with blankets and pillows, turned off most of the new lamps while she used his bathroom, and then took himself off to bed upstairs. He worried about Janette, missed Natalie, and mourned Feliks, but when he finally fell asleep, his rest came dreamless and sweet.
Nick slumbered well into the next afternoon. He woke at last into a blissful moment of forgetful comfort, unaware that Natalie had returned his ring, that Feliks had died, that Janette was running from the law and he, a police detective, had agreed to help her. Then he turned onto his injured shoulder, and his memory came around with the pain. He groaned.
Later, after he had washed and dressed and surrendered the bathroom to Janette, Nick stood at his windows, furled the shutters, and watched the sun setting on a cloudy, late-winter evening. He fingered Natalie's ring in his pocket. In an hour or so, the day team would head home. Shift-change was an excellent time to slip Janette between the cracks. He sighed, and wandered over to his easel. With everything happening, he had not had a chance to paint since recovering from vampirism, and he was eager to discover if he saw things differently now, as an artist. Idly, he looked over his blank canvases. Perhaps he should cut and stretch new ones, for a wholly human aesthetic?
Behind the blanks, a frame appeared, badly out of place. The da Vinci! Leonardo's portrait of Janette, which Nick had returned to her last year, in reconciliation and revival, sat quietly covered by his blank canvases. She must have fetched it from storage during the day, while he slept. For a moment, the monumental stupidity of running around without him while the police hunted her outraged him. But if she were on her way out of Canada for the foreseeable future, as she must to avoid prison, it reassured him that she apparently meant to take the portrait with her. He replaced the canvases, restoring her hiding place.
"We must go." Janette said from the stairs.
Nick had intended to suggest breakfast -- or dinner? -- and her abruptness confused him for a moment. If she did not want to eat, he supposed he was not hungry, either. He still had trouble assessing this calm, human appetite beside his memory of the vampire's ravening cravings. It occurred to him that they were both going through this; perhaps they could compare notes. But they had not yet managed a real conversation about anything at all.
He looked up. Janette appeared so decisive, so present, poised with her hand on the railing. So much a part of his life. He could not resist scratching the scab over her desertion. "Did you really intend never to see me again, no explanations?"
"You know there is no such thing as 'never,'" she answered lightly. Then she softened her tone to suit the hurt he knew she must see on his face. "I thought it was best."
"You were wrong."
"Oh, Nicolas." Janette stepped off the stairs and strolled over to the windows, looking toward the electric lights outlining the city in the night. "I left because of you, because of your quest to regain your humanity. A vampire's heart must be cold; immortality makes this so."
"But you! You could no longer live without your humanity. And I . . . began to think you might be right. It is a long time to live with a cold heart, only for yourself."
"You should have come to me. I would have helped you!"
"Ah, but I did not want to be helped," Janette pointed out. "I was accustomed to my immortality. And I was afraid."
"Look at the suffering that your search has caused you!" Janette's anguished words hung between them. Nick dropped his eyes. She was right; his quest had pained not only him, but so many around him. He had set no shining example for Janette to follow. And yet, was that the fault of his search, or of those who had opposed it? Though events had mooted the point, he still believed his quest had been right and necessary. Vampirism was evil, and he had fought it. She continued, "So I went to Montreal, to reaffirm the vampire in me. But I got caught in the very dilemma I left to avoid."
"I will tell you on the way."
They shared a look; Nick bowed aside for the moment. In the Caddie, he winced as he handled the gear shift and tried to hide both his injury and the fact it had been over two weeks since he had driven. His doctor would not be pleased with this activity. On the road, Nick prompted Janette for directions. She named the Civic Centre, and pulled out a key.
"This opens a locker holding fifty-thousand dollars and the location of the next fire that Mario Larouche -- the man that I killed -- was to have set."
"An arsonist?" The cop side of Nick absorbed this information. "Where'd the money come from?"
"A real estate developer was paying Larouche to set and cover up a series of fires."
"You left to reaffirm the vampire in you, and got involved in this?" Nick asked incredulously. Janette looked away, pursing her lips. He prodded, "So do I just go where you tell me and guess at everything else?"
She sighed, replacing the key in her jacket pocket. "Larouche framed and murdered a friend of mine."
"So you killed Larouche in revenge, and the evidence in the locker clears your friend." Now Nick understood. Janette had always believed in vengeance. To her, revenge was justice. Odd, how he accepted that of Janette, but had found just the suggestion of it distressing in Natalie, when she had balked at mercy for the dating-service rapist. The road rolled by in silence, but as they reached the Bay Dundas Bus Terminal, Nick finally said, "You know I have to ask."
"His name is -- was -- Robert McDonagh, and I was in love with him, more than you could imagine. He has a son. Nicolas, when the boy grows up, he will be told his father was a criminal! I cannot allow that."
"Where's his mother?"
"She died five years ago. I am his mother, his official guardian."
"Oh." Nick turned the Caddie into the underground parking lot. He found it surprisingly easy to think of Janette as a mother. Or perhaps not surprisingly, considering their time with the war-orphan Daniel, her manner with Baroness Sofia, the culture she created in the Raven -- no, not surprising at all.
But if she were responsible for a child, how could she endanger herself by hunting the arsonist-murderer? Were vampiric proclivities that hard to shake? Nick thought of his reaction to the virtual-reality vampire, and shied from judgment. Vampirism clung like a shadow to them both. He understood Janette's conduct perfectly, though he hated to admit it. So instead he wondered how Janette's bereavement affected what he could tell her about Natalie and his engagement without hurting her. He parked the eye-catching Caddie as inconspicuously as he could manage, then walked around to open Janette's door for her.
"This is rather remote, no?"
"All the better to not see you with. Or me." The fugitive felon and the accessory sheltering her. Though refusing Janette help had not really been a choice, Nick cringed inside at circumventing the law with the old vampiric indifference. He wanted to be better now. Would he kill vengefully as Janette had, if someone murdered his Natalie like her Robert? Or would he pursue only the public justice to which he had pledged? They walked across the parking garage and began descending the long staircase. "So, how did you meet him?"
"He just barged in and swept me off my feet." Janette was waiting for his skepticism, Nick saw when he glanced at her. She smiled, explaining that Robert, a firefighter, had saved her life by lifting her from behind a burning beam. "By the time he got to me, he had already saved five others that night. His heroism was beyond my comprehension. A mortal, risking his short life to save others? I envied his courage. He . . . reminded me of you. It was through him that I realized that your quest to become mortal again is right."
"It's strange hearing that coming from you."
"Stranger that I would run from the truth that I saw in you, only to find it again in Robert."
"But, um, how could the two of you be together?" Vampire/human entanglements always ended tragically the moment they became physical. And Janette had once characterized herself as a "glutton," unable to stop feeding despite her best intentions. "I mean, was this before the fever?"
"It was right after the fever." She shrugged. "They do say that love conquers all."
"Yeah, but I never thought I'd hear you repeat it." Nick shook his head, bemused. After the fever, then, so her romance with this Robert must have paced her recovery from vampirism. Her burgeoning humanity must have enabled their relationship to progress.
"Well, you know my . . . record. I cannot explain it any other way." As they left the stairs and headed for the lockers, Janette took off her jacket, folded it over her arm and pulled the key out of her pocket to check the number engraved on it.
Nick scanned the mostly-empty station and positioned himself at Janette's back as she searched for the right locker. In the center, a janitor swept. Around the perimeter, people strode quickly to meet connections home. Directly in front of them, a beat officer made her rounds, and Nick stopped Janette with a gesture while he shielded her from recognition. The officer passed, but before Janette could insert the key in the lock, two men lingering by a pillar caught Nick's attention. "We're being watched." Nick put a hand on Janette's arm. "Come on."
As they walked casually away from the lockers, the two men behind the pillar began nonchalantly moving to intersect them. Nick quickened his step, and so did the men following. Then again. No one mistook this for anything but a chase. Nick and Janette broke into a run to reach the stairs. Then they bolted for the exit at the bottom, ignoring a "closed" sign stretched across that route.
But as fast as they could run was not fast enough. Nick heard the men behind them just as he and Janette reached the final landing. Turning, he saw drawn guns, heard silencer-muffled shots, and tried to throw himself between their pursuers and Janette. Too slow. Too humanly slow. He reached her in time to see blood blossom just below the left shoulder of her ivory sweater as she slumped to the ground, her back against their escape.
"I forgot to tell you," she whispered. "Um, I'm mortal."
"Hey!" a woman's voice yelled. "Freeze! Police!" Nick glanced back up the stairs, relieved to see the beat cop instead of the gunmen. Then he remembered Janette's fugitive status. Helping her up, Nick pushed through the exit door, only to run into the locked gate of a fenced enclosure.
"What do you mean, you 'know'?" Janette demanded weakly. "Fly us out of here!"
Nick kissed her forehead and cradled her to him as the officer burst through the door with her gun drawn.
Chapter Fourteen: Au Revoir
"They told me I'd find you up here."
Natalie's voice came from directly behind Nick, but did not startle him. Sitting cross-legged on his spread coat under the deceptively warm noon sun, he had heard her steps all the way across the roof from the stairwell door. He was pleased to discover he could identify her stride, even with his limited human hearing confused by the stiff wind at this elevation. "I've been warned not to leave town," he said lightly, "but I didn't know I was being tailed."
"Nick, you're perched on the precinct's roof. Mister Magoo would have no trouble finding you, much less Toronto's finest. Besides, they're worried about you."
"I'm not thinking of jumping, if that's what you mean."
"You said it, not me." Natalie walked past him to the hip-high balustrade rimming the roof. Beneath her unfastened beige coat, she wore her favorite purple suit with a white blouse. She had confined her hair in a capable bun, but the wind picked loose a few strands as she peered over the edge. Nick thought she looked as if she had not gotten enough sleep the past few nights, either, but somehow she nevertheless radiated recharged drive. It felt good to see her like that. "I've never been up here before," she noted. "I didn't realize the bird's-eye view was such a turkey. Why do you suppose they make roofs so ugly?"
"I've always found them kind of beautiful." Nick stood, pushing himself up with his left hand; his right arm was back in a sling for the benefit of his aching shoulder. He joined her at the edge. Blocks and blocks of city stretched out from them in every direction, taller and shorter, brick and glass. The industrial and office buildings immediately around them displayed flat, gray roofs, studded by occasional ducts and usually edged with barriers like that at which they stood. "Nobody's supposed to see roofs from above, really, so they're absolutely honest, form and function, no masks, no rationalizations, no secrets. No lies. A roof is all about keeping the people it cares for safe and dry." After a moment, he added, "When I grow up, I want to be a roof."
Natalie's lips quirked up.
Her calm understanding warmed Nick as well as the late-winter sun, but he refused to bask in it under false pretenses. He returned to his seat on his coat, leaning back on his left hand to look up into the clear blue sky. "I take it you've heard about Janette."
Natalie crossed her arms. "I heard that you had to turn in your badge and gun under suspicion of aiding and abetting a beautiful, bereaved, fugitive murderess, who is now sitting down in holding pending her bail hearing, and looking at twenty-five to life. I heard that she is lucky beyond belief to have needed little more than stitches and pain meds for a bullet she took. And I heard that the hostage-negotiation unit and bomb squad together saved her slain fiancé's son and sister from some incendiary thugs while you two were at the hospital." She paused. "I checked -- Janette's now type O, too."
"I guessed that."
"So what's the rest of the story, Nick?"
"She turned up on my doorstep the night before last." Nick stopped staring at the sky and searched Natalie's face. He did not want to accidentally hurt her again. "Like Lacroix, unlike Urs and Vachon, Janette managed to figure out she was human. But without any more information than that, thinking she was the only one, she jumped to the conclusion that it was her intimacy with Robert -- her deceased fiancé -- that had made her so. She thought it was a special circumstance that no one else could repeat."
"She tried to hide it from me, her mortality." Nick looked away. "She insisted on taking the couch so she could get some food while I slept. I don't know how I wouldn't have known, if I had still been a vampire, like she thought. But she did her best to hide it until the bullet ripped in and revealed it." Nick saw it all again, as he had so many times these last twelve hours: Janette's living blood soaking through her sweater between her left shoulder and breast, his and Officer Griffen's frantic first aid, the ambulance at last, the questions without end . . . eventually, mercifully, Captain Reese had decreed a break. Nick could not go far, with Internal Affairs calling dibs on his afternoon. And procedure had prevented him from seeing Janette since her arrest and his suspension. So he had come up here to think.
He had so much thinking to do.
"Was she trying to protect you?" Natalie asked. "By keeping you ignorant?"
"I don't know. We didn't have much --" Oh. Delayed hit. Natalie meant Janette keeping him in the dark was just what he had done to Natalie. He leaned forward. "I am sorry, Nat. Lacroix's vendetta and what happened last year on Valentine's Day -- I was wrong. I was wrong to make the choice for you, and I made the wrong choice. I thought I was giving you your freedom. But I took it, instead. I betrayed you. I didn't know that's what I was doing. I didn't know -- but it's what I did. And once I'd blighted it like that, I also couldn't really look at what I admired in you anymore, not for a long time. Then, for a little while, the amnesia gave me new eyes."
"Not new enough to confess, though."
"No. I'd gotten used to secrets. And I thought that was the past, and the future seemed so close." He wanted her to be his future. The ring in his pocket urged him to draw it out and propose again. Beg her to be his future. But what about hers? He closed his left hand in his lap. "So what have you been doing, Nat, since I saw you last?"
Natalie leaned against the short, thick wall, folding her hands over its inside edge. "I helped Urs move in with Tracy."
"Well, I helped Urs move into Tracy's apartment. Tracy won't be coming home for a few days yet. And when she does, she's going to need a lot of help for a while. Apparently, her parents had begun fighting over who was going to take care of her -- did you know they're getting divorced?"
"No, I didn't. Though I see how that matches up with some of Tracy's reactions lately."
Natalie nodded. "Anyway, it seems Tracy and Urs struck up an acquaintance in the hospital, and I gather they got along amazingly well once they tip-toed into a way of talking about Vachon without either of them admitting they know about vampires. He kind of -- left them both, you know." Natalie waited for Nick's grave nod before continuing. "Well, they worked out that Urs would move in until Tracy gets back on her feet. Urs gets room and board and a current job referent while she looks for a permanent place, and Tracy gets parent-free help with cleaning, errands, and physical therapy. Urs was a nurse during the second world war, she says, so Tracy's getting more expertise than she realizes."
"That sounds great for now, but in --" Nick guessed at the number "-- seven months, how's that going to work? Nobody will particularly want to hire Urs right before she'll be taking maternity leave. And then she'll have child-care considerations." An idea struck him. "You know, she really shouldn't have to be away from her baby unless she wants to."
"Not long ago, I read that a German state is proposing to give paying stay-at-home parents a shot, actually. All parents are working parents, but they're trying to lift their birthrate and lower their unemployment by acknowledging that with a formal salary. I wonder if it will work."
"What?" he asked.
"You're thinking of ways to help, I can see. Urs and Tracy and Janette. It makes you happy, taking care of people."
"Yeah, I guess it does." Nick smiled back, heartened and puzzled. Was that forgiveness, or an indictment of his motives in hypnotizing her last year? His fingers twitched toward the ring in his back pocket, so he leaned on his hand again. No. Not yet. "I like being useful that way."
Natalie left the wall and sat right in front of him on the roof. In consideration of her skirt, she trailed her legs to the side instead of crossing them. "Is that preference part of the police officer, or reparations for the vampire, or left over from the feudal lord?"
"All, I suppose. They all flow into me." The thought was not new, that he rode diverging streams of self. But that Natalie asked it made him wonder if she were divided, too. She had always seemed so whole to him. So humanly whole. "Solving scientific mysteries makes you happy. How's the secret of vampiric extinction coming?"
"I've reached the end of my data, here. I need that volunteer vampire subject!"
"But there aren't any, leaving you down a blind alley. I am sorry about that, Nat. I mean, I'm not sorry that there are no more vampires, but I am very sorry your work can't go any further."
"I won't accept that. Besides, Lacroix --" Natalie hesitated. "Anyway, there's always more to learn."
"Then I have a new piece of data for you. Of sorts." Nick tilted his head to suggest a shrug without involving his stiff shoulder. "When I was sick with the fever, it was the first time I'd been ill in eight centuries. Something about being sick made me think differently than I remember ever thinking as a vampire, and I . . . prayed. I've been meaning to tell you. Vampirism deserved to die out in unspeakable agony. But I prayed -- begged -- for a more merciful end to us all."
"You think your prayer was answered?"
"I think some would debate whether humanity is a more merciful fate than death by the fever. And I'm positive it would have happened whether or not I prayed." Nick grinned. "But the fact is, I did, and it did. Make of it what you will."
"I've missed you, Nick." She sighed, and his heart sprang into his throat. "These past two days, I figured out that I've been missing my friend Nick ever since he turned into my fiancé Nick."
Nick swallowed hard. His heart splashed into his stomach. "You want the frog, not the prince?"
"I want my best friend back! I miss you, Nick. I miss talking like this. I miss not worrying about whether it's just the right time to say this or that, whether it's okay to want different things . . . whether my fears will drown your hopes."
"Or vice versa." It was not a question.
"Yeah." She placed a hand on his calf. "We fit as friends. None better. But we've both been bending ourselves all out of shape to suit as lovers. Nick, when was the last time we were really comfortable with each other, like this, now, not holding anything back?"
"Recent events are hardly typical."
"Granted. Maybe it's just me. Consider, though: haven't you missed me, too?"
Nick bit back a smooth, stock answer and considered. He had missed Natalie these past two days, he knew. But it came to him that he had missed her most desperately when he had retreated from her on questions of faith and ethics and desire, curling up inside himself out of her sight. He had been more afraid of undermining their romance than of being true to it -- or himself -- or her. Yes, he had missed his best friend, grasping for this other love. There. He had thought it. Now he just had to say it aloud. She was waiting.
"Yes." The wind whipped away the soft sound.
Natalie kissed his cheek, and then rested her forehead against his. "I didn't want this, either, but here we are. And it hurts. I've just barely met human Nick, though. So have you. Maybe you should get to know him better before you marry him off?"
"Maybe." He should not ask. He should not. He could not resist asking. "Would you be willing to give him another chance, Nat? Restart?"
Natalie leaned back and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Oh, Nick. If anyone -- but you've got to sense we're facing different directions, pulling each other back. Don't you? And I'm not ready to get married, not your kind of married. I don't know when I will be."
"I'll wait for you."
"Don't!" She closed her eyes, visibly pained. Only then did Nick realize he was clutching again, choking love in his desperation for it. For both their sakes, he had to release his grasp. She opened her huge hazel eyes and stared him down. "Don't let me do that to you, Nick. You've been on fast-forward ever since you became mortal. Waiting for me would use up goodness knows how much of that time you're so frantic to not waste. Damn it, Nick, I don't want to imagine my life without your friendship, but I refuse to tolerate you in a holding pattern over me! Get out there and live!"
"Yes, ma'am." This earned a thin smile from her.
"Look, I've got a flight to Egypt tonight. Urs will feed Sydney; he's gotten used to her lately. And I'll be back in time to testify at Roger's trial, don't worry."
"Egypt?" That was a bit far just to let their relationship cool off. Nick tried to remember the current state of politics in that part of the world, and whether any travel advisories existed for Canadians. "A pathology convention?"
"It's a lead, actually. Lacroix says --"
"I know you see conspiracies under every rock he touches, and two under those he doesn't, but I've got this under control. Trust me." Nick leaned back and gestured for her to continue. She nodded acknowledgement of his fierce wariness and folded her hands in her lap. "He came to visit me at home yesterday evening. After some posturing about what did and didn't happen last year on Valentine's, we established that what he wants is his vampirism restored, without a vampire master. What I want is a willing vampire subject never infected by the fever to test my theories, so I can establish once and for all what cures and causes vampirism."
"But there aren't any more vampires. He said so himself."
"He lied." Natalie shrugged. "He now claims he knows of a vampire brought across as a child and kept in isolation by her human relatives. She could never have caught the fever, and Lacroix assures me the vampire's human father will give me permission to treat her. Healing her is easy: Linda Wyatt's retrovirus plus HIV. Under controlled conditions, that'll prove the remedy, and hopefully unravel the riddle of the O-type blood. First, though, to make Lacroix a masterless vampire, I have to extract the right substance from the vampiric child and successfully transmit it in vitro to Lacroix, thus revealing the source of vampirism! It's a base for future research, new discovery, and averting the extinction of an endangered species!"
Natalie's vibrant enthusiasm appalled Nick. She had gone from seeking to cure vampirism to seeking to cause it, apparently seeing no moral distinction beyond patient consent. She was right; there were some things in each of them they could never bend far enough to fit the other without breaking. And he did not want either of them to break. "Setting aside the issue of Lacroix loose in the world as the one and only vampire, free to revive the, uh, species in his own image, Nat, he's going to drain you the moment you succeed!"
"If he does, he will be in for a nasty bout of the fever. I started inoculating myself with Wyatt's regimen this morning. It's harmless to humans, fatal to vampires. I told Lacroix; he knows I'm a vampiric Typhoid Mary by now."
"He also knows the cure for the fever, Nat, and hundreds of ways to kill you that don't involve his fangs! His vendetta over my sister won't subside just because we're human. It may intensify."
"Ah, but have you heard him talk about your sister lately? I did, last night." Natalie smirked. "He's had hundreds of years to idealize his feelings to himself. I don't think anyone will ever love another person as much as he's convinced himself he loved Fleur. Basically, if he ever kills anyone for that revenge, he'll be saying that you, Nick, have loved as deeply as he has. Excuse my amateur psychiatry, but I just don't see him doing that. He's invested too much in his conceit of himself as a tragic lover."
Nick pulled his feet under him and began pacing a short circuit. "Nat, you have to understand. He may seem less mad now than in the past, but he still thinks that unspeakable crimes are his privilege as a vampire, his right and due in tribute from those below -- and that everyone is below! I don't want to risk your life on his conceit."
"Me neither." Natalie got to her feet as well, and Nick stopped in front of her. "That's why it's imperative he doesn't believe you love me."
"But I do."
"I know. I love you, too." Her unblinking acknowledgement soothed and smoothed his cracked feelings. Then she challenged, "As a friend?"
He swallowed. "The very best of friends."
They shared a hug, then stepped apart. Natalie wiped her eyes again. "I expect to see you out of that sling when I get back. And not in jail, okay?"
"No, not in jail. I'll lay odds my law-enforcement career is over, though."
"Then you'll just have to find a new career, won't you? There are other ways to be useful." Natalie looked at her watch. "I have to get home and pack. You take care of yourself."
"You, too." Inadequate words, even with all his heart behind them.
Natalie had walked perhaps a third of the way across the roof when she slowed, stopped, turned, and returned. She reached into the breast pocket of her suit, and Nick saw a small, curved object press against the purple fabric as she caught it with the tips of her fingers. Small and curved. Like the ring in his pocket. For an instant, he wondered if this could all have been some sort of test, whether he had passed and Natalie would now start things over on her terms by turning the tables and proposing to him.
But it was Lacroix who had trained Nick to suspect such games, not Natalie. Never Natalie.
She pulled out his spare car key. "I almost forgot."
"Oh," he accepted it. "I guess that wouldn't do either of us much good in Egypt."
"I will be back, Nick."
"I'll be here."
The sun had crept sufficiently past noon to stretch shadows, but the illumination was still direct enough that Nick saw Natalie's every move clearly as she stepped through the stairwell door and pulled it closed behind her. The wind smelled of spring just waking up. He engraved the moment on his fleeting human memory, to make it last as long as he did.
Then he looked out at the city's rooftops, redirecting his thoughts to those who needed service and protection, and to how he might keep them safe and dry.
Disclaimers | Citations | Credits
James Parriot and Barney Cohen created the fantasy television program Forever Knight, on which this fanfiction is based. The Sony Corporation owns it. It sometimes airs on the SciFi and SPACE channels. I intend no infringement. Please support Sony, SciFi and SPACE in all their Forever Knight endeavors! Please buy the DVDs, especially.
All characters and situations in this fantasy fanfiction are entirely fictional. Any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental, excepting only the references to major historical figures and occurrences.
Flashback Works Consulted
Gies, Joseph and Frances. Life in a Medieval City. New York: Harper Perennial, 1969.
Knox, E. L. "The Fifth Crusade." The Crusades (January 2002). Online. Internet. August 2003. Available: http://crusades.boisestate.edu/5th/.
Oldenbourg, Zoé. The Crusades. New York: Pantheon Books, 1966.
Pernoud, Regine, ed. The Crusades. Translated by Enid McLeod. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1963.
Prawer, Joshua. The World of the Crusaders. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1972.
Shaw, Margaret, ed. and trans. Joinville and Villehardouin: Chronicles of the Crusades. London: Penguin Books, 1963.
Treece, Henry. The Crusades. New York: Random House, 1962.
Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.
Chapter 1: "The Happy Ending"
"since Lacroix murdered Cal" -- cf. "Fever"
"dawn . . . drug fouling his perceptions" -- cf. "The Fix"
"vampire RNA factor" -- cf. "The Fix"
"nineteenth-century medical training" -- cf. "Unreality TV"
"stint with the Red Cross" -- cf. "Can't Run, Can't Hide"
"five, six years now since I signed on" -- cf. "Only the Lonely"
"Kong and Wray" -- cf. "False Witness"
"slow and zombiefied" -- cf. "If Looks Could Kill," "Crazy Love"
"head-wound induced amnesia" -- cf. "Night in Question"
"vampire's heart beats every ten minutes" -- cf. "I Will Repay"
"lydovuterine" -- cf. "The Fix"
"amnesia" -- cf. "Night in Question"
"magic" -- cf. "Black Buddha," "Dark Knight," "Blackwing," etc.
"St. John's" -- cf. "For I Have Sinned," "The Games Vampires Play"
"asteroid scare" -- cf. "A More Permanent Hell"
"our truce" -- cf. "our agreement" in "Be My Valentine"
"those who protect the vampires' secret" -- cf. "Unreality TV," "The Fix"
Chapter 2: "It's All Good"
"a reliquary . . . Joan" -- cf. "For I Have Sinned"
"Captain Cohen's command at the ninety-sixth almost two years ago" -- cf. "Killer Instinct"
"Don Schanke . . . died" -- cf. "Black Buddha, Part 1"
"his sister home in Brabant" -- cf. "Be My Valentine"
"Gwyneth" -- cf. "The Queen of Harps"
"Norma Ellis" -- a recurring first-season character, cf. "Hunters," etc.
Chapter 3: "Urs Unexpected"
"Caused by impalement. Anomalously bruised upper thorax. . . . Captain Reese insisted they all take a fresh look at the case . . . her grandmother's ghost . . . Kessel House" -- cf. "Dead of Night"
"Grace" -- Grace Balthazar is a recurring first and second-season character, cf. "Only the Lonely," "Stranger than Fiction," etc.
"the fever" -- cf. "Fever"
"Enforcers" -- cf. "Unreality TV," "The Fix"
Chapter 4: "What He Said"
"to the Holy Land from Carreg to atone for Gwyneth's murder" -- cf. "The Queen of Harps"
"and Nick still accepted it might, though Natalie had firmly argued otherwise" -- cf. "Fever"
Urs and Tracy never meet on screen. Urs observes Tracy while following Ellen in "Hearts of Darkness," but no evidence suggests Tracy sees Urs. In "Trophy Girl," Urs spots Tracy across the Raven, and asks Vachon, "Isn't that Nick's partner?", associating her with Nick rather than Vachon.
"the Jerry Show case" -- cf. "My Boyfriend is a Vampire"
Chapter 5: "What She Said"
All the conversation between Nick, Alyssa and Shirelle St. Clair inside Kessel House in chapter five is quoted or closely adapted from the episode "Dead of Night" by Gillian Horvath, in accord with the parallel-reality nature of this story. The scenarios of Alyssa and the ghosts belong entirely to that episode. Nick's humanity is the difference that triggers the divergences.
"legendary cure Serena had sought" -- cf. "Baby, Baby"
"Saint Dymphna" -- Dymphna is a real, if rather legendary, saint, believed to show special interest in those struggling with mental illnesses. Devotion to her is not documented until the middle of the thirteenth century, so I'm taking a historical liberty naming a church after her a few decades early.
"since he left Brabant in Lord DeLabarre's service . . . cold lake in Carreg " -- cf. "The Queen of Harps"
"abortion" -- The only reference to abortion in Forever Knight canon comes with the value-neutral observation that the pregnant victim in "Last Act" belonged to a pro-choice action committee. The opinions and remarks on that subject attributed to characters within this story are therefore not explicitly canonical, but merely designed to further this particular story.
Chapter 6: "Downtime"
Nick and Natalie's conversation in the hospital regarding ghosts is closely adapted from their conversation in front of Nick's fireplace in the episode "Dead of Night" by Gillian Horvath, in accord with the parallel-reality nature of this story. Similarly, Natalie's background with her grandmother comes entirely from that episode. Nick's humanity is the difference that triggers the divergences.
"A-negative . . . Don Schanke" -- cf. "Dark Knight, the Second Chapter"
"tasered" -- A "taser" is a weapon often used in law enforcement and riot control. They come in several kinds, including projectile-firing types, but the one used on screen in "Dead of Night" was apparently an electrical-discharge variety.
"the plane bombing last fall" -- cf. "Black Buddha, Part 1"
"diffuse axonal tearing and petechial hemorrhages" -- The symptoms assigned Tracy draw on information in Eric A. Roy's "The Anatomy of a Head Injury" (http://www.ahs.uwaterloo.ca/~cahr/headfall.html) and the Handbook of Clinical Neurology, volume three, "Symptomatological classification of coma" (http://sommeil.univ-lyon1.fr/articles/jouvet/hcn_69/p7.html).
"when she had asked last year, when they had thought the asteroid would extinguish all humanity" -- cf. "A More Permanent Hell"
"popcorn" -- cf. "False Witness"
"Lisa Cooper" -- cf. "Father Figure"
Chapter 7: "Just Starting Out"
"Sidney" -- Natalie's cat appears in "Only the Lonely," and receives a passing mention in "Father's Day."
"Gwyneth's many-stringed harp" -- cf. "The Queen of Harps"
"legend . . . about a vampire woman becoming pregnant and human" -- cf. "Baby, Baby"
"he had seen Lacroix watch her" -- cf. "Black Buddha, Part 2"
Chapter 8: "Visiting Vachon"
"fever epidemic . . . his dying friend, Screed" -- cf. "Fever"
"tu absurda" -- Spanish, "You silly girl."
"the Inca" -- cf. "Black Buddha, Part 2"
"Serena . . . had wanted Nick's baby" -- cf. "Baby, Baby"
"Javier is charmingly hard to catch" -- cf. "Black Buddha, Part 2"
"He'll do anything for a friend" -- cf. "Fever," "Ashes to Ashes"
Chapter 9: "Faith, Finances and Flowers"
"Natalie's laptop" -- cf. "Fallen Idol"
"with him in the trunk" -- cf. "False Witness"
"crashed it" -- cf. "Dark Knight"
"Father Rouchefort from that serial killer case four years ago" -- cf. "For I Have Sinned"
"You know what I believe" -- This is a direct quotation from "Near Death."
"magical Mayan jade cup" -- cf. "Dark Knight"
"cursed black Buddha statue" -- cf. "Black Buddha, Part 1"
"Mississauga shaman faith healing" -- cf. "Blackwing"
"Welsh harp you thought enchantedly summoned you" -- cf. "The Queen of Harps"
"sun-worshipping cult" -- cf. "Faithful Followers"
"Blood types weren't discovered until 1900" -- This chapter's representation of the history of blood science draws primarily on information from the American Association of Blood Banks website (http://www.aabb.org/All_About_Blood/FAQs/aabb_faqs.htm) and the second edition of The Handy Science Answer Book (Visible Ink Press, 1997).
"royal ransom . . . de Brabant Foundation . . . sordid story" -- cf. "Blood Money
"Anne Foley" -- cf. "Dance by the Light of the Moon"
"the machine that induced near-death experiences" -- cf. "Near Death"
"Feliks Twist" -- cf. "Blood Money"
"murdering his adored Sylvaine" -- cf. "Love You to Death"
Chapter 10: "Explanations"
"that snuff-video informant's murder" -- cf. "False Witness"
"music-box bomber" -- cf. "Black Buddha"
"Erica's death" -- cf. "Last Act"
"a tree near Cal's grave" -- cf. "Fever"
"the genetic alteration you called the vampire 'virus'" -- cf. "The Fix"
"antisense" -- Antisense molecules are microscopic bits of DNA or RNA designed to bond to a cell's own DNA or RNA and interfere with its activity (The Handy Science Answer Book, also http://www.encyclopedia.com/searchpool.asp?target=antisense). In "The Fix," Natalie talks about a "genetic alteration" in Nick's RNA with "extra nucleotides." Nick asks if this is a "virus," but Natalie disagrees with that characterization.
"Alma" -- Alma is a recurring first-season character, seen in "For I Have Sinned" and mentioned in "Love You to Death."
"Merlin" -- cf. "Hunters"
"Nightcrawler" -- cf. "Dark Knight, the Second Chapter," "Curiouser and Curiouser," "Father's Day," "Blackwing," "Fever," etc.
"the Weiss case" -- cf. "Stranger than Fiction"
"the dating-service killer . . . Roger Jamison" -- cf. "Only the Lonely"
"death penalty" -- The only present-day references to capital punishment within Forever Knight are in the episode "Capital Offense." During a discussion in the morgue, Nick expresses opposition to executions; Natalie does not express an opinion, but merely remarks on the irony of a vampire objecting to the death-penalty. Canada, of course, does not have the death penalty, and, despite "Capitol Offense," will not extradite criminals to countries (like the US) where they face execution.
"her own goddaughter's case" -- cf. "Undue Process"
"the time Lacroix framed Nick" -- cf. "Killer Instinct"
"your friend Thomas" -- cf. "Faithful Followers"
"the vampiric anomaly will not culture outside the vector" -- cf. "The Fix"
"Valentine's Day last year" -- cf. "Be My Valentine"
Chapter 11: "Pawns and Players"
Because of the parallel-reality nature of this story, Del and Nick's conversation over the virtual-reality equipment in chapter eleven closely adapts the conversation between Nick, Tracy and computer expert Detective Linda Fulford in the episode "The Games Vampires Play" by Naomi Janzen, and the virtual-reality vampire's remark is a direct quotation. Del attributes his information to Detective Fulford, as he and his partner are working with her on this case in place of the injured Nick and Tracy.
"Del" -- Del comes from "Father Figure," where he briefly fills in for Schanke at the beginning of that episode.
"When Janette . . . had left him in the Renaissance" -- cf. "Partners of the Month"
"leaving again last fall" -- cf. "Black Buddha, Part 1"
"Stonetree first partnered him with Schanke" -- "Dark Knight"
"rollers" -- cf. "If Looks Could Kill"
"Skin Pretty saleswoman" -- cf. "False Witness"
"the cabin" -- cf. "Hunters," "Father's Day"
"bowling" -- cf. "Dying to Know You," "The Fix"
"fishing" -- cf. "Capital Offense"
"skiing" -- cf. "The Code"
"Jenny's choir" -- cf. "Father Figure"
Chapter 12: "This for That"
"brotherly affection" -- cf. "Only the Lonely"
"she had condoned his use of vampiric hypnotism on others" -- cf. "If Looks Could Kill," "A Fate Worse than Death," "Stranger than Fiction," etc.
"a warm tub" -- cf. "Be My Valentine"
"Her car door was another matter" -- cf. "Fallen Idol"
"may leave a corpse behind, in certain circumstances" -- cf. "Fever," "Ashes to Ashes," etc.
"once in Berlin" -- cf. "The Fix"
"She understood me perfectly. Purely." -- cf. "Be My Valentine"
Chapter 13: "Homecoming"
Most of Nick and Janette's present-day conversation in chapter thirteen is quoted -- frequently abridged -- directly from the episode "The Human Factor," by Phil Bedard and Larry Lalonde, in order to fulfill the parallel-reality nature of this story. The plot of the arsonists and Janette's fiancé comes from that episode, too, of course. Nick's humanity is the difference that triggers the divergences.
"cordwain" -- Cordwain was a fine goatskin leather favored by fashionable medieval ladies (Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies).
"Nicolas" -- In the present day, Janette, unlike all other characters, pronounces Nick's name in the French fashion even when otherwise speaking English. Therefore, I spell Janette's present-day pronunciation of Nick's name in this chapter in the French fashion, to emphasize the difference, while leaving all flashback spellings of Nick's name in the English spelling.
"though of course she had seen him so, all those centuries gone" -- cf. "Dance by the Light of the Moon"
"Leonardo's portrait of Janette" -- cf. "Partners of the Month"
"Janette had always believed in vengeance" -- cf. "A Fate Worse than Death"
"war-orphan Daniel" -- cf. "Father Figure"
"Baroness Sofia" -- cf. "If Looks Could Kill"
"the culture she created in the Raven" -- cf. "Hunters," "A Fate Worse than Death," "The Human Factor," etc.
"glutton" -- cf. "I Will Repay"
Chapter 14: "Au Revoir"
"they're getting divorced?" -- cf. "Avenging Angel"
"Egypt" -- cf. "Ashes to Ashes"
My thanks go to my test-audience members: Bonnie, Shelley, Mary, Abby and Elisabeth. Each read different parts of the story at different times, and their thoughtful attention and kind patience improved those parts in many ways. Bonnie addressed very rough drafts of the first chapter. Mary shared her medical familiarity, saving Natalie's professionalism. Abby asked to read the story as soon as I finished it, a precious confidence-booster. Elisabeth made time for polishing the story's final draft -- made time where none existed. Most of all, Shelley worked through the entire story with me, chapter by chapter, reading and responding to each bit as I finished it. Without her patient, receptive, good will to read what I wrote, I would never have completed the story. God bless readers! The story's errors, of course, are all mine, no doubt right where I ignored their advice.
Please do not archive, post or distribute this piece. Please just link to it on my own fansite, instead. I posted "In the Light of Day" to fkfic-l in October 2003 and then archived it on my own website on November 1, 2003.
I first imagined "In the Light of Day" and discussed it with friends in 1997, but did not begin writing the story until 1999. The initial drafts of the opening chapters deservedly went over poorly with both people who saw them, so I set the story aside. At the end of 2002, I reopened those early chapters, rewrote them, and wrote on in earnest, finishing in August 2003, and placing the story in the hands of my test audience through September 2003.
I always appreciate comments and constructive criticism. Please email me or comment on my Livejournal or Dreamwidth. Thank you for reading!
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