She couldn't have been older than nine years.
The little girl was perched on the swing, a forgotten life-size Raggedy Anne doll with fingers curled limply around the chain lengths that secured the hard plank under her backside to the jungle gym. Her porcelain skin was cold as the air beat against her, and her body swayed with the wind till she tumbled off the swing. She landed on the wood shavings below with a dull thump. There was no trembling lip, no wiping away tears, no injured wailing--only a pair of glassy blue eyes staring sightlessly at the empty and comfortless sky above.
At sunrise, the birds sang her funeral dirge. A little while after that, the children's screams began.
Natalie looked down at the girl on the table, her mouth drawn in a sympathetic line. Her newest patient—brought in from Little Angels Day Care just five hours earlier—was so small, so fragile. The teachers there hadn't known who she was, the deceased child being older than their enrolled kids. And there had been no identification.
Jane Doe had to have been loved by someone. Somewhere there was a mommy or daddy who was missing their little girl. Damnit, why'd some sicko have to pick a kid?
Natalie took a deep breath and snapped on her gloves; she had to be professional. Little Miss Doe was counting on her to help find her killer, and the dead child would soon surrender her secrets.
She brushed her fingers along the crown of the girl's head, feeling for any bruising or trauma there. Natalie began working her way down, taking a closer look at the eyes for any hint of drugging. Finding none, she tilted the girl's face toward herself. And froze.
Against the girl's neck was two neat little holes.
The doctor's heart hammered in her chest as she silently warned herself not to jump to conclusions. But her hands, of their own accord, snapped off the gloves as she headed out of the cold storage and towards the phone.
“Nick, I just got a new patient. Jane Doe, about eight years old. Definitely looks like murder.”
“She's got neck wounds... and I probably don't have to tell you what that looks like.”
“I'll be over as soon as I can.” A low oath. “Just have to wait for the sun to go down first.”
“I know. I'll see you soon... and make sure you eat something!”
Nick dusted the snow off his coat as he stepped into the main hall of the Coroner's Office, before peeling it off and tossing it over the back of the nearest chair. The place was quiet—not unusual at night—and one of the lights was flickering.
He rapped on the door to Natalie's office before entering. As usual, she had her mind on something else and didn't take notice.
“I'm here,” he announced.
The sound of his voice jolted Natalie out of her deep contemplation of what was under her microscope. “Ah, sorry.” Clearing her throat, she slid off her stool and led him back into the cold storage where she'd stowed Jane Doe's body. Wordlessly, she removed the sheet concealing the body from prying eyes and let the body speak for itself.
He saw, and she saw the flash of recognition in his eyes.
“Nick? Look familiar?”
“Looks just like the others.” He gave a grunt. “Except a vampire wouldn't go after kids. Not one that's still around, anyway.”
Natalie eyed him skeptically. “What about LaCroix?”
Nick shook his head. “No. Not his style.” Even as he spoke the words, his tone was bitter.
“But... he did bring over Daniel,” was Natalie's hesitant rejoinder. She didn't want to remind him of yet another sad memory but, to her mind, LaCroix wasn't exactly in the clear either.
“Yeah.” That was all he would say on the matter and, from the look on his face, Natalie knew the subject was closed. At least for the time being. “I've got to check something out. I'll let you know if I've found anything.”
A ten-minute drive brought him to the Raven, music blaring so loudly it could be heard—albeit slightly muffled—in the street. The bouncer let him past and Nick shuffled down the stairs to accost an employee carrying a tray. “Where's Janette?”
“In the back rooms,” the waitress replied, gesturing in the appropriate direction.
“Thanks.” He crossed the dance floor more swiftly then usual, grateful that there were only vampires in the vicinity at the moment. Ducking under a section of chains, he entered the back room.
Janette was smoking a cigarette. “Nicolas. What brings you here?” she purred, exhaling a ring of smoke.
“I need answers.”
She sighed. “Really, Nicolas? You don't call, you don't write... I was beginning to feel left out.”
He cut her off before she could tease him further. “Someone's killing children, Janette. One of our kind.”
She immediately dropped all semblance of playfulness, sitting up straight in her comfortable chair.
“And I think you know who.”
Janette's voice became almost... hostile. “He's dead. Has been for some time, you know.”
“So you keep telling me,” Nick countered. “But it looks awfully like his handiwork.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” Janette snapped, her eyes narrowing.
“No,” Nick replied. “But you weren't actually there when he died, either. Second-hand information isn't the same as proof, Janette.”
“Nicolas, you know as well as I do that he didn't have the self-control necessary to go unnoticed.” Janette shrugged, but there was pain in her eyes. “He was... taken care of by the ones who guard our secret.”
Nick snorted. “And who told you this? LaCroix?” Off her look, he added, “I thought so.”
The boy's small hand reached up to knock on the door—a nice house in a middle-class neighborhood—and waited patiently as footsteps approached within. The wizened, friendly visage of an old woman peered through the pane of glass set in the door, and her eyes widened. The door was immediately opened.
“Can I help you, dear?”
The boy looked up at her with pleading eyes. “Can I use your phone? My mom forgot to pick me up. Again.”
The kindly old lady smiled and opened the door wide. “Of course, dear. Come on in. You can watch TV with Kayla while you wait.”
Nick sighed and dropped the files back on his desk. On the one hand, he was glad Schanke was on vacation but, on the other, he could have used the extra pair of hands to search through the missing persons reports to find Jane Doe.
His head snapped up when he heard the sound of a young fellow arguing with an officer. “...But my daughter's been missing since last night! Why aren't you people doing anything?”
“I'm sorry, sir. The report can't be filed until forty-eight hours after her disappearance.” Officer Buranski was genuinely sympathetic. “I'm sorry, but I don't make the rules.”
Nick got up from his desk and joined Buranski at the counter. “What's the problem?”
Buranski shrugged. “Detective Knight, this is Mr. Michael Weatherley. His daughter's been missing since last night, but I can't officially file the Missing Persons yet.” He looked apologetic.
“I went into Anna's room to check on her around ten last night,” the distraught father said. “The window was wide open and her bed was empty. I checked all over the house and searched the neighborhood... Nothing. I've been on the phone to you guys at least a dozen times since then, and I came here to see if anything was being done.”
Nick tendered the question as delicately as he could. “Do you have a picture of her?”
Mr. Weatherley nodded. “Yeah. Right in my wallet.” He reached into the back pocket of his pants to remove his wallet. Opening the wallet revealed a picture of a smiling brown-haired and blue-eyed little girl tucked in one of the clear card-holders.
Nick could have sworn his silent heart dropped into his stomach. He cleared his throat uncomfortably and forged ahead. “Sir, the coroner has the body of a young girl matching your daughter's description. We're going to need you to identify her.”
There is no worse pain in the world than for a parent to lose his child.
Kayla's grandfather snuck out of the house as quickly as he could in the bitter cold, and ran to the street corner where a police car was idling to catch speeders. Puffing with exertion, the old man rapped on the car window.
The cop rolled down the window obligingly, his eyebrows shooting up at the realization that the senior citizen was wearing only his pajamas amid the winter snows.
“Please, you've got to help! My family's being held hostage!”
“Captain!” an officer shouted over the din of the bullpen. “Got a squawk from 33-Victor. Says some old coot is claiming a kid's holding his family hostage.”
Captain Cohen grunted. “Someone check that out.”
Nick gently interrupted the Captain. “Cap, mind if I come with?”
“A potential hostage negotiation isn't your beat, Knight.”
“I know. I've just got a feeling about it.”
Cohen sighed, as she knew a thing or two about Nick's infamous 'gut feelings' by now. “Fine. Go on, before I change my mind.”
It didn't take long to find the right house. As ranking officer at the scene, Nick was left in charge. And the moment he got out of the Caddy he felt the familiar tingle at the back of his mind, the sense of family.
Motioning to the other officers to stay back, he made his way to the front door.
“Hello, Nicky.” The same voice he remembered, but devoid of the once-familiar Cockney accent, pricked at his enhanced hearing. “Come on in. Make yourself at home.”
He reached for the door, and it swung easily open. The first thing he saw was the old woman laying dead in the foyer. He carefully stepped over her body as he made his way into the house.
Daniel was sitting calmly in the living room, ensconced in an easy chair as a tiny blonde girl lay unconscious on the couch. Her heartbeat was strong—very much alive—and her breathing was even. Daniel must have lulled her to sleep with an hypnotic suggestion.
But he wasn't surprised to see Daniel, really. Somehow he'd known the boy still lived—if that was indeed what vampires did—but he was angry by the deaths of the children he'd caused already. Taking a fortifying breath, he said with a calm he didn't feel, “Daniel, just tell me one thing: why?”
Daniel snorted. “I don't expect you to get it, brother.”
“You know,” Daniel began conversationally. “I've watched you for awhile now. And, far as I can see, you've got it pretty good. A home, a car, a job, and two girlfriends. Princess, and that mortal you've been hanging with.” He hopped off the easy chair. “You wouldn't understand what it's like to be me. To be a child forever, while your mind keeps getting older. I can't even date a lady of our own kind without her looking like a pedophile.” His gaze shifted to the girl lying on the couch. “So, I'm trying to make a girlfriend of my own.”
Nick's eyebrow shot up skeptically. “So, that's what this is about? You wanting to get laid?”
Daniel scoffed. “It's about a bit more than that, Nicky. It's about companionship. Someone who can truly understand me.”
“This isn't right, Daniel. They're only children!”
“I wasn't much older when Daddy Dearest decided to make me part of the family,” Daniel spat.
The girl on the couch stirred, their argument bringing her out of her induced slumber. “Danny?”
The vampire child zipped over to her side. “I'm here.”
“What's going on?” she murmured tiredly. “Where's Gramma and Pop-Pop?”
Nick glared at Daniel. “She has no idea what's even going on, does she?”
Daniel returned the glare and flapped his hand dismissively at Nick. “My big brother's here,” he told the girl. “Don't worry, Kayla. He was just leaving.”
“I'm not going anywhere,” Nick countered.
A flash of movement and Daniel was in front of him. “Oh yes, you are.” Daniel gave him a forceful shove, propelling Nick into the wall. Gravity brought Nick to the floor.
Kayla stared, her mouth hanging open, as Nick responded by kicking Daniel into the entertainment center. Kayla uttered a thin wail, as Daniel's collision cracked the wooden video shelves. Daniel snapped a piece off, brandishing the impromptu stake.
“Daniel, you don't want to do this. Let her go.”
“Don't tell me how to feel!” He lunged, and Nick dove out of the way. There was a sickening crack.
“Danny!” Kayla shrieked, and she ran to his side before Nick could stop her.
Kayla turned Daniel onto his back, revealing the stake now imbedded in Daniel's chest. He looked up at her, the light in his eyes fading.
Kayla had seen enough movies with her grandparents to know Daniel was dying. “Danny, it's okay. Don't be scared,” she soothed. “All the hurt will go away soon, and you'll be with your mommy and daddy again.” She leaned forward, her hair curtaining their faces. At the brush of flesh against flesh and the soft wet sound of a kiss, Nick looked away.
She looked up at Nick, Daniel now silent and lifeless on the floor. She knew. “I won't tell anyone,” she said to Nick. “B'sides, grownups don't listen to little kids. And I wanna remember Danny.” Her eyes narrowed. “I won't forget him. You can't make me if I don't wanna.”
Nick nodded slowly. A resistor, he sighed. Of course she had to be. Daniel must have figured it out for himself. Nonetheless, Nick tried anyway.
“Sleep and forget.”
Damn. “Okay. Just remember what you promised. You can't tell anyone.”
Kayla nodded solemnly. “I promise.” She made a salute. “Scout's honour.”
That would have to do for now. Inwardly, he made a note to look after her. Hopefully, the rest of the community would never find out. But, until then, she'd have everything she needed—recompense of sorts for the supernatural upending her young life. But kids could be resilient, and hopefully she'd recover from this.
Only time would tell.