The lift door slammed shut behind them and LaCroix surveyed the current state of his protege's self-flagellations. Despite the imminent dawn, the shutters remained open to allow the sunlight in; the décor held a starkness and simplicity that spoke of imposed austerity; and the air reeked of the foul scent of the animal blood that Nicholas insisted on consuming for his sustenance. Eight hundred years and Nicholas could not leave his Catholic upbringing and Crusader heritage behind.
LaCroix wrinkled his nose in disdain and turned away from the kitchen, where the odor was the strongest. What a place for him to need to spend the day, too. He, who had long ago learned that self-privation only fueled lust and kept the denied at the forefront of one's thoughts and actions. “So, it seems the tables have turned and it is you who must watch out for me,” he stated, unable not to comment.
“You only need to stay here until we figure out why you were a target,” Nicholas assured him, as if LaCroix wasn't well aware of why that Captain had insisted on his stay here. Shrugging off his jacket, he disappeared into the kitchen where he proceeded to thump the cabinets open and closed like he was searching for a lost antiquity. When he finally emerged, he held two glasses of blood. The red shimmered in the now early dawn light. Offering one of the glasses to LaCroix, Nicholas continued, “The sooner we can solve this case, the sooner you can leave.”
“Such manners,” LaCroix huffed at the unsubtlety to his son's eagerness to get rid of him, not that he'd be able to go anywhere until the sun set. Another of his son's flagellations: living in a place where he was trapped during daylight hours instead of someplace sensible where he'd be able to move around. LaCroix dismissed the proffered glass, its smell bringing an unusual queasiness over him that made his vision swim. “I should remind you that I am the injured party here.”
“Three people are dead at your studio,” Nicholas countered. He raised the glass to his lips, then lowered it again without sipping. Bags darkened his eyes and the tendons lined his neck in thick cords.
“None of them by my hand. You know I would never resort to such crude methods.”
“I know you wouldn't use a gun,” Nick agreed. “That doesn't mean you were only an innocent victim.” He spat the last word, like he couldn't get it to stick to LaCroix any other way.
“In this, I am blameless,” LaCroix responded with a slow blink of his eyes. “My attention was on the show until it was rudely interrupted.”
“And you don't know who the shooter was or why he came after you?” Nick questioned. “You did nothing to provoke him?”
The room spun again and LaCroix moved closer to the wall—and conveniently more into the shadows—to steady himself. “I have never seen him before in my life,” he answered. The sun was starting to get warmer, to fill the loft with its burning touch. LaCroix could feel its fever heating his skin, and he couldn't imagine how even the foolish desire to punish himself warranted Nicholas's courtship of this danger. To cover his discomfort, he added, “I have no concern for the affairs of mortals.”
Nicholas dared to lift his eyebrows at that in a clear challenge. “One of them dared in be interested in your affairs,” he stated, “to the point of wanting to kill you. Since he tried to use a gun, I'd guess that he didn't know what you are. Are you sure--”
LaCroix hissed, the repeated questioning sapping what remained of his patience. The situation was clear cut; what could Nicholas possibly need to question and re-question about it? The attack had come at the end of the show. The night's lesson to his recalcitrant children had been on understanding that actions had consequences, a point that Nicholas especially never seemed to internalize. “...not a series of events that exist without cause. You made a choice. Now you must take responsibility,” he concluded into the microphone. He imagined the words spinning out over the airwaves and penetrating his son's thick skull. Each time he hoped that finally his exhortations would get through.
He ignored the gunshots that killed the guard, his concentration focused on making his point as clearly as possible. The gunshot that killed his studio manager was the first to get his attention. He swiveled in his seat just in time for the door to the sound booth to crash in. A solid, erring-toward-portly, man in dire need of a shave stood in the doorway. The gun in his hand was pointed directly at LaCroix.
“I didn't do it!” he shouted. Sweat glistened on his forehead and stained his armpits. “It was an accident! I didn't do it! Stop trying to blame me.”
Without waiting even to assess the success of his shot, he turned the gun on himself. It was over in seconds, his blood soaking the carpet and its smell soaking the air.
LaCroix reached over and shut off the broadcast, sank back in his chair. Episodes of violence and bloodshed were nothing new to him, but the speed and determination of an attack on himself that he had not seen coming left him shaken. He touched the spot on his chest where the bullet had entered. The bloodstain was lost in the black of his silk shirt, looking like nothing more than a play of shadow. Unless one knew what to look for. He wasn't worried; it would heal soon enough.
“He didn't have any ID on him,” Nick stated, bringing LaCroix back to the present. “We're running the gun and the security cameras now to see if we can get a match.” His voice sounded hollow, as if coming from a great distance or a nearly-forgotten memory.
The scent of blood lay so thick in the air that LaCroix's fangs pressed hard against his gums in anticipation, yet nausea twisted his stomach. LaCroix nodded, trying to acknowledge his son's efforts. Finding out the cause of the attack mattered to him only inasmuch as knowing that there would not be a second one.
“I told you that I am the injured party,” LaCroix repeated. He again touched the wound, confused as to why there was a wound to touch. Damp soaked the front of his shirt and glued the fabric to his skin. Faintness swept over him and the room tilted.
In a blur, Nicholas was behind him, his hands catching him. “You were shot, too. Why didn't you tell me?” he implored. Though panic threaded his voice, it still came from too far away.
With effort, LaCroix pushed his answer back through the void: “Since when did I need to? Since when did you not feel my pain as your own?” Before an answer could come, the heat and the smells overpowered him and he fell backwards into oblivion.
Time meant nothing to him anymore and thus there was no need to measure it. Yet he still pondered how it could consume without satiation and still stretch every instant of awareness taut—and he knew that his thoughts didn't cohere, but in this place where his thoughts roamed so wide and connected in pleasantly unusual ways, he didn't care.
A jangle—too like a bell to be anything else, though it reminded him of the gunshots—coalesced his awareness even as he fought against it.
“It's about being manipulated and brainwashed,” Nick was saying to someone. “It's having your choices undercut so often that you lose your faith in yourself...”
To himself, LaCroix shook his head. I only want to guide you, he thought, willing Nick to hear him. You fumble your way through the forest when I have already cut a path for you. As usual, his entreaty disappeared into the ether. His heart gave a single beat; a flare of pain shot through his chest and he sucked in a breath that bowed him backwards.
The balm of darkness settled over him.
Some time later he opened his eyes. The shutters on the loft's windows were closed, casting the room into a soothing dimness, though the threat of sunlight still lingered behind it. Flames from the fireplace crackled and flickered like old times. Under him, the leather of the couch squeaked with his tiny movements of coming awake. LaCroix sat up, his hand going to his chest. He'd been stripped of his clothes—no doubt they had been ruined—and wrapped in a thick white sheet. His skin felt unblemished, though still sore.
“Careful,” Nick warned. He was sitting on the piano bench, leaning forward with his hands clasped in front of him.“You took a long time to heal. Much longer than you should have. I had to have Janette send over some of her private stock.” He gestured to the nearly-empty bottle on the end table. Its contents were human, though cold and stale. Janette would not keep anything of such poor quality.
Nick contemplated the fire. It crackled and spat into the silence that lay between them, filled the room with the scent of burning wood. “You spent over a thousand years without me,” Nick finally said. “Why can't you let me go now?”
“Why couldn't you have allowed me die?” LaCroix responded, a question for a question.
Nick raised his eyes to meet LaCroix's. “I couldn't. You needed help and--” A hand trailed across the piano keys, their discordant notes adding to the ambiance's quiet symphony. “Our relationship has always been complicated. I've tried to explain it to Natalie, but she doesn't understand. I'm not sure she can.” Frowning, he added as if afterthought, “And you're the only witness in the case.”
Complicated was a loaded word, LaCroix thought, and perhaps the right one. It shouldn't have been; in the beginning it had all been simple. They had hunted and killed and pursued every pleasure the world could provide. And then Nicholas had gotten his head twisted in the mortal need for an external law and he'd lost his way. “So that is all I have become to you? A witness and a professional obligation?”
“No, of course not.” Pushing to his feet, Nick began pacing across the room. “We got a hit off the fingerprints. Two months ago the perp was in a car accident. He was driving on the highway, clear weather, daylight, and his car veered into a guardrail. He told the police that he didn't know why.”
LaCroix raised an eyebrow, waiting for Nicholas to get to the point.
“His wife was in the car with him. She was killed.” Nick paused in front of the closed window as if his announcement needed to sink in.
“Does this mean I am free to leave?” LaCroix prompted, unimpressed. “While I appreciate you tending to my wounds, I have always preferred to recover in my own bed.”
Instead of answering, Nick spun to face LaCroix. “There's something else Schanke discovered. Don't ask me how. This guy was a regular listener of Nightwatch.”
LaCroix stood up, arranging the sheet around himself as much like a toga as he could. The resemblance to his old costume brought forth his long unused bearing as a Roman general. “So he was compelled to try to assassinate me?”
Nick frowned, perhaps disapproving of the change in LaCroix's temperament. “His name was Nicholas, too. Nick. Natalie—she called while you were unconscious—Natalie thinks that he thought that you were talking to him.”
LaCroix's eyes narrowed, a feeling that he had been somehow betrayed coursing through him. While he knew that people listened to his show—he had decent ratings and regular callers—it had never occurred to him that the wrong Nicholas would be intercepting his admonitions.
“He didn't have our history,” Nick continued. “He didn't understand our relationship. And it drove him to kill. Three people are dead because he was listening to you. I solved the case, but you need to clean up your mess before someone else gets the wrong idea.”
“His actions are not my responsibility,” LaCroix stated, then bristled further as Nick had the gall to nod like he'd been waiting for that confession. “You are my responsibility.”
“I know,” Nick replied. “But I'm not your puppet. I need to be free to live my life the way I want to.” Crossing the room, he swept up the near-empty bottle, ran a finger around the glass lip. “I'll be there when you need me, just like you needed me today. I was listening to the show, too.” He lifted the bottle once as if in a toast, then brought it to his mouth and drained the dregs.
As Nicholas carried the bottle away, LaCroix turned to contemplate the window-shutters and the thin line of brightness at the seams that gave away their presence. So often LaCroix had lamented about Nick choosing the difficult way, the painful way, the route that would hurt. Was it possible that the friction in their relationship was only another example of Nicholas's self-flagellation? If so, LaCroix thought with a smile, then he knew plenty of ways to help Nick suffer.