When it was all over, and she had had the opportunity to reflect, Janette wondered. Where did it begin? Had it started with Miklos and Merlin acting so out of character? Nicolas worrying that he, too, was of an age to go insane himself?
Or perhaps it had begun with something as simple as an open door.
Nick was busy painting a mural on a wall just inside Janette’s warehouse. Because of the various chemical smells (horrible, even if they can’t poison you, he thought) he left the door open, to let in fresh air and the sounds of the rainy night in the Mission. Of course, leaving the door open led to other issues, such as the curious passersby who stuck their heads inside to see what was happening in the building that had been recently purchased by a stranger.
And then there were the children. Really, they were children, though they didn’t believe it of themselves. They were also clearly abandoned, or runaways, and though Nick considered what might happen if he allowed them to stay and watch him paint, the truth was that if he kept the doors open, street kids were going to avail themselves of the roof available in the warehouse when it rained.
Janette’s only response to this turn of events was to say, “If they are here, they should make themselves useful.” And then she put some of the children to work, clearing up the floor where the original club construction had been abandoned. In exchange for occasional shelter and a periodic meal, the children were thus far willing to do some work. Though many of the children bored quickly, others did in fact (and to her surprise) start picking at the random detritus scattered around the building.
There were a few of them, however, who could not take their eyes off what Nick was painting. Aware of their interest, Nick began to leave certain pieces of the mural blank, in an effort to emulate the masters who had taught him all of those centuries ago. After a while, two of the young people picked up the brushes he offered, and started filling in the blanks. They joked about painting by numbers, but kept learning more about drawing. Nick agreed to teach them perspective over the coming weeks.
Janette watched this with bemusement. But didn't say a word against what Nicolas was doing. In fact, the first inklings that there was a problem with Nicolas came on those very nights that he began teaching the street children to paint: the nape of his neck was covered with paint stains, where he had scratched at his skin as though there was something back there biting him.
Rather than dip his brush into the paint, Nick stepped back to take a look at the mural. The children were doing quite well with their larger pieces of the abstract background, leaving him with the finer details, fitting in the faces and figures that hid in the shadows, like gargoyles on a cathedral. He still wasn't completely sure what it would be when they were done, but he was content with what it was.
Since reconciling with Janette, Nick had put aside investigating, and had built himself a studio in the basement of what they'd originally planned to be a new club. However, Janette had lost her taste for running a modern club – too many people making demands of her: promoters, wannabe stars. She was no longer interested in allowing the world into her domain. The new idea for the place was percolating nicely and his - their - mural should fit in perfectly.
As he stood quietly, the disruption started up again. At first, it had been a small buzz, like an itch to the back of his neck that he couldn't quite reach. He did his best to ignore it and picked up his brush, planning to get on with his work. He was painting again, as he hadn't since the 14th century, and he didn't want to interrupt himself.
Three days later, the buzz was still there in the back of Janette's mind. If anything, it was even more insistent. She was working on her laptop, keeping Nicolas company while she filled out the endless forms mortals required for operating locations where people other than the owners might find themselves. The third time she pressed the wrong key and her entire form was deleted, she was done with keeping silent. “Is something bothering you?” Janette asked. “Something is interrupting what I ordinarily feel of you in the back of my mind. I do not like it.”
Unsurprisingly, Nick remained quiet.
The last time this happened, Lacroix had reappeared in Toronto after a year of presumed death. Can that possibly be what was happening here? Nick didn't share his thoughts with her. But she noticed that some of his newer canvasses had become a little more violent. The mural on the wall remained carefully done, and very well contained.
Five days later, while she was organizing the continued build out of the warehouse space, Janette felt it again. Just a slight tremor in the back of her head. Something was definitely going on in Nick’s head. Time to confront him, and this time she wasn't going to back down.
She straightened up and walked over to where Nick was staring at the as yet unfinished mural without really seeing it. For once, they were alone. No waifs, no strays, no random tourists without any sense, poking their way into her domain.
"Normally," she said, "I hold my tongue and mind my own business. But in this case, I demand an answer. What is driving you to distraction? Your distraction is distracting me, and I cannot get any work done while you are like this.”
“I haven’t a clue what you mean. I’m fine. A bit off my game, but otherwise fine.”
“You are not fine. And it is beginning to make an impact on me and my work. Is this about Miklos and Larry Merlin? Are you worried you will be the next to lose your way? Nicolas, you should know me well enough to know I will not leave this be any longer.”
Nicolas made a half-hearted attempt at evasion, to which her only response was a raised eyebrow.
"Sit," she said, indicating her desk and the chairs on either side, "and talk. Now!"
Instead of talking, though, Nick picked up her empty glass and began to fiddle with it. She gave him a few seconds and then said, "Maintenant, Nicolas. Do not try my patience any further."
"I'm going mad," he said, dragging out each word. "Or at least I think I am?"
"Are you now?"
"Maybe? I think... I just don't know. Why should I be any different than Miklos or Merlin?"
Clearly exasperated with him, Janette snapped, "Think, Nicolas."
"It's like," he hesitated, rubbing his neck as he tracked down the sensation through centuries of memories. "The last time I felt like this was when Lacroix returned to the living in Toronto. Do you think it’s possible that it’s him again? I haven’t sensed him since I woke up with my leg pinned to the floor and Natalie’s dead body by my side."
“I see. As you are aware, I no longer feel him at all, except through you. But it would be preferable would it not, for it to be Lacroix and not madness that’s setting you on edge?”
Shaking his head, Nick went up to their living quarters to clean off the paint on the back of his neck. A part of him was, in fact, relieved to think that all of this might be his master, poking at their connection. The other part of him, the one that was questioning everything, was praying that he and Janette were right, and that he wasn't clinging to the last shreds of his sanity.
A few hours later, as the sun set over San Francisco, Nick was once again trying to lose himself in his painting, barely even grunting when Janette attempted to talk to him. With a sigh, she gave up. Wallowing suited no one. She took one more look at the list on her laptop and left the warehouse.
San Francisco was such a lovely city. If only the mortals who lived in it enjoyed the night life more. That they begin their days so early could make it difficult to get much accomplished, and Janette refused to hire a human assistant, unwilling to risk the dangers that such an employee could bring to her life. She would rather take the lesser chance that came with walking around Union Square at dusk, considering decorations for the new space, not to mention investigating a few department stores that had later hours a few nights a week.
Then again, she thought, as she spotted Larry Merlin across the street, this night held even better entertainment. Biting back a snarl, controlling her temper that he had answered their generosity with such insolence, Janette moved as fast as she could without giving herself away to him or the throngs of humans that surrounded them. Finally, though, in a back alley off Stockton Street, she caught up to him.
Ignoring the muttered, "Hookers are getting awfully pushy these days," that came from the street, she shoved Merlin against the nearest wall. His head made such a satisfying thunk against the brick that she smiled.
"Janette!" Merlin's voice came out in an even more satisfying squeak, looking like he would rather be anywhere else but there. “What do you want from me? I’m getting hammered from all sides right now.”
“Who else is bothering you? Answer or I will smack your head against the wall again, and this time it will take you hours to heal.”
Merlin took a long moment before saying “It’s Lacroix. Lacroix is back. He’s pulling my strings to get to Nick. Just like he pulled Miklos’s strings. He’s a mad man where Nick is concerned.”
“So, tell me all you know, tout de suite.” Janette looked attentively at Merlin. “Why are you doing his bidding?”
"He tempted me, taunted me?" It came out as a question, although Janette knew it wasn't.
"And you simply bent over and gave him what he wanted?"
"It wasn't that simple," Merlin blurted out. "I wouldn't have done it if it...."
"Of course, you wouldn't." Janette tightened her grip on his neck, digging her nails deep into the skin.
Clearing his throat, Merlin continued. “Hacking the “internet of things” was a challenge I couldn’t resist. It makes life worth living to challenge yourself,” he said. “I mean imagine: hacking computers and phones and even watches. Anything that connects to the internet is available. And he gave me resources …”
Feeling sick, Janette glanced at the Apple watch on her wrist. “Get your surveillance off my body immediately! How quickly can you make it all vanish? No more surveillance on my warehouse of any kind. Not on phones, computers, tablets, and watches. Get it gone. And then get yourself gone from this city before I find you again and do whatever I want with you.”
“I’ll leave as soon as I can get that old bastard out of my head!”
Janette stood quietly for a moment. “Very well. Assist me in sending a message to Lacroix through my watch. Surely there is a way to do that, is there not?”
"Yes. Yes." He nodded like a bobbing duck and fumbled a cell phone out of his pocket. "Easy as pie," he said as he tapped on its surface.
As soon as the message was sent, she released him. “Leave now, and don’t ever come back.”
Merlin disappeared almost too quickly for her to see him go.
Janette's wrist buzzed with the immediate answer to her message. It read, “Of course it would be you who figured it out first. I should have known that. What can I do for you, my dear?”
A growl slipped out past Janette's control. She brought her fingers to her lips, tasting Merlin's blood on them. Before she could think of a response, another message came. "Let's meet at your warehouse. I can be there in five minutes."
Lacroix, of course, was waiting at the warehouse when Janette reached it. He was situated just outside one of the open doors, watching Nicolas intently. For his part, Nick was pointedly not paying him any attention. The kids, however, were definitely paying attention to Lacroix. A few of them seemed intrigued, while one of them was more forward - boy or girl, Janette was never sure, not that it mattered.
“You can leave any time, creepy old man,” the child said.
Arriving on the heels of this taunt, Janette faced Lacroix and said icily, “It’s time for you to stop trying to convince Nicolas that he is going mad. Whatever your pasts, neither of you need to resort to such childish tactics any longer.”
Throwing his paintbrush to the floor, Nick turned on his heel and headed up into the living quarters of the warehouse. Brushing past Lacroix, Janette followed him, anticipating an angry confrontation.
Which she did not get. What she got was something she could not have anticipated at all. She found Nicolas standing by an open window, looking down at Lacroix and the children, who were exchanging words and sharing names.
“It’s good that it’s him,” he finally said. “I mean it’s good that I’m not going mad, but also that he’s here. I don’t know what to do with this right now. It’s a surprise to me, too. But I need a night or two to figure out how to approach this.”
“This is something new. Very well, as you wish.” And she went back down into the warehouse. She waited a few seconds, for Lacroix to extricate himself from the children, before saying, "We can't talk yet. Not now."
"And I'm simply to accept that?"
"A night," she said, "Maybe three. I'll contact you when he's ready to talk."
The buzz at the back of Janette's mind sprang into life briefly and then vanished. Then Lacroix nodded, and took his leave. The children watched him walk away, but to Janette's relief none of them followed him. There would be ample time for them to learn about Lacroix in a few days. And Janette was sure that at least one or two would be here, waiting for him.
Long before Nick was ready to face him, Lacroix reappeared at the warehouse to watch Nick teach his ragtag band of students how to shade in charcoal sketches to get a remote or depth effect. While Nick was aware Lacroix was there, he continued to ignore him. He filed away his curiosity about what Lacroix found so intriguing; he might need it later on. He imagined Lacroix saying “I like your waifs and strays Nicholas. So young, so full of life. I could watch them for hours.” Even his imaginings didn’t lead him to the anger he was anticipating.
Perhaps Janette was right and it was time to let Lacroix know a few things about how his Nicholas felt. Janette looked over at him quizzically. As she wandered over toward Nick’s side of the room, it struck Nick that Lacroix had not made himself any new companions since leaving Toronto. Janette’s “Nicolas, is it possible he may be lonely, and that is why he is here?” struck home. “He once told me that all he had ever wanted was companionship. Once, I might have been that companion, but no longer.”
Nick turned to Lacroix. “I hated you for leaving me alive.”
“And now Nicholas?” Lacroix inquired.
“I’m happy to be here, so I suppose that’s your answer” Nicholas said, then shifted gears: “Lacroix, what is your interest in my protégés’?”
Lacroix smiled. "Of course, this would be where you take your stand. Don't worry. I won’t harm a hair on any of their heads, Nicholas. Unless, that is, they ask me to.”
Nick stopped himself from reacting instinctively with fury. He reminded himself of his earlier understanding, that he was comforted somehow that Lacroix was still on the earth.
The surprise on Lacroix's face was startling. Nick had been unaware he’d said anything out loud.
Thinking quickly, he decided. “I don’t know what the future will bring. But might we call a truce in hostilities?” Lacroix nodded.
Nick would watch Lacroix’s interactions with his students, just in case things got out of hand. As Lacroix vanished into the shadows, the buzz in the back of Nick's head evened out... became almost gentle, friendly.
"Until next time," Lacroix's whisper came on the wind. "I'll find you."
“Only if I let you, old man,” Nick said, as he went inside to find Janette.