"Would you say something? Please?" Natalie cringed inwardly when she heard the pleading note in her voice. This was definitely not going the way she had planned. She pushed her heavy, curly brown hair off her face and squared her shoulders, fighting the urge to take Nick in her arms and comfort him.
Nick had his back to Natalie, blue eyes focussed on the blinds covering his windows. Shudders rippled through his body as he struggled to restrain the vampire. He fought the urge to take Natalie now, bring her across, destroy her chance for mortal happiness, keep her tied to him. Last time she tried to leave him, he had stopped her with flowers and a card — a card that told her how much she meant to him. This time, her pain was too much for him to bear. He had decided to let Natalie go without trying to stop her, but it was so much harder than he had expected.
"I want...no, I need to have a normal human life. To have a husband, children. Everything that we can't have."
"Do you love him?" Nick's voice was more of a growl than anything else, but Natalie was so relieved to get a response that she did not notice.
"Yes. I do." Tears fell faster and faster from Natalie's eyes. "Not in the same way I love you, but a calm, peaceful love. He makes me feel safe. And Chris loves me, cherishes me, shares my dream of having a family." She reached out and placed one hand on Nick's cold, rigid shoulder.
"And you're asking for my blessing?" Nick turned and looked into Natalie's eyes. "Is that it? Am I to kiss your hand and bid you farewell?"
"I....I'm not sure. Maybe I just wanted you to be happy for me." Natalie withdrew her hand and folded her arms across her chest. "I guess this wasn't such a great idea. I just didn't want you to learn about Chris and me from someone else."
Nick bit down on the words he wanted to say: words about betrayal, and Natalie sneaking around with Christopher Shaw during the day when they didn't think he would find out. Believing that Natalie needed a mortal friend to keep her in the sunlight and thinking that she would come back to him in the end as she always had before, Nick had ignored their budding relationship for too long,. Now it was too late for recriminations. Forcing a smile, Nick said, "Grace has been dropping hints for a couple of days. She always said I wasn't good enough for you."
"Yeah, well. You know Grace." Natalie stopped abruptly, clamping down on a sob. She hadn't expected it to be this hard to talk to Nick.
"And I know you. I've known for some time that you weren't happy. I thought that if I didn't bring it up, didn't talk about it, that things would sort themselves out. Like they always have before." Nick leaned back against the wall, trying to look relaxed. "If it's important to you, if you want it, you have my blessing, Nat. I hope you and Christopher are very happy."
"Friends?" Relief flooded through Natalie. It was finally over.
"Forever." The word escaped before Nick could prevent it. He moved towards the stairs. "I'll see you tonight, okay. I've got to get some rest before my shift."
"Goodbye Nick." Natalie pushed open the door. The sunlight from the hallway cast her into shadow. "And thanks."
Nick hung up the phone and sat on the sofa, cradling his head in his hands. He had called in sick for the fourth night in a row. Unwilling and unable to face Natalie, he had told her to leave him alone; that it wasn't safe for her to be around him right now. He did not want to see her joy or to feign a happiness he couldn't feel. Even now, he saw her every time he closed his eyes. A face that any Renaissance painter would have loved to capture on canvas: soft hair, hazel eyes that fluctuated with her moods. He smiled bitterly as he remembered how she worried about her weight, her inability to be model-thin. He had wanted to show her how she made him feel, how beautiful she was, how glorious each and every curve of her body. But that was impossible. Even if he could have controlled the vampire, kept himself from draining her vitality, or bringing her across to join him in darkness, there was LaCroix. For the first time, he appreciated what it had taken for his Master to walk away from Fleur, what a sacrifice LaCroix had made for him.
Maybe it was time to take LaCroix's advice — quit the force, leave the city, start a new life. And yet, he wasn't ready to give up this life. With help from Nat and LaCroix, the memories had come back, reminding him of all he had lost — Schanke, Cohen, his relationship with Nat — and all the good things that had happened to him in Toronto. He had put down roots, made friends. Not a lot, but more than ever before. Maybe he and Nat could stay friends. He could watch her children grow up. Her children....should have been his children. Nick picked up one of the empty bottles scattered around the loft and threw it against the fireplace. At the exact moment that the bottle shattered, the phone rang. Nick ignored it, waited until the machine picked up.
"Hi, Uncle Nick. It's Jenny. I called to see if you wanted to come to my softball game on Saturday. You said you'd come to a night game. Anyway, when I called you at the station, Sergeant Wilczinsky told me you were sick, so I thought I'd call you at home. Get well soon, okay. And drink lots of chicken soup with extra garlic. My dad always said it was the best thing when you were sick. Bye. Oh, and if you're feeling better, the game starts at 7 o'clock on Saturday night."
Blood tears ran softly down Nick's face, as he wrenched open the refrigerator doors and stared at the empty shelves. Now what? He couldn't go to the Raven. Without Janette it had become a foreign place. Somewhere to go when he wanted the company of his own kind or some information about a case, not a refuge to soothe his aching soul. And somehow LaCroix would already know that Natalie had left him to marry a mortal. Nick was definitely not in the mood to listen to LaCroix, to hear the glee in his master's voice when LaCroix gloated over the choice Nat had made. Nick slammed the refrigerator doors shut and opened the shutters. He paused briefly, then flew off.
"Javier! You have to help me. Tomas is mad. He's killing indiscriminately. Mortals, vampires, anyone who gets in his way." Laine stood up and began to pace agitatedly around the attic. "I've tried to find him, but he's too old, too strong for me. I can't do this by myself. Hell, I haven't even been able to get close enough to see Tomas."
"What about the Enforcers? Cleaning up after vampire messes is their job." Vachon slung his legs over the arm of the chair and rubbed one hand against his unshaven chin. He leaned forward to pick up his guitar and long dark brown hair fell in tangled waves over his face.
"The Enforcers." Laine snorted. "They're worse than useless. According to them, Tomas is not endangering the community because all his kills have been blamed on mortals. Four innocent mortals in four different cities have been convicted of his murders. Two of them have already been executed. And there was nothing I could do about it. As for the vampires, there's no evidence of their deaths except my word. How can you establish that someone has been murdered when there is no body? The Enforcers have formally declined to help me unless I can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that their old friend Tomas is a threat to the existence of other vampires."
Vachon put down his guitar and watched Laine prowl around. A couple of times it looked as if she would knock over one of the candelabra that illuminated the church attic, but she never did. He had never completely understood why he was attracted to her. Laine wasn't beautiful. In fact, he had heard her described as plain before — and couldn't disagree with that description. Even so, there was something about her that drew him. Maybe it was her green eyes, or her blonde hair. He wished she had left her hair long. The short style framed her face and combined with her petite, slim body to make her appear elfin, but he missed the knee-length hair — hair so long he had been able to wrap himself in it.
Laine stopped abruptly and knelt next to his chair, green eyes pleading, "Help me. Please."
"Javier Vachon, vampire vigilante? No thanks. Not my style." As usual, he took refuge behind sarcasm. Avoiding decisions, avoiding commitment. He considered dropping the mask, letting his anger loose and telling Laine exactly how he felt about her and the way she had abandoned him without warning or explanation.
"Damn it, Javier!" Laine began to retort, but stopped when she heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Just great. Now she'd never persuade Javier. She glared at the vampire who entered the attic.
"Vachon......" Nick's voice faltered as he caught sight of Vachon's guest. "Who......?" Doubt, hope, denial. All of them were visible on his face. "I know you. Don't I?" His hand reached out towards her, and then stopped, less than an inch from her face.
The two vampires stared at each other. Shocked. Oblivious to the third sitting and watching. Laine touched Nick's hand with the tips of her fingers. They remembered.
"I won't allow you to dress like that when we're married." Nicolas winked at his sister Fleur as he berated his betrothed. "My wife will dress like a woman, not a boy. I'll buy you the finest silks and velvets. And hire only the most talented women to make your clothes."
Madelaine de Sarre looked down at the breeches and shirt she was wearing. Putting them on had seemed sensible this morning, when she and Fleur decided to go apple-picking. Flushing with embarrassment, she retaliated. "And who says I will wed you?"
"Our fathers say so. We're betrothed. That means we have to get married when you're old enough."
"You're wrong. My father would never force me to marry you if I told him I didn't want to." Madelaine stamped her foot. She would never confess that she dreamed almost every night of her wedding to Fleur's handsome older brother.
"What makes you think I want to marry you?" Stung by her rejection, Nicolas spoke without thinking. "Why should I spend my life with a country bumpkin who runs around in boy's clothes, when I could have one of the beautiful women at court? A delicate flower who would perform her wifely duties without complaint."
Nicolas admired the fire in Madelaine's eyes. The flush that brought colour to her cheeks. He had waited patiently, watching her grow up, knowing that she was destined to be his. Three more years, and she would be seventeen. A little old for a first marriage, but not unusually so. Madelaine might not be a beauty, but life with her would never be boring.
"Please don't fight." Fleur stepped in between her best friend and her brother. "Nicolas leaves at dawn tomorrow to join Lord Delabarre's delegation. You know how upset mother will be if you spoil her plans for a farewell celebration."
Fighting to regain her composure, Madelaine smiled at Fleur. "You're right. Of course." Turning her back on her future husband, she walked towards the castle.
The next morning, Madelaine stood on the battlements, tears pouring down her face as she watched the group ride away from the castle. The feeling of abandonment grew stronger. For several nights, she had been plagued with nightmares. Terrible, vivid dreams of death and loneliness, of Nicolas dying in a foreign land, too far away for her to help him. Hesitantly, she had mentioned them to her old nurse Penella, but Penella had laughed and washed the tear stains from Madelaine's face. Told her not to be foolish. Desperate for comfort, Madelaine had smiled and agreed that her fears were groundless. But now, as Nicolas' goodbye echoed in her ears, the terror returned. Bereft, she allowed Fleur to lead her away from the ramparts to join the other women in the Solar.
It would be almost eight hundred years before Madelaine saw Nicolas again.
Nick closed his eyes against the memories that were flooding back, against the pain of betrayal. It was too much. First Natalie, and now Madelaine. Madelaine who had been dead for almost eight hundred years.
"You bastard." The hissed words hung in the air between them. Anger rose and Laine's eyes transformed from green to gold. "How could you?"
The crack of her hand against Nick's face echoed around the church attic. Something snapped inside. He was tired of being walked over. "How could I? You broke our betrothal. Did you expect me to remain faithful after I read the letter?"
"What letter? What are you talking about?" Confusion muddied the gold in Laine's eyes.
"The letter your father sent to me in Wales, informing me that you no longer wanted to marry me, that he was going to give you time to think it over and try to persuade you to change your mind. But that if you persisted, he was going to honour your wishes, despite his misgivings, and let you marry the man you claimed to love."
Laine drew away from Nick, horror etching itself across her face. "Papa said that I loved someone else? That I didn't want to be your wife?"
"When I returned to Brabant with....with friends, Fleur told me that you were dead, drowned in the river. There were rumours that you had taken your own life, but no-one knew for sure. She showed me the plaque on the de Sarre family crypt. What was I supposed to do? Even vampires can't resurrect the dead."
Laine's eyes slowly returned to their natural green. "But my father told me that you were sentenced to be executed in Wales for treason. He...he was making arrangements for me to marry the Comte de Saligny. I would not, could not marry that filthy old lecher. Then, Tomas came and offered me a chance at eternal life...and freedom. Such a sweet gift. How could I refuse?"
"I take it you two know each other." Vachon's voice broke through the tension.
Nick and Laine both turned and stared at Vachon. They had forgotten he was there.
"This is better than a soap opera, you know. For almost eight hundred years, the two of you have been travelling around the world, but have never run into each other. Until now." Vachon picked up the bottle on the floor and filled three glasses, handing one to each of Nick and Laine. "This definitely calls for a drink."
The three vampires raised their glasses in a toast and drained them. The sweet, salty human blood hit Nick's system like lightening. Guilt rose, but was quickly drowned in the tide of ecstasy. What did it matter what Nat thought now. What did any of it matter. Craving more, he refilled his glass. This time he drank slowly, savouring every drop.
Vachon watched curiously. LaCroix had spoken of Nick's aversion to human blood, sneering at his child's wish to become mortal and his refusal to drink anything but cow blood. Something had definitely changed.
"Vachon?" Tracy's voice pierced the silence in the attic, echoed by the sound of her feet on the stairs. "Hello?"
Vachon gestured upwards. Laine and Nick nodded and flew upstairs.
"Who is she?" Laine whispered below the range of human hearing, and studied the new arrival. Slim and almost the same height as Vachon, the mortal had shoulder-length blonde hair that swung every time she moved her head. The pants and blouse didn't do too much for her figure. Perhaps no-one had ever taken the time to show the girl how to dress properly.
"Tracy Vetter. She's my partner and a friend of Vachon's. Ssssh. I want to listen." Nick squirmed his way along the floor until he could see what was happening below.
"....so I don't know what else to do. I've tried Nick's loft, his cell phone, everything. The Captain is about to lose it."
"What do you expect me to do?" Vachon opened his eyes wide and schooled his features carefully to hide his thoughts. First Laine showed up and now Tracy. This was turning into one hell of a night.
"I'm not sure. I just didn't know where else to go." Tracy sat down and leaned her head against the back of the chair, exposing her throat. "I tried Natalie Lambert, but she's too busy with wedding plans. And if I don't find Nick....."
"If you don't find him, what then?" Three pairs of vampire eyes were glued to the pale white skin of Tracy's neck. Vachon moved around until he was in front of Tracy, opposite where Nick and Laine lay on the balcony overhead.
"I don't know. I'm a good cop, but Captain Reese thinks we need Nick on this case, and he's sent me to find him. Every time I show up at the station without Nick, the Captain just shakes his head and walks away, muttering about giving Nick and me lessons on the meaning of the word partner."
Vachon opened his eyes a little wider. Tracy's naiveté had been amusing at first, and still was most of the time, but right now it was just annoying. "I'm a vampire, not a magician. I can't just wave my arms and make Detective Knight appear."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound so...so childish. It's this case we've been working on. Three people torn apart, limb from limb. The one they found tonight was only nineteen." Tracy sighed and then added hopefully, "I don't suppose you know anything about the murders, do you? Could it be a vampire?"
"I don't know any vampires who tear their prey apart. Drain 'em and leave 'em is more our style." Vachon said evasively. It was literally the truth. He didn't know Tomas, had never met him and, after hearing what the ancient vampire had done to Laine and to others, he hoped he never did meet him.
"What was that?" Tracy jumped up as a crashing noise came from above them.
"Nothing. Probably some rats. Or maybe a cat." Vachon cursed silently. What the hell were those two doing upstairs? "Don't worry about it."
"You can't just ignore it. What if it's a burglar or something?"
"I'll bite him." Vachon opened his mouth and pantomimed a vampire-style chomp. He grinned when Tracy paled slightly and backed away. "Besides," he shrugged, "who'd want to rob an abandoned church?"
"Still, we should check it out. You never know who it might be." Tracy pulled out her gun and started up the stairs. Vachon trailed behind. What was he supposed to do? If he physically restrained her, she'd know something was up and he'd probably end up hurting her and Nick would kill him. If he let her go upstairs, Nick would kill him. Some choice.
"It's empty." Tracy's voice was flat, disappointed. There was nothing in the room except furniture and an empty bottle rolling around on the floor. She shoved her gun back into its holster. "Guess it must have been a rat or something."
Vachon walked Tracy out to her car. "I'll check around, okay, see if I can find Knight."
"Thanks. You'll ask about the murders too?"
"No problem." Vachon mumbled, more interested in the subsonic conversation on the roof.
"You're a cop?"
"What if I am?" Nick automatically took the defensive.
"Nothing. I think that's great. What division?"
Gesturing at Tracy's car as she drove away, Laine said, "Are you gonna go back to work? Help them solve those murders?"
"Maybe. I'm not sure. Things are a bit complicated right now." Nick frowned into his glass, "Though it sounds like they need me."
Laine surreptitiously checked out Nick from head to foot. He looked almost the same but was so different from the Nicolas of her memories. She really wished she knew more about the person Nick was now. Perhaps she should talk to him about Tomas. Tell him that it was not only mortals being killed, but vampires too. Suggest that they work together to find and destroy her Master. Maybe, just maybe, he would be willing to help her.
"Miss me?" Vachon hovered in the air in front of them. "Got room for another?"
Laine said nothing, but moved closer to Nick to make room for Vachon on the roof ledge. The three of them sat silently for several minutes, legs dangling over the edge. "I've got to go." Laine stood up abruptly, handing her glass to Vachon. "Dawn's getting close."
"Do you have a place to stay?" Vachon asked.
"Yeah. Larry Merlin's letting me sleep in his spare room for a few days while I find an apartment." She shrugged ruefully, "It's not the Taj Mahal, but it's comfortable."
"No problem." Vachon smiled slowly, "There's only one thing..."
"I was thinking about your betrothal. Given that neither of you actually reneged on your vows, and that neither of you are dead...umm...well...are you two still engaged to be married?"
Laine and Nick looked at each other in consternation, and then turned to Vachon, who opened his eyes extra wide and tried to look innocent. "I was just wondering."
"I don't know. Maybe? I'm not sure." Nick leaned back and stared at the stars. Just when he thought his life was getting too complicated, fate threw in another twist.
Laine did not want to get into this discussion tonight. Too much had happened already, and she still had a lot to do before sunset came around again. Hopefully, she would be able to fit in a couple of hours of sleep as well as everything else. "I think that's my cue to leave. See you guys later." She launched herself into the night sky before either could object.
"That's one discussion shelved." Vachon quipped and then asked Nick, "What are you going to do now? Want to stay here today? You'd have to sleep on the couch — but this is the one place Tracy won't look for you."
"Thanks." Nick nodded absently, occupied with memories.
The station was busy when Nick arrived. Voices yelling, talking, threatening, whining. Printers and typewriters clattering. Telephones ringing. The noise assaulted his sensitive ears for a couple of minutes before he managed to take control and push it into the background. Sergeant Wilczinsky was on the desk. He shouted as Nick passed, "Knight! Glad you're feeling better. Captain's been looking for you. Look lady, I don't know where your son is."
Nick muttered a response and went to his desk. He prodded the files that had built up over the last few days.
"Nick. Glad to see you're feeling better." Tracy walked over from the photocopier, and dropped a stack of forms on her desk.
"Captain wants to see us in his office right away." Tracy led Nick towards the Captain's office, talking non-stop. "Where were you anyway? I've been looking all over the place for you. You wouldn't believe what's been going on around here for the last few days. Homicides all over town."
Nick ignored Tracy, letting her voice wash over him as he pushed open the door to Reese's office. The captain was sitting in his chair, wiping his forehead and staring at a file folder on his desk. He looked like he'd lost a little weight over the last few days. His shirt buttons were no longer straining quite so hard over his waist.
"About time you got here Knight. Did Tracy bring you up to speed on our latest serial killer?" Reese shook his head. "Look at those pictures. I just don't understand how someone can enjoy doing that much damage to another human being."
Nick took the file that Reese thrust at him and leafed through the contents. "Any leads?"
"Nothing so far." Tracy commented, "No witnesses. No clues. Not even any trace evidence. We're running a computer search to see if there's been any similars in other cities."
"Speaking of similars, I got a call from Interpol today..." Reese was interrupted by a knock on the door. "That should be their detective now."
Nick looked up as the door opened. When he saw who entered, the file fell through suddenly numb fingers.
"Detective Laine Saxton, Interpol." Laine placed her briefcase on the desk and handed her warrant card to Captain Reese. She could see Nick and Tracy on their knees gathering the paper and photographs that had scattered out of the file when Nick dropped it. Carefully arranging her face into neutral lines to hide the laughter that was threatening to erupt, she shook Reese's hand. "Captain Reese I presume."
"Yeah. And these are Detectives Nick Knight and Tracy Vetter." Reese's wave took in both Nick and Tracy. "They're the ones assigned to this mess."
Laine held out her hand to greet Nick and Tracy. "Nice to meet you."
"Why is Interpol involved in this?" Tracy asked.
"There's been a series of murders in several European cities over the past six or seven years. All were extremely brutal. Nobody made a connection between them until about a year or so ago." Laine opened up her briefcase and pulled out three sets of clipped photocopies. She handed one to each of the others.
"So what changed?" Nick's voice was belligerent, antagonistic, drawing curious looks from Tracy and Reese. "Why are you here?"
"You can see from this report that in four of the cities — Stockholm, London, Kiev and Warsaw — a suspect was caught and subsequently confessed to the crimes. All four were convicted and two have been executed. The same thing happened in Florence just over a year ago, but the prosecutors ran into a problem during the trial..." Laine paused and looked directly into Nick's eyes. "The accused, one Antonio Lattavo, confessed to the crimes, but his family insisted he was innocent and hired a top defence lawyer for him. In his confession, Lattavo provided information about the murders that had never been released to the press and could only be known by the perpetrator. But....but during the trial it became obvious that Lattavo had an unbreakable alibi for more than half the killings — he was on a retreat run by the Catholic church and was in the presence of someone else the entire time — day and night."
"The trial was thrown into an uproar. The prosecution insisted on giving Lattavo a lie detector test — over and over again. And in all of them Lattavo appeared to be telling the truth when he confessed to murders that he could not conceivably have committed."
Sitting down abruptly in one of the chairs, Tracy inquired, "How is that possible?" She kept to herself the solution that jumped into her mind: a vampire. She'd have to talk to Vachon again.
"We're not exactly sure. That's one of the mysteries I'm supposed to solve. I've spent the last year following up leads all over Europe and am pretty sure that all these murders were committed by the same person. And now it looks like he's come to Toronto."
"Knight, Vetter, I want you to share whatever you've got with Detective Saxton. Whether you like it or not, the three of you are going to be working together on this one." Reese picked up his cup and went to take a drink. It was empty. He banged it back down on the desk in disgust. "And if you haven't solved it before Tracy leaves on her holiday, Knight can partner with Saxton."
"I wanted to talk to you about that, Captain." Tracy leaned forward eagerly. "I was thinking that I should cancel my vacation. I mean this is a pretty big case and I think that Nick and I working together could find the killer. If you said that you needed me....."
Shaking his head, Reese looked at Tracy sympathetically, "Not possible. The commissioner would have my head if I spoiled his winter family vacation by keeping you in Toronto."
A sharp rap on the door, and one of the uniforms stuck his head in the office. "They've found another one, captain. Down near the docks."
Tracy pushed ahead of Laine and got into the front passenger seat of Nick's caddy. As soon as she sat down, Tracy regretted her action. Too childish, she chided herself. One day she would have to start thinking before doing. Tracy was relieved when Laine jumped into the back seat without comment.
A heavy silence filled the car as Nick pulled out onto the street. After a few minutes, the tension between the other two in the car made Tracy uncomfortable. There was obviously something going on between her partner and Detective Saxton, and it was just as obvious that neither was going to tell her anything. In an attempt to break the pall that had settled over the cadillac, Tracy turned on the radio. Immediately, a silky-smooth voice poured out of the speakers.
And so, my children of the night, we turn our minds to the subject of promises. Those that are kept, and those that are ignored. History is replete with tales of men and women who have given their word easily and without thought, and then blindly refused to honour their commitments — their vows as fragile as a rose unearthed from a forgotten tomb, crumbling to dust when exposed to the air. The harvest of their faithlessness is war, murder, suicide, and endless misery.
But a man who labours to keep his word, without regard to convenience or cost, is a treasure beyond compare — and one rarely found.
Nick and Laine became more and more uncomfortable as they listened to LaCroix. Larry Merlin had filled Laine in on the troubled relationship between Nick and his Master that day, so she knew exactly what LaCroix was trying to do. Even so, she was mesmerized by the cadences of his voice, began to wonder whether or not she and Nick should keep the vows they had made to each other on the day they were betrothed. Memories filled her, and she began to reminisce about the betrothal ceremony.
Can there be trust without honour? Is there any honour in a man who does not keep his word? These are my questions tonight. Speak to me, gentle listeners. Who has broken their word to you? Whom have you betrayed? Let the Nightcrawler...
Nick snapped off the radio, cutting LaCroix off mid-sentence, and stopping Laine from drifting into a flashback. As Tracy stared at her partner in surprise, the two vampires exchanged glances via the rear-view mirror.
"You have my sympathy." Laine said softly to Nick.
Feeling left out, and reluctant to ask what was going on, Tracy settled back in her seat and stared out the window. Just her luck. After weeks of hard work, she was finally beginning to believe that she and Nick were melding into an effective team, that Nick was starting to respect her abilities. Then, this Detective Saxton shows up and all Tracy's insecurities rise up and make her doubt herself all over again.
The area around the south dock was cordoned off; sightseers and journalists blocked the entrance. Nick parked the caddy around the corner, and the three pushed through the throng. There was a spate of yelled questions as they showed their identification to the uniformed officer on the barrier, but all three detectives ignored them and kept moving.
"I'm going to go talk to the officer that called it in, and see if I can get anything out of whoever found the body." Tracy walked away purposefully. The last thing she needed right now was to see another mutilated corpse. Someday, she promised herself, I will be able to look at them without wanting to throw up.
As Nick and Laine drew near the lights, crime scene personnel pushed past them in both directions, carrying equipment and notebooks. Nick stopped when he saw the coroner's van, pain searing his heart. He had forgotten that Nat might be here.
"You okay?" Laine turned back, concerned.
"Yeah, I'm fine." Blinking hard, Nick started walking again — slowly.
Lights had been set up to illuminate the body and its vicinity. Nick scanned the group of people that huddled over the corpse, trying to see if Nat was among them.
"Detective Knight. So good of you to join us." An Asian man, maybe 40 or 45, pushed his way towards them. Round lenses made his chubby face seem cherubic. An impression deepened by his constant smile. "Who's your new friend?"
Relief at seeing the coroner who rotated night shifts with Nat made Nick feel almost giddy, but his voice was matter-of-fact. "Dr. Alex Tang of the Coroner's Office meet Detective Laine Saxton of Interpol. She's going to be working with us on this one."
"Nice to meet you. Call me Alex."
"What do you have for us on this one?" Nick interjected.
Alex started talking as they walked over to view the body. "Victim's female, Caucasian. About 25 or 30 I would guess. No identification. Based on current data, I estimate time of death to be between fifteen and twenty hours ago. So, if I'm right, sometime late last night or early this morning. Preliminary findings show cause of death was strangulation and extreme blood loss. My guess is that most of the mutilation happened post-mortem. I'll be able to give you more precise details about all of this after the autopsy."
"How soon will that be?" Nick asked. "If it's at all possible, I'd like to be there."
"I'll put a rush on it, but it definitely won't be tonight. We've got a backlog of cases, and I've only got an hour or so left on my shift." Light glinted off Alex's glasses, making it impossible to see his eyes. "Could probably fit it in tomorrow. Call the office sometime during the day if you want to know exactly what time. I'll leave a message with the receptionist."
The technicians moved away to allow Laine and Nick access to the corpse. Like all the others before her, the victim had been drained of virtually all her blood — there wasn't even enough to tempt the vampire to emerge. She might have been beautiful once, but there was so much damage, it was hard to tell. Laine checked the neck, but could find no fang marks. Then she studied the rest of the head and torso, fixing the gruesome details of the woman's death in her mind, filing them with the others.
"Hey, over here. We found the other leg." A woman in a white coat waved from near the water's edge.
Laine went to look. The missing leg was laying on the ground, next to the metal fence that blocked access to the lake. Kneeling down, she examined the limb carefully, noting the tiny puncture wound at the edge of the shredded flesh, over the femoral artery. Only one — the other must have been obliterated when the leg was pulled off. She closed her eyes and swallowed the lump in her throat. Enough. Tomas had to be stopped.
Backing away to allow the photographer access, she leaned against the fence and stared out over the black water. After a few moments, a faint but insistent tugging began at the corner of her mind. //Tomas?// Laine glanced back to where Nick stood talking with the coroner, and quietly left the crime scene, following the mental call.
At the other end of the docks, hidden around a corner from the bustling mortals, stood a lone figure. Long white hair and golden eyes gleamed in the moonlight. As Laine neared, Tomas turned to face her. His voice flooded her mind, //Do you seek to capture me, my child? Stop me from cleansing the world of the faithless?//
//You cannot continue to slaughter the innocent.//
//There are no innocents left in this world. And you know what is required of you if I am to put aside my righteous cause.// Tomas took to the air, severing the connection abruptly.
"Who was that?" Nick grabbed Laine's shoulder and swung her around to face him. "What is really going on here?"
Laine shook her head, pushing at Nick ineffectively with the hand against his chest. Blood tears clung to her eyelashes. She whispered, "Not now."
"Fine. We'll talk at my place. Tonight. When this shift is over." Nick spun around and stalked away. When he reached the corner, he flung over his shoulder, "They're removing the body. I'm going to talk to the witness."
The rest of the night sped by in a flurry of witness statements, forms in quadruplicate and research. Laine left the interviews to Nick and Tracy. Tomas might be insane, but there was no way he would leave any clues behind that would allow mortal policemen to trace the murder back to him. Instead, she borrowed an office where she could work without worrying about someone looking over her shoulder, plugged her laptop into the phone line and signed onto her Internet account. There was plenty of e-mail but not the message she had been expecting. Unsure whether to be relieved or disappointed, Laine let out her breath in a long sigh. Next, she plugged into the Interpol database, and filed a preliminary report on the latest murder.
Laine checked her mail again — still nothing.
She started searching the City of Toronto web page, looking for the kind of places where Tomas usually slept. The location would have to be downtown; Tomas loved to be at the centre of things. It would also be expensive, exclusive and secure. In other words, a private hotel, catering to the rich and famous. Laine noted down the two hotels she thought might fit the description.
Still no message.
Laine looked out the office windows to make sure everyone was busy, and typed in the address of the Creatures of the Night web page. Three passwords later she was in. She clicked on the blood bank icon and at the query entered "Toronto". There was only one distributor that sold the type of blood that Tomas drank: the Raven, owned and operated by Lucien LaCroix. Exiting the web page, Laine pondered the coincidence. What were the chances that Nick's master would help her stop Tomas?
Still no message.
The office door slammed open, making Laine jump. Involuntarily, she glanced at the screen, but it was clear.
"Time to go." Nick held out her coat. "You promised me an explanation."
Nick and Laine did not speak on the drive from the station to Nick's loft, nor on the short elevator ride. Laine used the time to try to figure out how to explain Tomas to Nick, considering what Nick needed to know and what could be kept private.
Nick watched her out of the corner of his eye. She had information about the case that could save lives, but he had the feeling that this matter touched on something very painful. The wrong question would push Laine away, rather than encourage her to provide answers. And if there was something Nick was good at, it was saying the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time.
So, they both delayed, hiding from each other in silence.
When they got to the loft, Nick went to the kitchen area. He took out one of the bottles from the case he had obtained from Vachon and poured two glasses. Sipping from one, he began putting the rest of the bottles away in the refrigerator. Laine took the other glass, and used the opportunity to look around. She paused in front of each of the paintings and examined them carefully. "You paint these?"
"Yes." Nick turned to her, expecting some reaction, positive or negative, about his art.
"Mmmm." Laine murmured non-committally and continued her inspection, picking up empty bottles as she came across them. When she finished her circuit of the main level, she deposited the empties on the kitchen counter.
Nick got the broom and dustpan out of the closet and swept up the glass fragments from the fireplace. He dumped the shards in the garbage and moved the bottles from the counter into the recycle bin.
"Your housekeeping has improved over the centuries, I see." Laine lifted the piano lid and idly drew her fingers across the keys. "Do you still play an instrument? Or is that something else that has changed?"
"I still play. The only thing that has changed is that I can play instruments that didn't exist when we were young." Nick sat on the bench and played a few notes. "Did you ever learn?"
"No. Not even eight centuries of practice could help someone as musically untalented as me." Laine's eyes softened as she spoke, "I always used to love listening to you and Fleur: her singing while you accompanied her on the lute."
"She had a beautiful voice."
"I still miss her." Laine admitted, "I thought about giving Fleur a chance at immortality, offering her the choice of living forever."
Even though he knew that Fleur had not been brought across, Nick could not stop the reaction that hardened his face and narrowed his eyes as he considered the possibility.
Before he could speak, Laine continued, "I even flew to Brabant one night just to talk to her. I got as far as the castle. I perched in a tree and watched from a distance. Fleur seemed so happy: laughing and kissing her husband and son. I knew that she would turn my offer down. Only those who are dis-satisfied with mortal life would consider crossing over."
Letting out a breath that he hadn't even realized he was holding, Nick closed the piano lid and rested against it. Cat-like, Laine curled up bonelessly in a corner of the couch and looked at Nick thoughtfully, "Why do you want to be mortal again?"
"Why...." The question took Nick by surprise. "How did you know..."
"There are few in our community who haven't heard about your quest to regain your mortality. It seems so strange that I had heard so much about you, but never knew that you were the Nicolas that I grew up with."
"There's no simple answer to your question. I want to be able to walk in the sunlight, feel its heat on my face without fear that I will burst into flame. I want to be able to enter a church and worship without suffering pain. I want to be able to do all the things that we are forbidden and more." Nick straightened up. His words came slowly, as if he weighed each one carefully before uttering it. "Redemption. I want to reclaim my soul...obtain forgiveness for all the deaths I have caused, all the sins I have committed."
"Why do you have to be mortal to redeem your soul? As a vampire, you have centuries to perform good deeds. As a mortal, you would only have a paltry few decades."
"But it is the vampire that has damned me. All those centuries when I fed upon humans to survive have left thousands upon thousands of deaths on my conscience. I can't atone for those murders as long as I remain a killer. I must regain my mortality...my humanity before I can restore my soul."
"Vampires are predators. That is the nature of our beast: we prey on humans to survive. Killing to live is not murder, whether it is a vampire feeding from a human, or a human eating animal flesh. Is one any more wrong than the other?" Laine continued the thought silently in her own mind, //Though from what I hear, Nick, you are the vampire equivalent of a vegan.//
Nick shook his head stubbornly. "A vampire is a damned thing."
"You can't honestly believe that we are automatically damned when we are brought across." Laine chided gently, "None of us are that different from the humans we once were. Some of us are good, some evil. Most are a little of both. The choice belongs to the individual, whether mortal or immortal."
Nick was silent, uncomfortable. It was far easier to dispute this with LaCroix, simpler to fight his Master who believed that a vampire should be dark and foreboding — bringing fear and death to humanity. More difficult to argue against someone who articulated the thoughts and doubts that plagued Nick in the middle of the day.
"I cannot imagine becoming mortal again." Laine shuddered. "Losing the night, the power. Giving up the ability to fly."
"Gaining the ability to have children."
"No!" Green eyes filled with ancient pain caught at Nick's heart. "Is that what you want? To have children? To watch them grow up? To watch them die?"
"You had a child?"
"Lili." A single word spoken so quietly, drenched with grief.
Arden Castle, England 1227
"Look Maman! Oncle Tomas! Look what I found!" Lili came running into the hall from the outside, bringing the late afternoon sunshine with her. Tomas hissed as he moved away from the light and into the shadows near the fireplace. He stayed there until the nurse carefully closed the door that the two year old had left wide open.
Madelaine knelt down and folded her daughter in her arms. She kissed the softly curling red hair and the lightly freckled nose. "What? Show me what you found, cherie."
Lili opened her hand and triumphantly deposited an oddly shaped, translucent pink stone into her mother's palm. "Isn't it bootiful?"
"Yes, it is." Madelaine laughed delightedly. "Where did you find it?"
"By the river." Lili snatched the stone back. "Mine."
Tomas bestowed a kiss on the child's head, and stroked her cheek with one hand. "You had better put it away in your treasure chest then." He gestured to the nurse, who came over and led Lili away upstairs.
"The child seems flushed. Her skin is warmer than usual."
"Do you think it could be serious?" Alarm darkened Madelaine's eyes.
Tomas shrugged. A languid, liquid gesture that betrayed his lack of humanity. "That I cannot tell you. What do I know of mortal illnesses?"
"I must go to her." Madelaine kissed Tomas quickly on the lips and pulled away. "We can finish our talk later."
"Of that you can be sure." Gold-flecked eyes followed Madelaine's progress up the stairs. "I will not wait forever."
Madelaine did not come back down that night, or the next. The slight fever became a cough, and then Lili's temperature soared. Madelaine and the nurse spent the whole time with Lili, sponging her down and applying compresses. Occasionally one of them would take a break, napping in one of the chairs that sat beside the child's bed.
The first night, Tomas stayed away, leaving Lili's care to those who knew what to do. But when he arose the next evening to news that the child was worse, he entered the sickroom. Shocked, he surveyed the mess: bowls, cloths and compresses were strewn all over the floor, trays of uneaten food lay abandoned near the door. The nurse slept in one chair. Madelaine sat in the other, dipping a cloth in a basin of cool water, wringing it and placing it gently on Lili's forehead. Listening to the child's harsh breathing and her rapid heartbeat, Tomas knew that she had only a matter of hours left.
Clearing his throat to get Madelaine's attention, Tomas asked, "How is she?"
Madelaine looked up. Her green eyes were ringed with deep, dark circles. Her voice trembled. "Lili...she...nothing I do helps. We've tried everything, but still she gets worse."
Tomas touched the nurse's forehead as he passed, deepening her sleep. He picked up Madelaine and sat down with her in his lap. Madelaine leaned her head on his shoulder and cried for several minutes. The vampire tightened his hold and cradled her in his arms, rocking ever so slightly.
Eventually, Madelaine stopped and rubbed her eyes on her sleeve. "Help me. Help her."
Mutely Tomas shook his head.
"There must be something you can do." The lilt in Madelaine's voice turned the statement into a question.
"She is too young." Tomas reached over and caressed Lili's hot brow with his cool hand. "If there was anything I could do, any way to heal her, I would."
"I know. It's just...." Madelaine slid off Tomas' lap and fell on her knees next to the bed. A sob caught in her throat as she bowed her head over Lili's small hand.
Lili tossed and turned, mumbling incoherently. A cough racked the tiny body, causing it to convulse on the bed. The harsh noise of her breathing filled the room.
"It is time my love." Tomas lifted Madelaine from the floor with extreme gentleness. "You must say goodbye."
"Nooooo." The cry was little more than a whisper but Tomas grimaced as though it hurt his ears. Reflexively, he let go, and Madelaine scrambled on to the bed. She gathered Lili in her arms. Rocking backwards and forwards, tears streaming down her face, Madelaine held her daughter until the last breath shuddered from the small form.
Anguished eyes stared at Nick — red and sore with grief that was far beyond tears. Laine huddled into the corner of the couch, arms crossed over her stomach as if she could protect herself from the grief that had stayed with her for almost eight hundred years. Her voice, when she finally spoke was barely audible, even to his vampire hearing, "Is that what you want to be human for?"
Without thinking, Nick crossed over to the couch and pulled Laine into a tight embrace. She moaned quietly as she moved into his arms. They sat motionless for a long time. Each lost in a private world of grief and loneliness, drawing strength from the touch of their bodies. Eventually, Nick began to stroke Laine's hair, to murmur words of comfort. As the cold, hard ache in her heart began to dissolve, Laine lifted her lips to his; a tentative, soft kiss that stilled his voice, stirred his emotions. Their kiss hardened, deepened. Passion drove loneliness and need out of them both.
Nick lay back on the couch, so that Laine could stretch out on top of him.
Slowly, beginning at the top, she undid the buttons of his shirt. As each button was freed, Laine pressed her lips against the skin that was revealed. Button, kiss — button, kiss — button, kiss. All the way down to the bottom. A growl escaped from Nick when she finished with his shirt and started on his pants. He reached down and pulled her upright, drawing off her top in one smooth, easy movement, baring her stomach...her breasts...her neck. He ran his hands up and over the exposed skin, drawing invisible patterns, watching her muscles contract when he touched an especially sensitive area.
Leaning over Nick, Laine nipped at his lips with her teeth. Inch by exquisite inch, she laid her bare skin against his. Nick captured her mouth, his tongue darting in and out, his gums aching as he felt her fangs extend. Wanting to feel Laine underneath him, he rolled over......right off the couch and onto the floor.
Two pairs of gold eyes flew open. Laine laughed — a purring, vibrating laugh that Nick felt from his head to his toes. Without speaking, without separating, they levitated horizontally almost to the bedroom. At the door, they drew apart and entered, dropping their remaining clothes on the floor as they moved towards the bed.
Thrusting the rumpled covers onto the floor, Nick and Laine fell into the centre of the bed. Side by side, they started exploring each other. Hands slithering over skin. Laine slid her tongue up Nick's neck, leaving a trail of fire behind. Biting the skin lightly, sucking the blood she drew with her fangs, she moved up his jaw line. She paused briefly over the fragile skin beneath his ear, the soft touch of her teeth captivating his senses.
Nick's fingers glided over Laine's shoulders and down her arms. He pulled away slightly, and his mouth worked its way down her throat, stopping at her breasts. Gently he teased each nipple until it hardened, slowly increasing the pressure. Laine arched back, eyes closed, pressing against his lips. Slowly, ever so slowly, Nick began to graze his fangs across her nipples, drawing beads of blood from the sensitive skin. He lapped the drops from skin that was already healed. Over and over again.
Pushing Nick onto his back, Laine took control once again. She knelt astride his legs and skimmed her nails down his chest, over his stomach, and into the blonde, curly hair that nested between his legs. She twirled the hair into circles, pulling softly and releasing, brushing the velvet skin of his shaft, then continued down the inside of his legs. Muscles twitched as her nails trailed over the skin of his inner thighs. Shifting forward on all fours, she moved until she was directly over him, her breasts brushing his chest.
Nick sat up and drew Laine on top of him. The tip of his shaft entered her, but she braced her legs so he could go no further. Bending down, Laine kissed him, rubbing her tongue against his fangs when his mouth opened against hers, digging her teeth into his lips. Blood welled from tiny cuts and mingled. They kissed and drank eagerly, hunger melding with passion.
Pulling away, Nick began to lavish attention on her neck. Licking, sucking, biting ever so slightly.
Laine began to sway gently, rotating her hips, fanning the fire that rose in her belly and her fangs. Playfully, she threw her head back. Nick growled deeply, and reached for Laine's throat. Again and again she tempted him. Letting his fangs touch the skin of her neck and then pulling away. Until the ache inside her grew too strong. Until she could no longer elude Nick's clutches.
In one instant they came together. The muscles in her legs collapsed, driving Nick inside her to the hilt. Fangs plunged through skin. A sharp, piercing rapture. Fusing together. Moving. Sucking. Blood flowing from one to the other, carrying emotions, memories, dreams. Boundaries erupted, flaming and dissolving. Sensation layered upon sensation. Until it was impossible to tell where Nick ended and Laine began. Their hearts beating to the same rhythm. Thrusting...sucking...harder and harder. Bright red ecstasy flared higher and higher. Until passion burst and overwhelmed them.
Laying together in dreamy contentment, licking the last few drops of blood from their lips, they snuggled down in the bed. Nick dragged the covers off the floor with one hand and spread them over top. Eventually they slept, curled up together, limbs entwined. Nick's cheek pressed against Laine's hair, Laine's head resting against Nick's chest.
Laine woke up and looked around the strange room slowly. Memory returned, reminding her where she was, bringing with it a pang of dismay. Not unusual for her to wake up somewhere different, or with someone else, but she had promised herself that she would stop doing it; that she would try to find a love that would last beyond the next sunset. Untangling her legs from Nick's, she sat up and looked at him. He lay there on his back, sleeping peacefully, sprawled across the bed. So innocent, so hard to believe he was a vampire.
An ache spread through her, echoing from his blood circulating in her veins. Laine closed her eyes and images sprang onto her inner canvas. //Not now. Not here.// Pushing them to the back of her mind, she wrapped herself in Nick's silk robe, then left the bedroom and quietly walked down the stairs.
Laine wandered around aimlessly, looking at the paintings again, seeking hints of Nick's personality in their depths. In the kitchen area, she checked out the contents of his refrigerator, pushing aside the glass bottles and reaching into the back. She opened a plastic bowl and grimaced at the scent of rotting mortal food. Sniffing cautiously at the repulsive smell emanating from a green liquid that filled another container, she shook her head in confusion and closed the doors. //Why on earth would he keep that...that stuff in his fridge?//
Giving up the search, Laine went to the windows and put a hand against the glass, pretending that she could feel the rays of the sun beating against the shutters. If she had known how, she would have opened the shutters that barred the sun from the loft — not because she wanted to see the sunlight, but because it might help her understand what she had learned from Nick's blood. Too many years had passed since she had last seen the sun as anything but death. Her imagination could not stretch far enough to encompass a desire to walk in its light.
Laying face-down on the floor by the fireplace, crossed arms supporting her head, Laine closed her eyes and waited for the images and emotions that were Nick's gift to her to swim into focus, needing to examine them before they faded and disappeared. If they remained lovers long enough, she would retain a part of his essence within her forever, but Laine had no intention of staying with Nick that long.
In the bedroom above, Nick opened his eyes and discovered with relief that Laine had left. With senses temporarily heightened by their love-making, Nick could feel her in the room below. Hopefully, she would stay there for a while yet. He needed time to think about what had happened earlier. A pang of heartsickness darted through him. If only it could have been Nat.
Hunger. Loneliness. Incredible soul-destroying loneliness. And hunger. Laine built walls around Nick's pain, needing to contain it, keep it from invading her mind. He was so alone, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He craved contact of a kind that few vampires could provide. Living among mortals, but not being able to fit in to their society was eating away at his soul. Repelled and attracted by his own kind. Existing in the fringes, in the borderland between the two communities, not really belonging to either. And yet.....
Sorrow and peace; hate and fear. The emotions swirled through Nick as he listened to the echoes of Laine's blood. Ancient grief at the death of her daughter lived eternally beneath the surface. Entwined above and below the sorrow lay peace. Nick examined that sensation, touching it carefully, hoping to find an answer to his own dilemma. He tasted her acceptance of the vampire, delight in its powers and passion for life, and beneath everything there was......
Using well-honed skills, Laine built a picture in her mind of the two women who haunted Nick. Mortal and vampire: his desire fought with the need to stay away from them. The mortal not-quite-lover swam into the forefront. She had soft curly hair; eyes luminous with intelligence and compassion; and an obsession with drawing Nick back into the mortal world. Laine felt Nick's betrayal at her leaving, his hunger for this woman, his desire to draw her essence within himself and keep her forever. Love bound together with her mortality. Musing, Laine wondered if Nick would still feel the same way if the mortal woman was brought across......
Nick shuddered as the peace that he had envied was shattered by jagged lightening bolts of hate accented with fear and love. Fleeting shards of torturous memory bit into the calm. He tried repeatedly to grasp one of those fragments, but it eluded him leaving only a twisted, barely recognizable image of the vampire at the docks. Was that Tomas, the one that Laine had spoken about earlier? Nick understood perfectly how she could feel such contradictory emotions about her Master, but there was more to this than a fledgling's struggle for independence. Something Nick couldn't identify. More of Laine's blood was the answer, but.....
Laine reached beyond the mortal paramour to find the female vampire — an older, deeper love. Too familiar for an exact portrait to exist in Nick's blood beyond dark, knowing eyes; a soothing acceptance; a willingness to listen and help. Somehow, Laine knew that this woman had left Nick many times over the centuries but always came back, and that she was gone now; at the exact time when Nick felt that he needed her the most. Laine wanted to know more about this female vampire, instinctively knowing that she would like her, but she had to find a way to do this without sharing more of Nick's blood.....
Emotions and images disintegrated as Nick tried to hold on to them. Momentarily, he felt a yearning to go downstairs and make love to Laine so he could learn more about the woman that the child had become. Shaking his head, Nick restrained himself. Curiosity was not a good reason for becoming involved. He liked Laine, but after two nights with her, he knew that she bore very little resemblance to the girl he had grown up with. How did he feel about his betrothed? Searching, he found that everything added up to one definite conclusion: friendship not love. But how could he tell Laine that without hurting her?
Laine sat up in the lotus position and stared into the fireplace. She needed so badly to be able to commit to someone. For so many centuries since.... Laine forcibly pulled herself away from those memories. Nick was so honourable that she knew their long-forgotten betrothal could be used to make him stay with her. The temptation hung before her, but she discarded it. That kind of relationship was not what she craved, and Nick was not the right kind of man for her. She wanted Nick as a friend not a lover. How could she achieve that without adding another layer of pain and abandonment to his already damaged psyche?
The day passed slowly. Unable to sleep, haunted by fragments of emotions and partial images from Nick's blood, Laine grabbed a bottle from the refrigerator. She plugged in her laptop, portable printer and modem cables (hoping that Nick wouldn't mind having his telephone disconnected). Pouring the chilled blood into a glass, she typed her report. There was nothing privileged or sensitive in her account, but she scrambled it, using the most recent cryptography program, before sending it bouncing over to her superior's computer. Since she was already signed onto her Internet account, she checked her e-mail and spent a couple of hours catching up with her correspondence.
Just before sunset, Laine decided to check her mail one last time and there it was, the message from Tomas. As usual, he had sent it from a public account that could not be used to identify where he was hiding. This one was from a pubic library account on the Toronto Freenet. Setting the message to print, she started reading from the screen:
It was so good to see you last night after so many decades. Writing to you has its pleasures, but cannot replace the delight of personal contact. Perhaps I should have let you find me sooner.
You would have liked my latest discovery. Sarah was young and full of life. It was unfortunate that she could not find one man and cleave unto him alone. So many of those I must punish for your transgression are older, and already ground down by the mundane details of mortal life.
Who was that young vampire with whom you were consorting last night? Is he anyone I should know? I hope for your sake that he can remain true. Or has he already served you false with that yellow-haired mortal maid?
In closing, dearest heart, I remind you that my offer remains open. Gladly will I accept you back into my arms. With you to love, I will no longer need to continue my search for a woman true and fair.
Dazed, Laine looked up from the screen into Nick's eyes. Absently, she noticed that he was holding the printed copy of Tomas' message in his hands.
"I think we need to talk about this." Nick spoke matter-of-factly, but his expression made it obvious that he would not wait any longer.
Laine signed out of her Internet account, and turned off her computer, taking care to unplug the modem cables and re-connect the telephone, before responding. "What do you want to know?"
"Everything." Nick sat down at the other end of the couch. "Why Tomas is killing these mortals, what your transgression was, everything."
Laine leaned against the arm of the couch and curled her legs underneath. "Tomas is probably the only one who can tell you the real reason why he embarked on this murderous rampage. And you can be sure that is exactly what he is doing — committing cold-blooded murder of mortal men and women, and of vampires."
Laine put up a weary hand to stop Nick from interrupting. "If you're going to ask why the Enforcers aren't chasing Tomas down, the explanation is very simple. They don't believe Tomas is endangering our community. He covers his tracks too well. He leaves no clues that can be used to trace the killings back to a vampire, and takes great care to provide the police with a human suspect who's ready, willing and able to confess. And as for the vampires, our kind appear and disappear with regularity. We move around so much that it isn't unusual for someone to leave town without telling their friends, and not to be seen for fifteen or twenty years or more. All Tomas has to do is leave the body out where it will be caught in the sun, and there's nothing left but ashes that blow away in the wind."
"But none of that explains why, does it?" Laine reached for her glass and sipped some blood. She offered the bottle to Nick, who tipped it to his mouth and drank while she talked. "I really wish I had a simple answer to that question. A motive that makes sense. But I don't. I can tell you that Tomas is mad — probably clinically insane — that he's the victim of an addiction that has taken control of his life and twisted his mind until he can no longer tell the difference between what's real and what's imagination."
"Why don't you just tell me what started this killing spree."
"I'll try. I'm not really sure what set him off myself." Laine's smile was twisted, bitter. "I was twenty-one when Tomas brought me across. He had waited patiently until I was old enough to fend for myself, not even complaining when I kept company with mortal men, or when I had Lili. All of that changed when I became a vampire. Tomas was over two thousand years old when he created me. I am his only fledgling. He gave me everything, devoted himself to me. At first, his attentions were intoxicating. I was still raw with grief from Lili's death and wanted his physical consolation. We were inseparable for three hundred and fifty years or so, travelling the world, exploring places I had never dreamed existed when I was mortal. It was wonderful."
Laine paused. Her eyes darkened as the memories began to surface. "But slowly, Tomas changed, slowly, almost imperceptibly. His personality twisted. All vampires killed to survive in those days and, as you know, drinking mortal blood is thrilling, intoxicating, sensual."
Nick shifted uncomfortably on the couch, and took another drink from the bottle. With an effort, he stayed silent, grimly refusing to let his own memories interfere with Laine's narrative.
"I don't know when Tomas started to degenerate. There were probably lots of signs, but I had no idea what they meant. By the time I realizd what was happening, it was too late. Killing was no longer enough for Tomas. He began to find a sexual pleasure in hunting his victims, chasing them down through back alleys or country roads, then torturing them while he drank their blood, ensuring they died excruciatingly slowly. For a long time, I said nothing, did nothing. I fed separately, which enraged Tomas. He demanded that I join him, share his perverse game. I refused. We fought about it constantly for ten or fifteen years. By the end of the sixteenth century, the situation was unbearable." Laine moved her gaze from Nick's eyes to stare at the shuttered windows. "I couldn't live with him anymore, so I left. I didn't even stop to pack my bags. I just grabbed some of my jewellery, Lili's miniature and left."
"For the next few decades, I wandered the world, avoiding the places where vampires congregated, trying to find some peace. Eventually, I settled in the Russian steppes. There were few humans. I fed as seldom as possible, and mostly on animal blood. Afterwards, I would take the carcass to the mortal settlement and leave it for them."
Tears began to fill Laine's eyes, shivering on her lashes, then dripping in red tracks down her face. "One night after feeding, I sat on a rock, watching the stars. I felt so calm and serene, not happy but content. I wanted that feeling to last forever. I should have known better." Laine's voice became bitter, "Tomas came for me that night. I never found out how he captured me. All I know is that one minute I was watching the heavens, the next I was waking up in a dungeon.......
"Master, she is awake." The speaker was mortal: a tall, thin man with a patchwork quilt of hair and scabrous skin covering his scalp. His grey eyes were cold, dead. His long, bony fingers continually twined and untwined around each other.
"Thank you, Radok." Tomas loomed over Madelaine. He was dressed fastidiously as usual, but the image was broken by the large, dark bloodstain on his pale blue cape. "Make yourself comfortable, my dearest. I shall return."
//Make myself comfortable?// Madelaine was about as uncomfortable as she had ever been. Completely nude, strapped to a stone table, her arms pulled taut over her head, legs spread apart and each shackled tightly to opposite sides of the table. Gathering her not-inconsiderable strength, she pulled at the chains that bound her arms, then hissed as pain burned through her wrists. Smoke from the charred skin eddied over her head, then dissipated. Cautiously, she repeated the experiment with her legs. This time the agony made her scream.
Relaxing her limbs once again, she tried unsuccessfully to move her head enough to see what was searing her skin.
"By the way," Tomas' voice came from behind Madelaine. "Don't attempt to break the chains. Radok forged them especially for you from silver crosses, dousing them in holy water to cool. He also arranged to have them blessed by a most religious holy man. If you don't put any pressure on the manacles, the light padding around your wrists and ankles should protect you from cremation."
She shivered involuntarily as Tomas' laughter filled her cell.
Madelaine lay awake all day, unable to sleep. Periodically, she would test the chains, trying to see if she could bear the pain long enough to break them without success. When the pain became too much, she passed out. As the sun moved across the horizon, its rays, bisected by the bars on the tiny window, made a pattern on the dirt floor. At its zenith, the light came within inches, but did not quite touch her.
Night came, bringing with it a breeze that smelled of the forest, of freedom. Madelaine could sense Tomas at the edge of her consciousness, moving around above her. She waited patiently for her Master to descend and free her, but he never came close.
Days and nights passed in a blur of pain and hunger. The play of sunlight on the floor fascinated and repelled her. The scent of life on the night wind haunted every conscious moment. Her ankles and wrists were blistered and charred from her futile attempts to break the chains. In some places, the flesh had burned away completely, exposing nerves and bone to the deadly silver. Rats rustled and squeaked throughout the dungeons. A few brave ones scampered up the chains and danced across her naked body, their claws leaving a tiny red trail on her skin. The scent of their blood tantalized and teased the hunger that cramped her stomach, but she could not lure them close enough to grab with her fangs.
She weakened, lost track of how long she had been captive, could barely remember anything else. When she finally heard voices, felt the mortal's heartbeat grow louder, and the sensation in her mind that was Tomas become stronger, Madelaine thought she was hallucinating.
"Oh my child, what have you done to yourself?" Tomas spoke softly, gently. His concern caressed Madelaine's ears.
"Help me." She pleaded through parched and cracked lips, in a voice that was little more than a croaking whisper.
"Help you to do what, beloved? Abandon me once again?"
"You look pale, my dear. You should really take better care of yourself." Tomas motioned to Radok.
The smell of blood rising from the cup in the mortal's hand overwhelmed Madelaine. Her eyes turned gold, and fangs emerged so rapidly that they cut through her lips. She snarled and began pulling against her chains once more. Her captors watched silently, unmoving, until she howled in agony and was still once again.
"As I directed you."
Radok held the cup high, and dribbled a tiny amount of blood into Madelaine's mouth. Frantically, she licked her lips to get every last drop.
"More?" she begged.
"Perhaps later." Tomas moved around until he was standing over Madelaine's head. "I am sure you are wondering why I have brought you to my humble abode." He paused to stroke her hair. "The answer is truly simple: I wish to share with you some portion of the suffering that you caused me when you left, to show you how much your faithlessness and infidelity hurt me. Surely you must agree that this solution is exquisitely fair."
Madelaine closed her eyes and swallowed hard, trying to clear the pain-induced fog from her senses. "How long....."
"Ah, beloved, that is up to you. How long will you be able to withstand my attentions?" Tomas smiled thinly, his eyes shining with anticipation. "Consider this an alchemical experiment. How much torment can a vampire withstand? The body is immortal, but what about the mind, or the soul?"
At another imperious gesture from his Master, Radok brought a tray forward. Slowly, steadily, he began to make small incisions in Madelaine's skin with a knife. Before each cut could heal, he inserted a small sliver of wood into the centre. She stayed silent, biting her lips ragged and sucking as much of the blood back into her mouth as possible. Radok worked steadily, with surgical precision, adorning every visible section of her body with splinters. When he finally finished, she breathed a silent sigh of relief. She had not succumbed.
"The first step is complete, Master." Reluctantly, Radok replaced the knife on the tray. "May I get the jar now?"
"Yes, but do not uncover it until after I have left." Tomas moved around until he stood in Madelaine's limited line of sight. He stroked her naked body, bringing tears to her eyes whenever his palm scraped against a piece of wood. "You will be beautiful, my darling child. When my task is completed, you shall be flawless, the most perfect woman in the world. Ravishing, obedient, compliant, willing, loyal, and devoted to your beloved Master."
Madelaine heard his footsteps recede with a feeling of dread. What could the mortal henchman possibly be going to do to her that was so bad that Tomas could not stay to watch? She pulled feebly at the chains, but was too weak to do anything more than make them clatter against the stone.
Radok returned. His heart beating rapidly with anticipation and excitement. The scent of the blood pumping through his veins assaulted and overwhelmed Madelaine. She twisted in an ineffectual attempt to reach him with her fangs.
"Now, now. That will never do. The Master would not be pleased. And he has promised me eternal life if I please him." Radok tutted loudly and tweaked the wooden slivers that pierced Madelaine's breasts, every movement sending agonizing flashes along her nerves. "Shall we continue?"
Gagging reflexively from the stench that arose from the opened jar, Madelaine shrank back as far as the stone table would let her. Radok soaked a cloth in the jar, raising it over her body, letting some of the liquid drip down on her mutilated body. She twitched helplessly as the garlic juice oozed into some of the cuts like acid. Humming happily under his breath, Radok began to wash her down with the cloth, dipping it back into the jar as it dried.
The pain was excruciating. Madelaine lost control. Screamed and thrashed, no longer able to hear the noise of the chains clanking against the table. Blood tears ran down her face. Blind and deaf — her world was a red wave of pain. Red that slowly turned to black; drawing her thankfully into oblivion.
Nick looked at Laine in horror as her voice died away. Without speaking, he got up and walked to the kitchen area, picking up an unopened bottle, a second glass and a handkerchief. He handed her the handkerchief to wipe away the tears from her face, and poured a glass of blood for each of them.
Holding her hand gently, Nick marshalled his thoughts and tried come up with an intelligent comment. "How...how long...were you his prisoner?"
"It seemed like forever. But it was probably forty or fifty years. I'm not really sure. The whole thing is a blur of pain and hunger." Laine sniffled and scrubbed at her eyes with the red-stained cloth. "At some point, the continual exposure to the chains made me immune to their effect, and my skin no longer burned when it came into contact with the metal. Even today I have no problems touching crosses."
Nick filed that interesting piece of information away for future use. Would Nat have found it helpful in her search for a cure? He would probably never know the answer to that.
Dropping the handkerchief in her lap, Laine drank greedily from her glass, as if the hunger had passed from her memories into the present. When she resumed speaking, her voice was an expressionless monotone that chilled Nick, "Over the years, Radok grew old and more and more feeble. Eventually Tomas found another, less-accomplished mortal torturer named Karol to take his place. He was not as experienced or callous as Radok. One day, Karol made a mistake and I managed to snap free of my shackles. Moving my arms and legs after being tied up for so long was hard, but not as painful as the torment I had endured over the years....and draining Karol's blood helped a great deal."
"I hobbled upstairs, but Tomas was not in the castle, so I left." Laine shrugged, "I fled into the woods, and survived on animal blood and unfortunate travellers. I was feral, feeding on everyone...everything that crossed my path. My first clear recollection is of a confrontation with a Russian hermit named Ivander. Ivander's absolute faith that I would not kill him made it impossible for me to drain his blood. He took me back to his hut and patiently helped me find my way back to sanity. I stayed there until his death."
"You mean: am I still crazy?" Laine smiled bitterly. "No. I'm perfectly sane. Older, wiser, much more cynical, but definitely sane."
"That wasn't what I meant." Nick sipped from his glass, keeping his eyes on Laine. "If you had let me finish..."
"I'm sorry." Laine interrupted, "Look, I haven't told this story very often. It makes me very uncomfortable. Can we agree not to discuss it any more today?"
Laine continued without giving Nick a chance to answer. "The only reason I brought it up was to show you what kind of killer we are going up against. Tomas is completely mad. I can guess at his motives for murdering all those vampires and humans, but the only one who really knows and can begin to understand is Tomas. What I do know is that we have to find and destroy Tomas before he kills anyone else."
Laine pulled her hand out of Nick's grasp and turned on her laptop, letting it run on battery power instead of taking the time to plug it in again. She worked her way through the directories rapidly, leaving some files open and ensuring others were password protected. Nick watched her closely, but didn't say anything since it appeared that Laine was not ready to listen to what he had to say.
Abruptly, Laine shoved her computer onto Nick's lap and stood up. "I need to take a shower; wash the memories out of my skin. Afterwards we can sit down and try to come up with some way to find and stop Tomas. In the meantime, why don't you take a look at these files on Tomas. Maybe you'll see something there that I can't."
Before Nick could say anything, Laine flew upstairs. The water was running as he began reading.
A half hour later, the phone rang. Nick had barely finished perusing the computer files (the ones Laine had opened for him at least — he hadn't been able to figure out how to get into the rest). He picked it up, listened for a couple of minutes, muttered an assent, and then hung up the phone with a thoughtful frown.
"Who was that?" Laine stood on the stairs, dressed in the same pants as the previous day, and a shirt of Nick's that she'd pulled out of the closet. The shirt was too big — the tails hung down almost to her knees — but a quick glance around the bedroom had not revealed the top she had been wearing the night before and she was reluctant to start a serious search for it.
"Tracy. She wants us to meet her at the coroner's office. Alex did the autopsy this afternoon. And being Alex, he wouldn't tell her what he'd found. Just said to drop by tonight and he would give us an oral report."
"Around 7:45, three-quarters of an hour from now."
"Great. That's gives me just enough time to fly by Merlin's place and pick up some clean clothes." Laine plucked ruefully at the rolled up shirtsleeves. "I don't think it would be a good idea for Tracy to see me in this. She'd probably jump to the right conclusion."
"I'll get changed. We can swing by there on our way to the coroner's."
Laine shook her head and shut down her laptop, packing it and the printer away in the case as she spoke. "No. Not enough time. I'll take the short-cut. Less traffic that way. Anyway, I think it's better that we show up separately." She didn't really care what any of the mortals thought about her relationship with Nick, but she needed some time alone, and this was one way to accomplish that without hurting Nick's feelings.
"You're sure?" Nick moved close to Laine.
Laine backed away. "Definitely. See you there." She was gone before the window had completely opened.
"Hi Nick. Where's Tracy?" Laine let the door to Alex Tang's office swing shut behind her. It banged against the frame a couple of times before stopping, just slightly ajar.
Nick jerked upright. Memories of better nights with Nat in the morgue fragmented and disappeared. "She's late. So's Alex for that matter." Nick was poised uncomfortably against the wall opposite the door. "Find yourself a seat."
Laine looked around. The only thing that set this office apart from a dozen other professional offices was the examination table in the centre complete with sheet-covered body. Wrinkling her nose at the combined aroma of decay and preservative, she found herself a spot on the desk, as far away as possible from the table. She sat quietly for a couple of minutes, watching Nick flinch at every single sound. Each time footsteps moved along the hall past the office, he stared miserably at the floor as if the passerby might be his executioner. Finally, she couldn't remain quiet any longer. "What's wrong? You're jumping at shadows."
"I don't think so."
"It's really none of your business." Nick glared at the floor, debating whether or not to tell Laine. It would be wonderful to be able to confide in someone about Nat. Where was Janette when he needed her?
"You might as well tell me. I'm not going to give up until you do." Laine cajoled, "Is it the woman I saw in your blood last night?"
Nick looked at Laine hard. How much had she seen? Who had she seen? He shrugged inwardly and made a rapid decision, hoping it was the right one. "Maybe."
"And her name is?"
"Natalie?" Laine said out loud, then thought to herself, //Aaah. A name to add to the mortal face in Nick's blood.//
"My....well, she was.... I don't really know what she was to me." Nick searched for the right word. "Doctor? Best friend?"
"Almost-lover?" Laine said quietly.
Surprise and agreement chased each other across Nick's face as he considered Laine's comment. "All of the above I guess. Our relationship wasn't very easy to define. Not that it matters anymore. She left me. To marry a man named Christopher Shaw."
"And she's a coroner, works in this building. I don't want to run into her. I'm not sure what to say to her." Laine moved to stand next to Nick, not quite touching him, but close enough to give comfort. The two vampires stared silently at each other, lost in their own world, no longer aware of the mortals moving through the building around them.
After a few minutes, Laine offered, "How about congratulations?"
"I did that already. Natalie asked for my blessing, and I gave it to her." Nick twisted his mouth into a bitter smile. "Maybe I should just tell her that I'm engaged too."
Tracy stifled a gasp, and paused just outside the door and listened for Detective Saxton's answer.
"Does that mean you've made up your mind about us?" Laine's heart sank. "You think that we should honour the vows we made so many years ago, that our betrothal still stands?"
"Perhaps." Nick shuffled his feet awkwardly, wishing that he'd kept his mouth shut. "What do you think?"
//Now what do I say?// Laine tried to come up with the right words when a familiar voice sounded outside the office.
"Detective Vetter. Are you waiting for Knight and Detective Saxton?" Tracy whirled around in shock at the coroner's voice. She had been so absorbed in the conversation going on inside the office that she hadn't heard him approach.
Tracy was saved from having to make something up by Nick poking his head out the door and saying, "We're already here."
Nick wondered briefly if either of the two mortals had heard he and Laine talking, then dismissed the worry. They hadn't said anything that might expose their true natures.
"Good. Good." Alex ushered Tracy into the office ahead of him and moved immediately to uncover the body on the examination table, flipping off the protective sheet with a flourish.
Tracy swallowed hard and closed her eyes briefly, then concentrated on taking notes.
Oblivious to Tracy's reaction, the coroner continued, "Ladies and gentleman, meet Sarah McIsaac. You should all be very thankful to Constable Ava Lee, who spent most of the day correlating missing persons reports with Sarah's description, and tracking down next of kin and dental records."
Alex pulled a piece of paper covered with handwritten notes off his desk and started his report, "One interesting piece of information: her stomach contents and the remaining traces of blood were saturated with a very unusual mixture of substances. I had the lab technicians run some initial tests on an emergency basis. So far, they haven't been able to tell me much. Just that among the ingredients there was an unusually high percentage of alcohol and something called wormwood. They are running a few more tests and expect to be able to give me a more precise description sometime tomorrow."
"Absinthe." Laine said flatly. "A liqueur that's illegal in many countries including, I think, Canada. The alcohol content is usually about seventy to eighty percent. A variety of herbs such as wormwood, hyssop, mint, angelica root and anise are mashed up together and soaked in the alcohol to produce absinthe. Over-indulgence can lead to hallucinations, brain damage and eventually death."
"How do you know that the substance in the victim's blood is absinthe?" Alex put a hand on the corpse's arm possessively. "We haven't been able to positively identify it yet."
"It was in the report that you gave us last night." Tracy looked at Laine. "Absinthe was found in the bodies of all the victims, wasn't it?"
"Yes, although Interpol hasn't yet come up with a reasonable hypothesis that explains why."
"I'll pass that information on to the lab, so the technicians can confirm whether the substance in Sarah McIsaac's blood is absinthe." Alex cleared his throat and rattled off vital statistics and as much information about the victim's cause of death as he could provide before all the blood and tissue test results came back.
Laine watched Tracy surreptitiously while listening with half an ear to the coroner. To vampire senses, it was obvious that Tracy was repulsed by the dead body, and trying very hard to hide the fact and maintain a professional demeanour. Despite her initial impression of the mortal woman as a flake who got her gold shield through connections rather than talent, Laine was beginning to feel a sneaking respect for Tracy Vetter. Was it possible that a reasonably intelligent and able police detective hid behind that annoyingly goofy, perky attitude?
"The only solid lead we have right now is the absinthe." Nick's voice broke through Laine's distraction. "We'll have to track down and question all the suppliers in the city."
Tracy smiled, "I might be able to get some information on that from one of my contacts. I can go talk to him now, and then meet up with both of you at the station later."
Nick threw a questioning glance at Laine, who shook her head minutely. She needed to do some investigations of her own in the vampire community, and didn't want to have to waste any time avoiding Tracy.
"I don't think that's a good idea, Tracy." Nick explained, "You and I should work together on this. We don't want to give the captain any reason to inflict another of his lectures on the definition of partner upon us."
Disappointment surged through Tracy, but she decided to try one more time. "I don't think Captain Reese would stop us from checking in with our contacts, and I think that this guy can give me something useful."
"If you really think so, then we can go see him together." Nick watched Tracy squirm, knowing that she did not want her "mortal" partner to meet her supernatural friend.
Laine kept quiet, hiding her amusement at Nick's skilful handling of his partner.
"No. I..I'm not that sure. I should probably call him from the station first, make sure he's at his usual hangout." Reluctantly, she concluded that Nick wasn't going to let her go see Vachon without him. To distract Nick from pursuing the idea, she suggested, "We should also talk to the victim's family, and try to reconstruct her movements on the day before she was reported missing."
Nick and Tracy moved down the hallway deep in strategy discussions. They were almost at the end when Tracy turned back, "Are you coming, Detective Saxton?"
"Not to the station, no. I have leads of my own to follow up. Nothing concrete right now, but I'll let you know if they pan out. Maybe I could meet up with you later." Laine caught up with them as she spoke. "Oh, and Tracy, call me Laine please. Detective Saxton is a little formal if we're going to be working together."
"Okay....Laine." Tracy shoved her doubts about the Interpol detective into a back corner of her mind — maybe this odd triple partnership would work after all. "How about if we meet back at the station to compare notes? Nick and I are probably going to be there for most of the night."
"Actually, I was thinking of a more social environment, where we can have a drink and get to know each other better while we compare notes." Hiding an evil grin behind a facade of innocence, Laine suggested, "How about this club I heard about from one of the guys I work with occasionally. It's called the Raven."
"The...the Raven?" Tracy choked. "I've heard that place is a real dive. Are you sure that's where you want to go?"
"A dive? Really?" Disbelief was audible in Laine's voice. "That's not the impression I got."
"Maybe not a dive," Nick temporized, "but I don't think it's the best place for three police detectives to get together for a drink. Some pretty strange people hang out there."
"Exactly. I don't think the....the clientele are your type." Tracy was glad to have Nick backing her up. "If you want to meet at a bar, there are plenty of others in town, like Quotes."
"I've been looking forward to going to the Raven ever since I got into Toronto." Laine was enjoying the effect her suggestion had on Nick and Tracy. "Can't you guys indulge me just this once." Laine turned the corner and went out the door before the other two could field any more objections. Her voice floated back to them as the door closed behind her, "I'll see you both at the Raven around midnight."
Nick and Tracy hurried after Laine, both hoping to change her mind, but she had already disappeared.
"I guess that leaves us with no choice. We have to meet her at the Raven." Tracy decided that she would somehow keep Nick and Laine safe from the vampires who haunted the club. "Can we use your car to get to the station? I took a cab here because mine's in the shop getting the heater repaired."
Nick smiled sadly as memories of Don Schanke rose up. All the times Schank had complained about the heater in the Cadillac. Nick had given in and had it fixed about a week or so before his old partner died — after Schanke threatened Nick with a winter of riding in Schank's garlic-infested old box that winter if there was no heat in Nick's car. "No problem Tracy. I'll bring it around. Wait here."
Tracy opened her mouth to object, but changed her mind when she saw Natalie Lambert approaching across the parking lot. Once Nick was out of range and Natalie was almost at the entrance, Tracy said, "Hi Natalie. How are things going?"
Natalie's welcoming smile faltered a little when she registered the fact that Nick wasn't with Tracy. "Hectic but good. How are you?"
"Good. Congratulations. I heard that you and Chris Shaw are getting married soon. That's great. He's a really nice guy."
"Thanks." Natalie reached past Tracy for the door handle. "I'd love to stop and chat, but unfortunately I just don't have the time right now."
"No problem." Tracy stayed where she was, blocking Natalie's way into the building. "You know, for a while I thought that you and Nick had something going, but was I ever wrong. First you get engaged to someone else, and then Nick."
"Nick's getting married?"
"Yes. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard about it." A sudden thought struck Tracy, and she added, "Don't tell anyone else about it though. I don't think it's public knowledge yet."
"Who..." Natalie's voice faltered. She was finding it difficult to swallow the concept that Nick might have found someone else already and decided to marry her.
"Her name's Laine Saxton. She's a detective with Interpol who's working with Nick and me right now." Tracy lowered her voice. "I think she and Nick have known each other for years."
The sound of a honking horn made both Tracy and Natalie jump. Tracy pulled herself together first. "That's Nick. Gotta go. Nice seeing you Natalie."
"Nice seeing you too." Natalie spoke automatically. Her mind was churning with impossible thoughts as she walked inside.
It was after 9:30 p.m. when Laine landed softly in an alley across the street from the Raven. Much later than she had planned. Instead of going straight to the Raven from the Coroner's Office, she had gone back to Merlin's apartment first to get changed. Black miniskirt, tights, short black sweater and long silver ear-rings seemed more appropriate for a night at the Raven than a dark green business suit and heels.
She had also been hoping to catch Merlin at home and get some advice on the best way to elicit information from Lucien LaCroix, but had had no luck there. Merlin had taken off as soon as she arrived, muttering something about looking at someone's hard drive. Was that the computerized version of seeing someone's etchings? For Merlin's sake, she hoped so.
To mortal eyes, the Raven probably seemed dark and dingy, but to Laine's vampire sight it was too bright. Most vampire bars used murky lighting that created black shadows everywhere, but then again, few ever had as many mortals hanging around as this one. Goths, grunge children, men and women looking for a partner to keep them company that night — all of them mingled unknowingly with immortal predators.
Wincing at the music that pounded the club, Laine glanced at the stage, and then looked more closely. Javier's crew played rock music while other vampires danced for the patrons. Most of the dancers were terrible. One male vampire moved like a wooden marionette manipulated by a rhythm-impaired puppeteer. Only one female stood out.
"Urs!" Laine breathed. An unexpected complication. Although Laine was not sure why she hadn't expected Javier's fledgling to be in Toronto. Javier might part from his crew occasionally, but never for more than a few years at a time. Urs and Laine had met only once. A brief encounter filled with hostility and resentment. Urs had held Laine responsible for Javier's unhappiness. Laine had not defended herself, unwilling to explain why she had left Javier without saying goodbye; especially to a vampire who had been brought across after she and Javier had parted.
Laine watched Urs undulate to the music. The younger vampire seemed completely oblivious to the watching eyes, and yet Laine recognized the expression on Urs' face, knew that Urs craved the attention, the pseudo-love radiated by the men in the audience.
Shoving back the memories of their last confrontation, Laine moved on to the bar.
"Get'cha somefing?" The bartender was uncouth to say the least. With uncombed long hair that stuck out in several directions, the build of a motor-cycle gang member, and the clothes to match, he oozed violence and ignorance. Laine guessed that he was very young, probably less than fifty years old.
"The house special, please." Laine was tense and unsure. She had not expected to find so many mortals hanging out at the Raven. Exposing her vampire nature had just become a last resort. To make sure this boor knew what she wanted, Laine added, "Nick Knight and Larry Merlin both recommended it highly."
"Good friends of yours, huh?"
"Yes. I'm staying with Merlin for a while."
"And Knight?" Reaching forward, the bartender grabbed her wrist, a grimy forefinger digging into her skin just over the pulse.
"He's an old friend." Anger rose at the youngster's insolence. Had his Master taught him nothing about identifying other vampires? If he pulled this stunt on the wrong vampire, the bartender's lack of judgment would result in a very short life. Laine tore her arm out of his grip. Carefully making sure that her face was hidden from the humans at the bar, she allowed a hint of gold to rim her eyes, and snarled, "Anything else? A lesson in etiquette perhaps? Or may I have my drink?"
"No...nothing else." The bartender backed away, visibly shaking as he reached under the bar and pulled out a bottle. "Ten percent wine mix, okay?"
"Fine." Laine tossed a couple of bills on the bar, and grabbed her wineglass. "Keep the change. Use it to buy a couple of lessons in protocol."
Laine grabbed a booth against the back wall, pushing through a small group of human vampire-wannabes to claim it. One of the boys, dressed in black and silver with white makeup and black lipstick and eyeshadow bared his teeth as she jostled him. Laine resisted the tingling that grew in her own gums as she saw his filed, pointed molars. While it would be fun to see his reaction to her fangs, dealing with the aftermath would be more than she could handle right now.
She was sitting quietly, watching the crowd and sipping her drink when an ancient vampire slipped into the other side of the booth, placing a full bottle in the centre of the table. He did not speak immediately; just drank from his own glass and scrutinized Laine. Laine, in turn, used the opportunity to examine the man seated across from her.
He was as fascinating as a cobra; the sheer power and self-confidence that he exuded both repelled and attracted her. His expensively tailored black silk shirt was carefully cut to show off a well-defined upper body. Extremely short dark blond hair drew attention to a strong bone structure and piercing blue eyes that revealed his age, leaving her disconcerted and apprehensive. Laine had spent most of the last two or three centuries avoiding all vampires over fifteen hundred years old, frightened by the possibility that all vampires over a certain age suffered from the same insanity as Tomas. She had since learned that this was not true, but she could not shake the fear.
Forcibly breaking eye contact, Laine raised her glass only to find it was empty. A cool hand pressed her glass back to the table while the other refilled it.
The question of her identity hung in the air between them. After the Nightcrawler's broadcast the night before, Laine was sure he knew who she was, but she did not have the strength to play mind games with an ancient vampire. "Laine Saxon, born Madelaine de Sarre."
LaCroix nodded regally, and waited for her to continue.
Laine decided that if LaCroix wasn't the vampire master of Toronto, no-one else had had the nerve to tell him or to demand he give up the position.
"Bloodline through the one who calls himself Tomas of Mycenae." Laine stopped, unsure what other information LaCroix wanted and unwilling to tell him any more than was absolutely necessary.
An unidentifiable emotion flitted across LaCroix's eyes when Laine said the name of her Master, but there was no trace of it in his voice. "And what do you want from me, Laine Saxton, daughter to Tomas of Mycenae and once-betrothed of Nicolas de Brabant?"
Laine took a deep breath and looked directly at LaCroix. "Information and, if you will, your help in finding Tomas."
"And what do I get in return?" LaCroix's expression mocked Laine, challenged her to come up with something worthwhile.
A drink moistened Laine's suddenly dry mouth. She whispered, "What do you want?"
"Many things, but I doubt that you are capable of accomplishing them." LaCroix leaned forward and trapped Laine's hand in one of his own. "Can you bring Nicholas back to his family?"
Laine shook her head, "No. I do not understand his quixotic quest for mortality enough to debate the issue with him. Besides, I do not want to do anything that would interfere in your relationship with Nick."
"Good answer." LaCroix's smile chilled Laine, making her wish she was almost anywhere else but at the Raven talking to him. "I still decline to offer you my assistance in locating your errant Master, but I will provide you with some information. What do you seek? The location of Javier Vachon? The names of all the Raven's customers for the past three months? All of the above?"
"None of the above." Relief made Laine grin. Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad after all. "I'm looking for the names and addresses of vampires who have purchased an AB-negative/absinthe mixture recently."
"A blend requested very infrequently by a small and undiscerning sector of my clientele." LaCroix held up his glass to the dim light above the booth and admired the reflections that sparked as he twirled it between his fingers. "And unfortunately not knowledge that is available to the public. Next question?"
The abrupt mood change caught Laine by surprise, causing her to blurt out, "Wait a minute. You said you would give me the information I'm looking for."
LaCroix allowed one eyebrow to rise. He spoke slowly, patiently explaining something that he felt should have been obvious. "And I will, but only that which I choose. The success of my business is predicated upon discretion. While I do advertise the availability of certain unusual blood mixtures through restricted channels, I never reveal the names of those who purchase them. I have a reputation to maintain."
At that moment, a scantily-dressed female goth passed by, leaving the scent of perfume and blood in her wake. LaCroix turned his head and followed her with his eyes. "There are so many advantages to owning a club these days. I should have had Janette sell the Raven to me years ago." With a slight effort, he brought his attention back to Laine. "Think carefully about the questions you wish me to answer for you. Despite Nicholas' apparent belief to the contrary, I am not a fount of knowledge for all and sundry. My offer will only remain open for a short time."
LaCroix slid out of the booth and gripped her chin with one powerful hand, forcing Laine to look up into his eyes. "And be sure that you do not interfere with Nicholas in any way. I have plans for him that do not include a liaison with someone whose very presence reminds him of his long-lost mortality. There are plenty of other vampires in the city who would be happy to play with you."
Laine fell back against the banquette when LaCroix released her. She shivered with fear, rubbing the lightly bruised skin, as she watched his progress across the room. When LaCroix whispered into the ear of the luckless mortal woman and the pair walked towards a carefully concealed door, Laine grimaced sympathetically and drained her glass.
Lost in silent contemplation, Laine did not notice when the music finished and Urs took the seat that LaCroix had recently vacated until Urs spoke, "Madelena. I thought I saw you from the stage."
"Urs. What a pleasant surprise." The irony in Laine's voice was lost on the younger vampire. "I see you're still entertaining the menfolk."
"Dancing keeps me busy." Urs shrugged. "And I don't have to worry about anyone getting carried away."
"Are you still singing as well?"
"Not right now. Although, you never know, I might one day."
"How nice." Laine was at a loss for words. After the fight they had about Laine's callous treatment of Javier Vachon the last time they met, she had not expected Urs to come over for a chat. "I'm going by Laine Saxton now, by the way."
"Okay." Urs picked up the bottle off the table, looked at thoughtfully, and asked, "Do you mind if I have a drink, Laine?"
"Help yourself." Laine waited patiently while Urs tilted the bottle and drank, then Laine refilled her own glass.
"Does Javier know you're in town?"
Laine bridled at the challenge in Urs' voice, but kept herself under control. "Yes. I was over at the church a couple of nights ago."
"That explains his attitude when I saw him last night." Urs chewed her lip and continued, "I guess you don't want any advice from me."
"Not really, but you're going to give it to me anyway, aren't you?" Brittle laughter threaded through Laine's voice.
"Yep." Urs smiled at Laine, and both vampires relaxed slightly. "Look, I realize that I over-stepped my bounds last time we met."
"Just a little."
"I know that you left Javier a few years before he brought me across, but he's talked about you over the years. Complaining about the bad times, and remembering the good times as well." Urs sipped from the bottle again. "I've done a lot of thinking during the past few decades: about myself and others. I know that I got carried away before — that I should have allowed you to tell me your side of things as well — but I wanted to protect Javier from you. He's not as good at dealing with women as he thinks he is." Urs paused and stared into the distance somewhere over Laine's shoulder.
"Go on," Laine encouraged.
"I just wanted to tell you to take it easy on him, that's all. You hurt Javier badly when you left without saying goodbye, and I don't want to see that happen again. If you don't want to stay with him, then keep away."
"And if I do?" Laine stared awkwardly at her fingers.
Urs widened her eyes in surprise, her mouth forming a perfect O. "If you do...."
Laine brought her head up rapidly. Her eyes filled with blood tears, giving everything a pinkish hue. "What if I want to stay with Javier? What would you do then?"
"I don't know." Urs admitted. "He is my Master, and I love him; but the time for Javier and me to be lovers has passed. All I can do is ease his mind as best I can when he is depressed. If he wants to be with you, then I will not stand in your way." The younger vampire frowned, "You will be better for him than that mortal woman."
"You mean Tracy Vetter?"
"Yes, her. I have no idea what Javier sees in that ditzy human."
//Pot calling kettle,// thought Laine uncharitably, and then apologetically spoke aloud. "I suppose that I'll have to find out how Javier feels about Tracy before I do anything else..and whether he is even interested in trying again with me."
"I don't..." Urs started.
"Hey! Urs!" The guitarist from the band yelled from the stage. "Break's over. Time to get back to work."
"I've got to go. Duty calls." Urs stood up. "If you're sticking around town for a while, maybe we could go for a drink one night. Just girl talk, you know?"
"I'd like that." Laine was surprised to find that she really meant what she said. "I'll speak to you later."
"I'll be here," and Urs was gone, back to the stage and the spotlight of men's eyes.
Restlessness surged through Laine as music pulsated through the Raven once again. She fought the urge to flee. She could not, would not waste any more of her life running away. Short nails gouged crescent-shaped scars in the table, as she silently repeated her litany of hope: I will find Tomas, I will stop Tomas, I will regain control of my destiny.
After a few moments, Laine picked up her glass and drank the last mouthful. A quick inspection showed that the bottle was empty too. Urs must have consumed more than Laine thought. Craving the reassurance of blood, Laine flagged down a passing waitress and was soon rewarded with a fresh bottle.
Savouring the taste of the bordeaux-laced blood, Laine realized that she had not accomplished very much at the Raven. LaCroix had been singularly unhelpful, but Laine had a nagging feeling that he had given her an important clue. She went over their conversation in her mind. On the third time around, it finally clicked. He had said that the absinthe/blood blend was something that was requested "very infrequently". Given what she knew of Tomas' addiction, that meant that he was getting his absinthe from somewhere else. Nick and Tracy's investigation into other sources of the substance had suddenly become crucial.
Laine checked her watch: 11:45. Tracy and Nick should be here soon. With a little luck, they would have a lead on Toronto suppliers. In the meantime, Laine could do nothing but wait. The Raven was busy. If she gave up this booth, she would have a hard time finding another.
"Hey, darlin'. Care to dance?" The mortal stood swaying in front of the booth. Dishevelled and obviously drunk, he leered invitingly and gestured towards the dance floor.
Laine cursed silently. Aloud, she declined politely, "No, thank you."
Leaning forward and bracing one arm on the table and the other against the back of the booth, the man tried again, breathing alcoholic fumes over Laine. "Wassamatter? Don't think I'm good enough for you?"
"No, I'm meeting friends. They should be here soon." Laine studiously looked away from the drunkard.
"C'n spend time wi'me while you're waitin'."
Laine released her breath explosively and turned around — just in time to see a hand forcibly spin the mortal around.
"The lady said no." Javier Vachon glared at the drunk, who rapidly stumbled away, mumbling apologies.
Grinning impudently, Vachon sat down next to Laine, stretched one arm across the back of the seat and picked up her glass with the other hand. "You really need to be more careful about the company you keep."
"Is that a threat or a warning?" Laine smiled back, her incipient anger and distress melting in the face of his good humour. "Should I worry about sitting here with you?"
Vachon tipped his head back and swallowed the contents of her glass. Placing it carefully on the table, he twisted around and faced Laine. His eyes widened as he examined her carefully. His arm slipped down from the back of the bench and fell across her shoulders. When he finally spoke, his words carried no further than her ears. "That depends on what you're looking for."
Lips tingling, gums aching, Laine moved forward to kiss her former lover.
"Laine!" Tracy's voice was high, anxious.
Vachon and Laine jumped as if they had been struck by wooden bullets. Hastily, they pulled apart. Gathering her scattered wits, Laine unobtrusively shoved the bottle and glass in front of Vachon. He glanced at her with sudden comprehension and grabbed one in each hand.
"Tracy. Nick. You're early." Laine's voice shook slightly. "Umm...this is Javier Vachon. He thinks he might be able to help us."
"We would have been here sooner, but I had to wait for Tracy to park her car." Nick hid a grin and took a seat at the booth across from Vachon, pulling Tracy down next to him.
Tracy narrowed her eyes and scowled at Vachon. "We've met," she said flatly.
"He's one of Tracy's snitches." Nick added helpfully.
"I see." Laine avoided looking at Nick and Vachon, barely managing to control the laughter that threatened to burst out at any moment. "So he might actually have some useful information."
"Perhaps." Tracy took several controlled deep breaths to calm her pounding heart. The last thing she wanted was to attract the attention of any of the other vampires in the Raven. One was quite enough. Letting out one last breath, Tracy asked Vachon, "Do you know anyone who sells absinthe in Toronto?"
"Y'all want a drink or are you just going to take up space?" The bald waitress who had served Laine earlier stood in front of the booth.
"I'd love a large Sprite," Tracy licked her lips thirstily, "with ice."
Drawing on centuries of experience, Nick said, "A glass of red wine. Imported, not the house wine."
Laine thought about ordering blood, but decided against it. Tracy was bound to smell the blood in her glass if she ordered it; especially in the Raven where the mortal detective would be looking for that kind of thing. "I'll have the same."
Vachon held up his bottle and smiled maliciously at the other two vampires, "I'm fine."
The waitress commiserated with Laine, quirking an eyebrow in Tracy's direction. "Saving yourself for later, huh? Just be careful. You've got to watch out for the cops in this town." Winking at Nick, the waitress left.
An uncomfortable silence reigned at the table while they waited for their drinks.
Tracy gulped her pop when it arrived, wishing that the Raven provided straws.
Laine and Nick sipped gingerly at the wine. Nick was more successful than Laine at controlling the revulsion that the expensive french Bordeaux engendered.
Shoving her glass away in disgust, Laine asked Nick and Tracy, "Did you find out anything tonight?"
"Not really." Nick admitted. "The victim's family turned out to be a dead end. They weren't very close, and hadn't even realized she was missing. It had been at least two weeks since any of them talked to Sarah, and I got the impression that wasn't unusual."
"Should we be talking about this now?" Tracy looked meaningfully at Vachon. "I mean, unless Vachon has some information about absinthe suppliers...." She let her voice trail away.
"That's all I'm good for." Vachon spoke to no-one in particular. "Vachon, tell me about this. Vachon, do you know about that?" He stood up, retaining the glass and bottle and spoke directly to Tracy. "I don't know a thing about absinthe. It's not my drink of choice. So, you'll just have to find someone else to provide the answers this time."
Tracy flushed as Vachon stalked off and disappeared into the crowd. Nervously, she picked up her pop and took another drink. The ice cubes rattled as she put the glass back on the table.
Sympathy for the confused mortal detective washed over Laine. She retrieved her glass and played with its narrow stem. "Were you able to find anything out that might help us track down the source?"
A small, fragile smile twitched Tracy's lips. She pulled a notepad out of her purse and flipped it open at a page in the middle. "I did discover one possibility. A smuggler named Greg Morvin. He deals in moonshine and other high alcohol content liquor. I have a contact who promised to set up a meet late tomorrow morning. I can let you know more after that." She turned to Nick and said, "That's the phone call I got just as we were leaving the station."
"Aren't you leaving on vacation tomorrow?" Nick reminded Tracy gently.
"I'm already packed and I'm not meeting my folks at the airport until five o'clock in the afternoon. That leaves me with plenty of time to meet with Morvin." Resentment coiled through Tracy's voice. She shook her head. "To be honest, I'd prefer to skip the family winter holiday this year. I wish I could get the captain to change his mind. I know that my father would understand if Captain Reese told him that I couldn't go on vacation because of a murder investigation." Tracy started noisily crunching ice cubes in annoyance.
"We've been over this already. You know that's not going to happen. Just make sure you let us know what you learn before you leave." Nick leaned back into the corner of the booth, trying to relax.
Laine saw Tracy's crestfallen look, and decided to step in. "Tracy? Do you have an address or contact number for Morvin? He could turn out to be important."
Swallowing the ice in her mouth, Tracy wiped her lips with a napkin. "Not yet. I'll probably have his address tomorrow though. Do you want to come to see him with me?"
"I can't." Laine allowed Tracy to hear her regret. For some unknown reason, she felt compelled to support the young detective. Maybe it was because everyone else frequently belittled and underestimated Tracy. "I have to report to my superiors and get some other routine stuff done. I'm sure you'll do a great job though. If you leave me the phone number of where you'll be staying, I can keep you updated on our progress."
"That would be great." Tracy checked her notepad and jotted something down on a page. Tearing it out of the pad, she handed the page to Laine. It contained the hotel name, address and telephone number.
The waitress picked that moment to return. "Last call for drinks."
"We're fine." Laine smiled at the waitress, and pulled some bills out of her pocket. "This should more than cover our bill. Keep the change."
"Thanks." Moving on the next table, the waitress slipped the money into a fanny pack.
"I've got to go to the Ladies." Tracy announced as she stood up. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes. Don't leave without me, and don't talk to strangers."
"Yes, Mom." Laine smiled at Tracy. "We'll be careful, I promise."
As soon as Tracy was out of range, Nick slammed his hand on the table and exploded, "What the hell was that all about? Did you enjoy watching everyone wriggle and squirm tonight? Tracy might know that Vachon is a vampire, and you might not care whether she finds out about you. However, I have too much to lose if she discovers that I'm a vampire. Did you think before you arranged this little get together?"
"I'm sorry." Laine covered Nick's hand with one of her own and massaged the muscles of his shoulder with the other. "You're right. I should have thought first. But by the time I realized this wasn't a good idea, it was too late." Of course, that was right around the time you and Tracy arrived, she thought unrepentantly.
Nick scrutinized Laine and shook his head. "You haven't changed that much have you. Still pulling the same headstrong, thoughtless pranks you did when we were growing up."
"Guess not." Laine grinned and tapped Nick's face lightly. She leaned back against the corner of the banquette and pulled her legs up onto the seat. "Can you live with it?"
"Do I have a choice?" Nick muttered, wishing furiously that Laine would just tell him what she wanted once and for all. He grabbed his glass in frustration and drained it, choking when he realized too late that it contained wine.
"You always have a choice." Laine handed Nick a napkin. "Still friends?"
Vachon rested his elbows on the table, and jumped right into the conversation, "Where's Trace?"
"Gone to the washroom. She'll be back soon." Laine smothered her laughter.
Vachon glanced in the direction of the washrooms. "We need to talk....without Tracy. Can we meet somewhere?"
"My loft." Nick crumpled up the napkin and dropped it on the table.
"No." The determination in Laine's voice drew the attention of both male vampires. "I won't go to your loft or to your church. If you have something to discuss out of Tracy's hearing, then it will have to be at Merlin's place."
Nick started to argue, but a rapid signal from Vachon made him look around. Tracy was slowly making her way across the room. "Fine. Merlin's place it is. In half an hour?"
Vachon nodded and took off. By the time Tracy got back to the booth, Laine and Nick were standing up, pulling on their coats.
"We're leaving?" Tracy sighed with relief. This hadn't been too bad after all. Other than that brief encounter with Vachon, the vampires in the Raven had left them alone.
Outside, the three said their goodbyes.
Laine offered, "Tracy, why don't we give you a lift to your car. After all, you did say that this wasn't a safe neighbourhood."
"No thanks. I'll be fine. It's only a couple of blocks, and I do have a gun." Tracy pulled her keys out of her purse, holding them in one gloved hand. With the other, she gestured at the bump that her holster made in her coat.
"You sure, Trace?" Nick asked. "It would only take a couple of minutes."
"Yes, I'm sure." Tracy shivered dramatically. "I'm a big girl. I can handle walking across the street to my car. Besides it's too cold to stand out here arguing. By the time you get that old fossil of a cadillac going, I could be in my car and driving away."
The two vampires stood and watched Tracy walk to the other side of the road. When she disappeared behind a van in the parking lot, they left to get Nick's cadillac, unaware of the presence of a third vampire crouching on the roof of the Raven.
Tracy moved rapidly through the lot and out the other side. The heels of her shoes tapped out a sharp counterpoint to the jingling of car keys as she walked the two blocks to her car. She felt vaguely guilty about lying to Nick and Laine, but she wanted to be alone, to clear the tension that being in the Raven with Laine and Nick had created. Tracy wasn't worried about being attacked. The vampires who hung around the Raven always left her strictly alone — probably because of Vachon. As for human attackers, her gun should be more than enough to deal with them.
Tracy's car was the last one left in the lot. The light above reflected off the paint. Outside the circle of illumination, dark pools of shadow formed. She thumbed the button on her key chain that disconnected the alarm, and inserted the key in the lock.
As Tracy opened the car door, a figure loomed out of the darkness and seized her. White hair and fangs filled her vision. Then everything went black.
"Do you mind?" Larry Merlin raked his hand through dark brown, curly hair and swung around to face his unexpected visitor. "I'm trying to do some work here."
Vachon lay sprawled on the floor in an untidy heap. He lifted his gaze from the CD's he had been shuffling noisily and blinked. "Don't let me interrupt you."
Merlin sighed loudly in exasperation and returned to his computer. He sat hunched over, fingers flickering rapidly. Lines scrolled past on the monitor as he reviewed what he had written in the fifteen minutes since Vachon had arrived. Merlin muttered "Garbage in. Garbage out. What a load of trash."
"I disagree. You've got a few classic LP's, and some of these CD's are pretty good." Vachon held up a plastic case. "Mind if I play one?"
"Go ahead. Just keep the noise down." Merlin deleted the last fifteen lines. After a couple of moments of silence, concentration returned and he began to type.
Music exploded out of the speakers, assaulting Merlin's ears. His hands spasmed in shock and a jumble of letters appeared on the screen.
"Not my favourite Nine Inch Nails song, but perfectly acceptable." Vachon leaned over Merlin's shoulder and examined the computer screen. "Looks like hieroglyphics. What does it say?"
"Say? It says nothing. Nothing at all." Shoving his chair back from the desk, Merlin knocked Vachon into the pile of discs on the floor. Ignoring his visitor's complaints, Merlin stalked over to the stereo and wrenched the volume knob down until the music was little more than a murmur. "That's better."
Aggrieved, Vachon stared up at Merlin with his eyes wide open. "It's your CD."
"Actually it's mine." Laine's voice cut across the room.
She and Nick stood at the door, surveying the chaos that was Merlin's habitat. The entire apartment was dimly lit. The shutters that kept out the sun hadn't been opened since they were installed the day before Merlin moved in.
Computer parts were scattered over almost every available surface: keyboard, motherboards, cards, drives, wires, diskettes, CD-ROM's, other things that neither of them could identify. A desk held one computer. Merlin worked at a second computer that sat on the dining room table. Cables wriggled their way from the computer to a series of odd-sized boxes arranged haphazardly on the table, and over the floor to a scanner and a couple of printers that sat on a ledge between the kitchen and dining room. More cables connected the peripherals to phone lines and surge protectors. Another computer set up was just visible through the door into one of the bedrooms. The door to the second bedroom was closed. Books and paper were heaped randomly around the floor in the living room/dining room, some piled so high that the slightest touch would knock them over.
"It's about time." Merlin swung his chair around and sat down, straightening out his legs and propping stocking feet on a mound of books. "Now would you mind telling me why my home has suddenly become vampire central."
"Sorry we're late." Laine tossed off boots and socks, and dropped her coat on top of them by the door. Jumping across the room, she curled up on the floor and leaned against an armchair. "Nick had problems getting the caddy started....and he refused to leave it at the Raven and fly over here."
Nick hung his coat on the coat-tree beside the front door, and placed his shoes on the plastic drip mat. Cautiously, he picked his way across the obstacle course that was Merlin's floor and sat on the couch. He said, "It wasn't that bad. She just took a couple of minutes to get going."
"A couple of minutes." Laine snorted. "More like fifteen or twenty."
Merlin interrupted before Nick could respond, "That still doesn't tell me why you're all here." He focussed his gaze on Laine. "All Vachon would say is that you told him to meet you and Nick here."
"Well, we needed a place to talk privately, and neither Nick nor Javier had a suitable place." Laine picked up a piece of wire from the floor and began fiddling with it, winding it through her fingers and drawing pictures on her skin with the copper end. "Javier said he had some information about Tomas."
"Not exactly about Tomas, but I think it's related to him." Vachon pushed the disc cases away, and sat down with his legs drawn up, arms resting on his knees. "Meg Jones is dead."
"What?" Laine jammed the wire into her thumb. Aggravated, she pulled it out and sucked the drops of blood that beaded the skin.
Vachon met her eyes, warmth flared and died into sorrow. "No-one's seen her for a couple of nights, but we didn't think too much of it. We just assumed she and Trevor were spending a few nights together, saying goodbye to Toronto."
"Who's Meg Jones?" Nick levered himself up off the couch and pried a piece of board out from under his thigh.
Merlin sat motionless and listened. He knew more about the comings and goings of the vampire community than most of their kind, but decided to wait until he was asked, rather than volunteering information.
"Meg was....is....was an old friend." Laine swiped at her eyes with one sleeve.
Vachon moved over and pulled Laine into his arms. She buried her head in his shoulder briefly, and then turned until she was facing Nick and Merlin. She looked at Nick's confused expression, and drew away from Vachon.
Laine continued, "She was lady's maid to the Duchess a.k.a. Elizabeth Hardwicke about three centuries ago. When Elizabeth was brought across by an amorous vampire admirer, she decided that immortal life would not be livable without her maid to do her hair, set out her clothes and generally take care of all the petty little details. So, the Duchess brought Meg across as well. Meg took care of her for over a hundred years, until the Duchess picked the wrong man for dinner and wound up staked out in the sun."
Vachon picked up when Laine's voice petered out. "Trevor found Meg a few days later. He stopped her from following the Duchess into the sun. He took care of Meg, taught her how to live for herself. I've rarely seen one without the other since then. Laine and I spent a few years travelling around the American colonies with them in the early 19th century."
"But what makes you think that Tomas is involved?" Nick filed away Vachon's comment about the younger vampire's relationship with Laine for future consideration. Shifting around, Nick crossed one leg over the other and frowned thoughtfully. "Maybe Meg just decided she had lived long enough."
"No!" Laine and Vachon spoke in unison.
Sheepishly, they looked at each other and Laine gestured for Vachon to continue. "Trev and Meg have been together for so long, shared so much blood that their bond is virtually unbreakable. He told us......he felt her die, saw the images that Meg transmitted as she faded. Not a clear picture, but the killer definitely had white hair, red eyes, fangs and...." Vachon bent his head and scratched at the carpet with his nails. "And a sense of extreme age and madness."
"It has to be Tomas." Anger flared yellow in Laine's eyes. "We have to find him. Stop him."
"Follow your link." Nick urged Laine, "You found him the other night. Why don't you do that now?"
Laine twisted the wire between her fingers. After a few moments, she raised tormented eyes to Nick. "I can't. If Tomas forces it, he can tug at my mind and let me know where he is, but I can't do it myself. I've tried. Over and over again." Laine hugged her knees. "Tomas and his friends broke something inside me in that castle all those years ago. Whether our connection is buried beneath decades of brutality or is damaged beyond repair, I don't know. All I know is that no matter how hard I try, I cannot sense him."
Silence deepened and thickened in the room, until Merlin cleared his throat. "There are other ways to track someone down; especially in this day and age." When he was sure he had the attention of the other three vampires, Merlin continued, "From what Laine has told me about Tomas, he is arrogant, possessive and controlling to an extreme degree. So, I can't imagine that he would simply squat in someone else's building and hide out there."
"It would be impossible to get a writ to examine the records in the Toronto Registry Office and the Land Titles Office." Nick craned his neck so that he could whether Merlin would take his bait. "I wouldn't even know what to tell the crown prosecutor how to justify our request."
"Why would we need a writ?" Merlin grinned. "I have everything I need right here. I can't do anything until 8:30 in the morning when the offices open, but once they enable the datanodes in their mainframes I can make a run. As long as they haven't changed their passcodes or their IC in the last month, there should be no problem. Of course, a bit more information about Tomas would be helpful to define the parameters and cut down the amount of time it takes."
Merlin looked at Nick and Laine, and added, "That is assuming that my friendly neighbourhood cops aren't going to cause any problems."
Laine gave Merlin a "who-me" look.
"I can hardly run you in for illegally accessing databases when I've had you do it for me, can I?" Nick turned around and re-settled himself, so he could see Merlin comfortably.
"True." Merlin grabbed a notepad and pen from the table. "So, tell me about Tomas."
Nick listened with interest while Laine answered Merlin's questions about her Master's habits and the names Tomas might use. When they turned to areas in and around Toronto where Tomas might hide out, Nick entered the conversation. His knowledge of the city's streets gathered over years of police work narrowed the possibilities.
Vachon followed the discussion for a while, then returned to his examination of Merlin's disc collection, occasionally slotting one into the CD player and playing a track. After the second or third song, Merlin pulled out a pair of headphones, and Vachon turned off the speakers, keeping the volume low enough to follow what the others were saying.
Eventually, Merlin collected his notes in a neat pile, stood up and stretched. "That should be enough information to get started. I'll let you know if I find anything." He moved over and snapped the stereo off.
"Hey!" Vachon's eyes opened wide. He shoved the headphones off his ears.
"Time to go home." Merlin pulled Vachon to his feet. "I've got work to do."
"Not me. I'm staying here." Vachon sat back down on the floor.
"I don't think so." Merlin glared down at Vachon.
"I do." Vachon blinked. "Sun's up, and I don't fancy becoming vampire fricassee today."
Laine stood up. "Javier's right, Merlin. They are going to have to stay here all day."
"Why is it that every but me can sense when the sun rises?" Merlin asked no-one in particular. He snatched his notes from the table and glared at Vachon. "I'm going to work in my bedroom. Anybody interrupts, they're out of here. Sun or no sun."
The sound of the bedroom door closing echoed through the apartment.
"I'm going to bed." Laine paused in the doorway. "There's only two bedrooms, so you two will have to share the couch."
"Unless....." Vachon let the rest of the sentence hang in the air unsaid.
"No." Laine worried her lower lip with her teeth. "Not tonight. I can't."
Nick swept the remaining odds and ends off the couch and laid out full-length, one foot dangling off the edge. "Don't even think about getting on here with me."
Vachon scowled at Nick, then subsided. He wasn't in the mood for an argument with an older vampire. "Guess that leaves me the floor." Clearing just enough space to stretch out, Vachon rested his head on folded arms. He tossed and turned for a few minutes, then said, "You could at least give me a cushion."
"Here." Without opening his eyes, Nick retrieved one of the cushions from behind his head and threw it directly at Vachon's face. "Now go to sleep."
Vachon punched the cushion into a comfortable shape, sighed noisily and closed his eyes.
A few streets away, in a damp, dark cellar, Tracy awoke to find herself tied to a cold metal chair. Thick rope wound its way around her legs, across her body and held her hands behind her back. Shivering and groaning as she moved her head, Tracy looked up and at her captor.
//Vampire!// her thoughts screamed warning as she scrutinized him. Thin to the point of emaciation, the strange vampire was chalk-white — far paler than any other of his kind she had ever seen. Long white hair surrounded his head in an uncombed halo. Long fangs dug into his lower lip and extended downwards. Fearfully, she met his gaze. Instead of the yellow she expected, his eyes were blood-red and glazed, shining with the light of madness.
"Welcome to my humble abode, Detective Tracy Vetter." The fangs caused the vampire to lisp slightly. "My name is Tomas. Perhaps you have heard of me."
Tracy shook her head, whimpering as the movement started hammers pounding in her brain.
"Tsk. Tsk. I was sure my dear daughter would have mentioned my name." Tomas knelt down until his eyes were level with Tracy's. He paused, as if waiting for her to respond, then continued, "Obviously not. Such a regrettable oversight."
The combined scents of blood, alcohol and something unrecognizable swept over Tracy with Tomas' breath. She wet her lips with her tongue, and tried speaking. Her voice came out in a croak, "Who..."
"Since I've already told you my name, I assume you are asking after my only child." Tomas gently traced the line of Tracy's jaw with one hand. "You know her as Laine Saxton."
Shock mingled with fear in Tracy's eyes as she tried without success to pull away from Tomas' touch. Fear for herself. Fear for Nick who was wandering unknowingly around Toronto with a vampire, who was thinking about marrying that vampire.
"Such a wayward fledgling." Tomas reached for something on the ground, out of Tracy's line of sight. "Perhaps when Madelaine and I are re-united, I will create a sister for her. Would you like that?"
Tracy quivered when the vampire's hand left her skin; then froze when she saw the bottle he was holding. Suddenly, everything came together in her mind. The vampire holding her captive was the killer who tore Sarah McIsaac into pieces. Overwhelming fear surged up from the pit of her stomach. She wasn't supposed to die yet. "Please...."
"So polite; so agreeable." Tomas spoke in a low, pleasant voice. The lisp lent his words a child-like air. "Now it is time for you to drink."
Tracy struggled to turn her head away from the bottle, but his powerful grip prevented her. A strong alcoholic liquid was poured between her lip, then Tomas clamped her mouth shut. Against her will, she swallowed reflexively. Once, twice and a third time. Dizzy, slightly sick, Tracy closed her eyes and slept.
"So sweet. So obedient." Tomas kissed the unconscious Tracy, licking up the blood that welled from the scratches left by his fangs. "I do believe that I shall bring you across to keep me company after I have tamed my rebellious Madelaine."
The spare bedroom of Merlin's apartment was spartan compared to the other rooms. The computer equipment had been removed and replaced with three suitcases — all of which lay open, spewing clothing onto the floor. The rest of the floor space was taken up by a large four-poster bed.
Laine blinked as she emerged from the trance. She sat cross-legged in the exact centre of the bed. Her hands lay between her thighs, palms upward, one on top of the other. Several hours ago, she had stopped trying to sleep and turned to meditation, striving for the balance that she would need when she finally confronted Tomas — a confrontation that she both dreaded and craved.
Death. One way or another she was hurtling towards that most final of endings — probably sooner rather than later. With luck, Tomas would die, but Laine would not delude herself. Her chances of surviving the encounter were minimal at best. Her Master was far older, and far stronger than she. And, adding his madness into the equation only stacked the odds against her even higher. Laine's best hope was that her sacrifice would not be in vain. If she could not take Tomas with her when she went, with a little luck Nick or Vachon would destroy Tomas for her. Either would suffice...so long as Tomas died.
Nick and Javier, Laine mused. She would have to make a decision about them soon. She would not survive Tomas' emotional manipulations if he gained any insight into her dilemma. She could not afford to be vulnerable, to be divided. Tomas would pounce on that split and use it against her, distracting her with her own vulnerabilities until she was open to him once again. And if that happened she would be lost.
Javier first. The events of the last few nights had made it impossible for her to deny that she loved him. Had done so from the moment they met and would for the rest of her life, whether that was a matter of hours, days or years. But how did Javier feel about her? And how did Tracy Vetter fit into his life? There was also another small problem: she loved him but could never live with him for more than few decades at a time. Their entire relationship was a series of separations and reunions and would probably continue that way forever.
Putting her love for Javier aside, Laine considered her once-betrothed. In some ways, Nick would be the hardest to deal with. She did not want to lose his friendship, but brutal honesty made her realize that she couldn't be his lover for any length of time. They were too different and too similar in all the wrong ways. They would hurt each other constantly. He would try to use her to draw closer to the humanity he wanted, trying to fit her into the shape of the child he remembered so he might become the mortal youth he once was. Without a doubt, she would rebel, craving freedom and independence as much as she craved the blood that kept her alive. Her fight for autonomy from his rigid strictures would damage both of them and demolish any chance they had for a lasting relationship. A small amount of pain now would save them both from a great deal later.
Laine released the breath she had been holding. Decision made. She would talk to Javier tonight after Nick and Merlin left. Hopefully, there would be time to speak to Nick before she caught up with Tomas.
By the time Laine had dressed and emerged from the adjoining bathroom, the other three vampires were sitting around the dining room table, reading and drinking,
Wordlessly, Merlin handed her a printout and a glass of blood.
"You're finished?" Laine glanced at the list of names and addresses.
"No. Those are from the Registry Office files. The sort is still working through the download from Land Titles. I should have the results of that in a couple of hours or so." Merlin kicked out a chair for Laine to sit on. "I didn't think you would want to wait."
"There's five addresses on there that I recognize." Nick shoved his full glass to one side. "I'll check out the neighbourhoods. See if any of the street people have noticed anything unusual. Want to join me?" He directed his question at Laine.
Vachon shoved his chair back from the table and balanced it on the back legs. He put his feet up on the table and studied the papers in his hand intently.
"Please." Laine took a large gulp from her glass. "Can I meet you at the station? I've got something to do first."
"Fine." Nick stood up. "See you there."
"Did Tracy come up with anything from the distributor?" Laine asked Nick.
"I haven't heard from her, but then again I wasn't home all day. She's probably left a report on my desk." Nick pulled on his boots and coat. "Thanks for the use of your couch, Merlin."
Merlin had been sitting quietly, just listening and watching, but the sound of the door closing behind Nick galvanized him into action. "Time for me to leave as well. I've got an installation to do."
A few minutes later, Laine and Vachon were alone in the apartment. Silence lay heavily on the living room as they both pretended to be engrossed in the results of Merlin's search.
The bang as the front legs of Vachon's chair hit the ground, and the scrape as he got up shattered the pseudo-calm. "I'll go ask around the swap-meet. See if anyone's heard anything."
Laine put down her papers and walked around to the front of the couch. "Swap-meet?"
"Yeah. Place where a lot of homeless mortals hang around to exchange what they scrounge up." Vachon closed his eyes momentarily. "Screed introduced me around, so they should talk to me."
"I heard about Screed. I'm sorry. I'll miss the old sailor." Laine chewed on her lower lip.
"He talked about you at the end." Vachon stubbed his toe into the carpet, watching the way the fibres parted.
"What...what did he say?." Laine hugged her arms around her middle.
"Mostly about why you left. He was really upset about that." Vachon finally brought his gaze up to Laine's face. "We all were."
"Vachon, I......" The words faded from Laine's mind when she saw the memories in Vachon's eyes.
#####1833####Belle Soeur Plantation####
The ball had been over for hours. The musicians had packed up and gone home. Most of the guests had left for their homes, or their rooms; the rest had tiptoed through the halls and were in the throes of assignations made while dancing. The house slaves were almost finished cleaning up the trampled food, broken glass, cigar stubs, and other detritus of the evening's pleasure.
Madelaine alit on the balcony. Dabbing her mouth with a white linen handkerchief, she savoured the scents that floated on the breeze: blood, sweat, stagnant water and moss, all entwined with the flowery perfume from the garden below.
She leant over the railing and inhaled deeply, suddenly glad that she had accepted Marisa's invitation to visit. The dancing had been amusing, but it had taken her almost all night to find the right prey. Unlike many vampires, she preferred not to feed on the slaves. You could only blame so many disappearances on escapes. Although she might have had no choice, if Mr. Horace Tremaine had not claimed the last dance. Cardsharp, braggart, murderer. He had fit her requirements perfectly. And, if everything went according to plan, it would be weeks before anyone found his corpse in the swamp.
Gathering up the skirt of her deep green ballgown, she stepped inside.
"I was beginning to think I had the wrong room." Javier Vachon lay on the bed, booted feet muddying the satin counterpane. His once-white shirt hung open to the waist. Cigar smoke eddied over his head.
Stepping delicately over the buckskin jacket he had discarded on the floor, Madelaine smiled in welcome and sat next to him. "I thought you were still out in the territories fighting soldiers."
"I missed you." Javier pulled her down for a long, deep kiss.
"Dispose of that stinking weed, please." Madelaine made a moue of distaste and pointed at the cigar.
"As my lady bids." Javier sat up and flicked the butt in a long, smooth arc out the balcony doors. "Your every wish is my command."
"A bath?" Standing up, Madelaine smoothed her gown.
"I think the servants have enough to do without having to heat water and drag it up the stairs to fill my tub."
"You're probably right." She twirled around. "Would you help me get out of this?"
"But of course."
Madelaine could feel Javier's breath on her neck as he slowly unhooked the fastenings of her gown. His own personal fragrance mixed with tobacco, horseflesh and bloodsweat. He must have ridden long and hard to get here from the frontier.
"Why do women wear so many clothes?" Javier knocked on the boned corset in frustration. "It must be like a prison in there."
"Sometimes. But the dresses do not hang right if you forego the corset." She stepped out of the gown and kicked it to one side with a burst of vampire strength. "And this way, you get the pleasure of unlacing me."
"A dubious pleasure at best." Javier muttered. He plucked at the strings with his fingers, but the knot remained tied. After a few unsuccessful attempts to loosen it, he gave up and spun her around to face him.
They came together — body against body, without the slightest space between them. Madelaine could feel his hardness through the thin shift that was all she wore beneath her corset. They kissed, tongues tangling, sharing the blood that seeped from scratches made by fangs. She reached up and raked her hands through his long dark hair, loosening it from the leather tie that bound it.
"Damnation. Embracing you in that is like cuddling up to a fence post." With one hand on each side of corset back, Javier tugged hard. The laces stretched and the knot tightened even more.
At the frustrated look in his eyes, Madelaine started laughing. "Should I call Despina or one of the other slaves to help?"
"No." He flung her back on the bed, and straddled her legs. Gripping the front of the corset, he concentrated. Whalebone cracked. Ribbon, lace and linen tore. Corset and shift were stripped off her body, and the entire mess landed in a heap on top of her dress. "I believe I have the matter completely in hand now."
Madelaine narrowed her eyes at Javier. He rose up above her. Black furred chest visible through the opening of his shirt. "Time to return the favour." Within seconds his shredded shirt joined her corset.
When her hands started to move down towards his trousers, Javier leapt off the bed. "Not these. I'll need them later. While I'm sure our host would be glad to lend me a shirt, I don't think he would be too pleased when the seamstresses started taking in and shortening his trousers."
"Then remove them now."
He sat on the floor and held up one foot to her, then the next. Mud-caked boots and then buckskin trousers were added to the pile of discarded clothing. With a deep, rumbling cat-like growl, he vaulted into the tester bed and landed on top of Madelaine.
Javier crouched over Madelaine; his eyes sweeping over every exposed inch of her body. It had been almost a year since he last saw Madelaine. A year he spent fighting soldiers with the Indians. A year when she travelled from plantation to city and back again, attending balls, fetes and soirees, losing herself in the social whirl of the upper class. The separation was her choice, and Javier was determined to make her regret it.
Slowly, he relearned the contours of her body, beginning with her feet. Teeth nibbled on her toes, causing them to curl under as the sensation raced up her nerves. Hands traced the outline of her arches, massaging and tickling. When Madelaine started whimpering, he transferred his attentions to her ankles, calves, knees, all the way up to her thighs. Javier spread her legs apart — butterfly kisses on the delicate skin of her inner thigh were followed immediately by the sharp bite of his fangs. First one leg, then the other. Back and forth. Kissing; biting; all the way to the curly blonde hair that masked the join of her legs.
Madelaine mewled, and reached down to pull him upwards. Javier resisted the pressure, so she tangled her fingers in his hair. The next time his teeth pierced her flesh, her hips moved up and her hands pressed down, making it difficult for him to pull away. He sucked hard, gaining his freedom when her body convulsed.
Pausing at the top of her legs, he teased the nub hidden beneath the curls of hair. His tongue snaked out and flicked her flesh over and over. Hips undulating, she tried again to bring him to a position where she could touch more than his hair. Instead, his lips closed and he suckled gently. Madelaine's back arched, and she surrendered herself to the staccato bursts of pleasure.
Without allowing Madelaine to regain her breath, Javier moved his attentions upwards. A brief pause to taste her navel, then concentrated his attentions on her breasts. Round and full, they drew him. Groaning, he balanced on his elbows and cupped a breast in each hand; thumbs rubbing the already erect nipples. His body stretched out above hers; his weight pressing down on her.
Taking advantage of Javier's distraction, Madelaine bent one leg, flexed and twisted in a manoeuvre they had practiced many times. Javier moved automatically and suddenly, he was beneath her. When he blinked in surprise, she murmured, "My turn."
Javier shifted until he was reclining against the heaped pillows, half lying down, half sitting up. He leered invitingly, "Your eternal servant, Carino."
They kissed deeply, fangs tearing lips, tongues twining together. Like a cat, Madelaine rubbed her body against his — nipples brushing chest hair, pubic hair stroking his shaft.
Madelaine's lips left a fiery trail down Javier's jaw and neck. His neck curved back as her fangs scraped the sensitive skin over his jugular vein. Barely able to restrain herself from sipping his blood, she sat back and ran her hands through the hair that covered his torso. Black curls spiralled around her fingers as she drew patterns over his chest and stomach.
As Madelaine's touch drew him ever closer to the brink, Javier caressed her. His hands slithered over her back, arms, shoulders, neck, everywhere he could reach. When she bent her head to place kisses along the line that ran from his navel, Javier released her hair from its confines. Long blonde tresses fell down either side and pooled on the bed. He seized a handful, brought it to his nose and inhaled the scent.
A panther growl escaped Javier's mouth as Madelaine's nails rasped across the taut lower muscles of his stomach and up his hardened shaft. Grinning mischievously at him, she took him into her mouth. His fingers flexed, open and closed, bunching and releasing the bedcovers, as her fangs skimmed up and down....up and down.....up and down.
Madelaine took him to the edge and stopped. Licking the single drop of red-tinged semen, she lay on the bed beside Javier and waited.
Javier slid against Madelaine. One hand gently freed her hair and draped it across their bodies until they were covered down to their knees with a shimmering gold veil. They remained that way for a moment, lips and bodies locked together. Then, he rolled over on top of her. She raised her hips and he sank into her. Her legs wrapped around him. He began to move — slowly at first, then faster and faster.
Rearing his head back, Javier's lips curled away from his teeth, exposing his fangs. He plunged them into Madelaine's neck. Blood spurted: red, salty, laden with emotions. He thrust harder and harder, lips moving to the same rhythm as his loins.
Madelaine dug her fingernails into his back, cutting crescents in the skin. She revelled in the ecstasy that surged through her in waves for several long minutes before capitulating to passion and biting into Javier's throat.
Electricity flooded through them, racing from one to the other. Shudders racked them both as they thrust in and out. Blood whirled through and through. Faster and faster...higher and higher. Desire escalated. Black night edged red euphoria, then exploded.
Afterwards, Javier cradled Madelaine in his arms. Her head lay on his shoulder, one arm stretched across his chest, one leg curled over his. Just before exhaustion tugged him into sleep, he whispered, "Ven conmigo, carino. Quiero que estes conmigo para siempre." [translation: Come with me, beloved. I want you to be with me for always.]
When Javier awoke, he was alone.
The memories faded. Laine reached out one trembling hand to Vachon, who stood at the door with his back to her. When he turned the handle, she spoke — her voice barely audible to his vampire hearing. "Don't go."
Vachon did not reply, nor did he move.
"Javier, I'm sorry. Please....please don't go." Laine closed her eyes to hold back the blood tears. "I was wrong. I shouldn't have left."
"And that is supposed to make it all right?" Vachon taunted, "I'm supposed to jump at the chance to take you back?"
"No. I don't know. I just hoped...."
"Just tell me one thing: why? Why did you leave?" Vachon's shoulders hunched defensively against the anticipated blow of Laine's words, but his voice mocked her. "Did you get a better offer?"
"Why?" Laine brought her outstretched hand down and clutched it with the other, staring fixedly at her hands as they moved, wringing and pressing each other. "For the same reason I stopped following you around the West; the reason I went back to New York and then to Louisiana. You wanted more than I was able to give."
When he made no response, she continued, "I was so scared. Scared of becoming more deeply involved; scared of your desire to hold on to me; scared of my need to be with you. Tomas taught me that love hurts, that it wounds and imprisons, demands and controls. I never knew it could be anything else until I met you. But it was too late for me to escape the trap Tomas had laid for my feelings."
"Why didn't you tell me this? Talk to me instead of leaving without a word?" Vachon's hand dropped from the handle to hang rigidly at his side.
"I panicked." Bands of steel tightened around Laine's chest. "You wanted eternity, when it was all I could do to give you tomorrow."
Vachon spun around on one heel and raised golden eyes. Anger clipped his words, as he hurled them at her. "And now, now that you're ready for eternity, you expect me to welcome you back with open arms." He strode towards her, stopping a foot away.
"I'm sorry. I was wrong." Laine hung her head and turned away. "Don't worry. I won't bother you again."
Fuelled by rage, Vachon grabbed her arm and wrenched her around. "Is that it? You fly into town, get Knight and me all worked up, and then disappear into the sunset again. No way. Not this time." He leaned in until she could feel his breath on her lips. "This time you have to face what you've done, deal with the consequences of your actions."
"What more do you want from me? I've told you I was wrong. What do you want?." Laine tried unsuccessfully to wrest her arm from Vachon's grip.
"I want...I want you to...." He battled with himself, trying to find words to express the conflicting emotions that were tearing him apart. He wanted to wound her; he wanted to make love to her. He thrust Laine away in disgust and raked his fingers through his hair.
"I'm sorry." Blood tears left tracks down her face and stained the collar of her white blouse. "I don't know what else to say. I made a mistake. I should have talked to you instead of running away." She scrubbed at the tears with the back of one hand. "I wasn't going to say anything to you, but last night...last night, I thought....."
"Last night was nothing. I wanted company and you were there." Vachon spoke viciously, "And I wanted to show Knight that you are mine, not his; to teach him that you belong to me; that he can't have everything his way just because he's older...."
Laine wrapped her arms around herself, trying to protect herself from the words Vachon was whipping at her — words that lacerated her heart, imprisoned her in a cage of his need. After a while she couldn't even hear what he was saying anymore, just the rhythm of his voice. Fear rose up within her, bringing panic at the thought of being bound to someone else, instead of free to choose her own destiny. She opened her mouth and tried to speak, but nothing came out. Icy hands gripped her mind. All she could hear were the words "mine, mine, mine" repeated over and over again.
Vachon finally realized that she was no longer listening. In a haze of fury and desire, he seized her arms and began to shake her, to force her to pay attention.
Paralysed, Laine could only stare at him in shock as her head snapped back and forth. What had she done to him? Confusion and fright combined to sap her strength, and she collapsed; his hold on her arms was the only thing that kept her semi-upright.
When Laine regained consciousness, she was clasped in Vachon's arms. He rocked gently, nuzzling her hair with his lips. He crooned over and over, "Carino mio. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do this to you."
Laine nestled deeper, trying to calm her emotions. She wanted to be angry with him for frightening her, but couldn't. In all the years they had spent together, he had never hurt her, never been less than understanding — no matter how much she had provoked him. She squirmed around until she could see his face. "I didn't want to hurt you so badly. Now or then." She stroked his silky, scruffy beard. "Forgive me?"
"If you can forgive me for what I just did to you." Vachon tightened his arms around her. His voice was gruff with emotion: embers of rage and lust, and bitter regret for the pain he had just caused.
"Absolutely." Laine embraced him. They sat quietly, each wrapped up in their own thoughts.
After a while, Laine began to chuckle. When Vachon looked at her curiously, she said, "Before I came to Toronto, I was worried that you didn't care about me anymore. I guess I know better now. You could never convince me that you're indifferent to me after that display." She added silently, //Of course, it doesn't tell me if you still love me either.//
Vachon blinked several times, then started to laugh with Laine. Neither one really knew why, but it dissipated the last of the tension between them.
"Friends?" Laine stood up and held out a hand to Vachon.
"Friends." He agreed, and pulled himself up with her hand. "As for the rest...."
"We have time for that." Laine turned around and walked towards the spare room, hiding her expression from Vachon. How could she tell him now that she didn't think she would live to see another year. "I've got to get changed. I can't go to work in bloodstained clothes."
When Laine returned to the living room, Vachon was sitting on the couch drinking from a bottle. She perched on the arm of the chair, and took the bottle from him.
She swallowed half of its contents and gave it back. "Thanks. I needed that."
"You're welcome." Vachon drained the rest and discarded the bottle on the kitchen counter. "I'm off. Meet me at the Raven later, and I'll let you know if I find anything out." His lips brushed her cheek and he was gone.
"Sure." Laine spoke to an empty apartment.
Shaking her head, she rinsed the bottle and dumped it into the recycle bin. Following Merlin's instructions, she fired up his computer and signed into her internet account, checking her e-mail. There was only one new message. Stunned, she read and re-read the contents. The laser printer clicked as it spat out a single page.
Laine picked up the sheet and took off into the night.
The silence in the police station was eerie. Yells and threats had been replaced with hushed whispers; even the perps giving their statements sat quietly. A group of detectives and uniformed officers huddled around the coffee pot, talking amongst themselves. A couple of people looked up as Laine passed by, but everyone seemed too preoccupied to say anything.
She stopped by Nick's desk first, then tried the interrogation rooms. No sign of him. Glancing around, she glimpsed a shadow through the glass door of the office that she had been using. Maybe he was waiting for her in there?
Laine pushed open the door and stepped into the office. She recognized the woman in her office instantly. The image in Nick's blood had been amazingly accurate. She closed the door with a bang and said loudly, "Nick?"
"Oh!" Natalie jumped and pressed one hand against her mouth, dropping a couple of folders back onto the desk. She gathered her wits back together rapidly. "Nick's not here."
"I noticed." Laine said drily. "Can I help you?"
"No. I was just delivering a copy of the lab results on Sarah McIsaac to Detective Saxton." Natalie took a deep breath and calmed her breathing. "I assume that's you."
"Yes. Detective Laine Saxton, Interpol." Laine held out her hand to Natalie. "And you would be?"
"Dr. Natalie Lambert, Coroner's Office." Natalie shook the proffered hand and then withdrew her own carefully. Briefly Natalie wondered whether Detective Saxton might be a vampire, then reproved herself. This was Toronto in the winter, cold hands did not necessarily mean anything more than the person had forgotten their gloves. She perched on the edge of the desk, preparing to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity to find out what was really going on with Nick.
"Ahhh. Nice meeting you" Laine sighed; right now making small talk with Nick's mortal ex-girlfriend was not high on her list of priorities. She reached backwards for the door handle. "Sorry I can't stick around to chat, but...."
"No problem." Natalie crossed her arms. "I don't want to keep you from anything important. I just wanted to congratulate you."
"Congratulate me?" Laine let go of the knob. There was an edge to Natalie's voice that Laine found intriguing. Curiosity or jealousy?
"On your engagement to Nick Knight. Tracy told me about it last night." Natalie shifted awkwardly.
Shuttering her thoughts behind an expressionless mask, Laine used all her willpower to resist the pull of Natalie's rapidly beating heart. "Tracy was a little impetuous. Nick and I haven't decided yet whether or not we're going to get married. It's kind of complicated."
"Nick's real good at complicated." Natalie smiled sympathetically.
When Laine didn't respond, Natalie continued, "I'm sure you'll make the right decision. You know, it's strange. Tracy gave me the impression that you and Nick have known each other a long time, but I've been....friends with Nick for four or five years and he's never mentioned you." She cleared her throat nervously, trying to figure out what it was about this woman that disturbed her. A stillness that reminded her of...of...of Janette. Her voice sharpened unconsciously as she continued, taking on a tone that Tracy and Nick would have instantly recognized from their experiences at the Coroner's office. "Exactly how long have you known Nick?"
//She knows.// Everything clicked into place for Laine. Nick had called this mortal his doctor and his friend. It hadn't meant anything at the time, but now Laine realized that Natalie knew he was a vampire. How many others did the good doctor know about? Between Tracy Vetter and Natalie Lambert, it was a miracle that the Enforcers hadn't descended on Toronto en masse. Realizing that Natalie was still waiting for an answer, Laine said non-committally, "A few years."
Natalie persisted, "If you knew Nick before I met him, you must have been fairly young."
"Quite." Laine agreed.
"Still, it's unusual that he never talked about you. I've heard about quite a few of his past relationships." Curiosity blazed in Natalie's eyes.
"It was a long time ago. We were both young." Laine was tiring of the game. She clenched her fist; the folded sheet of paper crackled in her hand, leaving a thin, deep cut in her index finger. She brought it to her mouth and sucked the blood out of the cut.
Natalie probed a little harder, "Then you must have known his sister Fleur?"
Grief raced across Laine's face so fast that Natalie almost missed it. The two women stared at each other for several long minutes — mortal challenging vampire; each acknowledging that she knew exactly what the other was.
With a rapid gesture of her hands, Laine ruthlessly suppressed the hunger that rose in response to Natalie's testing. She had no time for games. She reached for the door handle again. "Look, I'd love to stay and gossip, but I've got work to do."
"Maybe later?" Natalie stood up and gathered the folders she's dropped earlier.
"Perhaps." Laine said dryly, as she ushered Natalie out of the office.
Nick was sitting at his desk, talking on the phone, when they left the office. The instant he saw Laine and Natalie together, his head snapped up and his eyes widened in shock. He hung up the phone without warning, and jumped up.
The two women separated; each going her own way. He met Laine halfway across the room. "What was that all about?" Nick whispered to Laine, jerking his head in the direction of her office.
"Nothing important." Laine dismissed the query in Nick's eyes. "Nick, we have to talk — privately."
Before he could respond, Reese's voice boomed out, "KNIGHT! SAXTON! In my office. Now!"
"Would you two mind telling me exactly what's going on?" Reese stood just inside his office, closing the door firmly after Laine and Nick entered.
"About what?" Laine asked, knowing exactly what the answer had to be.
"Detective Vetter." Reese sat down at his desk, and wiped a hand across his forehead. "It seems that she never showed up at the airport to meet her family. I've been on the phone all morning. First the Commissioner calls and asks me where his daughter is. Then the Mayor, followed immediately by the Chief of Police."
"Tracy's missing?" Nick glanced at Laine out of the corner of his eyes. "Why didn't someone tell me?"
"Because they don't know." Reese sighed noisily. "Commissioner Vetter has instructed me to keep a tight lid on this. Information's on a strictly need to know basis."
Laine chewed her lower lip, but kept silent.
"Look, I want you two to drop everything and concentrate on finding Tracy Vetter. If you need anything, let me know. I'll get it for you." Shaking his head, Reese leaned his elbows on the desk. "Just keep this quiet. If word gets out, the Commissioner will have our heads."
"That's going to complicate things." Nick paced distractedly in the available space. "Can you keep him off our backs for a while?"
"I'll do my best, but it's not gonna be easy." Reese looked up; the weary expression in his eyes stopped Nick in his tracks. "Find her, please. I don't want to spend the rest of my career directing traffic."
The telephone rang, echoing loudly in the small room. Reese waved Nick and Laine out, and picked up the receiver. "Commissioner Vetter, how are you, sir?"
Outside, Nick hissed at Laine, "Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?"
"Not here." Laine dragged Nick into her office. As soon as they were alone, she handed him the message she had carried all evening.
Nostrils quivering from the bloodscent that rose from the paper, Nick perused its contents.
Perhaps I am mellowing in my old age, but I find I am wearying of the endless search. To that end, I have decided to present you with one last choice: a simple one, but of the utmost importance.
I believe you are familiar with my latest acquisition. She is a rather lovely mortal maid named Tracy Vetter, with hair the colour of sunlight, a regrettable tendency to frequent the Raven, and a personality pliable enough to make her a treasure beyond price.
I am willing to return Miss Vetter unharmed to her family. To achieve that end, you must reciprocate in like manner and come back to me.
Should you refuse to do so, there is only one answer to my plight. I must create a another to take your place, and I believe this fair child will be an acceptable candidate.
I am confident that you will choose to do what is right. My instructions will follow this evening.
"Soon, my darling. Soon." Tomas crooned, as he stroked a silver-backed brush through Tracy's hair until it gleamed golden in the candlelight. Then, he tenderly wiped her face clean with a cloth, dipping it in a porcelain bowl filled with warm water and fragrant soap. Tracy moaned during his ministrations, but did not move. Her eyes were glazed and barely open. When the vampire finished grooming his captive, he held a bottle of absinthe to her lips, and she drank automatically.
Tomas opened another cut in her wrist, filling a goblet, then binding her wrist up again. He hummed tunelessly as he swallowed the absinthe-laden blood, then tossed the goblet, bowl and other utensils in a corner of the cellar, adding to the heap of empty bottles and other detritus.
"Daddy?" Tracy's gaze fixed upon an empty space in the middle of the floor. She spoke quietly, in a high childish voice, words slurred until they were barely comprehensible. "Daddy, please can I go out to play now? I've finished all my homework. Even the extra questions you gave me."
She stayed silent for a moment, shaking her head slightly as if in response to words only she could hear. "Please, Daddy. Delia invited us all over to see her new puppy." Tears rolled down Tracy's face. She sniffled and hiccuped, then whispered, "It's not fair. All the other girls will be there. And I am a good girl. I am."
"Sshh, child. There, there." Tomas dried her tears with another cloth. "Don't worry. You're going to get a new Daddy, and he'll be very good to you. I promise."
The music at the Raven was quieter, slower than the previous night. A different band had taken over the stage. The mortal musicians created an oddly sinuous rhythm that twined through the soul, leaving behind an aching, haunting feeling.
Laine and Nick slid into opposite sides of the same booth. Laine managed to catch the waitress' eye, and signal for drinks. In no time at all, a bottle of the Raven's own special vintage was placed on the table, together with two glasses.
"Not for me, thanks." Nick placed one hand over the glass in front of him.
The waitress reached out to remove it.
"Leave it." Vachon sat down next to Laine. "I'll use that one."
"What if I didn't want to share?" Laine forced a smile, and moved over to give Vachon a little more room.
Vachon opened his eyes a little wider and grinned impishly. "I'd talk you into it."
"Ahem." Nick cleared his throat noisily. "I hate to interrupt, but we've got a lot to do tonight."
"What's going on?" Vachon poured drinks for him and Laine. "Laine didn't say very much over the phone. Just told me to wait for you here."
Nick reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the message. He smoothed it flat and passed it over. "Read this."
As he scanned the contents, Vachon's mask dropped away. Anger, fear and concern chased each other across his face. At the end, he crumpled the page in his fist and swore, "Damn."
"She was in your care." Nick leaned menacingly across the table. "You are responsible for her...for this."
"This is not my fault. You and Laine were the last ones to see Tracy." Vachon snarled back. "Don't try to push your guilt off on me."
Laine sipped blood, and watched the two men argue. Eventually, when their eyes started to gleam in the dim light of the Raven, she slammed her empty glass on the table. "Enough!"
Both swung around; two pairs of eyes edged with gold glared at her.
"Now that I've gotten your attention, do you think we could do something constructive for a change." Laine raked one hand through her hair. "We are all to blame for what happened to Tracy. Okay? Accept that and move on."
"Fine." Nick muttered.
None of them noticed the fourth vampire standing to one side of the table, listening intently.
Closing her eyes, Laine took a deep breath and released the air slowly. "There is only one solution. I am going to follow Tomas' instructions and meet with him. Then, I'm going to try to kill him." She raised a hand to stop the other two from speaking. "I'm tired. Tired of running. Tired of chasing shadows. Tired of always being one step behind. It's time to finish this; one way or another."
LaCroix stepped to the end of the table; his silky voice was laden with irony. "How strange. I would not have considered you to be the suicidal type. More like one who would fight it out to the bitter end no matter what the cost."
"Disappointed, LaCroix?" Laine was too emotionally spent to rise to the older vampire's bait.
"Intrigued." LaCroix corrected. He raised one eyebrow meaningfully. Nick slid further into the booth, making enough room for his Master to sit down. "I did not realize that you had become so close to Nicholas' rather erratic partner."
"It's not just Tracy. It's....it's everything." Laine sighed. "Tomas has controlled my life for centuries; whether I am with him or not."
"Is that not the natural order? A Master taking care of his fledgling?" LaCroix refilled his glass from the bottle on the table, and took a drink.
The three younger vampires exchanged exasperated looks. Laine opened her mouth to retort, but closed it with an audible snap when Nick booted her under the table.
"After all," LaCroix continued, "Our community is in no danger from Tomas' actions."
"But it is." Nick rolled the stem of his untouched glass between his fingers. "Tracy's father is the Police Commissioner and a man used to getting his own way, especially where his daughter is concerned. He will not allow her disappearance or....or...death to be pushed under the rug. We'll have the biggest manhunt since the Bernardo case breathing down our necks."
"He's right." Vachon stretched his arm across the back of the seat behind Laine, then withdrew it and put both hands on the table. "Whether Tomas kills Tracy or brings her across, Commissioner Vetter will tear this city apart looking for her kidnapper...and so will Knight and I."
LaCroix looked directly at Laine. "Then your course is clear. You must call the Enforcers."
"No." Laine shook her head vehemently. "I've spoken to the Enforcers four times about Tomas. Each time they have told me that he's not breaking the Code, patted me one the head and told me to go on my way like a good little vampire. This time I do it my way."
"Our way." Nick placed his hand over one of Laine's.
"Agreed." Vachon covered her other hand with one of his own.
"And the three of you think you can defeat one of the oldest vampires in our community?" LaCroix curled his upper lip in a sneer.
"With your help." Nick removed his hand from Laine's and poured more blood into LaCroix's glass. "Assuming you are willing to help us."
"Why should I?" LaCroix lifted his glass in a quasi-toast and drank half its contents.
"Because you don't like being used." Nick stated baldly. "Tomas left a wide-open trail behind him leading directly to the Raven. Even without access to the website, it's only a matter of time before the police trace the sale of absinthe back here."
"You may have a point." LaCroix mused. "But still..."
"You need more? How about because I'm asking you to." Nick closed his eyes against the old pain that threatened to rise. "And I rarely ask you to do me a favour."
Laine and Vachon sat still, watching the other two talk, his hand lying forgotten on top of hers. Nick smiled to himself when he noticed that — maybe it wouldn't be quite so hard to explain to Laine why he didn't want to marry her.
"Very well." LaCroix finally shrugged. "I don't suppose you would succeed on your own anyway."
"Could I use your computer?" When she saw the look on the older vampire's face, Laine rapidly added, "I have to pick up my e-mail. Tomas is supposed to send me a message tonight, telling me where and when to meet him."
Without comment, LaCroix led Laine to the back room where he kept his computer. He observed the procedure over her shoulder while she retrieved and printed four copies of Tomas' instructions.
In their absence, Nick and Vachon stared moodily across the table. Several times, each began to say something to the other, but never completed the thought. Vachon poured and drank two glasses of wine-laced blood in rapid succession. Nick initially shook his head in refusal when the bottle was proffered to him, but then grabbed the bottle out of Vachon's hand and gulped down the remaining blood.
After ten or fifteen minutes, Laine and LaCroix returned. Silently, she handed around copies of Tomas' missive.
"You are going to meet him." Vachon said flatly, staring down at the paper in his hands.
"I have no choice." Laine put a hand on his shoulder. "I can't let Tracy die in my place, nor allow her to suffer at my Master's hands the way I did."
Nick broke the sudden tension, "I think we have some planning to do, if we're going to save Tracy and stop Tomas."
The dam of silence was broken. The four vampires argued vociferously over strategy. It took several hours and a few more bottles of undiluted blood, but an hour or so after sunrise, they finally devised a plan that even LaCroix had to admit might have a reasonable chance of success.
Centre Island was deserted. The wind howled and dipped across the grass, swirling through the trees, playing with dead leaves and litter left over from the summer's visitors. The amusement park stood dark and silent, casting eerie shadows in the moonlight.
Laine landed on the seat at the top of the ferris wheel and looked around. The lights from downtown Toronto dimly illuminated the island. They reflected on the dark, oily water of the inner harbour, creating an ever-changing kaleidoscope of silver broken only by the flickering red lights from the top of the CN Tower.
The wind found her almost immediately, blowing against her back and flicking strands of hair into her eyes. She stood spellbound for several minutes, then stretched cat-like, crackling every bone in her spine. Muttering imprecations in four different languages about the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements LaCroix had provided at the Raven for the day, she took off into the air and headed for the open area that Tomas had designated for the meeting.
Laine blew gently and coaxed a tiny flame to life. She was building a fire in one of the barbecue pits that lined the picnic area. Not a large fire, but big enough for the flames to add light and distortion to the shadows that surrounded the grassy area. Laine stood up, and wiped her hands on her pants, then began to prowl impatiently, stretching her senses to the limit in an attempt to locate Tomas. She pushed impotently against the block she had created over the Master/fledgling link. It was no use. When Tomas was ready, he would announce his presence.
Just beyond sensing range, Vachon crept through the shrubbery and bare trees at the outer edge of the open area. Without releasing his awareness of Laine's presence, he concentrated on listening for Tracy's heartbeat. When he reached a deep thick shrub that had kept its leaves in the winter, he buried himself in the middle ... and cursed under his breath when the thorns and sharp twigs pricked his skin.
Overhead, at the top of a towering fir, Nick hung his backpack by the straps and checked the contents one last time, leaving the bag open for fast and easy access when needed. Satisfied, he hunched down, wrapping his arms around the trunk and balancing carefully on a branch that was only just wide enough to support his weight.
"Beloved!" Tomas' voice insinuated itself into Laine's consciousness. "I knew you could not stay away from me forever."
"Tomas?" Laine's voice squeaked as she spun around. She had not felt his approach.
Her Master stood on the other side of the fire, at the edge of the lake. His eyes shone red. The flames and the lights of the city combined to cast his face into shadow, making it almost impossible for her to read his expression. She could not see anything about him, except for the cloak that caught in the wind and billowed out behind him.
Shading her eyes in an attempt to see him better, Laine took a deep breath and started talking. "Did you doubt that I would be here?"
"Never, my beautiful child. You have ever kept your word throughout the centuries." Tomas cocked his head to one side. "However, it would have been nice if you had dressed appropriately for the occasion."
Laine glanced down at her jeans and black casual jacket, then languidly lifted a shoulder. "I did not realize this was a formal affair. You should have let me know."
Clicking his tongue against his teeth, Tomas shook his head. "Never mind. Your choice of attire, while regrettable, is not relevant. It matters more that you have returned to your proper place."
She gritted her teeth and hissed in frustration, wishing she could see what Vachon and Nick were doing. What had Tomas done with Tracy? She could sense the mortal's heartbeat, but not her location. As for her Master, keeping him talking was one thing, but this meaningless banter was too much. "You brought the mortal?"
"Of course." Tomas lifted one arm in an extravagant gesture, and Tracy's bound form dropped to the ground beside him. She moaned incoherently, but did not move.
Laine's nostrils flared at the smell of alcohol and blood rising from the mortal. She walked casually around the fire towards her Master. "Perhaps we should celebrate our reunion with a shared meal."
"I did not expect..." Tomas raised one eyebrow and smiled widely, exposing his fangs. "If that is truly what you wish."
"When all is said and done, Tracy Vetter is mortal. She is our natural prey, nothing more."
Laine reached Tomas and drew his face to one side with her hand, forcing him to look at her. Hiding her revulsion, she slid her hand to the back of his neck and pulled him down in a long kiss.
The instant the ancient vampire's attention was distracted, Vachon moved. He flew across the grass, scooped up Tracy without stopping and headed across the water to the city.
"Betrayed!" Tomas snarled. He twisted his fist into Laine's hair and wrenched her head backwards. "Faithless chit! I should have known better than to believe you could be trusted."
"You trained me well." Laine spat at her Master, the red-tinged saliva sliding down his cheek. "Did you expect any less from one of your get?"
Tomas pulled out a long wooden stake from beneath his cloak. "I created you. I can unmake you."
"And I can defend myself." Laine kicked upwards — her knee caught Tomas in the crotch.
He staggered, but retained his grip on her hair. Hot, fetid breath flowed over her face as he bent downwards. "You are not strong enough, little one."
She gathered herself for another strike, but was flung to one side before she could move, leaving a hank of hair in Tomas' hand. Her head hit a rock with an audible crack. Stunned, she shook her head cautiously and tried to focus on what was happening.
Raising the stake over his head, Nick knelt above Tomas. The older vampire had lost his weapon and was pounding and tearing at Nick. As Laine watched, Tomas heaved and Nick lost his balance. In an instant, they were both on their feet, facing each other, circling warily. Tomas clawed at Nick's face, but Nick backed out of range.
Nick lunged. Tomas avoided the blow easily, ducking beneath the outstretched arm. They resumed pacing, blood trickling down Tomas' white shirt from a shoulder wound.
With a growl, the two male vampires closed on each other and whirled into the air. Fangs and eyes flashed. Kicking, biting, scratching. Spinning apart, and attacking again. The silence punctuated by inhuman snarling.
Laine jumped to the top of the rock and watched, trying to keep track of the combatants, alert for a chance to jump in and help Nick. Her entire being yearned to charge in, but there was no opening.
In an instant it was over. Madness and age triumphed. A chance blow slashed open Nick's scalp. Blood poured down his face, temporarily blinding him. Tomas seized the stake and shoved it deep into Nick's chest, ripping the younger vampire's shoulder half off in the process. Tomas let go, and Nick dropped to the ground like a stone.
Tomas stayed aloft, howling with victory.
Vachon stood in the shadows near the entrance to the Emergency Department of Toronto Western Hospital, watching the visitors and ambulance personnel bustle in and out. This hospital had been chosen because it was only a few minutes away from Centre Island — by air anyway. He stared wide-eyed at the scene in front of him. Only half his mind was thinking about the need to get Tracy into the Emergency Department; the rest was worrying about Laine and whether she and Nick could destroy Tomas without his help.
Tracy's unconscious body lay on the ground at his feet He had released her bonds, but done nothing further. He ran his fingers through his hair a few times, then reached a decision.
Snaring an ambulance driver took less than a minute and a half. All Vachon had to do was wait for someone to step outside to smoke a cigarette.
As soon as he had the mortal's attention, Vachon drew him out of the light and rapidly seized control of his mind. The timbre of the vampire's voice deepened and reverberated subsonically as Vachon spoke. "You will take her into the emergency room and get her to a doctor. You will tell the doctor that you found her lying on the grass outside. There was no-one with her. She was barely conscious when you found her. She muttered the word 'absinthe', then passed out."
When the driver had repeated his instructions word for word, Vachon released his mind. He waited until Tracy had been carried into the hospital, then took off into the night.
Laine's scream was whipped out of her mouth by the wind, drowned by Tomas' cries of victory. Heedless of danger, she flung herself into the air and at her Master.
Her fingernails raked Tomas' face. Shredded skin hung from his cheeks. Howls of victory became cries of pain. One hand grabbed her neck; the other gripped her waist; Tomas pulled and wrenched Laine's spine. She bit savagely at his shoulder, tearing the flesh, spitting out the blood in disgust. Unable to fight and stay airborne, they tumbled head over heels to the earth.
As they fell, Tomas managed to manoeuvre until he was on top. As soon as they landed, he reared up over Laine. Her upper body was pinned by his legs. She squirmed desperately in a futile attempt to free her arms, and kicked upwards — again and again — but was unable to dislodge him.
A black figure sped past the corner of Laine's eye. Her Master screamed loudly; then his weight was gone. She was on her feet in an instant. Tomas lay a few feet away; LaCroix crouched over him. Her Master was securely trapped. The sharpened ends of a long piece of wood bent into a u-shape had been rammed through his chest and stomach and into the ground.
LaCroix raised his head and looked at her; his eyes glared red, fangs fully extended. "Kill him!" he ordered and then raced to Nick's side.
Bracing herself, Laine retrieved a flaming stick from the fire. She held it above her head as she walked over to Tomas. The flames from her makeshift torch fluttered in the wind,
Her Master's eyes snapped open when she stopped in front of him. Blood trickled from a cut on his scalp and from the corner of his mouth. The front of his white shirt was almost completely red from the wounds in his chest and stomach. When he spoke, his voice was a rasping growl that tore into her soul. "Get this out of me!"
Laine stood motionless. She desperately wanted to kill Tomas, but the very act of destroying your Master was murder under the Code and meant her death if the Enforcers found out. She did not want to die; did not want Tomas to survive.
"Kill him now!" LaCroix's command scraped at her indecision.
Tomas begged, "Help me."
"You waste precious time. Nicholas dies while you ponder." LaCroix powered his voice with the subtle resonance that enthralled mortals. "Do it!"
"Madelaine, you are mine. You cannot kill me." Tomas tried to impose his will on her through the weak connection between them. "You will free me."
The flames flickered and flung shadow and light across Tomas' face. His expression distorted into a mask of hatred and cruelty. Memories powered by pain and brutality swept across Laine's mind and disappeared, leaving her breathless. Slowly the torch dipped towards her Master's body.
"NO!" Vachon yelled as he landed on the grass next to Laine. He ripped the brand out of her hand, lit the ancient vampire's clothes and then thrust it into Tomas' heart.
Vachon drew Laine into his arms, her back against his chest. He held her tightly, and they both watched as Tomas burned. Blood tears streamed unnoticed down Laine's face.
When the fire finally died down, the wind swirled down and scattered the hot ashes across the island and Lake Ontario. Laine turned around and moved into Vachon's embrace. He pulled her body tight against his. She buried her head in his shoulder and pushed closer, seeking solace in his touch.
"How sweet." LaCroix's voice sliced between Vachon and Laine. "I hate to interrupt your tender reunion, but if you don't do as I say, Nicholas will die."
LaCroix picked up Nick carefully, using one arm to hold Nick's almost severed shoulder in place, cradling him gently against his chest. The former Roman general gave out his orders crisply, expecting immediate obedience. "Vachon, go to the Raven. I need at least two cases of pure human blood from my own private stock. Urs can show you where it is. That swill Nicholas drinks will be useless."
He turned to Laine, "You get Dr. Lambert. Do whatever it takes to convince her to come with you. I'll meet you both at the loft. Now, go!"
In an eyeblink, LaCroix was gone. Vachon and Laine followed seconds later.
"Excuse me. You can't go in there." Grace shouted after Laine, who barged past her and into Natalie Lambert's office.
The room was empty.
Grace stood stolidly in the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest. "If you don't leave now, I'll call security."
"Where is she?" Laine thrust her Interpol badge at Grace, snarling with impatience. "Where can I find Dr. Lambert?"
"She's off duty. If Natalie wanted you to know where she was, she would have told you. Now leave or I will call for help."
Laine caught Grace's face between her hands, and took control. "Where is Natalie Lambert?"
"What is her address?"
Grace slowly repeated Natalie's address and then, when prompted, gave Laine simple directions that could be followed from the air. With a quick command that Grace forget she had ever seen the Interpol detective, Laine was gone.
Natalie was not alone. Two mortal hearts beat on the other side of the apartment door. Laine took a deep breath and knocked.
"Yes?" The man who answered the door was tall, with medium brown hair. He had the softening build of one who used to work out.
"I'm looking for Natalie Lambert." Laine made an effort to speak calmly. "Is she in? Tell her Detective Saxton needs to speak to her urgently."
"Do you know what time it is?" He blustered, then stopped when he saw her expression. "Hold on a minute. I'll go see if she wants to talk to you."
Laine ignored his request to stay in the hall and walked inside. The living room was nondescript, revealing little or nothing about its occupant. The only personal items in the room were the large cat who strolled over to check Laine out and a photograph of Natalie with the man who answered the door. The question of his identity was immediately resolved. He was obviously Christopher Shaw — the man she left Nick to marry.
"Hi there. Aren't you beautiful?" Laine picked up the cat and started rubbing him behind the ears. He purred loudly.
Natalie was drying her hands on a towel as she entered the room. "Can I .... Detective Saxton? I didn't expect...."
"Dr. Lambert ... Natalie ... You have to come with me now. Bring your special medical bag."
"What's wrong? What's happened?" Natalie dropped the towel, and her professional mask slammed into place.
"Hold on. Just who do you think you are?" Chris stepped behind Natalie, placing one arm possessively on her shoulder. "You can't just walk in here at this time in the morning and order Nat around."
Laine ignored him, and directed her explanation to Natalie. "It's Nick. He's badly injured. He needs your help. You have to come right away."
"How bad...?" Natalie's voice trailed away in shock.
"Take Nick to a hospital if he's hurt." Her fiance strode forward until he was directly in front of Laine, poking an index finger at the centre of her chest to emphasize his words. "If you think Nat is just going to drop everything and come running because Nick wants her, you've got another think coming."
Natalie retrieved her medical bag from the hall closet. "Chris, stop it! Laine wouldn't come here if it wasn't important."
"This is our first time alone together for two weeks." Chris ignored Natalie and blocked Laine's attempts to get around him. "Nat's only been home from work for about half an hour. Why don't you take Nick to emergency and let us know how he's doing after he's seen a doctor?"
Exasperation finally caused Laine to lose her temper. Eyes golden with rage, she seized Chris by the throat and lifted him off his feet. "Enough! You will sleep and forget! Now!"
"Forget. Sleep." Chris repeated her words woodenly and closed his eyes.
Laine tossed him negligently onto the couch, where he lay unmoving, snoring lightly. "Do you have everything you need treat Nick?"
"I think so." Natalie glanced concernedly at Chris. "You can't just leave him like that."
"Don't worry. He should wake up in an hour or so." Laine opened the balcony door and looked up at the rapidly paling sky. Hopefully, they would make it to the loft before the sun forced her to take cover. "Do up your coat. It's cold outside."
Natalie scribbled a quick note for Chris, then joined Laine on the balcony, carefully closing the door behind her. "We're flying?"
"Hold tight." Laine slid her arms around Natalie's waist, and they shot into the air.
The main floor of Nick's loft was a mess. While Vachon closed the shutters, LaCroix had swept everything off the table and deposited the unconscious Nick in the centre. Papers, empty bottles, wine glasses and shards of glass were scattered over the floor. LaCroix stood next to Nick, carefully dripping blood from his torn wrist into his open mouth.
Vachon dug into one of the cases of blood that he had brought from the Raven. He opened a bottle for himself and tossed another to LaCroix, who caught it with his spare hand.
The door banged open. Natalie stumbled through, medical bag in one hand, supporting Laine with the other arm. As soon as she saw Nick, Natalie dropped Laine and raced to his side, shedding her coat on the way.
Smoke poured off Laine as she collapsed onto the floor. The sun had caught them in the air just before they reached Nick's loft. She had barely managed to stay aloft until they reached the door.
Natalie pulled a length of tubing from her bag. It had a needle attached at one end and a rather strange metal and plastic contraption at the other. When she shoved LaCroix out of her way, he raised an eyebrow at her, but said nothing; silently handing her an unopened bottle of blood when she held out her arm. Deftly, Natalie punched a hole in the cork, pushed in the tubing, and inserted the needle into Nick's stomach.
"Hold this." She ordered LaCroix. When he didn't move, she pushed him into place and thrust the bottle into his hand. "Good. Now hold it in that exact position. Make sure you don't let it drop any lower. Let me know as soon as the bottle is empty."
Vachon helped Laine to her feet. The smoke had cleared. The sun blisters on her face started healing as she gulped the rest of the blood from his bottle.
"Would one of you two get me some hot water and clean cloths?" Natalie snapped on a pair of latex gloves, then started cutting away Nick's shirt. "I need to clean the dirt and threads out of this wound."
While Laine stumbled into the kitchen area and rummaged unsuccessfully in the cupboards for something to hold water, Vachon flew upstairs. He came down a few moments later with the remains of a cotton sheet that he had torn into strips. "There's definitely more to Knight than I thought. You won't believe what I had to go through to find a sheet that wasn't made out of black satin."
"Black satin sheets have their advantages." Laine cringed inwardly as the words came out of her mouth. She glanced at Vachon and Natalie but neither seemed to have heard her. She grabbed the cloths out of Vachon's hands and plunged them into a sink full of scalding hot water. He hopped onto the counter and observed the proceedings with obvious interest.
"I believe this bottle is empty, doctor." LaCroix interjected drily.
"You're doing great. Just keep holding it that way." Natalie swiftly replaced it with a full bottle. She accepted some cotton strips from Laine and used them to carefully clean the area around the hole in Nick's chest.
"Why thank you, doctor." LaCroix bared his fangs at Natalie's back. "Your confidence in me is awe inspiring."
"Tchah!" Natalie clicked her tongue against her teeth when she finally saw how much damage had been done to Nick's chest and shoulder. His heart pulsed in a single beat, visible through the space where his ribcage had been literally pulled apart. "Vachon! Get over here."
Hiding his annoyance behind a wide-eyed, blank expression, Vachon jumped off the kitchen counter and sauntered over to find out what she could possibly want.
"Put your hands here and here. Push until the ribcage meets the sternum ... gently." Natalie guided his hands with her own until the hole in Nick's chest was closed. "Hold it right there. Don't let the flesh pull apart again." She turned her head slightly and addressed Laine. "I'm going to need those bandages and the tape out of my bag now."
Laine shook her head and did Natalie's bidding. She hoped the mortal realized just how fine a line she was treading. The only reason any of them were putting up with the coroner's obnoxious attitude was because she was helping Nick. //Bandages,// she snorted silently. //What vampire ever needed bandages!//
Before Laine had opened the black bag, Natalie called out again, "Forget the dressings. Just bring over some gauze and another bottle of blood. Oh, and a bowl from the top shelf of the cupboard next to the fridge."
Natalie wadded up a few gauze pads, soaked them with blood and sponged down the slowly healing wound. She discarded the pads several times, dropping them into the bowl that Laine was holding, and started again with fresh. Twice during the procedure, Natalie thrust the saturated gauze at Laine and removed minuscule splinters of wood with a pair of tweezers.
The damage to Nick's chest was reduced to a fine red line after a few minutes. Natalie straightened up and sighed, pressing her knuckles into the small of her back. She tossed the gauze into the garbage can below the sink, took the almost empty bottle from LaCroix and removed the tubing from Nick's stomach. She cleaned up quickly and efficiently, then washed her hands and arms with hot water and antibacterial soap from her bag.
LaCroix retrieved a long stemmed crystal wine goblet and filled it with blood. He settled into the armchair — glass in one hand, bottle in the other — stretching out his legs and crossing them at the ankles. He seemed relaxed and lost in a world of his own, but never removed his eyes from Nick's prone form.
Scooping up an unopened bottle and two glasses, Laine and Vachon retreated to the stairs. They sprawled as comfortably as possible and stared self-consciously away from each other.
"We need to talk." Laine bit her lower lip.
Vachon twirled a strand of his hair around two fingers. "I know."
An awkward silence settled over the pair. Occasionally, one would look up and start to speak, then withdraw again.
Suddenly Nick coughed — his entire body spasming in response. Natalie ran to his side, but LaCroix was there in an instant. With a gentleness she had never dreamed existed in the older vampire, LaCroix helped Nick sit up.
Nick looked wildly around the loft. "Tomas?" he croaked.
"Destroyed and his ashes scattered over Lake Ontario." LaCroix handed Nick a glass of blood. "Drink."
Nick nodded and drained the glass. "Good."
Tracy regained consciousness with a jolt, haunted by vague images of flying across Toronto Harbour in Vachon's arms. She wondered whether Tomas or Laine had won the confrontation. She sat up too fast in the bed she'd been given in the Emergency Department, and the room began to spin. Clutching the bars on each side of the bed, she forced her eyes to focus and carefully looked around the room. It was a typical cubicle, closed off from the main area by a curtain and furnished with a bed, some medical equipment, a chair ... and her father.
"Sit down!" Commissioner Vetter stood up and firmly pushed down on Tracy's shoulders, giving her no choice except to comply with his order. He stared down at his daughter appraisingly then asked, "Where have you been for the last couple of days? What happened to you?"
Tracy sighed. It was so typical of her father. Not one question about how she was feeling — pretty awful to be honest: dizzy and nauseous, her stomach was still churning from being pumped, and her mouth tasted like something had died in there several days ago. She closed her eyes and tried to pretend that her father wasn't there.
"Tracy Vetter! Are you listening to me?" Her father's voice pierced through the fog that shrouded Tracy's mind.
//He's not going to stop until I tell him something.// She thought desperately. //And I can't tell him the truth. He'll lock me up for sure.// Tracy stifled the hysterical giggle that rose at the thought of her father's reaction to the news that his daughter had been kidnapped by a vampire; one who was hunting an Interpol agent who also happened to be a vampire.
"Sir! Sir! If you're going to shout, I'm going to have to ask you to leave." A nurse poked her head around the curtain.
Commissioner Vetter sat back down abruptly and glared at the nurse. "I'll stop shouting just as soon as you get the doctor to tell me exactly what's wrong with my daughter."
"Your daughter is an adult. The only way you can get information about her medical condition is if she gives her permission, which she has not done." The nurse crossed the floor and checked Tracy's IV drips, making a small adjustment to one of them. "Now, my patient needs to sleep. If you can't remain silent, why don't you sit in the waiting area until her room is ready?"
Just as he opened his mouth to respond, the Commissioner's beeper went off ... loudly.
"That's it!" The nurse opened the curtain and ushered him out of the cubicle. "Out! I'll let you know when we move Ms. Vetter upstairs."
Tracy smiled wistfully. It was so nice to meet someone who could stand up to her father. If only she could find the courage to do it more often. In the meantime, she needed to figure out exactly what to do about Detective Laine Saxton. Should she warn Nick about his fiancee's vampiric nature? Should she let Laine know that she knew when they met again? Should she....
Tracy drifted into a drugged sleep.
The loft was spotless again. While LaCroix helped Nick to the couch and related the story of Tomas' destruction, Natalie had badgered Laine and Vachon into helping her clean up. Afterwards, they had returned to their perch at the top of the stairs, hidden from the prying eyes below. The four vampires were ignoring the lone mortal in their midst.
Natalie had made herself some tea and was slumped at the table, feeling exhausted and horribly out of place. All she wanted to do was to go home and sleep in her own bed, curled up next to Chris. She craved his loving, human presence. Getting home the way she'd arrived was out of the question — sunset was too many hours away — and Chris was probably still sleeping off the whammy with which Laine had walloped him. The only other solution was to call a taxi. Stifling a groan, Natalie levered herself out of the chair and walked towards the telephone.
The shrill ringing surprised all of them. LaCroix scowled at the telephone, and then picked up the receiver. "What?"
He listened briefly and then stiffly held the handset out to Natalie. "It's for you."
Four pairs of curious eyes swivelled to Natalie. As she answered, she wandered back to the table. "Hello?"
It was Chris. "I got your note. Sorry I fell asleep on you last night."
"Don't worry about it." Natalie murmured, aware that she could not possibly speak quietly enough to prevent the vampires from hearing her end of the conversation. Briefly, she wondered if they could hear Chris as well.
"I do worry about it. You know that." Chris yawned in her ear. "Are you finished yet? Do you want me to come and pick you up?"
His obvious concern warmed Natalie's heart. "Please. I really want to come home right now."
"I'll be there as soon as I can. I love you."
"Me too." Natalie blushed faintly. "I'll wait for you downstairs, okay?"
She pressed the disconnect button and returned the receiver to the base. "I'm leaving. Chris will here to pick me up shortly."
Nick raised his head and stared sharply at Natalie, but made no attempt to stop her. "Oh.. okay. Look... umm..." Nick floundered to a halt, unable to think of anything to say that Natalie would not take the wrong way.
//You're welcome.// Natalie mentally shook herself. One day Nick was going to say 'thank you' for some of her hard work, and she was going to fall over in a dead faint.
"Dr. Lambert." LaCroix's voice stopped her halfway to the door. "Thank you for disrupting your plans to help Nicholas."
//Well, I'll be...// Natalie forced herself to move again, pausing briefly at the door. "You're welcome."
The door clanged shut behind her.
When the echoes from the closing door died away, Laine glanced down at Nick and LaCroix. Reassured that they were not visible from where she and Vachon were sitting, she turned back to Vachon. He was spread comfortably across the stair above her, resting his back against the wall. She contemplated him for a moment. "You deserve thanks as well."
"For what?" Vachon opened his eyes wide and took another drink from the bottle in his hand.
"For killing Tomas for me. For risking your life to save Tracy." Laine stopped, suddenly unsure of what to say next.
Vachon shrugged. "No big deal."
She reached out and took his free hand in hers. "You're wrong. It is a big deal to me. Tomas needed to be destroyed, but I didn't want to surrender my life to do it. I can't thank you enough."
"Okay, so it is a big deal." Vachon grinned wickedly. "I'll think of a way for you to thank me, if you're having trouble coming up with something."
"I'm counting on it." Laine returned his grin.
Awkwardness rose between them, driving her to release his hand. They both gulped blood from the bottles they had procured from one of the cases he had brought from the Raven.
"What do you..." Vachon started.
"Where do we..." Laine said at exactly the same time.
They both laughed and the tension dissipated.
"Go ahead." Vachon waved his hand invitingly.
Laine bent her head and inspected the step beneath her. She took a deep breath, and raised her head to look directly into his eyes. "Where do we go from here?"
"I'm not sure. Where do you want to go?"
"Forwards, not backwards." Laine caught her lower lip between her teeth. "I'm still not ready for forever, but I'd like to ... to ..."
Vachon completed the sentence for her. "Get to know each other again?"
"Yes, but...." Laine let her voice trail away again. She had no idea how to tell him what was on her mind.
"But what?" Vachon ran his knuckles softly across her jaw. "Talk to me."
Laine closed her eyes and swallowed hard. "I need the same rules as we had at the beginning — the coming together and splitting apart. Our relationship worked best when we were both free to seek our desires with each other and apart."
Vachon leaned forward and kissed her, a long, slow, deep kiss that resonated in the depths of her soul. "Is there any other way?"
"Not for us." Laine slid into his arms, and they lost themselves in each other.
The last rays of the sun were still slipping over the horizon when they fled Nick's loft for the privacy of Vachon's church.
Nick stood alone at a window, staring at the night sky and wishing he was in the country where there were no city lights to obscure the stars. LaCroix had left a few minutes earlier to prepare for the Nightcrawler show.
He drank more blood from his glass. For a fleeting moment, he wondered when the guilt at drinking human blood would return, and immediately hoped that it would not. The last few days had been a revelation in more ways than one. He had discovered that he functioned better in mortal society when he fed properly, rather than being hungry all the time. Cow blood had muted the craving to feed, but had never satiated it.
Now that the constant hunger had disappeared, he had become aware of an odd ache in his heart, as if an essential part of him was missing. He struggled to place the feeling, without success. What made it even stranger — at least to him — was the recognition that this feeling was not new; it had been a part of him for the past year or so. Nick lost himself in inner meditation, searching for the source of his discontent.
The sound of the elevator moving roused Nick from his trance. He pivoted on one foot and watched the door open. The ache spread across his soul and dissolved. He drank in her beauty: the long, raven-black hair, dark eyes shining with an inner light; the arch of her eyebrows revealing her aristocratic origins. Once his sister, and now his fledgling, Janette had been his lover for much of the past 800 years. None of the other lovers he had dallied with over the centuries had ever been able to usurp her place in his heart.
"Nicolas." Janette stood in the open doorway. Her hair and clothing were dishevelled from flying halfway across the world. "You were injured."
"Janette. I... I was not sure if you would come." Nick took a step forward and then hesitated.
"I felt your call, and I came." Janette ran her fingers through her hair to smooth it down. "Have I not always come when you really needed me?"
They met in the centre of the room. Bodies fitting together perfectly. Lips joining in a kiss that erased the loneliness in both of them.
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams [W.B. Yeats}