Natalie hesitantly opened the door to the loft. The last time she had entered unannounced, she had found Nick in the company of a beautiful woman. He had introduced her as Janette and said that they were old friends. She wondered how long they had known each other. With Nick, old friend could mean anything up to eight-hundred years.
The situation had been awkward when she had stumbled in on them. They stood close and, for a fraction of a second, Nick's mouth had been poised at Janette's neck, before he quickly pulled away. Natalie assumed they were probably more than friends.
Although she was curious to hear more about Janette, Natalie had opted for a hasty retreat after Nick had introduced them.
Natalie and Nick hadn't seen each other since then. Now, a week later, Nick had asked her over for a video night.
Natalie stepped out of the elevator and glanced around, seeing Nick in the kitchen.
"Hi, Nat." He came over to take her coat.
"Nick," she returned the greeting and proceeded into the living room area. She pulled a box of popcorn from her bag and emptied it into the bowl Nick had already placed on the table.
"Coffee?" he asked from the kitchen.
"Yes, please." She watched as he carried a mug and a glass of blood to the table.
After sitting down and taking a sip, he regarded her probingly. "Okay, what's wrong?" he asked after a moment.
She blinked surprised and quickly assured him, "Nothing, why?"
"Nat, I can tell when you're tensed up. Is it because of Janette?"
She blushed deeply. "I'm sorry that I barged in like that."
"Don't be," Nick said lightly. "You probably saved me from a mistake."
"How long have you known each other?" Natalie blurted, no longer able to hold her curiosity in check.
Nick's eyes took on a far-away look. "Right from the beginning. She was there when I was brought across."
Natalie's eyes widened.
"She was a temptation then, she's a temptation now," Nick continued. "Continuing what was building up when you dropped in on us would have been a set-back. So you see, I'm actually grateful for your interruption."
Natalie doubted that Janette shared this opinion. "Do you want to tell me about her?" she asked, intrigued.
Nick stared at her, taken aback. He was not used to disclosing episodes from his private life. "Only on the condition that you tell me something as well," he proposed after a while.
Natalie shifted uncomfortably. "Like what? There isn't much to tell."
"What caused you to pursue a career in pathology for example?"
"Oh, I got more or less involved in a crime scene while I was in England. And then I got acquainted with the local coroner."
Now it was Nick's turn to look at her curiously. "What were you doing in England?"
"After graduating from med school, I worked for half a year at London Charing Cross Hospital. To get my feet wet, so to speak. I was in the emergency ward. There was a terrible accident on the highway. I lost my first patient that night and I felt awful."
London, October 1985
After an exhausting day, Natalie climbed into her car and pulled it into gear. "I'll never learn this," she mumbled when the car gave a protesting noise. After three months, she still wasn't used to driving manual shift, especially with the stick located to her left to accommodate the right-sided steering wheel.
While she drove through the dark streets towards her apartment, her thoughts returned to the previous hours. There had been an accident and the emergency ward was crowded with gurneys. People screamed for medical attention and she had lost her first patient.
Tears welled up in her eyes again as she remembered telling the parents her efforts had failed.
She was rudely pulled back to the present as another car honked beside her. Instinctively she pressed the brake, but it was too late to avoid a collision. She had skidded sidelong into a limousine.
The driver was immediately at her window, hollering, "Lady, this is England! People drive on the left side! Round-abouts go left around. If you Europeans can't adapt to our rules, you better stay across the channel."
"Canadians," Natalie corrected him with a sheepish smile. "I'm sorry," she apologized and got out to assess the damage.
The chauffeur had returned to his car and spoke with his passenger. "I'm sorry about the delay, sir. This will take a while. I'm calling a substitute," she heard him say.
Natalie groaned inwardly as she regarded her car in the pale light of a street lamp. While the limo had a damaged fender, her car looked worse. That's when everything came crushing down on her. She suddenly couldn't stop the tears anymore and broke down beside her car.
A shadow fell over her, causing her to look up, startled. She gazed into the unmoving face of a man who offered her a handkerchief.
"Thank you," she said, snatching it out of his hand. "Who're you?"
"The victim of your clumsiness," he stated in a low voice.
"You were in the limo? Oh, I'm so sorry. Are you all right? I'm a doctor."
"Really," he breathed. "Thank you, I do not require medical attention. You, however, do not appear to be all right at all."
"I'm fine", Natalie assured him quickly, blowing her nose. "I just had a rough day."
Looking up, she studied the man in front of her more closely. He was dressed like an upper-class businessman, had short-cropped hair and piercing blue eyes. Natalie estimated that he was in his forties.
"I hope I'm not keeping you from something important," she said.
He gave a shrug. "Actually I was on my way out to Windsor. The Prince Consort is expecting me for a game of chess."
Natalie stared at him. Was he actually talking about the Queen's husband?
"The Prince Consort?" she queried. "You don't mean...?" When he merely raised his eyebrows, she took it as confirmation. "You're serious."
"You don't believe me," he observed.
"I'm a scientist. I tend to keep sceptical until I see proof."
"That's a very healthy attitude, I believe," he said, amused.
"Should I address you as Lord something?"
"Lucien will suffice."
"Fine, I'm Natalie." Feeling a bit awkward under his intense gaze, she averted her eyes and spotted a phone booth nearby. "Excuse me, I should call the rental company and report the accident."
She picked her purse from the car and crossed the street.
After she had dialled the number, she was actually surprised to reach someone at this time of the evening. However, she was told to leave the car at the curb, where a truck would pick it up in the morning. She was supposed to come to the office for a full report on the next day.
As she stepped out of the booth, she was surprised to find Lucien waiting beside it.
"Do you need to make a call as well?" she asked, holding the door open. Simultaneously her stomach growled. She doubted it was loud enough for him to hear, but obviously he had.
"When was the last time you ate anything?"
She stared at him, slightly surprised. "For breakfast, 18 hours ago."
"Allow me to escort you to dinner," he suggested.
"I think I've already caused you enough trouble," Natalie declined politely.
"But I insist," he intoned.
Natalie felt too tired to argue. And he was right. She needed to eat anyway. "What about your Prince?"
"He will have to wait," he shrugged.
What kind of man was this who had the nerve to let a member of the Royal family wait, Natalie wondered. Either he was utterly rude or very well acquainted with the Royal family in order to behave this way. Judging from his apparent concern for her well being after the accident, she assumed it was the latter. She was curious if he would share details, especially about the young Princess, yet she felt it was improper to ask him directly. At home, she had never paid much attention to the tabloids, but here, where she was confronted with the headlines from the newspapers scattered in the hospital's cafeteria every day, the topic was hard to ignore.
"Fine," she conceded. "There's a pub around the corner of my apartment block."
"A pub," Lucien commented, non-plussed.
"Yeah, a pub. Unless that's too plebeian for you, I suggest we get moving or skip the plan." Natalie walked back to the chauffeur. "If you need to get in touch with me, I work at Charing Cross Hospital."
After writing down her office phone number, she turned to the waiting taxi and climbed into the back seat, waiting for Lucien to follow. After he had eased himself onto the seat beside her, she gave directions to the driver and leaned back, feeling suddenly drained of all remaining energy.
* * *
Natalie jerked awake.
"It certainly is a rare occasion that a woman falls asleep in my presence," the man beside her commented in an amused tone.
"I fell asleep? O jeez, I'm awfully sorry. I'm completely worn out. Perhaps I should just head home."
"As a doctor, you should take better care of yourself, Natalie," Lucien scolded. He paid the driver and drew her out of the taxi. "I believe that is the establishment you recommended?" He nodded towards the entrance of a pub.
Natalie gave him a bemused look and preceded him into the pub. She liked to come here on occasion after work to wind down a bit. Nodding to the bartender, she chose a table in a corner and sat down. Lucien took a seat across from her.
When the waitress approached, she exchanged a brief look with Lucien before turning to Natalie.
"Hi, Caitlyn. I'll take a Guinness and fish and chips," Natalie ordered.
"A red wine. A variety that is palatable, if you have one," Lucien said.
"Certainly," the waitress nodded and vanished.
"Nothing to eat?" Natalie asked.
"Not at the moment."
"I take it this is not your usual scale of restaurant," she remarked.
Glancing around, Lucien stated, "Actually it is better than I expected when you proposed it."
"I see," Natalie smiled. "So, how did you come to meet the Prince Consort?"
"We share several interests. I met him during a hunting party."
When Natalie made a face, he concluded, "You don't approve?"
"Too bad," he breathed.
"I can think of less bloody pastimes on a Sunday afternoon."
"But are they as satisfying?" Lucien challenged.
"Are you telling me that you find satisfaction in killing animals?" Natalie asked in disbelief.
"Not exactly," he replied smoothly with a smile playing around his lips.
"That's what I hoped to hear," Natalie remarked.
Their conversation was interrupted when their food and beverages arrived.
"You mentioned that you're visiting from Canada?" Lucien inquired after he had taken a cautious sip from his wine.
"I'm here on an exchange program," Natalie explained. "I'm from Toronto."
"Toronto?" Lucien repeated.
"You've been there?"
"Only briefly passing through. My daughter has chosen to live there for the time being."
"You have a daughter?" Natalie asked. "How old is she?"
"Old enough to make her own living in Toronto," he supplied.
Natalie supposed that he must have been quite young when she was born.
"What about her mother?" She hoped he wouldn't regard the question as too indiscreet.
"She died," he informed her.
Natalie instantly cursed her curiosity. "Oh, I'm so sorry."
"It happened a long time ago," he almost shrugged.
Natalie wondered if he had raised his daughter alone, but refrained from asking any more personal questions.
"Tell me, Natalie," he spoke after a moment of silence, "are you always this exhausted from your work?"
"Usually not. But today was horrific. I lost a patient. A young girl who had been injured in a highway accident. I tried my best, although I knew there was nothing else I could do. I felt so helpless."
She quickly brushed her hand across her eye as the tears threatened to come again.
"Are you certain that you have chosen a profession that suits your wits?"
"My wits?" Natalie asked in surprise. "I became a doctor because I want to help people."
"That's a very human attitude, but is it not frustrating to reach the limits of medical science in patients like your young charge from today?"
"Of course I have considered going into research. There are so many unanswered questions. And perhaps, I will, someday."
"Hm," Lucien hummed.
"Nothing. Are you done?" He nodded towards her empty plate.
When Natalie answered in the affirmative, he excused himself and walked to the bar in order to pay. When he returned, he picked up her coat and held it for her. "Shall we?"
Natalie slipped into her coat. "Thanks for dinner."
He conducted her out of the pub. Natalie steered towards her door and began to feel a bit insecure when he made no attempt to depart. Certainly he didn't expect her to invite him upstairs?
"Well, here we are," she said in a firm voice as they arrived at her door. "Thanks again. I hope I didn't inconvenience you too much."
When he remained silent and rooted by her side, she cleared her throat. "Ava is probably wondering about my where-abouts."
"Ava?" he inquired, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah, my room-mate."
"You have a room-mate," he stated.
Natalie thought she saw a hint of disappointment flashing across his face.
He regarded her a moment thoughtfully as if contemplating his next move. "In that case I will not detain you any longer," he finally breathed.
"Good night, then," Natalie said. She watched as he walked down the curb. Then she turned to open her door. When she looked back to the road, Lucien was nowhere to be seen.
Shaking off an uneasy feeling, Natalie stepped into the hall and ascended the stairs to her apartment under the roof.
A hungry growl greeted her as she stepped inside. "Sorry, it took me so long, Ava. You must be starved," she apologized and picked up the black feline that brushed around her legs.
What an odd encounter, she thought while opening a can of cat food. So distinguished on the one hand, and yet so utterly rude on the other. As far as she knew, he hadn't even made an attempt to cancel his previous engagement.
Unbeknownst to her, a pair of golden eyes hovered in front of her window.
* * *
Lucien Lacroix closed the door of his townhouse at Grosvenor Square and strode towards his kitchen.
"A cat!" he chuckled. "She used a cat to evade me!"
He poured himself a glass of blood and emptied it instantly. A second followed suit. He carried the third into the parlour and settled into his favourite chair by the fireplace.
Taking another sip from his glass, he regarded it critically. He had expected to dine on a fresher vintage this evening. It had been his intention to take the girl for his pleasure and leave her drained in her apartment. A stranger in town who wouldn't be missed. The opportunity had been ideal until she mentioned her ‘room-mate'. Scowling, he took another sip. Of course he could have overruled her objection and dealt with her as he had with numerous mortals before her. But where was the challenge in that?
His gaze wandered towards the fireplace and the framed photo on the mantel. It was a black-and-white shot of Nicholas and Janette, taken shortly before Janette left for Toronto. It hadn't taken long before a major dispute prompted Nicholas to leave London as well for parts unknown. That had been five years ago. He had remained in London, always waiting to hear a word from his son. He had refrained from following Janette to Toronto, because he knew Nicholas would eventually rejoin his sister. However, Nicholas would not make that move when he sensed his master nearby. So, Lacroix kept his distance, using Janette as bait, and waited patiently. Yet, he couldn't deny that he was missing the company of his family, especially Nicholas.
Tonight's encounter with the young doctor had been a welcome distraction from his seclusion.
* * *
Natalie exited the underground station and walked the three blocks to her apartment. It had been a week since her accident and work had been so time-consuming that she had almost banished the incident from her mind. After dealing with the rental agency and her insurance company, she had decided to decline their offer of a new car and commuted to the hospital by tube each day. She had found that it was even faster once she learned to avoid the rush hours.
When Natalie passed the pub, the sounds of live music made her curious. Instead of heading home, she changed her mind and entered. It was crowded as usual on a Friday night. However, she spotted an empty seat at the bar and made her way towards it.
"Hi Sean," she greeted the bartender. "I'll have a Guinness."
"Here you are, Nat." Sean placed a pint before her. "How was your day?"
"Busy." Natalie took a huge gulp. "But I'm off for the weekend."
"Enjoy your weekend then," Sean smiled and turned to cater to other customers.
"And what are your plans for the weekend, Natalie?" a low voice inquired from beside her.
Startled, Natalie turned to the person sitting next to her and recognized the man she had met by chance a week ago. She hadn't expected to see him ever again.
"Oh – hi," she gasped. "What are you doing here?"
"What one usually does when patronizing a bar," he replied, raising his wine glass in a toast.
Feeling a slight annoyance at being mocked, she elaborated, "I meant why this particular pub? I thought you didn't like it here?"
He took a sip from his beverage. "I happened to be in the area."
"You happened to be in the area," Natalie repeated, doubting his words. "What for?"
Natalie hadn't known that there were any up-scale restaurants in the neighbourhood he would approve of. The area was inhabited by students, mostly, and the restaurants had adapted to their income.
"You didn't answer my question, Natalie," he interrupted her thoughts. "What are your plans for tomorrow?"
"I'm going to the British Museum."
"Any particular exhibit?" he inquired, genuinely interested.
"I want to see the Rosetta Stone. I read a biography of Champollion and was fascinated how he solved the puzzle of the hieroglyphs."
"He was rather clever, I agree. It took mankind long enough to find the clue, after all."
"Are you interested in history?" Natalie asked, finding his comment a bit odd.
"History is important," he stated. "The Egyptians had a unique knowledge of the world that is worth preserving."
"Have you been to Egypt? I'd like to see the pyramids one day. They must be amazing."
Natalie observed a shadow passing over his face before he answered. "While that may be true, both of my visits ended in disaster. I do not wish to return."
He still thought with horror of the incident in the Valley of Kings that had left him free and independent and at the same time alone and bereft of guidance. He had avoided the country for centuries until Nicholas' fancy for archaeology had forced him to follow his child to the excavation site of Khartoum, which had been annexed to Egypt at the time. Scorning the feelings of guilt that had been stirred up unbidden by remembering the events in the Valley of Kings, he had plotted a scheme with his friend Thomas to force Nicholas to move on. While his plan had worked out well, Nicholas had never forgiven him the part he had played in the plot that had led to the death of yet another mortal Nicholas cared too deeply about. His son had left without another word to him, leaving him alone again in a country he had come to abhor.
"What happened?" the girl beside him asked curiously.
"That is irrelevant," he shrugged the unpleasant memories off. "When you're finished with the Egyptian wing, you will find the Roman display on the opposite side of the floor."
"The Romans were boring," Natalie shrugged, remembering the dull Latin classes she had attended in high school. "I had planned to skip them."
"Boring?!" he exclaimed.
Natalie jumped slightly and wondered why he looked as if he had been personally insulted. "I think the Middle Ages were much more exciting," she reasoned.
"You can hardly compare the Roman civilization with the generations brought up in the Middle Ages," he scolded.
"So what?" Natalie returned. "Neither their culture nor their hygiene could prevent the decline of the Roman Empire. They're all dust now."
Lacroix glared at her. She called herself a doctor and yet in a matter of minutes she had poked into his wounds, stirring up painful memories with the precise incision of a scalpel. A job as a mortician would suit her much better, he thought dryly.
"You love to dissect the dead, do you not?" he asked.
Natalie looked at him, startled. "Actually, I liked the course I took in pathology, but what has that got to do with all this?"
"Nothing. Would you care for another beer?" He nodded at her empty glass.
Natalie considered the offer a moment. Should she call it a night or remain in the company of this man? Although she still found his demeanour a little odd, their conversation contained a certain challenge, not to mention that it distracted her mind sufficiently from work to allow for a relaxed start into the weekend. Nodding, she replied, "Yes, but I should eat something, too. Otherwise I won't be able to make sensible conversation for long. And that would be embarrassing."
"I'm sure it will be delightful," Lucien chuckled into her ear. If she let down her guard, she would not decline his company as she had before...
"Is the man bothering you, Nat?" a male voice interrupted. Lacroix stared, irritated, at the bartender.
"No, Sean, it's all right. Can I get another Guinness? And something to eat, please."
"Sure, I'll fetch a plate from the kitchen," he said, with what Natalie interpreted to be a warning glance at Lucien.
"It appears someone is prepared to defend your honour," Lucien remarked in an amused tone.
"I wasn't aware that my honour was at stake." Natalie was a little confused about Sean's behaviour. "But it's nice to have someone watching out for me. Excuse me a moment." Natalie slid from her stool and went to the washroom.
While she was gone, Sean placed another pint of Guinness on the bar. "I know what you are," he addressed Lacroix.
"I beg your pardon?" Lacroix raised an eyebrow at the mortal in front of him.
"I told Caitlyn not to bring her friends here."
"You're mistaken, young man," Lacroix replied haughtily. "Your waitress has nothing to do with my presence in this bar. It is the charm of your patrons that I find highly appealing."
"I will not allow you to harm my patrons," Sean remained steadfast.
"You're hardly in a position to dictate terms on me," Lacroix replied in a low voice, causing Sean to back away.
When Natalie resumed her seat, Sean returned, placing a steaming plate of meatballs in front of her.
The moment the scent of the food reached Lacroix's nose, he took an involuntary step backwards. "Are you really going to eat that?" he asked, irritated.
"Of course. I'm hungry." Natalie picked up a meatball with her fork. "Oh, boy," she breathed after taking a bite. "The cook must have doubled the garlic dose. It's a good thing that I don't have to work tomorrow." Picking up a second meatball, she held it out to Lucien. "Want some? I will smell awfully if you don't join me."
Lacroix glared at the offering. "No, thank you," he seethed, evading the offending piece.
"Okay, but don't complain later," Natalie shrugged and turned her attention back to her plate.
"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Natalie, but I must take my leave for tonight. A pressing matter requires my presence elsewhere."
"Oh?" Natalie remarked, surprised at his sudden declaration.
"Good night," he said and departed without further explanation.
Natalie stared after him, utterly confused by his attitude. Of course he had more important matters to attend than keeping her company while she ate her supper. Perhaps he had another appointment at Windsor Castle, she thought with a shrug and turned back to her plate. In a way, she felt relieved, as his departure confirmed that his presence in the pub had been coincidence indeed. She wasn't sure what her reaction would be had he sought her company intentionally.
"Enjoying your meal?" Sean asked with a broad grin.
"Yes, thanks," Natalie smiled in return.
* * *
Before leaving the pub, Lacroix caught Caitlyn's gaze and nodded his head imperceptibly towards the door, an unmistakable command to follow him.
Caitlyn put her tray away and stepped out into the night. Noting that Lacroix was waiting for her on the opposite roof, she looked around for witnesses and rose to meet him.
"You wanted to see me?" she asked in a mixture of curiosity and dread.
"How is it that your employer is so well informed about our kind?" Lacroix inquired.
"He figured out what I am when I couldn't come in early last summer. His first reaction was to fire me, but when I explained that I needed the job, he agreed to let me stay under the condition that I won't bring in any others. Meanwhile, he appreciates my ability to go on for hours without tiring."
"Has nobody informed you about the Code? Mortals are not supposed to know about our existence," Lacroix lectured.
"I'm sure I can trust Sean," Caitlyn insisted.
"You're but young, my dear. In time you will learn that mortals cannot be trusted at all. I believe it is time that you acquire your own establishment, don't you agree?" Lacroix purred suggestively. "It would be quite worthwhile to provide appropriate nourishment to a more sophisticated clientele in this area. A well catered club would be beneficial to all of us..."
* * *
Natalie spent most of the morning with house cleaning and grocery shopping. After a short lunch she took the subway to the British Museum. She picked up a Visitor's Guide and sought out the Rosetta Stone first. She regarded the waist-high stone that was smaller than she had expected. After perusing the information on the plaque, she went upstairs into the main Egyptian section. She took her time looking at the rows of sarcophaguses and the mummies they contained.
Slightly amused, she noticed a degree of squeamishness in fellow visitors, most of them continuing hastily towards the display of jewellery that awaited them in the adjoining room.
Natalie, however, took a special interest in the mummies and wondered what kind of people these bodies had been and how they died.
It was already dark outside when she was finished with the last room of the Egyptian section.
She stood a moment indecisively in the hall. The Roman statue across from her told her what lay in that wing. Consulting her guide, she looked for more interesting displays. "Excuse me," she asked a security guard. "Where would I find a display about the Middle Ages?"
"That depends what you're looking for, ma'am," she guard replied. "We have a room with paintings and tapestries here on the first floor. But if you're looking for armour and weapons, I recommend visiting the Tower. There you can also see the original interior decoration from the times of Edward I."
"Oh, I thought the weapons would be here," Natalie said, disappointed. She had wanted to see them, but visiting the Tower was definitely above her budget.
She checked her watch and noticed that she had only an hour left before the museum closed. With a shrug, she stepped past the Roman statue and entered a room that contained several showcases laden with pottery.
"Boring," she thought and continued into the next room that showed a display of ancient maps, marking the boundaries of the Roman Empire at different times. Without sparing them more than a short glance, she moved on to a hall filled with statues, a showcase with daggers on display and a table on which a battlefield with hundreds of tiny figures was set up. Natalie bent over the table, marvelling at the detailed display. Little tents were in the background; the figures were grouped in legions. On a hill, she made out a horseman, the uniform and position identifying him as someone of commanding rank.
"I'm pleased to see that something in this section has caught your interest after all," a smooth voice spoke suddenly behind her.
Natalie turned around and found herself face to face with Lucien.
"Are you following me?" she asked, slightly startled.
"Hardly, since you stated so determinedly that you would skip this section."
"True," Natalie admitted. "I still think it's boring."
"Why?" Lucien demanded.
"All that pottery," Natalie indicated towards the previous rooms. "I mean, everybody knows that they were produced in high quantities. Is it really necessary to display shelf after shelf with the same kind of amphorae?"
"It is not so much a matter of what has been found, but where it was found, my dear. Had you paid better attention, you would have noticed that each amphora originates from a different excavation site, indicating the various trade routes used in the past," Lucien explained patiently.
Natalie had to admit that she hadn't seen the potential for scientists if considered this way. It was intriguing indeed to learn historical details from a single shard.
"You appeared to be genuinely interested in this display, though," Lucien observed, pointing at the battlefield.
"I was admiring the detail."
"The battle of Gaul was one of the most skilfully led attacks in its time. It resulted in the final defeat of the Gauls, while the Roman Empire gained another province." After a short pause Lucien leaned over the table and pointed out three legions. "The initial attack was led from three sides. While the enemy was focused on fending off the front and flank attacks, a fourth legion was positioned in the back to cut off the retreat. It was only a matter of time until the Gauls were crushed between the lines."
Natalie listened in fascination to his vivid tale. However, she refused to appear impressed. "That's horrible." When he regarded her questioningly, she added, "For the Gauls, I mean. What did they do to stir up this war?"
"They stood between Rome and her desire to expand her boundaries. They were meant to be conquered," Lucien explained coldly.
"What about the Gallic culture?"
"Anything useful was assimilated by Roman culture," Lucien shrugged and led her to a showcase with jewellery. "The Gauls were quite adept in the art of jewellery. This bracelet, for instance, was crafted by a Gaul slave."
"To grace the arm of a Roman wife, no doubt," Natalie scoffed.
"Or the arm of a General's Gaul mistress," Lucien offered. "Why so upset, my dear?"
"I don't believe in a society where the majority of the population is enslaved," Natalie pointed out.
"Excuse me," they were interrupted by a voice from the entrance. "We are closing in ten minutes. Would you kindly proceed towards the exit?"
Natalie turned around and nodded towards the security guard. As she made a step forward, she was detained by a hand on her arm. "Thank you, but we will let ourselves out when we're finished here," Lucien said in a smooth voice.
"Oh, it's you. Certainly, sir. Just let yourselves out when you're finished here," the guard replied, unconcerned, and turned to leave.
Natalie turned towards her companion and regarded him questioningly.
"The curator is an acquaintance of mine," Lucien provided. "I have been contributing some knowledge on the history of several items in this collection."
Natalie studied him curiously. "So, you've studied Roman history? I would have taken you for a businessman."
He gave a chuckle. "Appearances can be deceiving, my dear."
Natalie noticed that he hadn't exactly answered her question. "Are you an archaeologist?" she asked him directly.
"Hardly," he chuckled again. "I merely happened to pick up a stray item here and there."
"Then you're a collector?"
"Among other things, yes."
"Are you also a fountain of knowledge concerning other periods?" Natalie asked, intrigued.
"Try me," Lucien breathed with a hint of challenge in his voice.
"Did you know that the main part of the medieval collection is in the Tower? They only keep some paintings here."
"I am aware of that," Lucien confirmed. "However, I would recommend the National Gallery if you wish to see the true masterpieces."
"Ah, no, thank you. I'm not that interested in art," Natalie declined.
"You do not take pleasure in viewing a painting while asking yourself what the painter had wished to express by choosing this particular colour or why he had chosen that particular motive?"
"No, not really. I usually pass through galleries quickly, if I visit them at all," Natalie admitted with a shrug. He probably thought her totally ignorant about art now, but she couldn't help it. She had no intention of pretending any interest just to please him.
"Very well, the Tower it is then," Lucien interrupted her thoughts.
"What?" Natalie's head snapped up. "No."
"No? I thought you desired to see it?"
"I do. But I can't. I heard that the admission is rather expensive."
"And that's a problem?" Lucien inquired politely.
"I think it's absolutely overpriced."
"Would you accept an invitation?"
Natalie considered him probingly. "Are there any obligations that you expect on my part if I accept?"
He let out a chuckle that sounded to Natalie's ears like an admission that he had indeed planned to extract a favour from her in return. She refused to think about the nature of this favour at this point.
"My dear, I offered to accompany you to the Tower and pay for the admission, not to buy you a house and pay for your wardrobe and all other expenses," he clarified after a pause.
Natalie blushed deeply, embarrassed that he had caught her thoughts so easily. "You can't blame a girl for being cautious," she defended herself.
"The pleasure of your company is reward enough, I assure you," Lucien added with a seductive smile that caused Natalie's heart rate to increase.
"Really?" she asked suspiciously, startled by her own reaction. "Why me? So far I know, I've caused you nothing but trouble."
"Indeed. But you do entertain me, my dear."
Natalie was still uncertain about his motivation, but decided to go with his explanation for now. She gave him a grin and suggested, "Okay, how about meeting at the Tower entrance tomorrow at 11 a.m.?"
"I'm afraid I won't be available until 5:30 p.m."
His answer caused Natalie to wonder what obligations kept him busy throughout the whole Sunday. However, it wasn't her business to poke into his privacy. Her eyes drifted briefly to his hands in search of a ring. He wore a signet ring on the fifth finger of his right hand, but no wedding ring. Concluding that it wasn't a wife that required his attention throughout the day, she agreed, "Okay, 5:30 then at the Tower entrance."
They left the museum. When Natalie turned towards the subway station, she felt a detaining hand on her arm.
"You don't intend to take the tube at this time of night, do you?" Lucien said and signalled a taxi. "Allow me to drop you off at your place." He shoved her into the waiting car.
Feeling rather tired, Natalie didn't resist. She listened in surprise as Lucien gave the driver her exact address.
When the taxi pulled up in front of her apartment building, Natalie noticed several police cars parked at the curb.
"Oh, my God, what happened?" she gasped and got out of the car, heading towards the crowd of bystanders that had gathered in front of the pub's entrance. "I'm a doctor. Can I help?" she addressed a policeman who stood guard at the door.
"I highly doubt a doctor is of any help," Lucien remarked at her side and nodded at the dark Coroner's van that pulled up at the curb.
Shocked, Natalie addressed the policeman again, "What happened?"
"Thank you for the offer, but he's right. The owner has been found dead."
"Not Sean?!" Natalie exclaimed, shocked.
"You've known him?" the officer asked.
"I live in number 12. I've come here regularly and we've talked a couple of times. How did he die?"
"I'm sorry ma'am; I'm not at liberty to disclose any details."
Frustrated, Natalie turned to her companion and noticed that Lucien was no longer at her side. Looking around, she saw him talking to the coroner.
When the policeman stepped aside to let the orderlies who accompanied the coroner in, Natalie took the opportunity and slipped inside, too. She followed them into the kitchen and stopped in her tracks as she saw Sean's body on the floor, the head bent in an awkward angle.
"Excuse me, are you an acquaintance of the deceased?" a female voice asked from behind her. "Otherwise you will have to step aside."
Natalie turned around and recognized the coroner Lucien had been talking to outside the pub. "I'm Doctor Natalie Lambert. I work at Charing Cross," she introduced herself.
"Esther Jones, Chief Medical Examiner of Rotherhithe," the woman returned and knelt down by the body.
Natalie watched as the middle-aged woman donned a pair of gloves before carefully examining Sean's neck. "Apparent cause of death: broken neck," she dictated to her assistant who jotted down notes on a clipboard.
"What's that?" her assistant asked, pointing to a spot at the side of the neck that Natalie couldn't see.
"Some allergy. Nothing of concern," Dr. Jones mumbled in an odd monotonous voice. Then she looked around at the polished floor and continued in the same tone, "He probably slipped and broke his neck in the fall. An accident. There's no need to call homicide."
Regardless of the startled expressions of her co-workers, Dr. Jones rose to her feet and peeled off her gloves. She signed the preliminary report and gave instructions to bag the body.
Natalie left the pub and searched for Lucien. When she couldn't find him among the bystanders, she headed to her apartment.
* * *
After leaving explicit suggestions with the coroner, Lacroix scanned the roof tops until he detected Caitlyn's presence. Moving into the shadows, he rose to the air and landed beside her on the roof across the pub.
"I did as you suggested," she said without greeting.
"Not quite," he remarked in an icy tone.
She whirled to face him. "You wanted him out of the way!"
"It might have been less suspicious to drop him into the Thames. Leaving a body requires presenting a suspect. Did you not know that?" Lacroix lectured mockingly.
"There was no time. I heard the cook approaching the moment I had drained him. All I could do was snap his neck to make it look like he broke it in a fall."
"You did not obscure the bite marks?" Lacroix scolded. "That is highly negligent, my dear. How fortunate that I had the foresight of instructing the coroner that there was nothing suspicious."
"I'm relieved," Caitlyn smiled. "There won't be any trouble then?"
"Someone should be held responsible for the deed in case there is an investigation," Lacroix suggested. "Otherwise the case won't be closed."
"I understand. But who? Do you have someone in mind."
He gave her a knowing smile. "Yes." He reached into his coat pocket. "You." In a flash he thrust a wooden stake into her heart. She sagged instantly into his arms. "I'm afraid I have no more use for you." He left her on the roof for the sun to dispose any evidence of her existence.
After returning to his home, he picked up the phone and dialled a number. "I have a suitable location for you," he announced after his call was answered. "In return you will inform me when Nicholas orders supplies." After a pause he added, "You will have to hire a new waitress. The one in charge proved to be unreliable. I took the liberty of removing her from the location."
Satisfied, he ended the call. It was really unfortunate that Aristotle constantly refused to give away information on Nicholas' whereabouts. Although Lacroix respected his loyalty, he found it utterly ridiculous that Aristotle insisted on applying the same rules when masters wished to find their offspring.
After a futile quarrel with the old relocation specialist, Lacroix had resorted to other sources in tracking down his wayward son. Although the boy currently lived on a self-imposed animal diet, Lacroix was certain that Nicholas' nature would demand proper nourishment sooner or later. Knowing that Nicholas wouldn't allow himself to risk the life of his precious mortals, the boy would keep a stash of human blood for emergencies. Now Lacroix had made sure that he would be informed if Nicholas needed replenishment anywhere on the globe. The prize his source in the business of blood supply demanded in exchange for forwarding his inquiry to various local suppliers around the globe – a suitable location for a franchise of his products in London - had been a minor irritation that was now solved to the satisfaction of all.
All Lacroix had to do now was wait.
* * *
Deeply disturbed about the events at the pub, Natalie sat on her couch and sipped from a soothing mug of tea with rum. She was stunned about the way the coroner had handled the case. Knowing Sean, it seemed unlikely to her that he had slipped in his kitchen. She wondered if the autopsy changed the preliminary cause of death.
She remembered the course she had taken in pathology. She had been fascinated by the variety of clues that the interior of the body offered for the cause of death. On a whim she picked up the London phone book and looked up the address of the Rotherhithe morgue.
* * *
After a restless night, Natalie slept longer than she had intended. She quickly showered and dressed before devouring a short breakfast. It was around noon when Natalie arrived at the morgue. Although it was Sunday, she was sure that a weekend shift was at work.
"I'm Dr. Lambert," she introduced herself at the reception desk. "Is Dr. Jones available?"
The desk sergeant checked the roaster and nodded. After a short phone call, Natalie was admitted into Esther Jones' office.
Recognizing Natalie from the precious evening, the older woman walked around her desk and extended her hand. "Good morning. What brings you here, Dr. Lambert?"
"You may find my request a bit strange," Natalie began. "I'm currently working at the emergency ward at Charing Cross on an exchange program from Canada. I'm not sure yet in which direction I want to pursue my further career. I liked the course I took in pathology. But it didn't cover all the aspects that I would like to explore before making a career choice."
"You want to see an autopsy in order to learn whether your stomach takes it any better than it did dissections in anatomy class during med school?" Dr. Jones concluded with a knowing smile.
Natalie looked surprised. "Yes, I would like to be present when you do the autopsy on Sean Swinton."
"Sean Swinton's body is not scheduled for autopsy," Dr. Jones informed her. "But if you leave me your phone number, I can give you a call when an interesting case comes up."
"What do you mean, Sean's body isn't scheduled for autopsy?" Natalie asked, confused.
"If the cause of death is established without doubt, we do not perform an autopsy. Budget cuts, you know."
"But how could you be so sure? Someone could have broken his neck. I find it highly improbable that he slipped."
"There was nothing suspicious surrounding his death," Dr. Jones uttered in the same monotonous voice Natalie had heard her use last night.
"Well, you're the professional," Natalie gave in. "Do you think I may see his body? He's been a friend."
"I'm sorry, Natalie. His body has already been released for cremation. You're too late, I'm afraid."
Natalie was stunned. She nodded and rose from her seat. "Thank you for your time. I'm looking forward to hearing from you."
She departed and returned to her apartment. On the way she picked up a pizza. Settling down on her couch, she switched through the TV channels for distraction. She was not really in the mood to go out tonight, however she had neither a phone number nor any other way to contact Lucien in order to cancel her appointment.
With a sigh, she dressed in jeans and a shirt and took the subway to the Tower. She had to switch trains at Leicester Square, headed to the wrong platform first. When she noticed her error, she had just missed the connecting train to the Tower.
* * *
When Natalie arrived at the Tower entrance at 5:40, the place was crowded by tourist groups that streamed out of the gate. The twilight provided by the street lights made it impossible to discern any faces. "Great," she muttered. "How am I supposed to find him?"
"By simply turning around," someone breathed onto the back of her neck.
Natalie whirled around with a shriek. She hadn't noticed that someone was standing so close behind her. "I'm sorry, I'm late. I missed the connecting train," she apologized, realizing that he had probably been waiting for her.
"Your mode of transportation seems to be a bit unreliable," he remarked suavely. "I should have sent a car to pick you up."
"Are you crazy? I'm perfectly capable of travelling through London by myself."
"I have my doubts about that."
Natalie became irritated at his bemused tone. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"May I remind you of how we met?"
Natalie fumed. Yet, she couldn't come up with a counter argument. So she preferred to change the subject and turned towards the entrance. "It seems everybody is already leaving. Are you sure the Tower is still open?"
"The Tower closes at ten. We have plenty of time." Lucien went to the cash booth in order to retrieve tickets. When they stepped through the gate, Natalie looked around the yard that was illuminated by torches. She noted a group of huge dark birds huddled together in the shadows.
"The ravens of the Tower," Lucien provided, noting her gaze. "It is said, the Empire would crumble when the ravens leave the Tower. Do you believe in legends, Natalie?"
"I believe in science. And science tells me that these ravens have their wings clipped in order to prevent them from flying away."
Lucien chuckled at her explanation and led her towards the Medieval Palace. "The Tower served as the former residence of the kings before it was used as a prison," he lectured. "The current exhibition in this part shows the rooms as they're believed to have looked during the reign of Edward I."
Noting his choice of words, Natalie looked at him questioningly. "You don't think it's authentic?"
"I know it was different. For instance, this armoire belonged in the anteroom. The tapestries decorated the walls of the dining room and the carpet needed to be replaced by a replica because the original was soiled in the corner by the blood of Edward's drunken steward."
Natalie stopped in her tracks and stared at him as he strolled through the halls as if he felt at home. "How do you know that?"
He turned back to her and smiled briefly while considering his answer. "I have seen paintings from the era. Even the National Gallery that you so readily dismissed as unimportant has a portrait of Edward. In the background, you can clearly discern a different set of tapestries."
Natalie accepted his explanation and frowned at his criticism of her cultural interest.
Lucien continued the tour, pointing out objects of interest like the huge corona on the ceiling.
The museum in the White Tower contained the armour and swords Natalie had wanted to see. Amazed by the weight given for the suits of armour on the descriptive plaques, Natalie wondered, "How was it possible to carry all that around, not to mention engage in sword fight? Those knights must have been incredibly strong."
Lucien cast her a bemused glance. "The development of heavy armour was certainly a necessity to afford protection against the solid blades of the era. However, movement and speed were clearly impaired. If you value more finely tuned combat skills, your admiration of medieval knights is clearly misplaced. In consequence of their lesser protection, the Romans, on the other hand, were much more adept in this art."
"But weren't they much more in danger of being injured?"
"If the fighter lacks the proper skills to defend himself, he certainly deserves such a fate or worse, my dear," Lucien commented matter-of-factly, earning a scolding glare from Natalie.
"But it was so romantic when knights fought in tournaments wearing their ladies' colours," Natalie refused to alter her opinion.
"Romance is for fools. I believe too many Hollywood movies have clouded your judgement."
Natalie frowned. Her companion obviously liked to argue for the simple sake of arguing. What annoyed her, however, was that he constantly gained the upper hand in their discussions.
"Why are you so sensitive about this?" she asked, looking him squarely in the eyes. "What does it matter to you if I have a fondness for knights and not for Roman armies?"
He stared back at her, his face immobile. Although he said nothing, Natalie had the distinct impression that she had somehow hurt his feelings. "What?" she asked when he remained silent.
The intensity of his gaze softened as he spoke, "You're but young, my dear. There is hope that you may alter your opinion."
Lacroix began to question the wisdom of allowing this mortal to remain alive. Instead of distracting him from Nicholas' absence, she had an uncanny ability to remind him of his wayward son by admiring the age of chivalry with a fervour that was utterly uncalled for.
"It was your idea to drag me here," Natalie reminded him, oblivious to his dark ruminations.
"Excuse me?" he asked, not sure if he had heard her correctly. "I recall that you explicitly expressed an interest in this place.
"Do you always take instant action when someone utters a wish?"
"My aim is to please."
Natalie suppressed a blush. "That is --- generous, I guess. But today was not a good day for this."
"Why? What's wrong with today?"
"After what happened last night, I really wasn't in the mood for sightseeing, but you didn't even give me a chance to cancel," she fumed.
"Ah," Lucien breathed. "I was unaware that the pub owner's demise mattered so much to you."
"I don't have many acquaintances in this town, and Sean was one of them. Of course I'm upset. Especially when his death isn't handled in the proper manner."
When Lucien raised a questioning eyebrow, Natalie continued in a confident tone, "I got the impression that the coroner was in a hurry last night. She insisted that it was an accident and ruled out any other possibilities."
"And what other possibilities may that be?" Lacroix asked probingly.
"I don't believe that Sean slipped in his kitchen. He could have been attacked and murdered."
"You have quite a lively imagination," he commented.
"I know I'm no expert, but there should have been a post mortem examination to check for any signs of assault."
"I assume an autopsy will be performed at the morgue."
"That would have been the proper way. However, when I went there today, I was told that there wouldn't be any autopsy and that the body had already been released for cremation."
"Really," Lacroix breathed. "May I ask what has led you to visit the morgue?"
"I asked the coroner if I could be present when she was doing the autopsy. I've always wanted to attend one."
Lacroix raised his eyebrows at her enthusiasm. "I have been told that doctors usually play golf in their spare time. You, however, prefer to spend time with the dead? Something must have gone seriously wrong during your education."
"You're shocked?" Natalie observed and wondered if coroners generally received this sort of comments when stating their profession. She would have to ask Esther about it.
"Hardly," he chuckled. "You have such a unique way of poking your inquisitive mind into classified areas that I should have expected something like that."
"What classified areas?"
"Never mind," he mumbled. "I believe, we're done here unless you wish to see the exhibit in the lower level."
"What's down there?" Natalie was beginning to feel tired.
"Nothing of particular interest. Only the jewel collection," Lucien provided in a bored tone.
"The crown jewels? I certainly want to see them! Any girl would." Her fatigue momentarily forgotten, she led the way, while Lucien shrugged and sauntered behind her through the safety door.
Natalie marvelled at the display that showed the crowns of Britain's kings and queens. Each crown had a different set of diamonds and other precious stones that were described in detail on the plaques beside the respective crowns. "Have you ever seen a diamond of this size?" Natalie pointed at the Koh-I-Noor, that marked the crown of Queen Elisabeth, the Queen Mother.
"Yes," Lucien replied, unimpressed, earning a look of disbelief from Natalie. He recalled Janette's delight when he had once gifted her with a diamond pendant of similar size.
"Oh, I forgot," Natalie said sarcastically. "You're a frequent visitor in Windsor. They probably have more of these lying around."
"Actually they do not. But I have seen these crowns before," he provided with a smile, withholding the information that he had seen the crowns worn by the very kings and queens themselves during his occasional visits at the English court.
"Of course." Natalie realized that he was probably dragged here by every visitor from out of town. "Thanks for showing me around anyway."
"The pleasure was all mine," he breathed as he accompanied her to the exit. "Would you care for something to eat?"
"No, it's getting late," she declined.
"It's barely 8 p.m. I would call this time early evening."
"And I have to get up at six tomorrow morning. If you wanted to spend more time, you should have agreed to meeting at noon."
If she had expected an argument, it never came. Instead Lucien waved a taxi and opened the door for her.
"You don't need to do that. I was going to take the tube."
"Nonsense," he silenced her protest and ushered her into the car before sliding in behind her.
* * *
When the taxi stopped in front of Natalie's apartment building, Lucien exited the car as well. Noting Natalie's gaze towards the closed pub, he said casually, "You still haven't elaborated on your fascinating murder theory. I would be curious to hear it."
Not oblivious to his intention, Natalie said determinedly, "Not tonight. I really need to get some sleep now. It's been an exhausting weekend."
"As you wish." She looked tired indeed. Taking her tonight would not grant the pleasure he expected when she was fully awake and appreciative of the treatment he intended for her. It certainly would be a disappointment, not to mention a blow to his ego, if she fell asleep during his efforts.
"Good night, and thanks again for showing me around the Tower." Natalie noted with relief that he returned to the taxi.
* * *
On Tuesday, Natalie received a phone call from Esther Jones, informing her that she was doing an autopsy in the evening. Excitedly, Natalie agreed to meet her after her shift. When she arrived at the morgue, she was led into the lab, where a covered body lay on the slab.
"Are you sure you're ready for this?" Esther asked, giving Natalie a final chance to back out.
"This time I am," Natalie assured her. "Back in Med School, I wasn't. I needed oxygen for hours," she added, slightly embarrassed.
After uncovering the body, Esther turned on a recording device and began to dictate her observations of the body's exterior. "The deceased has been identified as Paul Harper. Male, Caucasian, aged 55. Preliminary cause of death documented as heart attack."
Noting Natalie's inquiring look, Esther switched the recorder off and nodded at her to speak.
"You know he died of a heart attack, and yet you perform an autopsy?"
"He was found beneath Waterloo Bridge. Apparently homeless. Police want to rule out any foul play. A heart attack is not always a natural cause of death. It can be triggered by several toxins. Inject a lethal dose of digitalis, for example, and you have a clean little murder that may go undetected if nobody checks deeper."
Intrigued and amazed by Esther's thoroughness, Natalie nodded in understanding and watched as the woman continued her examination, taking note of abrasions and scars she found on the body.
"Are you ready to go in?" she asked after she was done with the external examination.
Natalie nodded and braced herself as Esther made the Y-incision on the torso. When Natalie needed to breathe, she took an involuntary step back.
"Do you want something for your nose? To keep off the odour?" Esther asked.
"No, I'm fine," Natalie declined resolutely and bent over the body again. "I should have expected the scent. I'm sure you've dealt with worse."
"It gets easier with routine," Esther assured her. "Try to breathe through your mouth," she advised and probed into the cavity. "The enlarged liver hints at frequent consumption of alcohol," she pointed out and continued a methodical examination of the inner organs.
After a while, she put her instruments aside and peeled off her gloves.
"And?" Natalie asked.
"We'll have to wait for the blood test and the analysis of his stomach contents to be certain, but everything I've seen is in accordance with the prelim. I'm sorry I didn't have anything more exciting for you, Natalie," she added with a twinkle in her eyes. "You did well. I've had interns who fainted right after the incision."
"The sight didn't bother me at all," Natalie observed. "I was just put off by the smell. Do you think I may come by again?"
"I think I can arrange that. I'll give you a call."
* * *
Esther kept her word and called two nights later. When Natalie entered the morgue, Esther had a pair of scrubs waiting for her. "You'd better wear these. You can give me a hand with this one tonight. But I should warn you. He's not pretty."
After changing into the scrubs, Natalie approached the covered body wearily. "What is it?"
"He was pulled from the Thames this afternoon. Police have yet to identify him. Drowning victims are not for the squeamish kind."
Natalie nodded and swallowed as Esther pulled back the cover to reveal a pale, slightly inflated body. "How long has he been in the water?"
"Judging from the state of inflation and the low degree of decomposition, I'd estimate not longer than two days. I need to get a survey of his teeth, so that the police can compare them with dental records from missing persons. Why don't you go ahead and see if you find anything unusual on the skin?" Esther handed Natalie a magnifying glass.
Natalie instantly overcame her initial revulsion and began eagerly with the examination.
"Looks like needle marks over here," Natalie said after a while, indicating the upper leg. "A user?"
Esther came around and bent over the magnifying glass. "Too precise for a user, besides, these injections were subcutaneous, not intravenous."
"Like insulin injections?"
"Exactly. If he's diabetic, it should make identification much easier."
"Would the size of the pancreas give any hints?" Natalie asked.
"Hey, you've done your homework," Esther commended her. "Let's go inside."
This time Natalie was prepared for the smell that assaulted her when Esther made the incision. She found it less aggravating this time.
"Drowning victims. Not easy on the eye, but better for the nose to tolerate," Esther confirmed her perception. "I'm dissecting the lungs first to see if he really drowned. Could you hand me the syringe over there?"
Natalie handed her the syringe and watched as the elder woman extracted an amount of fluid from the lungs.
"Okay, the water in the lungs confirms that he was alive when he hit the water. The salt content will give us a hint at the location where he drowned. You know that the eastern part of the Thames is brackish because of the seawater that comes in with the tide, while the salt content diminishes upstream."
"That's fascinating," Natalie remarked. "It's amazing how many clues there are if you know what to look for."
"Well, don't tell the detectives, but I believe the real detective work happens here in the morgue," Esther said in a conspiratorial tone.
"Do you have any clue how he drowned?" Natalie asked.
"I don't see any hints of trauma or signs that he was in a fight. I assume either suicide or an accident. Let's hope the blood work will give us some hints. I've already sent a sample to the lab when I came in. The results should be back within the hour if you want to stay that long."
"Sure," Natalie beamed. She had to be at the hospital at eight in the morning, but she didn't want to miss this. Tomorrow was Friday and she could catch up the missing sleep on the weekend.
Half an hour later, an assistant handed Esther a manila folder. The coroner studied the columns of data before laying them out in front of Natalie. "What do you think?"
Natalie compared the data from the blood sample with the norm levels. "He had an unusually high amount of ketone bodies in his blood. That indicates ketoacidosis which is a consequence of insulin deficiency."
"You're good," Esther smiled. "He probably missed out on his insulin injection and fell into a coma. He may have fallen accidentally into the river. Once he's been identified, there may be more details available. The detectives will be pleased with what we found out."
"Thank you. It's been great working with you," Natalie said.
"Likewise," Esther smiled. "You really want to get into this, don't you? Let me know if you have more questions."
"I will, thanks."
Natalie gave the older woman a hug and returned home.
* * *
When Natalie signed out Friday evening, she was looking forward to catching up on the sleep that she had been missing due to her additional shifts at the morgue.
"There's a gentleman waiting for you, Dr. Lambert," the desk nurse informed her.
Assuming that a relative of one of her patients wished to speak with her, Natalie looked towards the seating area and was surprised to see Lucien rising from a chair.
"What are you doing here?" she wondered. Was he intending to turn their mutual weekends into a habit?
"Good evening, Natalie," he breathed. "I was wondering if you would join me at a concert in Covent Garden."
"Tonight?" Natalie stared at him. She didn't like these unscheduled changes of her plans at all. "This is a bit sudden, Lucien."
"Forgive me. Unfortunately I have been unsuccessful in reaching you during the week."
"I was out several times, assisting Dr. Jones at the morgue," Natalie explained, feeling strangely flattered that he was obviously interested in intensifying their acquaintance.
"Indeed," Lucien remarked, while his gaze continued to rest on her.
"I'm not dressed for a concert," Natalie stated.
"There's still plenty of time to stop by your apartment and change into something appropriate."
Before Natalie became aware of it, Lucien had led her out of the hospital towards a waiting taxi.
"You don't take no for an answer, do you?" she sighed as she sat down.
"No," he agreed matter-of-factly.
During the ride, Natalie contemplated the problem that awaited her once they reached her apartment. What would he say when he found out that she had lied about her roommate?
"Don't take too long," Lucien advised when the taxi stopped in front of her apartment building. Much to Natalie's relief he made no move to accompany her upstairs.
She changed into a blouse and black pants, fed her cat and applied some make-up. Fifteen minutes later she was back in the taxi.
"I never asked which band is playing," she said after the taxi had left the curb.
"The band is called the London Symphony Orchestra. You may have heard of it."
"You're kidding!" Natalie blurted. "I thought you were taking me to a rock concert."
"I never said that," Lucien shrugged.
"I've never been to a classical concert before," Natalie admitted. "Are you sure you don't want to take anyone else who is probably more appreciative of the music?"
"I have a subscription and the person who usually accompanies me is currently out of town."
* * *
Natalie woke with a start as a bout of nausea hit her. She managed a dash into the bathroom before emptying her stomach contents into the sink. Feeling better afterwards, she cleaned herself up and stared at her reflection in the mirror. She still wore her clothes from the night before. How had she gotten back to her apartment? She remembered leaving the hospital with Lucien and going to Covent Garden...
"Are you feeling better now?" a concerned voice inquired as she stepped from the bathroom.
Natalie turned her head towards the living-room and saw Lucien occupying the armchair across the couch. He sat perfectly at ease with his legs crossed, while Ava sat purring in his lap.
"You looked rather green when I brought you in."
"Sorry, you had to witness that," Natalie said, embarrassed. "I often get sick in a car when I close my eyes."
"Really," he breathed. Her reaction had been rather unexpected. He rarely carried mortals with him when he flew. Perhaps he should have slowed his descent from the sky, but he had been in a hurry because he didn't want her to wake up while they were airborne. Obviously the sudden shift in gravity had not agreed with her stomach. Mortals had so many flaws...
"What happened?" she asked, still feeling disoriented.
"You fell asleep after the intermission. I took the liberty of conveying you home. I hope you do not mind me taking the keys from your pocket."
"You could have woken me." Natalie was quite startled at his forwardness.
"My dear, you slept through Haydn's Symphony No. 94, and did not even stir at the kettledrum stroke. I doubt I would have been successful."
"Oh," Natalie said awkwardly. "I told you I was tired after the double shifts I pulled this week."
"These visits at the morgue must hold a high appeal for you," he observed.
"Yes, I find Dr. Jones' work highly interesting. I'm thinking about making it my major field."
"Ah, yes, you still haven't told me about your theory on the pub owner's murder. How about doing this tonight during dinner? Perhaps you will manage to stay awake during the meal for a change."
"I guess I owe you one," Natalie accepted the invitation. "Can I get you a coffee?"
"No, thank you. It's nearly dawn." He rose and handed the cat over to Natalie. "Your roommate, I presume."
Natalie blushed as she realized that he had caught her lie. "That's Ava. She came with the apartment. I named her after Ava Gardner because of her eyes."
"A timeless beauty," Lucien remarked.
"Do you like classic Hollywood movies?" Natalie asked, as she caught his far-way look.
"No," he turned his attention back to her. Natalie caught his gaze and realized that he still expected an explanation.
"Listen," she began nervously. "I'm sorry, I lied about the roommate. It's just that – that evening – I wasn't sure what you were up to. I don't take acquaintances home after a first meeting. You're much older than me."
"Indeed," Lucien agreed.
"You've hardly told me anything about yourself. You appear and vanish at your own whim, you make a mess of my weekend plans, and you won't tell me why you're never available during the day."
"Why indeed," he chuckled.
"You're an interesting puzzle, Lucien. There're so many pieces that you haven't told me about. Are you ever going to tell me more about you?"
She followed him as he slowly moved to the door. "I think not," he declined.
"Why?" she asked, clearly puzzled. Had she been wrong in assuming he'd been striving to promote their casual acquaintance to the level of friendship? Surely that wasn't possible if he continued to be her mysterious benefactor who appeared out of nowhere.
Turning around, he brushed his fingertip against her chin and said with a smile, "Solving a puzzle is its own reward, don't you agree? I won't bereave you of that experience."
Then he slipped through the door.
* * *
When Lacroix reached his home minutes before sunrise, he had a message waiting for him. He read the brief message twice and smiled. His son had been sighted in Chicago. He would take the next plane and track him down before he lost the trace again.
This meant that he would have to deal with Dr. Lambert this evening. A part of him was reluctant to end their acquaintance. He was beginning to enjoy their time together. For a mere mortal, the young doctor had been delightfully entertaining. He would see to it that she departed from this world in a cloud of bliss, enriching her blood with the exquisite flavour of fiery passion.
He called the Ritz to make reservations for the evening. He would feed her with honey and wine and then he would taste the outcome of this long-awaited feast.
Smiling in anticipation, he retired for the day.
* * *
When Lacroix rang Natalie's door bell in the evening, he was surprised to see her dressed casually in sweat pants and a long shirt.
"Do we have to go out tonight?" she asked in response to his raised eyebrow.
"Is something wrong? Are you still experiencing nausea?" he inquired, stepping into the living-room.
"No, I'm fine. My brother called this morning. Sarah, his wife is expected to give birth within the next few hours. They're at the hospital. I'd prefer to stay near my phone in case he calls with news."
Lacroix stared at her, stunned. It was rare that a mortal crossed his well-laid plans. They usually didn't live long enough to get that opportunity.
"If that is what you wish," he breathed.
"I can order pizza if you like," Natalie suggested. "If you want to stay, that is."
"Pizza," Lacroix snorted.
"This doesn't agree with you, does it?"
"I'm not exactly fond of Italian food."
"Chinese then?" Natalie offered.
"Do they serve honey-laced fruits?" he inquired curiously. She may cross his preparations, but in the end he would succeed.
Natalie grinned. "You mean the fritters? We don't have these in Canada, but here they usually do."
She fetched a leaflet from the sideboard and studied it briefly. "Yes, they have them. You can choose between fried apples and bananas. I'm going for the Chop Suey beef, and you?"
Lacroix took the offensive leaflet as it was thrust towards him. "Just the bananas," he said without even looking at the offerings.
"Anything to drink?" Natalie asked while going to the phone.
"I do not suppose they serve champagne?"
"I don't think they're licensed. But I have beer in the fridge, if you want one," Natalie offered.
"Thank you, I will pass," he declined with another snort.
"Whatever," Natalie mumbled and placed the order.
"They should be here in 30 minutes," she informed him afterwards and watched as he reclined in her armchair. It felt odd to have this elegant man visiting in her not exactly fit for visitors apartment. Why he hadn't simply left after her refusal to join him at dinner was a puzzle to her. Surely he had better entertainment options on a Saturday evening.
"This brother you mentioned, do you have a close relationship?" Lacroix inquired.
Natalie looked at him, surprised. Although he kept his tone strictly conversational, she suspected more behind the question.
"Of course. He's my little brother. I've been looking out for him since our parents died."
"I see. Do you converse often over the phone?"
"Not as often as I wish because of the time difference, but we try to get in touch once a week, especially now with Sarah's pregnancy in the final stage."
"I see. I assume you've mentioned your extracurricular activities to him?" Lacroix asked, wondering if she had mentioned him to her brother.
"Of course. He has contacts in the police and promised to get me in touch with the coroner's office when I'm back."
"The police?" Lacroix raised his eyebrows.
"He finished law school and started to work in an attorney's office," Natalie stated with pride in her voice.
This was highly unfortunate. Until tonight, he had assumed she would be an easy target who wouldn't be missed immediately. Now he had learned that she had relatives who were well informed about her doings and who were in touch with the authorities. However, it didn't matter much, as he had planned to leave the country the next day anyway.
His dark ruminations were interrupted by the ringing of the door bell.
"Allow me." Lucien produced his wallet.
He opened the door. While Natalie accepted the boxes with food, Lucien handed a 50 pound bill to the delivery boy. "You will receive a similar bill when you run to the next liquor store and return with a bottle of exquisite wine. Preferably red..." he intoned.
"Preferably red," the boy repeated and turned to leave.
"You do not really expect him to return, do you?" Natalie remarked, amused.
"Why wouldn't he?"
"Because you've given him more than he probably earns in a week. He will spend it on anything but red wine."
"He will return to me..." Lucien stated, utterly convinced, which caused Natalie to regard him probingly. There was something about this man that made her feel uncomfortable on occasion. She couldn't pin-point it, as it was mostly covered by his charming attitude. But there was something underneath that prompted her to be on her guard.
"Enjoy your meal," Lucien broke into her reverie.
"Thanks." Natalie gathered noodles on her fork. "What about your banana?"
"Later." Lucien pushed the box out of his reach as if it contained contaminated food.
She ate a while in silence, quite aware that Lucien was watching her. "Did you know that they're planning to reopen the pub in a few weeks?" she mentioned conversationally.
"Indeed?" He raised his eyebrow.
"Yes, they started redecorating today and put out a sign that announces a grand opening coming soon. But it won't be the same without Sean. It looks like it's not going to be an Irish pub anymore."
"And that surprises you?"
"Well, I thought that maybe one of the staff would just take over. Caitlyn perhaps, but she seems to have disappeared. Nobody has seen her since Sean died."
"And you find that suspicious?" Lucien concluded. "I thought there was nothing suspicious surrounding the bar owner's death."
"That's what Dr. Jones keeps telling me in exactly these words," Natalie sighed. "What if he was attacked? It could have been Caitlyn, it could have been someone else, I don't know. I just find it an odd coincidence that she disappeared on the same night."
"Do you have any evidence that supports your theory?" Lacroix inquired probingly.
"That would have been the coroner's job," Natalie exclaimed, upset. "But they didn't even suspect any foul play."
"And this bothers you?"
"I don't understand it. I've seen Esther's work last week. She's very thorough with her examinations. It's just totally out of character for her to handle Sean's death with less accuracy. When I manage to get that position in the coroner's office my brother told me about, I'm not going to let anything like that happen. Budget cuts or not. Every death deserves a proper examination to rule out foul play. It is necessary to provide closure for friends and family when someone is taken from their midst so unexpectedly."
Lacroix regarded her with mild amusement and a hint of admiration. She had spirit, this one. It might even be worthwhile to let her pursue her career move and seek her out again in a couple of years when experience had contributed to her already radiating nature.
"Sorry," Natalie interrupted his thoughts sheepishly, after realizing that she had worked herself into quite a state.
Lucien smiled at her indulgently. "It appears you've found a profession that suits your wits. I've always questioned the wisdom of your current occupation as it seems so little satisfying to you."
"What I do at Charing Cross is important, too. But I can hardly wait to get back to Toronto to start working with the coroner."
The doorbell interrupted her enthusiasm.
"I told you he would be back," Lucien shrugged at her look of surprise. He moved to open the door and accepted the bottle of red wine. After seeing the delivery boy off with another 50 pound bill, he opened the bottle and filled two glasses that Natalie had hurriedly procured.
He raised his glass in a toast. "To your future, Natalie..."
Natalie blushed as she joined into the toast.
"Try the banana," Lucien prompted while he shoved the box towards her.
"I thought you ordered it. I've already had a full meal."
"You had a main course," Lucien corrected her. "You should add dessert. Besides, the honey mixes excellently with the wine. You shall see."
"Are you sure?" Natalie regarded him questioningly. "Aren't you hungry?"
"I will have my share later, do not worry about that," he soothed her.
"As you wish." With a shrug she dug into the banana.
When she had finished, she looked up only to find that Lucien no longer sat across from her. She gasped as she suddenly felt his hands on her shoulder, realizing that he was standing behind her. She hadn't noticed him moving at all.
"And now, my dear Natalie, I shall have my share of dinner."
Natalie shivered lightly as he brushed his hands through her hair. She swallowed nervously as this turn was not exactly what she had expected. Bending her head backwards, he pressed his lips to hers, initiating a kiss that drove all rational thought from her mind. His lips were cool and demanding. Natalie felt herself giving in without any hint of resistance. She moaned as his lips moved away from her mouth towards her neck. She closed her eyes, savouring the sucking sensations Lucien produced on her skin. There was a low growl – Ava must be nearby, the distant part of her brain that was still able to think concluded – Lucien's lips left her skin for a brief moment ---
--- and then the phone rang, causing her to jump from her seat, suddenly too aware of her position. Was that a snarl she heard behind her? Her quick movement must have startled Ava. How could she have allowed the situation getting so completely beyond her control? She had been kissed before, and yet remained in control of her actions. Lucien's embrace, however, had a conquering quality about it that took her free will away. Sure, he was charming and attractive in his way, but she wasn't in love with him, was she? Flustered, she picked up the phone. "Richie?" she asked breathlessly into the receiver, while daring a quick glance at Lucien who stood motionless with his back turned towards her.
Her attention quickly returned to her brother. "When? --- Are they all right? --- Oh, that's wonderful! I'm so glad. What's her name? --- I so wish to see her --- no, you didn't interrupt anything --- yes, I have a visitor --- I told you about him --- yes, the guy who dragged me through the exhibition --- Richie! I'm a big girl. Save that for your daughter when she's in her teens. Yes, I will --- Give my love to Sarah and Amy --- talk to you soon. Bye."
Natalie returned the receiver to the cradle and brushed a tear from the corner of her eye. After regaining her composure she turned towards her visitor and found him observing her with a slight frown on his face.
"It's a girl," Natalie beamed, her earlier situation momentarily forgotten. "Her name is Amy. I wish I could see her. But Richie promised to send me photos."
Lacroix regarded the woman before him, slightly dumbfounded. It was rare that prey escaped once it was under his spell. This woman had an uncanny ability to do the unexpected. She was radiating such enthusiasm that he felt tempted to let her go in order to see how maturity would enhance her already alluring beauty.
"Congratulations," he stated smoothly, his voice devoid of any passion that had driven his actions only moments before.
"Thank you." Natalie emptied her wine glass, taking several sips in succession.
"Do not wait too long to see your niece, Natalie," Lucien recommended. "When my daughter was born, I was away on business. By the time I returned, I had the feeling of having missed something important."
"Were you also on an exchange program?"
"No," he chuckled but didn't elaborate. "When do you plan on returning to Toronto?"
"In six weeks," Natalie said. "Perhaps we can go to that re-opening of the pub while I'm still here?"
"I'm afraid not," Lucien informed her. "I'm leaving London tomorrow."
Natalie looked at him startled. "You're leaving? And you didn't mention it?"
"The evening didn't go exactly as I had planned," he explained. Why should he have mentioned his impending departure when he had come here with the intention to kill her tonight, he thought, irritated.
Natalie blushed again. He was probably alluding to that unexpected kiss.
"When will you be back?"
"I won't. At least not during your stay in London."
"Oh," Natalie breathed, surprised at the degree of disappointment she felt. "Where're you going?"
"To the States," he replied vaguely.
"Then I guess I won't be seeing you again," Natalie concluded.
Lucien sauntered towards her, an enigmatic smile playing briefly around his lips. "We shall see each other again, Natalie," he told her without the slightest doubt in his voice. When she regarded him questioningly, he leaned close and whispered into her ear, "We have unfinished business to attend to..."
Natalie shivered as she felt his breath on her neck.
"In the meanwhile," he continued and raised her chin with the tips of his fingers so that he could gaze directly into her eyes. Natalie felt drawn into the blue depth of his eyes, unable to look away. "You will return to Toronto and pursue your career. You will stay away from the pub when it re-opens. You will remember our encounter but you will refrain from searching for me. In fact, it might be best if you forget my name and appearance..."
A heavy fog settled around Natalie's mind. She felt her knees giving way before strong arms supported her and placed her onto the couch.
"I will find you again, my delicious Natalie. Au révoir..." a hoarse voice whispered into her ear, followed by a brush of smooth lips against her brow.
"I finished my time at Charing Cross and flew home to start as an intern at the Coroner's Office," Natalie concluded her tale. "I'm still in mailing contact with Esther. She took care of Ava after I left. I was so sorry that I had to leave her behind. It didn't take long before I got Sydney though."
Nick shared her smile before asking, "What happened to that acquaintance of yours?"
"The guy who dragged me through the museum? I don't know. I've never seen him again. It's odd. I can't even remember his name or how he looked like. He must be over fifty by now," she shrugged.
"I thought you liked older men," Nick remarked with a playful grin.
In response Natalie grabbed a pillow and threw it at him. "Your turn, mister. Tell me about Janette..."
Nick sighed and let his mind travel back into the past...
~ 2 years later ~
Taking a deep breath to calm her nervousness, Natalie entered the "Azure". Her relationship with Nick had taken an unexpected turn during the previous days. With delight, she had accepted his formal invitation to dine and dressed in her best gown.
The Maitre'd greeted her at the entrance and led her towards a table. Natalie stopped in her tracks. The man awaiting her wasn't Nick. He looked vaguely familiar, but she had no idea where to place him.
"I'm so glad that you accepted my invitation, Dr. Lambert," he said smoothly, rising from his seat. "Natalie, if I may..."
"I'm sorry, but I don't know who you are," Natalie stated her confusion.
"Oh, but you do... you must..."