It was a bright Sunday afternoon. Natalie lounged on her couch, enjoying the afternoon sun with the comfortable feeling of having the night off. Her state of relaxation was rudely shattered when a ball of fire crashed through her window. With a shriek she jumped from her couch and stared in shock at the burning mass that had landed on the floor and threatened to damage her fake Persian rug.
Waking from her stupor, she grabbed the flower vase from the table, discarded its contents and poured the water on the fire. A roar alerted her to the futility of her effort. Instantly she pulled the afghan from her couch and threw it over the burning form. Then she rushed to the windows and drew the curtains. When she was sure that she had banished all sunlight, she switched the lamp on and regarded the smouldering form.
"Nick?" she asked cautiously.
When no answer occurred, she moved carefully closer and lifted the end of the afghan. She swallowed down bile as she saw the badly burned skull that wasn't recognizable at all. "Oh my God, Nick, what were you doing out there in the sun?"
Aware that he would need blood to heal, Natalie headed to her kitchen and opened the fridge. In the back she found two blood bags which she kept for emergencies. She quickly returned to her patient. After cutting the edge off of one bag, she dipped it so that the fluid flowed slowly into the opening that she had identified as a mouth. For a considerable time, nothing happened. She stopped the flow, wondering if she would cause an overflow if she continued pouring. Then she made out a swallowing motion on the neck. Before she could continue to pour more blood into the mouth, a hand closed over the blood bag, leading it back to the mouth. Natalie jumped at the sudden movement. Then she froze as she recognized the ring on the hand.
Her first impulse was to open the curtains again and free Nick once and for all from the evil influence of his master. Yet, her doctor's oath prevented her from doing just that. Instead, she reached for the second blood bag and offered it to her patient. After he had drained that as well, he fell unconscious.
Natalie noticed in fascination that the skull regained some of its features. She retrieved a pillow from the couch and shoved it under Lacroix's head. Then she reached for the phone.
"Hi, I'm either in bed or incommunicado."
"Damn," Natalie muttered and waited for the message to play out. "Nick, it's me. I know it's still daylight, but I have a problem here. So please call me back, or better, come over and bring something to eat ─ from your fridge."
After replacing the receiver, Natalie fetched a dust pan from her closet and occupied herself with clearing away the glass shards from her broken window. She wondered if her insurance covered damage by burning vampires.
By the time she was done, Lacroix's state had further improved. While she stared in fascination at the patrician features, he began to stir. Natalie withdrew immediately towards the window where she opened the curtains partly, making sure that Lacroix remained in the shadows while she stood in a pool of sunlight.
She watched in anticipation as Lacroix sat up in a fluent motion and regarded her with an amused expression.
"There is no need to hide behind the curtain, Doctor. Had it been my intention to feed on you, that little patch of sunlight would be no hindrance, considering what I've been through this morning."
"Oh," Natalie breathed and stepped tentatively out of the sunlight, closing the curtain behind her. "I thought you'd probably need more blood to heal."
She watched as he reached under the afghan and pulled at something. When his hand came back, he discarded a piece from a crossbow bolt onto the floor. "That would be most appreciated," he stated with a grimace.
"I called Nick, but I only got his machine."
"Nicholas is out of town," Lacroix informed her.
"He is?" Natalie asked, surprised. Nick hadn't said anything when she last saw him a couple of days ago.
"Some investigative business in Ottawa, I believe," Lacroix provided.
"Uh-huh." She wondered why Lacroix was better informed about Nick's business trip than she was. "Do you want me to fetch something from the Raven?" she offered.
"No," he objected immediately. "You will stay away from the Raven."
Startled by the change in his tone, Natalie shrugged. "I was merely trying to help."
"What do you usually do when you're hungry and you have nothing available at home?" Lacroix asked more smoothly.
"I order take-out."
"Then by all means, proceed."
"You want pizza?" Nat asked in disbelief.
"I am more interested in the delivery boy."
Natalie stared at him in abhorrence. "Oh, no. No way! Not in my apartment. You're not draining anyone!"
Lacroix frowned. "Well, in that case..." he raised his gaze towards her neck.
Natalie scratched her neck nervously when she remembered something. "I have a sample of Nick's blood in the fridge. I know it's not human, but will that help until I can get something from the lab?"
"Nicholas' blood will do," he stated after his eyes had flashed briefly gold.
Natalie went into the kitchen and fetched the blood bag from the fridge. She had taken it from Nick a few days ago with the intention to perform some tests. After handing the bag to Lacroix, she watched as the vampire hesitated briefly and inhaled deeply. "Are you sure that's drinkable? I know it lacks several components of human ─ " Natalie stopped abruptly as Lacroix cast her a golden stare before draining the blood bag in long swallows.
She watched as Lacroix released a contented breath, acting as if he had just indulged in his favourite brand of chocolate. "I didn't know that you guys can drink each other's blood," she noticed, confused.
"Of course not," Lacroix remarked dryly. "I assume Nicholas has omitted all pleasant aspects when he discussed his condition with you, Doctor."
"There're pleasant aspects? And drinking Nick's blood is one of them?" Nat asked in disbelief. She doubted that Nick would share his opinion.
Lacroix's smile sent a chill down her back. "When I came here, I had expected to be served the swill that Nicholas pretends to prefer at best. Instead you've offered me the finest ambrosia. I can only commend you on your hosting qualities, Doctor."
Natalie took a moment to digest this information before discarding it as the ramblings of a deranged mind that had been exposed to too much sun. "Why exactly did you come here of all places and during the day?" she inquired instead.
"Allow me to postpone the answer to these questions, Doctor. I require more rest to heal." Without sparing her another glance, Lacroix reclined back on the floor and closed his eyes.
Natalie stared at the motionless body on her living-room floor. Aware that she would be facing the same food problem when he woke the next time, Natalie grabbed her car keys and donned her coat.
* * *
After fetching several bags of outdated blood from the lab, Natalie made a brief stop at The Bay where she entered the men's clothing section. Lacroix had been covered with the afghan she had used to smother the flames, yet she doubted that his clothing had the same miraculous healing properties as his body. She found a pair of black jeans and a matching dark shirt on a discount table.
* * * *
When she returned to her apartment, the living-room was empty. The scorch mark on her rug and the cool breeze from the broken window were the only evidence of the events that had transpired earlier. He couldn't have left; it was still daylight. On instinct, she whirled around, fearing one of these sudden appearance acts that Nick liked to play on her, but there was only Sydney lurking in the deserted hallway. Then she heard the running shower and relaxed.
She fixed herself a microwave dinner and a mug of tea. After what seemed an eternity, Lacroix emerged from the bathroom. Natalie could only stare at him. Instead of wrapping a towel around his waist as any other man she's known, he had draped a linen toga-style around his body, leaving only his arms bare. Natalie had to admit that he did look stunning and exuded an authoritative air despite the outdated state of his dress. She noticed that his skin was completely unscathed. Apparently Nick's blood had been more effective than she had expected.
"That may have been the latest fashion in your mortal lifetime, but I've brought you a more recent outfit," she informed him and held up the bag.
Lacroix raised his eyebrow and took the bag from her. "Thank you, Doctor."
"Don't be disappointed, it's not Armani," she called after him as he vanished back into the bathroom.
A short time later, he returned to the living-room, dressed in his usual black, albeit more casual. "I'm surprised that you bought the correct size," he remarked as he settled himself in the armchair.
Natalie grinned. "I'm quite good at judging a person's size. Especially that of dead bodies."
"And you believe that I belong into that category," Lacroix concluded with a hint of wounded pride in his voice.
"Do you not? Nick always claims he's dead."
"That's a matter of perspective, my dear. Given his current lifestyle, Nicholas merely exists. I, on the other hand, prefer to live."
"Uh-huh. And that's why you tried to fry yourself out there." Natalie pointed towards the window.
"As a matter of fact, yes."
Her curiosity piqued, she waited for him to continue.
"There're hunters in town," Lacroix informed her.
"Hunters? Like O'Neal?"
"The Irish inspector was a half drained mortal who could barely tolerate little more sunlight than we do. Unlike him, these hunters are fully capable of moving around during the day. However, they're merely mortal and cannot sense us."
"Well, for mere mortals, they managed to get quite some damage done, didn't they?" Natalie pointed out.
She earned a glare in return. "Through a chain of unlucky events, I was ambushed in my home. I dispatched two intruders before a third managed to shoot me with a crossbow. Being clearly outnumbered, I decided a retreat was in order. I required a place to heal that is not connected to the community."
"They knew where you live?" Natalie wondered, amazed.
"There's been a security breach with the local supplier. A shipment of blood marked as special vintage has been delivered to a wine merchant who was expecting a caseload of vintage wine for a special customer. The contents of the bottles roused the suspicion of the customer who turned out to be a hunter. The supplier was busted and customer lists confiscated. In consequence, the hunter is now in possession of the delivery addresses of every client within the community."
Natalie wasn't sure she understood him correctly. "You mean you guys have a supplier like some sort of licensed liquor store?"
"You may have noticed that one is rather limited to hunt freely these days. Obtaining nourishment from a local supplier is a convenient way to feed without rousing suspicion."
"Uh-huh. I'm glad that Nick gets his stuff from the stockyard," Natalie concluded, relieved.
"Au contraire, Nicholas is one of Jacques' regular clients."
"But he's drinking cow!" Nat objected.
"Which doesn't stop him from indulging now and then."
Natalie wasn't sure which news was more alarming ─ that Nick apparently consumed human blood from time to time without telling her or that the hunters had his address as well. "Then he's in danger, too," she noted, concerned.
"Which is why I've sent him away."
Natalie was confused. "I thought he's away on police business?"
Lacroix smiled briefly. "Nicholas has a tendency to reject my advice. However, he's oddly loyal to his Captain. So I paid Mrs. Cohen a visit."
Natalie was flabbergasted. "You've hypnotized the Captain into sending Nick out of town?"
Lacroix merely raised his eyebrow as if his action was the most natural move in the world.
"And the Raven?" Natalie ventured.
"Closed for the time being, while Janette is in Europe, running an errand."
"Uh-huh. What are you intending to do now?"
"Now," Lacroix breathed, rising from his seat and approaching the window. Pulling the curtain aside, he revealed a dark sky. "I have two bodies to dispose of and three more to hunt down." Turning back to Natalie, he added with a nod at the broken window, "I trust that you will not report this to your landlord."
Natalie stared at him. "I trust that you will arrange for repairs," she managed in a semblance of his tone.
In reply, she received a raised eyebrow. "Of course," he muttered before lifting through the open window.
She hadn't quite released the breath she had been holding, when her front door opened and Nick burst into the apartment. "Where is he?" he demanded, letting his eyes roam frantically across the living-room.
"Nick!" Natalie gasped and pointed at the window. "He just left. What are you doing here? He said you were in Ottawa."
Before Nick had a chance to reply, Schanke stumbled into the room, breathing heavily. "Would you now explain to me why we had to leave in the middle of the day?" He let himself fall into an armchair and brushed the sweat from his brow. "You won't believe what he pulled today, Nat."
"Try me." Nat crossed her arms before her chest and eyed him expectantly.
"I was slumbering peacefully, dreaming of Myra in a plaid, when Nick pulled me rudely awake and insisted that we needed to get back to Toronto immediately. Can you imagine? Mr. 'I never go out during the day' bundles up in blankets and lets me drive him all the way back while he gives me odd directions. Nick, why didn't you say outright that we were heading to Nat?"
Nat had listened in a mixture of confusion and astonishment. Now she watched in alarm as Nick strode in front of Schanke and intoned, "Schanke, you're tired. Sleep!"
"I'm tired," Schanke muttered before his head fell against the back of the armchair. The regular sound of his breathing indicated that he was fast asleep.
"Nick! What have you done?" Natalie exclaimed.
Nick walked towards her and grabbed her shoulders. "Tell me what happened," he demanded, ignoring her question.
"I'm fine, Nick," she assured him, touched by his concern. "He didn't do anything."
"I can see that," Nick brushed her off. "What about him? I know he was severely injured. How was he able to leave?"
Natalie regarded him, startled. His concern seemed to be directed at Lacroix, not her?
"He came crashing through the window like a ball of fire, I put out the flames with a blanket, and then I gave him the blood I had in the fridge." After a pause, she added, "I didn't recognize him at first. I thought it was you."
"Did he say what happened?"
"He said he had been surprised by hunters."
"Hunters?" Nick asked, alarmed and moved to the broken window. "I need to go."
"Wait! What about ─" Nat began, but Nick had already left. "─ Schanke?" she finished in a mutter. With a sigh, she bent down to remove Schanke's shoes. Then she elevated his legs on a chair to make him more comfortable and covered him with a blanket.
* * * *
Natalie had just settled with a book on her couch when her doorbell rang. Casting a glance at the still-sleeping Schanke, she went to open the door to find two men in blue overalls.
"Dr. Lambert? Instant Constructions. You have a window that needs to be repaired?"
"Uh, yes," Nat stated, surprised. "You want to fix it now?"
"We have orders to fix it before dawn."
Nat suppressed a laugh, knowing full well who was responsible for that kind of order. "Then by all means, proceed," she invited them in with a sweeping gesture.
It took about half an hour to remove the broken window and replace it with a new one, during which the noise woke Schanke.
"What's going on here?" he yawned and checked his watch.
"I had a leaking window that needed to be fixed," Nat shrugged.
"In the middle of the night?" Schanke asked, astonished.
Natalie shrugged again. "Can I get you anything?" she offered to distract him.
Schanke yawned again. "No, Myra will fix Jenny's breakfast in two hours anyway. I can grab a bite if I hurry home now. Where's Nick?"
"He already left."
Schanke nodded. "Guess I'll see him at the shop tomorrow, then. I wonder what Cohen is going to say."
"What were you doing in Ottawa anyway?" Natalie asked curiously.
"We were supposed to check out a suspect in the Garter case, but it turned out to be a wild goose chase. Cohen had received an anonymous tip which didn't pay out."
* * * *
After Schanke had left, Natalie got ready for bed. She had expected her night off to be less exciting, but at least she had caught up with some medical journals.
A couple of hours later, she woke from raised voices coming out of her living-room. After a moment of anxiety, she recognized Nick's voice and donned her robe. She walked into a heated argument between Nick and Lacroix, who stood facing each other in the middle of the room.
"Ahem," she made her presence known, which caused both vampires to turn towards her.
"Nat," Nick apologized. "I'm sorry; we hadn't meant to wake you."
"What are you doing here? It's past sunrise."
"We require a place to stay," Lacroix informed her.
"And I told him not to involve you. We could have taken a hotel."
"She is already involved, Nicholas. Or have you forgotten that she will be facing two bodies on her table tonight?"
"How could you leave them out in the open, Lacroix?" Nick hollered.
"I didn't leave them like that!" Lacroix hissed back.
"Guys," Nat interrupted, catching their attention once more. "Why don't you tell me what happened from the beginning?"
"When I came to his home, the place was crowded by police," Nick stated in an upset voice. "Two bodies were found in the driveway."
"Which I didn't drop there," Lacroix interjected in response to Nick's accusing glare.
"But you killed them!"
"Of course I did. However not in the fashion as they were found."
Natalie looked from one to the other. "How were they found?"
"They had stakes driven through their hearts," Nick said gloomily.
"Stakes? But they were not ─?"
"They were quite mortal when I killed them, I assure you," Lacroix cut her off.
Natalie suppressed a shiver at the coldness in his voice. "Okay," she stated, pinching her nose. "It seems I'll be having a busy evening. Stay here if you want, but let me go back to sleep, okay?" She didn't wait for a reply and returned into her bedroom.
After closing the door behind her, she wondered briefly if she should lock it. She discarded that thought immediately as she realized the futility, considering the nature of her guests.
She went back to bed and stared at the ceiling. How often had she wished that Nick would stay the day? Now he was actually here, but not alone. She strained her ears, but all was quiet in her living-room. They had apparently ceased to argue, for which she was grateful, since she wasn't keen on having her apartment trashed during a fight.
* * * *
When she stepped out of her bedroom in the early evening, dressed for work, she risked a casual glance into her living-room and gaped at the sight. Both vampires were still asleep on her couch. Lacroix lay half on his back, his arm wrapped around Nick who lay facing him on his side, his hand placed protectively over Lacroix's heart. No sign of their usual animosity was visible.
Natalie frowned. Maybe she should have offered to share her bedroom with Nick. She retreated discreetly and prepared her breakfast in the kitchen.
During her second mug of coffee, she heard a knock against the doorframe and glanced up to see Nick standing in the entrance, his hands buried in the pockets of his jeans.
"Hi," he said sheepishly.
"Hey, you're up," Nat observed. "There's coffee on the counter."
Nick grimaced. "Thanks, I'll pass."
"I'm afraid I don't have anything else. Lacroix used up all I had stocked."
"That's okay; Lacroix is off to fetch something from CERK."
"Oh?" Natalie hadn't noticed that the ancient had left. She frowned. Whatever Lacroix procured, it would be human, not cow. "You know I could head over to your place and grab a few bottles."
Nick shook his head. "No, it's too dangerous. I don't want you any more involved than you already are."
Nat approached him, fidgeting her fingers in front of her. "Nick, Lacroix mentioned that you're a regular customer of the supplier that was busted." She couldn't help the accusing tone in her voice.
Nick held his hands up defensively. "They keep delivering cases on Lacroix's insistence. I haven't touched them."
Natalie was relieved and also a little proud that he managed to resist the temptation. "I'm glad. But why are you willing to switch back now?"
"These hunters are a serious problem. I need my strength. They almost killed Lacroix." In a more solemn voice, he added, "Thanks for helping him, Nat."
"Well, I was tempted to open the curtains when I realized it was him," Nat admitted.
Nick stared at her with a haunted look. "I'm glad you didn't."
Natalie regarded him probingly. "But you tried to kill him yourself not so long ago."
A flicker of guilt crossed his handsome features as he cast his eyes to the floor. "Things have changed between us," he said evasively. "I guess I just don't want to be left behind."
"So what's with the cuddling?" Nat couldn't resist asking.
"On my couch?"
Nick stared at her, wide-eyed. "We don't cuddle!" In a quieter tone he explained. "It's what we do when hunters are around. Protecting each other."
"This isn't the first time you're facing this problem?"
Nick shook his head, looking slightly distraught. His reverie was interrupted by the ringing of his phone. "Knight." he answered. "No, you don't have to pick me up, Schanke. I'll meet you at the precinct." He closed the cell and stowed it in his pocket. "I should go."
"I could mix you a protein shake," Nat suggested.
"I'm fine for now." Nick hesitated. "What exactly did you give Lacroix? I know he needed more blood than you could possibly have here in order to heal as quickly as he did."
"I ─ uh ─ I gave him the sample I took from you a couple of days ago."
"You did what?!" Nick exploded.
"I wasn't sure if that was palatable, but he said it was fine."
"I'm sure he did," Nick mumbled, turning slightly away to hide the gold that came unbidden to his eyes. "I have to go. Schanke is waiting," he managed hoarsely before hurrying from the apartment.
* * * *
Natalie entered the morgue with trepidation. Nick had left before she had a chance to ask him what she was supposed to do with the bodies that awaited her in the lab. What cause of death should she put into the report? She hoped that nobody else had seen the fang marks.
"Hi, Grace," she greeted her co-worker. "What's on the schedule tonight?"
"I hope you had a pleasant night off because tonight is going to be busy," Grace replied and gestured at the two gurneys. "Double homicide. They arrived this morning, but dayshift left them for us."
"Who did the prelim?" Nat asked.
"Doctor Hong was filling in for you." Grace scanned the information on the clipboard, but Natalie snatched it from her.
"I'll do it. Why don't you start with the tox analysis?"
"You sure? These are a little weird."
"I can handle weird," Nat assured her. "It's the burned victims that give me pause."
She waited until Grace had left the room before reading Dr. Hong's preliminary report. "Assumed cause of death: broken neck. Additional wound to the heart applied post mortem. Hmm."
Curiously, Natalie uncovered the first body. Bending the head to the left side, she examined the neck. When she didn't see any bite marks on this side, she turned the head to take a closer look at the opposite side. Much to her surprise, the neck was unscathed.
"Is something amiss?" a smooth voice caused her to jump.
She turned to glare at Lacroix. "You said that you killed him, but I don't see any bite marks," she pointed out.
Lacroix gave her an indulgent smile. "I hate to dine in haste. There are more ways to kill a mortal than by draining their blood."
Despite the chill that ran down her spine, Natalie was relieved that this man hadn't died through supernatural circumstances. She didn't have to lie in her report. Yet... "I'm sure you left some pretty nice fingerprints on his skin. What if I lift them as evidence against you?"
"If your job description includes searching for fingerprints, I suggest that you examine the stake," Lacroix replied, unfazed. "Once you have identification, I expect to be informed immediately."
"So that you can kill him as well? I don't think so!" she glowered. Careful to touch only the base of the stake with her gloved hand, Natalie pulled it free with some effort. A small stream of blood issued from the wound. She gaped as Lacroix reached out and gathered the viscous fluid on his index finger and licked it off. Keeping the stake in her hand, she approached him.
He had the grace to retreat a step. "Would you mind pointing that elsewhere?" he scolded.
"You've already done enough damage. I will not allow you to desecrate the dead in here!"
"Rest assured, Doctor, the dead inhabitants of this place are quite safe. I cannot guarantee the same for the living, though, if you continue to point that stake at me."
Natalie reached for a plastic bag and tugged the stake as evidence away. When she turned back to Lacroix, he was gone.
* * * *
"Knight, Schanke, in my office!" Captain Cohen called as soon as Nick had entered the bullpen. "It's good that you're back," she said after Nick and Schanke had approached her desk. "We got a double homicide last night. Peters and Thompson are on it. I want you to do the leg work on their other cases, anything that saves them time to focus on this case."
"Captain, why don't we start on the double homicide so that Peters and Thompson can continue on their cases?" Nick interjected.
"You weren't on the scene."
"I'm sure they can fill us in." Nick leaned slightly forward, prepared to catch Captain Cohen's gaze and hypnotize her if necessary. He was reluctant to do it in the presence of Schanke, but he needed to be the investigating officer on this case.
Captain Cohen considered his request a moment. Knight and Schanke had the best tracking record in the precinct, and Peters and Thompson hadn't come up with any useful clues so far. "Very well, the case is yours. Have Peters fill you in."
Nick exited Cohen's office with a satisfying smile on his face and steered towards the desk of Detective Peters.
"Detectives," Cohen called after them. "I don't have to tell you that a double homicide has caught the attention of the mayor. I want results ASAP."
"Great, Nick," Schanke muttered. "We just got back from Ottawa. Browsing through Thompson and Peters' files might have guaranteed us to clock out on time. Now we have Cohen breathing down our necks until we solve this."
Ignoring Schanke's ramblings, Nick perched on Peters' desk. "What have you got on the double so far? Cohen wants us to step in."
Peters let out a sigh. "We haven't gotten very far yet. The bodies were found on the premises of a townhouse. The owner is a Lucien Lacroix, but according to passenger data we retrieved from ICS, he's currently in England."
Nick kept his features carefully schooled. Lacroix must have engaged Larry Merlin to feed the false data into the system, which not only provided him with a perfect alibi, but it also saved him from being bothered with questioning.
"Any ID on the victims?" he asked.
"Rob Townsend and Hank Williams. They worked for a private security firm."
"Do we know anything about their last assignment?" Schanke asked.
"That's the tricky part. They were both off yesterday." Peters shoved a stack of papers to Schanke. "These are the venues they worked last week."
"Where do we start?" Schanke muttered, leafing through the papers.
"Why don't you start browsing through these, while I see if Nat has found anything on the victims? You were keen on handling paperwork tonight, weren't you?" Nick padded his shoulders and walked out of the bullpen.
* * * *
Nat was just in the process of pulling the stake out of the second body when Nick walked into the morgue.
"Hey, Nat. Found anything?"
Nat indicated the stake. "I'm checking these for prints. There was a nice set on the other one. Results won't be in before tomorrow though." She pulled the stake from the body and gasped when Nick immediately reached out to gather the blood from the wound on his finger and licked it off. "Nick! What is it with you guys? I just scolded Lacroix for doing the same thing. I know to expect atrocious things from him, but you?"
Nick looked at her, surprised at her outburst. "He was here?"
"He wants a name once we identify the prints on the stake. Nick, you better make sure the police catch whoever did this before Lacroix finds out. I don't want to deal with another of his killings."
Nick's face remained unreadable when he assured her, "You won't have another on your table, Nat." After a pause, he added, "I thought there might be any lingering information in his blood." At Natalie's questioning stare, he explained. "We can taste certain things when the blood is fresh. This is already faded."
"Uh-huh," Natalie mumbled and eyed him squarely. "Don't you think this kind of information might have been essential in my research? Why haven't you mentioned this ability before?"
Nick looked at her, slightly embarrassed. "I didn't think it was important. And it's usually not a good idea to think or talk about it when cow's blood doesn't provide anything alike." He quickly retreated to the door to avoid further questioning. "Let me know when the results are in on the prints."
* * * *
When Natalie returned home after her shift, she discovered four crates stacked in her kitchen. She pulled a bottle from the upper one and held it against the light, confirming her suspicion about its contents.
"I thought it might be more convenient to have sufficient nourishment around, especially when the host is so tempting."
Natalie focused her eyes on the kitchen entrance where Lacroix leaned casually against the door frame, one of her grandmother's crystal goblets in his hand.
"Are you planning to move in?" she remarked sarcastically.
"My apologies, Doctor. Your apartment appears to be adequate until my current predicament is resolved."
Adequate! Natalie fumed. Despite his apology, it sounded more like he was occupying her apartment than a request to stay. Perhaps she could demand something in return. "May I ask you something?"
Taking his raised eyebrows for a positive sign, she continued. "Nick mentioned that you can taste some kind of information in blood. I'd like to hear more about that."
Lacroix raised his eyebrows even higher. "And why would this knowledge be of any consequence to you, unless you plan on offering your blood for dinner?"
"Just scientific curiosity," Natalie shrugged, trying to appear calm in spite of his threat.
"Ah," Lacroix acknowledged and sauntered towards her. "But your science won't help you to understand this matter, Doctor."
"Try me," Natalie challenged, vainly attempting to calm the rapid beating of her heart as he towered above her.
"To you, blood is nothing more than a chemical formulation of atoms and molecules. Something you think you can reproduce artificially by compiling its single components. You will never succeed in creating a satisfying result. Because what we taste in the blood is the very essence of its owner. Their past, their passions, their dreams. Their whole life if the volume is large enough."
Natalie had listened in fascination. "Large enough?"
"You see, Doctor, we aren't so very different. Your curiosity drives you to seek answers no mortal should know the questions to. My curiosity drives me to take one sip and then another and another until my knowledge is complete and there is nothing left to learn."
"We have absolutely nothing in common!" Natalie protested.
"No?" Lacroix gazed at her, surprised. "I assumed you care about Nicholas, do you not?"
Natalie suppressed a curse. That man was impossible to argue with. He turned everything she said to his own advantage. "People don't die because I'm curious," she managed.
Lacroix's gaze intensified. "Do not presume I am oblivious to the occasional damage that your so called experiments inflicted on my son!"
Natalie opened her mouth to defend herself when she heard a key in the door.
A moment later, Nick walked in. "Is something wrong?" he asked, looking from one to the other.
Lacroix handed Nick his goblet and watched as the younger emptied the offering without hesitation. "I believe not," Lacroix said with a raised eyebrow at Natalie before walking into the living-room.
"Nat?" Nick asked, confused.
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't use Nana's glassware," Natalie said quietly.
Nick regarded the empty glass in his hand. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice laced with guilt. "It's beautiful. Your grandmother's?"
Natalie nodded. "It's one of the few things I kept. She brought it with her when she came to America. It used to be four glasses and a matching claret jug. The jug didn't survive the move to the new apartment and two glasses were trashed by Sydney."
Nick's expression changed into one of amusement. "I think I can vouch for Lacroix and myself being less clumsy than your cat."
"It's not that. I'm not worried that you break them. It's just ─" Natalie struggled for words that wouldn't offend him. "You see, Nana hardly ever used them. Using them for blood seems ─ wrong."
Nick frowned and quickly moved to the sink where he rinsed the goblet of any remains of its former contents. After drying it meticulously, he handed it to Natalie. "I'm sorry. We really shouldn't intrude here. How can you be anything but abhorred by this?" He gestured at the stack of crates.
"Nick, you know I'm not squeamish about the blood," Natalie reminded him. "You can use any mug from the board; just not these." She bypassed him and returned the glass to the showcase in her living-room. She realized that this was going to be a long morning. She wasn't tired enough to go to bed yet, and she had two house guests who had apparently nothing else to do than following her every move around the apartment. "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm going to fix a quick dinner and settle down for a movie." She was determined not to let herself being evicted from her own living-room.
"I thought you might perhaps share your findings on the fingerprints that you lifted off the stake instead?" Lacroix suggested.
"I won't get the results before tonight, and I'm not going to relate them to you," Natalie snapped over her shoulder while returning into the kitchen to heat up a frozen Chinese dish in the microwave.
"Hmm, I thought you wished this situation to be resolved as soon as possible," Lacroix indicated the living-room.
"I do, but not the way that you have in mind." The beep of the microwave cut her reply short. Natalie retrieved her meal and settled on the couch.
"You should join her, Nicholas. One glass is hardly enough, given the circumstances," Lacroix observed.
"Later," Nick replied, for which Natalie was grateful. She appreciated that he rarely drank in front of her, especially the variety that was now stocked in her kitchen.
In an attempt to prevent an argument between them, she asked, "What do you usually do? Besides arguing, I mean. You must have spent lots of days holed up like this."
Nick looked at her, slightly aghast. "You don't want to know."
"Au contraire, Dr. Lambert appears to be highly curious to learn all about you, Nicholas," Lacroix said, amused. He stepped behind the armchair in which Nick was sitting and rested his hands on Nick's shoulders. "He used to be so entertaining. Depending on the situation, Nicholas would either seduce a mortal, woo Janette, or, if no third party was present, we would ─"
"We played chess," Nick broke in with a glare in Lacroix's direction.
"Indeed. We did, didn't we?" Lacroix affirmed with a slight smile around his lips, although Natalie had the feeling that he had been about to say something else.
She walked to a closet and retrieved a small travel chess board which she handed to Nick. "Here, this should keep you busy for a while."
With an amused glance at her, Nick shrugged and started to set up the board. "I believe we've been dismissed," he whispered pointedly at Lacroix.
"Very well," the elder vampire sighed and sat down on the couch across from Nick. "I'll take white."
Satisfied that their attention was focused on something else, Natalie resumed her meal. She grabbed the remote and flipped through the TV channels.
* * * *
"How trusting," Lacroix scolded in a mocking voice, his gaze focused on Natalie, who sat sleeping in her armchair. "Falling asleep in the presence of two predators."
"Leave her alone," Nick admonished him. They had been playing for half an hour without anyone gaining an advantage over the other.
"I was suggesting doing just that. It appears that she has no use for her bed today. It will be more comfortable than the couch, especially if you decide to join me again."
"No," Nick shook his head vehemently. He moved to lift Natalie gently from her seat and carried her into the bedroom. Sydney lay curled up on the duvet and hissed at the intruder. Instinctively, Nick bared his fangs and hissed back, causing the cat to hide under the bed. Natalie woke and let out a startled shriek at the sight of him.
He quickly lowered her on the mattress and retreated a step while his features returned to normal. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you. I thought you might be more comfortable here than in the chair."
"You startled Sydney," Natalie pointed out. "Are you trying to give him a heart attack?"
"Sorry," Nick mumbled again while trying to ignore the pulse point on her neck that was beating faster than usual. He knew she had been worried upon finding herself in his arms with the vampire clearly visible.
Oblivious to his internal struggle, Natalie padded the side of her bed. "I know you sleep like the dead. I don't mind if you'd rather lay down here instead of sharing the narrow couch with him."
"I don't think that's a good idea, Nat," Nick stammered, taken by surprise. He quickly exited her room, closing the door behind him. Instantly he rushed into the kitchen and retrieved a bottle. He removed the cork and drank straight without bothering with a glass.
"Really, Nicholas, where are your manners?" Lacroix scolded mildly.
* * * *
Natalie decided to go into work early, hoping to get the results for the fingerprints before Nick or Lacroix were able to intervene. She had seen the look pass between them when she had made her position clear. It was obvious that Lacroix would somehow retrieve the information from Nick if she acquainted the detective with the results.
Thus she avoided peeking into the living-room and slipped out of her apartment about two hours before sunset.
She picked up the results from the lab and headed over to the precinct. "Hey, you're early," she greeted Schanke, who sat stretching at his desk. She dropped the manila folder unceremoniously on his blotter. "Forensics found three different sets of prints on the stakes. One set on both with no match. But the other two were in the database."
"Great, I'll get a warrant. Do you happen to know where Nick is?"
"You know he won't be in before sunset," Nat returned. "Why?"
"They called me this afternoon. Someone broke into his loft."
"Police got the call when that high tech alarm equipment of his went off. When they arrived on the scene, the thieves had already left. There was no sign of a struggle, so they assume that Nick wasn't home. They need him to check if anything is missing."
Natalie trembled slightly. If Nick hadn't stayed at her apartment, he would have been attacked during the day while he was vulnerable. Perhaps letting the police arrest the hunters wasn't such a good idea after all...
"Nat?" Schanke roused her from her reverie.
"Er, Nick was at my place."
"Really?" Schanke's face lit up in a huge grin.
"It's not what you think," Natalie immediately dashed his hopes. "We watched a movie. It got late and he stayed over. On the couch."
Schanke made a disappointed face.
"I'll let him know what happened." She turned on her heels and rushed for her car, hoping to reach her apartment before sunset.
* * * *
"Oh, good, you're still here," Natalie gasped, while trying to catch her breath from running up the stairs.
"And where do you expect us to go during the day?" Lacroix inquired with a raised eyebrow. He sipped from a mug with the inscription 'Bio Hazard'.
Ignoring him, Natalie turned to Nick. "They broke into your loft, Nick. Schanke said that theft department needs you to check if anything is missing. I don't know if they searched the loft. Will they find anything?"
Nick was stunned at the news and tried to recall how he had left the loft. "I cleared out the fridge before I left for Ottawa. It should be okay if they don't dig too deep."
"I assume you brought the results from the prints," Lacroix held out his hand.
Natalie fished a small note from her pocket. "There were three prints, but only two were in the database. Schanke has them, too, and he's on his way to bring them in."
"Nat!" Nick exclaimed. He reached for his cell phone and turned it on. "Schanke? ─ Where are you? ─ Yeah, I heard. I had it turned off. ─ I'll meet you later at the station." He closed his phone and turned to Lacroix. "Schanke's got one on Main Street. They're bringing him in."
Lacroix nodded and was gone, his remaining empty mug the only evidence of his presence seconds before.
"You should have done as Lacroix requested," Nick said quietly.
"It was hardly a request," Natalie returned sharply. "I didn't want anyone else to die."
"They're hunters, Nat," Nick reminded her, as if that explained everything. "They won't rest before they've accomplished their mission." He emptied his mug and proceeded to rinse it out, along with Lacroix's. "I'll deal with theft division and see what I can do at the precinct," he stated after returning the mugs to the board.
* * * *
Nick slipped into the bull-pen, his senses alert in search of the hunter Schanke had brought in.
"Hey, Nick," Schanke broke into his focus. "Turned out Vince Turner wasn't home. We left a squad car at his place. The guy has to turn up sooner or later."
Nick nodded. Apparently Lacroix had been in time to take care of Mr. Turner. "What about the other?"
"Matthew Hopkins. He's downstairs in holding. Did forensics check your loft for prints?"
"I think so. Why?"
"Might be worth it to compare them with the prints Nat lifted from the stakes. We found this list on Hopkins. It has your address and Mr. Lacroix's, among others. Looks like a connection."
Nick took the list from Schanke and stared at it. He recognized the names of several other vampires who had been on Jacques' customer list.
"Who's Nicholas de Brabant?" Schanke queried. "Why is his name listed with your address?"
"My ─ landlord," Nick replied quickly. "He owns the building."
"Uh-huh. Anyway, we should check the other names and see if there has been burglary as well."
"I'll handle that," Nick said and slipped the list into his pocket. "When is the interview with Hopkins scheduled?"
"As soon as the DA arrives."
"They want someone from the DA's office present for an interview?" Nick wondered.
"Yeah, Cohen wants everything by the book. Guess the mayor is behind this."
"Gentlemen?" Captain Cohen approached from her office, accompanied by a tall man in his late thirties. "I'm not sure if you've met Ted Ferguson? He's here from the DA's office in order to monitor the interview."
"Ted? Teddy?" Natalie's voice interrupted from the entrance. A moment later, she joined the group and hugged the attorney fiercely.
"Nat? Oh my God, it's been years," Ferguson exclaimed.
"I take it you know each other?" Nick asked, slightly baffled at Natalie's affectionate display.
"Ted and my brother Richie were friends. They worked at the same office," she explained.
"Detective Knight and Detective Schanke," Captain Cohen finished the introductions.
"I'll talk to you later," Ferguson promised as he let go off Nat and shook Nick's and Schanke's hands.
Nick smiled sadly at Natalie, aware that he probably was the reason why Natalie didn't meet Ted Ferguson more frequently. He followed Schanke, Cohen and Ferguson into the interview room where the suspect was already seated at a table. As soon as Nick entered the room, his knees threatened to give way. The interview room reeked of garlic which exuded from the guy. Nick staggered slightly and leaned against the far wall for support while trying to breathe as little as possible. Of course he should have expected some defence like this from a hunter. He would have to wait until the stench had evaporated from Hopkins' body before he could question him about the third person who was still at large.
"Mr Hopkins," Captain Cohen began, holding up an evidence bag that contained a stake. "Your prints were found on this stake that we removed from Hank Williams' body. What can you tell us about the night he was murdered?"
Hopkins let his eyes roam from Cohen to Schanke and on to Nick and Ferguson. "I didn't do it," he finally stated and reached for the glass of water in front of him to take a long draught. A moment later, he began to cough and sputter.
Nick noticed that Hopkins' heart rate sped up while he rasped for air. "Captain, I think he needs medical attention," Nick stated while Hopkins slumped in his seat.
Cohen opened the door. "Dr. Lambert!" she beckoned.
Natalie instantly headed into the interview room and felt for Hopkins' pulse. "Place him on the floor and call an ambulance. I need to do CPR."
Schanke and Ferguson lowered Hopkins to the floor while Natalie began her efforts in reviving him. After several minutes, she stopped, confirming what Nick already knew from the lack of a beating heart. "He's dead. What happened?"
"One moment he was sitting there, the next he choked and dropped dead," said Schanke.
"Maybe a stroke or heart attack," Cohen mused.
"Isn't garlic supposed to unclog one's arteries? That's what Myra keeps saying. The guy must have had a triple dose on his souvlaki. How can he die of a heart attack after that?"
Only now Natalie became aware of the odour in the room. She cast a worried glance at Nick, noting that he had inched closer to the door.
"Doctor, I'd appreciate a report on Mr. Hopkins as soon as possible," Cohen caught her attention.
"Of course, Captain." Natalie stood and walked to Nick, who had slipped out of the room and leaned heavily on his desk. "Are you all right?" she whispered.
"Not really," he rasped. He brushed a red tear from the corner of his eye and licked it off. "I inhaled too much. My eyes are watering. I need to get out of here." He made a beeline for the men's washroom. After assuring himself that he was alone, he opened the window and floated outside. He made it up to the roof where he collapsed and rasped for air.
"Nicholas." Strong arms supported him. "Bois, mon fils!"
Gratefully, Nick bit into the wrist that was offered. After a while, he felt his strength restored. "Thank you," he breathed and lingered a moment longer in the comforting embrace. "Matthew Hopkins, the suspect, he reeked of garlic," he explained.
"Yes, I was facing the same problem with Vince Turner. His blood was utterly unpalatable. Nevertheless, he's resting on the bottom of Lake Ontario now with a broken neck. I was hoping you had been more successful in obtaining information from Mr. Hopkins, but I suppose we have to question him later."
Nick shook his head. "He died during the interview. Heart attack or something."
"How quaint. And how convenient," Lacroix said thoughtfully.
"I have to get back. I'll see you later at Nat's."
By the time Nick returned from the men's room, Hopkins' body had been bagged for transportation to the morgue by the forensics team.
"Whatever you've been doing in there, it did wonders for your complexion," Natalie commented as she gave Nick a once over. "You look actually healthy compared to before."
Nick gave her a slightly embarrassed look.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you're blushing," Natalie continued. "I've got to go. I guess I'll see you later."
* * * *
Natalie was studying the lab results when a shadow fell across her desk. Startled she looked up and checked the clock on the wall. "Isn't it a little late for you, or are you enjoying to fry yourself in the sun?"
"Are you dictating curfews on me, Doctor?" Lacroix replied with a raised eyebrow. "While I appreciate your concern, I can assure you, the sun hasn't risen yet. I've got plenty of time to reach the safety of your home."
"So, what brings you here that couldn't wait until I get home?"
"Nicholas mentioned that one of the arrested men died today before he could be questioned."
Natalie looked at him, surprised. "When did you talk to Nick?"
"After he contaminated himself with garlic. We met on the roof."
Natalie was intrigued, recalling how invigorated Nick had been afterwards. "What did you do?"
Lacroix raised another eyebrow at her curiosity. "What was necessary to cleanse his system. Did you discover a cause of death?"
Frowning at the lack of information she received, Natalie turned her attention back to the data sheet in front of her. "Matthew Hopkins was poisoned. A lethal dose of potassium cyanide. It was in the water that he drank prior to his death. The Captain is currently trying to establish who had access to the glass before it was placed in the interview room."
"Poisoned," Lacroix remarked and leaned closer to her onto the table. "And what do you conclude from this?"
"Someone wanted to prevent him from talking," Natalie guessed. "Did you have anything to do with it?"
Lacroix's chuckle stood in contrast to the glare he focused on Natalie. "As I recall, you prevented my involvement with this man successfully. You will not withhold vital information again."
So that's why he was here. To threaten her without Nick's interference. Natalie stood angrily from her desk. "I didn't want him killed," she said in defence.
"Now that worked out rather well, didn't it? The man we are seeking does not only kill vampires. He also kills his own kind to prevent discovery. I suggest that you're very careful in whom you trust."
Natalie swallowed as she realized that Lacroix was right. With a sigh, she reached for her bag and grabbed her coat. "I'm heading home. Do you want to ride in the trunk?"
Lacroix stared at her as if she had suggested the impossible. "That won't be necessary." The next instant, he was gone.
* * * *
"Natalie!" a voice called across the parking lot as Natalie walked to her car.
She turned around and recognized Ted Ferguson waving at her. "Teddy! What brings you here?"
"I was wondering if I could convince you to join me for breakfast," he said with a smile.
Natalie considered a moment. "Sure, why not," she decided. Anything to postpone returning to the General's headquarter that used to be her home.
* * * *
Nick had been pacing the living-room for the past thirty minutes. It was almost dawn and neither Lacroix nor Natalie had returned. Finally, the elder floated through the window. "You're cutting it awfully close," Nick scolded and watched as Lacroix brushed wisps of smoke from his clothing. "Natalie hasn't come home yet either."
"She was about to head home when I left the morgue." Lacroix provided himself with a drink and settled into an armchair.
"What were you doing at the morgue?"
"Your suspect was poisoned," Lacroix stated. "Using potassium cyanide."
"Suicide?" Nick ventured.
"No, he didn't have a capsule. According to Dr. Lambert, it was in the water that he drank. Who was present when he died?"
"Schanke, Cohen, the DA and myself. Are you suggesting someone slipped it into his glass in the interview room?"
"Who's this DA?"
"Ted Ferguson. He's an old friend of Nat's."
"Indeed?" Lacroix's eyebrows rose in the air as he watched Nicholas pacing in front of the covered window.
"What's keeping her? I thought you said she was right behind you."
Lacroix shrugged and began to set up the chessboard they had used the night before.
* * * *
Natalie returned home around 10 a.m. "You're still up?" she wondered as she glanced into her living-room.
"Where have you been?" Nick demanded.
"I ran into Ted when I was leaving the morgue. We had breakfast and caught up on each other."
"How long have you known this Ted?" Lacroix inquired in a seemingly disinterested tone.
"About four years. He and my brother shared an office."
"The brother who Nicholas failed to turn into a proper vampire and who left a trail of drained bodies in his wake, or so Janette told me?"
Natalie took in a sharp breath as she was so rudely reminded of Richard's death.
"The next time you request immortality for someone dear to you, I suggest that you come to me," Lacroix continued.
"So that you can torment him like you do with Nick?" she snapped. "At least Nick didn't force his will on him."
"Apparently not. Though, Nicholas lives, and your brother is dead. So, whose methods of education are more efficient, hm?"
Natalie turned her eyes on Nick in order to evade the piercing glare. The guilt he still felt about Richard's fate was evident on his features.
"I should never have asked in the first place. It was my mistake." Natalie brushed Nick's arm with her hand before retiring into her bedroom.
Nick turned an angry glare on Lacroix. "Was that really necessary? Can't you just leave her alone? I wouldn't be surprised if she kicked us out tomorrow."
"I do appreciate the shelter Dr. Lambert provides. Which is why I made a generous offer. It was her who snapped at me in return," Lacroix reminded him, looking genuinely offended.
Nick released an exasperated sigh and knocked gently on the bedroom door. After a muffled reply, he entered. "Nat?" he asked tentatively.
Natalie stepped out of the bathroom, smelling of mint toothpaste and apricot soap. She wore one of her knee-long t-shirts that she brought occasionally to the loft in order to lounge comfortably in front of Nick's TV. "What?" She tried to fight a blush as she found Nick openly smiling at her.
"You look lovely."
Natalie's blush intensified. "Thank you, but that's not why you came in, is it?"
Nick fidgeted with his fingers. "About Richard ─"
"Nick, I meant what I said," Natalie interrupted him. "I talked you into it. I know you had second thoughts. I should have listened to you."
Nick shook his head. "It's more than that. I never told you about Hans, did I?"
"Who?" Natalie slid under the covers and patted the spot beside her.
To her surprise, Nick removed his shoes and stretched out on his stomach, on top of the duvet. "It's not exactly a bedtime story," he warned. "Hans was a friend back in Europe. A scientist who thought he could cure me."
He had Natalie's undivided attention.
"He had this theory about enhancing the production of blood cells by shooting electric currents through me."
"My god, Nick! And I used to think of me as a mad scientist!" Natalie gasped.
"You're right. He could have been drawn out of a Shelley novel. Anyway, when his fiancée was fatally wounded in an accident, he begged me to bring her across." Nick paused, lost in the past. "I refused. I was convinced that it wasn't for me to decide her fate. Hans was furious. He said I owed him for helping me get rid of my curse."
Natalie averted her eyes in shame, remembering that she had used the same leverage when she had begged him to bring Richard across.
"When I remained steadfast, he took matters into his own hands. He managed to stabilize her, but her heart was failing. So he performed a transplant."
"When did you say was that?"
"I didn't. It was about 130 years before Christiaan Barnard."
Natalie gaped at him. "Why has nobody ever heard of it?"
"It wasn't conducted in a hospital, and the organ donation wasn't exactly voluntary."
"Where did he get a heart?"
"He obtained it from a freshly deceased woman."
"How ─?" When Nick abruptly evaded her gaze, Natalie swallowed and suppressed a shiver. She could only guess the answer. Still, she was fascinated by his tale. "Was it successful?"
"It might have been. She actually regained consciousness, and she was even able to walk. However, the shock to her system was too much. She couldn't deal with what had happened to her. She was an opera singer with a promising career ahead of her. When she came to, her voice was gone. In her desperation, she killed herself."
"How horrible!" Nat exclaimed.
"I warned you it wasn't a bedtime story," Nick reminded her solemnly.
"Have you regretted not bringing her across?" Natalie ventured.
Nick shook his head. "No. It was the right decision. She couldn't have borne that life either. I'm sure she would have killed Hans sooner or later." Nick pushed himself up and sat on the edge of the bed, facing away from her. "I did everything wrong with Richard. I shouldn't have left him alone, and I shouldn't have given him cow's blood to feed on. I'm sorry, Nat. I should have known better."
Nat sat up and placed her hands comfortingly around his shoulders. "You know very well that I wouldn't have wanted you to give Richie anything else. We were both wrong, Nick. Let's leave it at that, yes?" When Nick placed a tender kiss on the back of her right hand, she added, "And don't worry. I won't go running to Lacroix. I can't believe he said that."
Nick turned towards her with an amused expression on his face. Lowering his voice, he whispered, "He strongly believes in 'quid pro quo.' He's aware that he owes you for saving his life, and he's convinced that offering eternity is the greatest gift he has to bestow."
Natalie stared at him. "He can replace the rug he ruined, if that makes him feel better. Other than that, tell him I don't want anything from him!"
Nick grinned at her outburst. "I'm sure he heard you."
When Nat rolled her eyes, Nick leaned forward and placed a chaste kiss on her lips. On impulse, he increased the pressure and pushed her down on the pillow. "Good night," he whispered into her ear and rose from the bed.
Natalie's heart rate sped up at the unexpected move. "You know, you could stay. It was nice having you here," she smiled shyly.
Nick forced a smile in return. "I don't think that would be a good idea, Nat."
"You were doing just fine," she observed.
"I know," he admitted and turned to the door.
"Nick?" she stopped him again, causing him to turn. "About Ted..."
"Nat, I'm not going to ruin it by saying something stupid again. I'm aware that it's not my business who you meet."
"He was Richie's friend. I've always regarded him as a distant relative."
Nick acknowledged the information with a nod, unable to suppress a smile. "Good night, Nat."
* * * *
"Reclaiming your territory, Nicholas?" Lacroix remarked in a mocking voice as Nick emerged from the bedroom.
"I cannot reclaim what was never mine in the first place," Nick stated and made a detour to the kitchen.
"Ah yes, your alleged disinterest in the good doctor's personal affairs," Lacroix remarked in a mocking tone as Nick returned with a bottle. "Your blood told me otherwise."
Nick tensed for a moment before a smile came to his lips. "Be that as it may, she saved your life, Lacroix. You cannot take hers. An interesting dilemma, isn't it?" he said in a similar mocking tone.
Lacroix regarded him over steepled fingers and released a snicker. "I see. And how do you intend to pursue this relationship that you deny so eagerly? You refuse to bring her across. And you cannot be intimate without killing her in the process. Unless of course, you plan to come to me for sustenance before spending time with her. Now that would make a rather interesting threesome, don't you agree?"
Nick shot him a dark glare that was mingled with a hint of gold. "She wouldn't want that," he muttered and upended the bottle, drinking hastily.
Lacroix regarded him with a curious expression. "No, she wouldn't," he remarked before reclining on the couch.
* * * *
Schanke looked up from the report he was reading and recognized Ted Ferguson leaning against Nick's desk.
"I've been looking for Detective Knight. Has he been in yet?"
"Nick?" Schanke glanced at the clock. "No. I wouldn't expect him to turn up during the next three hours. He's on permanent night shift. Can I help you?"
"I thought I saw his car outside."
Schanke shrugged. "Maybe Natalie picked him up."
"Natalie Lambert?" Ferguson looked suddenly alert.
"Yeah. Nick's place got broken in last night. I wouldn't be surprised when he spent the day elsewhere."
"The attempt on Gateway? That was his place?" When Schanke nodded in the affirmative, Ferguson mumbled, "Natalie didn't mention that she was in a relationship."
"Oh, they claim to be just friends. But it's obvious how they feel about each other." Schanke watched with a pleased smile as Ted Ferguson turned and walked out of the bullpen. He'd be damned if he let another man make a move on his partner's girl.
* * * *
Nick stirred as the sound of Natalie's doorbell nagged on his subconscious. His inner clock told him that it was roughly two hours before sunset. The steady clatter of dishes in the kitchen ceased, and he heard Natalie's footsteps heading down the hallway, followed by the opening of the door.
"Ted! This is a surprise," Natalie exclaimed.
"It is, isn't it? Sorry to barge in like that, Nat, but Detective Schanke mentioned that I might find Nick Knight here. I'd like to have a word with him."
Nick moved to the closed living-room door and continued to listen to the conversation.
"Is this related to the case? Because if not, I don't think Nick's whereabouts are any of your concern, Ted," Natalie remarked steadfast.
"Oh, I can assure you it is related to the case."
Natalie hesitated a moment during which Nick suddenly felt Lacroix tense behind him.
"Nick's still asleep. Why don't you wait in the kitchen and I'll see what I can do," Natalie stalled.
"It's the hunter, Nicholas."
"What? Are you sure?" Nick turned towards the elder and received a glare in reply.
"I recognize his heartbeat and his voice!" Lacroix hissed.
"It's Ted Ferguson, the attorney," Nick stated, a little stunned as realization struck.
"So?" Lacroix raised an eyebrow.
"Let me talk to him."
Lacroix cast him a look of disbelief. "Talk? Don't tell me that you intend to arrest him."
"He's Nat's friend."
"He's a killer, Nicholas. He may even kill her for complicity when he discovers what is stocked in her kitchen."
With a worried expression, Nick slipped into the hallway. "Nat?"
"Oh, good, you're up," Natalie replied from the kitchen. "Ted wanted to talk to you about the case."
Nick moved towards the entrance to the kitchen and stopped in the doorway, taking in the tableau. Natalie stood with her back in front of the crates, effectively shielding them from view. Ted Ferguson stood at the window and watched him calmly.
"Yes, I thought we might have a nice chat in the afternoon sun." Without warning, he opened the curtains.
Nick remained on his spot in the door which was still in the shadows. "I'm listening," he said coolly.
Ted turned to Natalie. "Do you know what you're sheltering? I've seen the rampage your brother has caused. After I took a closer look at the victims and heard a witness describing Richard Lambert, I knew what I was dealing with. He was my best friend and something turned him into a monster. Since that time, I've been looking for the source of that evil."
While Natalie was stunned by Ted's revelations, Nick inched closer, carefully staying out of the sun's rays leaking on the kitchen floor. "Ted, look at me," he demanded in a deep mesmerizing voice.
Instead, Ted held up a small crossbow, aimed at Nick, and fired. Nick effectively caught the bolt in his left hand and snapped it.
Before Ted could fire a second shot, Natalie grabbed a bottle and smashed it on his head, stunning him effectively. Then, she rushed to close the curtains.
Bathed in the blood from the bottle, Ted staggered forward.
The sudden scent of blood caught Nick off-guard.
"Nicholas, no!" Lacroix shouted when Nick launched himself with a fierce growl at Ted Ferguson who managed to shoot another bolt before crashing to the floor. Hit in the chest, Nick staggered and collapsed on top of his adversary.
Natalie watched in horror as Lacroix broke Ferguson's neck without hesitation. In the next instant, he pulled the bolt from Nick's chest and held out his wrist, which Nick snatched immediately.
Natalie gasped at the fierceness with which Nick bit into the wrist. Much to her surprise, Lacroix didn't even flinch but locked his gaze on Nick with a smile. Natalie had the distinct feeling that more than blood was passing between them.
When Nick's wound started to heal, Lacroix pulled him into a sitting position, their arms wrapped around each other.
"It's over," Nick stated, relief evident in his voice. "It's finally over."
"I don't believe the good doctor shares your optimistic view, Nicholas," Lacroix remarked with an amused glance at Natalie's disturbed expression.
* * * *
Natalie sighed in relief as the door closed behind Schanke, leaving only her and Nick in her apartment.
While Lacroix had removed the crates of blood from the apartment, Nick had called in the incident. Twenty minutes later, the place was crowded with forensic techs who took care of Ted Ferguson's body. Nick and Natalie had sat down with Cohen and Schanke in the living-room to give their statements.
"So, Ferguson had heard about the third set of prints you had lifted from the stake, and he was worried that you might track them to him? That's why he came to kill you?" Schanke queried.
Natalie nodded. "I'm sure his prints will be a dead-on match."
"Well, I guess, you can be lucky that Nick was here," Schanke remarked.
Cohen rose from her seat. "Once we confirm the match, we can wrap this case up. The mayor will not be pleased to lose another attorney. I understand that Ferguson has worked with your late brother, Dr. Lambert?"
"Yes, but I haven't seen him since Richie was killed. I have no idea what might have caused this change in him."
"Sometimes the need for justice overrides human sense. We'll check out his environment and see what we can find out about his motivation."
When they were alone, Natalie turned to Nick. "Do you think a background check on Ted will uncover any problems?"
Nick shook his head. "Ted was discrete about his profession as a hunter. Lacroix is currently checking out his home. Trust me, the police won't find anything that may lead to us."
Nodding, Natalie crossed her arms before her chest, rubbing her upper arms against the sudden chill she felt.
"Are you okay?" Nick asked concerned.
Natalie shook her head. "I keep thinking, if I hadn't insisted that you turn Richie into a vampire, none of this would have happened."
Instantly Nick wrapped his arms around her. "It's not your fault, Nat. It's mine. I let him loose on the streets when he wasn't ready yet. When I was brought across, Lacroix didn't let me out of sight for almost a decade."
Natalie pulled out of the embrace. "Oh come on, Nick. He still wouldn't let you out of his sight if he had any say. He's hovering like the worst mother hen." When Nick didn't meet her eyes, she observed, "You've grown closer, haven't you? I've seen the look on your face earlier when you took Lacroix's blood. Lacroix wore the same look when I gave him your sample."
"It's complicated," Nick mumbled, facing away. "You won't understand."
"I think I do. Lacroix explained to me about the emotions you can taste in human blood. I suppose that also works with vampire blood?"
Surprised by her conclusions, Nick turned back to her with golden eyes.
"You know, Nick, some day you'll have to work it out between you two," Natalie remarked, unfazed by his eyes. She bypassed him and walked into the living-room where she started to clear the table of glasses. "Are you going to stay the day?"
Nick slowly followed her and remained at the door, fidgeting with his fingers. "I don't think I can. Lacroix removed all supplies." Hesitantly, he added. "Is it okay if I leave? Do you want to spend the day at the loft?"
Natalie smiled at him. "I'll be fine here. Sydney and I can use some quality time after all the excitement."
Nodding, Nick returned the smile. "I'll see you tonight."
* * * *
After a brief stop at his loft to discover that his refrigerator had been neatly filled with the bottles from Natalie's kitchen, Nick flew to the Raven. The club was still closed, but Nick used his keys to gain entry.
Lacroix sat alone at the bar, nursing a glass of blood. Without turning around, he filled a second goblet from a nearby bottle and placed it in front of the seat beside him.
Nick joined him silently. He picked up the glass and inhaled the aroma before taking a rather large sip. Closing his eyes, he let the blood soothe him. Eventually he would switch back to cow's blood.
"You did well, mon fils," Lacroix commented.
The hint of pride in Lacroix's tone caused Nick to look at him questioningly.
"Despite your dalliance with the mortal world, there was no doubt where your loyalties lie."
"There was a killer on the loose. I merely did what was necessary to catch him," Nick returned.
"Of course you did."
"I'm not coming back to you," Nick emphasized, taking another sip.
Lacroix regarded the way Nick savoured his beverage with a raised eyebrow. "Yes, I can see that," he breathed and reached for the bottle to refill Nick's glass.
* * * *
When Natalie returned from work a week later, she found a wrapped box on her living-room table. However, before she bent down to retrieve it, her attention was drawn to a new Persian rug laid out in the room. It looked far nicer than her old one, not to mention higher quality. She didn't have to look at the label to know that this was not a fake.
"Nick?" she asked after dialling his number. "Did you drop something off at my place?"
"Huh? No, what's wrong?"
"Damn." Natalie ended the call.
With a hint of anticipation, she tore the plain wrapping paper from the box on her table. A gasp escaped her as she opened the box to discover two crystal goblets and a claret jug carefully nestled between tissue paper, a precise match to the two remaining goblets in her showcase. Stunned, she reached for the accompanying note.
"Some beverages are meant to be savoured in style. Kindly use these the next time you entertain visitors. L."
Natalie stared at the note, torn between being flattered by so thoughtful a gift and being offended by Lacroix's blunt criticism of her hosting qualities. Not that she intended of entertaining this particular visitor again.