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Serpent's Tooth

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Sadness flies on the wings of the morning, and out of the heart of darkness comes the light. Jean Giradoux

 

     The sound of a lone siren wailing cut through the pristine silence of the suburban neighborhood.

     Nick pulled up behind the coroner's wagon, noting Schanke's car at the curb, and walked up the path to the house.  The night sky was clear and black, the stars burning fiercely against the darkness, the only sunlight his kind could endure.

     He showed his badge to the uniformed patrolman at the door and got the basic rundown, then stepped through the front door and paused to take in the scene.  The entryway floor was covered in cool gray tile, and a polished mahogany hat stand stood s entry.  A framed photo of the family hung on the wall.  To his left he could see the living room, neat, tastefully decorated in grays and greens.  From further down the hall came the sound of voices and he made his way towards it.

     The forensics team was busy, photographing the corpse, collecting samples.  Natalie was talking into her dictaphone, while her orderlies waited with bored expressions for the body to be released.

     Schanke came forward as soon he saw Nick.  He looked tired.

     "I thought you were done for the night," Nick said to him.

     "Yeah, well, they caught me on my way home.  No rest for the wicked."

     Nick glanced around the room.

     It was set up as a home office with expensive oak finish cabinets and shelving.  The deceased was Jared Phillips, tax lawyer, 41, wife, two children, a daughter at home and a son away at college, and now he was sitting in a chair behind the broad des k, head lolling to the side as if he'd dropped off for a nap.

     A large hole in his temple eliminated that illusion.  The wall behind him was splattered with blood and hair and bone fragments.

     "He's been dead maybe an hour.  I don't think there'll be much doubt what killed him."  Schanke held up an evidence baggie with a gun inside it.  "Found it next to his hand."

     "Suicide?"

     "Well, the way it works out," said Schanke, "if it's not suicide, then one of the family has to have killed him."

     Nick knelt to pick up some twine on the floor.  "We don't know that."

     "No signs of forced entry, no struggle, no footprints or other marks in backyard, nothing stolen.  It's a good bet."

     Through the double doors Nick could see the mother and daughter, stunned expressions on their faces.  The mother had an arm around her daughter.

     "He was shot at point blank range.  It was probably a suicide, “Natalie put in. ”I'll let you know more tomorrow."

     "You'd think this man had everything to live for."

     Natalie shrugged and pushed her hair out of her face.  "I think I’m going to get some sleep.  See you tonight?"

     "Yes."  He smiled down at her, momentarily distracted as always by the warm beauty of her eyes, then his gaze returned to the pair in the doorway.  They had both been crying and they seemed frightened and shocked, normal responses under the circumstances.

     He introduced himself, and made the usual apologetic noises about having to ask questions.

     "Who found the body?"

     "I heard the shot and came running.  We got here at the same time."

     "Mrs. Phillips, is there anything you can tell us that would help explain why your husband would have killed himself?"

     "No, nothing."  The daughter started sobbing again, and her mother clutched her tighter.

     "Maybe it's for the best," Mrs. Phillips said.  "I know that sounds awful, but we can't know what God has planned for us."

     Strange thing to say, Nick thought.  Dawn was approaching and there was no time to probe further.  "We'll need a written statement from both of you before we can close the case.  Can you come to the precinct tomorrow night?"

     The white-suited orderlies emerged carrying the body on a stretcher.

     "No, we don't have to tell you anything," the girl cried out, "What’s the use of talking about it?  Nothing you do will bring my father back!"

   ***

      Nick sat at the piano, fingers aimlessly drifting from one piece to another, not thinking, hardly hearing the music, until he recognized the melody and broke off in the middle. He wanted no waltzes today.

     He closed the piano cover and went to his easel.  A swathe of gold down the center of the canvas waited for him to make it live.  He lost himself for a while in timeless blue, bright and cold, deep and soothing, set off with black here, surrounding the gold there, blue like the sky, the sea, like--

     He slapped the brush down.

     He would have to sleep, soon.  Sleep, yes, but not rest.  A few months of peace; that was all he'd known.  Now LaCroix was back.  Tugging at him.  And Janette.

     Every night for a week now the same dream.

     It started in darkness and silence, broken by Janette's voice.

     <You belong to no one.>

     <You don't stick by your own kind.>

     <He was your father>

     <He was your creator>

     <He loved you>

     The dream voice ran round and round in his skull.

     He switched on the stereo: Mendelssohn's happiness to chase away the shadows.  But her voice wove itself through the music, and gradually, deepened, until it became his...<my child, my brother, my friend>...

     <I loved you>.

     <I made you immortal.>

     <Because I loved you, I made you immortal.>

 ***

      Glasses sparkling with wine, music swirling in the air, silken shimmer of skirts sweeping the floor, people laughing.  Nicholas stood in the lee of the tall French doors to catch the rainbow of colors circling round the ballroom, entranced by rubies and sapphires glittering in the reflection of cut crystal chandeliers, the subtle glow of a strand of pearls around a cream-colored neck.  He paid scant attention to the presence that glided up behind him like a shadow.

     "Care to dance?" LaCroix's mocking whisper barely registered.

     They were alone.

     Janette was gone from them, captivated by the charms of the Italian countryside, and neither knew when she would return.

     "Ah, but no, the spectacle of loveliness pleases you.  And so it should."

     Nicholas felt a flush under the warmth of LaCroix's ever present gaze; he shrugged, brushing off a minor annoyance.

     "I'm sure a more suitable partner than myself can be found."

     "No doubt."

     His stare grew more insistent, until Nicholas finally turned.  The familiar shock jolted his heart.  LaCroix shone cold and harsh as a winter sun, defying their shared prison of darkness.  Pale hair, paler skin like desert-bleached bone stark against the black evening coat, scarcely a tinge of rose to indicate he had fed, and eyes clear and blue as the morning sky, and as bright, painfully bright; with curiosity, amusement, or malice he wasn't sure.

     "Are you in love again, Nicholas?

     "Why does it matter to you?"

     "These infatuations of yours become tedious."  The music swelled to a finale and mercifully drowned out anything further LaCroix might have said.

     Nicholas glanced at the doors to the terrace behind them; the night would be cool, a peaceful refuge.  He reached for the handle but LaCroix was faster, unlatching the doors and holding them open for him, pursuing him outside.

     "Janette is usually so sensible," LaCroix said irritably, "What can she be thinking of?"  He made a disgusted noise.  "A poet."

     "She wants to bask in his vitality," Nicholas replied. "She'll tire of him soon enough."

     "Unlike you."

     "Very."  Away from the potent scent of human blood, he smelled at once the drifting blend of dozens of different flowers merging with the night air.

     He leaned on the stone balustrade and gazed out across the labyrinthine gardens of the estate.  Starlight lent a diffuse glow to the moonless sky, a dull sheen to manicured trees and bushes.  Here and there along the winding pathways torches burned: sudden flares of unbearable brilliance.

     "You are still lamenting your latest trinket," LaCroix said.

     "That is all they are to you, toys.  That is what I am."

     "You will forget her in time."

     "I don't know.  Possibly."  His horror and rage at the death of Sylvaine had receded, but the dread and the wonder of her innocence would be with him always.  He turned to face his tormentor.  "You betrayed my trust, LaCroix.  That I will not forget.  "

     LaCroix smiled with counterfeit tenderness.  "How touching."

     Nicholas looked down, catching the golden gleam of LaCroix's watch chain against his black waistcoat.  His breath caught on a cold lump of hate for the one who made him a slave to his own passions and then laughed at him for succumbing to them.

     "You didn't love her," LaCroix went on, "you lusted after her, after her blood, her life.  If you had really loved her, nothing I could have said or done would have induced you to kill her."

     "Oh, you underestimate yourself."

     LaCroix sighed, a heavy sigh of exasperation.  Nicholas steeled himself for another assault.  A new waltz began.

     As he listened to the lilting Viennese music, he found himself longing for the elegant minuets and sarabandes of the last century.  Slow graceful steps executed in precise order, leaving time to look about the ballroom and converse with one's partner without danger of a misstep.

     The waltz came to an end; an intermission was announced, yet oddly there were no further jibes from his companion, and even the burden of constant scrutiny seemed to grow lighter.  Mortal voices buzzed softly. By the time the music started again, a sort of calm had settled around him.

     "Did you know these grounds are supposedly laid out in the design of a Persian carpet?" LaCroix said at the next lull in the music.  "Rather an ambitious undertaking; the landscaper is quite famous."

     Nicholas glanced curiously about, relieved by the change of subject.

     "Shall we discover for ourselves if his reputation is deserved?  I’m sure the Archduke won't object if we take a tour of his gardens."  He looked up at the sky, then back at Nicholas with an air of expectation.

     With a nod, Nicholas accepted and they rose on the wind together.

***

      "Are you lonely tonight?  Is there is a hollow place in your heart once filled by your beloved?  Call me.  Only I can ease your pain, because am the Nightcrawler."

 ***

      The sky was a dark bluish-purple when Nick parked in front of the Coroner’s Building.

     He opened the door to the lab and caught the persistent odor of formaldehyde and alcohol.  The room was spotless, tile floors gleaming, stainless steel sinks shiny, everything in perfect order.

     Natalie, smartly businesslike in a maroon silk suit instead of the usual scrubs, acknowledged him with a nod but continued entering data in the computer.  Her chestnut hair was loose, unruly curls cascading around her shoulders.

     Nick stared at her profile, the sweet curve of her mouth. Lovely. Lovely and forbidden.

     The sight filled him with a familiar anguish, wanting her and knowing his desire could only bring her death.  "Where's the work-up on Phillips?"

     "Give me a break, will you, I haven't been here that long myself."

     "Nat..."

     "All right, I know that look.  The morning shift did the autopsy...Let me check."  She tapped away at the keyboard. "Everything was consistent with suicide.  Temple entry wound, starburst formation, no defense marks on the body."

     At his frown, she said, "What?  You expected something different?"

     "No...Where's the forensics report."

     "On your desk."  She watched him a minute.  "Is this case really bothering you?"

     "Not the case, just my life.  Or lack thereof."

     Natalie stood up and came close, until the smell of her blood was nearly overwhelming.  "You look pretty healthy to me."  She smiled, breathtaking in her absolute trust that he would never hurt her.

     "Got to go," he said, and planted a swift kiss on the top of her head.

     As he stepped into the precinct, he had to stop, detach from emotions swirling inside him.  Even now, when he might go days or weeks without the old cravings, sometimes the awareness of the life flowing around him would hit him hard, and the bloodlust t surged up, strong as ever, tearing at his fledgling mortality.

     Yet the thought of killing, even of drinking human blood revolted him utterly.

     Janette was right.  He was an outsider wherever he went.

     The report was waiting on his desk, as Natalie had promised.  A deep breath settled his stomach.  He blocked out the buzz of human voices and flipped through the case file.  The crime lab and the forensics team had done their job.  The background checks showed Phillips had a good life, no financial worries, no health problems, his children were well-behaved, did well in school, in short, the perfect family.

     No motive for suicide.

     The son had come home from college and Schanke was talking to him right now.  Not that either of them expected anything from it, but it was standard procedure.

     Here was something--a note from the team who had searched the house. Suitcases standing in the bedroom, packed and ready to go.

     "Yo, partner."  Schanke's familiar bulk dropped heavily into the desk chair opposite him.  "What's the word?"

     "Looks like suicide alright.  How did you get on with the son?"

     Schanke shrugged.  "Same ol' same ol'.  Said his father was always buying the girl presents.  Oh, and get this.  He had just bought his wife a diamond necklace.

     "A farewell gift?"

     "Who knows, Knight?  Something short-circuited in his brain.  As soon as the report is done, it's a wrap."  He yawned.

     "Not so fast.  We haven't got statements from the wife or daughter yet."  He tossed the note across the desk.  "What do you make of that?"

     "They were going on a trip.  So what?"

     "Odd neither of them mentioned it last night."

     Schanke considered.  "You got a point.  Although if someone blew his brains out in my house, I wouldn't be thinking straight.  On the other hand, no traces of gunpowder were found on either of them last night."  He shifted a little and twisted his head to look past Nick.  "Speak of the devil--there they are."  He glanced back at his partner.  "Mother first?" When Nick nodded, he got up to greet them.

     Nick went on to the interview room.

     Mrs. Phillips was singularly uninformative.  Evasive almost, Nick thought.

     She said the same things as the night before: she had left her husband working in his study and gone to bed, nothing unusual, he often worked late.  She and her daughter Claire heard the shot and came down the stairs together.

     The necklace?  An early birthday gift.

     Yes, she and her daughter had been about to leave on an extended trip to Europe.  Claire would start college in the fall.  No, they didn't know how long they would stay, that's why there weren't any return tickets. No, no marital problems.  She hadn't noticed any change in her husband’s behavior recently.  She had no idea why he would have killed himself.

     And so on.

     But there was something hard in her eyes as she spoke, a secret.

     Schanke gave an exasperated sigh.  "Don't you even care that your husband is dead?"

     Mrs. Phillips blinked, pressed her lips together.  She had dark circles under her eyes.  "Yes, I care, I'm sorry, it's hard to talk about..."  Her mouth trembled.  "I'm mainly worried for my daughter now. This has been terrible for her.  Do you have to see her?"  She looked from one detective to the other, her distress evident.

     "We'd like to," Nick said, "just briefly."

     "If it's all right with you," Schanke said.  "So we can wrap things up quickly as possible."

     Mrs. Phillips hesitated before nodding.  "Well, all right. Please--"

     "It won't take long," Schanke promised.

     Nick opened the door and motioned to the waiting uniformed officer, asking her to take Mrs. Phillips back to reception and return with the daughter.

     "Well, that was a whole lot of nothing," Schanke said when they were alone.

     "You get the feeling she left something out?"

     "Yeah, but it's not going to change anything.  Maybe they weren’t getting along, maybe he drank.  Hell, I don't know."

     Their discussion was interrupted by the arrival of the policewoman with Claire Phillips.

     She was medium height, with light brown hair and hazel eyes like her mother, a young woman on the verge of adulthood, but her slender form still held the awkwardness of adolescence.  She glanced nervously about the small room, with its plain blue walls, taking in the tape recorder on the table, the notepads, the wooden chairs, briefly meeting Nick's eyes, before settling on Schanke with hopeful expression.

     Clearly Schanke's ordinary appearance and the solid decency he projected were comforting to her.

     A quick look flashed between them, agreeing that Schanke would conduct the questioning, and a small corner of Nick's mind noted with some surprise how smooth their teamwork had become.

     Schanke reached up and patted the back of his hair, as if to smooth an invisible cowlick, then held out the chair for her.  When she was seated, he said, "All right, Ms. Phillips, you understand why you're here? We need a statement from you so we can close the case."

     She told the same story as her mother.  Her eyes teared up as she described finding the body.  Nick observed from the corner, arms folded. Her grief was genuine enough, but there was more.

     "Ever notice any problems between your parents, arguments, that sort of thing?"

     She shook her head, and the overhead light danced in her hair, caught honey colored streaks among the brown.

     "So why were you and your mother leaving?"

     "Didn't Mom tell you?  We were going to Europe...it's sort of a graduation present...."

     "Uh, huh."  Schanke's face managed to look both skeptical and accepting at the same time.

     There was a long pause while they both watched her fidget with the charm bracelet she wore.

     "That's pretty," Schanke said at last.  "Present from your

boyfriend?"

     "My father."

     "From what your brother says, you had a pretty good

relationship with him."

     "My brother doesn't know what he was like," she snapped.  She crossed her arms.

     "What was he like?"

     She shook her head again.

     "Did you kill him?"

     "Oh my God."  She closed her eyes.

     "I didn't shoot him, if that's what you mean."

     Nick met Schanke's eyes across the interrogation table.

Pay dirt.

     "Tell us," Schanke said gently.

     Her eyes opened, and she lifted her chin defiantly.  "Mom said I didn’t have to tell you anything."  Then her face closed up like a flower at dusk.

     Schanke said nothing, proving again to Nick that despite his usual heavy handed approach, Schanke could wield the tools of the profession quite skillfully.  And silence was often the best tool of all.

     After a moment, she took a deep breath.  "Oh, what difference does it make.  We were leaving, my mother and I, for good.  He couldn't stand it, that’s all."

     "So your parents weren't getting along," Schanke said.  "That can be tough."

     "No, it's me, it's because of me.  I had to get away."

     "From your father?"

     "I was terrified of him."

     She bent her head and began twisting the bracelet round and round her wrist.  The charms, a horseshoe, a heart, a diamond-ribbed thimble, tinkled against the chain.

     Schanke gave a tiny nod to Nick.  They shouldn't have much longer to wait.  Nick watched as she sat up straight and squared her shoulders, gathering courage.  "He always teased me a lot about my boyfriends, always wanted to know about them.  I didn't like it much, but I thought he was having problems with me growing up, you know, typical father stuff."

     Nick leaned forward.  He had the impulse to stop the interview, bather flat and toneless recitation had a horrid inevitability.

     "It started last summer.  I came home late from a date.  He was so angry, cruel.  Calling me names.  Then he apologized, said he loved me adjust wanted to protect me.  Then--" her voice became a whisper "--he made me have sex with him."

     In the ensuing silence, Nick saw Schanke's eyes widen.  Schanke had a daughter who would soon be old enough to date...

     The girl covered her face as if she could not bear Schanke's poorly concealed pity and horror.  Nick walked around the table and nudged his partner aside so he could perch on the corner.

     Her scent assaulted him, blood and salt and the fragrance of roses. A little pulse leaped in her temple.  He flipped off the tape recorder, rewound it.  "Do you want a female officer?" he asked quietly.

     She made a harsh sound, like a laugh.  "No."

     Schanke had recovered his composure; he shot a guilty look at Nick. Too late: they'd cracked open her fragile trust to get to the truth.

     Nick said, "Was this going on all this time?"

     "No, no, just...just that once.  I didn't know what to do, but I was always scared after that.  He seemed to try to make it up to me, making sure I had anything I wanted, and he never mentioned it, or acted that way again, but I was so afraid, never knowing if it would happen again...finally I found some books--I told my mother, and we confronted him, told him we were leaving.  He begged us to stay..."  Tears filled her eyes and spilled over.

     "It wasn't your fault, Claire," Schanke said to her.

     "I don't <care> whose fault it was."  Her voice broke, and she wept uncontrollably.  Schanke took her hand and patted it, a little awkward.

     "He was my father, I loved him...How could he do this to me?"

     Nick fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to her. She took it, wiping her eyes, then clutched the scrap of

cloth like an amulet.

     "It was bad enough, leaving.  Hoping to put it all behind me.  But not like this."

     "It's not your fault," Schanke repeated, "none of it.  He couldn’t live with what he'd done."

     She looked at Schanke, bewildered, and Nick felt her desire to make him understand, and the slow realization that it was hopeless.

     "You know what the worst thing is?" She gazed squarely at Nick.

     "He's made sure I'll never forget."

***

      "I haven't seen a walled garden like that since before the Black Death...Do you remember that time in Florence...."  LaCroix's voice faded away as he drifted downwards.

     Nicholas lost track of him for a moment.  Then he saw LaCroix on the ground, next to a cluster of pale yellow daylilies.  Other clumps of lilies emerged from among ferns and monkey grass, set off by bushes of crimson China roses, all artfully arrange d to appear natural.  A stonewall curved along the pathway behind him.

     He landed with a light thud.

     LaCroix stood in the shadow of the wall, his face split by distant torchlight, good on one side, evil on the other.

     There arose in him a longing, for the old days of amity and tenderness they had shared, shattered now by LaCroix's perpetual cruelties.  Or perhaps his memory was as treacherous as his master.

     LaCroix slid his hand inside his pocket and drew out a small box.  He opened the box revealing a silver watch and chain.  He held out his hand. "This is for you."

     Nicholas opened the watch and examined the tiny engraving. 'Forever.' "What is this, a consolation prize?"

     "A peace offering."

     "I don't want it."

     "Ah, but I insist."  The dragon's voice.

     Nicholas sighed and slipped the watch into his vest pocket.  An apology of sorts, perhaps.  As much as LaCroix would ever give him.

     "Do not grieve so, my friend.  The world is still a beautiful place." He put his hand on Nicholas' shoulder and bent so close Nicholas thought LaCroix was going to kiss him, the way he sometimes used to before the quarrels of the past two centuries, and hurriedly backed away.

     Undisturbed, LaCroix knelt to sniff at the lilies.  "Consider these flowers: they bloom but a single day.  Their glory is in their very evanescence."  Delicately, he stroked the creamy petals with his index finger, probing their depths.  "Like mortals, they thrive for a brief time, then die.  That is why we want them so."

     Nicholas looked suspiciously at him, but for once no sneer sullied his unnatural beauty.  His eyes were serious.  "You can pluck them at their prime or leave them to die on the vine.  Either way, they die.  That is the very nature of this world."  He snapped off a blossom and carefully put it in his lapel.

     "Why must I destroy the flower to enjoy it?"

     "You tell yourself you love mortals so that you will not have to admit that you <want> to kill them.  A wolf kills for food, because that is its nature."

     "The difference between us and the wolves is that we have a choice. And I choose to stop killing."

     LaCroix nodded thoughtfully, as if he were actually entertaining the idea.  "Whether or not you kill, they <still> die.  How can you possibly love them more than us?"

     "There is nothing lovable in us."  Nicholas took a breath and the perfume of the lilies hit him, sharp and sweet at the same time.

     "You're wrong."  LaCroix rose, dusting his hands.  "What we feel--that is love, not this romantic nonsense you fill your head with."

     "You confuse avarice with love."

     "So bitter, my dear Nicholas.  Come, let us walk a bit."

     They followed the path in silence.  Nicholas studied the ground, aware of the soundless quality of their footsteps on the gravel.  Here and there the smooth stones glinted silver.  He had to escape, but how?  Yes, LaCroix would disappear for decades, sometimes alone, sometimes with Janette, leaving Nicholas to his own devices, but sooner or later, he was back, demanding fealty, companionship, and Nicholas had no choice but to comply.

     Ahead a plain marble bench gleamed in the darkness.  LaCroix sat and patted the place beside him.

     Nicholas obeyed, crossing his arms across his chest.

     "Really, <mon petit>.  I do understand your pain.  But you know it will pass.  Already, even in your despair you see and hear beauty around you, you marvel at the wonders of the world.  It is why I brought you tome."

     The tone was peculiarly gentle, reassuring.  Nicholas watched him, uneasy.  He was not prepared to maneuver through the maze of that byzantine mind.

     He would not be deceived.  "I must amuse you endlessly then."

     "I can find my own amusements.  I made you <immortal>."

     "So you could keep me forever."

     LaCroix inclined his head slightly.  "I hoped for that, yes.  We find solace only with our own kind."

     Something in the twist of LaCroix's mouth bothered him.  "We have Janette."

     "Ah, yes, the lovely Janette."  LaCroix gave a little snort.  "Do you know her at all?  She is never your equal.  Either she is the black widow, the seductress and you the helpless victim, or she the wide-eyed ingénue succumbing to your masculinity; she is in truth your sister."  He stretched out his hand and touched Nicholas' face, fingers trailing down his cheek with that eerie gentleness.  "Janette is perfect, courage and ferocity and beauty, but you are my finest creation.  A thing of darkness, struggling with damnation, yet you shed light everywhere you go.  Janette loves you for it.  Me, she fears."  He gazed up at the heavens, finely arched brows drawn together.  Brooding.

     "Is there nothing you fear, LaCroix?"

     Lost in the stars, LaCroix did not appear to hear, and when his answer came it was as remote as his gaze.  "Loneliness.  Death."  He lowered his head and inspected his hands, straightened perfectly straight cuffs.  "All immortals fear death.  Even you."

     Nicholas acknowledged it with a shrug.  "Still.  To become mortal again, I would give anything."

     "Anything?" LaCroix laughed.  "Well, it's too late to sell your soul."  He laughed again, on and on, high-pitched mirth bubbling over.

     Infuriated, Nicholas stood, intending to return to the main house. "I want no further part of this life of yours."

     LaCroix caught his arm.  "It is your life, too.  You cannot escape what you are."

     "I can get away from you."

     "Never," LaCroix said, a sibilant whisper.  "We are bound eternally by blood."

     Unable to wrench himself free, Nicholas looked back towards the house, the warmth and light and music.  If he concentrated, he could see a group of tiny figures gathered on the terrace.

     "Tell me you never loved me."

     "Once, I thought I did."

     "Then what am I to you?"

     "My demon master, the punishment for my sins."

     LaCroix flinched.  He relaxed his grip on Nicholas' arm.  "Six centuries and still you can't accept reality."

     "Six centuries and you haven't realized I never will.  Why did you make me a vampire anyway?  Why do you let me live?"

     LaCroix's eyes closed, squeezed shut, and he exhaled a long hissing breath.  "Why must you torment me with these questions?  Is it not enough that I gave you eternal life?"

     "I ask you, LaCroix, what good is immortality when it is spent in slavery?"

     LaCroix's eyes opened at that, wide black pupils ringed with smoky blue, and he stared down at Nicholas, breathing out as he inhaled, then breathing in Nicholas' breath, and out again in perfect reciprocity.

     "Be careful, Nicholas.  Freedom is a treacherous commodity."

     Memory struck him, of LaCroix bending to bring him across, the driving pain and weakness, his own surrender, the pleasure, the despair.

     <Are you sure?>

     <I want it.>

     "Very well.  I will set you free."  He took Nicholas's hand and led him around the curving path into a cul-de-sac, a demi-walled sanctuary of juniper trees.

     He turned to face Nicholas.  Deliberately, he reached up and unfastened his collar; in a single movement he bared his throat.  "Come." He tilted his head back against the wall.  "Take me."

     Nicholas took a step back, but LaCroix grabbed his shoulders.  "If you would be immune to my power, this is the way.  The first draught brought you across, the second will free you.  As I took your blood, you must now take mine."

     The night air was soft on the heat of his face.  From far away, he could hear the faint melody of the dance.  LaCroix heard it, too.

     "<Tu as peur>?"

     Unable to speak, Nicholas simply stared at him.

     LaCroix smiled.  "Of course you're afraid."  He brushed the back of his hand across Nicholas' cheek.

     Nicholas grabbed his hand.  "Why?"

     "Because I feel like it."

     LaCroix watched him, intent, incalculable in his calm, yet myriad desires kindled his eyes to silver blue flames, and in the depths lurked a secret sorrow.

     The sight soothed the pain in his soul and the ice in his heart. Enthralled, he edged closer, and out of the corner of his eye he caught the leap of pulse in LaCroix's exposed throat, and smelled the scent of his blood.

     He pulled LaCroix to him and bit deeply, not caring if it was wrong, feeling the deep shudder in LaCroix's body as his teeth sank home.

     At first there was nothing but the blood.  Hot, sweet, warming the cold ache in his veins, seeking out the hidden places in his soul, everything he ever wanted...then in an overwhelming rush he learned the power and passion with which he had been mad e.  So that LaCroix might always know that somewhere, somehow Nicholas continued to exist.  Never again to look up at the sky and feel its emptiness weighing upon him.

     LaCroix's arms came around him, fingers fumbled at his collar.  "You see," LaCroix whispered.  "There is no way back, my Nicholas.  This is what we are, forever," and his teeth pierced the skin of Nicholas' neck.

     The blood flowed out of him and into LaCroix and back, a current of lust and love and obsession.

     Images swirled round and around in his brain until they flashed up and exploded, knowledge coalescing from moments of clarity given to him in the past months, that guilt and innocence meant little, that LaCroix had given him no more than he asked for , that this passion was the real mainspring of his existence.

     He was drowning in LaCroix's love for him, submerged in a blood haze of utter ecstasy.

     Then it was over.  He felt a brief pain as LaCroix's fangs retracted. They stood, separate, again.  Already the punctures in his neck were healing.

     LaCroix took his handkerchief and wiped the blood dripping from Nicholas' mouth.  Their gazes held an instant, then LaCroix leant forward until their mouths touched.

     His eyes closed.

     He felt the gentle flicker of LaCroix's tongue on his inner lip, then only the breeze caressed him.

     "It will be light soon."

     Nicholas opened his eyes.

     Testing, he said, "When Janette returns, I will go to America. Alone."  He felt along the threads of their connection for resistance. "Perhaps sooner."

     "I can't stop you."

     "Can't or won't?"

     "I am still your creator.  You <owe> me.  Respect, loyalty.  But I can no longer compel it."  He smiled as tenderly as a lover.  "Although I don’t have to, do I?"

     Nicholas shut his eyes again, desire throbbing through his body.  He was shackled closer than ever.

***

      The door to the interview room clicked shut as Schanke left to get the girl's mother.  She had stopped crying and stared blankly at the wall.

     Nick put a hand under her chin.

     "Claire, look at me," he said, concentrating on the sound of her heart beating.  "It's not your fault.  It's over now."

     Her eyes glazed over.  It was working.

     "You have a new life ahead of you.  You can make peace with your past, and over time, you will forget."  If only he could do the same.

     She started twisting at her bracelet again.  The chain broke with a snap.

     "I'm sorry," she said, "I must have drifted off.  We didn't really sleep last night."

     There was flurry of noise outside, then Schanke entered with Mrs. Phillips.  She went immediately to her daughter, a worried frown on her face, but Claire smiled easily at her.  Nick thanked them for their time, and assured them that the case would be closed in the next day or so.

     Schanke held the door for them and he and Nick watched as

Claire followed her mother out.

     Her bracelet lay where it fallen on the table.  Nick snatched it up and put it in his pocket.

     "Go home, Schank, I'll take care of the paperwork."

     Home.  He had no home.

     He rolled the form into the typewriter and began to convert the past hour into sanitized officialese.

 ***

      At his loft, hating himself, he switched on the radio.

     "...I wanted some space, some time for myself," a woman's voice was saying.

     "Ah, and freedom is a poor substitute for love, as no doubt you have learned."

     There was an indistinct murmur from the caller.

     "The Nightcrawler is here and I will be with you.  Always."

     LaCroix's voice echoed in the empty spaces in his loft.

     His master had stalked him, but never again had Nick felt the direct compulsion of his will.  At times LaCroix seemed angrier, more frustrated, perhaps because he had given up that control.  And Nick realized he was grateful, after all.

     The sun was rising.

     He pressed the remote control and the steel blinds hummed as they began their descent.

     To live among humans was to live every moment in pain, and to return to his former ways was impossible.  Janette's taunts rose up from memory again.  <"You belong to no one.">

     He pulled the golden bracelet from his pocket and laid it on the table beside the window, and it glittered where a finger of light poked through the blinds.

     "I belong to myself," he whispered, and smiled.

 

END