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A Dozen in a Single Night

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A Dozen in a Single Night
By PJ
August 2015

 

"Tracy, why don't you talk to the man who found the body while I go and see what Nat has for us," Nick suggested as he and Tracy approached the crime scene underneath Gardiner Expressway. The unusual nervous flutter of Natalie's heartbeat along with her warning expression as their eyes met prompted Nick to prefer viewing the body alone.

Seeing that Tracy followed his suggestion, Nick crouched down beside Natalie. "Hi Nat, what do you have?"

"Male Caucasian, approximately twenty-five," Natalie started her preliminary report and handed Nick a wallet. "Name is Peter Hanson. Probable cause of death ---" she turned the victim's neck to the side and lowered her voice. "I don't think I need to tell you that."

Nick tensed upon seeing a clear set of fang marks on the neck. Involuntarily he brushed his hand over his lips. "Sloppy," he remarked and earned a hard stare from Natalie.

"Sloppy?"

"I mean, who would be so foolish and leave a kill out in the open without as much as concealing the marks? --- Any other injuries?"

"None, as far as I can judge from here. I'll have more details once I get him back to the lab. Should I put exsanguination in the report?"

"Keep it indistinct for now. We'll treat it as a mugging. I'll try to find out who stepped out of line." Nick rose and headed over to where Tracy was interviewing the street worker who had found the body.

* * * *

After an hour of paper work Nick snuck out of the precinct and drove to the Raven. The club was crowded as usual around this time of night, although Nick noticed an imbalance towards the mortal clientele. He made his way to the sound booth on the left and entered after the 'on air'-light dimmed, indicating a break in Lacroix's broadcast.

Lucien Lacroix glanced up from his control panel and acknowledged his visitor with a raised eyebrow. "Nicholas, a visit in the middle of your shift? I almost hesitate to ask what brings you here."

Nick approached his sire with a grim expression on his face. "We found a body tonight beneath Gardiner Expressway."

Lacroix reached for his glass and leaned back in his chair. "Indeed? A mortal has passed. Isn't that the fate of all of them eventually?" he replied in a bored tone while gesturing at the crowd mingling beyond the screen.

Nick bent onto the table; intent on catching Lacroix's undivided attention. "He was killed by one of us. The marks were plainly visible. Whoever did it simply dumped him next to a concrete pillar with no effort of concealment."

Lacroix regarded him with a frown. "Is this going to be a problem?"

"I made sure no one saw the marks. Natalie is currently looking for other injuries."

"Very well, keep me appraised."

"I want that someone off the streets, Lacroix," Nick emphasized, slightly disappointed at the elder's lack of active cooperation.

"You assume that I know who it is? I'm afraid not. I do not associate with the stupid. I suggest you do what this city pays you for, Detective."

Nick shot him an irate glare and walked out of the sound booth. Why did he even bother to come here, he berated himself.

* * * *

"Welcome once again, children of the night. Are you lost? Forsaken by the one who promised you eternal guidance? The Nightcrawler is here to provide that guidance for you…"

With a scowl Nick turned the stereo off. What was that supposed to mean? Had he not just sought him out and gained nothing in return?

Nick parked the Caddy in front of the morgue and headed down the hall to Natalie's lab.

"Did you come alone?" Natalie asked.

Nick nodded and closed the door.

"Good." Natalie uncovered the body on the examination table. "I've measured the distance between the fang marks. The killer was male. I've found no other injuries. The marks themselves are slightly ragged as if the killer tried to increase the wound."

"He was hungry," Nick observed. "Probably desperate. Still, after taking his fill, he should have come back to his senses and done what was necessary to conceal it."

"Yeah? Like what?" Natalie stared at him, clearly taken aback by his statement.

"The lake is only 300 yards away from where he was found."

"So, if he had been dumped in the lake that makes it all right?"

"Of course not! You know I don't condone it. And I will find out who's responsible," Nick reassured her. "I'm merely pointing out that it's rather unusual for one of us to be this careless."

* * * *

Early into his next shift, Nick's cell phone rang. Frowning at the number on the display, Nick opened it. "Yes?"

"I thought you might be interested in the news that your little problem has been dealt with," Lacroix's voice informed him.

"You found him?" Nick asked eagerly, quite surprised at the unexpected turn of events.

"On the contrary, he had the misfortune to find me. Suffice it to say there won't be any more slaughter of your precious mortals from that individual."

Nick didn't need any further details. "I'll make sure to wrap up things from my end and ---" he hesitated. "I appreciate your help."

"So glad to be of service," the voice breathed into his ear.

Nick waited for the predictable demand in return, but it didn't come. Instead the line went dead.

"Nick?" Joe Reese's voice broke into his puzzlement. "Where's your partner? We've received an anonymous call. Body's been found in an alley off Simcoe Street, south of Queen."

Only one block from the Raven, Nick worried and rose to grab his leather coat. He dialed Tracy's number and waited for her to pick up. "Tracy, where are you?" he asked after she had answered the phone. "Reese asked for you. There's been a murder at Simcoe and Queen."

"I'll meet you there. I'm already in the area."

Before Nick could reply she had ended the call. From her statement and the familiar background music he had a fairly good idea where she had been. He quickly rushed out of the precinct and took to the air in an effort to arrive at the scene ahead of his partner.

A few minutes later he touched the ground in the deep shadows of the alley and walked swiftly towards the illuminated crime scene at the alley's mouth. "Nat?" he asked as he crouched down where the coroner was bent over a woman's body.

"See for yourself," she stated. "I estimate the time of death roughly within the last two hours."

Nick's eyes widened slightly as he took in the body. A woman in her late twenties, dressed for a night out, her blouse half undone. The head bent in an awkward angle to expose the neck that sported two plainly visible bite marks and a remnant stream of blood. What caused him to swallow however was the expression on the woman's face – a look of utter bliss. He had seen that look on far too many women after they had died in his arms.

"Cover her up," he instructed hoarsely as he sensed Tracy's approach and quickly rose to join his partner.

"What is it?" Tracy demanded, noting the angry expression on his face.

He handed her an ID card. "The victim is a Diana Holdings. Looks like another random mugging. Natalie will hopefully have more information after the post-mortem."

"Where's your car?"

"Wouldn't start," Nick mumbled. "I'll meet you back at the station."

He walked the short distance to the Raven and went straight into the sound booth, not caring about the 'on-air' sign. "I thought you took care of him!" he hollered the instant Lacroix had cut off a caller and cued in music.

Lacroix fixed him with a hard glare. "Unless you wish to be heard by the entire city, I suggest that you wait in the club until I've finished my show."

But Nick didn't budge. Instead he glanced at the control panel, assuring himself that the mike was off. "Where's the guy who committed last night's murder? I thought you had dealt with him."

Lacroix raised his eyebrow. "You'll find his ashes on the roof of the Raven, provided they haven't been scattered by the wind by now."

Nick regarded him with a puzzled expression. "There's been another killing. Tonight." Before he could go into detail, he was interrupted by his cell phone. "Knight?"

"Nick, it's me," Natalie's soft voice could be heard through the speaker. "I've examined the bite marks. She was killed by a woman."

"Are you sure?" Nick asked, surprised.

"Absolutely. It's a different killer than the one from last night. What's wrong with you guys?"

"I'm about to find out." Nick ended the call and looked at Lacroix sheepishly. "Sorry," he mumbled.

Before the elder could reply, there was a soft knock at the door. A moment later a waitress entered with a tray carrying a goblet of blood. She wore high-heeled boots, slim fitting dark jeans, and a burgundy blouse. Her black hair was loosely tied up in a pony tail.

"I did not give you permission to enter," Lacroix stated sternly.

The young woman stopped short and muttered a flustered "Désolé". Then she turned on her heels and rushed out of the booth, closing the door behind her. Immediately there was another knock.

"Entrez," Lacroix replied.

Slightly amused, Nick watched as the waitress entered again and placed the goblet in front of Lacroix while retrieving his empty one. She was fairly young, hardly half a decade into her immortal life, Nick judged.

"Thank you, my dear. Be so good as to accompany Nicholas to the bar." Focusing on Nick, he added, "I shall join you shortly."

"I guess we're dismissed," Nick observed and waited until the waitress had preceded him out of the sound booth. "I don't think we've met yet," he addressed her. "I'm Nick."

"I'm Angélique. Call me Angel. I've already heard a great deal about you, Nick."

He frowned. "From Lacroix? Can't be anything good then."

"Actually it was Janette who spoke in the highest terms about you."

Nick's eyes widened. "You know Janette? Where is she?"

"I've met her in Montreal. She took me in after I lost my master. However, she said I couldn't stay with her because she already had someone to take care of. So she sent me to Lacroix."

Nick nodded. "Angel, don't get me wrong, but I have to ask you this. Where were you tonight during the first two hours after sunset?"

She furrowed her brows at his question. "Here. I've been stocking the bar."

"Can anyone confirm that?"

"Oh yes. Lacroix made a point of watching me closely after I had dropped a bottle of his special reserve."

Nick had to smile in spite of himself. He knew she spoke the truth as he didn't sense a fresh kill on her. "My sympathies. I know exactly how that feels." He took a seat at the bar.

"Can I get you anything?" Angel asked.

"I'm fine, thanks."

"Right. Janette mentioned you don't drink human blood anymore. I couldn't imagine that."

"It's an acquired taste. You're probably too young to try it."

She gave a playful shudder and moved away to tend to other patrons.

Nick surveyed the club and noticed again that the majority of the customers were mortal. He wondered what Lacroix had done to scare off the immortal clientele. A mixed couple on the dance floor caught his attention as the man, a tall vampire, pushed his mortal dance partner towards one of the pillars, kissing her with increasing passion. Nick hardly believed his eyes as the man slid behind her and reared back his head, fangs flashing. Nick rushed towards the couple and roughly pushed the man against the pillar while prying the woman from his grasp. He caught her gaze and focused on her heartbeat. "Leave and don't come back to this club."

She nodded in a daze and hurried toward the exit.

"Are you out of your mind?" Nick hissed, facing the young man.

"Why? This is a bar, is it not? What's your problem?

"You were about to bite her in public!"

"So what? Are you going to arrest me, cop? You'd be in for a surprise."

Nick stepped up to face him closely. "No, I'm not going to arrest you. I'm going to kill you."

"Is there a problem, gentlemen?" Lacroix's steely voice cut into the argument.

"He was about to kill someone on the middle of the dance floor," Nick stated upset.

"That carouche threatened to kill me," the man complained in turn.

Lacroix led him towards his office while Nick followed. "Rest assured, Nicholas will not kill you," he said soothingly. Leaning closer to his ear, he added, "I will."

Before Nick could anticipate his move, Lacroix had pushed a stake through the young man's heart. He disintegrated instantly to dust.

"Those young ones – not even a body to dispose of," Lacroix remarked with a shrug.

"What's wrong with them, Lacroix? Why are so many ignoring the Code all of a sudden?"

"Because they were orphaned before their education was complete."

"Orphaned?" Nick repeated. Although he hated that Lacroix constantly followed him around, he doubted that he would have made it through his first century without the ancient's tutorship.

"Have you been so focused on your little scam of a mortal life that you didn't notice the change in the community, Nicholas?"

Nick furrowed his brows. "I've noticed that fewer vampires frequent the club than usual."

"The virus has devastated our people. Many perished before the cure was found, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves."

"But why are there so many young ones?"

"The asteroid incident last year." When Nick failed to see the connection, Lacroix continued. "I suppose your doctor friend wasn't the only one who asked to become immortal. Apparently several wishes were granted. It's an annoying generation whose knowledge of us is mainly based on television."

"If they continue to kill in public the town will be visited by Enforcers," Nick realized.

"My thoughts exactly. And we can't have that, can we?" Lacroix's gaze bore into him.

"Wouldn't be my first choice," Nick mumbled. He had been lucky to survive two run-ins with Enforcers. He wasn't keen on tempting fate a third time, especially with Natalie and Tracy aware of the community. "Are you intending to do their work and kill all who commit an indiscretion? It might be better to do something that prevents them from being indiscrete in the first place."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. Give them a lecture about the Code, provide some guidance ---" Nick stopped as his words triggered a memory. "Wait a minute, you've already been trying to gather them here, by your broadcasts." Lacroix's recent broadcast suddenly made sense.

"You're still listening to the show. I'm flattered," Lacroix remarked sarcastically. "You've seen the quality of those who did follow the call. Ill-mannered and a decisive lack of respect towards their elders." He indicated the pile of dust on the floor. "You do know that I didn't kill him for the indiscretion he was about to commit in the club, but for the insult he inflicted on my house."

Nick swallowed. Of course Lacroix had taken it personally that the young vampire had called his son a carouche. "Well, maybe then you should add other lessons to the schedule besides the Code."

Lacroix eyed him with a raised eyebrow. "Are you suggesting turning the Raven into a Charm School, Nicholas? I recall that you objected rather violently to the one Janette entertained a couple of decades ago."

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Lausanne, Switzerland 1830

Nicholas alit from the coach and eyed the edifice looming in front of him with a mixture of curiosity and anticipation. Janette had been vague in her letter that reached him in London, merely stating that his talents were required in a special project of hers. If he could find it in his heart to render her his services for a while. Now, Nicholas was a man of many talents, and he was already on the boat to Calais when it occurred to him that she hadn't specified which of them she required. Although their last time together had ended in a quarrel, the mere implication that she needed him had been enough to send him packing.

He retrieved his trunk from the back of the coach and mounted the steps to the porch of the castle that was nestled at the foot of the Alps, overlooking Lac Léman. "Madame DuCharme's Educational Ladies' Salon", announced a plaque on the heavy oak door.

With a raised eyebrow Nicholas used the door knocker. After several moments a young sleepy looking valet opened. "Madame DuCharme is expecting me, I believe," Nicholas addressed him.

"Are you her brother?" the man inquired.

Nodding, Nicholas left his trunk in the hall and followed the valet upstairs. With considerable disappointment, he crossed a few talents off his list that were obviously not required with Janette openly announcing him as her brother.

He was led into a parlour where Janette immediately rose from her seat by the fireplace and met him across the room. "Nicolas! Tu es arrivé!"

After a long embrace, Nicholas gestured at the parlour in general. "Janette, what is this here?"

"It's a school for young women to learn the necessary skills they need in order to become proper wives."

"I wasn't aware there were skills to be learned," Nicholas wondered.

"Of course, you don't, mon chér. You're a man. In the time where we come from, women were given to the next suitable man, often without their consent. Educated women have more say in the matter. They are better equipped to choose a husband of their liking and certain skills will enable them to draw the attention of their desired target. Here they learn how to attire themselves to their most advantage. The programme also offers a variety of social skills from conversation to dancing."

Nicholas regarded her a moment while taking the information in. "You're teaching all this? To mortals?"

"Oh non, chéri. I do have a staff. I merely oversee things and help out where necessary."

"Uh-huh. And where do I fit in?"

"Piano lessons. We have several ladies who are quite apt in music."

"And you introduced me as your brother so that they can practice their newly acquired skills in seduction on me?" Nicholas teased.

"This is a respectable establishment, chéri. No chaperone would trust her ward into my care if I lived door to door with my lover. Come, I will show you around."

Janette led him through several chambers in the main part of the castle and pointed out the function of each. There was a music room with a grand piano, a lecture hall, smaller rooms with vanities and build-in closets full of wardrobe, and a library. The entire first floor of the main part was occupied by a huge ballroom.

During the tour Nicholas noticed several heartbeats in the distance. "Your students stay here?" he asked.

"Oui. They reside in the western wing. We currently have twenty-five boarders, five teachers and ten externs."

Janette led him back into the eastern wing, which was a safe distance away from the tempting occupants of the western wing. "Are you hungry, chéri?"

"I thought you'd never ask," Nicholas smiled and drew her close for a kiss.

* * * *

Later, while Janette slumbered peacefully beside him, Nicholas grew restless. As it was still an hour before dawn, he dressed and took a walk through the area surrounding the castle. There was an extensive garden in the back, featuring various parts – a wilderness, accurately laid out flower beds, a herbal garden, and a maze. To the east, a forest stretched up to the mountains, and to the west, there was a meadow leading down to the shore of the lake in the distance.

Pleased with the peaceful environment, Nicholas returned to the castle. Upon mounting the steps to the front porch, he gazed up to the turret of the eastern wing and made out a lone figure silhouetted against the pre-dawn sky, gazing down upon him benevolently. Nicholas allowed a shy smile to graze his features, knowing full well that it would be noted from above, and stepped into the castle.

He returned to the bedroom Janette apparently intended to share with him and sat down on the bed, rousing Janette from sleep in the process. She stretched comfortably and took in his attire.

"You didn't mention his presence," Nicholas remarked upon seeing that he had her attention.

She eyed him squarely. "Do I need to mention the obvious? Who do you think provided the funding for all this?"

Nicholas hadn't thought about that.

"You're staying, non?" Janette asked cautiously.

Nicholas took a moment to undo his shoes. "For now," he replied and allowed her to assist him with his remaining garments.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

"Janette had ulterior motives," Nick reminded him.

"And you believe I do not?" Lacroix asked, surprised. "Now that would be progress."

"On the contrary. I know you have an ulterior motive. You always have."

"Ah, and what may that be?"

"I don't know yet," Nick admitted. "That's why I'll keep a close eye on things."

Lacroix graced him with the shadow of a smile.

* * * *

On the following day, Nick discovered a rather unusual ad in the Classified section of the Toronto Star.

>Basic survival skills. A mandatory workshop for orphans of the night. Weeknights 6-8. Refreshments will be provided. Apply at the Raven. 416-979-0390.<

That, along with Lacroix's less subtle invitations over the airwaves should assure that word was spread, Nick thought and wondered how the response would be. Fortunately his shift didn't start before 9 p.m., so he didn't require an excuse in order to attend the lessons.

He arrived shortly before six at the club and was surprised to see the dance floor turned into a lecture hall, with several rows of chairs facing the stage.

"Hi Angel," Nick greeted the young vampiress who was rushing back and forth between a lectern and the bar, positioning a goblet and a bottle.

"Hey Nick. Seems we've attracted quite a crowd."

Nick followed her gaze and saw about fifteen vampires standing rather awkwardly around the bar, none of them uttering a word.

"What happened to them?" Nick asked.

"You've missed the first lesson, Nicholas," Lacroix replied smoothly as he emerged from the backroom. "Establishing the community's hierarchy. Clearly none of them has ever met anyone older than 200. The effect was quite disturbing for some."

"You're really enjoying this, aren't you?" Nick remarked in an amused voice.

Lacroix's gaze lingered a moment intensely on him before he turned to address the crowd. "Ladies and gentlemen, you may now take your seats."

Nick seated himself at the bar from where he had a good view on the class and its tutor. Leaning his head on a crooked elbow, he listened as Lacroix launched into a lecture about the Code that he had heard more often than he cared. While Lacroix's velvet voice washed over him, his thoughts began to drift.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Lausanne, Switzerland 1830

Nicholas had just ended his third piano lesson for the evening and dismissed his student, a bright young lady from England who was related to the Duke of Kent. Janette had arranged for the students to receive individual lessons during the evening. While Nicholas enjoyed the company, the lessons left him rather hungry. He quickly walked to the cadenza and poured himself a goblet of blood from a bottle Janette had stowed in a hidden bar.

He had just taken a small sip when he heard the door open to admit another student. He groaned inwardly at the interruption of his meal. "Would you mind waiting a few minutes outside? I'll be with you shortly," he demanded without turning around.

"I did not come for piano lessons," a velvet voice pointed out.

Nicholas whirled around and faced Lacroix who stood in the middle of the room, a violin case under his arm.

"I sensed your fatigue, mon fils, and took the liberty to reschedule tonight's remaining lessons. I thought you might take more pleasure in advanced music." He lifted a violin from the case and started to tune it. "Shall we?" he asked when he was done.

"A duet?" Nicholas was intrigued. He had heard Lacroix play his rebec countless times and was certain that he equally excelled in playing the violin despite his recent understatement back in Britain. He had been oblivious to the fact that Lacroix played the violin at all and had been eager to listen to him play since that comment. However, fate soon parted their ways when Lacroix had followed Janette leaving Nicholas alone in Britain to finish his meddling with the mortal world as Lacroix had called his efforts to prove a man's innocence.

Nicholas pulled out sheet music that Mozart had written for piano and strings. He sat down on the bench while Lacroix positioned himself off to his side. As they started to play, Nicholas sensed a harmony between them he had rarely felt before.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Nick was roused back to the present by a commotion at the door. A girl with short dark hair and heavy eyeliner, clad in leather, entered. The atmosphere in the club dropped several degrees as Lacroix fixed her with an icy stare. "And you might be?"

"Antonella. Tony for short."

"Very well, Antonella, I will not repeat myself. Let the others fill you in and I highly recommend arriving on time tomorrow."

Instead of showing any sign of being intimidated, the girl glared back at him and rolled her eyes before slumping down on a chair in the last row. The staring contest between them lasted a few moments longer before Lacroix resumed his lecture.

* * * *

"That will be all for tonight. I expect you back tomorrow evening, six o'clock sharp," Lacroix closed the lesson after another hour.

"Just a moment, I have a question," Nick intervened and quickly approached the stage. He pulled out a photograph from the second victim and held it up. "Has anyone been responsible for this?"

Silence greeted him while most of the students shook their heads. Nick noticed that the latecomer averted her gaze.

"Is this your latest victim?" Lacroix inquired, taking a look at the photograph as well. "It's been none of them, I can assure you that."

When Nick shot him a curious glance he continued. "These children are far too inexperienced to excite pleasure in their victims when they feed. You're looking for someone more mature."

"Someone who's more mature and yet leaves a kill out to be discovered?" Nick asked doubtfully.

"A contradiction indeed," Lacroix agreed. "Could she have been interrupted?"

"Possibly." Nick glanced at his watch. "I need to go." He filed out of the club with a few others of the class while the majority remained for the Raven's usual entertainment. As he stepped onto the street, he nearly bumped into Tracy.

"Nick? You were in there?" she wondered. "They wouldn't let me in. The bouncer claimed it was closed for a private function. How did you get past? And why are you here in the first place?"

While waiting out her flow of questions, Nick led her away from the entrance. "It was a workshop. I saw the ad and had a hunch that our killer might turn up here."

"And?"

"It didn't pay out."

"So, how did you manage to get in?"

"Just a few well-placed words," Nick grinned.

"A few well-placed bills is more likely. Nick, this place isn't exactly safe."

"Oh?" Nick looked at her sharply. "Why do you think so? And what are you doing here then?"

"I was waiting for a snitch."

"I see. It seems we both wasted our time here. Let's head back to the precinct."

* * * *

Nick used Tracy's trip to the washroom for a phone call to Vachon. "How much does Tracy know?" he inquired after the Spaniard had answered his phone.

"I didn't tell her anything!" Vachon instantly took a defensive position.

"I didn't say you did," Nick returned.

Vachon sighed. "She came to the club last night and told me she saw fang marks on a murder victim."

"She mentioned that in the club?" Nick asked, upset. If she had been overheard…

"Not exactly. She said it in a very roundabout way without mentioning the words vampire and fang marks."

"I see. How did she know about the marks in the first place? I made sure she didn't see the body at the scene."

"She said the guy who found the body mentioned a neck wound. She got suspicious and went to the morgue later to take a look."

Nick groaned. Tracy was too clever for her own good. "It would be helpful if you could dissuade her from going to the club as long as Lacroix's workshop lasts."

"I can try, Knight, but you know she won't listen to me. And I can't persuade her if you get my meaning."

"I know," Nick sighed and rang off. He knew someone who could, but he was reluctant to call in that favour. It usually came with a price too high.

* * * *

After his shift Nick headed back to the Raven. If the killer wasn't among the students, maybe she would drop by during the regular business hours. He seated himself at the side of the bar, but declined the drink the barkeeper offered him.

"Is my club under police surveillance or is this a social call?" Lacroix strolled past him, coming from the sound booth. "In both cases it would serve you well to accept a beverage. In the first case, it would complement your cover and in the latter ---" he let his gaze linger on Nick. "You do look hungry."

"I'm fine," Nick stated while cursing himself for not stopping by the loft first.

Lacroix produced a bottle from behind the bar and poured a glass, placing it in front of Nick. "You may find this in line with your diet. I wouldn't dare serving it to my other patrons."

Nick sniffed suspiciously at the glass. "It's human."

"Of course it is. An outdated batch from a donation centre. Very poor quality. I was about to discard it."

Nick took a cautious sip and closed his eyes. The blood was horribly stale, but far richer than his usual variety.

Lacroix regarded him with the ghost of a smile and left the bottle on the bar.

Apparently business was slow during this weeknight, and the club emptied while Nick continued to nurse his bottle. He was about to depart himself when he noticed the latecomer from tonight's lesson emerging from a shadowy booth. She walked toward the stage where the band had left their instruments and picked up an electric guitar. After a few random strokes she started on a jazzy tune. Smiling Nick joined her on the stage and sat down at the piano. "Mind if I join you, Tony?" he asked.

After receiving a confirmative shrug, he accompanied her on the piano. The sound was excellent in the empty club. After an hour of reviving classic tunes from the 1950s, Nick paused. "We have an audience," he remarked. He hadn't been aware of Lacroix's presence at the bar. But now, the elder stepped up to the stage.

"The sun is about to rise," Lacroix addressed the girl. "I suggest you seek shelter while you still can."

Nick glanced at his watch. He had been completely immersed in the music that he hadn't paid attention to the passing of time. Now he wouldn't make it to the loft before sunrise.

"What about him?" Tony asked, aware that only she had been asked to leave.

"Nicholas has an open invitation," Lacroix supplied.

"Lucky him. I don't have a place to go," the girl claimed.

"Apparently you had one last night. From whence you departed too late," Lacroix reminded her.

"If I return there, I will be late again. And you forbid that. So?"

"What's one more stray, Lacroix?" Nick intervened.

"It leads to a crowd. This isn't a boarding school, it's a nightclub. If you seek shelter here tonight, you will wash the dishes tomorrow night during business hours."

"You're offering me a job?"

"Hardly. I'm merely extracting payment for your stay." Without another word, Lacroix turned on his heels and walked toward his quarters.

Nick watched slightly amused as Tony rolled her eyes at his retreating back. A moment later Angel emerged from a backroom and beckoned Tony to join her. "Lacroix said you're staying. Come on, I'll show you where you can crash."

"l'll see you tonight." Nick winked and made his way to Janette's former quarters, now occupied by Lacroix.

He found him seated in an armchair by the fireplace, a glass of blood in his hand while a second glass stood on the side table. Nick took a seat in the second armchair but refrained from touching the glass. "Remarkable girl," he stated. "She's different from the others. Doesn't allow herself to be the least bit intimidated by you."

"Neither do you," Lacroix pointed out.

"I'm used to it," Nick shrugged and studied the chessboard that was set up on the side table with a game in progress.

"Precisely."

Lacroix's statement caused Nick to look up. "She's used to dealing with you?"

"No, not me. But perhaps someone else."

"Another ancient? Who died from the fever?"

"She never said she was orphaned."

"Why would she come here then?"

"Why is it ever so that children run from their masters?"

Nick's eyes became unfocused.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

Lausanne, Switzerland 1830

It had been a month since Nicholas had arrived in Lausanne. He had settled into a routine. In the early evening hours he gave piano lessons. Later Lacroix would join him for their private concerts. Nicholas enjoyed these sessions of rare concurrence between them and had secretly started to compose a piece for violin and piano. He filled sheet after sheet with bars well into the early morning hours until Janette demanded his attention for the day. He had finished it this morning and intended to surprise Lacroix with it after tonight's ball that marked a highlight in the students' schedule.

He stood next to Janette and welcomed the guests that streamed into the ballroom, mostly family members from the students and their friends or business associates. Apparently Janette intended this to be a match making market in addition to providing an opportunity for the students to show off their new talents.

The ball was in full swing when Janette came to him, accompanying a young couple. Nicholas recognized the student Therese, while the man had been introduced as her fiancé, an accountant who worked in her father's bank. "Nicolas, would you see to Therese's needs while I show Monsieur Tudac the garden?"

"With pleasure," Nicholas bowed and offered his arms to Therese. After a few steps into the dance, she faltered and stumbled slightly in his arms.

"Forgive me, I do not feel well tonight," she mumbled before fainting.

Nicholas swept her into his arms and carried her into the next parlour where he placed her on the couch.

"Excuse me," a male voice caught his attention. Nicholas turned and saw a young blonde man following him. "I'm a physician. Can I be of assistance?"

"She said she wasn't feeling well, and then she fainted," Nicholas stated and stepped aside. He recalled that the man had been introduced as the brother of one of the external students.

The young doctor took the girl's pulse and checked her eyes for reflexes.

"Is her clothing too tight?" Nicholas suggested. The current fashion demanded a tight binding of the waist. In consequence many ladies had a restricted airflow and fainted.

"No, she looks anaemic to me."

Nicholas tensed. He quickly examined the neck, but found it unscathed. Her wrists were in the same condition.

"Has she been letting blood?" the doctor inquired and pushed up her sleeve to reveal a gauze patch at the crook of her elbow. "Ah, I thought so." He removed the patch and examined what looked like an injection site. "Do you happen to know if she has a disease that requires the repeated draining of blood? She seems to have been subjected to the procedure a couple of times."

Nicholas hardly heard the question. He stared at the still oozing wound, and noted similar scars close by. The aroma that drafted from the wound smelled disturbingly familiar. "Excuse me," he muttered and headed to the music room. He pulled the bottle from its hidden bar and filled a glass. Inhaling the scent confirmed his suspicion. The bottle held a portion of Therese's blood. Why had it not occurred to him before? He took a sip and examined the taste more closely. He discerned another ingredient that almost covered the original taste, probably wine.

"Does she have family among the g---?" the doctor stopped in mid-speech as Nicholas raised his head from the glass in his hand, his eyes still golden. "Wh --- what are you?"

"Forget what you saw," Nicholas demanded, focusing on the heartbeat.

"Is that blood in the glass?" the man asked instead of succumbing.

Nicholas didn't know why he resisted his control. He stepped closer and entreated, "Listen to me. You must forget. Take your sister and make sure she does not return here. Go!"

The doctor hesitated. "I don't understand, but I will do as you say – for my sister's sake."

Nicholas made his way back into the ballroom and searched for Janette. He recalled that she had stepped out into the garden. He met her on the stairs – alone.

"Where's Therese's fiancé?" he demanded. "She's not well."

Janette gestured towards the lake. "He's gone for a swim, I believe. I don't think he will be back."

Nick grabbed her shoulders. "What have you done?"

"She was not in love with him. Her father thought him suitable. But she can do better than an accountant."

"And you know this how?"

"She confided in me."

"You've taken her blood," Nicholas accused. "They have been entrusted into your care, Janette. And you turned them into a blood bank!"

"Think about it, Nicolas. You're always so fastidious on whom you feed. This way, it is possible to establish a constant supply without harming anyone. I always made sure they rested well after the donation."

"A promising line of business, I am sure," Lacroix joined them. "May I remind you that you have guests who are, although mortal, not deaf. I highly suggest that you cease your quarrel or take it somewhere more private."

"This was your idea," Nicholas accused.

Lacroix raised his eyebrows. "Bottled blood? Thank you, I prefer mine directly from the source."

Nicholas glared at Janette. "Then you're not better than Francesca. This has to stop. Tonight." He rushed back into the ballroom and began to kick several candelabras. Instantly the curtains and tapestries were aflame. The people fled through the open wing doors. Nicholas stood amidst the inferno, making sure that everybody got out safely. Then he remembered Therese who was probably still in the parlour. He made his way to the hall when he noticed another figure heading in the same direction. All of a sudden a beam from the ceiling broke loose and crashed down. With inhuman speed Nicholas pushed the mortal out of the way, but burned his hand in the process from fending off the beam. He recognized the young doctor. "I thought I told you to leave," he scolded.

"We were on our way, when I saw the flames. I thought I could help."

Nicholas nodded and accompanied him to the parlour where he swept Therese up into his arms. Covering her, he didn't bother with the door but crashed through the window in order to escape the leaking flames. The doctor followed suit.

Nicholas placed his charge on the ground.

"Show me your hand," the doctor demanded.

"It's fine," Nicholas returned.

"It was basically on fire," the doctor insisted. However, as he grabbed Nicholas' hand, only his sleeve showed evidence of burns. The hand was unblemished. "How is that possible?"

"It's a curse," Nicholas whispered.

"I don't know what you are, monsieur, but I would like to examine you more closely. Perhaps I can help you."

Nicholas regarded him suspiciously. "Why would you do that?"

"You've saved my life, and probably that of my sister, too. I'd like to repay you." He bent down and picked up Therese. "Now I better take care of her."

Nicholas watched as he turned to go. "I didn't catch your name," Nicholas said.

"Hans Victor. I have a laboratory in Geneva. Come and see me if you can."

Nicholas turned back to the burning castle. His only regret was that he never got to play his composition with Lacroix. Their temporary cordiality was over, considering what he had just done. A low profile in a small village seemed appealing under the circumstances. Perhaps he should accept the doctor's offer...

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Nick remembered Tony's reaction when he had shown the crime scene photo around. "Maybe she knows something. I need to talk to her."

"Let her rest, Nicholas," Lacroix detained him. "You cannot do anything during the day. Question her tonight."

"All right." Nick indicated the chess board. The white king was only two moves away from being checkmated, its only remaining protection being the white knight that was threatened by the black queen. "Doesn't look good for you. Who were you playing against?"

"What makes you think I'm the one at the disadvantage?"

"Because you always take white," Nick stated. As long as they played, Lacroix had always insisted on making the first move.

"This game won't be concluded," Lacroix declared and scooped the pieces into his hand before starting to set them into their initial position. "Would you care for a game?"

Nick agreed. He wasn't tired yet, and it had been a while since they played. He had always enjoyed the challenge of playing against Lacroix.

As always, the game required his complete focus. While he contemplated on his next move, as a matter of routine, he reached for the glass on the table and took a healthy sip. Only after the unblended human blood smoothed down his throat, did he notice his slip and looked up at Lacroix who was regarding him with a smug expression. "You're cheating," he accused.

"Is it my fault that you do not pay attention to your surroundings? I neither offered nor forced you to drink it." He took a sip from his own glass. "An excellent vintage, don't you think?"

"I would expect no less. Still, why can't you accept the choice I made?"

"Because it is an unhealthy choice."

"It's still my choice." To make his point, Nick stood and placed the half empty glass on the mantel, out of reach.

Lacroix glowered at him. Eventually he turned his attention back to the chessboard. "Your move, Nicholas."

Pleased with the small victory, Nick resumed his seat. He moved his bishop forward and eliminated one of Lacroix's pawns from the board.

* * * *

About an hour before sunset, Nick rose from the couch he had spent the day on and stretched. He walked into the club and approached the bar where Tony was cleaning glasses. He pulled the photograph from the second victim from his pocket and placed it on the polished bar surface. "Is there anything you can tell me about this girl?"

Tony shook her head. "I can't tell you."

"I know you haven't done it, but I believe you've seen something."

When Tony remained silent, Nick sighed. He couldn't possibly hypnotize her as was his customary resort with mortal witnesses when they refused to talk. He wasn't certain if it was fear or loyalty that tied her tongue.

"Leave her to me, Nicholas," Lacroix murmured as he brushed past him and reached for a glass from the bar.

However, when Nick nodded his consent, Lacroix did not pay attention to Tony at all. He merely sat at the bar, nursing his drink while watching Angel arrange the chairs for tonight's lesson.

When the students arrived and took their seats, Lacroix walked over to the lectern. "Tonight's lesson comprises a few practical aspects of the Code, such as how to make a proper kill."

Immediately Nick rushed towards him and drew him aside. "You're NOT going to teach them to kill!" he hissed.

"Rest assured, there's no need to do so. They're predators, Nicholas. They already know how to kill. However, they should know how to dispose of a body."

Nick didn't like it, but saw the necessity given recent events.

Lacroix returned to the lectern. "As this is going to be a practical lesson, I do require a volunteer."

When the class stared back in silence, Lacroix held out his arm. "Antonella, if you please?"

Reluctantly, Tony approached the stage. Once she had reached him, Lacroix moved swiftly behind her, bent her head and sank his fangs deeply into her neck. The class gasped while he drained her.

When she sagged in his arms, he lowered her to the floor and retrieved a knife. Then he proceeded to explain in detail how to obscure the marks. After listing several suggestions of how to dispose the body afterwards, he added, "while this is all very delicious, you should consider very carefully where, when, and whom you dine on. Always bear in mind that forensic techniques have advanced greatly in this day and age. There is always the danger of DNA or paper trails being traced back to you if you're careless." He paused a moment as if waiting for Nick to interfere.

"It might be best to avoid killing at all," Nick took the clue.

"Now, since Antonella appears unfit to follow tonight's lesson, I suggest reconvening tomorrow," Lacroix closed the lesson.

This time all the students quickly fled from the club.

"What now?" Nick asked.

"Now we wait."

Leaving Tony on the stage, they moved to the bar. Nick was in no condition to refuse when Lacroix poured him a glass. Watching him drain someone had awakened his own hunger.

"What did you learn from her blood?" Nick asked.

"What I already suspected. She saw the killing."

"Who was it?"

"You will meet her soon, I believe."

A short time later the door opened to admit a slender woman wearing a dark blue business suit. As she approached, Nick could sense that she was almost as old as Lacroix. She stopped a few feet away and glanced briefly to the stage where Tony lay unmoving.

"General."

"Silvana. Have you misplaced something? A child perhaps? How negligent of you."

"I want her back."

"We had a deal. It was unnecessary to spy on me."

What deal? Nick wondered, but wisely kept out of the conversation between the elders.

"But I was too curious to see if your little scheme would work. I see that it did." She regarded Nick a moment with a knowing expression. "I hope he's worth the trouble you keep going through."

"He is. Now, take your charge and leave. You would do well to avoid this hemisphere during the next five decades."

Smiling, she walked to the stage and picked Tony up. "It's always a pleasure doing business with you, Lucius."

In a movement of displaced air she was gone.

Immediately Nick turned to face Lacroix. "Who is she? And what were you talking about?"

Lacroix sighed and refilled both glasses. "Word about the orphan situation in Toronto has spread. She was sent to assess if Enforcers were required. I convinced her that everything was under control."

"So why did she kill the woman?" Nick asked.

Lacroix shrugged. "I owed her a drink. She prefers it fresh."

"Because she beat you at chess," Nick guessed.

Lacroix chuckled. "No. She was the one playing white. And she hates to lose."

"So you knew it was her from the beginning," Nick accused.

"Not until you showed the photograph. She's usually more discrete. Apparently she decided to see for herself how indiscretions would be handled and added to the complications. A lucky coincidence that you happened to be the investigating officer on the scene."

Was it?, Nick wondered. Whatever his deal with Silvana had been, Nick had the distinct feeling that Lacroix had omitted some details. The call about the body had never been traced. The case had caused him to seek out Lacroix repeatedly. He'd somehow gotten involved in this Charm School business. And by suspecting Lacroix of having an ulterior motive, he had readily agreed to watch the lessons, thus spending even more time in his company up to the point of drinking human blood. And there he had it, Lacroix's ulterior motive. It was no secret that the elder wanted him back at his side.
But was Lacroix prepared to make concessions? So far, they had gotten along surprisingly well.

"Are you saying you finally accept my career choice?" he tested.

"It does have its moments, I admit," Lacroix breathed.

Grinning, Nick picked up his glass and strolled over to the stage where he sat down at the piano and started to play a light tune. "Does any of the band members ever use it?" he inquired as Lacroix approached.

"It's a recent acquisition. I felt the band was lacking an instrument."

"Uh-huh." As Nick turned towards him, he saw Lacroix lifting a violin from a case.

"I found the acoustics are excellent out here," the elder stated.

"Got any sheet music?" Nick asked.

Lacroix pulled several sheets of parchment from a leather pouch and placed them on the piano stand.

Nick stared open-mouthed at the pages. Although the edges were scorched, he recognized his own script. "You've saved it from the flames?"

Lacroix placed a hand on Nick's shoulder. "Some things are too valuable to lose, Nicholas."

"How did you know about it? It was supposed to be a surprise."

Lacroix chuckled. "I learned about it when Janette filed a complaint that you preferred spending your mornings at the piano instead of spending them with her. I went to investigate and found that I could do nothing to appease her dilemma. Instead I was eagerly awaiting the completion of your work."

Nick smiled and brushed his fingertip over the parchment. Then he placed his hands on the keys. Upon an unspoken signal they started to play.

FIN