"Knight, Vetter, get moving. Call just came in. There's been a homicide in the entertainment district," Captain Reese announced from the doorway of his office.
Nick stood and reached for his coat. "Where?"
"Roy Thompson Hall," Reese supplied.
Checking his watch, Nick remarked, "Isn't there a concert on today?" He had planned on attending himself, but had switched his day off in order to fill in for a sick coworker.
"Not anymore, that's for sure," Reese stated. "The deceased is the lead piano player."
* * * *
Nick parked the Caddy behind the Coroner's van on King Street and, followed by Tracy, headed towards the brightly lit concert hall. The entrance had already been cordoned off by police tape. The lobby was filled with patrons in elegant evening attire, engaged in nervous chatter. "Who's in charge here?" Nick asked, showing his badge to the uniformed officers who were guarding the door.
"Officer Lewis, sir. She's upstairs with the coroner. Just follow the signs to the dressing rooms." Nodding, Nick followed Tracy through the crowd. As he ascended the stairs, he sensed it – the unmistakable presence of his master. Stopping in mid-step, he turned to scan the crowd. At the end of the bar he saw him, seated at ease on a bar stool, his gaze resting on him. As their eyes met, Nick considered heading over.
"Nick? You coming?" Tracy caught his attention.
"Yeah," he quickly turned and followed her.
They reached the dressing room that was occupied with forensics dusting every surface for prints. Natalie was bent over the body of a man in a chair, his torso slumped on the table. Nick addressed a uniformed woman. "What can you tell me, Officer?"
"The victim's name is Henri Dupont. He was the lead piano player. When he didn't return to the stage after intermission, the stage manager sent his assistant upstairs. She found him like this."
Nick nodded. "Make sure you get the name, address and whereabouts during intermission from everyone in the audience, as well as from the staff and the orchestra. Then you can send them home." After Officer Lewis had left, Nick turned to Natalie. "Nat?"
She lifted the torso to reveal the front of the neck that sported a bright red bruise going all around. "Looks like he was strangulated with a thin wire or something. You already have a very precise time of death."
Nodding, Nick turned to his partner. "Tracy, why don't you talk to the assistant who found him? I'll help with getting statements from the audience." He returned downstairs, spotting Lacroix in the same position he had seen him earlier.
"What are you doing here?" Nick asked after approaching him.
"Really, detective. Isn't that obvious?" Lacroix asked in return, letting the address roll like an insult from his tongue. "I'm attending a classical concert, as all these people were," he gestured around the lobby.
Nick quickly realized that he had asked the wrong question. "I'm aware of that. I mean, why are you still here? You could have left."
"And I assure you that I would have had the good city of Toronto sent any other detective. Now, while I have been bereaved of the second half of the concert, at least I get to watch my son hunting."
"I'm not ---," Nick broke off. He had been using that expression himself in an effort to explain his job to Lacroix in a way that would make the elder see the appeal from his point of view. "Forget it. Since you're here, did you notice anything?"
A slight smile played around Lacroix's lips. "What if I told you that I did?"
"Tell me," Nick demanded.
"I'm quite certain as to why he was killed. His performance was dreadful. I was tempted to kill him myself, when I realized something."
Upon Nick's inquiring look, Lacroix stood. "Follow me."
Lacroix moved through the crowd and entered the auditorium. He ascended the steps to the stage and stopped at the piano. Leafing through the sheets on the piano stand, he placed one sheet up front and gestured to the seat. "Play for me, Nicholas."
"Lacroix, I'm in the middle of a murder investigation! A murder that put you on top of the suspect list by your latest remarks."
"Was he drained?" Lacroix asked in a bored tone.
"So it wasn't me. Now play."
"That doesn't prove it wasn't you. You detest faulty blood."
"Indeed. But the fault wasn't his."
"What do you mean?"
"Play that piece into the second movement."
With a sigh Nick sat down on the bench. He placed his hands on the keys. The piece was a composition by Liszt. He closed his eyes and let his hands roam across the keys, quite aware of his master's probing gaze resting on him. A few bars into the second movement, Nick stopped. Something wasn't quite right. He knew he had made no mistake, but it sounded as if he had omitted a key. Playing the passage again, he noticed the same fault. He rounded the piano and opened the wing. "The lower E-string is missing," he observed and looked amazed at his master. Only someone with Lacroix's keen hearing and knowledge of the piece would notice a method in the player's faults.
Struck with sudden insight, Nick headed back to the dressing room, where Natalie's assistants just finished bagging the body. "Nat? Could he have been strangulated with an E-string?"
"A string from a piano. The grand piano on the stage is missing the lower E-string."
"Find me one and I'll see if it matches the wound," Natalie replied.
* * * *
When Nick headed back downstairs, he was approached by a man wearing tails that he recognized as the conductor. "Excuse me, may I have a word?"
"René Mallot?" Nick asked. Upon receiving a nod, he said, "I have a few questions myself."
"Are you really a detective?" the man wanted to know. When Nick merely stared at him, he explained, "I heard you play. Does your expertise cover other composers besides Liszt?"
"I was fortunate to be tutored by the best," Nick stated, feeling slightly uncomfortable.
"Have you considered changing your profession? You could make a fortune with performances like the one you just did."
"Actually, I'm quite content with being a cop. As the conductor, you must have noticed the missing notes."
"Of course I did. I think we all did. The odd thing was, Henri didn't seem to notice. He just continued as if nothing had happened."
"I see. When was the last time the piano was used before the performance?"
"We had a rehearsal in the afternoon until five o'clock. Everything went smoothly."
"Did Mr. Dupont have any enemies?"
"None that I'm aware of."
"Does he have family in town?"
"We are his family," Mallot stated with a gesture around the lobby.
"And where were you during intermission?"
"I was seeing the stage manager. One of the lights wasn't properly adjusted."
* * *
Back at the precinct, Tracy opened a folder and scanned a long list of names. "Think we should call it a night and let dayshift do the cross-referencing? If we're lucky, the list will be narrowed down to a few without an alibi."
"Sounds like a plan," Nick agreed. He wasn't keen on starting the tedious task of comparing everyone's whereabouts during intermission.
"There's a name missing," Tracy observed.
"Hm?" Nick mumbled noncommittally.
"You know that witness from the ripper case? The owner of the Raven, Lacroix. He was there. I've seen him."
Nick stared at Tracy. When he had returned from the dressing room, Lacroix had been gone. Apparently slipping out before someone took his name and statement. "I know. I've interviewed him myself," Nick provided.
"So, why is he not on this list?"
"I guess I forgot to add him," Nick admitted with a sheepish look. "He's not involved. In fact it was him, who gave me the hint about the missing string."
"Really." Tracy sounded anything but convinced. "I know you're a big fan of his show, but that only proves that he has a way with words."
Nick looked at her sharply. "A way with words?"
"Yeah, you know, people who have a way to say something that everybody believes it without questioning. Like politicians." She picked up a pen and added Lacroix's name to the list.
* * * *
After ridding himself of his coat and gun holster, Nick went to the fridge, picked a bottle and retrieved a glass from the board. He used his teeth to remove the cork and took several swigs from the bottle before filling the glass to the brim. Leaving the bottle on the counter, he carried the glass over to the piano and sat down on the bench. After a moment, he started to play the suite by Liszt as he had done in the concert hall.
"It does sound better with all strings attached, doesn't it?" Lacroix commented after Nick had finished playing.
"It's nearly dawn," Nick pointed out. "You should be on your way."
"Such inhospitality. I was merely passing by when I heard you play."
"You may have a problem. Tracy thinks you've hypnotized me into omitting your name from the list of suspects."
Lacroix raised his eyebrows. "Really? Why would she think that?"
"She knows the Raven caters to vampires. She probably concluded that the owner would be one. So don't be surprised when you receive an invitation to the precinct."
Lacroix pursed his lips. "The orchestra is looking for a replacement on the piano. Don't be surprised when you receive an invitation to rehearsal."
"The conductor heard you play," Lacroix shrugged and departed through the skylight.
Nick stared at the spot the elder had vacated, wondering if he had been set up.
* * * *
Before heading into the precinct, Nick swung by the morgue. As he neared the door to the lab, he sensed Tracy with Natalie inside. "Nat?" he called, opening the door. "Tracy, what are you doing here?"
Tracy looked slightly flustered. "I just wanted to check on something. I'll see you later at the precinct. Dayshift narrowed the list of suspects down to five who don't have an alibi, including your favourite radio host."
"Lacroix's a suspect?" Natalie burst out after Tracy had left.
"He was at the concert. That's all. What did Tracy want?"
"She wanted to know if there were any other injuries than the strangulation mark."
"She wanted to see if there were fang marks. She suspects what Lacroix is," Nick elaborated and pulled a pouch from his pocket.
"What are you going to do about that?"
Nick shrugged. "She has proven that she can keep a secret. As long as she doesn't connect him to me, it's not my problem. By the way, I picked up a piano string on the way."
Natalie removed the string and, uncovering the body on the table, placed it onto the mark on the neck. "Looks like a match," she confirmed. "So, what do you think? Is he involved?"
"Strangulation is not his style. Based on that, I'd say, he's not involved."
"I would have to taste his blood to be one hundred percent sure," Nick frowned.
Nat made a face. Nick had only recently explained to her about the information vampires could taste in the blood of their victims. "He would let you draw a sample?" she asked confused.
"Hardly. There're two ways to make him give me his blood voluntarily. One is that I get myself severely injured."
Natalie blanched. "I don't think that's a good idea. What's number two?"
"I have to seduce him." Nick winked at her and left a stunned Natalie in the lab.
* * * *
"Knight, in my office!" Reese's voice boomed across the bullpen the moment Nick reached his desk. "Not you, Vetter," Reese added when Tracy rose as well.
Exchanging a clueless look with Tracy, Nick walked over to the Captain's office and closed the door behind him. "What's up, Captain."
Reese held up a paper. "I have a request here from the commissioner to release you from duty on Friday so that you can join the Orchestra. They can't find a replacement for their pianoman in two days and apparently there's a charity performance that's important to the mayor, so he called the commissioner. I don't know why they think a cop can help out, but that's what they want you to do. You're also to come to a rehearsal tomorrow afternoon at 4:00 p.m."
Nick swallowed. Lacroix hadn't exaggerated. "I can't."
"That's what I told the commissioner, but he insists that you could play. The conductor vouched for you."
Nick shook his head. "Playing the piano is not the issue. Coming to rehearsal during the day is."
"I can't give you a second night off while this case is still unsolved. I strongly suggest that you find a way to get there during the day and keep your eyes open to see if you can find the killer. I understand you're conducting interviews tonight?"
"Yes, there are five people whose whereabouts during intermission nobody could confirm. Three orchestra members, one usher and ---" Nick hesitated briefly. "One audience member."
"You've got to be kidding me," Reese suddenly exclaimed while his gaze rested on the window leading to the bullpen, the blinds only partly closed.
Nick didn't need to turn in order to find out who Reese was seeing. The vibration in addition to the sudden hush that fell over the bullpen was unmistakable. "He's the audience member without an alibi. Although I don't think he's involved."
"I still think he's guilty of something," Reese muttered and watched as Nick left the office to meet Lacroix.
* * * *
"Nicholas, how nice to see you again so soon. It seems you were right in your assumption that I would be summoned."
"Likewise," Nick mumbled while he cringed at the intimate address Lacroix used in public.
"You two on a first name basis now?" Reese wondered.
"I don't believe discussing the nature of my relationship with Nicholas is the reason I have been summoned, Captain?"
"Your ----?" Reese's gaze shifted from Lacroix to his detective whose face remained unreadable. Shaking his head, he stated, "You're here because you're a suspect in a murder case – again," he emphasized.
"These visits are in danger of becoming repetitive, Captain," Lacroix scolded dryly. "I suggest we proceed. I do have a show later this night."
Reese ushered them into an interview room. He and Tracy took seats at the table opposite from Lacroix while Nick remained standing with his back to the wall.
"You attended the concert alone?" Tracy began the questioning.
"Tell us what you did after the first part had ended," Nick requested.
"I remained seated in the box. I felt no need to step out for refreshments or anything else."
"Nobody else saw you?" Reese asked.
"It's a private box. The person who joins me on occasion didn't come. Some conflicting work schedule I believe," Lacroix mentioned while his eyes bored into Nick.
Nick fumed silently. It would just be like Lacroix to give him a reason to come to the concert hall after all. Yet, the time of the murder and the MO didn't make sense. The doubt, however, strengthened his resolve to find the truth in Lacroix's blood. "Captain, surely someone would have seen him if he had left the box to go to the dressing room," he remarked.
"Unless he has a way to move without drawing attention," Tracy quipped in.
"Detective Vetter, even if you believe you know something, you must admit to the improbability of reconciling the means with the outcome at hand, don't you agree?" Lacroix breathed, fixing Tracy with a warning glare.
Nick noticed an increase in Tracy's heart rate. "I suggest you hold yourself available in case we have further questions," he tried to end the interview.
"Of course," Lacroix rose from his seat. "Unless you have any solid evidence against me, Captain, I'd rather be on my way. Nicholas knows where to find me."
After Lacroix had walked out, Reese turned to his detectives. "Would you mind telling me, why both of you seem to be intimately familiar with a potential murder suspect?" he asked, irritated.
"I'm not intimately familiar with him," Tracy protested. "He just happens to be the owner of the bar where my ex-boyfriend used to hang out before he left town."
"Knight?" Reese prodded.
"We've --- seen each other a couple of times after the ripper case," Nick admitted, hoping to keep his answer vague.
"Great," Reese muttered. "If it turns out Lacroix is involved, you're both off this case, understood?"
Nick and Tracy nodded in unison.
"So, who's next?" Reese inquired.
"The usher. Dorothy Michaels," Tracy said after a glance on her notebook.
* * * *
Nick settled onto his couch with a sigh. The remaining interviews had been as futile as Lacroix's. The usher had spent the entire intermission on the phone with her mother. The contrabass player had stepped out for a smoke, the violin player had a case of severe stomach flu that confined him to the washroom, and the cellist had run to the drugstore on Front Street for headache pills. When dayshift acquired confirmations from the drug store staff and the usher's mother, they could cross out two suspects from their list, which narrowed it down to three; maybe down to two if his own little cross-examination succeeded tonight as planned.
Nick also hoped he might find out something during tomorrow's rehearsal, which was the main reason he had agreed on doing this. He reached for the phone and dialed Natalie's number. "Nat?" he asked after the phone was picked up. "I need a favour. Could you pick me up tomorrow afternoon and drive me to Roy Thompson Hall? --- Yes, I know the sun will be up. --- Okay, thanks."
After replacing the receiver, Nick walked over to the refrigerator and examined its contents. In the far back he found what he had been looking for: A labelled green bottle, left by Lacroix on a recent visit. He removed the cork and inhaled deeply. Nat would kill him if she knew what he was planning. And Lacroix would kill him if he figured out that he had a hidden agenda. Either way, his chances of surviving the next 12 hours were rather slim.
He poured himself a goblet and took a cautious sip. Closing his eyes, he let the blood linger on his tongue before swallowing. Although cold and lifeless, he could discern images from the donor's lingering essence. Part of him was relieved that the donation was voluntary, while a darker part of him craved a warmer, more life-giving sustenance. He finished two goblets before he felt fortified to proceed with his plan.
* * * *
Nick entered the Raven about an hour before dawn. He crossed to the bar and ordered a glass of bloodwine. "Leave the bottle," he demanded after the bartender had provided him with a drink. Taking the goblet and the bottle, Nick retreated to a table in a shadowy booth. Leaning back, he began to savour his drink while watching the dancers.
Half an hour later, the club was emptying. The staff scuttled about, collecting empty glasses. After the last customer had departed Lacroix emerged from his broadcast booth. Keys in hand, he walked towards the door, but stopped in mid-step, a look of surprise on his face as he turned to face Nick.
"Nicholas, it's nearly dawn. I was about to lock up. Shouldn't you be on your way?"
"Sure," Nick mumbled and rose, knocking the empty bottle over in the process.
Immediately Lacroix was at his side. "Or perhaps not." He examined the bottle and sniffed at the glass, casting an astonished glance at Nick. "If I didn't know better, I would say that you are drunk, Nicholas. May I inquire what the reason for this unusual indulgence is?"
Nick sat back down, drawing Lacroix down on the seat beside him. "I was hungry," he rasped. "I still am."
Lacroix regarded his son probingly, taking in the golden sparks in his eyes and licking his lips in response to the emotion this sight of Nicholas triggered in him. He motioned to a waiter and handed him the keys when he approached. "Lock up and bring us another bottle of this vintage," he ordered.
The waiter was quick to comply and soon returned with the keys, a bottle and a second goblet. Lacroix filled both goblets and sat back in the booth to watch Nicholas.
Nick raised his glass and closed his eyes while inhaling the aroma. Opening his eyes again, he openly smiled at Lacroix before taking a large sip. He let the blood linger in his mouth keeping his eyes locked with Lacroix's. When he finally swallowed he closed them again, entirely absorbed in the sensation. When he looked up again, Lacroix's own eyes had taken on a golden hue.
The elder took a rather large sip from his own glass. "An exquisite vintage, isn't it?" Lacroix commented hoarsely. It pleased him immensely to see Nicholas like this.
"Extraordinary," Nick agreed, taking another sip while performing the same ritual.
"I've always told you ---"
Nick stopped the lecture by placing his hand on Lacroix's. "Please, not now."
Stunned, Lacroix stared at their hands. He couldn't deny the spark of desire that surged through him upon the close contact. He quickly downed the remaining contents of his glass and reluctantly withdrew his hand from underneath Nicholas' to refill their glasses. "As you wish," he finally managed.
When they had finished the bottle in silence, Nick rose. "I should head back to the loft."
Lacroix regarded him slightly amused. "In case you haven't noticed, the sun has risen an hour ago."
"Oh," Nick breathed. "But I told Nat to pick me up this afternoon in order to drive me to rehearsal."
Lacroix raised his eyebrow. "She can pick you up here. Right now, you aren't going anywhere before you're truly sated." He took Nick by the hand and drew him with him. When they passed the bar, he retrieved another bottle before continuing towards the backrooms. They ascended a stairwell and entered the apartment above the club that Lacroix had moved into.
After the door closed behind them, Nick turned to his master and pressed himself against him, trapping Lacroix between himself and the door. "I'm still hungry," he stated throatily and aimed for Lacroix's neck.
Although surprised by the sudden onslaught, Lacroix had the presence of mind to place the bottle he was carrying on a sideboard next to the door. Having both hands free, he prevented Nick's bite in the last moment and pressed his lips against Nick's instead. He used Nick's momentary distraction at the action and slid his tongue into Nick's mouth, initiating a kiss that inflamed Nick's passion.
Nick responded with a low growl as Lacroix sucked at his tongue. Feverishly he started to unbutton Lacroix's shirt. Before he had undone half of the buttons, Lacroix had reversed their positions so that Nick found himself pressed against the door. Lacroix swiftly removed Nick's shirt. While pinning Nick's arms against the door, he moved his lips from Nick's mouth towards his torso, focusing his attention on the left nipple before moving to the right.
Nick arched his back and moaned in anticipation as Lacroix's lips moved lower to his navel. His arms were released when Lacroix's hands unfastened his belt and removed his trousers along with his remaining clothes. Nick closed his eyes and tried to keep his balance as Lacroix's lips engulfed him. Lacroix's skillful attentions brought him to the edge and kept him there while nursing Nick's desire for more.
Upon finding himself released, Nick sank down on his knees, pushing Lacroix onto his back. Eagerly he ripped the other's shirt off and savoured the exposed chest with his lips, while his hands worked to remove the rest of Lacroix's garments. Once that was accomplished he rubbed himself against his master. Lacroix rolled them over and Nick wrapped his legs around Lacroix's hips, signalling his readiness through an unspoken signal. He sighed in bliss as Lacroix entered him. After a moment of contented silence they started to thrust in sync, letting their unrestrained passions free reign. Finally they bit into each other's neck and exploded in a sensation of mutual ecstasy.
* * * *
Upon waking, Nick opened his eyes and took in his surroundings. After their passions were spent they had ended up on the rug in front of the fireplace. He was using Lacroix's left arm as a pillow while the ancient's right arm was wrapped possessively around him. Nick groaned inwardly as he realized that his plan had failed miserably. Although he did drink quite a lot of Lacroix's blood on multiple occasions, he had been too inflamed by passion to pay any attention to the information he had been looking for. Instead of taking a few sips for analysis, he had feasted on Lacroix's blood like a starved fledgling and revelled in the ecstatic overload. Once Lacroix had initiated that kiss, Nick had lost complete control and given in to the unrestrained passion that had cost the life of many mortals who had succumbed to his charm. It was rare that he could lose himself completely without dire consequences. The smile on Lacroix's face as he slept indicated that the bliss was mutual.
Nick pried one arm from around him and bit without hesitation into the wrist, causing Lacroix to wake with a growl. Nick managed to take several swallows before the arm was ripped away. Sorting through the information, Nick found what he had been looking for. Sitting up, he stared at Lacroix, slightly dumbfounded.
"You cannot deny that it wasn't worth the effort, wouldn't you agree?" Lacroix purred, propping his head up on an elbow. "The opportunity was just too convenient to pass up."
"I should have you arrested for obstruction of justice," Nick exclaimed and vanished into the bathroom.
* * * *
"Nick? Are you up yet?" Natalie called as she entered the loft in the afternoon. She was a bit startled to see that the blinds were open. Ascending the stairs, she knocked on the door of Nick's bedroom. "Nick?" When no answer occurred, she opened the door tentatively and glanced inside. The unused bed indicated the absence of its owner without doubt.
"Great," Natalie mumbled and retrieved her phone.
After she had dialled Nick's cell phone, it was answered on the second ring.
"Nicholas is currently incommunicado. How may I be of assistance?" a familiar voice that wasn't Nick's replied.
"Lacroix?" Natalie asked, confusion evident in her voice.
"Good evening, Doctor."
"Um, I'm looking for Nick. He asked me to pick him up."
"Nicholas has chosen to spend the day at the Raven. You may pick him up here. Use the side entrance."
"Are you still at his loft?"
"I believe Nicholas would be pleased if you could bring a fresh set of clothes. I'm afraid the wardrobe he arrived in is no longer presentable."
Natalie blanched. "What have you done to him?"
"You do not really expect me to answer that in detail, do you?" Lacroix chuckled.
* * * *
After parking the Caddy in the alley next to the Raven's side exit, Natalie retrieved a bag from the trunk and walked over to the door. She pressed the bell below the intercom and waited.
"Yes?" a voice caused her to jump.
"It's me, Natalie Lambert."
"Nat!" Nick's voice greeted her. "Take the stairs to the second floor."
The lock was released, opening the way into a dark stairwell. Pulling out her cell phone, Natalie used the low illumination from the display to search for a light switch. When none was visible, she grabbed the stair rail and carefully walked upstairs. After several turns she noticed a faint light that became brighter the higher she climbed. Finally she reached a door that led into a lofty apartment.
Nick awaited her by the door, wearing a burgundy brocade robe, apparently Lacroix's. "Hi, thanks for coming," he greeted her and stepped aside to let her pass.
"Are you all right?" she asked, giving him a careful glance over. From Lacroix's remarks she had expected the worst, but she had to admit that Nick hadn't looked so well in months.
"I'm fine," he assured her quickly and indicated the bag in her hand. "Is that for me?"
"Yeah, I hope I made the right choice." She had picked jeans and a blue shirt.
"It's perfect," Nick said after glancing into the bag. "I'll be right back." He vanished into one of the rooms and closed the door behind him.
Natalie stepped further into the entrance hall and glanced into a spacious living room that opened to the right. Immediately she regretted her curiosity as she discovered Lacroix, leaning casually against a huge mantelpiece, a glass of blood in his hand.
"Good evening, Doctor. I see that you've found your way up."
"A light in the stairwell would be convenient," Natalie criticized.
He raised his eyebrows. "What for? We certainly do not need it, and I'm not in the habit of receiving mortal visitors."
Gladly she was saved from a reply when Nick returned. He stopped briefly at the door to the living room, glaring at Lacroix. "This isn't over," he warned.
"It never is," Lacroix chuckled in reply.
"Nick, what happened?" Natalie asked concerned after the door to the apartment had closed behind them.
"I'd rather not talk about it," Nick stated and reached for her arm to guide her down the stairs.
"Did you find out if he is involved in the murder," she asked nevertheless.
"And? Is he?"
"No." Nick sighed. "He just dropped little hints to create enough doubt on purpose knowing that I would want to find out the truth by taking his blood."
"So you took a sip of his blood. What's the big fuss about that?"
Nick stopped at the foot of the stairwell and stared at her, glad that she couldn't see the faint blush on his face. "Did you park in the alley?" he asked instead.
Natalie nodded. "The trunk is just ahead." She stepped into the daylight and opened the trunk.
Nick quickly climbed in, glad the building provided enough shadow for him not to smoke.
* * * *
Natalie parked the Caddy in the underground garage and knocked on the trunk. Nick emerged from the confines, wearing his sun glasses.
"Are you sure about this?" Natalie asked.
"There aren't any windows in the concert hall. I'll be fine," he assured her. He took the elevator to the lobby and walked into the auditorium where the orchestra was already assembled.
"Detective, I'm so glad that you could come," the conductor greeted him.
"I'm happy to help out," Nick replied and took his seat at the piano.
René Mallot leaved through the sheet music, explaining, "We'll begin with Bach.
Placing his hands over the keys, Nick signalled that he was ready.
* * * *
"Congratulations, Detective. I must say, you're really amazing. I've no doubt tomorrow's benefit will be a success," Mallot exclaimed enthusiastically while the other orchestra members were stowing their instruments and leaving. "I really don't know what we would have done without you."
Nick smiled and closed the lid over the keys. "I'm glad I could help out." He had rarely played with an orchestra and he had enjoyed himself immensely.
"We hadn't expected to require a replacement so soon. We've been negotiating with several candidates, but none of them could step in immediately."
Nick furrowed his brows. "You were planning on replacing Mr. Dupont?"
"Yes, unfortunately his contract was expiring next month. We would have loved to extend it, but he wanted to go on a solo tour. Much to the disappointment of his partner who will remain with us for another year."
"She's a member of the orchestra?" Nick inquired. So far they had focused their investigation on those who had been present on the evening Henry Dupont died. They had yet to extend their search on family and friends.
"It's a he. Boris Korolov, the lead violin."
Nick wondered why Korolov hadn't mentioned anything when he was interviewed at the precinct.
* * * *
When Nick reached his desk, Tracy regarded him expectantly. "Well?"
"Well what?" he asked teasingly.
"How did it go?"
"It was okay," Nick replied non-committally.
"They still want you to play at the benefit?"
Tracy's eyes widened. "Then you really must be good at it."
Nick regarded her slightly confused. "I do have baby grand at the loft."
"I've never been to your loft, Nick. And that doesn't prove anything. Mom has a piano simply as decoration. She has no clue how to play it."
Deliberately ignoring Tracy's remark about her never been to the loft, Nick suggested, "I think we should have a talk with Boris Korolov again, the lead violin. I learned he and Dupont have been more than friends."
Tracy reached for her coat. "Before we talk to him, we should drop by the morgue. Nat called before you came in. She has something to show us."
* * * *
"So, how did it go?" Natalie wanted to know when they entered the lab.
"As good as could be expected," Nick replied with a lopsided grin.
Natalie smiled back, aware that meant he had played with virtuosity.
"Have you ever heard him play?" Tracy asked curiously.
"A few times," Natalie nodded.
Tracy pulled a piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to Nat. "In case you can get off tomorrow. Courtesy of my dad."
"What's that?" Nick demanded.
"Dad provided me with a few tickets for tomorrow. To pass along among the precinct."
Nick cringed. "Do I want to know who else is coming?"
Tracy shrugged. "Reese with his wife, Loumiller, Dalton, Hendricks --- what?" she stopped when Nick looked extremely unhappy. "My partner is playing with a world renowned orchestra. Can you blame me when I want to show you off?"
Nick merely shook his head at her enthusiasm, already fearing the comments he would get from his coworkers. "You had something for us, Nat?" he changed the topic.
"Yeah. Your mention that Dupont didn't notice that he was missing a note got me thinking. I did some x-rays and found out an abnormal growth of bone near his middle ear which is indicative of otosclerosis. Symptoms are progressive hearing loss, especially in the low-frequency area."
"You mean he was going to be deaf like Beethoven?" Tracy asked.
"Not a pleasant prospect for someone who wants to go on a solo tour," Nick frowned and picked up the folder containing the x-rays. "Thanks, Nat."
* * * *
Twenty minutes later Nick and Tracy pulled up in front of the apartment building where Boris Korolov resided in.
"Yes?" a voice sounded from the intercom after Tracy had pressed the bell.
"Metro Police, Detectives Knight and Vetter. We need to talk to you again, Mr. Korolov," Nick stated. When the door was released after several seconds, they took the elevator up to the fifth floor and entered a studio apartment.
Boris Korolov awaited them at the door. "I hope this won't take long. I do have a concert tomorrow as you know."
Although Korolov remained outwardly calm, Nick noticed an increase in his heart rate. "We won't keep you up long, Mr. Korolov," he assured him. "We thought that maybe you might know if Mr. Dupont had any enemies."
"I believe everybody has already told you that Henri was well loved by all."
"Yes, but nobody knew him as well as you did. You basically lived together," Tracy said.
Korolov regarded them warily. "When you move to another city almost every month it's good to have a constant in your life. Henri was that constant for me. We've been through quite a lot together."
Nick's thoughts drifted unbidden to Lacroix whom he had come to regard as the constant in his own life whether he wanted it or not. "Yet, Mr. Dupont wanted to quit, to go on a solo tour. Were you aware of his health issues?"
"You mean his deteriorating sense of hearing? Of course I was aware of it. That solo tour would have become a disaster. Henri, however was in denial. I told him over and over again to see a doctor about it. He insisted, it was only a temporary condition and nobody would notice. You have no idea what it's like when the person you love keeps refusing your advice."
Nick had a fairly good idea, although he was familiar with it from the other end. He knew exactly what it was like to be constantly harassed with unwanted advice. His response was usually to bolt and leave. Was this how Henri had felt? Did he want to leave because he couldn't bear it anymore? Even if it was well meant? He studied Korolov closely. "So you decided to provide evidence and manipulated the piano," he concluded, receiving a startled look from Tracy.
Korolov, however stared at him, while his heart rate sky-rocketed. "He didn't hear it," he seethed eventually.
Tracy took a step closer. "You deliberately sabotaged the piano and jeopardized the concert?"
"He should have noticed during the warm-up, but he didn't. I was detained by Mallot, so I couldn't fix it before the concert started."
"So what happened during intermission?" Tracy queried.
"I --- ," Korolov hesitated. "I already told you that I was holed up in the bathroom."
"You've already confessed that it was you who took the string," Nick said softly. "Tell us how it ended up around Henri's neck."
Korolov evaded his eyes. "I was furious when Henri failed to play with his usual perfection and didn't notice. I confronted him in his dressing room and showed him the string. He was upset that I had tempered with the piano. I told him he couldn't go on a solo tour without me, considering his condition. He shouted that he would leave me anyway, that he couldn't go on with me constantly hovering." Korolov paused, brushing his hand in agitation through his hair. "I'm not used to being rejected. I felt as if he had hit me. I told him, if that was his wish I would let him go. I still had the string in my hand. When he turned his back on me, I slung it around his neck."
Tracy swallowed and looked over at Nick who pulled out his handcuffs.
"Boris Korolov, you're under arrest," he stated and started to read him his rights."
* * * *
When Nick was preparing to leave, René Mallot rushed into the bullpen, looking very agitated. "Detective, I need to talk to your Captain."
Nick led him to Reese's office and knocked. "Captain? Mr. Mallot wants to talk to you."
After Mallot had entered, Nick lingered near the door.
"Captain, is it true that Korolov has been arrested?"
"I'm afraid so," Reese replied.
"But he's the lead violin. We need him tonight. Can't you make an exception and let him do one more performance?"
"Mr. Mallot, I understand your concern, but Mr. Korolov is a confessed murderer. He's not going to play in any concert for a long time."
Mallot sighed and left the office. "How am I supposed to find a replacement on such short notice?" he lamented when Nick joined him. "Looks like we're going to have to cancel tonight after all. I'm sorry that nobody will hear you play, Detective. And what a disappointment for the fundraiser committee."
Nick hesitated a moment. "I happen to know someone who plays violin."
"You mean like a professional? Comparable to your talent?"
Nick nodded. "I'm sure I can convince him to help out."
Mallot's eyes widened. "Really? I'll set up another rehearsal for this afternoon."
Nick caught the man's gaze. "A rehearsal is not required. He's a natural," he intoned, focussing on Mallot's heartbeat.
"We don't need to rehearse. I'll see you tonight then."
After Mallot had left, Nick picked up the phone. He hesitated briefly before punching in Lacroix's private number.
"Yes?" the phone was answered on the second ring.
"Were you planning on attending tonight's concert?" Nick inquired.
"I wouldn't want to miss the opportunity to hear you play. You know that, Nicholas," came the smooth reply.
Nick smiled. He had counted on that. "Is your violin tuned?"
"Bring it along. You're going to replace the lead violin."
A brief pause was the only indication of Lacroix's obvious astonishment. "And if I refuse?"
"Then the concert will be cancelled and you're not going to hear me play."
Nick could virtually see Lacroix frown and grinned, knowing that he had him.
"May I ask what happened to the violinist?" Lacroix inquired.
"I've arrested him. He was the killer," Nick informed him, still grinning.
"Your answer, Lacroix?"
"This is a onetime engagement, is it not? Or were you planning on switching professions?"
"No, it's just for tonight," Nick assured him.
"Very well, Nicholas, I shall be pleased to accompany you."
Nick smiled. "Good. I'll pick you up at 7:15."
* * * *
Dressed in a black custom-made tuxedo, Nick headed up the stairs to Lacroix's apartment. The door was opened the moment Nick reached the top of the stairs, revealing Lacroix wearing a matching black tuxedo.
"Hmm, you do look delectable, mon fils," Lacroix purred and leaned forward to kiss Nick fully on the lips.
Caught by surprise, but unable to refuse responding, Nick revelled briefly in the intimate contact before reluctantly pulling away. "We should go."
"Of course." Lacroix retrieved a violin case and followed Nick downstairs.
* * * *
Tracy tensed as the curtain rose to reveal the orchestra. "What's he doing there?" she whispered to Natalie.
"Who?" Natalie asked distractedly, her eyes glued to Nick who sat at the piano.
"Lacroix," Tracy whispered back.
Natalie had expected Lacroix's presence in the audience and turned to scan the box seats.
"The violin," Tracy whispered.
Natalie's eyes widened. She had heard that the violin player had been arrested, but Nick hadn't mentioned anything about a replacement. She didn't even know that Lacroix could play.
Both women hushed when the concert began.
* * * *
"I'm totally awed," Tracy exclaimed as she jumped from her seat for a standing ovation. "Where did he learn to play like that?"
Natalie grinned while she applauded. Nick had mentioned once that he had been friends with Beethoven and she had no doubt that he had probably met other composers as well. "He never said where," she replied diplomatically.
The conductor shook hands first with Nick and then with Lacroix. Both men had joined him to take their bows. While the audience called for an encore, Lacroix leaned towards Mallot who seemed surprised at whatever Lacroix had suggested, but after a brief consultation with Nick returned to his podium. When Nick and Lacroix had also resumed their places, the audience fell silent again. The encore was a duet for piano and violin, which was delivered by Nick and Lacroix in perfect sync.
When the last note had died away, the audience erupted again in cheering and thundering applause. Nick and Lacroix stood side by side, taking bows until the curtain fell. A shiver had run down Natalie's spine as she perceived the look that had passed between them, obviously a shared memory that wasn't as unpleasant as the remainder of their past that Nick had told her about.
She and Tracy filed with the other audience members out into the lobby where refreshments were available.
Natalie spotted Nick in a corner near the bar, but stopped in mid-step as she noticed Lacroix appearing close behind him and handing him a goblet. Nick cast him a look of genuine surprise before taking a rather large sip. From his lack of hesitancy Natalie could only guess at the nature of the drink.
* * * *
After providing Nicholas with a beverage from the flask he had brought along, Lacroix reached over and took a deliberate sip from Nick's glass.
"What did you do that for?" Nick hissed, quite aware of Natalie's and Tracy's scrutiny.
"Your partner is convinced that I'm a vampire while she believes you to be mortal. By partaking what she believes to be red wine from your glass I'm merely seeking to dispel her suspicions."
"Perhaps," Nick agreed. "But has it occurred to you what they may think about us when you drink from my glass?"
Lacroix raised his fingertips to Nick's chin and leaned forward. "And what's wrong with that, mon amant?" he breathed throatily and kissed Nick full on the lips.
The lingering taste of blood on Lacroix's lips caused Nick's response to be more passionate than he usually would have dared in a public display. The sound of a glass shattering brought him back to his senses and he quickly stepped away from Lacroix. Although they were standing in a corner, he had the feeling that all eyes were on him. Certainly it didn't help that half the precinct was present thanks to the generosity of Tracy's father. What pained him most was the look of horror flashing over Natalie's face before she bent to help Tracy pick up the shards from the glass that had slipped from Tracy's hand at the unexpected display. The only one who didn't look surprised was Captain Reese. Lacroix's less than subtle remarks at the precinct had probably already led the Captain to the obvious conclusion.
* * * *
"Did you know?" Tracy whispered as Natalie joined her on the floor.
Natalie shook her head, still trying to come to terms with what she had just witnessed. She had always envied the quality of the kisses she had occasionally glimpsed between Nick and Janette compared to the few cautious pecks she had received from him. But this surpassed anything she had seen before. What stunned her was that Nick didn't seem the least bit coerced. His apparent joke about seducing Lacroix suddenly got a whole new meaning.
"And he doesn't even blush!" Tracy muttered under her breath.
They were saved from their task when an attendant rushed forth with a broom.
"I'm going to wash my hands," Tracy announced and rose.
Natalie was about to rise as well when a hand helped her up. "Can we talk?" she asked, noting the guilty look on Nick's face.
"Here?" Nick replied, clearly uncomfortable.
"Here and now."
With a nod, Nick led her through the crowd to the upstairs gallery and into an empty dressing room. "I'm sorry," he began after closing the door.
"Sorry for what?" Natalie snapped.
"For putting you in this situation where everybody saw me kissing someone else while they were thinking you and I ---"
Natalie held up her hand. "I don't give a damn what everybody else thinks or saw. Seriously Nick? Lacroix of all people? After all that he has done to you? How ---"
Now it was Nick who stopped her. "After Divia, something changed between us. He was certain that she had killed me. And he was prepared to die himself. He wouldn't have been able to go on. When I arrived at the Raven, Divia was about to deliver the final blow. I could have waited until she killed him before I staked her and be rid of both of them. It was a conscious decision to save him. He knows that. We both do. And it rekindled something we both thought we had lost."
Natalie had listened in silence. His last sentence, however, caused her to furrow her brow. "Re-kindled? This has been going on before?"
Nick cringed inwardly at his slip. "On and off," he admitted vaguely. "Although not during the last hundred years."
"Since you stopped killing," Natalie realized. "So what now? Are you going all the way back to him?"
"No," Nick objected immediately, shaking his head. "He realized that I'm willing to spend time with him as long as he accepts my way of living. He even went as far as to admit that my research in goodness was what probably saved me from Divia's evil."
Natalie crossed her arms before her chest. "Will he let you continue your search? Are you willing to continue?"
Nick let out a breath. "There hasn't been much progress lately, has there? I'm not ready to give up yet, but we both know by now that neither restricting my diet nor putting me on any odd shakes is going to be the solution."
Natalie had to admit that she had run out of ideas. Until science progressed and came up with a new bioengineered compound, they would have to be patient.
She was prevented from commenting when Nick turned his attention to the closed door. "Either come in or go away, Lacroix," he stated upon which the door opened promptly.
"Forgive the intrusion. I was merely concerned about your well-being, Nicholas. The good Doctor seemed quite upset when she dragged you upstairs. I was worried this conversation might become unpleasant and you would find yourself at the end of a sharp stick given the Doctor's temper."
Natalie glared at him. "If anyone ends up on a stake, it's not Nick."
Lacroix regarded her with a bemused expression. "Is that a threat?"
"It's a promise. If you hurt Nick in any way ---"
"Nat ---" Nick tried to soothe her.
"I can assure you, given recent developments, I see no reason to do so. Even you must agree that he looks so much better on a healthy diet."
Natalie blushed slightly, remembering how ravishing Nick had looked when she had picked him up at the Raven the day before.
"Would you two stop arguing about me?" Nick said with evident annoyance in his tone. "I think we should return downstairs."
"Whatever you say, Nicholas. I would appreciate a ride home."
"Why don't you just fly off," Natalie fumed.
"And how would that look to your mortal coworkers?" Lacroix raised an eyebrow at her and waited for Nick and Natalie to precede him from the room.
"I wish you would have considered my mortal coworkers before your little stunt earlier," Nick hissed.
"Oh, but I did...," Lacroix breathed onto his neck.
* * * *
Tracy watched as the trio descended the stairs, uncertain whether she should feel worried or foolish. That kiss had done more than provide her with a glimpse into the secret of her partner's private life. It had also dispelled her suspicions about Lacroix. Surely she would have noticed scars of fang marks on Nick's neck if Lacroix really was a vampire. Vachon had carefully explained to her why they couldn't be together. Maybe he had been right in pointing out that she was seeing vampires everywhere since she had met him. Unless they hadn't yet... In that case she had indeed reason to worry for Nick's life. But she could hardly ask him about the progress of his love life.
When Nick had reached the bottom of the stairs, she approached him. "That was fantastic, Nick! When did you learn to play like that?"
"Before I decided to become a cop," Nick stated truthfully.
"Well, you're full of surprises." Tracy eyed Lacroix squarely who stood a few steps away, seemingly disinterested in the conversation. "And you've practised together before?"
"Occasionally. Music is something that we both enjoy."
"Uh-huh. Just be careful, okay? I don't want to see you get hurt."
Nick looked slightly exasperated from Tracy to Natalie. "Would you two stop worrying about me? I'm old enough to know what I'm doing!"
"That is debatable," Lacroix commented softly, earning a dark glare from Nick.
Turning back to Tracy, Nick continued, "I appreciate your concern, Tracy. But it is unnecessary. Really. I'll see you Sunday evening." He nodded at Nat before making his way through the crowd toward the exit, closely followed by Lacroix.
Tracy rubbed her upper arms. "You feel it, too, don't you?" she asked Natalie.
"A sense of uneasiness in Lacroix's presence."
Natalie watched as the pair departed. Apparently the elder got what he had always wanted. "I don't know Tracy, but I think we should trust Nick's judgement. When they break up, that's when we should begin to worry."
Tracy nodded in acquiescence. A more thorough background check of Lacroix wouldn't hurt, though.