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Paying the Piper

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Natalie entered Nick's apartment and stopped cold. Disorder was too calm a descriptive word for the scene that met her eyes. Chaos reigned. Cautiously, she stepped further in, wondering if it was safe to proceed. She looked around silently. What had happened here? Clothing and linens were scattered about on the floor. More hung crookedly from the balcony railing above. Every cabinet door in the kitchen was open, and tools were lying haphazardly all around. What looked like blueprints were spread out on the kitchen table, some crumpled and spilling over to join the mess on the floor.

As she surveyed the room, she noticed piles of rags and buckets by the open entrance to the bathroom. Was that water on the floor?

"Nick? Are you here? Where are you?"

"Hrmmgh…phrmph!"

She followed the sound towards the bathroom and looked cautiously around the door jamb into the room. Nick Knight, vampire homicide cop, in a parody of domesticity, was crouched over the vanity sink. He looked, for lack of a better description, like something the cat dragged in. His hair was damp in places, filthy, and wild. One lone button bravely held the remains of his tattered shirt together. His jeans were wet to his knees and stained with streaks of black, and his bare feet were a strange grayish color.

He was bent intently over the sink, wrestling with one end of a drain auger and cursing under his breath in obscure languages.

"Nick, what happened?"

He turned his wild-eyed vamped-out face toward her, and she involuntarily took a half step backwards. As unofficial “doctor to the undead” in Toronto, she had learned to be cautious when facing fangs. Still she persisted. Something was obviously wrong, and she was determined to get to the bottom of it. Before she could lose her nerve, she continued, "Nick! What is it?"

"There’s no drainage ….” He spluttered as he continued, sounding more frustrated by the moment as he waved his arms dramatically. “The water... laundry room... basement’s flooded... pipes... and the dishwasher! Ungh.... Boom!"

"Boom?"

"Boom!"

"Oh." She paused, considering, and then continued. "When did this start? Don't you want to call a plumber?" This last question was tentative, quiet. He was a man, after all, vampire or not, and had already obviously put a lot of himself into solving this problem. Calling a plumber at this point would be akin to surrendering his masculine genes!

Predictably, he glared at her, eyes blazing. "Don't need a plumber." He returned his focus to the task at hand. "Just need...to break...this blockage...." He punctuated each phrase with an abrupt twist of the auger.

"Look, Nick. Put down the snake and we'll talk. You need a break."

He sighed heavily and released the free end of the auger. A long moment passed as he regained control. He looked down at himself and seemed for the first time to notice the state of his clothing. He shrugged and smiled ruefully and without the extra-long canines. He was himself again, blue eyes and all.

"I guess our movie date is on hold, huh?" Natalie asked, smiling back at him.

They both laughed and Nick turned toward her, arms wide, as if to hug her. Natalie laughed harder and held her hands out in front of her, keeping him at bay. "No, no, no, no, no you don't! Stay away from me with those filthy clothes!"

She turned and ran toward the couch, but couldn't get far through the debris scattered on the floor. She stopped and he joined her, sighing deeply as he surveyed the mess. "It'd be easier to move to a new apartment," he moaned.

"I don't know about that," she said, "but you're welcome to stay with me until you can get this sorted out. Just how bad is it, anyway?"

He went to run his hand through his hair, and then stopped as he noticed how grimy it was. Absently, he tried to wipe his hands on his jeans as he replied, "Well, the basement is ankle deep in standing water because the drain from the washing machine backed up. In fact, there's not a single drain in the building that is clear. They're all clogged. I almost got one opened up and...." He stopped in mid-sentence and froze.

"Oh, no," he said quietly.

"What is it?" Natalie asked.

"LaCroix," Nick answered, still frozen in place.

"What, here? Now? The sun's up, Nick. He can't be here."

"No, not now, but he's been here, all right." He surprised her by laughing out loud -- a long, deep, belly laugh.

"Oh, this is good," he said when he could finally catch his breath.

"What's good, Nick?" Natalie asked, skeptically.

Nick walked over to the kitchen table and sat down. He grinned up at Natalie as she followed him and stood beside him. "It's a joke, Nat," he said. "A very good, very clever, very devious practical joke."

"THIS is a joke?" she asked, looking around her in disbelief.

"Yes. I think he's done something to plug all my drains."

“What?”

“I bet it’s that new liquid rubber product he’s been advertising on his radio show.”

"But why?"

"Well,” he drawled, looking everywhere but in Natalie’s direction, “it may be retaliation for a joke I played on him a couple of months ago. It's been so long I thought he hadn't figured out who did it."

"Nick, what did you do?"

"I snuck into his closet and Superglued™ all of his shoes to the floor." He smiled at the memory, looking for all the world like a schoolboy relating a favorite prank to an admiring audience.

Natalie was speechless. She tried to think of something to say, and failed. This was an aspect of Nick's relationship with LaCroix that she had never imagined.

“It’s only fair. After all, he keeps sneaking in here and replacing all of my beef blood.”

“With what?”

He looked away, embarrassed by the admission, “Well, the last time it was pig blood, which isn’t so bad.” He turned back to face her, clearly watching for her reaction. “The time before that, though, it was reptilian – alligators and lizards. I don't even want to think about how he got it. Trust me, that’s truly disgusting stuff!”

The phone rang, and Nick let the answering machine get it. The bloodlink he had with LaCroix was humming, and he knew who the caller was without answering. The caller waited for the recorded greeting to finish. Both Nick and Natalie recognized LaCroix's voice as he left his message. “Nicholas, it certainly took you long enough to figure it out. As our lovely Janette would say, ‘La meilleure revanche…c’est la revanche, n’est pas?’” A sonorous, self-satisfied chuckle filled the loft, and then faded abruptly into silence as the machine clicked off.

“Nick, I think you might be right,” Natalie said in a soft voice. “I guess he’s pretty sensitive about his shoes, eh?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so,” Nick equivocated. “He’s always been fussy about his clothes.” He rose to his feet, stretching his sore and abused muscles. “Of course, that’s nothing compared to how finicky he is about his household.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes,” Nick stated emphatically. “That’s probably why he called to gloat instead of coming by. He had to know that his little prank would leave my place looking and smelling like a sewer disaster. The only time he ever tolerates disorder is in the aftermath of a battle or a natural disaster, and this place ….” Nick’s voice ebbed as he surveyed his apartment with weary eyes. “What a mess,” he muttered as he started scooping wet and dirty rags into a bucket.

Suddenly he straightened and turned to Natalie wearing a wry grin. “C’mon, Nat, let’s get out of here. I’ll have to hire a plumber and a cleanup crew to handle this mess. Let me grab some things and we can head to your place – that is, if you’re sure about your offer. Would you mind driving the Caddy? The sun’s out and I’ll need to ride over in the trunk. Besides, as filthy as I am, I’m not fit to ride anywhere else. I really need a shower.” He plucked ruefully at the remains of his shirt for emphasis.

Natalie strove for a light tone when replying, “Of course I was serious, Nick. I’m always happy to help out the – how do I put it – the plumbing impaired? The drainage challenged? The pranked upon? Besides, if we can’t see our movie here, we can always watch it at my place.”

“Oh, that’s right – our movie date. It was your turn to pick the movie, right?” When Natalie nodded, he continued, asking, “What did you select? Not another giant monster movie, I hope.” His lightly teasing tone took the sting out of his critique.

“No monster movies today,” she replied with a chuckle. “I got Groundhog Day. I thought a comedy would be fun.”

Nick had returned to the bathroom as they talked, but now he stopped and turned a truly wicked, evil grin on Natalie, complete with fangs and glowing eyes. “Oh, yesss,” he lisped around the fangs, “That’sss it! Now I know jussst the thing to get even with LaCroix.”

Natalie jumped, startled by the sudden reappearance of the vampire. “Nick! Don’t do that! Are you alright?” she asked.   “You’re sorta startin’ to scare me. What are you thinking?”

He didn’t answer, but his grin toned down from evil to merely mischievous as his eyes once again faded to blue and he laughed. “Oh, this is going to be fun!”

“The movie?” she asked, incredulously.

“Oh, yeah, that, too,” he said as he started gathering things into an overnight bag. “But just wait until you hear about my plan….”

Natalie stood, spellbound, as he told her his idea. For the second time that morning, she found herself speechless. Then she joined Nick in helpless laughter. Oh, this was going to be good!

 

…To be continued in Escalations, coming soon….