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Buttered Noodles

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Natalie used the back of her wrist to push escaping frizz back from her face; it was the sort of long-standing habit that one developed when one's hands were often gloved and covered in...things one didn't want in one's hair. There were no gloves just now, no unfortunately all-too-nameable substances on her hands, but the habit remained. She slumped over her desk, too tired to attend to her posture. It had been too long a day. Though most of the victims of an early morning bus accident had ended up in the hospital, enough had been dead at the scene that 26 Grenville Street became one of Toronto's more exclusive clubs for a while.

That thought unfortunately brought the Raven to mind, and Nat shivered at the comparison, fervently hoping that all of the people occupying the drawers this evening were still going to be there when she came back to work in the morning.

"Hey, Nat. Long day?"

"Nick!" She flattened a hand over her heart and glared up at her favorite vampire. He lounged against the wall, grinning at her, prudently out of smacking range. "How many times have I asked you not to do that?"

"I'm sorry, I lost count around forty."

She rolled her eyes. "Well here's yet another plea that you spare my poor nerves, Nick, especially after a day like today."

"The bus accident?" He looked instantly contrite.

She nodded. "Yeah."

"I'm sorry."

She shrugged. "We have a full house tonight." She suppressed a yawn. "Sorry. It's been...a long day."

Nick glanced at the clock. "Your shift is over. Let me take you home."

Nat pushed back from her desk and stood. She smiled tiredly as she poked Nick playfully in the chest. "You surely have better things to do, Detective, than to escort one frazzled coroner through the well-lit streets of Toronto. Besides, I am perfectly capable of driving my own self home."

"All right. But I'm going to stop in and check on you on my break. Deal?"

Nat's smile widened a fraction. "Deal. Thanks, Nick." She shed her lab coat, exchanging it for her suit jacket, and collected her purse from her desk drawer. "All right. I'm off. It's a hot bath, buttered noodles, and a trashy novel for me, I think."

"Sounds...lovely," Nick said.

She swatted him as she passed. "Buttered noodles is the food of the gods, Detective."

"And here I thought butter was bad for you. Something about clogging arteries?"

"It's medicinal," Natalie insisted. "The proper application of comfort foods, including butter, in the right quantities can be beneficial to the patient. One must weigh the psychological outcomes versus the artery-clogging risks."

"Very scientific," Nick replied solemnly.

"Maybe you should try some. The butter makes the noodles slide right down. Actually, that's a good idea. I'll save you a plate."

"Thanks, Nat." If Nick's smile was a bit forced, Natalie pretended not to notice.


Sydney was, of course, waiting for Natalie when she got home. She put her keys and purse down and picked the cat up for his nightly coming-home-from-work snuggle. "Hello, Sydney. How was your day?"

His purr thrummed in his throat and he turned his head into her scritching fingers, but after a moment or two, he was pushing against her, clearly wanting to be put down. When she complied, he stalked toward his food bowl, his tail stiff in the air. She sighed. "You just love me for my ability to feed you," she complained.

He meowed in agreement.

"Thought so," she muttered. She followed him to the kitchen and picked up his bowl, but upon opening the cupboard remembered that she had forgotten to buy cat food. "Dammit! Looks like you're going to have to wait a bit, Syd. I apologize."

Sydney expressed his discontent.

"Yes, I know. I am a truly awful person. I apologize most humbly and abjectly."

Sydney's expression clearly indicated what he thought of that.

Natalie sighed. "I guess I'm going grocery shopping," she said, thinking longingly of that hot bath she had promised herself. She did a prudent once-over of the cupboards, making sure she didn't also need noodles or butter, wrote out a short list and headed for the door.

"Oh! Nick," she said aloud, as she remembered that he was going to come by. She supposed if he stopped while she was out, he'd come in to make sure that she hadn't been kidnapped by a serial killer.... She wrote a short note and left it on the table, even though she would more than likely be home before he arrived.

Janette sighed imperceptibly when the heavily pregnant woman entered her club. Pregnant women did not come to the Raven, unless they were one of Les Fleurs de Janette, as Miklos called them. Janette's Flowers. She grimaced at the name, but did not dignify it by protesting; as long as the Raven did not become known as Le Jardin -- the Garden -- she would continue to ignore it. All of the denizens of the Raven knew that Les Fleurs were off-limits, and word had been circulating on the street for some time that women could come to Janette for help. This one, whom she had helped before, was -- ironically -- named Rose.

Rose hesitated in the entryway, searching the dimness for her benefactress. Janette, not wanting to watch the child waddle across the dance floor, went to her. "Rose, my dear, how can I help you?"

"Oh, Janette! I didn't see you there. I didn't want to come, but...I need some stuff for the baby, and...."

She trailed off at Janette's raised eyebrow. Rose was not only pregnant, but had a baby at home. "I was hoping I could borrow a few bucks from you, until pay day. I'm just short this week." Janette thought of Rose as a mixed success. She had gotten her off the street, away from the pimp -- and there was a body that would never be found, not even by the enterprising Detective Knight -- but her boyfriend deserted her when he discovered that she was a former prostitute. She worked as a waitress now, but had secured scholarships and was attending business school. Janette approved.

"Where is little Janey?" Janette asked.

"My neighbor, Mrs. Taylor? She's keeping an eye on her until I get back."

Janette nodded. "Of course I will loan you some money, Rose. Come with me." She led the girl along the edge of the club to her office. She took five twenties from the lock box set aside for Les Fleurs, and handed them to Rose. "Just until pay day, yes?"

The girl nodded and took the cash, tucking it safely away in her purse. "Thanks, Janette." She glanced at her watch, "Oh, I need to go. The last bus'll be coming any second."

The bus stop, Janette knew, was three blocks away. She sighed again. "I don't think you're going to catch it, my dear. Come. I'll take you where you need to go, then drop you off home."

"Oh, thank you!"

Which is how Janette found herself in evening wear, dark glasses, and a dark scarf in an all-night grocery store when suddenly two young men with pantyhose pulled over their heads started waving guns around and shouting.

Natalie was debating the merits of Fancy Feast versus Purina -- normally she would buy the cheaper food, but she felt that she owed Sydney a treat for forgetting to buy food in the first place -- when she heard frenzied shouting from the front of the store and realized the place was being robbed. From her position in the middle of the pet supply aisle, she could neither see the front, nor be seen. If she were careful, she could perhaps slip out the back. Even as she moved, she dug into her purse for the mobile phone she had invested in after her last date turned out to be a serial killer and dialed the precinct number.

She didn't recognize the dispatcher who answered, but before he even finished his greeting, she was speaking, giving him the name and address of the store.

Nick walked into the station, Schanke a step behind him, rambling on about something that had to do with Myra's cousin's roommate's brother's piano teacher. " she'd be perfect for you, Nick! She loves classical music!"

"Really, Schanke, I don't need Myra to set me up. I'm -- "

"Knight! Schanke! Thank God you guys're back," the desk officer said. He waved the phone at them. "I've got Dr. Lambert here -- she's in the middle of a robbery!"

Nick grabbed the receiver. "Nat? What's going on? Where are you?"

"Oh, Nick," she breathed. "I'm at the grocery store near my apartment. I forgot to get food for Sydney, and now the store's being robbed."

"Where are you right now?"

"They haven't seen me, and I thought I might be able to get out the back of the store, but there are other customers, and old Mr. Steinberg -- he's the owner -- up front."

"Nat. Go out the back. Schanke and I are on our way."

Nick tossed the keys to the Caddy at Schanke. "Natalie's grocery store is being robbed. I'll meet you there."

"But how are you going to get there? Knight? Knight! I hate it when he does that," Schanke said to the world at large as he headed for the parking lot.

Natalie moved quietly toward the far end of the pet supply aisle and peered around the endcap. There was no one in sight. The swinging doors separating the back room from the display floor were only a few yards away. Bullseye mirrors near the door were part of a system angled system of mirrors that allowed the proprietor to keep an eye on all parts of the store from the front. Natalie glanced up at the nearest mirror and stopped short. She recognized the elegantly clad woman standing near the service desk with her hands up. Her bored expression showed even through her dark glasses. Another woman stood near her, close enough that Natalie realized that she was with Janette, impossible as that might seem. She had, therefore, to be one of Janette's rescued prostitutes -- and she was very pregnant. The store's elderly owner stood nearby. There were two robbers, one in front of the counter holding a gun on the hostages, while the other cleaned out the cash drawer behind the desk.

The gunman in front of the counter eyed the pregnant woman and grinned. "Hey, baby, I recognize you. You're Lennie's girl, Rose. How 'bout a freebie, baby, hey?"

Natalie closed her eyes. If anything would set Janette off.... She grabbed some stuff off the nearest shelf, and strode toward the front of the store.

"You!" she shouted. "You bitch! You stole my Don! My husband! How dare you walk around like you've done nothing wrong!"

Janette's purr dropped into the resultant moment of charged silence. "If you're not woman enough to keep him, ma chère, it is not my fault."

The robbers, who were only teenagers Natalie realized, shared a blank look, then a grin. The one who had accosted the pregnant woman was just raising his gun toward Natalie...

...when the pregnant woman moaned loudly and dropped her hands to her belly....

"You've gotta be kidding me," Natalie heard the kid behind the counter say...

...just as Janette, her eyes a wild gold, lashed out and disarmed the other one...

...and Nick Knight crashed through the glass storefront.

The police had come and gone. Statements had been taken from all concerned, and the officers had commended Natalie's, Janette's, and Rose's quick thinking in riffing off one another and distracting the robbers, who turned out to be a pair of high school kids whose guns weren't even loaded. Natalie had assured herself that Mr. Steinberg and Janette's friend Rose were fine. She had offered her services as a doctor to Janette, also, but only as a formality. Mr. Steinberg had shrugged philosophically and, after calling his son to come put a piece of plywood in place of the broken glass, reopened the store.

"I must ask you, Dr. Lambert," Janette said, as they waited for Mr. Steinberg to check Rose out, "why 'Don'?"

Natalie blushed, embarrassed. "He was the first married man to pop into my head, probably because I knew he and Nick were on the way. And I suspect from the stories I've heard that Myra Schanke can be pretty fierce in protecting her own."

"Schank'll be so glad to know that you were channelling his wife, Nat."

"Nick! Don't you dare tell him any such thing!"

Nick grinned. "We'll discuss it."

"I'm ready, Janette," Rose said, her arms full of grocery bags.

"Here, let me get those for you." Nick relieved her of the bags. "Did I see your car out front, Janette?"

"Indeed. Thank you for the assistance, Dr. Lambert. I am certain I shall be seeing you again."

"Any time, Janette."

Nick escorted them out to Janette's car while Natalie paid for her groceries.

"Good night, Mr. Steinberg."

"Good night, my dear." His eyes crinkled in a smile. "I'm sure your cat won't agree, but I'm glad you forgot to shop ahead."

She smiled. "See you later, Mr. Steinberg." She hefted her bags and was to the door when Nick returned and took them from her.

"That was brave, Nat," Nick said softly. "I'm glad it didn't backfire on you."

She shrugged. "Backup was on the way," she said. "Besides, I was trying to save those kids from Janette as much as anything; I knew as soon as that one propositioned Rose that they were in trouble."

She unlocked her car; Nick put the groceries in the back. "Where's the Caddy?"

"I sent Schanke back with it. I'm escorting you home this time."

"Oh, good!" Natalie reached into one of the grocery bags and snagged a box. "I made sure to get more noodles!"