"Detective Knight? It's Urs. We need your help."
Urs. The blonde dancer from the Raven. Vachon's convert. The sad, strangely gentle vampire he had mistakenly suspected of the Ekhart murder last month. More familiar to Nick than the voice, the name identified the hooded, backpack-carrying visitor staring down toward the intercom at his building's entrance rather than up into the security camera transmitting her black-and-white image into his home. All too aware of the sun's impending appearance over the horizon, Nick immediately pressed the button unlocking the elevator door and invited her up.
Only then did the "we" sink in.
On the monitor, Nick watched Urs pull back the door and reach out to the shadows just beyond the camera's reach. Able to see no better than the lens through which he watched, Nick discerned what had to be a pale hand as it flashed into the frame to clasp Urs's, followed by a female figure whose dark, shoulder-length hair swirled loosely around her face and hid her features from the camera.
Intrigued, Nick bent his senses carefully through the grinding of the rising elevator. While he could not be sure over the mechanism's doughy metallic whir, his enhanced predator's hearing detected no human heartbeat. Similarly, while the steel doors, brick walls and sheer space diluted scents, he smelled no whiff of the humanity his instincts still classed as prey. The metaphysical sense that proclaimed vampiric blood kin remained silent as well. So the woman accompanying Urs is a vampire, Nick thought, and not one of Lacroix's get.
That second conclusion lightened his habitual concern, but only briefly. Whether a newcomer to the city or a new victim of blood addiction, more vampires always spelled trouble to one trying to escape that existence. And beyond his own struggles, the sheer concentration of vampires in Toronto had begun to worry him. A community this large teetered continually on the brink of exposure, and should the worst come, whether at the hands of the vampiric Enforcers who protected the secret of his kind's existence or those of the humans from whom they protected it, Nick knew that those he loved would be among the first to suffer.
He could almost resent Janette's departure last summer purely on that level. The nightclub owner's distant but careful nurturing and oversight of those vampires she gathered around her Raven had amused and contented her for almost two decades — but it had also established the sticky-sweet bait to which others still flocked, even now that the stern authority and experience which had run it all so smoothly had departed for parts unknown. She had left Lacroix in charge, but Nick knew Lacroix lacked her eye for detail, and severely doubted the obsessive ancient possessed Janette's subtle skill at interleaving vampiric predilections with human society — more so since witnessing the garish redesign Lacroix had perpetrated on the club. No, it was only a matter of time before Toronto's delicate web of mortal and immortal interaction turned into a dragnet.
Still, even these unanticipated guests surely presented no reason to worry, much less so far afield. Urs and her friend probably just found themselves caught out near dawn, with his loft the closest sure shelter they knew.
All this flashed through Nick's mind in the moment it took the elevator to rise to his floor and the sun to glance piercingly over the skyline. As his tight metal shutters deflected the first searching rays of day, Urs pulled open the heavy elevator door.
The plastic casing of Nick's remote control cracked as he clenched his hands in surprise.
"Ellen!" he named the brown-haired woman behind Urs. She shook her head decidedly. Her arms, already crossed over her chest, tightened until the seams of the too-small tan overcoat she wore began to tear. She looked fierce, but with the ferocity that is the last barrier to tears.
Urs laid a hand on the slightly-taller woman's arm. "This is Jacqueline, Detective. Jacqueline, this is Detective Nick Knight. He'll help us." Urs appeared both wary and hopeful. "May we come in?"
"Yes, certainly," Nick said, grabbing the door handle and gesturing them toward his living room space. A dozen previously-unconnected incidents suddenly clicked together in his mind. Ellen — Jacqueline — about and around Toronto all this time. A recent string of brazenly careless vampiric murders. And he had not forgotten Natalie's speculation on a "mind over matter" cure for vampirism from this poor woman's experience with multiple-personality disorder. "Please come in, and tell me—" A quick warning look from Urs redirected his words. He wondered what she feared he might say, or what it might trigger. "And call me 'Nick'."
"Thanks. Nick." Urs smiled and swung the backpack she carried into his armchair. They looked as if they could have been sewn from the same black leather. After a sidelong inspection of the reassuringly shuttered windows, Urs shrugged out of her hooded jacket, revealing a long-sleeved white blouse tucked into her jeans.
Jacqueline continued to cling to her overcoat. "Nice place," she offered politely, betraying a slight transatlantic inflection that Nick had never heard from Ellen.
"Thanks," he said, concluding that she did not recognize him. Between that suspicion and Urs's concerned expression, he strove for a carefully non-confrontational pose. "Please make yourselves comfortable. I just got home from work a bit ago, myself." He gestured deprecatingly at his blue blazer, but did not remove it; his gun remained holstered beneath.
"I'd like to ... wash my face," Jacqueline asserted, almost confrontationally. Then she shot an uncertain glance at Urs, who nodded reassurance.
"The restroom is just at the top of the stairs, around the corner to the left," Nick pointed. Jacqueline repeated his directions, then firmly — self-consciously, Nick thought — mounted the stairs, holding the metal banister all the way up.
"Well?" Nick turned to Urs when they heard the bathroom door click shut.
"You know, I didn't see anything in the newspaper about you guys misplacing a body," Urs sighed, sitting next to her backpack and staring down at her hands in her lap. "I liked to think that she had gotten out. I imagined she had escaped the pain. And then tonight, on a break at work, there she was."
"She is Ellen Simmons, then, isn't she?" Nick seated himself on the couch corner nearest Urs, his elbows on his knees as he leaned toward her. "Ellen-Monika-Jacqueline? The woman with three personalities who jumped off the roof after the vampire personality murdered Tom Marnecki?"
"Ellen's dead." Urs's clear blue eyes rose to Nick's. "So is Monika. At least, that's what Jacqueline says. Look, fast, before she comes back? Ellen and Monika — humans — died when Ellen jumped. Think of it as a murder-suicide. Jacqueline does. But she — the vampire — survived. She's devastated, Nick. She feels abandoned by them. And she barely knows how to function alone. Ellen took care of the day-to-day living, and Monika ... Monika hunted for her. Jacqueline never even had to do that. She just ... killed, fed. And it's not really so much the things she depended on them to do. It's that they provided her motivations." Urs glanced up at the stairs where Jacqueline had disappeared and then continued so quietly Nick strained to hear. "I don't know if you were there yet, that night, but on that roof-top, she told me that the pain was Ellen's, the anger Monika's, and revenge was her. Not 'hers,' but 'her.' Understand?"
Nick nodded. He had enacted the vampire as embodiment of revenge himself, but he had learned only too well that vengeance proved no solid or lasting comfort. No revenge ever repaired a loss. And the guilty hand retained no privilege to punish.
"I hoped you would," Urs smiled thankfully. "It's taken me since she reappeared to puzzle it through, myself, and I'm still pretty overwhelmed. 'You're the one like Ellen,' she said when she found me at the Raven. Ellen could observe, you know, think about consequences and reactions. So could Monika. The humans could adapt and plan. But Jacqueline, all vampire, knew only extremes, desire and gratification. She couldn't cope alone. The thing is, she's like a new convert — hungry, violent and vulnerable. Only worse." Urs hesitated. "That's why I brought her here."
"I don't understand." Nick wondered if Urs knew the sad fate of Richard Lambert, his last convert to vampirism. He wondered whether she would regret coming if she found that out, or whether she had come to him deliberately seeking that bleak finality.
He wondered if she knew he no longer drank human blood.
"I know you might look at her and just see an escaped criminal. I do understand that," Urs said hastily. "I didn't want to dump my problem on you. But whoever brought her across didn't do right by her, Nick. She doesn't know anything about the Code, Enforcers, or how to behave around other vampires. Much less humans. She has no fears, and no restraint, except her loss of Ellen and Monika. The way she is, without someone to protect her..."
"She's on her way to being drained and left for dawn?" Nick concluded grimly, aware of the spreading consensus that an abandoned convert made much safer prey than a human in this day and age — less likely to be missed, and no evidence once the sun rose. Nick himself felt markedly ambivalent about vampires preying on each other, and that bothered him vaguely as he watched Urs's open expression and somehow still-innocent features. He valued the grace of human life immeasurably above depraved vampiric existence, but even vampire life deserved some respect, didn't it?
As he sought redemption, might someone else?
"She's probably checking now to see if the bruises have healed yet," Urs whispered. "She... The Raven... they've had enough of her. That's why we came so close to dawn."
"Of course." Nick mentally shouldered the dilemma. Urs had brought him the corpse that had gone mysteriously missing from the morgue, and no doubt the perpetrator of the string of recklessly undisguised vampiric murders exposed over the past two weeks, not to mention Marnecki and Ekhart's deaths, and certainly at least a few unsolveds on the west coast. But turning her over to human authorities would endanger them as well as her, and probably bring the Enforcers. She apparently had no vampire master to take responsibility for her, keep her under control — ideally, restrain her to bottled blood. And yet she was no worse than many of them, and better than some; that Jacqueline's known victims had been exclusively abusive men unpunished by the justice system struck home with Nick, who had also once killed "only the guilty" before learning vengeance was not his to take. No wonder Urs needed help. "We'll figure something out," he assured her. "Still, if you'll excuse the question, why come to me? I don't mind, but we've only met twice. Why not Vachon? Or Lacroix?"
Urs tilted her head. "Either one would help me, I guess. Lucien for a price. Javier... because he always does, eventually. And there are others. But unlike them, you'll help her, just because she needs help."
Nick felt warm pleasure spread a smile across his face. He sat up and leaned back into the couch cushions as he savored the nicest thing anyone had said to him in a very long time. Urs had sounded confident, almost admiring. From Janette, that statement would have thrummed amused tolerance; from Lacroix, it would have rung cold derision. And from his human friends and coworkers, well, as Schanke had liked to say, "we're the good guys," but though the camaraderie ran deep, it also usually left things like that assumed, not articulated. Nick had forgotten how much it helped to just hear it aloud every now and again. Another reason to miss his old partner, then, as if Nick had not already discovered a mountain of reasons in the months since that plane crash ended Detective Don Schanke's life, along with so many others.
"I'm hungry," Jacqueline announced from the balcony outside Nick's bedroom. She had removed her tan coat, uncovering a pink sweater and black leggings whose snug fit led Nick to guess they, as well as the coat, came from Urs's closet. Placing one hand on the railing, Jacqueline tensed as if she intended to hop over it and fly down from the second story.
"Hey!" Urs warned. "You'll only get hungrier faster that way."
A look Nick could not read rolled across Jacqueline's face, but acquiescence replaced it almost immediately. "That's right," she released the rail. "Supernatural acts take more energy than human behaviors, you said, and I have to measure the need against the energy. I'm not strong now, and flying won't gain me anything particular, so I should take the stairs?"
Urs nodded, and rummaged in her backpack while Jacqueline descended the traditional way. Extracting an unlabeled, clear-glass bottle full of red liquid, Urs said, "I didn't know if we'd find you home, Nick. I'm afraid I intended to break into your garage for shelter if we didn't. Anyway, I brought a couple of bottles with us. I don't mean to impugn your hospitality. I hope you don't mind."
"No, not at all," he lied politely, wondering again how much Urs knew. While he disliked the thought of human blood in his home — so close, so tempting, an invasion of his sanctuary by his internal foe's most persistent weapon — at least this spared him explaining his refrigerator full of bovine blood. He could not imagine that a discussion of his abstemious lifestyle and the moral concerns spurring it would in any way advance the question of what to do with Jacqueline. He fetched two goblets from a kitchen cabinet and placed them on the coffee table in front of Urs.
"You're not joining us?" Jacqueline took the goblet Urs filled for her and settled herself in the couch corner where Nick had sat before.
"No, thank you," he said, then hesitated. Oh, it smelled good. His gums throbbed around his canine teeth. He watched her take a long, slow draught. He swallowed dryly. "Actually, I have some in the refrigerator I should just finish up." Nick fairly fled to the kitchen, hating himself every step of the way. One glass. Just one glass of cow. He would have just one glass of cow blood, and nurse it as long as it took them to talk through this dilemma.
"If you're just finishing off a bottle, Nick, why don't you let me help you?" Urs asked carefully.
Nick stared in surprise. Did she know? What excuse could he make?
Urs nodded firmly. "I'd really rather have what you're having."
"How odd you both are!" Jacqueline exclaimed, leaning over to refill the goblet she had already drained. "But as long as you prefer to drink the dregs and leave the nearly fresh for me, who am I to object?"
Nick stalled, searching for a corkscrew among his gleaming, underemployed utensils as he considered the issue. Eventually, curiosity trumped caution. He filled two plain, cylindrical glasses from an unmarked green bottle in his refrigerator. Jacqueline wrinkled her nose and raised her eyebrows as he passed by her to hand Urs a glass. Urs simply smiled as she accepted it, showing no reaction at all. From long experience, Nick knew bovine blood smelled much like human gone "flat," but no vampire could mistake the taste. Urs swallowed cautiously, then gamely smiled. Nick suspected that was the expression his own face wore when trying one of Natalie's nasty — but morally unimpeachable — blood-free protein concoctions. In amazement, he watched Urs take another sip.
"So Urs says you knew Ellen," Jacqueline challenged, recalling his attention.
"We'd met," Nick admitted. He moved to the fireplace and set his own glass above the carved mantel. "I'm sorry for your loss."
"You don't know anything about it," Jacqueline said simply. "You couldn't possibly understand."
"I'm sure you're right," Nick allowed. "But I am sorry, and I know that going on alone is very difficult. Necessary, but always hard."
"Urs thinks we shouldn't be living on our own yet. She thinks you'll find a way to help us — I mean, me."
"I'll do my best," Nick said. He darted an inquisitive glance at Urs, who only shrugged. "I may have to ask some very personal questions. Are you going to be comfortable with that?"
"A touch for a touch," Jacqueline smirked, looking him up and down. Then she sighed. "Oh, never mind. You're not my type."
"What is your type?" Urs asked gently. Nick wondered if she, too, were comparing passive Ellen, aggressive Monika and lethal Jacqueline from before the fatal fall with the woman before them now.
For a long moment, no one spoke. Finally, Jacqueline admitted, "I'm not sure. Monika always chose." Hesitantly, she added, looking only at Urs, "There was a file clerk at work in Vancouver. Ellen liked him. He took her to lunch on her birthday last year when no one else remembered."
"He sounds sweet," Urs said. "Do you remember his name?"
"No. No, I never met him." Jacqueline suddenly gulped the last of the liquid in her goblet, and sat heavily back against the cushions. "Is this serving a purpose? I thought we would be discussing where and how I'm going to live now that... Ellen and Monika have died."
"You're right," Nick broke in. "Let's back up a little." The answers Urs had evoked with that surprisingly sure touch illustrated for him what Urs evidently already believed: that Jacqueline had none of Ellen's memories or Monika's inclinations — that she was now, like anyone else, alone in her own head. But it remained a roundabout approach. Sitting down on the floor in front of the fireplace across from Jacqueline, hoping a more casual posture and direct tack would facilitate the flow of information, he reintroduced himself by a formula he rarely employed. "I'm Nick, and I was brought across in 1228 Paris by Lucien Lacroix, who's currently here in Toronto."
"1890 New Orleans, by Javier Vachon, also now in Toronto," Urs volunteered.
"1993 Vancouver. Leon something. I don't know. Look, you can't send me back to him, if that's what you're thinking. He didn't mean for me to cross over, and I can't imagine he'd be happy to find out I did."
More than that, Nick thought, if this Leon were the same kind of man Monika had usually pursued, Nick would not send a good used car into his care, much less a thinking, feeling being — even a vampire.
"We won't send you anywhere you don't want to go," Urs said. She shot a glance at Nick.
He could not back that promise, but did not contradict it. "You've been a vampire for two years, Jacqueline?"
"More or less."
"Is there a place like the Raven you went to in British Columbia?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"She'd never had bottled blood until tonight, Nick," Urs said. "That's what you want to know, isn't it?"
That stunned Nick for a moment, both professionally, as a detective, estimating the corpses in the wake of a serial killer, and personally, as a vampire fifty years from his last kill, with another fifty before that lapse, and thirty before that, each vividly-remembered bite a combination of wretched guilt and unutterable pleasure. He was a vampire. Though he chose not to submit to it, the hungers never subsided. Two years subsisting exclusively on fresh, human, living blood would mean — but then he remembered Ellen, the human girl who used to share this body, whom he himself had seen bolting potato chips and drinking coffee as no vampire could. The body the women shared had evidently managed to process both normal food and blood. Did that mean that the more Ellen had eaten, the less Jacqueline had?
"I know what you're thinking." Jacqueline bit off her words and tossed back her head. "Ellen worked for us. Ate, shopped, cleaned, paid bills. Monika had fun for us. Partied, had sex, hunted. I'm not stupid. And I'm not helpless. I got out of the morgue your people locked me in. I've been taking care of myself ever since."
"How many?" Nick asked bleakly.
Jacqueline looked to Urs, who nodded. "Since I got out of the morgue? Nine."
"I need to know about them all."
"It's my job." Nick watched her face closely.
"Surely you aren't going to arrest me."
"So! People would find out. Even I know that would bring in the Enforcers, and no one wants to end up in their hands."
"Any other reason?"
"Because they deserved it," Jacqueline hissed, her eyes igniting with ghastly fire as she stood up to tower over Nick where he sat on the floor. "I prey on the predators, and it's a fairer fight than any they fought before. You sanctimonious bullock, if your law worked, they wouldn't have been out there for me to kill!" Suddenly, she swayed on her feet and raised a hand to her temple as if in pain. "No, wait, that was before," her voice dropped to a whisper. The flame in her eyes sputtered and died away. "I couldn't tell, on my own. I couldn't know... they... I'm just so hungry. I've never been so hungry." Her voice broke. "Ellen — Urs?"
"I'm here. It's okay. It's going to be okay." Urs urged Jacqueline to sit down again, and seated herself on the next cushion, holding her hands reassuringly. Nick noticed that while Jacqueline's posture remained dignified and controlled, her fingers tightened around Urs's until the grip would have crushed a human hand.
"It's been a very long night," Urs said. "And it's well past dawn, now. Can we continue this tomorrow night, Nick?"
"Good idea." Rest would clearly benefit all concerned. Jacqueline had been injured in some Raven altercation, Urs had implied, and the blonde dancer herself seemed to be hiding deep shadows beneath the several layers of cosmetics around her eyes. Nick knew he could certainly use some time to think this through. What do you do with an orphaned vampire? Much less one with the remnants of a conscience, on the one hand, and a history of severe psychological disturbance, on the other? "If you two don't mind sharing, you're welcome to my bed — it's pretty large — and I'll hang out down here on the couch."
"You're very kind," Urs said warmly. "Show us where?"
Nick gave himself over to playing host for a little while and, despite the pending problem, enjoyed the role enormously. As distantly as it had receded in time, space and cultural interpretation, he had, after all, been raised to protect and provide for others. The society into which he had been born had measured a lord's success largely by how many dependents he fed, and how well. A host resembles nothing so much as a lord on a very small scale, and the part appealed deeply to Nick, engaging urges usually stifled by his dual isolations from the human and vampiric communities.
It took very little to ensure Urs and Jacqueline's comfort for the day. Nick soon found himself back in front of his fireplace, politely ignoring the low voices upstairs as he retrieved his glass of cow blood. He had not yet drunk any of it. The glass remained full. He did not need to drink. He would not drink. That spark of triumph propelled him all the way across the room to the refrigerator, where he placed the glass. The refrigerator door's closing, however, resonated in his memory with a solid clap, a barn door, ages past, an ocean away, the hot, thick, swelling blood of a strong woman, willing to the man, unaware of the vampire... he wanted it wanted it wanted it wanted it. Not the weak steer in his kitchen. Certainly not the inert chemical protein Natalie had blandished him into drinking just hours ago.
But now that he had thought of the human doctor, it was her blood he wanted. And so fiercely.
Closing his eyes, Nick refused the vampire. He had never yet learned to redirect that energy, to consciously channel primitive lusts to civilized ends. Maybe it could not be channeled. But he could resist it. It had become harder and harder of late, but he could still resist it. He did not have to do anything the monster in him urged, no matter how much he wanted to.
"You didn't even take a pillow." Urs's voice floated down from the balcony.
Nick's eyes flew open; he could only hope they showed civilized blue, not feral gold. Urs held a pillow in one arm and an afghan in the other. She had removed her shoes, untucked her blouse and washed off her make-up. She looked impossibly young, the nineteen or so she must have been when Vachon bit her a hundred and more years before. When she saw Nick looking back at her, she started down the stairs. "Jacqueline's asleep. She finished that first bottle, started the other, then went right off. I should have brought more. Anyway, while goodness knows we all sleep like the dead under any circumstances, I feel bad exiling you to your chesterfield." Reaching the couch, she spread out the afghan and plumped the pillow at one end. "What's funny?"
Nick realized he was grinning. It felt good. "Um, 'chesterfield.' Haven't heard that usage in years."
"No? Oops. That's what they called it the first time I lived in Canada — named after that Earl, you know? — but I've been other places ever since the world wars. It's so easy for vocabulary to slip behind the times, isn't it? I guess I should watch more TV. It was 'davenport' for a while in some of the States, but it's 'couch,' now, right? Or 'sofa'?" She retrieved her glass from the coffee table.
"I think both are still current." Nick marveled as she finished the contents of her glass.
"I'll remember." She looked down into her empty glass and then met his eyes across the room. "You aren't really going to arrest her, are you?"
"No. It would endanger too many people. But you're right; we can't turn her loose on her own. That's just as dangerous — maybe even more." He sat down at the polished wooden table that marked the limits of his kitchen.
"That's why you need to know about the other murders," Urs reasoned. "In case they draw Enforcer attention?"
He nodded. "And for when they turn up on the docket at the station. And so I can think of something to tell the families. The least — the very least — I can do is make sure they know the victims aren't coming home, rather than letting them dangle, unsolved, maybe a kidnapping, maybe a runaway..."
Urs joined him at the table, silently, leaning on the back of the chair opposite him. After a while, she said, "I don't suppose you know any good psychiatrists who are also vampires."
"No. I'm sorry; I don't." The relative silence of morning, punctuated from outside by the occasional motor, alarm and even birdsong, prevailed again.
Cautiously, Urs asked, "Do you think she's still mentally ill? I mean, she's like a new convert, and she's bereaved and confused, but other than that... I wish I were qualified to judge. I don't know anything about psychology." Urs had been toying with her glass, but now stilled her hands. Her voice fell very low. "Are Ellen and Monika in there, somewhere, trapped, conscious and helpless? Or unconscious, but there to reawaken someday? Or is Jacqueline really alone? And, if so, what happened to the others? Did they disappear, cease to exist, everything they suffered and hoped and strove for just... snuffed out? Nothing more? Or... could each personality have had her own spirit? Her own independent soul?"
"It makes sense, if vampirism is a metaphysical condition," Nick said slowly. Natalie always discouraged this line of thought in her attempts to treat him, but as the only conception available for so very long, it still provided his surest footing. He instinctively understood his existence from this vantage, and no other. Urs's question emboldened him where he usually kept quiet. "When Lacroix brought me across, when I was dying, I was offered a choice — to die as a human, or to turn my back on the light and return as a vampire. I chose to return as a vampire. I brought this on myself. But Ellen didn't make that choice. Even Monika didn't. Jacqueline emerged to make that choice, Jacqueline chose vampirism, and Jacqueline suffers the consequences. If they had shared just one soul between them, then all three would have been vampires, wouldn't they? We know Ellen and Monika were human. When she was in custody, after Ekhart's murder, I saw Ellen eat potato chips, and my partner saw her in the daylight. And Vachon said he and you saw Monika at the Raven, and knew she wasn't one of us."
"I could hear her quick pulse and smell her living blood," Urs confirmed softly. "Yes, they were human. And Ellen wasn't trying to kill herself, finally, you know; she was trying to stop Jacqueline from killing again."
Pieces of conversations with and about Urs suddenly snapped together in Nick's mind. Suicidal vampires usually walked into the sun, and suicidal people rarely became vampires in the first place. Whether she realized it or not, Urs had just invoked the rule of unintended consequences, a theological distinction relating intention to culpability. And Urs had stopped him from saving Ellen based on it. "You believe in hell, don't you?"
"And heaven." The admission came quietly, almost reluctantly, as if she had suddenly found herself on treacherous ground with the path sinking behind her. She raised her head, but seemed to shrink back into herself. She looked very far away. "You don't, I suppose?"
"No. I mean, yes. I do." It felt good to say that to someone who neither laughed nor sneered nor added endless caveats. Still, he did not want her to misunderstand. "I don't subscribe to anything particular anymore, though I suppose... I just know some things exist. Good, evil. Judgment. Reward or punishment."
Now she warily met his eyes, and searched his face. "What about love, mercy and grace?"
"For humanity, yes. For vampires? No."
"I think the same rules must apply all around," she said earnestly, sitting down at the table and leaning forward. "We're just so much more likely to do wrong than they are, and for so much longer. But we still choose, with every act, right or wrong. And this is all my fault, in a way. You're probably wondering why I let Ellen jump, aren't you?"
He thought he knew, now, but nodded anyway. Her eyes shone like a sheltered pond suddenly revealed by a lone moonbeam cutting through clouds, and it startled Nick to realize that this part of Urs had been present all along — that he had even caught glimpses of it in her concern for Vachon when they first met — but that he had simply not bothered to look past the shadows to find her.
"I know Javier told you I... that sometimes I want to die. It comes and goes. Depression, I suppose. I was like that when he brought me across. I wanted out; I wanted to be dead. But I couldn't do it myself. Even when I'm like that, I can't just kill myself. And when I'm okay, I know that what I really want at those times isn't death, but freedom from pain. And with what I've been and done, I find it hard to imagine that the pain would end on the other side." She searched out his eyes again, and he tried to put his understanding in his expression. He knew that sick, raw, helpless feeling. It stunned him that here was another who knew. "When Javier bit me, and I was dying, and I was offered that choice — just like you were, I imagine — I still couldn't choose death. And the choice not to choose became a choice after all, and I found myself a vampire."
"I think the trick is to see the real choice, you know? Always prefer life over death. But sometimes choices that look to be about one thing on the surface are really about other things entirely. Coming across isn't about life or death. It's vampirism or humanity. I didn't understand that, so I chose wrong. When Ellen asked if she had killed Marnecki that night on the rooftop, I thought that question was the three personalities all coming together, and Ellen remaking the choice between vampirism and humanity, between Jacqueline continuing to kill and... not. That would have been the right choice, wouldn't it? And the right choice couldn't possibly earn more pain, could it?"
"Urs, it's not your fault."
"I stopped you from saving her. But maybe we did save her, Nick! That's what I hoped. And isn't that what you suggested, if each had her own soul? Maybe Ellen did escape... to heaven?"
"I hope so." Nick doubted it could be that simple, but undermining Urs's hope would be like grinding an unutterably rare and beautiful flower beneath his heel. Personally, he still wondered about the Ellen who could — should — have been: a strong, decisive, compassionate alloy of all three personas. But with the vampire corrupting the mix, he had allowed Urs to stop him from saving her. He knew he would never have hesitated had she been fully human. Was Jacqueline suffering now for his choice then?
"I'm sorry," Urs broke the silence which had descended as Nick pondered. "I didn't mean to drag you so far through such an uncomfortable subject."
"No," Nick said. "Please don't apologize. I... don't get to talk about this kind of thing enough." He smiled, and was delighted to find her grinning back. She had dimples, he discovered.
"Me, neither. I don't know anything about it, of course. It's not like I've studied it or anything. But I think about it a lot, and it gets all pent up inside, and then after a while it just all bursts out at once." She paused, and her comradely grin softened to a pleased solemnity. "Thank you for being so tolerant of the topic. Few of us are."
In the quiet confidence of the moment, Nick risked a very old and private memory. "Someone once told me that those who choose to live forever in the night live in constant fear of death."
"Yes. That's it exactly. Was... did a vampire say that?"
"No. She chose not to come across."
"Oh. Brave of her."
"Yes." Allowing his thoughts to sink back under the centuries to Joan's courage and certainty, Nick slowly resurfaced in the present to the realization that he had rarely felt this free with anyone since he renounced his vampirism. With most vampires, he felt defensive if they knew about his quest, and closeted if not. With most humans, he felt ashamed of his vampirism if they knew of it, and ashamed of his lies if not. Only half himself, either way. But with Urs, he felt... whole.
But that was impossible, bitter experience told him. Vampire or human, no one ever really understood. He had thought differently, once, before Thomas betrayed him in the desert beyond Khartoum, pretending that he, too, sought to regain his humanity, only to then murder an innocent soul and irreplaceable intellect with a manipulative callousness worthy of Lacroix. No, no one else ever really understood, because no one else had ever tried to give up human blood, to become human again... or had they?
"Can I ask a personal question, Urs?"
"Are you a carouche?"
"That is personal."
"Yeah. I know."
"Would you think less of me if I were?"
"I..." Nick hesitated. Lacroix despised carouches, those vampires who innately prefer to prey on beasts. He considered them a kind of vampiric animal, as the creatures on which they prey are to the humans on whom Lacroix feeds, and Lacroix had instilled that disdain in Nick. Personally, Nick had known very few carouches in all his long centuries. None had impressed him. One took his dog. He supposed, facing Urs, that he was prejudiced. "I would think better of carouches if you were one."
"Then I'm sorry to say I'm not."
"But you drank the steer."
"You served it." She laughed.
"Fair enough." He managed a smile. "Did you know it would be animal when you asked for it?"
Urs nodded. "Pretty sure. From what I've seen, you really care about humans — your partner with Javier, Ellen, your whole job. And... there're also the rumors about you, you know. That you never kill. That you've given up human blood. That you want to be human again. Even that you... know how to become human again. Last month, Myron repeated one of the stories in Lacroix's hearing. Lacroix took him out back and ripped his head off. Literally." She hesitated. "Is it true, Nick?"
"I do not know how to become human." He said it gently, but his mind raced. Rumors? Started by whom? Heard by whom? What would happen when they reached the Enforcers? He had never heard of rumors while Janette ran the Raven. Briefly, Nick wondered if Lacroix had created this entire situation in some elaborate plot against him and his quest. Even so, the truth was nothing Lacroix did not already know, and nothing cut the ancient vampire more deeply. "Urs, I don't even know if it's possible for a vampire to return to humanity. But I do not kill. I do abstain from human blood. And if I knew how to regain my humanity, I would."
Urs took his hand. After a moment, she began to speak, starting and stopping as if her sentences kept heading the wrong direction a few words in. "So would I, but... It must be so grand, and so awful, to have a code to live up to and a hope to live for. You're... I've never been very brave... could I learn to do that, too?" She blushed — very faintly, as vampiric pallor allows — and dropped his hand. "Oh, I'm sorry, Nick! I didn't mean to spring that on you. I'm just so tired, and things are tumbling out all wrong. It's not at all fair, and it doesn't help even a little with Jacqueline's problem. I had to ask — in case you did know. But I meant to focus on Jacqueline."
"Maybe we should both get some sleep," Nick stood. He observed again the shadows under Urs's eyes, and wished he had pressed her to go to bed long before. Still, he could have listened for hours more. He felt they had just touched the borders of so many vast, important areas.
"Yes, thanks," Urs said, standing as well. "Everything will be much clearer tonight. I know you'll think of something for Jacqueline. Thank you, Nick, for taking this on. Thank you so much."
"You're welcome." He did not know what else to say. He hoped she had not misplaced her faith. "You know, I'd be happy to sleep on the floor if you'd like the couch. I had thought it would be safer if you were willing to keep that close a watch on Jacqueline, but if you'd prefer...?"
"Safer? Oh. You're right, I guess. I was just thinking that she's not used to being alone." Urs started for the stairs, but then turned back and retrieved her glass from the table. "I wanted to ask for more, but I should at least answer your question first, shouldn't I?"
"You don't have to," Nick assured her, opening his refrigerator and pulling out the open bottle with one hand and his own glass with the other. "Urs, you don't have to tell me anything. I shouldn't have asked." He filled her glass and seated himself at the table again with his.
"But it's only fair. And — I want you to know." She closed her eyes, took a long drink, then sighed. Nick knew that sigh of mixed relief, regret and half a hundred other emotions. He knew it from his own lips, and heard it linger in her soft, low voice as she continued. "I like human blood. I wish I were a carouche, if I can't be human, but nobody asked me. I am what Javier wanted me to be. I like human blood. And I'm old enough to remember before preservatives, refrigeration, blood banks, and donations past their expiration date. I've killed for it. I've killed..."
She stood silently for a moment, and Nick wished he could follow her into memory. Who had she been, when Vachon found her? How had she felt, after her first hunger as a vampire? How had this mild woman survived, sane, the ruthless demands of the ravener within? She wants to be human again, he reminded himself with carefully-restrained excitement, longing to know her reasons and her ways of reconciling the bright goal and dark desires they apparently shared.
"I try so hard to not kill." Urs finally opened her eyes. "I've been lucky. Javier's good-hearted, but he's not a very good parent. Screed took care of me, once he got resigned to me. He thought I was a big mistake. Which I was. You know Screed, right? He doesn't mind killing people himself, but he... knows how I feel about it. When he could, he made sure I had alternatives. So I've had a lot of animal blood over the years. It doesn't taste very good in my mouth, but it sits a lot more lightly on my conscience."
Urs finished her glass, rinsed it in the kitchen sink, and went upstairs. Nick, draining his own glass of cow at last, watched her silently. She no longer looked nineteen to him, but every year of her century and a quarter.
Lacroix had introduced her as an "innocent goddess." Wrong on both counts, Nick thought as he doffed his jacket, checked his gun, and stretched out with the blanket and pillow Urs had brought him. There was more to Urs than Lacroix had apparently imagined. But now the question of what to do for Urs troubled him as much as that of what to do with Jacqueline. Should he introduce Urs to Natalie? Would that help or burden each of them? Was he even remotely up to being a "sponsor" to Urs? What about these rumors — the Enforcers — Jacqueline's kills — Jacqueline's sanity and stability — Jacqueline's attachment to Urs — Urs and Vachon — Lacroix — Urs... .
When Nick finally rolled over the brink of sleep, his imagination and memory reached out to Erica, the vampire playwright who had so carefully measured what she took from the world against what she gave, and committed suicide when the scales no longer balanced. "I wish she could know you, Erica," he said in his dream. "I wish you could know her. Somewhere between your way and hers, we could save you both."
"It's too late for me, Nicholas," the dream of Erica breathed, seeming to kneel at his side. "But not for you or them. Ironic, isn't it? How like Urs is to how I was, and Jacqueline to how you were, so long ago? Don't let Urs make my mistake. Don't let Jacqueline make yours."
"What's my mistake?" He could think of so many.
Erica seemed to lean over him and smooth his hair away from his brow. "It's early yet. You don't have to make it. The future is only dancing shadows until you choose and act. Don't follow me, my Nicholas. I was wrong to ask that of you. I might have followed you instead. But you never told me about your quest."
"I'm no leader, Erica," he protested sadly. "I can barely stand up under my own load anymore."
"You underestimate yourself, Sir Knight. Or perhaps you forget." She leaned down to kiss him, and entwined her fingers further in his hair. "But I'm only memory, and memories of you, of people who would live or die for you, hanging on your words, from the stage, in the tavern ... in the battles in your blood." She punctuated each phrase with a lingering kiss, to his lips, his ear, his neck, and, knowing it for a dream, an echo of a dear cry long ended, Nick embraced her fiercely.
But as his body rose, the dream faded, and he woke suddenly to find Jacqueline the reality in his arms, her extended fangs nearing his neck.
Sheer surprise made him push her away, before he could even absorb the situation. She had been on her knees next to the couch and he propelled her back into the coffee table. "What's going on?"
Jacqueline looked slightly dazed, but her eyes still glowed with the mausoleum luminescence of the awakened vampire. She returned to his side and placed an insistent hand on his chest. "I'm hungry."
Swallowing hard, Nick picked up her hand moved it to the cushion. Now she looked offended, he thought, though the brassy glow did not leave her eyes. "What happened to the bottles Urs brought?"
"They're both empty."
"There's cow blood in the refrigerator."
"Is that what it was?" She made a face. "No wonder it tasted so vile! Why on earth would you have that? No, don't answer now. You'll enjoy this, I promise."
"Jacqueline—" Nick pushed her away again, firmly but gently, consciously reminding himself that Urs had said she was like a new convert, unable to control her cravings and unaware that she ought to. The vampire in its primal purity, Lacroix would say. Mind and spirit enslaved by the body, Nick would counter. "It's all but sunset. Can you feel it? If we have to, I'm sure we can order something sent from the Raven. We can talk while we wait." He swung his legs off the couch, stood up and went to the refrigerator. She had evidently poured his open bottle from the morning down the drain as sour, then opened a new one for a few swallows and replaced it on the shelf. Only one bottle remained full and corked.
Jacqueline immediately followed Nick, insinuating herself between him and the open refrigerator and then sliding her hands up his chest toward the buttons at the top of his shirt. "Do you really want to wait that long?" she whispered hungrily. "We don't have to."
He stopped both her hands with one of his, then reached behind her, withdrew the open bottle from the refrigerator, closed the door, and placed the bottle between her hands. He sympathized with her ferociously apparent hunger, but only just so far. "If you can't wait, drink this."
Jacqueline looked shocked.
Before that shock could turn to anger, Nick quietly pointed out, "You know that neither of us would come out ahead if we did that, don't you? An even exchange at best, a little loss on each side more likely? You'd just be hungrier in the end."
Jacqueline blinked back the gold in her eyes, and lifted the bottle. "I hadn't thought of that," she admitted, almost inaudibly, then took a drink. She winced. Contorted her face. Coughed. "This is disgusting!" she protested histrionically. "Ulk. Gak." She took another swig. And another. "You actually drink this stuff?"
"It's better than nothing."
"I suppose." She finished the bottle and held it out to him. "What did you want to talk about?"
"Two things." He got her the last bottle from the refrigerator, then took the empty to the sink to rinse. "First, I need to know about the murders."
"The people you fed on."
"Oh. Right." She took a goblet from the drying rack, filled it, and then seated herself at the table. Nick sat down and listened carefully as she identified each of the nine random men and women she had drained since Ellen and Monika died — where they met, how they looked, what, if anything, she had done with the corpses. Clinically, he analyzed the scenarios. Three of the bodies had already turned up. Four more sounded unrecoverable. The last two... he could say he had received a tip, and lead his fellow police officers to them, or he could cover her tracks for her, protect the secret of vampiric existence before the Enforcers came to intervene.
Nine lives. Brutally, pointlessly chopped short.
If not for the Enforcers, he thought, maybe it would be better if humanity did find out about vampires. If they exterminated us all, it would be pure self-defense.
Then Urs walked into his line of sight, and he retracted the thought.
She must have come down sometime during Jacqueline's recitation, Nick realized. Gently concerned, Urs laid a hand on Jacqueline's shoulder. It startled Nick to see that the brunette vampire had come to the verge of tears as she had finally fallen silent. It surprised him not at all, however, that she had emptied the last bottle.
"You okay?" Urs asked. Jacqueline swallowed. Urs leaned over to hug her, and Jacqueline clung tightly for what seemed to Nick long minutes.
At last, Urs disengaged and knelt at the side of Jacqueline's chair. "When I was human," Urs said slowly, "almost everyone still believed that some groups were better than other groups. That made it easy for vampires. They believed they were the best group, so it didn't matter what they did to the others, no matter how awful."
Jacqueline closed her eyes and sighed. "Like men who think it doesn't matter what they do to women."
"Right," Urs agreed. "And most vampires still think that."
"That's what you thought of me, when I killed Marnecki. That I was like him. It's not the same!" Jacqueline's eyes flew open, sparked cold amber, then subsided to warm brown. "No... no. It's not the same. I won't become the thing I hate."
"What do you want to become, Jacqueline?" Nick asked quietly, marveling at Urs's smoothly pointed intercession. "That's the second thing we have to talk about. You need a new life. What do you want in it?"
"I don't know." Jacqueline sounded hostile — and lost. "Want?"
"Do you have any skills, or hobbies?" Urs prompted.
"Ellen was... Monika... I don't know!"
"It's okay." Urs embraced her again. "Nick?"
"It's okay," he echoed. "I have an idea. I know someone I think will help."
"Good. Um, the sun slipped down just now, you know. Could we have the Raven send something?" Urs's worried glance at the empty bottle on the table reminded Nick that Jacqueline was apparently less than welcome at the club, and certainly could not be turned loose to find other options.
Though he had himself suggested it to Jacqueline, Nick disliked the thought of trafficking in human blood, much less with Lacroix's Raven. But the only prompt alternative involved Natalie, and Nick had decided firmly against that. While he suspected she would love to examine Jacqueline, such an encounter would not only endanger the human coroner at Jacqueline's hands and further expose Natalie to the Enforcers, it would enmesh her deeper in the layers of lies already surrounding the Ekhart and Marnecki cases. No, he could not drag her into this. "Order whatever you think you need, Urs." He picked up his wallet from the credenza table where he had set it before going to sleep and handed her a credit card.
Hesitantly, Urs asked, "Um, you do have some idea what human blood goes for these days, don't you? I just don't want you unpleasantly surprised when the bill comes, or anything."
"I can afford it." Nick smiled ironically. He could afford almost any cost measured only in money, but could afford nothing at all when measured against the bottomless debt he owed humanity for the lives he had taken and the pain he had caused. Actually, he had no clue of the current market rate for human blood, but that it might be excruciatingly high pleased him. He had known many minds untroubled by ethical concerns but vulnerable to economic ones. "We'll have a plan by dawn, at least. In the meantime, I think you should both stay in here tonight."
Jacqueline looked rebellious, but Urs nodded. "We'll be fine, Nick. You're heading out, then?"
"Yeah. I'm going to go shower and change first, though." He headed up the stairs.
After a moment, Urs followed. She crossed her arms and leaned on the frame of his bedroom door as he retrieved a clean blue shirt from his closet. Very softly, she asked, "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Talk. Give her 'Vampirism 101,' if you can, Urs." He laid the shirt on the turned-back bedding and added slacks and a blazer to the pile. "I think she'll hear it from you in a way she wouldn't from anyone else. As long as she thinks of you as a kind of substitute Ellen, you're a check on her vampiric instincts. Without that, she's an Enforcer incident waiting to happen."
"If it hasn't already, you mean."
Startled, Nick froze and looked directly at Urs. "Yes. That is what I'm afraid of." He went to his dresser and poked around the items on its top until he found the old copy of his business card that he remembered had somehow ended up there. He handed it to her. "Look, my cell phone number and the precinct number are both on this. Don't hesitate to call. And... stay ready to run."
"I've never heard of anyone outrunning the Enforcers."
"Me neither," he admitted. "But if it comes to that, we'll do our best."
Urs tilted her head to one side, as if to see him from another angle. "Thank you," she said, and went back downstairs.
Nick heard her pick up the phone to dial the Raven, then shook his head and proceeded to the shower with his stack of clothing folded smoothly over one arm. As soon as they took care of Jacqueline, he wanted to have a long talk with Urs.
After so many centuries, almost everyone seemed a little familiar to Nick in some way, every name, look and mannerism somehow like those of someone he had once known. Urs reminded him of someone, too, but he just could not remember whom. He supposed Lacroix had intended that "innocent goddess" dig to invoke Alyssa, Nick's wife, or Fleur, Nick's sister, or even Sylvaine, the last human being whose life Nick wantonly stole. But contrary to what he knew Lacroix believed, Nick had known and loved both Alyssa and Fleur too well to reduce them to that flat cipher. Vulnerability on the score of Sylvaine, he freely admitted. But if Urs were gentle, beautiful and blonde, well, there the resemblance stopped. Fleur's bold nerve, Alyssa's solemn wit, Sylvaine's ethereal grace — all had ended, never to come again in this world. Urs had none of them, but something else of her own.
On the other hand, he knew exactly of whom Jacqueline reminded him. And since Jacqueline obviously could neither safely be sent away alone nor kept in Nick's care — what he had woken up to made that clear — this was the only person to whom Nick could think to send her, the only one who might be capable not only of understanding the troubled young woman, but helping her.
Problem was, she had not exactly left a forwarding address.
Showered and dressed, Nick called the precinct to make sure no new crises had arisen, and then explained that he would be in rather late. He spoke with Norma at the front desk, and did not specify further. While Captain Reese seemed prepared to let him get away with stuff like this as long as he kept solving cases, his new partner, Detective Tracy Vetter, would not let it slide, he was sure. She was as relentlessly punctual as Schanke had been chronically tardy. Work postponed for the moment, Nick settled in for some serious phoning.
After a handful of dead ends, plain luck joined the process of elimination to finally yield his primary quarry. Doctor Sofia Jurgen — whom he had first known by the title "baroness" early in the nineteenth-century — had fled Toronto after the fiasco at that health spa three years ago, in which her "treatment" of old age with injections of her own undead blood had brought about three deaths and untold anguish. Remorseful once she realized what she had done, Sofia had been unwilling to leave until she knew her surviving patients would recover safely, and for that she had turned to Nick. Despite her predilection for blaming males exclusively for the world's ills, Sofia proved to have become one of the most well-adjusted vampires Nick knew, manifesting Janette's adaptability without her blind thrall to the ghoul's hunger that mastered them all. Indeed, Sofia had called vampirism "a last resort," lamenting "turning cold" and "shying away from the sunlight" just moments before taking Natalie hostage during that terrible confrontation. Afterward, regretful and reflective, Sofia had admitted that she found the cost of eternal youth much higher than expected. Knowing she would have to abandon Doctor Jurgen's identity or face criminal prosecution and Enforcer intervention, Sofia had speculated on a few possible paths. Nick found her in the last she had mentioned, but the one he now most hoped she had picked: University of Vienna, graduate student, psychology department.
While Nick hesitated at the prospect of Sofia and Jacqueline's mutual contempt for men reinforcing each other to the detriment of both, he thought the match perfect in every other respect. Sofia could teach Jacqueline to survive without obliterating the remnants of her human conscience. And whether that conscience was all Jacqueline's, or a sign that Ellen and Monika still persisted somewhere inside her skull, Sofia was now more qualified to determine than anyone Nick knew. And she owed him.
Having reached her as quickly as he could reasonably have hoped, Nick found the persuading agonizingly slow. The circuitous phrasing required by an easily-tapped intercontinental phone call did not help. Eventually, however, Sofia agreed to take Jacqueline on as a student, of sorts, and do what she could for her.
That recovered momentum crashed into a stone wall with Nick's next targets. Aristotle's line had been disconnected, and his colleague Merlin's number reassigned to a chain coffeehouse downtown. Apparently, the two vampire Relocaters had moved on themselves. That would make things a little more difficult, Nick thought as he left his room and walked toward the stairs. Difficult, but not impossible.
From the landing, he could see Jacqueline pacing rapidly in front of the elevator door, her arms wrapped tightly across her torso under her breasts. Urs sat on the piano bench, watching the other woman with concern. Nick stepped heavily onto the first stair to alert them to his presence.
Both heads immediately whipped around toward him, and Jacqueline rushed to the foot of the stairs. "The Raven isn't answering," she announced accusingly.
"Actually," Urs supplemented, "we're going direct to voice-mail, every time. Which is odd during business hours. Maybe no one remembered to switch the setting when they opened tonight. Or maybe the line's really busy."
"I'm hungry," Jacqueline declared, a frantic edge to her voice.
"It'll be all right," he assured her. "I'll go to the Raven and bring something back. But I have to stop by the precinct first."
"How long?" She bit her lower lip lightly.
"As fast as I can. Look, I have some good news. There's a woman — a vampire — named Sofia who's going to give you some help starting out, Jacqueline. You'll like her. She's strong, energetic, and very intelligent. She had a problem here in Toronto, too, a few years ago, so she can't come here to meet you, but as soon as we get some paperwork established, we'll get you on a plane. Do you speak German?"
"English and a little French," Jacqueline said.
"Those and Spanish," Urs contributed. "And some Japanese, but it's no use in conversation because I learned the male grammar instead of female." She shrugged.
Nick stared at her for a surprised moment, then continued. "Okay, to Paris, then, to start. She'll meet you at the airport, and you two can make some decisions from there."
"Two? What about Urs?" Jacqueline demanded.
"Three," Urs said. "If you and your friend don't mind, Nick, I'd like to go with Jacqueline, at least for a while."
Nick nodded. He had hoped she would say that, for Jacqueline's sake and that of the humans on that long, cramped, intercontinental flight. He regretted it for himself, though. They would just have to have that long talk before she left.
"Shouldn't you be going now?" Jacqueline urged pointedly.
The drive to the precinct was smooth, with little traffic on the dark roads. Striding into the squad room, Nick distractedly exchanged the ordinary pleasantries and waves on his way to his desk, until Natalie suddenly appeared in front of him and pushed him into an empty observation room.
"Where have you been?" the pathologist exclaimed, closing the door behind them. "Thank goodness I got to you before Tracy did. Your partner — who, lest we forget, knows about the wild and wooly world of the undead — found a witness to that last double-pierced neck we're passing off as a stabbing murder. The witness is a drug addict, so we can get around the Count Dracula part of his story that way without too much trouble, but she took him to a sketch artist this afternoon." Natalie unfolded a photocopied sheet and handed it to Nick.
It was Jacqueline.
"Who's seen this?" Nick demanded.
"Everyone. Reese sent it out immediately. It's too late to recall. And Nick," Natalie crossed her arms. "Tracy noted the 'resemblance' to Ellen Simmons. Reese agreed. Oh, I hate this! The lying and the covering up! Have I mentioned that lately?"
"No." Nick focused on her. She looked frustrated and unhappy, and an anxious flush in her cheeks, several shades deeper than the pink suit she wore, highlighted the intelligent, dedicated, humorous face he knew he seemed to take too much for granted. "Actually, you haven't mentioned it. I'm sorry, Nat. I really am."
"Yeah. Well, what are we going to do?"
"Is the paper trail firm?"
"As long practice can make it. The records show that Ellen's body was cremated and properly disposed of as soon as legally allowed. As long as no one asks the people who theoretically participated along the way..."
"Thanks, Nat." He folded the paper, stuck it in his pocket, kissed her apologetically on the forehead and reached for the door handle.
"Wait a minute!" Natalie reached out to stop him. "What are we going to do?"
"I'll take care of it."
"That's not good enough, Nick. This involves me, too."
She was right, of course. But he still could not risk telling her. "You know what happens when you wave a red flag in front of a bull?" He patted the pocket in which he had slipped the artist's sketch of Jacqueline. "This is a red flag to those who protect the secrets of my kind. And they don't take prisoners, Nat." He grasped her shoulder, attempting to convey his regret and concern through that touch, but she refolded her arms and glared. He sighed and strode out the door, leaving her fuming in his wake.
He would explain later, he promised her in his thoughts. So many things — later.
Right now, he had to hustle Jacqueline and Urs out of the city before Tracy found them. Or the Enforcers. There was no time for the niceties of new names and fake passports now. In another age, they could simply have bribed their way through, but one of the luxuries of a modern first-world nation is the rarity of corruption. They would have to fall back on the vampiric ability to mesmerize human beings, and hope they did not run into any suggestion-resistant authorities.
First, though, he had to stop at the Raven. If Jacqueline did not feed soon, wanton murder would start looking very appealing to her.
Nick found the club as loud and garish as ever, but oddly underpopulated. The regular patrons looked alarmed when the door opened, then relaxed as they recognized him. Many stepped conspicuously out of his way as he strode to Lacroix's broadcasting booth in the back.
"Nicholas," Lacroix acknowledged, steepling his fingers as Nick opened the booth's door. He continued staring out at the club and did not turn to face Nick.
"I need human blood."
"Of course you do. I've been telling you that for years."
"It's not for me. I... have a guest."
"Ah," Lacroix shrugged disinterestedly. He pressed an intercom button on his console and instructed the individual on the other end to place three cases of the new shipment in the trunk of the seafoam-green Cadillac convertible no doubt parked directly in front of the club.
"Seafoam green?" Nick repeated incredulously.
"What would you call it?" Lacroix lifted an eyebrow. "And do not forget to pay on your way out. Prices are reaching atrocious levels."
"Perhaps you should cut back on consumption."
"I blame the taxes," Lacroix said, and Nick could not tell if he were joking. "Detective Vetter just departed," Lacroix informed him abruptly, swiveling his chair around to face Nick at last. "Ah, you did not know that, did you? You'll never earn another 'partners of the month' award like this, Nicholas. She departed only after, of course, harassing my patrons with questions they cannot answer for her. They could, of course, answer you, but then you could not pass on the information to your mortal playmate either, now could you?"
"What questions?" Nick asked with a sinking feeling.
"You see, Nicholas," Lacroix pressed on, ignoring Nick even as he addressed him. "Your partner was not the only investigator to honor us this evening. Oh, no, indeed. Enforcers preceded her, delaying the start of business for nearly three hours. And, interestingly enough, they sought the same individual. Do you know whom?"
"I can guess." Nick was grim.
"I thought you might. Masterless fledglings are roving catastrophes threatening us all, and this one worse than most. She is much more trouble than she is worth at this point, if not from the start. And they know she left with Urs."
"Thanks for the blood." Nick spun toward the door.
"What?" Nick paused.
"Let it go."
"I can't." Nick rushed out, briefly delayed by a Raven employee insisting he pay for the crates loaded in his car.
Finally placing the key in the ignition and pulling out into traffic, Nick reviewed his options. It would take longer to drive, but he could not carry much blood in his arms. And with what they faced, the amount he could bring now might have to last Jacqueline a long while. Deciding, he headed home with his speedometer right at the legal limit and dialed his own number from his cell phone. He reached his answering machine. "This is Nick. Pick up. Urs? Jacqueline? Pick up!"
"Nick?" Urs's voice.
His breath whooshed out in relief. "I'm on my way, Urs. But Enforcers may be on the way, too. Grab Jacqueline and get out of there. Go on foot till you're out of visual range. Meet me at the airport. Near the security station. Wait — bring the portable stereo, too. It's in the bedroom. Loud and with bass boost, even our kind can't hear whether you have a heartbeat or not."
"Nick," Urs's voice dropped to a whisper. "She needs to feed. She may jump the first human she sees."
Nick cursed lightly below his breath. It was as if Jacqueline were suffering a kind of delayed conversion hunger, as if she were only as old as the cumulative time she had been the dominant personality, and her vampiric systems were still developing, still demanding the blood those rapid changes required. He wondered if it had been conscience or luck that had held her to only — only! — nine murders in two weeks. And the injuries she had apparently sustained at the Raven exacerbated the situation, siphoning blood energy to repair the damage. But simply nothing else remained in the loft to give her. Except... "Urs, do you know how to use a blender?"
"No. Sorry. Why?"
"Never mind. There's no time. Look, a block down the street there's a warehouse with a guard dog. It's on your way. Better the dog than a person. This hungry, she won't quibble. Get going!"
"Okay." The dial tone extended its buzz until Nick clicked off his phone.
Replaying the conversation in his mind, Nick imagined Urs shepherding Jacqueline all that distance and rapidly reconsidered his decision to drive. Instead, he switched lanes and turned toward a poorly-lit lot he knew nearby. He would leave the caddy behind and overtake the women on their way. After parking in a corner wrapped thickly in the shadow of an empty brick building, Nick quickly donned his black duster, which had lately lain disused in the back seat, and slid two bottles into its deep pockets. Picking up two more — one for each hand — he thumped down the trunk cover more forcefully than he would when less distracted, turned the key in the lock to prevent accidental discovery of the unusual contents, and willed himself straight up into the air.
Even flying as fast as he could, it would take long minutes to travel all the way across town. Anything could happen in those minutes. Nick sped straight toward the warehouse district, careless of any helicopters or stargazers whose paths he might cross.
Shunting the situation's grim possibilities to the back of his mind, he determinedly rearranged his rough plans for getting Jacqueline and Urs to Sofia. They would still eventually have to leave by plane, but now, for tonight, the airport could become misdirection. A good crowd of normal humans would provide the best possible disguise and protection. When they reached the airport shops, they could purchase several of those oversized sport bottles displaying the CN Tower on their foam insulators, and transfer the bottled blood to them in a restroom. That would carry Jacqueline through for a while, perhaps, and no one would suspect. Then he would slip them out on a bus to the train station, and from there eventually to a different airport and a different plane.
Approaching a block away from his loft, he spotted two still figures on the ground in the dark courtyard of the warehouse with the guard dog. He heard no beating hearts, saw no living warmth. Rapidly descending toward the tall, chain-link fence, he identified one figure as Urs, her hood slipping down her platinum curls, her empty backpack at her side, sitting cross-legged on the hard asphalt. The other, he saw, was the body of the now-deceased mastiff, his throat torn entirely away. Plastic and metal bits of a smashed portable stereo — his, he guessed — littered the ground.
He did not see Jacqueline.
"Urs?" He landed behind her. Assuming the worst, he instinctively peered around for attackers, victims, witnesses. Only the empty darkness stared back. Then he looked down over Urs's shoulder, and realized she was protecting a small pile of ashes from the wind. His dead heart wheezed in his chest, a gasping imitation of life jolted into it by an electric pulse of guilt and grief and sympathy. He set down the bottles he held, knelt at her side and put his arm around her shoulders. Poor Jacqueline.
"They staked her, Nick," Urs whispered brokenly. "So sudden. One held me. Two staked her. And let me go. Why did they let me go, Nick? I couldn't save her. Why did they let me go?" She started to sob, and buried her face in his chest.
He held her quietly as she cried, and did not answer the rhetorical question. She must know as well as he that the power and reach of such terror depended on the tale being told. And as chill as was the comfort that knowledge provided, it ironically warmed more than the equally true observation that Jacqueline had broken the Enforcers' code, while Urs had not. They had condemned Jacqueline fairly, by their lights, and released Urs as justly. That they left her ripped by self-recrimination and mourning would mean nothing to them, even if it could occur to them.
Rubbing Urs's shoulder gently, Nick stared out at the scene dry-eyed but heart-bruised. If only he had taken to the air immediately — if he had gone to the Raven before the precinct — if he had never left them alone — if the phoning had gone faster — if he could fly as swiftly as he used to, before he struggled these few steps closer to humanity — if... and, yet, was the world not better off with one less vampire in it? Any vampire? Those nine families grotesquely deprived of their sisters and husbands and children would certainly say so. He laid his cheek on top of Urs's head and wished he knew.
After a while, Urs stopped crying. She sniffled a bit, but did not break the embrace that comforted Nick as much as he intended it to reassure her. Time slipped away while he absently stroked her back and wandered through memories he did not share. He had lost so many people through the years because of what he was, what they were, and how he failed them. So many. Little Sister Marise, slumped lifeless in Lacroix's arms, though Lacroix had promised her safety. Helen Ruskin-Slater, the archaeologist whom Thomas deceived him into delivering to her doom. Mai Chong, the San Francisco acupuncturist who perished before her small son's horrified gaze for trying to help Nick control his curse. Matthew and Erica lost to suicide, because he was not a better friend. Daniel, the child he did not send far or fast enough from Lacroix's grasp. Sullivan, the Union army photographer he could not protect from the Enforcers. Emily Weiss, whose memory and insight he had to steal to preserve her bare life. Marian Blackwing, who fell carrying his burden. Now Jacqueline.
But though every one hurt, and no hurt ever disappeared, he never stopped trying, never stopped caring. As he had said to Lacroix, he could not let it go. Ever.
Eventually, the safe black sky began to melt into dangerous greys near the horizon. Nick sighed, stood and cleaned up the site. Supposing the broken stereo pieces nevertheless covered with fingerprints, he gathered them up and stowed them in Urs's backpack, along with the bottles he had carried. The cruelly slaughtered dog looked as if he had been attacked by a vicious beast — which, of course, he had, though Nick's eyes read how Jacqueline must have been torn bodily from this meal by an Enforcer who chose that most vulnerable moment to strike, and to distort the bite beyond identification. Nick wished he dared close the sad animal's eyes, but that would raise suspicions.
"We have to go, Urs," he said softly, picking up her backpack and slinging it over his shoulder.
"No." She shook her head, less refusing than unheeding.
"She isn't here anymore, Urs. Let the wind carry her ashes over the lake." He paused, feeling, as always, the simultaneous impossibility and necessity of saying something worthwhile in the face of grief. In eight centuries, no words had ever fit, none had ever eased the burden, and never had it become any easier. But Nick had seen the surface of convictions in Urs that he hoped ran deep and strong enough to eventually bring her a comfort for which he also longed. "You have to believe she made it out, Urs. Like Ellen and Monika. She was trying to do the right thing at the last. That's why she came to you. You have to believe she made it."
Nodding, Urs stood, but her eyes teared again as she looked down at the greasy dry ash beginning to drift and disperse and disappear. Nick placed his arms around her and, unresisting, Urs allowed him to lift them both into the air, carry her back to the loft, and tuck her into his bed.
As she lay against the pillows, he looked hesitatingly at her backpack, which he had discarded on his dresser, and thought of the wine-laced human blood inside. Urs followed his eyes, then met them in the mirror.
"I don't want it, Nick, please."
"I understand." He took the bag downstairs and set the whole thing in the refrigerator. He would figure out what to do with it later. For now, he did not want to leave Urs alone.
He did not want to be alone.
Returning, he pulled the chair by the bureau over to the bedside and straddled it, resting his chin on his arms over the low wooden back. He sat there until she fell asleep, and for many hours after.
He had finally pinned down whom Urs really reminded him of.
— End —