"Come on, Nat," Nick said, leaning close and projecting charm as strongly as he could. "There must be something I can help you with tomorrow night. An old case you want to investigate? Picking up dinner? Something you need fixed?"
Natalie shook her head. "Sorry, Nick, I can't help. I promised Sara I'd go to her place for a girls' night in tomorrow night."
"I could watch Sydney," he suggested hopefully.
Natalie laughed. "I think Sydney will do just fine on his own," she said, straightening the files on her desk. "Why don't you just tell Schanke you're not interested?"
"And he said he really needs the extra practice before the big game, and that I owe him for sticking him with all the paperwork for the Munroe case."
Natalie raised a quizzical eyebrow. "I thought you were the one who did most of the paperwork on your cases. How does one case leave you in Schanke's debt?"
"He may also have brought up how he covered for me with the captain when I disappeared from the crime scene."
"Ah, the truth comes out. Let me guess--you paid an impromptu visit to a certain nightclub?"
"Yeah, well, Munroe had some ties with some criminal organizations. Small-time stuff. I thought Janette might be able to help."
"I thought you said you were planning on making Schanke forget about your disappearing act?"
"I meant to."
"Well, then, consider it a lesson on the dangers of procrastination," Natalie said. "Anyway, it might be good for you. We agreed you should get out and spend more time doing ordinary activities with ordinary people, and you don't get a lot more ordinary than bowling."
Nick leaned back against Natalie's desk and closed his eyes. "That's what I'm afraid of."
Nick gazed at the doors in front of him with the trepidation of a soldier preparing to venture into a minefield. The flashing neon green sign above the door proudly announced the name of the establishment: Lucky Leaf Bowling. Complete with a four-leaf clover. The doors themselves were plastered with posters and signs featuring questionable comics and terrible puns. The whole building gave off a vibe that was very...
"Hey, partner!" Schanke called from behind him. He came up and clapped Nick hard on the back. "Glad you could make it."
"I didn't really have a choice," Nick muttered.
Schanke didn't seem to notice. "Come on, let's go." He paused and looked down at Nick's empty hands, a marked contrast to the well-worn bag Schanke was carrying. "No shoes, eh? Well, don't worry. We can rent you a pair. Jim will get you set up in no time."
"Shoes," Nick repeated. He'd forgotten about the shoes. Rent shoes? Nick half-turned away from the entrance, tempted to flee. Maybe he could hypnotize Schanke later and make him think they'd had a great night of bowling together.
"Come on," Schanke called, holding the door open.
On the other hand, Natalie would ask and he couldn't hypnotize her. Besides, he did owe Schanke. Sort of. He followed Schanke inside, where Jim did indeed get them set up. A quick spot of persuasion when Schanke wasn't looking secured Nick a brand new pair of shoes, which at least took care of that problem.
Schanke went first. He stepped up to the foul line, took a few steps back, and then, with an expression of great concentration, began his approach and smoothly released the ball.
"Strike!" he crowed as the pins went down. He turned away gleefully and summoned Nick to take his place.
Nick took his time setting up as he thought about how to proceed. He'd spent enough time bowling as a rookie in Chicago to be confident he could match Schanke strike for strike, thus avoiding what he knew would be weeks of needling about his failure. On the other hand, if he did too well, Schanke might decide to try and recruit him to his bowling league.
Pride battled with pragmatism as he chose a ball and stepped forward. In the end, visions of endless nights of bowling league games won out. Nick aimed slightly to the side so that the ball only took down seven pins. He took down two more with his next ball, leaving one standing.
"Better luck next time," Schanke said with mock-sympathy as he took Nick's place in the approach.
The game continued in the same way, with Schanke alternating between strikes and spares, and Nick taking care to play just badly enough to avoid future invitations.
"Ha!" Schanke gloated as the final scores came up. "I've finally found something that the great Nick Knight isn't good at."
"You got me," Nick agreed with a careless shrug. "I never was much of a bowler.
"Yeah?" Schanke gave him the probing look he always got when Nick let something about his past slip--the one that reminded Nick not to let appearances lead him to underestimate Schanke's investigative skills. "So what did you play? Baseball? Hockey?" He frowned. "Do they play hockey in Chicago?"
"The Black Hawks were one of the Original Six," Nick pointed out. He'd gone to a couple of games when the league first formed, but it hadn't won him over from his main love. "But I've always been more of a baseball fan."
"We should go to a game sometime," Schanke said cheerfully. "Jenny's a big Jays fan. Of course, who isn't right now? Everyone loves a winner."
"Sure," Nick agreed. It was a good idea, he thought. He liked seeing Schanke's family, and a baseball game would be a lot easier to pull off than another awkward dinner at the Schanke household. "But we'll have to make it a night game, okay?"
"Oh, right," Schanke said. "Your sun allergy. You know, that's a real pain, Nick."
"You don't have to tell me."
"Yeah, I guess not," Schanke said, looking thoughtful. "I'm going to go grab a beer. Do you want anything?"
"Nah, I’m good. I'll hold the lane until you get back."
Nick sat down to wait and looked around at the mix of people populating the bowling alley: a few families with kids, a couple of groups of teenagers, and an assortment of adults from various walks of life. Humanity in all of its shared-shoe glory. It wasn't the worst evening he'd ever spent, he admitted privately, but he still wasn't eager for a repeat.
His attention was drawn to the next lane where a couple of men had replaced the family that had been there earlier. Nick watched as they began testing the various balls, hunting for ones that suited them. There was something oddly familiar about the taller of the two men, something that reminded Nick of someone he'd once known...and then Nick's eyes widened in horror. No. Oh no. George.
For one wild moment, he wondered if he could somehow intercept Schanke and persuade him to leave the bowling alley immediately, or perhaps hustle the men in the next lane out before Schanke returned. He gave up both plans almost instantly. Better, he decided, to try to remain as inconspicuous as possible and hope they weren't noticed. It could work; George had never been the most observant person around.
Nick slid down further in his chair and half-covered his face with his hand, hoping that George would remain too distracted by the game to look around. He couldn't help casting sideways glances at the next lane. George was resplendent in a colourful checked sports coat and striped pants, both of which looked like they'd been liberated from a circus clown tent. He was wearing a carnation in his lapel, and...yes those were cowboy boots on his feet. Typical George. And yet somehow, despite the ridiculousness of the entire outfit, it seemed to suit him. Also typical George.
In contrast, the man with him looked almost disappointingly normal: slender, shorter than George--nearly everyone was shorter than George--and clad in jeans and a simple t-shirt. Nick suspected the bowling had been his idea. George had no doubt considered it a lark when it was suggested, and Nick wondered for a moment how it had come about. George rarely had ongoing relationships, but--
His musings were interrupted by the return of Schanke, who was juggling fries, onion rings, and a chili dog along with his beer. At least one of the items had been liberally dosed with garlic. Nick stood up hastily and stepped back, wincing at the smell.
"Are you sure you don't want anything?" Schanke asked, carefully laying out his haul. "The chili dog is mine, but if you want some fries, I've got lots."
"No, I--" Nick began. He was interrupted by a delighted voice from the next lane.
Nick froze, dread washing over him as George waved and bounded over, long legs swallowing the distance in a few steps. His companion stayed behind, expression placid as he continued to try out different balls.
George went straight to Nick and leaned in to kiss him on both cheeks before wrapping him in a hug. "How are you, old boy?" he asked in a patently fake English accent.
"Good, George," Nick said, trying to extract himself from the man's grasp. "How are you?"
"Capital. First class," George said. "I must say, this is not a venue where I expected to encounter you. Although of course, I wouldn't usually venture here myself either. It's the times, I suppose. Who's your friend?" He nodded toward Schanke, whose expression suggested that he'd realized he was on the verge of some amazing new discoveries about his partner.
He should have run when he had the chance. "George, this is Schanke. Schanke, George."
Schanke swallowed a mouthful of chili dog and stuck out his hand. "You're a friend of Nick's?" he asked. "I don't meet too many of those."
"No, I imagine not," George agreed, shaking Schanke's hand. "Nicky and I go way back." He looked greatly amused by the situation, and Nick swallowed hard in dread.
"Oh yeah?" Schanke said. "How far back?"
"College," Nick said firmly before George could speak. He wouldn't put it past George to answer truthfully. Or to make up a lie so outrageous that even a vampire's considerable powers wouldn't be able to make Schanke forget it.
"Yes, college," George agreed amiably. "In..." He paused, looking at Nick expectantly.
"Chicago," Nick inserted smoothly.
"Chicago," George agreed.
Schanke looked from Nick to George with a puzzled look.
"It's so easy to forget little details like that," George continued. "It seems so long ago now. But yes, we went to college together in Chicago. In fact, you might say we were in the same fraternity."
"A fraternity," Schanke said, eyes lighting up at the promise of further background on Nick. "Really? Nick doesn't seem like the type."
"Oh yes," George said, gesturing with growing enthusiasm. "There are some stories there. Why, I remember one time--"
"Schank, I thought you wanted to practice," Nick interrupted. "For the big game?"
"Oh, there's lots of time," Schanke said, waving him off. "I want to hear about your life in a fraternity."
"Some other time, maybe," Nick said.
"Perhaps the two of us can join you," George suggested. "Then we can play and talk at the same time." He ignored Nick's frantic-yet-subtle gesture of negation and waved as his companion at the other lane, summoning him over. "This is James. James, my old friend Nicky, and his friend Schanke."
"Don," Schanke said, shaking hands with James.
"Don," George agreed. "A good name, Don. Well, except for the way it suggest the sunrise."
"You don't like sunrises?" Schanke asked.
"I much prefer sunsets," George said. "Nights are so much...safer."
"George can't go out in the sun," James said fondly.
"Funny," Schanke said. "Neither can Knight." He looked from one to the other like he was suddenly concerned that the sun allergy was contagious.
"It's part of how we met," George said brightly.
"I thought you met in a fraternity?" Schanke said.
"Well, yes, but we bonded over our inability to go out in the sun," George said. "Well, that and our shared love of history."
"Yeah, Knight's quite the history buff," Schanke agreed. "But I want to hear about this other stuff. Nick never talks about college. Getting him to say anything about his past is like pulling teeth. Which fraternity were you in, anyway?"
"Not one you've heard of," Nick said. "It was very small."
"Small, but exciting," George agreed. "Such times we had! The women, the toga parties--you know, you really should have borrowed a toga from Lacroix for those, Nicky. I'm sure he must still have a few kicking around."
Lacroix. It was still a blow to hear the name. Of course George hadn't heard. Why would he?
Schanke's puzzled expression was back. "You know someone with a toga collection?"
"From his own fraternity days," Nick said, and made a mental note to do whatever it took to make sure George never returned to Toronto. Ever.
"Quite," George agreed, apparently belatedly realizing his mistake. He changed course. "I remember one time when we had to deliver a girl to her home in a shopping buggy--"
"That's from a movie, George," Nick interrupted. "It didn't happen." And then to try and head off further questions, he added, "Schanke, why don't you go first?"
"What? Oh, right." Schanke picked up a ball and headed toward the lane.
"What are you doing here?" Nick asked George quietly, pulling him away from James.
George shrugged. "James wanted to go bowling. I thought it would be fun to try. It is rather entertaining, isn't it?"
George had always had interesting ideas about fun.
"Just be careful," Nick said. "Schanke's a cop. If he gets suspicious..." He let his voice trail off, hoping George would get the idea.
Schanke got a strike and returned to the conversation with a gleeful smile. "I'm really hitting my groove now," he said. "I'm always better after I've warmed up. You're up, Knight. You should be watching me, you know. You might learn something."
Nick reluctantly headed toward the approach, twisting his head to watch as Schanke leaned close to George, clearly soliciting more stories. Without thinking about it, Nick let the ball fly straight down the lane, taking down all ten pins.
"Nice, Knight," Schanke called. "Maybe you learned something tonight after all. Did you really get into a sword fight with the head of another fraternity right in front of the university library?"
"Not exactly," Nick said, wondering just how much explaining he was going to have to do after tonight.
"I guess it's my turn, isn't it?" George said, stepping up. "I shan't be long."
Nick's anxiety continued to mount as the game progressed. He starting bowling a strike every time in order to minimize his time away from the conversation. Finally, after the seventh frame--and the accompanying story about a late night hunt that George barely bothered to camouflage--he muttered an excuse and broke away, heading straight to the bowling alley's payphone. He dialed the Raven from memory, hoping she would be there.
"Janette," he said when a familiar voice answered. "I need your help."
She gave an exaggerated sigh. "It's always the same with you, cheri. You never just call to chat anymore."
"Oh, fine. What do you need help with now? More information about the criminal underworld? Some other poor girl who's being terrorized by her pimp?"
"I'm out with Schanke."
"Oh, no," Janette said. "He's entirely your problem, mon amour."
"George is here."
There was silence on the other end of the line, and then, "George."
"Yeah. He just showed up."
Her sigh was more genuine this time. "I suppose he's...."
"His usual self," Nick supplied.
"One does have to wonder how he's managed to survive for nearly six centuries without capturing the attention of either the enforcers or the hunters," Janette said.
"I need to get him away from Schanke," Nick said. "He's spend the night regaling Schanke with tales of our adventures from the eighteenth century. Sooner or later, even Schanke's going to notice that something is off."
"Very likely," Janette agreed. "We are talking about George, after all. But I'm not sure what I--"
"George likes you."
"He likes you too, darling. I believe you'll find that's the root of your problem."
"Please," Nick said.
"Oh, alright. But you'll owe me."
"Anything you want," Nick said quickly.
"Where are you?"
There were into their third game by the time she arrived. Nick couldn't remember ever seeing a sight more beautiful than Janette in the grungy bowling alley, arriving just in time to distract George from his enthusiastic telling of a loosely-disguised tale from the seventeenth century. She glided up to George with a warm smile, offering him her cheek.
"Janette!" he said, sounding even more delighted than he had when he saw Nick. "How are you, darling?"
"Wonderful," Janette said, sliding her arm through George's. "And you?"
"What's she doing here?" Schanke asked Nick as George introduced James.
"I told her George was around," Nick said. "They're old friends."
"What do say we get out of here?" Janette said. "We should go catch up."
"Well, but James," George said, looking at his companion.
"I think James is ready go to home," Janette suggested. "Aren't you, James?"
James nodded obediently. Nick had to admire her technique--a single line from three feet away was a mastery he'd never achieved.
"All right then," George acquiesced. He turned to Nick and Schanke. "My apologies, gentleman, but I fear the lady has requested my presence."
"Nice to see you again, George," Nick said, giving Janette a grateful look.
"We'll have to do this again sometime," Schanke said. "I still want to hear about the time that Nick had that bet with...who goes around calling himself Henry the Eighth, anyway?"
"Goodnight, gentlemen," Janette said, leading George away. James, looking a little confused, also wandered out.
"We've got time to wrap up the game," Nick said.
"Yeah," Schanke said, looking at the scores. "Wait...you got a strike every single time?" He looked at Nick disbelieving. "Were you...were you trying to make me better by throwing the first game?"
"No," Nick said quickly. "I just learned from your example." He spread his hands innocently.
"Huh," Schanke said, looking back at the screen. "You know, there's a spot opening up on my team..."