Beta-Readers: wiliqueen and brightknightie
Prompt: Home run for the good guys, plot focused preferred (hey, what can I say? I love that kind of story!)
Characters: Nick, Natalie, Janette, Schanke, LaCroix
Length: 9400 words
Summary: A year and a half ago, an unidentified vigilante went on a spree and murdered seven people in one night in Toronto. Tonight, it looks like history is repeating itself, with dangerous implications for potential victims, Nick, Natalie, and possibly the entire vampire community.
"Nick, you need to get down here as soon as you get this message." Nat pressed the phone tighter against her shoulder. "We may..." She felt her chest shudder as it let air in. "I don't know what this is. Just...come straight here."
Nat's hand lingered on the receiver in the cradle as she stared at her autopsy table and bit her lip.
"So we had to go in to school and it turned out the other kid had lied about Jenny cheating and actually had been copying her work and now Jenny's angry that the teacher doubted her and is threatening not to do any work and wants a new teacher and doesn't want to sit next to anyone in class." Schanke sighed. "Sometimes I think you're lucky you don't have kids."
Nick glanced away from the road and at Schanke, who was shaking his head. He smiled and looked back at the road as Don turned to him.
"You know what's funny? I would have been excited if someone wanted to copy my work in school. And now, here's my kid, good enough the other kids want her grades, and she's offended. That's irony for you." He chuckled. "What were you like in school? Class clown? Jock? Heartbreaker? Little girls' pigtails in inkwells type?"
Nick glanced over. "You could say that."
"You ever lie?"
"Lie? Like about copying papers? Don't we do that all the time at the station?" He chuckled and flicked on the radio.
"...truth is what we all pretend we speak, when really it is a truth we create, and sometimes even believe ourselves. Lies and half-told truths conceal shame, fear of rejection and the parts of us we reject in ourselves. Ultimately, the truth is that the truth is never as simple as we wish and is rarely what it seems or what we think it ought to be. And all too often, it is too ugly to see the light of day."
"You seriously listen to that guy too much." Schanke twisted the radio dial. "I mean, I know the Caddy only gets AM stations but--and I don't know if you know this--but some of them do play music."
"Like the all-polka-classics-all-the-time station you leave it tuned to?"
"That and this. Best oldies around." Schanke nodded and drummed on the dash to the music.
Nick steered to the curb and flicked the radio off.
"Hey," Schanke protested.
"Lucky timing for me." Nick grinned. "You go on and clock us in. Nat called. Said she needed me to come by and see her first thing on shift."
"Will do. Cohen's been on my case about rosters, so I'll make sure to pull ours right away." He patted the door. "Say hi to Nat for me."
"There you are! I was about to start a search party by telephone."
"I came as soon as I could. I got your message just as I was leaving, and Schanke's car is out of commission, so I had to pick him up and drop him at the station. From your tone I didn't think I should bring him along."
Nat glanced at the door. "You got that part right for sure. I'm sorry for snapping. I'm.... This one's got me pretty wound up. You'll understand when you see it."
She pulled back the sheet, eyes on Nick, who swallowed hard.
She didn't take her eyes off of him. "In the middle of Jimmie Simpson Park."
"I know. Only blocks from you. He wasn't killed there, but yes, he was drained. Drained completely dry. And based on the data I have from previous victims...and from you...the punctures are the right distance apart. It looks way too much like a vampire, and one that's way too close for comfort."
"Like some kind of warning."
"We don't know that."
Nick turned away. "I have to go."
"To see Janette?"
A snarl curled his lip and he tamed it before his eyes moved across every part of her face. "Yes," he bit out.
"There's one more thing...and it's the reason I'm not one hundred percent sure we're dealing with a vampire."
She pulled the sheet down farther to show the victim's stomach, where "1 of 7" was written in black.
"Do you think that means what I think it means?"
Natalie nodded. "That's what I'm afraid of. But, Nick, since when do vampires leave messages on bodies? This is more the work of a human killer. Or," she swallowed hard at the thought, "a vampire who was already a murderer before being turned."
"Or one who's letting me know exactly how much of a threat he plans to be to my secret."
She laid a hand on his arm. "That's possible, but, remember, we don't know if it's anything to do with you." She looked back at the body. "I'm just pretty sure that, no matter who the killer is, this is far from over."
"You're probably right. I'll let the other detectives know about the writing."
"Good. They...they're not going to be prepared, though, since there's almost certainly more going on than they can know or would believe. And with more killings planned--if they haven't happened already--and not knowing the time frame, and needing to work fast.... Just, be careful, Nick, okay? I'll recheck everything, see if I can find anything else on the body."
"Thanks. I'll see what Schanke's got on suspicious activity around the park from earlier tonight and make sure one of us lets you know in case that'll help you." He turned to go and she touched his arm.
"Nick." Now that he had turned back, she hesitated. "Ask Janette if there's someone new she hasn't seen around before or if anyone's turned up you knew from...before. And..." She tried to meet his eyes but instead covered the body and moved the gurney aside, removed her gloves, and rubbed at a dry spot on her wrist. "Check... See if Janette thinks LaCr..." She felt her heart rate shoot up. This was ridiculous. She took a deep breath and rushed through the sentence. "Ask if LaCroix might have gone off the deep end. If someone's out to make trouble for you, it could be--."
His gaze had dropped then shot up to meet hers.
She bit her lip but lifted her chin. "Just...ask her, okay?"
Nick reached toward her and fingertips that looked like they might have been heading for a cheek brushed the fabric of Nat's scrubs sleeve. Then the door clicked shut behind him.
The music of the Raven reverberated halfway down the block. Nick would have wondered how Janette tolerated it if he didn't know that groups of humans surrounded by a heavy bass beat tended to have their heartbeats synch up in a way that Janette found particularly satisfying. He was quite sure there were certain songs during which she was nearly orgasmic. Tonight, unlike some nights, he did not miss sharing those sensations. Tonight his mind was entirely focused on the body Natalie had shown him, on the threat it represented.
She was leaning against the bar, wine glass in hand, hair piled in loose curls on her head, lips blood red. Her crimson dress was trimmed with black lace that dipped low against her pale chest and drew narrow lines over her perfect shoulders. The deep red flickered in the low light with a luminescence that drew attention to the way it draped languidly over her hips to end unevenly along her silky, black-clad thighs. Captivating.
"Nicolas." Her voice was partway between clear bell and satisfied purr, drawing him in and warning him off just as it had since the moment they'd met. Irresistible.
"Janette." He kissed her back as she leaned into him, making sure, as she always did, to share the taste of her wine-laced blood. He pushed against her shoulder and turned his head, kissing along her jaw. "Janette, I've come about a problem."
She tried to shove him away. "How can you be so consistently bor--"
His hand tightened on her shoulder. "This is important. There was a body found, Janette. Bitten, drained, left out in the open near my place. Someone may have gone rogue...or be trying to reveal us all. We have to find out."
"Merde." She straightened and leaned away from him, downing the last of her glass and gesturing to Miklos to refill it. "And your Natalie is sure it was one of us?"
"Janette, the body was bitten and drained of blood. That's not exactly a mortal M.O."
"Well, I was asking because there has been no one I would have thought would do this. There is no one especially new, no one especially old, no one especially angry. It is not anything I have heard talk of." She drained her glass again.
"Do you think LaCroix might..."
"LaCroix?" she scoffed. "You flatter yourself. This would endanger him as much as you, and the community besides. LaCroix would never be so foolish and short-sighted." She ran a finger along his cheek. "That is your failing, Nicolas, not his."
He just looked at her.
She pushed her glass toward Miklos again and rolled her eyes. "Yes. Yes, of course I will 'keep my eyes peeled' and inform you of anything I learn." She leaned in so their chests were touching as she kissed him. "Work quickly, Nicolas," she whispered in his ear, tongue to lobe, just before she swished away.
"There you are, Knight! What took you so long? We've got two bodies. Natalie's already on the scene. Let's go!"
Nick took the four steps back to the station door in three and he and Schanke were on the street in under a minute. The plastic of the steering wheel was hard under his fingers and the siren echoed in his ears almost as loudly as Janette's music had. Schanke was blessedly silent on this drive as his fears and anger fed on each other and grew. This threat to his secret and the security of his life here, the threat to Natalie, to Janette and the whole community...the fact that without their presence none of it would be happening...the likelihood that these people would not be dead if it weren't for them was gnawing unpleasantly at his gut.
Indifferent to safety, he squealed the tires up to edge of the scene where officers held back university students and other gapers from Queen's Park Crescent, where four squads and two ambulances blockaded the road and cast a kaleidoscope of flashing lights. Tape cordoned off the lawn of Hart House Student Centre as well as a chunk of Queen's Park itself.
Nick craned his neck until he saw her nearer the Student Centre, a halo of lights glowing in the crown of uncontrolled curls where she crouched by a shrouded form.
Patting a shoulder, Nick said, "Schank, why don't you get the rundown from the team in the park while I check in with Nat."
"Sure, partner. Whatever you say."
Nick walked over and knelt by Natalie. Her elbows rested on her knees and her hands hung limply. They both looked around and Nat moved the victim's dark hair aside to reveal the neat holes in her neck. Nick shuddered, his teeth aching at the sight, his stomach and throat clenching at the smell from the wounds and the trickle of blood that ran down into the grass. Shame closed his throat at the strength with which he was drawn to this attractive woman and the scent of her blood, even through the smell of the beginnings of decomposition, and he was sickened by his desires.
"Same M.O. This one and the one in the park were killed somewhere else, drained completely, and dumped here. From the body temperatures, I'd guess they've been dead between four and seven hours, but the removal of the blood makes it harder to say since they would have lost a lot of body heat that way. There isn't sufficient lividity to help determine changes in position at the time of death compared to when they were placed at these locations."
"Are the bodies too recent for that?"
"I'm not sure. They've been dead long enough, but it seems like there may not be enough blood remaining for lividity to set in without a long period in a single position. And with vampire kills we've seen, that hasn't been the case, so it just seems...odd. None of it is adding up."
"What about the writing?"
Nat's face hardened and she pulled back the victim's shirt. "These are marked as two and three of seven."
There was silence as Nick stared at the awkwardly splayed limbs of the young woman.
"Nick?" Natalie bumped against his shoulder. "Nick. I think we need to get serious about looking for a vampire, just in case. I mean, the writing indicates a mortal serial killer, but everything else points to a vampire. The degree of draining is extreme, but maybe this vampire is extra thorough or has access to some special equipment. Do you think we could get Janette to come to the morgue and look at the bodies? See if she knows of a way to drain someone to this degree? Or if they're anyone she knows from the Raven?"
"I don't think she'd go down there under court order, so certainly not if I just asked nicely."
"She's come to the station before. What is the problem?"
"This is the morgue, though, Nat. It's...different. Just trust me."
"What if you didn't ask, or didn't ask nicely? This is important, Nick." Natalie used her command whisper. "The press is going to get hold of this, and they're going to have a field day. These bodies were discovered nearer the Raven, both are too close to your place for comfort. If this goes much farther, this could get very, very bad for everyone."
"Don't you think I know that?"
"Then why won't you talk to Janette?"
"She'll just expect me to get information and do something about it. I thought if we got some leads, had something real to go on, that might be a better time to go to her." Even to his ears, it sounded weak, but he would not tell Natalie about having to restrain Janette physically as they'd hidden for two days in the catacombs from a mob or about her blank stare for a week after. He couldn't bring himself to say, "Because I promised once I'd never ask."
"Well, at this point, I've got nothing, so she's our best option to move this case forward. We need to figure out what there is we can do. I need her help and she needs my help. So do you want to call her or do you want me to do it?"
"Looks like our victims were found by students on their way home from rehearsal at the theatre in the student centre."
They both jerked to their feet at Schanke's voice.
"Hey, was I interrupting something? Because I can come back if you were having a little," he cleared his throat, "special conference or something there."
"No," Nick said quickly.
"Yes," Nat said. "I mean, no, you weren't interrupting, and no, it wasn't a special conference, and no, you don't need to come back, and yes, Nick's right. We were, uh, just going over the fact that I won't have anything definitive on the bodies until I can get them back to the morgue for examination."
"Wait...are those...holes in her neck?" Schanke pushed past them. "Like they were bit--"
"Oh, God. Shhh!" Nat said, grabbing Schanke's sleeve.
Simultaneously Nick said, "Shut up!" and glared at him.
"Guys, this is important, and the other victim has the same thing."
"Oh." Nat voice was flat and she looked back at the body.
"Wait." Schanke looked between them. "Were you going to try to keep this from me? Is there something going on that I don't know about? This is my case too and this could be important. I mean, that other body has writing on it--'3 of 7'--just like the one you have at the morgue and called us about. This has all the earmarks of a nasty--"
"Schank," Nat whispered, "you're right. We're just trying to keep this under wraps from the crowd."
"You know how the press gets with weird cases like this," Nick added.
Nat stepped closer to him. "I mean, this is one of those details that, when we catch someone, they'll know stuff no one else could, about the punctures, the messages...you know."
"Right, right. You're right. I'm just...I hate the ones with the weirdoes. This is starting to remind me of that spree killer we never caught a year and a half ago. I'll never forget the one witness we had who said the killer 'did it with his teeth.' Anyway, that one was freaky too. Let's get things packed up before someone else sees."
Natalie and Nick exchange a glance then looked quickly at the ground before hurrying to bark orders at the workers helping them deliver the bodies to the morgue.
"Janette? This is Natalie Lambert. Yes. Yes, that Dr. Lambert. Yes. Um...yes. I, ah, I actually wanted to ask you a favor. I wanted to ask you to come and identify our current victims or at least examine the bodies with me. Yes. I'm afraid one of...yours...might be killing. Well, yes, I understand that. Yes. But these are being left in very public places."
It was only twenty-five minutes later when Janette walked in, her perfectly coiffed updo complementing a perfectly-fitted little black dress with a red satin waistband. Natalie shook her head, trying to pretend that she wasn't feeling entirely shown up in her safety glasses and neck-to-foot scrubs.
She peeled off a rubber glove and extended the hand. "Thank you for coming, Janette."
"Oh, my." Janette's face wrinkled. Her hand moved to her mouth and nose, not Natalie's hand. Her posture straightened with the rigidity her body had taken on. "However do you stand this smell, Dr. Lambert? To spend your whole life surrounded by the putrid rankness of death? It is horrifying." She shuddered.
"Well, a girl's got to make a living."
Janette grimaced. "I suppose you must."
Natalie pursed her lips and counted slowly to five. "Let me show you what we've got." She opened the freezer and pulled out the first body. "We found this man earlier tonight. He'd been left in a park fairly near Nick's loft. Just an hour ago, this one turned up on the lawn at the Student Centre of the university and this one in Queen's Park across the way." She folded back the sheet and turned the head slightly. "You can see why we're concerned."
"I have never seen these people before."
"You're sure? None of them have been to the club?"
"No. I remember everyone. I keep very close watch for exactly this purpose and, as I'm sure Nicolas has told you, we have...excellent memories."
Natalie raised her eyebrows. "I'd guessed, but he hadn't mentioned, actually."
"Really? I thought he was working with you to find, how does he put it? A cure? Does that not mean he must tell you about us?"
Natalie pulled the sheets down to reveal the writing. "It would certainly help. I ask but he's not terribly forthcoming." She turned sideways from the body to glance at Janette. "Of course, if you wanted to share information, I'm always glad to listen. It would help me make fewer mistakes.
Janette nearly huffed as she raised her eyebrows. "Did you have any purpose in bringing me to this hideous place?"
"This," Natalie pointed, "is the thing that points away from your people."
"Whyever would one of us write on a kill?" Janette stepped back, offense dripping from her curled lip.
"I don't know," Nat said simply. "I don't know why anyone would. Not yet. That's what we're trying to find out. But we need any information we can get."
The door swung open and Nat cringed. A leprechaun grin appeared and she breathed again. "Nick. I'm glad you're here--"
"Janette." He stepped quickly into the room. "What are you doing here?"
"Your doctor friend called me and I came. You are always asking that I be polite. That is polite, is it not?"
Nick stepped into the room very slowly, his eyes narrowing. "It could be. What have you said so far?" He looked from one woman to the other, studying their faces.
"I am quite certain I have said nothing objectionable."
"Nick, she's being helpful."
"Why do I find that hard to believe?" Nick positioned himself midway between Natalie and Janette.
Janette smiled, one side of her mouth climbing higher than the other as her chin dipped and her eyes sparkled. "Good night, Natalie. Thank you for a...fascinating visit. Do please keep me informed and be assured I will do the same if I hear any news you would need to be aware of. Nicolas, your Natalie and I were merely discussing these unfortunate, dead mortals. So very sad." Her mock-sad face was almost laughable. "I told her that they had not visited the club and that I have not seen any suspicious activity amongst our kind." She brushed her lips against his. "I promised, however, that I will let her--and you--know if I do. See how polite I have been?" She trailed her fingers across his chest as she glided out of the morgue.
By the time Nick looked up, Natalie was smothering giggles in the back of her wrist. "You have never had a chance, have you?" she choked out. "I mean, centuries of that and she still renders you speechless? You should have seen...your face just went entirely blank." She laughed out loud then.
"Thanks, Nat. Thanks for the support."
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Natalie took deep breaths. "Nick, we need to talk."
"So, because of what I said, Natalie checked the connection to the previous spree killer and the details matched?" Schanke asked, chin perched atop files as he shuffled along.
Nick held the door for him. "Way too close for it to be a coincidence."
"Man. A year and a half and suddenly he's at again. How does someone go from a spree to being a serial killer? And does this mean we've got a group killing of four about to be called in any moment now?"
"I don't know, Schank. I think we've got to go through these files and see if there are any details we can use to get ideas for where this guy might live or hide or strike next. Anything, even the smallest thing that might give any connection, any idea on where or how he chooses victims. As a last resort, maybe if we could figure out where the bodies might turn up so, since he's moving and placing the bodies this time, maybe we can catch him at that."
"Sounds like a plan. Norma pulled together the files in record time and there are almost half a dozen detectives ready to go through them with a fine-tooth comb."
"Nat's going to help too."
"Wow. Things must be quiet over there."
"Yeah," Nick said noncommittally.
Three hours later, they'd been through all the files and found only the details they all remembered from the previous cases.
Natalie saw all the gaps she'd left in the autopsy reports.
Nick found all the details he'd left out of his scene and police reports.
They avoided each other's eyes.
Schanke slapped a file onto the desk next to photos from the new cases. "You know what I hate about these people? They come up with some wacko idea, then they kill people, making it look like there's some kind of hoo-doo going on. It's bad enough they're killing the people, but to turn the murders into a circus to send a message? It's just plain creepy and disrespectful, doing that to these people and their families, that they have to remember them with all this...stuff."
Natalie risked a glance at Nick. "I, uh, I think I know what you mean, Don."
They continued to turn pages, read passages, hand off folders. Natalie leaned toward a photo in the file she was examining and reached across the table, grabbing folders from Schanke and Garcia simultaneously.
"What've you got, Nat?" Nick moved to stand, but Nat was already halfway out of the precinct room.
Street lights and lights from office buildings reflected off the windshield and they drove. Natalie stared straight ahead, jaw set.
"I told you, I don't want you coming along."
Nick had waited four full blocks between arguments. Almost a record. "Too bad," she shot back, turning on the radio. "This involves me."
"...most hideous things we do are to protect those we love. Or are we protecting ourselves and our desire to be near them? Are we trying to preserve our chance to be near those people by protecting our image of ourselves or them? And, if they truly knew us and our actions to 'protect' them, would they still allow us near? Sometimes in our desire to protect someone, we shift into taking vengeance. And when we do that, sometimes we take the very action that will drive them away forev--"
Nick flicked off the switch.
Natalie stared at the dash console, then at Nick's rigid profile. "Is that LaCroix?" His jaw clenched tighter and the muscle pulsed. "You've been listening to LaCroix on the radio? How long has he been...he...wait...he was talking about protecting people, about vengeance..." She grabbed his sleeve. "Nick! Does he always talk to you directly over the radio? Can he tell what you're thinking about from that far?"
Nick pulled over in front of the CERK station. The Caddy jerked to a stop and he yanked the gear lever into park and turned it off.
Pivoting to face her, he spoke, tone dripping with bitterness. "What do you want me to say, Nat? Yes? Yes, he can invade my mind and thoughts and life no matter where he is? That nothing I think or feel is safe?"
"Yes! I need this information to help you! And I needed to know that he was messing with your head like this! I mean, if I'd known this, maybe I'd have expected him to show up at that restaurant--" Natalie broke off, frowning.
Nick draped one arm over the back of the seat.
"He...he was there..." Her voice dropped so even she could barely hear herself. The pieces were slipping away again, but some of the sensations stood out. The pounding in her chest and head, the helplessness as a mind slipped past her defenses, the confusion as her mind slipped away from her and was pushed aside, the feeling of a tight grip on her arms, the fear as there were suddenly hands all over her. She shuddered. "You were there. You...you said..."
"Don't," he whispered. "Nat, don't."
She placed hand on his arm, letting her eyes bore into him. "But... Nick, if he knows this much, he can't have..." She searched his face.
"This is why. Don't you see? You cannot come in there. It's too dangerous." He grabbed her hand and squeezed. "I have to keep you away from him."
"How will that help? It didn't help before," she protested. "And none of that was your fault."
"Not your fault. And he's playing along now. You know he is. You said he can see into your head. I didn't remember for over a week and then only through a fog and even I can tell you were lying. If he can see in your mind that we're on a case about vengeance, he must know you were lying, at least about parts."
He looked far over her shoulder. "You don't understand."
She looked at the floorboards. "You were lying, weren't you?" Her voice sounded high-pitched and small as a child's and she hated herself for it. "At least about some of it? I mean... I am...a little important to you, right?"
"More important than anyone." He took her shoulders and turned her to face him, squeezing her arms. "Never doubt that."
A shudder rippled through her. Pleasure and pain. Joy and fear. Trust and betrayal. Slowly she looked up to where he was staring at her and met his eyes. They looked so full of...worry and hope, love and fear. She felt a tiny smile tug at her lips and she nodded.
The thick fullness of the silence surrounded them and Natalie felt it closing in on her like being locked in a coat closet. She got out of the car and closed the door, feeling the breeze that blew along the sidewalk and trying to feel calm along with it.
Nick joined her and they stood together, half a block from the CERK door.
She forced herself to blow out a breath and say, "All right then." She drew in breath and it shuddered, but she forced control, "I know you hate this, but you wouldn't have driven here if you didn't know it too. We need him."
"No. We can get back in the car and drive away."
"Nick, we don't have a choice. If he could get into my head when you can't, he'll almost certainly be able to get into the head of our perp, and clean up any other loose ends."
"I can do that."
"Can you? Can you for sure?" She stared at him, full-on this time. "This guy, he may have a year and a half's worth of knowledge. Can you really go in and snip that away and still leave him competent for trial? Can you get rid of enough? And what if he's like me? What if you can't get into his head?"
"I think I can."
"But if you can't, he'll already be in custody, already be giving statements. We can't risk that, not with it connected to Richard, to the community, to you, to me, to our false reports, to everything. We need to ask him so we're sure."
"Natalie, LaCroix is the last person we want to ask to do anything for us. Ever. You don't understa--"
"Oh, don't I? After he threatened to kill me just to make you miserable? Over a centuries-old grudge? You think I don't understand what's at stake? You think I don't understand that he might make us both pay? You think I don't understand that this is on me because this is all because of what I demanded to try and save my baby brother?" Her volume had barely risen but she was speaking through clenched teeth, her tone had dropped, and she'd stepped right up against him, just as she'd done when demanding that he bring Richard across a year and a half ago. "I. Know."
"You have no idea." Nick's voice was low and dangerous. He turned on his heel and stalked toward the door.
She took a deep breath and followed, almost trotting to catch up.
As they reached the door, it was swept wide open. Nick tried to position himself at least partially in front of her, but she sidestepped him to face the vampire dead-on.
LaCroix's pallor was even starker against the unrelieved black he wore, save only for a silver sword pin in the collar. Nat's stomach contracted and turned as if she'd gone over a roller coaster hill. This was far more dangerous than the cheap adrenaline rush of a thrill-seeking ride, though. Even skydiving would probably seem tame to her now, she thought wryly, as she looked up to meet the eyes of the creature who had turned Nick almost 800 years before.
"Dr. Lambert," he practically purred. "I did not expect to see you again so soon."
Natalie forced her shoulders down, forced her breathing to slow, forced the same slow smile she had used at Azure to spread across her face. "How could I resist the opportunity to reciprocate after our first meeting? You had questions for me and now I have questions for you."
"Really?" LaCroix practically chuckled. "In that case, do come in. My dear Nicholas, I supposed you'll want to accompany the good doctor as her chaperone?"
There was a low growl from her side. "Remember our agreement, LaCroix. You stay away from her."
"I have no intentions of any kind towards her." His measured tones dripped of sarcasm and indifference. Natalie reflected that she hadn't known it was possible to do both together.
"Do you have anything to do with these bodies, LaCroix, because if you know anything about--"
Natalie laid a hand on the arm that was reaching toward LaCroix. "Nick, I'm almost sure he doesn't have anything to do with the murders...and that it's almost certainly not one of you at all, but the longer this takes the more likely the real murderer is to kill again."
"I see the good doctor remains the more sensible of the two of you, Nicholas. I could get used to her company in place of your continual histrionics." He gestured to a tapestry-covered settee. "And really, Nicholas, are accusations of murder any way to greet a friend?"
Natalie pulled at Nick's arm as she sat. "You know he's just trying to get at you," she said softly. "Lucien--I may still call you Lucien, may I not?" She tipped her head slightly, pleased to see him blink twice before he nodded formally. "We have three bodies that have been left in very public places tonight drained of blood with punctures at the jugular. But the bruising pattern around the punctures...I think it's wrong."
"What do you mean?"
She turned to Nick. "I made sure the photos that made it into the final reports showed no close-ups of the bite marks from Richard's kills." She swallowed. "But there were a couple of images where you could still see part of the neck and there is bruising from lower teeth...and there's none of that on tonight's bodies." She turned back to LaCroix. "So what I need is for you or Janette or Nick or one of the others..." She shook her head as words came slowly. "I need you to bite...me or someone--"
"No!" Nick was on his feet, solidly between her and LaCroix.
LaCroix exuded indifferent smugness, his hands folded over his crossed knees. "Ah, Dr. Lambert, I do not think that is what you truly want at just this time."
"No. No it's not. Do not even say that."
Natalie looked at Nick, standing between her and LaCroix. She blinked. Shook her head. Felt a slight cascade like dust or cobwebs drifting off her thoughts. That bastard. He did it again, just to prove he could. She shook her head again, and an adrenaline rush sped her heart rate and brought clarity to her thinking. "I apologize. I misspoke. I merely I want to get a sample of how a vict--" She swallowed hard as she saw LaCroix's expression shift from one of amusement to one of slightly arch challenge. "Uh, how someone's soft tissue would be affected when they're bitten. Maybe you could each bite a cadaver?" She smiled with affected innocence.
"A cadaver? Really, Dr. Lambert, and here I was beginning to think so highly of you." LaCroix tsked and shook his head. "How terribly déclassé of you. Not to mention unappetizing."
"Then a foam cylinder at least? Look, this is the only way I can think to prove almost certainly that these killings were committed by a mortal rather than a vampire. If it's a vampire, you'd want to know it was one of yours endangering you so you could take action, am I right?"
LaCroix was suddenly very still.
Natalie forged ahead. "If it's not a vampire, won't you want to know that for sure, especially since whoever the mortal is clearly knows of your existence and is inviting discovery of you? And won't you want to make sure that his memories are thoroughly erased? Because this goes back as far as a year and a half ago, and I'm sure you consider yourself more skilled at altering mortal thoughts than...others." She glanced at Nick, then looked pointedly back.
LaCroix pushed to his feet and Natalie stood and faced him, nearly toe to toe, looking up at him, waiting.
He gestured to the door. "Are we going then, Dr. Lambert? You did suggest there was a need for haste, as I recall?"
Natalie felt herself exhale and forced one foot ahead of the next, breathing shallowly and hating herself for it, knowing both vampires could tell, knowing they could hear her heartbeat, smell her anxiety. And, if Nick's fears were anything to go by, apparently LaCroix might be able eavesdrop on her thoughts, at least to some degree. Great.
"I cannot fathom a single reason why I would need to return to this ghastly crypt--" Janette pulled up short in the doorway.
"...and bite here."
LaCroix sank his teeth into a styrofoam cylinder, held it in his mouth for a moment, gave it a little shake, then released it.
"Thank you." Natalie glanced toward the new arrival, ignoring LaCroix pulling faces and spitting in the background. "Janette, thank you for coming." She measured and took notes as she talked. "This almost certainly confirms these murders were committed by a mortal, but it would help us be sure if you would bite one of these tubes so I would have measurements of pressures the secondary trauma from a female as well. We're trying to solve this before this guy commits what we're afraid may be a bloody and gruesome quadruple murder. If there's any chance it could be a vampire, we want to know." Natalie held out the styrofoam cylinder and smiled.
Janette's look had shifted across amusement, confusion, consternation, and on into horror. "Oh, no. I am not participating in your insane schemes--"
"Janette, please." Nick's words were drawn out and quiet, all the energy gone from them.
She threw her hands up. "You are mad, all of you."
Natalie explained the reasoning she had given LaCroix. "We don't know why, but if this is a mortal, it looks like he knows about you and is trying to draw attention to you. Between that and the investigation the police are running, we're hoping we can--"
"Oh, do get on with it. We do not care about your petty reasoning."
"LaCroix, speak for yourself," Nick grumbled.
"I believe I was speaking for myself as well as--"
"Boys?" Natalie said. "We have actual work to do here. Are you going to help, or am I going to have to stand one of you in that corner and the other in that one?"
Janette's pursed lips curved into a smile.
"Are they always like this?" Natalie asked in an exaggerated stage whisper.
"Often they are worse."
Janette bit a styrofoam cylinder, and Nat measured the punctures and surrounding bruising, then compared it to the records from Richard's victims and the victims from that night, as well as the data from other confirmed vampire kills that had come across her tables. The fang bite distance data was nothing new. She added to her new columns for marks left by other teeth, depth of indentation to indicate jaw pressure, spread width of the jaw, berating herself for not thinking to maintain such records all along. When she looked up, she saw a standoff in progress.
Nick glared at LaCroix, who sat coolly, arms and legs crossed, looking wholly unimpressed with everything. Janette leaned against the wall, looking slightly ill and entirely bored by the territorial posturing of the others.
Nat re-examined the three bodies. "In case you care, I've found absolutely no bruising from any other parts of a mouth that would indicate biting. Based on the data you gave, there is an almost zero chance these attacks were made by a real vampire."
"So, no rogue vampires, but a human who knows about us. Great," Nick said, voice dripping with sarcasm.
Natalie continued as if he hadn't interrupted. "Also, one victim has a light pink mark near the punctures. At first I thought it was a normal variation in skin tone, but now I think it's probably a rubber suctioning device, probably two to two and a half inches in diameter."
Nick grabbed her phone. "I'll call Schanke."
While the police were being updated, Natalie looked at her strange visitors. "I know this directly affects you and you're doing this for yourselves, but I really do appreciate you coming down here. I don't know that we could have gotten all the details we needed without you, and certainly not as quickly." She set a bag of blood with a coffee mug near each of them before settling in at her computer to cross check the measurements she had just made.
"Oh, no. Thank you, but...no." Janette backed away from the bag with an elaborate shudder. "I don't like the...preservatives. And I have to be getting back. Good night, Natalie. And good luck. Good night, Nicolas." She blew him a kiss and he raised a gloved hand in farewell.
"Do not take it personally, Dr. Lambert," LaCroix said evenly. "Janette does not like to venture out of her domain."
"I wasn't taking it personally," Natalie replied as she adjusted her microscope above the neck of the second victim. "Are you sure you want to stay? I know that the petty affairs of mortals are beneath your concern.'
"Let's just say that when those petty affairs affect me, I...take an interest." He leaned back and steepled his fingers.
Nick hung up the phone. "Schanke said they've run all the original victims. They had rap sheets half a mile long and most have no one related to them still local. But the second and third victims were a drug dealer and a 20-year-old college dropout and junkie named Leah Morden they presumed was buying from selling for him. Her arrest record was shorter, but it had been growing. Her brother Derek still lives in the area, and he's had some run-ins this past year for drunk and disorderly."
"Let me guess."
"Yeah." Nick nodded. "Two of them were at the Raven."
"Did Schanke say where he works?"
"He's apparently a bookkeeper for a mortuary on Mortimer."
"Nick, that's it. He must have used their embalming equipment to drain the victims before dumping the bodies." She felt the roller coaster drop again. "We're probably too late," she breathed. "If he's killing them enough in advance to drain them there, and if he's going to do the last four victims in a group, we're probably too late."
"We don't have any solid leads on where he might put these bodies since the ones tonight were left in different locations but the same region as the ones a year and a half ago. But in case he goes near Saul Craven's old warehouse, Schanke's already got uniforms on the way to stake it out. Same for the mortuary, other locations where bodies from the previous spree were found, his apartment, where Leah used to spend time...they've got an APB out on his car too. We'll catch him."
"Then it seems my assistance is no longer needed."
"No." Natalie spoke the exact same time Nick said, "Exactly." She turned to glare at him, then looked back at LaCroix. "No. We do need you."
"How very interesting. And how gratifying to be wanted." LaCroix took a step closer.
Nat felt Nick take a step closer as well. She licked her lips. "You...you could slip into my head. Nick can't." Nick's head spun on her. LaCroix, meanwhile, looked practically lascivious. Her heart rate rose but she continued. "We need you to be there to be sure that he doesn't remember why he went on this spree...or any of the research he did or how his sister died...it's a lot of information to take out of his head, especially since he would have had to go to a lot of trouble to find it all. We did a pretty solid cover-up."
"I should have known." LaCroix's lip curled. "You are as pathetic as him."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You want me to come to wipe his memory. That means you plan to leave this menace alive. Janette was right. You are both mad." He turned to leave.
Natalie grabbed his arm and he jerked away. She pulled her hand back but held her ground. "No. He has to be alive. The police already have his name, the connection. There needs to be a perpetrator, someone to arrest for this. If he is arrested, if he is deemed delusional, this draws more attention away, it resolves things. If you go off now and handle this your way--and yes, you're that transparent--then you leave questions. There need to be no more questions."
She stared up at LaCroix but, in her peripheral vision, could see Nick's gaze moving between them, but she remained unmoved. LaCroix's expression hardened and shifted into a deeper and deeper frown. It was a very, very long minute.
Finally he nodded once, sharply. "I will consider your solution."
Nick parked the Caddy a block away from the warehouse where Richard's largest single slaughter had occurred. They only had another three hours of night, but if Morden was going to make a perfect mimicry of the killings, he would be prepared to have all the bodies found tonight.
Natalie got out and kept her back to the brick wall of the building opposite, staying in the shadows.
LaCroix unfolded himself from the back seat where Nick had insisted he sit out of courtesy to a lady and Nick approached him. Natalie listened as the low, deadly tones she only occasionally heard from Nick sounded bitterly. "I swear, LaCroix, if you do anything to screw this up, I will make you pay. And you make sure, make absolutely certain, that nothing you do hurts her."
"Nicholas, I cannot help but note that your behavior does not particularly support the assertions you made when we had dinner at Azure recently."
"I'm warning you. Do this right. I'm letting you be here because Natalie's right: we need you. But see that you do not overstep yourself."
LaCroix chuckled. "Letting me? Ah, Nicholas. You have so much to learn, even now. I am continually surprised at how very young you can be after all these centuries."
Nick's hands closed into fists and Natalie considered stepping forward.
"I will move around to the back where I can slip in unseen and try to find this Mr. Morden who seems to have been causing all our problems." LaCroix lifted into the air without effort or thought, it seemed, and Natalie couldn't help staring, even as he smirked at her awe.
She and Nick headed to the cluster of cops near the front entrance. Schanke saw them and gestured them over.
"I'm glad you guys got here. I think we've got the right place. There are teams at the other locations, but there've been some suspicious sounds here. Tactical is about ready to go in."
Nick put a hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. "Nat, you make sure to stay back."
"You don't have to tell me twice."
In under four minutes from the first "Go!" it was over. There had been shouts and footsteps and pounding and falling metal and wood and noise and screams, then "Clear!"
Natalie slipped through the door and looked around, seeing the warehouse first in her mind's eye as the crime scene photos with the crime boss and his two thugs dead and dangling where Richard had left them after killing them, with Vanessa Delgardo, former accountant for Craven, still dead and bloody and tied to a chair, and whom Richard had also murdered. Murdered even though she was turning evidence against the criminals. She stared at the vision her mind placed onto the space, heard their screams, smelled their blood.
Then there was another scream, followed by keening wails, and the real warehouse space resolved before her eyes.
The screams were high-pitched with hysteria. "You have no idea how beautiful she was. By the time you saw her, she was almost nothing. But before? Before the drugs? She was talented and smart and funny."
Natalie walked toward the sound and saw a man sitting on the floor in a puddle of blood, sobbing. He swiped at the tears, only to smear his face with blood from what she saw were his open wrists.
"Derek, we know you suffered a terrible loss," Schanke said, "but that is no reason to take other people from their families."
"She was an actress. She was in every play in high school. In college? Before she dropped out? She had the lead in her freshman play. She was amazing until she started with the drugs and wasted away right in front of us." His sobs rose from his gut, almost overtaking his speech. "Then she slipped away, wanted that poison more than us or herself or her dreams. And finally, it got her killed." He tried to stand and staggered on his knees before falling back over. His jeans were soaked, knees and thighs and now bottom, in his blood, and he slowly tipped and leaned until he was lying on his side in a fetal position.
"Derek." Schanke knelt in front of him. "There were going to be four more. Where are the last four? Have you killed them yet?"
"Our Nana never recovered. Died a month after Leah. It destroyed us all. Destroyed us. For nothing. Nothing." He sobbed, repeating "nothing" occasionally through his hiccups, but no longer moving. Two of the beat cops stood nearby in case a burst of energy made it necessary to subdue him for the medics, who began to treat his wounds.
Natalie looked up and saw LaCroix in the doorway. He nodded at her. She signaled Nick, who glanced back, received a nod, and LaCroix was gone.
Nick suddenly frowned, sniffing and tilting his head. "I hear something."
Natalie followed him, keeping behind him as he moved toward the sound, and she could hear it after a few steps, then could hear a slight gasp accompanying what might be a tapping.
Behind some boxes were three bleary-eyed people, all tied securely, and next to them, another body. Nick and Nat immediately crouched and began to untie them as Nick bellowed, "Paramedic! We have hostages!"
An hour later, the body had been processed for transport and the three hostages had been sent to the hospital.
"Looks like Morden planned to stage his last kills here on this spot where the bloodiest kills occurred last time," Schanke commented.
"You know," Nat said, not looking at Nick, in fact, barely glancing up from her clipboard, "I'm thinking he may have been at least involved last time, too. These murders didn't vary the pattern much. They occurred on a date that has the same day of the month. There were five men and two women in the same age ranges... It might be worth it, looking into the connection to the first set of murders." She swallowed hard and took a deep breath before she committed to one last lie for her brother. "It might have been Morden last time."
"I was thinking the same thing," Nick added. He didn't look in Natalie's direction and, even out of the corner of her eye, she could see that he was watching the ambulances drive away rather than facing Schanke.
"Yeah, I was too. We'll have to go over the old case files one more time to see if there's anything that would let us charge him...run his alibis, check the forensics. Good thing for us we've got the best forensic pathologist in Ontario, huh?" Schanke patted Nat's shoulder and walked away.
"A good thing. Yeah," Nat said softly, looking up into the night sky to keep back the tears that pricked at her eyes that she would not let fall.
Natalie stared out Nick's loft window at the tiny glow from the last echo of the sunset on the clouds. "You know, Derek was only eleven months older than Leah, just like I was than Richard. When Richard killed her, he'd just arranged to get her checked into a treatment facility. Apparently he thinks she was seeing her dealer either for a panic-driven last dose or to tell him she was giving it up, and he'll never know which."
Nick stood just behind her. "Could be that's part of what drove him over the edge, wondering if pushing her into rehab was what drove her to where she got killed."
"And since he's going to make it, he'll spend the rest of his life in prison and he'll feel like he failed her, but LaCroix will have made sure doesn't entirely understand why or how. And there are four people dead, four more families grieving, and it's all because I felt like I couldn't let go of Richard, because I was too selfish...and now I'm pinning my sins and Richard's on one of his victims." She glanced at Nick then quickly away and back out the window. "I've adjusted the reports so the first set of murders could point to him. There's no real evidence, so I don't think they'll be able to charge him, but everyone will believe those cases are solved."
He reached out a hand. She stood, unmoving, her chest aching with old grief, old tears, tears she still refused to shed again, and slowly she moved forward until they sat together on the couch. He twined her fingers with his.
"I was the oldest too, you know," he said, staring at where his thumb moved slowly across her skin. "My sister was seven years younger than me and thought I had hung the moon, the stars, and the sun."
He fell silent and she squeezed his hand.
"When I returned from the Crusades...with LaCroix and Janette...and no sun ever again for any of us...Fleur--that was her name--she was a grown woman, and I was still willing to trade the world for her." He squeezed her hand back. "Just like you were with Richard. He was your little brother and she was my baby sister and Leah was Derek's and...we all three did things for them that...things we wouldn't even have done for ourselves."
"Is LaCroix always right?" Natalie's chest and stomach felt tight. This whole case had made her feel the same type of sick panic and disgust she'd felt the whole time Richard was dying and then again after his undeath had resulted in seven more deaths. Eleven now. "They'd be ashamed of us, wouldn't they? Of the lies, the wrongs we've done in their names."
She leaned her head onto Nick's shoulder, remembering the floppy blond hair of little Richie, back when all she protected him from was a slap or a shove, back when he'd wipe off her kisses, give her back sloppy-wet kisses of his own, tug at her curls, and yell at the neighbor kid who called her names. She chuckled through the bitter taste on the back of her tongue. After a long time she said quietly, "They'd probably have done the same for us, I guess."
"Fleur. That was the name..." She sat up again. "She was the one you talked about at the restaurant, with LaCroix, wasn't she?"
Nick tried to pull his hand away but she gripped it hard.
"Was that the name? Nick?"
"Yes," he whispered.
"Your sister. At the restaurant. That was all about your sister?"
"Had you...did you trade...it was your future happiness you traded? For her life? Her happiness?"
"Something like that."
"Our perp, you, me, my brother, your sister...all of us protecting each other or ourselves or something..." She shook her head and leaned back against the couch and into his tensed arm, then patted their joined hands with her free hand. It was a long few minutes before she felt him begin to relax.
"Tell me what Fleur was like."