Guilt Trip

Guilt Trip

A Forever Knight story

By Janice Cox

Notes: third season, fairly graphic violence, N/N, T/V

Part One

She stepped out into the alley, a blast of noise from the nightclub following her out into the alley. The heavy steel door thudded shut solidly behind her, cutting off the pulsing beat of the music in mid-note. Carefully the dark-haired woman checked her hair and clothes. Every hair in place, she started unsteadily down the dark alley, a duchess at the end of a week-long bender. Singing softly in French, she reached the end of the alley and headed unerringly toward the illustrious (and very discrete) Quebec Biltmore. Silently, one of the alley shadows coalesced into the form of a man and followed...

###

Tracy Vetter approached the abandoned Church of Immaculate Suffering with trepidation. Although she'd been to this building many times in the last few months, it was the first time that always stayed with her. She'd been investigating a plane crash, and had followed a lead here. Against her better instincts she'd gone in alone.

Just like this time.

But it was different now, she reminded herself as she levered open the heavy wooden door. The vampire who attacked her was dead. The vampire. Amazingly, the idea of vampires living among us no longer shocked her. It was just another one of those unexplainable things, like `what existed before God' or `why can't men put the lid down.' Oh, sure, it was maddening not to be able to talk about it sometimes. But she could just imagine the look on her partner's face if she tried. Nick was a good guy, but he'd have her in restraints long before she got to the part about falling seriously for--

"Vachon?" She looked around the first floor doubtfully. A single candle flickered dimly at the altar, but the only sound was the flapping of faded curtains and drop cloths in the cool night air. He must have already gone out.

"You know, you really need to get an answering machine. Of course, first you'd have to get a phone," she informed the empty room loudly. She could always try The Raven, of course, but that place gave her the serious creeps. Most bars were like meat markets, but that place was ridiculous. Shrugging in disgust, she turned to go.

"I don't think He needs an answering machine," came a familiar voice from behind her. It was Vachon, sitting casually on an overturned pew. Dressed in faded jeans and an old leather jacket, with a day's beard on his handsome face, he still managed to look so, so--ageless.

"You know, you can be so irritating sometimes." She smiled as she said it, her hand dropping from her holster, where it had gone by reflex. "You don't have a phone, you don't have electricity. What do you do all night?" She walked across the cluttered floor to settle casually beside him.

"I read." He waived a newspaper in front of her. "You know, that thing people did before television. You should try it sometime."

"Oh, ha, ha. I try to read the paper, but usually I don't have time to catch more than the front page. French, huh? Very impressive."

Ignoring her sarcasm, he grinned modestly and replied, "I try to keep up. Languages change so quickly. If we go too many years without speaking it, we sound archaic." He shrugged and tapped her knee lightly with the rolled paper. "But I don't think you came down here to talk about the linguistic problems of vampires. What's up? You on another weird case?"

"No. I'm off duty today, actually." She dropped her eyes to her hands, which were twisting nervously. "I, um, I happened to get two tickets to the Eagles reunion concert tomorrow, and I thought, well, if you weren't doing anything..."

"You're asking me for a date?" he asked bemusedly.

"No! Well, I mean, if you're not busy, I thought," risking a glance at him, she saw he was grinning, clearly enjoying her discomfiture. "Okay, a date. Do you want to go, or not?"

###

Javier Vachon dropped lightly into the alley behind The Raven and nodded politely to the old gentleman who was coming out. The older man nodded regally, cast a disparaging look at Vachon's scruffy appearance, then lifted gracefully into the night. Vachon caught the door before it could slam shut and slipped quietly inside.

As he settled comfortably into his usual spot, Vachon reflected on just how settled his life was becoming. No longer running from the Aztec, he had allowed himself to become comfortable with his routine, with the city. Even after nearly dying from a mortal-made disease, he hadn't moved on. That was strange enough, for him, and Urs had given him more than one curious look as the days turned into months and he was still here. Stranger still was his...relationship...with Tracy Vetter.

She had looked very pretty tonight. Relentlessly, he pushed the image of her shining hair, the way her face had lit up when he'd said yes, from his mind. It was crazy to even think of, of, whatever he'd been thinking. She was a mortal. He wasn't. End of story. And that wasn't even the worst of his problems, by the look of what he'd read in the papers tonight. He was still lost in thought when another man (vampire, his senses instantly informed him) sat down at his table.

"Mind if I join you ? You certainly look pensive tonight, Vachon."

It was Nick.

"Yeah, well, I know it's normally your bit, but I didn't think you'd mind." He watched carefully until he saw that Nick wasn't going to take offense, then took another drink. `Nick Knight' might look like a gentle, inoffensive guy, but Vachon knew that the eight hundred year old vampire beside him could toss him around like a toy. You didn't mess with the big boys if you wanted to live long. "Haven't seen you around here lately."

"Too many memories."

"Yeah." There'd been a dust-up recently, something to do with the former owner of the bar. Word was that she and Nick had been a hot item once, and that whatever just happened hadn't been good. A lot of crazy rumors were floating around--some of them really crazy--but nobody involved was talking. LaCroix probably knew, but Vachon would rather spend an hour in a tanning bed than try to pry secrets out of that guy. Nick was still looking inquiringly at him.

"The Etude burned down, night before last." At Nick's blank look he added, "It's a Community hangout up in Quebec. Guy named Merrault put in some rooms below the bar about a hundred years ago. I have a friend who was staying there last I heard."

"Arson?"

"The papers say so. No mention of bodies, of course. Maybe it changed hands, maybe they all got out okay. It's probably nothing." He pulled out the paper and slid it across to Nick. "You have any contacts in the city?"

"No. Aristotle might, or LaCroix." Nick frowned, then handed the paper back to Vachon. "Why don't I check it out at the station? The police report might have information that they didn't release to the public."

"Yeah." Nick looked alert now, Vachon saw. Like he'd just caught sight of a beautiful woman, or the scent of his next kill. "Why don't I tag along? I used to know that area pretty well." The older man shrugged, then nodded.

"Let's go."

###

It was good to be doing something.

Ever since Janette had returned and then...left again, Nick had been ill at ease with himself. Janette would never forgive him, and lately he wasn't sure he could forgive himself. From the moment that Janette had reappeared, mortal, nothing had seemed real. Looking back now, it was as if he'd been a sleepwalker, walking through the scenes of his own life. When he should have been feeling joy for Janette (for she, at least, had escaped this evil "life"), there had been only an emptiness, almost a feeling of...sorrow?

No.

He had been shocked, that was all. Everything had happened so quickly. There hadn't been time to talk about it with Janette, with...Natalie. Nat had been acting as strangely as he, seemingly angry that a (non-scientific?) cure had been found. If there had been more time, he would have become happy for Janette and the new life she had found. He would have, he was sure of it. If only she hadn't started to die...

That was the one thing he couldn't bear. To watch her life fade away, never again to see her eyes, hear her laugh. The sorrow that had welled up inside him had washed away everything else, and he had acted. Even at the time he had known the depths of his betrayal, and it hadn't mattered. Nothing else mattered but Janette, quickly slipping away. Was this what LaCroix felt, why he fought so hard to keep him from mortality? Unable to spend another night alone in his apartment, he had come to find out.

But LaCroix was already working, his commanding voice coming through the Raven's rear speakers from the CERK recording studio in the back. He had been tempted to leave, to forget it, when he'd seen Vachon. The younger vampire hadn't been wearing his usual easy-going "slacker" expression, but instead looked worried and preoccupied. Impulsively, Nick had sat down.

Now he was back at the station, Vachon trailing uneasily behind him. Nick grinned inwardly. Many vampires developed a dislike for law enforcement--or any mortal authority, for that matter--but Vachon seemed to have it worse than most. Of course, the looks he was getting wouldn't help. To the other cops Vachon, in his leather and long hair, looked like one of the Bad Guys. With relief, Nick saw that the squad room was nearly empty. That ought to calm Vachon down and keep their little fishing expedition quiet. Gesturing for Vachon to take Tracy's empty chair, Nick turned on his computer and got to work.

###

The case had already been closed. Vachon didn't need Nick to tell him what that meant. The Enforcers had come in, and swept the entire thing under the rug. Which meant that the Community had been involved. And that Louis might have been there.

"Okay, I'm ready." Tracy walked out of the bedroom, patting lightly at her shoulder-length hair. The snug jeans and thin sweater she had put on did nothing to hide her very nice figure. She had kept him waiting (for he'd insisted that it would be easier for him to pick her up) for only a couple of minutes.

"Not bad." It wasn't until he heard the words that Vachon realized that he'd spoke aloud.

"Thanks." She smiled shyly, and the clever retort he'd planned went out the window. Instead, he offered her his arm grandly.

"My lady, your chariot awaits."

###

It hadn't gone well. Natalie had invited him over to watch Gone With the Wind--it was one of her favorites, right up there with The Sound of Music--and he had thought that her company might be just what he needed. But he'd been unable to concentrate on the movie, and worse, hadn't been able to hide that fact from Nat. She'd tried to be understanding, he knew. But how could he explain it to her, when he didn't understand himself? He'd always been so sure that mortality was what he wanted. Now, for the first time in hundreds of years, he was doubting. He cared for Natalie, wanted her badly, but...

But.

In the end, he had called it an early evening. Now he prowled the squad room, looking for something, anything, to keep him occupied. He'd been going over one of their open cases when a fax came in from Quebec.

It was pretty much what he expected. Lab tests had been mysteriously `lost', and a summary closing report was already on file. Still, maybe there was something in the evidence report that would allay Vachon's worries. He scanned the list quickly, then came back to an item which sounded familiar.

'One gold locket, ca 1850 France, engraved.' Such a small thing, one line.

"Janette."

###

He was a murderer, just like all the rest. He dressed better than some, in his black, tailored suit, but underneath throbbed the soul of a monster. Cain watched as the man stepped from the cab, then turned to pay the driver. Good. He was unaware. The monster shared a joke with the cabbie, then turned and walked up the steps to his condominium. Cain waited as the cab pulled away into the lightening street, then followed.

The following day the television was full of the sudden, tragic death of Pierre DuPonte, noted industrialist and philanthropist. The police were blaming it on a leaking gas main, and making loud accusations against the builder. Cain would like to have screamed the truth to the very heavens, but that would not have been wise. Perhaps years ago man he would have been believed. Been lauded as a hero, even. Now he must work in secret, killing the evil vampire monsters in their lairs and then hiding the remains from an inquisitive police force. Methodically, he daubed at the bloodstains on his coat. Long experience told him that cold water would eventually remove them. He mustn't attract undue attention when he began his work again.

###

The concert had been fantastic.

It had also been loud. Surreptitiously, Tracy rubbed at her ringing ears as she and Vachon walked up the stairs to her apartment. After the concert he'd taken her out for a ride on his Harley, and that had been fun, too. She hadn't been on anything more than a dirt bike before, and the speed and wind (not to mention being pressed close to Vachon, her arms tight around his waist) had been intoxicating. It had also been noisy, and she was beginning to despair of ever getting her hearing back.

"Well, here we are." Even to her own ears, her voice sounded funny. Leftovers from the concert, she supposed.

"Safe and sound," Vachon added. He looked alive, more so than she could ever remember seeing him. Tracy had the feeling that he didn't share this face with too many people. And he was getting ready to leave.

"I've got that Meatloaf CD we were talking about, if it's not too late. Do you want to come in?" She forced herself to keep her voice light and casual, hoping that he wouldn't hear her pounding heart. What are you getting yourself into, Trace? Vachon had been in her apartment before, of course, but something seemed different tonight. Better. Maybe Vachon felt it, too.

"Why not?" He shrugged casually, but she got the feeling that he didn't want to go, either.

Distracted, Tracy pushed harder than she needed to, and the door swung open and slammed loudly against the wall. From inside, something crashed and there was a thud of movement. In a flash Vachon was past her, moving into the room and between her and the supposed intruder. Calmly, Tracy reached out and flicked on the living room light.

"I see you've met my roommate." She got it out with a straight face, but couldn't hold it as she saw Vachon's expression. He had gone unerringly to the source of the noise, and was now face to nose with a large, green, and very surprised iguana. She burst into laughter, and after a moment he joined her.

"You have a pet lizard." He had sobered somewhat, and watched dubiously as she calmed the big reptile.

"Yep. This is Fluffy. He's a five year old green iguana. I got him a couple of weeks ago from a friend who had to move and couldn't take him with her. He's a great pet, really," she continued, as he stared at her in surprise. "He doesn't need to go for a walk, he's quiet, and he doesn't scratch up the furniture. The perfect apartment pet." Fluffy flicked his tongue at Vachon, then stared at him impassively.

Still carrying the iguana, Tracy led them into the living room, where she put Meatloaf's "Bat out of Hell" CD in the player. It seemed only natural to sit together on the couch, Fluffy between them, as they listened to the flamboyant musician sing about adolescent angst. After a while Fluffy began to blink sleepily and Tracy excused herself long enough to return him to his warmed bed. It felt warm in the room, too, and she stopped in the kitchen to get a cool glass of water.

"Um, I'd offer you something to drink, but I've only got, well, the usual," she called into the other room. After a moment, Vachon appeared in the doorway and leaned easily against the wooden frame. "I had some left from before," she added, alluding to Vachon's recent brush with death, "but that stuff goes over pretty fast. How do you keep it fresh? I mean, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Some kind of anti-coagulant. I'm not really sure how it works."

"Kind of like homogenized milk, huh?" They both smiled, and began to walk back toward the living room. At the couch, Vachon paused.

"Look, it's getting pretty late. If you want to throw me out of here and get some sleep, just say the word. I'm not going to be offended, or anything."

"No. Remember, I work the night shift. This is like mid-afternoon for me." That was a little bit of an exaggeration, but in a good cause.

"You sure?" He was standing very close.

"Yeah. I'd really like you to stay." She was still trying to say something else, to make her statement a little less bald, when he kissed her.

###

"Knight? Hey Knight! Aren't you supposed to be off tonight?" Nick looked up from the fax, his face utterly blank.

"I'm sorry, Rich. What did you say?"

"I said go home, Knight. You trying to make the rest of us look bad? This time of night, whatever you've got'll keep until tomorrow." The burly detective stretched, then shook his head wearily. "It's damned near dawn now. Go get some sleep."

With a start, Nick looked at his watch. Four fifteen. Sunrise was in a little over two hours.

"Damn. Okay, I'm going. And Rich? Do me a favor. Tell Reese I'm taking some time off."

"Just like that? Captain'll have your narrow butt on a platter, Knight."

Nick was already putting on his jacket, the fax still clutched tightly in one hand. "Tell him it's a family emergency, and that I'll call as soon as I can." Not waiting for a reply, he ran for the door as fast as he dared.

###

Their first kiss had quickly led to others. Somewhere along the way back to Tracy's couch he had lost his jacket, but the room still seemed far too warm. Tracy was in his arms, her quick heartbeat wordlessly urging him on. Breaking their kiss, his mouth traveled slowly down the curve of her neck. In response, Tracy's hand tightened at the back of his neck. Gently, he ran his canines over the pulse he found there. Heaven was just a heartbeat away.

Reluctantly, he pulled back. It wasn't right. Tracy hadn't asked for this, couldn't want it.

"Vachon? What's wrong?" Her voice was low, husky. He started to turn away but stopped at the gentle touch of her hand on his cheek. "Don't."

"Tracy, I--" Whatever he had been going to say was stopped by her gentle kiss. As their kiss deepened, he felt the tip of her tongue brush against the tip of one sharp fang. She didn't pull away.

###

"Vachon!" Nick dropped down into the abandoned church, extending his senses for the younger vampire. As usual, the place was filled with clutter, but Javier was nowhere to be found. It was getting close to dawn, and Nick needed to find the Spaniard before then. Where else--? According to Urs, he hadn't been to The Raven all night. Damn it! Vachon was familiar with the city of Quebec, could easily lead him to the Community there. But he'd never make their flight tomorrow night if Nick didn't tell him in advance. The man didn't even have a phone, for God's sake!

Phone. He'd promised himself he'd tell Tracy before he left. He checked his watch again. It was five in the morning. She would be home, at least. He dialed the number from memory, then listened for her answering machine.

Busy. He dialed again, and got the same response. Nick cut the connection in irritation and scrawled a quick note for Vachon. He'd run by Tracy's on his way home, and hope that Vachon got the message in time.

He couldn't afford to wait any longer.

###

Their kiss broke, and Tracy looked up into Vachon's amber eyes. The vampire was very much in evidence, and part of her knew that she was probably in danger, but none of that seemed to matter very much. Vachon would never hurt her. The thought came to her cleanly, with no doubts or qualifications attached. Even through the flush of their shared desire, she could see the concern in his face, feel the gentleness of his touch. She touched his cheek gently, and he bent his head to kiss her again while one hand moved slowly down the curve of her body...

And then he was gone.

Gasping for breath, she sat upright on the couch and looked around in confusion. In the dim light she could just make out his silhouette against the window.

"Vachon?"

"We can't, Trace. Damn it, I almost..." he trailed off uncertainly. "I could've killed you, Tracy."

"No." Tracy pulled herself up off of the couch and stumbled over boots and leather jacket as she made her way to him. "I know you, Javier. You aren't going to hurt me." At the sound of her voice behind him he started to turn, then pulled away.

"C'mon, Tracy. You know what I am. What I could do to you. Look, maybe we should have talked about this more, but you've got to know there can't be anything between us." She shrugged and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Too late," she said lightly. He pulled free and moved just out of reach. "Vachon, I know what you are. And I know that you don't want to kill me." She waited, and only silence filled the void. Time to go for broke, then. "I want you, Javier. I guess I have for a long time. And you said that the bite doesn't have to be fatal. Why can't we--" she stopped as he turned to look at her, his face a mixture of desire and despair.

"It's too much of a risk. Yeah, we don't have to kill. But we can, even when we don't want to. The feelings, the desire gets out of hand...you wouldn't understand." She interrupted him with a shaky laugh.

"Maybe I would. Look, Vachon, I'm not stupid. I know there are risks. But I've read the reports." That seemed to get his attention. "The autopsy reports. Half the time the primary cause of death isn't even blood loss, it's shock. Or something else we can't even identify."

"Yeah." He nodded reluctantly. "The contact is more than just physical. It's mental, too. Kind of like our little mental whammy."

"And I'm a resistor," she concluded quietly. For a moment she was afraid that it was too much, that she'd pushed him too far. His whole body was trembling, his hands clenching and unclenching spasmodically. When he finally spoke, his voice was little more than a whisper.

"Are you sure? Is it what you want, Tracy?" His large brown eyes pleaded for her to say yes.

"Am I sure? I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't a little afraid. But I'm a big girl, Javier. And I'm willing to risk it if you are." She took a single step forward, and held out her hand. "Are you?"

Part Two

Tracy wasn't home. Most of her neighbors were, however.

"Hey! Keep it down out there! Don'tcha know what time it is?" Grumbles from two other doors on Tracy's floor added to the din.

Nick was well aware of the time. He pounded again on his partner's door, then leaned against it in disgust. Five forty-five a.m. He could feel dawn just around the corner, waiting to force him into inactivity for the day. But there was still so much he needed to do...

When he'd agreed to check on an arson case in the city of Quebec for Vachon, he'd been just looking for something to do, something to keep the pain and confusion away for a little while. Then he had seen it: an evidence report listing the small gold locket he'd given to Janette more than a century ago. Found in a Community hideaway that had been burned to the ground. Now Vachon, who knew the area and the Community there, was missing.

And so was his partner. He was about to call it quits when his vampire hearing picked up a voice from inside. Voices. Carefully, he unsnapped the strap on his holster, then stood to the side of the door. It was probably nothing, but they'd both made a few enemies. More than a few. And it wouldn't be the first time one of them had visited Tracy here.

"Tracy?" Knowing that his voice would carry through the thin door, he rapped lightly. "Tracy, it's Nick." The soft murmur of voices through the door, then he heard the lock slide back. The door opened a few inches, and Tracy peered out.

"Nick? What are you doing here? Do you know what time it is?"

"Yes. Is everything all right? I need to talk to you."

"Yeah, sure, everything's fine." As he started to step forward, she put an arm across the doorway. "But, I'm kind of busy right now. Why don't you call me later."

Belatedly, he took a closer look at his partner. Her skin was flushed, her hair mussed, and she was wearing a faded nightshirt and...nothing else. Understanding flooded through him, and he felt himself blush.

"Ah. I'm sorry. I tried to call, but... It's not that important."

Tracy frowned at him.

"Look, I'm sorry, Nick. You just caught me off guard. If it was important enough to bring you out here at this hour, then of course you can come in." She looked embarrassed now, too, which made it a little easier.

"Forget it. I just need to take a little time off, that's all. Look, I left word at the station. I'll be out of town for a few days on family business. I just didn't want to take off without saying anything. And you're right, it is getting late. I'd better get going."

"Okay. Nick, are you sure you're okay? I could take some time off, come with you...?" He shook his head.

"No, I'll be fine." Before she could ask another question, Nick turned and quickly headed toward the elevator. Dawn was on it's way.

Tracy closed and locked the door, a frown knitting her eyebrows together.

"Well, that was weird."

"What did he want?" Vachon had come up behind her and now slipped his arms around her waist, bending his head slightly to nuzzle one ear. She relaxed back into his embrace.

"I don't know for sure. He said he's going to be out of town for a few days. Something about his family. I didn't think Nick had any family."

Vachon's hands stopped their slow exploration almost before it had begun.

"Family?"

"That's what he said. What is it? You don't think he's in trouble, do you?" Vachon paused, then resumed his exploration.

"I think Nick knows how to take care of himself. And, anyway, he's not going anywhere at this time of day. It'll keep." The last words were muffled as he began to nuzzle the nape of her neck.

This time of day? Oh, his skin allergy. It was getting harder to think rationally, but for a moment the thought stayed in her mind. Huh. He's just like Vachon... Then it was gone, and he was leading her back to the bedroom, with its heavy curtains already shut against the encroaching day.

###

"Tracy? Hey, sleepyhead. Time to get up." Vachon reached down and ruffled her blond hair. He could hear the slow, steady beat of her heart, but she was so pale... He debated letting her sleep, decided against it.

"Trace?" After a long moment she stirred, blinking up at him in surprise. Then memory flooded her face, and she smiled. His lingering doubts fled as she sat up and reached for him.

"Morning." Her kiss was sweet and light.

"Evening, actually. We slept the day away, kiddo."

She sat back in surprise. "What time is it?" She looked over at the alarm clock, then made a noise of disgust. "Oh, shoot. I'm supposed to be at work in half an hour." She blinked then shook her head in surprise. "I can't believe I slept so late. Did you leave any hot water?"

Tracy insisted that she felt fine, but allowed him to make--with extensive supervision--a hearty breakfast for her. Their shared laughter over his attempts at a cheese-potato-green onion omelet washed away any lingering awkwardness between them, and he watched her get ready to leave with real regret.

"You'll go over and check on Nick? He's still not answering his phone." She frowned lightly as she hung up the phone, then grinned as she saw him examining the leftover dishes in the sink. "Why don't I take care of that when I get home?"

"Excellent idea. This stuff smelled bad enough while it was cooking." He grimaced and set the frying pan down. "You sure you don't want me to take you to work?"

"Will you stop worrying? I'm fine." She reached up and kissed him on the cheek. "I know you've got stuff to do tonight, but I'll be off at three. You're welcome to come by..." she trailed off uncertainly.

"Not tired of me yet?" he asked teasingly.

"Give me another day or two. And I've really got to run. You've got my number, and door will lock automatically behind you when you're ready to go."

"I'll lock up, I'll call you later, and you're really going to be late. Go!" He made shooing gestures at her until she half-ran out the door, laughing.

###

"I thought you liked to fly," Nick shouted over the roar of Vachon's Harley-Davidson. The other man was revving the engine, listening critically. After a moment he nodded in satisfaction and the bike's roar dropped to a low rumble.

"I do. But last night I went out riding with...a friend. Kind of reminded me of how much fun I used to have on this baby. Besides, by the time we get to the airport, check in, embark, fly, disembark, and get out of the airport in Quebec, it'll be nearly dawn. We get going now, we can be there long before that."

"It's nearly 600 miles!" Nick protested.

Vachon looked at him soberly. "Well, I wasn't planning on obeying the speed limits." He checked his saddlebag one last time, then settled easily into the saddle. "You up for this?" At Nick's nod he gunned the motor, sending the hog roaring out into the evening traffic.

"This is insane. I'm going on a road trip with a slacker vampire when I should be..." he trailed off uncertainly. Should be what? Vachon was right. The bikes would get them there nearly as quickly, and would provide easy transportation in town besides.

"Maybe I am getting old." With a sigh of weary resignation, Nick mounted his own bike and headed, far more sedately, after Vachon.

###

WHAAAAAAANK!

The big rig howled its' annoyance as Vachon, apparently bored with their sedate 80 mph, cut sharply in front of it and pealed out with a scream of protesting tires. The truck swayed alarmingly from side to side as the trucker fought to regain control, and for a minute Nick thought he'd have to follow Vachon's lead or be squashed like a grape against the center divider. Then the truck settled on one lane and he was able to slide safely out of harm's way.

The flash of a bubble light caught Nick's immediate attention. Roughly half a mile down the road officers were waving traffic into a detour around a spilled ten wheeler. Then the road curved, and he lost sight of it. If Vachon hadn't caught a glance of that... Nick increased his own speed, hoping to catch up with the impetuous vampire before he managed to splatter himself all over the tarmac.

The road straightened again, and sure enough, there was Vachon, headed at full speed directly toward the overturned rig. The cop in Nick guessed that he was going about 110. Vampire reflexes or not, there was no way he'd clear it. At least Vachon was old enough to know when to drop the bike and take to the skies.

Wasn't he?

Just like in the movies, cops dove for cover as the Harley screamed by. Here there were no stuntmen standing by, though, and Nick flinched as the bike hit the tomato-covered road. Vachon stayed with the bike, which either proved that he was very conscientious about not being seen by mortals or that he was a complete idiot. Watching the bike slalom through the wreckage, Nick voted for the latter.

When the younger vampire failed to turn himself into hamburger, Nick pulled around the wreckage and followed. Still thinking up invectives for the impetuous child he'd made the mistake of following, he was alarmed to see the bike swaying from side to side. Vachon slowed the bike, then pulled over to the side of the road. As Nick pulled up behind him, he was alarmed to see Vachon stumble away from the bike and collapse bonelessly to the ground.

"Vachon!" Heedlessly letting his bike fall where it would, Nick ran to the prostrate figure. Vachon was covered in red liquid, holding his stomach tightly, and...laughing?

"Oh, man, did you see that? Whoo! I still can't believe it!" One red- smeared hand slapped at the road, sending to Nick a small puff of dust and the smell of tomatoes. The younger man sat up on his elbows, and grinned. "Why didn't you follow me through? That was wild, Nick!"

Nick closed his mouth with a snap. "You, you...you did that for fun? You could have been killed, Vachon!" Scowling, he looked down at still-smiling Vachon, and in that moment he understood LaCroix in an entirely new light. Slowly, Vachon's smile faded, and he shook his head sadly.

"It was fun, Nick. And, yeah, it was a risk. But life is risk, man. You stop taking chances, you start to die inside. Don't you know that?" When Nick just looked at him, Vachon sighed in exasperation. "Sometimes you've just got to take a chance. Yeah, you might crap out, but you could also end up with something better than you'd ever imagine." Vachon looked up at him intently, and seemed on the verge of adding something else. Then he shook his head, and started getting to his feet. "Forget it. I'm probably way out of line. We'd better get moving--those cops back there looked pretty pissed off." He wiped off the worst of the tomato pulp, then sauntered back to the big Harley. Nick watched in thoughtful silence for a few seconds, then moved to join him.

Part 3

The moon hung low over the trees, shining its silver light down on the young lovers who walked arm-in-arm through the park. Sometimes their laughter would reach him, the soft music of innocents who had no idea of the monsters who walked among them. Cain shifted on his seat and looked back up at the moon. The light fell on his upturned face like a gentle benediction from God, and he knew it was time to begin again.

The monsters had begun to be careful. Even the stupidest beast will protect itself when threatened with death, and vampires were anything but stupid. Already they watched for strangers among them, for the pad of soft mortal feet behind them. Locks were added to doors already heavily fortified, and new lairs created that mortal city records were unaware of.

But they had grown fat and complacent in the past century. Things which might have exposed them, simple things like refusing to worship at the town chapel or staying healthy while all those around them fell ill, no longer applied in this healthy, modern civilization. Vampires and devils were the things of fiction, and few mortals still walked the earth wearing even the simple symbol of their faith. Even God, it was said, no longer existed. Now the monsters were free to flaunt their difference to a city which had seen far, far more eccentric behavior. Now they fed off mortal society like leeches, with no natural predators to keep them in check.

Except Cain. He knew what they were, knew what an abomination Satan had let loose upon God's earth. At first he had faltered, lead astray by their too-human features, the piteous way some would beg for their cursed unlives. But God had shown him the truth. He had been chosen, and he would not fail. He would not rest until the last of them was destroyed, wiping their filth from the face of God's good earth forever.

And even now he was blessed. Even now his prey grew closer. The warming sun was only a short while away, and like any beast, the vampire would soon go to ground. All Cain must do now was wait. A moment later she passed him. She had been a remarkable beauty as a mortal, he had no doubt, but now all Cain could see was the filth which lay just below that lacquered surface. Glancing apprehensively around her, the vampire unlocked the door and slipped inside the door marked "Service Entrance: Employees Only." It shut with a soft thud behind her, and she disappeared down into the tunnels below the city. He shook his head in disgust. Even now they did not understand how predictable they had become. With a low sigh he lifted his tired old body up from the bench, gathered his equipment about him, and followed.

###

Natalie Lambert was having the nicest dream. In it, she was walking though a field of poppies, the sun shining gently down from above. That was all. No corpses. No phones. No smell of formaldehyde or coagulating blood. Just warm, fresh air, with birds singing in the trees for Sidney to chase. Then Nick was there, and it got even better. He'd dressed nicely for her dream, and considerately took off his sunglasses as he approached. Smiling, he reached out and took her hand, and said

"Natalie? It's Nick. Something's come up, and..."

Oh, he was making excuses again. Drat the man, anyway. His voice sounded awfully tinny, though.

"...I'll call you as soon as I get back. Take care."

Then he was gone. Weird. But it was okay, because then the Von Trapp walked over the hill, and soon she was singing along with them as they walked down the hill to Disneyland.

###

"When you wish upon a star..." Tracy had been humming the tune for half an hour, and she was profoundly sick of it. She'd already tried mentally reciting prime numbers, the Toronto Civil Code, and the name of every teacher she'd had since she was five, but nothing had helped. Now she was singing it aloud, God help her. At least it kept her from thinking about last night. She'd never get any work done if that happened. And at least Nick wasn't here. She could keep a secret from the rest of the station, but she knew he'd have peeled it out of her in a flash. Vachon had said that wouldn't be a good idea, but she'd never gotten around to asking him why.

She'd been a little distracted at the time.

Taking a new lover was a big deal, of course, and it was only reasonable that she'd still be thinking about it the next day. Who wouldn't? Add to that that the man in question was a tall, dark, and handsome vampire, and things got even more complicated.

It sure hadn't seemed complicated last night. He'd been sweet and gentle, and everything had happened with a rightness that was almost scary in its intensity. The bite, when it finally came, hadn't even hurt. Quite the contrary, in fact. Add to that the feel of his cool, knowing hands on her bare skin and the way he'd whispered her name when he--

"Tracy Vetter, what were you up to last night?"

"Wha--what?" She looked up from her daydreaming to see Grace Murphy, the night desk sergeant, perched casually on the edge of her desk. Grace was looking down at her with a knowing smile on her narrow face, and Tracy felt her own face turn fire-engine red.

"Oh, don't you 'what' me, girl. When Detective Vetter, who's always on time, comes in a full hour late wearing a turtleneck sweater and a glow that lights up half the damn station, there most certainly is something going on. Who is it? Come on, honey, you can tell Grace."

"There's nothing to tell," Tracy managed, averting her eyes from Grace's knowing stare. Grace was Metro's most renowned gossip hound, and it was said she could read good dirt right out of your head. "I was just out with an old friend."

"Well, then you'd better just give me his number right now. Anybody who has that kind of affect on a `friend' is a national resource, and ought to be properly treasured."

"No! I mean, he's more than a friend. Someone that I've known for quite a while." Grace clearly wasn't having any of it. "Okay, he's my boyfriend. Enough?"

"Not on your life. Does this stud boy have a name? Better yet, give me his brother's name. We'll open a franchise."

Tracy burst out laughing.

"His name's Javier, and he doesn't have any brothers. You'll just have to settle for poor old Joel, Grace." Joel was Grace's on again, off again boyfriend, whose every foible was well-known throughout the station. Grace wrinkled her nose in response.

"Never go with last years' model. You sure we couldn't work out some sort of time-sharing agreement? No? Well, you let me know if you change your mind." She looked down at her watch, and jumped off the desk. "Whoops! I'd better get back to work. Now, you tell that stud of yours I said he'd better let you get a little sleep next time. You're looking a little pale, blondie." Before Tracy could come up with any sort of dignified reply Grave had sauntered off.

Now that Grace mentioned it, she was feeling a little pale. She'd always had a small hypoglycemia problem, which was aggravated by stress. Normally, it just made her a little light-headed if she skipped a meal, but once or twice, when she'd skipped too many meals, it had made her pass out. It was really embarrassing (not to mention dangerous, if it should happen in the field), and now she was very careful to avoid missing a single meal. Maybe her little "blood donation" last night was having the same affect. Stomach rumbling, she checked the time and saw that it was almost 'lunch' time. Sliding her papers into her desk, she went off to brave the all-night burger joint across the street.

###

The cool night air felt wonderful after the stale, processed air of the Coroner's Building. Natalie stretched her arms luxuriously over her head, then set out at a good pace for Jimmee's. Word was that Jimmee's was always on the verge of a health department shutdown, but boy, did they know how to make a chili-cheese burger! She pushed through the glass door and headed purposefully for the counter.

"I'll have a chili-cheese special with onion rings and large Coke. Oh! And a chocolate milkshake." Sidney wouldn't mind a belch or two later tonight. She handed over her money, careful to avert her eyes from the kitchen while she did so. What you don't know won't hurt you, right?

Carrying her tray o' cholesterol, Natalie turned around carefully and nearly ran into a familiar face.

"Tracy! Hey, don't see you out here too often. I thought you were more of a salad person."

"Well, you know how it is. I just got a big craving for one of Jimmee's monster burgers." Tracy shrugged casually, her blue eyes sparkling brightly. Nat waited while the detective ordered her own poison, and they managed to find a small table that would fit the both of them.

"You sure seem chipper tonight. Have a good time last night?"

"Am I wearing a sign or something?" Tracy dropped her sandwich and stared wide-eyed across at Nat.

Natalie laughed. "No, but I know it was your night off, and you do look a little more chipper than usual." The blond detective did look happy. Happy and preoccupied, the way Nat hadn't felt since, well... a long time. "Anyone I know?"

Vachon had said she shouldn't mention it to Nick, but Natalie already knew that she and Javier were seeing each other. "Yes. It's Vachon. You remember, he helped out with the Voodoo case last year."

"Yeah, I remember. I didn't know it was that serious." Vachon. The vampire. If the two of them were `involved', then they were in the same boat as she and Nick. Funny, Tracy sure didn't look frustrated... Tracy took a big bite of her burger, then leaned forward confidentially.

"Neither did I. Until last night, I mean. You know how sometimes everything just seems so right? Well, it was very right last night." A delicate pink flush rose on her pale cheeks as she spoke.

Pale cheeks. Paler than normal, with salad-loving Tracy enthusiastically chomping down on a double-decker hamburger. While wearing a turtleneck with a high, concealing collar.

"And, you and Javier..." Nat broke off, unsure of how to proceed. Tracy didn't know that she knew that Vachon was a vampire. And it was a damned personal thing to ask, anyway. Tracy had put down her sandwich and was looking at her expectantly.

"You think it's going to work out?" Natalie finished lamely.

"I hope so. I mean, I think so. We're really different in some ways, but maybe that's good. We complement each other. Are you okay, Natalie?"

"Yeah. I was just preoccupied for a minute. Say, have you talked to Nick today?" Nick would sort this out when he got back. Whenever he got back.

"I saw him briefly this morning. He said he was taking some personal time. Something about family trouble."

"That's all he told me, too. My answering machine, anyway. I was hoping he'd told you where he could be reached. It's not like him to go off on his own like that." Good, they were back on safe ground.

"Not unless it involves police business. I swear, sometimes I think I need to put a leash on him. If he calls in, do you want me to let him know you're looking for him?"

Poor Natalie, left in the lurch again.

"No, you don't have to bother. I'm sure he'll call when he can." They gathered up the remains of their midnight lunch, and headed toward the door.

###

"Well, hello there. You boys looking for a good time?" The woman in front of them was attractive and only slightly tipsy, and possessed the most amazing set of...assets that Vachon had ever seen. She was also mortal, and he shook his head.

"Not tonight. We're looking for an old friend. Maybe you could help us?" He raised his eyebrows in supplication, and she slid smoothly into his lap. Beside him, Nick was doing his best not to look embarrassed.

"Maybe. But I could should you a much better time than an old 'friend'." She was playing with a strand of his long brown hair while she leaned forward, giving him a full demonstration of her undeniable appeal. He shook his head again, and gently took her hand in his.

"She's a very special friend. Long, red hair, green eyes, about your height. Most people call her Rose. You seen her lately?" She dropped her eyes in mock coquettishness, and he felt a flash of physical hunger run through him which faded as quickly as it had appeared. Not desire, though, and she was certainly his type. Weird. Back to business, Javier. He pushed gently at her mind.

"You've seen her, haven't you? Tell me where." Her eyelids flickered slightly in surprise, and when she answered it was with the slow, thoughtful cadence of a controlled mortal.

"Yeah, I've seen her here. She used to come in two, three times a week. But I haven't seen her around lately."

"When was the last time? Think hard, Julie."

"Ummm, Saturday, I think. Yeah, she was talking to this old guy. It wasn't a party kind of thing, more like maybe he was her uncle or something, you know? That was the last time I saw her. Maybe she went down to the Alladin, I don't know..." His question answered, she stared blankly out at the bar, waiting for whatever came next. Nick leaned over, and gently pried the location of the Alladin out of her, and made sure that she didn't know anything more. Apparently he'd had a lot of practice at it, for the whole procedure took less than a minute before she was wandering away, the two of them already forgotten.

"You're sure that was the place?" Nick looked skeptically at Vachon as the two of them left the downtown dive where they'd met the informative Julie. There hadn't been a single vampire there, even though the place was clearly popular with the locals.

"Well, it has been a couple of years, but it used to be. And Rose was there less than a week ago. She's never had a big fondness for mortals, so I kind of doubt she'd be there alone."

They headed down the narrow alley that Vachon said would lead directly to the Alladin. Suddenly the hair at the nape of Nick's neck rose up.

"We're not--" He didn't have time to finish his warning before five dark shapes materialized around them, cutting off every avenue of escape. A low growl from one of them warned against trying to escape.

"...alone anymore," Vachon finished quietly.

"Friends of yours?"

"Nope. You?"

Nick shook his head, then forced a grin.

"Well, at least we found what we were looking for."

Part 4

Midnight had already come and gone, and with it most of the civilians who frequented the bars in this seedy part of town. Their five 'escorts' led Nick and Vachon down a bewildering series of half-empty streets and dank alleys, unseen by the few mortal eyes which remained at this hour. They spoke little, and then in a French dialect which had been extinct for a century or more.

They were vampires, of course. But different, somehow. It took Nick several minutes to realize what it was: they were frightened. Badly frightened, and wired to react with lethal force to the slightest provocation. One of them kept a careful watch behind them as they moved silently through the back streets and rooftops, keeping a pace which would ensure that no mortal could follow.

"Here." The whisper was loud enough only for vampire hearing. One of the men landed lightly on the top of an abandoned plant in the city's industrial area and walked quickly to a large, open chimney. With a final glance around him, he dropped silently into the black pit and was gone. One of the others gestured to Nick and Vachon. The two of them shared a last look, then Vachon stepped forward and dropped into the darkness below.

###

He didn't call.

Natalie tossed her green scrubs in the general direction of the waste bin and ran a hand through her tangled long auburn hair. She was alone. Grace had left early, saying something about a hot date, and business had been so dead (to coin a phrase) that Nat could scarcely blame her. From one standpoint, having business be slow at the coroner's was a good thing: Toronto could use a few more nights like this one. From another, it made for one heck of a long night. A night without her Knight. She'd spent the day expecting his call. It just wasn't like Nick to drop off the face of the earth like this...

Or maybe it was. Natalie pulled on her coat and headed for the door, her face set with worry for Nick and annoyance with herself. Nick was moody, given to highs and lows which frequently took her breath away. Usually he'd stay away for a few hours or a day, then call or show up with a half dozen daisies and a smile. Nonetheless, her traitorous mind kept reminding her of how close he'd come to simply packing up and leaving just after Schanke's death last fall. It had been only good fortune that she'd arrived when she did: another hour or two and she might have missed him.

And she would miss him. Nick could be frustrating, infuriating, and even frightening, but he was all she wanted. Easy enough to admit it now, when she was alone. It was harder to admit when they were together, when he was so much there, man and vampire both. She didn't think he was even aware of his affect on women, on her. Sometimes... sometimes it seemed as if he must be, as if he returned every bit of the love she felt for him. Then the next week, or the next night, she was demoted to Loyal Human Friend (or Pet?), someone who might give him the cure he'd been searching for for centuries. Recently, she'd been entertaining daydreams about tying him down and tickling him until he admitted the truth one way or the other. It was an amusing thought, and she smiled to herself until she caught herself at it. She was mad at him right now, and risqué thoughts about what else she might do with him under those circumstances would have to wait. Sooner or later he'd stroll back into her life, and this time she'd let him have it.

With both barrels.

###

He hadn't called.

Tracy tossed her coat at the coat rack near the door, and watched as it missed by a mile. It didn't seem worth picking up just now. Across the room, the answering machine started mockingly at her, it's one red eye gleaming steadily. No messages, and the apartment had that "nobody home" feeling it always did when she first arrived. Sliding her shoulder holster off and leaving it on the kitchen table, she headed for a beer.

Of course he didn't have a phone, she reminded herself. And he wasn't the most stable of people, anyway. Vachon was probably out tearing up the road on his bike, or drinking blood out of crystal glasses at The Raven.

Still. Ignoring the sink full of dirty dishes (and the memories they triggered), Tracy tugged off her sweater and headed for the bedroom. He could have at least called. It wasn't like she was expected them to be suddenly attached to the hip or anything. Just a phone call, or a note. Half-hoping, she looked down at her pillow.

No note. Just a rumpled, unmade bed complete with a few small drops of blood on her pillow. Not a lot, but a reminder of what they'd shared last night. Or of what she'd thought they'd shared. Apparently it hadn't meant the same thing to Vachon. She punched the offending pillow, then began to methodically strip the bed. If your pillowcase offends you, punch it out.

Then wash it, make the bed, and pretend you haven't made a huge, huge mistake.

###

The chimney had been modified, and nothing broke the unrelenting darkness as he plunged further and further down it. Of course, the fall wasn't really a concern, but the narrowness of the brick passage prevented Vachon from properly controlling his descent, which left him feeling uneasy. It was too much like last September, when he'd been trapped in a mortal plane which rushed headlong towards the earth below. Nothing like a little enforced helplessness to make a guy feel cheerful.

At last the comforting glow of candlelight reached him, and Vachon landed easily on cold stone. A sound from above reminded him to step aside, and a moment later Nick was beside him.

The room they were in was immense. Candles in wrought iron holders covered with centuries of wax were placed sporadically throughout the room, providing enough light for the eyes of a vampire, but which would undoubtedly seem pitifully inadequate to a mortal. What might have been some sort of underground train station decades ago was now clearly home to a dozen or more vampires, all of whom milled restlessly about, watching him and Nick carefully. No one spoke, and their five escorts faded into the background, leaving them to fend for themselves. None of the dark-garbed men and women in the room were familiar to Vachon. Dressed in modern clothes, they nonetheless gave off an aura of centuries of breeding, culture, and stillness. Not the type he'd normally hang around with. Maybe Nick...? A glance to the right told him Nick was as lost as he was. The silence was starting to weigh too heavy on him.

"Gosh, I hate it when I underdress for a party. And a pretty wild one it is, I might add. You guys been taking formaldehyde with your blood?" He knew he was probably digging them in deeper, but what the hell. You only live twice, and maybe a little shaking up would loosen their tongues. And, wonder of wonders, it seemed to be working. Three of them turned glowing amber eyes at him, and the tallest of them took a step forward.

"Look, we're just looking for friends of ours." Nick, of course. Making peace before things got interesting. "Janette du Champ and Louis Montecalm. We think that they might have been here recently. All we want is--"

"We know what you want." A clear, bell-like voice cut him off, and both of them wheeled in surprise toward the sound. Standing calmly not two yards from them was a tiny creature in a pale, filmy dress and masses of wavy blond hair. She looked to be about six years old, until you got a look at her eyes.

"We have been aware of you since you first arrived in our city yesterday. When you did not come to pay your respects to our master, we came to you." Her voice had a piping, childlike quality, but Vachon knew an elder when he heard one.

"Merrault?" he ventured. She shook her head dismissively.

"A child, if a useful one. No, our master is far older and far, far more powerful. And he does not like uninvited guests. Especially now."

"Yes. We're aware of the trouble you've been having." In spite of everything, it was funny watching Nick treat this slip of a girl with the same courtesy he accorded LaCroix. The detective continued gamely. "That is what brings us here. News of the burning of the Etude reached us in Toronto, and we have reason to believe that Janette and Louis may have been there when it happened." The slight tremor in his voice when he said Janette's name confirmed Vachon's suspicions. Whatever had happened between them, he was still holding a torch for her. The girl shrugged infinitesimally, then turned her head to ask a question of the group in a language Vachon couldn't begin to identify. An equally mysterious reply, and she returned her sober attention to them.

"The one calling himself Montecalm was among those of the Community we lost at the Etude. I am sorry that we could not bring you better news at the end of your journey."

"Who?" Vachon forced the word out past the lump in his throat. Ah, Louis. Guess we'll never drink to your fourth century now. And you were so close.

"If we knew, there would be no problem." The asperity in her voice brought him back to the present with a start. "We have not yet been able to locate the Hunter."

"What about Janette?" Apparently Nick had less than a burning interest in the problems of the Quebec Community just now. "I know that she was here, and the she had almost certainly been to the Etude. I need to know if she is still here, or if she is...gone. She is very dear to me." Nick's voice was a combination of the cop and the grieving lover. There was another soft conversation, this time in the same ancient French they'd heard before.

"No." The child-elder shook her head sadly. "A woman calling herself only Janette was here some short time ago. But she was very sad, very confused. We were not certain of what brought her to the state she was in. Even my master was at a loss. In many ways she was a lost child, uncertain of where to turn."

"But she left before the fire?" The hope in his voice was unmistakable.

"We believe so. She has not been among us for several days now. Of course, it may be that she has met with the Hunter who plagues us and is yet undiscovered. More than that I cannot tell you."

"What about this Hunter?" Vachon asked. If you can't save your friends, avenge them.

"All we know is that he is a man of great strength, for a human, and that he knows us, our habits and our hideaways. Including all of those he butchered at the Etude, we have lost nineteen of our people--nearly half of a Community which had remained unchanging for more than a century." For the first time, her direct gaze left their faces, and she casually studied her fingernails. "More than that we cannot say."

"There's something else, isn't there?" Vachon said, taking a shot in the dark. "You know something else about this guy. Why are you trying to hide it?" Exasperation at her reluctance made his voice challenging, and she looked up in response.

"Because it is none of your affair. Your friend is dead. Take yourself away from here, Javier Vachon. Trouble has always followed you, and we have enough on our plate as it is."

He shook his head. "That's over now. And you haven't answered my question." The small vampire looked up at him grimly.

"It is something which we do not care to share with outsiders. However, if it will induce you to leave us to our business, I will explain.

"The papers have only mentioned the Etude. What they do not say is that we are being picked off by an enemy who knows us as well as we know ourselves. Our most intimate habits are known to him, our most secret places. Never in my two thousand years have I seen such precision, such lack of doubt or error. The conclusion we have reached is inescapable. Our Hunter has an assistant.

"He is aided by one of our own."

Part 5

There was a long second of silence as Nick and Vachon took in the elder vampire's words. He is aided by one of our own. Nick shook his head in disbelief.

"There must be another explanation. No vampire would turn another over to a Hunter. To do that would break the Code, and turn every other vampire against him."

"Only if he were caught." The small, child-like vampire raised one eyebrow. "And of course, no one ever goes against the Code, do they, Nicholas?" Her look was bland, but Nick would have sworn that she was baiting him. What does she know? Beside him, Vachon was giving her his best wide- eyed stare of innocence. Tracy, of course. Vachon had done a little Code-breaking of his own, when he let Tracy discover their existence. The girl continued, apparently oblivious.

"In any case, as I said, it is our concern." She nodded slightly, and three of the other vampires in the room moved smoothly toward her. "Your business here is done. My people will see you to your hotel room now. At dusk tomorrow, you will return to Toronto. Do you understand?"

"Wait a minute! Louis was a friend of mine. I'm not letting go of this just because we offend your delicate sensibilities." Vachon's face was set and determined, with that 'the-hell-with-you-if you-disagree' look that Nick had seen only once or twice before. While it was nice to see him standing up for a belief--any belief--now was probably not the best time for it.

"At least let us speak to your master. We have police connections he might find useful in this case." Nick took a step forward, gesturing with one hand for Vachon to lay off. "Where can we find him?"

"You can't. He sees few of us anymore. My master may well be the oldest of us all, and of late has little interest in the day-to-day world. I will relay your offer to him this evening, but I can tell you now that he will decline it. Our insular Community has done well on its own for better than a hundred years. We need no outsiders to solve our problems for us." The little vampire nodded dismissively. "You may go now."

"Just like that?" Vachon's voice was loud in the sudden silence. The Spaniard took a step toward the elder vampire and in response the three behind her moved forward. Nick grabbed Vachon's arm firmly and leaned forward to whisper in his ear.

"Just like that. Let's go." Vachon looked rebelliously at him for a moment, then dropped his eyes.

"This is the last time I play tour guide for you, Knight. Okay, boys, lead the way." They followed the silent three Quebec vampires back up the way they had come, the elder vampire watching impassively as they left.

###

The hotel door shut behind them with a soft click, and they were alone. The cool, processed air and bland, comfortable furnishings were a pleasant change, as was the absence of their silently disapproving escorts. Vachon headed immediately for one of the bed, and flopped gracelessly down on it.

"So. What's the plan?"

"Plan?" Nick sat down at the table near the balcony and looked back at him innocently. A little turnabout was only fair, after all the 'who me?' looks he'd suffered from Vachon in the past.

"Yeah. The plan, Knight. You can't tell me you're letting them toss us out like last weeks' fish."

"Unlikely," Nick agreed. "But it was pretty clear that the elder wasn't going to help us. Tomorrow night we pay a visit to the master of this city. I think we can persuade him to accept our help. For now, I'd suggest we get some sleep. The sun will be up pretty soon. We're not going to get much done once that happens."

Vachon stretched and looked up at the ceiling. "Yeah. Oh, shoot." He sat up with a jerk, and rubbed ruefully at the back of his neck. "I forgot. Listen, I'm going down to the lobby for a second. You want anything?"

"Going to visit the snack shop?" Nick asked innocently. Vachon was up to something, that much was clear. But what?

"No. I...just need to make a phone call."

"Phone's right here." Nick gestured toward the phone at the table.

"Yeah, well, this is kind of personal. I tried to call last night, couldn't get through. I'll probably catch hell for it, and I'd just as soon do my crow-eating in private, if you catch my drift?" Vachon looked uncomfortable and bemused at the same time.

"Women." Nick grinned, and shook his head. "Why don't I go down to the lobby and get today's paper? Might take me ten or fifteen minutes. You think that would give you enough time?"

"Man, I hope so. If it doesn't, I might as well not bother going back at all." He sighed, and flopped back down on the bed. "Five hundred years, and I still don't understand women."

"Eight hundred years, and I don't have a clue." Nick scooped up the hotel key and headed toward the door. "Good luck."

###

"Oh, how could you?" Tracy scowled down at him, ignoring the innocent look in his round, dark eyes. With a sigh of frustration, she lifted Fluffy the iguana off of the small telephone table and held him at eye level. "Why can't you find somewhere else to sleep?" Fluffy flicked his tongue out at her, prudently choosing to remain silent.

Setting the receiver back on the hook, Tracy dumped the iguana unceremoniously back into his aquarium. That made two days in a row that the big lizard had decided to sleep on the telephone table, which sat directly under the window. The dark wood held the day's heat nicely, he'd discovered, which wouldn't have been a problem if the table had been bigger or he a little smaller. As it was, Fluffy had twice now bumped the telephone, knocking the receiver just slightly off the hook.

Which, incidentally, let Vachon off the hook quite nicely. Whistling cheerfully, Tracy headed for the door, yesterday's sop of self-pity entirely forgotten.

Well, almost. He'd better call today, or her favorite Spaniard was going to have a problem one heck of a lot bigger than a little sunlight. She shut the door, and headed for work.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

The telephone rang loudly in her empty apartment.

"Hi. This is Tracy. I can't come to the phone right now. Leave a message after the beep."

"Tracy? It's Javier. Pick up the phone. Trace? Listen, I tried to call you yesterday, but your line was busy. Something important came up, and I had to go out of town unexpectedly. I'll probably be back in a couple of days. Take care of yourself, okay?" A knocking sound could be heard in the background.

"Nick, give me a minute, will ya? Listen, I've got to go. I'll call you ton-- hey, Nick, give it a rest, would y--"

A sound like a snarl, followed by a heavy thump. The hiss of the tape continued for a moment, then was followed by the sound of the receiver being gently replaced. The loud, bland sound of the dial tone echoed through the room, then the answering machine clicked off with a satisfied beep. From his cage, Fluffy watched the small red light blink with interest.

Part 6

"He's done it again, hasn't he?"

Tracy blinked and looked up from her half-doze. Grace was perched on the edge of her desk, an all-to-knowing smirk on her face. "That stud-boy of yours kept you up all night again, didn't he? He must be something else if you've gotta come to work to get some sleep." As usual, Grace's voice carried far enough to be heard by the entire room, and several of the day shift turned to get a better view.

"Grace! No, it's nothing like that. I just couldn't sleep, and decided I'd catch up on my paperwork. If that's all right with you." It must have come out harsher than she'd intended. Grace shrugged, patted her on the shoulder, and sauntered off. Maybe I should go home. I'm not going to get much done here. She rubbed at her forehead, then stifled a huge yawn. When she'd gotten off shift a few hours ago, she'd been upset to discover that Javier hadn't called. Not that he had to, she firmly reminded herself. Still, it had been enough to disrupt her sleep, and it wasn't until she was going out the door a couple of hours later that she realized that Fluffy had knocked the phone off the hook again. Vachon was temporarily reprieved.

Reaching for the phone, Tracy dialed her home number. Dad was supposed to call about Easter Sunday. Maybe he'd finally gotten the hint and stopped calling her at work. The answering machine picked up, and she punched in her access code. There certainly wasn't any other reason to check her messages...

Fifteen seconds later she was bolting for the door.

###

"You can't be serious." Natalie watched with trepidation as a furious and very worried Tracy haphazardly tossed clothing in the direction of her open suitcase. "All we know is that Nick and presumably Vachon were checking out an arson report in the city of Quebec. We don't even know if that's where they went!"

"Look, I told you. Nick was in on our day off with someone who matches Javier's description. He made some inquiries into a fire in Quebec the night after I saw Vachon reading a French-language newspaper. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that Nick was helping Vachon with some problem up there. Nick, the guy who's allergic to sunlight. Who I've never seen eat so much as a bite of food. Who has a coroner for a family physician! Argh!" Tracy made as if to pull her own hair out. "How could I have been so stupid?"

"Tracy, I'm not sure what you're getting at. But why would Nick get involved in whatever you think this is?" Natalie could think of at least one good reason, but Tracy wouldn't know about Janette. The detective tossed a couple of extra clips of ammunition into the suitcase, then began to try to squeeze the overstuffed bag shut.

"Look, Natalie, don't insult my intelligence. My partner, who I'm supposed to trust with my life, has been keeping one whopper of a secret from me. You're his doctor. You know what I'm talking about!"

"Secret?" Nat tried vainly. Oh, Nick, I warned you about this...

"Sure. It's kind of fitting, really. I'll bet a lot of vampires have coroners for family doctors." She snapped the suitcase shut, and looked levelly at Natalie. "Can we cut the bullshit, now? I figured it out. The joke's over."

"It wasn't meant to be a joke." Natalie walked over and sat on the bed next to Tracy. "Nick was just trying to protect you, Tracy."

"From what?" she practically exploded. "I already know about vampires, okay? My boyfriend's one, for Pete's sake!" She sighed, and began to rub her temples. "I'm sorry, Natalie. This isn't your fault. I guess I'm just worried. Something came after Javier, something that he and Nick couldn't see or stop. I thought it was just about impossible to sneak up on these guys."

"It is. I don't know what could have happened. But they've both been around a long time, Trace. They know how to take care of themselves." Putting her arm around Tracy's shoulders, Nat could hear the uncertainty in her own voice. Nick had gotten himself out of some pretty sticky situations before without any help from her, she knew that. Still, a small voice in the back of her mind kept whispering. What about this time? If he was okay, wouldn't he have called by now? Especially if something had happened to Vachon? And something had almost certainly happened to the young Spanish vampire. Tracy's answering machine told them that much.

"You're probably right. And I'm probably going to make a big fool out of myself when it turns out to be nothing." Tracy smiled half-heartedly, then shrugged. "I just have to know. Look, would you come check of Fluffy while I'm gone? He won't bite, I promise."

"Nope. But I will tell my pet-sitter to look in on him." What the hell. Nick's not the only one who can play white knight. "I'm coming with you."

###

A voice came through the thick fog, punctuated by blinding bolts of pain.

"Thank you, oh my Lord," thump, "for delivering Your enemies into Your servant's" thump "unworthy hands. With these gifts I shall have" thump "the strength to finish Your work in this unclean city." A last thump, and Vachon grayed out.

When the fog thinned again he found himself lying on a cold stone floor, his arms bound tightly behind him. His head throbbed mercilessly, and a haze of colored smoke seemed to surround everything around him. Nick was nowhere to be seen. From out of the fog Vachon could hear footsteps approaching. Closing his eyes to slits, he watched as a pair of black-clad legs walked past him to stop at a table at the edge of his vision. Something about the white cloth which covered the table and the sober clothing of his captor rang a bell, but it wasn't until he smelled the incense and heard the Latin chant begin that he realized what was happening.

His captor was a priest, and this was the Mass for the Dead.

###

"Oh, God."

"Easy, Tracy. It's not as bad as it looks." Despite her brave words, Natalie had to wonder. Pulling the police tape from the door, she stepped into the hotel room with a forced, professional calm. Blood was spattered on one wall between the room's double beds and coated a shattered lamp which lay nearby in a circle of white chalk. Small marks around the room indicated that Quebec forensics had already come and gone, taking with them any personal effects which had been left in this broken room. Stepping carefully around the maroon stain on the carpet near the door, she cautiously began to explore. "Doesn't look like there was much of a struggle. Is there any mention of a weapon in the police report?"

Tracy looked down at the Xerox copy of the initial police report. "Nothing. They found traces of," she faltered, then went on, "traces of blood and hair on the lamp, but it says here that it was probably done during the struggle. Before the samples disappeared the lab had reported that there were two different blood types present, but they weren't able to identify them." They exchanged a grim look. Of course the lab wouldn't recognize vampire blood. Natalie could have, if the samples hadn't mysteriously "disappeared" along with the computerized report almost as soon as it had been filed. It had been only luck that the detective in charge had been holding onto the hard copy, and that they'd been pointed in his direction when they appeared at the downtown Quebec police station.

"Look, they may have gotten out on their own." Natalie rubbed her hands together and looked around the room again. There might be something else here, but it was damned hard to keep the clinical detachment she'd need to see it. From the looks of things, Tracy wasn't doing much better. "There's no sign of anyone being dragged out of here. Maybe they both got away." Even before Tracy began to shake her head, Natalie knew it wouldn't hold up.

"They would have called. And besides, look at these impressions." She bent down in the doorway to get a closer look at the footprint outlined in blood. "This looks like someone carrying a heavy load. See how the front part of the shoe is--"

Natalie looked up from the lampshade she'd been examining. "I'm sorry, Tracy, what were you--" She stopped in mid-sentence as something moved with a blur of speed across the room toward her. Nat just had time to think Vampires. Got to-- before a cold, hard hand settled around her wrist, twisting her arm painfully behind her. Tracy was already pinned, her free hand moving toward her holstered gun. Another blur of speed, and the weapon thumped to the floor across the room.

"Well, well, well. Didn't quite finish the job last time? Or did you ladies just come to gloat?" The tall, lean figure which held Natalie spoke mockingly, his icy breath just inches away from her exposed throat.

Oh, we are in so much trouble. They hadn't even considered the reaction of the local vampire community to the attack on Nick and Vachon. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Nat berated herself. How are we ever going to talk our way out of this? Across the room she saw the other vampire dip his head tauntingly toward Tracy's neck.

"Cat got your tongue? Ah, well. At least he left us the best part. Don't worry, little girl. We'll be much more merciful than you ever were." He bared his fangs. Natalie took a deep breath, but before she could utter a sound a cold hand pressed itself firmly over her mouth and nose. She could see Tracy struggling futilely in the vampire's powerful grip. He moved lower, his fangs clearly visible in the room's bright light.

Then he stopped.

"What's this?" He pulled Tracy's sweater down, baring her throat completely. "Someone's been at this one already. What's the matter, girl? Didn't like your taste of the wild side?"

"Somebody's been sipping instead of taking a proper draught," his partner replied. "Guess that'll learn 'em, eh?" He chuckled, and Natalie felt her knees go weak. This casual cruelty frightened her more than anything she'd ever felt. Even LaCroix (or so she thought she remembered, through the haze of wine and hypnotic command) hadn't had this casual contempt for human life. Tracy was very pale, but when she spoke her voice was strong and clear.

"Wait! It's not like that!" She struggled briefly to turn and face him, then subsided. "We're here looking for them, that's true. But we're trying to help!"

"Mortals helping vampires?" he sneered.

"Mayhap she's his thrall," Nat's captor added. "That'd explain why the silly git doesn't even have a pointed stick." He loosened his grip slightly, and Natalie greedily gulped in gasps of air and watched in revulsion as the other vampire licked sensuously at Tracy's exposed skin. He looked up and shook his head.

"No. Tasty, though. Whoever he was, he had good taste." He grinned through a mouthful of teeth. "So to speak. Right, girl. Let's just get this--"

"Wait!" Tracy tried again. "He's my boyfriend. Javier Vachon. He's one of the men who was staying here! I'm just trying to find out what happened to him. Look, if you know where he is--"

"We don't," he interrupted coldly. "Like as not he's as dead as the rest of them. But you wouldn't know anything about that, would you, Miss 'he's-my-boyfriend'?"

"Blighter could've been stringing her along. More fun when they finally realize you're gonna drain 'em. Everybody thinks they're special. 'Oh, he'd never lay a finger on me'." he added mincingly. "Is that what you thought as well, beautiful lady?" The last was directed at Nat, and she shuddered as she felt his playful nip on her bare neck.

"No. Nick is my friend." Natalie managed calmly. "We've known each other for three years. When I heard that he might be in trouble, I came to see if I could help. If you don't believe me, look in the case." She gestured with her chin at the insulated container she'd left by the door. Both men looked at it for a moment, then Tracy's captor shoved her across the room with terrifying ease. A second later he was opening the container and pulling out one of the bags inside. Eyebrows raised in surprise, he carefully broke the seal and dipped one long finger inside.

"Blood. Human blood, at that."

"Thoughtful of 'em to bring dessert."

There was a moment of silence. Tracy picked herself painfully up off of the floor and began to unobtrusively look for her gun. The vampire near the door bent and picked up the police report Tracy had dropped. Scanning it quickly, he looked over at Tracy through narrowed eyes.

"You a police officer, sweetmeat? That'd be inconvenient."

Natalie's captor swore softly. "Alia'll have our heads we pop the top off a bobbie here. Mayhap we'd best take 'em with us."

"Take a breather home? Have you lost your wits? Our guts'd be hanging from the rafters before these sweetlings got through the door." He tossed the report aside, and began walked toward Tracy. "I say we drain 'em and dump 'em in the lake. By the time the fishies get through with them, won't be enough left to point a finger our way."

"We'd blindfold 'em first, wouldn't we? Alia picks their brains, then we do 'em somewhere quiet. No sense leavin' a trail back here, is there?" The two men regarded each other in silence, then the smaller one, who had first grabbed Tracy, shrugged.

"Couldn't do any harm, I guess. All right, little girl," he swatted casually at her hand and Tracy's gun went flying again, "let's get to it. You going to come quietly, or do we get to smack you around a bit first? I like a bit of struggle, myself. Your 'boyfriend' the same way?" Tracy flushed an angry red, but kept silent.

"We won't give you any trouble," Nat promised. But I hope this 'Alia' is a little more reasonable than you are. What have we gotten ourselves into? There wasn't anything more to be said, and they stood quietly as the two vampires bound their eyes and hands tightly. The two men then proceeded to scour the room for any evidence that they'd--any of them--had been there. Five minutes later Natalie found herself flying through the air blind, helpless, and mortally afraid.

Some rescue this is turning out to be.

Part 7

Nick blinked, and the floating lights in front of his eyes coalesced into recognizable patterns. He was in a large, grey room which was lit only by candlelight. A stairway leading down and a large window, heavily shuttered, were the only apparent exits. He was manacled, the heavy steel shackles bound to the cement wall behind him. He gave an experimental tug.

Nothing. The manacles were clearly meant to hold someone of more than human strength. Once his head cleared and his own strength returned, he might be able to pull free. Maybe. In the mean time, he needed to know everything he could about his captor. The last thing he could remember clearly was the hotel room. Returning from the front desk, he'd noticed that the door to the room he was sharing with Vachon was ajar. Senses fully alert, he'd pushed the door open quietly. Then there had been a blur of inhuman speed and something hard and unyielding (Wood. It must have been wood to hurt the way it had) had slammed against the side of his head. He could vaguely remember voices and some sort of car ride, but nothing more.

Extending his vampire hearing to the utmost, he could faintly hear a voice somewhere else in the building. The cadences sounded familiar. And was that Latin? Surely not. He shook his head carefully to clear it. The voice, if that was indeed what he'd heard, had stopped. Dimly, he picked up footsteps on wood, getting closer. Quickly he looked around the barren room for a weapon, any weapon. The only furnishing was a small wooden table covered with a white cloth, on which rested a leather-covered book. From here it was impossible to see the title. Vachon was nowhere to be seen. Carefully, Nick pulled himself upright. The room swayed to and fro for a moment, then steadied itself.

"Ah. You're awake. Good." A slender, boyish figure had appeared in front of him, a bottle and glass on a tray in one hand. His still-befuddled mind tried to murmur a warning, but it wasn't necessary. Even in his condition, Nick recognized a priest when he saw one. He nodded cautiously at the young man, who smiled in return.

"I've brought you something. I'm afraid it's not as fresh as I'd like, but it was the best I could do on such short notice." He set the tray on the small wooden table, and poured a generous portion into the glass. Sniffing it experimentally, he shuddered and held it out to Nick. "Go ahead. Take it. I can assure you, I wouldn't poison a guest in my home. Even an unwilling one."

Nick could just reach the glass. Tentatively, he brought it to his nose. Blood. Cow's blood, by the smell, and not too old. He looked up at the young priest in surprise.

"I don't understand."

"I'm afraid you took quite a thumping. Unavoidable, but still unfortunate. I'm very much looking forward to speaking at length with you, Nicholas, but I can't very well do that if you're too weak to speak, can I?" He smiled again and shrugged modestly. "I can tell this is what you're used to, and frankly, that's the only reason you're here, instead of cooling your heels downstairs with the other one."

Something wasn't right. (Something more than being captured by a priest? One who knows who and _what_ you are? Really Nicholas, how much more alarming could it be?) LaCroix's dry voice sounded clearly in his head. But there was something...

"The other one? You mean Vachon? The one who was with me?" The priest nodded.

"Oh yes. I have prayed over him, to no avail. Young Vachon is quite beyond my help, I'm afraid. Perhaps God will deal more mercifully with him than he has with his victims. The Bible teaches us that God can forgive any sin, you see, but sometimes the necessary penance is more than the body can bear.

"Or at least I have always found it to be so." From beneath the table the priest drew out a wooden stool and settled himself comfortably on it. "But I didn't come here to discuss one who is already lost to us. Come, Nicholas. It is so rare for me to find a kindred soul. Please indulge an old man for a few hours." He gestured to the floor at Nick's feet and Nick sank down without a word of protest.

Kindred soul? Indulge an old man? Clearly, the young priest was insane. Shaking his head again to clear it, Nick looked at the small, neat figure seated before him. The vestments, he saw, were old and frayed in places, the heavy crucifix something a priest from two hundred years ago might have worn. And then there were his eyes. Grieving, ageless eyes. And a heart so calm that it scarcely...

"Oh dear God." The little priest nodded and smiled approvingly.

"Precisely."

###

Flying wasn't what she expected it to be.

Tracy struggled in the icy grip of the vampire, trying to find a more comfortable position. He had grabbed her by the elbows and simply lifted off, and her arms and shoulders were starting to throb. Her feet dangled who knows how far above the ground, and the chill wind cut through her clothing without mercy. They had been airborne for what her rational mind knew could only be a few minutes, but subjectively it seemed like forever. She hated feeling so passive, so helpless.

Great. Vachon was always telling me I saw vampires under every rock. Now I go looking for a human killer, and what do I find? Vampires who've seen Pulp Fiction way too many times. The little bit of bravado she could muster was comforting. They'd managed to talk their way out of being fresh sushi. Now all they had to do was convince this Alia that they were for real.

"Oh!" Suddenly she was dropping, dropping so quickly that for a moment she thought he'd had second thoughts and decided to dump her after all. Then the vampire's fingers were digging deeply into her wrists and a claustrophobic closeness descended around her. After a couple of minutes they seemed to slow and then there was comforting floor beneath her feet. Around her she could hear faint whispers of conversation and the soft murmur of laughter. Soft, cold fingers caressed her chin then flicked away, followed by mocking laughter.

"I didn't know we could get them delivered. Billy, how thoughtful of you."

Other voices getting closer now, with sentences started in one place and finished a second later from across the room. Light, teasing touches on her neck and wrists and the passing flutter of perfume and powder.

"Mmm. Blond and fruity. I always said you had good taste, William." Powerful hands grasped her by the shoulders while a deep, masculine voice purred insinuatingly in her ear. "You are going to share, I trust?" Laughter erupted around the room. Suddenly they were all around her. Musical, soulless laughter followed by icy breath against her skin again and again, and she knew she was doomed...

"Enough!" The voice was soft and feminine, but it cut sharply through the rising din. Silence descended immediately, and then the only sounds were the ragged breathing of Natalie and herself. "William, you know better than this. What has possessed you?" Something was wrong. The sweet, motherly voice was coming from too low. Tracy frowned and tried to squint through her blindfold.

"This one's been sipped from, and they both say they're 'just trying to help'." The derision in his voice made his opinion of this statement clear. "We was going to do away with them, like you said, but..." Tracy felt small, cool fingers brush against her chin and the heavier brush of something against her mind. A second later the contact was gone.

"You did well, William and Randall. Untie them, if you would, then bring them in to me. Unharmed. Do you understand?" There was a low muttering, but no audible sounds of protest. Suddenly the blindfold was flicked from her eyes, and Tracy blinked in surprise as she saw her strange surroundings.

Natalie was beside her, and the two of them seemed to be the only spots of color or life in the entire room. The room was a large one, and scattered throughout it were elegant, black-clothed strangers in various positions of repose. The first thing that struck her was the aura of stillness and agelessness that the figures gave off. It was as if they had not moved in centuries. Then one of them would move, and it was like trying to watch a bullet in flight. An instant later the vampire was in a new position, studiedly casual and aloof. They all watched the two of them with expressions which ranged from mild amusement to mild disdain. No one said a word as Natalie and her bonds were removed and they were led down a narrow corridor and into a room which looked as ageless and unchanging as the vampires themselves.

The room was very ornate, and done in a style which Tracy thought was probably early French colonial. It was French, that was for certain. No one else would have done those fussy armchairs or the gilded cushions. The only occupant was a small girl who sat in a chair far too large for her. It should have been ludicrous, but somehow the girl pulled it off. She looked to be about six, but Tracy had a bad feeling that the kid was a lot older than that. Their escorts bowed briefly and then left, pulling the door shut behind them.

"Please. Sit down." The voice was the same gently commanding one that they had heard a few minutes before. The little vampire gestured languidly toward the loveseat against one wall and waited in patient stillness until they were seated. Then she lifted her delicate face, and Tracy had the same feeling she'd had when she was seven and her governess had caught her with her hand in the cookie jar.

"Now. We have little patience or experience with mortals, so I would advise you to answer quickly and succinctly. What truly brings you here? Please don't attempt to lie. I can assure you I would know, and I would not be pleased. Believe me when I tell you that you wish for me to be pleased with you." Tracy glanced over at Natalie, and the two of them shrugged slightly. When in doubt, give them the truth.

"My name is Detective Tracy Vetter, and this is Doctor Natalie Lambert. We're here from Toronto looking for friends of ours. Vampire friends. It all started when I got a weird message on my answering machine..." The little vampire's expression never changed as Tracy spilled out the story. "...and then we ended up here. We don't want to cause any trouble. We're just looking for our friends," she repeated. "Look, I'm a cop. Maybe I can help find this killer, this Hunter of yours. It sounds like he may have Nick and Javier. We could help each other."

Alia smiled gently. "And what makes you think we are without a voice among the mortal police? In any case, if the Hunter has indeed found your 'friends', then it is far too late for them." She shook her head dismissively. "Still, I am reluctant to order your deaths. Especially now, we cannot afford the attention it would bring to us."

"Then let us go." Natalie had remained silent while Tracy recounted their tale, but she didn't dare remain so any longer. "We're no threat to you. We have no reason to reveal anything to the authorities, or we would have done it a long time ago. Your people brought us here, remember. We have no interest in the Quebec community. We don't even know where we are. Just have your people return us to where they found us, and we won't bother you again."

Alia considered it for several minutes before replying.

"I do not have the authority to break the Code in that way. By our law, you must die for your knowledge of us. Still, I am reluctant to order your deaths." She clapped her hands together lightly and nodded her head. "It is decided. I will take you before our Master, and let him rule on this. If it is his will that you be released, then you shall go free.

"If not, then you will have the honor of dying to feed the wisest of us all."

Part 8

"I don't understand." Nick shook his head in confusion. "You're a vampire."

The little priest nodded gravely. "Oh yes. More than three thousand years ago I doomed myself to eternal damnation. I was afraid to die, you see. Quite rightly so, for I had been a dissolute sinner even as a mortal man, and was no doubt already doomed to burn in hell for my sins. And so like you, like all of us, I accepted what was offered to me." His face contracted with grief, the little priest turned away. "I became a monster. For century after century I hunted man. Took the farmer in his field, the child in her crib. I reveled in it, Nicholas. Can you possibly understand? I declared that there was surely no God, for if there were, surely he would strike down one so evil as myself. I mocked Him. Even the sight of the Redeemer, come to spread the good news, did nothing to deter me from my appointed task." He turned back to face Nick, his face now aglow with an inner joy.

"But then I had an epiphany. God spoke to me, Nicholas. He lay bare my black and twisted soul, and showed me the monster I had made of His good work. The faces of all those I had slain came before my eyes, and I knew I was doomed to eternal damnation. Can you imagine it? Five thousand years. During my lifetime I have slaughtered a hundred times that number. And then there were those that I created..." His face darkened for a minute, then he smiled joyously again

"You have had a similar experience, have you not? I could sense it from the moment we met. You abstain from the sacrament of human blood. You feel the need for repentance just as I did. God has spoken to me, Nicholas. He has told me what we must do. No simple act of contrition will absolve us of our sins. We must do more.

"We must destroy them all."

"Destroy them? You mean, kill other vampires?" Nick stared at the elder vampire in disbelief. "I don't understand. How can murder absolve murder?" In spite of himself, Nick was intrigued. In all the time he had been searching for his mortality, for his morality, he had never met another vampire who truly understood. Who felt his need for atonement, for forgiveness.

"Is it murder to slay a maddened beast in the field? God has revealed to me our true nature. We are evil, damned creatures, every one of us. At the moment we accepted this un-life, we lost all hope of salvation. God turned His back on us, you see...

"Until now. He has seen fit to grace me, Nicholas. I have been blessed with the ability to eliminate our scourge from the earth while redeeming my own terrible sins." The vampire priest smiled contentedly and leaned back on his stool.

Redemption. Nick had sought exactly that for a hundred years. Now this ancient vampire sat before him, telling him all of the things he'd secretly come to believe were true. They were damned, and no mere act of contrition would save them. His own memories of coming across, and of his near death experience a year ago, told him that much. But to kill the others? Part of him shrunk from the idea. Another, deeper part whispered that perhaps the mad little vampire was right.

In response, memories flooded his mind. Pictures of Janette and him, happily 'married' a century before. Janette only a year ago, providing shelter and comfort to the mortal women who needed it. Vachon, laughing as he whipped his bike through a tangle of twisted metal. A dozen others. Aristotle. Merlin. Antoinette, who donated so much of her time and riches to mortal causes, saying with a smile that she was merely preserving the herd. Did they truly deserve to die?

Did he?

More than once Natalie had accused him of wanting just that, saying that his desire for mortality was merely a shallow excuse for a death wish. Each time he had denied it, but the denials grew ever weaker. The possibility of regaining his mortality seemed to grow ever more unlikely as he and Nat faced failure after failure.

And then there was Janette. He was responsible for bringing her back across, dooming her to eternal damnation. His selfishness had doomed her, and condemned countless mortals to die to feed her newly reawakened need. Could the priest possibly be right? His head sagged forward in confusion, and Cain gently patted one shoulder. "You see?" Nick looked up into the sad brown eyes, unable to speak. The ancient vampire seemed to understand. "It is a hard path He has chosen for us, Nicholas. But it is the true one. I must leave you know. There are certain things I must prepare for the ceremony tonight. My strength must be great, for I strike very soon against the heart of the evil in the city. The last of my children must fall, and with your help, and the unwilling help of the young Spaniard, God's Will will be done."

Nick was scarcely aware of Cain's leaving. Cain's words, and the terrible actions he had taken in God's name, reeled sickly through his mind. Was it possible? Could this ancient vampire actually have received the word of God? His rational, twentieth century mind rebelled, but the ancient crusader inside him stirred in recognition. Could he actually sit by and let an entire Community be wiped out, will of God or no?

Would he help?

###

The limousine moved slowly through the darkening streets, its tinted windows keeping the enemy sun at bay. Inside, Alia carefully readjusted her veil and sunglasses.

"You understand that you will not speak to him directly. I alone speak to our Master, as I have done for the past hundred years. You will remain courteously silent unless he chooses to speak to you. Is this clear?" Both women nodded their agreement. Tracy leaned over and whispered in Natalie's ear.

"I feel like I'm in a Godfather movie." Natalie hid her grin, but apparently Tracy's soft whisper hadn't been soft enough. The small vampire looked up and frowned.

"It is not an inappropriate comparison. My Master rules the Community in this city with an iron hand. We exist here only by his sufferance. You would do well to remember that, Detective Vetter. Here we are."

The limo pulled up in front of a tall, overbearing mansion at the north end of the city. High walls kept out the unwashed, and Natalie was willing to bet that guard dogs straight out of the Hound of the Baskervilles patrolled the wide green grounds. The mansion looked as of it had been brought across, brick by brick, centuries before. Curtained windows stared blindly out at the drive as they pulled up in front and Alia pulled at her protective veil.

The little vampire looked nervous Natalie thought, suppressing a shiver. Whatever (or whoever) could give this self-possessed vampire the willies was someone she had absolutely zero desire to meet. Alia looked out the window and shook her head. "It is still early. We will wait a few minutes before we disturb him. My Master rises late, these past few years."

Wonderful. Natalie bit nervously at a fingernail, then firmly set her hands back in her lap. Not for the first time, she wished that she or Tracy had worn a crucifix, or that Tracy had brought along that ridiculous bag of wooden stakes and crosses. It didn't seem nearly so ridiculous now...

She settled in to wait.

###

Incredibly, Nick had dropped into a fitful sleep. His body, tired from lack of sleep and nourishment, could no longer cope with the pain and uncertainty, and had apparently elected to do something to remedy the situation. Nick's sleep was far from restful, however. Instead, familiar faces, some living, some centuries dead, appeared before him in the echoing darkness. Some of them cheered him, tried to cajole him from his depression. Schanke appeared, telling him to buck up and have a piece of soulake. C'mon, Nick, just a little piece! Myra made it special. He was followed by a spectral Cohen, who said nothing at all, but looked at him sadly through her veil of blood. Vachon strolled in and draped an arm over her still shoulders. Come on, Knight! Enough moping around! Wine, women, and song are waiting at the Raven. Well, you can have the wine, he assured Cohen, as they strolled off together.

Having fun, Nicholas? LaCroix, of course. He could never escape LaCroix, not even in his dreams. Isn't this just perfect? At last you've found the guilt and suffering you have been searching for. The Catholic Church has always been good at that sort of thing. Why, the next thing we know, you'll be donning the cassock yourself. And wouldn't that be delicious? A killer, masquerading as a man of peace. Oh, but of course. I forgot. You're no longer a killer, are you? You will never again kill a mortal, I had forgotten. My apologies, Nicholas.

Of course, there were those traitors during the war, weren't there? And that woman on the Titanic? And of course, that native woman just a few months ago. My, how reassuring to know that you are no longer a killer.

Just think of what you would accomplish if you were.

Nicola? Nicola? LaCroix turned toward the sound of the familiar voice and faded away like smoke. Nicola, is that you?

She was breathtakingly beautiful, just as she had always been. Janette strolled up to him and settled herself gracefully onto the stool which obediently appeared for her.

What is this, hmm?" A pale, delicate hand reached out and brushed away the tear which trickled down his cheek. Ah, no more tears, Nick. We have both had more than our share, no?

I'm sorry, he whispered. Can you ever forgive me?

Forgive you? Nicolas, my darling. You gave me back my life. What is there to forgive?

I brought you across. You begged me not to, but I couldn't, couldn't let you go... he faltered, and dropped his eyes. I doomed you.

Her soft, tinkling laughter brought his eyes back to her exquisite face.

Oh, no, Nicola. As much as you like your precious guilt, you cannot have this one. Do you truly think you could do such a thing against my will? Even ma chere Lucien could accomplish no such thing. I chose, Nicola. I chose to return to what I am. You merely offered me the choice. Is that such a terrible thing?

But we are damned. God has turned His face away from us, Janette. You know it's true.

I know no such thing. Do the damned love, Nicola? Do they feel compassion, hope? Guilt? I would not presume to say was God intends for us, but I cannot believe he means for us all to die at the hands of a madman. If he truly wanted us destroyed, do you honestly think he would chose such a poorly made weapon? That mortal disease could have killed us much more efficiently, and did not.

Will you become our disease? She rose from the stool in one graceful motion and turned away from him, a sad, gentle smile on her face.

Don't go!

I must. You have much to do, Nicola. As do I. One can only wallow in grief or guilt so long. Life goes on, Nicola.

Will you?

Part 9

"...you join me, Nick?" Nick opened his eyes. Janette was gone, of course. Instead, the small, slender form of the vampire priest sat on her stool, looking down at him kindly. "My road is a hard one, but one that your company would make less onerous. Say that you will."

Nick stared at the young/old face which hovered above him. The brown eyes which implored him from below shaggy black hair were indeed compassionate. But his brief rest, or perhaps some small remnant of Janette's presence in his mind, showed him more.

The eyes which looked down on him glittered with more than compassion. A mad, zealous gleam filled them, while lines of madness etched themselves deeply into the fine skin around those eyes. His smile was strained, and revealed teeth stained with fresh blood. The elder vampire noticed his gaze, and covered his mouth with one embarrassed hand.

"Yes, well I'm afraid I haven't yet found a way around that. Still, even here God is merciful. He has shown me how I may survive and grow stronger without the taint of further human blood on my soul." He shifted, and Nick caught a glimpse of a still form on the floor behind him. "I take from the guilty, you see. It's ironic, isn't it? The blood of murderers aids the cause of God's holy work."

"You drink vampire blood?" Nick's voice was a stunned whisper. Oh, it was one thing to exchange blood between lovers. But this. To drain another vampire to the point of death was forbidden. They could kill each other, of course. But to drain the life from another, to gain that one's power, was forbidden above nearly all else. Only exposing the Community to the mortal world held penalties more severe. The priest nodded contentedly.

"It lends me strength. I may be some 5,000 years old, but I'm not invincible."

"What have you done?" Understanding flowed through Nick. How could he have been so blind?

"I've brought your companion up to you. He will be of no further use to me after tonight, and the sun will destroy the remains with the coming of the dawn. Not to worry," he added as Nick's face flushed with anger. "Those that aid me so in my work--even unwilling--gain absolution in death. I'm quite sure of it." Behind him there was the clank of metal and a low moan., and Cain turned his head and smiled in that direction.

"Good evening, young Javier. So good of you to rejoin us."

"Yeah, well," cough, "the pleasure's all yours. Can't say I much like the accommodations." Vachon's voice was weak, but clear.

"I didn't expect you would. Still, it has been far better than you deserve. Oh, don't try to deny it. The smell of the humans you take clings to you like a stain."

"We don't need to kill." Vachon's voice came to Nick from behind Cain, growing steadily stronger. "Don't you get it? Nobody--" He broke off as a loud bell chimed from somewhere down below. Cain cocked his head to one side, listening.

"You will both remain silent. No one can hear us up here, in any case." Without another word, the vampire wheeled at swept down the stairs. The bell sounded once again.

"Vachon?"

"Hello. So, how's your day been?"

"I've seen better."

"Yeah. Me too. Don't suppose you've got a plan?"

"I'm working on it."

"Oh. That's good." Vachon winced, and pulled himself carefully up into a sitting position. He was ghastly pale, with blood trickling down from a deep gash in his forearm. Experimentally, he pulled at the manacle on his wrist, and nodded slightly. Patiently he began to twist it back and forth, working the blood which still flowed slowly down his arm under the metal bracelet. From down below, the faintest sounds of voices reached them.

###

Alia pressed the door chime a third time. It wasn't like her master to keep her waiting. Normally, he sensed her presence before she had even moved through the gates. Still, lately he had seemed more distracted than usual. He had passed it off as a lingering melancholy, but she wasn't so sure. All of them were subject to that after they passed their first millennium. This was something more. She flicked a glance back at the waiting mortals. Apparently she had succeeded in cowing them sufficiently. They stood together a few paces behind her, all but holding hands. As she reached for the chime one last time the door opened.

"Alia. Child, what brings you here so early?" Cain stood there, one arm casually blocking her entrance.

"My apologies for disturbing you, Master. But I bring you news which should not wait. May I come in?"

"It will keep. You need no help in dealing with mortals, surely." He began to close the door when Natalie spoke.

"Wait! Please, we need to speak to you." As his frozen gaze turned to her Natalie's words stuck in her throat. "We're here looking for two of your kind. They may have been attacked by your Hunter. Please!" she cried out, as the door slowly closed...

###

"Please!" Natalie's cry stabbed painfully at Nick's heart. Across the room he could see Vachon momentarily close his eyes in despair. Maybe she would be smart, leave now while she could. Dear, sweet Natalie. Determined to save him, if only from himself. Nick looked over as Vachon pulled one bloody hand free, wincing as the manacle bit deeply into his skin. Vachon must be weaker than he looked if the metal could cause that much pain and damage. Nick tugged sharply at his own bonds. Stronger now, he could feel them give slightly. Would it be enough?

###

Cain started back up the long circular staircase. Dear Alia, holding to fiercely to the old traditions. He would miss her deeply, but he consoled himself with the thought that she would at last see the face of God. Wearily, he stopped and donned the cassock that he wore while performing God's work. God had ordained him, would understand that the terrible things he did were only for the greater good. He had lived five thousand years, after all. Killed countless hundreds of thousands of mortals. There had to be a greater purpose to it all. There must be.

The top floor was as he had left it. His two guests were still chained in place, although they had both risen to meet him as he approached. Good. It was always better to face death on one's feet, and at least one of these tormented souls would face it tonight.

"Avon lady?" The younger one inquired. Cain shook his head. The question was meaningless. "No. I know. Amway. Can't get rid of those guys if you try. At least it wasn't the Jehovah's Witnesses. Wouldn't they have gotten a surprise," he added in an aside to his companion. The Spaniard was smiling mockingly at him. Had the last few hours driven him insane?

"Your babbling will avail you naught. You will die tonight, boy. Better that you should spend your last hours in holy contemplation." The boy met his eyes unflinchingly.

"Guess I'm not much of a contemplative sort of guy. Why don't you--" Cain tuned him out as something stirred inside him. Something was wrong. What had changed in the room? Both of them were still manacled. The table with its Bible and holy water still sat against the far wall. The stool--

The stool. Eyes wide in disbelief, he turned to face Nicholas.

"What have you done?"

"Distracted you." Cain spun back to face the young Spaniard as he spoke. There was a flash of movement, and suddenly bright, agonizing pain flooded through him.

PAIN. It had been centuries since he'd felt the bite of wood, known the fear of a mortal blow. Reflexively he struck out at the source of the pain, backhanding the filthy vampire and sending him smashing into the wall. Behind him he could hear the creak of metal beginning to give way. Half maddened with pain, he snatched at the thin leg of the stool which protruded from his chest. Grasping at the end of it, he began to slowly pull it from his chest.

###

"Did you hear that?" Tracy stopped in her tracks, and Natalie had to pull herself up quickly to avoid walking into her.

"Hear what?" Nat strained, but all she could hear was the sound of the evening breeze as it blew around the corners of the old mansion. Beside then, Alia stiffened.

"It sounded like a cry." Her hand went automatically to her holster and came up empty. The Captain was going to be so mad. How could she explain that it was taken away by an undead lunatic? There wasn't anyplace on the forms for something like that.

"Wait here." Alia spun on her heel and headed back to the house in a blur of speed. Above them, the cry was repeated.

###

"You! Miserable little child, do you have any idea of what you could have done?" Cain snarled at the dark haired monster in front of him. He could see now that what he had at first taken for the second manacle was merely a coating of blood on that wrist, and that the broken pieces of the wooden stool had been shoved carelessly under the table. He had become careless.

"No more. I have prayed over your miserable soul, but I will pray no longer." Nicholas was shouting something behind him, but it wasn't important now. With a low, inhuman growl Cain lashed out, feeling with satisfaction the leg shatter as he impaled it in the younger vampire's chest. The sight of the blood excited and infuriated him further, and he lifted the boy with ease.

Nick watched in horror as Cain lifted Vachon as if he were a toy. Vachon's face contorted in pain. Suddenly he looked up and met Nick's eyes clearly over the mad vampire's shoulder. A thin trickle of blood flowed from the corner of his mouth, and then something small and shiny flew across the room at Nick. Reflexively he caught it out of the air as Cain snarled again.

"You wish your freedom? Then have it!" Holding the vampire aloft, Cain turned and threw him at the shuttered window. The shutters gave way with a shriek of splintered wood and then Vachon was gone, falling down five stories to the hard ground below.

Part 10

"Cain!" Alia pounded loudly on the door while behind her Tracy and Natalie exchanged worried looks. Something was clearly up. They hadn't gotten anything like the reception they'd been expecting. The youthful, slender figure who had answered their knock had been a far cry from the elderly patrician of The Godfather, and he had dismissed the three of them with scarcely a glance. Alia clearly felt it too.

"Cain!" The thick wood began to splinter under her small fists. At first, Natalie thought that was that sound she heard. No. The shriek of splintering wood was far too loud to be coming from the front door. Too loud, and too distant. It was followed almost instantly by a maddened roar that froze Alia in place. Finally, there was the unmistakable sound of something heavy impacting with the solid, unforgiving ground. Filled with dread, Natalie ran toward the sound, Tracy close behind her.

It was bad. Vachon (and for a small, unworthy moment Nat was intensely grateful that it wasn't Nick) was sprawled over the remains of a stone bench, his spine clearly snapped by the terrible impact. Blood had spattered outward as it usually did in cases of high velocity impact, coating the surrounding area with bright red color. The remains of a shattered wooden stick in his chest told her why he hadn't made any attempt to slow his fall.

"Nat, what--" Quickly, Natalie interspersed herself between the scene and the young detective.

"It's over, Tracy. Look at me! It's over. There's nothing we can do." Nat felt tears well up in grief and sympathy. She hadn't known the man very well, but he'd seemed kind. And Tracy had clearly cared for him. "C'mon, Trace. Let's walk away." Please God, don't let her last memories of him be this.

"Natalie! Would you please stop trying to protect me? I can take care of--" She broke off as she pushed past Natalie. For a moment Tracy just stared uncomprehendingly, her face dead white. Then she took a ragged breath.

"NO!" The agonized scream tore at her throat, but Tracy didn't appear to feel a thing. Then she was staggering across the grass toward the small outdoor patio and Vachon. Natalie took a half step toward her, only to feel a soft, cool hand on her arm. "Leave her. Leave this place, Doctor Lambert." Alia was looking up at her, her own small face a mask of grief. "There is nothing you can do, save protect your own life. Go, now." A moment later Natalie found herself walking unsteadily back toward the car, Tracy and Vachon forgotten.

###

"Javier!" Tracy cried out hopelessly. Somehow she made it through the rubble to his side, her tears blinding her to the nightmare in front of her. He was already cold, so cold, his skin a thin, waxy parchment. Dark shadows had appeared beneath his eyes and cheekbones, and his thrown-back head revealed sharp canines, even more prominent now in his ... death.

"No. You're not going to die. Not now!" She reached out and brushed thick brown hair out of his unseeing eyes. "You're not leaving me this way. Do you hear me?" She ran her fingers lightly across his still lips. No breath, so sign of recognition. She grabbed one limp hand and held it tightly. "Natalie! Oh, God, Natalie!" Desperately she brushed away her tears and looked wildly behind her.

Natalie was nowhere in sight.

"He means that much to you?" Startled, Tracy spun her head around. Alia was now standing in front of her, looking soberly down at Javier's ruined body.

"Yes. Please, there must be something we can do." Tracy's voice broke on the last word, and she looked down in despair. It was over. Through her returning tears she saw the small vampire kneel down and examine Vachon closely. Two long gashes on one arm, which might have been puncture marks, absorbed Alia's attention. After what seemed an eternity she looked up. Her face was set and grim.

"It may yet be possible to save him. You will need to remove the wood-- all of it!--from his chest. Before he can begin to heal, if he heals at all, this must be done. Do you understand?"

Tracy nodded numbly. It seemed impossible. Vachon's body was shattered, his blood splattered everywhere. Still, if there was even the slightest chance... Gingerly at first, then with more strength, she tugged at the largest piece of wood. The sound it made as it finally slid against bone and free of his body was bad, as was the slow welling up of blood from the open wound. Tracy put her squeamishness aside and went back to work.

###

Natalie blinked, and suddenly she was standing in front on the black limousine, her insulated first aid kit still clutched tightly in one hand. Where had she been going? A part of her whispered insistently that she was to leave. That's it. She was leaving. Natalie put her hand on the door, then pulled it away as if it were hot. Leave? Tracy was still here, weeping over Vachon's still body. And Nick. Nick was here somewhere, she knew it. Nick was in trouble.

Tracy is just going to have to fend for herself. The thought appalled Natalie with its ruthlessness, but she knew it to be the simple truth. Vachon was almost certainly dead. Her duty was to the living. To Nick. Concentrating on that, Natalie turned and walked calmly back toward the house.

The heavy wooden door looked like a battering ram had attacked it, and Natalie slipped through with little effort. As soon as she stepped into the foyer she could hear voices raised in argument. One, blessedly, was Nick's. Nick was still alive. The other voice, which by turns raged loudly and implored softly, had an edge of madness to it which sent a shiver down her spine. The voices were coming from somewhere up above. Setting her first aid kit down by the door, Natalie looked around the room in amazement.

The elegant foyer opened up into a paneled study. Inside, a fire burned briskly in the stone fireplace, casting a glow over the rows and rows of ancient books. The motif of the room was clearly warfare. A full set of armor stood guard near the door, and various pieces of weaponry from a dozen different centuries lined the walls. Nat looked closely at one of them.

It was a pointed stick. Rather, it was a long, narrow wooden pole, fitted on one end with an ornate silver hilt. The other end came to a sharp point, and it was only here that the fine oak was discolored. Discolored to a deep, rusty brown. Natalie scraped lightly at the stain, and it came away easily. Just as she thought, it was blood.

It wasn't old, however. The blood didn't flake away into dust as she'd expected. Instead, it clung weakly to her fingertips until she wiped them on her pants with a grimace. Someone had been attacked with this, and recently. And someone in Quebec was hunting vampires. Using a vampire's own weapons? Natalie shook her head. It didn't matter now. Pulling the stick from the wall, she tested its weight in her hands.

Someone in this house was hunting vampires. He had attacked Vachon, and held Nick prisoner here somehow. Maybe some vampires deserved to die. From what she'd seen, maybe most of them did. But that wasn't up to her, nor to the killer upstairs, that much she was sure of. Let God sort that one out.

And if that bastard upstairs had hurt Nick, he'd be talking to God about it real soon. Natalie set the stick comfortably in her hands, then went out into the foyer. The wooden stairs spiraled up before her into the darkness. One hand reaching for the railing, Natalie put her foot on the first step and began her ascent into hell.

###

Nick slipped the small silver key Vachon had tossed him between his fingers as Cain turned toward him. The ancient vampire's face was congested with rage, a striking contrast to the gentle, avowed man of peace Nick had met mere hours ago.

"YOU DARE!" Cain's voice echoed around the large, empty chamber. Emptier by far than it had been just a few seconds before. "You spoke as if you understood my mission! You abstain from the sacrilege of taking human blood. You seek redemption! And then!" He snatched up a piece of the broken shutter and threw in across the room. "Then you attempt to betray me to that animal!" Nick ducked, and the wood sailed harmlessly overhead.

"He's no animal." Nick's voice dropped to a low, threatening whisper. Rage at Vachon's senseless death and at the madman who had killed him flooded Nick. It was a welcome sensation. Ruthlessly, he pushed Cain further. "You're the animal. You butcher innocent people to feed your fantasies of redemption. And they are fantasies, Cain." Setting his hands in front of him with a calm he didn't feel, Nick slipped the precious key into the lock of one of his manacles. It would be a poor joke if Vachon's last act were to prove meaningless. He continued to bait the insane vampire in front of him while he jiggled the key in the stiff lock. "All you've done is add to your sins. How many, Cain? How many of us have you slaughtered? Dozens?"

Cain's fury seemed to drain out of him.

"Hundreds. It has been hard, Nicholas. But I have seen what lies within us all. I know what must be done. Believe me, I take no pleasure in what I must do." The humble priest was back again, all compassion and mercy. "It's not too late for you, Nicholas. Put away your anger over the boy, and let me anoint you into His service. All your questions will be answered, all of your pain taken from you."

click

Cain walked toward the small wooden table, the small sound apparently unnoticed. Whispering a brief prayer, he dipped one finger into the bowl of water. His back to Nick, Cain didn't see Nick quickly shift the key to his other hand and unlatch the second manacle. With a small smile he turned around and gestured with one smoking hand.

"It is time." Ignoring the pain and smoke, he smiled blissfully as he made the sign of the cross in front on Nick then bent to brush his smoking fingers against Nick's forehead.

For a last few seconds, Nick wavered. Cain was almost certainly mad, but what of it? Many of the greatest saints had the touch of madness upon them. And any cure for his pain and guilt was a tremendous temptation...

Do the damned love, Nicola? For a moment, it was as if Janette was there, smiling gently down at him. Yes, he loved. He had loved Janette. He loved Natalie. He loved life. The last of his rage left him, and for one blissful moment Nick knew peace. This sad little man was wrong. Natalie had been right. Who were we to think we knew His plan?

"No." Gently, he reached out and took Cain's arm. "No more. No more deaths, Cain." The elder stopped in mid-sentence to stare uncomprehendingly at him.

"I don't understand." One last time Cain was the gentle, penitent man, humbly seeking to do God's work, and it nearly broke Nick's heart. "How can you turn your back on Him, Nicholas?"

"I don't. But this isn't the way, Cain. This is wrong." For a few seconds Nick thought it was over. Cain sagged and shook his head wearily.

"It has been so long. So many deaths. How could I have been wrong?" Nick watched in horror and amazement as darkness crept up Cain's face, flowing into his eyes like poison. "But of course, I'm not wrong. How could I be? God has spoken. You thought you could deceive me with your kind words, but I have seen through you, Nicholas DeBrabant. You do Satan's work!" With a snarl, he launched himself at Nick's throat. "Deceiver!"

Nick dodged the hands easily, darting quickly around the enraged elder. Instincts which had nothing to do with being a vampire kicked in, and he grabbed the raving man from behind, locking his flailing arms to his sides. Cain growled in response and hurtled them both skyward. The ceiling came up with alarming speed, and Nick grunted in surprise as his back slammed into cold stone.

Two could play at that game. Concentrating, Nick altered their direction, taking both of them spinning toward the far wall. Too late, Cain saw what he was doing. They slammed into the wall at top speed with a meaty crunch and blood dribbled briefly from Cain's forehead. Nick looked wildly around the room. There had to be something he could use, some weapon ... the stool. Struggling with his maddened burden, Nick sent them both toward the floor. On impact he rolled free, snatching up the stool and snapping off one of its remaining legs. Leaping to his feet, Nick began to turn to face his attacker when something landed with a snarl on his back.

Part 11

Tracy's hands were slick with blood as pulled the last splinter from Vachon's chest. It was tough to tell through the blood, but she was fairly sure she'd gotten them all. Vachon hadn't responded to any of it. He just lay there, blood slowly dripping onto the cement bench and then down to the bricks below. Even that flow had slowed, and that more than anything else worried her. Alia had said that there was still hope. But how much damage could a vampire take? Brushing a strand of damp hair away from her face, she looked up for Alia.

Alia was looking toward the mansion, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest.

"Alia!" Tracy had to repeat the girl's name three times before the vampire looked back in her direction. "I've gotten them all, I think. What do I do now?" The vampire blinked, then walked back over to kneel beside them. Delicately, she extended one finger and traced it along the edges of Vachon's gaping chest wound. Bringing the finger to her nose, she sniffed, then licked lightly at the blood there.

"No." Alia shook her head, and made as if to rise.

"What do you mean, `no'? You said that he could still be saved!"

"I said that it might be possible. But he is young, and the damage is greater than I expected. It simply isn't worth--" Alia stopped in surprise. "What do you intend to do with that, child?" Her voice was carefully casual, but Tracy noticed that she didn't move, either.

"Whatever I have to." Tracy tightened her grip on the gore-streaked wood, its sharp end pressed firmly against the underside of Alia's chin. "You said it wasn't too late. Help him!" Pleading with someone you were threatening to stake probably wasn't the best idea, but she couldn't quite keep the fear and desperation out of her voice. Alia looked inscrutably into her eyes, and then she saw the vampires eyes drop to her neck. Alia smiled knowingly.

"You think he cares for you, don't you?" The pity on her face was nearly unbearable, but Tracy forced herself to meet those cold green eyes. "Does he whisper sweet nothings in your ear as he takes what he needs from you? You really should know better, Detective Vetter. A vampire's heart is as cold as his hands, and as ruthless. You deceive yourself badly if you think any different."

"Shut up! I don't care what you think. It doesn't even matter if it's true," she added softly. "I care. Now, you do whatever you can to help him, or so help me God I'll drive this stake through your neck."

"Which would not kill me."

Tracy shrugged. "Maybe not. But I'm betting it would keep you busy long enough for me to get some gasoline and a match from the car. Try coming back from that, you bitch." She stared fearlessly into the vampire's icy gaze. Come on, come on... They locked eyes for several seconds, then Alia dropped her gaze back to Vachon.

"Very well. I will try. But it will not matter in the end. Cain will come for us all." She looked up at Tracy, and now her icy green eyes melted with grief. Then she blinked once, and the moment was gone. "I will need your help." Calmly, the child-like vampire placed one hand over Tracy's on the stake. "We don't have much time. Shall we begin?"

###

Natalie watched in horror as the two men struggled in mid-air. Brutally, they slammed each other into the walls and ceiling, the only sounds Cain's lows growls and their grunts of effort. Suddenly they crashed to the ground, and Nick rolled away. Nat saw immediately what he was reaching for.

So did Cain. With a snarl, Cain leapt. He landed squarely on Nick's back, and from across the room Nat could clearly see the claws which swept down towards Nick's neck. They were too close to each other for her to risk stabbing at Cain. Taking a deep breath, Natalie charged, swinging the long stake like a club.

Nick felt Cain's claws brush against the vulnerable skin of his neck. The little vampire was incredibly fast! He reached with both hands, grasping at the other man's wrists and pulling them from his neck. Cain was strong-- unimaginable strong!-- and Nick was only able to move them a few precious inches. Suddenly a loud crack rent the air, and Cain's fierce grip slipped. He had one chance. Tightening his grip on Cain's arms, Nick wheeled and threw the vampire toward the stairs. Too late, he saw Natalie standing behind him, holding aloft a bloody staff like a warrior priestess. Cain slammed into her, and they went down in a tumble of arms and legs.

###

"It's not working." Tracy knelt over Vachon's still form, staring anxiously at his face. Alia knelt on the other side of him, one small wrist pressed firmly against his mouth. He lay unresponsive on the grass where they had laid him out. Oh, please. Please, let it work.

Vachon suddenly shuddered.

"Wake up, child." Alia's voice brooked no disobedience. Another shudder, and Tracy saw Vachon swallow convulsively. Alia made a small sound in her throat, but held her arm still. Tracy was forcibly reminded of the last time she'd seen this, when Javier had tried desperately to keep Skreed alive. This time he was on the receiving end, and she watched with relief as color flowed back into his face. A short time later Alia wrenched her arm away with a small cry to collapse bonelessly on the grass. "Vachon? Can you hear me?"

He opened his eyes, and she could have cried with relief when his brown eyes met hers in recognition. Then his eyes closed again, and he began to cough. It was a wet, terrible sound. Gently, she lifted his shoulders and rolled him onto his side, where he weakly coughed out thick, congealed blood. Not knowing what else to do she held him, letting him work through whatever he needed to do. It couldn't possibly be good for him, losing more blood like this. When at last the coughing subsided he lay limply in her arms, his eyes closed.

"Vachon?" Gently, she brushed his long dark hair away from his face. Beside them, she could see Alia struggling to stand. "Please, wake up."

###

"Not another step, Nicholas," Cain warned. One black-clad arm held Natalie tightly against him, while the other lightly caressed her cheek. His face was bloody from their fight, and Nick could see blood slowly flowing down his neck from Natalie's blow. Nick stood slowly, holding his hands out before him.

"Cain, she has nothing to do with us. Release her." As he had done with LaCroix, Nick stood calmly, pretending that his world wasn't threatening to end. Natalie stared mutely at him, good doctor's hands scrabbling frantically at Cain's arms. Cain paid no attention to her efforts.

"Nothing to do with us? Oh, I think not. How many have you corrupted, Nicholas? How many good mortal souls like this one have you led to serve Satan?"

"None. Natalie is ... a friend. Nothing more. Release her, Cain."

"No. Better that she have a quick, clean death before you soil her further." His hand went to her neck. "Don't struggle, my dear. One quick snap, and I promise you'll feel no pain." His grip tightened, and Natalie was unable to keep back a small cry of fear and pain.

"Cain. Cain, please. Don't do this." Nick took a small step forward. "Let her go. I'll do whatever you ask." When the other vampire didn't reply, Nick continued hopelessly. "You can have me instead. The woman is nothing to you, Cain. She has committed no sin. I'm the one you want. The killer. The monster. Let her go, Cain, and you can have me." Nick held both hands face up in supplication.

"Nick, no. Don't do this." Natalie's voice was barely a whisper, but her eyes spoke volumes. "Nick, get out of here. Don't let him--" Cain's hand came down hard over her mouth.

"How touching." The words were meant to sound mocking, Nick knew. "Both so willing to sacrifice for the other. Would you truly do that, my dear? For this vampire before you?" He removed his hand from her mouth, and returned it to her throat.

"Yes." Natalie said instantly. "Please, Cain, let him go. He's a good man." Before she could add any more, his hand cut her off again. This time he could not meet Nick's gaze.

"And you, Nicholas. Do you give me your word you will surrender yourself to me if I free this woman?"

"Yes." Nick said simply.

"Why?" Cain looked at him uncomprehendingly. "Why would you do such a thing?"

"Because I love her." The words hung in the air between them like a living thing. Tears fell swiftly down Natalie's face as Cain shook his head from side to side.

"This cannot be. How--?" He looked from Nick to Natalie and back again. "I--I-- take her then!" Releasing her from his iron grip, Cain shoved Natalie toward Nick, blood tears welling up in his own eyes. "You have me at a disadvantage, sir. I assure you, we will meet again!"

As Nick caught Natalie in his arms, Cain spun toward the stairwell. His feet had just touched the first step when he stopped and looked down at his chest in confusion. Staggering back into the room, he grasped weakly at Natalie's staff, now penetrating completely through his chest.

"Nick?" Natalie looked at him in confusion. She'd dropped the staff when Cain had slammed into her, and had heard it go tumbling down the stairs. So who...?

"Let's try this again, shall we?"

Nick almost laughed with relief. Leaning against the railing, as pale as death, was Vachon. He looked over at Nick and Nat and grinned sardonically.

"Aren't you through here yet?"

With a snarl of rage Cain launched himself at Vachon. He was slower now, and Nick reached him before he had crossed half the room. Grabbing the blood-slicked staff, he swung with all of his strength. Cain flew across the room and slammed with a satisfying thud into the far wall. Stunned, he slid silently to the floor.

"Nat, get out of here."

###

Natalie nodded, and began to sidle around the insane vampire. He looked unconscious, though you never knew with these guys. If she had any doubts about that, all she had to do was look at Vachon, standing there as bold as day. Bad choice of words, Nat. One more step, and...

With a blur of movement, Cain grabbed for her ankle. Natalie looked down and into the face of madness. He was grinning through a mouthful of blood, dragging the staff along with him as he began to crawl up her leg. She flinched away from him in revulsion. One flailing hand brushed against a table, and she risked a quick glance in that direction. On it was a Bible: probably not much good right now, unless striking him with it hurt him. Another thing to ask Nick, some time. Next to the Bible was a golden chalice. Hazy memories of her grandmother's flirtation with Catholicism came to the surface. Could it be...?

Cain's hands were digging painfully into her legs. Nick seemed frozen in place, afraid to move lest the vampire strike. She'd have to chance it. Natalie grabbed the golden goblet and splashed the contents directly into Cain's face.

"Yeeeaaarg!" Cain let go of Natalie's leg and grabbed for his own face. The holy water hissed and sizzled where it had struck him, burning deeply into his skin and eyes. Natalie took a stunned step backward, and that was all Nick needed. He crossed the room and snatched Natalie up into his arms. Then they were across the room and Natalie was safe.

"Watch her."

Vachon nodded. The young vampire was leaning heavily on Tracy, who had appeared from nowhere.

"No problem, Nick. Go take care of business, would you?"

###

It was done.

Nick swayed with exhaustion as he stood over Cain's still body. Wood from the stool and chair had done the job, but had left his own hands cut and bleeding from a dozen splinter cuts. It wasn't really over, of course. Left this way, Cain might eventually be able to heal himself, or call to one who could.

"One of us will have to stay behind. The sunlight will kill him, but I'm not willing to leave him alone until then."

"I will." The child vampire from last night--was it only last night?--was standing at the stairwell. Calmly, she walked between them to Cain's body, where she knelt by the head. One small hand brushed at his hair, stroked his bloody cheek. "Oh, Cain. Why couldn't you confide in me, my father, my love?" Her voice broke on the last word, and tears began to run down her face. "Why could you not share your pain?" Slowly, she lowered her lead and kissed him gently on the lips. "Oh, how I will miss you." She raised her head and looked at each of them, mortal and vampire, in turn.

"Leave now. You've done what needed to be done, God curse you. Just go."

"You know what has to be done?" Nick had to be sure. She nodded impatiently through her tears.

"Far better than you, I suspect. Now go."

"I don't think so."

Nick turned slowly toward the voice. He was simply too tired to react any more. It was an Enforcer, of course. The exaggerated facial features and the supreme arrogance stamped on them proclaimed his position far better than any words.

"Nicholas DeBrabant, Javier Vachon, you have been found guilty of crimes against the Code. Eliminate these mortals now, and perhaps you shall be allowed to live."

Nick put his arm protectively around Nat, and was pleased to see Vachon step unsteadily forward to stand in front of Tracy.

"Not a chance, batboy," the Spaniard said flatly. "Believe me. After what we've been through tonight, you're just not that impressive."

"The fact that you stopped Cain, completing my original task for me, will not save you." The Enforcer's voice was flat and unemotional. "Even if you succeed in escaping me here, your fates are sealed. I have the proof I need. Once I report it to the Conclave, every hand will turn against you. Your lives are forfeit if you do not act now."

"We're no threat to you."

The Enforcer turned toward Natalie as she spoke. In that split second, Tracy stepped calmly from behind Vachon. In her hands was a lethal crossbow, courtesy of Cain's collection down below. Nick watched in stunned surprise as she lifted the ancient weapon, aimed, and released the wooden bolt.

"Well, maybe just a little threat." Tracy's voice was dead calm, and Nick's eyes couldn't leave her face as the bolt shot home. The Enforcer gasped in surprise and staggered backward, apparently forgetting the window behind him. Tracy didn't even blink as he tumbled through the window, his eyes wide with surprise and dismay. It was only when they all heard the meaty thud down below that her calm cracked. Tossing the spent crossbow to one side, she turned and buried her face in Vachon's shoulder.

"You know," Natalie said calmly, "I'm really ready to go home now."

"Me too." Nick squeezed her shoulder gently.

"I will see to our `guest'. One last victim of Cain's madness, I fear." Alia stood up slowly and brushed at the stains on her dress. "You will be safe in our city for the day, but we have long memories here. Do not return to Quebec, and you are free to do as you will." She nodded at them remotely, then walked like a sleepwalker down the stairs.

"Let's go," Nick said quietly. Natalie nodded, her head resting tiredly against his shoulder. "Let's go home."

Epilogue

It was over. Shaking with delayed reaction, Tracy turned on the faucet and splashed her face with cold water. Behind her she could hear the low murmur of voices as the others calmly discussed the aftermath of the night's activities. Natalie, the only one who still looked remotely presentable after their terrible night, had found them two adjoining rooms on the outskirts of Quebec just as the sun began to edge over the horizon. Room service had been ordered, but at the thought of food the room swam alarmingly around her and she hastily splashed another handful of cold water on her face. Too much blood, too much horror. It would be hours before she would be able to even think about food or sleep. Her blouse stuck uncomfortably to her skin where blood--Vachon's blood--had dried there, and she grimaced as she looked down at herself.

"Tracy?"

She jumped and looked up into the mirror. Vachon was standing in the doorway, his thin, pale frame leaning wearily against the wooden frame. For a moment their eyes met in the mirror and then she hastily lowered hers. Two days ago she had been certain of where she stood with him. Now she had been forcibly reminded that he was entirely different from her. He was a vampire, an immortal-- well, almost--being nearly five hundred years old. What had she imagined that he could feel for her, a twenty-five year old mortal detective from Toronto? She splashed more water on her face, then began to studiously pat herself dry.

"Want to use the sink?" Good, Tracy. Keep it light. Don't embarrass yourself. In the mirror, she caught a glimpse of him shaking his head.

"Nah. We need to talk, Trace." He hadn't moved, but suddenly she was acutely aware of his presence behind her. "I mean, we haven't exactly had much chance to do that lately. Look, about Sunday night..." He trailed off uncertainly, and her heart contracted painfully. When she didn't respond, he continued gamely. "Look, I'm not very good at stuff like this. Too many years on the run, too many... well, it doesn't matter now. I kind of ran out on you, kiddo." He stood a few steps toward her, and she could feel his cool breath on the back of her neck. She studiously cleaned underneath her fingernails, removing the last traces of dried blood there.

This is it. He's going to tell you it's over. She bit her lip painfully as the thought welled up inside her. Still not looking at him, she nodded. "It's okay. I understand. You were worried about your friend. And, anyway, it's not like, well," Steeling herself, she looked up into his eyes in the mirror, and her cool, brave words died in her throat. He was standing just behind her, his brown eyes looking uncertainly into hers. This isn't easy for him, either. The thought was comforting, somehow. Lightly, his hands came to rest on her shoulders and he leaned forward so that their cheeks were nearly touching.

"I shouldn't have. Yeah, I was worried about Louis, and I owed Nick a pretty big favor. But," now it was his eyes that dropped, unable to meet her gaze. "But the truth is, you scare the hell out of me, Trace."

"What?" It came out as a stunned whisper. Me? I scare him? Wide-eyed, she stared at his reflection in the mirror. He nodded ruefully.

"Oh yeah. I guess that's really why I left the way I did. Things get too strange, and I just move on." He took a deep breath and raised his eyes to meet hers. "Guess it's time to take a chance. I'm not leaving this time. I don't want to lose you, Tracy." He'd dropped his guard completely, and the mixture of affection and nervousness that she saw in his handsome face took her breath away. After a long moment his gaze dropped again, and he kissed her cheek gently, a wry grin spreading across his face. "If you still want to keep me around, that is. What do you say?"

It was a serious question, and she gave it a full three seconds of thought before replying. It wouldn't be easy. They were so different in so many ways. And Dad would have an absolute fit. Not to mention Mom... Oh stop it. You already know the answer.

You love him.

He was still waiting. She smiled at him, and leaned her body back to rest lightly against his. "I say `you bet'."

His own smiled broadened, and he slipped his arms gently around her waist. They stood that way for a long while, relishing the new understanding between them. Finally Tracy broke the moment with a small chuckle.

"Well, now that we've got that straightened out," She twisted in his arms until she was facing him, their eyes nearly level. Arms still around her, he raised his eyebrows quizzically.

"There's something else?"

She opened her mouth to reply, and he covered it lightly with his own. The kiss was gentle and tender, with just the first hints of desire. The last of the day's horror slipped painlessly from her as they stood, locked in that quite embrace. At last, with effort, she broke the kiss and grinned at him playfully.

"As I was saying." She tweaked lightly at the ruined surface of his shirt. "There is one other thing. I don't want to be rude, but, well, this shirt, it's," she ducked her head as he tried to kiss her again, "it's really gross. I can pick you up another when the stores open, but in the mean time..."

"Are you telling me I need to take a shower?" His voice was light and teasing, and his fingers moved to tickle her ribs. "After all I've been through, that's all you can say? That I smell bad?"

"Well, you do. " She squirmed in his grasp, struggling to keep from laughing aloud in happiness and relief. "Oh! Stop that! Nick and Natalie--"

"Have apparently found something better to do. Maybe Natalie's making Nick shower, too," he added innocently. "And, you know, I don't seem to be the only one in the room who smells of that particular perfume. Maybe you ought to join me, Trace. Save a little water, do the conservation thing."

His voice was light and teasing, but Tracy could see the exhaustion embedded deeply in the lines on his face. They were both practically asleep on their feet. She reached up and caressed his face with a hand which shook hardly at all.

"Next time." He seemed to understand, and kissed her lightly on the nose before stepping away to pull at his ruined shirt. As he pulled it free and over his head their eyes met again and he winked at her.

"We've got plenty of time."

Sure enough, Nick and Natalie were nowhere to be seen, and the adjoining door was shut tight. Tracy closed the bathroom door behind her and leaned happily against it. Vachon was right. They had plenty of time.

###

"Are you sure they're all right?" Nick watched as Natalie put away the last of the now-empty bags she had brought from Toronto. Closing the lid, she sat down on the bed next to him.

"They'll both be fine. Although I have to admit, I wouldn't want to go through that again. We nearly lost Vachon, Nick. For a while there, I was sure we had."

"We're pretty durable. What's that saying? We wobble but we don't fall down?" Nat laughed, and leaned over to rest her head on his shoulder.

"Yeah, I guess so." She shivered, and he slipped his arm around her.

"Nat?"

"Mmm?"

"I meant what I said."

"You usually do. To which time are you referring?" He looked down into her lovely face. She was concealing a smile.

"I think you know."

"No, I don't think so. Maybe you ought to say it again." She was smiling openly now. "Just to make sure we don't have any more ... miscommunications."

"Well, I was just going to say ... I really like you in that color. You ought to wear it more often." Releasing her, he got his feet, concealing a smile of his own.

"Nick!"

"Aand...," he held out his hand to her and pulled her to stand next to him. "And I love you, Natalie. More than life itself. You know that, don't you?"

"Yeah, I guess I do. It's just nice to hear, sometimes." Impatiently, she brushed a tear from her eye. "And I really love you. Just," and she punched playfully at his shoulder, "try to keep out of trouble a little more, huh? I can't afford to keep losing beauty sleep over you."

"You don't need beauty sleep." Standing very close to her, he reached out and took her face in his hands. "Nothing could make you more beautiful, Nat." Bending down, he brushed her lips with his own. "Nothing."

When their kiss ended, Natalie was looking up at him soberly.

"So what happens now, Nick?"

"We keep trying. Look, Nat, I'm never going to be your best bet. The vampire inside me is just too strong. Maybe we'll find a cure. I hope we do. But if not..." he trailed off uncertainly.

"We make the best of what we've got," Natalie finished. "That's all any of us can do, Nick, mortal or vampire. Just the best we can."

Nick nodded and pulled her back into his embrace.

"The best we can."

The End