"Naddie Naddie Naddie Naddie!"
"Go 'way, Richie, I'm coloring!"
"Read, Naddie!" the toddler insisted, unimpressed by big sister's artistic endeavors. "Fish, Naddie! Read read!"
"That book again?" Natalie sighed with a degree of exasperation attainable only by a child of almost five. She practically knew it by heart, the first book she had ever read all by herself. She would rather try the new one with the cat in the hat, even though it was harder and she hadn't figured out all the words yet.
But Richie never got tired of the fish book, and she could not resist his grin as he held it out to her in his chubby grubby baby hands. "Read, Naddie!" he pleaded.
"Okay, okay." She accepted the colorful book, taking Richie's hand to lead him to the big armchair where they always wedged themselves to read. "'One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish,'" she began.
As usual, Richie's two-year-old attention began to waver about when they hit the funny-looking guy who said, "My hat is old, my teeth are gold..." On the next page he stood on one hand and said it all backwards, Natalie's favorite funny part. But by then Richie had wriggled out of the chair, heading for the bright square of sunlight on the living-room carpet. Something about that was dangerous, wasn't it? "No, Richie!"
And then he wasn't a baby any longer, but a man tall and strong. No, not just strong, but immortal, and drunk on power and the blood of five people. All because she couldn't let him go, couldn't accept the cruel twist of fate that sought to snatch him away. Nick had tried to warn her, tried to make her see reason, but she had hit him with every weapon in her considerable arsenal until he gave in.
"God made a mistake this time!" Had she really said that? Nick knew better, Nick who still believed he was damned, that no matter what he did he was fundamentally evil.
"Evil is a metaphysical condition," he'd told her that first crazy night when chance brought him to her in a body bag. But she hadn't let him frighten her away, so certain that she knew better.
Just as she had been this time--how arrogant could you get? After all this time, more than she could really comprehend, Nick still knew God didn't make mistakes. For her, though, he had gone against his better judgment and done as she asked--what he would not do when Alyce Hunter begged him for it, or when Denise Ford died in his arms before he could fly her to help.
And now, too late, she understood why, as her cherished little brother ruthlessly slammed Nick and then herself aside in pursuit of his terrified wife. Natalie came to on the floor, halfway across the room, and hauled herself upright just as the sunlight struck Richard and he was gone.
Nick started awake, disoriented for a split second to find himself sitting in an unfamiliar chair in an unfamiliar room. He hadn't intended to fall asleep, but Natalie had slept soundly through the day until now, which by his watch was about five o'clock.
He moved to the edge of the bed where she sat suddenly upright, shaking her head to clear away the last cobweb strands of dream. "Must've been a doozy," Nick said.
"You could say that." She pushed her hair back from her face. "I've made a decision," she told him, her voice rock-steady.
"I don't want to die, Nick. I'm not giving up."
A broad grin split his face and relief flooded his voice as he answered, "That's the best news I've heard all week."
"Well, I hope so!" she chuckled, returning the smile.
A light knock sounded on the door and Janette poked her head inside. "Is everything all right?"
"Fine, thanks," Nat replied.
Their hostess nodded, taking note of the smudged, rumpled blouse the other woman still wore. "I'm pleased to hear that. Why don't I get you some clean clothes?"
Natalie raised an eyebrow. "No offense, but...is there anything in your closet you honestly think I could carry off without looking like a grade-A idiot?"
"Don't sell yourself short." Janette cocked her head, a mischievous smile lighting her face momentarily. "I'll see what I can do."
When she had gone, Natalie asked, "Why am I not sure I like the sound of that?"
"Oh, I don't know," Nick began, cutting off with a chuckle at her sharp questioning look.
"But why run away now?" The silk crepe halter dress Janette had produced for her was not exactly Nat's normal style, but she hadn't felt as foolish donning it as she had expected. The black silk rustled around her knees as she and Nick walked across the club. "I mean, I'm ready to pick up my life again, and you tell me we have to skip town?"
"You really think you're ready? You think you can be Natalie Lambert, Ontario coroner, business as usual?"
"What do you mean?"
"Think about it, Nat. How many times have you lied to our friends to cover for me? Now you have to cover for you, too. Are you ready to face Stonetree, or Grace? What happens next time your sister-in-law asks you out to lunch? Do you have any idea what you'll tell them?" Not giving her a chance to reply, he continued bluntly, "Are you ready to dissect the boy you killed last night?"
She focussed on the floor. "No. No, of course not. But..."
"It's time to disappear, Nat. I'm sorry, but it's the only choice. After tonight, Natalie Lambert and Nick Knight no longer exist."
She looked over her shoulder one last time, but all she could see of the city where she had lived her whole life were the lights at the top of the CN Tower.
The Caddy now bore Colorado license plates, green mountains silhouetted against white. She examined the false driver's license Janette had supplied, trying to accustom herself to being
Natalie Ryan of Denver. A U.S. citizen--than in itself was pretty weird.
All they could bring with them was in the back seat of the Cadillac; the trunk remained empty in case something went wrong en route and morning caught them without shelter. A few more things--but not much--had been packed in a box for Janette to mail after them. But everything else had been left behind. They had truly vanished, the sort of missing-persons case that never gets solved.
Since Nick's car was gone and hers was still there, they would probably think that he had kidnapped her or something; but he insisted that none of that mattered. They were different people now.
"I hope Sydney's okay," she fretted. "I wish we could have brought him along."
"You and me and a car going missing is one thing," Nick reminded her. "Taking the cat would have been too odd. Besides, he might not be safe around some of the others."
"I know, I know. And Schanke promised that Jenny would take good care of him."
"Yeah." Nick shook his head. "This would have been a whole lot harder to pull off without his help. I think he's a better liar than either of us."
"I think you're right." She looked back again, almost involuntarily; Toronto was now quite out of sight. "It bugs me that Paul didn't show up to give us more trouble."
"I know. It doesn't make sense," Nick agreed. "Unless he decided that by goading you into killing he got what he was after."
"And then some."
Nick glanced over at her, reaching out to take her hand. "No. He wanted to destroy you, and I don't think he succeeded. Do you?"
She smiled and squeezed his hand. "No."
"And he never will," Nick concluded positively.
Natalie said nothing, turning her attention back to the road before them, waiting to see where it would lead.