What are you doing, Nicholas? He shook his head in answer tohis own silent question. Allowing himself to be caught up in the enthusiasm of a well-meaning but very naïve young woman, that was what. Didn't he know better than that by now?
"Solving a puzzle is its own reward for me," she'd said; and he had no doubt that she'd meant it. Even if the statement proved false later on, he was certain she was not deliberately deceiving him.
But she was quite a puzzle herself, this Natalie Lambert. A doctor, a scientist, buried so deep in her work that she remained there far into the night even on her birthday. He had never expected such a mind to accept the reality of his existence with barely a blink, let alone hold tightly to that knowledge despite his efforts to erase it. Failing that, he had drawn on long-discarded mannerisms to frighten her away--and succeeded only in drawing her closer. That proximity scared him, scared him more even than his inability to predict her reactions. He didn't want to be the one to teach her how deadly such unbridled curiosity could be.
But for now he had agreed to consider her offer, and found to his surprise that it seemed possible. Science had explored so much territory that in his proper time had been considered magic; why shouldn't it be able to find the key to vampirism?
She looked up sharply from her desk, her face that of a startled child for a split second before the rational woman took over. "Hi. I wondered if you'd ever come back. You seemed pretty determined to get rid of me the other night."
"Not determined enough."
Crossing her arms, she leaned back in her chair, regarding him thoughtfully. "On purpose, maybe? I'll bet you could have chased me off if you really applied yourself; I'm probably not that unflappable."
"No." He shook his head. "Not on purpose, Doctor." Taking a seat in the chair opposite her desk, he went on, "Before we make any agreement, I must be sure you really understand how dangerous an undertaking this is. I am not a safe person
to know, Dr. Lambert. Ever."
"You seemed safe enough the other night. You could have killed me any time."
"And still could," he insisted, her blunt clarity taking him offguard yet again. "Before either of us knows what has happened. Don't ever doubt that."
She studied him for a long moment, finally replying, "I have to doubt it. The evidence says otherwise. Injured, confused, apparently starving, you went for the cooler instead of me. How am I supposed to believe you'd suddenly turn around and attack me without warning?"
"It has been known to happen."
The instinct to keep his secrets to himself was screaming at him, but he had to make her understand if he was going to let her endanger herself. "Too many times to count, Doctor."
"When?" she repeated firmly.
"Not in a hundred years," he admitted. "But that is not a vow that's easily kept."
"A hundred years?" she repeated. "So why are you so worried about me in particular?"
He could have given her a hundred reasons for that, but something in the way she asked the question stopped him short. One of the things that made her so unpredictable had just clarified itself: here was a beautiful woman who was honestly oblivious to that fact. What she was really asking was--why would I be special? And there was no false modesty here; she really didn't know. How had this jaded world produced such a person? "Because you should be afraid and you're not," he answered finally. "Fear may be based on ignorance, but it's also a safety net. I meant what I said: keep your distance."
"All right." She nodded, digesting this. "So why did you come back?"
He considered the question for a moment. "I'm not really sure," he admitted finally. "Several reasons, I suppose. Because I wanted to make sure you wouldn't do anything foolish. Because it's nice to lie to myself once in a while and pretend I'm not completely alone." He shrugged. "Because I do want very much to believe you can help me--which doesn't mean I do," he added hastily.
A broad grin lit her face, reminding him that she was really not beyond youthful impetuosity, however well she might conceal it behind a very professional façade. "So you do know how to smile," she accused impishly. "You should try it more often. It suits you."
"All right." Had he really become so grim? "Though I've had little to smile about in a long time."
"Guess we'll have to change that." Her smile faded almost out of existence, and the look in her eyes was openly challenging. "I meant what I said, too: You're not evil. You're not hopeless. You got a raw deal, and I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be reversible."
"But you don't see any reason why it should, either," he pointed out. "And I haven't yet agreed to let you try."
She nodded. "All right, then. Am I being tested?"
"I suppose you are. Does that bother you?"
She thought about that a moment. "Not really."
Leaning on the desk, he replied seriously, "It should. What right have I to judge you?"
"As much right as anyone else." She shrugged. "I am asking you to trust me on something pretty heavy-duty."
"And in return you're trusting me with your life," he reminded her again. He was still afraid she didn't take that danger as seriously as she should, but he didn't know how else to convince her without really frightening her away. And he knew he no longer wanted to do that--if indeed it was possible, which he was
beginning to doubt.
"Looks that way."
"Then I'll have to work hard to be worthy of that," he told her solemnly. In a lighter tone, he went on, "Your turn, Doctor. What are you doing here?"
Chuckling, she translated, "What's a nice girl like me doing in a place like this, you mean?"
"Something like that," he acknowledged, her humor infecting him. "Surely your desire to help is not limited to me, but your... patients here are a bit beyond help. Usually," he added as an afterthought.
"Yeah, well, they don't talk back," she returned flippantly. "Usually."
The neutral statement earned a puzzled look from her, reminding him again of a questioning child. "I admit it's not the most glamorous occupation, but like I said, I love solving puzzles. And these puzzles help put killers away when I do." With a flash of a sour expression, she added, "Anyway, I don't need to do this to see what people can do to each other. Not these days. So it really doesn't matter much."
Nick suspected that she still hadn't given him the real reason, but he let it go for now, saying instead, "You don't make a very convincing cynic, Dr. Lambert."
"Maybe not," she acknowledged with a smile. "So, I'm not a good cynic, and you do in fact possess a smile. So maybe we should both stop wasting energy on the very aloof and serious routine?"
Nick quirked an eyebrow at her. "Do you really think that's wise?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," she shot back. "I think I'll stand a much better chance of being able to help you when we stop playing verbal chess and start working together."
He regarded her for a long moment, sternly forbidding his mouth to curl up in a smile, and failing. "But it's a game you seem to excel at, Doctor."
"Yeah, well, we can't always like what we're good at. I'm not big on games in general." The self-deprecating almost-smile that accompanied the statement seemed to be an expression her face fell into easily, one Nick suspected she wore more often than any other he had seen. "And it's Natalie."
"Natalie," he repeated, uneasy about establishing first-name familiarity but seeing little choice. "Then I'm Nicho-- Nick."
This prompted the gamine grin again, the one so completely at odds with her peculiar profession. The one he found a bit too appealing for comfort. "Hey, you have a smile and a name! You'll be human in no time!"
"If only it were that easy."
"We'll do it," Natalie assured him--and, he suspected, herself.
"Well, Sydney, I think we may have made a start."
The grey tabby answered her with a sleepy blink, clearly finding her announcement less than earthshattering.
"You're impressed," Natalie chuckled, scooping up the cat from his place on the couch and scratching under his chin. "I can tell. But you try consulting with a cagey vampire sometime."
A vampire. There was no denying Nick's anomalous existence, for all that it ran contrary to what she had always been told. All other puzzles in her reach paled in comparison to the chance to try to understand a vampire.
Not merely to understand him, either, but to find a way to erase those anomalies and return him to the state of grace he considered humanity to be. A tall order, that one; in fact, he still wasn't convinced that it was possible.
And, for all her put-on confidence, neither was she. Still, she hadn't made him any promises she couldn't keep. She had only told him she'd try.
That was all Nick expected of her, but Natalie knew that she could not just try. She would solve this puzzle, the greatest of her life. She would give him back his humanity.
"I don't mean to be judgmental, Natalie, but don't you have any cheerier places to spend your time?"
The coroner looked around her, at the sickly green tile, the cold stainless-steel furnishings. "I guess it is pretty blah in here, huh?"
Nick stopped himself from saying it didn't seem to suit her; he was finding it increasingly difficult to keep this disarming young woman at a safe, impersonal distance; and that would not help. Instead he suggested, "Maybe we should find a more comfortable place to talk?"
"And leave my secure turf?" she asked in mock horror. Or maybe not so mock, he amended to himself. He had already noted that she seemed to be hiding here from something. "Well, if we must...come on, I live pretty near here. You can meet my cat."
Nick shook his head. "That's not a good idea."
"Oh, Sydney's okay with everybody," she assured him, shrugging out of her lab coat and picking up a light jacket.
"I'm sure Sydney would be fine, but..."
"But what?" She gave him a sidelong glance, lifting an eyebrow. "After surviving a pipe bomb blowing you to bits, you're not going to tell me you're allergic to cats?"
That earned an amused half-smile. "No, I'm not allergic. It's just that I'm not...comfortable with the idea of going to your house."
Without missing a beat, she came back with, "Okay. What about yours?"
"Didn't think so. It was worth a shot."
"It's for your safety."
Natalie nodded. "So you keep saying."
"What do you mean by that?" Immediately Nick realised the question had been too sharp, as he watched a flash of startlement cross her face before being carefully put away. She really was much too good at that.
"Just that I still have no evidence that you'd hurt me. But we can argue that point until we're both blue in the face--if that's possible for you-- and it won't get us anywhere."
"True enough." Nick smiled. "For instance, we still haven't decided on a place to go. A public place."
"Where you have an excuse to censor what you tell me?" she challenged, crossing her arms.
Where it's easier to keep you at arm's length, he wanted to answer, but he knew it would do no good. "We'll see," he allowed.
"Okay, okay." Hooking her purse over her shoulder, she dug through its treacherous depths for several seconds, at last fishing out her keys. "There's an ice cream place a couple blocks away that's open until 11."
Natalie was hard-pressed not to burst out laughing at the look on Nick's face when she held out the cone of fudge ripple. "Have you tried?"
"Not ice cream." He shrugged. "A few other things, when circumstances gave me no choice. It may interest you that my gag reflex is alive and well."
"I'll put it in my notes," she chuckled.
Nick's sudden scowl at this surprised her. "Notes can be found, Natalie. Remember: however you plan to go about this...course of treatment, you must work in absolute secrecy." He offered no more, but Natalie couldn't help thinking it was the same tone he used when harping on the issue of her safety.
"Don't worry; I'm not in a rush to be led into a nice white room, thanks."
And besides, she added to herself, this is my puzzle. She neither wanted nor expected recognition from her peers, certainly not for this surreal little enigma; what she wanted was the answer.
Nick's severe expression melted as suddenly as it had appeared. "Of course not. I'm sorry. But I really can't exaggerate how important that is. A whisper of this gets out, and I can guarantee you will never see me again."
Natalie nodded. "I figured that was the deal."
"So long as we're both clear on it." He watched her work at the ice cream cone for several seconds before asking, "What does that taste like, anyway?"
She held it out to him again, and he eyed it uncertainly. "Go on, it's not going to kill you." Dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, she added, "At least, Bram Stoker never mentioned ice cream."
"Well, he wasn't entirely on the mark," Nick chuckled. "But no, ice cream is not on the list."
This time she did crack up, as he accepted the cone, gingerly attempting to take a lick of it and looking for all the world as if it were laced with ground glass rather than chocolate. "Oh, give me that!" she sputtered finally, snatching it back before it dripped everywhere. "Well, I certainly see where we can start!"
His stricken look at the prospect of further food experiments sent Natalie into renewed laugher, and a second later he joined her.
When both had settled down, she pulled the conversation back to a serious note. "Nick, listen: if we're going to discuss your case in confidentiality, it's got to be in private. That means either we go back to the lab, or one of us is going to have to play host. If we can't talk, I can't help you. It's as simple
The ancient eyes regarded her across the table for a long, uncomfortable moment; but she refused to back down, to look away. "All right," he conceded at last. "And since I would rather trust you with my address than trust myself with yours, I guess it will have to be me."
"You live here?"
After all that had happened in the past few days, he hadn't expected this to throw her. "By your definition, I guess so." He shrugged. "I reside here. If I say anything else, I'm going to start an argument."
"If you're going to insist on believing you're not alive, you'd better get used to arguments," Natalie returned tartly. "This looks like a storage space, not an apartment! How long have you lived here?"
"About a year and a half."
"And in a year and a half you couldn't get furniture?" She shook her head, surveying the spare loft. "No wonder you almost forgot how to smile."
"Vampires in general are very wrapped up in surrounding themselves with things," he explained. "I've had enough of that. This is all I need."
"A mattress, a shower stall, and some boxes. Nick, has it occurred to you that humans like to have a few things too? Like where are we going to sit?"
"I don't usually have company," he countered.
"Yeah? Maybe you should start." She looked around again, wrinkling her nose. "After you make this place habitable, that is. I assume you have the money, if you can afford the alarm system."
Exasperated, he replied, "Of course I have the money! I have more money that I know what to do with! But" He stopped short at the triumphant little smile she was failing to hide. "You're trying to start an argument!" he accused.
"And succeeding." Natalie perched on a nearby crate with a thoroughly exasperating smile. "The dead don't argue, Nick. Trust me, I've met a lot of 'em."
Privately he reflected that he had known some very argumentative dead in his time; but since he was beginning to think Natalie Lambert could give any of them a run for their longstanding Swiss accounts, he let the thought pass. "Fine," he challenged. "Do scientists generally argue with their puzzles?"
Her face fell, and he wondered whether he had made a dreadful mistake. "I'm sorry," she ventured, carefully holding her dignity together. "I shouldn't let my...enthusiasm get ahead of my professional courtesy." She stood up, continuing in the same artificial doctor's tone, "But you are a patient; your condition is the puzzle. And as such, you deserve to be--"
"No," he interrupted. "Don't do that." At her puzzled look, he continued, "Don't be the perfect doctor. Joke, argue, enthuse all you want. Be human." He had taken her hand in both his own, the first time he had dared to touch her in friendship rather than an attempt to frighten her away, and for a second he
considered letting go--but only a second. "Be alive. That's what I need, that example. That's what I'd forgotten."
For a moment she just stared at him, mystified; then the coolly professional veneer was gone, replaced by the slightly shy smile as warm as his distant memory of sunshine. "That makes sense. But I'll bet you haven't forgotten as much as you think."
"We'll see." He wasn't yet sure he believed she could accomplish the task she had set for herself, but something had changed tonight. Whatever it was, this woman was the catalyst, and it was as irrevocable as the choices that had brought him into the darkness.
Maybe more so.