Blood Price (Vicki Nelson #1)

Chapter 14

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Henry stepped out of the shower and frowned at his reflection in the full-length mirror. The lesser cuts and abrasions he'd taken the night before had healed, the greater were healing and would give him no trouble. He unwrapped the plastic bag from around the dressing on his arm and poked gently at the gauze. It hurt and would, he suspected, continue to hurt for some time, but he could use the arm if he was careful. It had been so many years since he'd taken a serious wound that his biggest problem would be remembering it before he caused himself more pain.

He turned a little sideways and shook his head. Great green splotches of fading bruises still covered most of his body.

"Looks familiar, actually… "

The lance tip caught him under the right arm, lifting him up and out of the saddle. For a heartbeat, he hung in the air, then as the roar of the watching crowd rose to a crescendo, he crashed down to the ground. The sound of his armor slamming against the packed earth of the lists rattled around inside his head much as his head rattled around inside his helmet. He almost wouldn't mind the falls if only they weren't so thrice-damned loud.

He closed his eyes. Just until all the noise stops…

When he opened them again, he was looking up into the face of Sir Gilbert Talboys, his mother's husband. Where the devil did he come from? he wondered. Where did my helmet go? He liked Sir Gilbert, so he tried to smile. His face didn't seem to be functioning.

"Can you rise, Henry? His Grace, the King, is approaching."

There was an urgency in Sir Gilbert's voice that penetrated the ringing in Henry's ears. Could he rise? He wasn't exactly sure. Everything hurt but nothing seemed broken. The king, who would not be pleased that he had been unseated, would be even less pleased if he continued to lie in the dirt. Teeth clenched, he allowed Sir Gilbert to lift him into a sitting position then, with help, heave him to his feet.

Henry swayed but somehow managed to stay standing, even after all supporting hands had been removed. His vision blurred, then refocused on the king, resplendent in red velvet and cloth of gold, advancing from the tournament stand. Desperately, he tried to gather his scattered wits. He had not been in his father's favor since he had unwisely let it be known that he considered Queen Catherine the one true and only Queen of England. This would be the first time his father had spoken to him since he had taken up with that Lutheran slut. Even three years later, the French Court still buzzed with stories of her older sister, Mary, and Henry could not believe that his father had actually put Anne Boleyn on the throne.

Unfortunately, King Henry VIII had done exactly that.

Thanking God that his armor prevented him from falling to one knee-he doubted he'd be able to rise or, for that matter, control the fall-Henry bowed as well as he was able and waited for the king to speak.

"You carry your shield too far from your body. Carry it close and a man cannot get his point behind it." Royal hands flashing with gold and gems lifted his arm and tucked it up against his side. "Carry it here."

Henry couldn't help but wince as the edge of his coutel dug into a particularly tender bruise.

"You're hurting, are you?"

"No, Sire." Admitting to pain would not help his case.

"Well, if you aren't now, you will be later." The king chuckled low in his throat, then red-gold brows drew down over deep set and tiny eyes. "We were not pleased to see you on the ground."

This would be the answer that counted. Henry wet his lips; at least the bluff King Hal persona was the easiest to deal with. "I am sorry, Sire, and I wish it been you in my place."

The heavy face reddened dangerously. "You wished to see your Sovereign unseated?"

The immediate area fell completely silent, courtiers holding their breath.

"No, Sire, for if it had been you in my saddle, it would have been Sir John on the ground."

King Henry turned and stared down the lists at Sir John Gage, a man ten years his junior and at the peak of his strength and stamina. He began to laugh. "Aye, true enough, lad. But the bridegroom does not joust for fear he break his lance."

Staggering under a jocular slap on the back, Henry would nave fallen but for Sir Gilbert's covert assistance. He laughed with the others, for the king had made a joke, but although he was thankful to be back in favor all he could really think of was soaking his bruises in a hot bath.

Henry lifted an arm. "A little thinner perhaps but definitely the same shade." Rolling his shoulder muscles, he winced as one of the half-healed abrasions pulled. Injuries that had once taken weeks, or sometimes months, to heal now disappeared in days. "Still, a good set of tournament armor would've come in handy last night."

Last night…. He had taken more blood from Vicki and her young friend than he usually took in a month of feedings. She had saved his life, almost at the expense of her own and he was grateful, but it did open up a whole new range of complications. New complications that would just have to wait until the old ones had been dealt with.

He strapped on his watch. 8:10. Maybe Vicki had called back while he was in the shower.

She hadn't.

"Great. Norman Birdwell, York University, and I'll call you back. So call already." He glared at the phone. The waiting was the worst part of knowing that the grimoire was out there and likely to be used.

He dressed. 8:20. Still no call.

His phone books were buried in the hall closet. He dug them out, just in case. No Norman Birdwell. No Birdwell of any kind.

Her message tied him to the apartment. She expected him to be there when she called. He couldn't go out and search on his own. Pointless in any case when she was so close.

8:56. He had most of the glass picked up. The phone rang.

"Vicki?"

"Please do not hang up. You are talking to a compu …"

Henry slammed the receiver down hard enough to crack the plastic. "Damn." He tried a quick call out, listened to Vicki's message-for the third time since sunset, and it told him absolutely nothing new-and hung up a little more gently. Nothing appeared to be damaged except for the casing.

9:17. The scrap metal that had once been a television and a coffee table frame were piled in the entryway, ready to go down to the garbage room. He wasn't sure what he was going to do about the couch. Frankly, he didn't care about the couch. Why didn't she call?

9:29. There were stains in the carpet and the balcony still had no door-though he'd blocked the opening with plywood-but essentially all signs of the battle had been erased from the condo. No mindless task remained to keep him from thinking. And somehow he couldn't stop thinking of a woman's broken body hanging from a rusted hook.

"Damn it, Vicki, call!"

The empty space on the bookshelf drew his gaze and the guilt he'd been successfully holding at bay stormed the barricades. The grimoire was his. The responsibility was his. If he'd been stronger. If he'd been faster. If he'd been smarter. Surely with four hundred and fifty years of experience he should be able to outthink one lone mortal with not even a tenth of that.

He looked down at the city regretfully. "I should have… " He let his voice trail off. There was nothing he could have done differently. Even had he continued to believe the killer an abandoned child of his kind, even had Vicki not stumbled onto him bending over that corpse, even had he not decided to trust her, it wouldn't have changed last night's battle with the demon, his loss, and the loss of the grimoire. The only thing that could have prevented that would have been his destruction of the grimoire back when he first acquired it in the 1800s, and, frankly, he wasn't sure he could have destroyed it, then or now.

"Although," he acknowledged, right hand wrapped lightly around left forearm, skin even paler than usual against the stark white of the gauze, "had Vicki not worked her way into the equation, I would have died." And there would have been no one to stop the Demon Lord from rising. His lips drew up off his teeth. "Not that I seem to be doing much to prevent it."

Why didn't she call?

He began to pace, back and forth, back and forth, before the window.

She'd lost a lot of blood the night before. Had she run into trouble she was too weak to handle?

He remembered the feel of Ginevra's dead flesh under his hands as he cut her down. She'd been so alive. Like Vicki was so alive…

Why didn't she call?

She'd been conscious now for some time and had been lying quietly, eyes closed, waiting for the pounding at her temples to stop echoing between her ears. Time was of the essence, yes, but sudden movement would have her puking her guts out and she couldn't see where that would help. Better to wait, to gather information, and to move when she might actually have some effect.

She licked her lips and tasted blood, could feel the warm moisture dribbling down from her nose.

Her feet were tied at the ankles. Her arms lashed together almost from wrists to elbows; the binding around her wrists fabric not rope. She'd been dumped on her side, knees drawn up, left cheek down on a hard, sticky surface-probably the floor. Someone had removed her jacket. Her glasses were not on her nose. She fought back the surge of panic that realization brought.

She could hear-or maybe feel-footsteps puttering about behind her and adenoidal breathing coming from the same direction. Norman. From the opposite direction, she could hear short sharp breaths, each exhalation an indignant snort. And Coreen.

So she's still alive. Good. And she sounds angry, not hurt. Even better. Vicki suspected that Coreen was also tied or she wouldn't be so still. Which, all things considered, is a good thing. Few people get dead faster than amateur heroes. Not, she added as a flaming spike slammed through the back of her head, that the professionals are doing so hot.

She lay there for a moment, playing if Coreen hadn't interfered until the new pain faded into the background with the old pain.

The residual stench of the demon was very strong-only in a building used to students could Norman have gotten away with it-overlaid with burning charcoal, candles, air freshener, and toast.

"You know, you could offer me some. I'm starving."

"You'll eat after."

Vicki wasn't surprised to hear that Norman talked with his mouth full. He probably picks his nose and wears socks with sandals, too. An all-around great guy.

"After what?"

"After the Demon Lord makes you mine."

"Get real, Birdwell! Demons don't come that powerful!"

Norman laughed.

Cold fingers traced a pattern up and down Vicki's spine, and she fought to keep herself from flipping over so that the thing Norman Birdwell had become was no longer at her exposed back. She'd heard a man laugh like that once before. The SWAT team had needed seven hours to take him out and they'd still lost two of the hostages.

"You'll see," his voice matter-of-fact around the toast. "First I was just going to have you ripped into little pieces, real slow. Then I was going to use you as part of the incantation to call the Demon Lord. Did I tell you it needed a life? Until you showed up I was going to grab the kid down the hall." His voice drew closer and Vicki felt a pointed toe prodding her in the back. "Now I've decided to use her and keep you for myself."

"You're disgusting, Birdwell!"

"DON'T SAY THAT!"

Concussion or not, Vicki opened her eyes in time to see Norman dart forward and slap Coreen across the face. Without her glasses details were a blur, but from the sound of it, it hadn't been much of a blow.

"Did I hurt you?" he asked, the rage gone as suddenly as it had appeared.

The bright mass of Coreen's hair swept up and back as she tossed her head. "No," she told him, chin rising. Fear had crept into her voice but it was still vastly outweighed by anger.

"Oh." Norman finished his toast and wiped his fingers on his jeans. "Well, I will."

Vicki could understand and approve of Coreen's anger. She was furious herself-at Norman, at the situation, at her helplessness. Although she would have preferred to rant and bellow, she held her rage carefully in check. Releasing it now, when she was bound, would do neither her, nor Coreen, nor the city any good. She drew in a deep breath and slowly exhaled. Her head felt as though it were balanced precariously on the edge of the world and one false move would sent it tumbling into infinity.

"Excuse me." She hadn't intended to whisper, but it was all she could manage.

Norman turned. "Yes?"

"I was wondering …" Swallow. Ride the pain. Continue. "… if I could have my glasses." Breathe, two, three, while Norman waits patiently. He isn't going anywhere, after all. "Without them, I can't see what you're doing."

"Oh." She could almost hear his brow furrow even though she couldn't see it. "It only seems fair you should get to see this."

He trotted out of her line of sight and she closed her eyes for a moment to rest them. Only seems fair? Well, I suppose I should be happy he doesn't want to waste front row seats.

"Here." He squatted down and very carefully slid the plastic arms back over her ears, settling the bridge gently on her nose. "Better?"

Vicki blinked as the intricate stitching on his black cowboy boot came suddenly into focus. "Much. Thank you." Up close, and considering the features without the expression, he wasn't an unattractive young man. A bit on the thin and gawky side perhaps, but time would take care of both. Time that none of them had, thanks to Norman Birdwell.

"Good." He patted her cheek and the touch, light as it was sent ripples of pain through her head. "I'll tell you what I told her. If you scream, or make any loud noise, I'll kill you both."

"I'm going to go do my teeth now," he continued, straightening up. "I brush after everything I eat." He pulled what looked to be a thick pen out of the pocket protector and unscrewed the cap. It turned out to be a portable toothbrush, with paste in the handle. "You should get one of these," he told her, demonstrating how it worked, his tone self-righteously smug. "I've never had a filling."

Fortunately, he didn't wait for a reply.

Some lucky providence had put Coreen directly across the small room, making it thankfully unnecessary for Vicki to move her head. She studied the younger woman for a few seconds, noting the red patch on one pale cheek. Even with her glasses, she seemed to be having trouble focusing. "Are you all right?" she called quietly.

"What do you think?" Coreen didn't bother to modulate her voice. "I'm tied to one of Norman Birdwell's kitchen chairs-with socks!"

Vicki dropped her gaze. At least six socks per leg tied Coreen to the chrome legs of the kitchen chair. Gray and black and brown nylon socks, stretched to their limit and impossible to break. Intrigued, in spite of everything, she gave her own bonds an experimental tug; they didn't respond like socks. As it seemed safer than moving her head, she slid her arms up along the floor until she could see them. Ties. At least four, maybe five-the swirling leaps of paisley and the jarring clashes of color made it difficult to tell for sure-and while it might have had more to do with her own weakness than Norman's skill, for she doubted he'd ever been a boy scout, he certainly seemed to know his knots.

"You were about to jump him, weren't you?"

"What?" Vicki looked up and wished she hadn't as her body protested with alternating waves of dizziness and nausea.

"When we came into the apartment and I… I mean…. Well, I'm sorry."

It sounded more like a challenge than an apology. "Don't worry about it now." Vicki swallowed, trying not to add to the puddle of drool collecting under her cheek. "Let's just try… to get out of this mess."

"What do you think I've been trying to do?" Coreen gave a frantic heave that only resulted in bouncing the chair backward less than half an inch. "I don't believe this! I really don't believe this!"

Hearing the tones of incipient panic, Vicki, in the driest voice she was capable of, said, "It is a little like… Alfred Hitchcock does Revenge of the Nerds. "

Coreen stared at her in astonishment, sniffed, and grinned somewhat shakily. "Or David Cronneberg does I Dream of Genie, " she offered in return.

Good girl. It took all the energy Vicki had left to smile approvingly. While there were dangers in Coreen not taking Norman seriously, the dangers were greater if the girl fell apart.

Struggling did more damage to her than to the ties. She kept struggling anyway. If the world had to end, she'd be damned if she let it go down under the ridiculously high, cowboy booted heel of Norman Birdwell, adding insult to injury.

"Enough!" Henry spun away from the window and hurled himself toward the door. He had a name, he had a place, it was time he joined the hunt. "I should never have waited this long."

At the door, he slowed, grabbed his coat, and managed to appear within the parameters of normality as he exited into the hall. He slid the key into the lock, then headed for the stairs, hating the charade that kept him to a mortal's pace.

In the dim light of the stairwell, he let all pretense drop and moved as quickly as aching muscles would allow.

There were slightly less than two hours until midnight.

He completely forgot that the stairwell was part of the building's random monitoring system.

Vicki drifted up into consciousness thinking, This has got to stop. Every time she tried to move, every time she tried to raise her head, she drifted back down into the pit. Occasionally, the blackness claimed her when she was doing nothing more than lying quietly, trying to conserve her strength for another attempt at getting free. I'm going to have to think of something else.

All her intermittent struggling had accomplished was to exacerbate her physical condition and to uncover her watch.

Seven minutes after ten. Henry's probably throwing fits. Oh my God, Henry! Her involuntary jerk brought another flash of pain. She ignored it, lost it in sudden horror. I forgot to warn him about that security guard…

Although he recognized the necessity of the surveillance cameras, Greg had never liked them. They always made him feel a bit like a peeping Tom. Two or three guards on constant patrol with one manning a central position at the desk, that's the kind of job he'd prefer to work. A camera just couldn't replace a trained man on the scene. But trained men had to be paid and cameras didn't so he was stuck with them.

As the attractive young lady in the whirlpool stepped out and reached for her towel, he politely averted his eyes. Maybe he was just getting old, but those two scraps of fabric were not what he'd call a bathing suit. When he looked back again, that monitor showed only orderly rows of cars in the underground garage.

He sat back in his chair and adjusted the black armband he wore in honor of Mrs. Hughes and Owen. The building would be different without them. As the night went on, he kept expecting to see them heading out for their last walk before bed and had to keep reminding himself that he'd never see them again. The young man he'd relieved had raised an eyebrow at the armband and another at the explanation. Young people today had no real concept of respect; not for the dead, not for authority, not for themselves. Henry Fitzroy was one of the few young people he'd met in the last ten years who understood.

Henry Fitzroy. Greg pulled at his lower lip. Last night he'd done a very, very foolish thing. He was embarrassed by it and sorry for it, but not entirely certain he was wrong. As an old sergeant of his used to say, "If it walks like a duck, and it talks like a duck, and it acts like a duck, odds are good it's a duck." The sergeant had been referring to Nazis, but Greg figured it applied to vampires as well. While he had his doubts that a young man of Mr. Fitzroy's quality could have committed such an insane murder-there'd been nothing crazy about the look Greg had seen in Mr. Fitzroy's eyes so many weeks ago, it had, in fact, been frighteningly sane-he couldn't believe that a man of Mr. Fitzroy's quality would allow a young lady visiting him to answer the door a deshabille. He'd have gotten up and done it himself. When he'd calmed down enough to think about it, Greg realized that she had to be hiding something.

But what?

A movement in one of the monitors caught his eye and Greg turned toward it. He frowned. Something black had flickered past the fire door leading to the seventh floor too quickly for him to recognize it. He reached for the override and began activating the cameras in the stairwell.

Seconds later, the fifth floor camera picked up Henry Fitzroy running down the stairs two at a time and scowling. He looked like any other young man in reasonable shape-and a bad mood-who'd decided not to waste his time waiting for an elevator. While Greg himself wouldn't have walked from the fourteenth floor, he realized there was nothing supernatural about Henry Fitzroy doing it. Nor in the way he was doing it.

Sighing, he turned the controls back to their random sequencing.

"And what if it doesn't act like a duck all the time?" he wondered aloud.

Henry had reached the sixth floor when the abuse his body had taken the night before caught up with him and he had to slow to something more closely approximating a mortal's pace. He snarled as he swung his weight around on the banister, frustrated by the refusal of muscles to respond as they should. Rather than touching down only once on every half flight, he actually had to use every other step.

He was in a bad mood when he reached his car and he took the exit ramp from the underground garage much faster than he should have, his exhaust pipe screaming along concrete. The sound forced him to calm. He wouldn't get there any faster if he destroyed his car or attracted the attention of the police.

At the curb, while he waited impatiently for the light to change, he caught a familiar scent.

"A BMW? You've got to be kidding." Tony leaned his forearms through the open window and clicked his tongue. "If that watch is a Rolex," he added softly, "I want my blood back."

Henry knew he owed the boy a great deal, so he tried bury the rage he was feeling. He felt his lips pull back off his teeth and realized he hadn't been significantly successful.

If Tony had doubted his memory of what had happened the night before, Henry's expression would have convinced him for there was very little humanity in it. Had the anger been directed at him, he would've run and not stopped until sunrise and safety. As it was, he pulled his arms back outside the car, just in case. "I thought you might want to talk… "

"Later." If the world survived the night, they'd talk. It wasn't of immediate concern.

"Yeah. Right. Later's good. Say… " Tony frowned. "Is Victory okay?"

"I don't …" The light changed. He slammed the car into gear. "… know."

Tony stood watching the car speed away, lips pursed, hands shoved deep in his pockets. He rolled a quarter over and over between his ringers.

"This is my home number." Vicki handed him the card and turned it over so he could see the other number handwritten on the back. "And this is who you call if you're in trouble and you can't get to me."

"Mike Celluci ?" Tony shook his head. "He don't like me much, Victory. "

"Tough."

"I don't like him much."

"Do I look like I care ? Call him anyway."

He pulled the quarter from his pocket and headed to the pay phone on the corner. Four years in a variety of pockets had turned the card limp but the number on the back was still legible. He'd already called the number on the front and wasted a quarter on a stupid machine. Everybody knew Victory never turned the machine on if she was home.

"I gotta talk to Mike Celluci."

"Speaking."

"Victory's in trouble." He was as sure of it as he'd ever been sure of anything in his life.

"Who?"

Tony rolled his eyes at the receiver. And they called them the city's finest. What a dork. "Vicki Nelson. You remember-tall, blonde, pushy, used to be a cop."

"What kind of trouble?"

Good. Celluci sounded worried. "I don't know."

"Where?"

"I don't know." Tony could hear teeth grinding on the other end of the line. If this wasn't so serious, he'd be enjoying himself. "You're the cop, you figure it out."

He hung up before the explosion. He'd done what he could.

Mike Celluci stared at the phone and swore long and loudly in Italian. Upon reflection, he'd recognized the voice as Vicki's little street person and that lent just enough credibility to the message that it couldn't be completely ignored. He dumped a pocket load of little pink slips on the kitchen table and began sorting through them.

"Norman Birdwell. York University." He held it up to the light in a completely futile gesture then tossed it back with the others.

Vicki had never been a grandstander. She'd always played by the rules, made them work for her. She'd never go in to pick up a suspected mass murderer-a suspected psychotic mass murderer-without backup. But then, she doesn't have backup anymore, does she? And she just might feel like she's got something to prove…

He'd hit the memory dial to headquarters before he finished the thought.

"This is Celluci. Darrel, I need the number for someone in Administration at York University. I know it's the middle of the night, I want a home number. I know I'm off duty. You're not paying my overtime, what the hell are you complaining about?" He balanced the phone under his chin and pulled his shoulder holster up off the back of the chair, shrugging into it as he waited. "So call me at home when you find it. And Darrel, give it top priority. I want that number yesterday."

He reached for his jacket and laid it beside the phone. He hated waiting. He'd always hated waiting. He dug the pink slip back out of the pile.

Norman Birdwell.

"I don't know what hat you pulled this name out of, Nelson," he growled. "But if I ride to the rescue and you're not in deep shit, bad eyes and insecurity are going to be the least of your problems."

Norman was talking to the grimoire and had been for some time. His low mumble had become a constant background noise as Vicki drifted in and out of consciousness. Occasionally she heard words, mostly having to do with how the world would now treat Norman the way he deserved. Vicki was all for that.

"Hey, Norman!"

The mumbling stopped. Vicki tried to focus on Coreen. The younger woman looked… embarrassed?

Grimoire clutched to his chest, Norman came into her line of sight. She shuddered at the thought of holding that book that closely. The one time she'd touched it back in Henry's apartment had made her skin crawl and the memory still left an unpleasant feeling in her mind.

"Look, Norman, I have really got to go to the bathroom." Coreen's voice was low and intense and left no doubt as to her sincerity and Vicki suddenly found herself wishing she hadn't said that.

"Uh… " Norman obviously had no idea of how to deal with the problem.

Coreen sighed audibly. "Look, if you untie me, I'll walk quietly to the bathroom and then come right back to my chair so you can tie me up again. You can keep me covered with your silly gun the entire time. I really have to go."

"Uh… "

"Your Demon Lord isn't going to be too impressed if he shows up and I've peed on his pentagram."

Norman stared at Coreen for a long moment, his hands stroking up and down the dark leather cover of the grimoire. "You wouldn't," he said at last.

"Try me."

It might have been the smile, it might have been the tone of voice, but Norman decided not to risk it.

Vicki drifted off during the untying and came to again as Coreen, once more secured in her chair, said, "What about her?"

Norman shifted his grip slightly on the gun. "She doesn't matter, she'll be dead soon anyway."

Vicki was beginning to be very afraid that he was right. She simply had no reserves left to call on and every time she fought her way up out of the blackness, the world seemed a little further away. Okay, if I'm dead anyway and I scream and he shoots me, the neighbors will call the police-that thing doesn't have a silencer on it. Of course, he may just whack me on the head again. That was the last thing she needed. If I have Careen scream as well, that may push him over the edge enough that he shoots one of us.

Coreen, for all the girl believed in vampires and demons and who knew what else, didn't really understand what was about to happen. Mind you, that's not her fault. I didn't tell her.

She balanced Coreen's life against the life of the city. It wasn't a decision she had any right to make. She made it anyway. I'm sorry, Coreen.

She wet her lips and drew in as deep a breath as she was capable of. "Cor …" The butt of the rifle hit the floor inches from her nose, the metal plate slamming against the tiles. The noise and the vibration drove the remainder of her carefully hoarded breath out in an almost silent cry of pain. Thank God, he had the safety on…

"Shut up," Norman told her genially.

She didn't really have much choice but to obey as darkness rolled over her once again.

Norman looked around his apartment, exceedingly pleased with himself. Soon all those people who thought him a nobody, a nothing, would pay. He reached out one hand to stroke the book. The book said so.

10:43. Time to start painting the pentagram. It was much more complicated than the form he usually used and he wanted to be sure he got it right.

This was going to be the greatest night of his life.

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