Blood Price (Vicki Nelson #1)

Chapter 3

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Stumbling to the right to avoid annihilation by a loaded backpack, Norman Birdwell careened into a stocky young man in a leather York University jacket and found himself back in the corridor outside the lecture hall. Shifting his grip on the plastic handle of his attach¨¦", he squared his narrow shoulders and tried again. He often thought that exiting students should be forced to move in orderly rows through the left side of the double doors so that students arriving early for the next class could enter unopposed through the right.

By sliding sideways between two young women, who, oblivious to Norman's presence, continued discussing the sexist unfairness of birth control and blow-dryers, he made it into the room and headed for his seat.

Norman liked to arrive early so he could sit in the exact center of the third row, his lucky seat ever since he'd written a perfect first year calculus paper in the spot. He was taking this evening sociology class because he'd overheard two jocks in the cafeteria mention it was a great way to meet girls. So far, he wasn't having much luck. Straightening his new leather tie, he wondered if perhaps he shouldn't ask for a jacket.

As he slid into his seat, his attach¨¦ jammed between two chair backs in the second row and jerked out of his hand. Bending to free it, his mechanical pencil slid free of his pocket protector and rolled back into the darkness.

"Oh, fuck," he muttered, dropping to his knees. He'd been experimenting with profanity lately, hoping it would make him sound more macho. There'd been no noticeable success.

There were legends about what lurked under the seats in York University lecture halls but all Norman found, beside his pencil-which he'd only had since Sunday night and didn't want to lose-was a neatly rolled copy of Wednesday's tabloid. Clipping the pencil back where it belonged, Norman spread the paper on his knee. The professor, he knew, would be up to fifteen minutes late; he'd have plenty of time to read the comics.

"VAMPIRE STALKS CITY!"

With trembling fingers, he opened it to the story.

"Get a load of Birdwell." The thick-necked young man elbowed his companion. "He's gone white as a ghost."

Rubbing bruised ribs, the recipient of this tender confidence peered down at the solitary figure in the third row of the hall. "How can you tell?" he grunted. "Ghost, geek; it's all the same."

"I never knew," Norman whispered down at the black type. "I swear to God, I never knew. It wasn't my fault."

He… no, it, had said it had to feed. Norman hadn't asked where or how. Maybe, he admitted now, because he hadn't wanted to know. Don't let anyone see you, had been his only instruction,

He peeled damp palms up off the newsprint and raised them, smudged and trembling, into the air as he vowed, "Never again, I promise, never again."

The gong sounded for another order of Peking Duck and while it reverberated through the restaurant, a mellow undertone to the conversations occurring in at least three different languages, Vicki raised a spoonful of hot-and-sour soup to her lips and stared speculatively at Mike Celluci. He'd been almost charming for this, the first half hour of the evening, and she'd had about as much of it as she could take.

She swallowed and gave him her best don't give me any bullshit, buddy, I'm on to you smile. "So. Still holding tight to that ridiculous angel dust and Freddy Kruger claws theory?"

Celluci glanced down at his watch. "Thirty-two minutes and seventeen seconds." He shook his head ruefully, a thick brown curl dropping down over his eyes." And here I bet Dave you couldn't last a half an hour. You just lost me five bucks, Vicki. Is that nice?"

"Quit complaining." She chased a bit of green onion around the edge of her bowl. "After all, I'm paying for dinner. Now, answer the question."

"And here I thought that you were after the pleasure of my company."

She really hated it when his voice picked up that sarcastic edge. Not having heard it for eight months hadn't lessened her dislike. "I'm going to pleasure your company right into the kitchen if you don't answer the question."

"Damn it, Vicki." His spoon slammed into the saucer, "Do we have to discuss this while we eat?"

Eating had nothing to do with it; they'd discussed every case they'd ever had, singly and collectively, over food. Vicki pushed her empty bowl to one side and laced her fingers together. It was possible that now she'd left the force he wouldn't discuss the homicides with her. It was possible, but not very likely. At least, she prayed it wasn't very likely. "If you can look me right in the eye," she said quietly, "and tell me you don't want to talk about this with me, I'll lay off."

Technically, he knew he should do exactly that-look her in the eye and tell her he didn't want to talk about it. The Criminal Investigations Bureau took a dim view of investigators who couldn't keep their mouths shut. But Vicki had been one of the best, three accelerated promotions and two citations attested to that, and more importantly, her record of solved crimes had been almost the highest in the department. Honesty forced him to admit, although he admitted it silently, that statistically her record was as good as his, he'd just been at it three years longer. Do I throw away this resource? he wondered as the silence lengthened. Do I refuse to take advantage of talent and skill just because the possessor of those talents and skills has become a civilian? He tried to keep his personal feelings out of the decision.

He looked her right in the eye and said quietly, "Okay, genius, you got a better idea than PCPs and claws?"

"Difficult to come up with a worse one," she snorted, leaning back to allow their waitress to replace the bowls with steaming platters of food. Grateful for the chance to regain her composure, Vicki toyed with a chopstick and hoped he didn't realize how much this meant to her. She hadn't realized it herself until her heart restarted with his answer and she felt a part of herself she thought had died when she'd left the force slowly begin to come back to life. Her reaction, she knew, would have been invisible to a casual observer but Mike Celluci was anything but that.

Please, God, just let him think he's picking my brain. Don't let him know how much I need this.

For the first time in a long time, God appeared to be listening.

"Your better idea?" Mike asked pointedly when they were alone with their meal.

If he'd noticed her relief, he gave no sign and that was good enough for Vicki. "It's a little hard to hypothesize without all the information," she prodded.

He smiled and she understood, not for the first time, why witnesses of either gender were willing to spill their guts to this man. "Hypothesize. Big word. You been doing crossword puzzles again?"

"Yeah, between tracking down international jewel thieves. Spill it, Celluci."

If anything, there had been fewer clues at the second scene than at the first. No prints save the victim's, no trail, no one who saw the killer enter or exit the underground garage. "And the scene was hours old by the time we arrived… "

"You said the trail at the subway led into a workman's alcove?"

He nodded, scowling at a snow pea. "Blood all over the back wall. The trail led into the alcove, but nothing led out."

"Behind the back wall?"

"You thinking of secret passageways?"

A little sheepishly, she nodded.

"All things considered, that would be an answer I could live with." He shook his head and the curl dropped forward again. "Nothing but dirt. We checked."

Although DeVerne Jones had been found with a scrap of torn leather clutched in his fist, dirt was pretty much all they'd found at the third site. Dirt, and a derelict that babbled about the apocalypse.

"Wait a minute …" Vicki frowned in concentration, then shoved her disturbed glasses back up her nose. "Didn't the old man at the subway say something about the apocalypse?"

"Nope. Armageddon."

"Same thing."

Celluci sighed with exaggerated force. "You trying to tell me that it's not one guy, it's four guys on horses? Thanks. You've been a lot of help."

"I suppose you've checked for some connection between the victims? Something to hang a motive on?"

"Motive!" He slapped his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Now why didn't I think of that?"

Vicki stabbed at a mushroom and muttered, "Smart ass."

"No, no connections, no discernible motive. We're still looking." He shrugged, a succinct opinion of what the search would turn up.

"Cults?"

"Vicki, I've talked to more weirdos and space cases in the last few days than I have in the last few years." He grinned. "Present company excepted, of course."

They were almost back to her apartment, her hand tucked in the crook of his arm to guide her through the darkness, when she asked, "Have you considered that there might be something in this vampire theory?"

She dug her heels in at his shout of laughter. "I'm serious, Celluci!"

"No, I'm Serious Celluci. You're out of your mind." He dragged her back into step beside him. "Vampires don't exist."

"You're sure of that? 'There are more things … ' "

"Don't," he warned, "start quoting Shakespeare at me. I've had the line quoted at me so often lately, I'm beginning to think police brutality is a damned good idea."

They turned up the path to Vicki's building.

"You've got to admit that a vampire fits all the parameters." Vicki no more believed it was a vampire than Celluci did, but it had always been so easy to rattle his cage…

He snorted. "Right. Something's wandering around the city in a tuxedo muttering, 'I vant to drink your blood.' "

"You got a better suspect?"

"Yeah. A big guy on PCPs with clip-on claws."

"You're not back to that stupid theory again."

"Stupid!"

"Yeah. Stupid."

"You wouldn't recognize a logical progression of facts if they bit you on the butt!"

"At least I'm not so caught up in my own cleverness that I'm blind to outside possibilities!"

"Outside possibilities? You have no idea of what's going on!"

"Neither do you!"

They stood and panted at each other for a few seconds then Vicki shoved her glasses up her nose and dug for her keys. "You staying the night?"

It sounded like a challenge.

"Yeah. I am."

So did the response.

Sometime later, Vicki shifted to reach a particularly sensitive area and decided, as she got the anticipated inarticulate response, that there were times when you really didn't need to see what you were doing and night blindness mattered not in the least.

Captain Raymond Roxborough looked down at the lithe and cowering form of his cabin boy and wondered how he could have been so blind. Granted, he had thought young Smith very pretty, what with his tousled blue-black curls and his sapphire eyes, but never for a moment had he suspected that the boy was not a boy at all. Although, the captain had to admit, it was a neat solution to the somewhat distressing feelings he'd been having lately.

'"I suppose you have an explanation for this," he drawled, leaning back against his cabin door and crossing sun-bronzed arms across his muscular chest.

The young lady-girl, really, for she could have been no more than seventeen-clutched her cotton shirt to the white swell of bosom that had betrayed her and with the other hand pushed damp curls, the other legacy of her interrupted wash, off her face.

'"I needed to get to Jamaica," she said proudly, although her low voice held the trace of a quaver, "and this was the only way I could think of."

"You could have paid for your passage, " the captain suggested dryly, his gaze traveling appreciatively along the delicate curve of her shoulders.

"I had nothing to pay with."

He straightened and stepped forward, smiling. "I think you underestimate your charms."

"Come on, Smith, kick him right in his windswept desire." Henry Fitzroy leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his temples. Just how much of a shit did he want the captain to be? Should the hero's better nature overcome his wanton lust or did he even have a better nature? And how much of a hero would he be without one?

"And frankly, my dear," he sighed, "I don't give a damn." He saved the night's work, then shut down the system. Usually he enjoyed the opening chapters of a new book, getting to know the characters, warping them to fit the demands of the plot, but this time…

Rolling his chair back from the desk, he stared out his office window at the sleeping city. Somewhere out there, hidden by the darkness, a hunter stalked- blinded, maddened, driven by blood lust and hunger. He'd sworn to stop it, but he hadn't the slightest idea how to start. How could the location of random slaughter be anticipated?

With another sigh, he stood. There'd been twenty-four hours without a death. Maybe the problem had taken care of itself. He grabbed his coat and headed out of the apartment.

The morning paper should be out by now, I'll grab one and… Waiting for the elevator, he checked his watch. 6:10. It was much later than he'd thought…. and trust I can make it back inside without igniting. Sunrise was around 6:30 if he remembered correctly. He wouldn't have much time, but he had to know if there had been another killing. If the load of completely irrational guilt he carried for not finding and stopping the child had gotten any heavier.

The national paper had a box just outside his building. The headline concerned a speech the Prime Minister had just made in the Philippines about north/south relations.

"And I bet he works on the south until at least mid-May." Henry said, drawing his leather trench coat tighter around his throat as a cold wind swept around the building and pulled tears from his eyes.

The tabloid's closest box was down the block and across the street. There wasn't really any need to look for the other local paper, Henry had every faith in the tabloid's headline. He waited at the light while the opening volley of the morning rush hour laid a nearly solid line of moving steel along Bloor Street, then crossed, digging for change.

"LEAFS LOSE BIG."

Death of playoff hopes, perhaps, but not a death Henry need worry about. With a sense of profound relief-lightly tinted with exasperation; the Leafs were in the worst division in the NHL, after all-he tucked the paper under his arm, turned, and realized the sun was about to clear the horizon.

He could feel it trembling on the edge of the world and it took all his strength not to panic.

The elevator, the red light, the headlines, all had taken more time than he had. How he had allowed this to happen after more than four hundred and fifty years of racing the sun to safety was not important now. Regaining the sanctuary of his apartment was the only thing that mattered. He could feel the heat of the sun on the edges of his consciousness, not a physical presence, not yet, although that and the burning would come soon enough, but an awareness of the threat, of how close he stood to death.

The light he needed was red again, a small mocking sun in a box. The pounding of his heart counting off the seconds, Henry flung himself onto the street. Brakes squealed and the fender of a wildly swerving van brushed against his thigh like a caress. He ignored the sudden pain and the driver's curses, slammed his palm against the hood of a car almost small enough to leap, and dove through a space barely a prayer wider than his twisting body.

The sky turned gray, then pink, then gold.

Leather soles slamming against the pavement, Henry raced along shadow, knowing that fire devoured it behind him and lapped at his heels. Terror fought with the lethargy that daylight wrapped around his kind, and terror won. He reached the smoked glass door to his building seconds before the sun.

It touched only the back of one hand, too slowly snatched to safety.

Cradling the blistered hand against his chest, Henry used the pain to goad himself toward the elevator. Although the diffused light could no longer burn, he was still in danger.

"You all right, Mr. Fitzroy?" The guard frowned with concern as he buzzed open the inner door.

Unable to focus, Henry forced his head around to where he knew the guard would be. "Migraine," he whispered and lurched forward.

The purely artificial light in the elevator revived him a little and he managed to walk down the corridor dragging only a part of his weight along the wail. He feared for a moment that the keys were beyond his remaining dexterity, but somehow he got the heavy door open, closed, and locked behind him. Here was safety.

Safety. That word alone carried him into the shelter of the bedroom where thick blinds denied the sun. He swayed, sighed, and finally let go, collapsing across the bed and allowing the day to claim him.

"Vicki, please!"

Vicki frowned, a visit to the ophthalmologist never put her in what could be called a good mood and all this right-eye, left-eye focusing was giving her a major headache. "What?" she growled through gritted teeth-only incidentally a result of the chin rest.

"You're looking directly at the test target."

"So?"

Dr. Anderson hid a sigh and, with patience developed during the raising of two children, explained, not for the first time, her tone noncommittal and vaguely soothing. "Looking directly at the test target negates the effects of the test and we'll just have to do it all over again."

And they would, too. Over and over again if necessary. Holding back a sharp comment behind the thin line of her lips, Vicki attempted to cooperate.

"Well?" she prodded at last as Dr. Anderson flicked off the perimeter light and motioned for her to raise her head.

"It hasn't gotten any worse… "

Vicki leaned back, watching the doctor's face. "Has it gotten any better?" she asked pointedly.

This time, Dr. Anderson didn't bother to hide the sigh. "Vicki, as I've told you before, retinitis pigmentosa doesn't get better. Ever. It only gets worse. Or," she rolled the perimeter back against the wall, "if you're very lucky, the degeneration reaches a point and goes no further."

"Have I reached that point?"

"Only time will tell. You've been pretty lucky already," she continued, raising a hand to forestall Vicki's next comment, "in many cases, this disease is accompanied by other types of neurodegenerative conditions."

"Deafness, mild retardation, premature senility, and truncal obesity." Vicki snorted. "We went through all this in the beginning, and none of it changes the fact that I have effectively no night vision, the outside edge of my peripheral vision has moved in twenty-five degrees, and I've suddenly become myopic."

"That might have happened anyway."

Vicki shoved her glasses up her nose. "Very comforting. When can I expect to go blind?"

The nails of Dr. Anderson's right hand beat a tattoo against her prescription pad. "You may never go blind and, in spite of your condition, at the moment you have perfectly functional vision. You mustn't let this make you bitter."

"My condition," Vicki snarled, standing and reaching for her coat, "as you call it, caused me to leave a job I loved that made a difference for the better in the slime-pit this city is becoming and if it's all the same to you, I think I'd rather be bitter." She didn't quite slam the door on the way out.

"What's the matter, darling, you don't look happy?"

"It hasn't been a great day, Mrs. Kopolous."

The older woman clicked her tongue and shook her head at the family size bag of cheese balls Vicki had laid on the counter. "So I see, so I see. You should eat real food, darling, if you want to feel better. This stuff is no good for you. And it makes your fingers orange."

Vicki scooped up her change and dropped it into the depths of her purse. Soon she'd have to deal with the small fortune jangling around down there. "Some moods, Mrs. Kopolous, only junk food can handle."

The phone was ringing when she reached her apartment.

"Yeah, what?"

"There's something about the sound of your dulcet tones that makes this whole wretched day worthwhile."

"Stuff a sock in it, Celluci." Phone balanced under her chin, Vicki struggled out of her coat. "Whadda you want?"

"My, my, sounds like someone's wearing the bishop's shoes."

Against every inclination, Vicki grinned. His use of that particular punch line in conversation always did it to her. He knew it, too. "No, I did not get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning," she told him, hooking her office chair over and throwing herself down into it. "As you very well know. But I did just get back from a visit to the ophthalmologist."

"Ah." She could picture him leaning back, his feet up on the desk. Every superior he'd ever had had tried to break him of the habit with no noticeable success. "The eye doctor of doom. Is it any better?"

If he'd sounded sympathetic, she'd have thrown the phone across the room but he only sounded interested. "It doesn't get any better, Celluci."

"Oh, I don't know; I read this article that said large doses of vitamin A and E can improve the visual field and enhance dark adaptation." He was obviously quoting.

Vicki couldn't decide whether to be touched or furious that he'd been reading up. Given her mood…. "Do something more useful with your time, Celluci, only abetalipoproteninaemia RP includes biochemical defects," he hadn't been the only one reading up, "and that isn't what I've got."

"Abetalipoproteinaemia," he corrected her pronunciation, "and excuse me for caring. I also found out that a number of people lead completely normal lives with what you've got." He paused and she heard him take a drink of what was undoubtedly cold coffee. "Not," he continued, his voice picking up an edge, "that you ever lived what could be called a normal life."

She ignored the last comment, picked up a black marker and began venting frustrations with it on the back of her credit card bill. "I'm living a completely normal life," she snapped.

"Running away and hiding?" The tone missed sarcasm but not by very much. "You could've stayed on the force… "

"I knew you'd start again." She spat the words from between clenched teeth, but Mike Celluci's angry voice overrode the diatribe she was about to begin and the bitterness in it shut her up.

"… but oh no, you couldn't stand the thought that you wouldn't be the hot-shit investigator anymore, the fair-haired girl with all the answers, that you'd just be a part of the team. You quit because you couldn't stand not being on the top of the pile and if you weren't on top, if you couldn't be on top, you weren't going to play! So you ran away. You took your pail and your shovel and you fucking quit! You walked out on me, Nelson, not just the job!"

Through all the fights-after the diagnosis and after her resignation-that was what he'd wanted to say. It summed up the hours of arguing, the screaming matches, the slammed doors. Vicki knew it, knew it the way she knew when she found the key, the little seemingly insignificant thing that solved the case. Everything about that last sentence said, this is it.

"You'd have done the same thing, Celluci," she said quietly and although her knuckles were white around the receiver, she set it gently back on the phone. Then she threw the marker in her other hand across the room.

Her anger went with it.

He really cares about you, Vicki. Why is that such a problem ?

Because lovers are easy to get and friends good enough to scream at are a lot rarer.

Running both hands through her hair, she sighed. He was right and she'd admitted as much by her response. As soon as he realized she was right as well, they could go on building the new parameters of their relationship. Unless, it suddenly occurred to her, last night had been the farewell performance that enabled him to finally come clean.

If it was, she pushed her glasses up her nose, at least I had the last word. As such things went, it wasn't much of a comfort.

"Well, if it isn't old Norman. How you doing, Norman? Mind if we sit down?" Without waiting for an answer the young man hooked a chair out from under the table and sat. The four other members of his party noisily followed his lead.

When the scramble for space ended, Norman found himself crammed between the broad shoulders of two jocks he knew only as Roger and Bill, the three of them staring across the round table at three young ladies. He recognized the blonde-he usually saw her hanging on Roger's arm-and as the girl next to Bill was being awfully friendly he supposed she was with him. That left one extra. He grinned wolfishly at her. He'd been practicing the grin in his bathroom mirror.

She looked puzzled, then snorted and turned away.

"It was real nice of old Norman to keep this table for us, wasn't it, Bill?"

"It sure was." Bill leaned a little closer and Norman gasped for breath as his available space narrowed drastically. "If it wasn't for old Norman, we'd be sitting on the floor."

Norman looked around. The Friday night crowd at the Cock and Bull had filled the basement pub. "Well, I, uh… " He shrugged. "I, uh, knew you were coming."

"Of course you did," Bill grinned at him, a little disconcerted to find that the Birdwell-nerd was at least as tall as he was. "I was saying to Roger here before we came in, it wouldn't be Friday night if we didn't spend part of it with old Norman."

Roger laughed and all three of the girls grinned. Norman didn't get the joke, but he preened at the attention.

He bought the first round of beer. "After all, it's my table."

"And the only empty one in the place," the blonde muttered.

He bought the second round as well. "Because I've got lots and lots of money." The wad of twenties he pulled out of the pocket of his windbreaker-five thousand dollars in small unmarked bills had been the third thing he'd asked for-caused a simultaneous dropping of jaws around the table.

"Jesus Christ, Norman, what did you do, rob a bank?"

"I didn't have to," Norman said airily. "And there's plenty more where that came from."

He insisted on buying the third and fourth rounds and on switching to imported beer. "Imported beer is classier," he confided to the shoulder of Roger's leather jacket, Roger having moved his ear out of range. "It really gets the chicks."

"Chicks?" The echo had a dangerous edge to it.

"Consider the source, Helen." Bill deftly removed the glass from her hand-both hand and glass having been threateningly raised-and drained it. "You'd just be wasting the beer."

The five burst out laughing again and again, not understanding, Norman joined in. No one would think he wasn't with it.

When they started getting up, he rose with them. The room swayed. He'd never had four beers in quick succession before. In fact, he wasn't entirely certain he'd ever had four beers before. "Where we going?"

"We are going to a private party," Bill told him, a beefy hand pushing him back into his seat.

"You just stay here, Norman," Roger patted him on the other shoulder.

Confused, Norman looked from one to the other. They were leaving without him?

"Jesus, it's like kicking a puppy," Bill muttered.

Roger nodded in agreement. "Uh, look, Norman, it's invitation only. We'd bring you if we could… "

They were leaving without him. He pointed across the table, his voice an accusatory whine, "But she's supposed to be for me."

Expressions of guilty sympathy changed to disgust and Norman quickly found himself alone, Helen's voice drifting back from the door, somehow audible in spite of the noise level in the pub. "I'd give him back his beer if I didn't hate vomiting so much."

Trying unsuccessfully to flag the waitress, Norman scowled into the beer rings on the table. She was supposed to be for him. He knew she was. They were cheating him. With the tip of a shaking finger, he drew a five pointed star in the spilled liquid on the tabletop, his vows of the day before forgotten. He'd show them.

His stomach protested suddenly and he lurched toward the bathrooms, hand clutched over his mouth.

I'll show them, he thought, his head dangling over the toilet. But maybe… not tonight.

Henry handed the young man seated just inside the door a twenty. "What's on for tonight?" He didn't quite have to yell to make himself heard over the music but, then, the night was young.

"The usual." Three rolls of tickets were pulled from the cavernous left pocket of the oversized suit jacket while the money slid into the right. A number of after-hours clubs had been switching to tickets so that if, or more likely when, they were busted they could argue that they hadn't been selling drinks. Just tickets.

"Guess it'll have to be a usual, then."

"Right. Two trendy waters." The pair of tickets changed hands. "You know, Henry, you're paying a hell of a lot for piss and bubbles."

Henry grinned down at him and swept an arm around the loft. "I'm paying for the ambience, Thomas."

"Ambience my ass," Thomas snorted genially. "Hey, I just remembered, Alex got a case of halfway decent burgundy… "

It wouldn't have taken a stronger man than Henry Fitzroy to resist. "No thanks, Thomas, I don't drink… wine." He turned to face the room and, just for a moment, saw another gathering.

The clothes, peacock bright velvets, satins, and laces turned the length of the room into a glittering kaleidoscope of color. He hated coming to Court and would appear only when his father demanded it. The false flattery, the constant jockeying for position and power, the soul destroying balancing act that must be performed to keep both the block and the pyre at bay; all this set the young Duke of Richmond's teeth on edge.

As he made his way across the salon, each face that turned to greet him wore an identical expression-a mask of brittle gaiety over ennui, suspicion, and fear in about an equal mix.

Then the heavy metal beat of Anthrax drove "Green-sleeves" back into the past. The velvet and jewels spun away into black leather, paste, and plastic. The brittle gaiety now covered ennui alone. Henry supposed it was an improvement.

I should be on the street, he thought, making his way to the kitchen/bar, brushing past discussions of the recent killings and the creatures they had been attributed to. I will not find the child up here…. But the child hadn't fed since Tuesday night and so perhaps had passed through the frenzy and moved to the next part of its metamorphosis. But the parent…. His hands clenched into fists, the right pulling painfully against the bandage and the blisters beneath it. The parent must still be found. That he could do up here. Twice before in Alex's loft he had tasted another predator in the air. Then, he had let it go, the blood scent of so many people made tracking a competitor a waste of time. Tonight, if it happened again, he would waste the time.

Suddenly, he noticed that a path was opening before him as he made his way across the crowded room and he hastily schooled his expression. The men and women gathered here, with faces painted and precious metals dangling, were still close enough to their primitive beginnings to recognize a hunter walking among them.

That's three times now; the guard, the sun, and this. You'll bring the stakes down on yourself if you're not more careful, you fool. What was the matter with him lately?

"Hey, Henry, long time since you bin by." Alex, the owner of the loft wrapped a long, bare arm around Henry's shoulders, shoved an open bottle of water into his hand, and steered him deftly away from the bar. "I got someone who needs to see you, mon."

"Someone who needs to see me?" Henry allowed himself to be steered. It was the way most people dealt with Alex, resistance just took too much energy. "Who?"

Alex grinned down from his six-foot-four vantage point and winked broadly. "Ah, now, that would be tellin'. Whach you do to your hand?"

Henry glanced down at the bandage. Even in the dim light of the studio it seemed to glow against the black leather of his cuff. "Burned myself."

"Burns is bad stuff, mon. Were you cookin'?"

"You could say that." His lips twitched although he sternly told himself it wasn't funny.

"What's the joke?"

"It'd take too long to explain. How about you explaining something to me?"

"You ahsk, mon. I answer."

"Why the fake Jamaican accent?"

"Fake?" Alex's voice rose above the music and a half a dozen people ducked as he windmilled his free arm. "Fake? There's nothing fake about this accent, mon. I'm gettin'  back to my roots."

"Alex, you're from Halifax."

"I got deeper roots than that, you betcha." He gave the shorter man a push forward and, dropping the accent, added, "Here you go, shrimp, delivered as ordered."

The woman sitting on the steps to Alex's locked studio stood considerably shorter even than Henry's five six. Her lack of height, combined with baggy jeans and an oversized sweater, gave her a waiflike quality completely at odds with the cropped platinum hair and the intensity of her expression.

Sliding out from Alex's arm, Henry executed a perfect sixteenth century court bow-not that anyone in the room could identify it as such. "Isabelle," he intoned gravely.

Isabelle snorted, reached out, grabbed his lapels, and yanked his mouth against hers.

Henry returned the kiss enthusiastically, skillfully parrying her tongue away from the sharp points of his teeth. He hadn't been certain he was going to feed tonight. He was certain now.

"Well, if you two are going to indulge in such rampant heterosexuality, in my house yet, I'm going." With an exaggerated limp-wristed wave, Alex sashayed off into the crowd.

"He'll change personalities again before he gets to the door," Henry observed settling himself on the step. The length of their thighs touched and he could feel his hunger growing.

"Alex has more masks than anyone I know," Isabelle agreed, retrieving her beer bottle and picking at the label.

Henry stroked one finger along the curve of her brow. It had been bleached near white to match her hair. "We all wear masks."

Isabelle raised the brow out from under his finger. "How profound. And do we all unmask at midnight?"

"No." He couldn't stop the melancholy from sounding in his voice as he realized the source of his recent discontent. It had been so long, so very long, since he'd been able to trust someone with the reality of what he was and all that meant. So long since he'd been able to find a mortal he could build a bond with based on more than sex and blood. And that a child could be created out of the deepest bond that vampire and mortal could share, then abandoned, sharpened his loneliness to a cutting edge.

He felt Isabelle's hand stroke his cheek, saw the puzzled compassion on her face, and with an inward curse realized his mask had slipped for the second time that night. If he didn't find someone who could accept him soon, he feared the choice would be taken from him, his need exposing him whether he willed it or not.

"So," with an effort, he brought himself back to the moment, "how was the gig?"

"It was March. It was Sudbury." She shrugged, returning to the moment with him, if that was how he wanted it. "Not much else to add."

If you can't share the reality, there are worse things than having someone to share the masks. His gaze dropped to a faint line of blue disappearing beneath the edge of her sweater and the thought of the blood moving so close beneath the surface quickened his breath. It was hunger, not lust, but he supposed in the end they were much the same thing. "How long will you be in town?"

"Only tonight and tomorrow."

"Then we shouldn't waste the time we have."

She twined her fingers in his, carefully ignoring the bandage, and pulled him with her as she stood.  "I thought you'd never ask."

Saturday night, at 11:15, Norman realized he was out of charcoal for the hibachi and the only local store he'd been able to find it in had closed at nine. He considered substitutions and then decided he'd better not mess with a system that worked.

Saturday night passed quietly.

Sunday night…

"Damn. Damn! DAMN!"

Mrs. Kopolous clicked her tongue and frowned. Not at Vicki's profanity, as she might have on any other day, but at the headline of the tabloid now lying on her counter.

"VAMPIRE KILLS STUDENT; Young man found drained in York Mills."

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