Actions

Work Header

The Advantages of Life Insurance

Work Text:

The fool actually thought he could get away with it, Dave thought dismissively. He tightened his grip on the squirming man’s neck, arching his back and lifting his prey off his feet like an offering to the stars hidden beyond the neon-enhanced sky glow. A violent wrench and the struggle was over.

Dave discarded the body on the still-warm cement of the patio and quickly searched the pockets of the cargo shorts. Empty. Damn. Where was the idiot’s wallet? He wasn’t likely to be found, but if he was, he needed to have the new ID on him. Oh, hell! This was going to make things more difficult. Not impossible, just riskier. He stood upright, stretched, and considered the situation carefully.

He was still thinking when the lights from inside the house behind him suddenly came on, illuminating the patch of backyard that included the patio where he stood. Reacting without conscious thought, he dove for the shadows and, reaching out with both hands, vaulted over the cinderblock wall that separated the two suburban yards. There was a swimming pool in the next yard, and a sort of cabana near the wall, with trees or large bushes he could not identify in the dark. They shielded him from view by either house. He waited breathlessly to find out if he had been discovered.

The house was supposed to be unoccupied! That’s why they had met there. It had been foreclosed upon months before, like so many others in the neighborhood. Why in the world was there even electricity in the place? What was going on?

Dave moved cautiously, keeping to the shadows between the wall and the side of the house, making his way silently toward the gate which led toward the front of the house and the street beyond. On the other side of the wall, he heard muffled voices followed by the unmistakable grating sound of a long-unused sliding glass door. The sand got into everything here. The grit had obviously settled into the door track, interfering with its normally smooth operation. He used the cover of the sound to open the gate in front of him. He need not have bothered — it opened silently and swung outward.

As Dave moved through the gate, he heard the first indications that his victim had been found. A woman’s startled, involuntary scream pierced the night air, a sharp counterpoint to the hum of central air conditioning units in the neighboring yards. He silently closed the gate behind him and pulled off the latex gloves he had donned earlier in the evening as a precaution. He stuffed them into a pocket of his shorts and crouched low in the shadows cast by the tree in the front side yard. Another scream.

Thinking quickly, he ran to the front door of the house with the pool. He rang the bell and shuffled nervously on the front porch. A light came on and he looked intently at the small security peephole. The door opened. After all, he was known; they were neighbors.

“Hey, Jim,” Dave said in a breathless, concerned voice, “are you guys okay? Is Meg alright?”

“What do you mean?” Jim responded. Unintelligible shouting from the rear of the neighboring house captured the attention of both men.

“What’s that?” Jim asked as he came outside.

“That’s what I mean,” said Dave. “What’s going on? I heard screaming. Isn’t it coming from your yard?”

“No,” said Jim. “I’m the only one home.” Both men started toward the sounds of disturbance, Jim leading the way as they rounded the corner of the house.

“What the ... “ Jim paused, mid-question, as a distraught middle aged woman exited the front door of the neighboring house and spotted them.

“Help!” She shouted. “Call an ambulance! Call the police! I think he’s dead!”

As Jim ushered the woman into his house to use the phone, Dave waited on the front porch. He took several deep breaths to calm himself. His partner was going to be furious, but there was nothing he could do about that now. He had a new role to play: the concerned neighbor.

Another woman came out of the front door of the foreclosed house and looked around inquiringly. Dave called to her, “Are you alright, ma’am?” Her wide eyes found him and she minced carefully toward him on high heels over the unkempt, dried out remains of a lawn. The sprinkler system had stopped working long before the foreclosure, and no lawn could survive here in the desert without one.

After just a few steps she hesitated. Whether it was an instinct of caution against strangers or an unwillingness to risk ankle injury, she came no closer, but called out to Dave, “Did you see where my friend went just now?”

“Yes, she’s inside here using the phone. What’s going on? Do you need help?” Dave took a few steps toward her over Jim’s lush green, manicured lawn. When she neither answered nor retreated from him, he completed the crossing and offered her his hand. She took it, and in the process of accepting his assistance, maneuvered him to escort her back to the front door of the foreclosed property.

“Thank you,” she said as they arrived. She released his hand but restrained him with a light touch on his arm as he moved to enter the house. “There’s a man in the backyard there,” she continued, speaking softly. “I think he’s dead. We just found him out there. Cecilia, that’s my friend, she went to call for help.”

Dave decided that a concerned neighbor would be curious and bold and protective of the ladies, so he gently removed her hand from his arm and told her to wait there for the police. He was going in to check on things. He needed to be sure that he’d left nothing behind to link him to the body.

He’d never been in this house before, but its floor plan matched his own, just two doors down, on the other side of Jim’s place, and he found his way easily to the rear sliding glass door.

The body looked the same as when he had left it, and he scanned the area quickly to see if he noticed anything out of place. Jim joined him a moment later. “Is he dead?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Who is he? Do you recognize him?”

Dave made a show of looking more closely at the body before responding, “No, I don’t think so. Do you?”

“No. Hey, the cops should be here pretty soon. I spoke with 911. The lady was pretty upset, so I had to help her out.”

Jim was obviously uncomfortable near the body, so when Dave turned and went back through the house, he was not surprised when Jim followed him out.

The ladies were waiting together just outside the front door. The first police car came into view just as Jim closed the door behind him. Dave decided the best thing to do was whatever Jim did, in order to deflect any possible suspicion. When Jim turned suddenly and vomited onto the desiccated lawn, however, Dave changed his mind. The police car pulled into the driveway, and Dave sighed; it was going to be a long night.

*****   *****   *****

Detective Tracy Vetter closed the interrogation room door behind her, leaving her childhood friend and hero behind, along with a large chunk of her naïveté. In its place now sat the seeds of cynicism and distrust. Oh, well. In this line of work it was bound to happen sooner or later. She had hoped for later.  Still, she felt proud of the work she had done. Her new partner, Detective Nick Knight, had challenged her to follow her instincts, and she had, even when they led to the discovery that her friend was a murderer. Sometimes it hurt to be a good cop. Tracy sighed and decided she needed another cup of coffee.

Coffee in hand, she headed for her new desk. She reminded herself that she needed to really clean it out and get her supplies in order. There just had not been much time to get settled in yet – she was only a couple of weeks into her first assignment as a detective. Just as she was ready to sit, she heard Captain Joe Reese call out, “Vetter!” from across the bullpen. She crossed to his office and was surprised to find Nick already there. She thought he had already left for the day.

Tracy was not the only one still getting used to a new assignment. Captain Reese was new to the precinct, having arrived at the same time as Tracy. What had started as a temporary assignment had turned permanent when his predecessor was murdered. His office door still bore her nameplate, and he was certain that it would be replaced long before he had a handle on all of the loose ends that had been left by her untimely death.

“Have a seat,” he said as he took his own behind the desk.  “Nick, Tracy,” he started, tossing a packet lightly in front of him, “you did a good job on this case. It’s always tough when you see a fellow officer go bad, and I know he was a friend of yours, Tracy. How are you holding up?”

“I’m fine, Captain,” Tracy replied immediately.

“She’ll be fine, Captain,” Nick said, simultaneously. He smiled ruefully at her and continued, “It’s always hard when you learn unpleasant things about friends or family.” He turned to address Reese, “I think she’s proven she can handle the tough cases.”

“I agree. Listen, Nick,” Reese indicated the packet on the desk, “I just got this through distribution. Every time I think I’ve got a handle on what’s going on around here, something new comes up.  What can you tell me about this conference that you and Detective Schanke were scheduled to attend next week?”

“Conference, Cap? What conference?” Nick asked.

Reese sighed. So Nick had not known, either.  “As far as I can tell, Captain Cohen scheduled you and Detective Schanke to attend an international law enforcement conference in Las Vegas next week. She didn’t discuss it with you?”

Nick shook his head.

“Yeah, well, I’m sure they’d have gotten around to it. As it is, we have the slots at the conference already paid for, as well as transportation and hotels. There are notes from the organizers assuring us that your sun allergies can be accommodated, Nick. I’m sending Tracy with you.” The big man shifted in his seat to address the junior partner of the duo. “The transportation office will get the plane tickets changed for you tomorrow, Tracy. You leave in a couple days.”

If Reese expected any protest or comment from Nick, he was disappointed. Instead, Nick seemed to retreat within himself. Truth be told, Reese was a bit worried about Nick. He had refused time off when his partner and captain were killed, and he had thrown himself into his work, instead. The timing of this conference was perfect. It would give both members of this new partnership a chance to relax, to bond, and to get away from some painful memories for a little while.

Nick had not retreated very far down memory lane. The loss of Schanke, his partner and friend, had been very difficult. He had come close to quitting the police force and moving on, leaving Toronto for good as a result. It was only the impassioned plea from another dear friend, Dr. Natalie Lambert, that had convinced him to stay. Still, he found it painful to sit across from Tracy in the bullpen. He kept expecting Schanke to come around the corner and scold her out of his seat.

Maybe his instincts had been partly right, after all. Maybe it would do him good to get away, get some perspective. It had been quite some time since he had been to Vegas, after all. Besides, Tracy needed the break, too. Not only that, but the renovations in the precinct were driving him almost to distraction. His sensitive vampire nose could detect a drop of blood at 20 paces; drying paint fumes left him feeling like a blowtorch had been forced into his sinuses. It would almost be worth the lengthy airline flight to get away from the toxic environment. He leaned forward and took the packet. “Was there anything else, Cap?” he asked.

“Go get some rest, the both of you,” Reese advised. “Come in tomorrow night long enough to wrap up the paperwork on this case, then take the rest of the night off to get ready for your trip. Now, go on, get out of here.”

The two detectives did not need to be told twice. They left the captain’s office and crossed to their joined desks. As Tracy sat down to close out her desk, she noticed Nick looking intently at something just over her right shoulder. Turning to look behind her, Tracy rotated in her chair and watched as Dr. Natalie Lambert crossed behind her and around the edge of her desk, coming to a stop with an amused look on her face.  Tracy realized, to her embarrassment, that she had just executed a full 360° spin in her desk chair. Recovering, she ended the spin with a small flourish and stood, grabbing her purse and coffee. Waving briefly to Natalie, she called out, “See you tomorrow, Nick!” as she headed for the front door with long, determined strides.

Natalie chuckled.  Nick braced himself against the impact of the toxic paint fumes and took a breath.  “Hi, Nat.  What brings you this way?” He tried to smile, but it was strained. His airways were on fire.

“Oh, you know, people to see, deliveries to make.” Natalie knew it was getting close to sunrise, and that Nick would need to leave very soon, so she kept her comments light and brief. “Tell me, is she always that perky, or is it caffeine overdose?”

Nick’s smile shifted to a more endearing variety, usually reserved for practical jokes and private chats, as he responded, “She’s on an emotional see-saw. This was a tough case for her, but it’s closed now, and I think she’s looking forward to Vegas.”

“Vegas?”

“Yes. Trace and I are going to an international law enforcement conference for a week in Las Vegas. We leave in a couple of days.”

“Oh,” was all Natalie could think to say. “Well, I’m sure you’ve got plenty to do to get ready. If you need me for anything, just let me know.”

Nick adopted a preoccupied look as he propped his sunglasses on his nose. “Thanks, Nat.” He smiled briefly at her and was gone.  She stayed behind for a moment, absent-mindedly tapping a finger on Nick’s desk, and watched him leave.  Anyone watching would have noticed the pronounced slump that suddenly appeared in her shoulders as she moved off to finish her deliveries. 

But no one was watching.

*****   *****   *****

Even vampires must do laundry now and again, especially when they are planning to go out of town, and Nick was no exception.  He had never gotten around to cleaning and putting away the dust covers that he had used when preparing to move on just a couple weeks before.  Now he pulled the untidy pile out of the corner where he had dumped them and brought them over to the sofa for sorting into loads for the washing machine.  Although the sun had already set, he still had a couple of hours before he had to report to work at the precinct.  There was time to get at least a couple of loads done before he had to leave.

A shift of air pressure and a tingle running from his core to the base of his neck signaled the arrival of his master, Lucien LaCroix.  Nick used his activity with the drop cloths to give him a few moments to compose himself before addressing the ancient vampire.  LaCroix’s unannounced appearance so soon after sunset did not bode well.  After 800 years, he had learned to be cautious of his sire’s unannounced visits.

“What do you want, LaCroix?  I’m a little busy at the moment,” he said while moving away from the sofa carrying a load destined for the washer.

LaCroix reached out and took one of the dust covers into his hand.  “I am wondering, Nicholas, whether you yourself know if you’re coming or going.  Are you planning to move on, or aren’t you?  Last time I checked in on you, these were covering your furniture.  Have your plans changed?” He tossed the dust cover casually back on the pile and stepped away, dusting his hands and brushing imaginary dirt off his immaculate black pants.  “Of course, you so rarely include me in your plans anymore.” He paused, scrutinizing his progeny carefully.  “What am I to make of this … restlessness … I sense in you lately?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but I changed my mind.  I’m not ready to move on yet.” Nick ducked into the small laundry room and quickly started the wash cycle.

LaCroix wandered around the main living space in a deceptively casual manner.  He paused briefly beside a set of suitcases, and then moved into the kitchen, where he proceeded to inspect the contents of the refrigerator.  Pulling a single bottle from the top shelf, he casually removed the cork, sniffed cautiously, grimaced, replaced the cork and returned the bottle to its original resting place.  He closed the refrigerator door only to be confronted by Nick, who was standing behind it.

“What do you want, LaCroix?” Nick said pointedly.

“Ah, but that is not in question, is it?” LaCroix lightly tapped Nick on the shoulder to ensure that he had the younger vampire’s attention.  “I always know what I want.  The question is whether you know what you want.”

“What I want right now is to do my laundry,” Nick started, dryly, “and for you to leave me to it,” he concluded. 

LaCroix was neither surprised nor pleased with this response. Too much turbulence in an already tumultuous relationship had left him nursing a vague but persistent worry about his troublesome son. Not long ago, during the asteroid hoax, he had confessed in this very room his longstanding desire for Nicholas’ companionship. He was beginning to believe that Nicholas was determined to thwart that desire out of spite. After all, Nicholas had planned to move on without giving him notice (again) or asking for permission (so unlike his sister – Janette certainly understood how such things should be done) after the deaths of some mortals he worked with. Now, although he claimed to have changed his mind, he obviously had yet to restore his living area or even unpack his travelling bags. He had come to expect treachery from this child, and it looked like some was being planned.

LaCroix turned slightly away from Nicholas but caught his eye as he spoke, his voice barely above a whisper. “Be careful, Nicholas. Your indecision might be mistaken in the Community for inconstancy – you risk exposing us all when you overstay your time. Your instincts in this matter are muddled by your maudlin connection to these mortals you involve yourself with. If it is time to move on, then we should do so. We have certainly done so in the past with less provocation.”

LaCroix raised his hand to forestall Nicholas’ predictable objections, and was dismayed to see him flinch. It had been his intention to avoid conflict, not incite it.

Nick raised his chin defiantly. “I told you, LaCroix, I’m not ready to move on yet. When I do, it will be my choice. I am my own man, and I will find my freedom from you someday.”

LaCroix smiled then, a wistful smile that he hid from Nicholas as he turned away and headed for the open floor space under the skylight. He paused and tossed his parting comment over his shoulder. “Don’t you see? It isn’t freedom that you really want. When you figure that out, you’ll understand what it is that you truly desire.”

The next moment, he was gone. Nick let out a long breath. It took great effort to deal peaceably with LaCroix, but he really had not wanted to share his travel plans. He was not in the mood for another lecture about his involvement with mortals, or the disdain LaCroix would have for him if he knew that Nick was following the orders of his captain but would not obey his master.

With a grim smile, Nick retrieved a suitcase and started packing.

*****   *****   *****

In a nondescript office with beige walls and furniture which screamed, “Government – issue,” a tall man in a standard white lab coat depressed a clear button in a row of like buttons on a black corded desk phone and dialed. “Detective Bartolomei, please,” he spoke into the receiver.  He waved a mechanical pencil back and forth while he waited for his call to be connected.

“Bart?” he asked. “It’s Gil Peterson. I have an identity on your John Doe, and this is a weird one. His name is Dustin Kent Sherman. I identified him from his fingerprints. He has a record in Connecticut, but that’s not the weird part.” Dr. Peterson waited, letting the anticipation build. He rarely had opportunities like this one, and he wanted to draw out the drama. 

“No, the weird part is that this office issued a death certificate for him last year – a boating accident in Lake Mead. Looks like he died twice.”

*****   *****   *****

Tracy’s eyes popped wide as she and Nick entered the Luxor hotel and casino in Las Vegas. The pyramid-shaped hotel seemed large enough from the outside; from the inside it was huge. For the first time she believed Nick when he told her that the open-plan interior was large enough to fit a 747 standing on its tail!

They walked over a bridge to the main floor, and Tracy was astonished to see an actual river flowing inside the hotel, complete with Egyptian style floating barges! Signs by the bridge advertised the floating tour of the Luxor, complete with an accurate reproduction of Tutankhamen’s tomb. Banks of slot machines beckoned alongside rows of poker machines. Clusters of craps and blackjack tables stood out as islands of calm amid the flashing lights and gambling machine noises. Balconies leading to the guest and conference rooms lined the sloping interior walls, each jutting out beyond the one below it. The effect was dizzying, the architecture unremittingly awe-inspiring.

There was so much to see, and Tracy wanted to see all of it, but just as she focused on one thing, another amazing sight pulled her in yet another direction.

“Come on, Button,” Nick teased. “We need to get checked in before we go out to see the sights.” He took her fondly by the arm and steered her to one side of the interior pyramid where the hotel lobby and check-in counter was situated.

“Can I help you, sir?” The desk clerk returned Nick’s smile. She was trained and required to be engaging, helpful, and polite to all of the guests, but she found some guests made her job easier, and the handsome man in front of her was one of them.

“Yes, I’m checking in. I have a reservation.”

“In what name, please?”

“Knight, spelled K N I G H T. Nick Knight.”

The clerk tapped away at her keyboard, frowned at the result, and then picked up a printout and scanned it carefully. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t find a reservation in that name.” She looked at Tracy with raised eyebrows and asked, “Could the reservation be in another name?”

Tracy shrugged and stepped forward. “Try Vetter: V E T T E R.”

This search proved fruitless, as well. Nick and Tracy looked at one another in confusion, then Nick turned back to the clerk with a pained expression. “Try Don Schanke: S C H A N K E.”

“I’m sorry, but I have no reservations under any of those names.”

“What about the City of Toronto?” Tracy asked. While the clerk typed, Tracy told Nick softly, by way of explanation, “Sometimes when we travelled with Dad, he had reservations under that name.”

“Here you are!” the clerk enthused. “A deluxe suite. You’re right up near the top of the hotel. The views are spectacular from up there!”

“A suite? Oh, no, that won’t do at all,” Tracy sputtered. “We need separate rooms. What else do you have available?”

“I’m afraid the hotel is completely booked,” the clerk responded. “We have two conferences this week, and that block of rooms has been reserved for months. We are still one of the newest casinos on the strip right now, and we’re getting a lot of visitors. I can try to set you up in the Excalibur, next door, but frankly I’m not even sure there will be anything available there, either.” She paused a moment, thinking, then proposed, “Tell you what I can do – I’ll have someone take you up to see the suite. There are two separate bedrooms. Take a look around. If it suits you, come on back down and we’ll get you checked in. If not, I’ll see what I can find for you nearby. Does that work for you?”

Tracy looked like she was ready to keep arguing, but Nick reached over and picked up her bags and handed them to the bell hop who had appeared next to him. “C’mon, Button, let’s at least go have a look,” he said while the bell hop got keys and instructions from the desk clerk. “If it’s not adequate, we’ll find someplace else to stay.” Nick took Tracy’s elbow and guided her to follow the young bell hop. It had been a long night, and he still had to find a source of blood, preferably bovine, with which to sustain himself during their stay in Las Vegas. So long as his room in the suite had a locking door and protection from the sun, he would be satisfied.

The suite turned out to be far more than adequate. It was almost luxurious. Two large bedrooms with king size beds and private bathrooms bracketed the suite, with a sitting room, kitchenette, and dining area between them. Heavy blackout curtains and a wet bar completed the ensemble, and Tracy realized it was bigger than her apartment in Toronto. Of course, she would be sharing it with her partner, which was awkward.  She realized that she knew very little about him.  After all, they were still in the “getting to know you” stages of their partnership.  So far, he had proved supportive, encouraging, mysterious, and frustrating as hell.  On the other hand, maybe sharing a suite wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.  Maybe she could use the opportunity to improve their working relationship.

Out loud, Tracy said, “This isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  I didn’t realize how much space we would have.  What do you think, Nick?”

“I think it’ll do fine.  Are you sure about this, Tracy?  If you’re uncomfortable at all, maybe we should try to find separate rooms.” Nick was having trouble keeping his thoughts in the present.  He could easily imagine Schanke making these reservations with the expectation of spending a week together with Nick masquerading as a pair of carefree bachelors.  He certainly had no expectations of that sort regarding his new partner, but he had to admit that sharing a suite with Schanke might have been fun.  A wry smile came to his face as he turned and caught Tracy’s eye.  She nodded in return.

“I’ll go down and complete the registration while you get settled in,” Nick said.  Tracy nodded in response and he headed out with the bellboy in tow.

Finding a source of bovine blood turned out to be easier in some ways than he expected.  After completing the simple registration form, Nick approached the concierge desk.  He had sensed the presence of another vampire there.  How convenient.  Corralling him in private conversation, Nick was able to arrange for the discrete delivery of bovine blood to his room, and for the delivery of a small private refrigerator for his own separate use.  At first, the other vampire was unwilling to accommodate the needs of a “carouche.” However, Nick managed to “persuade” him otherwise.  Nick might choose to drink animal blood, but he was no carouche, and he made sure that the much younger concierge knew it.

Once his blood supply was assured, Nick decided to take a quick tour of the facilities offered by the Luxor.  He quickly discovered, as he had expected, this newest addition to the casinos on the strip provided all of the luxuries that one could expect from a premier gambling establishment in Las Vegas.  There were conference facilities for both large and small meetings, private gaming rooms for high rollers, and an auditorium for live shows, movies, or other entertainment.  There was an indoor pool with adjacent hot tub, an extensive gymnasium and workout facility, a juice bar, and even a small wedding chapel.  There was an enclosed passage fitted with sliding walkways connecting the Luxor to the Excalibur, allowing guests to move back and forth easily without having to go outside into the desert heat.  Returning to their suite, he found Tracy had settled into their shared sitting room, studying the binder provided to acquaint them with the services offered by the hotel.  Nick was amused.  Their instincts were the same – they both wanted to find out as much as they could about what the hotel had to offer.  The difference was how they went about it:  Nick went exploring, while Tracy read the information provided by the hotel.

Eventually, they retired to their rooms to catch a few hours of sleep before the evening icebreaker which served as the kickoff for their conference.  Nick was pleased to discover that a small refrigerator had been delivered to his room and was fully stocked with his preferred beverage.  He was even more pleased to discover that the refrigerator had a locking mechanism that he could use to maintain his security.  He would have to be sure to mention to Tracy that he had arranged for a supply of his specialty diet to be delivered for his use during the conference.  That would both protect him from discovery and satisfy her curiosity.

*****   *****   *****  

Something strange happens when you put a bunch of cops in a room together, Nick mused.  They stand in groups talking to one another, but they never look at one another while talking.  The eyes are constantly moving, constantly scanning.  They’re all on alert, and it’s so natural to them that they don’t recognize it.  He smiled to himself at the thought.

“Detective Knight?  Detective Vetter?” A short, thin, dark haired man reached out to shake their hands in welcome.  “From Toronto, right?” Nick nodded and shook the man’s hand firmly.  “I’m Detective Damon Bartolomei, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.  Welcome to the States.  Is this your first time in Vegas?”

It was Tracy’s turn to shake hands, and she answered him as she did so.  “Hi.  I’m Tracy.  This is Nick.  It’s my first visit to Las Vegas, but I think my partner has been here before.  He sure seems to know his way around.” She smiled.

“Yes, I’ve been here before, but it’s been awhile.” Nick looked around the room as he spoke, modeling the very behavior he had noticed upon arrival.  “Really, though, nothing much changes.  The casinos always seem to attract an interesting clientele.  Must keep you busy, detective.  I’ll bet you get your share of the odd cases.”

“Call me Bart.  Yeah, we stay on our toes.  In fact, we got a really weird one just this week.  A body turned up in someone’s backyard in North Las Vegas, and as it turns out, we gave him a death certificate just over a year ago.  Now he shows up with a broken neck.  Thing is, we had something right along the same lines happen last month.  It’s starting to look like a pattern.  I’ll bet you don’t see much of that sort of thing in your neck of the woods, eh?”

Nick continued scanning the room, but his attention drifted back into his memories.  In his mind’s eye, he saw the streets of New York, not a conference room in Las Vegas.

“Nick?  Nick Forrester?  Is that you?  It can’t be you!”

Damn!  It was his Life Insurance broker!  This was certainly unexpected.  After all, the broker thought he was dead.  The insurance policy on his life as Nick Forrester had been paid out only the week before to his “uncle,” Lucien LaCroix.  Nick looked now to LaCroix for help in unscrambling this unfortunate situation.

LaCroix cast an amused glance at Nick before turning to address the broker directly.  “I’m afraid you’re mistaken, my friend, though I certainly can understand your confusion.  I’d like to introduce you to Jean-Pierre Forrester, Nick’s twin brother.”

The broker looked closely at Nick before extending his hand.  Nick shook it and joined LaCroix’s subtle mental manipulation of the man.  “I’m here to help settle my brother’s estate,” he said.  “How did you know him?  Did you not know that he had a twin?”

As the sight of the broker shaking his head faded back into memory, Nick refocused his attention on the detective in front of him.

“Could it be a case of Life Insurance fraud?” Nick asked.

Bart looked thoughtful.  “That’s the way our investigation is leaning. The initial death certificate was issued on the presumption of death from drowning: witnesses saw him go overboard and sink during a sudden storm while he was out boating on Lake Meade. His most recent death is definitely murder, though, and you don’t generally see that in those types of cases.  Do you have experience that says otherwise?”

“Some.”

That was an understatement.  Nick actually had quite a bit of experience in faking his own demise.  After all, payoffs of Life Insurance policies provided a respectable portion of a modern vampire’s income.  Policies were purchased, funded regularly, and then cashed in when it was time for a vampire to move on.  There was a whole industry devoted to it within the vampire Community.  As a result, the art of faking one’s death in order to attain a valid death certificate had become de rigueur within the Community.  The truth was, in many cases, there really was not much fraud involved, because of the number of years that policies were typically paid into before they were needed. As LaCroix once put it, “Our impact on the actuarial tables used by the industry is minimal.”

Tracy chose this moment to jump into the conversation. “Do you know whether your victim had Life Insurance that was paid out upon his first ‘death’?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact we do.  The victim was a local man who had a policy with NOALIC which paid off to his wife.  Incidentally, we’ve been looking for her, but she seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth.”

“That’s interesting.  I’ve got a policy with NOALIC, myself,” Nick muttered.  Oops, that had been a mistake.  Bart’s eyes were suddenly focused directly and exclusively on Nick and Tracy.  He could almost see the wheels moving behind those sharp eyes.  Detective Bartolomei was having a brainstorm, and Nick had the uncomfortable feeling that they were about to get soaked.

“You know, there’s someone I’d like you both to meet.  C’mon over here with me for a minute.” Bart took Tracy’s elbow and led her out of the main meeting room.  Nick followed, aware that many of the eyes scanning the room were now focused on their departure.  If only he’d kept his big mouth shut!  He had a good idea what was coming, and he was not terribly comfortable with it.

*****   *****   *****

The next few hours went by in a whirlwind of activity. In rapid succession, Bart introduced Tracy and Nick to his partner, his chief, and his idea to send them undercover as a married couple to trap the Insurance Fraud killer.  Faster than they could lose a roll of quarters playing video poker, Bart managed to get his proposal approved by both his chief and by the relevant powers in Toronto, and Nick and Tracy found themselves in the City of Toronto suite creating new identities and plotting to ensnare their mysterious quarry, the conference forgotten.

“Very nice!” Bart had exclaimed upon arrival in the suite. “You Toronto cops sure know how to live!” The implication was obvious and, to the two Canadians, offensive.

“Don’t be so sure,” Tracy responded soberly. “As it turns out, the suite at conference prices was cheaper than getting two separate rooms.” A call to her father, Commissioner Vetter, had confirmed this. “Toronto just wants to get its money’s worth.”

“Well, it works out better for us this way. That’s for sure.” Bart’s partner, Detective Dylan Fields, smiled encouragingly at her to take the bite out of Bart’s unintended criticism. He was the quiet, blond counterpart to Bart’s excess of personality.

A plan was quickly knocked together as they sat around the dining area table. “The bait will be Nick’s life insurance policy,” Bart explained to Tracy.

“That can also be the source of our new identities,” Nick began with more than a little trepidation. “The policy is under the name of Nicholas de Brabant.” The puzzled and frankly suspicious looks that this announcement generated were not making things any easier, and Nick forced himself to a casual indifference as he continued. “I’ve had this policy for quite a long time. It’s under my birth name. My parents died many years ago, and my name changed when I was adopted, so now I’m Nicholas de Brabant Knight. I kept meaning to change the name on the policy, but I just never got around to it.”

The suspicious looks shifted to neutral, sympathetic, or understanding, and Nick shrugged, “I guess it’s our good luck I never changed the name. Now I have an alternate identity we can use, and the policy will stand up to any scrutiny because it’s genuine.” 

“So then I’ll be Mrs. De Brabant when we get ‘married.’” Tracy hung the quotation marks in the air in an effort not to turn bright red with embarrassment over the thought of going through even a sham wedding with her partner.  Bart had insisted that they would draw more attention as newlyweds, so the plan was for them to marry in the Luxor’s wedding chapel. 

Sensing her unease, Nick sought to turn the attention away from himself by embarrassing her a bit further.  Taking her hand, he adopted a dramatic pose and, wiggling his eyebrows in his best vaudeville manner, made his proposal. “Tracy Vetter, will you be my wife for as long as we both shall stay … undercover?”

Tracy’s jaw dropped open. Her face was now completely crimson, and she started laughing. The tension in the room was broken. After all, what was it that the advertisements said? What happens in Vegas … stays in Vegas. There was no need to fear that anything they did here would become common knowledge in the bullpen back in Toronto, was there?

“Well, if we’re really going to do this,” she paused, looking for and getting the confirming nods from her companions, “then I’d better go digging in my closet for something to wear to the wedding.” She left the others to hammer out the details while she sought out the proper attire to disguise her mood.

*****   *****   *****

LaCroix stood at the end of the bar in the nightclub, the Raven, in Toronto, sipping at his omnipresent wine glass and surveying the remains of the late-night crowd. He turned and nodded slightly to the tall vampire sitting next to him, who immediately rose, drained his own glass, and started moving surreptitiously through the sparsely occupied dance floor. It was nearly closing time, and this was a well-understood signal that it was time to start ushering the mortal clientele out of the club.

LaCroix watched the resulting departures as an afterthought; his main concentration was centered on Nicholas. His protégé had never been able to hide strong emotions from him, and those he had felt in recent weeks had been both strong and turbulent.  Something to do with his mortal occupation, or mortal “friends,” or his quest to become mortal, no doubt.

Not long ago, Nicholas had been planning to move on. A visit to the loft revealed packing in progress and dust covers already draped over much of the furniture. They had talked, briefly, without rancor, for once. He was certain Nicholas was not hiding anything from him, and he had consented to let the younger vampire go, so long as he remained in contact. He planned to follow once Nicholas found a place to settle.

Then, suddenly, the turmoil ceased, followed only by a melancholy sadness and withdrawal. What had happened? Why had his plans changed? Were they merely delayed? His most recent visit replayed in his perfect memory. What was he missing? What was Nicholas hiding? Was he planning to run, again?

LaCroix realized his frustration rose partly from his feelings of vulnerability. During the asteroid hoax, he had revealed the depth of his feeling for his children – his Nicholas – his Janette – and his singular desire for their companionship. The revelation had not been reciprocated, leaving him feeling exposed, neglected and angry. It was not a pleasant feeling, and he hoped to eradicate it as soon as possible.

Deep down, he was afraid that Nicholas had already moved on. Their link felt distant – stretched and thin. He resolved to check in at the loft before sunrise to get some answers.

His course of action decided, LaCroix once again turned his attention outward, focusing on the closing activities around him. For the first time, he noticed that Larry Merlin was meeting at a table in a quiet corner with the newcomers, Javier Vachon and his fledgling, Ursula. Urs liked to dance, and she was quite good. She was … decorative.

He focused his supernatural hearing on their conversation. If someone had accused him of eavesdropping, he would have been amused. How could it be eavesdropping if the conversation was being held in a public place?

Ah, routine financial business. Urs was receiving an insurance payoff on the life of one J.D. Valdez, who was “killed” in that recent plane crash, the one that killed Nicholas’ mortal partner (a shame, he had rather liked that one) and his captain, as well. As he listened, it became apparent that J.D. Valdez was actually Vachon. Hmm, he had not known that the Spaniard was on that same flight. He wondered idly what Urs would do with her windfall. Presumably she would share it with her master. It only made sense. He and Nicholas had done the same thing, after all. It was a fairly common practice among their kind.

Merlin had answered his phone during LaCroix’s musings, and the conversation not only jolted him back into the present but propelled him to the other vampire’s side.

“Hello, Nick! What can I do for you?” Merlin looked up at LaCroix, startled to see him nearly hovering over him.

 Nick’s voice could be heard plainly from the small instrument. “Merlin, I’m glad I caught you. I wanted you to know that I’m planning to change the beneficiary on my NOALIC policy, and I didn’t want you to be surprised or alarmed by it.”

Merlin’s eyes focused on LaCroix’s, brows raised questioningly. LaCroix shook his head slightly, and the message was clear – don’t let Nick know that I’m listening. To Nick, Merlin replied, “Okay, Nick, thanks for letting me know. What are you up to?”

Nick chuckled. “I’m getting married,” he said. “It’s a bit of a long story, and I might not ever have a chance to tell you all of it, but it’s important that the policy stands up to strict scrutiny. My new wife will be my beneficiary.”

“Married? Isn’t this a bit sudden? Who are you marrying?” Merlin quite forgot LaCroix’s presence in his shock at this news.

“I can’t really say,” Nick replied. “All I can tell you is that she’s from Toronto. Listen, I’ve got to go. There’s a lot to do yet tonight. I just need to be sure that there are no irregularities with the policy.”

“Well, no,” Merlin spluttered. “It’s a standard policy. I’ve sold it to our Community and mortals alike. It’s been a very popular product.” Merlin suddenly felt the icy waves of LaCroix’s anger pulsing next to him, and he continued in a concerned voice, “Nick, you’re not planning to do something foolish, are you?”

“It’s fine, Merlin. I’ll explain when I see you. Just one other thing – please don’t tell LaCroix, okay? I’ll deal with him later.”

“No, of course not,” Merlin said, cringing as LaCroix’s now amber eyes focused on him. After all, he had not told LaCroix about Nick’s plans. Nick had done it, himself.

They signed off and Merlin, fearing LaCroix’s wrath, was relieved to see him stalking rapidly toward the front door.

*****   *****   *****

Natalie jumped, banging her bad knee painfully on a cabinet door as an angry LaCroix appeared suddenly beside her in her kitchen.

“Ow!” she yelped, while hopping on her good leg and struggling not to let loose with a string of profanity. It was bad enough to have a vampire turn up suddenly and uninvited in one’s apartment. It was worse when the vampire in question was fully fanged out. Worse yet when his eyes glowed amber. She was not going to push the situation further by swearing at him.

She knew who he was, of course. She had eventually remembered most of their first meeting, at the Azure, on Valentine’s Day, though she had carefully hidden that knowledge from Nick. Grabbing the counter by the sink to steady herself, she quickly decided that her best defense, no, her only defense, was an aggressive offense.

Grabbing the jar of minced garlic she was about to use in making her dinner, she twisted off the lid and quickly dumped the contents on the counter in front of her. While LaCroix recoiled from the offensive aroma, she took the opportunity to smear the smelly stuff all over her hands and wrists, using them a moment later to coat her throat. Then she turned to confront her “guest,” and found that he had disappeared.

She was about to let out the breath she had been holding when LaCroix, calm and unfanged, took a casual step back into her kitchen from the hallway. She could read an entire lecture in his facial expression, and it started something like, “Silly mortal! Did you really think a little thing like garlic could keep me away from what I desire?” Still, he seemed calmer, and that was definitely to her advantage.

“If you wanted to scare me, I’d say you did a pretty good job,” she told him as she tested her knee, gingerly.

“You know who I am?” The question was softly spoken, but there was nothing soft in his expression.

“I think so. My memory’s a bit fuzzy, but you definitely make an impression,” she responded dryly.

“Just so.” He took another step into the kitchen, and Natalie unconsciously took a step back.

“Why are you here?”

“I’ve come to collect on an old bargain. Do you know which one I’m referring to, Doctor?”

“No,” she whispered. She was not going to make this easier for him. She had to get him talking, and keep him talking. Maybe he would get tired of the garlic aroma and go away….

“If Nicholas ever falls in love with a mortal, that mortal is mine.” LaCroix grinned, and it was a truly macabre expression. “That mortal is you,” he concluded.

“What? Nick doesn’t love me,” Natalie argued. Now she had the beginnings of an idea about what was going on. This was Valentine’s Day all over again, but Nick was too far away to save her. She shook her head strongly. “No, it’s me. I love him. I can’t help it. But it’s not mutual. He sees me as a good friend. He doesn’t love me.”

“I beg to differ,” LaCroix responded haughtily. “Why else would he be planning to marry you?”

“What? Nick? Marry me?” She shook her head again, emphatically. Maybe she had misunderstood what was going on, after all. “No, no, no, you’ve got the wrong idea. We’re friends, friendly colleagues, nothing more.”

“Do you really expect me to believe you know nothing about a wedding?”

“Believe it! If Nick’s getting married, it’s news to me.” She tried to ignore the pain her own words caused her.

LaCroix paused, considering. There was not much time left before dawn, and he needed information. Perhaps she was telling the truth, after all. “Well, my dear Doctor, if Nicholas is not marrying you, then who is he marrying?”

“I have no idea,” she admitted. “He’s not even in town. He’s in Las Vegas as far as I know.  Why do you think he’s getting married?”

LaCroix ignored her question, thinking furiously. Natalie noticed his hesitation and guessed at the reason for it.

“You didn’t know he was in Las Vegas?”

LaCroix glared at her. “You didn’t know he was getting married?”

“It appears Nick has left both of us somewhat in the dark, so to speak,” Natalie admitted. “What do you say to an exchange of information?”

LaCroix weighed his options. Although he would love to spar with the lovely doctor under other circumstances, right now he was looking for answers and the dawn was nearly upon him. He refused to stay the day in a garlic-contaminated environment. He nodded. “Can we move this conversation to another location?” He asked with a polite veneer, but stared pointedly at the still oozing puddle of minced garlic.

Natalie looked at him in disbelief. “I don’t think so,” she replied.

“Very well,” LaCroix responded. “Why don’t you tell me what you know, then?”

Natalie’s analytical mind had been working overtime for several minutes now, and she could come up with no reason not to tell LaCroix about Nick’s trip. After all, he could get the same information by calling the front desk and asking for Nick at the precinct.

“Nick and Tracy are at a law enforcement conference of some sort in Las Vegas this week. They left a couple of days ago.” She held out a hand to him, signaling it was now his turn to share.

LaCroix had other plans. “This seems a bit sudden. They are newly assigned as partners, yes? Would it not make more sense to send others on such a conference?”

“I don’t really know,” Natalie replied. “Apparently it had been planned for Nick and Schanke to go. From what I heard, Nick had no objection to going with Tracy instead.”

“I intercepted a call from Nicholas to one of his financial advisors,” LaCroix began. He saw no need to tell her he had overheard the conversation without Nicholas’ knowledge. “He advised him that he would be changing his life insurance beneficiary because he was marrying a woman from Toronto. Naturally, I assumed it was you.” He smiled, but it was not unkind.

“Tracy,” Natalie whispered. “He’s marrying Tracy.”

“Yes, it would appear so.” LaCroix’s pale blue eyes transfixed her and she was suddenly very grateful for her garlic marinade. “I wonder if he’s planning to return at all.”

Natalie blinked, and found herself alone. Tears came hot and fast. Anger, fear, embarrassment, relief, frustration, and grief all battled for supremacy as she sank onto the kitchen chair. Anger that Nick was marrying Tracy, and that he had not protected her from his sire, fear that his sire might decide to come back, embarrassment because his sire now knew she remembered Valentine’s Day and still loved Nick even though Nick had betrayed her, relief that LaCroix had not hurt her, or killed her for that matter, frustration at the whole situation, starting from her first meeting with Nick, served up on one of her own morgue tables, and grief that their relationship was over, that Nick had so publicly rejected and humiliated her.

She couldn’t really blame him, though. Tracy was younger, blond, trim, perky: all the things she was not. On the other hand, yeah, she had the right to be angry! After everything they had been through together, if Nick was going to marry a mortal, it should have been her.

Then the alternative struck her – what if Tracy was no longer mortal?

Now she was really angry.

Just you wait, Nicholas B. Knight! When you get home … if you come home … I’ll … I’ll …. And the tears started up all over again.

*****   *****   *****

LaCroix stepped out of the shadows and silently stood in the center of the large room.  His offspring cautiously approached, having sensed the anger behind the older vampire’s summons.

“I require a service of you,” LaCroix began without preamble.

“Of course, Sir,” the younger vampire replied.  “What can I do for you?”

“I’m sending you to Las Vegas.  There’s something I need you to look into.”

*****   *****   *****

The wedding went off without a hitch. Like most Las Vegas wedding venues, the wedding chapel at the Luxor was accustomed to the unusual, done in a hurry. After all, they were open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, etc.  The false identity documents raised no eyebrows. When the case was over, there would be nothing to annul. The rings, quickly purchased by Bart from a nearby pawn shop, were fairly generic (and could be returned for a refund, minus a small “restocking” fee). Witnesses were provided by the chapel as part of the package deal.

The only thing that surprised the officiant was the behavior of the groom. When the time came to kiss his bride, he had turned to her and raised both of her hands to his lips, kissing them gently before returning his attention to the brief ceremony. The bride did not appear offended.  Most of his clients were not so restrained in their public displays of affection.

*****   *****   *****

Taking advantage of the waning night, the “newlyweds” exited the Luxor and strolled along the strip, looking at the lights, watching the people, and enjoying the warm night air.  Several times, Nick sensed the presence of others of his kind.  There was a larger “Community” here than he realized.  Whenever he felt such a presence, he made sure to take some action which indicated that Tracy was under his protection.  A friendly arm around the shoulder, a touch of an elbow, or a possessive stance were all signals that his kind would understand. If Tracy noticed anything untoward, she did not let on. After all, it was part of their cover. They needed to be seen together as a couple.

As dawn threatened, Nick and Tracy and returned to the Luxor.  In the perpetual artificial evening atmosphere of the casino, they took some time to explore.  They did a bit of shopping, took the boat tour, and lost some money at the various gambling tables.  Then they retired to their suite for the day to begin planning the next phase of the operation.

*****   *****   *****

The descent of evening on Las Vegas was almost beautiful when viewed from the top of the Luxor pyramid.  Nick stood by the window in his room and watched the glow of the sunset fade over the surrounding desert until the glow of the neon jungle below him blocked out any view of the horizon.  There were always people wandering around on the streets in Las Vegas, especially on the strip, but at night the town truly came alive.  Lights, fountains, exotic casinos, street attractions and cabaret shows – delights for the eye and the ear alike – all were a façade, a bright and shiny wrapping which hid the darker reality from view.  It was no wonder that so many of his kind were attracted to this place.  Just as the sensual allure of the vampire distracted a mortal victim from impending doom, the lights and carnival atmosphere that permeated Las Vegas at night distracted its patrons from its potentially darker and more destructive effects – gambling addiction, sex trafficking, poverty and despair.  His job tonight would involve tapping into the criminal element which thrived on exploiting those dark and destructive effects.

Turning away from the window, Nick realized that he was grateful for the relaxed attitude held by local businesses about what constituted “normal” business hours. The casinos operated twenty-four hours a day, of course, and that meant that the greater Las Vegas area was home to a multitude of shift workers. The service industry had learned quickly to be flexible, and so, even though the NOALIC office was a small one, they were able to get an evening appointment with no trouble.  

It was a simple plan.  He and Tracy would go to their appointment together, each wearing a wire so that their conversations could be monitored.  Nick smiled as he remembered the seemingly interminable lecture that Bart had given them detailing the American legal distinctions between enticement and entrapment.  Despite his earlier misgivings, he was beginning to feel the familiar stirrings of the excitement of the hunt.  Checking his surroundings carefully, he opened his refrigerator and quickly consumed a bottle of his private stock.  Replete, but not satisfied, he continued his preparations for the evening’s activities.

 *****  *****   *****

Dave was annoyed.  He had been forced to cancel a date this evening to man the office so that his boss could pick up some hot shot from the airport, somebody important from back east.  Of course, Dave had not let on that he was annoyed.  He knew well enough that the boss was still angry over his mishandling of the “client termination” over the weekend.  He needed to lay low until all the fuss blew over.

In the meantime, there was one appointment set for the early evening, so he made himself a pot of coffee and prepared to be charming and efficient.

Nick and Tracy arrived a few moments later.  Dave introduced himself and ushered them into his private office.  He offered the usual refreshments, which were politely refused.

“What can I do for you this evening, Mr. de Brabant?” Dave began.

Many of his clients seemed uncomfortable at the thought of purchasing Life Insurance, and at first Dave had the impression that this might be the case with the couple before him.  They both seemed tense and nervous.

“Call me Nick, and this is my wife, Tracy. We just got married,” Nick stated.

That’s funny, Dave thought.  They don’t look too happy about it.  I wonder what’s going on here. Outwardly he said, “Congratulations!”

Nick replied with a perfunctory, “Thank you.” Tracy elbowed him, silently urging him to come to the point.  He responded with an angry look before facing Dave again.  “I’d like to change the beneficiary on my Life Insurance policy.  I’d like everything to go to my wife.”

“Well, we can certainly do that, sir.  Just give me a moment so that I can call up your information on our system.  Do you have some form of identification?” Several moments later, Dave produced the necessary paperwork for Nick to sign.  Tracy sat without speaking, looking bored.

“Will there be anything else?” Dave was beginning to think that he might make it to his date after all.

Nick looked very uncomfortable.  Tracy urged him on again.  “Well, there is one other thing.  Can you tell me whether this is the sort of insurance policy that I can borrow against?”

“Let me take a closer look.  I don’t think so, but it’s best to be sure about things like this, right?” Another quick check of his computer records confirmed his first impression.  “Nope, I’m sorry; it doesn’t appear to be that sort of an insurance policy.  Would you be interested in opening up a policy that you might be able to borrow against in the future?”

“No, not unless I’d be able to borrow against it immediately.” Nick looked at Dave hopefully, then appeared crestfallen when Dave shook his head, no.

“No, that’s not how it works.  Sorry about that.  Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Not unless you’ve got a hundred grand sitting around someplace that I can get my hands on,” Nick said hopelessly.

Geez, Dave thought, this guy looks like he might cry.  Or implode.  Still, this might be an opportunity to get back in good graces with his boss.  He leaned forward.  “What’s going on, buddy?”

Nick looked at Tracy, obviously seeking support.  Tracy looked angry enough to spit nails.  “Go on; tell him!  Just remember, this was your idea.  You said you could get the money you need by borrowing against your Life Insurance policy.  Well, now it looks like you can’t do that, so what are you going to do now?  I just don’t understand how you could be so stupid.  I wish I’d known what you were up to before we got married.  Now I don’t know what to do.”

Dave sat back, beginning to enjoy the show.  Forget his date; this had the potential to be much more entertaining.

“I just wanted to be able to show you a good time,” Nick whined to Tracy, pleading his case. “I never thought I’d lose that much.  I thought I’d at least break even, and then I could put the money back, and no one would be the wiser.”

Dave decided that this was a gift too good to pass up.  In fact, this guy was a gift he could hand on a silver platter to his boss.  This guy had a $400,000 Life Insurance policy.  Whole life.  Somebody had purchased it for him when he was just a baby, and it had been paid up regularly.  He was a perfect candidate.  The new wife probably would not mind being free of him, in fact.  Now, to get him on the hook.

“Hey, Nick, take it easy, man.  Sounds like you got yourself in a bit of a pickle.  I can’t help you, myself, but I might be able to introduce you to someone who can.”

“What you mean?  Do you know someone who might be able to give me a loan?” Nick asked with the beginning of hope in his voice.  Then, natural caution and skepticism crept in, and he looked at the floor.  “What would I have to do?”

“No, it’s nothing like that.  I just know a guy who’s been able to help people out of financial difficulties in the past.  He might be able to help you, too.  If you’d like, I can set up a meeting for you.  The rest is up to you.”

“Well, I don’t know.” Nick looked like he might want to say more, but Tracy exploded with anger right on cue.  She called on years of memories of her parents drunken arguments and delivered a spiteful rant that shocked Nick and impressed Dave.  She questioned both Nick’s parentage and sanity, not to mention his intelligence, for even considering such an offer.  She accused Dave of taking advantage of a fellow human being who was down on his luck, in so many words.  When Nick would not respond, or even look her in the eye, she demanded the car keys and stomped out of the building.

Privately, she crossed her fingers and wished her partner good luck in his further dealings with Dave.  Her part was done for the moment, and she drove to the monitoring station to check in.

Silence filled the office in the wake of Tracy’s departure.  Nick acted embarrassed.  Dave was amused.

Nick put his head in his hands.  “Now what do I do?  I can’t lose her.”

Suddenly Nick looked up.  He had sensed the presence of another of his kind entering the building.  He stood as the office door opened.  An unfamiliar vampire entered the office and greeted Dave, who in turn introduced his client.

“Nick De Brabant, I’d like you to meet our regional manager, Vince Bellamy.  Vince, Nick here has been making some changes to his Life Insurance policy.  I think he might need some additional services.  We were just discussing the possibility.”

The two vampires shook hands politely, looking curiously at one another.  Nick sensed a familiar feeling: one always recognized family.  This vampire was related to him in some way.

Vince nodded to Dave, dismissing him.  “Thank you, Dave.  I’ll handle it from here.  Didn’t you have a date this evening?” When Dave smiled and nodded, Vince told him, “Well then, man, don’t keep her waiting.”

As Dave departed, the two vampires remained standing.  Nick was rapidly reassessing his situation.  The involvement of the vampire implied that he had stumbled into a situation different from what he had anticipated.  They needed to speak privately, and he knew of only one way to accomplish this.  Raising a finger to his lips, Nick signaled to Vince to remain silent.  When Vince complied, Nick very carefully and quietly opened the front of his shirt, exposing the wire and microphone taped to his chest.  Vince’s eyes widened in fear and astonishment as Nick tore the wire from his chest, pulled the battery pack loose from his trousers, and threw them violently into a corner.

Vince got the shock of his unlife as Nick stopped suppressing the aura of his age and power, allowing it to overwhelm the younger vampire.  Nick knew that the officers monitoring his wire would be coming to his rescue very soon, and there was not much time.  Grabbing Vince by the shirt front, he used the younger vampire to clear the contents off of Dave’s desk, then threw him bodily at the far wall, overturning one of the chairs in front of the desk in the process.  Moving faster than Vince’s eyes could track, he grabbed him once again and pulled him out of the office, down the hall, throwing him out the back door and across the unlit alley.  Nick figured a dazed young vampire was more likely to be a compliant young vampire.  By the time Bart and his team entered the building to rescue Nick, they were airborne and out of sight.

Nick had never conducted an interrogation while flying, but he wanted to take advantage of Vince’s dazed condition.  He allowed his fangs to drop and his eyes to turn amber as he pulled Vince close to his chest.  Vince was both stunned and terrified.  His own experience with other vampires had been very limited.  Usually, they came to him seeking his special services – a plausible “death” and an insurance payoff.  He had never encountered a vampire with this kind of power before.  He could only hope that he survived this encounter.

“Who do you work for?” Nick snarled.

“NOALIC,” Vince said without thinking.

“No, not that,” Nick growled.  He had a reputation as the Knightmare back in Toronto. It was high time Vince understood why. He backhanded the youngster to make sure he had his undivided attention, being careful at the same time not to render him unconscious.  “You know what I mean.  Who do you work for?” Nick stared intently, not at Vince’s eyes, but at his neck.  He licked his lips.

“You should know!  You gotta know!  It’s Don Constantine!  I work for Don Constantine!  He’s my … my … whatcha call it? … my sire.” Vince was, by now, on the verge of panic.

By this time, their flight had carried them out over the desert, and Nick landed, tossing Vince hard against the sand and rock.  He allowed his eyes to shift from amber to golden as Vince started to get to his feet.  “Sit!” Nick ordered. Vince complied.  “Tell me about the services you provided to mortals, Vince.  How many have there been?”

“It’s only a sideline.  There’ve only been a few, I swear.  We’ve only had problems with two of them.  One wasn’t happy with his new identity, and the other wanted more money.”

“So who dealt with them, you?” Vince shook his head, no.  “Dave?” Vince looked at the ground and nodded.

“Don’t you realize what you’ve done?” Nick moved to tower over him. “You greedy fool!  How much did you get from those jobs?  Couple hundred thousand total, right?” Vince nodded again, hesitating.  He was beginning to wonder how much trouble he was really in.  He got a clue as Nick continued, coldly.  “I should stake you myself right here, and save the Enforcers the trouble.” 

Vince scuttled away as Nick herded him toward an outcropping of rock. In the dark of the desert night, with his eyes glowing amber once again, Nick moved more like a hellish great cat than a man. Vince suddenly knew the threat of staking was not an idle one, and he started shaking. He had watched his sire stake another fledgling. The prospect terrified him.

“You were really willing to expose us all for a measly couple hundred thousand dollars?”  Nick was disgusted. He shared his own master’s sense of loyalty to the Community. If he ever left it by becoming mortal again, he still could not imagine betraying their existence to the mortal world.

Vince’s attitude also worried him. He knew how highly Don Constantine valued loyalty, especially to family. He could not picture the Don taking such an attitude toward the Community. The Don’s attitude in such matters reflected that of their mutual master. He would need to find out how much the Don knew about his child’s activities.

In the meantime, though, he had other problems. Damn this fledgling! He hated it when he was forced to put the interests of the Community ahead of his duty as a law enforcement officer. He had to find a way to put a stop to the “extracurricular” activities of Vince’s NOALIC office without compromising the Community’s needs.

Moving faster than the young vampire eyes could follow, Nick flashed to Vince’s side and whispered roughly in his ear, “The local police already suspect you.  The first thing they’re gonna do when they discover I’m not in your office is go pick up Dave to find out what he knows.”

Vince panicked and took off flying back toward the city.  Nick easily overtook him and bore him back down and pinned him to the ground.  “What does Dave know?”

“Everything.” Nick tightened his hold as Vince tried again to squirm free.  In a desperate voice, Vince repeated, “He knows everything.”

“About the Community?” Nick asked, stunned.

“No.  Nothing about that.  He doesn’t know what I am, and he doesn’t know about the Community, per se, but he knows everything about the services we provided to the mortals.  He knows how we faked their deaths.  He knows the details of the payoffs.  We can’t let the police get to him before we do.  He could tell them enough to ruin us all.”

“Now you begin to see the extent of the problem,” Nick stated soberly.  “We have to work quickly.  I have a plan.  Do you know where we can find him?” Vince nodded.  “Be sure!  If this doesn’t work, you might end up being staked out for the dawn anyway.”

*****   *****   *****

Bart surveyed the ruins of the NOALIC office with dismay.  Nick’s wire lay crumpled and discarded in a corner, but Nick was nowhere to be found. Neither was anyone else. The place was empty.

Tracy looked around in disbelief. She should never have let them talk her into leaving her partner alone. If only she had stayed with him. Stop it, Tracy! She could almost hear her Uncle Sonny say, “FIDO! You know what that means, right?” While American draft dodgers had fled to Canada, her uncle had served in the U.S. Army voluntarily during the Viet Nam era. This was one of the things he picked up during his service. FIDO stood for Forget It and Drive On. It meant to keep moving forward in a crisis – you could not afford regrets, though he often told her with a laugh that they used a more colorful term than Forget in the original acronym, and it started with the same letter. Yeah, wallowing in regrets was not going to help her find her partner. Hmm, maybe I should mention Uncle Sonny’s advice to Nick once we get him home safe. Even in the short time they had worked together, she had noticed his tendency to wallow in self-recrimination.

OK, Vetter, she told herself, what should we do first? “We need to find Dave,” she heard herself say in a clear, commanding voice.

Bart looked at her and nodded his agreement. He started barking orders to his team. They began to process the NOALIC office as a crime scene. He and Tracy started searching for anything – personnel files, appointment books, personal notes, etc. – that might tell them where to find Dave tonight, right now. Dave could lead them to Vince, and Vince to Nick. It was clear that Nick had not left this room or building voluntarily. The clock was ticking. They needed to find Nick before anything more happened to him.

*****   *****   *****

Bart had a very bad feeling about his case as he arrived at Dave’s house in North Las Vegas. He recognized the house just two doors down where his involvement had begun with the discovery of Dustin Sherman’s body in the back yard. Could it be coincidence that Dave lived close by? He did not believe much in coincidence.

The house was dark when they arrived. Not even the front porch light was burning. Shades were drawn over every window. Dawn was not far off now.

Bart deployed his team to surround the house, then approached the front door.  Just as he stepped onto the porch, he heard shouting from inside, followed closely by the sounds of a scuffle, and three gunshots in rapid succession.

Without a trace of hesitation, Bart kicked the door in. He charged into the house, gun drawn, followed closely by his partner.

Adrenaline quickened his reflexes and imprinted the scene permanently on his memory. The door opened directly into the great room of the house. In the very dim light over the stove in the adjacent kitchen, he could see that three men were in the room – one standing, one sitting, and one lying prone on the floor. The standing man had a gun, and he turned to point it at the officers entering the house. Time slowed, as it seems to do in times of intense concentration, like gunfights and automobile accidents. Even as he shouted, “Police! Get your hands up! Drop your weapon!” he noticed the hood over the head of the seated man (Nick!), and that his hands were behind him in the chair, probably tied, and that there was a large pool of blood already forming, and spreading, under the prone man, who had a gun still clutched in one hand.

Shots were fired, but not by him. His partner’s gun went off close by his head, and he winced as temporary deafness claimed his ear on that side. He saw the impact of the bullets on the standing man’s chest (Good shootin’, partner!) and watched as he spun, slinging the gun away from him in a long arc, ending up on the floor on his face. A quick step to the prone man’s side, and his gun was kicked away from him. The sitting man was very still. Bart offered a silent prayer that he was alright.

Sounds from the rear of the house confirmed that the door there had been forced as well, and officers were moving methodically through the small house, clearing rooms as they converged on the great room at the front.

Tracy suddenly appeared beside the hooded man. She eased the hood off his head as officers checked the status of the other two men. Nick looked up at them, eyes shining, almost glowing. Duct tape covered his mouth and bound his hands together and to the chair in which he sat. In just a few moments, he was freed, and he wasted no time heading for the front door.

The dawn stopped him cold. The desperate look on her partner’s face as he turned back toward the interior of the house went straight to Tracy’s heart , and she stepped up to hustle him into one of the darkened bedrooms in the rear of the house. She did not blame him for being traumatized by his ordeal. The helplessness he must have felt, combined with a shootout happening around him, then seeing his captors both dead and bloody on the floor, was bad enough. But then to be trapped in the crime scene by his allergies? No, she would not allow it.

Reminding Bart of Nick’s medical needs, she took charge of one of the ambulance teams which were just standing around, the gunshot victims having been pronounced dead at the scene, and directed them to cover the interior of the ambulance windows. A creative combination of cardboard, reflective blankets, and medical tape resulted in a sun-proof transport.  Still, Nick insisted that the bodies in the great room be encased in body bags before he would consent to leave.  They thought he was traumatized; he was ensuring that Vince did not implode in the sunlight. The crew then wrapped Nick from head to toe in more reflective blankets and thick comforters from one of the bedrooms and strapped him to a gurney for transfer to the ambulance.

With a promise from Tracy and Nick to show up at Bart’s office that evening for debriefing and statements, the Canadian duo were whisked back to their luxurious Luxor suite. After reassurances from Nick that all he really needed was to clean up and rest, Tracy dragged herself into her own room. The adrenaline surges of the eventful night had left her physically and emotionally exhausted, and she was asleep almost immediately.

Upon Tracy’s departure for her own room, Nick had gone straight to his little refrigerator and quickly consumed the contents of two of the bottles within. The smell of blood at Dave’s house had been almost more than he could tolerate after the night he had experienced, and the bovine variety went a long way toward quelling his hunger.

In the privacy of his room, he began to relax. He was not sure whether it was eight hundred years of living as a vampire, constantly adapting and trying to blend into different levels of society or the acting skills he had learned in the theater in a past life, but it had taken quite a bit of effort and control to play the roles he had played in the past few days. There were some issues to work through, to be sure. Things had not gone like he had planned or envisioned.

To begin with, he had hoped for a bit of vacation in Las Vegas to help him get a firmer handle on his grief over the loss of Schanke and Cohen.  A conference had seemed just the thing at the time.  It had not worked out that way, of course.  Still, going undercover with Tracy had improved their partnership.  She had shown unequivocally that she was both capable and loyal, and that her flighty, perky personality could be used as an asset.

The tougher question to reconcile, of course, was whether the Community’s needs were really more important than Dave’s life.  According to Vince, Dave had done most of the dirty work in their partnership, including killing the two errant mortals.  Why a vampire would pass up that opportunity, Nick did not understand.  Most of the vampires he knew would have jumped at it.

He thought, sadly, that Dave’s death had probably been inevitable.  Still, it had not been what he intended.  He had very successfully “whammied” Dave into believing that the most important thing in his life was to go to the police station and confess his involvement in the Life Insurance fraud scheme and the resultant murders he had committed.  He had worked for quite a while with Dave to get him to forget anything that might point to the Community.

Vince changed the plan, though.  They had set up a “kidnapping” scenario, but as soon as Nick was restrained, Vince attacked Dave.  Shots were exchanged, and Nick’s heightened vampire senses heard the last of Dave’s heartbeats just as the front door was beaten down.  Dave would have no shot at redemption now.  What surprised Nick was his lack of remorse over Dave’s death.  Truth be told, he was a bit relieved.  The situation would be simpler to resolve now.  Just the loose ends to tie up before he and Tracy headed back to Toronto.  He stood and stretched.  Playing the role of the traumatized victim was exhausting.  It was good to know that he could rely on Tracy in an emergency, though.

Tired as he was, however, he still had calls to make. The first was to arrange for the release and retrieval of Vince’s “body” from the Clark County Medical Examiner’s office by one of Vince’s vampire colleagues. Vince would be “moving on.” Just how permanent a move that would prove to be remained to be seen, and he was content that it was not his decision to make.

The next call was to Don Constantine’s office in Toronto. He was surprised to learn that the Don was in Las Vegas, having arrived during the night. Vince had been ordered to pick him up at the airport. Interesting, Nick thought. He then phoned the Don at the number he was given, apologized for the lateness of the hour, and filled him in briefly on the events of the night. They arranged to meet close to dawn the next night to conclude their discussion.

Last, he called Captain Reese. The sound of relief in the big man’s voice on the other end of the line was palpable, and Nick basked for a moment in the warmth of their still-developing friendship before signing off. A shower and a quick check of the outer door to ensure that the Do Not Disturb sign was properly displayed, and Nick slipped between cool, clean sheets and was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

*****   *****   *****

“You sure you’re all right, Knight?” Bart placed a concerned hand on his shoulder as he departed the interrogation room.  “You still look a bit pale.” He was fighting his own pangs of guilt for “railroading” the two foreign detectives into his undercover scheme.  It had been a success of sorts, of course.  Nick had given them plenty of information.  It was enough to be able to close this and several other cases.  However, it had been a close thing.  A few minutes later, and Nick would most likely be dead.  It was a sobering thought.

Tracy stood from behind Bart’s desk as they approached.  After finishing her own debriefing, she had waited for Nick instead of heading back to the Luxor.  “Are we done here, partner?” she asked.  “I’m starving, and I could really use a Buckstars coffee.”

Nick smiled.  This new partnership might just work out after all.  “C’mon, Button,” he teased.  “Let’s go get you caffeinated.”

They departed with the thanks of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.  It was a relief to get in the rental car, crank up the AC, and take a leisurely trip (via a local Buckstars establishment) down the strip and back to the Luxor.  Their departure was scheduled for the next night.  It had been a quick week.

Once they returned to their suite, Tracy decided to make the most of her remaining time in Las Vegas.  Nick declined to join her.  He told her he needed some solitude after the excitement of the last few days, and she acquiesced.

“That’s okay,” Tracy replied with a self-conscious smile. “Bart’s partner, Dylan, offered to show me around, give me the ‘insider’s tour’ of Vegas. I think I’ll take him up on it.” She headed for her room to get ready. A few moments later she emerged in a sleek, dressy pantsuit. She looked stunning, ready for about anything that Vegas could offer.

Nick gave her a smile. “Have fun,” he told her.

“I will,” she responded. “Don’t wait up, partner!” And off she went.

*****   *****   *****

Of course the Don would have a private suite and set of gaming rooms at the Sands. It was one of the oldest casinos in Las Vegas.  Nick took a cab, enjoying the brief ride and the voyeuristic pleasure of people watching as they travelled slowly through the late-night traffic.

He was expected.  A mortal steward led him immediately to Don Constantine’s suite.  From there, he was ushered into a well-appointed office. All conversation ceased as he stepped across the threshold into the room.  Directly in front of him, Don Constantine sat behind a beautiful antique mahogany desk.  He recognized Vince, who rose from his chair in front of the desk to greet him, but was recalled before taking more than two steps.  There were other vampires present in the room, but Nick paid them no attention.

He approached within two steps of the ornate desk and stopped.  He had chosen his clothing carefully for this meeting, unconsciously copying his master’s style.  He was formally dressed in a fitted black linen suit.  His burgundy silk shirt with mandarin collar was buttoned to the top.  The shoes were hand made for him in Italy, and the soft leather shone richly in the subdued lighting of the office.  He had the bearing of a prince, and he moved like a finely trained athlete, a warrior.  Even while standing at his ease, he looked poised to launch an attack.

Constantine regarded him silently for a moment before standing and coming around the desk to greet him.  His dress was more suitable for business – dark suit, white shirt, dark tie, though he suspected they might have the same shoemaker, who was also a favorite of LaCroix’s.  “This is a suite I keep for my associates,” he told Nick.  “I use it when I am in Las Vegas.  You are welcome here … brother.” He extended his hand and, after a short pause, Nick shook it.

Nick was ushered to a chair beside Vince in front of the desk. As he sat, one of the vampire attendants retrieved a fresh green bottle and placed it on the desk in front of him, along with a clean glass.  Nick was both pleased and surprised to discover that the bottle contained his personal preference – steer blood. The message was clear, and Nick began to relax a little. He was a guest at the moment, though that could change, he knew, based on his upcoming interview with the Don.

Don Constantine had returned to his chair and was waiting for Nick’s attention. He was recalling with fondness Nick’s role in the protection of his grandson and the leverage that that had provided him when demanding the “favor” of immortality from their mutual sire. The situation they found themselves in now, though, was an unqualified mess. Although he might not realize it, Nicholas was lucky to be considered family. If he were not, the Don mused, he would have had him killed for all the trouble he was causing. He recalled, however, the instruction from LaCroix to “find out what Nicholas is doing in Las Vegas. Is he preparing to move on, or is this just another of his unwise involvements with mortals? Don’t interfere.  Just report back to me.”

“I believe you know Vince.” The Don gestured to his subject as he spoke. “Vince is mine. He’s been with me for a number of years. Last year he was shot in an unfortunate incident. I brought him across. He’s turned out to be a remarkably good businessman.”

“I believe you may have been a bit lax with him in your instruction about the Code.” Nick heard the oh-so-familiar understated criticism in the voice behind him.

That voice! LaCroix! He’s here!

Nick uncoiled from his chair and rose to face his master.

“Nicholas,” LaCroix said by way of greeting, his eyes smoldering with pride.  He had watched his protégé’s entrance from a corner of the room, unnoticed.  He was magnificent.  This was his Nicholas, a predator captured for eternity in his prime.

“What are you doing here, LaCroix?” Nick responded.

“I had some … business to attend to.” LaCroix nodded toward Don Constantine. “Thomas,” he said, “clear the room. This is a family matter.” He looked significantly at Vince. “He stays.”

At the Don’s nod, the others departed. LaCroix took the Don’s seat, and Vince dragged a third chair in front of the desk. As the remaining three vampires took their seats, LaCroix turned at once to Vince. “I have already heard your version of events.  Now I will hear from Nicholas.”

“How are you involved in this, LaCroix?”

“I am here at Thomas’ request,” he responded, calmly. “As I understand it, this is a family matter. I am here to settle a dispute among my children.”

Nick stilled. In the course of his law enforcement duties, he had interfered with Constantine’s business. The loss of that business would impact the larger Community, until an alternative or replacement could be established. He could be held accountable for the loss. It could result in a simple monetary remuneration, but it might equally result in some sort of punishment from LaCroix, whose reputation for swift, creative, and often brutal punishments was well deserved.

On the other hand, he had successfully diverted mortal attention away from the special services to the Community that Vince’s office provided. He had upheld the Code.

There was only one way to truly and quickly resolve this issue, one way or another. He stood confidently and removed his jacket, draping it over the chair behind him. As he stepped away from his chair, he unbuttoned his cuffs and, with sharp, precise movements, folded his sleeves over several times, revealing his wrists and forearms. Catching LaCroix’s eyes, he stared challengingly into them as he slowly and deliberately opened the buttons at his collar, exposing his neck. He fairly glided around the desk to stand before LaCroix. Offering his wrists, raising his chin to give access to his throat, he said, simply, “Drink. I submit to your judgment.”

Could he ever be closer to returning to me than at this moment? LaCroix thought. Rising to his feet, he clasped Nick to him, turning him in his arms until the younger vampire was settled with his back pressed firmly against his master’s chest. LaCroix’s left arm wrapped around him, holding him in a feeding position while his right reached across and pulled his head gently toward his right shoulder, fully exposing his neck. He gasped slightly as LaCroix ran his lips down the side of his throat over the vein before sliding his fangs cleanly into it.

Involuntarily, he moaned with pleasure as he felt his lifeblood being drawn out of him. It had been so long ….

All too soon, he felt LaCroix withdraw. Soothing caresses over the bite marks cleansed the wounds and started the healing process. Strong yet gentle arms held him steady as he came back to himself. LaCroix walked him back around the desk, and Constantine poured a glass for him as LaCroix settled him into his chair. They watched while he drank. Vince, looking uncomfortable, stared sightlessly at his hands in his lap.

LaCroix unselfconsciously licked his lips as he returned to his seat. He sat back for several moments, savoring the intimate experience of drinking from his favorite. Remarkable! he thought. He intentionally chose to protect the Community, when he easily could have exposed us all. He ran quickly through the other information and emotion in the blood before opening his eyes. He turned again to Vince.

“What I want to know is how you could possibly have misunderstood the instructions you were given. The service you provide is for the Community only.” He leaned forward, elbows on the desk, fingers tented, seemingly at ease, but Nick knew from brutal experience that Vince was one wrong step away from destruction.

“But, LaCroix,” Vince began, speaking in a “we’re all reasonable men” tone of voice, “we’ve been in this business for a long time. We make people disappear. That’s why you wanted us to expand into the Las Vegas market.”

That got Nick’s attention. LaCroix had a hand in this. He should have known.

Seeing that LaCroix’s expression did not change, Vince continued, “There’s a certain risk factor in any proceeding like this. Things go wrong. Even Community members are recognized from time to time. We had a couple of cases that went wrong, and we had to deal with them. They were mortals, yes, that’s true, but they were dealt with. One of our mortal associates was responsible for exposing the operation.  He has been dealt with, as well.”

“Vincent,” Don Constantine asked formally, “are you willing to submit yourself for judgment?  We have a limited amount of time to deal with this dispute.” Before Vince could respond, the Don turned to LaCroix.  “If he consents, I also give my consent.”

Vince rose from his seat.  “You people are crazy.  Do you really think I would let him drink from me like that?  You don’t believe me?  Well, then you can go to hell.  I made you both a lot of money, and now you get all high and mighty on me because I managed to get a little for myself on the side.  Who do you think you are, anyway?”

Throughout Vince’s rant, LaCroix’s expression never changed.  His eyes never strayed from Vince.  Nick sat up straight, hoping to get the young vampire’s attention, to warn him against his folly.  Don Constantine turned away from Vince, looking briefly at LaCroix.  He stood and slowly approached Vince, placing a calming hand on his shoulder.

“I am your master.” The stake flashed almost more quickly than Nick’s eye could follow, and Vince collapsed.  He was so young that his death was nearly instantaneous.

As Don Constantine lowered Vince’s body to the floor, LaCroix rose and stood by his side.  Nick found himself on his feet with no memory of how he had gotten there.

“This is an unfortunate business, Thomas.” LaCroix spoke quietly and earnestly.  “I am sorry for your loss.  He showed promise.  Unfortunately, he lacked discipline.  I’m afraid he would have become a greater liability had he been allowed to live.  You did the only thing you could do.  You protected the family.”

Don Constantine nodded.  Despite their age difference, the two men understood each other very well.  The Don managed a small smile.  “I think we’ve resolved our dispute.  Thank you for coming, sir.”

“Would you like us to stay?” LaCroix asked.

“No, it’s not necessary.  I have a number of things I must attend to.”

Nick stepped forward, unsure whether his condolences would be welcomed or rejected.  “I wish things could have turned out differently,” he offered.

“No, this was inevitable.  If he hadn’t been shot, I never would have chosen him for this life.  I won’t make that mistake again.  You might not believe me now, Nicholas, but I do appreciate your role in all of this.  I had ignored the warning signs, and so now I am paying the price.  Hopefully, we’ll do it better next time.  Meanwhile, please know that you are always welcome here.” He extended his hand to Nick, who shook it gratefully.

“Until our next meeting … brother.”

*****   *****   *****

“Nicholas, a word, if I may?”

“Yes, LaCroix?”

“Your Life Insurance policy.  Why did you take it out for Nicholas De Brabant?  You haven’t used that name for centuries.”

“It’s difficult to explain, and I’m not sure you’d like the answer.”

“Indulge me.”

“If I ever achieve my goal of becoming mortal again, I will have a Life Insurance policy that pays out on my final death.  I don’t understand it myself, but when I finally die, I want to die with my own name, the name I was born with.  There’s a kind of symmetry there that appeals to me.”

“Yes, well, you realize that if you were to die without becoming mortal again, so long as you keep an insurance policy under your given name, the same symmetry applies?”

“Yes, I know.  Still, it appeals to me, and does no harm to anyone.”

“It’s your move, Nicholas.”

“I have a question of my own.”

“Very well.  What you want to know?”

“Why did you really go to Las Vegas?”

“Don’t you know?”

“Can’t you tell me?”

“It’s your move, Nicholas.”

“There.  I moved.  Now it’s your turn.  Will you tell me now?”

“Check.”

“Damn.  You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

“It’s complicated.  If you’d like to know more, there is one sure way to find out.”

“LaCroix?”

“Yes, Nicholas?”

“Checkmate. Thank you, LaCroix.  Both for the game, and for your help in Las Vegas.”

“You are welcome, Nicholas.  As always.  Do you have time for another game?”

“No, I have an errand to run.  I have the night off on Thursday, though.  How about then? Would you like to come here again?”

“I look forward to it.”

*****   *****   *****

The last person that Natalie expected to see when she went to work that night was Tracy, but there she was, fiddling with an extra Buckstars coffee, nursing her own, sitting at Natalie’s desk.  She jumped up as soon as Natalie entered the room, barely grabbing the coffee in time to prevent it from spilling onto the computer keyboard.

“Tracy, are you okay?” Not, “Tracy, are you still mortal?” Not, “Tracy, why are you here?” And especially not, “Tracy, why’d Nick marry you and not me?”

“Hi, Natalie!  I hope you don’t mind my coming by.  I brought you a coffee.  I wasn’t sure what you’d like, but then I remembered how much you like chocolate, so I got you a mocha.  I hope you like it.  I think it’s still hot enough.”

“Tracy,” Natalie interrupted, “look at me.  Breathe.”

“I’m OK, really.  It’s just that I wasn’t expecting everyone to know about Nick and me having to get married in Las Vegas.  I’m really embarrassed, because everyone thinks it was real, when it was just a sham.  We had to do it for our undercover assignment.  We didn’t even get married using his real name.  It wasn’t even a real wedding.  Do things like this have an expiration date?  How long are they going to go on and on about this?”

“I think I have an idea that might solve your problem, Tracy.” Nick’s soft voice startled both of the women as he entered Natalie’s lab.  “That is, if Natalie agrees.”

Natalie had turned at the first sound of Nick’s voice.  Her heart jumped at the sight of him.  Her anger melted at the sight of the bouquet of flowers he held in his arms.  When he held the bouquet out to her, she knew she would agree to any plan he proposed.

*****   *****   *****

One advantage to being gone for a whole week was that the renovations in the precinct had been completed during their absence.  The paint fumes had finally dissipated, and it was no longer painful for Nick to breathe.

He went to his desk, smugly acknowledging the catcalls and congratulations tossed his way by the rest of the bullpen.  Tracy was already at her desk, hard at work organizing her desk supplies.  He smiled at her and whispered, “Showtime.”

He stood to face Natalie as he watched her cross the bullpen toward his desk.  When she arrived, he swept her into his arms, spun her in a dance move, then brought her into his embrace, kissing her soundly.  Whistles and catcalls erupted with riotous sound.  As the noise died down, Tracy climbed wearily to her feet and stated loudly, “it’s a good thing I didn’t marry you for real, Knight.  If I had, I’d be filing for divorce!”  Taking her coffee cup in her hand, she headed for the break room, laughter following in her wake.

“I think that should take the pressure off Tracy for a while, don’t you?” Nick whispered in Natalie’s ear.

“I think Tracy’s going to be just fine,” Natalie agreed with a smile.

*****   *****   *****

Larry Merlin sat at the bar in the Raven, contemplating the drink in his hand.  He looked up with concern as Lucien LaCroix approached and sat beside him.

“What can I do for you, LaCroix?”

“I understand Nicholas has changed the beneficiary for his Life Insurance policy yet again.  Who is it, this time?”

Mortal rules of privacy and confidentiality simply didn’t apply when it came to LaCroix.  Merlin did not even consider contacting Nick to ask his permission to disclose these things.  LaCroix was Nick’s master, and even if he wasn’t, he was old and scary as hell, and Merlin was not about to cross him.

“He made it out to the DeBrabant foundation.”

“Really?  Interesting.”

“He said it had something to do with his policy of insurance.  He didn’t explain it.  Do you know what it means?”

“Indeed.  It means he still intends to search for a ‘cure’ for our condition, but it also means he won’t be abandoning his family while he searches. Thank you, Merlin.”

His Nicholas was closer to returning to him than at any time in the last century.  LaCroix retreated to the business office to plan their next encounter.