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Mortal Mistakes

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We often hear of the difficulties of nurturing our children. So-called experts regale us endlessly with theories about how fragile they are, how easily broken by the most banal of influences. And we are forced to conclude that for a child to thrive, a father must protect him from failure.

#~#

The lights that had been brought in to illuminate the crime scene created a bubble of brightness which Nick's mortal eyes had difficulty piercing. He stood at the edge, peering out into the darkness, lost in thought. So much had changed in the last 800 years, both in the world in general and in his life in particular. Adjusting to the fluctuating rules of what he could do—and what he couldn't—was a constant struggle. At last, though, he thought he'd finally found what he wanted: Natalie, mortality, a life. Now that he was no longer a vampire, he could finally embrace his calling as a cop and put all his efforts into righting the balance of his sins.

“Hey, Knight!” Schanke called. “What do you make of this?”

Nick jolted from his contemplation and glanced around, pretending that he'd been assessing the scene. There wasn't much to find. The park was dark, save for the police lights and a pale street lamps that lit the jogging path near where the victim had been found. There were no cameras, no witnesses, no disturbance.

“What did you find?” Nick asked. He made his way over to where his partner knelt and squatted down.

The victim was a man in his late 20s or early 30s, dressed in tight jeans and a flowing shirt. He was sprawled on his back, one arm flung over his head. From the reek of alcohol, Nick guessed that he was on his way home from one of the clubs that surrounded the park when he was attacked.

Careful not to touch the body, Schanke pointed to the man's neck. Twin wounds punctured the skin, the smear of red around them dark against his bloodless pallor. “Looks like our guy had a run-in with something nasty.”

The surge of want that Nick would've once felt at the sight was gone, though the memory of it was not. He brought a hand to his mouth reflexively and rocked back. “I don't know,” he demurred through his fingers. “Are you sure that's relevant? It looks like...” He stopped then, at a loss for an excuse for those bites, but an excuse is what he needed. Schanke didn't know about vampires. Couldn't know about vampires. Not ever. Now that Nick was no longer part of that world, he was determined to keep Schanke from stumbling any closer to it.

Schanke shot him a look. “It looks like what? You ask me, those holes look like he had one of those bar things through his skin, like some kind of latter-day punk rocker. What'd'ya think? This look like some kind of piercing that got yanked out?”

“Sure,” Nick answered, latching on to the reason he'd been handed. “Why not? People are getting piercings everywhere these days: eyebrows, lips, noses, and...” He cleared his throat in lieu of the next item on the list.

“So you think our guy here got his neck pierced instead of his....” He mimicked Nick's throat clearing, then raised an incredulous eyebrow. “I don't get it. Why people would want to do that to themselves?...And let me tell you, if Jenny ever comes home with one of those bars through her face, or neck, I'll kill her myself--

“Schanke," Nick interrupted, "I'm sure it's not important. Our guy probably died from alcohol poisoning. Maybe he fell and hit his head. Natalie will be able to tell us. It's no use speculating."

“Yeah, you're right. " Schanke agreed. He didn't sound convinced. With a slow shake of his head, he stood up and began surveying the surrounding area for any further clues about what had happened. Nick hesitated, reluctant to leave the corpse. It was already too late to hide it, and he couldn't do anything to obscure the wounds. It wouldn't be long until someone came and bagged the body for transport. He only hoped that no one would give it any serious scrutiny until it got to Natalie's table. She might even be willing to go along with the body modification explanation.

The fang marks weren't the end of the problems, either. The clothes the man was wearing left no room for a wallet and a quick search didn't reveal any ID. Possibly this meant that the guy was a regular at whichever club he'd been visiting. It could also mean that someone had taken it. Either way, it meant that they'd have to identify him before they could do much else.

He also realized that the man had been dumped in this spot. The grass was well-trimmed and slightly damp after an afternoon rain shower, and not a single footprint led to or from the victim. His gaze tracked upward as he sought again to see past the lights, as if the vampire who'd fed off this man might still be hovering in the sky.

Just then, Nick's stomach let out a loud gurgle. He slapped a hand over his abdomen to try to dampen the noise, and his stomach responded with a louder rumble like a storm building.

“Did you forget to eat dinner tonight?” Schanke teased, amusement coloring his voice as he threw an arm around Nick's shoulder.

That was a good question. It didn't seem like he could have. Since becoming mortal, Nick felt like he spent a great deal of time eating. Thinking back through the last day, he realized with some abashment that he had forgotten. Relearning signals that he'd shucked centuries before was a slow process, and he hadn't yet rebuilt habits that might have covered the gaps. “Yeah,” he admitted.

“You're not on one of those crazy diets again, are you?”

“No,” Nick answered, with no small amount of relief. He no longer had to force himself to swallow any of Natalie's energy drinks or liquid concoctions. Now the mere thought of drinking blood disgusted him.

“No? Good. How about we get this scene wrapped up and you let your partner treat you to a midnight snack on the way back to the station?”

As long as he'd spent deferring Schanke's invitations, Nick couldn't believe that they kept getting offered. Finally being able to accept brought a wide grin to his face. He only had one concern: “Souvlaki?” His face wrinkled at the thought of the pungent food that his partner so loved. He liked food, but he hadn't yet built up the nerve to dive into modern Toronto street cuisine.

“Not tonight, my friend. This is a banner day, a day to mark on the calendar. How many years have we been partners and we've never had a meal together? Tonight--” He tightened his hold on Nick-- “You get to pick.”

Stunned, Nick grappled for an answer. He'd paid so little attention to the choices, and now found that he couldn't recall even one restaurant between the park and the precinct. “Pizza,” he decided, hoping it was a safe choice. “I'm in the mood for pizza.” A food he'd never had, but Natalie had assured him was delicious.

“Pizza? Mr. Never-touch-garlic wants pizza? OK.” Schanke rubbed his chin, contemplating his options. “There's this new place that I've been wanting to try. Should still be open. You want me to drive?”

Nick patted Schanke's arm as he pulled away. Their established patterns could only handle so much upset in one night. “Not tonight, Schanke,” Nick responded.

“Aw, come on, Knight,” Schanke protested.

#~#

“What do we have?” Cohen asked when they returned to the station. She pulled them right into her office and shut the door, as if she anticipated the worst news of all. Arms crossed, she took up a post next to her desk.

Nick shrugged out of his jacket, mindful of the light sprinkling of rain that misted the leather. He could still taste the pizza, and the chili peppers that Schanke had insisted needed to be liberally sprinkled on the slices had his whole body overheating.

Finally getting to remove his jacket was such a relief that he almost missed Schanke's dismissive wave as he brushed off the real question. “Nothing to see there, Chief. Just a vagrant who died from exposure.”

The answer was wrong.

He knew it was wrong.

A wave of disorientation swept over him and Nick started to protest, even as the right answer slunk out of sight in the mire of his thoughts.

Cohen pursed her lips, then looked to him. “Is that your read, too, Knight?”

Nick gave a quick shake of his head, trying to loosen the truth. He felt so confused. A glance out the window showed the hint of pink in the sky that presaged the dawn and the end of his shift. He must be tired; that had to be it. Thin trails of water ran down the glass, reminding him of his wet jacket and the crime scene at which he'd spent far too long. “We'll have to wait for Natalie's exam to be sure, but I'd agree with Schanke on this one.”

Cohen visibly relaxed, the hard line of her mouth softening. “Thank god. I don't know what made all the serial killers pack up and leave the city, but I'm not complaining. Let's pray that our streak of good fortune continues. Good work tonight, boys.”

“We'll get started IDing him when the clubs open,” Schanke added. “Shouldn't take too long. You should see the piercings he had. Someone's gotta know who he is.”

Nick frowned; he didn't remember any piercings. Was being mortal causing him to lose his touch? He'd have to ask Natalie about that. For now, he kept his concern to himself and listened while Cohen outlined the last couple hours of their shift.

She dismissed them. As Nick turned to leave, he felt a sweeping sense of deja vu. Only a quick grasp at the doorjamb kept him from tripping over his own feet. This conversation was one they'd had before, and it was still all wrong.

#~#

How easy it is coddle, to fend off the dangers that our superior experience makes seem so trivial. How willing we are to humor even their most outlandish desires. Yet how easily we forget that growth does not come without denial, without pain.

#~#

Nick had a bounce to his step as he walked into the morgue the next evening. The antidote that had finally cured him had taken effect at exactly the right time of year. Where he'd once dreaded summers because of the long days and shortened nights that forced him to skulk through sewers and dark alleys when he had to move around, now he grasped at every well-lit minute. Granted, he'd had to circle the local streets for more than half an hour to find a parking spot—a problem he never had at midnight—but the sun streaming through the windshield and warming his body had made it all worthwhile.

By contrast, the halls of the coroners' building were cool, the lighting stark and unfriendly. A reek of stringent chemicals filled the air. Not even that could dampen Nick's mood.

He found Natalie hunched over her desk, filling out paperwork. As stealthily as he could, he sneaked across the open room and greeted her with a kiss on the back of her head. Her curly hair was pulled back in a loose pony tail, the ends of which tickled his face.

With a shriek and jump she spun around, her pen clattering to the desk. “Nick! What are you doing here?”

Nick stepped back, baffled at the reception. “You told me to come by as soon as I could.”

“Well, yes, but....” Natalie peered closer at him, her pointed finger arrested in mid-air. “You have a tan.”

An accomplished grin tugged at Nick's face. “Do you know what I did today, Nat?”

“Do tell.”

“I spent the afternoon outside.” His thoughts drifted to what he'd seen: the way the light sparkled off the glass windows of the high rises, the brilliant blue of the summer sky, the sight of birds nesting in awnings and perched along the street lamps. Awed, he continued, “I've been taking walks every day. The city looks so different in the light.”

“That's what kept you away? Nick, I've been trying to get a hold of you for days. I need to know if you're making any progress with the vampires.”

With one question, Nick felt himself thrust back into the darkness he'd fought so hard to leave. Since getting cured, he'd had nothing to do with the vampire community. He'd distanced himself from them before, but it had taken mortality to sever those last few ties, and now she was talking like he was still immersed in that world. “What vampires?” he asked.

“The ones—God, I hope it's only one—who're killing people and leaving their corpses everywhere?”

Nick gave a slow shake of his head while he tried to make sense of her words.

She must not have understood his confusion because she tapped a stack of folders on the edge of her desk and kept explaining. “The bodies are starting to pile up down here and I don't know how much longer I can keep the cause of death under wraps.”

He tried to offer a consoling touch on her arm, but felt only resistance beneath her lab coat. “Nat, what are you talking about?”

She stared at him for a moment, her blue eyes hard as she assessed his question. Nick shifted under the scrutiny; she'd never studied him like this before, not even when she was at the peak of her efforts to find a scientific explanation for his vampirism. “You really don't remember.” She passed a hand over her eyes, the first visible hint of the strain she was under. She stood up, groaning a little at her knees protesting being unbent. With a crook of her head, she motioned him toward the cold compartments and pulled out one of the drawers. "Do you remember him?"

Nick recognized the occupant immediately, despite his undress: the victim from the previous night. He was laying on the metal tray with a sheet pulled up to his neck. His eyes were closed, his skin pallid and waxy in death, and there was no sign of even a single piercing—save for the dual wounds on his neck. “Natalie?” he asked, pleading for an explanation that defied the obvious. This man had clearly been killed by a vampire, yet he hadn't seen the tell-tale signs until now. Or had he?

“It started again a few weeks ago,” she explained. “One body every few days—no pattern yet—left somewhere out in the open. After the first one, you said you were going to look into it.”

He had no memory of saying that, either. “Did I?” His question dropped like ice.

“I don't know. You said the same thing after the second and third ones, too. Then you just stopped responding to my calls. I thought you just needed more time. I understand how hard it must be to go back to...them. After the last one, though, I started to wonder.” She blew a breath out of her nose.

“Nat, we haven't talked since we went out for dinner last weekend.” They'd celebrated his second month anniversary as a human with an expensive steak dinner. Nick had introduced her to some of his favorite wines while Natalie rhapsodized about the other options on the menu and promised him that they were going to try everything. They'd laughed more in that one evening than in all the time they'd known each other. He saw none of that laughter in her eyes now.

“I've called you every day,” she argued. “I kept getting the machine. I guess...I guess a part of me hoped that you were out trying to stop this monster.”

Nick looked again at the latest corpse, the latest person he failed to protect from a threat that he knew was very real. “Where are the others?” He had to see them, had to try to remind himself of who they were and what he owed them.

With a sweep of her gaze, Natalie indicated the rest of the cold drawers. “They're all in there. We'll start moving them to long term storage when this fills up.” Growing more somber, she mused, “I always feel sorry for the ones we can't identify.” Checking that Nick was done, she pushed the drawer back in and shut the door, then moved to the next one.

As she reintroduced him to the next corpse whose death-scene he'd been to, Nick felt the first stirrings of familiarity, like hearing a tune for a song from his childhood that he'd not given any thought to for centuries. He knew this! He couldn't swear that he wouldn't forget again as soon as another song came on, but he knew that if he kept working at it, humming the bits he was sure about, he'd get to the whole piece in time.

“Nat,” he began, then stopped. He was going to tell her about his memories resurfacing, he really was, but not until he had some more concrete information for her, too.

“Do you think you could talk to LaCroix about this?” Natalie continued, closing the third drawer. “Maybe he could intervene?”

That was not a question he'd expected to hear. “Are you sure you want me to do that? What about needing to live completely in the mortal world?”

She shut the door on the last of the bodies and slouched against the metal like she was losing the ability to hold up under the weight of what was happening. “Until we can get them to stop killing people, we can't have everything we want.”

Nick nodded, understanding. This wasn't a concession to his nature; this was an appeal to it. She needed him to go back because he was the only one who had any chance of solving this crime streak. “Then I should get over to the club before...”

“...Before you forget?”

She might have meant to be harsh, but she sounded only resigned. Neither of them had named what was happening, yet they both knew. The only explanation was the one neither had planned for during all their efforts at curing him.

#~#

“You need to call off the Enforcers,” Nick stated. He'd found LaCroix exactly where he expected, sitting at the bar in the club that used to be the Raven.

Janette had left shortly after Nick was cured. Citing 'irreconcilable differences,' she sold the club and vanished from town in less than one evening. He hadn't been inside since she'd left, though he often found himself slowing as he drove past, found himself wondering if the new name and new décor still housed the same secrets. Now he saw that the exterior changes had been only that. More so, he had missed the place. Stepping into the empty room where chairs sat upside down on the tables pressed along the walls and the only dancers were the dust motes that spun through the air brought a peace to Nick that he hadn't known was missing.

“I would say you're looking well, Nicholas...” LaCroix held the ellipsis for a moment, then took a sip from the goblet in front of him and let the pleasantry remain unfinished. He'd been waiting, dressed in black slacks and a black silk shirt that created the illusion of him forming out the shadows.

Even without their former connection, Nick felt the disappointment curling off his former sire. As much as he'd resisted LaCroix's influence—especially over the last century—his disappointment was still the one thing Nick had little tolerance for. And it was worse now. Nick had finally achieved his dream, and it turned out that he was pretty good at being human. His relationships with Schanke and Natalie had never been stronger, and he was still a pretty great detective. LaCroix should be happy for him! But he wasn't, as LaCroix persisted in reminding him.

Ignoring the slight, Nick threw the picture of the latest murder victim down on the bar in front of LaCroix. The single piece of paper fluttered across the wood, sans the drama that the whole stack of pictures might have elicited. “Call them off. They are interfering with a formal police investigation.”

Interfering. The word hardly began to describe what they were doing. The Enforcers had made him forget, had rewritten essential information about what Nick was dealing with. Not just him, either. They'd affected Schanke and Cohen, too. He was sure of that. How many others? The entire precinct? Everyone in forensics and the ME's office? The random people on the street who might have witnessed anything?

LaCroix set the glass down with a clink, cast a scornful and dismissive glance at the picture, then cocked an eyebrow at Nick. “Even if I could 'call them off', Nicholas, what makes you think I would? The Enforcers are doing what they've always done: keeping the human world and the vampire world separate. And might I remind you which world you've chosen to inhabit?”

“So you're just going to let them keep hypnotizing me? How far is it going to go, LaCroix? Are you going to let them take all my memories of being a vampire too?” Not until he heard the words did he realize how possible, and how abhorrent, that idea was. No matter how much evil he had done, how many people he had killed, that was still his history and without it he could never pursue his redemption.

“You should be grateful that they haven't killed you. Imagine the irony of losing your mortality so quickly after regaining it.”

Nick heard the threat. He couldn't help hearing the threat, or the truth. As long as he'd craved mortality, he'd never thought of how easily it could be taken from him.

“They wouldn't do that!” Nick argued, his certainty ringing through. “I'm no danger to vampires.” He had work to do, centuries to atone for. He needed time.

“No, that's true,” LaCroix conceded. “Humans who can be influenced are generally allowed to live.”

This second truth staggered him, not the least because LaCroix knew. If he was building a resistance against hypnotism—if he was becoming a resistor like Natalie was—he'd lose whatever safety the Enforcers deigned to grant him. Worse, he knew that after they killed him, they'd go after Natalie next, since she'd have no one in, or who had ever been in, the vampire community willing to protect her.

“This is your doing,” Nick challenged. “You set all this up.” He tapped the picture of the dead man for emphasis.

LaCroix blinked slowly, the way he did when he was losing patience with Nick. "As always, you give me too much credit. I have never been able to talk you into, or out of, anything you didn't desire.”

“Then you know who did kill him, who's killing everyone.”

LaCroix tipped his chin toward the bottles of liquor stacked behind the bar as if seeking fortitude in their existence, if not their substance. “I believe you are the Detective here. Isn't it your job to solve these kinds of crimes?”

“What do you think I'm trying to do?”

“By trying to turn me into your informant? Nicholas, if you are no longer fit to fulfill your responsibilities, that is a problem you need to address with your superior. I am sure a fitting way to address your predicament can be found.” With the drawing of another sip from his glass, and the raising of an eyebrow that dared Nick to find a hole in his reasoning, LaCroix ended his part of the conversation. Nick knew the expression well.

Taking the cue, Nick gathered the photograph and turned to the door. He knew what LaCroix was getting at, and loathe as he was to admit it, he thought LaCroix might be right. For the first time, he saw that his quest may have led him the wrong direction. Sunset was coming soon, and that would bring either another murder or another memory wipe. If he couldn't stop it, one of these nights, the victim was going to be someone he cared about. He had to do whatever it took to stop it.

#~#

Eventually we have to understand that a father's greatest duty, Dear Listeners, is not to save his child from failure. It is to be there when he falls to help him back up.