“Mrs. Simmons? It’s Vicki Nelson calling; the private investigator from Toronto?” She paused and considered how best to present the information. Oh, what the hell… “We’ve found your husband.”
“Is he… alive?”
“Yes, ma’am, very much so. He’s working as an insurance adjuster under the name Tom O’Conner.”
“Don always works in insurance.”
“Yes, ma’am, that’s how we found him. I’ve just sent you a package, by courier, containing a copy of everything we’ve discovered including a number of recent photographs, you should receive it before noon tomorrow. The moment you call me with a positive ID, I’ll take the information to the police and they can pick him up.”
“The police thought they found him once before, in Vancouver, but when they went to pick him up he was gone.”
“Well, he’ll be there this time.” Vicki leaned back in her chair, shoved her free hand up under the bottom edge of her glasses and scrubbed at her eyes. In eight years with the Metropolitan Toronto Police and nearly two years out on her own, she’d seen some real SOBs; Simmons/O’Conner ranked right up there with the best of them. Anyone who faked his own death in order to ditch a wife and five kids deserved exactly what he got. “My partner’s going to talk to him tonight. I think your husband will decide to stay right where he is.”
The bar was noisy and smoky, with tables too small to be useful and chairs too stylized to be comfortable. The beer was overpriced, the liquor over-iced, and the menu a tarted-up mix of at least three kinds of quasi-ethnic cooking plus the usual grease and carbohydrates. The staff were all young, attractive, and interchangeable. The clientele were a little older, not quite so attractive although they tried desperately hard to camouflage it, and just as faceless. It was, for the moment, the premier poser bar in the city and all the wannabes in Toronto shoehorned themselves through its doors on Friday night.
Henry Fitzroy paused just past the threshold and scanned the crowd through narrowed eyes. The smell of so many bodies crammed together, the sound of so many heartbeats pounding in time to the music blasting out of half a dozen suspended speakers, the feel of so many lives in so little space pulled the Hunger up and threatened to turn it loose. Fastidiousness more than willpower held it in check. In over four and a half centuries, Henry had never seen so many people working so hard and so futilely at having a good time.
It was the kind of place he wouldn’t be caught dead in under normal circumstances, but tonight he was hunting and this was where his quarry had gone to ground. The crowd parted as he moved away from the door, and eddies of whispered speculation followed in his wake.
“Who does he think he is… “
“… I’m telling you, he’s somebody… “
Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII, one time Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Lord President of the Council of the North, noted, with an inward sigh, that some things never changed. He sat down at the bar, the young man who had been on the stool having vacated it as Henry approached, and waved the bartender away.
To his right, an attractive young woman raised one ebony brow in obvious invitation. Although his gaze dropped to the pulse that beat in the ivory column of her throat and almost involuntarily traced the vein until it disappeared beneath the soft drape of magenta silk clinging to shoulders and breasts, he regretfully, silently, declined. She acknowledged both his glance and his refusal, then turned to more receptive game. Henry hid a smile. He wasn’t the only hunter abroad tonight.
To his left, a wide back in a charcoal gray suit made up most of the view. The hair above the suit had been artfully styled to hide the thinning patches just as the suit itself had been cut to cover the areas that a fortieth birthday had thickened. Henry reached out and tapped lightly on one wool-clad shoulder.
The wearer of the suit turned, saw no one he knew, and began to scowl. Then he fell into the depths of a pair of hazel eyes, much darker than hazel eyes should have been, much deeper than mortal eyes could be.
“We need to have a talk, Mr. O’Conner.”
It would have taken a much stronger man to look away.
“In fact, I think you’d better come with me.” A thin sheen of sweat greased the other man’s forehead. “This is just a little too public for what I plan to… ” Slightly elongated canines became visible for an instant between parted lips. “… discuss.”
Henry stood at the window, one hand flat against the cool glass. Although he seemed to be looking down at the lights of the city, he was actually watching the reflection of the woman seated on the couch behind him. “And what?”
“Henry, stop being an undead pain in the ass. Did you convince Mr. O’Conner/Simmons to stay put until the police arrive?”
He loved to watch her; loved to watch emotions play across her face, loved to watch her move, loved to watch her in repose. Loved her. But as that was a topic not to be discussed, all he said was, “Yes.”
“Good. I hope you scared the living shit out of him while you were at it.”
“Vicki.” He turned, arms crossed on his chest, and frowned in what was only partially mock disapproval. “I am not your personal bogeyman, to be pulled out of the closet every time you think someone needs to have the fear of God… “
Vicki snorted. “Think highly of yourself, don’t you?”
“… put into them,” he continued, ignoring the interruption.
“Have I ever treated you like my ‘personal bogeyman’?” She raised a hand to cut off his immediate reply. “Be honest. You have certain skills, just like I have certain skills, and when I think it’s necessary, I use them. Besides,” she pushed her glasses back into place on the bridge of her nose, “you said you wanted to be more involved in my business. Help out with more cases now that you’ve handed in Purple Passion’s Pinnacle and aren’t due to start another romantic masterpiece until next month.”
“Love Labors On.” Henry saw no reason to be ashamed of writing historical romances; it paid well and he was good at it. He doubted, however, that Vicki had ever read one. She wasn’t the type to enjoy, or even desire, escape through fiction. “Tonight, it wasn’t what I had in mind when I said I wanted to be more involved.”
“Henry, it’s been over a year.” She sounded amused. “You should know by now that most private investigating consists of days and days of boring, tedious research. Thrilling and exciting life-threatening situations are few and far between.”
Henry raised one red-gold brow.
Vicki looked a little sheepish. “Look, it’s not my fault people keep trying to kill me. And you. And anyway, you know those were the exceptions that prove the rule.” She straightened, tucking one sneakered foot up under her butt. “Tonight, I needed to convince a sleazebag, who deserved to be terrified after what he put his wife and kids through, to stay put until the police arrive. Tonight, I needed you. Henry Fitzroy, vampire. No one else could’ve done it.”
Upon reflection, he was willing to grant her that no one else could have done the job as well although a couple of burly mortals and fifty feet of rope would have had the same general effect. “You really didn’t like him, did you?”
“No. I didn’t.” Her lip curled. “It’s one thing to walk out of your responsibilities, but it takes a special kind of asshole to do it in such a way that everyone thinks he’s dead. They mourned him, Henry. Cried for him. And the son of a bitch was off building a new life, fancy-free, while they were bringing flowers, every Saturday, to an empty grave. If he hadn’t gotten into the background of that national news report, they’d still be crying for him. He owes them. In my book, he owes them big.”
“Well, then, you’ll be happy to know that I did, as you so inelegantly put it, scare the living shit out of him.”
“Good.” She loosened her grip on the throw pillow. “Did you… uh… feed?”
“Would it matter if I had?” Would she admit it if it mattered. “Blood’s blood, Vicki. And his fear was enough to raise the Hunger.”
“I know. And I know you feed from others. It’s just…” She dragged one hand through her hair, standing it up in dark blonde spikes. “It’s just that… “
“No. I didn’t feed from him.” Her involuntary smile was all he could have asked, so he crossed the room to see it better.
“You’re probably hungry, then.”
“Yes.” He took her hand and gently caressed the inner skin of her wrist with his thumb. Her pulse leapt under his touch.
She tried to stand, but he pushed her back, bent his head, and ran his tongue down the faint blue line of a vein. “Henry, if we don’t go soon, I won’t be able to… ” Her voice faded out as her brain became preoccupied with other things. With a mighty effort, she forced her throat to open and her mouth to work. “We’ll end up staying on the… couch.”
He lifted his mouth long enough to murmur, “So?” and that was the last coherent word either of them spoke for some time.
“Four o’clock in the morning,” Vicki muttered, digging for the keys to her apartment. “Another two hours and I’ll have seen the clock around. Again. Why do I keep doing this to myself?” Her wrist throbbed, as if in answer, and she sighed. “Never mind. Stupid question.”
Muscles tensed across her back as the door unexpectedly swung fully open. The security chain hung loose, unlocked, arcing back and forth, scraping softly, metal against wood. Holding her breath, she filtered out the ambient noises of the apartment, the sound of the refrigerator motor, a dripping tap, the distant hum of the hydro substation across the street, and noted a faint mechanical whir. It sounded like…
She almost had it when a sudden noise drove off all hope of identification. The horrible crunching, grinding, smashing, continued for about ten seconds, then muted.
“I’II grind his bones to make my bread… ” It was the closest she could come to figuring out what could possibly be happening. And all things considered, I’m not denying the possibility of a literal translation. After demons, werewolves, mummies, not to mention the omnipresent vampire in her life, a Jack-eating giant in her living room was less than impossible no matter how unlikely.
She shrugged the huge, black leather purse off her shoulder and caught it just before it hit the floor. With the strap wrapped twice around her wrist it made a weapon even a giant would flinch at. Good thing I hung onto that brick…
The sensible thing to do would involve closing the door, trotting to the phone booth on the corner, and calling the cops.
I am way too tired for this shit. Vicki stepped silently into the apartment. Four in the morning courage. Gotta love it.
Sliding each foot a centimeter above the floor and placing it back down with exaggerated care, she made her way along the short length of hall and around the corner into the living room, senses straining. Over the last few months she’d started to believe that, while the retinitis pigmentosa had robbed her of any semblance of night sight, sound and smell were beginning to compensate. The proof would be in the pudding; although she knew the streetlight outside the bay window provided a certain amount of illumination in spite of the blinds and the apartment never actually got completely dark, as far as her vision was concerned, she might as well be wearing a padded blindfold.
Well, not quite a blindfold. Even she couldn’t miss the blob of light that had to be the television flickering silently against the far wall. She stopped, weapon ready, cocked her head, and got a whiff of a well known after-shave mixed with… cheese?
The sudden release of tension almost knocked her over.
“What the hell are you doing here at this hour, Celluci?”
“What does it look like?” the familiar voice asked mockingly in turn. “I’m watching an incredibly stupid movie with the sound off and eating very stale taco chips. How long have you had these things sitting around, anyway?”
Vicki groped for the wall, then walked her fingers along it to the switch for the overhead light. Blinking away tears as her sensitive eyes reacted to the glare, she gently lowered her purse to the floor. Mr. Chin, downstairs in the first floor apartment, wouldn’t appreciate being woken up by twenty pounds of assorted bric-a-brac slamming into his ceiling.
Detective-Sergeant Michael Celluci squinted up at her from the couch and set the half-empty bag of taco chips to one side. “Rough night?” he growled.
Yawning, she shrugged out of her jacket, tossing it over the back of the recliner. “Not really. Why?”
“Those bags under your eyes look more like a set of matched luggage.” He swung his legs to the floor and stretched. “Thirty-two just doesn’t bounce back the way thirty-one used to. You need more sleep.”
“Which I had every intention of getting,” she crossed the room and jabbed a finger at the television control panel, “until I came home to find you in my living room. And you haven’t answered my question.”
“What question?” He smiled charmingly, but eight years on the force with him, the last four intimately involved… Now that’s a tidy label for a complicated situation, she mused …had made her pretty much immune to classical good looks used to effect.
“I’m too tired for this shit, Celluci. Cut to the chase.”
“All right, I came by to see what you remembered about Howard Balland.”
She shrugged. “Small-time hood, always looking for the big score but would probably miss said big score if it bit him on the butt. I thought he left town.”
Celluci spread his hands. “He’s back, in a manner of speaking. A couple of kids found his body earlier tonight behind a bookstore down on Queen Street West.”
“And you’ve come to me to see if I remember anything that’ll help you nail his killer?”
“You’ve got it.”
“Mike, I was in fraud for only three short months before I transferred to homicide and that was a good chunk of time ago.”
“So you don’t remember anything?”
“I didn’t say that… “
“Ah.” The single syllable held a disproportionate weight of sarcasm. “You’re tired and you’d rather screw around with your little undead friend than help get the bastard who slit the throat of a harmless old con man. I understand.”
Vicki blinked. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been off playing Vlad the Impaler with Henry Fucking Fitzroy!”
Her brows drew down into a deep vee, the expression making it necessary for her to jab her glasses back up onto the bridge of her nose. “I don’t believe this. You’re jealous!”
They were chest to chest and would’ve been nose to nose accept for the difference in their heights. Although Vicki was tall at five ten, Celluci was taller still at six four.
Over the years Vicki had learned enough Italian to get the gist of what followed. The fight had barely begun to heat up when a soft voice slid through a pause in the screaming.
Expressions ludicrously frozen in mid-snarl, they turned to face the wizened concern of Mr. Chin. He clutched a burgundy brocade bathrobe closed with one frail hand and had the other raised as though to snare their attention. When he saw he had it, he smiled into the silence.
“Thank you,” he told them. “Now, shall we see if we can maintain this situation?” At their puzzled frowns, he sighed. “Let me make it a little simpler for you. It’s 4:22 a.m. Shut up.” He waited for a moment, nodded, and left the apartment, gently pulling the door closed behind him.
Vicki felt her ears grow hot. She jerked around as a cross between a sneeze and a small explosion sounded from Celluci’s direction. “What are you laughing at?”
He shook his head, arms waving as he searched for the words.
“Never mind.” She reached up and pushed the curl of dark brown hair back off his face, her own mouth twisting up in a rueful grin. “I guess it was pretty funny at that. Although I’m going to spend the rest of the day with this vaguely unfinished feeling.”
Celluci nodded, the thick curl dropping back down into his eyes. “Like not remembering if you’ve eaten the last bite of doughnut.”
“Or drunk the last swallow of coffee.”
They shared a smile and Vicki collapsed into the black leather recliner that dominated the small living room. “Okay, what do you need to know about the late Mr. Balland?”
Vicki moved away from the warm cliff of Celluci’s back and wondered why she couldn’t sleep. Maybe she should have told him to go home, but it’d seemed a little pointless making him drive all the way out to his house in Downsview when he was expected back downtown at headquarters in barely six hours. Or less. Maybe. She couldn’t see the clock unless she sat up, turned on the light, and found her glasses, but it had to be nearly dawn.
In the center of the city, eighteen short blocks away from her apartment in Chinatown, Henry Fitzroy lay in his sealed room and waited for the day; waited for the rising sun to switch off his life; trusted that the setting sun would switch it on again.
Vicki had spent the day with Henry once, held captive by the threat of sunlight outside the bedroom door.
The absence of life had been so complete it had been a little like spending the day with a corpse. Only worse. Because he wasn’t. It wasn’t an experience she wanted to repeat.
She’d run from him that night, the moment the darkness had granted her safe passage. To this day she wasn’t sure if she’d run from his nature or from the trust that had allowed him to be so helpless before her.
She hadn’t stayed away for long.
In spite of late nights, or occasionally no nights at all, Henry Fitzroy had become a necessary part of her life. Although the physical attraction still tied her stomach in knots and caught the breath in her throat even after a year of exposure, what bothered her, almost frightened her, was how much he had invaded the rest of her life.
Henry Fitzroy, vampire, bastard son of Henry VIII, was Mystery. If she spent a lifetime trying, she could never know all he was. And, God help her, she couldn’t resist a mystery.
Now Celluci, she rolled onto her side and layered herself around the curve of his body, Celluci was the yin to her yang. She frowned. Or possibly the other way around. He was a shared joke, shared interests, a shared past. He fit into her life like a puzzle piece, interlocking and completing the picture. And now she thought of it, that frightened her, too.
She was complete without him.
Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord. When did my life start resembling country and western music?
Celluci stirred under the force of her sigh and half roused. “Almost forgot,” he murmured. “Your mother called.”
The late morning sun had nearly cleared Vicki’s bay window when she sat down at the kitchen table and reached for the phone. Returning her mother’s call while Celluci was dressing would make it easier to deal with the questions she knew she was going to have to answer. Questions that would no doubt start with, Why was Michael Celluci in your apartment when you weren’t? and escalate from there to the perpetual favorite, When will you be coming to visit?
She sighed, fortified herself with a mouthful of coffee, and wrapped her fingers around the receiver. Before she could lift it out of the cradle, the phone rang. She managed, just barely, to keep the coffee from going out her nose but it took a half a dozen rings to get the choking under control. “Nelson Investigations.”
“Ms. Nelson? It’s Mrs. Simmons. I was beginning to think you weren’t there.”
“Sorry.” She hooked a dish towel off the refrigerator door and swiped at the mess. “What can I do for you?”
“The photographs came. Of my husband.”
Vicki checked her watch. Nearly noon in Toronto meant nearly eleven in Winnipeg. Hot damn. Truth in advertising; I’ve found a courier who can tell time.
“It is my husband, Ms. Nelson. It’s him.” She sounded close to tears.
“Then I’ll take the information to the police this afternoon. They’ll pick him up and then they’ll get in contact with you.”
“But it’s the weekend.” Her protest was more a whimper than a wail.
“The police work weekends, Mrs. Simmons. Don’t worry.” Vicki turned up the reassurance in her voice. “And even if they can’t actually bring him in until Monday, well, I personally guarantee he’s not going anywhere.”
“I need to ask him why, Ms. Nelson; why he did such a horrible thing to us?”
The pain in the other woman’s voice tightened Vicki’s fingers on the receiver until her knuckles went white. She only just managed to mask her anger with sympathy during the final few moments of the call.
“God-damned, fucking, son of a BITCH!”
Her notepad hit the far wall of the apartment with enough force to shatter the spine and send loose paper fluttering to the floor like a flock of wounded birds.
“Anyone I know?” Celluci asked. As he’d come into the living room barely a meter from the impact point, he supposed he should be thankful she hadn’t thrown the coffee mug.
“No.” She surged up out of her chair, slamming it back so hard it fell and bounced twice.
“Something to do with your found missing person?” It wasn’t that difficult a guess; he knew the bare bones of the case and he’d heard her use the name Simmons during the phone conversation. Also, he knew Vicki and, while she was anything but uncomplicated, her reactions tended to be direct and to the point.
“Lousy bastard!” Her glasses slid to the end of her nose and she jabbed them back up the slope. “Doesn’t give a shit about what he put his family through. You should have heard her, Mike. He’s destroyed everything she ever believed in. At least when she thought he was dead, she had memories, but now he’s fucked those, too. He’s hurt her so badly she hasn’t even hit anger yet.”
“So you’re getting angry for her.”
He shrugged. “Why not, indeed.” Intimately familiar with Vicki’s temper he thought he saw something more than just rage at a woman wronged. Lord knew she’d seen enough of that during her years on the force and had never, all right, seldom, reacted with such intensity. “Your mother, did she ever get angry when your father left?”
Vicki came to a dead stop and stared at him. “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
“Your father walked out on your mother. And you.”
“My father, at least, had the minimal decency not to hide what he was doing.”
“And your mother had to support the two of you. Probably never had time to get angry.”
Her eyes narrowed as she glared across the apartment at him. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
He recognized the danger signs but couldn’t let the opportunity pass. Things had been working toward this for a long time and with her anger for Mrs. Simmons leaving her so emotionally open he knew he might never get a better chance. What the hell, if it comes to it, I’m armed. “I’m talking, whether you like it or not, about you and me.”
“You’re talking bullshit.”
“I’m talking about how you’re so afraid of commitment that you’ll barely admit we’re anything more than friends. I understand where it’s coming from. I understand that because of the way your father left and because of what happened afterward with your mother that you think you need to put tight little parameters on a relationship… “
She snorted. “Did the force just send you to another sensitivity seminar?”
He tightened his grip on his own temper and ignored her. “… but all that happened over twenty years ago and, Vicki, it has to stop.”
Her lip curled. “Or else?”
“Or else nothing, God damn it. I’m not making threats here.”
“This is about Henry, isn’t it? You are jealous.”
No point in forcing her to face the truth if he didn’t. “You’re god-damned right I’m jealous of Henry! I don’t want to share that much of you with anyone else. Especially not with someone who… who… ” Mike Celluci didn’t have the words to explain how he felt about Henry Fitzroy and even if he had, it was none of Vicki’s business. The edge of his hand chopped off the thought. “We’re not talking about Henry, we’re talking about us.”
“There’s nothing wrong with us.” She looked everywhere but at the man standing across the room. “Why can’t we just go on the way we have been?”
“Because we’re not going anywhere!”
She jerked at each staccato word.
“Vicki, I’m tired of being nothing more than your buddy. You’ve got to realize that I… “
“Shut up!” Her hands had curled into fists.
“Oh, no.” He shook his head. “You’re going to hear it this time.”
“This is my apartment. I don’t have to hear anything.”
“Oh, yes you do.” He crossed to stand directly in front of her, balancing on the balls of his feet, his hands a careful distance away. As much as he wanted to grab her and shake her, he didn’t want to deal with the return violence he knew would follow. A quick game of Who’s more macho? would add nothing to the situation. “This isn’t going to be the last time I say this, Vicki, so you’d better get used to it. I love you. I want a future with you. Why is it so hard for you to accept that?”
“Why can’t you just accept me, us, the way I am. We are.” The words were forced out through clenched teeth.
He shoved the lock of hair back off his forehead and unsuccessfully tried to calm his breathing. “I’ve spent five fucking years accepting you and us. It’s time you met me halfway.”
“Get out of my apartment! NOW!”
Trembling with the need to hold himself in check, he pushed past her and grabbed his coat off the hook by the door. Jabbing his arms into the sleeves, he turned. His own anger made it impossible for him to read her expression. “Just one more thing, Vicki. I am not your fucking father.”
The door closed behind him with enough force to shake the building.
A heartbeat later it opened again.
“And don’t forget to call your mother!”
The coffee mug exploded into a thousand pieces against the wood.
“And did you?”
“Did I what?” Vicki snapped. Giving Henry the gist of the fight had put her in nearly as bad a mood as the fight had. It didn’t help that she knew she should’ve kept her mouth shut but when Henry had asked what was bothering her, she couldn’t seem to stop a repeat of the whole infuriating conversation from pouring out.
“Did you call your mother?”
“No. I didn’t.” She turned to face the window, jabbed at her glasses, and glared out at the darkness. “I wasn’t exactly in the mood to talk to my mother. I went down to Missing Persons and nailed Mr. Simmons/O’Conner to the wall instead.”
“Did that make you feel better?”
“No. Although it might have if they’d let me use real nails.”
A facetious comment spoken with complete and utter sincerity. Even from across the room Henry could feel pulsing waves of anger radiating off of her. He wished now that he hadn’t asked, that he’d ignored her mood and never been subjected to Detective-Sergeant Michael Celluci’s all-too-accurate analysis of Vicki’s inability to commit. But now that he’d heard it, he couldn’t let it rest. Vicki would continue to think about what Celluci had said, had obviously been thinking of little else since Celluci had slammed out of her apartment, and, now that her nose had been rubbed in it, would in time see it for the truth. At which point she would have to choose.
He wouldn’t lose her. If that meant taking the day as well as the night, his love gave him a right equal to Celluci’s to assert a claim.
You raised the stakes, mortal, he told the other man silently. Remember that.
He stood and crossed the carpet to stand at her side, glorying for a moment in her heartbeat, savoring her heat, her scent, her life.
“He was right,” he said at last.
“About what?” The words were forced out through clenched teeth. No need to ask which he was meant.
“We can’t, any of us, go on the way we have.”
“Why not?” The final consonant carried the weight of a potential explosion.
“Because, like Mike Celluci, I want to be the most important person in your life.”
She snorted. “And what about what I want?”
He could see the muscles working beneath the velvet surface of her skin, tensing around her eyes and the corners of her mouth and so he chose his next words with care. “I think that’s what we’re trying to discover.”
“And what if I decide I want him?”
Her tone held a bitter, mocking edge. Henry couldn’t help but respond.
“Could you give me up?”
The power in his voice pulled her around to face him. He heard her swallow hard as she met his gaze, heard her heartbeat quicken, saw her pupils dilate, tasted the change in her scent on the air. Then he released her.
Vicki jerked back, furious at Henry, furious at herself. “Don’t ever do that again!” she panted, fighting to get enough air into her lungs. “I give nobody power over my life. Not you. Not him. Nobody!” Barely in control of her movements, she whirled and stomped across the living room. “I am out of here.” She snatched her coat and bag up off the end of the couch, “And you can just play Prince of fucking Darkness with somebody else.”
He hadn’t moved from the window. He knew he could call her back, so he had no need to make the attempt. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going for a long walk in the sleaziest neighborhood I can find in the hope that some dickweed will try something stupid and I can break his fucking arms! Don’t follow me!”
Even a security door can be slammed if enough force is applied.
“Vicki? It’s your mother. Didn’t Mike Celluci give you my message? Well, never mind, dear, I’m sure he has a lot on his mind. While I’m thinking of it though, I did wonder why he was in your apartment while you were out. Have you two been getting more serious? Call me when you get a chance. There’s something I have to tell you.”
Vicki sighed and rubbed at her temples as the answering machine rewound. It was ten after twelve and she was just not up to a heart-to-heart with her mother, not after the day she’d had. “Have you two been getting more serious?” Jesus H. Christ.
The powers-that-be had really decided to mess up her life.
“Whatever happened to men who just want to get laid on a regular basis?” she muttered, flicking off the light and making her way to the bedroom.
The pitcher of draft she’d downed in the gay bar on Church Street, the one place in the city safe from testosterone cases, churned uneasily in her stomach. All she wanted to do was go to sleep. Alone.
She’d call her mother in the morning.
The night had been filled with dreams, or more specifically, dream, the same images occurring over and over. People kept coming into her apartment and she couldn’t get them to leave. The new staircase to the third floor bisected her kitchen and a steady stream of real estate agents moved up it, dragging potential tenants. The back of her closet opened into Maple Leaf Gardens and the post-hockey crowds decided to leave through her bedroom. First she tried the voice of reason. Then she yelled. Then she physically picked up the intruders and threw them out the door. But the door never stayed closed and they wouldn’t, any of them, leave her alone.
She woke up late with a splitting headache and an aching jaw, her mood not significantly better than when she’d gone to sleep. An antacid and an aspirin might have helped, but as she’d run out of both she settled for a mug of coffee so strong her tongue curled in protest.
“And why did I know it would be raining,” she growled, squinting out through the blinds at a gray and uninviting world. The sky looked low enough to touch.
The phone rang.
Vicki turned and scowled across the room at it. She didn’t have to answer to know it was her mother. She could feel mother vibes from where she stood.
“Not this morning, Mom. I’m just not up to it.”
Her head continued ringing long after the bell fell silent.
An hour later, it rang again.
An hour of conscious thought had done nothing to improve Vicki’s mood.
“I said no, Mom!” She slammed her fist down on the kitchen table. The phone rocked but continued to ring. “I don’t want to hear about your problems right now and I sure as shit don’t want to tell you about mine!” Her voice rose. “My personal life has suddenly collapsed. I don’t know what’s going on. Everything is falling apart. I can stand on my own. I can work as part of a team. I’ve proved that, haven’t I? Why isn’t that enough!”
It became a contest in volume and duration and Vicki had no intention of letting the phone win.
“Odds are good Celluci’s about to propose and this vampire I’m sleeping with… Oh, didn’t I tell you about Henry, Mom? …well he wants me as his… his… I don’t know what Henry wants. Can you deal with that, Mom? ‘Cause I sure as shit can’t!”
She could feel herself trembling on the edge of hysteria, but she wouldn’t quit until the phone did.
“Celluci thinks I’m angry about the way dear old Dad walked out on you. Henry thinks he’s right. How about that, Mom? I’m being fucking double-teamed. You never warned me about something like this, did you, Mom? And we never, ever discuss Daddy!”
The last word echoed around a silent apartment and seemed to take a very long time to fade.
With a trembling finger, Vicki slid her glasses back up her nose. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow, Mom. I promise.”
An hour later, the phone rang again.
Vicki turned on the answering machine and went for a walk in the rain.
When she got back, late that evening, there were seven messages waiting. She wiped the tape without listening to any of them.
The phone rang.
Vicki paused, one foot into the shower, sighed, and got back into her robe. Welcome to Monday.
“Coming, Mom.” No point putting it off. She’d have to face the music sooner or later and it might as well be sooner.
Today things didn’t seem so bad. Yesterday was an embarrassing memory of self-indulgence. Tomorrow, well, she’d deal with tomorrow when it arrived.
She dropped into one of the kitchen chairs and scooped up the receiver. “Hi, Mom. Sorry about yesterday.”
“Is this Victoria Nelson?”
Her ears grew hot. It was an elderly woman’s voice, strained and tight and most definitely not her mother. Let’s make a great impression on a potential client there, Vicki. “Uh, yes.”
“This is Mrs. Shaw. Mrs. Elsa Shaw. I work with your mother. We met last September… ?”
“I remember.” Vicki winced. Mom must really be pissed if she’s getting coworkers to call. This is going to cost me at least a visit.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”
“Bad news?” Oh, God, don’t let her have caught the early train to Toronto. That’s all I need right now.
“Your mother hasn’t been feeling well lately, and, well, she came into work this morning, said how she’d been trying to get in touch with you, made the coffee like she always does, came out of Dr. Burke’s office and… and, well, died.”
The world stopped.
“What happened?” Vicki heard herself ask the question, marveled at how calm her voice sounded, wondered why she felt so numb.
“Dr. Burke, the head of the Life Sciences Department, well, you know who Dr. Burke is, of course, said it was her heart. A massive coronary, she said. One minute there, the next… ” Mrs. Shaw blew her nose. “It happened about twenty minutes ago. If there’s anything I can do… “
“No. Thank you. Thank you for calling.”
If Mrs. Shaw had further sympathy or information to offer, Vicki didn’t hear it. She set the receiver gently back in its cradle and stared down at the silent phone.
Her mother was dead.
“Dr. Burke? It’s about number seven… “
“And?” Receiver tucked under her chin, Dr. Aline Burke scrawled her signature across the bottom of a memo and tossed it into the out basket. Although Marjory Nelson had been dead for only a couple of hours, the paperwork had already begun to get out of hand. With any luck the university would get off its collective butt and get her a temporary secretary before academic trivia completely buried her.
“I think you’ll want to see this for yourself.”
“For heaven’s sake, Catherine, I haven’t got the time for you to be obscure.” She rolled her eyes. Grad students. “Are we losing it?”
“I’ll be right over.”
“Damn.” The surgical glove hit the wastebasket with enough force to rock the container from side to side. “Tissue decomposition again. Just like the others.” The second glove followed and Dr. Burke turned to glare at the body of an elderly man lying on the stainless steel table, thoracic cavity open, skull cap resting against one ear. “Didn’t even last as long as number six.”
“Well, he was old to start with, Doctor. And not in very good physical condition.”
Dr. Burke snorted. “I should say not. I suppose I’m moderately surprised it lasted as long as it did.” She sighed as the young woman standing by the head of the cadaver looked crushed. “That was not a criticism, Catherine. You did your usual excellent job and were certainly in no way responsible for the subject’s deplorable habits when alive. That said, retrieve the rest of the mechanicals, salvage as much of the net as you can, be very sure all of the bacteria are dead, and begin the usual disposal procedures.”
“The medical school… “
“Of course the medical school. We’re hardly going to weight it with rocks and drop it into Lake Ontario, although I have to admit that has a certain simplicity that appeals and would involve a lot less additional work for me. Let me know when it’s ready, I should be in my office for the next couple of hours.” Hand on the door, she paused. “What’s that banging noise?”
Catherine looked up, pale blue eyes wide, fingers continuing to delve into the old man’s skull cavity. “Oh, it’s number nine. I don’t think he likes the box.”
“It doesn’t like anything, Catherine. It’s dead.”
The younger woman shrugged apologetically, accepting the correction but unwilling to be convinced. “He keeps banging.”
“Well, when you finish with number seven, decrease the power again. The last thing we need is accelerated tissue damage due to unauthorized motion.”
“Yes, Doctor.” She gently slid the brain out onto a plastic tray. The bank of fluorescent lights directly over the table picked up glints of gold threaded throughout the grayish-green mass. “It’ll be nice to finally work with a subject we’ve been able to do preliminary setup on. I mean, the delay while we attempt to tailor the bacteria can’t be good for them.”
“Probably not,” Dr. Burke agreed caustically and, with a last disapproving look in the direction of number nine’s isolation box, strode out of the lab.
The pounding continued.
“Where to, lady?”
Vicki opened her mouth and then closed it again. She didn’t actually have the faintest idea.
“Uh, Queen’s University. Life Sciences.” Her mother would have been moved. Surely someone could tell her where.
“It’s a big campus, Queen’s is.” The cabbie pulled out of the train station parking lot and turned onto Taylor Kidd Boulevard. “You got a street address?”
She knew the address. Her mother had shown her proudly around the new building just after it opened two years ago. “It’s on Arch Street.”
“Down by the old General Hospital, eh? Well, we’ll find it.” He smiled genially at her in his rearview mirror. “Fifteen years of driving a cab and I haven’t gotten lost yet. Nice day today. Looks like spring finally arrived.”
Vicki squinted out the window beside her. The sun was shining. Had the sun been shining in Toronto? She couldn’t remember.
“Winter’s better for business, mind you. Who wants to walk when the slush is as high as your hubcaps, eh? Still, April’s not so bad as long as we get a lot of rain. Let it rain, that’s what I say. You going to be in Kingston long?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes.” My Mother. She’s dead.
Something in that single syllable convinced the cabbie his fare wasn’t in the mood for conversation and that further questions might be better left unasked. Humming tunelessly, he left her to relative silence.
An attempt had been made to blend the formed concrete of the new Life Sciences Complex in with the older, limestone structures of the university, but it hadn’t been entirely successful.
“Progress,” the cabbie ventured, as Vicki opened the back door, his tongue loosened by a sizable tip.
“Still, the kids need more than a couple of Bunsen burners and a rack of test tubes to do meaningful research these days, eh? Paper says some grad student took out a patent on a germ.”
Vicki, who’d handed him a twenty because it was the first bill she’d pulled out of her wallet, ignored him.
He shook his head as he watched her stride up the walk, back rigidly straight, overnight bag carried like a weapon, and decided against suggesting that she have a nice day.
“Mrs. Shaw? I’m Vicki Nelson… “
The tiny woman behind the desk leapt to her feet and held out both hands. “Oh, yes, of course you are. You poor dear, did you come all the way from Toronto?”
Vicki stepped back but couldn’t avoid having her right hand clutched and wrung. Before she could speak, Mrs. Shaw rushed on.
“Of course you did. I mean you were in Toronto when I called and now you’re here.” She laughed, a little embarrassed, and let go of Vicki’s hand. “I’m sorry. It’s just… well, your mother and I were friends, we’d worked together for almost five years and when she… I mean, when… It was just… such a terrible shock.”
Vicki stared down at the tears welling up in the older woman’s eyes and realized to her horror that she didn’t have the faintest idea of what to say. All the words of comfort she’d spoken over the years to help ease a thousand different types of grief, all the training, all the experience, she could find none of it.
“I’m sorry.” Mrs. Shaw dug into her sleeve and pulled out a damp and wrinkled tissue. “It’s just every time I think of it… I can’t help… “
“Which is why I keep telling you, you should go home.”
Thankfully, Vicki turned to face the speaker, the calm, measured tone having dropped like a balm over her abraded nerves. The woman standing just inside the door to the office was in her mid-forties, short, solidly built, and wearing an almost practical combination of gray flannel pants and white, lace-edged blouse under her open lab coat. Her red-brown hair had been cut fashionably close, and the heavy frames of her glasses sat squarely on a nose well dusted with freckles. Her self-confidence was a tangible presence, even from across the room, and in spite of everything, Vicki felt herself responding.
Mrs. Shaw sniffed and replaced the tissue in her sleeve. “And I keep telling you, Dr. Burke, I’m not going home to spend the day alone, not when I can stay here, be surrounded by people, and actually accomplish something. Vicki felt small fingers close around her arm. “Dr. Burke, this is Marjory’s daughter, Victoria.”
The department head’s grip was warm and dry and she shook hands with an efficiency of motion that Vicki appreciated.
“We met briefly a few years ago, Ms. Nelson, just after your first citation, I believe. I was sorry to hear about the retinitis. It must have been difficult leaving a job you cared so deeply about. And now… ” She spread her hands. “My condolences about your mother.”
“Thank you.” There didn’t seem to be much left to say.
“I had the body taken over to the morgue at the General. Your mother’s personal physician, Dr. Friedman, has an office there. As we didn’t know exactly when you’d be arriving or what the arrangements would be, that seemed best for all concerned. I did have Mrs. Shaw call to let you know, but you must have already left.”
The flow of information carried no emotional baggage at all. Vicki found herself drawing strength from the force of personality that supported it. “If I could use one of your phones to call Dr. Friedman?”
“Certainly.” Dr. Burke nodded toward the desk. “She’s already been informed and is waiting for your call. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” She paused at the door. “Oh, Ms. Nelson? Do let us know when the service is to be held. We’d… ” Her gesture included Mrs. Shaw. “… like to attend.”
“It is customary under these circumstances to hold a funeral.”
Vicki barely noticed the sarcasm, only really heard the last word. Funeral…
“Well, she doesn’t look asleep.” There was no mistaking the waxy, gray pallor, the complete lack of self that only death brings. Vicki had recognized it the first time she’d seen it in a police cadet forensic lab and she recognized it now. The dead were not alive. It sounded like a facetious explanation but, as she stared down at the body her mother had worn, she couldn’t think of a better one.
Dr. Friedman looked mildly disapproving as she drew the sheet back up over Marjory Nelson’s face, but she held her tongue. She could feel the restraints that Vicki had placed around herself but didn’t know the younger woman well enough to get past them. “There’ll be no need for an autopsy,” she said, indicating that the morgue attendant should take the body away. “Your mother has been having heart irregularities for some time and Dr. Burke was practically standing right beside her when it happened. She said it had all the earmarks of a massive coronary.”
“A heart attack?” Vicki watched as the door swung shut behind the pallet and refused to shiver in the cold draft that escaped from the morgue. “She was only fifty-six.”
The doctor shook her head sadly. “It happens.”
“She never told me.”
“Perhaps she didn’t want to worry you.”
Perhaps I wasn’t listening. The small viewing room had suddenly become confining. Vicki headed for the exit.
Dr. Friedman, caught unaware, hurried to catch up. “The coroner is satisfied, but if you’re not… “
“No autopsy.” She’d been to too many to put her mother, what was left of her mother, through that.
“Your mother had a prepaid funeral arranged with Hutchinson’s Funeral Parlour, up on Johnson Street, just by Portsmouth Avenue. It would be best if you speak to them as soon as possible. Do you have someone to go with you?”
Vicki’s brows drew down. “I don’t need anyone to go with me,” she snarled.
“According to your mother’s arrangement, Ms. Nelson, Vicki… Ms. Nelson” the funeral director blanched slightly as his client’s expression returned him to last names but managed to continue smoothly, “she wanted to be buried as soon as possible, with no viewing.”
“As she also wanted to be embalmed… perhaps the day after tomorrow? That would give you time for a notice in the local paper.”
“Is the day after tomorrow as soon as possible, then?”
The younger Mr. Hutchinson swallowed. He found it difficult to remain completely calm under such hard-edged examination. “Well, no, we could have everything ready by tomorrow afternoon… “
“Do so, then.”
It wasn’t a tone that could be argued with. It wasn’t even a tone that left much room for discussion. “Is two o’clock suitable?”
“About the casket… “
“Mr. Hutchinson, I understood that my mother prearranged everything.”
“Yes, she did… “
“Then,” Vicki stood, slung her bag over her shoulder, “we will do exactly as my mother wanted.”
“Ms. Nelson.” He stood as well, and pitched his voice as gently as he could. “Without a notice in the paper, you’ll have to call people.”
Her shoulders hunched slightly and the fingers that reached for the doorknob shook. “I know,” she said.
And was gone.
The younger Mr. Hutchinson sank back down into his chair and rubbed at his temples. “Recognizing there’s nothing you can do to help,” he told a potted palm with a sigh, “has got to be the hardest part of this business.”
The old neighborhood had gotten smaller. The vast expanse of backyard behind the corner house at Division and Quebec Streets that she’d grown up envying had somehow shrunk to postage stamp size. The convenience store at Division and Pine had become a flower shop and the market across from it, where at twelve she’d argued her way into her first part-time job, was gone. The drugstore still stood at York Street but, where it had once seemed a respectable distance away, Vicki now felt she could reach out and touch it. Down on Quebec Street, not even the stump remained of the huge maple that had shaded the Thompson house and not even the spring sunlight could erase the shabby, unlived in look of the whole area.
Standing in the front parking lot of the sixteen-unit apartment building they’d moved to when her father’s departure had lost them the house in Collins Bay, Vicki wondered when it had happened. She’d been back any number of times in the last fourteen years, had been back not so long before and had never noticed such drastic changes.
Maybe because the one thing I came back for never changed… .
She couldn’t put it off any longer.
The security door had been propped open. A security door protects nothing unless it’s closed and locked. If I told her once I told her… I told her… The reinforced glass trembled but held as she slammed it shut and stumbled down the half flight of stairs to her mother’s apartment.
“Vicki? Ha, I should’ve known it was you slamming doors.”
“The security door has to be kept closed, Mr. Delgado.” She couldn’t seem to get her key into the lock.
“Ha, you, always a cop. You don’t see me bringing my work home.” Mr. Delgado came a little farther into the hall and frowned. “You don’t look so good, Vicki. You okay? Your mother know you’re home?”
“My mother… ” Her throat closed. She swallowed and forced herself to breathe. So many different ways to say it. So many different gentle euphemisms, all meaning the same thing. “My mother… died this morning.”
Hearing her own voice say the words, finally made it real.
“Dr. Burke? It’s Donald.”
Dr. Burke pulled her glasses off and rubbed at one temple with the heel of her hand. “Donald, at the risk of sounding clich¨¦d, I thought I told you not to call me here.”
“Yeah, you did, but I just thought you should know that Mr. Hutchinson has gone to get the subject.”
“Which Mr. Hutchinson?”
“The younger one.”
“And he’ll be back?”
“In about an hour. There’s no one else here, so he’s going to start working on it immediately.”
Dr. Burke sighed. “When you say no one else, Donald, do you mean staff or clients?”
“Clients. All the staff are here; the old Mr. Hutchinson and Christy.”
“Very well. You know what to do.”
“I’ll see to it that the interruptions occur. All you have to worry about is playing your assigned role. This is vitally important to our research, Donald. It could bring final results and their accompanying rewards practically within our grasp.”
She could hear his grin over the phone as he broadly returned the clich¨¦ circumstances demanded. “I won’t let you down, Dr. Burke.”
“Of course you won’t.” She depressed the cutoff with her thumb and contacted the lab. “Catherine, I’ve just heard from Donald. You’ve got a little more than an hour.”
“Well, I’ve got number eight on dialysis right now, but he shouldn’t take much more than another forty minutes.”
“Then you’ll have plenty of time. Call me just before you arrive and I’ll have Mrs. Shaw begin making inquiries about flowers and the like. The state she’s in, she’ll probably be able to keep the lines tied up for most of the afternoon. Has number nine quieted?”
“Only after I cut the power again. He’s barely showing life signs.”
“Catherine, it is not alive.”
“Yes, Doctor.” The pause obviously contained a silent sigh. “It’s barely showing wave patterns.”
“Better. Did all that banging damage it?”
“I haven’t really had time to examine him, but I think you’d better come and take a look at the box.”
Dr. Burke felt her eyebrows rise. “The box?”
“I think he dented it.”
“Catherine, that’s im… ” She paused and thought about it for a moment, knowing Catherine would wait patiently. With natural inhibitors shut down and no ability to feel pain, enhanced strength might actually be possible. “You can run some tests after you get the new lot of bacteria working.”
My, my, my… Dr. Burke gave the receiver a satisfied pat as it settled into its cradle. It sounded like they could actually have made a breakthrough with number nine. Now, if we can only keep it from decomposing…
Breakfast dishes were still out on the drying rack and the chair with the quilted cushion sat out a little from the table. The makeup case lay open on the bathroom counter, the washcloth beside it slightly damp. The bed had been made neatly, but a pair of pantyhose with a wide run down one leg lay discarded in the center of the spread.
Vicki sat at the telephone table, her mother’s address book open on her lap, and called everyone she thought should know, her voice calm and professional as though she were speaking of someone else’s mother. Mrs. Singh? I’m Constable Nelson, from the Metro Police. It’s about your son… I’m afraid your husband… The driver had no chance to avoid your wife… Your daughter, Jennifer, has been… The funeral will be at two tomorrow.
When the funeral home called, Mr. Delgado took her mother’s favorite blue suit from the closet and delivered it. When he returned, he forced her to eat a sandwich and kept insisting she’d feel better if she cried. She ate the sandwich without tasting it.
Now, there was no one left to call and Mr. Delgado had been convinced to go home. Vicki sat, one foot dangling over the arm of the old upholstered rocking chair, one foot pushing back and forth against the floor.
Slowly, the room grew dark.
“I’m telling you, Henry, she looked wrecked. Like Night of the Living Dead.”
“And she didn’t hear you when you called to her?”
Tony shook his head, a long lock of pale brown hair falling into his eyes. “No, she just kept walking, and the guard wouldn’t let me go up the stairs after her. Said only ticket holders were allowed and wouldn’t believe me when I said I was her brother. The motherfucking bastard.” A year under Henry’s patronage hadn’t quite erased five years on the street. “But I copied down all the places the train was going.” He dug a crumpled and dirty piece of paper out of the front pocket of his skintight jeans and passed it over. “She was carrying a bag, so I guess when she gets there she’s gonna stay.”
The names of nine towns had been scrawled onto the blank spaces of a subway transfer. Henry frowned down at them. Why had Vicki left town without telling him? He thought they’d moved beyond that. Unless it had something to do with the fight they’d had on Saturday night. However great the temptation to prove his power, he knew he shouldn’t have coerced her as he had and he intended to apologize as soon as she cooled down enough to accept it. “Her mother lives in Kingston,” he said at last.
“You think you did something, don’t you?”
He looked up, startled. “What are you talking about?”
“I like to watch you.” Tony blushed slightly and dug his toe into the carpet. “I watch you all the time we’re together. You’ve got your Prince-of-Men face, and your Prince-of-Darkness face, and your sort of not-there writer face, but when you think about Victory… about Vicki… ” His blush deepened but he met Henry’s gaze fearlessly. “Well then it’s like you’re not wearing a face, you’re just you.”
“All the masks are gone.” Henry studied the younger man in turn. A number of the hard edges had softened over the last year since Vicki and a demon had brought them together. The bruised and skittish look had been replaced by the beginnings of a calm maturity. “Does that bother you?”
“About you and Victory? Nah. She means a lot to me, too. I mean, without her, I wouldn’t have… I mean, we wouldn’t… And besides…” he had to wet his lips before he could continue, “sometimes, like when you feed, you look at me like that.” Abruptly, he dropped his gaze. “You going after her?”
There really wasn’t any question. “I need to know what’s wrong.”
Tony snorted and tossed his hair back out of his eyes. “Of course you do.” His voice returned to his usual cocky tones. “So call her mom.”
“Call her mother?”
“Yeah, you know. Like on the telephone?”
Henry spread his hands, willing to allow Tony this moment. “I don’t have the number.”
“So? Get it out of her apartment.”
“I don’t have a key.”
Tony snorted again. “You don’t really need one. But,” he laced his fingers together and cracked the knuckles, “if you don’t want to slip past the lock, there’s always our old friend Detective-Sergeant Celluci. I bet he has the number.”
Henry’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll get it from Vicki’s apartment.”
“I’ve got Celluci’s number right here, I mean if you… “
“Tony.” He cupped one hand around Tony’s jaw and tightened the ringers slightly, the pulse pounding under his grip. “Don’t push it.”
From the street, he saw the light on, recognized the shape visible between the slats of the blinds, and very nearly decided not to go in. Tony had seen Vicki leave the city in the early morning. Overnight case or not, she could very easily have returned and, if so, she obviously wasn’t spending the evening alone. Standing motionless in the shadow of an ancient chestnut, he watched and listened until he was certain that the apartment held only a single life.
That changed things rather considerably.
There were a number of ways he could get what he wanted. He decided on the direct approach. Out of sheer bloody-mindedness, honesty forced him to admit.
“Good evening, Detective. Were you waiting for someone?”
Celluci spun around, dropped into a defensive crouch, and glared up at Henry. “Goddamnit!” he snarled. “Don’t do that!”
“Do what?” Henry asked dryly, voice and bearing proclaiming that he did not in any way perceive the other man as a threat. He moved away from the door and walked into Vicki’s living room.
As if he has every right to. Celluci found himself backing up. Son of a bitch! It took a conscious effort, but he dug in his heels and stopped the retreat. I don’t know what game you’re playing, spook, but you ‘re not going to win it so easily. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I might ask you the same thing.”
“I have a key.”
“I don’t need one.” Henry leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. “My guess is, you’ve come back to apologize for slamming out of here on Saturday.” He read a direct hit in the sudden quickening of Celluci’s heartbeat and the angry rush of blood to his face.
“She told you about that.” The words were an almost inarticulate growl.
“She tells me about everything.” No need to mention the argument that followed.
“You want me to just back off right now, don’t you?” Celluci managed to keep a fingernail grip on his temper. “Admit defeat.”
Henry straightened. “If I wanted you to back off, mortal, you would.”
So if I’m a good eight inches taller than he is, why the hell do I feel like he’s looking down at me? “Think pretty highly of yourself, don’t you. Look, Fitzroy, I don’t care what you are and I don’t care what you can do. You should’ve been dust four hundred years ago. I am not letting you have her.”
“I think that should be her choice, not yours.”
“Well, she’s not going to choose you!” Celluci slammed his fist down onto the table. A precariously balanced stack of books trembled at the impact and a small brown address book fell onto the answering machine.
The tape jerked into motion.
“Ms. Nelson? It’s Mrs. Shaw again. I’m so sorry to bother you, but your mother’s body has been moved over to the General Hospital. We thought you should know in case… well, in case… I expect you’re on your way. Oh, dear… It’s ten o’clock, April ninth, Monday morning. Please let us know if there’s anything we can do to help.”
Celluci stared down at the rewinding tape and then up at Henry. “Her mother’s body,” he repeated. Henry nodded.
“So now we know where she is.”
“If this call came in at ten, we can assume she got the original call about nine. She didn’t tell you… “
Celluci broke off and pushed the curl of hair back out of his eyes. “No, of course, she couldn’t, you’d be… asleep. She didn’t leave a message?”
“No. Tony saw her boarding the 10:40 train for Kingston so she must have left the apartment just before that call. She didn’t leave a message for you either?”
“No.” Celluci sighed and sat back on the edge of the table. “I’m getting just a little tired of this ‘I can handle everything myself’ attitude of hers.'”
Henry nodded again. I thought we’d gone beyond this, she and I. “You and me both.”
“Don’t get me wrong, her strength is one of the things I… “
The pause was barely perceptible. A mortal might have missed it. Henry didn’t. Well, he’s hardly going to tell me he loves her.
“… admire about her, but,” his expression seemed more weary than admiring, “there’s a difference between strength and… “
“Fear of intimacy,” Henry offered.
Celluci snorted. “Yeah.” He reached behind him for the address book. “Well, she’s just going to have to put up with a little fucking intimacy because I’m not going to let her stand alone in this.” The binding barely managed to survive the force of his search. “Here it is, under M for Mother. Christ, her filing system… ” Then, suddenly, he remembered who he was talking to. He wasn’t, however, prepared for how fast Henry could move, didn’t, in fact, see Henry move.
Henry looked down at the address and handed the book back to the detective. “I assume I’ll see you in Kingston,” he said and headed for the door.
“I thought you couldn’t leave your coffin?”
“You watch too many bad movies, Detective.”
Celluci bristled. “You’ve still got to be under cover by dawn. I can see to it that you aren’t. One phone call to the OPP and you’ll be in a holding cell at sunrise.”
“You won’t do that, Detective.” Henry’s voice was mild as he caught Celluci’s gaze with his own and let the patina of civilization drop. He played with the mortal’s reaction for a moment and then, almost reluctantly, released him. “You won’t do it,” he continued in the same tone, “for the same reason I don’t use the power I have on you. She wouldn’t like it.” Smiling urbanely, he inclined his head in a parody of a polite bow. “Good night, Detective.”
Celluci stared at the closed door and fought to keep from trembling. Patches of sweat spread out under each arm and his palms, pressed hard against the table, were damp. It wasn’t the fear that unnerved him. He’d dealt with fear before, knew he could conquer it. It was the urge to bare his throat that had him so shaken, the knowledge that in another instant he would have placed his life in Henry Fitzroy’s hands.
“Goddamnit, Vicki.” The hoarse whisper barely shredded the silence. “You are playing with fucking fire… .”
“Geez, Cathy, why’d you bring them?”
“I thought they could carry the body.”
“Oh.” Donald stepped back as Catherine helped two shambling figures out of the back of the van. “The program I wrote for them is pretty basic; are you sure they can do something that complicated?”
“Well, number nine can.” She patted the broad shoulder almost affectionately. “Number eight may need a little help.”
“A little help. Right.” Grunting with the effort, he dragged a pair of sandbags out of the van. “Well, if they’re so strong, they can carry these.”
“Give them both to number nine. I’m not sure about eight’s joints.”
Although living muscles strained to lift a single bag off the ground, number nine gave no indication that it noticed the weight, even after both bags had been loaded.
“Good idea,” Donald panted. “Bringing them along, that is. I’d have killed myself getting those things inside.” Fighting for breath, he glanced around the parking lot. The light over by the garage barely illuminated the area and he’d removed the light over the delivery entrance that afternoon. “Let’s just make sure nobody sees them, okay. They don’t look exactly, well, alive.”
“Notices them?” Catherine moved number eight around to face the door, then turned and discovered number nine had moved without help. “We better be sure that no one notices us.”
“People don’t look too closely at funeral homes.” Still breathing heavily, Donald slipped his key into the lock. “They’re afraid of what they might see.” He shot a glance at number nine’s gray and desiccated face perched above the collar of a red windbreaker and snickered as he pushed the door open. “Almost makes you wish someone would stumble over Mutt and Jeff here, doesn’t it?”
“No. Now get going.”
Long inured to his colleague’s complete lack of a sense of humor, Donald shrugged and disappeared into the building.
Number nine followed.
Catherine gave number eight a little push. “Walk,” she commanded. It hesitated, then slowly began to move. Halfway down the long ramp to the embalming room, it stumbled. “No, you don’t… ” Holding it precariously balanced against the wall, she bent and straightened the left leg.
“What took you so long,” Donald demanded as the two of them finally arrived.
“Trouble with the patella.” She frowned, tucking a strand of nearly white-blond hair back behind her ear. “I don’t think we’re getting any kind of cell reconstruction.”
“Yeah, and it’s starting to smell worse, too.”
“Oh, yes. But hey…” he threw open both halves of the coffin lid, “let’s not stand around sniffing dead people all night. We’ve got work to do.”
Number eight’s fingers had to be clamped around the corpse’s ankles, but number nine took hold of the shoulders with very little prompting.
“I’m telling you, Donald,” Catherine caroled as they guided the two bodies back up the ramp, “number nine has interfaced with the net. I’m sure we’re getting independent brain activity.”
“What does Dr. Burke say?”
“She’s more worried about decomposition.”
“Understandable. Always a bummer when your experiments rot before you can gather the data. Stop them for a second while I get the door.”
The two grad students did the actual loading of the van. Not even Catherine could figure out a series of one-word commands that would allow number eight to carry out the complicated maneuvers necessary. And, as Donald reminded her, both speed and silence were advisable.
“Because,” he added, settling number eight into place, “what we’re doing is illegal.”
“Nonsense.” Catherine’s brow drew down. “It’s science.”
He shook his head. He’d never met anyone who came close to being so single-minded. As far as he’d been able to determine, she had almost as little life outside the lab as their experimental subjects did, and considering that they were essentially dead, that was saying something. Even stranger, she honestly didn’t seem to care that what they were doing would result in fame and fortune all around. “Well, in the interest of science, then, let’s try to stay out of jail.” He gave number nine a push toward the vehicle.
Number nine lowered his head and the reflection of the stars slid off the artificially moist surface of his eyes.
“That is not a healthy heart.”
Donald peered over the edge of his surgical mask and into the chest cavity. “Not now it isn’t,” he agreed. “Didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and just look at it. Almost makes you want to go out and party.”
With a deft stroke of the scalpel, Dr. Burke exposed the tricuspid valve and began to remove the shredded membrane. “I wasn’t calling for moral commentary, Donald. Pay attention to what you’re doing.”
Not noticeably chastened, Donald emptied the hypodermic he held, drew it out of the corner of the eye socket, and picked up a smaller needle. The liquid in the chamber appeared almost opalescent in the glare of the fluorescent lights. “All right, boys,” he carefully slid the point through the cornea, “time to go to work. Lift that curve, tote that bail, if you don’t repair the iris, then you’re in the pail.”
“We can do without the poetry, thank you.” Tight sutures closed up the incision in the heart. “If you’ve hydrated both eyes, help Catherine in the abdominal cavity. We’ve got to get those blood vessels tied off as soon as possible so we can get the nutrient fluid circulating.
“Time is vitally important in work of this nature… ” The lecture continued as Donald placed soaked cotton swabs over each staring eye and moved around to the side of the table. “Fortunately, the first step in the embalming process toughens the vessels, making them easier to work with at speed and enabling us to… “
“Uh, Doctor, this is our tenth cadaver,” Donald reminded her, suctioning away the sterile solution they used to force the embalming fluid out of the body. Catherine, who’d been suturing under water, shot him a grateful smile, the corners of her eyes crinkling up above her mask. “I mean, we know all this. And we did do six of the previous nine with our own little fingers.”
“And you did do an excellent job. I only wish my schedule had allowed me to give you more assistance.” Dr. Burke was more than willing to give credit where credit was due as, at the moment, it didn’t mean anything. She reached behind her for a tiny motor and an electric screwdriver. “That said, it never hurts to be reminded of how important the proper balance of moisture is to healthy tissue.”
Donald snickered and in a nearly perfect imitation of the sultry voice in the commercial intoned, “How dead do you think I am?”
Dr. Burke stopped working and turned to stare at him. “I must be more tired than I thought. I actually found that funny.”
Catherine shook her head and fished out the end of another artery.
A few moments later, they settled the bag of gel replacing the digestive system into place. Pearly highlights quivered across the thick agar coating.
“We’ve got bacteria to spare this time,” Dr. Burke pointed out as she finished attaching the artificial diaphragm’s second motor. “I want those organs saturated.”
“Saturated it is,” Donald agreed. He accepted the liver culture from Catherine, frowned, and glared over her shoulder. “Stop that!”
“Stop what?” she asked, bending to work on a kidney.
“Not you. Number nine. He’s staring at me.”
She straightened and checked. “No, he isn’t. He’s just looking in your direction.”
“Well, I don’t like it.”
“He isn’t hurting anything.”
“Children.” Had Dr. Burke’s voice been any dryer it would have cracked. “If we could keep our minds on the matter at hand?” She waited, pointedly, until they both began working before she released the rib spreader. “If it bothers you that much, Donald, Catherine can put it in its box.”
Donald nodded. “Good idea. Make her put her toys away when she’s done playing with them.”
Catherine ignored him. “He’d be better left out, Doctor. He needs the stimuli if we want him interfacing with the net.”
“Good point,” the doctor acknowledged. “Sloppily put, but a good point. Sorry, Donald. It stays out.”
Catherine shot him a triumphant look.
“When you finish there, one of you can close while the other starts the pump and begins replacing the sterile solution. I want that circulatory system up and running ASAP. Now, if you think you can manage without my having to act as referee, I’m going to open up the skull.”
“He’s still looking at me,” Donald growled a moment later, his voice barely audible over the whine of the bone saw.
“Hopefully, he’s learning from you.”
“Yeah?” One latex-covered finger lifted in salute. “Well, learn this.”
Across the room, three of the fingers on number nine’s right hand curled slowly inward and tucked under the support of the folded thumb. Although the face remained expressionless, a muscle twitched below the leathery surface of the skin.
Henry guided the BMW smoothly around the curves of the highway off-ramp at considerably more than the posted speed. Two hours and forty-two minutes, Toronto to Kingston, not as fast as it could be done, but considering the perpetual traffic congestion he’d faced leaving the city and the high number of provincial police patrolling the last hundred kilometers, it was a respectable time.
Although he enjoyed high speeds and his reflexes made possible maneuvers that left other drivers gaping, Henry had never understood the North American love affair with the automobile. A car to him was a tool, the BMW a compromise between power and dependability. While mortal drivers blithely risked their lives straining the limits of their machinery, he had no intention of abruptly ending four hundred and fifty years because of metal fatigue or design flaws, but then, unlike mortal drivers, he had nothing to prove.
Vicki’s mother’s apartment was easy enough to find. Not only did Division Street run directly from the 401, but even from a block away there was no mistaking the man emerging from the late model sedan parked in front of the building. Henry swung into the tiny parking lot and settled the BMW into the adjoining space.
“You made good time,” he remarked as he got out of his car and stretched.
“Thanks.” The word had left his mouth before Celluci realized he had no reason to feel so absurdly pleased by the observation. “You obviously broke a few laws,” he snarled. “Or don’t you feel our speed limits apply to you?”
“No more than you feel they apply to you,” Henry told him with an edged smile. “Or don’t the police have to follow the laws they’re sworn to uphold?”
“Asshole,” Celluci muttered. Nothing dampened righteous anger faster than forced recognition of shaky ethical ground. “And I don’t see why you came any-how. Vicki needs the living around her, not more of the dead.”
“I am no more dead than you are, Detective.”
“Yeah, well, you’re not… I mean, you’re… “
“I am Vampire.” Henry spread his hands. “There, it no longer hangs between us. The word has been said.” He caught Celluci’s gaze and held it but this time used no force to keep the contact. “You might as well acknowledge it, Detective. I won’t go away.”
Curiosity overcame better judgment and Celluci found himself asking, “What were you?”
“I was a Prince. A royal bastard.”
The corners of the detective’s mouth twitched. “Well, you’re a royal bastard, that’s for sure.” He fought his way back to a more equal footing, ignoring the suspicion that a more equal footing was allowed him. “Why isn’t anyone ever a fucking peasant?”
“Anyone?” Henry asked, brows rising.
“You, Shirley MacLaine… Never mind.” He leaned back against his car and sighed. “Look, she doesn’t need both of us.”
“So why don’t I just go home? I don’t think so.”
“What can you give her?”
“Now? In her grief? The same things you can.”
“But I can give them night and day. You only have the night.”
“Then why are you so worried about me being here? Surely you have the advantage. Mind you,” Henry continued, his tone thoughtful, “I left sanctuary for her, risked the sun in order to be at her side. That should count for something.”
“What do you mean, count for something?” Celluci snorted. “This isn’t a contest! Man against… ” His eyes narrowed. “… romance writer. We’re supposed to be here for her.”
“Then maybe,” Henry starting moving toward the building, “we’d better work a little harder at remembering that.”
Goddamned patronizing son of a bitch! Fortunately, longer legs allowed Celluci to catch up without having to run. “So we concentrate on her until this is over.”
Henry half turned and looked up at him. “And after?”
“Who the hell knows about after?” Stop looking at me like that! “Let’s get through this, first.”
Listening to the pounding of Celluci’s heart, Henry nodded, satisfied.
It took Vicki a moment to realize what the pounding meant.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
The police at the door. The pattern was unmistakable. She frowned at the dark apartment and stiffly stood up. How long? Eyes useless, in spite of the spill of light from the street, she groped her way to the phone desk, then along the wall to the door.
Celluci scowled down at Henry and raised his hand to knock again. “You’re certain she’s in there?”
“I’m certain. I can feel her life.”
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Her fingers scraped across the light switch and she flicked it on, her eyes watering in the sudden brilliance. Her mother always used hundred watt bulbs.
“I don’t care how much more energy it burns, it’s more important that you can see when you come home. I can well afford it and the environment can go hang.”
Her mother had always used 100 watt bulbs.
The lock stuck, halfway around.
“I told her to get this fixed,” she growled as she fought to force the tumblers down. “God-damned stupid piece of junk.”
Bang. Bang. Bang.
“Keep your fucking pants on!”
Celluci lowered his hand. “She’s in there.”
The lock finally gave. Vicki took a deep breath, adjusted her glasses, and opened the door.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she asked after a long pause.
“We came to help,” Henry told her quietly.
She looked from one to the other, confusion the only emotion she could readily label. “Both of you?”
“Both of us,” Celluci agreed.
“I didn’t ask for your help.”
They exchanged identical expressions and Celluci sighed. “We know,” he said.
All three of them turned.
Mr. Delgado stood just outside his door, weight forward on the balls of his feet, shoulders back, arms loose at his sides, trousers pulled on under a striped pajama top. “Is there a problem?”
Vicki shoved at her glasses. The completely truthful answer would be, Not yet. “No,” she said. “No problem. These are friends of mine from Toronto.”
“What are they doing here?”
“Apparently,” her voice grew less vague with every word, “they came to help.”
“Oh.” His gaze swept over Celluci from head to toe and then began on Henry. For Vicki’s sake, Henry kept a grip on his annoyance and let the old man finish. “Well, if there’s any trouble,” the last two words were a warning, “you let me know.”
“I can handle these two, Mr. Delgado.”
“I don’t doubt it. But you shouldn’t have to. Not right now.” His chin jutted forward. “You boys understand?”
Celluci’s patience showed signs of wear. “We understand, Mr. Delgado.”
“Both of you?”
Henry turned a little farther until he faced down the hall. “We both understand.”
Mr. Delgado squinted at Henry then almost seemed to come to attention. “Had to ask… “
Henry inclined his head in dismissal. “Good night.”
The three of them watched as the door closed and then Vicki stepped back out of the way. “You might as well come in.”
“… did it never occur to either of you that maybe I wanted to handle this myself?” Vicki paced the length of the living room, reached the window, and glared out into the night. The apartment was half a story below ground, not exactly basement, not exactly first floor. The windows looked out over a narrow strip of grass, then the visitor’s parking, then the sidewalk, then the road. It wasn’t much of a view. Vicki’s mother had invested in both blinds and heavy drapes to keep the world from looking back. Vicki hadn’t bothered closing either. “That maybe,” she continued, her throat tight, “there isn’t anything for you to help with?”
“If you want both of us, or either of us, to go back to Toronto, we will,” Henry told her quietly.
Celluci shot him a look and his mouth opened, but Henry raised a cautionary hand and he closed it again without speaking.
“I want both of you to go back to Toronto!”
“No, you don’t.”
Her laugh held the faintest shading of hysteria. “Are you reading my mind, Henry?” She turned to face them. “All right, you win. As long as you’re here, you might as well stay.” One hand sketched surrender in the air. “You might as well both stay.”
“How did you convince Mike to go to sleep?”
“I merely told him that you’d need him rested tomorrow, that I was the logical choice to keep watch over the night.”
“Well, perhaps I persuaded him a little.”
She sat on the edge of the twin bed in the room she’d grown up in and smoothed nonexistent wrinkles out of the pillow with the fingers of one hand. “He won’t thank you for that in the morning.”
“Perhaps not.” Henry watched her carefully, not allowing the full extent of his concern to show lest it cause her to bolt. “But I did explain that it was a little difficult for either of us to give comfort when both of us were there. He seemed to agree.” He had, in fact, grunted, “So leave.” but Henry saw no need to mention that to Vicki.
“All of that while I was in the bathroom?”
“Should it have taken longer?”
“I guess not.”
He’d been prepared for her to be angry at his highhandedness, would have preferred the bright flame of her anger to the gray acceptance he got. He reached out and gently captured the hand that still stroked the pillow. “You need to sleep, Vicki.”
The skin around her eyes seemed stretched very tight.
“I don’t think I can.”
“If you need to feed, I don’t think… “
Henry shook his head. “Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Now get some sleep.”
“I can’t… “
“You can.” His voice deepened slightly and he lifted her chin so that her eyes met his.
They widened as she realized what he was doing and she pushed ineffectually at his fingers.
“Sleep,” he told her again.
Her inarticulate protest became a long, shuddering sigh, and she collapsed back on the bed.
Frowning thoughtfully, Henry tucked her legs up under the covers and moved her glasses to safety on the bedside table. In the morning, the two of them could trade stories about the unfair advantage he’d taken over mortal minds. Perhaps it would bring them closer together. It was a risk he’d had no choice but to take. But for the moment… He reached up and flicked off the light.
“For the moment,” he murmured, tucking the blankets around the life that glowed like a beacon in the darkness. “For the moment, I will guard your dreams.”
“Henry… ” She raised herself up on one elbow and groped for her glasses. The room was gray, not black.
It couldn’t be dawn because she could feel his presence even before she managed to find the deeper shadow by the door.
“I can’t stay any longer.” He spread his hands in apology. “The sun is very close to the horizon.”
“Where are you going?”
She could hear the smile in his voice. “Not far. The walk-in closet in your mother’s room will make an adequate sanctuary. It will take very little to block the day.”
“I’m going with you.” She swung her legs out of the bed and stood, ignoring the lack of light. Her mother had made no real changes in the room since she’d left, she’d have to be more than blind to lose her way.
At the door, Henry’s cool fingers wrapped around her arm just above the elbow. She turned, knowing he could see her even though she could barely see the outline of his body.
“Henry.” He moved closer as she reached out and laid her palm against his chest. “My mother… ” The words wouldn’t come. She could feel him waiting and finally had to shake her head.
His lips brushed very lightly against her hair.
“You were right,” she said instead. “Sleep helped. But… ” Her fingers twisted in his shirt and she yanked him slightly forward. “… don’t ever do that again.”
His hand covered hers. “No promises,” he told her quietly.
Yes, promises, she wanted to insist. I won’t have you messing with my head. But he messed with her head just by existing and under the circumstances, she wouldn’t believe any promises he made. “Get going.” She pushed him toward the door. “Even I can feel the sun.”
Celluci lay stretched out on top of her mother’s bed, shoes off but otherwise dressed. She started, seeing him so suddenly appear in the glare of the overhead light and she had to stop herself from shaking him and demanding to know what he was doing there. On her mother’s bed. Except her mother wouldn’t be sleeping in it any more so what difference did it make?
“He won’t wake,” Henry told her as she hesitated by the door. “Not until after I’m… asleep.”
“I wish you hadn’t done that.”
The sound of her name pulled her forward until they stood only a whisper apart by the closet door.
He reached up and gently caressed her cheek. “Michael Celluci has the day; I cannot share it with him. Don’t ask me to give him the night as well.”
Vicki swallowed. His touch drew heated lines across her skin. “Have I ever asked that of you?”
“No.” His expression twisted and slid a little into sadness. “You’ve never asked anything of me.”
She wanted to protest that she had, but she knew what he meant. “Not now, Henry.”
“You’re right.” He nodded and withdrew his hand. “Not now.”
Fortunately, the closet had plenty of room for a not so tall man to lie safely hidden away from the sun.
“I’ll block the door from the inside, so it can’t be opened accidentally, and I brought the blackout curtain you hung in my bedroom to wrap around me. I’ll be back with you this evening.”
With memory’s eyes she could see him, rising with the darkness after a day spent… lifeless.
He paused, half through the door.
“My mother is dead.”
“You’ll never die.”
The four-hundred-and-fifty-year-old bastard son of Henry the VIII nodded. “I’ll never die,” he agreed.
“Should I resent you for that?”
“Should I resent you for the day?”
Her brows snapped down and the movement pushed her glasses forward on her nose. “I hate it when you answer a question with a question.”
His smile held so many things that she couldn’t hope to understand them all before the closet door closed between them.
“Vicki, you can’t possibly agree with what Fitzroy did!” When she suddenly became engrossed in sponging a bit of dirt off her good shoes, he realized she did, indeed, agree. “Vicki!”
“He knocked me out, put me to sleep, violated my free will!”
“He just wanted the same time alone that you’re getting now. Guaranteed free of interruption.”
“I can’t believe you’re defending him!”
“I’m not. Exactly. I just understand his reasons.”
Celluci snorted and jammed his arms into the sleeves of his suit jacket. A few stitches popped in protest.
“And what did the two of you do during that time alone free of interruption?”
“He put me to sleep as well. Then sat and watched over me until dawn.”
Vicki turned to face him, both brows well above the upper edge of her glasses. “That’s it. Not that it’s any of your damned business.”
“That won’t wash this time, Vicki.” He stepped forward, took the shoe from her hand, and dropped to one knee with it. “Fitzroy made it my business when he pulled that Prince of Darkness shit.”
She sighed and let him guide her foot into the plain black pump. “Yeah, I suppose he did. I needed to sleep, Mike.” She reached down and brushed the long curl of hair back off his face. “I couldn’t have done it without him. He gave me the night to sleep when he could have taken it for himself.”
“Very noble of him,” Celluci grunted, sliding her other foot into the second shoe. And it was very noble, he admitted to himself as he stood. Noble in the running roughshod I know best so don’t bother expressing an opinion sort of a way that went out with the fucking feudal system. Still, Fitzroy had acted in what he considered to be Vicki’s best interests. And he honestly didn’t think that he could have left them alone together, as Fitzroy had no choice but to do come morning. So I suppose I might have done the same thing under similar circumstances. Which doesn’t excuse his royal fucking undead highness one bit.
What bothered him the most about it was how little Vicki seemed to care, how much she seemed to be operating on cruise control, and how little she seemed to be interacting with the world around her. He recognized the effects of grief and shock, he’d seen them both often enough over the years, but they were somehow harder to deal with because they were applied here and now to Vicki.
He wanted to make it better for her.
He knew he couldn’t.
He hated having to accept that.
All right, Fitzroy, you gave her sleep last night, I’ll give her support today. Maybe together we can get her through it.
He got her to eat but eventually, when even trying to start an argument failed, he gave up trying to get her to talk.
About noon, Mr. Delgado arrived to ask if Vicki needed a lift to the funeral home. She looked up from where she sat, silently rocking, and shook her head.
“Humph,” he snorted, stepping back out into the hall and once again looking Celluci over. “You one of her friends from the police?”
“Detective-Sergeant Michael Celluci.”
“Yeah. I thought so. You look like a cop. Louis Delgado.” His grip was still strong, his palm hard with a workman’s calluses. “What happened to the other guy?”
“He sat up with her all night. He’s still sleeping.”
“He’s not a cop.”
To Celluci’s surprise the old man chuckled. “In my day two men fighting over one woman, there would have been blood on the street, let me tell you.”
“What makes you think… “
“You think maybe I shut my brain off when I retired? I saw the three of you together last night, remember?” His face grew suddenly somber. “Maybe it’s a good thing people got more civilized; she doesn’t need fighting around her right now. I saw her grow up. Watched her decide to be an adult when she should have been enjoying being a child. Tried to take care of her mother, insisted on taking care of herself.” He sighed. “She won’t bend, you know. Now that this terrible thing has happened, you and that other fellow, don’t you let her break.”
“We’ll do our best.”
“Humph.” He snorted again and swiped at his eyes with a snowy white handkerchief, his opinion of their best obviously not high.
Celluci watched him return to his own apartment, then quietly closed the door. “Mr. Delgado cares about you a great deal,” he said, crossing the room to stand by Vicki’s side.
She shook her head. “He was very fond of my mother.”
She didn’t speak again until they were in the car on the way to the funeral home.
He glanced sideways. She wore her courtroom face. Not even the most diligent of defense attorneys could have found an opinion on it.
“I didn’t call her. And when she called me, I didn’t answer. And then she died.”
“You know there’s no connection.” He said it as gently as he could. He didn’t expect an answer. He didn’t get one.
There wasn’t anything else to say, so he reached down and covered her left hand with his. After a long moment, her fingers turned and she clutched at him with such force that he had to bite back an exclamation of pain. Only her hand moved. Her fingers were freezing.
“It really is for your own good.” Catherine finished fastening the chest strap and lightly touched number nine on the shoulder. “I know you don’t like it, but we can’t take a chance on you jerking the needles free. That’s what happened to number six and we lost her.” She smiled down into the isolation box. “You’ve come so much farther than the rest, even if your kidneys aren’t working yet, that we’d hate to lose you, too.” Reaching behind his left ear, she jacked the computer hookup into the implanted plug, fingertips checking that the skin hadn’t pulled out from under the surgical steel collar clamped tight against scalp and skull.
“Now then… ” She shook her head over the shallow dents that marred the inner curve of the insulated lid. “You just lie quiet and I’ll open this up the moment your dialysis is over.”
The box closed with a sigh of airtight seals and the metallic snick of an automatic latch.
Frowning slightly, Catherine adjusted the amount of pure oxygen flowing through the air intake. Although he’d moved past the point where he needed it and he could have managed on just regular filtered air, she wanted him to have every opportunity to succeed. Later, when the muscle diagnostics were running, she’d give him a full body massage with the estrogen cream. His skin wasn’t looking good. In the meantime, she flicked the switch that would start the transmission through his net and moved to check on the other two boxes.
Number eight had begun to fail. Not only were the joints becoming less responsive but the extremities had darkened and she suspected the liver had begun to putrefy, a sure sign that the bacteria had started to die.
“Billions of them multiplying all over the world,” she said sadly, stroking the top of number eight’s box. “Why can’t we keep these alive long enough to do some good?”
At the third box, recently vacated by the dissected number seven, she scanned one of a trio of computer monitors. Marjory Nelson’s brain wave patterns, recorded over the months just previous to her death, were being transmitted in a continuous loop through the newly installed neural net. They’d never had actual brain wave patterns before. All previous experiments, including numbers eight and nine, had only ever received generic alpha waves recorded from herself and Donald.
“I’ve got great hopes for you, number ten. There’s no reason you… ” A yawn split the thought in two and Catherine stumbled toward the door, suddenly exhausted. Donald had headed for his bed once the major surgery had been completed and Dr. Burke had left just before dawn. She didn’t mind finishing up on her own, she liked having the lab to herself, it gave her a chance to see that all the little extras got done, but if she wasn’t mistaken, she was rapidly approaching a day and a half on her feet and she needed to catch a nap. A couple of hours lying down and she should be good as new.
Fingers on the light switch, she paused in the doorway, looked back over the lab, and called softly, “Pleasant dreams.”
They weren’t dreams, nor were they quite memories but, outside the influence of the net, images stirred. A young woman’s face in close proximity, pale hair, pale eyes. Her voice was soothing in a world where too many lights were too bright and too many sounds only noise. Her smile was…
Her smile was…
Organic impulses moved turgidly along tattered neural pathways searching for the connection that would complete the thought.
Her smile was…
Number nine stirred under the restraints.
Her smile was kind.
Vicki turned toward the voice, trying very hard not to scowl. Relatives and friends of her mother’s were milling about the reception room, all expecting her to be showing their definition of grief. If it hadn’t been for Celluci’s bulk at her back, she might have bolted, if it hadn’t been for his quick grip around her wrist she’d have definitely belted the cousin who, having driven in from Gananoque, remarked that earlier or later would have been a better time and he certainly hoped there’d be refreshments afterward. She didn’t know the heavy set man who’d called her name.
He held out a beefy hand. “Ms. Nelson, I’m Reverend Crosbie. The Anglican minister who usually works with Hutchinson’s is a bit under the weather today, so they asked me to fill in.” His voice was a rough burr that rose and fell with an east coast cadence.
A double chin almost hid the clerical collar but, given the firmness of his handshake, Vicki doubted that all of the bulk was fat. “My mother wasn’t a churchgoer,” she said.
“That’s between her and God, Ms. Nelson.” His tone managed to be both matter-of-fact and sympathetic at the same time. “She wanted an Anglican service read to set her soul at peace and I’m here to do it for her. But,” bushy white brows drew slightly in, “as I didn’t know your mother, I’ve no intention of speaking as if I did. Are you going to be doing your own eulogy?”
Was she going to get up in front of all these people and tell them about her mother? Was she going tell them how her mother had given up the life a young woman was entitled to in order to support them both? Tell them how her mother had tried to stop her from getting her first job because she thought childhood should last a little longer? Tell them about her mother, a visible beacon of pride, watching as she graduated from high school, then university, then the police college? Tell them how after her promotion her mother had peppered the phrase, “My daughter, the detective,” into every conversation? Tell them how, when she first got the diagnosis about her eyes, her mother had taken a train to Toronto and refused to hear the lies about being all right and not needing her there? Tell them about the nagging and the worrying and the way she always called during a shower? Tell them how her mother had needed to talk to her and she hadn’t answered the phone?
Tell them her mother was dead?
“No.” Vicki felt Celluci’s hand close over her shoulder and realized her voice had been less than clear. She coughed and scanned the room in a near panic. “There. The short woman in the khaki trench coat.” To point would expose the trembling. “That’s Dr. Burke. Mother worked for her for the last five years. Maybe she’ll say something.”
Bright blue eyes focused just behind her for a second. Whatever Reverend Crosbie saw on Celluci’s face seemed to reassure him because he nodded and said quietly, “I’ll talk to Dr. Burke, then.” His warm hand engulfed hers again. “Maybe you and I’ll have a chance to talk later, eh?”
Celluci’s grip on her shoulder tightened as the minister walked away. “You all right?”
“Sure. I’m fine.” But she didn’t expect him to believe her, so she supposed it wasn’t exactly a lie.
This was a voice she recognized and she turned almost eagerly to meet it. “Aunt Esther.” The tall, sparse woman opened her arms and Vicki allowed herself to be folded into them. Esther Thomas had been her mother’s closest friend. They’d grown up together, gone to school together, had been bride and bridesmaid, bridesmaid and bride. Esther had been teaching school in Ottawa for as long as Vicki could remember, but living in different cities hadn’t dimmed the friendship.
Esther’s cheeks were wet when they pulled apart. “I thought I wasn’t going to make it.” She sniffed and dug for a tissue. “I’m driving Richard’s six-cylinder tank, but they’re doing construction on highway fifteen. Can you believe it? It’s only April. They’re still likely to get snow. Damn, I… Thank you. You’re Mike Celluci, aren’t you? We met once, about three years ago, just after Christmas when you drove to Kingston to pick Vicki up.”
“Vicki, I have a favor to ask you. I’d… I’d like to see her one last time.”
Vicki stepped back, trod on Celluci’s foot, and didn’t notice. “See her?”
“Yes. To say good-bye.” Tears welled and ran and she swiped at them without making much impact. “I don’t think I’ll be able to believe Marjory’s actually dead unless I see her.”
“I know it’s a closed coffin, but I thought you and I might be able to slip in now. Before things start.”
Vicki had never understood the need to look at the dead. A corpse was a corpse and over the years she’d seen enough of them to know that they were all fundamentally alike. She didn’t want to remember her mother the way she’d been, stretched out on the table in the morgue, and she certainly didn’t want to remember her prepared like a manikin to go into the earth. But it was obviously something Esther needed.
“I’ll have a word with Mr. Hutchinson,” she heard herself saying.
A few moments later, the three of them were making their way down the center aisle of the chapel, shoes making no sound on the thick red carpet.
“We did prepare for this eventuality,” Mr. Hutchinson said as they approached the coffin. “Very often when the casket is closed, friends and relatives still want to say one last good-bye to the deceased. I’m sure you’ll find your mother much as you remember her, Ms. Nelson.”
Vicki closed her teeth on her reply.
“The service is due to start momentarily,” he said as he released the latch and began to raise the upper half of the lid, “so I’m afraid you’ll have to… have to… “
Her fingers dug deep into satin cushioning as Vicki’s hands closed over the padded edge of the coffin. In the center of the quilted pillow lay the upper end of a large sandbag. A quick glance toward the foot of the casket determined that a second sandbag made up the rest of the necessary weight.
She straightened and in a voice that ripped civilization off the words asked, “What have you done with my mother?”
“This would probably go a lot easier if you’d get Ms. Nelson to go home.” Detective Fergusson of the Kingston Police lowered his voice a little further. “It’s not like we don’t appreciate your input, Sergeant, but Ms. Nelson, she hasn’t been a cop for a couple of years. She really shouldn’t be here. Besides, you know, she’s a woman. They get emotional at times like these.”
“Get a lot of body snatching, do you?” Celluci asked dryly.
“No!” The detective’s indignant gaze jerked up to meet Celluci’s. “Never had one before. Ever.”
“Ah. Then which times like these were you referring to?”
“Well, you know. Her mother dying. The body being lifted. This whole funeral home thing. I hate ’em. Too damn quiet. Anyway, this’ll probably turn out to be some stupid prank by some of those university medical school geeks. I could tell you stories about that lot. The last thing we need scrambling things up is a hysterical woman, and she certainly has a right to be hysterical under the circumstances, don’t get me wrong.”
“Does Ms. Nelson look hysterical to you, Detective?”
Fergusson swept a heavy hand back over his thinning hair and glanced across the room where his partner had just finished taking statements. A few months before, he’d been given the opportunity to handle one of the new high-tech assault rifles recently issued to the special weapons and tactics boys. Ex-Detective Nelson reminded him a whole lot of that rifle. “Well, no. Not precisely hysterical.”
While he wasn’t exactly warming to the man, Celluci wasn’t entirely unsympathetic. “Look at it this way. She was one of the best police officers I ever served with, probably ever will serve with. If she stays, think of her as an added resource you can tap into and recognize that because of her background she will in no way disrupt your handling of the case. If she goes,” he clapped the older man lightly on the shoulder, “you’re telling her. Because I’m not.”
“Like that, eh?”
“Like that. It’d be convenient that you’re already in a funeral home. Trust me. Things will probably go a lot easier if she stays.”
Fergusson sighed, then shrugged. “I guess she’ll feel better if she thinks she’s doing something. But if she goes off, you get her out of here.”
“Believe me, she is my first concern.” Watching Vicki cross the chapel toward him, Celluci was struck by how completely under control she appeared. Every muscle moved with a rigid precision, and the intensity of suppressed emotion that moved with her made her frighteningly remote. He recognized the expression; she’d worn it in the past when a case touched her deeply, when the body became more than just another statistic, when it became personal. Superiors and psychologists warned cops about that kind of involvement, afraid it would lead to burnout or vigilantism, but everyone fell victim to it sooner or later. It was the feeling that kept an investigation going long after logic said give it up, the feeling that fueled the long and seemingly pointless hours of drudge work that actually led to charges being laid. When “Victory” Nelson wore that expression, people got out of her way.
At this point, under these circumstances, it was the last expression Celluci wanted to see. Grief, anger, even hysterics, “… and she certainly has a right to be hysterical under the circumstances…” would be preferable to the way she’d closed in on herself. This wasn’t, couldn’t be, just another case.
“Hey.” He reached out and touched her arm. The muscles under the sleeve of her navy blue suit jacket felt like stone. “You okay?”
Yeah. Right. It was, however, the expected response.
“Now then.” The elder Mr. Hutchinson sat forward, placing his forearms precisely on the charcoal gray blotter that protected his desk and linking his fingers. “I assure you all that you will have our complete cooperation in clearing up this unfortunate affair. Never in all the years that Hutchinson’s Funeral Parlour has served the needs of the people of Kingston has such a horrible thing occurred. Ms. Nelson, please believe you have our complete sympathy and that we will do everything in our power to rectify this situation.”
Vicki limited herself to a single tight nod of acknowledgment, well aware that if she opened her mouth she wouldn’t be able to close it again. She wanted to rip this case away from the Kingston police, to ask the questions, to build out of all the minute details the identity of the scum who dared to violate her mother’s body. And once identified…
She knew Celluci was watching her, knew he feared she’d start demanding answers, running roughshod over the local forces. She had no intention of doing anything so blatantly stupid. Two years without a badge had taught her the value of subtlety. Working with Henry had taught her that justice was often easier to find outside the law.
“All right, Mr. Hutchinson.” Detective Fergusson checked his notes and shifted his bulk into a more comfortable position in the chair. “We already spoke to your driver and to your nephew, the other Mr. Hutchinson, so let’s just take it from when the body arrived.”
“Ms. Nelson, you’ll likely find this distressing… “
“Ms. Nelson spent four years as a homicide detective in Toronto, Mr. Hutchinson.” Although he might have his own doubts about her being there, Fergusson wasn’t about to have an outsider pass judgment on an ex-member of the club. “If you say something that distresses her, she’ll deal with it. Now then, the body arrived… “
“Yes, well, after she arrived, the deceased was taken down to our preparation room. Although there was to be no viewing, her arrangement with us made it quite clear that she was to be embalmed.”
“Isn’t that unusual? Embalming without viewing?”
Mr. Hutchinson smiled, the deep wrinkles across his face falling into gentle brackets. “No, not really. A number of people decide that while they don’t wish to be stared at after death, neither do they wish to, well, not look their best. And many realize, as happened in this instance, that friends and relatives will want one last look regardless.”
“I see. So the body was embalmed?”
“Yes, my nephew took care of most of that. He did the disinfecting, massaged the tissue to bring pooled blood out of the extremities, set the features, drained the body and injected the embalming fluid, perforated the internal organs with the trocar… “
Fergusson cleared his throat. “There’s, uh, no need to be quite so detailed.”
“Oh, I am sorry.” The elder Mr. Hutchinson flushed slightly. “I thought you wanted to hear everything.”
“Yes. But… “
“Mr. Hutchinson.” Vicki leaned forward. “That last word you used, trocar, what is it?”
“Well, Ms. Nelson, it’s a long steel tube, hollow, you know, and quite pointed, very sharp. We use it to draw out the body fluids and inject a very, very astringent preserving fluid into the cavity.”
“Your nephew didn’t mention it.”
“Well,” the old man smiled self-consciously, “he was probably being a little more concise. I tend to ramble on a bit if I’m not discouraged.”
“He said,” she caught his gaze with hers and held it, “that he’d just placed the incision sealant into the jugular vein when he was called upstairs.”
Mr. Hutchinson shook his head. “No. That’s not possible. When I came down to finish, as the young woman in the office was most insistent she speak with David, the trocar button had already been placed in the abdomen, sealing off the entry wound.”
The silent sound of conclusions being drawn filled the small office.
“I think,” Detective Fergusson said slowly, “we’d better speak with David again.”
David Hutchinson repeated what he’d said previously.
The elder Mr. Hutchinson looked confused. “But if you didn’t aspirate the body cavity, and I certainly didn’t, who did?”
The younger Mr. Hutchinson spread his hands. “Chen?”
“Nonsense. He’s only here on observation. He wouldn’t know how.”
“That would be Tom Chen?”
Both of the Mr. Hutchinsons nodded.
“Before you’re accepted into a program to become a funeral director,” the younger explained, “you have to spend four weeks observing at a funeral home. This isn’t a job everyone can do. Anyway, Tom has been with us for the last two and a half weeks. He was in the room while I prepared the body. He helped a little. Asked a couple of questions… “
“And was in the room when I came down to finish. He certainly seemed to indicate that you’d done the aspirating, David.”
“Well, I hadn’t.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” The word cracked the quiet reserve both men had been trained to wear and they turned identical expressions of distress on the police office sitting across the desk.
“And Tom Chen is where?”
“Unfortunately, not here. He did work through the weekend,” the elder Mr. Hutchinson explained, regaining control. “So when he asked for the day off, I saw no harm in giving it to him.”
“Hmmm. Jamie… “
Fergusson’s partner nodded and quietly left the room.
“Where is he going?”
“He’s going to see if we can have a talk with Mr. Chen. But for now,” Fergusson leaned back and tapped lightly on his notebook with his pen, “let’s just forget who did the aspirating, eh? Tell me what happened next.”
“Well, that was about it. We dressed the body, applied light cosmetics, just in case, placed the body in the casket and, well, left it there. Overnight. This morning, we brought the casket upstairs to the chapel.”
“Without checking the contents?”
“Nothing’s ever happened to the contents before,” the younger Mr. Hutchinson declared defensively.
“It must’ve happened during the night.” The elder Mr. Hutchinson shook a weary head. “After the casket comes upstairs, there’s no possible way anyone could remove the body without being seen.”
“No sign of a forced entry,” Fergusson mused aloud. “Who has keys?”
“Well, we do, of course. And Christy Aloman, who does all our paperwork and has been with the company for years. And, of course, there’s a spare set here, in my drawer. That’s strange.” He opened a second drawer and a third. “Oh, here they are.”
“Not where you usually keep them?”
“No. You don’t think that someone took them and made copies, do you, Detective?”
Detective Fergusson glanced back over his shoulder at the corner where Vicki and Celluci sat and lifted an eloquent brow. Then he sighed. “I try not to think, Mr. Hutchinson. It’s usually too depressing.”
“All right.” Celluci turned onto Division Street, one hand palming the wheel, the other grabbing air for emphasis. “Why would Tom Chen steal the body?”
“How the hell should I know?” Vicki snarled. “When we find him, I’ll ask him.”
“You don’t know he had anything to do with it.”
“No? We’re talking fake address and total disappearance the morning after the crime, that sure as shit sounds incriminating to me.”
“Not to mention the did-we-or-didn’t-we shuffle that went on in the embalming room. That girl who insisted on talking to the younger Mr. Hutchinson was probably a planned distraction.”
“Detective Fergusson and his partner are looking into it.”
Vicki turned to face him as they pulled into the parking lot at the apartment building. “So?”
“So let them do their job, Vicki.” Celluci parked and reached over the back of the seat for the bag of take-out chicken. “Fergusson’s promised to keep you completely informed.”
“Good.” She got out of the car and strode toward the building, the heels of her pumps making emphatic statements in the gravel. “It’ll make my job easier.”
“And your job is?” He had to ask. He didn’t need to, but he had to.
“Finding Tom Chen.”
Celluci took three long strides to catch up and then one more to cut in front and pull open the door to the apartment building. “Vicki, you do realize that Tom Chen, the name, the person, the body snatcher, is probably as fake as his address. How the hell are you going to find him?”
“When I find him… ” Her voice made the finding a fact not a possibility, and Celluci strongly suspected she hadn’t heard a word he’d said. “… I find my mother’s body.”
“Of all the lousy luck.”
Catherine frowned as she unbuckled number nine’s restraints and stepped back so he could climb out of his box. “I suppose it is unfortunate,” she said doubtfully, “but it doesn’t actually have anything to do with us.”
“Yeah, right.” Donald snorted. “Earth to Cathy: try to remember that we’re the ones who walked off with the body they’re looking for. Try to remember that body snatching is a crime.” His voice rose. “Try to remember that you’ll get bugger all amount of research done if they throw your ass in jail!” He jumped back as number nine suddenly lurched toward him. “Hey! Back off!”
“Stop shouting! He doesn’t like it.” Catherine reached for an undead arm. It took another two steps for the pressure of her fingers to register, but when it did, number nine obediently stopped. “It’s okay,” she said softly. “It’s okay.”
“It is not okay!” Donald threw both hands up into the air and whirled to face Dr. Burke. “Tell her, Doctor. Tell her it’s not okay!”
Dr. Burke looked up from the alpha wave pattern undulating across the monitor. “Donald,” she sighed, “I think you’re overreacting.”
His eyes bulged. “Overreacting! Try to remember that I’m the one they can identify!”
“No, you’re not.” While not exactly soothing, Dr. Burke’s tone was so matter-of-fact that it had the same effect. “They can identify Tom Chen, not Donald Li. But as Tom Chen doesn’t exist and there’s nothing to tie him to Donald Li, I think we can assume you’re safe.”
“But they know what I look like.” His protest had died to a near whine.
“Yes, the others at the funeral home could pick you out of a lineup, but you have my personal guarantee it will never go that far. What kind of a description can they give the police? A young Oriental male, about five-six; short dark hair; dark eyes; clean-shaven… ” Dr. Burke sighed again. “Donald, there are hundreds of students just at this university that fit that description, let alone those in the rest of the city.”
Donald glowered. “You saying we all look alike?”
“Just as alike as young Occidental males about five-eight; short brown hair; light eyes; clean-shaven, of which there are also hundreds at this university. I’m saying the police will never find you.” She bent over the electrocardiograph. “Just stay close for a few days and everything will be fine.”
“Stay close. Right.” He paced the length of the room and back, unwrapping a miniature chocolate bar he’d taken from his jacket pocket. “I was a grade A idiot to let you talk me into this. I knew this was going to be trouble, right from the start.”
“You knew,” Dr. Burke corrected, straightening, “this was going to make us all a great deal of money, right from the start. That the applications for the work we’re doing are infinite and the implications are staggering. That we might be talking Nobel Prize… “
“They don’t give the Nobel Prize to body snatchers,” Donald pointed out.
Dr. Burke smiled. “They do when they’ve conquered death,” she said. “Do you know what people would be willing to do for the information we’re discovering?”
“Well, I know what I’ve done for it.” Donald watched as across the lab Catherine guided number nine to a chair. Mere weeks ago, the ex-vagrant had been lying unclaimed on a slab. And now, if death hasn’t been reversed, well, it’s certainly been given a kick in the teeth. “Look, why wait any longer? With the tricks we’ve got Cathy’s bacteria to do already, not to mention old number nine’s apparent brain-computer interface, we could easily cop the prize now.”
“We’ve been through this, Donald. If we publish before we finish, we’ll never be permitted to finish.”
“Government,” Catherine interjected, “has no business regulating science.”
Donald looked from the doctor’s stern features to his fellow grad student’s obstinate stare. “Hey! I’m on your side, remember? I want my share of the profits not to mention a shot at a Nobel Prize. I just don’t want my butt getting tossed behind bars where some lowlife built like a gorilla will no doubt bend me over and ram… “
“You’ve made your point, Donald, but I honestly doubt that the police are going to put that much effort into finding young Mr. Chen. All too soon, there’ll be indignities performed on living bodies that will need their attention.”
“Yeah? Well what about that Vicki Nelson, the daughter? I hear she’s hot shit.”
Dr. Burke’s brows drew down. “While I find this sudden affection of yours for scatological references distasteful, you have a point. Not only was Ms. Nelson previously a police detective, but she’s now a private investigator, and not, by all reports, the sort of person to give up easily. Luckily, there’s exactly the same lack of information for her as there is for the police and while it might take her longer to grow discouraged, she still won’t find anything because we’ve been very careful to leave nothing for her to find. Haven’t we?”
“So stop worrying. It was unfortunate that they decided to open the casket, but it’s hardly the disaster you’re making it out to be. Don’t you have a tutorial this afternoon?”
“I thought you wanted me to stay close?”
“I want you to behave exactly as you normally do.”
He grinned, unable to worry about anything for long. “That is to say, badly?”
Dr. Burke shook her head and half-smiled. “Go.”
“Is he in any danger, Dr. Burke?”
“Didn’t I just say he wasn’t?”
“Yes, but… “
“Catherine, I have never lied to Donald. Lies are the easiest way to lose the loyalty of your associates.”
Apparently unconvinced, Catherine gnawed on her lower lip.
Dr. Burke sighed. “Didn’t I promise you,” she said gently, “back when you first approached me, that I’d take care of everything? That I’d see to it you could work without interference? And haven’t I kept my promise?”
Catherine released her lip and nodded.
“So you needn’t worry about anything but your work. Besides, Donald’s dedication to science isn’t as strong as ours.” She patted the isolation box that held the remains of Marjory Nelson. “Now then, if you could set up the muscle sequences, I’d best get back to my office. With Mrs. Shaw home having hysterics, God only knows what’s going on up there.”
Alone in the lab, Catherine crossed slowly to the keyboard and sat, staring thoughtfully at the monitor for a few moments. Donald’s dedication to science isn’t as strong as ours. She’d always known that. What she was just beginning to realize was that perhaps Dr. Burke’s dedication to science wasn’t as strong as it might be either. While there’d always been a lot of talk about the purity of research, this was the first she’d heard of infinite applications and profit sharing.
Behind lids that had lost the flexibility to completely open or completely close, filmy eyes tracked her every movement.
Number nine sat quietly, content for the moment to be out of the box.
And with her.
“So, how is she?”
Celluci stepped out of the apartment and pulled the door partially closed behind him. “Coping.”
“Humph. Coping. This evil thing has happened and all you can say is she’s coping.” Mr. Delgado shook his head. “Has she cried?”
“Not while I’ve been with her, no.” It took an effort, but Celluci managed not to resent the old man’s concern.
“Not other times either, I bet. Crying is for the weak; she isn’t weak, so she doesn’t cry.” He thumped a gnarled fist against his chest. “I cried like a baby, like a baby, I tell you, when my Rosa died.”
Celluci nodded slowly in agreement. “I cried when my father died.”
“Don’t be a smart ass. We, my Rosa and young Frank and me, we came from Portugal just after the second World War. I was a welder.”
“My father’s family came just before the war. He was a plumber.”
“There.” Mr. Delgado threw up both hands. “And if the two of us can cry, you’d think she could manage a tear or two without loss of machismo.”
Vicki’s voice drifted into the hall. “Mr. Chen? Perhaps you can help me, I’m looking for a young man, early twenties, named Tom Chen… “
Mr. Delgado’s shoulders sagged. “But no. No tears. She holds the hurt inside. You listen to what I’m saying to you, Officer Celluci. When that hurt finally comes out, it’s going to rip her to pieces.”
“I’ll be there for her.” He tried not to sound defensive, Vicki’s inability to deal with this wasn’t his fault, but he didn’t entirely succeed.
“What about the other guy? Will he be there, too?”
“I don’t know.”
“Humph. None of my business? Well, maybe not.” The old man sighed. “It’s hard when there’s nothing to do to help.”
Celluci echoed the sigh. “I know.”
Back inside the apartment, he leaned against the closed door and watched Vicki hurl the Kingston phone book across the room. “No luck?”
“So he doesn’t have a listed number, or a family in town.” She jabbed at the bridge of her glasses. “He’s probably a student. Lives in residence. I’ll find him.”
“Vicki… ” He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “You’re looking for a fake name. Anyone with the brains to pull this off also had the brains to work under an alias.” That he had to keep telling her this was a frightening indication of how deeply she’d been affected both by the death and the loss of the body. It was a conclusion any first-year police cadet would come to and should never have had to be pointed out to “Victory” Nelson. “Tom Chen is… “
“All we’ve got!” A muscle jumped in her jaw as she spat the words at him. “It’s a name. It’s something.”
It’s nothing. But he didn’t say it because behind the challenge he could hear her desperate need for something to hold onto. I suppose I should be happy she’s clutching at this instead of at Fitzroy. What would it hurt to go along with her? At least it would keep him close and in time she might decide to hold onto him. “All right, if he lives in residence, where’s he keeping… ” Not your mother. There had to be something better to call it. “… the body?”
“How the hell should I know? First thing tomorrow, I get my hands on the university registration lists.”
“How?” Celluci crossed the room and dropped onto the couch. “You don’t have a warrant and you can’t get a warrant. Why don’t you let the local police take care of it? Detective Fergusson seems to be positive it’s med students so I’m sure he’ll check the university.”
“So? I don’t care what Detective Fergusson checks. I don’t care if the whole fucking police force is on the case.” She stood and stomped into the tiny kitchen. “I’m going to find this son of a bitch and when I do I’ll… “
“You’ll what?” He surged up off the couch and charged into the kitchen after her, forgetting for the moment that Tom Chen was a name and nothing more. “Why do you want to find this guy before the police do? So you can indulge in a little more participatory justice?” Grabbing her shoulder, he spun her to face him, both of them ignoring the coffee that arced up out of the mug in her hand. “I closed my eyes last fall because there wasn’t a way to bring Mark Williams to trial without causing more damage than he was worth. But that isn’t the case here! Let the law deal with this, Vicki!”
“Yeah, you remember, what you used to be sworn to uphold.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Celluci. You know just how much manpower the law is going to be able to allot to this. I’m going to find him!”
“All right. And then?”
She closed her eyes for a second and when she opened them again they were shadowed, unreadable.
“When I find him, he’s going to wish he’d never laid a finger on my mother’s body.”
The calm, emotionless tone danced knives up Celluci’s spine. He knew she was speaking out of pain. He knew she meant every word. “This is Fitzroy’s influence,” he growled. “He taught you to take the law into your own hands.”
“Don’t blame this on Henry.” The tone became a warning. “I take responsibility for my own actions.”
“I know.” Celluci sighed, suddenly very, very tired. “But Henry Fitzroy… “
“Doesn’t know what you’re talking about.” The quiet voice from the doorway pulled them both around. Henry looked from Vicki to Celluci then settled himself on a kitchen chair. “Why don’t you tell me what went wrong?”
Henry stared at Celluci in some astonishment. “Why on earth do you think I would know the reason the body is missing?”
“Well, you’re… what you are.” It might have been said, but Celluci still wasn’t going to say it. Not right out. “It’s the sort of thing you should know about, isn’t it?”
“No. It isn’t.” He turned to Vicki. “Vicki, I’m so sorry, but I have no idea why anyone in this day and age would be body snatching.”
She shrugged. She really didn’t care why, all she wanted to know was who.
“Unless it wasn’t body snatching.” Celluci frowned, turning over a new and not very pleasant idea.
Henry’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“Suppose Marjory’s body wasn’t taken.” He paused, working at the thought. “Suppose she got up and walked out of there.”
Vicki’s coffee mug hit the floor and shattered.
“You’re crazy!” Henry snapped.
“Am I?” Celluci slammed both palms down on the table and leaned forward. “A year ago, some asshole tried to sacrifice Vicki to a demon. I saw that demon, Fitzroy. Last summer, I met a family of werewolves. In the fall, we saved the world from the mummy’s curse. Now I may be a little slow, but lately I’ve come to believe that there’s a fuck of a lot going on in this world that most people don’t know shit about. You exist; you tell me why Marjory couldn’t have got up and walked out of there!”
Henry shook his head and caught one of Vicki’s hands up in his. “They embalmed her, Vicki. There’s nothing that could survive that.”
“Maybe they didn’t.” Her fingers turned until she clutched at him. “They were confused about the rest. Maybe they didn’t.”
“No, Vicki, they did.” Celluci touched her gently on the arm, wondering why he couldn’t learn to keep his big mouth shut. He’d forgotten about the embalming. “I’m sorry. I should’ve thought it through. He’s right.”
“No.” There was a chance. She couldn’t let it go. “Henry, could you tell?”
“Yes, but… “
“Then go. Check. Just in case.”
“Vicki, I assure you that your mother did not rise… “
He looked at Celluci, who gave the smallest of shrugs. Your choice, the motion said. I’m sorry I started this. Henry nodded at the detective, apology accepted, and pulled his hand free of Vicki’s as he stood. She’d asked for his help. He’d give it. It was a small enough thing to do to bring her at least a little peace of mind. “Is the casket still at the funeral home?”
“Yes.” She began to rise as well, but he shook his head.
“No, Vicki. The last thing you need right now is to be picked up by the police while breaking and entering. If they’re watching the place, I can avoid them in ways you can’t.”
Vicki shoved at her glasses and dropped back in her chair, acknowledging his point but not happy about it.
“If I thought you suggested this merely to remove me,” Henry said quietly to Celluci at the door as he pocketed the directions, “I would be less than pleased.”
“But you don’t think it,” Celluci replied, just as quietly. “Why not?”
Henry looked up into the taller man’s eyes and smiled slightly. “Because I know an honorable man when I meet one.”
An honorable man. Celluci shot the bolt behind his rival and let his head drop against the molding. Goddamnit, I wish he ‘d stop doing that.
If the embalming had been done, the blood drawn out and replaced by a chemical solution designed to disinfect and preserve, to discourage life rather than sustain it, and from both Vicki’s and Celluci’s reports, the younger funeral director was certain it had, then there was no way that Marjory Nelson had risen to hunt the night. Nor did the manner of her death suggest the change.
Henry parked the BMW and stared into the darkness for a moment, one hundred percent certain that he would find nothing at the funeral home that the police had not already found. But I’m not going for information, I’m going for Vicki. Leaving her to spend the night alone with Michael Celluci.
He shook his head and got out of the car. Whether or not Celluci would take advantage of the time was irrelevant, Vicki had shut everything out of her life except the need to find the person or persons who had taken her mother’s body and the need to be comforted had been buried with the grief she hadn’t quite admitted. Because he loved her, he wouldn’t lie to her. He’d go to the funeral home, discover what he already knew, and let her delete one possible explanation beyond the shadow of a doubt.
But first, he had to feed.
Vicki hadn’t had the energy to spare and while he’d been tempted to prove his power to Celluci, that was a temptation he’d long since learned to resist. Besides, feeding required an intimacy he was not yet willing to allow between them and feeding from Celluci would take subtleties they hadn’t time for.
Head turned into the wind, he searched the night air. Half a block behind him, a dog erupted in a frenzied protest. Henry ignored it; he had no interest in the territory it claimed. There. His nostrils flared as he caught a scent, held it, and began to track it to its source.
The open window was on the second floor. Henry gained it easily, becoming for that instant just another shadow moving against the wall of the house, flickering too fast for mortal eyes to register what they saw. The screen was no barrier.
He moved so quietly that the two young men on the bed, skin slicked with sweat, breathing in identical tormented rhythms, had no idea he was there until he allowed it. The blond saw him first and managed an inarticulate exclamation before he was caught in the Hunter’s snare. Warned, the other whirled, one heavily muscled arm flung up.
Henry let the wrist slap against his palm, then he closed his fingers and smiled. Held in the depths of hazel eyes, the young man swallowed and began to tremble.
The bed sank under the weight of a third body.
He became an extension of their passion which quickly grew and intensified and finally ignited, racing up nerve endings until mere mortals became lost in the burning glory of it.
He left the way he came. In the morning, they’d find the catch on the screen had been broken and have no idea of when it had happened. Their only memory of his participation would keep them trying, night after night, to recreate what he had given them. He wished them joy in the attempt.
The casket had not been moved from the chapel. Henry stared down at it in distaste. He could no more understand why they’d covered the wood with blue-gray cloth than he could the need to enshrine empty flesh in expensive, beautiful cabinets, sealed against rot and protected from putrefaction. In his day, it was the ceremony of interment that had been important, the mourning, the declarations of grief, the long and complicated farewell. Massive monuments to the dead were placed so people could appreciate them, not buried for the pleasure of the worms. What was wrong, he wondered, stepping closer, with a plain wooden box? He’d been buried in a plain wooden box.
The sandbags had been taken away, but the imprint still showed in the satin pillow. Henry shook his head and leaned forward. There was no comfort for the dead and he couldn’t see how denying that comforted the living.
Suddenly, he hesitated. The last time he’d bent over a coffin that should not have been empty he’d ended up nearly losing his soul. But the ancient Egyptian wizard who called himself Anwar Tawfik had never been dead and Marjory Nelson assuredly had. He was being foolish.
There was a hint of Vicki’s mother about the interior. He’d spent the day surrounded by her scent and he easily recognized the trace that still clung to the fabric under the patina of odor laid on by the day’s investigation. Straightening, he was certain that whatever else she’d done in her life, or her death, Marjory Nelson had not risen as one of his kind.
But there was something.
Over the centuries, he’d breathed in the scent of death in all its many variations, but this death, this faint suggestion that clung to the inside of nose and mouth, this death he didn’t know.
“Dr. Burke, look at this! We’re definitely picking up independent brain wave patterns.”
“Are you certain we’re not just getting echos of what we’ve been feeding in?”
“Quite certain.” Catherine tapped the printout with one gnawed nail. “Look at this spike here. And here.”
Donald leaned over the doctor’s shoulder and squinted down at the wide ribbon of paper. “Electronic belching,” he declared, straightening. “And after thirty hours of this-is-your-life, I’m not surprised.”
“You may be right, Donald.” Dr. Burke lightly touched each peak, a smile threatening the corners of her mouth. “On the other hand, we might actually have something here. Catherine, I think we should open the isolation box.”
Both grad students jerked around to stare at their adviser.
“But it’s too soon,” Catherine protested. “We’ve been giving the bacteria a minimum of seventy-two hours… “
“And it hasn’t been entirely successful,” Dr. Burke broke in. “Now has it? We lost the first seven, number eight is beginning to putrefy, and according to this morning’s samples, even number nine hasn’t begun any cellular regeneration in muscle tissue. The near disaster with number five proved that we can’t continue isolation much past seventy-two hours, so let’s see what happens when we cut it short.”
Catherine ran her hand over the curved surface of the box. “I don’t know… “
“Besides,” the doctor continued, “if these spikes do indicate independent brain wave activity, then further time in what is essentially a sensory deprivation chamber will very likely… “
“Squash them flat.”
The two women turned.
“Inelegant, Donald, but essentially correct.”
Pale eyes scanned the array of hookups: monitors and digital readouts and one lone dial. “Well, except for the continuous alpha wave input, she isn’t actually doing anything in there,” Catherine admitted thoughtfully.
Dr. Burke sighed and decided, for the moment, to let Catherine’s terminology stand. “My point exactly. Donald, if you would do the honors. Catherine, keep an eye on things and if there are any changes at all, sing out.”
The seal sighed open, the hint of formaldehyde on the escaping oxygen-rich air surely an illusion, and the heavy lid rose silently on its counterweights. The body of Marjory Nelson lay naked and exposed on what had been a sterile pad, huge purple scars stapled shut. Hair, already becoming brittle, fell away from the clips that held the top of the skull in place. A faint trace of burial cosmetics painted an artificial blush across cheekbones death-mask prominent.
At her station by the monitors, Catherine frowned. “I’m not sure. It could be a loose connection. Dr. Burke, could you please check the jack.”
Pulling on a pair of surgical gloves, Dr. Burke bent over and reached to roll the head a little to the left.
Gray-blue eyes snapped open.
“Holy shit!” Donald danced backward, crashed into number nine’s box, and clutched at it for support.
Dr. Burke froze, one hand almost cradling the line of jaw.
One second. Two seconds. Three seconds. An eternity.
As suddenly as they opened, the eyes closed.
Her view of the body blocked by equipment, Catherine ignored Donald’s outburst, in her opinion they came too often to mean anything, and sighed. “Just a wiggle. Probably something in the wire.”
“In the wire!” The stethoscope around Donald’s neck swung in a manic arc. “We didn’t get a wiggle, partner, we got recognition.”
“What?” Catherine shot to her feet and stared from Donald to Dr. Burke. “What happened?”
“We opened the lid, she opened her eyes, and bam!” Donald punched at the air. “Just for an instant, she knew who was standing over her. I’m telling you, Cathy, she recognized Dr. Burke!”
“Nonsense.” Dr. Burke calmly checked the implant before straightening. “It was an involuntary reaction to the light. Nothing more.” The peeled gloves slammed into the garbage. “Switch off the oxygen supplement, we’ve only got three full tanks left and I’m not sure when we can get more from the departmental supplies, and run a complete check on the mechanicals. Draw the usual samples.”
“And the alpha waves?”
“Keep recording.” A little pale under the glare of the fluorescents, Dr. Burke paused at the door. “But at the first sign of any agitation, cut the power. I have things to catch up on, so I’ll see you both later.”
Catherine’s puzzled gaze traveled from the lab door to Donald.
“Sure as shit looked like recognition to me,” he repeated, wiping his palms on his pants. “I think the good doctor’s spooked and I don’t blame her. Spooked me, too, and I barely knew the woman.”
Catherine chewed her lip. “Well, it didn’t register electronically.”
He shrugged. “Then maybe we’ve got activity going on outside the net.”
On cue, number nine began banging on the inside of his box.
Donald jumped and swore, but Catherine looked suddenly stricken.
“Oh, no! I promised him he wouldn’t have to spend more time in there than absolutely necessary to maintain the integrity of the experiment.”
Watching her hurry across the lab, Donald fished a candy from his pocket and methodically unwrapped it. Now that’s a person who doesn’t get out enough.
Usually, Dr. Burke considered the sound of her footsteps, leather soles slapping against tile, nothing more than background noise, acknowledged then forgotten. Today, the sound chased her through the empty halls of the old Life Sciences building, across the connecting walkway, and up into the sanctuary of her office. Even tucked into the comforting depths of her old wooden chair, she thought she could still hear the echoing trail she’d left. After a moment, she realized she was listening to the rapid pounding of her heart.
You’re being ridiculous, she told herself firmly, palms flat on the desk. Take a deep breath and stop overreacting.
Marjory Nelson’s heart condition, not to mention her accessibility, had made her the perfect candidate for the next phase of the experiment. Brain waves had been recorded, tissue samples had been taken, bacteria had been specifically tailored to her DNA, all in preparation for her death. Or rather for the attempted reversal of it. Marjory, knowing nothing of what they’d been doing, submitted to the tests she’d been told might help, and died right on schedule.
Right on schedule. A second deep breath followed the first. It was fast and painless when it otherwise might not have been. Not to mention that her presence at the collapse had ensured they wouldn’t have to worry about the tissue destruction inherent in an autopsy.
Squaring her shoulders, Dr. Burke pulled the morning’s mail across the desk. They were reversing death. Catherine might have created the bacteria, but without her involvement this application would still be years, if not decades, in the future. She had made possible the logical progression of Catherine’s experiments and she would reap the rewards.
If recognition had flashed just for that instant in Marjory’s eyes, then they trembled on the brink of success long before empirical data suggested they should.
If recognition had occurred then…
Marjory Nelson is dead and I’m truly sorry about that. She was an essential member of my staff and I’ll miss her. With a deft movement, Dr. Burke slid the letter opener the length of the envelope. The body in the lab is experimental unit number ten. Nothing more.
“I already spoke to the police about this, Ms. Nelson.” Nervously, Christy Aloman shuffled the papers on her desk. “I don’t know if I should be speaking to you.”
“Did the police tell you not to speak to anyone else?”
“No, but… “
“You have to admit, if anyone has a right to know, it’s me.” Vicki felt the pencil dig deep into the callus on her second finger and forced her hand to relax.
“Yes, but… “
“My mother’s body was stolen from these premises.”
“I know, but… “
“I should think you’d want to do what you could to help.”
“I do. Truly I do.” She made the mistake of looking at Vicki’s face and found she couldn’t look away. Gray-blue eyes were like chiseled bits of frozen stone and she felt as she had when, so many winters ago, she’d responded to childish dares and touched the metal gatepost with her tongue, foolish and trapped.
“Then tell me everything you can remember about Tom Chen. How he looked. What he wore. How he acted. What he said. What you overheard.”
“Everything?” It was complete surrender and they both knew it.
“I don’t suppose you ever wore anything like this when you were alive.” Catherine pulled the Queen’s University sweatpants up over number nine’s hips. Grayish skin glistened with the most recent application of estrogen cream. “I mean all things considered, you were in pretty good shape, but you didn’t look like a jock. Sit.”
Number nine obediently sat.
“Raise your arms. Higher.”
A bit of agar oozed out between incision staples over the sternum as number nine’s arms lifted into the air.
Catherine ignored it and tugged a matching sweatshirt down over the arms and head. “There you go. A pair of shoes and you’re fit for polite company.”
“Cathy, I hate to say this, but you’re looney tunes.” Donald pushed away from the microscope and rubbed his eyes. “You’re talking to an animatronic corpse. It doesn’t understand you.”
“I think he does.” She slid one bony foot into a running shoe, pressing the velcro closed. “And if maybe he doesn’t understand all of it now, he’ll never learn to understand if we don’t talk to him.”
“I know. I know. Necessary stimulus. But we’re not getting anything back-brain wave wise, that we haven’t put in. Granted,” he held up a hand to cut off her protest, “we’re getting some evidence of interfacing with gross motor skills. You don’t need to give every muscle fiber a separate instruction and that’s fucking amazing, but face it,” he tapped his head, “there’s nothing upstairs. The tenant is gone.”
Catherine snorted and patted number nine reassuringly on the shoulder. “Great bedside manner. I can see why you got kicked out of med school.”
“I didn’t get kicked out.” Donald set another slide under the microscope lens. “I made a lateral move into graduate studies in organic chemistry.”
“Not an entirely voluntary move from what I heard. I heard Dr. Burke had to save your ass.”
“Catherine!” Miming shock and horror, Donald spread both hands wide. “I didn’t know you knew such words.” He shook his head and grinned. “You’ve spent too much time with single-celled orgasms… “
“… you need to get a life.”
Catherine moved to number eight’s box and adjusted the power. “Somebody has to stay here and take care of them.”
Donald sighed. “Better you than me.”
As electronic impulses continued to move out from the net, more and more words were returning. Hold. Want. Have. Number nine didn’t know what to do with those words, not yet.
“Is she asleep?”
“Yes.” Henry sank down onto the sofa and rested his arms across his knees, the scattering of red-gold hair below his rolled-up sleeves glittering in the lamplight.
“Did you have to… convince her?”
“Very nearly, but no. I merely helped her to calm and exhaustion did the rest.”
Celluci snorted. “Helped her to calm?” he growled. “Is that a euphemism for something I don’t want to know about?”
Henry ignored the question. “It’s late. What are you doing up?”
Lifting his feet up onto the coffee table and stretching long legs, Celluci grunted, “Couldn’t sleep.”
“Do you want to?”
It was asked innocently enough. No. Not innocently. Nothing Fitzroy did came under the heading of innocent. Neutrally enough. “No.” Celluci tried to keep his response equally neutral. “I just thought that if you had any idea of what we’re supposed to do next, well, I’d like to hear it.”
Henry shrugged and threw a quick glance back over his shoulder toward the bedroom where Vicki’s heart beat slow and steady, finally free of the angry pounding it had no doubt taken all day. “I honestly have no idea.” He turned to look through the shadows at the other man. “Don’t you have a job to go back to?”
“Compassionate leave,” Celluci told him shortly, eyes half closed. “Shouldn’t you be out, oh, I don’t know, stalking the night or something?”
“Shouldn’t you be out detecting?”
“Detecting what? It hardly makes sense to stake out the scene of the crime and you can bet that asshole Chen, or whatever his real name is, has vanished. All the profiles in the world won’t help us identify a perp we can’t find.”
Henry reached down and fanned the papers on the coffee table by Celluci’s feet. Vicki had spent the evening compiling the day’s data and when he’d risen, just before eight, she’d presented her results.
“I spoke to everyone who might have had contact with him, except one of three bus drivers, and I’ll speak to him tomorrow. Clothes and hairstyles may change, but tiny habits are harder to break. He smiles a lot. Even when he’s alone and there’s nothing apparent to smile about. He drinks Coke Classic exclusively. He usually has some kind of candy in his pocket. He most often sits in the seat in front of the rear door next to the window. He’d get on the Johnson Street bus at Brock and Montreal with a ticket, not a transfer. That probably means he lives downtown.”
Henry had been impressed; and equally concerned. “Victory” Nelson appeared to have no room in her investigation for grieving. A steady emotional diet of rage, especially at this time, couldn’t be healthy. He scanned the pages of notes and shook his head. “She’s got everything here but a picture.”
Reluctantly, Celluci agreed. Years of training seemed to have gained a foothold in Vicki’s emotional response and she was now searching for the person instead of just blindly clutching at the name. “Detective Fergusson says he’ll try to free up the police artist tomorrow.”
“Why do I get the feeling that Detective Fergusson doesn’t think that’s necessary?”
“It’s not that. It’s resources. Or specifically lack of resources. As he pointed out, and this is a quote, ‘Yeah, it’s a terrible thing, but we can’t hardly keep up with indignities done to the living.'” Celluci’s lips thinned as he remembered various “indignities” he’d witnessed done to the living that had gone unpunished due to lack of manpower, or departmental budget cuts, or just plain bad management. He didn’t, by any means, approve of Vicki’s recent conversion to vigilantism, but, by God, he understood it. The satisfaction of knowing that Anwar Tawfik was dust and this time would stay dust, of knowing Mark Williams had paid for the innocents he’d slaughtered, of knowing that Norman Birdwell would loose no further horrors on the city, all of that weighed heavily against law in the scales Justice held.
He peered blearily at Henry Fitzroy from under heavy lids. How many others had there been? Hundreds? Thousands? While he’d been busting his butt and walking his feet flat, had Fitzroy and others like him been spending the night methodically squashing the cockroaches of humanity? Celluci snorted silently. If they were, they were doing a piss poor job.
Vampires. Werewolves. Demons. Mummies. Only for Vicki would he even consider accepting such a skewed view of reality. Maybe he should’ve listened to his family, married a nice Italian girl, and settled down. Much as Henry had done earlier, he shot a glance over his shoulder toward the bedrooms. No. A nice girl, Italian or otherwise, couldn’t hope to compete. Vicki was a comrade, and a friend, and, as asinine as it sounded, the woman he loved. He’d stand by her now when she needed him, regardless of who, or what, stood by her other side.
He didn’t want to have anything to do with Henry Fitzroy. He didn’t want to respect him. He sure as shit didn’t want to like him. He appeared to have no choice regarding the first point, had months ago lost the second, and strongly suspected, in spite of everything, that he was losing the third. Jesus. Buddies with a bloodsucker. Responses had to be filtered through the memory of power he’d been shown in Vicki’s living room. Safer to play with a pit bull.
Henry felt the weight of Celluci’s gaze and tried to remember the last occasion on which he’d spent this much time alone with a mortal he hadn’t been feeding from. Or hadn’t intended to feed from. The situation was, to say the least, unusual.
In all his long life, Henry had seldom felt so frustrated. “We can’t resolve this,” he said aloud, “until the body is found and interred, and her grieving is over.”
Celluci didn’t bother pretending to misunderstand what this referred to, although he was tempted. “So find the body,” he suggested, a yawn threatening to dislocate his jaw.
Henry arched a brow. “So easy to say,” he murmured.
“Yeah? What about that funny smell Vicki says you ran into last night?”
“I am not a bloodhound, Detective. Besides, I traced it as far as it went, to the parking lot.”
“What did it smell like?”
“Not surprising. You were in a body parlor.” He yawned again.
“Funeral homes go to a great deal of effort not to smell like death. This was something different.”
“Oh, lord, not again,” Celluci groaned, dragging a hand up through his hair. “What is it this time? The creature from the Rideau Canal? The Loch Ness fucking monster? The Swamp Thing? Godzilla? Megatron? Gondor? Rodan?”
“Didn’t you ever watch Saturday afternoon monster movies?” He shook his head at Henry’s expression. “No, I guess you didn’t, did you? Every weekend thousands of kids were glued to their sets for badly dubbed, black and white, Japanese rubber monsters stomping on Tokyo. Not to mention Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, The Curse of the Werewolf.”
A car door, slamming in the parking lot, suddenly sounded unnaturally loud.
“Jesus H. Christ.” Celluci’s eyes were fully open. Still tired, he no longer had any desire to sleep. He sat up and swung his feet to the floor. “A motive. You don’t think… “
“That Tom Chen was playing Igor to someone else’s Dr. Frankenstein?” Henry smiled. “I think, as I said before, that you watch too many bad movies, Detective.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, you know what I think? I think… “
Bam. Bam. Bam.
They faced the door, then they faced each other.
“The police,” Celluci said, and stood.
“No.” Henry blocked his way. He could feel the lives, hear the singing blood, smell the excitement. “Not police although I suspect they’d like us to think so.”
Bam. Bam. Bam.
“I don’t know.” He crossed the room. When he stopped, Celluci moved up to stand behind his left shoulder. It had been a very long time since he’d had a shield man. He opened the door.
The flash went off almost before he could react. A mortal would have recoiled, Henry’s hand whipped out and covered the lens of the camera before the shutter had completely fallen. He snarled as the brilliant light drove spikes of pain into sensitive eyes and closed his fingers. Plastic and glass and metal became only plastic and glass and metal.
The photographer’s companion ignored both the sound of a camera disintegrating and the accompanying squawk of protest. Sometimes they got a great candid shot when the door opened, sometimes they didn’t. She wasn’t going to worry about it. “Good evening. Is Victoria Nelson at home?” Elbows primed, her notebook held like a battering ram, she attempted to push forward. Most people, she found, were just too polite to stop her.
The slight young man never budged; it felt like she’d hit a not very tall brick wall. Time for plan B. And if that didn’t work, she’d go right through the alphabet if she had to. “We were so sorry to hear about what happened to her mother’s bo… ” Her train of thought derailed somewhere in the depths of hazel eyes.
Henry decided not to be subtle. He wasn’t in the mood and they wouldn’t understand. “Go away. Stay away.”
Darkness colored the words and became threat enough.
Not until they were safely in the car, cocooned behind steel and locked doors, did the photographer, cradling the ruins of his camera in his lap, finally find his voice. “What are we going to do?” he asked, primal memories of the Hunt trembling in his tone.
“We’re going to do… ” With an icy hand and shaking fingers, she jammed the car into gear, stomped on the gas, and sprayed gravel over half the parking lot. “… exactly what he said.”
Together they’d been threatened a hundred times. Maybe a thousand. Once, they’d even been attacked by an ex-NHL defenseman swinging a hockey stick with enraged abandon. They’d always gotten the story. Or a version of the story at least. This time, something in heart and soul, in blood and bone recognized the danger and overruled conscious thought.
Inside Marjory Nelson’s apartment, Celluci glared enviously at the back of Henry’s red-gold head. If he hated anything, it was the press. The statements they insisted on were the bane of his existence. “I wish I could do that,” he muttered.
Henry wisely kept from voicing the obvious and made sure all masks were back in place before turning. This was not the time for Michael Celluci to see him as a threat.
Celluci rubbed at the side of his nose and sighed. “There’ll probably be others.”
“I’ll deal with them.”
“And if they come in the daytime?”
“You deal with them.” Henry’s smile curved predator sharp. “You’re not on duty, Detective. You can be as rude as… ” Just how rude Celluci could be got lost in a sudden change of expression and a heartbeat later he was racing for the bedroom.
To mortal eyes, one moment he was there, the next gone. Celluci turned in time to see Vicki’s bedroom door thrown open, swore, and pounded across the living room. He hadn’t heard anything. What the hell had Fitzroy heard?
How could she have forgotten?
She dug frantically at the tiles in the kitchen. As they ripped free, she flung them behind her, ignoring the fingernail that ripped free with them, ignoring the blood from her hands that began to mark its own pattern on the floor. Almost there. Almost.
The area she cleared stretched six feet long by three feet wide, the edges ragged. Finally only the plywood subfloor remained. Rot marked the gray-brown wood and tendrils of pallid fungus grew between the narrow boards. Fighting for breath, she slammed her fists against this last barrier.
The wood cracked, splintered, and gave enough for her to force a grip on the first piece. She threw her weight against it and it lifted with a moist, sucking sound, exposing a line of gray-blonde curls and perhaps a bit of shoulder.
How could she have forgotten where she’d left her mother?
Begging for forgiveness, she clawed at the remaining boards… .
“Vicki! Vicki, wake up, it’s only a dream.”
She couldn’t stop the first cry, but she grabbed at the second and wrestled it back where it came from. Her conscious mind clung to the reassurances murmured over and over against her hair. Her subconscious waited for the next board to be removed. Her hands clung of their own volition, fingers digging deep into the shoulder and arm curved protectively around her.
“It’s all right, Vicki. It’s all right. I’m here. It was only a dream. I’m here. I’ve got you… ” The words, Henry knew, were less important than the tone and as he spoke he drew the cadence around the fierce pounding of her heart and convinced it to calm.
She fought the terror for control of her breathing and won at last. A long breath in. A longer breath out. And then again.
Henry almost heard the barriers snap back into place as she pushed away, chin rising defiantly.
“I’m okay.” It was only a dream. You’re acting like a child. “Really, I’m okay.” The darkness shifted things, moved furniture that hadn’t been moved in fifteen years. Where the hell is the bedside table? “Turn on the light,” she commanded, struggling to keep new panic from touching her voice. “I need my glasses.”
A cool touch against her hand and her fingers closed gratefully around the heavy plastic frames. A second touch helped her settle them on her nose just as the room flooded with light. Squinting against the glare, she turned to face the switch and Michael Celluci’s worried frown.
“Jesus. Both of you.”
“I’m afraid so.” Henry shifted his weight on the edge of the bed and asked, without much hope of success, “Do you want to talk about it?”
Her lip curled. “Not likely.” Talking about it would mean thinking about it. Thinking about what she’d have found, what she’d have seen, if she’d managed to tear up just one more piece of floor… .
“Celluci? Fergusson. Med school’s got three Chens. One of them’s even a Tom Chen, Thomas Albert Chen. And guess what, the kid’s got an airtight alibi not only for that night but for the whole two and a half weeks our boy was at the body parlour. Rough luck, eh?”
Celluci, receiver pinned between shoulder and ear, washed down a forkful of scrambled eggs with a mouthful of bitter coffee. He hadn’t thought Fergusson a subtle enough man for sarcasm. Obviously, he’d been wrong. “Yeah, rough. You take his picture around to Hutchinson’s just in case?”
“Give it up, Celluci, and stop wasting my fucking time. You and I both know that we’re not looking for any Tom Chen.” Fergusson sighed at Celluci’s noncommittal grunt, the sound eloquently saying give me a break. “Tell Ms. ex-Detective Nelson that I’m sorry about her mother, but I know what the fuck I’m doing. I’ll get back to you if we get any real information in.”
Celluci managed to hang up and shovel another pile of eggs into his mouth before he succumbed to Vicki’s glare and repeated the conversation. She might have dropped off, reassured by Fitzroy’s supernatural protection but he’d spent a restless night stretched out in the next room, straining to hear any sound that might make its way through the wall, wondering why he’d so easily surrendered the field. You’ve got the day, he reminded himself, reaching for another piece of toast. Which was really no answer at all. Goddamn Fitzroy anyway. Hopefully, massive quantities of food would make up for lost sleep.
Vicki pushed her plate away. She knew she had to eat, but there was a limit to how much she could choke past the knots. “I want you to check that alibi.”
Oh, God, not again. He’d really thought that she’d shaken her obsession that Tom Chen could be the actual name of their suspect. The profiling she’d done had been good solid police work and he’d taken it, prematurely as it turns out, as an indication that she was beginning to function. Hiding concern she wouldn’t appreciate, he reached across the table and covered one of her hands with his. There was no point in restating the obvious when she refused to hear him, so he tried a different angle. “Vicki, Detective Fergusson knows his job.”
“Either you check it or I do.” Pulling her hand free, she regarded him levelly. “I won’t let this go. You can’t make me. You might as well help; it’ll be over sooner.”
Her eyes were too bright and he could see the tension twisting her shoulders and causing her fingers to tremble slightly. “Look, Vicki… “
“I don’t need a babysitter, Mike. Not you. Not him.”
“All right.” He sighed. She’d asked for his help. While it wasn’t exactly the kind of help he wanted to give, it was something. “I’ll check the alibi and I’ll run a picture over to Hutchinson’s. I don’t think you should be alone, but you’re an adult and you’re right this will go faster with both of us working on it.”
“All three of us.”
“Fine.” Too much to expect she’d want Fitzroy to butt out, “What’ll you be doing?”
She set her empty coffee mug down on the table with a sharp crack. “Tom Chen wanted my mother’s body specifically. In the time he was at that funeral home, he passed up two other women of roughly equal age and condition. I’ll be finding out why.” As she stood, she knocked her knife to the floor. It bounced once, then slid across the kitchen floor, across tiles still whole, still covering…
How could she have forgotten where she’d left her mother?
The eggs became a solid lump the size of her fist, shoved up tight against her ribs. Eyes up, she stepped over the knife. Another two steps took her off the tiles.
Gray-blonde curls and perhaps a bit of shoulder.
Just one more board… .
“Raise right leg.” As Donald spoke, he fed the stored brain wave pattern corresponding to the command directly into the net.
In the open isolation box, the right leg trembled and slowly lifted about four inches off the padding.
“Hey, Cathy, we’ve got a fast learner here. Remember how ol’ number nine’s leg flew up? Like he was trying to kick the ceiling?”
“I remember how Dr. Burke was worried he might have damaged his hip joint,” Catherine replied, continuing to adjust the IV drip that nourished the rapidly deteriorating number eight. “And at least we didn’t have to manipulate his leg for the first hundred times like we had to on all the others.”
“Hey, chill out. I wasn’t saying anything against super-corpse. I was only pointing out that number ten seems to have quantitative control.”
“Well, we are using her brain wave patterns.”
“Well, number nine used my brain wave patterns for gross motor control.” He echoed her supercilious tone. “So he should’ve had the advantage.”
“I’m amazed he learned how to walk.”
“Ow.” Donald dramatically clutched at his heart. “I am cut to the quick.” Rolling his eyes at her nonresponsive back, he tapped another two computer keys. “And it’s painful going through life with a cut quick, let me tell you. Lower right leg.”
Surrendering to gravity, the right leg dropped.
“Raise left leg. I’ve got a feeling that number ten’s going to be the baby that makes our fortune.”
Catherine frowned as she moved to check on number nine. There’s been too much talk of “making fortunes” lately. The discovery of new knowledge should be an end in itself; the consideration of monetary gains clouded research. Granted number ten represented a giant step forward as far as experimental data was concerned, but she was by no means as far as they could go.
There was something she had to do.
The need began to force definition onto oblivion.
“Frankly, Vicki, I’m amazed your mother didn’t tell you all this.” Adjusting her glasses, Dr. Friedman peered down at Marjory Nelson’s file. “After all, we had a diagnosis about seven months ago.”
Vicki’s expression didn’t change, although a muscle twitched in her jaw. “Did she know how bad it was?” She could refer to anyone’s mother, not that the illusion of distance helped. “Did she know that her heart could give out at any time?”
“Oh, yes. In fact, we’d agreed to try corrective surgery but, well… ” The doctor shrugged ruefully. “You know how these things keep getting put off, what with hospitals having to trim beds.”
“Are you saying budget cutbacks killed her?” The words came out like ground glass.
Dr. Friedman shook her head and tried to keep her tone soothing. “No. A heart defect killed your mother. She’d probably had it all her life until, finally, an aging muscle couldn’t compensate any longer.”
“Was it a usual condition?”
“It wasn’t a usual condition… “
Vicki cut her off with a knife-edged gesture. “Was it unusual enough that her body may have been stolen in order to study it?”
“No, I’m sorry, but it wasn’t.”
“I’d like to see the file.”
Brow furrowed, Dr. Friedman studied the plain brown folder without really seeing it. Technically, the file was confidential, but Marjory Nelson was dead and beyond caring. Her daughter, however, was alive, and if the contents of the file could help to bring healing out of dangerously strong denial, then confidentiality be damned. And it wasn’t as if the file contained anything she hadn’t already divulged during the last hour’s interrogation, details had been lifted out of her memory with a surgical precision both frightening and impressive. Reaching a decision she pushed the folder across the desk and asked, “If there’s anything else I can do?”
“Thank you, Doctor.” Vicki slid the file into her purse and stood. “I’ll let you know.”
As that hadn’t been exactly what she had in mind, she tried again. “Have you spoken to anyone about your loss?”
“My loss?” Vicki smiled tightly. “I’m speaking to everyone about it.” She nodded, more a dismissal than a farewell, and left the office.
Loss, Dr. Friedman decided, as the door swung shut, had been an unfortunate choice of words.
She almost had it. Almost managed to grab onto memory. There was something she had to do. Needed to do.
“Cathy. She made a noise.”
“What kind of a noise? Tissue stretching? Joints cracking, what?”
“A vocal noise.”
Catherine sighed. “Donald… “
“No. Really.” He backed away, still holding the sweatshirt he’d been about to pull over electronically raised arms. “It was a kind of moan.”
“Nonsense.” Catherine took the shirt out of his hands and gently tugged it down into place. “It was probably just escaping air. You’re too rough.”
“Yeah, and I know the difference between a belch and a moan.” Cheeks pale, he crossed to his desk and dropped into the chair, fingers shredding the wrapper off a mint. “I’m going to start running today’s biopsies. You can finish dressing Ken and Barbie.”
“Your mother was a pretty everyday sort of person.” Mrs. Shaw smiled sadly over the edge of her coffee mug. “You were probably the most exotic thing in her life.”
Vicki let the sympathy wash past her, waves over a rock, and pushed at her glasses. “You’re certain she wasn’t involved in any unusual activities over the last few months?”
“Oh, I’m certain. She would’ve told me about it if she had been. We talked about everything, your mother and I.”
“You knew about the heart condition.”
“Of course. Oh.” Flustered, the older woman cast about for a way to erase her last words. “Uh, more coffee?”
“No. Thank you.” Vicki set what had been her mother’s cup down on what had been her mother’s desk, then reached over and gently laid her academy graduation portrait facedown.
“An investigation must not become personal.” The voice of a cadet instructor echoed in her head. “Emotions camouflage fact and you can charge right past the one bit of evidence you need to break the case.”
“Actually, if anything, well, unusual was going on with your mother, Dr. Burke might know.” Mrs. Shaw set her own mug down and leaned forward helpfully. “When she found out about the heart condition, she convinced your mother to have a whole lot of tests done.”
“What kind of tests?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think your mother… “
Stop saying that! Your mother! Your mother! She had a name.
“Is Dr. Burke available?”
“Not this afternoon, I’m afraid. She’s in a departmental meeting right now, but I’m sure she’ll be able to make time for you tomorrow morning.”
“Thank you.” Moving carefully, Vicki stood. “I’ll be back.” Lips twisted in a humorless smile. She felt more like Charlie Brown than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Goddamn, look at the time. It’s almost 8:30 in the p.m. No wonder I’m so hungry.”
Catherine carefully set the petri dish in the incubation chamber. “Hungry? I don’t see why, you’ve been eating sugar all day.”
“Cathy. Cathy. Cathy. And you a scientist. Sugar stimulates hunger, it doesn’t satisfy it.”
Pale brows drew in. “I don’t think that’s exactly right.”
Donald shrugged into his jacket. “Who cares. Let’s go for pizza.”
“I still have work to do.”
“I still have work to do. But I doubt I’ll be capable of working to my full potential if all I can think of is my stomach. And,” he crossed the room and punched her on the shoulder, brows waggling, “I’m sure I heard your tum demanding attention mere moments ago.”
“Doesn’t your research deserve to have your full attention?”
She drew herself up indignantly. “Without question.”
“Distracted by hunger, who knows what damage you could do. Come on.” He picked up her coat. “I hate to eat alone.”
Recognizing truth in the last statement at least, Catherine allowed herself to be herded to the door. “What about them?”
“Them?” For a moment, he had no idea of who she was referring to, then he sighed. “We’ll bring them back a pepperoni special, pop it in a blender, and feed it to them through the IV, okay?”
“That’s not what I meant. They’re just sitting there, out of the boxes. Shouldn’t we… “
“Leave them. We’re coming right back.” He pulled her over the threshold. “You’re the one who said they needed the stimulation.”
“Yes. I did.”
With Catherine safely in the hall, Donald reached back and flicked off the overhead lights. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he caroled into the room, and pulled the door closed.
One by one, the distractions ceased. First the voices. Then the responses she couldn’t control or understand. Finally, the painful brightness. It grew easier to hold on to thought. To memory.
There was something she had to do.
Raise your right leg.
Raise your left leg.
She remembered walking.
Slowly, lurching to compensate for a balance subtly wrong, she crossed the room.
It took both hands, fingers interlaced, to turn the handle, not the way memory said it should work, but memory lay in shredded pieces.
There was something she had to do.
Needed to do.
Number nine watched. Watched the walking. Watched the leaving.
This new one was not like the other. The other had no…
The other was empty.
This new one was not empty. This new one was like him.
Two new words.
He thought they might be important words.
He stood and walked, as he’d been taught, toward the door.
“This isn’t the eighteenth century, Fitzroy. Medical schools stopped hiring grave diggers some time ago.”
Henry tugged at the lapels of his black leather trench coat, settling it forward on his shoulders. “You have a better idea, Detective?”
Celluci scowled. He didn’t, and they both knew it.
“Historical precedents aside,” Henry continued, “Detective Fergusson seems certain that there were medical students involved; an opinion based, no doubt, on local precedents.”
“Detective Fergusson blames Queen’s students for everything from traffic jams to the weather,” Celluci pointed out acerbically. “And I thought your opinion of Detective Fergusson wasn’t high.”
“I’ve never even met the man.”
“You said… “
“Enough,” Vicki interrupted from her place on the couch, the tap, tap, tap of her pencil end against the coffee table a staccato background to her words. “Logically, all the storage facilities in the city should be searched. Also logically, for historical reasons, if nothing else, the medical school is the place to start.”
“Those who refuse to learn from history,” Henry agreed quietly, “are doomed to repeat it.”
“Spare me the wisdom of the ages,” Celluci muttered. “These places don’t do public tours at midnight, you know; how are you planning on getting in?”
“It’s hardly midnight.”
“At twenty to nine, it’s hardly open house either.”
“It’s April, the end of term, there’ll be students around, and even if there aren’t, it isn’t easy to deny me access.”
“Don’t tell me. You turn into mist?” He raised a weary hand at Henry’s expression. “I know; I watch too many bad movies. Never mind, I meant it when I said don’t tell me. The less I know about your talents for be the better.”
“You have the photograph?” Vicki asked. Tap. Tap. Tap. “You’ll be able to make an identification?”
“Yes.” Henry doubted Marjory Nelson still looked much like her picture, but it was a place to start.
Tap. Tap. Tap. “I should go with you.”
“No.” He crossed the room and dropped to one knee by her side. “I’ll be able to move faster on my own.”
“Yes, but… ” Tap. Tap.
Henry covered her hand with his, stopping the pencil from rising to fall again. Her skin felt heated and he could feel the tension sizzling just under the surface. “I’ll be able to move faster,” he repeated, “on my own. And the faster I move, the sooner you’ll have the information.”
She nodded. “You’re right.”
He waited a moment, but when she said nothing further, he stood, reluctantly releasing her hand.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Very lightly, he brushed his fingertips across her hair then turned.
Celluci met him at the door. Together, they glanced back at the couch. Vicki had removed the shades from both end-table lamps and, in the harsh light, the area around her mouth and eyes looked both bruised and painfully tight.
“Don’t leave her alone,” Henry murmured, and left before the detective could decide on a reply.
The sound of the pencil tapping followed him out of the building.
The door almost stopped her; the latching mechanism was almost beyond her abilities. The line of stitches just above the hairline gaped as her brows drew in and she forced her fingers to push and pull and prod until finally the door swung open.
There was something she had to do. Perhaps it was on the other side of the door.
Most of the overhead lights were off and she shuffled along from shadow to shadow. She was going somewhere. The halls began to look familiar.
She passed through another doorway and then into a room so well known that, for an instant, chaos parted and she knew.
Then the maelstrom swept most of it up again and she was left with only scattered fragments. For a single beat of her mechanically enhanced heart, she was aware of what she’d lost. Her wail of protest throbbed against the walls, but even before the last echo died, she’d forgotten she’d ever made it.
She crossed the room to a pair of desks, pulled one of the chairs out, and sat. It felt right. No, not quite right. Frowning, she carefully moved the World’s Greatest Mother coffee mug from the center of the blotter over to the far right side. It always sat on the right side.
Something was still wrong. After a moment of almost thought, she scrabbled at a silvery frame lying facedown, finally managing to grab hold and lift it. With trembling fingers, she gently touched the face of the uniformed young woman whose photograph filled the frame. Then she stood.
There was something she had to do.
She shouldn’t be here.
She had to go home.
He didn’t know where the other one was, so he walked, following the path of least resistance, until he bumped up against a tiny square of reinforced glass that showed him the stars.
He remembered outside.
Face pressed to the glass, eyes on the stars, he pushed at the barrier, sneakers pedaling against the tile floor. More by luck than design, his hands clutched at the waist-high metal bar. Another push, and the fire door swung open.
The alarm drove the stars from his head. He moved away from the hurting as fast as he was able, onto the dark and quiet pathways that ran between and behind the university buildings. He would find her. Find the kind one. She would make it better.
“Now, then, don’t you feel better?”
“I suppose so.”
“You suppose so?” Donald sighed and shook his head. “The best pizza in Kingston, not to mention my congenial company, and you’d probably rather have stayed in the lab, munching on a stale sandwich, if you’d remembered to eat at all, exchanging wisecracks with the dead stooges.”
“Did you leave the door open?”
“Did I what?” He peered down the dimly lit hall at the door angled out into the corridor. “You sure that’s ours?”
“Of course, I’m sure.”
“Well, I closed it when we left and I heard the lock catch.”
Catherine broke into a run. “If something’s happened to them, I’ll never forgive myself.”
Donald followed considerably more slowly, half inclined to bolt. Although Security kept an eye on entrances and exits, they didn’t bother to patrol the interior. The old Life Sciences building was a rabbit warren of halls and passageways and strangely subdivided rooms and, had the university budget extended to demolition, it would have long ago been turned into a much more useful three-story parking garage. While Donald had occasionally wondered if they were the only clandestine lab operating, he’d never been worried about discovery.
Except that he knew he’d closed the door.
And Dr. Burke, who carried the only other set of keys, would never leave it open.
So it appeared they’d been discovered.
The question is, he mused, bouncing on the balls of his feet, uncertain whether he should go forward or back, have we advanced far enough that the end will justify the means in the eyes of the authorities? Numbers one through nine, after all, had been bodies donated for research purposes. Unfortunately, he didn’t think that even Dr. Burke could talk her way around body number ten, not without the final payoff of death overcome, and they were a while away from that.
Right. He had no intention of going to jail. Not for science. Not for anything. I’m out of here.
“Donald! They’re gone!”
He froze, half-turned. “What do you mean they’re gone?”
“Gone! Not here! They left!”
“Cathy, get a grip! Dead people don’t just get up and walk away.”
Her glare, anger and exasperation equally mixed, burned through the shadows between them. “You taught them to walk, you idiot!”
“Oh, lord, we’re fucked.” He ran for the lab. “You sure somebody didn’t break in and steal them?”
“Who? If someone found them, they’d still be here waiting for an explanation.”
“Or off calling the cops.” He waved aside her protest and pushed past her. A quick glance at the monitors showed number eight remained in its isolation box, refrigeration units humming at full capacity in an attempt to prevent further decomposition. The chairs where they’d left numbers nine and ten were empty. The other two boxes were empty. He checked under the tables, in the closet, in the storeroom, around and below every bit of machinery in the lab.
If no one had found them, and logic pointed to that conclusion, then they had to have left on their own.
“It’s impossible.” Donald sagged against the doorframe. “They don’t have abstract thought processes.”
“They saw us leave.” Catherine grabbed his arm and dragged him back out into the hall. “It was imitation if nothing more.” She shoved him to the left. “You go that way!”
“Go where that way?”
“We have to search the building.”
“Then call out the Mounties,” he snapped, rubbing at his forehead with trembling fingers, “because it’ll take you and me alone years to search this place.”
“But we have to find them!”
He couldn’t argue with that.
Number nine moved toward the sound, drawn by almost familiar cadences.
Was it her?
“Cathy!” Donald pounded the length of the hall and rocked to a panting stop beside the other grad student. “Thank God I found you. We’ve got bigger trouble than we thought. I went over to talk to the guys at the security desk in the new building, just to see if they might have heard something. Well, they did. They heard the fire alarm. Someone went out the fire door at the back.”
“Outside?” Pale skin blanched paler. “Unsupervised?”
“At least one of them. Where’s your van?”
“In the lot behind the building.” She turned and raced toward the exit. “We’ve got to find them before someone else does!”
Hand pressed tight against the stitch in his side Donald followed. “Brilliant deduction, Sherlock,” he gasped.
The voices were closer. He stopped at the border between soft ground and hard, head turning from side to side.
“I’m telling you, Jenny, sweetheart, no one ever comes back here. It’s perfectly safe.”
“Why can’t we park by the tower, like everyone else?”
“Because everyone else parks there and I have a moral objection to cops shining flashlights in my face at delicate moments.”
“At least let’s close the windows.”
“It’s a beautiful night, let’s celebrate spring. Besides, steamy windows are a sure sign that something naughty is going down if anyone happens to pass. And speaking of going down… “
“Pat! Wait, I’ll put the seat back. Be careful… oh… “
His soles scuffed as he lurched forward, aiming for the deeper shadows where two buildings joined. He didn’t understand the new noises, but he followed them to a metal bulk he recognized as car.
He didn’t know what car meant. Was it hurting her?
Bending carefully, he peered inside.
Her face but not her face.
Her voice but not her voice.
Confused, he reached out and touched the curve of her cheek.
Her eyes snapped open, widened, then she screamed.
He began to back away.
Another face rose out of the darkness.
Hands grabbed for him.
His wrist caught, he clutched at air. He only wanted to get away. Then his fingers closed on something soft and kept closing until the screaming stopped. The second face lolled limp above his grip. Her face, not her face, gazed up at him. Then she screamed again.
He turned and ran.
He remembered running.
Run until it stopped hurting.
Soft ground under his feet.
He slammed hard against a solid darkness and pulled himself along it until he reached a way through. There were lights up ahead. She, the real she, the kind one, was where there were lights.
“There! Coming around that building!”
“Are you sure?”
“For chrissakes, Cathy, how many dead people are walking around this city tonight? Get over there!”
The van hadn’t quite stopped when Donald threw himself out onto the road. He stumbled, picked himself up, and raced toward the shambling figure just emerging from the shadows.
He ignored the sound of screaming rising from behind the building. Catching sight of number nine’s face under the streetlights, he figured he could pretty much guess what had caused it. Some of the sutures holding the scalp in place had torn and a grayish-yellow curve of skull was exposed above a flapping triangle of skin.
Dr. Burke’s going to have my balls on a plate! He skidded to a stop, took a deep, steadying breath, and, as calmly as he was able, said, “Follow.”
He knew that word.
“Donald, I can hear screaming. And a car horn.”
“Look, don’t worry about it. Number nine’s in, so just drive.”
“Well, we should check to see if he’s all right. They might have hurt him.”
“Not now, Cathy. He’s safe for the moment, but number ten isn’t. We’ve got to find her. It.”
Catherine glanced back over her shoulder at number nine lying strapped in place, nodded reluctantly, and pulled out into the street. “You’re right. First we find number ten. Where to?”
Donald sank back against the passenger seat, sighed, and spread his hands. “How the hell should I know?”
Marjory Nelson had not been in the university’s medical morgue; not in whole nor in part. Motionless beside the trunk of an ancient maple, ridding himself of the scent of preserved death, Henry considered how best to spend the remainder of the night. The city’s two large hospitals were close. If he checked both their morgues before dawn, and he saw no reason why he shouldn’t be able to, it would leave him available to… to… to what?
Over the last year, he’d learned that private investigators spent most of their time pulling together bits of apparently unconnected information into something they hoped would resemble a coherent whole, a little like first doing a scavenger hunt for jigsaw puzzle pieces and then constructing it with no idea of the final picture. They were more likely to spend time in libraries than in car chases and results were about equally dependent on training, talent, and luck. Not to mention an obstinate determination to get to the bottom of things that bordered on obsession.
Obsession. Vicki’s obsession with finding her mother’s body blocked the grief she should be feeling, blocked getting on with the rest of her life. Henry leaned back against the tree and wondered how long he was going to let it continue. He knew he could break through it, but at what cost. Could he do it without breaking her? Without losing her? Without leaving Detective-Sergeant Michael Celluci to pick up the pieces?
Suddenly he smiled, the moon-white crescent of his teeth flashing in the darkness. You measure your life in centuries, he chided himself. Give her some time to work through this. It’s only been a couple of days. Too much of the twentieth century’s preoccupation with getting through unpleasantness as quickly and as tidily as possible had rubbed off on his thinking. Granted, repressing emotions was unhealthy but… two days hardly deserves to be called an obsession. It was, he realized, the presence of Michael Celluci that had made it seem so much longer. He can do no more for her than you can. Trust in her strength, her common sense, and the knowledge that as much as she is able, she loves you.
Both, added a small voice.
Shut up, he told it savagely.
Straightening, he stepped away from the tree, and froze, the hair rising on the back of his neck. A second later, the screaming started.
The sound echoed around the close-packed buildings, making it difficult for him to locate its source. After chasing down a number of false leads, he arrived at the small secluded parking lot just as the campus police screeched to a stop, their headlights illuminating a terrified teenage girl backing away from a rust-edged car and the body of an equally young man sprawled half out of it onto the pavement. The boy had obviously been dead when the car door was opened, only the dead fall with such boneless disregard for the landing.
Eyes narrowed against the intrusive glare, Henry slid into a patch of deep shadow. While it wouldn’t be unusual for a passerby to be drawn by the screams, anonymity when possible ensured a greater degree of survival for his kind. With less noise than the wind made brushing up against the limestone walls, he began to move away. The girl was safe and although he would have intervened had he been in time, he had no interest in the myriad ways that mortals killed mortals.
“Like the guy looked like he was dead! Like all rotten and dead! I am not hysterical! Like I’ve seen movies, you know!” The last word trailed off into a rising wail.
The guy looked like he was dead.
And a corpse gone missing.
Henry stopped and turned back. There was probably no connection. He moved silently forward, around the edge of a building, and almost choked. The scent of the death he’d touched at the funeral home lay so thick on the grass that he had to back away. Skirting the edges, and that was closer than he wanted to go, he traced it to a pothole shattered access road and lost it again.
At the sound of approaching sirens, he pulled the night around him once more and made his way back to the parking lot. He would watch and listen until the drama played itself out. The girl could very well be hysterical, terror painting a yet more terrifying face on murder. The police would surely think so. Henry didn’t.
If Henry comes up empty at the morgue, I’ll have him start riding the buses. A young Asian male sitting just in front of the back door eating candy shouldn’t be too hard to spot. Celluci can do the day shift. Vicki circled the Brock Street transfer point on her bus map. It wasn’t much of a lead, but it was the only one they had and she knew it was one the police would have neither time nor manpower to follow. If Tom Chen, or whatever his name was, was still in Kingston, and still riding the buses, they’d find him eventually.
Eventually. She sat back on the couch and rubbed her eyes under her glasses. That is, if he’s still in Kingston, and if he’s still riding the buses.
And if he wasn’t?
What if he’d thrown her mother’s body into a car and driven away? He might not only have left the area but the country as well. The Ivy Lea Bridge over The Thousand Islands to the States wasn’t far and with the amount of traffic that crossed daily, the odds of his car being searched by Customs were negligible. He could be anywhere.
But he knew her mother. There was no other reason for him to pass over the other bodies that had come through the funeral home and then run off with hers. Specifically hers. So the odds were good he had his base in the area.
That took care of who and where. Or, at least, that assembled as much information as they had.
Vicki dug her fingers into the back of her neck, trying to ease the knots of tension that tied her shoulders into solid blocks, then bent over the coffee table again, ignoring the knowledge that she’d be more comfortable in the kitchen. Stacking her notes on Tom Chen neatly to one side, she spread the contents of Dr. Friedman’s file over the table. Who and where and when and even how; she had notes on all of these, a sheet of paper for each with the heading written in black marker at the top of the page. Only why remained blank. Why steal a body? Why steal her mother’s body?
Why didn’t she tell me she was so sick?
Why didn’t I answer the phone ?
Why didn’t I call her?
Why wasn’t I there when she needed me?
The pencil snapped between her fingers and the sound drove Vicki back against the sofa cushions, heart pounding. Those questions weren’t part of the investigation. Those questions were for later, for after she’d got her mother back. Left hand pressed against the bridge of her glasses, Vicki fought for control. Her mother needed her to be strong.
All at once, the lingering smell of her mother’s perfume, cosmetics, and bath soap coated nose and throat with a patina of the past. Her right fist dug into her stomach, denying the sudden nausea. The ambient noise of the apartment moved to the foreground. The refrigerator motor gained the volume of a helicopter taking off and a dripping tap in the bathroom echoed against the porcelain. An occasional car sped by on the street outside and something moved in the gravel parking lot.
Gradually, the other sounds faded back into the distance, but the footsteps dragging across the loose stones continued. Vicki frowned, grateful for the distraction.
It could be Celluci returning from the fish and chip store across the street, his footsteps hesitant because… well, because both he and Henry had been hesitant around her since they’d arrived. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate their help, because she did, but she wished they’d get it through their mutually thick heads that she could take care of herself.
Something brushed against the living room window.
Vicki straightened. The large ground level windows of the basement apartment had always been a tempting target for neighborhood kids and over the years had been decorated with soap, paint, eggs, lipstick, and, once, with Smurf stickers. Standing, she walked over and flicked on the floor lamp with its three, hundred watt bulbs. With luck, enough of the brilliant white light illuminating the living room would spill out into the night and she’d actually be able to see the little vandals before they ran.
She paused at the window, one hand holding the edge of the curtain, the other the cords of the Venetian blind that ran behind. This close, she could hear that something was definitely rubbing against the other side of the glass. With one smooth, practiced motion, she threw the curtain aside and yanked the length of the blind up against its top support.
Pressed up against the glass, fingers splayed, mouth silently working, was her mother. Two pairs of eyes, an identical shade of gray, widened in simultaneous recognition.
Then the world slid sideways for a second.
My mother is dead.
Fragmented memory fought to become whole. Desperately, she grabbed at the pieces.
This is my…
This is my…
She couldn’t find it, couldn’t hold it.
A teenager, legs pumping, a ribbon breaking across her chest. A tall, young woman standing proudly in a blue uniform. A tiny pink mouth opening in what was surely the first yawn in creation. A child, suddenly grown serious, small arms reaching out to hold her while she cried. A voice saying, “Don’t worry, Mother.”
This is my daughter. My child.
She knew now what it was she had to do.
The window was empty. No one moved in the parking lot as far as the spill of light and Vicki’s vision went.
My mother is dead.
Around the corner, out of sight on the gravel path that lead to the entrance of the building, the same faltering footsteps sounded.
Vicki whirled and ran for the apartment door.
She’d turned the lock behind Celluci, a habit ingrained after years spent in a larger, more violent city.
Now, as trembling fingers twisted the mechanism, the lock jammed.
“GODDAMNED FUCKING SON OF A BITCH!”
She couldn’t hear the footsteps any longer. Couldn’t hear anything but the blood roaring in her ears.
She’ll be on the step now… The metal pushed bruises into her hands… . opening the outer door… Had the security door been locked when Celluci left? Vicki couldn’t remember. If she can’t get in, she’ll go away. The whole door shuddered as she slammed the lock with her fists. Don’t go away! Through fingers white with strain, she felt something give.
Don’t go away again… .
The hall was empty.
The security door open.
Over the scream of denial that slammed echoes up against the sides of her skull though no sound passed teeth ground tight together, Vicki heard a car door slam. Then tires retreating across gravel.
Adrenaline catapulted her up the half flight of stairs and flung her out into the night.
“That was close, Cathy, too close. She was inside the building!”
“Is she all right?”
“What do you mean, is she all right? Don’t you mean, did anyone see you?
“No.” Catherine shook her head, the flying ends of hair gleaming ivory under the passing street lights. “The repairs we did aren’t designed for so much activity. If any of those motors have burned out… “
Donald finished strapping the weakly struggling body in and made his way to the front of the van. “Well, everything seems to be working,” he sighed, settling into his seat. “But it sure didn’t want to come with me.”
“Of course not, you interrupted the pattern.”
“The body was responding to leaving the Life Sciences building by retracing a path followed for years.”
“Yeah? I thought it was going home.”
“Her home is with us now.”
Donald shot an anxious glance over his shoulder into the back of the van. Number nine lay passively by, but number ten continued to push against the restraints. It had followed on his command, but he’d be willing to bet his chances for a Nobel Prize that it hadn’t wanted to.
“Lie still,” he snapped, and was only mildly relieved when it followed the programming.
Mike Celluci stepped out of the tiny fish and chip shop, inhaling the smell of french fries and greasy halibut overlaid on a warm spring night. Just at that particular moment, things didn’t look so bad. While finding Marjory Nelson’s body as soon as possible would be best for all concerned, Vicki was an intelligent adult, well acquainted with the harsh reality that some cases never got solved. Eventually, she’d accept that her mother was gone, accept that her mother was dead, and they could return to solving the problem all of this had interrupted.
He’d be there to comfort her, she’d realize Fitzroy had nothing to offer, and the two of them would settle down. Maybe even have a kid. No. The vision of Vicki in a maternal role, brought revision. Maybe not a kid.
He paused at the curb while a panel van pulled out of the apartment building’s driveway, turning south toward the center of the city. A moment later, the food lay forgotten in the gutter as he sprinted forward to catch hold of the wild-eyed figure charging out onto the road.
“Vicki! What is it? What’s happened?”
She twisted in his grip, straining to follow the van. “My mother… ” Then the taillights disappeared and she sagged against him. “Mike, my mother… “
Gently, he turned her around, barely suppressing an exclamation of shock at her expression. She looked as though someone had ripped her heart out. “Vicki, what about your mother?”
She swallowed. “My mother was at the living room window. Looking in at me. The lock stuck, and when I got outside she was gone. She went away in that van. It’s the only place she could have gone. Mike, we have to go after that van.”
Cold fingers danced down Celluci’s spine. Crazy words tucked in between shallow gasps for breath, but she sounded like she believed them. Moving slowly, he steered her back toward the apartment. “Vicki.” His voice emerged tight and strained, her name barely recognizable, so he started again. “Vicki, your mother is dead.”
She yanked herself free of his hands. “I know that!” she snarled. “Do you think I don’t know that? So was the woman at the window!”
“Look, I only left her alone for a few minutes.” Even as he spoke, Celluci heard the words echoed by a thousand voices who’d returned to find disaster had visited during those few minutes they were gone. “How was I supposed to know she was so close to cracking? She’s never cracked before.” He leaned his forearm against the wall and his face against the cushion of his arm. After that single outburst, Vicki had begun to shake, but she wouldn’t let him touch her. She just sat in her mother’s rocking chair and rocked and stared at the window. Years of training, of dealing with similar situations, seemed suddenly useless. If Mr. Delgado hadn’t shown up, hadn’t cajoled her into swallowing those sleeping pills… “And how can you be strong tomorrow if you don’t sleep tonight, eh?” …he didn’t know what he would have done; shaken her probably, yelled certainly, definitely not done any good.
Henry rose from his crouch by the window. There was no mistaking the odor that clung to the outside of the glass. “She didn’t crack,” he said quietly. “At least not the way you think.”
“What are you talking about?” Celluci didn’t bother to turn his head. “She’s having hallucinations, for chrissakes.”
“No. I’m afraid she isn’t. And it seems I owe you an apology, Detective.”
Celluci snorted but the certainty in Henry’s voice made him straighten. “Apology? What for?”
“For accusing you of watching too many bad movies.”
“I don’t need another mystery tonight, Fitzroy. What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about,” Henry stepped away from the window, his expression unreadable, “the return of Dr. Frankenstein.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Fitzroy. I’m not in the… Jesus H. Christ, you’re not kidding, are you?”
He shook his head. “No. I’m not kidding.”
Impossible not to believe him. Werewolves, mummies, vampires; I should’ve expected this. “Mother of God. What are we going to tell Vicki?”
Hazel eyes met brown, for once without a power struggle between them. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“I think we should tell her.”
Arms crossed over his chest, Henry leaned against the wall near the windows. “Tell her that we think someone has turned her mother into Frankenstein’s monster?”
“Yeah. Tell her exactly that.” Celluci rubbed at his temples with the heels of his hands. It had been a very long night and he wasn’t looking forward to morning. “Do you remember that little incident last fall?”
Henry’s brows rose. There could be little doubt what the detective was referring to, although he’d hardly describe the destruction of an ancient Egyptian wizard as an incident. “If you’re speaking of Anwar Tawfik, I remember.”
“Well, I was thinking of something Vicki said, after it was all over, about there being a dark god out there who knows us and that if we give in to hopelessness and despair it’ll be on us like a politician at a free bar.” He sighed, a long, shuddering exhalation, and was almost too tired to breathe in again. “If it hasn’t noticed her yet, it’ll be on her soon. She’s on the edge.”
“You didn’t see her.”
Henry had difficulty believing Vicki would ever give in to anything, least of all to hopelessness and despair, but he recognized that under the present circumstances even the strongest character might succumb. “And you think that if we tell her what we suspect?… “
“She’ll be furious and there’s nothing that wipes out hopelessness and despair faster than righteous anger.”
Henry thought about it, arms crossed, shoulder blades pressed against the wall. Tawfik’s dark god continued to exist because the emotions it fed on were part of the human condition, but the three of them, he, Celluci, and Vicki, knew its name. If it wanted acolytes, and what god didn’t, it would have to go to one of them. If Celluci was right about Vicki, and Henry had to admit that the years the mortal had known her should make him a fair judge, giving her anger as a protection would be the best thing they could do. There was also one other factor that shouldn’t be ignored. “She’d never forgive us if we didn’t tell her.”
Celluci nodded, lips pursed. “There is that.”
Silence reigned for a moment as they considered the result of having Vicki’s fury directed at them.
Neither figured their odds of survival would be particularly high, at least not as far as maintaining a continuing relationship went. Henry spoke first. “So, we’ll tell her.”
“Tell her what?” Vicki stood in the entrance to the living room, clothing creased, eyes shadowed, cheek imprinted with a fold from the pillowcase. Stepping forward carefully, she swayed and grabbed for the back of a chair, bracing herself against its support. She felt distant from her own body, an effect of the sleeping pills she’d barely managed to fight off. “Tell her that she’s out of her mind? That she couldn’t have seen her dead mother at the window?” Her voice rode crazy highs and lows; she couldn’t seem to keep it steady.
“Actually, Vicki, we believe you.” Henry’s tone left no room for doubt.
Taken by surprise, Vicki blinked then tried to focus a scowl on Celluci. “You both believe me?”
“Yes.” He met her scowl with one of his own. “We both believe you.”
Celluci flinched as the Royal Dalton figurine hit the far wall of the living room and smashed into a thousand expensive bone china shards. Henry moved a little farther away from the blast radius.
“Goddamn, fucking, shit-eating bastards!” The rage that turned her vision red and roared in her ears, stuck in Vicki’s throat, blocking the stream of profanity. She scooped up another ornament and heaved it as hard as she could across the room. As it shattered, she found her voice again. “How DARE they!”
Breathing heavily, she collapsed back onto the couch, teeth clenched against waves of nausea, her body’s reaction to the news. “How can someone do that to another human being?”
“Science… ” Celluci began, but Vicki cut him off, which was probably for the best as he wasn’t entirely certain what he was going to say.
“This isn’t science, Mike. This is my mother.”
“Not your mother, Vicki,” Henry told her softly. “Just your mother’s body.”
“Just my mother’s body?” Vicki shoved at her glasses with her fist so they wouldn’t see her fingers tremble. “I might not have been the world’s best daughter, but I know my own mother, and I’m telling you that was my mother at the window. Not just her fucking body!”
Celluci sat down beside her on the couch and caught up one of her hands in both of his. He considered and discarded four or five comforting platitudes that didn’t really seem to have any relevance and wisely decided to keep his mouth shut.
Vicki tried halfheartedly to pull her hand away, but when his fingers only tightened in response, she let it lie, saving her strength to throw into the anger. “I saw her. She was dead. I know dead. Then I saw her again at the window. And she was… ” Again, a wave of nausea rose and crested and sullenly retreated. “She was not dead.”
“But not alive.” As the words themselves denied consolation, Henry offered them as they were, unadorned by emotion.
Once again, her mother’s face rose up out of the darkness, eyes wide, mouth working silently. Celluci’s grip became a warm anchor and Vicki used it to drag herself out of the memory. “No.” She swallowed and a muscle jumped in her jaw. “Not alive. But up, and walking.” For a moment, the thought that there’d been only a pane of glass between them, made it impossible to go on. I want to scream and cry until all of this goes away and I don’t have to deal with it. I want it to be last Saturday. I want to have answered the phone. I want to have talked to her, to have told her I love her, to have said good-bye. Her whole body ached with the effort of maintaining control but of all the maelstrom barely held in check by will, she could only release the anger. “Someone did that to her. Someone at that university has committed the ultimate violation, the ultimate rape.”
Celluci flinched. “At the university? Why at the university?”
“You said it yourself, science. It’s hardly going to be someone at the fucking grocery store.” She knuckled her glasses again, then bent forward and swept her notes off the coffee table, the force of the blow scattering them as far as the apartment door. Her voice, in contrast, had gained rigid control. “This changes everything. We can find her now.”
Reluctantly, Celluci released her hand; she’d accepted all the comfort she was going to. He watched in silence as she pulled a blank sheet of paper toward her, wanting to shake her but not entirely certain why.
“All right. We know the body is still in the city, so we know where to look for the lowlife, sons of bitches who’ve done this to her.” The pencil point snapped off against the paper, and she fought against the urge to drive it right through the table. “She’s in the city. They’re in the city.”
“Vicki.” Henry crossed the room to kneel by her side. “Are you sure you should be doing this now?” When she raised her head to look at him, the hair on his arms lifted with the tension in the air.
“What am I supposed to do? Go to sleep?”
He could hear her heart pounding, hear the effects of the adrenaline pumping through her system. “No… “
“I need to do this, Henry. I need to put things together. Build some sort of a structure out of this. I need to do it now.” The alternative was implicit in her tone. Or it will eat away at me until there’s nothing of me left.
The hand that settled on his, just for an instant, was so hot it nearly burned. Because he could do nothing else, Henry nodded and moved to the rocker by the door, from which he could watch her face. For the moment, he would let her deal with her horror and her anger in her own way.
He found it interesting that Celluci looked no happier about it than he felt. We want to ride to her rescue and instead we find ourselves allowed to help. Not exactly a comfortable position for a knight errant to be in. But then, Vicki wasn’t exactly a comfortable woman to love.
“All right, shifting the emphasis from finding my mother’s body to finding the people who did this to her, what are we looking for?” With a new pencil, she etched “What?” across the top piece of paper. “Someone who can raise the dead. Discounting the Second Coming, as I doubt it was as simple as pick up your bed and walk, we turn to science.” She wrote “A scientist” under the heading, then shuffled out a fresh page and wrote “Where?”
Celluci leaned forward, old patterns winning out over his concern. “All signs point to the university. One, it’s where you find scientists. Two, who can afford a private lab these days, especially containing the equipment they’d have needed to… “
“Three,” Vicki interrupted. The last thing she wanted to deal with right now were the details of what had actually been done.
“Not the last thing,” said a little voice in the back of her head.
“Three,” she said again, slamming it over the certain knowledge that somehow, if she’d just answered the phone, all of this could have been prevented. “We’ve already determined it had to be someone who knew she was going to die. She worked at the university. Her friends were at the university. She had tests done at the university. Four, the campus is less than ten blocks south on Division Street. We’re close.” Her laugh held more hysteria than humor. “Even a dead woman could walk it.”
“And five,” Henry added softly, while Vicki fought to bridle her reactions again and Celluci’s arm hovered helpless behind her back, certain that she’d refuse sympathy, unable not to offer it. “There is another, and it was on the campus tonight.”
Vicki’s chin came up, Henry’s reminder that it wasn’t strictly personal helping her to regain a little distance. Celluci’s arm dropped back to his side. She wrote down his words verbatim, took another sheet, wrote “Why?” and had to fight for distance again. “At least we know what they wanted the body for. But why my mother? What was so special about her?”
“They knew she was going to die.” Celluci couldn’t find a way to finish the thought that wouldn’t rub salt in emotions already raw and bleeding, so he drew in a fortifying breath and said instead, “Vicki, why don’t you let me deal with this?”
“While I do what? Pour ashes on my head? Fuck you, Celluci. They knew she was going to die and they needed a fresh body. There. It’s been said. Now let’s go on.”
His own nerves rubbed raw, Celluci shot a glance across the room at someone who might understand. I didn’t want to hurt her!
I know. Henry’s gaze flicked to Celluci’s left and back, adding as clearly as if he’d spoken aloud, And she knows.
“There wasn’t an autopsy done.” Vicki’s pencil began to move again. “I expect that if you’re going to get the body up and around, that’s important. With a diagnosis of death in six months from heart failure, there’d be no need to do an autopsy when my mother had her heart attack. I wonder.” She looked up and frowned. “Did they wait around for this other guy to die as well? We can check personnel, find out who else died recently, see if there’s a connection to my mother, and trace it back.”
With one hand she fanned the three sheets of paper. The other bounced the eraser end of the pencil on the tabletop. “Okay. That’s what, where, why… ” The pencil stilled. “I don’t think we need to worry about how.”
A body stretched out on a slab, its grotesque shadow thrown upon a rough, rock wall. In the background, strange equipment. In the corners, darkness, broken by the faint gray tracery of a spider’s web. Up above, a Gothic dome open to the night. Thunder cracks and lightning arcs down from the heavens. And Death is pushed aside.
“What!” She whirled on Celluci, eyes wide.
“Nothing.” Now that he had her attention, he wasn’t sure what to do with it. “You just looked a little… ” haunted. He closed his teeth on the last word.
“Tired.” Henry stepped smoothly into the pause. “Don’t you think you should get some sleep?”
“No. We’re not done. I’m not going to sleep until we’re done.” She knew she sounded a bit frantic, but she’d gone past the point where she cared. “So, what do we have for who. A scientist, or a group of scientists, at the university, who knew my mother was going to die, who has the knowledge to raise the dead and the arrogance to use that knowledge.”
“Most criminals are arrogant.” Celluci sagged back against the sofa cushions. “It’s what makes them criminals. They think society’s laws don’t apply to them.”
Vicki shoved at her glasses. “Very profound, Detective, but this is hardly like ripping off a corner store for beer money. We need a motive.”
“If you had the ability to raise the dead, wouldn’t that be motive enough?” Henry asked, his eyes suddenly very dark. “They’re doing this because they can do it. They probably don’t even see it as a crime, this godlike ability puts them above such petty concerns.”
“Well,” Celluci snorted, “you should know.”
The single syllable lifted the hair on the back of Celluci’s neck and he realized, belatedly, that no one understood the abuse of power quite so well as those who shared the potential.
Vicki ignored them both, shuffling her notes into a tidy pile, her movements jerky. “So we’re looking at the university for an arrogant scientist with a medical background who knew my mother was about to die. That’ll be like finding the needle in the proverbial haystack.”
Celluci fought his attention free of Henry Fitzroy and back to the matter at hand. “What about your mother’s boss?”
“Dr. Burke? I don’t think so. My mother said she was the most gifted administrator she’d ever worked for, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time to put into raising the dead.”
“So? If she signed the death certificate she must be a medical doctor, whatever else she is. She knew your mother was going to die and, as department head, she’s sure as shit be in a position to acquire equipment for a secret lab.” He shoved both hands up through his hair and tried to force his tired brain to function for just a while longer. “She’s a place to start.”
“I have an appointment to see her in the morning. I’ll see what I can find out.” Her tone made it clear she didn’t expect to discover much.
“We’ll see what we can find out.”
“No, Mike.” She shook her head, and wished she hadn’t as the room spun. “I want you to tie up a few loose ends with Mr. Chen.”
“Vicki, Tom Chen is a dead end.”
She swiveled around to face him, bracing herself against the back of the couch. “He still may be the only end we’ve got. I don’t need you with me, Mike.”
“You shouldn’t be doing this alone.”
“I’m not. Unless you want to go home.”
He looked across the room at Henry. Who was no help. “Of course I’m not going home,” he snarled. Surrender might be his only option, but nothing said he had to do it graciously. “So what do we do now?”
To his surprise, it was Henry who answered. “We sleep. I have no choice. It’s very nearly dawn. I can feel the sun. You, Detective, have been up all night. And, Vicki, I can smell the drugs in your system, you need to sleep to clear the clouding from your mind.”
“No, I… “
Henry cut her off with the lifting of an imperious brow. “A few hours will make no difference to your mother and a great deal to you.” Crossing the room, he extended a hand. “I can make you forget for a time, if you like.”
“I don’t want to forget, thank you.” But she took his hand and pulled herself to her feet, a piece of broken china shattering further under the sole of her shoe. His fingers were as cool as Celluci’s had been warm. An anchor of a different sort. “And, in spite of what both of you think, I’m fully aware that self-abuse will contribute nothing at all toward finding the shit eaters who did this. I will sleep. I will eat. And then… ” Anger and exhaustion, equally applied, destroyed the rest of the thought before she had it barely formed. She gripped Henry’s arm and stared intently into his face. “I won’t be able to wait for you. Sunset’s just too damned far away.”
He touched her cheek with his free hand and repeated, “Too damned far away. I couldn’t have said it better, myself. But be careful while I’m not with you.” His gaze lifted over her shoulder to meet Celluci’s. “Both of you be careful.”
Donald secured the slide, stared down at the spread of purple stain for a moment, sighed, and turned. “Cathy, I don’t like what we’re getting into here.”
“Trouble with number eight?” Catherine glanced up from her dissection, brow furrowed, hands buried under one of number eight’s decomposing organs.
“Number eight’s past the point where it can give us any trouble,” Donald snorted. “I’m more concerned with the dynamic duo over there.”
Puzzled, Catherine peered over her mask at the two working isolation boxes. “I’m sure all the damage they took last night was superficial. You stitched number nine’s lacerations closed. We both checked for mechanical overload. I adjusted their nutrient levels to compensate for the strain on the bacterial restructuring… “
“That’s not what I meant.” He ripped the paper off a candy, balled it up, and threw it in the general direction of a waste basket. “Don’t you think those two have gone just a tad outside the parameters of the experiment?”
“Of course not.” Catherine set a kidney down on a sterilized tray. “We’re going to need tissue samples from the others for comparison.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ll break out the biopsy needle in a minute, but first we’re going to have a chat about last night’s little walkabout. It had nothing to do with Organ Regeneration through Tailored Bacteria or even Reanimation of the Human Body by Tailored Bacteria and Servomotors.”
“What are you talking about? If last night wasn’t animation I don’t know what is; you want them any more animated, you’ll have to call in Disney.”
“Was that a joke?” Donald demanded. “Because if it was, it wasn’t very funny. She,” he pointed at Marjory Nelson’s box, “wasn’t supposed to go home and he… well, he wasn’t supposed to go anywhere.”
Catherine shrugged, her hands once again buried to the wrist. “Obviously, feeding her own brain wave patterns through the neural net stimulated buried memories. Considering that when she was alive she walked home from the Life Sciences building every night for years, it was only logical that she follow that programming. We should’ve anticipated it happening and taken precautions.” Her voice dropped into a fair approximation of Dr. Burke’s lecturing cadence. “The more impulses are sent along a given memory trace, the easier it becomes for later impulses to follow the same circuit. And considering the pains we’ve taken to teach number nine to follow us, I should think you’d be pleased that he followed her. After all, you’re the one who said he wasn’t learning anything.”
“Yeah, well, I’m also the one who says he doesn’t like this.” He bit down hard on the candy in his mouth and it crunched between his teeth. “I mean, suppose we’re not just re-creating physical responses.”
Catherine laid the second kidney beside the first. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about souls, Cathy!” His tone grew a little shrill. “What if, because of what we’ve done, Marjory Nelson has come back to her body?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re not bringing back an old life, we’re creating new ones, like putting new wine in old skins.”
“You’re not supposed to do that,” Donald pointed out acerbically. “The old wine taints the new.” He swiveled around on his stool and bent over the microscope. He could see there was no point in discussing this; souls had no place in Cathy’s world. And maybe she was right. She was the certified genius, after all, and it was her experiment. He was just in it for curiosity’s sake, and for the final payoff, of course.
Still, he mused, the edge of his lower lip caught between his teeth, uncomfortably conscious of the questions that lay in the isolation boxes behind him, I’d be happier if I knew we were remaking Frankenstein instead of Night of the Living Dead. A moment’s reflection reminded him that Frankenstein had not exactly had a happy ending. Or a happy middle, for that matter.
He could hear voices. Her voice and his voice. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could hear the tone.
They were arguing.
He remember arguing. How it ended in hitting. And pain.
He often argued with her.
Number nine didn’t…
… didn’t like that.
“Good morning, Dr. Burke. The coffee’s ready.”
“Good.” Dr. Burke dropped her briefcase at the door to the inner office and circled back to the coffeepot. “You are a lifesaver, Mrs. Shaw.”
“It’s probably not as good as when Marjory made it,” Mrs. Shaw sighed. “She always had such a way with coffee.”
Her back to the room, Dr. Burke rolled her eyes and wondered how long the melodrama of office grieving would continue. Two days of every report, every memo, every little thing delivered with a eulogy was about as much as she could take. She lifted her mug off its hook and dropped three heaping spoonfuls of sugar into the bottom of it. If the university would just come through with the promised temporary, or better still, a permanent replacement for Marjory Nelson’s position, she’d tell Mrs. Shaw to take a few days off. Unfortunately, Dr. Burke topped up her mug and glared down into the dark liquid, the wheels of academia grind geologically slow.
Behind her, Mrs. Shaw turned on the radio. The Village People were just finishing up the last bars of “YMCA.”
Dr. Burke turned and transferred her glare to the radio. “If they’re doing another ’70s retrospective, we’re changing stations. I lived through disco once, I shouldn’t have to do it again.”
“This is CKVS FM, it’s nine o’clock, and now the news. Police still have no leads in the vicious murder last night of a QECVI student on the Queen’s University campus. The only witness to the crime is under observation at Kingston General Hospital and has not yet been able to give police an accurate description of the murderer. While the young woman was not physically hurt in the incident, doctors say she is suffering from shock. Both police and medical personnel report that until she was sedated she continued to scream, ‘He looked dead. The guy looked dead.’ Anyone with information concerning this tragic incident is asked to contact Detective Fergusson at Police Headquarters.
“Elsewhere in the city… “
“Isn’t it awful.” Mrs. Shaw dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. “That poor young man, cut down in his prime.”
The guy looked dead. Dr. Burke’s fingers tightened around the handle of her mug. The girl obviously has an overactive imagination. This has nothing to do with…
“The other stations had a much more complete report. She said that he lurched when he walked, that his skin was gray and cold, and that his expression never changed even while he was strangling her boyfriend. Terrifying. Just terrifying.”
It was impossible. “Did she say what he was wearing.”
“Some kind of athletic clothing. A tracksuit I think. Dr. Burke? Where are you going?”
Where was she going? She stared down at her coffee, then set the mug firmly down on the filing cabinet, the fingers of her other hand already taking a white-knuckled grip on the door handle. Thank God no one around the office expected her to smile. “I just remembered, I had a grad student running a program last night and I promised I’d check it this morning. Don’t know why I bothered, he keeps getting it wrong.”
Mrs. Shaw smiled and shook her head. “You bothered because you always hope they’ll get it right. Oh, my.” The smile disappeared. “Marjory’s daughter will be coming by this morning.”
Marjory Nelson’s daughter, the ex-detective, the private investigator, was the last person she wanted to talk to right now. “Give her my apologies and… No. If she comes while I’m gone, ask her to wait. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Better to know the direction Ms. Nelson was heading in the search for her mother’s body. Information was knowledge; ignorance, a potential for disaster.
“There was a young man killed on campus last night. Do either of you know anything about it?”
Donald spun around so fast he nearly threw himself off the stool. “Dr. Burke! You startled me!”
She took another step into the lab, a muscle jumping in her jaw and her eyes narrow behind her glasses. “Just answer the question.”
“The question?” He frowned, heart still racing, and sorted the words out of the fear. There was a young man killed last night. “Oh, fuck.” In his memory, number nine staggered out into the light while screams sounded behind a building. “What, what makes you think we’d know anything?”
“Don’t bullshit me, Donald.” Dr. Burke used the voice that could command attention from the back row of a seven hundred and fifty seat lecture hall. Donald tried not to cringe. “There was a witness. Her description drew a pretty accurate picture of number nine, and what I want to know…” her palm slapped down on the table, the crack of flesh against metal echoing like a gunshot, “is what the hell was going on down here.”
“He didn’t do it on purpose.” Catherine rose gracefully from behind number nine’s isolation box and stood, both hands resting lightly on the curved lid.
“I was wondering where you were.” Dr. Burke turned, nostrils flaring, the younger woman’s calm acting as a further goad. Her gesture toward the box had a cutting edge. “As it has no purpose, being dead, it needs no defense. The two of you, however, have no such excuse. So let’s begin with an explanation of why the experiments were taken from the lab.”
“Uh, they weren’t.” Donald cleared his throat as she directed her basilisk gaze back at him but continued. He had no intention of being blamed for something that wasn’t his fault. “They left on their own.”
“They left on their own?” Her quiet repetition was less than reassuring. “They just decided to get up and go out on an evening constitutional, did they?” A sudden rise in volume slapped her words against the walls. “What kind of an idiot do you take me for!”
“He’s right.” Catherine raised her chin. “We locked the door behind us. When we came back, the door was unlocked, from the inside, and they were gone. We found number nine wandering on campus.” Her fingers stroked the box comfortingly. “We found number ten just outside the apartment building she lived in when she was Marjory Nelson.”
“She went home,” Donald added.
Catherine sighed. “She merely followed old programming.”
“You didn’t see her face, Cathy.”
“I didn’t need to. I know the parameters of the experiment.”
“Well, maybe they’ve changed!”
“Shut up, both of you.” Gray eyes suddenly snapped open, widening with an instant of recognition. Dr. Burke closed her own eyes for a moment and when she opened them again, muttered. “Maybe this has gone too far.”
Catherine frowned. “What has?”
“All of this.”
“But, Dr. Burke, you don’t understand. If number nine killed that boy, he acted on his own. It wasn’t anything we programmed in. It means he can learn. He is learning.”
“It means he, it, killed someone, Catherine. That boy is dead.”
“Well, yes, and that’s too bad, but nothing we can do will bring him back.” She paused, weighing possibilities, frowned, and shook her head. “No. It’s too late.” Her eyes refocused. “But we can explore and develop this new data. Don’t you understand? Number nine must be thinking. His brain is functional again!”
“Cathy!” Donald jumped down off his stool and came over to her, incredulity written across his face. “Don’t you understand? Some guy is dead. This bit of your experiment,” he whacked number nine’s box, “is a killer and the other is, is… ” He couldn’t find the words. No, that wasn’t exactly true. He knew the words. He just couldn’t say them. Because if he said them, he might have to believe them. “Dr. Burke, you’re right. This has gone too far. We’ve got to close down and get out of here before the police track number nine back to his lair!”
“Donald, be quiet. You’re hysterical. The police do not now believe, nor are they likely to, that a dead man is out roaming around committing homicide.”
Dr. Burke silenced him with a look, her own crisis of conscience pushed aside in the light of new information. She hadn’t actually considered the incident from the perspective of experimental results. This could indicate a giant step forward. “If number nine is thinking, Catherine, I don’t like what it’s thinking about.”
Two spots of color appeared on Catherine’s cheeks. “Well, yes, but he’s thinking. Isn’t that the important thing?”
“Perhaps,” the older woman allowed. “If it is actually thought and not merely reaction to stimuli. We may have to devise a new series of tests.”
Donald swallowed and tried again. “But, Dr. Burke, that kid is dead!”
“We have to do something!”
“What? Give ourselves up?” She caught his gaze with hers and, after a moment, half smiled. “I didn’t think so. Terminate the experiment? That wouldn’t bring him back to life.” She squared her shoulders. “That said, I am very annoyed about your carelessness. You will make certain it doesn’t happen again. Remove them from their boxes only when absolutely necessary. Never leave them alone and unconfined. Have you run an EEG on number nine since it happened?”
Catherine’s color deepened. “No, Doctor.”
“Number eight died in the night, and we had to begin… “
“Number eight has been dead for some time, Catherine, and isn’t going anywhere. Run the EEG now. If there’s a brain wave pattern in there, I want it recorded.”
“And for heaven’s sake, keep them under control. I will not have my career destroyed by premature discovery. If anything like this happens again, I will not hesitate to pull the plug. Do you understand?”
He nodded toward the second box. “What about her? What if. . what if . .”
What if we’ve trapped Marjory Nelson’s soul? She read the words off his face. Heard them whispered in the silence. And refused to share his fear. “We’re here to answer what ifs, Donald; that’s what scientists do. And now,” Dr. Burke glanced at her watch. “I have an appointment with Marjory Nelson’s daughter.” She paused at the door and turned to face the lab again. “Remember. Anything else goes wrong and we’re cutting our losses.”
As her footsteps faded down the corridor, Donald drew a long and shaky breath. Things were getting just a little too deep for him. Maybe it was time he started thinking about cutting his own losses. “Can you believe that, Cathy? Some guy gets offed and she’s annoyed.”
Catherine ignored him, her full attention on the muffled pounding coming from the box in front of her. She didn’t like the way things were going. Surely Dr. Burke realized the importance of number nine acquiring independence and how vital it was to protect the integrity of the experiment. What did careers have to do with that? No, she didn’t like the way things were going at all. But all she said was, “He doesn’t like being confined.”
The word filtered through the hum of machinery and the sound-deadening properties of the box itself. She used it to pick an end of thread from the tangled mass of memory.
She had a daughter.
There was something she had to do.
Unable to remain still, Vicki paced the outer office, uncomfortably conscious of Mrs. Shaw’s damp and sympathetic gaze following her every move. She didn’t need sympathy, she needed information.
All right, so she hadn’t reacted particularly well to being presented with a box of her mother’s personal effects, but that was no reason for Mrs. Shaw to assume anything. If the last notation in the date book hadn’t been, Call Vicki, she would’ve been fine.
“Would you like a cup of coffee, dear?”
“No. Thank you.” Actually, she’d love a cup of coffee, but she couldn’t face using her mother’s mug. “Will Dr. Burke be long?”
“I don’t think so. She just had to check on one of her grad students.”
“Students? What does she teach?”
“Oh, she doesn’t actually teach, she just takes a few of the grad students under her wing and helps them along.”
“I’m not sure.” Mrs. Shaw reached for a fresh tissue and dabbed at her eyes. “Your mother would know. She was Dr. Burke’s personal secretary.”
My mother isn’t here. Vicki tried not to let the thought show on her face, given that the accompanying emotion was annoyance not grief.
“Your mother really respected Dr. Burke,” Mrs. Shaw continued with a wistful glance across the room at the empty desk.
“She sounds like a person worth respecting,” Vicki broke in before a flood of teary memories began.
“She’s got, what, two degrees?”
“Three. An MD, a doctorate in organic chemistry, and an MBA. Your mother always said hiring her to run this department was the smartest thing the university ever did. Most academics are not particularly good administrators and most administrators are completely insensitive to the needs of academia. Your mother called Dr. Burke a bridge between two worlds.”
Why the hell does it have to keep coming back to my mother? Vicki wondered, as Mrs. Shaw fielded three phone calls in quick succession.
“Yes, Professor Irving, I’ll see that she gets the message as soon as she comes in.” Mrs. Shaw dropped the receiver back into the cradle and sighed. “That’s how it goes all day. They all want a piece of her.”
“I guess she doesn’t have much time for lab work.”
“Lab work? She barely has time to grab a bite to eat before someone needs her again.” Patting the pile of memos, already impressive before the addition of the latest three, Mrs. Shaw’s voice grew sharp. “They’ve got her running from meeting to meeting, solving this problem, solving that problem, burying her under forms and surveys and reports, annual this and semiannual that and biweekly the other… “
“And God only knows how I’m going to dig myself out without your mother’s help.”
Mrs. Shaw colored and Vicki turned to face the door.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Ms. Nelson.” Dr. Burke crossed the room and held out a hand for her memos. “But as you’ve already heard, I’m quite busy.”
“No problem at all, Doctor.” Something about that sturdy figure in the starched white lab coat had a calming effect, and Vicki followed her gesture into the inner office feeling more under control than she had in days. She suddenly remembered her mother describing her new boss, just after Dr. Burke had taken over the department, as being so completely self-assured that the urge to question anything became lost in her vicinity. Vicki’d laughed at the time, but now she thought she could see what her mother had meant. She’d felt a bit of the effect herself, earlier in the week. It had been Dr. Burke who’d grounded her and sent her to the hospital morgue and Dr. Burke she’d turned to for a eulogy.
Before they’d discovered a eulogy would be unnecessary.
As Vicki settled into one of the almost comfortable wood and leather chairs, Dr. Burke moved around behind the desk and sat down, dropping the dozen or so pink squares of paper into a tidy pile. “I’m not usually in quite this much demand,” she explained, shooting an annoyed glare at the pile. “But it’s end of term and bureaucratic nonsense that could have been taken care of months ago has to be dealt with immediately.”
“You can’t delegate?”
“Science and Administration speak two different languages, Ms. Nelson. If I delegate, I end up having to translate. Frankly, it’s much easier just to do it myself.”
Vicki recognized the tone; she’d used it herself once or twice. “I imagine you’d rather be, oh, fiddling about with test tubes or something?”
“Not at all.” Dr. Burke smiled, and there was no mistaking the sincerity behind her words. “I very much enjoy running other people’s lives, seeing that each cog in a very complicated machine continues to run in its appointed place.” It might have been more accurate to say, in the place I appoint, but Dr. Burke had no intention of allowing that much insight into her character. Now that we have established I enjoy my job, shall we get on with the investigation, Ms. Nelson? “Mrs. Shaw tells me you want to ask about the tests I ran on your mother.”
“That’s right.” An early call to Dr. Friedman had determined that her mother’s doctor had known about the tests, so they probably had nothing to do with… with the end result. But they were a place to start. Vicki pulled a pad of paper and a pen from the depths of her shoulder bag. “I assume they had to do with her heart condition?”
“Yes. Although I haven’t practiced medicine for some time, I am a medical doctor and your mother, understandably upset, wanted a second opinion.”
“And you told her?”
“That she had perhaps six months to live without corrective surgery. Pretty much exactly what her own doctor told her.”
“Why didn’t she go in for the surgery?”
“It’s not that easy,” Dr. Burke said, leaning back in her chair and lacing her fingers across her stomach. “There are always waiting lists for major surgery, especially transplants, which is what your mother would have needed, and with budget cuts… “
Vicki’s pen gouged through the paper and her voice emerged through clenched teeth. “So Dr. Friedman said.” My mother could’ve died from god-damned fucking budget cuts. “I’d like to see copies.”
“Of the tests? I didn’t keep any. I gave copies to your mother, who, I assume, gave them to her doctor, but I saw no point in keeping a set myself.” Dr. Burke frowned. “I did what I could for her. Do you doubt my diagnosis, Ms. Nelson?”
“No. Of course not.” So you were there for her and I wasn’t. That’s not the issue now. “Who else knew about the tests?”
The question came as no surprise, and Vicki realized it came primarily in response to her aggressive tone. She’d have asked it herself if someone slammed a question at her with that amount of force. Brilliant interrogation technique, Nelson. Forgotten everything you ever learned? Maybe she should’ve brought Celluci. Maybe she wasn’t thinking clearly. No. I don’t need him holding my hand. I’ve worked through anger before. She’d been one of the best; top of her class; the fair-haired girl of the Metro Police. She took a deep breath and fought for some semblance of professionalism. “My mother’s body is missing, Dr. Burke. I intend to find it and any information you might be able to give me can only help.”
Dr. Burke leaned forward, both hands flat on the desk. “You think that the body was taken by someone who knew she was going to die?”
Celluci’d always said she was a lousy liar. Vicki looked Dr. Burke in the eye and decided not to even make the attempt. “Yes. That’s exactly what I think.”
Dr. Burke held her gaze for a moment, then sat back again. “Besides myself and Dr. Friedman, I can only be certain of Mrs. Shaw, although it’s likely Dr. Friedman’s nurse knew. I didn’t tell anyone, Mrs. Shaw might have, and your mother could have mentioned it to friends, of course.”
“She never mentioned it to me,” Vicki snarled and then pressed her lips tightly shut, afraid of what else might slip out. She hadn’t intended to say that.
“Given that we were using university equipment,” Dr. Burke continued, graciously ignoring the outburst, “I can’t guarantee that no one else knew about the testing, you understand.”
“Yes.” A single word seemed safe enough. Pity she had to use more; every syllable carried more heat than the last and there didn’t seem to be anything she could do about it. “I need to speak with those members of your department my mother came into frequent contact with.”
“That would be all of them,” Dr. Burke told her dryly. “But surely you don’t believe that someone in my department is responsible?”
“They do seem to be the first people I should check, don’t they?”
Answering a question with a question. Nice try, Ms. Nelson, but I have no intention of surrendering control. “I’d certainly be interested in your reasons for thinking so.”
As her reasons for thinking so were based solely on a midnight visit she had no intention of mentioning, Vicki found herself momentarily at a loss. “The members of your department are scientists.”
“And why would a scientist take your mother’s body?” Dr. Burke kept her expression outwardly neutral while inwardly she kicked Donald’s careless butt. She knew Catherine couldn’t be counted on to consider the more mundane aspects of the situation, but she’d expected better of him. It was obvious that last night’s side trip had been observed. Nothing else but the knowledge that a dead woman was up and walking around could logically account for the sudden obstinate certainty that someone at the university had to be responsible. “It could just as easily,” she continued, “have been taken by a spurned lover. Have you looked into that possibility?”
“She had no lover,” Vicki ground out, “spurned or otherwise.”
Behind a mask of polite apology, Dr. Burke enjoyed the reaction. Of course she didn’t. Mothers never do. Aloud she said, “That brings us back to my scientists, then. Shall I have Mrs. Shaw make some phone calls for you, set up appointments?” It was a large university and there were ways to make it larger still.
“If you would. Thank you.” Well aware that Dr. Burke’s assistance could cut through the time-consuming tangle of academic red tape, Vicki had been about to ask. That Dr. Burke remained on the list of potential suspects devalued that assistance not at all. The manner of the assistance, could, in fact, be used as further evidence. “I need to talk to the faculty in the school of medicine.” She’d start with the obvious. Later, if necessary, she’d widen the circle. If necessary, she’d tear the bloody university apart, limestone block by limestone block.
“I’ll do what I can. If I might make a suggestion, your mother was quite friendly with a Dr. Devlin, a cellular biologist.” And talking with that old Irish reprobate should keep you busy sorting fact from fancy for days. “In fact, he comfortably covers both our theories as I believe he was very fond of her.”
“Both our theories?”
“The scientist and the spurned lover.”
Just for a moment, Vicki wondered if her mother had gotten involved with someone who’d refused to surrender to death; wondered if a twisted love had tried to force a return of life and created the travesty of her mother she’d seen at the window. No. Impossible. Henry said there was another one. And besides, she’d have told me if she’d met someone new.
The way she told you about her heart condition? asked a small voice.
Dr. Burke watched the emotional storm playing out across her visitor’s face and decided the experiment was in no immediate danger. Although last night’s unfortunate lapse in security had brought Ms. Nelson closer to the truth, when it came right down to it, close didn’t count. And now I’ve given her something new to think about. Dr. Devlin should be in for an interesting interview. When that played out, another wild goose could always be found.
In the meantime, it was obvious to even the most casual observer, which she most certainly was not, that Marjory Nelson’s daughter rode a precarious balance between rigid control and a complete breakdown. An emotional teeter-totter that could only get in the way of an objective investigation and a situation easy to exploit.
“It’s amazing,” she murmured, almost as though she were speaking to herself, “how much you resemble your mother.”
Vicki started. “Me?”
“You’re taller, of course, and your mother wore no glasses, but the line of your jaw is identical and your mouth moves very much the way hers did.”
Did… Her mother’s face rose up in memory, a sheet of glass between them, eyes wide, mouth silently working.
“In fact, you have many of the same mannerisms.”
Vicki desperately tried to banish the horror her mother had become and replace it with an earlier memory. The sheet lifted, the gray and waxy pallor of death, the chemical smell of the hospital morgue… In the memory before that, a phone rang on, unanswered.
“Ms. Nelson? Are you all right?”
“Fine.” The word was a warning.
Dr. Burke stood, satisfaction covered with polite regret. “If you have no further questions, I’m afraid I have a list as long as my arm of meetings to attend. I’ll have Mrs. Shaw set up those appointments for you.”
Vicki shoved her notes into her bag and stood as well, jabbing at her glasses. “Thank you,” she said, forcing her mouth to form the conversational phrases. “And thank you for your time this morning.” Throwing the bag up onto her shoulder, she headed quickly toward the door. She neither knew nor cared if she’d covered all she’d intended to. She wanted out of that office. Of that building. She wanted to be somewhere where no one knew her mother. Where no one could see reflections of the dead in her face.
“Ms. Nelson? We miss your mother around here.” Intended to be a parting dig at damaged defenses, Dr. Burke found to her surprise that she meant what she was saying and instead of twisting the knife, finished simply with, “The office seems empty without her.”
Halfway out the door, Vicki turned and acknowledged the observation with a single nod. She couldn’t trust herself to speak and wished, just for that instant, that she’d listened to Celluci and not come here alone.
Dr. Burke spread her hands and her voice picked up the cadence of a benediction. “I guarantee, she didn’t suffer at the end.”
“No. I’m sorry, Detective, but none of these photographs are of the Tom Chen that we employed.”
Celluci pulled the shot of Tom Chen, medical student, out of the pile. “You’re sure about this one?”
“Quite. Our Mr. Chen had slightly longer hair, more prominent cheekbones, and a completely different eyebrow line. We reshape a lot of faces in this business, Detective,” the younger Mr. Hutchinson continued in response to Celluci’s silent question. “We become used to observing dominant characteristics.”
“Yeah, I suppose you do.” Celluci slid the grainy black and white photographs back into the large manila envelope. Tom Chen, or whatever his name actually was, was not now attending medical school at Queen’s, nor had he graduated from the program over the last three years.
Detective Fergusson had been more than willing to call the registrar’s office on campus and suggest they release the pictures.
“No problem,” the Kingston police officer had declared with complete insincerity. “I’m more than willing to humor ex-Detective Nelson and her wild corpse chase.” The distinctive sound of hot coffee being slurped from a cardboard cup echoed over the line. “You catch the news this morning? Half the fucking force goes out with some kind of spring flu and some asshole starts strangling young lovers. We got a hysterical witness, who’s seen Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video one too many times, if you ask me, and no suspects. And I don’t need to tell you that the fresher the corpse, the higher the priority. If a phone call will keep your girlfriend happy and off my back while I deal with this new situation, it’s worth the two minutes it’ll take.”
Celluci’d been tempted to tell him that the two were connected in one final attempt at enlisting law and order against whatever it was that Vicki and Fitzroy were dispensing but at the last minute decided he’d better not. Your murderer is a reanimated corpse, Detective. How do I know? A vampire told me. Kingston had a large psychiatric facility and he had no intention of ending up in it.
Meanwhile, the search for Igor moved no further ahead.
“All right, Mr. Hutchinson.” Time to try another angle. “You said that all funeral directors have to serve a four-week observation period at a funeral home before they’re accepted into a training program.”
The younger Mr. Hutchinson leaned back in his chair. “That’s correct.”
“Well, where do these observers come from?”
“From the applicants to the program at Humber College in Toronto.”
“So this young man, whoever he was, had to have applied to that program?”
“Oh, yes, and gone through an interview. The Health Sciences people try very hard to weed out unsuitable candidates before they’re placed for observation.”
Celluci frowned. “So, it was just chance that Ig… Tom Chen, for lack of a better name, ended up here?”
“No, not at all. He asked to come here. Said he’d been impressed by the way we handled the funeral of his aunt some years before and wanted to work with us.” Mr. Hutchinson sighed. “All fabricated, I presume, but at the time we were flattered and agreed to take him on. He was a very pleasant fellow and everyone liked him.”
“Yeah, well everyone makes a bad call now and then.” Celluci finished scrawling a note to call Humber College, shoved his notebook in his pocket and stood, glad to be leaving. Funeral homes, with their carpets and flowers and tastefully arranged furniture gave him the creeps. “I wouldn’t worry about it. I don’t suppose you get much opportunity to practice character assessment.”
Mr. Hutchinson rose as well, his expression stony. “Our services are for the benefit of the living, Detective,” he snapped. “And I assure you, we are quite as capable of character assessment as, say, the police department. Good day.”
As he had nothing more to ask, Celluci accepted the dismissal. Once outside, he snorted and headed for the nearest bus stop, with the suspect’s transit habits still their only concrete clue, he’d left his car at the apartment building. “Quite as capable of character assessment as the police department,” he repeated, digging for change. “Just a little sensitive there, aren’t we?” Still, he supposed that funeral directors were as sick of stereotypes as, well, police officers, so the comment hadn’t been entirely undeserved.
Swinging up onto the Johnson Street bus, he glanced back at the seat just in front of the rear door, hoping for a young, Oriental male, eating candy. The seat was empty.
“Of course it is,” he muttered, sitting in it himself. “Or it would be too easy.”
“Violent Crimes. Detective-Sergeant Graham.”
“Why the hell aren’t you out working? Jesus, I can’t take my eyes off you for a second.”
“Hello, Mike. I miss you, too.”
Celluci grinned and braced the phone against his shoulder. “Listen, Dave, I need you to do me a favor.”
On the other end of the line, his partner sighed with enough force to rattle the wires between Toronto and Kingston. “Of course you do. Whey else would you call?”
“I want you to call Humber College and talk to someone in Health Sciences about a Tom Chen who applied recently to their funeral director’s program.”
“Humber… Health Sciences… Tom Chen… Okay. What do you want to know?”
“Everything they know.”
“About this Chen?”
“No, about life in general.” Celluci rolled his eyes at his reflection in the etched mirror over the couch. “The name’s an alias, but that shouldn’t make any difference to your inquiries. And I need the info ASAP.”
The wires rattled again. “Of course you do. How’s she holding up?”
“No, her mother, asshole.”
“About as well as can be expected, all things considered.”
“Yeah. Well… ” There was a pause while things were considered. “So, you going to be at Vicki’s mother’s place for the next couple of days?”
Celluci looked around the apartment. “Far as I know. You got the number?”
“Yeah. I’ll call collect.”
“Cheap Scots bastard,” Celluci muttered and hung up, smiling. Dave Graham was a good cop and a loyal friend. Except in their dedication to their work, they were nothing alike, and their partnership was both successful and uncomplicated.
“Uncomplicated; I could use a little of that right now.” Celluci headed for the kitchen and the coffee maker. “Vicki’s dead mother is paying house calls. Some joker who’s equally dead is murdering teenagers. And there’s a vampire in the closet.”
He froze, a step half taken.
“A completely helpless vampire in the closet.”
Even with the door braced from the inside, it would still be so easy to remove his rival. To have Vicki to himself. To let in just enough sunlight…
He finished the step and picked up the coffeepot. Fitzroy was too smart, had lived too long, to be in that closet if he thought he was in any danger. Celluci shook his head at the subtlety of trust and lifted a mug of coffee in salute.
“Sleep well, you son of a bitch.”
Rubbing at her temples with both hands, Vicki exhaled noisily. Adrenaline had run out some time before and she was mind-numbingly tired. The physical exhaustion she could cope with, had coped with many times in the past, but emotionally she felt as though she’d spent the day being flayed and then salted.
Dr. Burke had begun it, with her sudden sympathy, and then Dr. Devlin had finished the job. He had been more than fond of her mother and, still devastated by her death, had, in typical Irish fashion, poured out his grief. Vicki, unable to stop him, had sat dry-eyed while the middle-aged professor railed against the cruelties of fate, told of how universally Marjory Nelson had been liked and respected, and went on in detail about how proud Marjory Nelson had been of her daughter. Vicki knew how to stop him, “Sometimes,” the cadet instructor had told them, “you want to give the person you’re questioning their head. Let them talk about whatever they want, we’ll teach you how to separate the gold from the dross. But sometimes, you have to cut it short and take control…” she just couldn’t do it.
She didn’t want to hear what a wonderful person her mother had been, how much they’d all depended on her, how much they missed her, but not listening felt like a betrayal. And she’d done enough of that already.
The box of personal effects she’d taken from the office sat accusingly at the end of the coffee table. She hadn’t been able to do more with it than get it back to the apartment and even that hadn’t been easy. It had weighed a lot more than it looked like it should.
All at once, she became aware that Celluci had just asked her a question and she had no idea what it had been. “Sorry,” she said, shoving her glasses back into place with enough force to drive the plastic bridge into her forehead.
He exchanged a look with Henry and although she didn’t catch the content, she didn’t like the possibilities. Separately, she could barely handle them. At this point a united front, on any issue, would be beyond her.
“I asked,” he repeated levelly, “about Dr. Burke’s grad students. You told us she had some. Any chance they could be doing the work under her supervision?”
“I doubt it. According to Mrs. Shaw, when I went back for that appointment list, one’s into bacteria, a couple have something to do with computers, and one, and I’m paraphrasing here, is a fuck-up who can’t make up his mind. I’ll… ” Celluci opened his mouth but she corrected herself before he could speak, “we’ll check them out further tomorrow.”
Henry sat forward in his chair, his expression one she’d begun to recognize as his hunting face. “So you do suspect Dr. Burke?”
“I don’t know what I think about Dr. Burke.” Looking back on the interview, all Vicki could hear was the doctor’s voice saying quietly, “It’s amazing how much you resemble your mother.” Which was an irrelevant observation at the best of times and doubly so now; her mother was dead. “She’s got the necessary arrogance, that’s for damned sure, and the intelligence and the background, but all anyone can talk about is what a brilliant administrator she is.” She shrugged and wished she hadn’t; her shoulders felt as though they were balancing lead weights. “Still, until we know she didn’t do it, she stays on the list. I think, though, we can safely ignore Dr. Devlin.”
“Because he could never have kept the research secret. If he were doing this,” she made the innocuous pronoun sound like a curse, “he wouldn’t be able to keep from telling the world. Besides, I gather he’s a devout Irish Catholic and until recently, they weren’t even keen on autopsies.”
“He’s also a scientist,” Celluci pointed out. “And he could be acting.”
“All the world’s a stage,” Henry added quietly, “and we but players on it.”
Celluci rolled his eyes. “What the hell is that supposed to mean.”
“That if you do talk to the person responsible, they’re going to lie.”
“That’s why you build a body of evidence, Fitzroy. To catch the liars. We know more tonight than we did last night and we’ll know more tomorrow than we do now. Eventually the truth will out. Nothing stays hidden forever.”
We haven’t got forever. Henry wanted to say. Every moment that passes eats into her. How long before there’s nothing left but a cause? “We need a smoking gun,” he said instead.
Celluci snorted in disbelief. The phrase sounded ridiculous coming from Henry’s mouth. “You have been reading the literature.”
Henry ignored him. “I’m going to track the other one; the male who killed the teenager. There were too many police around to do it last night. If I find him, I’ll find your mother’s body as well.”
“And then?” Vicki demanded. “What do we do then?”
“We give them to Detective Fergusson. Lead him to the laboratory. Let him deal with the… “
“Wait a minute,” Celluci interrupted. “You’re actually suggesting we let the police handle this?”
“Why not? We have no one to protect this time, except me, and unlike ancient Egyptian gods of darkness or demons summoned up out of hell, mad scientists should fall within the capabilities of the law.”
Celluci closed his mouth. Wasn’t that his argument?
“Henry, you can’t go to the police,” Vicki began.
Henry smiled and cut her off. “I won’t. I’ll deliver the information to you. You’ll deliver it to the police. Detective Fergusson will be so happy to have his murderer, I think he’ll let you be a bit vague as to where and how you found it.”
Vicki’s lips almost curved. “You know, most guys just give a girl flowers or candy.”
“Most guys,” Henry agreed.
The air in the apartment seemed suddenly charged and Celluci felt the hair on his arms rise. Fitzroy’s eyes had darkened and even from across the room he thought he could see Vicki’s reflection gazing out of their depths. The sudden flash of understanding snapped the pencil he held. Neither of them noticed.
How often do vampires have to feed?
Had Fitzroy fed at all since they’d come to Kingston?
Yeah, well you’re not feeding in front of me, boyo. And you’re not sending me off to never, never land again while you… while you…
While you offer her a comfort she won’t take from me.
Another look at Henry’s face and he knew the offer wouldn’t be made at his expense. Somewhere, somewhen, they’d gone beyond that.
“I’ve got to get out of here.” His voice brusk but determined, Celluci stood. I can’t believe I’m doing this. “I need a nice long walk to clear my head. Help me think.” Half a dozen long-legged strides took him to the door. He yanked his jacket off the coat stand and charged out into the hall before they had a chance to try and stop him. ‘Cause I sure as shit can’t offer this more than once.
Safely outside, door closed behind him, he sagged against the wall and closed his eyes for a second, amazed at what he’d just done. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, see a man act like a fool completely of his own free will.
But he had the day.
Was it fair to deny Fitzroy the night?
And anyway, he shoved both hands up through his hair. It should be Vicki’s choice. Not a choice forced on her by my presence.
If you love something, let it go… .
“Jesus H. Christ. What kind of idiot takes advice from a fucking T-shirt?”
Vicki stared across the room at the apartment door and then turned to stare at Henry. “Did he just?… “
“Leave?” Henry nodded, more than a little amazed himself. “Yes.”
She couldn’t get her brain around it. “Why?”
“I believe he is removing himself as an obstacle between us.”
“Between us? You mean so we can?… “
“Why that arrogant shit!” Her brows snapped down, but she was so tired the exclamation had little force. “Didn’t he think I might have something to say about that?”
Henry spread his hands, the fine red-gold hairs glinting in the lamplight. “No one’s stopping you from saying it, Vicki.”
She glared at him for a moment longer, then sighed. “All right. Valid point. But I think you two are getting along too god-damned well.”
“Wouldn’t it make things easier for you if Detective-Sergeant Celluci and I got along?”
“That depends.” She sank back against the sofa cushions and added dryly, “On how well you get along.”
“Vicki!” Her name dripped with exaggerated shock. “Surely you don’t think… “
It took her a moment to catch the implication and when she did, she couldn’t stop herself from giggling. It had to be the exhaustion; she never giggled. “You wish. Michael Celluci is straight enough to draw lines with.”
Henry’s smile changed slightly and his eyes darkened, enough of the hunter showing to make his desire plain. “Then I shall have to find someone else.”
Vicki swallowed, if only to move her heart down out of her throat. He was making no attempt to catch her gaze, to draw her into his power. If she said no, and she could taste the word on her tongue, he would hunt elsewhere. But he needs me. Even from across the room, she could feel his Hunger. It wouldn’t be a betrayal. There was nothing more she could do for her mother tonight. More important, his needs covered hers and behind their camouflage, she could, if only for the duration, let go.
He needs me. Repeated, it drew attention from the more dangerous, I need him.
His voice stroked heat into her skin. “Yes.”
Celluci watched Henry cross the parking lot, and worked at unclenching his teeth. There was nothing in the way the other man, vampire-slash-romance writer, Celluci savagely corrected the thought, moved to give any indication of what had gone on in the apartment. Well, he doesn’t brag. I’ll give the little fucker that.
“Be quiet when you go into the apartment. She’s asleep.”
“How is she?”
“Some of the knots have loosened. I wish I could say they’ll still be that way in the morning.”
“You shouldn’t have left her alone.” I left her alone and look what happened. They both heard the corollary. They both ignored it.
“I’m listening to her heartbeat, Detective. I can be at her side in seconds. And this is as far as I’ll go until you’re ready to take over.”
Celluci snorted and wished he could think of something to say.
Henry lifted his face and breathed deeply of the night. “It’s going to rain. I’d best not linger.”
“Yeah.” Hands shoved into his jacket pockets, Celluci pushed himself up off his car. All right, so he hadn’t walked far. He hadn’t said he was going to. He wanted to believe that Fitzroy had left her no choice but he knew better; he wouldn’t have left if that had been even a possibility.
Pulled around by his name, he tried not to let any of what he was feeling show on his face. It wasn’t hard. He didn’t know exactly what he was feeling.
Celluci started to ask, For what?, but he bit it back. Something in Henry’s tone, he’d call it honesty if forced to put a name to it, denied a facetious response. Instead, he nodded, once, and asked, “What would you have done if she’d said no?” Even before the last word left his mouth, he wondered why he was asking.
Henry’s gesture seemed to move past the overlapping yellow-white of the streetlights. “We’re in the middle of a small city, Detective. I’d have managed.”
“You’d have gone to a stranger?”
Red-gold brows, darkened by shadow, rose. “Well, I wouldn’t have had time to make friends.”
Sure, take the cheap shot. “Don’t you know there’s a fucking epidemic on?”
“It’s a disease of the blood, Detective. I know when someone is infected and am therefore able to avoid it.”
Celluci tossed the curl of hair back off his forehead. “Lucky you,” he grunted. “I still don’t think that you should… I mean… ” He kicked at the gravel and swore when a rock propelled by his foot clanged off the undercarriage of his car. Why the hell was he worrying about Fitzroy anyway? The son of a bitch had lasted centuries, he could take care of himself. Trusting him is one thing. And I’m not sure I do. I am certainly not beginning to like him. Uh-uh. No way. Forget it. “Look, even if you can sense it, you shouldn’t be… ” Be what? Jesus, normal vocabulary is not up to this. “… doing it with strangers,” he finished in a hurry.
Henry’s lips curled up into a speculative smile. “That could be difficult,” he said softly, “if we stay here for very long. Even if she were willing, I can’t feed off Vicki every time the Hunger rises.”
The night air suddenly got hard to breathe. Celluci yanked at his collar.
“And after all,” Henry continued, the corners of his eyes crinkling with amusement, “there’s only one other person in this city who I can’t consider a stranger.”
It took Celluci the same moment it had taken Vicki. “You wish,” he snarled, whirled on one heel, and stomped toward the apartment building.
Smile broadening, Henry watched him go, listening to the angry pounding of Celluci’s heart as he charged around the corner and out of sight. It had been less than kind to tease the mortal when he’d been honestly concerned but the opportunity had been impossible to resist.
“And if I wished,” he reminded the night when he had it to himself again. “I would.”