A Question of Loyalty             

A Forever Knight Story

By DJ Clawson 

Season: 2        

Rated: PG-13

Warnings: Implied slash, cursing, and of course, blood.

Characters: Nick, Schanke, Natalie, Feliks, Cohen, LaCroix, Aristotle, Janette

Archive: Ask me first. dj_clawson@yahoo.com

Author's notes:  

While writing a longer Aristotle story, I had to come up with a back story for Feliks, and I liked it so much I decided to work it into another story for fun.

This story involves a lot of politics about sensitive topics like religion and racial tensions in India and Pakistan, so if you have reason to be sensitive about something of that nature, please know I don't mean to offend you. I merely wish to portray the characters as how they would actually act based on politics in India in the 1990's (and some other time periods).


Chapter 1

"A full moon tonight. A sight anyone can see, and yet has so many meanings. We wish on it, we mark our calendars by it, we see what is merely a rock caught in earth's nefarious orbit as a projection of our darkest fears. What frightens you, gentle listeners? Why do you have a shiver up your spine tonight?"

Mark shivered. "How does he know?"

"He doesn't," his current client said, emerging from the grocery store. "He just has a spooky voice. Turn that nonsense off."

"I like it."

"I know you do." Shasheed was actually a rather nice fellow, not the usual obnoxious rich clientele the company offered him. "But please listen to him on your own time."

"Yes, sir."

Mark turned off the radio and turned on the car. The engine made a strange noise instead of starting normally, but it was an old car. He didn't even know something was wrong until he felt the heat of the blast on his face.

    **********************************************

 

"81 Kilo, 81 Kilo come in."

Nick Knight turned off the radio to answer the call. "This is 81 Kilo."

"Please proceed to Broadway and Market. Reported car fire."

"Roger that. We're on our way."

"Thank G-d," His partner Schanke said, and Nick knew he didn't mean the car fire. He meant the cession of the radio. There was no holding back the dark humor that came with being a homicide detective. It was how most of them got through the night. "Is he being especially creepy tonight or is it just me?"

"Full moon, Schank."

"Oh, and now you're superstitious? Look, I can only take one crank in the car, and I'm counting your radio pal as that one. You have to stay sane."

Nick shook his head and drove.

The car fire was that - a car on fire. The fire truck was already there, as was the ambulance and several uniforms were cordoning off the scene. Though the body bag was already closed up and being loaded into the ambulance, the scene still stank of charred flesh. Some of the victim's remains were no doubt melted into the car.

"This was not a fire," Nick said. "It was a car bomb."

"You know, twenty years on the force and I've never seen a live one?  

Heard stories, though," Schanke said, turning to the uniformed officer. "Anyone left?"

"There's a guy with the paramedics. I think he was the driver." He gestured to the sidewalk, where the EMTs were counseling a man wrapped in a blanket. He was in shambles, visibly trembling, but his turban was tied so tightly that not even the explosion disturbed it, just covered it in ash.

Nick recognized an EMT from Mercy Hospital. "How is he?"

"He's in shock. He has some minor burns - first degree only. He says he was on the sidewalk when the driver turned on the car and can't remember anything after that."

"Can I?"

"Yeah, just a question or two. He's not up to talking much."

Nick knelt in front of the shivering man. He smelt of burned hair - his beard had at some point caught fire and was put out. "Sir - I'm Detective Nick Knight, Metro Police. Are you up for a few questions?"

"Ah - yes. I don't know." His hands gripped the coffee cup so hard some of it spilt on his suit, which Nick noticed was expensive. "Mark - he's dead, isn't he?" His words were punctuated by a thick Indian accent, but his English was perfect.

"Who is Mark?"

"My ... my driver. Mark Friedman."

"What's your name?"

"Shasheed Singh. I have - I have medical insurance, but I don't know if it covers - "

"We'll get you taken care of, Mr. Singh," Nick assured him, and he let the EMTs help him up and onto the stretcher for the second ambulance, newly arrived. Nick watched him go. "He's lucky he wasn't in the car."

"Yeah. He's uhm, what is - "

"Sikh, Shanke. He's Sikh."

"And he can afford a driver. Do you think he's a national?"

"We'll know soon enough." They walked around the back of the car, which was now no longer aflame, more of a wet shell of what had been a car. The license plate number was still visible, and though the frame was mostly melted, one could still make out it was a special frame.

"I know this company," Schanke said, tapping on the name partially visible. "It's a car service for bigwigs. Celebrities and ambassadors.

A bad combo with a car bomb."

"Very bad," Nick agreed.

 

    **********************************************

An hour later they had their first answer, which was that the survivor was not an ambassador, though he was an Indian national. The car service confirmed it. Shasheed Singh arrived in Toronto a little over a month ago and hired them for their esteemed reputation, using the same driver for all of his traveling. He was here on business and as far as they knew, his papers were in order.

"I just got off the phone with the Indian Embassy," Captain Cohen said after calling them into her office. "Shasheed Singh arrived in Toronto last month for a series of interviews for a local documentary on international politics. He was a media star in India - had a political commentary show until it was cancelled. Called India Today, New Delhi Edition. And here's the best part." She dropped the papers in front of them. "The show had three pundits, and of them was killed shortly after the taping ended in a car accident. No arrests made and the case was closed, and Mr. Singh came to Toronto to do the documentary."

"What about the other commentator?"

"Still in India. They're getting in contact with him now. I suppose I don't have to tell you both this is now an international concern until we prove otherwise."

"Mr. Singh wasn't killed," Schanke pointed out.

"Only because he wasn't sitting the car when it was started," Nick said. "Protective custody?"

"He's under tight guard at the hospital. When he's released, he'll make that decision, probably with the embassy. I want every T crossed and I dotted on this one, both of you."

"Yes, Captain."

Schanke handed Nick the file. "I have a sixth sense that says I should kiss my wife and daughter goodbye before I disappear into the protective custody hotel. And another one that you're willing to handle the autopsy results with a certain Dr. Lambert."

He decided to humor him and smile. "If she takes this one."

    **********************************************

Natalie was in the lab, looking less eager to see him and more distracted by her work, and not in a good way. "Hey, Nat."

"Hey yourself." She tried to smile, but it was forced. Every coroner had the case that gave them the willies, and for Natalie it was charred flesh. She was certainly handling it better than she used to.

"Don't worry - this one isn't going to jump off the table."

Now she did smile, for real. "If he did, he could tell us what happened, though I don't think it would be a long story. Cause of death is incineration, and fortunately for him it was probably instantaneous. The flesh on his front versus the flesh on his back indicates the blast came from in front of him."

"So, bomb set off by the ignition?"

"Forensics will have to check the car, but that would be my guess.

There's plastic from a key chain melted into one of his hands, indicating he was holding the key when he died. What about the other guy?"

"Says he was on the sidewalk. Indian political commentator. A fellow pundit was killed two months ago in a car accident, and their show was cancelled. They're calling the third host now." 

"Sounds related."

"If it is, Singh will go into protective custody and the Crown might call the counter-terrorism team in."

"We have a counter-terrorism team in Toronto?"

"Never had to use them, but I guess we do."

Natalie looked up from her work. "Why would someone want him dead?"

"It was a political show. I don't know much about it yet, but in the South Asia, talking is enough to get you killed. Maybe his apartment will have some tapes. If it is, then Mr. Friedman just got in the way of something bigger than himself."

"Don't we all?" Natalie said.

    **********************************************

The following day, Mr. Singh was released from the hospital and transferred to a police safe house while forensics worked on the car. Nick met Schanke at the motel used for such purposes, and nodded to the uniformed officer on the way in. Schanke handed him the file. "The latest."

"Anything interesting?"

"Forensics is going to need a while on the car. They're not used to car bombs. Singh has been resting since he got here; the hospital gave him something pretty strong for pain. He should be coming around now."

They moved from the second room with the equipment into the main room, where Shasheed Singh was sitting up on one of the two twin beds, watching television. His beard was trimmed but not shaved, and he looked to be in his mid-thirties at most. His casual clothes were very neat and tailored. He had a patch on his face to cover a burn, and a new turban, a green one. "Hello, officers." He was about to rise to greet them, but Schanke put a hand up to stop him, and he gratefully accepted the gesture. "Detective - I'm sorry, I've forgotten your name."

"Detective Knight. And this my partner, Detective Schanke. At the moment, we're in charge of the investigation into the homicide of Mark Friedman."

"A terrible tragedy. All because he was my driver. The officer outside said not to make calls without permission. May I get the number of his family, to apologize?"

"That can be arranged."

"You don't have any doubt the bomber was after you?" Schanke asked.

"Have you had anyone threaten you recently?"

"Not in Toronto, but my publicist made sure no one but the embassy knew I was here. As for threats on my life in India, there were no more than normal. I couldn't point you to a specific group, Detective.

There were too many of them. They cut down a bit after the show was cancelled, or so I'm told. Someone else opens my mail."

"Tell us a bit more about your show, Mr. Singh." Nick didn't take notes, but Schanke did.

Their guest was very hospitable. "India Today was a late-night political commentary program. The concept was three debaters - a Hindu, a Sikh, and a Muslim. The only thing we agreed on was that we respected the right of the others to have a different opinion. The topics were usually the news, that day's or the day before, depending on how early an event came in. We didn't have much prep time. The arguments could be very heated, and we all said things that got us death threats, but we respected each other. I liked both of them.

Hajji and I were very upset over Jinesh's death in the accident - or we thought it was an accident. I suppose it was made to look like one.

The show had just wrapped taping and we decided to cancel it. We couldn't simply replace him with another Hindu. I was at his funeral procession for both of us. Hajji was unavoidably unavailable, and very upset about it."

"Tell us more about the other two commentators."

"Jinesh Channarayapatra and Hajji Ashraf. Yes, Detective, I will spell those," Singh said to Schanke, and did. "Jinesh was very religious, a worshipper of Ganesh like his name implies. His whole family was. His brother is a sanyasi, a monk, a very prominent one, and he considered that path himself, but decided instead to study history at the University of Mumbai. Very knowledgeable, probably would have gone to be a politician but he said he didn't have the stomach for it. We used to joke about it anyway on the set. We were always joking before we sat down to debate. We tried to joke afterward too, to ease the tension. When he died, we suspected yes, it might be a terrorist, but the police came back and said no. So we let it rest and went our separate ways.

"Hajji was unlike any Muslim I've ever met. Very devout but not very religious the way ignorant people would consider a man religious. Only in India. He is from Pakistan, but still considers it part of India and believes the partition was a mistake, so he says he's Indian. Very modern but could be a mullah for all of his learning. He knows the whole Qur'an and the Hadith by heart. Doesn't drink wine, doesn't eat pork. Wouldn't even put his watch on his left hand. Very critical of Pakistan and fellow Muslims. I think he got the most threats, except for that time I said Nehru betrayed Tibet to China. You can't easily say bad things about Nehru on television and not get threats, but the others supported my right to say it. Hajji is very good-natured when he's not arguing, a little on the sarcastic side. I tried to call him from the hospital, but I didn't get him. That doesn't surprise me. He travels a lot. He can be very hard to reach. I told the embassy to keep trying."

"His name," Nick said. "Ashraf. Was he - "

"He said he was a descendant of the Prophet, yes. As-sahihi an-nasab - 'of true genealogy.' He was very strident about this, but never presented his genealogy charts. I don't know why. If he could prove it, so many people would be less inclined to touch him, much less threaten his life. I don't think he was lying. Maybe he just can't prove it. He's a bastard son or something."

"When was the last time you spoke to Hajji?"

"Before I left for Toronto, he had me over to wish me well on my journey. It was the first time I'd seen him since Jinesh's death. He has a very nice apartment in New Delhi. Like him, it's very modern. I asked him what he would do and he said he might travel, but he meant in India. He never leaves India." He grabbed the hotel pad and wrote down a number, then handed it to Schanke. "This is his international cell phone and the phone to his apartment in New Delhi. Both say they're out of service, but that's not that unusual. The service isn't that reliable and he has to change numbers a lot."

"So you basically lived under constant threat because of the show," Schanke said.

"Yes. But it's not as bad as politicians! At least we have that. Or we had." He frowned. He was shaken, and deeply disappointed at the sudden course his life had taken. "Maybe I will return to India sooner than planned, maybe I will go somewhere else. I don't know anymore. I must do something for Mark's family. They must be having such a terrible time. A terrible, unnecessary loss."

"Is there anything else you can tell us specifically about someone who might want you dead here in Toronto?"

"No, not at the moment. I'm sorry, Detective."

"My card," Nick said, handing it to him. "Call here or the station if you think of anything."

Shasheed nodded. He couldn't leave the country without them noticing anyway, not while he was under police guard. If he did want to leave, they could only hold him here as a material witness, and the Embassy would probably fight it. It might be worth letting him go, if he did try to flee for his own safety.

They left Singh, knowing he was tapped for now, and returned to the station. Cohen was waiting for them. "My office. Now."

Nick and Schanke exchanged glances, wondering what they had done wrong, and followed her. There was a tough-looking man in a bad suit sitting in one of the chairs in front of her desk. He rose when she entered, regarding both of them with a skeptical eye. Cohen walked around her desk. "Detective Knight, Detective Schanke, meet Mr. Hammond. He's with the Crown Counter-Terrorism task force. The Crown Attorney has decided to officially classify this a possible act of terrorism, so you'll be reporting to him, as will every other member of the precinct doing any work on the case. I expect complete cooperation." She looked at Mr. Hammond. "Mr. Hammond, these are the best detectives in the precinct and were the first responders to the scene."

They shook hands, because Mr. Hammond offered and neither of them could refuse. He did not look like someone who would be pleased with a lack of progress - or maybe he would be used to it and that was why he was so tense. "Detectives."

"Mr. Hammond."

"The Embassy has requested that two members of a SWAT team be placed outside Mr. Singh's safe house. Expect them there."

"Yes, sir," Schanke said for both of them. Nick muttered the same.

"This is a very serious case. Probably the most serious of your careers. And it's about to get worse." He did not sit back down. "The Indian Consulate-General just got back to us with information on Mr. Singh's colleague, Hajji Ashraf. The reason it took so long is because he's been in hiding since a bomb blew up his penthouse four days ago."

 


 

Chapter 2

In the police conference room, an officer wheeled in a TV and VCR, and Hammond put in a tape for the viewing audience of Nick, Schanke, Cohen, and several members of the forensics team. The footage was a news program, with a reporter on the scene, standing in front of a building in flames. It was hard to make out from the smoke, but it was several stories, and almost all of the flames were concentrated on the top story.

“ – while firefighters work to put out the blaze. No casualties have been reported at this time, though at least sixteen are injured, all residents of the apartment. The police are not releasing the names of any injured, and say there are still some people from the building who have not been accounted for.” Behind her was the dim light of early morning. “The explosion occurred around 4:30 am on the top floor of the complex. The source of the explosion has not been identified at this time.” There were two different sets of subtitles beneath her. “The police commissioner has advised local residents to vacate the streets until the smoke – “

Hammond muted the tape, but left it running. “This is from NDTV’s English-language news team. The top floor only had one apartment. That it belonged to Hajji Ashraf was not released to the press. At first they thought he wasn’t at home because they didn’t find a body, but he turned up a day later in private medical care. His publicist contacted them first, then him, to confirm he was alive. Until the investigation is complete, they’re keeping this very quiet, especially after Mr. – “ He had to check the sheet. “ – Channarayapatra’s death.”

“When did this occur in relation to the car bomb on Market?” Cohen asked.

“They’re separated by less than 72 hours. We can assume the same organization was at work for both bombings, and was possibly involved in – “ he looked at the sheet again – “Channarayaptra’s ‘accident.’ They’ve reopened that case, which was originally closed when evidence showed it to be a drive-by accident.” This time he pronounced the name slightly differently, but no one blamed him. He turned away from the TV and to them. “Our main job on this case is to determine if the bomber has left the country already or not. Most flights to the Southeast require people to transfer at JFK International in New York, but if we flag everyone suspicious with a final destination of India or Pakistan, we’ll have more civil rights groups on us than we already do for the 6 o’clock news, which first misidentified Mr. Singh as the driver of the car and then misidentified him as a Muslim. So far the local press hasn’t made the connection between Singh and Ashraf, and with any luck they won’t, but the Indian press probably will. The only reason this whole thing hasn’t exploded yet is because the Indian press is on another continent and hasn’t come to Toronto in full-force. They will tomorrow, the next day if we’re lucky. Our first goal is to establish if the bomb was made here or abroad – forensics, this is an absolute priority. If it was made here, we have reason to suspect a domestic terrorist, possibly someone here on a VISA or even someone with citizenship. No one talks to the press – no one. About anything. If they ask you how the investigation’s going, no comment. If they ask you if there’s an investigation, no comment. Not a damn word. Understood?”

“Yes,” was their collective answer.

“Good. Here’s the duty rosters ...”

**********************************************

Natalie entered her office the next night to find Nick sitting in her desk, reading a file. “Well, hello to you, too.”

“Sorry. I needed somewhere to think.”

Natalie looked at the body bag on the table, labeled with a tag ‘probably suicide.’ “And he’s helping you?”

“He’s not putting up a fuss. I don’t know who he is – not my case.”

Natalie let her bags down and removed her coat, not taking her eyes off Nick. He looked paler than normal, his voice was edgy, and he was wearing the same clothing as yesterday. “Have you been here all day?”

“The bull pen has too many windows,” he said. Meaning, he had been there all day, and would probably be there all night. “If you don’t mind, could you possibly – “

“ – get you something from the Loft on my lunch break?”

He smiled at her in that very charming smile, the one she absolutely could not refuse. Not that she intended to refuse it. He was probably starving. Unlike the other officers, he didn’t keep any snacks hidden in his desk drawer. Of course, unlike the other officers, he was a vampire and a bottle of blood wine would have been pretty suspicious if anyone decided to go through his desk, or if he even decided to take it out when he thought no one was looking. She gave him credit for not yet raiding the stash of blood bags in the steel cabinets across from him. This was not the time to bring up protein shakes. “So how’s the case?”

“Probably something we’re going to spend a lot of time on and not going to solve,” he said. “I think the only reason we’re still working on it is because a Canadian was killed and because forensics came back with results on the car bomb.”

“And?”

“The parts were domestic. It was constructed here. A fairly standard bomb wired to the ignition, with a powerful enough blast to kill whomever would be in the backseat.”

“Which was supposed to be Singh.”

“Yes. Unless the bomber got his car service companies mixed up and we’re completely off, and this has nothing to do with international terrorism or Indian politics.” He stood, taking the file with him. “They’re supposed to have some tapes of the show Singh worked on in by seven. Lunch break at midnight?”

“Are you going to make it that long?”

“Yes,” was his answer, not that she expected anything else. He would never admit it even if it was otherwise. He pecked her on the cheek and left.

**********************************************

Nick found Schanke alone in the conference room, watching a tape. Schanke beat him to the punch. “You know, this case is making me look like a real backwoods idiot.”

“Did Hammond say something to you?”

“No, but jeez, Nick, I can’t pronounce any of these names.”

“They are really hard to pronounce.” He was eager to be alone, and Schanke almost qualified because he smelled so much of garlic, making him less tempting to the vampire than any other member of the force.

“And this show. I can understand their accents, but I don’t know a lot about Indian politics. And they have a lot of slang. You’re cultured. Maybe you can understand it.”

“I don’t know a lot about India, Schanke.” And he was mostly telling the truth. He had only been there once, on his way to Shanghai, and the Community there made sure he didn’t linger. They were notoriously insular. “No more than you.”

“You knew Ashraf’s last name meant. And what does it mean?”

“Not from being in India. And it means, if it’s true, that he’s a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad through his only daughter, Fatima. It’s very popular to try to trace your genealogy to Muhammad because it’s a status thing in the Muslim world. Some people consider them holier than other people. They can’t marry the unworthy.”

“Do they have any proof?”

“As much proof as you have about your ancestor from the eighth century, if your entire family tree was carefully monitored between now and then.”

“All I know is, these guys are tearing into each other over this Kashmir thing,” Schanke said, gesturing to the screen. “And Singh says they liked each other. I would hate to see what would happen if they hated each other.”

“Kashmir is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. It’s a very sensitive topic.” Nick looked at the screen, but didn’t try to follow the conversation. The one identified by the prompt beneath him as Hajji Ashraf was speaking, sometimes lapsing into Arabic when stressing a point. “Any news on this Ashraf?”

“He’s probably in a bunker somewhere. The Embassy doesn’t know where he is and wouldn’t tell us if they did. Also he’s supposed to be pretty badly injured. The blast in his apartment was so strong it tossed him out a window and he landed on a garbage pile. Probably the only thing that saved him from being incinerated. Can you imagine living like that? With the constant threat of sudden death over your head? This is making Myra’s threats about a heart attack look positively rosy. You can live through a heart attack.”

“You can live through a bombing,” Nick pointed out. “You just have to be extremely lucky. You don’t think Ashraf was a little too lucky?”

“Even if he was it would be impossible to pin it on him. One of the reports says he lost an arm. Do you want to make sure you don’t look suspicious that badly? To lose an arm?”

“Left or right?”

“What?”

“The arm. Left or right?”

Schanke looked at the file. “Doesn’t say.”

“The left hand is unclean. That’s what Singh meant about him not wearing his watch on it. If he got his right arm blown off, things are going to be very awkward for him.”

“What would he do?”

“Use his left hand. Just feel bad about it, I guess.” Nick’s greatest interaction with Muslim culture had been his seven-year stint in a 13th-century Saracen prison, so any recollection of customs was outdated and came with the worst memories of his mortal life. The experience made him so desperate and broken that he turned to someone like LaCroix for help. “What else do we have?”

“Nothing. Nada. Niente.” Schanke leaned back, a very uncomfortable position to take in those chairs.

“If you want to sleep, the coroner’s office is pretty quite.”

“The day I sleep in a morgue is ... well, I won’t be sleeping is all I can say.”

**********************************************

Do you feel insignificant? As if you have no effects on the events around you? What is this desire we all feel to be the source of all events, or at least to have some affect on them, however terrible they might be? Who out there is crying to be heard?”

Nick pulled off his headphones and shoved the radio under his desk as Natalie approached. He did not want to explain why he was listening to LaCroix. He didn’t think he could explain it, but at that moment, it was a voice he wanted to hear, almost as badly as hers. “Hi.” He grinned as she put a bag on his desk. “You’re a lifesaver. You know that?”

“People generally don’t say that about coroners.”

He would have kissed her, but this was his desk, not the morgue. “Thank you.” He didn’t make any further conversation with her, much as it might have been polite to do so, and retreated to the upstairs bathroom, the one that was almost never used, and sat down in the stall. It was not a protein shake. Natalie was not that cruel. The bottle still had a little chill from the fridge, enough to fully establish that this was old, dead blood, with no memories to offer him, even if he didn’t particular want or need cow memories. He hated thinking about grass.

Five minutes later, a more satisfied vampire emerged from the bathroom. Yes, he would still hear every heartbeat and briefly consider making a meal of every person he passed in the halls, but the edge was taken off. Now, he could concentrate.

Before he could return to the complex but hastily-typed analysis of the car bomb, his phone rang. “Knight.”

“Nicholas.” It was, out of nowhere, Feliks Twist, his vampire accountant. Or accountant vampire. He wasn’t sure which came first. “I would request your presence at my home tonight.”

“Normally I would be honored,” he said, as he was never invited to anything, “but I’m in the middle of a big case.”

“Yes, I am aware. That is precisely the point, in fact. Hajji is here and he would like to speak to you, and only you. Not the police.”

It was impossible. “Hajji Ashraf?”

“Yes, that’s his name at the moment I believe. His real name is Hajji Rahman bin Isma’il ibn Īsā ibn Surat ibn Mūsā al-Khawlani, and he is my master.”


Chapter 3

Very few things could stun Nick Knight into silence. This was one of them. “... the talk show guy?”

“Yes, but if you call it a talk show, he will be very insulted. That implies he had Bollywood celebrity guests.”

“And he’s here? In Toronto?”

“He had a great desire to leave the country and I had a great desire to see him, and Aristotle was exceptionally good at arranging flights. He wouldn’t have said anything about his presence to anyone but he just saw the news about his friend Shasheed.”

“I’m sorry, you just took me by surprise. You’ve never mentioned him before.”

“You’ve never asked.” The normally rather wordy Feliks was almost terse, at least for him. “I’m sorry. I’ve been on six planes in the last four days, so I may not be my usual self. Nonetheless the invitation stands, for you – and obviously, no one else.”

“If no one stops me, I can be there in twenty minutes.”

“Very good. He’s in a very good mood right now all things considered, so you’d best catch it while you have the chance.” He paused. “And he would be kicking right now, but he has no legs.”

There was noise on the other end of the line, not in Arabic but in another language Nick didn’t know, but it sounded like cursing.

“So, you know, hurry.”

“I’m on my way.” He hung up and grabbed his keys, answering Schanke’s look in the hallway with one word. “Lead.” He did not stop to explain himself further, avoided Cohen and Hammond, and was out the door.

**********************************************

Feliks always greeted guests in the greenhouse, which had proper entrance doors like the front of the house. It also was where his desk was, and his computer system, and if not for the many sunlamps, Nick supposed Feliks might have lived in it. One had to walk the path through the center very carefully to avoid them.

The British vampire (Nick had always assumed he was British) was always exquisitely dressed, if in a bizarre fashion, with only the best oddly-colored clothing. Tonight he seemed a bit more mismatched than usual. His hair wasn’t perfectly combed, his face not freshly-shaved, and most significantly, his elaborate tie was a knotted mess. Nick couldn’t guess which vampire was more tired when they greeted each other. “Thank you for coming.”

“Thank you for getting me out of the station.”

“I was against this, you know. He needs rest and I don’t think he can aid in the investigation, but he insisted.”

“When did you know?”

“The moment it happened, of course. I knew he was alive, but I was terrified nonetheless. Worse, he lost his phone in the blaze, and it was hours before he could get to one to contact me. He really is very pleasant – just not in his current condition. Please excuse him.”

Of course as Hajji’s child, Feliks might be feeling at least some of the pain of his master, if Hajji wasn’t good at blocking the link, or just unable to. No wonder he was so strung out. “I’ll be quick.”

Feliks led him into the main house, which Nick had never been in. As he expected, it was done up in a lavish version of Victorian style, and all of the pieces were probably original. The only thing out of place was the wheelchair, though the blanket on its occupant’s lap matched the rug and the drapes. “Mr. Ashraf.”

“Detective Knight.” It was the Hajji from India Today, in the flesh, though much of that flesh was missing. His right arm was little more than a stump, and it wasn’t clear how much of his legs remained, but they certainly didn’t make it down to the footrests. Bad burns trailed up his neck and his face, and one of his eyes had no proper lid or bone structure that should have been around it. He had no beard and very short haircut, but he’d had that in the show, too. His clothes were very modern, like the silk suit he wore on the show, if worked around bandages. He spoke through a thick accent. “So this is LaCroix’s famous son.”

“I didn’t know I was famous.”

“You’ve never been to India, have you?”

“Once. I didn’t get a warm reception.”

“It must have been Skandagupta. He loves keeping India Indian. And he’s four hundred years older than I am and won’t spend a minute letting me forget that. Or that I’m not Indian.”

“Your publicity package says your family is Pakistani.”

“A very convenient lie. It gives me authority to talk about Pakistan. I’m from Baghdad, of course, when it was the jewel of the East. But I’ve been in India almost my entire existence now – except for the last two days.” He accepted a tea cup of blood from Feliks, and immediately questioned him a language completely foreign to Nick, and Feliks answered him back. “You drink goat’s blood?”

“Cow.”

“Then I suppose you make a very difficult guest to be hospitable to.” He emptied the cup but did not accept a refill. “How is Shasheed?”

“He had some minor burns, but he survived. His driver started the car while he was still on the sidewalk. That saved him. He’s out of the hospital and in a safe house.” Nick considered Hajji’s burns. He’d been injured five days ago, and he was still very badly wounded. He must have been little more than a husk after the explosion. “He’s worried about you, now that he knows what happened.”

“He knows I lived, though?”

“That’s what the Embassy’s told him.”

“Good. I like him. It doesn’t come across that way on television, but I do. And I liked Jinesh, to. That’s why we cancelled the show. We couldn’t just replace him with another Hindu, like they’re replaceable, even in a country will millions upon millions of them. I was very sorry I couldn’t attend his funeral procession.” Because it was during the day, of course. It was so obvious now. “I suppose you want to ask if I know who did it. Of course I don’t. He would be dead now if I did. No, correction, I would have him captured so that I could kill him when I can do it properly. Not from a wheelchair.”

“Mr. Singh said you had hundreds of death threats.”

“Not hundreds. Thousands. I once said woman wearing veils was un-Islamic, and had nothing to do with the Qur’an or the Hadith. Muhammad’s wife wasn’t veiled and neither was his daughter. You can look this up, but no, they don’t want to listen. It was a Byzantine custom, veiling the face. The Turks picked it up when they invaded Constantinople. But you tell that to a mullah, he’ll get his thugs to beat your face in. This is the state of my religion now. This is what they’ve turned it into. And to attack a descendant of the Prophet!” He shook his head, albeit slowly. “But I can’t prove it, of course, without a lot of forgery, and I don’t like forgery, more than is necessary. I’m six generations away from the Prophet. Six! They should be kissing my feet.” He growled. “But I shouldn’t get this way. Then I’ll be like them.”

Six generations from Muhammad and the reference to Baghdad placed Hajji at the height of the Abbasid Empire, meaning he was at least eleven hundred years old. It was probably the reason for his survival of a fiery blast.

“How is your investigation going, Detective?” Hajji seemed a little amused at the term.

“Not well. Ordinary car bomb, made with domestic parts. And Mr. Singh hasn’t had any death threats since he left India. The Canadian government sent in a counter-terrorist expert, though I don’t know how much of an expert you would consider him to be. I don’t think he thinks we’re going to solve this.”

“Does he speak Arabic?”

“I don’t think so.”

Hajji waved it off, showing his disgust at Hammond’s qualifications.

“Are you sure the bombers are Muslim?”

“Of course!” Hajji was adamant, some red showing in his pupils. Feliks whispered to him and he settled down. “But I suppose I should consider other options. I’m not well-loved by anyone, on the public front. And to hit a fellow Muslim – not impossible, but less likely. Also the car accident that killed Jinesh was good enough that we didn’t think it was a terrorist. Not their style. They like to send a message. They want to create terror. We weren’t scared after his death, just sad. Maybe his death really was an accident. I don’t know. But the two bombings weren’t, and I want you to find the bomber, so I can kill him myself.” He raised a finger. “And don’t say anything about the mortal justice system. They’ll just extradite him and he’ll sit in prison for years before someone gets around to killing him. A waste of everyone’s time, money, and a waste of blood that I want.”

“I’m an officer of the law, Mr. Ashraf.” He didn’t really know how to address Hajji.

“I believe you have a saying, or at least my Feliks has it – ‘the law is a donkey.’”

“Ass. The law is an ass, Effendim,” ('my master') Feliks said, his tone very clear but very soft and affectionate.

“Even better then,” Hajji said with a smile.

“If the bomber can be found, it won’t even be your bomber. They were timed too close together.”

“Ah, but his blood will tell me where the others are. And there were many people planning this, of course. Something you won’t get from torture, from a man who wants to die for his beliefs.”

“That’s not how the law works.”

“I was told you would be obstinate.”

“From LaCroix?”

“I had to announce myself to the city elder. He was very amused at my television personality,” Hajji said. “I only ask of you the same thing I asked of my dear colleagues, that you respect that my beliefs are different from yours.”

Nick wasn’t sure what to say. He couldn’t press the point, knowing Hajji was in agony and not in the mood for a fight, and the final request was too reasonable to refuse. Plus Feliks’ eyes were practically pleading for him to agree. “Fine. You’ll cooperate with the investigation?”

“Not with the mortals, until my face is healed. I can’t have wounds closing up in front of them. I will help you if I can. And if you give me Shasheed’s number, I will call it from a place that cannot be traced.” Of course Hajji was an expert at covering up around mortals. He was a television personality.

Nick wrote the back of the safe house line on his card and handed it to Feliks. “Call me if you think of something.”

“We’ll be in touch.” Hajji’s smile, even in his weakened state, could not hide his feral nature.

**********************************************

Nick waited until his shift was over and he was finally given permission to leave the station before heading to the Raven. He was chancing it with the daylight, but Janette was also there, and being caught for the day with her would not be the worst of worlds. She at least kept something to his taste in stock. “Nicolas. What a surprise. LaCroix said you are so very busy.”

“I am.” But he always had a smile for her. The Raven was closing up for the night. The music was already off and the main lights on so the floor could be washed. “Is he here?” LaCroix sometimes slept at the Raven if it wasn’t a show night.

“If you were more in touch with your senses, you would know,” she said. “You look so very tired. Is it because you are looking for him or because you don’t want an interruption?”

“At this point, I could go either way.”

Janette seemed pleased, but not by her answer. “He is here. He said you would be. He is waiting for you in the lounge.”

“Of course he is.”

“Please don’t fight.”

“But if I do, it might take awhile, and I’ll be stuck here for the day with you to comfort me.”

“And a big liquor bill if it’s anything like last time. Don’t let him throw you into the bar again.”

He kissed Janette, “I’ll try.”      

LaCroix was in the VIP lounge, which was empty. There was nothing on the table except two glasses and a wine bottle. “Just when I thought I had a case that had nothing to do with vampires,” Nick said, sliding into the seat across from his master, but not making any move to accept a glass of wine.

“Yes, we do seem to dominate your existence, even your façade of mortality,” LaCroix said. “Though I believe a ‘Good Evening’ is in order, or some nonsense opening that acknowledges your elder.”

Remembering Feliks’ attitude toward his own master, it struck a chord Nick didn’t like in comparison. “I suppose I don’t have to ask why you didn’t tell me Hajji was in town.”

“Why would I? You don’t know him, nor would I feel an obligation to announce his arrival if you did. If he hadn’t involved himself, his presence would have gone entirely unnoticed.” And then, LaCroix said something downright odd. “How is he?”

It was hard to make out. There was not affection, certainly – it was clear who LaCroix had affection for – but nor did he regard Hajji like other vampires, an annoying fly in his personal space or someone to be respected but kept at a distance. “How do you know Hajji?”

“Answer the question and I will answer yours.” LaCroix took a sip of the wine, which smelled close to live blood in Nick’s uneasy opinion. “A fair exchange.”

“He’s in a wheelchair. He’s missing most of two legs and almost all of his right arm. And half his face must have been blown off for it to be as good as it is now, five days later, which is still bad. How did he escape the blast?”

“The same way we all do. Running, flying, tearing apart everything in his past – or maybe it simply flung him out the window. Who knows? A terrible thing to go through – and not easy for his children either, I imagine.”

Nick nodded grimly. Feliks did not look well. “My question.”

LaCroix put the glass down and filled it again, knowing full well all it would do on the table is tempt his son. “Before the Arab world was so callously invaded by a bunch of unwashed barbarians from the North based on some superstitions about devil-worshipping desert dwellers destroying their holy cites, the Abbasid Empire was at the height of learning. As I’m sure you belatedly realized.”

Nick ignored it and bade him to go on with a nod.

“In particular, the court at Damascus – and later Baghdad – was accomplished in the areas of art and literature. And mathematics. Aristotle can tell you all about that; they made his name famous even if he claims it isn’t his name, per se. In particular, the court produced some of the greatest poets I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. One of them was Hajji, who could have been more than a poet if he wasn’t a bastard son and a homosexual. I didn’t know him as a mortal. I met him through his master, a Babylonian mystic who is now, unfortunately, deceased. His fledgling was a rambunctious but oddly delightful little fellow – much like you for a time. Ah, remember those first years?”

“This is about Hajji.”

“There’s not much more to tell. We parted ways when I returned to Europe and they traveled to India. Hajji is quite established in the Indian community, being the third oldest vampire there I believe, and would never leave – or so we thought. I wouldn’t have guessed his first steps out Indian soil would put him in Ontario, but I also would never have guessed that my daughter would be an innkeeper and my son a constable. So, there you have it.”

“And Feliks?”

“Why don’t you ask him? He’s your friend,” LaCroix said with his devious smile. “Rather impolite to go asking around behind his back.”

Nick chose a neutral answer. “I don’t want to bother him right now.”

“I don’t know the whole story behind it, not being there and never having the gall to ask, but my understanding is that Feliks was once a rather good rifleman doing what younger sons with no inheritance and a mysterious lack of interest in marriage did in Britain – buy themselves a commission and go abroad. There was a time when the Mughal Empire thought it was a good idea to have the British around; some even welcomed them into their homes. The rest, I believe you can imagine for yourself. Now are you done digging up other people’s history? I’m not so offended when you do it with mortal ruins, but I must warn you against asking after the Community.”

“Hajji wants to be involved in the police investigation.”

“That is his prerogative. At his age, he certainly knows how to do it without exposing us,” LaCroix said. “Nicholas, you know your thoughts are mine. Do not get between Hajji and his prize. Charming as he may be sometimes, he still would not hesitate to cut you down and he is not without allies in his quest. I have only requested that he not kill you in the process.”

“How kind of you.” He couldn’t imagine Hajji a capable fighter, but his condition wouldn’t last long. “Good night, LaCroix.”

“I suppose you won’t be staying the day. All sorts of police work to be doing. Good night, Nicholas.”

It was too late to hang around with Janette. He had to get back to the Loft before sunrise. He had plenty of time on the way home to think about the mysterious twinge of regret in LaCroix’s voice as he left, and what it could possibly be about.


Chapter 4

As daytime was Nick’s only time off, he invited Natalie to the Loft before his shift, eager for her company but not the shake she brought him. Still, tonight he was willing to gulp it down (and hold it down for a considerable amount of time) to have someone around who wouldn’t taunt him for his work or make demands of him. Something about LaCroix had shaken him, but he wasn’t sure what. It wasn’t anything he said, precisely, just a feeling he had.

“So Hajji Ashraf is a vampire? And here in Toronto?”

Nick picked his head out of the sink. He felt so awful, losing the shake, that he didn’t hesitate to get the taste out of his mouth with cow blood. “I was as surprised as you are.”

“Does Singh know?”

“I severely doubt it. He said they taped the show at night, so I guess it just worked out. He wouldn’t have lived through the bomb otherwise.”

“And you said the police didn’t find him at the scene.”

“No. They didn’t track him down for a day. He must have found some haven and recovered before contacting the police to say he survived. He’s still missing most of his limbs so he can’t be seen in public without them. All the more reason to leave India.” He returned to the table, taking the glass with him. “He wants the bomber – the one who went after Singh. He wants revenge.”

“Actually a very human reaction to almost being killed and having your one friend killed and the other almost the same. Do you actually think you can find this bomber?”

“If we follow the forensic leads, we might have a chance. Some of the pieces would be difficult to obtain. That’s assuming the bomber hasn’t fled the country yet, and is waiting for another chance to get at Singh.”

“But if you don’t keep him updated – “

“ – he won’t help with the case. And he may just publicly involve himself when he’s healed enough to stay updated. He worked in the news. He knows how to play all the angles.”

“Then I guess you’ll have to work around him. It shouldn’t be hard if he’s in a wheelchair.”

“He has help. A son.” He paused. Was LaCroix jealous?            He’d been over and over the point that he expected obedience from his children, and always laughed off Nick’s lack of affection and constant betrayal of their past. As LaCroix had so uncomfortably pointed out, there had been happy times together – him with Janette with LaCroix watching after him, or when Janette was feeling too smothered, just him and LaCroix, traveling together. Happy together. There was a time when Nick would have been horrified if LaCroix was injured (and not at his hand), and done everything in his power to soothe his wounds. Hajji could then provide LaCroix with only painful reminders of what was past and what Nick repeatedly insisted would never be again. That didn’t explain for what water was doing on his face, though. “What the – Natalie?”

She giggled and put away the spray bottle. “Sidney doesn’t care for it, either. Sorry. Had to get you out of La-La Land somehow. Should I ask what it’s about or is it a long story that requires historical footnotes? Because Cohen will hang you out to dry if you’re late today.”

“I know.” He went to clean the glass and collect his badge and gun. “More just wondering about what could have been, not was and was very traumatizing.”

“If you were mortal?”

“If I treated LaCroix the way he wanted me to treat him.”

Natalie stood up. “Nick! You’ve gone on and on about how he’s a monster.”

“Yes. But I’ve said the same thing about myself. We’re both monsters, Nat.”

“But you don’t want to be that person.”

“The essential difference between me and him doesn’t change how we’re related. Both Singh and Hajji said the same thing – that they got along because they agreed to disagree.”

“LaCroix will never agree to that. He just wants you to agree with him.”

“So I assume. But I don’t really know. I’ve never asked.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “They’re just thoughts, Nat. A way to pass the time before I have to spend hours going over phone records.”

“You know, some people just collect stamps.”

“I don’t usually collect things younger than I am,” he said, and escorted her out.

**********************************************

Schanke was waiting for him at the bull pen. “No time for breakfast, partner. You probably just should have left your car running.” He simply turned him around and they proceeded out the way they came. “Forensics compiled a list of possible distributors for the more exotic bomb parts, and we have to have to hit them before they close.”

First they had to pass through the gamut of reporters waiting outside for anyone who looked like they might have something to do with the case, a group Nick had assiduously avoided on the way in. The best strategy was to just ignore them as if they had no idea who they were or why they were there and proceed to the caddy.

“I am gonna be so glad when this is over,” Schanke said. “Whether it’s solved or not. I have never seen so many reporters. You know Hammond had me come in at noon today? We can’t all be lucky like you and have a sun allergy – which he’s not buying, by the way.”

“So he just thinks I’m a lazy cop?”

“He thinks you pulled the wool over Cohen’s eyes on that one. Said it to me himself. I guess not solving any cases makes you a very frustrated person. Speaking of, I don’t think we have a chance in hell in solving this one.”

Nick laughed. “And you’re usually so positive about work.”

“International terrorism? You don’t think this is a little out of our field?”

“Homicide is still homicide, Schank. We’d be following the same leads if Singh was a truck driver from Newfoundland.”

None of the leads were particularly promising. Ordinary electronic stores had long customer lists that required a warrant to seize, and manufacturers weren’t used to being asked to present them on such short notice to anyone. A late-night call to the Crown Prosecutor (it seemed Hammond was good for something) got them the warrants they needed and they returned well after midnight will piles and piles of inventory listings and customer information to sift through. While Cohen assembled anyone who was available to begin coming up with lists of customer names to see if anyone matched all of the stores (assuming, of course, the bomber bought local), Nick and Schanke had one excuse to get out of the office again, and it came via Mr. Singh.

In the safe house, all of Singh’s calls were taped. So far, the only ones he received were his parents and sister, the only ones given the number. Singh was sleeping when Nick and Schanke arrived, and the on-duty officer played the tape for them in other room of his most recent call. “Came in about half an hour ago. I told Singh to use English if he possibly could for these calls, and he agreed. The call’s blocked on the other end with some very sophisticated encryptions. No way to tell where it came from. It’s not a major lead, but I thought you should know.

They nodded and put on their headphones, gesturing for him to turn on the tape.

Singh:   Hello?

Hajji:  Namaste, Shasheed.

Singh:   Hajji?

Hajji: (laughs)   None other. Ap kaise hain? *

Singh:   You have to speak in English. The police are listening.

Hajji:     Oh, then hello, Mounties!

Singh:   They’re not all Mounties, Haj. You know that.

Hajji:     Where’s your sense of humor? I heard you only had minor burns. My apartment was blown up and I’m in a wheelchair! You know that lovely tapestry you bought me for my birthday? Gone. Such a waste.

Singh:   I’m sorry to hear that. How did you get this number?

Hajji:     How do I get anything? My secret and mysterious ways. I wanted to see how you are doing, old friend.

Singh:   Not good, but very lucky. Not so lucky for my driver.

Hajji:     Yes, a terrible tragedy. It’s all over the news here.

Singh:   They said you were in hiding.

Hajji:     I am not in hiding. I am simply somewhere where I don’t want to be found. Hiding implies I am frightened of them.

Singh:   You’re not frightened?

Hajji:     I’m too angry to be frightened. Anyway, I don’t want to use up all of Canada’s precious tape. Can I be of any service to you?

Singh:   Not unless you know something you haven’t told the police.

Hajji:   The same police who told us Jinesh was killed by accident? Yes, I’ve spoken to them. Been completely cooperative. My faith is limited. Maybe you will have more luck.

Singh:   Maybe. 

Hajji:    Assalamu Alaikom **.

Singh:  Waheguruji ki fateh. ***

Hajji:     We’ll be in touch.

The officer stopped the tape. “The call ends there. The stuff at the end, Singh said they were just blessing each other. For luck.”

“And the call is completely untraceable?” Not that Nick had any doubt, but for reasons outside of police jurisdiction.

“Yes. And no background noise, either. Besides, isn’t this guy in India?”

“Supposedly,” Nick said, annoyed with Hajji. Clearly he was going to keep his promise to stay involved in the case, whether Nick liked it or not. Hammond would be eager to point fingers at the first suspect they could find, and Hajji would probably have little hesitation at killing him, whether he was involved or just a bad guess on the police’s part. Hajji was infirm, but he wouldn’t be for much longer.

“Nick,” Schanke said, snapping him back to reality. “Your car radio’s going off.”

So it was. He reached through the window for the receiver. “81 Kilo responding.”

“Crime scene at 40 Spring Streets, Radio Supplies.”

“We’ll be there. Over.” He looked at his partner. “Weren’t we there tonight?”

“Yeah, like two hours ago.” It was one of the suppliers, a ham radio operator who owned an electronics store that specialized in small pieces and wiring.

Nick made record time from the safe house to downtown, aided by the lack of traffic so late at night. There was one officer outside the store, looking particularly green. “It’s a mess in there, Detective.”

It was true. The stench of blood wafted out, nothing Schanke could detect but something that Nick found uncomfortable in that it was so pleasing. He was all professionalism as they stepped into the tiny store. A second uniform was standing behind the cashier. “The body’s in the office. We haven’t even marked it yet.”

Inside the tiny office, crammed with electronic supplies, was a body on the floor, not far from the toppled desk chair. It was covered with a tarp and they were just starting to draw the chalk outline around it. Nick lifted the tarp as Schanke knelt beside him. “Our suspect’s been busy.”

“Or someone else. Someone who wanted revenge.” Nick looked with dissatisfaction at the body of the man they’d interviewed only hours before, now face-down, his eyes still open and staring at nothing. His throat was slit, and it was even money it was to cover a bite, especially in that fashion. Considerable blood had poured from the wound, leaving the man in a pool of his own blood still building long after he was dead.

“Well, you don’t see this every day.” While Nick was focused on the blood, Schanke had moved on to the computer, which was on and opened to a document program.

Detectives,

I commend you for your efforts so far. It seems Mr. Simmons was not involved knowingly, though he did have a dark-skinned customer with a Pakistani accent who bought the wiring you were seeking three weeks ago. He paid in cash, which is why it’s not so clear on the records, and Simmons had yet to recall the incident when you interviewed him tonight. I would also add that though Mr. Simmons has a girlfriend with whom he has yet to get to second base, as you would put it, he also has a remarkable stash of child pornography in a box labeled ‘A/C output’ in the storage room.

No name was typed. They would dust for prints, but wouldn’t find any. And before he checked, Nick knew the second paragraph was true.

Hajji had read it in his blood.

**********************************************

It was nearly the end of his shift when Nick was finally free to head to the coroner’s office. Before that was an hour-long strategizing session about how they would keep the newest murder from the press and whether to contact the Pakistani Embassy. Nick also waited for Schanke to go home before catching up with Natalie.

Simmons was on her desk, now cleaned of blood. “Vampire bite?”

“Hard to tell. His throat is pretty torn up. More than enough to kill him, and then some. If I had to guess a reason, I would say yes,” Natalie said. “But I wouldn’t be happy about it. Do you know who did this?”

“I have a very strong suspicion.” He hoped it was Hajji, and not Feliks. “The stuff about the child pornography was true. We found the box with a layer of dust on it. Hadn’t been touched in months, so it wasn’t placed there. We haven’t checked the girlfriend story yet. She’s out of town. I don’t know – maybe Hajji’s trying to appeal to my sense of justice by bothering to see notice if the man he killed had a past that would make him a less sympathetic corpse. But he wanted something else from the blood: the description of that Pakistani customer. Hajji would recognize the accent, even if Simmons wouldn’t.” He frowned. “What doesn’t make sense is how he got to him so fast.”

“You think he’s tailing you?”

“I would have noticed. And Simmons is the only person he went after so far. All of the others have been called. The only people who knew our itinerary tonight were the members of the task force, and aside from Schanke, none of them have left the building tonight.”

Natalie raised an eyebrow. “Do you know any vampires who can make themselves invisible?”

“I know some that can make themselves unnoticeable, so everyone just walks past them, but I would have sensed him. Or Feliks.”

“Feliks?”

He winced at the unintentional admission. “His son. And my friend. He lives in Toronto. He’s involved, but I can’t imagine him doing this.” He looked down at the body of Simmons. “I would have known if he was here tonight, and I would have known if he was in the office where Simmons was killed. He wasn’t.”

“Can I ask how you know?”

“He smells of insecticide and perfume.” He couldn’t and didn’t want to offer any extra information, and had the excuse of the sun on the way. “I have to go.”

“Nick, you’re aiding a murderer.”

“No. I’m going to stop a murderer,” he answered.

**********************************************

By dusk, Nick had devised his plan of attack. The only conclusion he could safely draw about the investigation was that it was being monitored from a computer, the most likely method. And Feliks wasn’t good enough to hack into the central mainframe. He preferred to do his work legally for the most part, albeit making use of numerous loopholes in international finance. Larry Merlin, a simple call told Nick, was in Paris. That left one person who unfortunately carefully screened his calls, but might be sympathetic to Hajji. It was worth a try, even if Nick would be on traffic duty for a month for being late.

He wondered why Aristotle didn’t have a receptionist. Maybe he was just that much of a recluse, and refused to bring anyone across for that purpose. He certainly wouldn’t trust a mortal with a job that put him anywhere near his computers. “Nicholas! Hold on; I wasn’t expecting you and the orcs are wailing on my archers right now.”

If Nick knew which button would pause Aristotle’s computer game, he would have pushed it. That and he would prefer not to pull back a stump, as he suspected he would if he touched a single piece of computer equipment without permission. “This is serious.”

“Fine, fine.” He paused the game, but didn’t shut it off. His other computers seemed to be doing other automated tasks. He smiled and looked up at Nick, absolutely refusing to take him seriously. “If you want me to get LaCroix’s radio show cancelled, the answer is still no.”

“Did you hack into the police mainframe?”

“Sure! But that was months ago. They’ve probably changed their passwords since then. Not that it would be hard, now that I’m familiar with the system ... I would need a few hours, depending on what you wanted me to do.”

Unfortunately, Aristotle was not the type to lie to his face unnecessarily. “You weren’t in the mainframe last night. Or any other night since Hajji arrived.”

“No.” Now he regarded Nick more seriously. “Why do you ask?”

“A radio supply store owner was murdered last night, hours after we interviewed him about whom he might have sold some wiring to. And I know we weren’t followed around, so the only way someone could have gotten the address was from the computer.”

“Did he slit the throat to cover the bite?”

“Yes. And handed us a child pornography case from the victim’s blood. It’ll go to vice. But he didn’t know that when he attacked the victim. I didn’t think Hajji was that mobile yet.”

“Just because he has no feet doesn’t mean he can’t fly. You have no other suspects?”

“Other than Feliks, and his perfume would have been all over him.”

“I hate to say it, but it’s true.” He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “What do you intended to do about it?”

“I have to talk to one of them.”

“Nick ...”

“You can’t go around killing people who aren’t even suspects for information! The pornography thing was just a lucky break, and that doesn’t mean Simmons deserved to die. We have leads and we’re following them. The justice system just takes time. I told him – “ He cut off. “Hajji can’t be reasoned with. I understand he’s in a lot of pain. But Feliks – “

Nick.” Aristotle’s voice suddenly had an edge to it unlike anything he’d ever heard before, immediately calling his attention because it was so vampiric in the way it drew him in, and Aristotle always spoke in such a human manner. “Don’t try to come between Hajji and Feliks. Not only will it not work, but Feliks will never forgive you. You can kiss all of that free and sophisticated accounting goodbye. He’ll cut you off.”

“He listens to reason.”

“He listens to his master first, reason second. If Hajji went so far as to ask him to kill you, he would try, damn LaCroix’s protection. And Hajji is usually very reasonable, when he’s not almost quadriplegic and very aware of the incompetence of the mortal justice system at dealing with terrorists. If you lived in a place like India, you’d know how he feels. I’d tell you to stay out of his way, but I know you won’t do it. So just try not to get killed – and don’t talk to Feliks about Hajji’s decisions. He won’t take your side against his master and he’ll be insulted for being asked to do it.” He sighed. “Please listen to me on this on, Nick. I’ve known Feliks for 150 years. He is reasonable about most things, but he’s also very passionate. You’ve just only seen him be so about plants. He has other things he cared about, and Hajji will always be the first thing on the list. I can’t deal with you feuding with another vampire into Toronto. It’ll end badly for everyone.”

Aristotle was pleading, he really was. Nick softened his stance. “I won’t talk to Feliks.”

“Good. Thank you.”

“... And I’ll keep your other warnings in mind.”

“Hajji really is a nice guy, Nick. You know, when he’s not bent on revenge for the assassination of his friend, being blown to bits, and the attempted assassination of his other friend, which would make even the most reasonable guy a little angry.”

He had to admit it would. “Thanks, Aristotle.”

“Hey, anytime I can talk you out of getting yourself killed, feel free to stop by.”

 

* "How are you?" (Hindi)
** "Peace be upon you." (Arabic)
*** "Victory to the Wonderful L-rd" (Punjabi, common Sikh saying)


Chapter 5         

Tonight I want to talk about loyalty. We have two types, the loyalties we should have and the ones we obey. Family, Friends, Relations, Religion. Some arbitrary system of justice. Where do we draw the line between loyalties we proclaim and those that, when pressed, we will act on without any hesitation? Where, dear listeners, do your loyalties lie?

Nick turned off the radio as he pulled into the station. Trust LaCroix to not let him think in peace. Of course he could always not turn on the radio, as LaCroix would so eloquently point out if he mentioned it.

He was not as late as he thought he would be, now that the trip to Feliks’ house was put on hold until he figured out what to say to Hajji. His only option now was to catch the bomber before Hajji did.

The task force was already assembled in the briefing room, including Schanke.

“Detective Knight.” Hammond didn’t look pleased at his late arrival, but Nick didn’t respond and took his seat. “As I was saying, we have to consider the possibility that our bomber murdered Simmons, leaving the note about the Pakistani customer to throw us off the scent after discovering his stash. Or maybe he knew about it before.”

“Or we could have a leak in our department,” Cohen said, “which is an even more disturbing prospect. You’ll be issued new passwords for your computer and no one is to have access to any crime scene that might be related to the case without permission from Mr. Hammond or myself.”

“The Pakistani Embassy called, just to make our lives easier, when a reporter said our suspect was Pakistani. Whether he got this information from last night’s findings or just said it to be inflammatory, we don’t know, but we don’t have time to investigate. We have to find the bomber or establish that he’s no longer in the country before we have dueling ambassadors in here making it worse. Now let’s narrow it down to equipment suppliers who reported sales of our items around the same date as the purchase at Mr. Simmons’ store and work from there.” He added, “And watch your backs, all of you.”

**********************************************

“Maybe I should get Myra a card. ‘Sorry I’m late for Jenny’s graduation,’” Schanke said as they walked up to the third electronics store.

“She’s finishing grade school?”

“No, I was going to do it for high school, as that’s the next time I’m gonna see her if this keeps up.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I think Hammond is going to have me stay in the office all day tomorrow and yell at me for not driving around with you.”

“Have you tried the sunscreen?”

“I’ve tried the sunscreen.”

“There’s that thing Natalie gave you that made you psychotic.”

Nick rang the bell. “And I still got sunburned, as I recall.” He raised his badge to the man who answered the door of the closed warehouse. “Metro Homicide.”

Twenty minutes later, after the man thoroughly went through his records, they had an address, and called it in before proceeding to one of the shadier areas of Toronto, which contained a lot of immigrant housing, legal and illegal.

“This address is a month old,” Schanke said. “Do you think we need backup?”

Nick looked at the street. The only store still open was the all-night convenience store, which a neon sign saying it sold only Halal food. Beside that was the address, an inconspicuous doorway to a larger housing project behind it and above the store. “Call anyway.”

“This is 81 Kilo requesting backup on a potential location – “

Nick approached the door, knowing he was immediately marked as a cop and there was no way he wouldn’t be. He rang the buzzer for the second floor. “Hello?”

A woman answered it, her accent South Asian, but nothing Nick could place. “No more reporters!”

“We’re not reporters, ma’am. We’re Metro Homicide and we have a question about a package that was delivered to this address.”

Schanke hit the worn intercom button. “And if you don’t open up, we can get a warrant.”

“Hold on.” The door buzzed, indicating it was open, and they climbed the old wooden staircase to the second floor. There was no noise on the other side of the door that was unusual, and Nick heard several heartbeats, but only one was racing. He knocked.

The woman who answered was in a robe. She looked according to her accent, either from Southeast Asia or the Philippines, and she was not happy to see their badges, but didn’t stall them either. “Please come in.” Her English was a bit hard to understand but the words were technically correct. The living room was very modestly furnished, with cheap Persian carpeting and few adornments on the walls. Little heads poked out from the hallway, then dashed away when Nick looked at them. “Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you. We just have some quick questions.” He watched a little girl go running by, completely draped in black from head to toe, with only her eyes showing. “How many families are living here?”

“Just two. My cousin – our family is very large.”

Nick looked at Schanke. She was lying, but not maliciously, just to protect herself. “Do you rent to many people?”

“Some people stay here. Our rents are reasonable. They sublet.” She added, “It’s allowed on my lease.”

“We just want to know about one person.” Schanke pulled out the order form for parts to an alarm clock. “A package from this store was delivered to this address, under the name H. Smith.”

“There is no one here by that name. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone here by that name.”

“Take a careful look at the logo of the company and the date and see if it jogs your memory,” Nick said as politely as possible, giving her time to do it. Was she debating on telling them, or just didn’t know? It was clear ‘Smith’ wasn’t a real name, and like everything else, the order was paid for in cash. It just required a delivery. “Please.”

She looked for a long time before deciding. “There was a man, an immigrant. He only had temporary papers. He worked in the store below, trying to get a work visa. He got a lot of packages from relatives. His name was Hamid Jinnah.”

“Indian?”

“Pakistani.”

“And where is Mr. Jinnah now?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know! He left last week. The store – they might know. He worked at the store.”

“What day did he leave? Did he give notice?”

“He left last Thursday. It would be eight days now. And yes, he gave notice. This was only temporary for him.”

Meaning, he went somewhere else before leaving the country, if he was in Toronto to plant the bomb. “Is there anything else you can tell us? Did he leave anything behind?”

“No. He took everything with him. The room is already rented. The man is good Chinese – not a terrorist.”

Schanke took the paper back. “You’re sure?”

“Yes, officers. I didn’t know Hamid well. He didn’t talk to women. There is nothing else I can say. I wish I could help you.”

They turned to leave, but Nick stopped at the door. “One more thing – why were you so afraid of reporters?”

“We don’t want the attention. We are poor – not everyone has work papers. You understand?”

“No, specifically. Has anyone been to see you?”

“Yes – just become you came. A man, alone, had a notepad and a press pass, but it was in Hindi. I don’t read Hindi.”

“And what did this man look like?”

“Very pale – not from India. Black hair, longer than yours, and a moustache.”

Nick had a sinking feeling. “And he spoke to you in English? Did he have an accent?”

“No. He spoke Urdu. I wouldn’t have spoken to him at all if he didn’t talk his way in. He was very polite.”

“Did he give his name?”

“Lieutenant Anderson.” She pronounced it Lefttenant, like the British did.

“Did you tell him what you told us? About Mr. Jinnah?”

She paused. “I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember?” Schanke didn’t believe her, but Nick did. He knew the tone of a hypnotized woman.

“Let’s go, Schank. We have to catch up. Thank you for your time, Miss.” He waved to her and pushed Schanke out. They had to catch up with Feliks. How was he a step ahead of them? Did he have a police radio?

They hurried down to the store, where the man behind the cashier had a blank look on his face when they mentioned the reporter, his memory clearly wiped. He was able to answer their questions about Hamid Jinnah. “All trouble! Showing up late, taking long breaks, not good with small change. He never bothered to learn the money. He said he was here to send money home to his parents in Pakistan so I took him on, but good riddance!”

“When did he quit?”

“Last week.”

“Did he leave a forwarding address?”

“It wasn’t pay week, so he had to, so I could send him his final check. Here.” He opened the drawer beneath the register. “It’s on the top for some reason. Well, lucky for you.” He handed them a slip of paper with an address. “And tell him I will not be a reference for his visa! He is a bad worker! It should go to someone else.”

Outside, their backup had arrived. “New address,” Nick explained to the uniformed officers. It was a cheap hotel on the other side of town, and they had to make time. If they didn’t, and Jinnah was still there, they might be too late to capture him alive.

**********************************************

As if his life couldn’t get more complicated, Nick was letting Schanke inquire at the hotel manager’s desk when he felt it.

LaCroix.

He couldn’t follow it, and he didn’t have time. If LaCroix wanted to interfere, he undoubtedly would. Nick had no time to go chasing after him. Instead he turned to the uniformed officers. “Stay in the car until we call for you.” LaCroix had only one way of dealing with collateral damage, and it was eliminating it entirely.

Schanke was a problem as always, but Schanke wasn’t a resistor. As long as he wasn’t injured or killed, he would make it. That was assuming they were not beaten to the punch on finding the suspect – or that he wasn’t the bomber after all, just a false lead. Nick suspected Hajji wouldn’t care, and would test his blood anyway.

He had to keep Hajji off Jinnah and off Schanke for interfering, Feliks off himself for trying to stop things, and LaCroix from whatever he was trying to do. LaCroix did like to hover, but not when other vampires were involved. Vampires who weren’t Nick.

There was only one elevator and it was busy, no matter how much Schanke pressed on the button.

“Stairs,” Nick said, removing his gun from the holster.

“And Myra says I never get any exercise.”

Nick hoped to lose him on the stairs, but he couldn’t do so without being obvious. It was only four floors. The hallway was dismally lit and eerily silent, at least to human senses. Nick could detect shouting, but not in a language he recognized or understood. He took his position against the wall by the door, directing Schanke to do the same on the other side. “Metro Homicide! Open up!”

To their surprise, the door did immediately open, but before they could barrel in, Feliks slipped out and closed the door behind him. “Please give us a few minutes. We’re in the middle of something.”

“Tell me why I should.”

“Because he says he has a bomb.”

Bomb?” Schanke shouted, to which Feliks shushed him.

“Detective Schanke! Do you know how long we’ve been working to try to talk him down?” He ignored Schanke’s gun, that was pointed right at his head. “I don’t know if he really has a bomb, of course. But if a man who makes bombs and is surrounded by the requisite equipment says he has one, you have to take his word for it.” He raised his finger to Nick. “And no bomb squad. This is not a briefcase to be carefully examined for several hours. It could be strapped to his body.”

“Jinnah is the bomber?”

“Yes, that was rather obvious, don’t you think? And yes, he is willing to die for his cause and that nonsense. His English isn’t very good, and your negotiators won’t know what to do with him. Let Hajji handle it.”

Hajji?” Schanke said. “Who’s Hajji?”

Feliks seemed merely annoyed at Schanke’s presence. “Please! Keep your voice down. And Hajji is a very skilled negotiator, I assure you. Nor does he want to be blown up again.”

“He can’t kill a suspect.”

“Well, not until the bomb’s disposed of, if there is one, certainly.”

“Who are you?” Now Schanke was at least whispering, if whispering loudly. “How do you know Nick?”

“Please. Detective Knight is quite the media celebrity for a police officer, isn’t he?” was Feliks’ neutral answer. “No offense meant to your established career, Detective Schanke.”

It appropriately put Schanke off-guard. “None taken. So – we wait for this Hajji – hey, is this the same – “

“Yes, the same Hajji Ashraf you’re thinking of. And at the moment I believe he is discussing the 23rd Sura of the Quran with Mr. Jinnah.”

“What?”

“That’s how you talk to a religious fundamentalist,” Feliks said. “With religion. And Hajji is very, very good at it.”

“And after he’s done?” Nick asked.

“Then we find the bomb and dispose of it. Assuming there is one.”

“I’m not going to let him – “

“Yes,” Feliks said, looking Nick in the eyes, but not appearing threatening – just firm. “I know. Your code of justice won’t allow you to do anything else.” He paused, listening to something they both couldn’t hear. “The bomb is in the top drawer of the dresser beneath the television.”

Before either of them could question how he knew that, he opened the door and ran in, tearing out the entire drawer. The young man in a T-shirt and jeans threw himself at him, but missed him entirely and landed on the floor. Feliks was much faster, retrieving a device of sticks of dynamite tied to an alarm, and in one swift motion, opened the door to the porch and tossed it out the window. There was a brief silence as it fell, then exploded – in the empty cement pool four stories below, closed for winter.

His ears still ringing from the blast, Nick turned to the other man in the room. Hajji was in a wheelchair, but looking considerably better than their last meeting. His face was restored except for some red welts near his ear, which was still missing part of the earlobe. His right arm, presumably growing back, was hidden in a sling. Both his feet were in casts supported by Velcro covering, to hide the stumps inside. He did not hesitate to stand, grabbing the attached cane with his one arm and proceeding towards Jinnah. “Out of my way, Nicholas. The police will be here soon and I have no time to argue with you.” But instead of moving directly to Jinnah, he limped to Schanke, and grabbed him by the head so their eyes met. “Sleep.” He added, “Someone catch him.”

Schanke dropped like a stone, and Nick was absorbed in catching him before he hit his head on the floor and tossing him on the bed. When he turned, Hajji had caught up with the stupefied Hamid Jinnah, and shoved him against the wall – an impressive feat for a man who could barely stand. “I would say this is for Shasheed, but I think I’ll enjoy it so much more if it’s for me,” he hissed, baring his fangs.

Nick didn’t make it to Hajji in time, but not because of Felix, who couldn’t have held him anyway. LaCroix put a rather strong arm around him, easily choking him if he needed his lungs, and took several steps away as Hajji fed. “I would allow you to interfere only if no harm came to you.” LaCroix’s voice was as unforgiving as his grip. “Assessing the situation, I decided not to take a chance.”

Nick looked to Feliks, who looked sympathetic but would never go up against LaCroix. Instead he was there to catch his master when he stepped back after draining Jinnah, who slumped to the ground. Hajji needed help back into his wheelchair as he wiped the blood from his face. “Paper and a pen.”

“No doubt Nicholas’ ‘back-up’ will be here soon,” LaCroix said. Nick bit into the hand over his mouth, but he ignored it.

“I know, but I have to get these names down before they leave my head.” He looked to Felix, who had the hotel pad and pen ready and took a seat at the desk. “The man who was assigned to me was Mahmood Kalam. Indian, from Uttar Pradesh, studied in Lucknow. His cell number is ...” Without stopping, he quickly recited no less than thirty names, nationalities, locations, contact numbers, and physical descriptions of an entire terrorist organization. LaCroix released Nick, who had nothing left to do that would interfere with Hajji’s plans. The Arab vampire was actually quite calm as he spoke. “The main sponsor is a Saudi charity. The training center is in Afghanistan.” The vampire was no longer in evidence, aside from traces of blood on his cheek.

“Knife!”

Feliks supplied one, and Hajji stood to finish the job on Jinnah, and cover the bite wound. A good coroner would question why such a major cut was made after he was dead for several minutes, but it would eliminate evidence of a supernatural creature. He seemed stronger after draining Jinnah, and probably was, but limbs took a long time to grow back and he happily accepted when Feliks helped him back into his wheelchair. “Detective Knight. I suppose you want to make up some kind of story. In your description, at least give me a beard. Not that I’ll be making public appearances. And you can let your partner take credit for disposing of the bomb, if you like. Feliks was never here. It was just me.”

“Detective Schanke can be convinced of that,” LaCroix said before Nick could cut in.

He nodded to the city elder. “We’ll be in touch.”

Feliks shrugged apologetically to Nick and wheeled his master out. Presumably they would find someway to avoid the police that were ascending the stairs in a rather noisy fashion.

“I believe that is my cue,” LaCroix said. “When he wakes, your partner will be in a very submissive state. He will take quickly to suggestion for the first few minutes. Use them wisely.” He nodded to his son, not waiting for an answer, and flew out the open window.


Chapter 6

The easiest part of the story to fabricate and convince Schanke of was the bits of it with some truth. They came in on a mysterious man attacking their suspect, who then cut his throat while they disposed of the bomb. There was a scuffle afterwards, knocking both Schanke and Knight out long enough for the mysterious intruder – a thin, young Indian man with a beard – to escape. The trickiest part was making sure Schanke remembered nothing of Feliks’ presence, or that the unknown assailant was actually in a wheelchair, or that Schanke himself had not thrown the bomb out the window, where it would injure no one when it hit the bottom of the pool. Schanke, of course, got caught up in being called a hero, and Nick was very happy to let him. There was a lingering guilt about leading him on for so long, when Nick knew full well who was hunting the bomber, then hypnotizing him to fit a false story, however inspired by actual events. Schanke’s quick thinking saved both of them and quite possibly everyone on that floor of the hotel, and there were plenty of people to be grateful. After telling the story a few times, Schanke became more convinced of its truthfulness, and Nick pleaded exhaustion to his captain.

“You did a terrific job too, Detective,” Cohen said. “You caught the bomber and may have identified an entire terrorist network. You’ll be getting commendations whether you want them or not.”

Nick smiled at her. “As long as the ceremony’s at night. Am I released?”

“Go home, Knight. You look like you need some rest.”

He didn’t contradict her. There was no need to. “Captain.” But he didn’t head back to the Loft. There was a stop at the morgue, where Hamid Jinnah’s body was still in the bag, freshly arrived. No one was around, so he kissed Natalie on the cheek. “Nat.”

“So how close is the story I’m hearing to what really happened?”

“There were two more people involved, and Schanke wasn’t the one to throw the bomb. But the person who did is not going to go after the credit.” It was the only part of it he felt good about – letting Schanke have the credit. “I couldn’t stop Hajji. LaCroix was there to make sure I didn’t.”

“Pulling out the big guns, wasn’t he?”

“If I attacked Hajji, I might have won because he’s still injured, but Feliks would have attacked me, and Feliks is no match for me. If I hurt Feliks, Hajji would have torn my head off. So LaCroix felt he was saving my life.”

“That’s a complex circle, isn’t it?”

“Hajji and Feliks are father and son. They would do anything for each other. Sometimes it goes for vampires as much as humans. And sometimes it doesn’t, just like humans.”

“But your relationships are based on blood.”

“Among other things.” But she was right. He could not separate himself from LaCroix – and LaCroix could not separate himself from him. “I am sort of glad I didn’t have to fight Feliks. He’s a friend. I want it to stay that way.”

“But you still tried to save Jinnah, even after you knew he killed Friedman and tried to kill Singh with that car bomb.”

“I didn’t have any sympathy for him. I just believe in due process. Metro Homicide’s version of it, anyway.”

“The human version of it,” she emphasized. “Now try not to get into situations where I might feel inclined to be thankful of LaCroix.”

“Trust me, I feel the same way.”

**********************************************

Nick did not hear from nor seek out Hajji or Feliks for a full week. The first few days were caught up in medals, plaques, and speeches of commendation for Schanke, Nick, Captain Cohen, Mr. Hammond, and the entire police force on behalf of the city of Toronto, the Crown, and the Indian Embassy, which sent on what were assumed to be Hamid Jinnah’s notes exposing an entire multinational terrorist organization responsible for one murder and two attempted murders of a news team. Mr. Singh thanked them personally and happily returned to his family in India. Hajji, to the rest of the world, remained recovering in a private facility in India. The search would go on for the other terrorists, but most of them wouldn’t be found because their governments wouldn’t fully cooperate. But Toronto was safe.

There were no leads on Jinnah’s mysterious killer, and after two days Cohen let them hand the case to someone on the day shift and gave them both a week off, with pay. Schanke celebrated by hiring a babysitter and taking Myra to his cabin in the north. Nick stayed at home and watched movies with Natalie. He didn’t venture to the Raven, not ready to have the conversation with LaCroix he knew was inevitable.

Seven days after the fight in the hotel, Feliks called and very politely invited him to his house. Hajji wanted to thank him for his work, or that was the reason given, but the real reason was undoubtedly that he felt bad about how Nick was handled and wanted to make amends. Nick had no choice but to agree, and would have if even if he could have refused. He’d had a long time to think over what both Singh and Hajji said of each other – that they respected each other’s rights to believe in different things. One of those things could easily be justice. Hajji had his, and now did Singh, their Hindu partner Jinesh, the driver Mark Friedman, and any other victims of the small terror cell operating out of Pakistan. Simmons was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Jinnah would have been extradited to India, then tortured and executed. Even if Nick didn’t agree with Hajji, he knew his way was simpler and more cost-effective.

And there was the small fact that after eight hundred years, Nicholas de Brabant understood that it was better to be on the good side of older vampire if he could possibly manage it, which he often couldn’t manage to do.

Aside from a small limp which he seemed to ignore, Hajji was completely restored to the animated person who appeared on the tapes of India Today. He even had cow blood for Nick, who was served in a tea cup. Hajji did not drink wine, waving off the convenience of it as a preservative for blood. “I have always found a way around it. The Prophet did not drink alcohol and neither do I. And before you say it, he would have drunk blood if he was a vampire. Or just exploded, because he was so holy. Who knows?” He waved off his son’s offer for a second cup. “Sit down, ibni. You’ve been on your feet for two weeks now and I am no longer an invalid.”

“I have to ask,” Nick said between sips, “who was your leak? I never figured that out?”

“That was easy,” Feliks said. “Mr. Hammond is not a resistor.”

“The counter-terrorism officer? My boss for the week?”

“Yes. Not a resistor. Could quiz him on anything in the parking lot if you wanted to,” Feliks said.

“Also we had a radio. I would think you wouldn’t use a public frequency, but you do,” Hajji added. “I suppose the death of that radio salesman could have been prevented, but I was very hungry from my injuries, and LaCroix insisted that I be discreet during my stay. Feliks couldn’t be spending his hours finding victims and then hiding their bodies for me. We had more important things to do. So this foul bottled stuff it is.”

“LaCroix said you told him to keep me out of this.”

“Is that how he put it?”

“Not precisely, but I assume – “

Hajji cut him off by laughing. “You assume incorrectly and give him very little credit. What actually happened was I asked him to tell you not to stand in my way, and his response was, and I quote, ‘Nicholas will do whatever he damn well pleases and I would only request that you not take his head off for something foolish might do,’ Then he mumbled something about disobedient children and how he would take his revenge on me if I killed you and I said I would kill you if you hurt Feliks and we both happily agreed that it was better to avoid an actual fight by any means necessary. I was not surprised at all by his presence. He is very protective of you. As a father should be.”

Nick took a moment to imagine LaCroix coming to his defense so readily and so rudely, but somehow, he didn’t think Hajji was lying just to amuse him.

“Don’t be so shocked. He’s your father. He loves you. He is just a very poor communicator of that fact. ‘Unable to express his feelings’ is what the psychologists would say. One of many reasons not to go to a psychologist.”

“The last time I spoke to one, lobotomy was the cure for all my ills,” Feliks said. “I took up gardening instead. Much less dangerous.”

“I still think a room full of sunlamps is dangerous, but I am glad you did not opt for the lobotomy,” Hajji chuckled. “Still, burns! He has burns on his arms!” He grabbed Felix’s arm and held it up, forcing the arm of the robe to slide down. “Okay, they’re gone now, but those fucking begonias.”

Felix drew his hand back and carefully straightened his sleeve. “They need a lot of attention this time of year.”

“I will buy you oven mitts.”

“You can’t operate the clippers as well. I refuse to wear them.”

Hajji rolled his eyes. So Hajji thought his son was as loony as they rest of them did, but he obviously loved him for it. He didn’t seem like someone who would bring across people he would find boring. “Children are always stubborn. I was very stubborn. Still am. And even though my master is no longer with us, there are still two vampires in India old enough to call me a child. One of them does so on a regular basis.”

“And the other?” Nick was curious.

Hajji waved it off. “He’s an Old One. We haven’t seen him since 1832. He very rarely emerges from wherever he lives, but when he does, we are all very polite to him, so we can beg secrets out of him. He taught me how to put people to sleep, even Resistors. He taught Feliks mathematics.” He paused. “Wait. You went to Eton.”

“And Cambridge, thank you.”

“Then what did he teach you?” He stared at Feliks, his eyes very focused. “He taught you how to block me!”

“Just about one particular item. He also knew a great deal about how to care for lotuses.”

“Lotuses!”

“Yes,” Feliks gloated. “And he seemed rather honored that I asked him something so mundane. Vampires are always coming after him to learn secret powers. He probably hadn’t had an normal conversation in centuries.”

Nick laughed, and Hajji glared at him. “Don’t encourage him!” But he meant quite the opposite.

**********************************************

Hajji was in fact very hospitable, and Feliks treated his master as if it was his master’s house he was in, not his own. In their presence, it was easy to forget the revenge-driven vampire Nick had been introduced to two weeks prior. Like his child, Hajji was a light-hearted fellow, even if he was very serious about his convictions. And Feliks treated him like a prince.

Feliks showed him out – through the greenhouse, of course.

“He wants me to thank LaCroix for saving me,” Nick said.

Hajji hadn’t said it, or even really mentioned LaCroix, so Feliks said, “You’re very observant. And I’m grateful, too. If you’d attacked Hajji, I would have attacked you, and I’m fairly sure you would crush me in an instant.”

“I heard you were once in the army.”

“Yes. A Lieutenant. Not earned, of course. A purchased position to get me out of England. I wanted to go somewhere exotic and the army paid my way. Also I was a very good shot, if I do say so myself. That said, it’s not as if I had a Baker rifle in the hotel room, nor would it have stopped you.”

Nick paused in the doorway. “The name you gave the landlord. Lieutenant Anderson.”

“Yes, yes, I rarely get to use my real name anymore. Aristotle was going through his Dickens phase when he named me last. It’s grown on me, but I’ll never admit that to him, or he’ll come up with something worse than ‘Twist.’” He shook his head. “Thank you for coming, Nicholas. Hajji won’t be staying more than a few months, if that, but it is important to me that he likes you. And you him.”

“I had to interfere, but it wasn’t personal.”

“We know that. But for Hajji, the whole thing was personal.”

“I understand. Thank you for having me over.” Though it lightened his heart to repair his friendship with Feliks, he still had one thing on his mind that he dreaded, but knew he had to do.

**********************************************

LaCroix was not at the Raven. The radio show was just wrapping up when Nick arrived at CERK’s studios, avoiding the incoming early-morning crew and slipping into LaCroix’s studio. He was putting away the evening’s selection of CDs, acting as if he didn’t sense Nick a mile away. Nick hadn’t decided if he did it to be rude or polite, but didn’t question it.

“I take it all went well.” LaCroix sat down in the booth’s only seat. He had no notes for the show, just speaking off the top if his head, but tonight he had a book of poetry with him. Nick leaned against the wall. “A making of amends. You have so few ties to the Community in your desperate attempts to become mortal, you ought to work at keeping them up.”

“They served me cow.”

“Hajji is from a culture that prizes hospitality above nearly all other virtues,” LaCroix said. “He would not serve you something that would offend your senses if he could possibly avoid it. One of the few things from his mortal life that I admire him for maintaining.” LaCroix, an avowed atheist, notoriously scoffed at any religious beliefs among vampires, saying that had no need for them. Or maybe he just said that to Nick. “He healed quite fast, but then again, he has little patience for anything intolerable, like being an invalid.”

“You say you only met him once, but you speak as if you know him well.”

“I was quite friendly with his master. We traveled together for a time. When I met him later, he knew my affection for poetry and was quite eager to show off his Arabian find. He really is a very talented poet, but the lyrics come off as romantic nonsense in English – a terrible language for the fluidity of Arabic.” He looked up at Nick with his piercing eyes. “But poetry is not your interest tonight.”

If LaCroix was reading his thoughts, there was no reason not to speak them. “You understand that I had to try to stop Hajji.”

“I understand that you felt compelled to do something of that nature, however lethal it might have been.”

“...And I understand that you stopped me to protect me,” Nick said. “Even if I had fought Feliks and Hajji somehow, it wouldn’t have been a victory.”

“No.”

The old man never gave him an inch, did he? But Nick resisted the urge to spit it back in his face. LaCroix was the one who asked him to control himself in his investigation, to take time to understand Hajji’s perspective and how he might feel compelled to act. “Thank you for being there.”

LaCroix looked down. No, he didn’t give an inch. “I gave you my eternal protection, Nicholas. I suspect you delight in challenging me to prove my point.”

“No.” When he didn’t want him, LaCroix was there. When he really needed him, LaCroix was there. But did he ever intentionally invite his protection, and the often-accompanying wrath? “I know you’ll be there every time.”

“Then thank me for not making every time quite so often, if you would.”

Nick nodded. “Good night, LaCroix.”

There was no snappy reply, no parting bon mot. Nick waited, and suspecting the silence meant he was dismissed, turned to leave. The last thing he heard was a surprisingly soft, “Good night, Nicholas.”

When he turned to look through the glass, LaCroix was still looking down, avoiding his eyes. But he smiled anyway.

The End

 

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