Blood pact, p.1
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       Blood Pact, p.1
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         Part #4 of Vicki Nelson series by Tanya Huff  
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Blood Pact
Chapter One

 

  "Mrs. Simmons? It's Vicki Nelson calling; the private investigator from Toronto?" She paused and considered how best to present the information. Oh, what the hell. . . "We've found your husband. "

  "Is he. . . alive?"

  "Yes, ma'am, very much so. He's working as an insurance adjuster under the name Tom O'Conner. "

  "Don always works in insurance. "

  "Yes, ma'am, that's how we found him. I've just sent you a package, by courier, containing a copy of everything we've discovered including a number of recent photographs, you should receive it before noon tomorrow. The moment you call me with a positive ID, I'll take the information to the police and they can pick him up. "

  "The police thought they found him once before, in Vancouver, but when they went to pick him up he was gone. "

  "Well, he'll be there this time. " Vicki leaned back in her chair, shoved her free hand up under the bottom edge of her glasses and scrubbed at her eyes. In eight years with the Metropolitan Toronto Police and nearly two years out on her own, she'd seen some real SOBs; Simmons/O'Conner ranked right up there with the best of them. Anyone who faked his own death in order to ditch a wife and five kids deserved exactly what he got. "My partner's going to talk to him tonight. I think your husband will decide to stay right where he is. "

  The bar was noisy and smoky, with tables too small to be useful and chairs too stylized to be comfortable. The beer was overpriced, the liquor over-iced, and the menu a tarted-up mix of at least three kinds of quasi-ethnic cooking plus the usual grease and carbohydrates. The staff were all young, attractive, and interchangeable. The clientele were a little older, not quite so attractive although they tried desperately hard to camouflage it, and just as faceless. It was, for the moment, the premier poser bar in the city and all the wannabes in Toronto shoehorned themselves through its doors on Friday night.

  Henry Fitzroy paused just past the threshold and scanned the crowd through narrowed eyes. The smell of so many bodies crammed together, the sound of so many heartbeats pounding in time to the music blasting out of half a dozen suspended speakers, the feel of so many lives in so little space pulled the Hunger up and threatened to turn it loose. Fastidiousness more than willpower held it in check. In over four and a half centuries, Henry had never seen so many people working so hard and so futilely at having a good time.

  It was the kind of place he wouldn't be caught dead in under normal circumstances, but tonight he was hunting and this was where his quarry had gone to ground. The crowd parted as he moved away from the door, and eddies of whispered speculation followed in his wake.

  "Who does he think he is. . . "

  ". . . I'm telling you, he's somebody. . . "

  Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII, one time Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Lord President of the Council of the North, noted, with an inward sigh, that some things never changed. He sat down at the bar, the young man who had been on the stool having vacated it as Henry approached, and waved the bartender away.

  To his right, an attractive young woman raised one ebony brow in obvious invitation. Although his gaze dropped to the pulse that beat in the ivory column of her throat and almost involuntarily traced the vein until it disappeared beneath the soft drape of magenta silk clinging to shoulders and breasts, he regretfully, silently, declined. She acknowledged both his glance and his refusal, then turned to more receptive game. Henry hid a smile. He wasn't the only hunter abroad tonight.

  To his left, a wide back in a charcoal gray suit made up most of the view. The hair above the suit had been artfully styled to hide the thinning patches just as the suit itself had been cut to cover the areas that a fortieth birthday had thickened. Henry reached out and tapped lightly on one wool-clad shoulder.

  The wearer of the suit turned, saw no one he knew, and began to scowl. Then he fell into the depths of a pair of hazel eyes, much darker than hazel eyes should have been, much deeper than mortal eyes could be.

  "We need to have a talk, Mr. O'Conner. "

  It would have taken a much stronger man to look away.

  "In fact, I think you'd better come with me. " A thin sheen of sweat greased the other man's forehead. "This is just a little too public for what I plan to. . . " Slightly elongated canines became visible for an instant between parted lips. ". . . discuss. "

  "And?"

  Henry stood at the window, one hand flat against the cool glass. Although he seemed to be looking down at the lights of the city, he was actually watching the reflection of the woman seated on the couch behind him. "And what?"

  "Henry, stop being an undead pain in the ass. Did you convince Mr. O'Conner/Simmons to stay put until the police arrive?"

  He loved to watch her; loved to watch emotions play across her face, loved to watch her move, loved to watch her in repose. Loved her. But as that was a topic not to be discussed, all he said was, "Yes. "

  "Good. I hope you scared the living shit out of him while you were at it. "

  "Vicki. " He turned, arms crossed on his chest, and frowned in what was only partially mock disapproval. "I am not your personal bogeyman, to be pulled out of the closet every time you think someone needs to have the fear of God. . . "

  Vicki snorted. "Think highly of yourself, don't you?"

  ". . . put into them," he continued, ignoring the interruption.

  "Have I ever treated you like my 'personal bogeyman'?" She raised a hand to cut off his immediate reply. "Be honest. You have certain skills, just like I have certain skills, and when I think it's necessary, I use them. Besides," she pushed her glasses back into place on the bridge of her nose, "you said you wanted to be more involved in my business. Help out with more cases now that you've handed in Purple Passion's Pinnacle and aren't due to start another romantic masterpiece until next month. "

  "Love Labors On. " Henry saw no reason to be ashamed of writing historical romances; it paid well and he was good at it. He doubted, however, that Vicki had ever read one. She wasn't the type to enjoy, or even desire, escape through fiction. "Tonight, it wasn't what I had in mind when I said I wanted to be more involved. "

  "Henry, it's been over a year. " She sounded amused. "You should know by now that most private investigating consists of days and days of boring, tedious research. Thrilling and exciting life-threatening situations are few and far between. "

  Henry raised one red-gold brow.

  Vicki looked a little sheepish. "Look, it's not my fault people keep trying to kill me. And you. And anyway, you know those were the exceptions that prove the rule. " She straightened, tucking one sneakered foot up under her butt. "Tonight, I needed to convince a sleazebag, who deserved to be terrified after what he put his wife and kids through, to stay put until the police arrive. Tonight, I needed you. Henry Fitzroy, vampire. No one else could've done it. "

  Upon reflection, he was willing to grant her that no one else could have done the job as well although a couple of burly mortals and fifty feet of rope would have had the same general effect. "You really didn't like him, did you?"

  "No. I didn't. " Her lip curled. "It's one thing to walk out of your responsibilities, but it takes a special kind of asshole to do it in such a way that everyone thinks he's dead. They mourned him, Henry. Cried for him. And the son of a bitch was off building a new life, fancy-free, while they were bringing flowers, every Saturday, to an empty grave. If he hadn't gotten into the background of that national news report, they'd still be crying for him. He owes them. In my book, he owes them big. "

  "Well, then, you'll be happy to know that I did, as you so inelegantly put it, scare the living shit out of him. "

  "Good. " She loosened her grip on the throw pillow. "Did you. . . uh. . . feed?"

  "W
ould it matter if I had?" Would she admit it if it mattered. "Blood's blood, Vicki. And his fear was enough to raise the Hunger. "

  "I know. And I know you feed from others. It's just. . . " She dragged one hand through her hair, standing it up in dark blonde spikes. "It's just that. . . "

  "No. I didn't feed from him. " Her involuntary smile was all he could have asked, so he crossed the room to see it better.

  "You're probably hungry, then. "

  "Yes. " He took her hand and gently caressed the inner skin of her wrist with his thumb. Her pulse leapt under his touch.

  She tried to stand, but he pushed her back, bent his head, and ran his tongue down the faint blue line of a vein. "Henry, if we don't go soon, I won't be able to. . . " Her voice faded out as her brain became preoccupied with other things. With a mighty effort, she forced her throat to open and her mouth to work. "We'll end up staying on the. . . couch. "

  He lifted his mouth long enough to murmur, "So?" and that was the last coherent word either of them spoke for some time.

  "Four o'clock in the morning," Vicki muttered, digging for the keys to her apartment. "Another two hours and I'll have seen the clock around. Again. Why do I keep doing this to myself?" Her wrist throbbed, as if in answer, and she sighed. "Never mind. Stupid question. "

  Muscles tensed across her back as the door unexpectedly swung fully open. The security chain hung loose, unlocked, arcing back and forth, scraping softly, metal against wood. Holding her breath, she filtered out the ambient noises of the apartment, the sound of the refrigerator motor, a dripping tap, the distant hum of the hydro substation across the street, and noted a faint mechanical whir. It sounded like. . .

  She almost had it when a sudden noise drove off all hope of identification. The horrible crunching, grinding, smashing, continued for about ten seconds, then muted.

  "I'II grind his bones to make my bread. . . " It was the closest she could come to figuring out what could possibly be happening. And all things considered, I'm not denying the possibility of a literal translation. After demons, werewolves, mummies, not to mention the omnipresent vampire in her life, a Jack-eating giant in her living room was less than impossible no matter how unlikely.

  She shrugged the huge, black leather purse off her shoulder and caught it just before it hit the floor. With the strap wrapped twice around her wrist it made a weapon even a giant would flinch at. Good thing I hung onto that brick. . .

  The sensible thing to do would involve closing the door, trotting to the phone booth on the corner, and calling the cops.

  I am way too tired for this shit. Vicki stepped silently into the apartment. Four in the morning courage. Gotta love it.

  Sliding each foot a centimeter above the floor and placing it back down with exaggerated care, she made her way along the short length of hall and around the corner into the living room, senses straining. Over the last few months she'd started to believe that, while the retinitis pigmentosa had robbed her of any semblance of night sight, sound and smell were beginning to compensate. The proof would be in the pudding; although she knew the streetlight outside the bay window provided a certain amount of illumination in spite of the blinds and the apartment never actually got completely dark, as far as her vision was concerned, she might as well be wearing a padded blindfold.

  Well, not quite a blindfold. Even she couldn't miss the blob of light that had to be the television flickering silently against the far wall. She stopped, weapon ready, cocked her head, and got a whiff of a well known after-shave mixed with. . . cheese?

  The sudden release of tension almost knocked her over.

  "What the hell are you doing here at this hour, Celluci?"

  "What does it look like?" the familiar voice asked mockingly in turn. "I'm watching an incredibly stupid movie with the sound off and eating very stale taco chips. How long have you had these things sitting around, anyway?"

  Vicki groped for the wall, then walked her fingers along it to the switch for the overhead light. Blinking away tears as her sensitive eyes reacted to the glare, she gently lowered her purse to the floor. Mr. Chin, downstairs in the first floor apartment, wouldn't appreciate being woken up by twenty pounds of assorted bric-a-brac slamming into his ceiling.

  Detective-Sergeant Michael Celluci squinted up at her from the couch and set the half-empty bag of taco chips to one side. "Rough night?" he growled.

  Yawning, she shrugged out of her jacket, tossing it over the back of the recliner. "Not really. Why?"

  "Those bags under your eyes look more like a set of matched luggage. " He swung his legs to the floor and stretched. "Thirty-two just doesn't bounce back the way thirty-one used to. You need more sleep. "

  "Which I had every intention of getting," she crossed the room and jabbed a finger at the television control panel, "until I came home to find you in my living room. And you haven't answered my question. "

  "What question?" He smiled charmingly, but eight years on the force with him, the last four intimately involved. . . Now that's a tidy label for a complicated situation, she mused . . . had made her pretty much immune to classical good looks used to effect.

  "I'm too tired for this shit, Celluci. Cut to the chase. "

  "All right, I came by to see what you remembered about Howard Balland. "

  She shrugged. "Small-time hood, always looking for the big score but would probably miss said big score if it bit him on the butt. I thought he left town. "

  Celluci spread his hands. "He's back, in a manner of speaking. A couple of kids found his body earlier tonight behind a bookstore down on Queen Street West. "

  "And you've come to me to see if I remember anything that'll help you nail his killer?"

  "You've got it. "

  "Mike, I was in fraud for only three short months before I transferred to homicide and that was a good chunk of time ago. "

  "So you don't remember anything?"

  "I didn't say that. . . "

  "Ah. " The single syllable held a disproportionate weight of sarcasm. "You're tired and you'd rather screw around with your little undead friend than help get the bastard who slit the throat of a harmless old con man. I understand. "

  Vicki blinked. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

  "You know what I'm talking about. You've been off playing Vlad the Impaler with Henry Fucking Fitzroy!"

  Her brows drew down into a deep vee, the expression making it necessary for her to jab her glasses back up onto the bridge of her nose. "I don't believe this. You're jealous!"

  They were chest to chest and would've been nose to nose accept for the difference in their heights. Although Vicki was tall at five ten, Celluci was taller still at six four.

  "JEALOUS!"

  Over the years Vicki had learned enough Italian to get the gist of what followed. The fight had barely begun to heat up when a soft voice slid through a pause in the screaming.

  "Excuse me?"

  Expressions ludicrously frozen in mid-snarl, they turned to face the wizened concern of Mr. Chin. He clutched a burgundy brocade bathrobe closed with one frail hand and had the other raised as though to snare their attention. When he saw he had it, he smiled into the silence.

  "Thank you," he told them. "Now, shall we see if we can maintain this situation?" At their puzzled frowns, he sighed. "Let me make it a little simpler for you. It's 4:22 a. m. Shut up. " He waited for a moment, nodded, and left the apartment, gently pulling the door closed behind him.

  Vicki felt her ears grow hot. She jerked around as a cross between a sneeze and a small explosion sounded from Celluci's direction. "What are you laughing at?"

  He shook his head, arms waving as he searched for the words.

  "Never mind. " She reached up and pushed the curl of dark brown hair back off his face, her own mouth twisting up in a rueful grin. "I guess it was pretty funny at that. Although I'm going to spend the rest of the day with this vaguely unfinished feeling. "

&nb
sp; Celluci nodded, the thick curl dropping back down into his eyes. "Like not remembering if you've eaten the last bite of doughnut. "

  "Or drunk the last swallow of coffee. "

  They shared a smile and Vicki collapsed into the black leather recliner that dominated the small living room. "Okay, what do you need to know about the late Mr. Balland?"

  Vicki moved away from the warm cliff of Celluci's back and wondered why she couldn't sleep. Maybe she should have told him to go home, but it'd seemed a little pointless making him drive all the way out to his house in Downsview when he was expected back downtown at headquarters in barely six hours. Or less. Maybe. She couldn't see the clock unless she sat up, turned on the light, and found her glasses, but it had to be nearly dawn.

  Dawn.

  In the center of the city, eighteen short blocks away from her apartment in Chinatown, Henry Fitzroy lay in his sealed room and waited for the day; waited for the rising sun to switch off his life; trusted that the setting sun would switch it on again.

  Vicki had spent the day with Henry once, held captive by the threat of sunlight outside the bedroom door.

  The absence of life had been so complete it had been a little like spending the day with a corpse. Only worse. Because he wasn't. It wasn't an experience she wanted to repeat.

  She'd run from him that night, the moment the darkness had granted her safe passage. To this day she wasn't sure if she'd run from his nature or from the trust that had allowed him to be so helpless before her.

  She hadn't stayed away for long.

  In spite of late nights, or occasionally no nights at all, Henry Fitzroy had become a necessary part of her life. Although the physical attraction still tied her stomach in knots and caught the breath in her throat even after a year of exposure, what bothered her, almost frightened her, was how much he had invaded the rest of her life.

  Henry Fitzroy, vampire, bastard son of Henry VIII, was Mystery. If she spent a lifetime trying, she could never know all he was. And, God help her, she couldn't resist a mystery.

  Now Celluci, she rolled onto her side and layered herself around the curve of his body, Celluci was the yin to her yang. She frowned. Or possibly the other way around. He was a shared joke, shared interests, a shared past. He fit into her life like a puzzle piece, interlocking and completing the picture. And now she thought of it, that frightened her, too.

  She was complete without him.

  Wasn't she?

  Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord. When did my life start resembling country and western music?

  Celluci stirred under the force of her sigh and half roused. "Almost forgot," he murmured. "Your mother called. "

  The late morning sun had nearly cleared Vicki's bay window when she sat down at the kitchen table and reached for the phone. Returning her mother's call while Celluci was dressing would make it easier to deal with the questions she knew she was going to have to answer. Questions that would no doubt start with, Why was Michael Celluci in your apartment when you weren't? and escalate from there to the perpetual favorite, When will you be coming to visit?

  She sighed, fortified herself with a mouthful of coffee, and wrapped her fingers around the receiver. Before she could lift it out of the cradle, the phone rang. She managed, just barely, to keep the coffee from going out her nose but it took a half a dozen rings to get the choking under control. "Nelson Investigations. "

  "Ms. Nelson? It's Mrs. Simmons. I was beginning to think you weren't there. "

  "Sorry. " She hooked a dish towel off the refrigerator door and swiped at the mess. "What can I do for you?"

  "The photographs came. Of my husband. "

  Vicki checked her watch. Nearly noon in Toronto meant nearly eleven in Winnipeg. Hot damn. Truth in advertising; I've found a courier who can tell time.

  "It is my husband, Ms. Nelson. It's him. " She sounded close to tears.

  "Then I'll take the information to the police this afternoon. They'll pick him up and then they'll get in contact with you. "

  "But it's the weekend. " Her protest was more a whimper than a wail.

  "The police work weekends, Mrs. Simmons. Don't worry. " Vicki turned up the reassurance in her voice. "And even if they can't actually bring him in until Monday, well, I personally guarantee he's not going anywhere. "

  "You're sure?"

  "I'm sure. "

  "I need to ask him why, Ms. Nelson; why he did such a horrible thing to us?"

  The pain in the other woman's voice tightened Vicki's fingers on the receiver until her knuckles went white. She only just managed to mask her anger with sympathy during the final few moments of the call.

  "God-damned, fucking, son of a BITCH!"

  Her notepad hit the far wall of the apartment with enough force to shatter the spine and send loose paper fluttering to the floor like a flock of wounded birds.

  "Anyone I know?" Celluci asked. As he'd come into the living room barely a meter from the impact point, he supposed he should be thankful she hadn't thrown the coffee mug.

  "No. " She surged up out of her chair, slamming it back so hard it fell and bounced twice.

  "Something to do with your found missing person?" It wasn't that difficult a guess; he knew the bare bones of the case and he'd heard her use the name Simmons during the phone conversation. Also, he knew Vicki and, while she was anything but uncomplicated, her reactions tended to be direct and to the point.

  "Lousy bastard!" Her glasses slid to the end of her nose and she jabbed them back up the slope. "Doesn't give a shit about what he put his family through. You should have heard her, Mike. He's destroyed everything she ever believed in. At least when she thought he was dead, she had memories, but now he's fucked those, too. He's hurt her so badly she hasn't even hit anger yet. "

  "So you're getting angry for her. "

  "Why not?"

  He shrugged. "Why not, indeed. " Intimately familiar with Vicki's temper he thought he saw something more than just rage at a woman wronged. Lord knew she'd seen enough of that during her years on the force and had never, all right, seldom, reacted with such intensity. "Your mother, did she ever get angry when your father left?"

  Vicki came to a dead stop and stared at him. "What the hell does that have to do with anything?"

  "Your father walked out on your mother. And you. "

  "My father, at least, had the minimal decency not to hide what he was doing. "

  "And your mother had to support the two of you. Probably never had time to get angry. "

  Her eyes narrowed as she glared across the apartment at him. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

  He recognized the danger signs but couldn't let the opportunity pass. Things had been working toward this for a long time and with her anger for Mrs. Simmons leaving her so emotionally open he knew he might never get a better chance. What the hell, if it comes to it, I'm armed. "I'm talking, whether you like it or not, about you and me. "

  "You're talking bullshit. "

  "I'm talking about how you're so afraid of commitment that you'll barely admit we're anything more than friends. I understand where it's coming from. I understand that because of the way your father left and because of what happened afterward with your mother that you think you need to put tight little parameters on a relationship. . . "

  She snorted. "Did the force just send you to another sensitivity seminar?"

  He tightened his grip on his own temper and ignored her. ". . . but all that happened over twenty years ago and, Vicki, it has to stop. "

  Her lip curled. "Or else?"

  "Or else nothing, God damn it. I'm not making threats here. "

  "This is about Henry, isn't it? You are jealous. "

  No point in forcing her to face the truth if he didn't. "You're god-damned right I'm jealous of Henry! I don't want to share that much of you with anyone else. Especially not with someone who. . . who. . . " Mike Celluci didn't have the words to explain how he felt abou
t Henry Fitzroy and even if he had, it was none of Vicki's business. The edge of his hand chopped off the thought. "We're not talking about Henry, we're talking about us. "

  "There's nothing wrong with us. " She looked everywhere but at the man standing across the room. "Why can't we just go on the way we have been?"

  "Because we're not going anywhere!"

  She jerked at each staccato word.

  "Vicki, I'm tired of being nothing more than your buddy. You've got to realize that I. . . "

  "Shut up!" Her hands had curled into fists.

  "Oh, no. " He shook his head. "You're going to hear it this time. "

  "This is my apartment. I don't have to hear anything. "

  "Oh, yes you do. " He crossed to stand directly in front of her, balancing on the balls of his feet, his hands a careful distance away. As much as he wanted to grab her and shake her, he didn't want to deal with the return violence he knew would follow. A quick game of Who's more macho? would add nothing to the situation. "This isn't going to be the last time I say this, Vicki, so you'd better get used to it. I love you. I want a future with you. Why is it so hard for you to accept that?"

  "Why can't you just accept me, us, the way I am. We are. " The words were forced out through clenched teeth.

  He shoved the lock of hair back off his forehead and unsuccessfully tried to calm his breathing. "I've spent five fucking years accepting you and us. It's time you met me halfway. "

  "Get out. "

  "What?"

  "Get out of my apartment! NOW!"

  Trembling with the need to hold himself in check, he pushed past her and grabbed his coat off the hook by the door. Jabbing his arms into the sleeves, he turned. His own anger made it impossible for him to read her expression. "Just one more thing, Vicki. I am not your fucking father. "

  The door closed behind him with enough force to shake the building.

  A heartbeat later it opened again.

  "And don't forget to call your mother!"

  The coffee mug exploded into a thousand pieces against the wood.

  "And did you?"

  "Did I what?" Vicki snapped. Giving Henry the gist of the fight had put her in nearly as bad a mood as the fight had. It didn't help that she knew she should've kept her mouth shut but when Henry had asked what was bothering her, she couldn't seem to stop a repeat of the whole infuriating conversation from pouring out.

  "Did you call your mother?"

  "No. I didn't. " She turned to face the window, jabbed at her glasses, and glared out at the darkness. "I wasn't exactly in the mood to talk to my mother. I went down to Missing Persons and nailed Mr. Simmons/O'Conner to the wall instead. "

  "Did that make you feel better?"

  "No. Although it might have if they'd let me use real nails. "

  A facetious comment spoken with complete and utter sincerity. Even from across the room Henry could feel pulsing waves of anger radiating off of her. He wished now that he hadn't asked, that he'd ignored her mood and never been subjected to Detective-Sergeant Michael Celluci's all-too-accurate analysis of Vicki's inability to commit. But now that he'd heard it, he couldn't let it rest. Vicki would continue to think about what Celluci had said, had obviously been thinking of little else since Celluci had slammed out of her apartment, and, now that her nose had been rubbed in it, would in time see it for the truth. At which point she would have to choose.

  He wouldn't lose her. If that meant taking the day as well as the night, his love gave him a right equal to Celluci's to assert a claim.

  You raised the stakes, mortal, he told the other man silently. Remember that.

  He stood and crossed the carpet to stand at her side, glorying for a moment in her heartbeat, savoring her heat, her scent, her life.

  "He was right," he said at last.

  "About what?" The words were forced out through clenched teeth. No need to ask which he was meant.

  "We can't, any of us, go on the way we have. "

  "Why not?" The final consonant carried the weight of a potential explosion.

  "Because, like Mike Celluci, I want to be the most important person in your life. "

  She snorted. "And what about what I want?"

  He could see the muscles working beneath the velvet surface of her skin, tensing around her eyes and the corners of her mouth and so he chose his next words with care. "I think that's what we're trying to discover. "

  "And what if I decide I want him?"

  Her tone held a bitter, mocking edge. Henry couldn't help but respond.

  "Could you give me up?"

  The power in his voice pulled her around to face him. He heard her swallow hard as she met his gaze, heard her heartbeat quicken, saw her pupils dilate, tasted the change in her scent on the air. Then he released her.

  Vicki jerked back, furious at Henry, furious at herself. "Don't ever do that again!" she panted, fighting to get enough air into her lungs. "I give nobody power over my life. Not you. Not him. Nobody!" Barely in control of her movements, she whirled and stomped across the living room. "I am out of here. " She snatched her coat and bag up off the end of the couch, "And you can just play Prince of fucking Darkness with somebody else. "

  He hadn't moved from the window. He knew he could call her back, so he had no need to make the attempt. "Where are you going?"

  "I'm going for a long walk in the sleaziest neighborhood I can find in the hope that some dickweed will try something stupid and I can break his fucking arms! Don't follow me!"

  Even a security door can be slammed if enough force is applied.

  "Vicki? It's your mother. Didn't Mike Celluci give you my message? Well, never mind, dear, I'm sure he has a lot on his mind. While I'm thinking of it though, I did wonder why he was in your apartment while you were out. Have you two been getting more serious? Call me when you get a chance. There's something I have to tell you. "

  Vicki sighed and rubbed at her temples as the answering machine rewound. It was ten after twelve and she was just not up to a heart-to-heart with her mother, not after the day she'd had. "Have you two been getting more serious?" Jesus H. Christ.

  First Celluci.

  Then Henry.

  The powers-that-be had really decided to mess up her life.

  "Whatever happened to men who just want to get laid on a regular basis?" she muttered, flicking off the light and making her way to the bedroom.

  The pitcher of draft she'd downed in the gay bar on Church Street, the one place in the city safe from testosterone cases, churned uneasily in her stomach. All she wanted to do was go to sleep. Alone.

  She'd call her mother in the morning.

  The night had been filled with dreams, or more specifically, dream, the same images occurring over and over. People kept coming into her apartment and she couldn't get them to leave. The new staircase to the third floor bisected her kitchen and a steady stream of real estate agents moved up it, dragging potential tenants. The back of her closet opened into Maple Leaf Gardens and the post-hockey crowds decided to leave through her bedroom. First she tried the voice of reason. Then she yelled. Then she physically picked up the intruders and threw them out the door. But the door never stayed closed and they wouldn't, any of them, leave her alone.

  She woke up late with a splitting headache and an aching jaw, her mood not significantly better than when she'd gone to sleep. An antacid and an aspirin might have helped, but as she'd run out of both she settled for a mug of coffee so strong her tongue curled in protest.

  "And why did I know it would be raining," she growled, squinting out through the blinds at a gray and uninviting world. The sky looked low enough to touch.

  The phone rang.

  Vicki turned and scowled across the room at it. She didn't have to answer to know it was her mother. She could feel mother vibes from where she stood.

  "Not this morning, Mom. I'm just not up to it. "

  Her head continued
ringing long after the bell fell silent.

  An hour later, it rang again.

  An hour of conscious thought had done nothing to improve Vicki's mood.

  "I said no, Mom!" She slammed her fist down on the kitchen table. The phone rocked but continued to ring. "I don't want to hear about your problems right now and I sure as shit don't want to tell you about mine!" Her voice rose. "My personal life has suddenly collapsed. I don't know what's going on. Everything is falling apart. I can stand on my own. I can work as part of a team. I've proved that, haven't I? Why isn't that enough!"

  It became a contest in volume and duration and Vicki had no intention of letting the phone win.

  "Odds are good Celluci's about to propose and this vampire I'm sleeping with. . . Oh, didn't I tell you about Henry, Mom? . . . well he wants me as his. . . his. . . I don't know what Henry wants. Can you deal with that, Mom? 'Cause I sure as shit can't!"

  She could feel herself trembling on the edge of hysteria, but she wouldn't quit until the phone did.

  "Celluci thinks I'm angry about the way dear old Dad walked out on you. Henry thinks he's right. How about that, Mom? I'm being fucking double-teamed. You never warned me about something like this, did you, Mom? And we never, ever discuss Daddy!"

  The last word echoed around a silent apartment and seemed to take a very long time to fade.

  With a trembling finger, Vicki slid her glasses back up her nose. "I'll talk to you tomorrow, Mom. I promise. "

  An hour later, the phone rang again.

  Vicki turned on the answering machine and went for a walk in the rain.

  When she got back, late that evening, there were seven messages waiting. She wiped the tape without listening to any of them.

  The phone rang.

  Vicki paused, one foot into the shower, sighed, and got back into her robe. Welcome to Monday.

  "Coming, Mom. " No point putting it off. She'd have to face the music sooner or later and it might as well be sooner.

  Today things didn't seem so bad. Yesterday was an embarrassing memory of self-indulgence. Tomorrow, well, she'd deal with tomorrow when it arrived.

  She dropped into one of the kitchen chairs and scooped up the receiver. "Hi, Mom. Sorry about yesterday. "

  "Is this Victoria Nelson?"

  Her ears grew hot. It was an elderly woman's voice, strained and tight and most definitely not her mother. Let's make a great impression on a potential client there, Vicki. "Uh, yes. "

  "This is Mrs. Shaw. Mrs. Elsa Shaw. I work with your mother. We met last September. . . ?"

  "I remember. " Vicki winced. Mom must really be pissed if she's getting coworkers to call. This is going to cost me at least a visit.

  "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you. "

  "Bad news?" Oh, God, don't let her have caught the early train to Toronto. That's all I need right now.

  "Your mother hasn't been feeling well lately, and, well, she came into work this morning, said how she'd been trying to get in touch with you, made the coffee like she always does, came out of Dr. Burke's office and. . . and, well, died. "

  The world stopped.

  "Ms. Nelson?"

  "What happened?" Vicki heard herself ask the question, marveled at how calm her voice sounded, wondered why she felt so numb.

  "Dr. Burke, the head of the Life Sciences Department, well, you know who Dr. Burke is, of course, said it was her heart. A massive coronary, she said. One minute there, the next. . . " Mrs. Shaw blew her nose. "It happened about twenty minutes ago. If there's anything I can do. . . "

  "No. Thank you. Thank you for calling. "

  If Mrs. Shaw had further sympathy or information to offer, Vicki didn't hear it. She set the receiver gently back in its cradle and stared down at the silent phone.

  Her mother was dead.
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