From: "Patty" <psmoot43@h...>

Date: Tue Nov 6, 2001 8:26 am

Subject: Games Strangers Play

Games Strangers Play Nov 2001

By: Patty Costantino

Notes to reader: This third installment to my Games series has been inspired by the characters from the Forever Knight T.V. series and it follows my previous two stories Games Coroners Play and Games Detectives Play.

Disclaimer and Characters: Nick, Natalie, Lacroix, Tracy and others don't belong to me. I am just borrowing them to have some fun.

Dedication: I would like to thank my beta-reader, Phylis Sullivan for her tremendous help with my grammar, spelling, punctuation and just getting the story to sound so much better. I couldn't have done it without her wonderful suggestions. Joyce Rauch, for helping me with the storyline, and being such an inspiration for me to continue this series. Hugs to both of you, ladies. :))

Extra Dedication: Goes to my husband and two children, who had to put up with me working long hours on this third installment. They were so supportive and patient while I wrote this part. Without their help, I couldn't have done it. Content Warning: Adult for m/f mild sexual content (Nick/Natalie) & (Natalie/mysterious stranger), PG-13 violence and language.

Permission is granted to archive at FKfanfic2, FK FTP archive, N&N fic and adult sites, and Jadfe site. This story has been archived at my site at http:/ Please let me know what you thought about this third segment to the series. You can email me at psmoot43@h.... I would love to hear from you.


Games Strangers Play by: Patty Costantino/psmoot43@h...


Sidney was rousted from a delightful dream by the clicking of a key, turning in the door. At the familiar sound, his gray and white striped ears rose in anticipation; the hairs of his fur standing on end . Jumping off the sofa, he scampered over to the front door as it swung open. There, standing in the doorway, was his mistress and a frequent visitor of hers. The cat gazed at the twosome through curious, green eyes.

The friend, a woman, was the first to enter the apartment, carrying a suitcase and a brown paper bag resembling.... food? Instinctively, the feline ran his tongue over his sharp canines, imagining what delicious treats were contained in the bag. After dropping the suitcase on a chair, the woman headed for the kitchen. Could she have his next meal? Could there be some special treats hidden in that grocery bag? There was only one way to find out.

Sidney started to follow her, and he would have proceeded; however, a sight made him stop in his tracks. His mistress, who had been standing in the shadows of the hall, was now walking slowly across the room. With enormous effort and labored breaths, she reached the sofa, dropping heavily onto a soft cushion. From where he remained by the front door, he studied her wan, pale face. Something was wrong, terribly wrong; he could sense it.

The tabby approached her in a tentative manner, acutely aware of a tiredness emanating from her body. As he got closer, he also sensed an overwhelming grief, a sadness flowing from her. She was definitely not in a good mood. Resting on his hind legs in front of the sofa, Sidney peered at the auburn-haired woman through beseeching eyes, hoping to be granted permission to sit beside her on the couch.

As if a mindreader, she patted the empty spot beside her, addressing him in a soft, consoling voice. "Sidney, come to Mama."

He needed no other encouragement. In a flash, he was snuggling against her warm body. She leaned forward to nuzzle his ears with her face, and gather him into her arms, petting his soft fur. "There's a good boy. You only wanted some love, didn't you Sid?" she asked, then her eyes became remote; her voice bitter. "At least, you only strive for the basic things in this life; not like some men."

A long sigh escaped from her lips. "You know, fella. You have very simple tastes.. To be loved. Cared for. And of course, a good tuna meal always helps. And.... you give so much love in return for those basic pleasures. You don't ask for too much; you don't expect everything to fall in your lap." Her voice remained resentful; her face distant. "You don't reach for the moon and stars."

Frowning, an image of a particular detective came to mind; a cop who after the events of the last two days did appear to want the moon and stars, the best of both worlds: mortality and vampirism. She sighed again, her frown deepening as her thoughts became more disturbing. Could it be that he desired to reclaim only his vampiric nature? Maybe, he didn't truly want his humanity any longer. Who could say at this point?

An oppressive silence descended on the room like a dark veil as the upsetting thoughts continued to assail her mind. Her reverie was then shattered by the sound of her friend's concerned voice floating into the living room. "Natalie, were you talking to me a second ago?"

Natalie turned her head towards the figure, standing behind the double doors from the kitchen. "What?.....No, Grace.....I was talking to Sydney about silly, nonsensical stuff." She forced a smile, attempting to shake off her disturbing thoughts and gather her wits about her. "It was nothing. Really. I was just communicating with my feline buddy here. Wasn't I, Syd?" In order to justify her actions, she leaned over, whispering in his ear about a special treat in the grocery bag, then hugged him for good measure.

Grace walked towards the sofa with a hot mug of tea, handed it to Natalie, and took a seat in the soft armchair next to the couch. She gazed at the frail-looking woman, who was sipping her hot cup of tea. An anxious look graced her brow. Since arriving at the hospital two hours ago to pick up her friend, Grace's concerns had escalated. She had been shocked to see Natalie, so pale and weak as a kitten, lying in the hospital bed. For five, interminable hours, the doctors had run a series of tests, finding nothing wrong with her. After discovering no medical problem, they 'd allowed Natalie to be released into the care of a friend, who would stay with her for a day or two to ensure her well-being. When she'd called Grace for help, her morgue partner had jumped in her car, and sped over to the emergency room so fast; one would have thought she'd flown.

During the car ride to her apartment, Grace had become worried again, not simply over Natalie's weakened, physical condition; but also the apparent decline in her mental state from two nights ago. At the time, Grace had thought she'd witnessed a miracle. Natalie had practically floated into the morgue, glowing like a neon sign. She'd suspected that Detective Knight had been the cause of her euphoric temperament as; unbeknownst to them, she'd happened to walk by Natalie's office, catching them in a not so 'just friends' embrace. Now, two nights later, when Grace had entered the hospital room, she'd beheld a different woman; a person devoid of spirit. It was apparent that something or someone had burst her bubble. And, she'd had a good idea who might have been the culprit since he wasn't in Natalie's hospital room to pick her up in that bright, green tank of his, the Caddy.

Taking a swallow of hot tea, Grace came out of her musings and sighed, peering at the vulnerable woman before her. "You were only talking to the cat about frivolous stuff?"

Natalie studied her friend, aware of her coworker's desire for personal information on her. However, she'd always prided herself in keeping secrets, and erecting barriers around her emotions. Grace could probe in earnest; Natalie would always be able to mask her feelings. 'Be on the offense.' That was her motto when confronted with uncomfortable questions about her personal life.

She smiled at Grace and said, "Of course. I'd know who I was talking to, and what I was discussing, wouldn't I? I'm not that far gone!"

"I didn't mean you were crazy, honey. I thought.... It's just....I overheard you musing aloud about 'some men striving for basic necessities.' didn't sound like nonsense to me. On the contrary, it sounded quite serious and I thought you were referring to...ummm...I surmised you were referring to....." she stammered, feeling suddenly awkward.

"You thought...I was referring to Nick in my conversation with Sid." Natalie finished for her.

" a matter of fact...I was." She admitted with complete honesty.

"Why would you think I was talking about him?" she inquired, fishing for information herself.

"Because....he is one of the men in your life, Natalie. Whether you admit it or not!" Her voice was becoming exasperated.

"Perhaps, not any longer," she mumbled with regret. Her voice was so low; Grace couldn't hear her comment.

"What did you say?" she asked, a trace of gentleness in her voice.

Natalie blew out a frustrated breath. " wasn't important," then changing the subject, she asked, "Why don't we play some Gin Rummy for old time's sake? The cards are in the top drawer of my desk over there." Her finger pointed to a dark, mahogany desk in the far corner of the room.

Grace shook her head and wagged a finger at her. "You think you're clever, changing the subject; but this discussion is not over by a long shot, missy!" Then her tone softened. "Are you really up for cards, dear or would you rather go to bed?"

Natalie smiled wanly. "I'm okay. I've been sleeping alot for the last 48 hrs. I don't think I need any more rest for the moment. In fact, since I got home, I've begun to feel a bit more perky. Besides, it's been awhile since someone kicked your butt in Rummy." She teased.

Grace laughed. "Watch out! You'll be sorry you ever challenged me to this game. Here comes the Gin Rummy Champ of the Coroner's Office to beat your tail."

She retrieved the cards and dealt them out. Since it was a losing battle to get Natalie to talk about Mr. 'GQ', she decided to change the subject and disclose some of the gossip mill. "Did you hear about Herman Muntz?"

"You mean the shy, Walter Mitty lab assistant we've had for the last three months. What about him?" she asked, curious.

"Yesterday, he was transferred to the new Coroner Medical Facility on Lawrence Avenue in York." Grace told her as she sorted her cards.

"Why did he have to transfer so quickly? Did someone force him to move?" Natalie picked up a card from the deck.

"I believe Herman requested the transfer himself; something about needing a fresh start," explained Grace.

"I thought he was happy, working at our Medical Building. He told me he could ride his bike to work; it was so close. York is miles away."

"I don't understand either. He packed up his belongings and moved there, tonight." Grace shrugged her shoulders.

"Too bad. Kerry should have tried harder to keep him on. He was an asset to the office. I liked his soft spoken demeanor, and dedication to the job," Natalie commented, discarding the two of diamonds.

"I'm not so sure he was devoted to the job. He seemed more interested in studying your legs than DNA samples." Grace giggled. "I would say he had a crush on you." She picked up a card from the deck and threw down the five of spades.

Natalie snickered. "Herman was sweet to everyone; he had that kind of disposition."

"Oh...come on, honey." She rolled her eyes. Natalie could be so blind at times. "It was so obvious he was smitten with you. He followed you around like a puppy dog." She drew from the deck and deposited the king of hearts in the discard pile.

Natalie persisted. "He was being friendly," She picked up Grace's discarded card, and giving her a wide grin, announced, "gin," as she fanned out her ten cards on the coffee table in front of her astonished buddy.

Grace smiled grudgingly. "That hand was luck!"

Natalie shuffled and dealt the cards, acknowledging her good fortune. " was just luck," then frowning, she said, "How does that old saying go? Lucky at cards; unlucky at love. Maybe I'm destined for that fate."

Grace reached over and patted her hand. "There, there..." She soothed. "Natalie, everything will work out for the best. You'll see. Before the night is over, I'm going to ensure you are so unlucky at cards that men will be lining up in front of the morgue to win you over."

It was on the tip of her tongue to blurt out. 'I only want one man or, in this case, one vampire to win me over.' Instead, she squeezed Grace's hand and forced a smile. "In that case.....I wish you the best of luck in this game."

They started to resume their play when Natalie's phone rang, interrupting them. Natalie began to reach for the receiver, but Grace was too quick.

Cradling the phone to her ear, she announced with a bright smile. "Hello, Natalie's other Bed and Breakfast, Grace speaking."

Natalie could detect an intermittant silence on the other end of the line, then a hesitant voice spoke, followed by Grace's announcement into the phone as she smiled at Natalie, "Detective Knight, what a pleasant surprise!"

At the mention of his name, every muscle in Natalie's body tensed as many emotions coursed through her: anger, disappointment, fear and longing (longing???). Reaching over in a futile attempt to catch her attention, she pinched Grace in the knee. However, she ignored Natalie, swatting at her hand.

After another series of questions from Nick, Grace spoke up, filling him in on the events of the last two hours; her pickup of Natalie at the hospital and stay with her for the next two days. Natalie could hear another flurry of words as Grace regarded her with uncertainty and echoed Nick's question, "You would like to speak with Nat?"

A wave of panic washed over Natalie at her words. She didn't have the strength to talk to him now! Couldn't he see that? She needed more time to think about everything. Didn't he understand? Hadn't she made herself perfectly clear at the hospital? They could have a discussion about his backsliding in a few days once she sorted this mess out in her own mind.

Natalie shook her head emphatically while Grace replied into the phone, "No....I'm afraid, Detective, Natalie's unavailable at the moment. She's.....she's.....ummmm." Grace threw up her other hand frantically, mouthing the words 'What do I tell him?'

She mouthed the words back to Grace, 'Tell him that I'm sleeping.' For clarity's sake, she mimicked slumber, placing her palms together against her cheek.

"She's sleeping," she said with abruptness into the receiver. "What message should I give her when she wakes up?"

Natalie could hear another torrent of words while Nick relayed his message. Grace nodded, and on occasion, repeated his remarks for Natalie's benefit. "You are very worried about her. You need to find out when you can return something of hers. Also, you are very anxious to continue that discussion from earlier at the hospital." The latter two requests caused Grace's eyebrows to rise an inch in surprise and curiosity.

When he murmured one final utterance into the phone, Grace's eyebrows shot up another inch in astonishment. Barely able to find her tongue, she replied, "Okay....I'll relate this to her, Detective. Thanks for calling...Bye."

After hanging up the phone, Grace broke into a wide grin. "I bet you are dying to know what Mr. Elusive just admitted to me about you. It shocked the living daylights out of me!"

"What did he say?" she inquired, curiosity getting the better of her.

"He wanted you to know how much he regretted everything, how much he missed you and; to top it off.... he almost.....almost broke down that immobile facade of his to confess his true feelings about you! He said and I quote, 'Tell her I lov...' then he quickly rephrased his thoughts to, 'I care very much for her well-being and if it's okay with her, I'll drop by her place tonight on my way into work'. quote, unquote." Grace folded her arms across her chest, and with a complacent smile, waited with breathless anticipation for her response.

The mention of Nick's declaration sent Natalie's heart racing with excitement; her skin shivering with delight Damn him! In a split second, one call expressing his concerns and feelings could make her anger melt like an Arctic, summer thaw; he could have such a tremendous effect on her. But, she wasn't going to relent so easily this time. Oh! No! He deserved the silent treatment from her for a while longer. At least, until she contemplated her next move.

Natalie regarded Grace impassively as she brushed off Nick's confession. " know Nick. He treats everyone the same because he cares about people. Empathy is second nature to him."

Grace pressed her hands together while rolling her eyes heavenward. "Oh...Lord, give me strength!" She then fixed Natalie with a stern look. "You weren't talking to him!. I was! The stoic facade was completely gone. He sounded frantic with worry for your well-being. Also, this was a man consumed with remorse; he kept apologizing over and over about something he'd obviously done to you. And, when he expressed his feelings about you, his voice was cracking with emotion." She chuckled. "When I heard the pain in his voice, I was almost tempted to break out in a rendition of 'Feelings'. It was quite touching!"

Despite the seriousness of the conversation, Natalie's lips curled into a broad grin at Grace's remark, then she became pensive. Maybe, it wouldn't hurt to reveal a little to her friend about her and Nick She couldn't divulge his secret, but talking about basic problems in their relationship wouldn't be detrimental. Besides, her relationship with him had grown into such an emotional rollercoaster ride: his recent setbacks, then his brief recovery of promising mortality through her play of the virtual reality game, then another backslide through his play of the game. Not to mention, her ongoing fears of her inability to find a cure, triggering Nick's eventual, inevitable move to another life, LaCroix's interference, the constant worry of Enforcers beating down her door. The strain was becoming too much. She needed to unburden herself to someone before it was too late, before she had a mental and physical breakdown.

She met Grace's questioning look. "Okay. I'll admit Nick and I have let some of the barriers down; we are attempting to move from a friendship to a tentative relationship."

Grace slapped her hands together and smiled. "I knew it! No one can get this ol' gal up too early in the morning to fool her! "

"Don't I know it." Natalie teased.

All of a sudden, Grace's wide grin was replaced with a bewildered frown. " said a tentative relationship. What does that mean? In my experience, which isn't broad by any stretch of the imagination, I find you either have a solid relationship or none at all."

"It means that we have some problems to work out before we decide whether we can have a permanent relationship."

"What problems?" She gave her friend a baffling look. "You love and respect one another; that's the most important thing." With a wave of her hand, Grace dismissed Natalie's remark.

Natalie gazed at her in disbelief. "Love and respect are certainly essential, but so many more factors enter into creating a solid, long- lasting relationship."

"Oh.....I suppose you mean the three C's of a great relationship: compatibility, communication and compromise." She acknowledged, her eyes teasing.

"Yes! Exactly!" Natalie cried out. "We've been attempting to improve communication although...." She paused. A sudden wave of guilt consumed her as memories of an earlier conversation with Nick at the hospital surfaced. At the time, he'd reluctantly confessed about his intake of her blood, that he'd been sipping on her while playing the game. Her immediate reaction to his disclosure had been anger and disappointment. It was such a crushing defeat. His progression towards mortality falling by the wayside; she couldn't find the strength to continue the discussion Instead, what had she done? In her typical Lambert style, she'd shut him out, firmly suggesting that he leave. They could discuss his setback later. When 'later' would be, she couldn't say. But, with a sense of contriteness, Natalie had to admit that Nick had been more communicative than she had been about this problem.

Grace noticed her abrupt silence. "Although.....what, honey?"

Coming out of her ruminations, Natalie said, "Although..... earlier this evening at the hospital, I was hesitant to discuss a problem we were having." She sighed. "You see, Grace. I've been attempting to help Nick make some changes in his life which he has wanted to make and I believe he still wants."

Grace gave her a baffled look. "What kind of changes?"

"It's complicated. I can't tell you because I've promised Nick I wouldn't mention them to anyone. I hope you understand." Her eyes carried a plea to Grace for no further questions. "This week, I thought we were finally making progress towards his goal. Unfortunately, three hours ago, he told me he'd had another setback. Normally, I would have given him encouragement, consolation and tender-loving care." She blushed. "However, this setback was different; he'd backslided of his own volition. In other words, he'd done it on purpose, Grace! On top of that, we were on the brink of a major breakthrough!" Natalie's eyes brimmed with tears and her face flushed with anger at the memory.

Grace placed a gentle hand on hers. "Did you ask him why he'd done whatever it was intentionally?"

"No...." she said, regretfully. "I guess I was so devastated by this latest setback that I couldn't bear to discuss the matter with him." She shrugged her shoulders. "I was sort of abrupt, and suggested he get out and leave me alone."

Grace shook her head. "One thing about you, Natalie. You can sure be direct when you want to be."

" this case...I was so candid, it bordered on rudeness." She removed her hand from Grace's and folded her arms across her chest.

"Why don't you give him an opportunity to explain himself? Until you hear the whole story, you won't be able to come up with any solutions to your problem. Maybe, in the process of talking, you could find some way to reach a compromise." She volunteered.

"You sound like one of these goal-reaching managerial seminars for small businesses." Despite her melancholy mood, Natalie chuckled.

"I figured if Kerry ever let me go, I'd have another calling,. After all, there's big money to be made in those seminars." She observed facetiously.

Natalie smiled , then became serious. "I would love to discuss compromises with Nick, but he's not very pliable when it comes to certain solutions. In fact, one time, when I'd broached the subject of one possible solution, he made the decision for the both of us; I had no say in the matter. He wouldn't even talk about it; or give me any explanations."

All of a sudden, hurt, anger and embarrassment flashed across her features as she recalled the night in the morgue when she'd feared the world was coming to an end. With the announcement of a potential asteroid hitting the Earth in three months, she'd practically begged Nick to bring her across, to be together even for a brief time. Her undignified appeal got her only firm words of rejection with no explanation. Even though the asteroid proved to be a hoax, and Nick's choice the right one, Natalie had been bothered by his unwillingness to discuss or provide reasons for his decision. Also, he'd denied her choices in the matter. Crossing her was simply not a possibility. End of story.

She repeated in a voice, filled with anguish. "No, Grace. Nick is unwilling to make some consessions."

"Do you think he might be more agreeable today than before to meet you half way on this matter? Would the circumstances be more appropriate now?"

Yes, the circumstances would be more suitable today. The last time had been inappropriate. Although part of her motive had been to live forever with him, the other reason had been based on her fear of death. It was wrong. But, was it right to ask now? She couldn't say; she'd have to reflect on it more.

Natalie turned to her savvy friend, her eyes filled with admiration and gratefulness. In a matter of minutes, Grace had shown that, with better communication, compromises might be a possibility; their relationship might not be so hopeless or impossible. "I don't know," she said, then smiled, "but maybe it's time I find out."

"Good! I hope it works out. And, that I've been able to help in some small way."

"Oh...Grace. You don't realize how much you've done for me. Simply talking to you has cleared the cobwebs from my mind. I feel a tremendous relief being able to get these problems off my chest." She chuckled. "Even though you don't know what problems I'm talking about."

"Yes, it would have helped, knowing Nick's little secret, but I understand." She grinned, then her eyes gleamed while another thought crossed her mind. "Natalie, speaking of secrets, just what does Detective Knight hold of yours in his possession?"

"Nothing of importance." She looked down at the floor.

"Nothing of importance, huh." Grace echoed. " the tone in Knight's voice, I beg to differ. He made this item sound like one of the Crown Jewels as he wouldn't relinguish it to anyone, but you."

"It was something I let him borrow for a few days," she explained, still averting her eyes from Grace as she studied her hands in her lap.

Grace raised her eyebrows, her eyes dancing with merriment. "This object wouldn't be black, silky and have ample lace, would it?"

Natalie regarded her in astonishment. "Grace! I'm surprised at you! What do you think goes on between the two of us?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out!" She voiced in frustration and disappointment.

"You've got it all wrong!"

"Too bad! For a moment, I thought you were putting that birthday present to good use," she said, betraying obvious disappointment in her voice.

"Well, I'm not!" She stated with vehemence, then the temptation to smile was too great as a memory came to mind. In the virtual reality game, she'd worn that black teddy many times to lure Nick into different games of lovemaking. After those special games, she'd come out of the virtual world feeling breathless and desiring more, their moments together being so intense so passionate. Her cheeks flushed bright red at the remembrance, then she became sober and sighed. She wasn't putting the teddy to good use in the real world. It lay untouched in the lingerie drawer in her bedroom, gathering dust. "Let's just drop the subject, okay?"

Grace threw her hands up in mock defense. "Okay....okay. I'll back off, honey. I know when to quit."

"Okay, shall we resume our game? I want to have an opportunity to change my fate from misfortune to fortune when it comes to love." She grinned, picking up her hand and discarding the queen of hearts.

Grace picked up the discarded queen, and laying a card face down on the pile, called out, "Gin," as she lay her cards face up on the coffee table. Her eyes sparkled with amusement. "I'd say you might have a promising future with a certain detective if you play your cards right! Or wrong, whichever way you look at it."

"I must admit this evening is looking brighter by the minute." Natalie handed the cards to her friend to shuffle. "Since I've been home, I've started to feel physically stronger, too."

Grace studied her, amazed at the transformation. An hour ago, an anemic, peaked-looking woman had sat next to her. Now, it was like Natalie had been given ten pints of blood in sixty minutes; she looked as radiant as ever. It was uncanny. "You do have a healthy glow in your cheeks."

"I don't think I could run in a marathan or climb Mt Everest, but I do feel more energetic." Her face broadened into a grin.

"Maybe my winning personality and entertaining company has caused this change." Grace teased while she dealt the cards.

"I have no doubt that you're presence has helped." Natalie noted, sorting her cards.

For a few moments, they played their game in comfortable silence, then Natalie turned to her friend, her face guarded in deep thought. "Grace, I was considering something else just now...."

She looked up from her cards. "What were you wondering about?"

Natalie paused, drawing in a deep breath. "I was thinking about what you said earlier in regards to the three C's for solid relationships. We never discussed the third one: compatibility."

"No...we didn't talk about that one." She confessed. "What about it?"

Natalie shrugged her shoulders. "Do you believe Nick and I are compatible?"

Grace blew out some air. "I don't know the Detective as well as you, Natalie. However, as far as common beliefs are concerned, I thinks he shares the same social conscience as you. After all, you both undertook professions to bring criminals to justice. you, Knight strikes me as someone with an uprightness of character and integrity." She smiled. "His name 'Knight' matches his personality. He possesses certain traits of nobleness and honor; he could be Sir Galahad."

"No....more like Sir Lancelot." Natalie disagreed, contemplating his flaws. "But, he does always try to do the right thing."

"Yes....and I believe he's...." Grace placed her right forefinger on each left-handed finger while she listed each quality. "... trustworthy, loyal, honest, principled as you are, Natalie."

"He isn't a saint."

"No.....and neither are you." She pointed out. "But, he sure possesses some fine qualities and..... he has the most gorgeous blue eyes of any man that I've encountered." She giggled as she resumed the game and placed a card on the discarded pile.

"I agree, he does have capivating eyes; in fact, they can be quite mesmerizing." She observed. Or hypnotizing, she mused, grinning as she scooped up the seven of diamonds off the pile and discarded the two of hearts.

While Grace reviewed her hand, Natalie became pensive again. "Aside from some of our similar ethical beliefs, do you think Nick and I make a good team, Grace? In other words, are we good for one another?"

She hesitated, trying to formulate in her mind the best, honest answer to give. "Yes. You compliment one another very well. For example, you're the only one, who can handle and ease his sullen, angry moods."

"Not always, Grace. When I try to cosset him and his relentless guilt, I feel that I'm not always reaching him, I'm not getting through that thick skull of his." she admitted, biting her lip.

"But, I know you never stop trying which is one of the greatest qualities you possess: perseverance. With your ceaseless determination, you're getting through to him. You may not always think so, but you are." She said, fervently. "And.. he's also good for you."

"In what capacity?" Natalie asked.

"Well......sometimes...ummmm," she stuttered.

Natalie crossed her arms as her eyes narrowed. "Yes, Grace? Come on. You can spit it out. What do I do?"

" can sure get madder than anyone I know," she said, carefully.

"I do not.....," she began, her face betraying annoyance. "Well...maybe sometimes!" She broke into a smile.

"I don't think you get angry that often, but when you do, look out! Being around a hornet's nest would be more comforting than your sting! I've never seen anyone get as mad as quickly as you can. You're like a stick of dynamite ready to go off at're....."

"Okay....Okay, Grace..I get the picture; I'll admit that I can be a loose cannon at times. What's the point?" she asked with petulance.

"The point is the good detective seems to help you to rationalize your anger; he seems to get through to you and calm you down during those times," she explained.

Natalie smiled at her friend. "Sometimes, he does make me see a different perspective after I've gotten myself all worked up." She leaned over and squeezed Grace's hand. "I know it was difficult for you to talk about one of my biggest faults: my temper. Thanks for being honest with me."

Grace patted her hand. "If you want more frankness, I can give you more." Her face broke into a grin. "You're stubborn, you're....."

Natalie threw up her hands and chuckled. "Okay...enough already! I know I have many shortcomings! Can we return to the card game before I lose all my self-esteem?"

Dressed in a long white nightgown, Natalie stood on her balcony, sipping a glass of orange juice while peering across the street at the deserted park, deep in thought. After winning all four Gin Rummy games and sealing Natalie's lucky fate with men, Grace had retired to the sofa, rapidly falling into a deep slumber. Natalie hadn't been so fortunate. After relaxing in a bath and going to bed, she'd laid there for an hour, staring at the ceiling while thoughts of Nick whirled around in her mind. Finally, she'd tiptoed to the kitchen to get some juice, and had then decided to carry her deep musings with her to the balcony where she'd been standing for the last ten minutes.

Natalie's gaze rose from the empty park to the night sky. Sunrise wouldn't be for another two hours; however, Nick would be returning to the loft soon After her enlightening conversation with Grace, part of her conscious had wanted to pick up the phone, call him, and apologize for her outburst at the hospital. But, the other part had refrained from doing so, knowing any apology from her would have fallen on deaf ears. Nick would have dismissed it and placed the blame on himself. In truth, this setback was his fault. But, dwelling on the blame wasn't going to bring back his progression towards mortality. At this point, they needed to admit this virtual reality game was a failure in the cure department and move on.

However, could they really move on? Before this game had been dropped into her hands by Sam at Sam's video, any hope at finding a cure, and relationship with Nick had become nonexistent. The game had been their only possible chance at a future together if Nick had become mortal. So, unless he were willing to bring her into his world, to bring her across, she didn't see any other solutions on the horizon. Natalie knew in her heart, she couldn't go back to the way things were before this game. Even though nothing had happened intimately between them in the real world, it had in the virtual world which seemed so real. In her mind, they had crossed the point of no return and there was no going back.

Natalie heaved a long sigh, then took another swallow of juice from her glass. Convincing Nick to bring her across would be a challenge, something she wasn't anticipating with great relish. If her good reasoning skills were lacking at any time during this conversation with him, mortality would be her fate until her dying days. She'd better come up with a damn good reason for him to do the deed.

However, at the moment, she had other immediate concerns as she glanced at her watch. Four thirty in the morning. Since the game was due back tomorrow, a phone call to Nick, asking him to return it to the Video Store, was a priority . But the timing of her call was a delicate matter; it had to be made after he retired for the day. In that way, she could leave a message on his machine and avoid direct communication with him.

Dawn would be breaking in one and a half hours. I'll wait another two hours to be safe, she thought. He'll be in his death-like slumber by then, she surmised with a touch of sadness. Natalie turned around and returned to the sanctity of her bedroom, retrieved a medical journal from a bedside table and began to read as the minutes ticked down to the inevitable call.


Fifteen minutes earlier:

Behind a large, gnarled oak tree, a pair of eyes stared at the bewitching vision on the balcony. The eyes traveled from the woman's illustrious, auburn curls down to the creamy white skin on her bare arms to her voluptuous curves. What a prize and an enthralling creature, he thought. He'd never known anyone quite like her.

All at once, her lovely face turned away from his view as she disappeared into her bedroom. At her departure, his face betrayed disappointment, then his lips curled into an evil smirk at the remembrance of his clever plan. It won't be much longer, he reasoned. Your life, my dear, is going to change for the better and I'll have you to myself , possessing you completely. Within a few days, you'll be mine as it should be...

"As it should be," he whispered to the deadly quiet. From the soft light of the streetlamp, pinpoints of gold seemed to flash in his eyes in mounting anticipation. Delicious thoughts of his perfect scheme were sending him into an uncontrollable frenzy. Moving away from the tree, he regarded the empty balcony. While standing on the sidewalk, his eyes closed, his nostrils flaring in excitement while tantalizing visions of her body crept into the dark recesses of his mind. Images of her succumbing to him, begging him for more and more. Oh, the anticipation! He couldn't wait for the show to begin.......

After leaving the precinct, and before returning to the loft, Nick decided to drive by Nat's apartment. As soon as he pulled his Caddy up to the curb, he heard a woman's piercing scream. It had originated from the park across the street. Leaping from the car, he took to the air flying over a dense area of forest. With his enhanced hearing and eyesight, he detected two figures struggling in a dark ravine beyond the thick growth. Nick heard one more shriek from the woman before flying into the attacker and knocking him unconscious.

While the man lay on the ground, Nick strode over to the woman, lying motionless and face down in the grass. As he approached her, the smell of fresh blood hit his nostrils with a sudden force. Instinctively, his beast emerged, his eyes turning golden and his canines dropping . Leaning over her, the scent became stronger and more familiar to him, like cinnamon and allspice. His eyes returned to an azure blueness; his sharp fangs receding as his animalistic urges were replaced by dreadful feelings in the pit of his stomach. With a measured gentleness, he rolled the woman over. His heart lurched as he gasped. It was Natalie.

Swiftly, his eyes traveled down to her chest where a large knife was embedded. A dark crimson spot glistened on her white nightgown and was growing larger by the second. He could detect her shallow breathing; her faint heartbeat. She was on the brink of death and he knew it. Cradling her to him, he started to tremble as blood tears formed in his eyes. Then a painful, almost primal cry erupted from his chest as he started to rock her in his arms, the tears falling onto her nightgown.

"What should I do Nat? I can't let you go now." He murmured into her hair as he continued to hold her close. "I need you so. You're my life." Her heart was fading, her pulse slowing. He knew she had only moments left. What to do? "I can't let you leave me, Nat."

His sharp canines gleamed in the dark, his eyes glowed amber as he moved Natalie's hair to the side. His lips caressed her soft white skin along her neck as he found the pulsating vein, then he whispered in her ear. "Remember, I will always love you. Please, Nat. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me." He inhaled her intoxicating scent of blood as he reared his head back to strike.

For some odd reason, his movements then slowed. His head kept bending towards her soft folds, his fangs reaching and reaching, closer and closer to her neck , but he couldn't get there. The spicy smell of her blood was becoming so enticing; his fangs strained to reach their mark. I need your blood; I need you, Nat, he thought as his elongated canines almost grazed her soft skin. I just need to get there, he reasoned. " I need to GET THERE!" He shouted over and over until.......

Nick shouted one last time and then..... awoke, clutching a pillow in his arms, his forehead drenched in bloodsweat. Unwrapping himself from the mangled pillow and removing the red blotches from his skin, he shook his head in an attempt to clear the sleepiness. As his mind sharpened and reality set in, he let out a huge sigh. Thank goodness! It was only a nightmare. He disentangled himself from the black, satin sheets and got out of bed.

Feeling shaky from the dream, Nick flew down the stairs to the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator retrieving a green bottle of bovine, and wasting no time, uncorked the top with a trembling hand. He drank the contents in three gulps as he tried to dispel the images of the nightmare. After drinking another two bottles, the pictures in the dream started to fade from his mind, but the trepidation for Natalie's safety still existed. In order to assuage his fear, he knew he needed to hear her voice.

Nick looked at the clock on the wall.. Five o'clock in the evening. Natalie would be waking up any moment. Retrieving a fourth bottle of cow from the refrigerator, he poured half into a goblet, and carrying it with him, walked over to his phone. As he reached for the receiver, a sidelong glance at the blinking light on his answering machine told him there had been several calls during the day.

Depressing the button with his finger, the messages began to play. The first five were solicitors, pitching everything from more credit cards to a time share in the Hawaiian Islands. The trip to the paradise islands caused Nick to become melancholy. In three short days, with my reckless play in the virtual world, a trip to Hawaii had gone from a distinct to a distant possibility, he thought dismally.

His guilt-ridden musings were then broken by the sixth message. A familiar woman's voice came on the machine causing his heart to beat two times in quick succession. "'s me. Nat," she said with tentativeness. "Grace gave me the message that you called. She said you might be stopping by on the way to work." She sighed. "Please don't. I know we need to talk about everything soon." Her voice became softer. "But....please try to understand, I need more time to sort things out, and ponder what the next step could be for us." She paused. "So, if it's okay with you, instead of dropping off the game to me, could you please run it by Sam's on the way to work? Thanks and...... I'll call you. Bye."

As the machine clicked off, Nick stood there for a long moment, relief washing over him. Natalie was safe. It had truly been a nightmare. Though, as he remained rooted to his spot, his anxiety for her welfare was replaced by another kind of fear: the unknown. Her message had clearly expressed that other steps needed to be taken, now that the game had been played out. But, what kind of steps? What direction could they take, now? At the moment, regaining mortality was an impossibility. Their hopes at a cure for him were dashed when his dark nature took over in the game. So what could she have in mind?

All at once, an unsettling thought occurred to him causing his forehead to break out into a slight bloodsweat. She couldn't be considering being brought across again to his miserable, gloomy existence. Could she? Not after the last time. During the asteroid crisis, fear of death had triggered her irrational pleadings to ask. However, upon calm reflection, she'd agreed that his decision-making in not crossing her had been the right one. Besides Natalie valued her humanity too much to relinquish it. And since she prized mortality above everything else, how could she even consider being with him now? After what he'd done to her? He shook his head in disgust and held the glass in a vise-like grip. Sipping on her in the game, succumbing to his contemptible nature through utter selfishness, had been the lowest form of betrayal to both of them. And.... to be so close this time to regaining his mortality. was unconscionable! How could he expect her to forgive him for such a detestable act and want to have anything to do with him? At this point, he'd be lucky to coax her to the loft with one of her nausating protein shakes much less comtemplate another direction towards a genuine relationship.

Nick was startled out of his remorseful, self-loathing meditations by the ringing of the phone. Depressing the conference call button on the machine, he said abruptly "Hello."

There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line while the caller recovered from Nick's sharpness. "Hello, Nick? Is that you?" the person asked carefully.

"Yes...Who are you?" he questioned, getting more annoyed by the minute.

"Joe Reese," he announced..

Nick's irritation changed to regret. "I'm sorry, Cap. I didn't recognize your voice."

Reese chuckled into the phone. "It's this damn cold. Makes me sound like I've got wads of cotton stuffed in my mouth," he said, clearing his throat. "Nick, the reason I called; I need you at the precinct in an hour. Tracy called to say she'd be late. Said something about letting an electrician into her apartment and coming to work around 8:00. You two were working on that Lindsey report and IA needs it ASAP. You gotta finish it up."

Nick sighed. "Okay, Cap. I'll be there." He hesitated, looking at an object on the coffee table as he recalled Nat's message. "I just need to take care of one thing on my way in."

As he rang off, he reached over picking up the object in his palm. Running his hand over the metal surface of the game, his face became sullen, his thoughts morose. Yes...he just needed to take care of one thing; a gift which had been attainable, now unreachable, had to be returned to its rightful owner.

Nick removed another messed up report from the typewriter, crushed the paper in his hands, and tossed it like a basketball into the mounting heap of crumpled balls, forming in the trash can.. What number was that? Number twenty? He shrugged his shoulders apathetically, grabbed another blank form from the pile, and inserted it into his typewriter. At this rate, the number of typo errors on this one report could be placed in the Guinness World Records before the end of his shift. The number of errors! He shook his head as his face deepened into a scowl and his eyes took on a melancholy guise. These mistakes paled in comparison to his blunder of three days ago. How could he have been so thoughtless, so careless, so unconcerned about consequences? And consequences there were. Natalie's health had deteriorated, his beast had come surging back needing more blood than ever to quell the urges, and his relationship with Nat was teetering on the edge. With the return of the game to Sam before his shift, he hoped the former two consequences would improve shortly. However, the third and latter one would take more than the return of the game to resolve itself. It would require patience, understanding, and forgiveness from one very spirited determined woman. He sighed and wondered if miracles could happen; that she might forgive him. Nick was startled out of his reflections by a bubbly, feminine voice. "Hi, Partner.....Got that report done?" Tracy removed her jacket and sat down at her desk.

For a response, she received a glareful look. Clearing her throat, she spoke with caution, "Gee....Nick, I want to thank you for covering for me this evening. I got into a bind there.....You know....with the electrician." She laughed nervously as her words continued to tumble out, one right after the other. "Of course, this time, I did need a repairman to fix several blown circuits and luck would have it," she shook her head, grinning, "this guy worked the nightshift. I wasn't sure you'd fall for my excuse after the last time. You know...the plumber!" She rolled her eyes, giggling. "I know I didn't deceive you with that excuse. But Nick, this story wasn't made up. I did need to have electrical work done at my apartment."

She stopped finally, glanced over at Nick, and took a much-needed breath. His brow was furrowed, his eyes distant as he sat there.

"You didn't hear a word I said, did you!" she voiced in dismay.

Nick regarded her with disinterest. "What did you say?"

She rolled her eyes, shaking her head in annoyance. "What planet do you live on? When you zone out the way you do, I wonder if you are part of the human race. You can act like such a zombie at times!"

Zombie! You're not far off the mark, he thought, and gave her a wounded look. "I'm sorry, Trace. If I'm zoning out it's because I have a lot of things on my mind. One of them being this report."

Tracy gazed at his forlorn expression, then slapped her hand to her forehead. How could she be so stupid? 'The other things on his mind' would be Natalie. After last night's events, he'd naturally be worried sick about her. But hadn't he heard about her remarkable recovery? "Nick, I owe you an apology. I wasn't thinking. It stands to reason that you'd be concerned over Natalie's demise." She glanced at him and could have sworn he'd cringed on the last word.

His eyes moved from Tracy's sympathetic look to a spot on his desk. "Of course, I'm worried about Nat's welfare."

Was his voice choked with emotion, just now? Maybe, he didn't know. "Nick, before I came to work, I called Nat and we talked some. She sounded much better."

He regarded her, his eyes hopeful. "She did?"

"Yeah.. whatever bug bit her, she was able to fight it off."

"Bit her?" he repeated, uncertain his ears didn't deceive him.

"Yes...bit her. and I don't mean an insect. I meant that whatever illness she had...."

"Trace, I know what you meant." He interrupted. "Your choice of words ...." he hesitated, and sighed, "were right on the mark. That's all."

"How so?" she asked, perplexed.

"Never mind. Let me get back to this report before Reese blows a blood vessel. Okay?"

"Oh no, you don't! You're not ending this discussion so easily this time. What did you mean by 'on the mark?' Do you know something about Nat's illness that you haven't told me about?" She met his guilt- ridden look with a stern one.

"Of course not!" he exclaimed. "I've told you everything the doctors and Nat explained to me. Which wasn't much. She was tired and rundown probably from pushing herself too hard. The doctors couldn't find anything physiologically wrong with her, so they prescribed plenty of bed rest and vitamins." Vitamins with an abundance of iron, he thought dejectedly.

Tracy studied her partner. He was hiding something. Just what he was unwilling to admit, she couldn't say. For now, she'd back off and let it go. However, in time, she'd get to the bottom of it. "Okay, Nick. Sorry, I just find her illness to be so baffling, so strange, so mysterious, so..."

Nick smiled slightly and finished for her. "so intriguing? Yes..I know. The important thing is she's recovering. So instead of putting those detective skills to work on Nat's illness why don't you put them to work on this Lindsey case report."

"Oh...right! Nick. The Lindsey case." She pulled a folder from her box and smiled sheepishly. "Perhaps I should have given you this piece of information to add to your report."

Before he could answer, Reese yelled from his office, "Knight, Vetter...I need to see you both in here, ASAP!"


The Caddy pulled up behind the coroner's van which was parked adjacent to a small shopping center. Nick and Tracy emerged from the inside of the car, their eyes examining the grim scene before them. As they moved closer, Tracy observed the abundance of police cars, parked down at the lower end of the center, their flashing lights casting red spots on the black pavement like spatterings of blood against a dark wall. Was this an omen of what was to come? A gruesome, bloody corpse at the end of the block? Tracy felt a shiver crawl up her spine at the onimous thought and braced herself for the worst.

She and Nick approached the last shop and pushed their way through the crowded room. Tracy glanced at her partner, whose eyes were frantically searching for someone, then sudden relief danced across his face as an elderly man rushed up to them. "Nick...thank goodness, you're here!"

Nick grabbed the man by the shoulders. "Sam....Thank God! You're okay. What happened?"

He shook his head, tears swimming in his eyes. "It happened so fast. I left Ernie for fifteen minutes to get some cigarettes and come back to find the place in a shambles and ....." His voice began to break as new emotions roiled to the surface. "And... I ...found him..... back there," he stammered and pointed to a room in the back of the store.

Nick and Tracy traded understanding looks. She nodded her head in agreement as Nick turned to Sam and explained in a calm voice, "I'm going to leave you for a moment in the capable hands of my partner, Tracy Vetter and do my job, Sam. Okay?"

There was no response. However, something had filtered through because Sam regarded Tracy through tear-filled eyes and allowed her to guide him to a chair in the corner. Turning away from his shocked expression, Nick stepped with care around the videos, scattered over the floor, and strode to the backroom. Like the room he'd left, this one had also been vandalized. Everywhere, there were computer mainframes, keyboards, and speakers laying smashed on the ground. Wires were dangling like live snakes from every conceivable piece of machinery. Not one component was left untouched.

In the far corner, a young, dark-haired man was squatting on his heels over a body. Nick began to move closer, then stopped with a sudden abruptness as the smell of fresh blood hit his nostrils causing his eyes to glow amber. Turning away from the man and victim, he closed his eyes, and with tremendous effort, he suppressed his vampiric urges. Moments passed until, feeling more in control, Nick turned back to the person still hovering over the poor lad.

Leaning over the man, Nick regarded the boy laying face down on the floor. The kid, for he was in his teens, was wearing a pair of light blue jeans, a plain, white t-shirt and a pair of well-worn Nikes. His arms and legs were spread out like a fan, his face leaning to the side. Upon closer examination, Nick noticed his eyes and mouth were wide open in startlement. Perhaps, the killer had approached the kid undetected. There was one sign of bodily injury originating from an ugly gaping bullet.wound at the back of the head. A pool of blood surrounded his face and was beginning to coagulate.

Nick cleared his throat alerting the man to his presence. "What do we have here, Dr. Rogers?" He knew the ME worked the dayshift at the Morgue, but with Natalie out on leave, he was probably covering for her.

The man rose to a standing position and faced Nick glumly. "My preliminary diagnosis would be death from a single gunshot wound to the head less than one hour ago. By the size of the bullet entry, I would say the victim was shot with a 38 mm at close range, probably 6 to 10 feet away."

"Thanks, doctor."

He nodded and turned away from the detective, calling to an assistant to tag and bag the victim, then he exited the room. Nick stared at the kid for a moment longer, shaking his head in disgust. What a waste of such a young life!

A sudden presense at his side caught his attention. He glanced over to see Tracy giving him a concerned look. "Nick, are you okay?"

For a second, his eyes reflected anguish, then just as quickly, his face became immobile. "Yeah...Trace. I'm fine." He glanced over her shoulder into the other room. "How's Sam doing?"

Tracy followed Nick's gaze. "As well as can be expected. I left him with Officer Perkins to see what you'd ascertained about the victim."

"Nothing much." Nick related to her what the ME had told him.

Tracy surveyed the mess on the floor. "By the looks of things, the perp or perps were looking for something.or," she shrugged her shoulders, "perhaps, they had a irresistable urge to trash the place."

"Let's go ask Sam." Nick suggested. "Maybe he can shed some light on possible motives."

They headed towards the front where Sam was sitting in a chair at the checkout counter drinking a glass of water. Officer Perkins was no where to be seen. "Where's the Officer I left you with?" Tracy asked, slightly annoyed.

Sam gestured with his hand towards the open doorway. "I told him that he didn't have to babysit me any longer. And ....not to worry; that I was not going to have a heart attack on his watch." He looked at them seriously. "So what's next?"

"We'll wait to get the reports back from forensics and the morgue," she explained. "Then, go from there." She removed a pen and pad from the pocket of her jacket. "Mr. Casey, do you mind if we ask you a few questions?"

"No...not at all. But, you must call me Sam."

"Okay, Sam." She smiled. "How long had ErnieVance been in your employment?"

"He came to me about a month ago looking for a part-time job in the evenings," he said. "It was a convenient place for him to work because he lived right around the corner on Adelaide with his parents."

"We'll need that address," Tracy said as she scribbled some notes down. "You said that you left Ernie for fifteen minutes to grab some cigarettes?"

"Yes....I went to the drugstore at the end of the shopping center. I remember glancing at my watch when I left and returned. I was gone from nine to nine fifteen."

"When you exited your store, did you notice anyone loitering around outside? Any strangers? Anyone odd or mysterious, who caught your attention?" Tracy queried.

"No, I didn't see anyone lurking around."

"Okay." Tracy nodded, then asked, "While Ernie was in your employment, did he fraternize with any unsavory characters?"

Sam's eyebrows arched in surprise. "If you mean by 'unsavory characters', criminals. No! Certainly not! Ernie was a quiet kid, a loner, who did his job and left at the end of his shift. I don't recall many friends dropping by the store to see him."

"No one?" she inquired.

"Well....come to think of it." His eyes narrowed as he rested his hand under his chin. "There was one kid who visited a few times during Ernie's break."

"Name?" Tracy looked up at him.

"I believe the kid's name was Fred Martin."

"Address?" asked Tracy.

Sam shook his head. "No, 'fraid not."

Tracy continued to write notes on her pad. "Any suspicions that Ernie was dealing in or using any drugs?"

"Now, wait a second!" His eyes widened in indignation. "What kinda establishment do you think I'm running around here? There were no drugs!. I'd know if there were, young lady." he exclaimed in a shaky voice.

Nick reached out and placed a hand on Sam's arm. "Okay...take it easy. No one is accusing you or Ernie of running any drug operation here. These are standard questions we would ask anyone to try to establish a motive for killing anyone. Drugs are always a strong motive for murder."

"Okay...I understand you need to find a motive, but you're barking up the wrong tree with Ernie and drugs. I only knew him for a month, but he was a good kid. Clean, through and through."

"How do you know he was clean, Sam?" Tracy asked.

"Instinct." He looked knowingly at Nick when he spoke. "I have very good instincts about people, Ms. Vetter."

Suddenly uncomfortable, Nick cast his eyes down to the ground, away from Sam's probing eyes as Tracy commented. "In that case, I hope you're right about Ernie; that he was drug-free."

After a moment, Nick looked up at Sam. Switching tactics in the interrogation, he asked, "Sam, have you been able to ascertain if anything has been stolen from your shop? Any cash? Any inventory?"

Sam shrugged his shoulders. "No cash is missing. I checked the draw while I waited for the police. As far as inventory," he surveyed the mess around the room, "whoever did this diabotical crime, had destruction and murder rather than theft on his mind. But I'll check, just the same."

"Thanks Sam, and please call us if you should find anything missing or something else comes to mind." Nick handed him a card with his cell phone and precinct number on it.

"Okay, if something comes to mind, I'll let you know." He placed the card in his pocket, then gesturing to the backroom, he said, "If you don't object, I'll check out the goods in my storage room first," and walked away.

Nick and Tracy were about to turn around to leave when, from the doorway, they heard a loud, feminine cry. "Heavens! What happened here tonight?"

Turning around, their eyes denoted surprise at the visitor who was standing in the entranceway with a brown bag in her hand, her eyes filled with astonishment. Tracy was the first to find her voice and speak, "Grace! What are you doing here? Aren't you suppose to be with Natalie?"

"I was and I am. Natalie asked me to pick up a few groceries and a prescription at the drugstore. Since she lives around the corner, I came to this mall. I figured, while I was out, I'd get a video," she paused and fixed Nick with an exacting look, then continued, "a comedy, to cheer her up a bit."

Her message was clear, causing Nick to flinch and look away. Satisfied her words had affected the detective, she spoke up again shifting her gaze to Tracy. "Anyway I started to walk towards the video store and, as I got closer, I saw all the black and whites. So I flashed my ID and came to see what all the commotion was about in here."

"An employee has been murdered here tonight, Grace. At the moment, we have no suspects. As for a motive," Tracy shrugged, "theft doesn't seem to be one of them."

"Now it does!" A voice yelled from the back of the store.

Turning around, Grace, Nick and Tracy met the anxious eyes of the storeowner as he strode towards them. He looked at each of them, finally resting his worried eyes on Nick. "It's gone! Oh...what am I going to do! If it falls in the wrong hands, it could be trouble. Oh dear..." He was becoming extremely agitated. "What am I going to do!" He repeated, moaning.

Nick patted him on the back and spoke in a calm voice. "Sam, relax and tell us what is missing."

"The game!" he exclaimed with an abruptness, his expression solemn.

"Game?" Tracy asked, baffled. "What game?"

Sam's disturbed expression met Tracy's curious look. "It's a virtual reality game."

Tracy rolled her eyes. "! Not another one of those! Don't tell me you rent those silly, absurd games to people. As far as I'm concerned, they're dangerous. I've seen firsthand what those things can do to people." She gave Nick a disapproving look. "They are obsessive toys. That's what they are!"

"This was not a toy, Ms. Vetter!" he stated with vehemence. "And I didn't rent this game to just anyone. I have bestowed it upon certain people as a gift, a way for poor, well-meaning souls to find peace and fulfillment within themselves, to find their lost faith and love, if you will." His eyes cast a brief, sidelong glance at Nick, and this stare was not lost on the two women.

Tracy and Grace's eyes grew wide with astonishment as the meaning of the look became clear to them. He'd given Nick the game to play! But why? Why would Nick need to play a virtual world game to find all the things Sam had mentioned: peace, fulfillment, faith and love? He could achieve those goals in the real world, couldn't he?

Grace was the first person to find her voice. "Okay, it isn't a toy. It's, as you say, some kind of faith-affirming game. So why would someone of the criminal element want such a positive happy-go-lucky virtual reality? Wouldn't they prefer a Rambo shoot'em up, drug infested game?"

Briefly coming out of his agitated state, Sam regarded the newcomer for the first time. "I don't believe we've met. I'm Sam Casey. And you are?" he asked, extending his hand.

"Grace Balthazar. I work in the Toronto Coroner's Office with Dr. Natalie Lambert, who would have been working this case, but unforeseeable and unexplained circumstances have left her temporarily incapacitated," she said, shaking Sam's hand while she gave Nick a baleful glance. "I'm staying with her through her recuperation."

"Oh dear! I hope it isn't anything serious! Please give her my regards. She's such an enchanting, sweet person," he said. "Could you give her a message for me?"

"Sure." Grace nodded.

"Tell her to have patience; that everything will work out for the best in the end."

"Okay. I will." She said, shrugging her shoulders, puzzled by the message.

"Now, to answer your question, Ms. Balthazar. If used properly, the game can have redeeming qualities, but if it falls into the wrong hands, there can be dire consequences."

"How so?" Tracy asked finally able to speak.

"The person, who plays the game, can devise endless scenerios in the virtual world. If he wants to be Rambo or a drug czar as Ms. Balthazar has mentioned, he can play those roles. If he wants to spent a day at the beach, he can do that, too. His virtual realities are limitless. Also, he can choose anyone to be there, and this part is important to understand. His method of play in the virtual world can affect that person in the real world. "

"In other words, he can hurt that person physically in the virtual world, and that infliction can be carried over into the real world." Nick said with such contriteness and anguish that the tone didn't escape the three people standing around him.

"Yes, I'm afraid so." Sam acknowledged with regret. "How about death?" Grace asked in a sober tone. "Can anyone be killed in the real world if the person playing the game decides to dispose of them in the virtual world?"

Sam rubbed his chin contemplating the possibilities. "I don't know. I've never had this situation happen. I suppose that anything is possible." All at once, the strain became overwhelming as his eyes brimmed with tears. "Oh God! Nick! Tracy! You've must find the person who stole this game before it's too late, before there are deadly consequences. I hope and pray you can."

Three grave faces met his. They hoped so, too.

After departing Sam's Video, Grace returned to Natalie's while Nick and Tracy visited the victim's parents. Breaking the horrible shocking news to Stella and Henry Vance had been very unpleasant. After several tearful breakdowns, many soothing hot cups of tea, and consoling words from the two detectives, Tracy and Nick weren't able to gain much more new information. Like Sam, they told the detectives that their boy was a good, fine, upstanding kid who ran with a decent crowd. No drugs! Always a good student.

When they asked about Fred Martin, however, Tracy and Nick sensed an uneasiness in Mrs.Vance as she spoke with care, "We met Fred once. One evening, he dropped by with Ernie on the way to a concert. He was very polite; he seemed like a nice kid."

Mr. Vance elaborated that, two month's ago, Ernie and Fred had met at a party of a mutual friend of theirs. Fred was older than their son; in his early twenties, and sharing an apartment on Wellington St. with two others. As far as they knew, he'd been working the last year at Bill's Service station at the corner of King and Spadina Ave.

After obtaining Fred Martin's home and work addresses from them, the two detectives said their goodbyes promising to keep them posted on any updates, and drove to Mr. Martin's apartment. One of the roommates, Kevin Tate, was home and reluctantly allowed them entrance. It was a brief interview where Nick and Tracy discovered Fred Martin hadn't been seen for several days. According to Kevin, his latest disappearance wasn't unusual; he could be gone for days at a time.

Tracy asked Kevin, "Weren't his disappearances kinda strange? Weren't you ever worried about his welfare?"

"No," he replied, shrugging his shoulders in an apathetic manner. "He always came back and...," he smiled in a strange way as he added, "he was good for the rent on the first of the month."

Nick and Tracy exchanged looks, baffled by the lack of Kevin's concern for his roommate, then asking and receiving a photo of Mr. Martin, the detectives drove to Fred's place of employment. At Bill's Service Station, they did gain some more information on the elusive Martin. A month earlier, the owner of the service station had fired him and hadn't seen him since that time.

"Why had he been let go?" Nick asked.

"Let's put it this way, detective," he said. "He thought of himself as a real Don Juan with the female customers. I caught him harassing some lady, who was waiting for a full service on her BMW. She threatened to file charges of assault until she got my assurances that he'd be outta here." He added, "Yeah...he was a real piece of work."

"Do you know where he might be working, now?" Tracy inquired.

"No idea," he said, then chuckled. "Maybe he's got a few hookers working for him in the seedier side of town."

Tracy gave him a half-hearted smile. "If you think of anything else, please give us a call." She handed him a card as she and Nick got into the Caddy.

During the car ride back to the precinct, a silence ensued between the two detectives. At one point during the trip, Tracy had started to open her mouth to ask Nick about his little secret: the game. It was a temptation to blurt out: Nick, why do you play these ridiculous games? But she'd refrained from asking. Broaching subjects of a personal nature with him were impossible because of his uncanny ability to elude answers to questions. Patience. That was the answer. She'd have to have patience. Only then, would she be able to gain any information. Turning in her seat, she regarded his immobile facade, then sighed as she turned to gaze out the window for the duration of the ride.


When Nick and Tracy entered the bullpin, Officer McMurtney rushed up to them. "Captain said he wanted to see you two immediately when you got back."

"Okay, thanks Pete," said Nick as they strode towards Reese's office. They tapped on the door, then heard a bellow from within the office. "Come in!"

Nick and Tracy opened the door and entered. "It's about time you two showed up. What took you so long?" asked Reese, frowning.

The two detectives glanced at one another and shrugged. "Prelims and fact finders on the homicide case at Sam's Video on Victoria St. Many suspects to question, Cap." Tracy announced.

"Well...I'm glad you're back because we have a bigger problem at the moment," he said, his eyes grim.

"What is it?" Nick asked.

Reese sighed, and said with utmost importance. "The Commissioner called two hours ago. A serial killer escaped from the Laurier Mental Health Clinic yesterday. He outsmarted the staff at the center by hiding away in a laundry truck. The orderlies didn't discover his disappearance until bed check. By then, he'd had a three hour head start."

"Who is it, Cap?" Nick queried."

Reese gave Nick a steady look, his voice grave. "Roger Jameson."

In the shadows of a dimly lit room sat the figure of a man in a comfortable armchair, his eyes covered with a dark shield, his head tilted towards the ceiling as intermittent moans escaped from his lips. After a while, he reached up with his hands and removed the visor from his face, a look of contentment danced across his features. Then, his euphoric face was replaced with amazement as he ran his fingers across the maze of velcro, metal and plastic.

In these few short hours, he'd discovered how remarkable this game was to the person who possessed it. The magnitude of control, and power was incredible. He could decide the destiny of anyone, change events, destroy cities, countries. The possibilities were endless. But for the moment, his devious mind was centered on a singular plan. The fate of one beautiful coroner.

He sat further back in his chair, crossing his legs and resting his hand under his chin as he gave the matter some thought. How to play the game with this intriguing woman? Should he have a good romp and dispose of her in the first game as he'd done in the real world with countless others? No. There wouldn't be much fun in that method of play, ending her life so quickly. Although, it was a temptation.

Taking his time and enjoying her with extremely breathtaking slowness would be much more satisfying for a change. Then, when he'd gained her trust and love, brought her repeatedly to the realm of ecstasy through many virtual realities, he'd strike, taking her life. The thought of her blissful face turning to unrestrained terror as he snuffed out her life made his eyes gleam with expectation. Looking down in his lap, he stared at the small game for a long time, nestled in his hand. Now, where to take her? To a far off land, some exotic place, island, beach? No, let's start off with somewhere close by, somewhere earthy, somewhere....with flowers, he thought. The park. Yes, the park with a multitude of aromic flowers and greenery around them would be the perfect seduction scene. He smiled in delight, his decision complete. Placing his fingers on the keyboard, he inputted the valid data. Without another thought, he put the visor on his face; the sensors around his fingers, and pushed the red button.


Nick paced back and forth in Reese's office, then stopping in front of the Captain's desk, he rested his hands on the hard wood surface. He was getting increasingly alarmed. "Cap, we have to do something about this guy and fast! He has murdered at least five women that we know about, maybe more. And Nat!" he exclaimed, panic rising in his voice as he ran his fingers through his hair. "He'll be looking for her. I need to get over to Nat's to make sure she's okay."

"Calm down, Nick," said Reese. "I've already taken measures to ensure Natalie's safety. I called her myself. Talked to Grace. Nat was asleep, but she would let her know about the situation once she awakened. I also ordered a surveillance team to be established across the street from her apartment in case this creep decides to make an appearance."

"Who's on the team, Cap?" Tracy asked.

"Barnes and Foster."

Tracy's concerned eyes met Nick's frantic ones. Until moment's ago when Reese had provided her with a sinister profile of Roger Jameson's illustrious career, she'd never heard of the guy. After hearing about Natalie's narrow escape from him, she could better understand Nick's anxious state of mind. Trying to ease his agitation, she said, "They are real professionals, Nick. The best in the business."

"Yeah...Natalie's in good hands." Reese agreed. "I've also put out an APB on this character. All the airports, train stations, bus terminals, etc... have been notified and composites are being distributed all over town." He paused, giving his two detectives a stern look. "Now, I want you both to check up on this list of leads we've gotten so far on Jameson." He handed a piece of paper to Tracy. "Find out if any are legitimate, and if they are, run with them."

"But Cap. Shouldn't we investigate the Laundry Distributor, who was associated with the Clinic? Maybe the driver of that truck knows something." Nick suggested. "No. Already checked out by Officer Murphy. The driver told him that he never saw Jameson leave his truck. But we know he was in there. Forensics found hair samples on the linens in the back compartment which match Jameson's. For the moment, the best we can do is follow up on these leads." He gave Nick a firm look.

"Okay." Nick's eyes were less anxious, but the edginess in his voice was still apparent. Turning away from Reese's desk, he and Tracy exited.

Nick joined his partner at their desks. "Trace, I think I should do some investigative work." He started to put on his coat.

"The only investigative work you should be doing is here. If you don't want Reese to blow sky high, you'll do what he says." She handed him part of the list and met his woeful eyes sympathetically. "Look, Nick. Nat's in capable hands. She's going to be fine. The minute Jameson shows up, if he shows up, Barnes and Foster will have him in irons so fast; it'll make your head spin." She picked up the phone and began dialing the first number on the list. "Now, help me with these calls!"

Nick regarded the list and sighed. Tracy was right. What could he really do at this point? Fly over to Nat's, and insist she stay with him at the loft where he could offer better protection. Highly unlikely, considering the uncertainty of their relationship and Nat's self-reliant nature. Better to stay put for the moment. He picked up the phone and started to dial......


Natalie was dreaming. Cloudy, faint images drifted like an early morning mist through her mind. Then, the haziness began to dissipate as she saw herself walking through a lush green, wooded area. Stopping to gaze through the thick foliage at the starless, night sky, she crossed her bare arms in front of her, trying to still the feeling of panic rising inside of her, an overwhelming fear that evilness lurked nearby. She shook her head at the absurdity of her misformed notions while she began to walk again.

After a little time passed, she came to a clearing in the forest which stretched out to rolling hills of green grass, long benches and cobblestone paths. It was the park across the street from her apartment. How she'd gotten here, she couldn't say. Confused but curious, she proceeded to walk down the hill to a park bench.

As she approached the bench, she heard a sudden rustling noise. It had come from a dense clump of trees to the right of her. Shaken by the sound, Natalie began walking in the opposite direction. When she reached one of the paths, from behind, there came an unmistakable sound of footsteps. Trying not to panic, she increased her pace, not daring to look back. About fifty yards ahead, there was a bend in the path meandering to the left. As she got closer, she could detect a thicket on the left and another wooded area on the right. Instantly, an idea formed in her mind.

As she neared the bend, from over her shoulder, she could hear the tread of the stranger's footsteps growing louder. He was shortening the distance between them. All of a sudden, as he'd gained in distance, she lengthened it. With a burst of speed she didn't know she possessed, she bolted around the corner of the path and into the dark forest. Not waiting for a second, Natalie sprinted through the thick undergrowth of the woods, hurtling large tree stumps and ducking low-lying branches. She never looked back. About twenty yards into her marathon, she encountered a large hollow in the center of an enormous oak. Without hesitation, she scooted with agility into the deep confines of the tree, pressing her shivering body against the bark. With some effort, she stilled her labored breaths and waited.

She didn't have long to wait as the footsteps were fast approaching her haven. Instinctively, as the stranger got closer, Natalie moved further into the confines of the hollow, rolling herself up into a ball. She detected his loud, heavy breathing, telling her that he was near. She froze, her breath catching in her throat, her heart racing a mile a minute as the man approached her hiding spot. She didn't dare move.

What seemed to be an eternity passed as Natalie sat in a fetal position inside the hole, praying that he would leave. All at once, her prayers were answered, as she sensed the stranger's footsteps and breathing becoming fainter. He was moving away from her hiding place. Then, the forest became silent.

After remaining in her cocoon-like position for ten minutes longer, assuring herself of the stranger's departure, she crept out of her tight confinement. Stretching, she looked up into the night sky, and placed her hand over her heart. As her breathing calmed and her muscles relaxed, she turned away from her hiding place and moved towards the clearing, mindful of the branches and stumps along the way. A calm reassurance enveloped her with every measured step. When she reached the path, she stood there for a moment, sighing in relief. The horrible nightmare was over; he was gone.

Taking a deep breath, Natalie turned to the right and started to walk down the path. She continued to take slow, precise steps along the cobblestone pathway, and as she neared the end of the walkway and heard the loud noise of traffic around her, she smiled for the first time. She was almost home. Veering to the left, she stepped onto another lane, lined with young sycamore trees and proceeded to stroll down the path. When Natalie reached the second tree, she thought she'd heard footsteps again. She froze on the spot, her heart beating in her ears like an entire section of percussions. Turning around, her eyes searched for the source of the noise. But her futile search was met with silence.

For a few moments longer, Natalie stared at the darkness. After another minute, she moved her hand to her chest and sighed, speaking aloud. "Lambert, you gotta get a grip! It was probably a squirrel ." She shook her head Boy! What I need when I get home is a single malt, she mused. Then, she turned around.

Her eyes widened in horror. A tall, dark figure was standing in front of her, blocking her way. She had no time to scream, no time to think. With incredible swiftness, his hand tightened around her mouth while the other gripped her waist and dragged her away from the path towards another grove of trees.


Nick slammed down the receiver, frowning. "Another dead end," he muttered, discouraged. He glanced at Tracy, who was hanging up the phone. "What have you found out, Trace? Any solid leads, yet?" he asked, his eyes hopeful.

"So far nothing substantial on Roger Jameson." She admitted with disappointment, then her voice became brighter. "But, just now, I was talking with forensics. They called with results to the Vance homicide, confirming the victim was shot once with a 38mm from five to ten yards away. The tox report came back negative, no known foreign substances were found in his blood or stomach. However, a fingerprint was lifted from victim's head and guess what!"

"What?" Nick asked with disinterest as he scrutinized the lead's list.

"As luck would have it, they were able to find a match." Tracy announced. "Do you want to know whose print was found on Vance?"

"Who was it?" His voice remained apathetic.

"Fred Martin," she volunteered. "It seems Mr. Vance's newfound friend had a rap sheet of assaults a mile long, and two years ago, he was brought up on charges of rape and murder of several women in Montreal. Unfortunately, the lab had botched the DNA and semen samples, taken from the victims, so Mr. Martin was released due to lack of evidence.

"Good, we have a potential suspect," he said. "If and when we find Mr. Martin, we'll have a reason to bring him in for questioning, but as Reese said earlier, the Jameson case is a priority. So let's get back to these leads."

"Right." Tracy picked up the phone.

Nick began to do the same, when his rang. "Hello, 96th precinct," he announced.

"Hello, Nick?" An anxious voice queried on the other end of the line.

"Yes...Who is this?" Nick asked cautiously.

"It's me Sam Casey from the video store."

"Yes, what's up Sam?"

"Nick, you told me to call if something important came to mind about this case," Sam said into the phone.

"Yes, did you remember something?"

"Well...I don't know if this is relevent to the homicide or not, but...." he began.

"But what, Sam?" Nick questioned, growing impatient.

"It's about this guy who came into my shop between the time you dropped off the game and when I left for some cigarettes. I didn't give him much thought until now."

"Why is he so important now?"

"Because, moments ago, someone dropped off a composite of a serial killer who had escaped from the Laurier Mental Health Clinic, and if my eyes didn't deceive me, he was the guy! He was here in my store, Nick! Roger Jameson!"


The warm hand held Natalie's mouth with such firmness that she was finding it difficult to breathe. Her attacker was dragging her into the thick foliage of the dark forest. Several times, she had tried to wiggle out of his grasp, but her futile attempts at escape had only enraged and excited him more as his hand had tightened around her mouth and the fingers of his other hand had pressed into the soft flesh around her waist. For a few minutes longer, they walked. Then, coming to a place less dense with growth, where the ground was covered in a soft moss, Natalie's assailant stopped, and turning her towards him, pushed them into the cool, fine earth. During the tumble, the stranger's hands had never released her. His firm, solid body came down on hers, pressing hard into her flesh.

Glancing up for the first time at her attacker, Natalie tried to get a good look at him, her eyes moving up his body. He was tall and slim, probably around 180 pounds, and dressed in a black turtleneck and pants. Her eyes continued to travel up his lithe body to his face where her breath caught in her throat. A blurry, obscure image stared back at her. She couldn't discern any features in his face. Remarkably, he'd been able to disguise his identity from her.

Natalie groaned in frustration under his unshakable hold as she tried to squirm free. After a while, she became exhausted from her attempts at escape and relaxed under his grip. Feeling her body grow slack in his hands, he relaxed his hold on her mouth.

In a distorted voice that matched his face, he said, "I'm going to remove my hand from your mouth. But before I do, I must advise you. Screaming will be pointless because no one will be able to hear you."

He gripped her mouth for a minute longer, then slowly, he lifted his hand from her face, moving it down to her left arm. For a moment, Natalie lay there, unclenching her jaw, trying to relax the tense soreness around her mouth. Then her eyes took on a determined, hard look, as fierce emotions roiled to the surface. How dare he think that she would yield without a good fight!

All of a sudden, leaning her head to the side, she let out a bloodcurdling scream. So loud; all of Toronto would have been able to hear it. As Natalie yelled, she pushed her body against him, attempting to release her arms and legs. It was useless. Minutes passed as she persisted in her struggle. All the while, he held her with ceaseless patience in his firm grasp until her movements weakened and she grew tired, her head collapsing against the solid ground, her shrieks becoming soft whimpers.

Time passed while Natalie lay immobilized under her captor, her face turned away from him, her chest heaving as she tried to gulp down air to her lungs. Then, with an intentional deliberateness, her assailant's left hand turned her face towards him. "I told you it would be futile to scream," he said in that muffled voice. "But I would have been disappointed if you hadn't tried. It makes the game so much more pleasurable, don't you think?"

"What game are you talking about?" she asked, feigning ignorance and stalling for time as she batted his hand away from her face.

"Why the enchanting virtual reality game we are playing now, Natalie," he stated, seizing her hand in his and pinning it to her side.

"We are playing a virtual reality game?" she asked with surprise, trying without success to remove her hands from his strong grip.

"Of course! I took the liberty of borrowing the object from a friend of yours," he admitted, grasping both of her hands in his left one.

"Sam? You stole the game from Sam?" she asked in disbelief.

"Yes. Not a difficult feat. In fact, it was simple really," he declared, running his other hand along the smooth, white column of her neck, to her collarbone and over her swelling chest, kneading the soft flesh under the white, lace fabric of her nightgown.

Natalie's body froze as his hand moved across her front and down her side. Bile began to rise in her throat as his hands traveled lower. Suppressing the sickening feeling, she spoke in a steady voice which even surprised her. "How were you able to gain access to the game? Did you kill Sam for it?"

"No, fortunately for your friend, he left the store under the temporary supervision of his assistant," he explained, sliding his hand under her nightgown and running his fingers along her inner thigh.

"Ernie?" she asked, her body tensing in disgust from his demanding touches and caresses as her thighs clamped together in protest.

"Yes. I believe that was the boy's name," he agreed, roughly prying her legs apart.

"Was?" Natalie questioned, a lump of apprehension forming in her throat as she tried to ease away from his probing fingers.

"Yes, my dearest. Was!. Past tense. Gone. That's why I implied 'temporary supervision.' Alias, Ernie's supervisory skills were of a short duration. Shall we say, he went to a more 'permanent' place. Like ten feet underground." His hand continued its upward climb into her warm, moistness, delving into her secret crevices.

A chilling, horrifying sensation crept up Natalie's spine both at this stranger's merciless act of murder against a poor, defenseless boy and his warm, deliberate fingers penetrating her womanhood. "So you killed him," she replied with bluntness, her breaths becoming shallow and rapid from his firm, demanding touches.

"Let's just say, he was deposed of in a orderly fashion," he confessed, his adept fingers continued to work their magic on her moist, hot core. "I'm afraid that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Poor fellow! However, the deed needed to be done in order to swipe the game."

He could feel her muscles tensing under his intense, relentless ministrations. "And what a game this has turned out to be!" Her soft moans were becoming louder as he brought her to the brink. "Filled with such incredible, desirable sensations." His skillful fingers moved faster around her core. "Intoxicating, ...overwhelming...breathless sensations." Her hips were rocking in time to the rhythm of his touches, her groans more pronounced. "A game where you can bring a lover to a place where you totally......"

His fingers moved in and out, faster and faster in a fluid motion. "undeniably..."

He pressed one finger to her swollen nub, stroking and touching with firmness as her breathing intensified. "possess them!" On his last utterance, Natalie's body yielded to his deliberate strokes, sending her into waves of bliss.

After a few moments, Natalie came back to earth, opening her tear- filled eyes. Ashamed of her body's betrayal for the degrading assault on her person, she let the moisture run down her cheeks. After a while, she managed to find her voice and said with fierce emotion, "You may possess this body, but you will never possess my heart and soul. Only one person has a claim on my very being!"

Enraged by her words, but able to suppress his intense emotions behind a stoic facade, he responded with indifference, "After I've shown you my special talents, we'll see who claims your heart, Natalie." He leaned forward to brush a delicate kiss against her lips.

As his lips neared her mouth, Natalie felt the phlegm in her windpipe, then without a second thought, she released the saliva from the back of her throat and spit into his face. "That's all you're ever going to claim from me!" she said with unbelievable venom in her voice, her breaths coming in short gasps.

His eyes narrowed in anger as he removed the wet, sticky liquid from his face. "You'll regret that!" Then, without hesitation, he pulled up her nightgown and plunged deeply into her. "If anything, I'll demand your loyalty before this night is over. I would say the good detective falls short of this claim."

With little effort, Natalie ignored the pleasurable sensations as he moved inside her; she instead concentrated on angering him. "You know nothing about the 'good detective.' He's a man of honor and righteousness, demonstrating loyalty to others. You'll never hold a candle to him!"

Infuriated, he pushed against her with a forceful thrust as his lips descended on hers in a demanding kiss. Natalie fought his attack on her mouth, turning her head away. His hands reached up to her face, forcing her to look at him.

While he continued to slam into her body, Natalie's eyes took on a faraway look, her thoughts centering on Nick as she remembered their lovemaking-his slow, passionate kisses, his gentle touches and caresses, his soothing, endearing words of love- it made it easier to endure. Finally, with one final, deep thrust, her captor exploded inside her, shuddering, as he collapsed on top of her.

For a few minutes, he lay there, his warm, heat-filled body pressed against hers, his heavy-breaths touching her face. Afraid of losing her last meal if she had to look at him and his distorted face any longer, Natalie turned her head away as tears of anger and humiliation cascaded down her cheeks.

Finally, her assailant raised his head, and moving her face back to his, he said, "After that spectacular interlude, I would say that I've gained your allegiance, my dear."

Her eyes sparked with fury. "You've gained nothing from this encounter. You may take this body like some pleasurable vessel, satisfying your insatiable hunger and needs, but you'll never have my devotion."

Seething, he lifted his hand and slapped her with extraordinary force across her cheek. "We'll see about that, Natalie."

Stunned, she moved her hand to her face, rubbing the tender skin, her eyes flashing hatred. "You can beat me to a pulp and I won't ever submit my soul to you."

He entered her again with such fierceness that she hit her head against the solid, hard earth, the impact knocking her temporarily senseless. "You won't yield? I would beg to differ with you on that score. At the moment, you're being quite compliant."

Natalie couldn't reply, her head feeling like swirls of cotton-candy from the brutal contact with the ground. Gradually, her mind began to clear. While he continued to thrust hard and fast, she turned her gaze heavenward as her thoughts turned to Nick. Oh! What's going to happen to us? What are we going to do now, Nick?

"Games. Let's talk about games, shall we, gentle listeners?" The velvet-laden voice purred into the microphone. "Games of an athletic nature. Started, of course, by the ancient Greeks in a quaint, enclosed spot in the plain of Elis in Olympia in 776 B.C. Used as a religious festival or as a thank offering for some delicious victory, these most celebrated games lasted five days, and included such delightful, brutal sports as boxing, wrestling and my personal favorite, chariot racing."

His satiny words continued to filter through the airwaves. "People also introduced games to stimulate the brain, to challenge the mind. Four thousand years ago, board games were first marked, after which checkers, and another prized favorite of mine, chess got their start. Originally representing the field of battle, players would capture enemy soldiers, or as in the case of another fascinating game- backgammon-take their pieces through enemy territory, pillaging and ravaging their opponent. Aaah...extraordinary times they were, too!" He sighed in contentment.

After a slight pause, his smooth, silky voice became disapproving. "Today, however, board games are another kind of beast, tedious and inferior, imitating peaceful aspects of life, such as buying and selling real estate as in the sleep-inducing game of Monopoly. " He yawned for effect.


Nick had just hung up the phone with Sam, explaining that he and Tracy would be over to get details about Roger Jameson's appearance in his store, when the phone rang again. "Hello, 96th precinct."

"Hello, Detective Knight?" a concerned voice asked.

"Yes, who is this?" Nick inquired with impatience as he put his coat on to leave.

"Grace. Sorry to bother you Detective, but I'm worried about Natalie."

"What about Nat?" His eyes widened in panic.

"I can't wake her up, Nick. She's having some kind of nightmarish dream. Moments ago, she screamed out, and I rushed to her bedside, trying everything I could to awaken her, but I couldn't. It's wierd. It's like she's in another place, another world, where no one can reach her."

"Okay, Grace. I'm on my way," he said. "Keep trying to get her up."

His eyes became grave while Grace's words echoed in his mind. 'Another place, another world where no one could reach her.' The virtual reality world? The game? Could someone be playing it with Natalie? One of their potential suspects? Roger Jameson. Fred Martin. Or... It was too horrifying to contemplate. Lacroix! After all, this was his style. He would delight in taunting Natalie in a virtual world, toying with her like a puppet on a string.

Looking up, Nick met Tracy's anxious expression with his own. "I'll explain on the way. We need to get going."


The nightcrawler's tone became brighter. "With the dawning of the computer age; however, some modern games have become quite fun. Take the imaginative, new virtual reality games. Now, there's an invention! A game where we, as mere mortals can decide our fates through power and control, where action and intrigue can be our coup de grace, and where relationships can blossom and possibly grow. Oh, the scenerios are boundless! Such a marvelous creation."


Grace studied Natalie's sleeping form, her brow creased in worry and puzzlement. After hanging up with Nick, again she'd attempted his suggestion. To awaken her. But, it was impossible! She'd called out to her, practically yelling in her ear, and tried to shake her like a rag doll with no success.

Presently, with her hands on her hips, Grace continued to regard her friend. At least, Natalie hadn't screamed again. That frightful shriek had made Grace's blood turn cold with fear. Finally, after tossing and turning in her sleep for a while, Natalie had calmed down.

"What can you be dreaming, honey, that's gotten you so upset?" Grace whispered to her with concern.

Her question was met with silence.

Baffled, Grace walked over to the chair in the corner, and picking it up, moved it next to the bed. As she sat down, her eyes centered on Natalie's motionless hand. She reached over and gathered it in hers, stroking the fine hairs in an attempt to keep her friend's unsettled mood appeased. "Don't worry dear, Nick's coming. If anyone can help, he can."

Looking up at the ceiling, she added a silent prayer, at least, I hope so......


The silky voice continued, "Finally, to my attentive listener, there is another type of game. A game, not found in The SkyDome, or in an insufferable ladies bridge circle, or a Playstation extravaganza with little Joey and his appalling, gum-smacking, tumultuous playmates. No, this game is the game of hypocrisy. It originates from the human psyche where people use their mind, soul and spirit to play games with others, to deceive and fool them in order to gain their trust. Or, in some special cases, to humor someone to carry on a task at hand. Do you know of such phonies, gentle listeners? Have you been a victim of such shameless pharisaism? The Nightcrawler wants to know."


Tracy's hand reached over, turning off the radio. "How can you listen to that creep?"

Nick turned his head in her direction. Before he could respond, Tracy blurted out. "Yeah....yeah. I know! He's an acquired taste." She shook her head. "In my opinion, he's tasteless!"

"If you listen to him long enough, Trace, he grows on you," Nick replied.

" Athlete's Foot," she said, grimacing. There was a lull in the conversation as Nick drove his Caddy towards Sam's Video while Tracy stared out the window. Nick had planned to drop her at the store to question Sam about Roger Jameson's sudden appearance while he'd continue on to Natalie's. Flying to her apartment would have been his preference, but eluding Tracy had become a problem. With the added delay, he hoped that Nat would be all right.

He took a deep breath, relieved about one thing. Lacroix's live monologue demonstrated that, if someone were playing the game with Natalie, at least his sire would be off the hook, he'd have an alibi. The simultaneous execution of his radio show and an indulgence in the virtual world would be impossible. Even with his supernatural skills, LaCroix couldn't undertake that unbelievable feat.

That left two possible suspects. Roger Jameson and Fred Martin. The latter person was a unlikely possibility because of the inopportunity for him to meet Natalie. On the other hand, Roger was an ostensible suspect; he would have been acquianted with her, had a motive and means, and a very twisted mind to toy with her in this manner. As these disturbing thoughts ran through his mind, Nick's concern for Natalie's safety only increased. Instinctively, he pressed his foot to the accelerator.

Tracy noted the increased speed. "Nick, don't worry. Nat will be okay."

Nick eyed her anxiously. "I hope you're right."

As they sped along the highway, another silence ensued, then turning in her seat, Tracy regarded her partner. "Nick, I was wondering about something...." she began awkwardly.

"What?" He saw her shift uncomfortably in her seat.

"About the Nightcrawler's topic this evening."

"What about it?" His voice became wary.

Feeling self-conscious, she gazed at her hands, resting in her lap. "He was discussing games, particularly virtual reality games."

"So?" Nick shrugged.

Tracy looked at him, rolling her eyes. Dragging information out of Nick could be such a chore.. "So..... this Vance homicide involves a virtual reality game, a game that you played." There, she'd said it!

Nick met Tracy's significant look, evenly. "Okay. I'll admit that I played Sam's game.

"Why did you play it, Nick? Especially, after the last one. I mean you'd seemed so obsessed with that vampire game. Granted , you'd solved the case, but it was so difficult to keep you on track." She remarked.

"Tracy, I'll confess the last game was addictive, but, as you've said, I did solve the case with the help of the game and, in the end, I threw it away." Her eyes widened in surprise. "Really! You got rid of it? Why?"

"Let's just say, it was detrimental to my health." He admitted, forcing a smile.

"If you relinquished that game, why did you pick another one? What did Sam's game have that the other didn't?"

Well..for one thing, he thought, a certain, voluptuous hot-blooded coroner, who'd possessed exceptional talents in exploratory techniques other than surgery. A lovefest-filled week of eroticism, unleashed passion and uninhibited sex between a lonely, love-starved detective and coroner.

"Therapeutic qualities!" he voiced aloud.

Tracy's eyes reflected doubt. "What therapeutic attributes? I don't suppose you mean the ones which fulfill those needs Sam mentioned like: serenity, faith, and love."

Tracy looked at Nick. Did he really think that those kinds of desires could only be obtained through a stupid game? She shook her head in surpise. At times, her partner could be so thick headed. "Nick, you can attain those desires in the real world, you don't need some silly game."

Oh, Tracy. If only that were true, he thought with remorse, that he and Nat could tackle their many obstacles, achieving that goal. However, it was best for her to think otherwise as he eyed her with sadness and said, "You're right, Trace. Those needs are reachable in the real world. At the time, the game was just a healthy, fun outlet."

"Oh I get it. Boys with their toys," she commented, her voice edged with disapproval.

Nick forced a smile. "Well....yes. But, whatever my motive was for using the game, it wouldn't be the perp's," he remarked, becoming serious. "His reason would be different from mine."

"You're right!" She agreed. "'re saying we should concentrate on discovering his motive, and by doing so, hopefully catch a killer."

"Yes....exactly!" he exclaimed, then having nothing more to say, he drove in silence.

As Nick turned away from her, she frowned. He'd done it again to her! In his typical shrewd way, he'd veered the conversation in another direction, ending a discussion about his personal life. Disgusted, she shook her head, then glancing out the window, looked at the Toronto skyline as they drove the rest of the way to Sam's in silence.


Nick flew up the steps to Natalie's apartment, and landing at the front door, pounded on it, waiting with impatience for Grace's appearance. After an agonizing delay, she opened the door. "Nick, thank God, you're here!"

He rushed into the room. "Any luck, Grace? Could you wake her?"

She shook her head. "No! This dream or nightmare has her under some sort of bizarre, hypnotic spell. I can't break it!"

Nick saw her frightened eyes. "Okay. Take it easy. I'll give it a try." He began to walk down the long corridor to Nat's bedroom as Grace followed.

"I don't know what you can do that I haven't tried," the voice behind him declared in frustration. "I've done everything except attempt to awaken her with a kiss."

As Nick entered Natalie's bedroom, he turned around in puzzlement at Grace's statement. "What do you mean by that?"

She rolled her eyes. Didn't this guy know anything? Or was he that clueless? "You do know the tale about Sleeping Beauty, don't you, Detective?"

She saw the baffled look in his eyes. Oh! Brother! He was sure gorgeous, but dense! "A wicked Queen placed a princess and an entire kingdom under a spell of endless sleep until one day, a prince came along to awaken her from this deep slumber with a kiss."

Again, she was met with his bewildered expression as she explained, "I didn't think I was Natalie's Prince Charming, if you know what I mean." Despite the seriousness of the situation, Grace winked at him. "Perhaps, you might have better luck?" She offered, smiling.

He regarded her with sternness. "Maybe. But.... just the same, could you give me a minute with Nat?"

"Oh, sure!" She nodded towards the hallway. "I'll be in the living room if you need me."

After Grace walked away, Nick turned towards Natalie. She was lying on the bed in a deep trance-like sleep. As he watched her steady breathing while she slumbered, his breath suddenly caught in his throat. She had changed so much from the hospital. Unlike last night, when her skin was the color of alabaster, there was presently a healthy, rosy glow. The transformation was remarkable, providing him with some semblance of ease. At least, he had been correct in his assumption about the game; it's side effects were only temporary.

A moan elicited by Nat stirred him from his thoughts. He rushed to her side and sat down next to her on the bed. She was lying on her back, tossing from side to side. Beads of perspiration had gathered on her skin, soaking through her white nightgown. To the unaware observer, it would have seemed that Natalie had succumbed to flu-like symptoms with an elevated fever instead of affects from a virtual reality game.

With tenderness, he took her hand in his. "Nat, it's me, Nick. Can you hear me?" His other hand reached over and caressed her sweat- laden forehead. She groaned in response, her head turning from side to side.

Leaning forward, Nick grabbed her shoulders, shaking them gently at first, then with more force. "Nat, listen to me. You have to snap out of this! Grace is concerned about you. I'm worried about you. I need you, Nat. You've got to come back to me." He had her in a sitting position, his arm securely around her waist, the back of his hand rubbing her cheek as he was met with another moan.

Releasing her for a brief time, he strode into the bathroom, and dampening a washcloth in-what he hoped was-lukewarm water, returned to her with it. He wiped her face, neck and arms with the wet cloth, all the while, trying to bring her out of her deep slumber with soothing, comforting words.

After countless attempts to awaken her, Nick stopped his ministrations, letting out a discouraging breath. His thoughts moved to other alternatives. If her eyes were opened, then hypnosis might have worked. Despite being a resister, under her current, dream-like state, he would have probably been successful. Slapping her was out of the question. He could never bring himself to inflict any more pain on her than he'd already done. What to do?

Fortunately, a solution wasn't needed as Natalie took a sudden deep breath, her eyes fluttering open. For a long moment, she stared at Nick with glazed sleep-filled eyes while her mind absorbed her surroundings. Gradually, she realized where she was. She was in her bedroom with Nick. Oh! Thank goodness! She was far away from that virtual world. Smiling with utter relief, tears brimming her eyes, Natalie snaked her arms around his neck and pulling him down on top of her in a warm embrace, began raining kisses over his face. "Oh, Nick. I'm back from that awful place. Thank God! You don't know how desperately I was trying to get away. It was such a nightmare."

It took Nick a moment longer than Nat to recover from her wakefulness and sense her delightful, warm arms around him like a snug cocoon. Not that he didn't mind. He was simply stunned in a pleasant sort of way. After a slight hesitation, he reciprocated, and wrapping his arms around her waist and drawing her close, brushed kisses over her forehead, eyelids, nose and lips. "I didn't know what to do. How to wake you up. Are you okay?"

"Now, I am," she murmured between kisses. "I wanted you to find me, but I couldn't escape. I couldn't find my way back."

"ssshhhh...Nat" He soothed, rising up on his arms as his hand reached up to brush some unruly curls from her face. "You're safe now. Don't worry, I'll make sure no harm comes you."

Nick leaned forward, capturing her lips in a long, tender kiss. Natalie's arms tightened around him, molding him again to her body as their kiss deepened and intensified by the second. Ice-hot, breathless sensations were coarsing through her as he pressed his firm, muscular body against the thin, satin material of her nightgown. She moaned in his mouth, running her hands through his thick blond hair. This is who she needed, longed for and desired. How could she have ever doubted it? Nick was her life. He would make her forget. His love and strong arms would wipe the hellacious memories from her mind.

Nick knew this moment wasn't right; it was too dangerous for her. He responded anyway, matching his mounting passion to hers, sliding his hand between them as he cupped her breast through the soft fabric. Her skin was so soft and pliable under his gentle touches; her scent so intoxicating like a field of wild flowers....She was so

"Ahem," a voice called from the other side of the room. "Excuse me, you two. Detective, I know I suggested the Sleeping Beauty approach to awaken Natalie, but don't you think you're carrying it a bit too far!"

At the sound of Grace's voice, Nick buried his head in the hollow of Natalie's neck like an ostrich's head in the sand, trying to hide from Nat's assistant and praying she would magically disappear.

When Grace was greeted with silence, she folded her arms in front of her. "Well...I'm waiting with baited breath for your answer, Detective."

Nick pulled away from Natalie, and gathering her hand in his, helped her to a sitting position. "I like to be thorough when tackling a problem, Grace." He rose from the bed, and slightly flushed, turned around to meet Grace's amused look with a sheepish grin.

Natalie stood up, her cheeks inflamed with a mixture of desire and embarrassment. Oh. Great! With Grace's ability to spread gossip like a wild fire, by tomorrow, this little tryst would be broadcasted throughout the precinct and the morgue. Perhaps it would be on the 6:00 news. But suddenly, she didn't care. Nick was here with her and nothing else mattered.

She met Grace's mischievious grin with one of her own. "Yeah, you know Nick. Always the thorough detective! He needed to brush up on his investigative skills." She poked him playfully in the ribs and winked at him, then picking up her pink bathrobe, she walked around a startled Grace into the hall . "You guys coming or not?" she called to them as she sauntered to the living room.


Natalie sat on her sofa, drinking her second cup of coffee. Thank goodness for caffeine! She knew it was only a temporary solution, but she didn't want to yield to dreamland anytime soon. No more Bedtime for Bonzo for her!

As she rested on the couch next to Nick, he and Grace provided her with an update to all the recent events-Roger Jameson's escape, the virtual reality game theft and Ernie Vance's murder at Sam's Video. And while all this was happening, she was being raped by that monster in the game. Oh God, she'd been raped, abused and taunted. It was horrible; it was nightmarish. She wanted to put it out of her mind, to forget the gruesome images. She couldn't think about it now; she just couldn't!

The worse thing was she'd never recognized the attacker. With every game they'd played, and there had been several, he'd shielded his face, preventing any possible ID from her to the police. She shivered at the memories.

Nick noticed her sudden tremors. Concerned, he reached over and touched her shoulder. "Nat, are you cold? Do you need a blanket?"

"No, Nick. I'm fine." She gave him a faint smile.

From the time they'd parked themselves in the living room to the present, Nick had been fussing over her like a mother hen, getting her coffee, a pillow, slippers. As special treatment from him didn't come along very often, she was taking advantage of it, soaking it up like a sponge. "A moment ago, I was thinking about my nightmarish dream. Because it was so terrible, I had a sudden chill," she explained.

From the chair next to Natalie, Grace reached over to pat her hand. "I'm sorry, honey. It must have been awful." She paused, then asked, "Do you think this nightmare you had went beyond a dream?"

"What do you mean by that, Grace?" She eyed her friend suspiciously.

"You know what I mean. You aren't fooling me, Natalie with that I- don't-know-what-you-are-talking-about tone of voice. I know about the game, the virtual reality game. Sam told me all about it. So was someone playing it with you?" she asked, folding her arms across her chest.

Natalie sighed and looked at Nick, then Grace. "Yes, someone was playing the game with me."

"How do you know for sure, Nat?" Nick asked, grabbing her hand in his. An uneasiness was settling on his mind. He wasn't sure he wanted to hear anymore.

"Because the guy, my attacker, told me he was playing the game. He knew all about it!"

"Could you identify this person, Nat?" he questioned.

Natalie shook her head. "No, somehow, he was able to masquerade his identity. His voice and face were distorted."

"How do you know it was a guy, honey?" Grace asked innocently.

Natalie cast her eyes down to her lap. Damn! Why did Grace have to be so thorough with her questions! "I just know!" she voiced, her jaw clenching.

"If he were able to disguise himself so well, the guy could have been a woman," Grace stated.

"I know this person was a man because....." Natalie's hand gripped Nick's in a vise-like hold as she met Grace's curious eyes with her shameful ones. "Because.....he raped me!"

For a brief moment, there was a startled silence as the weigh of Natalie's words sunk in. Nick was the first to speak.

"I'll kill him." His voice seethed with anger.

Looking over at his face, Natalie's breath caught in her throat. His eyes were glowing amber with flashes of red. With her elbow, she jabbed him in his side to get his attention. When he gazed at her again, his eyes were returning to blue.

She gave him a look like you'll-do-no-such-thing. "Nick, calm down. I know I went through an ordeal, but killing this guy isn't the right and just way to approach this problem. You and Tracy need to catch this criminal and put him behind bars. Let the Judicial System take care of him."

Grace sighed. "How can you say that Natalie after what this guy has done to you? The rape probably isn't even admissible in a court of law. Do you think the judge is going to allow a virtual reality game to become part of the evidence? If so, how will proof be shown to the jury? Is there a recorded tape which can be played back showing the rape?"

"No, there isn't, thank goodness. But the perp can be indicted for Ernie's murder. There's plenty of solid evidence to put him behind bars for life, right Nick?" she asked, looking at his distant expression.

Nick was still trying to adjust to the fact Natalie had been raped. Even though it was virtual reality, and technically it hadn't happened, in Nat's mind, it had. Someone had touched her, put his filthy grimy hands on her body. It sent another wave of rage through him, just thinking about someone hurting her in this fashion.

All at once, he felt another jab in his side. Regarding her, he acknowledged in a quiet tone, "Yes, I suppose there is sufficient evidence."

Grace shook her head again. "Well.... even though in this case, the perp was playing mind games, if it were me, I'd want to see the guy suffer as much as I did."

"No, you wouldn't, Grace. Revenge isn't the answer. It doesn't ever change what has already happened." she said, exchanging a meaningful look with Nick. He squeezed her hand in understanding. He wouldn't kill the guy unless he was forced to. But, given the chance....

"I suppose you're right, Natalie. Vengeance isn't always what it's cracked up to be," Grace admitted, then she regarded Nick. "I guess, based on Roger Jameson's past exploits with Natalie, he's your prime suspect, Detective?"

"He seems to have the motive and means at the moment," Nick affirmed.

"Well...he isn't the only possibility." Natalie regarded both of them with seriousness.

"Who else could it be, Nat?" asked Nick.

"Fred Martin," she said.

Natalie was met with two bewildered faces.

She regarded them and sighed. "About two weeks ago, I was in the Video store. Sam wasn't there and Ernie and his friend, Fred Martin were. They were at the counter, talking while I was perusing the tapes and were keeping their voices low. Every once in a while; however, I could hear what they were saying."

"What were they discussing Nat?"

"Me." Natalie rubbed her fingers nervously over Nick's knuckles as she spoke, "They were talking about me or I should say, Mr. Martin was discussing me."

"What did he say about you, honey?" queried Grace.

"I believe his exact words were 'Dr. Lambert would probably be a great lay, don't chu' think.' After which, Ernie grabbed Fred by the collar and threatened him with bodily injury if he so much as laid one finger on me. At the time, I was flattered by Ernie's magnanimous gesture, and after Mr. Martin left, I told him I was grateful."

Nick sighed with regret, draping his arm around Natalie's shoulder in a protective way. "I'm sorry to hear that. I was hoping he'd never laid eyes on you."

"So where do we go from here, Nick?" Natalie inquired.

Nick glanced at his watch. It was four in the morning. He needed to pick up Tracy. But he didn't want to leave Nat at her apartment. He turned to face her and took both her hands in his. "Nat, I gotta meet Tracy at Sam's, but I would feel better if you came along and stayed at the loft with me where I could offer you more protection, at least, in the real world."

"But...Nick. I'm safe here. The police are right outside." Natalie began to argue.

"Honey, Nick is right. You should go with him. If that perp wants to get to you, those officers aren't necessarily going to stop him. Besides Schanke told me once, Nick's place is like a fortress; it's difficult to infiltrate."

"Well....." Natalie regarded her friend, then Nick. "I can't fight you both, so I'll pack a few things and be with you in a sec." She got up and started to walk towards her bedroom.

"And while you're packing, Natalie, don't forget that birthday present in your top right hand drawer." Grace advised in a teasing manner.

Natalie turned around, meeting her gleaming look with mortification. If her face could have turned any redder, she would have looked like a beet. "I'll pack some essentials for this trip, but not that one. Okay, Grace!"

"Okay...I was only making a suggestion. Besides, I thought that item was an essential." Grace regarded Natalie, then Nick as she winked."

"Grace, there is a killer on the loose and you're giving me wardrobe tips," she said with exasperation.

"Or maybe you could say, lack of a wardrobe." Grace chuckled.

"Oh, brother!" Natalie exclaimed, then turning away from them, she strode into her bedroom.

After emerging from the elevator into the loft, Natalie stood there for a long moment with a faraway look on her face while Nick moved past her with her suitcase and some groceries, depositing them on the sofa and kitchen counter, respectively. Turning away from the kitchen, he studied Natalie's distant look with concern. Since leaving the apartment, she'd become less talkative, more aloof. There were underlying tempestuous emotions brewing under the surface of that remoteness; he just knew it. He could feel it; he could sense it. And he knew he needed to break through her emotional barrier soon before she retreated further into a shell.

Nick wasn't sure when Natalie's turbulent state of mind had unfolded. When they'd left the apartment to pick up Tracy, she'd seemed calm and focused. It was on the way back to the precinct that the change had materialized. During the ride, she'd become very quiet. Tracy had filled them in about Roger's appearance at the Video store. There hadn't been much more to divulge about him. He'd shown up at the shop about fifteen minutes after Nick's departure and about two hours before Mr. Vance's murder. Like any customer, Roger had strolled up and down the aisles, glancing at videos, occasionally looking over at Sam and smiling, never saying a word. After about ten minutes, he'd left.

It wasn't until Tracy mentioned Roger's attire-a black turtleneck and pants-that Natalie's mood had really taken a turn for the worse. All of a sudden, Nick had heard a sharp intake of breath next to him, and glancing over, noted the wariness and agitation in her eyes which were brimming with fresh tears. When pressed gently by him, Nat had steeled herself against her inner turmoil enough to tell them, "It was nothing." Afterwards, she'd turned her tear-filled eyes away from them, looking out the window the remainder of the trip. The gesture had said plenty. She didn't want to discuss it anymore. Sighing with frustration at Natalie's steel resolve, Nick had continued to drive to the precinct in silence.

When they'd arrived at the police station, Natalie's chaotic state of mind hadn't improved much. She'd insisted on waiting by the exit for them, on the outskirts of the bullpin as if she didn't want anyone to see her. In order to avoid a confrontation, Nick had agreed, leaving her briefly by the door to go to his desk.

Once there, and out of Natalie's earshot, he'd turned to Tracy and explained about he, Grace and Natalie's discussion at her apartment, providing details about someone playing the game with Nat and her run in with Fred Martin at the video store two weeks ago.

After hearing about Natalie's virtual reality ordeal, Tracy could understand the bizarre mood swings. And as far as Natalie's encounter with Fred Martin was concerned, Tracy had replied with regret. "I thought he might be the less likely culprit of the two. Now, knowing what we know about Natalie's unexpected meeting with Mr. Martin, he could be our perp. He seemed to want her in the worst way and what better way than in the game."

Tracy had glanced up at Nick in time to see his body flinch at her words. Swiftly, she'd changed tactics and suggested. "Why don't I give his roommates a call, and inquire about this guy's hangouts. Maybe, we'll have some luck and find him at one of them."

After agreeing to this strategy, they'd gathered up their lead lists on Roger Jameson from their desks, planning to work on them during the day and promising to be in touch if there were any new developments in the case. They had then departed.

Once in the Caddy again, the ride to the loft was met with more unspoken words as turbulent emotions had coursed through both Nick and Natalie; his from a sense of helplessness to break the barrier, hers from the aftereffects of the terrifying game. They'd stopped briefly at the grocery store to pick up some food, coffee and No Doz for Nat, then driven to the loft.

Now, with mounting anxiety, Nick remained frozen like a statue against the kitchen counter, watching her distant, troubled face. He knew that the game was the root of the problem, and that she needed to talk about it. But how? How could he get her to open up about it? How could he break through that disturbed visage?

Moving away from the kitchen, he approached her with care and asked in a voice filled with gentleness, "Nat, do you want to talk? I'm here if you want to."

He was met with silence, her immobile face staring at the wall in front of her as he continued walking towards her, talking in a soft voice. "I want to help you, Nat, but you need to tell me what's bothering you."

He was again met with complete muteness as she still gazed at the stark white wall. He was now inches from her, talking in the same soothing tone. "Do you want to talk about what happened in the game?" He reached over and touched her shoulder as he spoke the last word.

At his gentle touch and words, suddenly it was like a typhoon had crashed down on her. Waves of terrifying memories from the game consumed her. She began to shake uncontrollably as emotions roiled to the surface. Her chest heaved once, then a sharp anguished cry escaped from her lips as the tears rushed from her eyes like a broken dam. God! The pain was unbearable. How was she ever going to endure this agony?

Nick saw the abrupt transformation in her face before she crumbled. With adroit swiftness, he gathered her up in a tight embrace, feeling the tremors flow through her body as her cries echoed through the quiet loft, coming in deep, aching spasms upon his chest. For a long time, she remained cradled in his arms, his face buried in her hair as the tears continued to rush down her face onto his blue shirt. His heart ached for her as he attempted to console her with whispered, endearing words of love and encouragement, running his hands through her hair.

Finally, her cries turned to soft whimpers as she began to calm down. With an immense slowness, she moved away from Nick's tear-stained shirt, regarding him through blurry eyes. What she saw in those eyes took her breath away. Total devotion. Total faultlessness. Total love. His reverent expression worked like a balm over her broken, shattered soul as her breathing returned to normal.

Finding her voice, she said, "I guess I kind of lost it there. I can't remember the last time I cried like that. Geez, maybe never." She reached into her pocket, and retrieving a tissue, blew her nose. "I'm sorry Nick. I didn't mean to alarm you. It's just's just that...." She couldn't finish as her voice broke.

Nick tightened his arms around her, bringing her head to his chest and pressing her closer. "You have nothing to be sorry for, Nat. You've done nothing wrong." His fingers moved lightly through her hair, stroking the thick waves, trying to calm her tattered state.

It felt so good to be in his strong, capable arms; his fingers entangled in her hair; his soft, comforting words embracing her mind and soothing her soul. Natalie wanted to remain like this forever. Gradually, she looked up into his concerned blue eyes and spoke, "I keep telling myself I've done nothing wrong; that the perp was responsible for how this virtual reality game was played out. But, a part of me feels that if I'd never laid eyes on the game, this never would have happened. Ernie Vance would still be alive and I wouldn't have been......raped!" On the last word, her voice cracked as the sobs welled up inside of her, sending her into another crying jag.

Nick continued to hold her in a close embrace, entwining his fingers through her hair while he whispered into her ear. "sssh, Nat. It's okay. Don't blame yourself for what happened. It's not your fault. Whoever this guy is made the choices to murder Ernie Vance and hurt you. Not you!"

As she stood there in Nick's arms, listening to his words sink into her mind, she knew he was right. It wasn't her fault. And that knowledge provided her some sense of comfort as the tears subsided again. She removed another kleenex from her pocket, and wiped her nose. "Yes, I know you're right, Nick." Natalie sighed, averting her eyes from him as she studied the buttons on his blue shirt; then with some reluctance, she admitted, "I guess I don't feel very good about myself, so self-reproach is coming easily to me at the moment."

Nick lifted her chin with his hand, forcing her to meet his stern gaze. "There is nothing you should be ashamed of Natalie."

She brushed his hand away from her face as her eyes fell to the floor. "I know I shouldn't feel shame." She shook her head. "Technically, it didn't even happen! But, it did happen up here." She pressed her fingers to her head. " my head. So that's why I'm having difficulty wiping the feeling of humiliation from my mind," she stated, her voice shaking with raw pain as the images from the game assaulted her mind. The evil laughter from her attacker as he mocked her, ridiculed her while his hands touched her body roughly, molesting her, controlling her. She felt so unclean. Soiled and damaged. How could Nick even stand to be near her, or look at her?

As these horrible thoughts ran through her mind, she became so overwhelmed with shame and guilt that the closeness between them was suddenly intolerable. Natalie wiggled out of Nick's arms and walked over to the nearest window. Staring through the slanted slats of the shutters to the pinkish hue of the dawning sky, she embraced herself in a tight hold as if to contain another breakdown, then in a trembling voice, she spoke, "You know, Nick. When you and Grace were asking me questions at the apartment, I'd tried so hard to block out the images from my nightmare because I'd wanted to remain focused and in control. And I did. Until we were in your car, driving to the precinct and Tracy had mentioned Roger's attire."

She sighed. "Then everything hit me! Because you see...Nick, Roger's clothes were identical to the ones worn by my attacker in the game! Seeing that black turtleneck and pants again in my mind had caused those horrible images to resurface in a flash. I'd lost it right then and there, but I didn't want you both to see me crumble, so I suppressed my pain until now."

She drew in a deep breath as if to draw in some strength for the horrors she was about to impart to him, then she spoke, "Oh God, Nick! The things he did to was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. At times, I thought I would just crawl into a shell and die from the very horror of it."

She paused, shuddering as the memories flashed before her eyes; then bracing herself, she continued. "Sometimes, he would treat me like his slave, playing sadistic games with me. Always toying with me and manipulating me with mind games. Control was very important to him. He'd enjoyed telling me that I had no backbone, that I would always submit to his will. After taunting me with those insults, he would take me so savagely, with such brutal force....." She couldn't finish as tremors racked her body again.

Hearing the anguish in her voice as she related this story to him filled Nick with both an all-consuming fury towards her attacker and a feeling of tenderness and protectiveness towards this woman. A part of him wanted to fly out the skylight, find the perp and kill him, not caring about the consequences. Another part of him wanted to race over to her and scoop her up into his arms, to tell her everything would be alright, to remove the pain. Instead, with a force of will that he didn't know he possessed, he remained rooted to his spot as the storm of mixed emotions surged within him.

His turbulent musings were broken by the faint sound of her voice. " times I thought I would be sick from it all. He disgusted me so. As far as he was concerned, I wasn't a person; I had no identity. I was simply his plaything and there for his amusement. You can't imagine how degrading it was to be exploited like that. Oh God!" She stopped talking, and clutching at her middle, she let out another anguished wail.

He was beside her in an instant, gathering her up into a close embrace, pressing her to him as her body was racked again with sobs. Collapsing into the comforting haven of his arms, she let the tears fall down his shirt as the pain, and humiliation of the dream consumed her. She felt so vile. For a long time, Nick stood there, holding her, rubbing her back as he whispered into her hair. "I'm so sorry, Nat. I wish I could take the pain away from you and make you forget.'s okay. I'm here and I won't let anything happen to you. We'll get this guy, I promise. There, precious love."

Despite Natalie's impure, terrifying feelings, Nick's words and arms were like a warm blanket, covering up the nightmarish images of the game, making her feel secure and worthy of his love. As her sobs lessened into soft weeping, she lifted her head from his saturated shirt and looked into his warm compassionate eyes, laced with concern. "Oh, Nick. I wish you could make me forget all this, too. But, it isn't going to happen. I'll just have to suffer the pain, won't I?"

He cupped his hands around her face, his expression sobering. "We'll endure it together, Nat. You won't have to suffer alone. I'll always be here for you if you need me." He brushed a tender kiss over her brow, then drawing away, he reached up with his hand to cradle her chin while his thumb rubbed across her soft skin. "I love you."

The last three words produced a faint smile from Natalie as her eyes locked onto his adoring ones. "I love you so much, Nick." Her face brightened more as another thought came to mind. "I even love you despite the fact you ruthlessly sipped on me in that game."

Nick's expression became contrite. "Nat, I'm sorry I let you down when I played that game. It's just that...."

"You wanted us to be together in every possible way, to feel everything, didn't you?" She completed his thought, wrapping her arms tightly around his waist.

"Yes! You understand, Nat!" he voiced, surprised.

"Yes, I do and I owe you an apology for my behavior at the hospital last night. I never allowed you to explain your reasons, and ever since, I've felt guilty." She sighed. "And, while I'm admitting my guilt, I might as well as confide something else to you. After the night you came to my apartment when I pricked my thumb on that thorn and you took my blood, well...what can I say....I loved the unbelievable intimacy I felt with you. It was so erotic, so sensational....I didn't want you to stop. And since it was such an intense experience between us.....Since that time, I've secretly wanted you to do it to me again." She lowered her eyes to his chest at her blatant confession, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment.

An eternity seemed to pass before he spoke. "Nat, look at me." She shook her head. "Nat, please look at me." His voice was quiet, but laced with emotion.

She raised her head, looking into eyes filled with love, but tinged with sadness. He swept his hand across her cheek lightly, staring for a moment into her entrancing blue eyes. When he spoke, his voice trembled with feeling. "Nat, there isn't anything that I would rather do than share that experience with you again, but as I explained, the temptation is too great to take one sip, then another, then another....I'm afraid of what might happen if I tried to take just a little with you. Especially you! Because my feelings for you run deep. I don't have a good track record when it comes to control and my emotions," he admitted reluctantly, giving her a sheepish grin.

" could bring me across," she volunteered, smiling in a reticent way.

"I wouldn't have much of a choice, Nat. The consequences are always that or death," he spoke with candor. "When sipping happens, a bonding develops whereby the vampire is drawn back to that mortal for more blood until a choice has to be made: to be brought across or die. So you see why I can't take that chance with your life," he said regretfully. "The risks would be too great and if anything happened to you Nat, I couldn't...." Words failed him as fresh, raw emotions crept to the surface.

Seeing his sudden agitation, she changed tactics quickly and said soothingly, "sssh, Nick. It's okay, sssssh." She brushed her soft, delicate fingers across his cheek. "Please don't get upset. At least, we've got each other for the moment and who knows...I might yet come up with some cure we haven't tried, some magical, disgusting brew in my cauldron." She gave him a lovely smile, generating a boyish grin from him, then becoming serious, she said, "Now, if you don't mind, I would like to use your shower and clean up my bedraggled state. I must be a sight for sore eyes!"

Nick laughed, rejoicing in her sudden mood swing, then he spoke seriously, "No, Nat, you'll always be an enchanting witch to me; always beautiful; always bedazzling in my eyes." After which, he leaned down and gave her a gentle kiss on the lips.

Immediately, Natalie took advantage of the situation, molding her body to him as she deepened the kiss. Well...on second thought... .the shower could wait for a while, she mused, snaking her arms around his neck, pulling him closer to her.


That evening, after leaving a more calm Natalie behind with the assurance that she wouldn't leave the loft under any circumstances, Nick drove the Caddy to the Raven, parking in his usual spot in front of the club. As soon as he pulled up to the curb, Tracy emerged from the passenger seat of the car with a determined, grim expression on her face. A moment later, Nick was standing next to her with the same look. They were following up on a tip from Kevin Tate, Fred's roommate. Apparently, Mr. Martin was suppose to be meeting friends here around 10:00 pm. Glancing at his watch, Nick noted they'd arrived with twenty minutes to spare.

Nick gestured towards the door to the nightclub. "Shall we go in, Tracy."

Tracy looked at him, then opening the door, she said, "Maybe we can question some of the staff about Martin while we wait for his appearance."

They entered the darkened club. As they drew closer to the pulsating, metallic rock music and the gyrating figures on the dance floor, Nick grasped Tracy's arm in a protective hold. Leaning over, he said in a loud, firm tone, "Do me a favor and let me ask the questions. And stay close to me."

They walked over to the bar where Miklos was serving an array of drinks. As they each grabbed a wooden stool and sat down, Tracy met Nick's stern look with dismay. "I don't need to be protected all the time, Nick. I can take care of myself. Why won't you ever give me that consideration. You treat me the same way my father does!" she voiced. "Since you're aware of my difficult relationship with him, I would expect you....of all people... to show me more respect and regard for my position as a detective as I think I'm turning out to be a damn good one. In the last six months, since I've been your partner, my investigative skills have improved; I've even caught some of these perps without your help. My instincts are good, so why don't you see these qualities in me. I don't....."

Tracy's words began to fall on deafened ears as Nick's eyes shifted to a tall figure dressed in black, standing in the hallway, talking to a waitress. LaCroix! Nick wanted to talk to him, find out about his possible involvement in this heinous crime. But how to get away from Tracy? As he turned back to his partner, her words continued to pour out of her mouth. "I just want a little deference from you in regards to my abilities. Is that too much to ask? I mean...."

Nick touched her shoulder with gentleness to get her attention. "Tracy, I understand what you are driving at, and in the future, I swear I'll be more respectful of your skills as a homicide cop. You're a great detective and I wouldn't want any other partner. Now, before you say anything else and before Mr. Martin arrives, I need to go somewhere. Please stay put."

Before she could utter another syllable, Nick had moved away from the bar to the hallway, leading to the backrooms of the club. After he'd departed, Tracy shook her head, muttering something to herself about 'the whole exasperating male race.' She then turned towards Miklos, who was eyeing her with a curious expression on his face, and asked, "Could I get a club soda with a twist of lime?"


As Nick approached his master, LaCroix leaned forward and whispered into the waitress' ear, and then with a nod of his head, sent her back to the bar. Once she'd disappeared, he walked towards Nick. "Well Nicholas, this is a surprise! Come for a social call? Perhaps, to partake in another passionate tryst with one of our Raven's finest beauties?" His eyes gleamed with amusement. "I could help you to select one as the backrooms are quite vacant at the moment." His lip curled into a smirk. "However, after the last time, I must ask for a little discretion as unrestrained lusts such as yours can't be tolerated in my club."

"Are you finished, Lacroix?" Nick asked, his voice edged with annoyance.

"I suppose so, Nicholas." Lacroix sighed. "So what manner of fooliness brings you here this evening?"

"I'm here on a case, but I think you already knew that." He nodded in the direction of Tracy, who was sitting at the bar, sipping her drink.

"Ah! And I thought my charming, witty company is what enticed you here," he replied sarcastically. "So, what tedious case has brought you and the lovely Detective Vetter to my establishment? For a change, I do hope it's juicy and filled with lots of tragedy. Perhaps, an enraged husband coming home one evening to find his lonely, neglected wife and her stockbroker lover having a torrid affair and shooting them in cold blood. It makes one shiver with delight at the thought!" His eyes sparkled with merriment.

"No, Lacroix, we aren't involved in any case like the one you mentioned."

"Ah...what a pity!"

Nick ignored his remark as he reached into his coat pocket, pulling out the photograph of Martin; the one Kevin Tate had provided to the detectives . He passed it to Lacroix. "A boy, Ernie Vance was shot and killed last night at a Video store. This man, .." He pointed to the man in the picture. "...Fred Martin is a suspect. Have you seen him around the club before?"

Lacroix studied the photograph. It portrayed a man in his early twenties with dark wavy hair, brown eyes, medium build. After peering at it for a brief time, he handed it back to Nick, and said, "No, Mr. Martin has not been here."

"Are you positive, Lacroix?"

"Of course, I am sure. That young mortal has never darkened the door of my fine establishment, Nicholas. If you do not believe me, you can ask the others," he said, nodding at Miklos and the staff."

"Okay, I will."

For a moment, Lacroix looked at his son closely, then curiosity getting the better of him, he asked, "Perchance, is this Mr. Martin a suspect in another crime besides murder?"

"Perhaps. The perp stole something from the Video Store," Nick admitted.

"Ah....let me guess. Since this special mortal takes pleasure in killing other mortals, he's suspected of stealing the entire dreadful collection of the Charles Bronson Death Wish series." He chuckled, amused at his own humor.

"Whoever murdered Vance stole a game from the store," Nick explained in a serious voice.

"A game? What sort of game, Nicholas?"

"A virtual reality game."

"Really Nicholas. How utterly intriguing!" His eyebrows arched in surprise. "By any chance, was it the same game you had in your possession the other night when I visited your humble dwelling?"

Nick regarded him and said in a guarded voice. "Yes, it was the very same game."

"Must be quite an impressive game if someone would go to such lengths to pilfer it! Tell me Nicholas, did this game prove to be better than the first one you played? Did it rekindle any killer instincts in you?" he asked in a mocking tone.

He was greeted with silence.

"So, I presume the game presented other splendid scenerios." Lacroix proceeded in that same ridiculing fashion. "Indeed. What could those scenerios have been? Possibly some delicious interlude with the good doctor, Nicholas?"

The question hung in the air as Nick cast his eyes downward and Lacroix continued. "Of course, if romance has bloomed in this virtual reality realm, it begs the question: Should retribution be claimed or not? After all, it did happen in an illusionary sense, but not in the actual sense. Intriguing dilemma, don't you think Nicholas?" He gave Nick a severe look.

Before Lacroix had an opportunity to say more, Nick slammed him against the wall, his eyes glowing a feral red. "So help me Lacroix, if you so much as touch Natalie because of this game........"

Despite the tight hold Nick had on him, Lacroix's eyes glowed with satisfaction as he interrupted. "My, Nicholas! I can feel your rage, coursing through your veins. I can't tell you how good it makes me feel to see you in this fine state, especially after that pathetic, serene mood of yours the other night. You should give into these feelings more often. Anger becomes you!" He smiled in delight.

"Then anger should become me enough to run a stake through you, if you harm Natalie and this time, I'll be more accurate and I won't miss!" He growled in his face.

Lacroix's eyes turned red as he growled back at him. "I do not take kindly to threats, Nicholas. Best for you to remember that rule."

"As was I saying before your rude interruption..." He shoved Nick away with one hand. ".... a decision will have to be made on my part about this new dreamworld of yours and the ravishing Dr. Lambert where mortal love has apparently been consummated." He paused, then declared, "It must be quite a place! Perhaps, I should indulge in this special game myself at some point in time."

"Perhaps you have already experimented with this one yourself, Lacroix?" Nick asked in a menacing tone.

"What a leading question, Nicholas?" His eyebrows rose in surprise again. "What makes you come to that conclusion?"

"Last evening on your program, if I recall correctly, your topic of discussion was about games."

" still listen. I am deeply touched by your loyality." He gave him a wide grin.

Nick shook his head, dismissing Lacroix's remark. "Never mind my devotion to your program. It seemed to be a huge coincidence that shortly after this crime was committed, your topic of discussion concerned all sorts of games, including virtual reality games. So, hearing your program last night made me think that you might have been interested enough in the game to steal it, killing Vance in the process?"

Lacroix regarded him with astonishment. "Nicholas, I am appalled that you would consider me a suspect in such a trival crime as this one. If I wanted to kill Mr.Vance, my methods would have been quite different than a barbaric gunshot wound. Besides, I had a radio show to conduct. When would I have had the opportunity to dispose of Mr. Vance, steal this extremely delightful sounding game and play it?"

"I don't know, but if I find out that you're lying to me, Lacroix, I'll...."

"Yes, I know, Nicholas, you will make a feeble attempt to destroy me with a wooden stake." He laughed, turning away from Nick. "Now, I must end this exhausting conversation with you and return to my show while you and Detective Vetter track down your petty criminal. But, be advised Nicholas." He warned. "If you must arrest this mortal and things become... shall we say..... disorderly, please do take this trouble outside. I just spent a fortune having the club redecorated; I don't want any of your untidy messes to clean up." He snickered, then retreated into the shadows of the hall.


Nick approached the bar, finding Tracy in a deep discussion with Vachon about the "crap" female detectives have to tolerate and how unappreciated she was in this male dominated job of hers. Moving behind Tracy, Nick tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention as he met Vachon's overwhelmed expression with his own disapproving one. "Tracy, have you seen Martin yet?"

She turned on her bar stool, regarding Nick. "Yes, he arrived a few minutes ago and he's sitting over in the corner with two of his cronies." She pointed to a group in a dark spot of the club near the dance floor. Nick's eyes moved across the room to where Fred Martin was sitting with two young, blond haired men in their twenties, dressed in jeans with dark-colored shirts. Each were drinking a beer, smoking cigarettes and talking amongst themselves. For Mr. Martin, and his buddies, it looked like a normal night out on the town. But, not for long.

Nick turned back to Tracy and Vachon. "I think it's time we pay Mr. Martin a visit, don't you think, Tracy?"

Tracy and Nick exchanged significant looks. "Okay Nick. Let's go." She got off the stool, looking over at Vachon. "Vachon, duty calls. I gotta get going." She placed some money on the bar for her drink.

"Okay, Tracy. You be careful and watch your back." Vachon reached over and took her hand in his, kissing it with deliberate slowness, his soft lips brushing over her delicate skin, sending shivers up her spine. After a moment, he looked up and smiled at her warmly, still cradling her hand in his. "See ya sometime." He started to leave as he caught Nick's severe look. A wave of fear washed over him as he continued to stare at the detective, then swallowing down his fright, he moved away from them and disappeared into the crowd.

After Vachon had gone, Nick and Tracy proceeded towards the corner of the Raven. As they walked, Nick leaned over her and asked, feigning ignorance, "Who was that guy?"

"Oh, my inform....I mean, just a friend, Nick," she stammered, trying to regain her equilibrium after Vachon's sudden amorous attentions.

"Some friend. Does he say goodbye in that manner all the time?" he asked in a teasing voice.

"Not at all. In fact.." Her eyes became distant. "He hasn't acted that way in a while." There was regret in her voice. "Anyway, let's have a few words with Martin, shall we?" she suggested, transforming into her detective mode again.

Tracy strode over to the group as Nick followed. Just as she arrived at their table, she was suddenly met with gales of laughter from a humorous remark made by one member of the group. She stood there as Nick came up next to her, flashing his badge. "Mr. Fred Martin."

In the mist of the laughter, the dark haired man looked up from the table at Nick. "Yes, what do you want?" He snapped, annoyed at their untimely interruption.

Tracy spoke up, "Mr. Martin, we're homicide detectives from the Toronto Police Department, 96th Precinct. We need to talk to you about Ernie Vance."

"What about him?"

"He was murdered," Tracy stated grimly.

"Ernie...Ernie Vance is dead?" Fred's eyes grew wide in astonishment, but his voice was laced with sarcasm.

"Yes....He was shot last night and killed," Nick announced.

Martin regarded Nick with amusement. "Geez...I guess some customer didn't like Ernie's video movie picks." The three men burst into laughter, slapping the table with their hands. As the laughter died down for a second time, Martin added seriously, "I had no idea the guy was murdered."

"Oh...but we think you did know about the murder, Mr. Martin. We lifted one of your fingerprints from the victim's body, so we know you were there." Tracy stated, remaining calm.

Fred looked at his friends, then Tracy and Nick as he shrugged. "Okay, so what do you need from me?"

"You'll need to come down to the station with us for questioning," said Tracy.

"Okay, I'll come with you guys. But, you've got the wrong man." He rose from his seat, putting on his coat.

Fred started to walk across the room to the exit, Nick and Tracy right behind him. When he arrived at the door, he stopped, and reaching up with his hands, felt for something in his coat pocket. Snapping his fingers, he spun around and regarded the detectives. "Oh damn....I forgot my cigarettes at the table. I'll just be a sec."

Before Nick or Tracy could react, he'd started for the table. But all at once, he stopped, and with a swiftness which caught them by surprise, grabbed the coat rack next to him, and throwing it down in front of the detectives, opened the door and rushed out into the darkness.

It took Nick only an instant to regain his composure before he was out the door, chasing him down the street with vampiric speed. Upon seeing Fred's fleeing form fifty yards away, he took to the air, purposely flying over and landing five feet ahead of him. Martin stopped running abruptly, staring at him in disbelief. "You were.....back...there!" He pointed his finger towards the Raven as if to convince himself of the detective's actual whereabouts.

"Now! I'm.... here, Martin," Nick said, his voice edged with huskiness; his eyes becoming golden. "You can't run from me."

"Just watch me, detective." He cried out, spinning around and running into the nearest alley.

With lightening speed, Nick rushed at him, and grabbing him by the collar, pushed him with enormous force against the concrete side of a building. "Not quite so nimble on your feet now. Are you Martin?"

Nick's eyes became red with anger, his fangs descending as his beast surged forth. He pounded Fred's head against the wall. "You know what, Martin? I could snuff out your pathetic life in an instant." He bent his head closer to the man's neck, aching to sink his fangs into his skin, to rid the world of this potential scumbag, this ostensible killer. But, that's what he was: only a likely, murder suspect. Nothing more. Besides, even if he turned out to be found guilty, his method of justice-vigilante style-wasn't the right one. Let the justice system decide his fate.

With reluctance, Nick raised his head from Martin's neck, his eyes receding to blueness. Pulling him closer, he locked onto his heartbeat and eyes. "Forget what you saw."

He repeated with a dazed expression on his face. "Forget."

In one swift motion, Nick spun him around, slapping the handcuffs on his wrists as he read him his rights. An instant later, Tracy came around the corner, brandishing her gun.

Nick's fist came down forcefully on the table within inches of Fred Martins's hand. "Okay, Mr. Martin. I'll ask you once more. If you didn't shoot Ernie Vance, then why were you trying to elude us at the Raven?"

Fred looked up from the table in the interrogation room, meeting the detective's rigid look. "Man...I already told you! I got scared and I wasn't thinking, so I ran," he confessed, his voice filled with irritation. "Besides....I didn't think you'd believe my story." His eyes moved from Nick to Reese, then rested on Tracy.

"Which was....." Tracy glanced at her notes. "...on the night of Ernie Vance's murder, you arrived at Sam's Video shortly after nine o'clock to visit your friend. According to your version, when you entered the premises, there was evidence of vandalism in the store. Immediately, you became concerned, calling out Ernie's name, and then receiving no answer, you walked to the backroom where you found the body, lying face down on the floor. After regaining your composure, you touched the victim's head, checking to see if he were still alive. When you found him to be dead, you became frightened and ran." She looked up from her notepad. "Is that right, Mr. Martin? Is that how it happened?"

"Yeah, that's what happened." He sighed in frustration. "How many times do I have to go over this story with you guys?" He slumped in his seat.

"As long as it takes to get it straight, Martin," Nick said, his jaw clenching in anger.

"Knight, cool it!" Joe Reese bellowed, giving him a warning look.

Since the outset of the interrogation of this suspect a half hour ago, Knight had gradually become more antagonistic towards him. The captain could sense Nick's suppressed fury, raging beneath that intense visage of his. It was evident in the way the detective's frightening eyes would linger on Martin's face after hearing one of the suspect's endless cocky responses. Each time he would respond arrogantly to a question, in a flash, Nick would be beside him, his eyes penetrating sharply into his, like darts hitting a board.

Part of Reese could understand Nick's dislike for this man. He was smug and complacent, and he wasn't helping his case any with his insolent answers. However, at the same time, he deserved a fair interrogation without any possible physical confrontations from his best detective.

Moving his concerned eyes away from Nick, Reese leaned forward in his chair, and said, "Mr. Martin, we need to review some parts of your story with you. First of all, when you noticed that the shop had been vandalized, why did you call out to Mr. Vance? It was obvious someone had been there to deface the property and that person could have remained on the premises. Weren't you concerned about that possibility?"

Martin shrugged his shoulders. "When I saw the mess in the store, I thought.....Ernie, you son of a bitch....I knew you wanted that time and a half from Sam, but defacing the joint wasn't the answer," he said wryly, then broke out in laughter.

Nick leaned over him, and with a determination to break his arrogance, spoke with venom in his voice. "Let's get one thing straight, Martin. You are not downtown at some comedy club; you are here in an interrogation room, being asked very sobering, direct questions about a homicide. Now, if you can't respond seriously, perhaps a few days in lock up will change your disposition. I have a feeling that your cell mates won't take too kindly to your comedy routine. In fact, I'm almost certain that after a couple of days with that bunch, you'll be branching out into the field of drama with a possible future in action and adventure. Do I make myself clear?"

While he spoke, Nick's eyes never faltered from Martin's, always flaring with intensity, always trying to penetrate his complacent reserve. Off Nick's stare, Martin swallowed once, trying to suppress the fear which had formed in his dry throat. Then, he glared back at him and spoke with feigned calmness, "Okay, detective. I catch your drift. I'll try to keep my humorous remarks to myself."

"Good! Now answer the question!" demanded Nick, giving him that same intense stare. For a long moment, Martin's eyes scowled at Nick, then shifting away from him to Reese, he spoke in that same insolent tone. "I'm terribly sorry for my disrespect. What I meant to say was that when I saw the mess in Sam's shop, I just reacted by yelling out to Ernie, calling his name. I didn't think about the consequences."

Reese gave him a harsh look. "Well you should have thought about the consequences; the results could have been deadly for you, too, Mr. Martin. However....." He paused as another thought came to mind. "....perhaps the consequences weren't a concern for you as there was nothing for you to fear because you already knew he was dead..... because you killed him," he said sharply.

His ominous words hung in the air like a thick fog as the detectives regarded the suspect severely.

Martin jumped up from his chair. "No way! Like I said before, I called out to Ernie, and when I didn't get a response, I walked to the backroom where I found him dead on the floor. And that's my story." He glared at the captain.

"Sit down, Martin," came the gruff voice of Detective Knight next to him. He felt a cool hand on his shoulder, pressing him back into his seat as he met the detective's blazing eyes again with his own.

Martin continued to glare at him, then turning back to Reese, he said fervently, "I didn't kill him! And that's the truth!"

"Well.. we don't know whether you are telling us the truth or not, so your innocence remains to be proven, Mr. Martin," Reese replied seriously, then glancing at his notes, he asked, "After you discovered Vance's body and ensured his death, you fled the scene of the crime. Why didn't you stay, and call 911?"

"Don't you people listen to anything I say!" he exclaimed with exasperation. "I told you I was scared. I figured Sam would appear any moment, see me with the body, and since there was no love lost between us, he would assume I killed Ernie. So I left."

"How did you know Sam was going to be at his shop last night? He could've had the night off." Tracy asked.

"Nah...he was always hanging around on Saturday night. I knew he was just taking a break and would be back any sec."

Tracy stared at Martin, pondering his answer, unsure whether to believe him or not. His flip responses were bothering her as well. She looked down at her notes, then gazing at him, she asked, "Mr. Martin, when you found Ernie Vance in the backroom, what made you touch his head?"

He shrugged. "I was checking to see if know....had really bit the dust."

Tracy gave him a curious look. "Why didn't you check for a pulse?"

Martin frowned. "When I discovered Ernie in that condition ......I don't know. I guess all I saw at that moment was his head, partially blown away, and leaning over, I touched his temple, checking to see if he might be breathing." He made a face. "He was still warm, but lifeless."

"How long would you say you were on the premises?" Tracy asked.

"No more than five minutes." Martin shook his head. "Believe me! I wanted to get the hell outta there!"

Nick leaned over Martin again. "Maybe you had another reason for leaving the premises in such an expedious way." His eyes glowed with barely suppressed anger.

Martin scowled at him. "I don't know what you're getting at, Detective. I left in a hurry because I was afraid Sam would come back, see me with the body and jump to conclusions."

"Well.....maybe Sam would have a good reason to jump to conclusions. After all, Ernie Vance could have relayed some vital information to him about a certain confrontation between you two over a friend of mine, a Dr. Natalie Lambert."

"Who is this Dr. Lambert?" He made a face. "I don't know any such doctor friend of yours." Martin smirked.

"Well....let me refresh your memory, Martin. Two weeks ago, she came into the shop, and while she was browsing for tapes, you made some lewd remark about her to Mr. Vance, who didn't take kindly to the slur and threatened you. You, then left the store. Do you recall that incident?" he asked, his face tense with anger.

Martin sat back in his seat, and rubbing his chin, suddenly smiled as the memory came to mind. "'s coming back to me now. Ernie sure did get upset about that woman. I don't know why. I mean she was quite a looker, but not worth fighting over." His voice was again complacent as he stared at the detective, trying to challenge and fuel that anger in him.

With an effort, Nick swallowed his raging emotions and continued, "Despite whether you think Dr. Lambert was worth fighting over or not, Ernie thought she was, and when you made that ill- conceived remark about her, he took offense and threatened you with physical harm. And in threatening you, you perhaps became angered yourself, and out of rage, you killed him stealing the game in the process."

Martin shook his head vigorously. "No! It wasn't like that at all!" he voiced. "Okay..... I'll admit Ernie and I had our differences. But I didn't kill him over his threats. Anyway, after a few days, we let bygones be bygones. And besides, what's this game you're talking about! I've never heard about any game!" he exclaimed, perplexed.

Nick met Martin's bewildered face with uncertainty. Could he be bluffing about his knowledge of the game? Or could he be truly unaware of it? He wasn't sure. He leaned over Martin again and said, "The game which was taken from the shop was a virtual reality game. Are you familiar with such games, Mr. Martin?"

"Yeah...I know about them, but I've never played them. Though, I've heard that the imagery in those games has become very realistic and clear."

"Yeah.....very clear!" Tracy gave Nick a significant look, then to Martin she explained, "This particular one was very special because of its realistic qualities. It wasn't like any other game you would presently find out there on the market because of its unlimited capabilities. Imagine, if you can, Mr. Martin. A world where you could go anywhere with anyone and do anything with them. Well...the enticement for someone to steal this game would be very great, don't you think! And it might be so appealing that they'd kill Ernie Vance for it."

" wasn't me! Although, if I had known about this game's potential, I would 've loved to have gotten my hands on it and played it with the old Doc. She would have been some great lay in that game!"

All of a sudden, Martin felt a hand grab his collar as he was lifted from his seat and slammed against the wall. Nick's blazing amber eyes practically burned into his flesh as he spoke, "That 'great lay' happens to be a friend of mine. Best you remember that!" He shook him with such force that, for an unsettling moment, Martin thought his own neck would snap.

Reese stood up, his eyes flaring with anger. "Nick! In the name of God! Let go of him! Right now!"

Nick continued to stare with fury at the man who he had pressed against the wall in a strangle-like hold.

Reese strode over to him. "Nick, listen to me! Turn him loose!" The captain's angry voice was becoming frantic.

Nick's tempestuous emotions were doing battle within him. Part of him wanted to kill Martin, to break his worthless neck with a single blow, to snuff out his miserable life. But, another part of him could hear Natalie's voice ringing in his ear, "Nick, don't do it! Let him go!" For a long time, he remained there, still holding Martin in a vise-like grip as the rage coursed through him. Then, he sighed, and finally making his choice, released his hand from around Martin's neck and backed away.

Martin stood there, coughing and rubbing his neck as he turned frightened eyes on the blond detective. Once he could talk again, he yelled out, "'re crazy!" He paused, still trying to catch his breath, then looking over at Reese and Tracy, screamed, "Get him away from me!"

Reese pulled on Nick's arm, moving him away. Once out of earshot, Reese whispered in a tense voice, "What the blazes were you thinking Nick!"

Nick's only response was a silent glare at Martin. Reese shook his head, then leaning forward, he hissed in his ear. "I want you out of here right now! Go back to your desk, cool down and get a grip. Tracy and I will finish up."

Nick nodded at him, then giving Martin one final threatening look, he left the interrogation room.


Reese glanced up at Nick, then Tracy. "So....based on the print found on Vance by forensics we'll be able to detain Mr. Martin in lock up until bond is posted. I just hope we can hold him for good." He shook his head. "That guy may not be guilty of this crime, but he is guilty of something."

"Yeah, you're right about that, Cap! He has a rap sheet a mile long with potential rapes and assaults which would make your head spin," Tracy stated, meeting Nick's anxious eyes with her own.

Nick stood in front of Reese's desk. "Are you positive we can detain this guy for good, Cap?"

Reese looked at him with concern. After the episode in the interrogation room, he was worried about Nick's unbalanced state of mind. Granted, he had calmed down since his confrontation with Martin, but would it last? "I don't know, Nick. We have one piece of solid evidence on our man: the fingerprint. Besides that...," he shrugged, "....I couldn't say. Several things struck me as odd during the interrogation: his blatant stupidity at crying out Vance's name in the store, his reluctancy to stay at the crime scene, and eluding you at the Raven. And of course the confrontation with Vance shows a very possible motive. But it's all circumstantial and not enough to hold him," he said, regretfully.

Nick ran his hands through his hair. "I know he's the one, Cap. We've got to make sure he doesn't get away!" he exclaimed with mounting anxiety. "For Nat's sake!"

"We'll do what we can, Nick," he said in a quiet voice as his detective nodded in reply.

Nick and Tracy turned to leave when the phone on Reese's desk rang. Picking it up on the first ring, he said, "Hello.....yes Irving.....What!.....Okay.....You'll need back up. Okay, I'll send someone over ASAP." He hung up the phone, meeting Nick and Tracy's eyes with more concern. "That was Officer Irving.....Apparently, someone fitting the description of Roger Jameson has been spotted."

"Where Cap?" asked Tracy.

"In front of Nick's apartment at 101 Gateway Drive!" He explained, giving them a grave look.

Natalie sat at the kitchen table, pecking away on her laptop computer as she continued to retrieve data from the morgue to complete unfinished autopsy reports. After typing a few minutes more, she stopped, and gathering up her coffee mug, went to the kitchen counter to pour another cup. When she'd filled it to the top, Natalie walked back to the table, and sitting again in her chair, took a sip of the aromatic coffee as she pondered the day's events.

After her and Nick's wonderful, open discussion, she'd begun to feel better about herself although the stigma of being raped-even in a virtual reality-still left her feeling dirty inside. She'd taken a long, almost scalding hot shower in an attempt to wipe the feeling of uncleaniness from her mind. It had worked up to a point, but she couldn't shake it completely.

Nick had tried to help in the best way that he could. After returning to the living room from her shower, she'd been met with a beautiful sight. Many lighted candles had graced the tables and piano in the darkened loft and a Gourmet Meal and some wine had been laid out on the coffee table in front of the T.V. in readiness for her return. She'd smiled with delight at Nick's attempt to please her, and sitting at the coffee table, she'd eaten and drank with earnest, surprised at her own appetite and thirst. He had also surprised her with two comedy movies on Video which they'd watched together on the sofa, cuddled in one another's arms. During the second movie, Natalie had noticed Nick's breathing and movements had stilled, and looking over her shoulder, had chuckled at the sight. He'd fallen into his death-like slumber.

For a long time, she'd simply stared in amazement at him, thinking how angelic and serene his expression was while he'd slept. At one point, unable to resist the urge, she'd reached up and laced her fingers in his hair, running them through his blond locks; then traveling downward, she'd brushed light touches along his cheek and chin, enjoying all the sensations. She'd always loved the thick softness of his wavy hair and the cool roughness of his stubble against her fingers. Touching him in this manner would always bring a feeling of joy and warmth to her. And hope....

Hope that, in some small way, her caresses had helped to ease his troubled, brooding soul, to take away some of the endless pain and guilt that had consumed him over the centuries. It was the only way she'd known how to reach out to him, to show her concern, her love without endangering her life.

After a short time had passed, Natalie had reluctantly removed her hand from his face, and leaning forward, brushed a soft kiss across his lips. At her touch, he'd stirred slightly; then turning on his side, fallen back into a deep slumber. She'd smiled to herself, watching him for a moment longer; then covering him with a blanket, she'd made her way over to the kitchen to make a hugh pot of coffee.

Taking no chances of falling asleep, she'd also popped a No Doz in her mouth, swallowing it quickly; then brewing the coffee, she'd sat at the kitchen table the rest of the day, working on her autospy reports.

When Tracy had called around seven o'clock about Fred Martin's possible appearance at the Raven later that evening, Natalie had taken the call, and waking Nick up, relayed the message to him. After getting up from the sofa, he'd gone off to take a shower and dress for work. When he'd returned to the kitchen immaculately dressed in a royal blue shirt with black pants, he'd found his 'breakfast' on the table. After drinking it down, he'd gone over to Natalie, and leaning over, given her a tender kiss goodbye on her cheek. As he'd gathered up his coat to leave, he'd made Natalie swear that she'd stay put, keep the alarm on and let no one into the loft except him. She'd smiled at his protective ministrations over her, and kissing him goodbye, pushed him into the elevator, sending him on his way.

That was five hours ago. Since that time, Natalie had been working diligently at her computer, trying to get caught up on the neverending pile of reports from the morgue. Now, as she glanced at the stack of finished work, she smiled to herself, satisfied that it could be completed in another hour or two, and drinking a good swig from her coffee mug, set about accomplishing that goal with determination.

Natalie resumed typing, her fingers gliding over the keyboard. She had almost completed another report when a sudden noise from the elevator startled her, causing her to jump out of her seat. For an instant, she froze to her spot, and pressing her hand to her chest in an attempt to steady her heartbeat, looked over at the entrance to the loft. A distinct, humming sound was coming from beyond the door. Something or someone had engaged the lift and it was slowly ascending to the loft. Who could be coming up the elevator at this time of night, she thought with confusion. It couldn't be Nick. He wasn't due back for another three hours. And if he were coming back early, he would have first called. So, who could it be?

Her eyebrows furrowed in thought at the possibilities, then they rose as her bewilderment turned to horror. No! It couldn't be! Had he found her? Her attacker in the game? It wasn't possble!

Natalie looked frantically at the door. The sound was getting louder as the lift was fast approaching. It would be here any second. I need a weapon. Her panic-strickened eyes darted across the room, resting on an object on the coffee table. Perfect! Without another thought, she moved swiftly to the table, and seized a candlestick in her hand.

Looking up, she could detect a shaft of light, coming from the interior of the elevator as it filtered through the small, glassed-in window in the sliding door. She had only seconds now to act before the lift would arrive. Without hesitation, she sprinted to the left side of the door, and bracing herself against the brick wall, waited.

A second later, the humming ceased as the elevator came to a stop. Natalie remained against the wall, and raising the candlesick in mid- air, waited for the door to open. It never happened. Moments passed as her eyes remained on the door, her heart pounding in her ears, her breathing ragged. She stood there for a few minutes longer, clutching the candlestick in her hand. Again, nothing! The door remained shut.

Finally, loosening her grip on her weapon, she lowered it to her side. Still pressed against the wall, she moved sideways to peek through the glassed-in window of the door. There was no one there on the right side of the elevator. After a moment, she moved to the other side, and looking through from that angle, again saw nothing. What was going on here? She mused, befuddled.

Still holding the candlestick, Natalie slid the door open, and stood against the wall for a few more minutes, trying to detect any sounds coming from the interior of the elevator. She was met with total silence.

After a moment longer, she moved slowly towards the opening of the doorway, raising the candlestick in the air, then stepping gingerly across, crept into the lift. When she had reached the center, she spun around in a circle, taking in her surroundings. Nothing! Except four empty walls and total silence. Not a soul was there. Mixed emotions of bafflement and relief coursed through her as she shrugged her shoulders and took a deep breath. It must have been the wind, she thought, bringing her hand up to her chest to steady her still racing heart. Thank goodness! It wasn't her.....

She didn't have time to complete her thought. With lightening speed, a cool hand came around her face, pressing a soft cotton material against her nose and mouth. She struggled for a moment, bringing the candlestick around in a futile attempt to strike the hand, holding her in an iron-like grip. With each try, she only hit the air. After a few more attempts, Natalie stopped, exhausted, dropping the candlestick to the ground. The hand tightened around her face as distorted images flashed before her eyes and a low buzzing sounded in her ears. She felt herself falling, her knees growing weak and rubbery. I need to sleep, she thought as she closed her eyes. There was a brief pain as her head hit something solid and hard, then there was only darkness........

As soon as Nick had heard about Roger Jameson's sighting near the loft, he was rushing out the door from Reese's office. Gathering up his coat to leave, he suggested to Tracy that she meet him there with backup. This time he wasn't going to allow his partner to impede his progress by her insistent tenacity to tag along with him. For Natalie's sake, he would have to use his supernatural abilities to arrive at his loft in an expedient way or else.....Well, for now, he didn't want to think about the 'or else' or any consequences. At the moment, he simply wanted to get over to his place as fast as he could.

As Nick exited the precinct, he began to run, then looking around him to ensure no one was watching, he took to the air.


In her mind, the images were spiraling around and around. Fuzzy pictures of a hand wrapped around her face. The white walls of .....someplace?.....She couldn't recall......The walls were so blurry. Where was she? Was this another dream? Another nightmare? Oh! God! Please not again! She couldn't stand another attack. She needed to find her way back to reality.....right now!

Desperate to escape, Natalie blinked once and then opened her eyes. She was met with a soft, hazy light. For a long time, she kept focusing on the dim, fuzzy aura until the image sharpened. It was candlelight. And it was glowing all around her in a room that looked very familiar to her. Yes.... She was at the loft. Nick's loft!

Suddenly, it all came back to her. The elevator! The soft cloth around her mouth. Her ineffective struggle with her attacker. The feeling of dizziness and detachment from her body, then, finally darkness.

And now, as her eyes and mind began to clear, Natalie realized to her horror that she was lying on Nick's sofa in his living room with her wrists tied securely behind her; her ankles bound with some kind of heavy rope. Duck tape covered her mouth.

Oh, this was just great, she thought in dispair. She was being held captive by some lunatic in Nick's apartment, of all places. But, wasn't he afraid that Nick might return any minute? Looking over at the kitchen clock on the wall, she noted the time with alarm. Three in the morning. Oh! No! She'd only been unconcious for ten minutes or so. And Nick wouldn't be back for another two hours! Her assailant wouldn't have to worry about Nick's sudden presence for a long time. He'd have ample opportunity to do whatever he wanted to do to her before his return. A sudden chill of apprehension went through her body at the thought of what he might have in store for her.

I can't think about what he might have planned, she thought. Instead, I must try to get out of here. But, what could she do? Suddenly she had an idea. Pulling up with her hands, she began rolling her body from side to side until she flipped herself off the couch onto the floor, landing hard on her stomach. She moaned as a sharp pain shot through her abdomen. As the pain began to decrease, she started wiggling her arms and legs in an attempt to loosen the bindings. In a few minutes, her persistent efforts paid off as the ropes started to unfasten around her wrists and ankles. With a couple more quick irregular movements, she was able to undo the ropes completely.

After removing them from her body, she pulled the tape off her mouth, then whimpered in pain at the sudden throbbing sensation around her lips from the strong adhesive. Despite the discomfort, she stood up, and without hesitation, marched towards the elevator. When she got to the lift, she slid the door open and immediately drew in a sharp breath as she came face to face with her captor, dressed all in black from the ski mask around his head to the dress shoes on his feet. Stunned, for a few seconds, she couldn't move; she could only stare at the two astonished eyes peering back at her through the holes of his disguise.

Natalie was the first to recover. Quickly, she turned away from him, running into the living room. But he was too swift as he rushed her, knocking her down to the floor. She landed hard, her head hitting the surface with force. For a moment, she saw only stars as a dizzy feeling washed over her from the impact, then regaining her lucidness, she began sliding across the floor away from him.

As he saw her move away, he grabbed her ankles and began pulling her backwards towards him. Natalie fought back, kicking him forcefully in the stomach. The impact knocked the wind from him, causing him to release her. He fell over, clutching at his stomach, moaning in pain.

Observing him momentarily incapacitated, she wasted no time in making her escape, and scrambling to her feet, ran towards Nick's first floor bathroom. She was almost there, reaching for the doorknob when she felt an arm come around her waist and a hand around her mouth as he pulled her away from the door back to the living room. He began to drag her towards the sofa while she kicked and clawed at any reachable part of his body. As she continued to strike at him, he grabbed one of her hands in his in an attempt to ward off her blows only to find the other one reaching for his neck. At one point, as she strained to grab his neck, her hand reached around to the edge of his ski mask, and with a concentrated effort, pulled it from his face entirely, throwing it across the room.

Her unexpected action caused him to freeze in his tracks and loosen his hold on her, allowing her to pull away from him. Instantly, she spun around to face him and drew in a sharp breath, her face registering total shock.

"Herman? Herman Muntz?" she managed to say. "It can't be you. Don't tell me that you are responsible for all of this...this...." She couldn't complete her thoughts; she was too stunned.

He stared at her for a second, then broke into an eerie smile. "This calamity? Yes, Natalie. I'm afraid so," he admitted, then his grin turned to a frown as he lunged at her, gathering her in his arms as he carried her to the sofa.

Before she knew what was happening, he was laying her down on the couch, tying her wrists and ankles again. In a vain effort, she struggled against her bindings. But it was useless, as he had the ties more secure this time, tighter than before.

After completing his task, he sat back on the sofa and regarded her with another frightening grin. "I wanted to surprise you with my identity, but you foiled my plan, you naughty girl." He wagged a finger at her. "At least I did get to catch you off guard in the elevator earlier." He laughed. "You should have seen the look on your face when I came down from that escape hatch on the ceiling of the elevator and grabbed you from behind. You looked completely shocked."

He chuckled again at the memory. "Despite your surprised state of mind, I was quite impressed by your survival instincts my dear Natalie. You came mighty close to hitting me with that candlestick. Thank goodness, the chloroform worked quickly to impede your progress or I might have been indisposed to carry out my plan with you."

Finding her voice, Natalie asked, "Which is?"

He laughed in delight, then reaching up with his hand, brushed his finger along the outline of her jaw, stroking her soft skin. "That's what I love about you Natalie. You like to get to the heart of the matter. Your candor has always been one of your greatest attributes." He removed his hand from her face as his eyes moved hungrily over her body. "Among other things," he whispered as his eyes lingered on her body, then returning to her face, added in a more serious tone, "I will divulge my plan to you in a moment."

Watching his lustful eyes travel down her body, with an effort, she suppressed the nausating feeling that was surfacing. Instead, she asked, "At least, clue me into some of your plan, Herman. You must have had to do something to progress in your scheme, didn't you? Like possibly kill Ernie Vance and steal a certain game from a Video store?"

"My! You have certainly turned out to be an astute detective. Maybe you should switch professions." His lips curled into an evil grin. " answer your question. Yes, I was the one responsible for the untimely death of that poorly paid clerk." His eyes seemed to gleam in delight at the memory.

"Oh my God!" she voiced, her eyes widening in horror at his confession.

"Oh...don't look so shocked, Natalie. I really didn't want to kill anyone. It was an unfortunate accident," he said. "You see, my original plan was much more simple: to steal the game from the Video store for a newfound friend of mine and exit the premises undetected. But, things became complicated. When I arrived at the store, it turned out that the object in question was located in the backroom where Mr. Vance was retrieving some Video tapes. So, he was...shall we the wrong place at the wrong time. Poor fellow, didn't even know what hit him as I disposed of him quickly with my 38 mm. He didn't even have time to turn around." He paused in his confession as his eyes continued to carry a wild, crazed look; his nostrils flaring in excitement over the memories. Natalie shivered with terror.

Noting her trembling body, he reached up his hand, cupping it around her alarmed face as he continued. "Next, I grabbed the prize and left unnoticed. The owner must have returned moments later to find his clerk in a most unpleasant position on the floor," he said, chuckling, as he removed his hand from her face.

So revolted was she by his confession, Natalie was speechless. After a few moments, she was able to find her voice again. "But, why did you steal this game for someone else, Herman, committing murder in the process?"

He gave her another frightful grin, sending more chills up her spine. "For you my love. I did it all for you. Since I'd first laid eyes on you at the morgue, I'd wanted you so desperately," he admitted to her, his eyes becoming excited.

Then, his excitement turned to anger as he continued to speak, "But, you were never interested in me! It was always him that you had eyes for! The great detective Knight!" he spat out his name with hatred in his voice. "And when I saw that tender love scene between you and the detective in the morgue last week, I decided I couldn't take it any longer, so I put in for a transfer and left. I needed to get as far away from you as possible," he admitted, a pout crossing his lips.

"At first, my plan was simple. To put you behind me, and move on. I thought that perhaps, in time, I could forget you and get on with my life. But I guess someone thought my decision was the wrong one; that I should pursue another direction in life. Because, without warning, two nights ago, this man shows up at my apartment with a proposition; one I couldn't refuse. He promised me that I could have you in exchange for stealing that stupid virtual reality game." Again, his eyes took on a crazed, almost animalistic look, sending another shiver of fear through her body.

Natalie quieted her terror enough to ask. "Who was this man, Herman?"

Another sinister smile slid across his face as he disclosed the name.

At the revelation of the man's identity, rage consumed her quickly. So he had been the monster, who had raped and brutalized her in that virtual world, who had forced her into submission with all those vile and despicable acts. How dare he!

Her thoughts were interrupted as Herman's words penetrated her reverie, " I was saying, we agreed on an exchange. I would steal the game for him and he would hold you hostage for me. The only problem was that I maintained my end of the deal, stealing the game for him, but he never upheld his part of the bargain by kidnaping you." He shrugged. "So, I did it for him."

He paused, and grinning at her eerily again, ran his damp, cool hand along her cheekbone, his eyes becoming lustful.

Natalie's muscles tensed at his sweaty touch and hungry look. Angered by her reaction, Muntz laid down on top of her, pressing his body with force against hers as his hand turned her face roughly to meet his. "I will have you, Natalie. And you can't stop me," he said, his voice aroused with passion.

He moved his other hand to her blouse, and in one fluid movement, ripped the buttons off the material, exposing her flesh to him. For a long time, his eyes rested on her soft, pale skin, then reaching up, he cupped one breast in his hand and sighed. "You are more beautiful than I'd ever envisioned you to be. Even more dazzling than the other night when I saw you on your balcony wearing only that lovely white nightgown," he confessed, looking up into her face as he continued to hold her breast in his hand. Leaning over then, his mouth descended slowly towards hers, towards those red, luscious lips of

Splat! All at once, he felt a warm substance hit his face as he pulled away from her. She had spit in his face!

For an instant, he stared into her inflamed eyes as astonishment swept through him at her unanticipated action. Gradually, his surprise turned to rage as he wiped the spittle from his face with his hand, then raising his other one in the air, he brought it down on the back side of her cheek, slapping her with all his might.

For a long moment, Natalie lay there, dazed from his savage assault, then before she could recover, his mouth captured hers with unleashed brutality as he bit and pressed his tongue against her lips, demanding entry . She tried unsuccessfully to prevent him entrance, but with resolved persistence, he finally managed to penetrate through, pushing his tongue into her mouth. He moaned in delight while he continued to kiss her with unyielding fierceness as his hands reached down to touch her breasts through the lace of her bra. All at once, though, his groan turned to a yelp as Natalie's teeth clamped unexpectedly down on his tongue.

Stunned, he pulled back from her. "You, bitch! You'll be sorry you did that!" His eyes became wild with rage as he raised the back of his hand into the air and brought it down brutally into her left cheek, then her right one, then her left again. He went on slapping and screaming at her until her eyes closed and she succumbed to a welcomed unconsciousness.


Approaching his loft from the air, Nick looked down at a sea of flashing red and blue strobe lights from police cars which had positioned themselves haphazardly near the warehouse, surrounding a two block radius.

As he soared in low over his street, with his enhanced vampire senses, he could make out some of the officers' conversations.

"Look's like he's gone. We've combed this entire area and come up empty. And so have the others, sarge," said one officer with discouragement in his voice.

The sergeant regarded the man who had spoken. "You and Marshall, head south from here. And instruct the others each to take a different direction. That scumbag couldn't have gotten very far on foot. We'll catch him soon."

"Okay. We're on it!"

The officers started to spread out in various directions as Nick flew over to the warehouse, landing on top of the building. After hearing the officers' discussion, Nick had begun to panic. They hadn't been able to find Jameson outside the premises of his loft which meant that he could be inside with Nat or....

He rushed over to the skylight. From his perch on the roof, he could detect Natalie's heartbeat, loud and clear. Thank goodness! She was okay, he thought, relief washing over him. However, the comforting feeling didn't last long, being replaced with apprehension as he picked up another heartbeat in the loft. Leaning over the window, he peered through the glass to the living room below, and what he saw made his fear turn instantly to rage.


Natalie was dreaming as he was again chasing her in the park. Briefly, she turned around, seeing the same twisted face, rapidly coming towards her. Facing forward again, she made an immediate decision, and changing her intended destination, veered to the right, taking another direction into the dark forest.

As she kept walking briskly along this new path, a feeling of boldness swept over her, and turning her head slightly, she called over her shoulder to him, "This time, you're not going to catch me...." then shouted his name out to the breezy night air.

After a pause, she added, "Yes, I know who you are!" as she broke into a sprint.

Running down the lane, she came to a bend, curving to the right. When she turned the corner, she was met with a surprise and came abruptly to a stop, exhaling a dismayed breath of air. The brick path had come to an end as tall oaks greeted her, blocking her escape. With her hands on her hips, she stood there, sighing with annoyance as she contemplated her next move. While she remained in her spot, mulling over her alternatives, the scene suddenly changed before her eyes as the trees transformed into a cloak of dense fog.. Amazed, Natalie approached the gray mist, and for a long moment, remained rooted to the ground, mesmerized by the phenomenon before her. However, her dumbfounded musings and stares were soon broken by the sound of approaching footsteps. Shaking herself out of her reverie, she shot a nervous glance down the path from where she had come. He was getting closer, she reflected in alarm.

Spinning back around, she faced the thick haze, and making a prompt decision, stepped off the path, and through the misty clouds into a room. Immediately, she found herself lying on something cool and smooth like leather and feeling the weight of something damp on top of her. She struggled to lift the load off her body, trying to move her hands in the process. But, to her horror, she realized she couldn't move them as a tight, smooth object seemed to be holding her wrists in place and preventing her from doing so.

For a while, she kept pushing up with her hips and legs against this presence in an attempt to remove it, although, as the minutes passed, her movements were becoming slower as her body was beginning to weaken. After a few more feeble endeavors, she thrusted upwards one final time with all her might, only to fall back in defeated exhaustion against the coolness of her bed, her breaths coming in sharp gasps. For a moment, she lay there, inhaling air into her oxygen depleted lungs, and while she was collecting herself, she felt it! A sudden chill of cold air, hitting her body, as a moist, wet sensation brushed roughly across her face. She froze. What was happening! She thought with mounting desperation. She needed to see what was going on. Frantic, she tried to open her eyes, but something heavy was weighing them down, preventing her from opening them. With indefatigable determination, she tried again and suddenly.....

Her eyes shot open to a blurry image. It took a moment for her vision to clear, but as her surroundings sharpened and became familiar to her, she looked up and gasped at the terrifying sight before her. Someone's body was pressed up against hers, kissing and touching her naked flesh all over.....and this someone was....Herman! Oh no! All the events came rushing back into her mind....Their struggle in the loft. His frightening confession.....His lustful eyes...... His demanding kiss...His brutal slaps against her face...Then a welcomed darkness as she succumbed gratefully to unconsciousness, to the sweet numbness of dreamland......

....Until her other attacker had materialized and she'd found herself with him in the virtual world, her nightmare having begun anew with him. Until, with a sense of relief, she had escaped again from there only to discover her ongoing captivity to this other lunatic. Was there no safe haven for her anywhere, or was she doomed to this invariable hell?

Unknowingly, Natalie had groaned in dispair at her impossible situation. At the sound of her moan, Herman glanced up to look at her. "'re finally awake my dear. I'm so glad. I wouldn't want you to miss all the fireworks."

His smile was odd, a gleaming leer which sent chills rippling down her back as he reached up and touched her cheek. His hand rubbed not so gently over the purplish marks where ugly bruises were beginning to grace her tender flesh, then leaning forward, he captured her swollen lips in another ferocious kiss as his damp, sweat-laden hands began their rough, clumsy exploration of her body.

With enormous effort, she choked down the repulsive feeling which had formed in the pit of her stomach as he continued his neverending assault on her, slobbering kisses over her face and running his clammy hands over her body. Then, when she thought it couldn't get any worse, she felt a firm tug at her knees as he forced her legs open, preparing for his unwelcomed entry. As she braced herself against the impending invasion on her person, she closed her eyes, and like the previous rape, struggled to focus her mind on memories of her and Nick.

As she could sense his body moving towards hers, penetration becoming imminent, his breathing ragged with excitement, hot tears of anger and humuliation began to slide down her cheek. She turned her head away from him towards the ceiling, waiting for the inevitable onslaught as she thought, Oh....Nick.....whatever happens...Forgive me. I love you. She felt her insides freeze up and she stopped breathing, waiting for him to enter her body, to ravage her like her other assailant. She could feel his hot breath on her as he got closer and closer....

Crash! There was a sudden, ear-piercing shatter of glass from above, then Natalie felt Herman's body moving away from her in confusion. Seconds later, she heard him cry out in terror and pain as someone pulled him off of her body. " God! Please....Don't hurt me!"

His alarmed voice echoed through the room, forcing Natalie to open her eyes precipitously. She gasped in astonishment. There was Nick, standing next to the sofa, holding her assailant in a tight grip, his eyes blazing red, his elongated canines resting dangerously close to the pale skin of his neck.

For a second, Natalie could only stare in amazement at the scene before her, thinking it was only a dream, that Nick was just an welcomed apparition. However, her pleasant surprise faded to fearful concern as Nick's injurious intent towards Herman became more apparent, jolting her back to reality like a cold gust of air. He was going to kill him in vindictive rage and she needed to think of something fast before it was too late. But what? She thought with increasing desperation.

Even though her hands remained tied behind her, with some effort, Natalie managed to get herself into a sitting position on the couch, then regaining her voice, she yelled, "Nick! No! Don't do it! Let him go, Nick! Please!"

For a moment Nick listened to her words as he turned his ruby eyes towards her, his sharp fangs glistening a menacing white in the soft light of the loft, then he growled. "Why should you care about his fate after what he's done to you, Nat?" He turned back to Herman's neck, grabbing it in a fierce hold. "He almost raped you and you want me to save his miserable life!" His voice shook with rage as he bent over Herman again, his fangs moving ominously close to his skin.

At Nick's threatening words and actions, her eyes widened in alarm, but her tone remained firm and full of conviction. "Yes, Nick, I want you to let him go. Let justice decide his fate. Nick, remember! Revenge is not the answer. It won't change events or take away the pain." Her tone became pleading as fear choked her voice and tears slid down her cheek.. "Please let him go!" Her voice became a whisper as she sounded one last plea. "For me, Nick. Do it for me!"

All of a sudden, the meaning of her words and the imploring tone of her voice seeped into his mind and soul, calming his stormy emotions, and filling his heart with compassionate mercy. He sighed, then pulled away from Herman's neck as his fangs began to retract.

Natalie closed her eyes in relief and took a much-needed breath, then she looked over at Nick whose eyes were now receding to blue.

As he quelled the beast within him, Nick spun Herman around, and locking onto his eyes and heartbeat, said, "Forget what you saw!"

"Forget!" Herman repeated in a dazed voice.

Turning Herman around again, Nick clamped handcuffs around his wrists. After making sure they were secure, he spun him around again, and in the same hypnotic voice, commanded, "You will sleep now."

"I will sleep," he echoed, as he closed his eyes and fell into a deep slumber.

Nick caught him in his arms, and moving him over to a leather armchair, set him down, then he turned back to Natalie, who was struggling in vain to remove the bindings from her wrists. In an instant, he was sitting behind her. "Here, Nat. Let me help you with those," he said, undoing the restraints.

After he removed the last binding, Natalie turned around, and facing Nick, threw herself into his arms, relieved. "Thank Goodness! You came when you did! I'd hate to think what would have happened a second later if you hadn't gotten here," she said, her voice breaking as fresh, raw emotions swept over her, and burying her face deep into Nick's chest, she began crying her heart out.

Nick held her helplessly in his arms, gently rocking her while he uttered soothing, comforting words into her hair. After a while, her sobs turned to sniffles, and pulling away from him, she wiped her nose with the back of her hand and looked up intently into his anxious eyes. "I'm okay, now Nick. And in spite of what almost happened to me, you don't know how happy you made me feel when you allowed your compassionate nature, your humanity to take over in the face of adversity. It's what has always made you so mortal in my eyes." She reached up, and brushing the back of her hand against his cheek, added, "It's what I've always loved about you Nick."

He leaned into her hand, relishing her touch and encouraging words as strong emotions washed over him. Oh, how he loved and adored her so. For no matter how dark and terrible his past deeds might have been, despite it all, she could only see the goodness in him and love him unconditionally, never judging him for his centuries of contemptible acts, never condemning him for his despicable actions, and persistently trying to appease his everlasting guilt.

Turning away from her hand, he leaned over and brushed a gentle kiss across her brow. At his touch, she drew in a deep breath, then shivered. Instantly, Nick noticed her quiver, and moving his eyes from her face down her body, realized the reason for her chilled state. Natalie's gaze followed his, and suddenly, she flushed a bright red. During all the commotion, she'd completely forgotten about her nakedness.

Nick's eyes lingered for a brief second on her bare flesh, then traveled back to her face, as he regarded her with only love, tenderness and concern. Without hesitation, he removed his coat, wrapping it protectively around her and began rubbing her trembling body with his hands in an attempt to warm her. After a while, he could feel her tremors through the material of his coat decreasing. "Are you feeling better, Nat?" he asked softly, his voice still filled with worry.

She raised her head to look at him. "Yes, I'm much better," she said in a flustered tone, her cheeks remaining pink with embarrassment.

Nick pulled away from her, and reaching up with his hand, caressed the ugly purplish blotches across her cheeks. "Nat, we've got to get you to a doctor," he said, his voice remaining troubled.

"No, we don't! I'll be fine, Nick. It's only a couple of bruises and they'll heal quickly," she said firmly. "Besides, I need to tell you something very important."

"What is it Nat?" he asked, still rubbing her cheek tenderly with his hand.

She sighed. "Herman Muntz admitted everything to me about murdering Vance and stealing the game, Nick."

"Well....that's great. So...we have our killer and thief. End of story."

"Not exactly!" she exclaimed in a disturbed voice.

"What do you mean by that!" he said, an uneasy feeling creeping up his back.

"I mean that Herman Muntz wasn't working alone." she replied. "He had an accomplice or....should I say....someone who instigated this entire crime....who used Herman to fulfill his own plan."

"And who might that have been, Nat?" he asked, choking back the fear in his throat as he waited with growing anticipation for her answer.

She regarded him, revealing his name.

After disclosing the name to Nick, Natalie was met with one of his impenetrable looks. However, as moments passed, his face became frighteningly more intense as an all consuming rage seemed to take hold of him in the center of his very being and rush outward with such magnitude that she thought he would explode like a napalm bomb right then and there on the sofa.

Without warning, Nick shot up from his seat as turbulent emotions continued to sweep across his face. "I'm going to kill him!" He seethed.

Startled, Natalie tried in vain to get his attention. "Nick, listen to me...." she began, pulling desperately at his sleeve.

She didn't get a chance to complete her sentence as Nick turned hastily away from her, and reaching over with his hand, lifted Herman's sleeping form effortlessly in his arms and flew up and through the skylight into the darkness.

Nick strode down the hall with a singular purpose in mind. To dispose of him once and for all. This time he'd stepped over the line with Natalie-his poor Natalie-and gone too far! Now, he was going to pay with his life.

After leaving Natalie speechless in the loft, and dumping Vance at the precinct, he'd flown as fast as he could to the source of his enraged emotions. As he made his way down the darkened corridor, Nick thought of Natalie's talk of mercy and compassion. Stopping in front of the door, he knew this was going to be one time where forgiveness and clemency were not going to enter into the equation. Vengeance was going to be sweet and pleasant. After all, this person had never bestowed mercy on anyone, especially him, so why would he grant him the same consideration.

Not bothering to knock, Nick barged into the room, and seeing the source of his tumultuous fury, headed immediately towards him. Reaching over the microphone, he grabbed him by the neck, and lifting him from his chair, threw him against the wall and saw him crumble to the floor. With his eyes glowing menacingly red with his wrath, Nick charged at him, and grabbing him by the shoulders, pushed him hard against the wall.

"Lacroix!" He growled through clenched teeth. "I should have known it was you all along!" He tightened his hold on his master even more. "This latest exploit is just typical of one of your many insidious plans."

Lacroix's ruby eyes glared back at him as he snarled. "How dare you! Interrupting my radio show with your rantings Nicholas. Especially since my discussion tonight was about the trials and tribulations of parenting rebellious children and what to do about it! A lesson from which you could learn so much." he said, giving him a meaningful look. " matter. What is this latest treacherous scheme of mine that has gotten you so pleasantly enraged, Nicholas?" he asked, smiling, then becoming irritated, he demanded, "Let go of me!" He pushed him forcefully to the ground.

Nick got up quickly, regarding his master with hatred. "You know very well what cunning plot to which I'm referring."

"Oh, Nicholas! It's not that tedious Virtual Theft and Murder Games Caper again, is it? I already told you that I couldn't have been responsible for that crime due to the fact that I was in the mist of conducting my Cerk radio program. At the time, I was discussing an entertaining topic about games in general, not about playing any of them. It would have been an inconceivable scenerio.... even for me."

"You're right. It would have been an impossibility to be in two places at once, conducting your radio program and playing the virtual reality game with Natalie. And at first, I believed you had a valid, solid alibi. Nevertheless, upon reflection, I realized that your monologue could have as easily been prerecorded for last night's show. You could have taped the program sometime last week to play last evening, then you would have been able to carry out your 'caper' without coming under suspicion."

"You've certainly come up with quite an intriguing scenerio, Nicholas. But, I'm afraid that you will be unable to prove it because my CERK programs are all taped, reflecting no recording dates. I could have performed and taped the show last night or, as you have suggested, I could have prerecorded the program last week and used the tape last night while I slinked off to conduct this deceitful caper. Either way, since I don't have physical evidence in my possession, i.e. dates of when I tape my recordings, you have no proof of what method I could have used. Also, there are no witnesses to substantiate your suggestion as I always insist on solitude when conducting a program unless of course I'm rudely interrupted by a certain, impertinent son. So, as you can see, Nicholas, without solid evidence, you will not be able hold me to this dreary crime. Therefore, all your tedious questions and detective work have gotten you nowhere." He smirked.

"Maybe this piece of evidence will not hold up, but Herman Muntz's confession assuredly will." Nick announced, watching Lacroix intently.

He raised his eyebrow slightly. "Should I know this Mr. Muntz?"

"Yes, I believe you should, considering he was your accomplice in this crime. You promised him a prize-Natalie-if he'd do all the dirty work for you. So he murdered Vance and stole the game for your sick, sordid pleasures."

"And where did Mr. Muntz confess this wonderful, enticing story to you?"

"At the loft. To Natalie," he explained. "Herman Muntz was rather upset when you didn't hold up your end of the bargain, so he took matters into his own hands, attacking Natalie at the loft. During the course of the encounter, he revealed everything to her, including the person who was his comrade-in-arms. You!" He paused, giving Lacroix a telling stare. "I also came to the conclusion that you had to be involved because you and Natalie are the only two people who are privy to my access code. Someone would have had to give Mr. Muntz that information to break into the loft." He hesitated again. "Natalie certainly wouldn't have provided that information to him, so that left only you!"

"My Nicholas, I must say you are a clever boy and more of an astute detective than I'd ever given you credit for." He smiled briefly, then his grin was quickly replaced by a frown as he shook his head and sighed. "Well, so much for my little deception. Tsk..Tsk...when will I ever learn to pick someone who possesses more restraint and patience. I should have disposed of the insufferable mortal as soon as he presented me with the game." His lips curled into an evil grin. "But, you know me, Nicholas! I do always enjoy stringing mortals along for a while until they become tedious and I finally have to discard of them."

His eyes sparkled with amusement as he expounded further, "Mr. Muntz was one of the most pathetic human beings I'd ever laid my eyes on. I wouldn't have even bothered with him except for one thing. He was hopelessly in love with the beguiling, bewitching Dr. Lambert, so I surmised quickly that he would fit in well with my plan to pilfer the game. I had to merely assure him of a binding agreement whereby I would kidnap the Doctor in exchange for his services. Believe me when I say that Mr. Muntz was more than agreeable to this proposition. He was so smitten with her, he would have done anything to have her."

Lacroix's look became distant as he continued, "But I can't say I blame him for his amorous attentions towards her. After my titilating experiences with the ravishing doctor in the game, I could fully understand his strong, almost frenzied need to take her over and over again. After all Nicholas, if there is one thing that I have learned from this amusing game, it is that Dr. one very desirable woman." His eyes danced with merriment as he added, "She brings new meaning to the word....... passion."

Suddenly, Lacroix felt a hand around his neck as Nick picked him up and tossed him against the wall. For a second, a sharp pain shot through his head as he sensed himself being raised up from the floor by his neck and slammed against the wall. The impact caused him a slight discomfort as he heard a low growl erupt next to his ear, and felt sharp fangs hovering dangerously close to his neck. The voice spoke, "There was nothing passionate about your encounter with Natalie. She told me how you brutally raped her in the game, subjecting her to all sorts of your sadistic ways, Lacroix."

Despite his precarious position, Lacroix smirked at him. "Is that what she told you, Nicholas? That it wasn't a fiery, ardent encounter?" he asked. "Of course, there could have been so much more between us if I had unleashed the vampire," he stated with regret. "But, order to hide my identity, I was required to take her in the mortal way, never revealing the vampire to her. Nevertheless, the tryst was quite breaktaking and I suppose being the shy, reticent, woman she is, she didn't want to divulge the true story to you, Nicholas, omitting a few pertinent facts about us in the virtual world," he said, revealing that same smugness to him. "Did she tell you how she screamed out in ecstasy for more each time I brought her to the edge and beyond? Did she tell you how she professed her undying love for me every time she crescendoed in my arms? I must say, Nicholas. After the enthralling time I had with her in that game, I can understand why she has captured you in a spell for all these years. She is quite delightful, especially when she cries out like a bitch in heat." He smiled in a self-satisfied manner.

Nick threw Lacroix's head back and forth against the wall several times, then stopping, leaned forward and snarled at him, his face aglow with rage, "You lie! I know Natalie too well. She would never submit consentingly to your will, or anyone who would treat her in this vile, degrading fashion. It would go against her high-minded principles. Love you?" Nick sneered at him. "You represent everything she loathes: control, power, enslavement, domination...Need I say more."

Lacroix stared angerly at him, and finally having had enough, pushed him away. The force of his thrust propelled Nick to the ground. Without hesitation, Lacroix descended on him, and picking him up, tossed him across the table and into the back wall. He landed like a rag doll on the floor. Growling, Lacroix lunged at him, and grabbing him around the neck, brought his fangs to within inches of his skin. "Now, I will show you what my power and control can do to force disobedient sons like you to adhere to my will!" Lacroix reared his head back in readiness for his attack on Nick's neck, his fangs aching to be buried into his skin, to feel and taste his son's pleasing, delicious blood coursing through his veins as he drained and weakened him, bringing him to his knees in defeat and utter submissiveness. Yes, he would show him who was the master here!

Nick closed his eyes, his muscles tensing as he braced himself against his impending assault. He could hear Lacroix's growl. It seemed like an eternity was passing and still he hadn't attacked. What was taking him so long, he wondered, his jaw clenching. He could feel Lacroix's cold breath on his skin as he bent over his neck. Moving closer to the target. Closer and closer....He was almost there......then....

Without warning, a blinding light materialized, showering the Cerk room in a brilliant sea of white. Groaning in sudden agony from the intensity of the brightness, Lacroix's hand dropped quickly from around Nick's neck as he covered his eyes in pain. As soon as he had released his hold on him, Nick did the same, shielding his eyes from the radiant illumination. Both of them moved hastily away from the strange white light into a shadowy corner of the room.

Confused and annoyed by this untimely interruption, Lacroix looked up at the light, still concealing his eyes with his arm. "What is the meaning of this unpleasant intrusion!" he demanded, frowning.

In response to his inquiry, the strange aura suddenly changed from a sparkling white color to a vibrant red. All at once, Nick could hear a loud, sharp yelp erupt from over his shoulder. Turning around, he stared in amazement as Lacroix clutched his stomach with his hands, and crying out in agony again, fell writhing to the floor in pain. After a few seconds, the red rays of light changed again, reverting to the original white color. Abruptly, Lacroix ceased with his cries, slowly rising to a sitting position.

Astounded, for a long moment, Nick exchanged glances between Lacroix and this light, then finally regaining his voice, he asked, "Who are you? What do you want?"

At the sound of Nick's voice, the light transformed from a round mass to a more visible human appearance. With an effort, Nick tried to make out who or what this strange presence could possibly be; however, the features on the alien's face were indistinct, impossible to decern. As he kept regarding the strange aura through partly shielded eyes, the light began to speak in a booming, forceful voice. "At this time, Nicholas, I can not to reveal my identity to you. However, I will tell you that, in many ways, I represent your guardian angel."

"You're an angel?" Nick asked, his eyes widening in surprise.

"Yes, in a manner of speaking, I am what you call a seraph who has been watching over you for quite some time. Centuries, in fact!" The angel declared in a thundering voice. "You could also say that I'm......what you would call......a restless spirit, a spector or a ghost."

Lacroix sneered at the bright vision before him. "A ghost! A transient apparition!" He exclaimed, his voice laced with skepticism. "Nonsense! Ghosts and goblins are a figment of one's imagination. Besides, nothing is as powerful as me!" He sneered, then his scorn suddenly turned to screams as another wave of excruciating pain shot through him, sending him crashing to the floor.

The spector pointed a finger at Lacroix's squirming form on the ground. "You never learn do you, Lacroix? Power has always been and will continue to be your downfall. After nearly two thousand years on this planet, the elders and I would have thought you would have figured it out by now! Your manipulative oppression, your neverending insistence that everyone conform to your merciless ideals will never work and will always backfire. And, this latest exploit is another example at a failed attempt to regain control of your son, only to have him hate you for what you've done, alienating him even more.

"My attempt at regaining control of my insolent son only failed because of your most inopportune interruption." Lacroix cried out as he writhed in pain on the floor. "I had the matter well under control before you arrived."

"Your method at control is just as warped as you are, Lacroix. Bringing your son to his knees by draining him to the point of death is not the answer; it will not bring him back to you. Can't you see that?"

"I only see that control is necessary for all mortals and some weak, misguided immortals because they are ignorant, lost souls with no capacity to think for themselves; therefore, they need a strong guiding hand to lead them in the right direction. " Lacroix screamed as he continued to twist in pain on the floor.

"You are wrong, Lacroix." the spector said. "Mortals and immortals should have the freedom to choose their own path, their own direction in life, and if need be, to make mistakes and wrong choices along the way. That is part of life. That is how we grow and thrive and learn. But, more importantly, Lacroix, your persistence in this quest for control over your son will never stifle his hope, his faith and his love which he carries within him."

"Those beliefs are mortal follies of which he needs to let go." Lacroix yelled out, clutching his stomach in agony.

"No, Lacroix. Compassion, mercy, love, hope are what drive us all- mortal or immortal-in this life. For without them, we would have no reason to exist."

"Nonsense! What you say is not true. I have existed for two thousand years only with my power and control at my side. Punishment, vengeance and retribution. Now those are the methods a truly strong person would use!"

"Enough!" the spirit bellowed, and turning a bright red color, pointed a finger at Lacroix, throwing him against the wall. "I grow weary of your incessant ramblings." He kept him pinned to the wall as he continued to speak, "Hear me and hear me well! This will be the only time you will be given a reprieve for your many, MANY misdeeds. You will release your son, and will not interfere again with his pursuits in life. You will allow him the freedom to choose his own path, his own way in life. And, if you persist in hampering his progress, I will return and inflict ten times the pain on you that I've inflicted on you so far." To emphasize his point, a jagged bolt of dazzling, white light flashed from the spector's body into Lacroix, sending him crashing to the floor in sheer agony. "That is just a smattering of what you will receive from me if you continue with your depraved, manipulative ways."

For a long time after the spector's words were spoken, Lacroix's moans were the only sounds that could be heard in the room. Then, as time passed and the apparition began returning to its former white brightness, it turned to a very confused Nick, and addressed him in that same thundering voice, "Go now, Nicholas and remember: The peace, happiness and love that you seek is possible."

Nick got up from the floor, still shielding his eyes from the apparition. "How is it possible when I seem to be condemned to an eternity as a damned creature of the night?"

"The answer lies within yourself, Nicholas. Let your heart and your lost faith be your guiding force. Then and only then, will you be able to find what you have been searching for all these centuries."

"What do you mean? My humanity? My mortality?" he asked, approaching the spirit under concealed eyes.

"Have faith and you will find it." the spector said, then suddenly it vanished before his eyes, leaving an object resting in his hand.

"No...Wait! Don't go." Nick cried out in desperation, running towards the spot where the spirit had been standing. "I must know. Will I regain my mortality?"

"Don't be a fool, Nicholas. You will never reclaim your mortality. It is a pipe dream of yours like that virtual reality," Lacroix said, still clenching his jaw in pain as he lay on the floor.

Nick looked over at his master and sneered. "I don't believe you Lacroix. I think my mortality is very much a real dream." He looked down to find the virtual reality game, resting in the palm of his hand. "You're right about one thing Lacroix. Virtual reality is only a dream, an illusion. It isn't something tangible or real that you can hold or feel or truly be with." He said, thinking of Natalie. "Hopefully, my reality is waiting back at the loft for me." He turned away from Lacroix's crumpled figure on the ground, and sensing the approaching dawn, moved quickly towards the door. "I must go."

"Yes....Go back to your mortal love." Lacroix spat out. "It will be only a matter of time until she will perish in your deadly embrace just like the thousands of others, then you will come crawling back to me."

Nick faced Lacroix, his expression filled with conviction. "It won't happen to Natalie because I truly believe she's the one I've been searching for all these centuries; she is my anchor, my hope, my life, my love. And with her, and through a little bit of faith, I will find my mortality again and you will not be able to stop me, Lacroix."

In an instant, he was gone as Lacroix sighed and got up slowly from the floor. Turning his head towards the door from where Nick had departed moments ago, he cried out to the silent room. "Oh, Nicholas! When will you ever learn!"

Two Days Later:

The swooshing sound of the front door opening alerted Sam to a potential customer. Quickly, he put down his inventory chart and emerged from the backroom of the store. Making his way through the aisles, he glanced up at the person who was standing at the front of the store. His eyes widened in surprise. "Detective Vetter, isn't it?"

"Yes, it's me Sam." She gave him a slight grin as she shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "I thought I would let you know that we caught the perp. It turned out to be someone who had worked in the morgue with Natalie-Dr. Lambert. A Herman Muntz."

"Oh, I wondered about that! Last evening when my other clerk, Bob, was working, Nick came around the shop to return the game; however, he never mentioned the killer to him, so I didn't know who the murderer was." He breathed in relief. "And what about the serial killer, Mr. Jameson? Did you catch him?"

Tracy nodded and smiled slightly. "As a matter of fact, we did. As luck would have it, he was apprehended day before yesterday at the train station trying to leave the city," she explained. "He's been sent back to the Laurier Mental Health Clinic where he will be under tight security and close guard."

"I'm so relieved to hear that you caught both of them," Sam declared. "And, how are my favorite coroner and detective doing?" He smiled and winked at her.

"I suppose they're doing okay," Tracy said thoughtfully. "Nick has taken a few days off to take care of Natalie; she was pretty roughed up physically and mentally from the ordeal. But if anyone can get Natalie back on her feet again, he can. I wish...." She paused, her eyes became wistful.

"You wish what, Detective?" he asked curiously.

Tracy regarded him and sighed. "I wish they would realize what everyone else sees; that they are meant to be together."

"I think they do, but sometimes it takes a little leap of faith to make that final jump into the unknown." He smiled and nodded at her in a thoughtful way.

"Well...all I can say is.... I hope they find that faith soon and make that final jump or I'm going to smash my clueless partner's and Natalie's heads together and force them to do it!" She crossed her arms, looking at Sam with determination in her eyes."

"Oh, they will, my dear. They will very soon," he said in a quiet voice looking at her intently. "Remember, I have good instincts about these matters of the heart."

For a long moment, Tracy studied Sam closely as a shiver crept up her spine. Who was this strange man? He seemed to know so much. She regarded him for a second longer, then remembering the reason for her visit, she smiled at him and began to shift again on her feet. "Uummmmm Sam?" she asked nervously.

"Yes, Tracy."

She cleared her throat and asked in a jittery voice. "Speaking of affairs of the heart, I was's like this...I know this guy....and I think that we could really have something special between us, but as you were saying a moment ago, maybe this leap of faith is his problem too. So....I was wondering....uummm...." she stammered wrapping a strand of blond hair around her ear and smacking her lips together.

"Yes, what is it, Tracy?" Sam gave her a gentle warm smile.

She took a deep breath and said, "I was wondering .....this of course would be purely for fun and experimentation....if this friend and I could borrow the virtual reality game?" She shrugged her shoulders and smiled shyly at Sam waiting breathlessly for his answer.


Nick crept into his bedroom, and looking over at the sleeping form in his bed, smiled down at the beautiful vision curled up under the covers. Still grinning, he slid under the satin sheets wrapping his arms around her, molding his body against hers. At the sudden movement, Natalie stirred, and rolling onto her back, sighed as she fell back into a deep slumber. Nick reached up with his hand gently stroking her cheek and brushing her thick auburn curls out of her face. Leaning over, he planted a light kiss on her brow as he began caressing her soft cheek again, rubbing the faint purplish spots on her skin.

In the last couple days, the bruising had started to fade around her face. Her physical ailments were improving quickly, but her mental state was still fragile from the virtual reality and real life attempted rapes. She would need much care and love in order to recuperate and he was going to see to it that she got it.

When he had returned from his encounter in the Cerk room at the Raven, he'd found Natalie pacing the floor of his loft, frantically waiting for his reappearance. Taking her swiftly in his arms, Nick had recounted to her the strange events, from the confrontaion with Lacroix to the spirit's threats towards his master and his words of wisdom to him.

And before Natalie could shift into that supernatural skepticism of hers, Nick had touched the tip of her nose and said, "You weren't there Nat. You didn't see the apparition. I did."

She'd smiled at him and replied, "Well....I'll try to keep an open mind about your experience with this spirit, but Nick, sometimes our minds can do funny things, trick us into believing something is real when it isn't, like the virtual reality game. The game seemed real, produced real-like images for us, but in actuality, those experiences had never happened." She'd said with regret in her voice, thinking of her and Nick. "Perhaps your sub-consciousness conjured up this apparition, too."

Nick had shaken his head and smiled at her. "No, it was all very real, Nat," he'd said emphatically.

Now, two days later, as Nick continued to rub Natalie's cheek and hold her in his arms, he remained steadfast in his belief that everything had truly happened; his guardian angel or whatever he was had materialized for a reason. To help Nick. Why this strange angel had chosen him, he couldn't say. He certainly didn't deserve it. But he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially if Lacroix could be kept at bay by this seraph and the Council of Elders. That is, if Lacroix's interference could be controlled by them. Nick remained doubtful.

Despite the possibility that Lacroix's meddling days were over, did he and Natalie really have a chance at a future together? At this point, he couldn't say. If a cure never materialized, he wasn't certain about crossing her, bringing her into his dark, dreary existence. However, could he ever let her go, ever allow her to get on with her life, a life without him?

Looking down at her sleeping form, he moved his hand from her cheek to her thick, wavy curls, entwining his fingers in her hair. No, at the moment, the thought of leaving her and moving on was too unbearable to comtemplate. So what was the solution? Nick frowned in discouragement.

All at once, his disheartened look turned to a hopeful smile while a warm feeling spread through him as he recalled the angel's words.

"The answer lies within yourself, Nicholas. Let your heart and your lost faith be your guiding force. Then and only then, will you be able to find what you have been searching for all these centuries."

Maybe his inspirational message was meant to be a solution to their problem. Perhaps, with renewed faith and real, genuine love, he and Natalie could tackle their insurmountable obstacles and find a way to truly be together, to have a future with each another. Maybe, that was the answer. But for the moment, he could be content, having Natalie with him, to hold in his arms, to take care of, to love as much as he dared to love her without endangering her life. It was enough for now, he thought as he closed his eyes, and holding his hopes and dreams in his arms, snuggled against her and succumbed to sleep.

The End

Will Tracy's wish come true? Will Sam allow a certain conquistador and perkulator to play the game? Who is the mysterious spector? Why is he or she Nick's guardian angel? What will be the outcome of Nick and Natalie's relationship in the real world? Will Natalie be able to convince Nick to bring her across or will she be doomed to live her life out as a mortal without him? Or will Nick gain his mortality? Stay tuned for the final installment, Games Detectives and Coroners Play.

I hope you enjoyed this segment as much as I loved writing it. Any comments are welcome because the suggestions and feedback you provide really inspire me to write more. You can email me at psmoot43@h....