Blood Lines Chapter Seven


'? no one is available to take your call at this moment. If you leave a message after the tone, I'll get back to you as soon as possible. Please don't assume I can remember where I put your phone number.’’

'Henry? Vicki. I want to check out that workroom tonight. The Department of Egyptology is on the fifth floor at the south end of the museum;meet me there as soon as you can.’’ She thought for a second, then added, ’’There'll be a single guard on the desk. I assume you can get in without any trouble.’’ Brow furrowed, Vicki put down the receiver. As it was still a couple of hours to sunset, she hadn't actually expected to speak to Henry, but she suddenly doubted the wisdom of putting that message on the machine.

'You're being ridiculous,’’ she sneered at herself. ’’The odds of Celluci's alleged mummy randomly tapping phone lines or gaining access to Henry's answering machine are about as likely as?’’ She sighed and redialed Henry's number. ’’? as it existing at all.’’

'Henry? Vicki. Erase this tape once you've listened to it.’’

'I'm probably just being paranoid,’’ she told a piece of cold pizza a moment later, picking a slice of salami off the congealed cheese. But as four people were already dead and they had no idea of the enemy's strength or its capabilities, she had no intention of being body number five or setting Henry up as number six.

It took less than fifteen minutes to walk to the Royal Ontario Museum from Vicki's apartment, but by the time she ducked down the alley between the McLaughlin Planetarium and the museum's main building, she was wishing she'd taken a cab. Everything below the angle of the umbrella had gotten soaked and the wind had blown cold rain up into her face at every opportunity.

'I hate October,’’ she muttered, using the narrow band of shelter under the second floor walkway to shake some of the excess water off the bottom of her trench coat. As she straightened, a cold dribble ran off her chin, down the inside of her collar, along the side of her neck, and into the hollow of her collarbone where it finally surrendered and was soaked up by her shirt.'

'On second thought, I can live with October, I hate rain.’’

At the staff entrance, she paused and peered through the outer set of glass doors. The only way to the inner set, and then into the museum, passed by a manned security station. A large sign instructed staff that security badges must be worn at all times and that visitors must check in at the desk.

Vicki smiled, peeled off her leather gloves and stuffed them in her pockets, then opened the door.

'Hello.’’ She extended her smile to include the guard and he willingly returned it. Her clothing said, respectable and her attitude said, nice person-just the sort security guards preferred to deal with. ’’My name's Celluci. I'm here to see Dr. Rachel Shane in Egyptology.’’ She figured it was the one name guaranteed to get her upstairs and if the guard recognized it, she'd merely use the same story she planned on giving Dr. Shane.

'Is Dr. Shane expecting you?’’

'Not at this precise moment, no.’’

'I'll have to call up.’’

'Oh, yes, of course.’’

A moment later she was in the elevator, a small pink badge pinned to her trench coat with Celluci and the number forty-two written on it. To her surprise, an attractive dark-haired woman met the elevator on the fifth floor.

'Mike. Is it?’’ she began, stepping forward as the doors opened. Then she stopped, flushed, and stepped back as Vicki moved out into the hall. ’’I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else.’’

'Detective-Sergeant Celluci?’’ Vicki guessed. She had a pretty good idea of who this must be from Celluci's description, but she wondered just how much, exactly, the detective in question hadn't told her about the good doctor. Why would she be coming to meet him at the elevator?

'That's right, but?’’

'You must be Dr. Shane.’’

'Yes. However?’’ Then she managed to read the name on the badge and her cheeks darkened. ’’You're not his wife are you?’’

Vicki felt herself flush in turn. ’’Not hardly.’’ Dr. Shane looked relieved but still embarrassed and again Vicki found herself wondering what Mike hadn't told her. And whether she really wanted to know. ’’I'm his cousin,’’ she continued. ’’He thought he left some papers here and, as I just work around the corner on Bloor Street, he asked me to come by.''

'Papers? Oh.’’ Dr. Shane turned and started down the hall. ’’Well, if he left them, the departmental secretary Ms. Gilbert will know. I don't think she's left for the day.’’

As they walked down the hall, Vicki noted doorways, locks, lines of sight, and Dr. Rachel Shane. Celluci could, of course, eat lunch with anyone he chose-their relationship had always been nonexclusive-but Vicki had to admit to being curious. He'd been so completely neutral when talking about the assistant curator that she'd known right away he was interested. Celluci wasn't that neutral about anything. Cursory observation showed Rachel Shane to be above average in height, attractive, self-assured, pleasant, polite? And obviously intelligent or she couldn't do her job. Christ, the perfect woman of the 90s. What do you want to bet she cooks, composts, and reads nonfiction? A muscle jumped in her jaw and, surprised, Vicki unclenched her teeth.

'So why didn't Detective Celluci come himself?’’

'I don't know.’’ Dr. Shane's question had been asked in a tone as aggressively noncommittal as any Vicki had ever heard. That must've been some lunch, Celluci.

There were, of course, no papers to find, although Ms. Gilbert, tying a plastic rain hat over permed hair, promised to keep an eye out.

'Thanks for looking.’’ As the older woman hurried out of the office, Vicki glanced down at her watch. Time for her to be leaving as well. This next bit had to be tightly choreographed. She held out her hand. ’’I appreciate you taking the time to see me, Dr. Shane.’’

'I'm just sorry we couldn't find the detective's papers.’’

She had a firm handshake and a dry palm. Another two points in her favor. ’’Time he started remembering where he leaves things anyway. But if they do turn up, will you call him?’’

'Yes, of course I will.’’

I'll bet. All of a sudden it was an effort to sound pleasant. ’’Did he give you his home number?’’

'Yes, he did.’’

And just what does that Mono Lisa smile mean? ’’Well, thanks again. I'll find my own way back to the elevator. I mean, it's a straight length of hall, I can hardly get lost.’’

Back on the first floor, a steady stream of staff members moved through the security area, leaving for the day. Vicki, with one eye on the clock, made sure the guard noticed her sign out and return her badge. Shift change would be in two minutes.

'Oh, blast, I left my umbrella upstairs.’’ She shot a panicked look at the outer doors where sheets of rain were slapping against the glass, then turned to the guard. ’’Mind if I run up and get it?''

'Nan, go ahead.’’ He shot a disgusted look of his own at the rain.

The best lie isn't a lie at all, Vicki mused retrieving her umbrella from behind one of the temple dogs at the door to the Far East Department. She hurried down the hall to a small supply cupboard, just past the photocopy machine. The door had been open earlier and it had seemed like the perfect hiding place. Unfortunately, the door was now locked and she'd be in plain sight of anyone approaching from either direction while she worked on it.

'Damn.’’

The open orange doors had to belong to the workroom;Vicki could hear Dr. Shane discussing the restoration of a mural. The double yellow doors across from them were ajar. Vicki slipped inside as the voices from the workroom grew louder.

'? so we'll take another look at that plaster patch tomorrow.’’

They were in the hall now.

Vicki turned. Obviously, she was in the storeroom;the black stone sarcophagus Celluci had mentioned sat barely an arm's length away. Just as obviously, someone would be arriving momentarily to turn off the lights and lock the door. After a quick glance at the lock-being trapped inside was low on her list of useful ways to spend the night-Vicki scanned the room for a hiding place. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of stuff made quiet movement impossible and the sarcophagus stood so close to the door that hiding behind it would be useless.

But in it?

She scrambled inside seconds before the storeroom door opened.

'Did you hear something, Ray?’’

'Not a thing, Dr. Shane.’’

'Must've been my imagination?’’

She didn't sound convinced and Vicki held her breath. A moment later, there was a soft click and the lights went out, then the door closed and Vicki heard keys in the lock.

The interior of the sarcophagus was actually quite roomy, having been built to hold a full-sized coffin, but Vicki had no intention of remaining inside. She crawled out and set both bag and umbrella on the top of the stone box. As far as the new guard knew, she'd signed out and was gone. The odds were slim to none that the old guard had told him she'd gone back inside. If the mummy was messing with people's heads-and as no one remembered it, it certainly looked like it was-there was nothing in anyone's head to incriminate her.

She was actually quite proud of the way she'd gotten past security. With the paranoia caused by two deaths, plain old sneaking in would have been impossible. That what she had done-and was doing-was illegal, bothered her a little, but as she wasn't going to hurt anything, or even disturb anything, her conscience would just have to roll with the punches. Actually, it had gotten pretty good at that since meeting Henry.

She fished her flashlight out of her bag by touch and checked her watch. Sunset would be in fifteen minutes. She'd give Henry half an hour to clear his head and get over to the museum, then she'd start working on the lock.

'Meanwhile,’’ she turned the tight beam on the sarcophagus, ’’let's see what I can find out here.’’

Henry stood for a moment watching Vicki work. Although emergency lights put the hall in twilight rather than true darkness, he knew that for Vicki they were one and the same. She could no more see the lock, inches in front of her face, than she could see him, yet her touch was sure as she probed at the mechanism. Silently, he moved a little closer and smiled as he realized her eyes were tightly shut.

'Well done,’’ he said softly as, with a sound only he could hear, the lock disengaged.

Heart pounding, Vicki fought the urge to leap to her feet and spin around. ’’Thank you very much, Henry,’’ she muttered, aware that no matter how low her voice he could pick it up, ’’you've just cost me a good six years of my life and almost made me shit my drawers.’’ Running her hand lightly up the door so as not to become disoriented, she stood. ’’Now, if we could get out of the hall before someone comes along?’’

He reached past her, turned the knob, and pulled one of the double doors partway open. Before he had a chance to act as guide, Vicki slipped through the narrow space and into the room beyond. Puzzled, he followed, pulling the door shut behind him. ’’Can you see?’’ he asked.

'Not a damn thing.’’ Although still bitter about her night blindness, a certain amount of pride colored her voice. ’’But I could feel the difference in the air where the door wasn't. Now then, be useful and find the lights. The doors fit tightly enough, there'll be no spill into the hall. Or not much anyway,’’ she amended as the multiple banks of fluorescents came on. Eyes streaming from the sudden glare, she turned to face Henry and found him slipping on a pair of dark glasses.

She grinned. ’’You look like a spy.’’ The black leather trench coat and sunglasses made an exotic contrast with the red-gold hair and pale skin.

His brows rose. ’’Isn't that what we're doing? Spying?’’

'Not really. If we get caught, it's breaking and entering.’’

Henry sighed. ’’Wonderful. Vicki, why are we here? All the evidence has certainly been cleared away.’’

'Maybe. Maybe not. I wanted to get a look at the scene of the crime.’’ Taking one final swipe at her eyes, Vicki glanced around the workroom. It had to be at least fifty feet square, perhaps larger;the high beige walls tended to draw the eye up. Rows of chest-high wooden cabinets covered half the room and floor-to-ceiling metal shelves-filled with stone, and pottery, and sculpture-the other half. They stood in an area obviously used for paperwork beside a buried desk and a number of laden bookshelves. To their left, a camera stood on a tripod before a neutral background and to their right a small kitchenette-fridge, counter, cupboards, and sink-ran along one wall. A lime green door just at the end of the counter led to the darkroom. Two padded sawhorses stood between the desk and the cabinets in the only open space of any size. Resting on them was the coffin, its lid on the closest cabinet. ’’Besides, I wanted you to take a look at that.’’

Henry sighed again. He was willing to help, but he honestly didn't see how this? excursion? was going to do any good. ’’Are you sure that's the right coffin?’’

Vicki's mouth twisted as she studied the artifact. Even without Celluci's description, she would have recognized it. The hair on the back of her neck rose and although she shrugged the feeling away, she was beginning to see why Celluci had been so willing to believe in his mummy. ’’I'm sure.’’

Hands shoved deep in his pockets, Henry walked over to the coffin. His dark lenses somehow gave it an unreal appearance and painted the snakes covering it the color of blood. Very ominous-but he had no idea what he was supposed to be looking for. His nose twitched at the still overpowering smell of cedar, then he frowned and lowered his head toward the cavity. So faintly that only one of his kind could pick it up, he caught the scent of a life.

Eyes closed, he breathed in the signature of centuries. Not merely flesh and blood but terror, pain, and despair?

Not stone above him, but rough wood embracing him so closely that the rise and fall of his chest brushed against the boards. All around the smell of earth. Screaming until his throat was raw, he twisted and thrashed through the little movement he had?

His eyes snapped open and Henry jerked back, away from the coffin, away from the memory of his own burial, trembling fingers sketching the sign of the cross. He turned to find Vicki watching him, her expression saying clearly that his reaction had been observed.

'Well?’’ she asked.

'Something spent a long time trapped in there.’’

'Something human?’’

He shrugged, more affected by the experience than he wanted to admit. ’’It was when they closed the lid. If it was aware for all those years, only God knows what it is now.’’

Vicki nodded thoughtfully and Henry realized that his reaction had not only been observed but anticipated. ’’That was why you wanted me here.’’ He'd told her of his burial the night he'd told her of his creation.

She nodded again, not noticing his rising anger. ’’You keep going on about how your senses are more acute, so I figured if there'd been something, someone, in there for three thousand years you'd be able to tell.’’

'You used me.’’

Vicki's jaw dropped at the fury in his voice and she took an involuntary step back. ’’What are you talking about?’’ She forced the words past a sudden throat tightening rush of fear. ’’I just assumed you'd be able to sense?’’ Then she remembered.

’’You know there's a very good reason most vampires come from the nobility, a crypt is a lot easier to get out of. I'd been buried good and deep and it took Christina three days to find me and dig me free.’’

She wet her lips and in spite of every instinct that told her to run as he advanced, she held her ground. ’’Henry, I didn't even think about you being buried. I didn't want an emotional reaction, just a physical one. Jesus Christ, Henry!’’ She brought her hands up and laid them flat against his chest, beginning to grow angry herself. ’’I wouldn't mess with my worst enemy's mind that way, let alone a friend's!’’

The words penetrated through the red haze and he found he had to believe her. He was left shaken, aghast at how close he had come to loosing the beast. ’’Vicki? I'm sorry.’’

'It's okay.’’ His cheek felt smooth and cool under her palm. He looked as though he'd frightened himself as much as he had frightened her. ’’We've all got triggers that cause us to act without thinking.’’

'And what are yours?’’ he asked, firmly jamming a civilized mask and a patina of control back into place.

'We haven't got time to go into that right now,’’ Vicki snorted. ’’People'll be coming back in about twelve hours.’’ She jerked her head toward the door, remembering the strain he was under lately, willing to forget the whole incident and go on. ’’We'd better go check out the offices. This place has told us everything it can.’’

Henry stood by the office window and looked down at the traffic. He should have known that Vicki would never use him in such a way-use his abilities, yes, but not his fears. Waking every evening to an image of the sun had him on edge and it seemed that the reminder of his burial had shoved him over. How many other reminders would there be, he wondered. Four hundred and fifty odd years of life supplied a great many things to be reminded of.

Perhaps the image was an indication that his time had run out, an invitation to a cleaner end than one of gradual loss of self. And if it came to a choice, he would take the fire.

'Ouch! Son of a bitch!’’

Henry hid a smile as Vicki careened off a corner of Dr. Rax's desk, thoughts of death temporarily banished by the current condition of his life. As Vicki flicked on the desk lamp, he moved away from the window. ’’Are you sure that's safe.’’

'Of course I'm sure,’’ Vicki told him, rubbing the front of her thigh and blinking owlishly. ’’If anyone sees the light they'll assume someone's working late, but if they see the flashlight beam,’’ she snapped it off and dropped it into the cavernous depths of her purse as she spoke, ’’they'll assume a break-in.’’

'They teach you that at the police academy?’’

'Not likely. Back when I was in uniform, a habitual criminal named Weasel took it on himself to further my education.’’

'Isn't that a little counterproductive on his pan?’’ Henry asked, walking over to the desk. ’’Letting the cops know his secrets?’’

'Oh, Weasel wasn't a bad fellow. His definition of personal property was just a bit loose.’’ She sat down and scanned the desktop. ’’Now then, what have we here?’’

'What are you looking for?’’

'I'll tell you when I? hello.’’ The large book sitting half on and half off the blotter had a number of pages crumpled and folded under as though the book had been dropped and then hastily shut without any regard for its condition. ’’Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, Third Edition. ’’ She opened it to the folds and pulled it directly under the pool of light, scowling at the unpronounceable names. ’’I wonder if Dr. Rax was looking something up the night he died.’’

'Is there an illustration in there that looks like this?’’ Henry handed her the desk calendar. The top page still read Monday, October 19th. Dr. Rax hadn't seen October 20th.

Vicki squinted at the sketch under the date. It looked like some weird combination of a deer's body and a bird's head. Then she turned back to the book.

'Here it is. Pretty good likeness, too, if he was doing it from memory. Akhekh? This guy needs another vowel?’’ She rubbed a hand over the back of her neck and found herself looking up at Henry for reassurance. She felt like a fool when she realized he stood beyond her severely limited range of vision and bent her head to continue reading. ’’Akhekh, a predynastic god of upper Egypt absorbed into the conqueror's religion to become a form of the evil god Se? F*k!’’ Slamming the book closed she sat panting, eyes wide, staring at something Henry couldn't see.

'Vicki?’’ He grabbed her shoulders and shook her, hard enough to break through the blank expression. ’’What happened?’’

She blinked, frowned, and checked to make sure she could still move her head. ’’Whiplash, I think.’’

'Vicki!’’ He shook her again, not as hard but a little more emphatically.

Wetting her lips, she shot a glance at the book. ’’The eyes on the diagram, they were red. Glowing. They looked right at me.’’

He moved his shoulders under the silk shirt and smiled at his reflection. The feeling pleased him. This century had much to offer those with the ability to appreciate it. When he finished his restructuring, it would truly be a paradise.

Missing the institution of slavery, and its simplicity of service, he had effectively enslaved the hotel manager and two of his assistants. Their ka had submitted so completely to his, they had very little independence left. It was only a small beginning, but he had plenty of time.

The Solicitor General, with whom he had spent another productive afternoon, was under a similar depth of control. As it was necessary-at least for a time-that the man be able to function independently without arousing suspicion, the application of that control worked on a number of very subtle levels and responded to a myriad of external clues. He was to provide the men and women who would be sworn to Akhekh, their ka going to build power in the heavens even as they gathered power on Earth.

He saw the red glow in the mirror a heartbeat before his reflection faded and he stared instead at the image of his god.

High priest of my new order, it said.

Arms crossed over his breast, he bowed, centuries of practice keeping his distaste from showing. ’’My lord?’’

Open your ka to me. I have marked the first of those who will provide me with sustenance.

Vicki ducked out from behind the blackout curtain and pulled the bedroom door closed, suppressing a shudder as she thought of Henry, stretched out immobile on the bed. Although she wasn't usually inclined to dwell on the past, the afternoon spent waiting for him to wake had made an impression that showed no signs of fading. He seemed to show no desire to immolate himself this morning, but she recognized-last night's little adventure had forced her to recognize-that his nerves were stretched to the breaking point.

'Vampires shouldn't have nerves,’’ she muttered, stepping into the living room and lifting her face to the dawn. It infuriated her that she could do nothing for him but watch and wait.

Yawning, she pulled off her glasses and rubbed at her eyes. Getting out of the museum had been a lot less complicated than getting in;Henry had simply caught the guard's eye, then the two of them had walked right on by. Vicki hadn't been able to stop herself from muttering, ’’These are not the droids you're looking for.’’ Unfortunately, she hadn't managed much sleep after they got back to Henry's condo. Dreams of ancient Egyptian gods and human sacrifice kept jerking her awake. Promising herself a good long nap later in the day, she collapsed into a red velvet armchair and reached for the phone. If Celluci wasn't awake by now, he should be.

He answered on the second ring.

'Celluci.’’

'Morning, Detective. You awake enough to hear some news?’’

She heard him swallow and in her mind's eye could see him standing rumpled and unshaven in the tiny kitchen of his house in Downsview. ’’Good news or bad?’’

'I got both. Which do you want first?’’

'Give me the good news, I could use some.’’

'You aren't crazy. There was a mummy in that coffin and it now seems to be roaming around Toronto.’’

'Great.’’ He swallowed again. ’’And the bad news?’’

'There was a mummy in that coffin and it now seems to be roaming around Toronto.’’

'Very funny. When I want to know who's on first, I'll ask. How are you going to find it?’’

Vicki sighed. ’’I don't know,’’ she admitted. ’’But I'll think of something. Maybe I should find a reason for Trembley and her partner being killed when the staff at the ROM were only? uh, mind-wiped.’’

'Maybe I should have another talk with Dr. Shane.’’

'Well, why not. She already seems to be mistakenly impressed.’’ Idiot! I don't believe I said that. Vicki smacked herself in the head with her free hand. Brain first, mouth second!

She could hear his eyebrows rise. ’’When did you meet Dr. Shane?’’

'Yesterday at the museum.’’ Not telling him would only cause him to jump to the asinine conclusion she'd been checking up on him. ’’During my investigation of your mummy.’’

'Right.’’

The smile in his voice set her teeth on edge. ’’F*k off, Celluci. It's too early in the morning for that shit. Call me if she has anything useful to say.’’ She hung up before he could answer.

'He thinks I'm jealous,’’ she told her reflection in the glossy black side of Henry's stereo cabinet. ’’Why should I be jealous of Rachel Shane when I haven't been jealous of any of the busty bimbets he's bounced over the years?’’

'Because Dr. Shane is a lot like you?’’ her reflection suggested.

She flipped it the finger and dragged herself up out of the chair. ’’It is really too early in the morning for this.’’

It had stopped raining, but the sky looked low enough to touch and a cold west wind had chased Vicki all the way down College Street to Police Headquarters. After a long nap and a leisurely breakfast of canned ravioli, she'd realized that Inspector Can tree's speaking to the Chief about a routine departmental matter still bothered her.

'And it's not like I have any other leads,’’ she reminded herself, waiting for the light at Bay. Across the street, Headquarters loomed like an art deco Lego set. A number of people hated it, but Vicki thought it looked cheerful and had always appreciated the image,'reality contrast.

She paused for a moment on the steps. Although she'd been back a couple of times in the fourteen months since she'd left the force, it had always been to one of the safe areas, like the morgue or forensics, never to homicide. To get to Inspector Cantree's office, she'd have to run the gauntlet through the entire homicide department. Where someone else would be using her desk. Where old friends and colleagues would still be fighting to keep the city from going down the sewer.

Where none of them can do the job you're doing now against a threat just as real. That helped. She glanced at her watch-twelve twenty-seven. ’’Oh, hell.’’ She squared her shoulders and reached for the door. ’’Maybe they'll all be out for lunch.’’

They weren't, but the big office was empty enough that Vicki, her visitor's pass hanging off her lapel like a scarlet letter, only saw two people she knew-and one of them barely had time to call a greeting before he had to turn his attention back to the phone. Unfortunately, person number two had time on his hands.

'Well, well, well. If it isn't Victory Nelson, returning to the fold.’’

'Hey, Sid.’’ Although a number of the other women on the force had complained that he was a bit of a tomcat, Vicki had nothing personal against Detective Sidney Austen. Professionally, she thought he didn't take his job seriously enough and was a little surprised to see him still in homicide. ’’How's it going?’’

He perched on the edge of his desk and grinned at her. ’’You know the drill;overworked and underpaid.’’ She saw him noting the thickness of her glasses, wondering how much she could see. ’’So, what did you do with your seeing eye dog?’’

'I made stew.’’

His shout of laughter drowned out the grinding of her teeth. ’’Seriously, Victory, how's life as a private investigator?’’

'Not so bad.’’

'Yeah? Celluci says you're doing pretty good.’’

Trust Celluci to issue bulletins. ’’I'm managing.’’

'I hear a couple of the others have tossed a few cases your way, too.’’ He recognized her expression and hurriedly spread his hands. ’’Hey, I didn't mean that the way it sounded.’’

'I'm sure you didn't.’’ Her smile felt tight.

Sid shook his head. ’’Jesus. It doesn't seem like you've been gone more than a year. You could come back right now and it'd be like you were never away. Speaking of which,’’ he pulled his brows down in an exaggerated frown, ’’how come you haven't been back more often? You know, just dropping in and touching base?’’

Because it sticks a knife in my heart and twists it, you asshole. But she couldn't say that to him. Instead, she shrugged and asked, ’’If you got out of this shithole, would you come back?’’ knowing he'd misunderstand the edge on her voice. ’’I've got to go. The Inspector's expecting me.’’

Stepping into Inspector Cantree's office was like stepping into the past. How many times had she gone through that door? A hundred? A thousand? A hundred thousand? The last time, just before she left, they'd both been painfully polite. The memory hurt but not so much as she'd feared. She had a new life now and the place where they'd amputated the old had pretty much scarred over.

'Welcome back, Nelson.’’ Cantree covered the mouthpiece of the phone and jerked his head toward the coffee maker on the filing cabinet. ’’Get yourself something to drink, I'll be with you in a minute.’’

The coffee had the thick, black, iridescent look of an oil slick. Vicki half-filled a pressed cardboard cup and added two large spoonfuls of powdered whitener, past experience having taught her that after the first couple of mouthfuls her taste buds would surrender and she'd be able to get the rest down without gagging. Someone had suggested once that offering the Inspector's coffee to suspects might convince them to confess, but the idea had to be abandoned as a potential human rights violation.

'So.’’ Can tree hung up the phone as Vicki pulled a chair closer to the desk and sat down. ’’It's good to see you again, Nelson.’’ He sounded like he meant it. ’’I've been following your new career when I can. You've been responsible for a couple of nice convictions along with the lost dogs and cheating husbands. I'm sorry we had to lose you.’’

'Not as sorry as I was to be lost.’’ She managed a wry smile as she said it.

The Inspector nodded acknowledgment, of both the statement and the delivery. ’’How are the eyes?’’

'Still in my head.’’ But as he was one of the four people in the world who she felt was owed an honest answer, she continued, ’’Piss useless after dark but fully functional in bright light, as long as I'm willing to face the world square on. Peripheral's closed in another twenty-five percent in the last year.’’

'Could be worse.’’

'Could be raining!’’ she snapped and savagely swallowed a mouthful of coffee but, after it seared a trail the length of her esophagus, the pressure of his gaze forced her to add, ’’All right, it could be worse.’’

Cantree smiled. ’’You know you're welcome back any time, but as this is the first you've darkened my door since you turned in your badge, I assume there's a reason for the visit.’’

'I've been hired to look into the deaths at the ROM and I wondered what you could tell me about them.’’

'Hired by who?’’

Vicki smiled in turn. ’’I can't tell you that.’’

'All right, tell me this: Why aren't you picking Celluci's brain.’’

'Picked clean. And, as he tells me you've taken him off the case, I just wondered why.’’

'You've never just wondered anything in your life, Nelson, but, in view of past services and because I'm a nice guy, I'll tell you what I told him?’’

As he spoke, Vicki hid a frown. He was telling her exactly what he told Celluci, word for word, as though it were something he'd memorized and now repeated by rote. And try as she would, she couldn't get him to expand on it. Finally, she gave up and stood. ’’Well, thanks for the time and the coffee, but I've got to be?’’ A thick cream-colored envelope, its return address done in embossed gold ink caught her eye. ’’You going to a wedding?’’ she asked, picking it up.

'I'm going to a Halloween party at the Solicitor General's.’’ Cantree snatched it out of her hand and Vicki stared at him.

'You're bullshitting me?’’

'Wouldn't dream of it.’’ He slapped the envelope down on his blotter. ’’Apparently the Honorable Member's got some hot new adviser he wants everyone from department heads on up to meet.’’

'Who?’’

'How should I know? I haven't met him yet. Some new guy in town with a lot of big ideas no doubt.’’

Vicki reached down and twitched the invitation free. ’’The thirty-first. Next Saturday. Halloween. How nice, it's a costume party.’’ She had an image of Inspector Cantree- who did look remarkably like James Earl Jones-dressed as Thulsa Doom, the villain of the first Conan movie, and hid a smile.

'Sure, nice for you, you haven't been ordered to attend.’’ He grimaced and Vicki barely managed to save her fingers as he swept both invitation and envelope into the top drawer of his desk. ’’The Chief says we're going, no excuses, and I hear the local OPP boys'll be there as well. Not to mention the goddamned Solicitor General's entire goddamned department.’’ The grimace hardened into a scowl. ’’Just the way I look forward to spending a Saturday night, talking shop with a bunch of politicians and political cops.’’

'And very powerful people?’’ She caught the Inspector's expression and grinned, masking a sudden rush of apprehension. ’’I see you at least got enough notice to get your loins properly girded.’’

'You leave my loins out of this. And the damn thing came by special courier this morning.’’

'Special courier? Don't you find that a little strange?’’

He snorted. ’’Ours is not to reason why?’’ The rest of the quote got lost in the shrilling of the phone and she mouthed, I'll see myself out, as she backed toward the door.

Out on the street, Vicki looked back at Headquarters and shook her head. I've got a bad feeling about this.

Sometimes, only a cliche’’ seemed adequate.

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