Nick knelt next to the body of Gloria Jones, examining her face. Such a waste, he thought. Natalie knelt on her other side, while Schanke stood at her feet.
"Looks pretty cut and dried to me," Schanke said.
"We’ve got exit and entry wounds, the bullet, the motive. . . we’ll confirm everything in the lab, but it does seem to be a simple homicide. Well, not simple, not exactly," Nat said as she looked at Nick.
Nothing about the case had been simple. Gloria, the dead woman they knelt over now, had been arrested for killing her husband. She said it had been self defense, and had told quite a story of emotional and physical abuse, neglect, humiliation and unfaithfulness, but none of the evidence backed her up. None of their mutual friends believed it, having seen no signs of such treatment, claiming they appeared to be completely normal and happy.
Whatever that means, Nick thought.
Now she was dead, shot by her late husband's brother, who now sat in a cell, seemingly distraught over his brother's death and his own actions of revenge, actions that he claimed he had not planned, but had been motivated by sudden and overwhelming grief.
"Nick?" Natalie reached out and put a hand on his arm.
He pulled himself back from a memory that was tugging at him. "Yeah, I'm okay. I'll see you at the morgue later, all right?"
He felt LaCroix nearby, and looked over his shoulder at the top of the building across the street and caught just a glimpse of him. Nick told Schanke he'd catch up with him later, threw him the keys to the Caddy, and walked away. As soon as he was out of sight, he joined LaCroix on the roof.
"Another Delilah, Nicholas?"
"Have you been following the case, LaCroix? I'm surprised you've taken such an interest."
"So, Nicholas,” he said, drawing out every syllable, “was she innocent?”
Nick knew the details, knew things no one else yet suspected. Things he didn’t want to share, not with LaCroix. "Why do you care?"
"I don’t, not really. My interest is merely. . . academic."
LaCroix had noted the woman’s beauty when her picture first appeared in the papers and on the news for the murder of her husband. She was all doe-eyed and soft, the kind Nicholas had always thought he could save. The kind he'd always thought he could trust. She had reminded him of another beauty, one they'd both had the pleasure of knowing.
Even without their connection, he could see the memory in Nicholas’s eyes, and knew he was remembering her, too.
There would have been no trial back then, no hope of fairness no matter what her reasons. A woman who killed her husband would be dragged into the town square and beaten, either stoned to death or hanged immediately if she were lucky. Taken to a dungeon and 'questioned' first, if she were not.
Self-defense was no defense then, as women had no right to such luxuries.
Nicholas had been following her for a few days, because he desired her, in a way that LaCroix knew he believed to be a pure one. Not just for her blood or her body, he wanted to be with her. He had just approached her window when she ran out, hysterical, blood on her clothes and her hands.
She had convinced Nicholas that it hadn’t been her fault, but her husband’s. He'd been cruel, unfaithful, and finally murderous, trying to stab her in anger, when she'd managed to get the dagger away from him because he was slow with drink. He'd lunged at her, and fallen onto the blade.
Nicholas had hidden her away, promising to keep her safe. LaCroix knew the fool boy was considering bringing her across, she had enchanted him that deeply. He also knew this woman had stabbed her husband through the heart with his own skinning knife while he slept.
He still remembered the exact look of horror, betrayal and shock on Nicholas's face when Nicholas had opened the door to their hiding place, a pack of food for his soon-to-be-love, only to find LaCroix leaning over the woman's body.
"Why, LaCroix?" First pleading, then furious. "Why?"
He had been so tempted to say why not as he'd licked her blood from his fingertip. Instead, he'd said nothing as the woman’s ‘dead’ husband emerged from the shadows, blood on his lips, on his fangs, and said, “Because she was a murderer.”
LaCroix stood and looked at Nicholas with something close to pity. "You are still so naive. It's almost embarrassing. How easily you're taken in by beauty. Her limpid brown eyes and full mouth, heaving breasts, were all it took to convince you of her innocence?"
"I saw the bruises, LaCroix, the torn dress, I saw it!"
LaCroix's smile broadened. "Bruises I put there during a rather enthusiastic encounter. A mutually enthusiastic one that she enjoyed to the fullest, I assure you. And I'd venture a guess that it was not her first."
Nick spun, unwilling to look at LaCroix anymore.
"She gave me her body and the promise of coin in the hopes that I would kill her husband.” LaCroix walked up behind Nicholas, their bodies brushing, letting Nicholas sense what happened then through their blood bond. How he'd gone to the husband, a young man who had just inherited his uncle's money. A young man with a narrow waist and full lips, who had been devastated by LaCroix's tale of his venomous and scheming wife. And had offered favors of his own for LaCroix's special brand of help.
He let Nick feel then what he'd felt, his tongue on those full lips, on his neck, the sweet taste of his blood and his body as LaCroix took him and brought him over, saving him from the knife that would later be planted in his chest.
"She was a whore, and a murderer, Nicholas. I think she met an appropriate fate, don’t you?”
Nick spun then. "Why do you play these games, you couldn’t just tell me?"
"You wouldn't have believed me." LaCroix knew by the look in Nicholas's eyes, he'd hit the truth, and Nick knew it. "You never learn your lessons easily. Never. Have."
LaCroix remembered well how he had reached then to touch Nicholas's face, only to have him snap himself away as he had so many times before that, and so many times after. He had only smiled that night, letting Nicholas retreat and lick his wounds.
Nick remembered the events, as LaCroix had, remembered trying to get away from him once again, infuriated at how he always seemed to control key parts of Nick's life. Always bringing more death with him.
"This woman, she could be just as guilty as that one, couldn’t she,” LaCroix said, rather than asked.
"Possibly," he said. He knew she was. But he would keep that knowledge to himself, only because it seemed that LaCroix wanted it.
"Are you still so easily deceived by beauty?"
Nick said, completely without anger, "Do you still find it so easy to destroy?"
If LaCroix was shocked or hurt by the question, it did not show. “What you see as beauty, Nicholas, is not. Not always. You put them on pedestals merely because they are mortal, and their lives burn out so quickly. Yes, some create great beauty—art, literature, music—and some care for those less fortunate, cure diseases, teach, love. They squeeze it all into a few short decades. It happens, albeit rarely. They do not represent the whole, Nicholas. They are but a few stars burning brightly in a great, black, void. I suspect that if we exist in 10,000 years, humanity, in general, will still fall short of your lofty expectations.”
"Do you ever regret it?" Nick said, not feeling up to a large philosophical discussion, the kind that he always came out of feeling chastised and furious.
LaCroix’s eyebrows raised. “My question first, and then I’ll answer yours. Do you believe she was innocent?"
It took Nick a moment to register what he meant. He thought of the dead woman on the pavement a few blocks over. "No.” What was the point of trying to keep anything from LaCroix? “I know she was not.”
LaCroix took a few steps as if he were going to walk past Nicholas, but stopped when he was next to him, shoulder to shoulder. "I see. Then, you are aware that she and her brother-in-law, the one who shot her a few hours ago, had been having an affair for several months. He had orchestrated, with her, the murder of his own brother. And then killed her, only when she was prepared to tell the whole story to the police, in exchange for freedom."
Nick didn't look at him. One night, when he was alone with Gloria and enchanted by her eyes, concerned that her story seemed so unlikely, and in an effort to help her, he’d looked deeply, only to discover the truth in her mind.
He hated how LaCroix he always managed this. Once again, he was there, somehow woven inextricably into the fabric of of Nick’s life, even if only by his knowledge.
Nick nodded. "Yes. I knew that." He wouldn’t reveal how he came to know. He suspected LaCroix already knew, somehow, in that way he had of knowing everything Nick found important. “Now my question, LaCroix. Do you ever regret it?”
"Her specifically?" he said, referring to the similar woman years ago.
"Yes. And others. You know which I'm talking about."
LaCroix did know. There had been so many. He had killed so many mortals that had become part of Nicholas's life. Mortals Nicholas loved, or trusted, almost always mistakenly. It hadn't been just lessons that had lead LaCroix to do so. He knew jealousy and possessiveness played as great a part as any wish to teach Nicholas the proper order of things.
Did he regret killing them? LaCroix regarded him as openly as he knew how. "No."
Nicholas turned and looked over the city, disappointed in himself for hoping for a different answer. “Of course you don’t.”
“I regret. . . that each time, you felt injured by it.”
Nick hadn't expected that. He noted the precise wording. Regret that Nick’s reaction had been what it was, not an apology for his actions. Yet, Nick knew that was the closest to one he would ever get, even if they truly were eternal.
He turned and looked at LaCroix, waiting for the punch line, the expression that told of something else, a last word that would somehow twist what he'd said into something cruel.
It didn't come.
LaCroix breathed deeply, exhaled slowly. “Perhaps I should regret killing you. Mightn’t you have been one of those bright, brief, twinkling stars in the dark?”
Nick couldn’t speak for a moment. Finally, one corner of his mouth turned up, amazed that he could feel hurt, insulted and flattered all in the space of five minutes. “Then perhaps, after all these years, LaCroix, you’ve grown.”
“Perhaps. A little.” LaCroix’s voice dropped to its deepest timbre. “Will you weep for her, Nicholas?”
Nick thought of the cold, calculation beneath those beautiful brown eyes. “No,” he whispered.
“Then perhaps we both have.”