Because I owe the Nat-Pack.

A Fight to the Finish
by Susan M. Garrett

"Only one stab wound?" Nick placed the mug on the filing cabinet and walked toward the sheet covered body.

Natalie swept by him, picked up the mug, then turned and pushed it back into his hands. "One. A clean, single stab, right between the ribs. No struggle."

"So, the victim either knew the killer and didn't expect to be killed--"

"Or the killer was a stranger the victim didn't find threatening," finished Natalie. She leaned back against the sink and sighed, indicating the mug with a wave of her hand. "It's better hot."

Nick sniffed at the contents of the mug and grimaced. "Let's see if there's a difference."

"Let's not and say we did." When he raised an eyebrow in challenge, she sighed again and took the cup from his hands. "At least you're taking your vitamins. You are taking your vitamins?"

He gave a slight shrug, accompanied by what was supposed to be a winsome smile. "We've had two knifings in the last six hours, one drowning--"

"Then tell me why I'm bothering?" Natalie fixed him with a steady glare, then gave a final sigh and turned around. She pulled a pair of latex gloves from the box. "I've got work to do. When you're serious about this, come back and we'll talk. Until then--"

"I am serious," promised Nick, suddenly beside her. He took a sip of the tea--it was one hell of a grimace for a sip of tea--and swallowed for her benefit.

"Then do what I tell you to do." She smacked him in the chest as she walked past him and over toward the instrument cart. "How am I supposed to cure--?"

"I just don't see what a couple of vitamins and a mug of tea have anything to do--"

They'd begun and ended their sentences about the same time. Natalie sucked on her front teeth with her lip as Nick shrugged, shame-faced. "Fine," she answered sharply. "Maybe we should take a break, then. Obviously, I'm not getting you the results you want." Snapping a glove into place, she picked up one of the scalpels from the tray and gestured with it. "If you can find someone else, or think of something better--"

Nick moved quickly again--God, she hated when he did that--and stood behind her, hands on her shoulders. "I don't want anyone else. You know I appreciate everything you've done. It's just so . . . ."

"Frustrating?" Natalie offered, surprised at the shakiness in her voice.

"Yes." His hands lifted from her shoulders and he walked away, turning his back to her. "One blind alley after another, blood samples, skin samples, hair samples--nothing. After all this time . . . nothing."

"And you find this frustrating?" Her fingers wound around the second glove tightly, but she stared down at the instrument tray, trying to control her anger. "Well, my heart bleeds for you. I'm looking forward to making a career of this--blind alleys. Hey, if I keep this up, I might make it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most consistent choice of fruitless line of inquiry--"

They both looked up as the door to the hall opened. Natalie's anger faded as she recognized the woman who peered in hesitantly and asked, "Is Dr. Lambert here?"

"Meredith?" She pulled the glove from her hand as she hurried toward the door. "What are you doing here this time of night?"

Her friend was dressed if not to kill, then to wound with intent to do bodily harm later--her blond hair was pulled back in a chignon and the gold dress went from neck to waist without a lot in between. She hesitated behind the door, then stepped into the room, a small gold purse clutched in her hands. "If you're busy, I'll catch you another time. I just stopped by--" Looking up, she caught sight of Nick. "Ah, you are busy. Nat, I'm sorry--"

"Don't be silly." Trying to ignore the fact that she was wearing autopsy greens and looked like something that had just crawled out of the Salvation Army donation reject bag in comparison with her friend, Natalie grabbed Meredith's arm and dragged her over to Nick. "Meredith, this is Nick Knight, he's a homicide detective with the 29th. Nick, this is Meredith Restine--Dr. Meredith Restine," she corrected, as Nick reached forward to take Meredith's hand.


"Dr. Restine."

Meredith shook his Nick's hand, then looked over at the sheet-covered corpse. " I am interrupting something. Look, Nat, I'll call you tomorrow--"

"You'll get busy and forget," scolded Natalie, placing herself between Meredith and the door. "So you stay."

Nick chuckled beneath his breath. "Maybe I'd better leave--"

"You stay, too! You found the body, you've gotta stay with it until I sign off . . . and I haven't signed off yet." She turned back to Meredith, quickly dropping the tone of 'don't you dare, we're gonna finish this' that she'd used on Nick. "Besides," she glanced back at Nick quickly, a thought striking her, "you might make yourself useful."

Meredith laughed at Nick's confused expression. "I think she means you'd better hide your checkbook, Detective." She ran a hand down her dress self-consciously. "Guess you recognized the 'power-shilling' duds, huh?"

"Considering that during two years of residency, I never saw you in anything other than jeans and sweats off-duty--" Natalie half-turned when she heard Nick mumble something about her fashion icon and threw one of the latex gloves at him. But then she quickly fixed her gaze on Meredith and asked bluntly, "How much a plate?"

"A thousand."

Natalie nodded at her friend's woebegone expression. "I figured it had to be at least that much."

"You know how it is--dress up the best-looking researchers and put them out for display. I think I've been pawed by every wealthy, middle-aged man in the city tonight. But if it means more money?" She shrugged in resignation, then smiled slightly and gestured toward the corpse. "I don't suppose you have that problem."

"Oh, yeah, people are just dying to get in here. And the money?" Natalie rolled her eyes and they both laughed. But Meredith's laughter faded quickly and Natalie reached forward and took her hand. "How's it going?"

"The same. Always the same. More of the same." Meredith's smile was forced. "No light at the end of the tunnel . . . yet."

Why hadn't she noticed the lines around Meredith's eyes? Or the weariness of her smile? They hadn't always been there, had they? And that 'yet' was a lot slower in coming than it used to be. "Burn out?' she asked softly.

"Frustration." Meredith squeezed her hand as if accepting her sympathy, then released it. "We're not getting anywhere, Nat. Maybe someone is, a few baby steps here and there, but people are still dying. People are still getting infected." She closed her eyes and rubbed the back of her hand across them, then forced a smile. "I go to these things and look at these people and I know they have no idea why they're really there. They give money, but they don't see the victims. They're just afraid, that's all. They're afraid it'll happen to them, so they try to buy their way out of it. It makes me so angry . . . until I think of the people on the other end, the ones in the hospitals and hospices. And then I get really angry--how dare they want me to dress up and dance when I could be doing somebody more good running sample checks or bacteria comparisons!"

Natalie heard Nick walk toward them, asking, "What kind of research?"

"AIDS," answered Natalie, seeing Meredith jump like a startled rabbit at the sound of his voice--she'd forgotten Nick was there. "Merry's one of the good guys."

Meredith smiled sadly. "Not really--it's pretty selfish of me. I just got tired of getting to know people and then having to watch them die." Then she took a step back, eyes widening. "Look, you've gotta get back to work. And I've gotta get out of this damned dress."

"Call me?" pressed Natalie, following her to the door. She turned Meredith toward her and shook her finger at her friend's nose. "Doctor's orders!"

"I will."

"Uh, Dr. Restine?" Nick approached, a folded slip of paper in his hand.

Meredith looked at Natalie, eyes narrowing as she took the paper.

"It's not much," he explained, studiously ignoring Natalie's curious gaze. "Consider it . . . a plate."

Meredith bit her lip, looking over the paper at Natalie. "Can he afford this?" she asked, showing her the check.

It was made out for a thousand dollars. Natalie glanced over at Nick, who looked away--they both knew he could afford much more, but not without blowing his cover as a Toronto police department employee. "I think he'll manage," she answered, smiling at Meredith.

"Good. Because I'd take it anyway." Meredith shook his hand solemnly. "Nice meeting you, Detective. And thank you." She leaned forward to hug Natalie good-bye. "And I will call."

"You'd better!" warned Natalie, letting enough of an edge enter her voice to cause them both to laugh. She opened the door for Meredith and watched her walk down the hall and do a fair job of balancing on those awkward heels.

"She, uh, seems like a good person."

Natalie closed the door and rested against it wearily for a moment, before turning. He was standing by her desk, idly playing with her stapler. "Yeah. She is." Then she cleared her throat and walked over to him. Placing a hand on his arm, she said, "That wasn't necessary." When Nick looked at her blankly, she added, "The check?"

He shrugged and half-turned, but she wrapped her arm around his, refusing to let him get away. "Maybe not. It was--it was something she said. About getting to know people and then having to watch them die."

When he looked up, he was somewhere in the past--she knew the expression, that defiant set of his chin, as if he were daring his memories to contradict him. Natalie tightened her grip on his arm and got his attention back . . . as well as a sheepish grin. "We both know it's a stabbing," she said, patting his arm and releasing him, then walking back to the body. "I'll sign you off. Go back and annoy Schanke some more, I know you haven't gotten in your quota for tonight."

"In a minute. I need--I need some more of those little yellow pills. I, uh, lost them."

Natalie glanced up sharply. "Vitamin C?"

"The yellow ones. Whatever."

With a nod and hiding her smile, she picked up the latex glove she'd dropped on the sheet-covered corpse. "Okay. I'll drop them by on my way home. Anything else?"

This time, he was careful not to move too quickly. He walked over to her, fingers wrapped around the mug, which he pressed into her hands. "You're right, it's better hot," Nick said, with a grin. "Nat, I . . . thanks."

She took the mug automatically and glanced inside it--he'd finished off at least four ounces of tea. "You want to call it quits, you call it quits," she said quietly. "I'm not the enemy, Nick. I'm in it for the long haul--whatever it takes. I'm not giving up on you."

"Even if I give up on myself?"

"To the not-so-bitter end," she informed him, smiling and pushing the mug back into his hands.

Nick groaned as he took it, but he swallowed the rest of the tea in one long, painful gulp. Handing the mug back to her, he said, "See you later," and pressed a kiss to her forehead before leaving.

For a long moment she simply stood there, hands wrapped around the mug. It wasn't the first battle, or the last, but she'd won--they'd won--just the same. One battle in a long war. And even if she couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel, she knew it was there, somewhere.

Because this was a fight to the finish.

The end.