by Susan M. Garrett

"Nice job!" commented Natalie, as she wrapped the gauze lightly around his elbow and upper arm. "A joint, too, no less. Bend--"

Nick bent his elbow at her command, wincing slightly. "How bad is it?"

"Anyone else, I'd say they'd be out for at least half a week and have to give up their career as a right handed hitter. You?" Natalie taped the edge of the gauze in place and stepped back, admiring her handiwork. "You'll be ready for a home run in another three, maybe four hours. The next time you chase somebody into a construction site, watch out for free-floating steel beams, okay?"

"Never saw it coming. But I'll take your advice." Carefully, Nick rolled down what was left of his torn and bloodied shirt sleeve over the gauze, then examined the sliced sleeve of his leather jacket.

"You'd better drop by the loft and change that," warned Natalie, as she walked back to the sink, to wash her hands. "I don't think Schanke's going to miss it. And you're very lucky he was on the other side of the site when it happened."

"Yeah." Still toying with the ruined sleeve, Nick slipped off the counter and to the floor. "The last thing I need is a trip to the emergency room."

"Which is what you're going to get if you leave here one more time without that."

Nick followed Natalie's glance toward the brown paper bag on her desk--yet another version of the protein drink she'd been trying to foist on him for the past three days. The last one had been such a dismal failure--he made a face, the memory of the taste still lingering.

But Natalie turned from the sink, catching his look as she dried her hands. "Okay, so maybe the last one wasn't any good--"

"Any good?" He shook his head. "Nat, that was pure poison. I've tasted moonshine that could strip paint off metal and it was better than that stuff. You want to get rid of me, send a note to Stonetree certifying me fit for day shift--it'll be quicker and a lot less painful."

She lightly slapped his wounded arm as she passed, heading for the filing cabinet. "That's next on the agenda."

Nick froze. "You're not serious?"

"Oh, I'm not talking day shift, but it wouldn't hurt for you to go out in the sunlight now and again--and I'm not talking about the emergency double shifts you get called on, once in a blue moon," she added quickly, before he could protest. "No trips to the lake or anything. Go to the mall, or the symphony, or even a movie. Just . . . get out of the loft."

Nick walked over and leaned on the filing cabinet. "Nat, I sleep during the day."

"Yeah, right. Like if you were mortal you wouldn't look like a raccoon." When he looked away, acknowledging his occasional bouts with insomnia, she slammed the filing cabinet drawer shut, to regain his attention.

"If I get caught--there goes my alibi for a permanent night shift schedule."

"So, I'll write you a note." When he smiled and shook his head in disbelief, she added, "All I'm saying is, stop wasting time. Do something constructive."

Nick held up his arm, the gauze visible beneath his torn jacket sleeve. "Tried that this evening. Didn't work. And speaking of which--" He glanced up at the clock. "Time to get back. Thanks for the patch up."

"Just call me Dr. Frankenstein."

He ran out the door and into the outer office, barely catching Natalie's muffled oath as she discovered he'd intentionally left the protein drink on her desk again. Just in case, Nick took the elevator down to the street level and the back door out into the parking lot, knowing that she'd never catch up to him. He was in no mood to face the latest version of the vile concoction she'd created to replace the blood he needed to survive.

But every time Nick turned the wheel of his car, and the gauze rubbed against the inside of his sleeve, he was reminded of just how much effort Natalie was investing in his quest for mortality. From sporadic patch-ups and extrication of stray bullets, to the hours of testing and research that she did on her own time . . . and, unlike him, she didn't have all that much time to spare. He was damned lucky his attitude hadn't caused her to give up on him.

The taste of the protein drink shouldn't be all that important, although--Nick frowned again as he pulled his car up to the loft--it was pretty wretched stuff. The least he could do was try to stick with the program. Who cared what it tasted like, if it helped bring him back across?

He was late. Nick ran upstairs, took a moment to peel off his blood spattered leather jacket and shirt without ripping off the dressing Natalie had applied, and found a shirt with suitably lose sleeves and another jacket. He was on his way back down the stairs at a run, when his steps slowed.

It was the blood, that siren call from the refrigerator. It's what his body needed at the moment, what he craved, to compensate for the jagged steel that had sliced open his elbow and arm. The blood would help him heal, make him strong, make him feel alive.

But that was a cheat. Because he wasn't alive.

Turning his head, Nick ran down the rest of the steps and to the door of the loft, relaxing only when he reached the elevator. Natalie said it was the blood that kept him from coming back across. If it meant he had to put up with a little discomfort from an occasional wound, fine. And if it also meant that he'd have to try every protein concoction she came up with until they found one that worked . . . well, not fine, but he'd live with it. Especially if it meant that he'd end up living, instead of this twilight half-life in which he'd existed for so many centuries.

If he hadn't been so late back to work, he would've stopped back at the Coroner's Office to apologize and pick up the drink. As it was, he pushed the speed limit to get back to the station, making his first priority a phone call to Natalie.

Schanke was at the main desk when he arrived. "Where the hell have you been? I head back to my car, find the perp cuffed in the back seat, covered in blood. And it isn't his?"

"Scraped my elbow," said Nick quickly, shrugging out of his coat, and wincing as he forgot about the bandage--he'd add another couple of hours to Natalie's healing estimate, since he'd managed to resist the call of the blood. He headed toward his desk, Schanke dogging his heels. "Nothing serious, but one of those scrapes that bleed like crazy."

"And Mr. fashion-plate didn't want to get his clothes messed up?" Shaking his head, Schanke perched himself on his own desk. "All I hear over the radio is you've put yourself off-call for a coffee break." He sighed, reached behind him and picked up a folder. "I walked him through booking. So you do the paper trail."

"Deal." Nick took the folder, sat down at his desk, his hand reaching for the phone--and stopped. Instead, he picked up the brown paper bag that sat neatly in the center of his blotter.

"Messenger from the Coroner's Office brought that over," noted Schanke. "You got some clues you're not telling me about?"

"No." Nick opened the bag. Sure enough, the protein drink container was inside. "It's . . . lunch," he explained, reaching inside the bag and steeling himself for the first sip of the dreadful drink.

The container seemed awfully light. Suspicious, he lifted the cap and peered inside.

It was empty.

"Light lunch," commented Schanke.

"Yeah." A sudden dread stole through him. Was Natalie telling him that this was the last straw? Was she finally giving up on him?

But there was something in the cup--his fingers couldn't quite reach it at the bottom. Nick tipped the cup over and a folded white slip of paper fell onto his desk. Schanke reached for it, but he was faster, picking it up and turning away.

Nick unfolded the piece of paper. It was on letter head from the Coroner's Office, in Natalie's handwriting, and dated that evening.

To Whom it may concern,

Please excuse Detective Nick Knight from all day shifts until such time as you are otherwise notified, as he has a tendency to burn up in sunlight. Please note that this condition is only temporary.

Dr. Natalie Lambert, M.E.

"What is that, a promissory lunch?" asked Schanke.

"A promise--of sorts," answered Nick. Smiling, he folded the note and placed it inside his jacket pocket, away from Schanke's curious eyes. "And, a reminder." He looked around the office, then spotted the newspaper behind Schanke. Snapping his fingers, he gestured toward the newspaper with one hand, picking up the phone with the other.

After a confused pause, Schanke handed over the paper. Nick dialed the Coroner's Office extension, while flipping to the entertainment section of the paper. He scanned the listings quickly, looking for something . . . appropriate.


"Hi--Grace? This is Detective Knight. Could you put me through to Nat, please?"

"Yeah, sure--hang on a sec."

Nick ran his finger down the listings, shaking his head, nothing seemed--ah, there it was! He heard the extension buzz, then Natalie picked up.

"Forensics--Dr. Lambert speak--"


There was a brief pause. Then, she chuckled. "Nick. I guess the messenger got there."

"He did. You're right. I'm sorry." He met Schanke's wide eyes over the desk and turned away, lowering his voice. "Look, I owe you. And I've been thinking about what you said. But I'm not too hot on soloing, first time out. So, how about a movie?"

There was another pause. "You mean, a matinee?"

"Yeah. Something like that. I'll even spring for the popcorn."

"At those prices, you'd better. So, what's playing?"

He turned, noted Schanke's intensely disinterested interest, and glanced down at the paper again. "There's a classic theater downtown, they're running a series of spaghetti westerns. And there's one I've never seen before . . . 'Blood in the Sun'?"

He half expected her to hang up on him.

She didn't.