Chapter 4: Of Cabbages and Kings
LaCroix leaned back in his chair, took a sip of bloodwine, and savored the vintage. His son was coming back to him. It was a slow process, to be sure, but his Nicholas was returning to his side. A slow smile spread over his face. If he had known that the good doctor would have this effect on his son, he would have nudged both of them into their current situation years ago.
His smile grew wider as he contemplated the good doctor's beauty--and her obvious devotion to his son. Natalie had a fire that he had last seen eight centuries before when he had created his golden child. It would be interesting having her as part of his eternal family. LaCroix closed his eyes and let his mind drift back to the first time he had seen Nicholas--as a child lost in the woods at night.
LaCroix dismounted from his horse and scanned the underbrush. He could hear a rapid mortal heartbeat nearby, and curiosity made him want to investigate. The faintness of the sound pointed to a child-and though the Code forbade the hunting of children, he was considering feeding on general principles. True, he wasn't really all that hungry, because he had fed very well the night before, but an easy meal was not to be passed up.
He forced his way through a nearby thicket and found a small, blond boy curled up just past it. The child's clothes were spattered with blood, and his face streaked with tearstains. The smell of fresh blood made his eyes briefly flash gold, but he controlled himself and focused on the little boy. Something about the child made his ancient heart contract painfully. "Are you lost, little one?" he rumbled.
The boy looked at him, and then shrank back. He shook his head wordlessly, his eyes wide with fear and shock.
"What's the matter, boy?" he asked, making a conscious effort to gentle his voice.
"M'brothers and m'sister," the boy finally whispered, wiping tears off his face. "The men *killed* 'em, and I didn't stop it," he looked up at LaCroix, anguish on his face. "I *ran* like a *baby*; like a *coward*."
LaCroix reached out and gathered the child into his arms. He allowed himself to savor the child's warmth, and ran his hand through the boy's tangled blond curls. "Shhh," he whispered softly, remembering the rare occasions when he had comforted his daughter before she had become evil. "If you had not run, mon petit ami*, you would not be here now--even the greatest general knows when retreat is necessary for survival."
The boy buried his face into LaCroix's velvet covered shoulder and began to shake. "Really?" he asked, his small voice muffled.
"Yes, mon petit ami." He caressed the child's hair again. "Now, child, where do you live? I'm sure that someone must be worried about you, so I'm going to take you home."
"The castle," the child whispered.
"And your name, boy?" he asked.
"Nicolas Geoffroi Pierre de Brabant," came the soft reply.
He hoisted the child into his arms. "Let's get you home, Nicolas," he said softly. LaCroix walked over to where his horse was tethered and untied it before mounting without losing his grip on the boy. He settled Nicholas against him and began to follow the path he assumed led out of the woods. Most likely it would come out near the village that was assuredly close to the castle. LaCroix looked down at the boy and was surprised to discover that the child had twisted his hand in his tunic, and was fast falling asleep.
"It will be okay, mon petit ami," he whispered, tightening his hold on the child and urging his mount to a trot.
Even after all the centuries and pain that lay between them, he still saw in his son the terrified child he had been. He had seen it while watching the disillusioned crusader and again when he had made the child into his son. Nicholas was his son, his baby, and he would not ever allow *anyone* to take him away.
LaCroix knew some vampires who made converts just for their own pleasure, but it was something that he didn't want to understand. Even if Nicholas had not been his child, the thought was just so... *Greek*.** As much as he had urged his son to release his mortalbonds, he knew from his own experience that some attitudes did not change.
He drained his glass with a single gulp and picked up a book from the mahogany table beside him. LaCroix began to look through the book, trying to find a particular reference for the night's dialogue. He closed his eyes as pain flashed through his link with his son and it blanked out. "Mon fils," he whispered. "Quel ennui êtes-vous vous reçu dans maintenant?"***
Natalie woke slowly, relishing the feel of silken sheets under her. She pushed back the down comforter and yawned. The last fitting for her wedding dress was today, and she wanted to get it over with; she wasn't particularly fond of getting pins stuck in various parts of her anatomy.
The dress was simple--or at least as simple as you could get when replicating a twelfth century wedding dress in white silk and silver embroidery instead of the original colors and fabrics. Nick had laughed when she informed him of her plan--to copy his mother's wedding dress only in what had now become the traditional color. He'd even shown her pictures of the relic, which now resided in a museum.
Natalie stretched, slid out of bed, and padded towards the kitchen. She flipped on the coffee maker, which Nick must have gotten ready before he had left, and began to rummage around in the cupboards and the fridge for something to eat. She grimaced as a pain knifed through her stomach--she'd have to feed soon, or the pain would grow worse. She licked her lips at the thought of her fiancé's blood. Somehow, it tasted almost different every time.
His smell didn't change, but sometimes, his blood tasted of sunlight, fresh cut grass, woods, and wild things with a tang of woodsmoke. Somehow, it was all intertwined in who he was--thirteenth century crusader, knight, nobleman's son, teacher, archaeologist, and cop. Deep down, she knew that his essential nature hadn't changed much; he was still protecting the innocent, defending the helpless, and seeking justice for those who could no longer find it for themselves. He was still a knight.
Natalie smiled, reached for a mug, and poured herself a cup of coffee. Just as she was raising the drink to her lips, a sharp pain stabbed the back of her head. She dropped the mug and fell to her knees, the edges of her vision turning gray, then black. The darkness closed in on her, and she blacked out, falling into a silent puddle among the shards of the broken coffee mug, and the cooling coffee on the cold linoleum of the kitchen floor.
Reese stared at the note on his desk and frowned. It hadn't changed in the last hour that he had been staring at it, and he knew it wouldn't. Forensics had been over it, but it couldn't be connected to anyone. The paper was common, and the ink came from a printer--the same that could be found at any copy store. There were no prints on it, no DNA, nothing. And the damned words were the same every time he looked.
"We have Detective Knight. Have Lucien LaCroix and Natalie Lambert at the station in three hours for further instructions. You will be contacted, but if they are not present, he dies."
Reese sighed and fervently wished that the uniforms would be able to locate the LaCroix fellow and Dr. Lambert soon. He had given them the codes to Knight's loft--he'd been entrusted with them in case of emergency. LaCroix was known to work as the Nightcrawler, and he owned the Raven. They had only thirty minutes left, and he said a silent prayer that they would make it there. He couldn't lose his best detective to some street-scum kidnapper.
He knew that Nat would be devastated; it only took looking at them together to know that. Briefly, he wished that Tracy was still around to see their relationship blossom--and she would have been the best at finding out who had overpowered Nick. Reese rubbed his hand over his face and grimaced. His woolgathering wasn't doing any good--Nick was still missing, and they had to comply with the kidnapper's demands lest the most decorated cop in the city not survive the experience.
He picked up the phone and started dialing, once more attempting to reach the loft where Nat had been staying. He cursed silently as the machine picked up again, then slammed the phone down in the cradle. Fervently, Reese began to do the only thing he could think of in this waiting game--pray that his friends would be safe.
Nat woke slowly and pulled herself up. She moaned and clutched her head. "Nick," she gasped. She turned as LaCroix flew through the skylight and landed soundlessly in front of her.
"Natalie, where is my son?" he asked, his eyes flashing golden.
"I don't know," she answered, confused. "He wasn't here when I woke up. I felt a sharp prick on the back of my neck, like a needle, and I think it was from Nick." Nat looked at him, worry in her eyes. "He's in trouble, isn't he?" she whispered.
"Yes," he growled dangerously. "Something has happened, and our link has been blocked--I can barely feel him."
Natalie's stomach began to churn, and a lump rose in her throat, choking her. "I can feel him," she whispered. "He's in pain-they've given him something that makes every nerve in his body burn as if he were being burnt by the sun."
LaCroix's eyes flashed red briefly before he closed them, making a visible effort to control himself. "They *will* *pay*," he snarled, clenching his fists.
Before she could formulate an answer, the door chimed. Nat walked over to the monitor and grimaced; two uniform cops were downstairs. She pushed the intercom button. "Yes?" she asked.
"Captain Reese sent us--you're needed down at the station immediately," one of them said.
Nat shut her eyes tightly. "I *quit*, remember? I don't work anywhere near there anymore."
"This isn't about work," the second cop said hurriedly. "It's about Detective Knight--we're to fetch you and Mr. Lucien LaCroix to the station."
"Go back," Natalie said, "and tell the Cap'n that we're on our way."
"*We*?" the first cop asked.
"Mr. LaCroix is here," she answered.
The uniforms thanked her and hurried off. Natalie turned around and ran to her bedroom. "The kidnapper must've sent a ransom note to Reese," she called as she quickly pulled on a sweat suit, put her hair into a messy ponytail, and shoved her feet into socks and sneakers.
LaCroix began to pace, trying to contain his fury. "They did this to annoy me," he grated.
Natalie emerged from her room and grabbed her purse. "Not necessarily--Nick has put a lot of people in jail, and it could be one of them," she pointed out.
"None of them would know to ask for me," he growled.
Nat slung her purse over her shoulder, and began to walk over to him. A sharp pain knifed through her stomach, causing her to double over.
"When was the last time you fed, Natalie?" LaCroix asked.
"Day before yesterday," she gasped, trying to ride out the pain in her stomach.
LaCroix scowled, got a cup from the kitchen, tore into his wrist, and let the blood drizzle into the vessel. He applied pressure to the wound until it healed, then handed her the cup and stood, waiting for her to drink it. "Drink it, Natalie--Nicholas needs you to be here when we get him home."
Nat nodded, drank the contents of the cup quickly, and straightened as the pain receded. She put the cup down on the coffee table, and started to head towards the lift.
"No, my good doctor," LaCroix said. He hurried over and grabbed her. "I believe they said that time is of the essence--so we shall fly." He picked her up, flew out the skylight, and into the night.
Reese handed LaCroix the envelope addressed to him and leaned back in his chair to examine the man. He didn't know why the kidnapper had asked for him-after all, he was a radio personality and owner of a club, not someone whom Nick would be important to.
LaCroix read the note and Reese could see the muscles in the man's jaw clench. He closed his eyes and crushed the note in his hand.
"What does it say?" Reese asked.
LaCroix threw him the note and leaned back in his chair, his fists clenched hard enough to turn his knuckles white.
"Ten million American by tomorrow night?" Reese asked, surprised. "That's an awful lot to ask for a homicide detective, even the best on the force. And why does it call you 'General'?"
"Give me your phone, and it is done," LaCroix grated. "And as for my… military career… that is *classified*."
Reese frowned, but pushed the phone across the desk. LaCroix picked it up and dialed a number. "Felix, I need you to arrange to have some cash delivered to the 96th precinct--ten million American." He paused, frowning. "I don't *care* what it costs; send it by armored car--I need it in twelve hours." He slammed the phone down in the cradle and scowled. "The money will be here," he said.
Reese examined the man closely. "Why would you spend that kind of cash on Nick?" he asked curiously.
LaCroix smiled. "That, Captain, is none of your business." He turned, walked across the room, sat down, leaned his chair against the wall, and closed his eyes.
Reese looked at Natalie and raised his eyebrow. "Well? Do *you* know the connection, Natalie?"
Nat crossed the room and sat next to LaCroix. "If Nick hasn't told you, I have no right," she said softly.
The phone rang, so Reese hit the speakerphone button. "Reese, here," he said.
"Are Dr. Lambert and LaCroix there?" a voice asked.
Upon hearing the voice, Reese knew that it was passing through a synthesizer. He nodded to an officer right outside his office, who immediately began to try and trace the call.
"Where is Nicholas?" LaCroix growled.
"Oh, Nicky-boy," the voice sang. "Would you like to talk to… Daddy?"
"Nick? Are you all right?" Nat said frantically.
"F-f-f-father? N-n-n-nat?" Nick's weakened voice came over the loudspeaker. "I don't feel too good. I--hurt," he whispered.
They could hear the sound of something hard smacking against skin. "Bad boy, Nicky," the voice mocked. "If you want to see your *girlfriend* or *daddy* again, you'll be good." The sound stopped, and the speaker resumed talking. "I have something *you* want. I'll call with instructions of where to take the money in a few hours." The dial tone sounded throughout the silent room, leaving the trio in silence.
Nat began to sob, and LaCroix crossed the room to try and offer comfort. Anger glittered in his cold blue eyes at Nicholas's treatment. He stroked Natalie's hair and glared impartially around the room. Reese could see the bottled up rage, and was thankful that he was not in the kidnapper's shoes at that moment. "So, you're Detective Knight's father?" he asked curiously.
"Yes," LaCroix hissed. "If I had known that *my son's* life would be in this much danger, I would have never allowed him to take this *job*. He has no need of it." He pulled Natalie into his arms and began to stroke her back. "We *will* get him back, mon cherie. Nobody interferes with *my* family and lives to tell the tale."
Nat's tears slowly quieted. "Promise?" she asked softly.
LaCroix smiled wolfishly. "Yes."
She laid her head on his shoulder, and he hugged her gently. Reese watched, puzzled. He'd always thought that Knight had no family, and it looked as if the infamous Nightcrawler had even accepted the doctor as a daughter. He frowned as he remembered a murder investigation that Knight had been in charge of that involved the man. Nick would have to answer for that--after they got him home in one piece. "That explains why you're willing to lay out that much cash," he said laconically.
LaCroix inclined his head toward the captain. "Yes," he answered. "Gold flecks appeared in his eyes and he leaned forward without removing his arm from aroundNatalie. "You *will* bring my son home, and you *will* make them pay," he rasped, his voice heavy with anger.
Reese suppressed a shiver--LaCroix was scarier than Knight when angered. "We'll do our best," he promised.
"You had better, Captain--something *will* be done, and my son *will* be returned to me." LaCroix turned toward Natalie, doing his best to make sure that she was all right.
Reese shuddered and picked up the phone to get the lab to analyze the phone call--it was going to be a long night.
* "my little friend"
** In Ancient Rome, the practice of taking young boys to teach and as
lovers was considered Greek and therefore foreign and not good.
*** "My son, what trouble have you gotten yourself into now?"