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A Merry Little Christmas

Lonely Hearts

Snooping Around

By Amanda Berendt
Copyright October 2003

    The man stood alone in the pouring rain. His ash blond hair was soaked even underneath the black fedora he wore. The water poured over the brim and onto the shoulders of his leather duster. The cold rain and late hour ensured his solitude. He was grateful for that. He wasn't sure he could have endured the presence of other people right now. He gazed down at the mound of fresh earth. It had been so many years since he had seen her, until that phone call four days ago...

New York City

    The class filed out of the room chattering about the lesson as he gathered up his books and papers and put them into his black leather briefcase. It was late evening, but his classes were almost always at capacity. He had gained quite a reputation for his medieval studies lectures. It also didn't hurt that most of the female, and even some of the male, students preferred his looks to that of the other professors.
    "Professor DeBrabant?" He looked up, smiling at the American pronunciation of his name.
    "Yes? Kate, isn't it?"
    Blushing at the fact that he remembered her name, the young woman asked, "Ummm, I don't mean to bother you, but I was wondering if you would be my adviser. Right now I am assigned to Professor Davis and I can't stand him. I am really thinking of majoring in medieval studies and would really appreciate your input."
    "Sure," he laughed. "Why don't you come by my office tomorrow evening around seven and we can talk."
    Finally meeting his gaze, she returned his smile, thanked him and left the room. Nick picked up his briefcase and his coat and headed to the doorway, turning the light off as he stepped out into the hall. When he reached the outer doors of the building, he set the briefcase on the floor as he put his coat on. He grabbed the case once more and stepped out into the night.
    Savoring the cool night air, he crossed the NYU campus, nodding in response to the greetings from his students who lingered in the courtyard. When he reached the city sidewalk, he contemplated going to visit Janette at the club, but decided to go home instead. He was in too good of a mood to deal with that tonight.
    About half an hour later, Nick climbed the stairs out of the subway station and walked the two blocks to his brownstone. He opened the wrought iron gate and walked up the steps to his front door. He unlocked the door and stepped inside.
    Nick put his briefcase down on the table by the door and hung up his coat in the closet. After pouring himself a glass of his special stock from the kitchen, he retrieved his briefcase from the table and went into the study. He hoped to get some papers graded after going through the mail. He had just sat down at the big oak desk and opened his case when the phone rang.
    He picked it up on the second ring. "Hello?"
    "Sir?" there was a pause. "It's Nancy from the Foundation's offices in Toronto."
    Nodding to himself in recognition of the name and wondering what could it be that they needed to contact him. "Yes, Nancy, what can I do for you?"
    "Well, sir. We received a letter today that I'm not quite sure what to do with.
    "What do you mean?"
    She continued. "Well, it is addressed to a Mr. Nicholas Knight in care of the Foundation. Mr. Knight was the director of the Foundation nearly sixty years ago. The postmark is from here in Toronto, but there is no return address."
    He drew in a deep breath, started by this unexpected reminder of the past. Was it Natalie? Had something happened?
    Since he hadn't answered, Nancy said "Sir, are you still there?"
    Jolting his mind back to the present, he said "Yes, Nancy. I'm sorry. Is there any way you could messenger that letter to me?"
    "Sure, we could have it there by mid-morning tomorrow."
    Moments later, Nick hung up the phone. His mind was very far away from the papers that lay on the desk. Knowing he would not be able to concentrate on them, he put the folder back into his briefcase.
    He spent the next few hours pacing the house, waiting impatiently for the courier. Eventually he found himself sitting at the piano picking out a tune. His thoughts drifted back half a century to his final days as Detective Nicholas Knight.

Toronto 2003
    Natalie stepped out of the elevator into the loft, brushing the lingering snow from her shoulders. Although she knew this day would come eventually, it was still a shock. All of the furniture was covered with sheets. Nick sat on the floor in front of the fireplace with an open box. The glow of the flickering flames gave a soft radiance to his pale skin. He looked up when she finally spoke.
    "So it's true, you really are leaving."
    He met her gaze with his own. "Yes, I was going to stay for a while, but decided it would be better to go quickly."
    Natalie laughed at that statement as she joined him by the fire, "Don't want to linger, huh?" When he gave her a quizzical look, she added "Sorry, bad morgue joke." He smiled at her attempt to add levity to the situation.
    The pair sat in silence for a few moments. Then Nick said, "They're throwing me a party next week for my last day."
    "You can expect a gold watch." She smiled. "So what's the official story?"
    Nick shifted on the floor and began putting items into the box, "I told Reese I had been offered a very lucrative position in the States. I said it was less dangerous and more stable."
    "Since you're getting older." Natalie added poking his shoulder. Again there was silence. The small talk was beginning to run out.
    "Nat," Nick turned to look at her. "I know I should have told you as soon as I made the decision, but I didn't know how."
    She put her hand on his arm, "I know. Have you decided what you're going to do?"
    "I'm not sure. I'll probably travel for a bit, then maybe go back to teaching." He answered as he packed some very old books into the box. "Nat, I'm not giving up the loft. The building is paid for and the Foundation will take care of all the bills, but I'd like you to keep an eye on it for me."
    Natalie nodded, then spoke up, "You won't stop..." It was something between a question and a statement.
    Nick stopped packing the box and looked into her eyes that were filling with tears she refused to let fall. "Nat," a pause. "These years I have spent here, with you, have been the closest to mortality I have felt in a very long time. I'm not going to let it get away from me."
    He put his arms around her and held her close. They stayed in each other's arms until long after the fire had dissolved into ash.
    The morning after the party, Natalie pulled her car into the gravel parking area in front of the loft. Using the security code, she unlocked the door. She passed the caddy, snugly parked in the garage and headed for the elevator. When she opened the door and stepped into Nick's loft, she was greeted by silence. The morning rays of the sun streamed across the floor and over the covered furniture.
    "Nick?" she called out as she walked through the room. There was no answer. He was gone. The day she had dreaded since the day they met had finally come.
    Nick watched from the windows of the warehouse across the street as she came out of the building and got in her car. It broke his heart to see her leaving the loft in tears. He wanted to go to her, to comfort her... to say good-bye. But he knew he had to make a clean break or he would never be able to pull away from this life.
    Although he had left his life as Nick Knight, he continued to keep watch over Natalie whenever he came to Toronto.
    She had kept to herself for almost a year after he left. Then she finally began to reenter the social scene. It was very casual at first. Then about five years after he left, she met Jack Keating, a professor of history at the University of Toronto. On a whim, she had enrolled in his course on Legends and Superstitions of Medieval Europe, her thoughts still very much on Nick.
    As time passed, she began to spend more and more time with Jack, at first discussing the course, but then it blossomed into a friendship. When the class ended, he asked her out on a date. He was the opposite of Nick in almost every way - dark hair, smoldering dark eyes, his skin glowed with a smooth, even tan and he had a consistent positive outlook. It was this last trait that finally managed to pull Natalie out of her stupor. For the first time in many years, she did not have to be the strong one.
    Two years later, at the Azure, Nick watched with guarded jealousy from a table in the corner as Jack proposed to Natalie. With his heightened senses, he listened as she accepted. Although it tore his heart in two, he knew this was the happiness she deserved and that he could not offer her.
    Natalie had sent an invitation through the Foundation, but he had declined, sending a generous gift instead. Over the years, he watched over her. She was very happy. She and Jack raised two wonderful boys, Richard and Donald. Each, at their mother's request, had also invited this stranger from the past to their own weddings.
    It had been almost twenty years since he had last visited Toronto. He knew Natalie was happy and he found it often hurt too much to know he could never have given that to her.

New York City
    Now he stood at the window of the brownstone gazing out at the empty street. Indeed, the 'city that never sleeps' did in fact get pretty close to unconsciousness at three a.m. Nick turned away from the window, letting the heavy drapes fall back into place. He sat down in the plush armchair and dozed on and off for several hours - each time dreaming of the past.
    He was awoken later that morning from one of these brief periods of sleep by the doorbell. Pulling himself out of the chair, he quickly ran down the stairs to the front door. Thankful for the shadiness of the street, he opened the front door to reveal a uniformed courier.
    "Mr. DeBrabant?" the man asked reading the envelope.
    Nick nodded and signed the clipboard the man held out. The man handed over the envelope and was rewarded with a generous tip. He closed the door and leaned against it looking at the envelope in his hand. It was a standard white courier envelope with a delivery label stating his name and address.
    Heaving himself off of the door, he took the envelope into the study and sat down at the desk, setting the envelope in the middle of the green blotter. He sat there for several minutes staring at it. Finally, he picked it up, tore the end off and tipped it, allowing a smaller envelope to fall out onto the desk. This was a standard business sized envelope addressed to Mr. Nicholas Knight in care of the DeBrabant Foundation. The postmark was indeed from Toronto, but the handwriting was unfamiliar.
    Carefully, he picked up the envelope and opened the flap taking out a folded sheet of paper. When he opened it, he saw that it was a hand written letter.

Dear Sir,
    I know you will most likely not recognize my name, so let me introduce myself. My name is Hope Keating. You once knew my grandmother, Natalie. She talked about you often and with such affection, I think it made my grandfather jealous sometimes.
    Many years ago, after my grandfather died, she made me promise to contact you someday. I had hoped it would be under happier circumstances. I am sorry to tell you that Nan has had a horrible stroke.
    She is now resting comfortable at St. Michael's Hospital here in Toronto. As per her wishes, we have discontinued life support. She is still holding on, but the doctors say it is just a matter of time. I think perhaps she is waiting to see you once more.
Hope Keating

    Nick lay the letter on the desk. Although he knew this would happen someday, he was still not prepared for the news. Natalie was dying.
    He picked up the phone from the desktop and dialed. "Nancy? It's Nick. I need a flight to Toronto tonight. Also could you please book a car and hotel for me? Thanks."
    Hanging up the phone, he refolded the letter and returned it to the envelope.
    That evening, he was sitting in a first class seat on a non-stop flight to Lester B. Pierson International Airport. He had arranged for his classes to be covered or canceled. For the thousandth time, he slipped his hand into his jacket pocket to touch the letter. It was, of course, just where he had put it.
    Two hours later, he was driving along the familiar Gardinier Expressway into downtown Toronto. He easily found St. Mike's on Queen Street and parked his rental car down the block. It surprised him as he rode the elevator up to the ICU, that he felt his long cold heart tighten as the floors ticked away.
    Stepping out into the quiet hallway, he walked through the double doors and approached the nurse's station.
    The young nurse on duty looked up from the computer terminal and smiled, "Can I help you sir?"
    He nodded. "I'm looking for a patient. Her name is Natalie Lam... no, sorry, Keating."
    The nurse nodded knowing the name. There were only a few patients on the ward so she didn't even have to check the computer. "Are you family?"
    "No, I am a very old friend of her's."
    The nurse smiled again, probably wondering how 'old' a friend this young man could be to a woman in her nineties. "She's in room three, down that hall on the left." She pointed the room out to him.
    Nick thanked her and moved in the direction she had indicated. He was glad the ICU did not have set visiting hours. He stopped at the glass window and looked into the room. Natalie was sleeping peacefully on the bed. Although almost sixty years had passed, he still saw her beauty and strength.
    She was much thinner than he remembered and she was very pale. He hair had turned from its chestnut brown to a silvery white. Despite the IV tube, and the machines measuring her vital signs, the entire scene had an aura of peace and serenity to it.
    Gathering up his courage, he entered the room. He sat down in the chair the previous visitor had pulled up to the bedside. Taking her hand in his own, he was surprised by the coolness of her skin.
    "Nat, I'm sorry it took me so long to come to see you." He whispered, gently stroking her hand. He sat there alone, for several hours, telling her all that had happened since he had left. When he finished his tale, he stayed there, holding her hand in silence, not wanting to leave. Hearing someone behind him, he turned to see a young woman standing in the doorway. Her slender form was hidden under the jogging pants and large University of Alberta sweatshirt she wore. Her round face was framed by long curly chestnut hair. She smiled sweetly when he turned.
    "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you."
    He couldn't help but smile in return. "No, that's ok, really. I got her up to date." He paused and offered his hand. "I'm Nick."
    A flash of surprise crossed her face, but quickly faded. Taking his hand, she said, "Hi, I'm Hope. I'm sorry, you weren't what I expected."
    There was an awkward silence before she spoke again. "There's a coffee machine in the lounge down the hallway, care to join me?"
    "Sure, lead on."
    A few minutes later, the pair were sitting in the family lounge area of the ICU, each holding a Styrofoam cup of steaming coffee. The television in the corner was showing a rerun of an old movie of the week.
    "So," Nick broke the silence. "What were you expecting?"
    "Excuse me?"
    He put the coffee down on the table next to the chair and leaned back. "You said I wasn't what you were expecting. What were you expecting?"
    The woman sitting across from him shifted uncomfortably. She hesitated as if trying to formulate an acceptable answer. "Um, I don't know." She paused again. "You know, you get this picture of someone in your mind and they almost always turn out to be different."
    Nick was curious why she didn't mention his age. She had to have been expecting a much older man. He had even had a story about being a relative of Nick Knight prepared. But sensing he uneasiness with the topic, he spoke up again.
    "What are you studying?" he asked, pointing to her sweatshirt.
    She looked down at her shirt, "Oh, nothing formally right now. I went there for my bachelor's in microbiology. I've been taking some time off to work on my own project." She tucked her legs up underneath the large shirt.
    Nick raised his eyebrows, impressed. "Wow, what got you interested that subject?"
    Hope smiled. "Actually, it was Nan that got me into it. She was always investigating new ideas in science and researching stuff. It seemed so amazing to me that such tiny things could make such a big difference in curing diseases and helping people."
    She glanced at the clock on the wall. "Oh my god, I didn't realize it was so late. You probably want to get back to your hotel. Where are you staying?"
    Nick looked at his watch. It would be dawn in little more than an hour. How could he not have noticed? "I'm staying at the Royal York." He answered at they both stood up. "I probably should get going. It's been a long night." They walked together back to Natalie's room to say goodnight.
    "She'll probably be ok today." Hope said as Nick stood by the bedside. She touched his arm as he passed her by the door. "I'll give you a call at the hotel if anything happens." He nodded his thanks.

    Later that day, Nick sat on a couch in his hotel suite. He had slept fitfully for a few hours. Then deciding sleep was not going to come, he got up, showered and changed.
    There was something about Hope that intrigued him. Why hadn't she mentioned anything about his age? Yes, she did seem surprised at his appearance, but it hadn't been too much of a problem for her. Then, the fact that she practically pushed him out of the hospital this morning when she realized the time. Could she possibly know about him? Could Natalie have told her?
    He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn't notice the phone had been ringing. He stood up from the couch and quickly went over to the desk.
    He lifted the receiver. "Hello?"
    "Nick?" his stomach tightened when he heard the voice. "It's Hope. The doctors say she doesn't have too long. She's going downhill quickly and probably won't last the night."
    His voice came out in a gasp. "Oh my god."
    "I can come by the hotel and pick you up right now. I know it's still early, but it should be ok. My car has tinted windows."
    When he replaced the phone in the cradle, his mind was swimming. He, who had seen so many pass, couldn't bear this loss. He knew Lacroix would chide him for this unnecessary attachment to a mortal, but he didn't care.
    Fifteen minutes later, he was sitting on a couch in the lobby trying to figure out how he was going to survive a late afternoon car ride with a mortal, when he saw Hope come through the doors. He stood up as she made her way across the room. She hugged him briefly as a greeting.
    "You should be alright, I double parked under the carport thing out there." As they exited the building, she didn't say anything about his attire - long coat, scarf, sunglasses and black fedora - being strange for a bright, sunny October afternoon.
    The drive to St. Mike's was silent. Neither wanted to say anything, in fear of possibly offending the other. Reaching the hospital, they rode the elevator to the ICU level together. When they stepped out onto the floor, there were several people gathered in the lounge. He recognized them as Natalie's sons, and the others must be their families. Thankfully, Hope guided him past the group to Natalie's room. Without a word, she left the two alone. There he sat for several hours, holding her hand and telling her he loved her. Although the other family members came in and out of the room, Nick never left her side.
    As night fell, he could sense her heart slowing. The family members began to filter into the room. Nick knew these people wondered whom this strange young man was that was holding Natalie's hand, but no one said anything.
    At 10:55 pm, the monitors went silent. She was gone. Natalie's family hugged each other for comfort. Nick still sat in the chair next to the bed, holding her hand. He could still feel it's slight warmth. He didn't move as the family began to move out into the hall or when the nurse came in to disconnect the monitors and document the time of death. Looking up at the clock, he saw it was the exact same time as when he and Nat first met so many years ago.
    Nick thought he was alone in the room and was startled when he felt a hand on his shoulder. When he gave no response he heard a voice.
    "You shouldn't stay here like this. She's gone." It was Hope. Feeling tears well up in his eyes, he refused to look at her, not wanting to show any hint of the vampire.
    After a few moments, Nick allowed Hope to help him up and lead him from the room. He stopped at the window to look upon Natalie once more. The wires and IV had all been removed. She was truly at peace.
    Hope stood next to him, her hand clutching his. "Are you going to be alright?"
    Finally, Nick found his voice. "I always am." he answered with a sigh. "I really have to go. Sorry." He let go of her hand and turned away before she could respond.
    Stepping out of the elevator into the hospital lobby, Nick briefly contemplated calling a cab to take him back to the hotel, then decided against it. He needed to be outside.
    After wandering the city for several hours, both by foot and by air, he found himself at the cemetery. Here, in places such as this, was where so many people he cared for came to rest. As he walked, he came upon a small tombstone bearing the name "Cynthia Lambert Luce." Natalie's goddaughter. She had been so young. Further on, he came to a stone bearing the inscription "Cohen - Martin & Amanda." He had never really know the captain's family. Finally, he stopped at a pair of white marble stones, each bearing the last name "Schanke." Myra had at last joined her husband five years ago.
    *That life is truly gone now.* he thought as he gazed up at the sky. Dawn would be coming soon. He would return to this place filled with so many memories once more to say goodbye to Natalie, then he would leave Toronto, free of any remnants of his life as Nick Knight.

    Nick lay on the bed in his hotel room although he hadn't slept in several days. The blinds and curtains were shut tightly against the sun, or what there was of it. The morning had dawned gray and dreary. The clouds that had arrived over past two days now threatened rain.
    Hope had called several times, according to the front desk staff that had taken her messages regarding the funeral arrangements. She had probably called more times, but he had stopped accepting the messages. Natalie had requested an evening service, specifically at a funeral home not a church; obviously hoping he'd be able to attend. He wasn't sure he could.
    When evening finally arrived, he stood and crossed to the window. Pulling back the curtains and opening the blinds, he looked out. The suite had a commanding view of the lake, which was now shrouded with the clouds of the gathering storm. He stood there for several minutes, gazing out into the growing darkness.
    Several hours later, Nick stood alone at Natalie's grave. He had had every intention of going to the service, but when he arrived outside the funeral home, he couldn't bring himself to go inside. Eventually, he had just followed the funeral cortege to the cemetery and watched from a distance as the ceremony had been performed. When it was finished, Hope stayed at the grave for a bit as if she were waiting for him to arrive.
    After the cemetery grounds crew had arrived to lower the casket and fill in the grave, he finally emerged from the shadows. The rain that had been threatening the city for three days had graciously held off until after the funeral, now fell with a vengeance.
    Whether it was the storm or perhaps his grief, he did not sense the figure approaching behind him. "I knew you'd come."
    Startled, Nick turned and saw Hope standing there holding an umbrella. She smiled gently and came to stand beside him, shifting the umbrella so it covered them both.
    "You're soaked." she said quietly.
    Nick turned toward her, trying not to get her wet. "I'm sorry I didn't come to the service. I really couldn't bring myself to go inside."
    "It's ok. She would understand." Hope answered nodding to the grave.
    They stood in silence for several minutes, listening to the rain fall onto the umbrella. Finally, Hope spoke up. "You shouldn't be alone." Nick didn't respond. He just continued to stare at the grave.
    Hope continued, "Why don't you come to my place. I have my car parked just back there," she said motioning behind them with a nod. After a moment, Nick allowed her to lead him away from the graveside. Hope got him settled in the passenger seat before getting into the driver's side and starting the engine. She cranked up the heat and put the car in gear.
    As they drove through the thin overnight traffic, Nick sat numbly in the passenger seat gazing out the window without really seeing anything. About fifteen minutes into the drive, he began to recognize the route Hope was taking. He became instantly alert when she pulled into a very familiar gravel parking lot.
    "*This* is your place?" Nick asked as Hope maneuvered the car into the garage.
    She nodded as she cut the engine and opened her car door. "Nan kind of gave it to me."
    "Kind of?" he asked, getting out of the passenger side and following her around a large tarp covered vehicle to the elevator. "What do you mean 'kind of?'"
    Hope pulled open the heavy metal door of the freight elevator and motioned him inside. "Well," she said as she stepped in and pulled the door shut behind them. "It was left in her care a long time ago, and she said she hated seeing it empty, so she said I could stay here after I got my degree."
    Reaching its destination, the elevator stopped. Hope pulled the door open and stepped into the large room. Nick followed her and scanned the room. It was almost as spartan as it had been when he lived here, although it was slightly more inviting. There were accent pillows on the leather couch, the kitchen sink was filled with dishes waiting to be washed, the dining room table had a tablecloth draped over it, and there were photos everywhere - most of them of Natalie and Hope.
    "Let me take your coat, you're dripping." Hope offered. He shrugged out of the black leather duster he had been wearing and handed it to her along with his soaked black fedora. "Can I get you a drink?" she asked as she carried his things to the coat rack.
    Nick nodded absentmindedly as he moved further into the apartment. He let his fingers trail along the piano keys as he passed, creating a gentle slide. Approaching the fireplace, he saw it was unchanged, except for a single framed photo sitting on the wooden mantle. He moved closer and saw it was a photo of Natalie and himself at one of the precinct picnics. They were both smiling broadly at the photographer. It had always been her favorite picture of the two of them. He reached out to touch the frame, letting the memories wash over him.
    Suddenly, Hope appeared next to him holding out a wine glass to him in one hand, and a mug of steaming coffee in the other. "She was beautiful, wasn't she?"
    Nick nodded as he turned to accept the glass from her. As he took it, he caught the scent of its contents. Shocked he looked up at Hope.
    Hope smiled, "Nan told me all about you." When Nick didn't respond, she continued. "I found out when I was twelve. Most kids find out there's no Santa Claus, but I found out vampires are real." She paused again. "I was staying at Nan's house for a weekend and one day I started snooping around. I came across some of her journals and began reading them." "She kept them?" he asked moving to a chair to sit down.
    Hope nodded as she sat down on the couch. "Yes... all of them." She continued her story. "Anyway, let's just say she was furious when she found out I had read her notes. She said things like 'How dare you go through my private things' but she stopped cold when I asked her if it had worked.
    "I had always been interested in monsters and such, and I had read a lot of science books and journals so her notes made some sense to me. Plus she had always talked so much about you and how close the two of you had been - I'm really surprised Grandpa wasn't jealous." She smiled at the memory before continuing. "She told me nothing had truly worked as a cure.
    "Over the next several years, whenever I would visit her, she would tell me more about her tests and experiments and how the results factored into her plan. I got so into the research that went it was time to go to university, I chose pre-med as my major, specializing in microbiology. After hearing her story of trying to help you, I knew  I wanted to try. Of course, not just for you, after all I had never even met you, but to help anyone who had some kind of insurmountable genetic handicap. I just finished my residency earlier this year."
    "So you're a doctor?" Nick looked over at her.
    "Just about."
    "And you want to help me?" he asked, not fully believing her story. "To continue what Natalie started?"
    "Yes." Hope sat forward on the couch, her tone very serious. "She had some really great ideas. I have learned so much from her work and technology has advanced so much since then."
    Nick put down his glass, stood up and walked over to the fireplace. He stood there staring at the photograph. Should he accept her offer? Should he come back to this city where he had lost so much? Natalie had faith in the thought that she would someday find a cure. He closed his eyes for a moment. He shared that faith.
    Turning to face the woman sitting on the couch behind him, he smiled. Now he had Hope.
    "When do we start?"