Time: 12:01 a.m.
Place: Pasadena, California
"Oh, my dear lord. What the hell is that?"
"That? Oh, that's LJC after the Ton o' Tuna incident in New York, during the third war."
"Ah, so that's the famous Ton o' Tuna, huh? Dang, and here I thought that story couldn't get any more impressive... What about this?"
"Oh. That's the Cousins after LJC's revenge. You can see a couple Knighties snickering in the background."
"Silly String? Hah! I love it!"
"Yup. Cool, no?"
"Cool, yes! Wish I'd thought of it. And this?"
"Ummmm.... Oh, that's all of the Knighties at the premiere of that episode we sabotaged, fourth war. There's Nick in the middle, hiding."
"Uh... Looks more like you're the one hiding, dear."
"Yeah, well, that too. Most of us were hiding at that point."
"Hey, here's everyone cleaning up the loft after the NatPack trashed it."
"And here's everyone cleaning up the loft after the Cousins trashed it."
"And here's everyone cleaning up the loft after the Knighties trashed it. I think we did the best job, don't you?"
"Oh, absolutely. The s'mores in the carpet were an inspired touch. It's a wonder Nick didn't kill us himself. He looked like he was going to."
"Nah, he'd put too much effort into saving us."
Cath and Perri stopped talking suddenly and shared a long silence before they turned the last page in the photo album. At the top was the picture of the two of them at the airport with Nick, grinning like fools and hugging him goodbye, at the end of the fifth war. Then there were the clippings from the Toronto Sun, already starting to yellow. 'Police Detective, Coroner Missing.' 'Double Disappearance Follows Death of Officer; Police Suspect Foul Play.' 'No Leads in Disappearance; Detective, Coronor Presumed Dead.'
"I wish we'd known, last time..." Perri sighed, touching one of the clippings lightly.
"That it would be the last time?" Cath echoed the sigh and smiled sadly at her own face, only a few short months ago. "I don't." She turned her make sure Perri wasn't watching her, and bit her lip. "I don't think I would've been able to leave...y'know?"
"Yeah. Me neither. But we had a helluva dance while it lasted." Perri closed the photo album gently and stretched out on the floor of Cath's apartment. It had been a bad couple of months for losing friends, she reflected, fighting back tears. "This really sucks. Bad enough that he lets everyone in Toronto think he's dead, but then he leaves without even saying good-bye..."
"Yeah. He could have at least told us he was okay, that he was leaving, something, anything."
"And he is okay."
Cath hesitated a tiny moment. "Right. He's fine. Just really inconsiderate."
Perri noticed, but ignored it through long practice. They both knew how the other felt, as well as the fact that either could be right, and that odds were that neither would ever find the truth. Are we a couple of Mulders, or what? She grinned weakly at the thought. "Absolutely."
The phone rang just them, jolting them out of the silence before it could become another in their long string of self-pity marathons. "It's probably Dianne," Cath said, grabbing it before any of her housemates could. "Knightie Angst Central."
Perri watched her friend's eyes widen. The phone slipped out of numb fingers as Cath continued to stare blankly at her. She sat up, watching with concern, waiting for Cath to say something. But all she did was tear her eyes from her face to the receiver on the floor, looking at it as if she expected it to come to life, or something.
Little did Perri know that that was exactly what Cath was waiting for. Phones coming to life? Hell, why not? Everything else was.
Suddenly she realized Perri was waiting for her to say something. She pointed accusingly at the phone, and tried a tirade, but all that came out was "N--N--"
Perri's question came at the same time as the voice on the phone. Cath was still voiceless; Perri, losing patience, took the phone from her. "Who the hell is this?" she demanded.
"Perri? Good, you are there -- your parents said you would be."
Perri felt the blood drain from her face, leaving her as white as Catherine, but slightly more coherent. "Ni--Nick?"
"Yeah, it's me. Look, I know it's been a while, but..."
Both of the women got their voices back at about the same time, with about the same initial reaction. Which was still mostly incoherent, but quite vehement. On the other end of the line, Nick jerked the phone away from his ear before their joint howls of rage could break his eardrum. He'd been right, he thought calmly. They were upset.
He waited for them to calm down, knowing it wouldn't take too long. Cath kept time with Perri as she flew through French and Russian, started repeating herself in German, and finally stuck to English while Perri switched without warning into something that sounded like Spanish, but Cath couldn't say for sure.
Nick sat patiently through it all, but when at last Cath was starting to sound pretty breathless and Perri was sounding like she would break into Pig Latin at any moment, he decided enough was enough.
"Perri! Catherine!" he yelled.
They stopped. After a short scuffle on the other end, there was the click of another extension being picked up and they were all on the line. Both women decided to stick to stony silence, leaving Nick to speak first.
"So you two are, uh, pretty mad at me, huh?"
Gee, Nick, do ya think? Cath saw the muscles in Perri's jaw start to work. "Yeah," she said hastily, before Perri could explode again. "We thought you were gone, Nick. Maybe even dead. You didn't even tell us you were leaving." Not a little accusation crept into her own voice.
"I know, I'm sorry. Things were...a little confused."
"It wasn't exactly skittles and beer for us either, thinking we were never going to see you again," Perri said, her voice tight. "This was not fun, Nick."
"I know." He was at least sounding guilty, Cath noticed, raising her eyebrows at Perri. Perri nodded -- she heard it too. "I promise I'll explain everything to both of you -- to all of you -- but I...need a favor, first."
The two exchanged glances again, their shared brain kicking in out of sheer habit. The message was something along the lines of '...cold day in hell.' "What's the favor?" Perri sing-songed sarcastically.
Nick winced. "I need you to go to Toronto. I...left something in the loft that's very important and I need you two to get it and send it to me. When you do, I'll promise I'll explain everything."
Cath's eyebrows lifted. "You let us spend two months thinking you're gone and running up huge long distance bills so we could cry on each other's shoulders, wonder if you're all right, and why you didn't care enough to to make one lousy phone call to us. Then you do call, calmly inform us you're fine, and ask us to go to Toronto for you. And we should do this because....?"
Nick sighed audibly. This was going to be even harder than he'd thought. "Because I need a favor and the Knighties are the only ones I can trust. There's no one else I can go to."
Perri and Catherine winced simultaneously -- guilt worked both ways. "Why can't you go?" Perri demanded, taking the offensive back.
"I have reasons to avoid Toronto right now," Nick said grimly. "Please, will you two go? I'll pay your plane tickets, of course."
"Of course," the women echoed, exchanging a last set of looks. "What is wrong with this picture?" Cath complained quietly.
"Probably that we're going to do it," Perri muttered, conceding defeat.
Place: Toronto, Quebec
The elevator door slid open easily, despite the fact that it hadn't been opened in more than a month. Fortunately, no one had bothered to change the code on the lock -- either Perri or Cath could punch it in blindfolded.
All of the furniture was still in place, from the leather couch to the refrigerator, but someone had covered everything with sheets. The same someone had tried to clean up the fingerprint dust, but black residue still clung to almost every surface.
"Myra?" Perri guessed out loud.
"Probably. We'll have to see if we can check on her, tell Nick how she and Jenny are doing." She decidedly avoided the concept of Natalie.
"Yeah." Both of them knew the only reason for the conversation was to keep from having to go into the loft, but they ran out of banal things to say. They took the first step in.
Perri tried a light switch, but the power was off; the only illumination came from the sunlight sneaking through the dirty skylight. "Tell me again why a vampire has a skylight?"
Cath shrugged -- it was an age-old question they were never going to get answered. "Probably for the same reason he has a stove. Do you think the remote will work?"
"Not if the power's off." Perri rumaged in one of her bags and pulled out the flashlights, tossing one across the room for Cath to catch. "Come on, let's start looking."
"It'd be bad news if the cops found it when they were searching."
"Don't even think it -- besides, he said it was hidden."
They knew most of the hiding places in the loft, and Nick had revealed a few more on the phone. Behind the paintings (Perri winced away from the blood on the huge sun painting she had always loved), in the cubbyhole beside where the entertainment center had been, in the false panel underneath the bar. The search took two hours -- with no results except the discovery of a colony of dustbunnies under Nick's bed and a spare set of keys to the Caddy.
"Well, hell." Perri stood in the center of the room, swinging her flashlight around as if she's spot their goal laying on top of a table or counter. "Dammit, how many places can you hide one little black book?"
"It's a brown book."
"Don't get technical."
"Actually, since it's got all his bank numbers in it, it should be a green book."
"It's got phone numbers in it, too."
"Whatever." Cath collapsed on the still-covered couch with a heavy exhale. The couch squeaked underneath her weight. "We've torn this place apart, where else could it be?"
Perri sprawled next to her. "Maybe the cops got it. We'll have to go to the station and find out."
Cath laughed. "Oh, and they're just going to hand police evidence over to us?"
Perri let her head roll onto the back of the couch. "Remember how many times we called the station last war -- half the cops there know our voices. And Amy and I got introduced to Tracy as friends of the family -- Nick said he used the same cover to explain all those APB's to Reese. We might be able to pull it off."
"Yeah, maybe." Cath didn't sound convinced. "I always wanted to know what Nick kept in his desk anyway."
"Good. Let's take the Caddy, we need to search it anyway."
"Man, Nick's going to regret leaving those keys."
Time: 10:31 a.m.
Place: Toronto Police Department, 96th Precinct
"I can't believe Reese bought it."
"I can," Perri grinned somewhat guiltily. "That nice man was so relieved to find out Nick actually had friends who missed him, he would have let us in if we were green and scaly. Besides, we are the only family Nick's got, unless you count LaCroix or Janette. Which I don't."
"True. Want this box or that one?"
They tore neatly into the boxes of evidence; Reese had asked them to be careful since the investigation was still ongoing, but he hadn't sounded like he had much hope of solving the case. Both of them had had to fight back to urge to tell him Nick was alive; both had resisted the impulse.
"Let's see, here's the picture of LaCroix, here's a plaque or something -- oh, Lord, it's the Partners of the Month plaque. Oh, here's a notebook -- nope, it's a spiral." Cath flipped through it quickly, paused at one page and gaped. "Good lord!" At Perri's questioning glance, Cath snapped shut the spiral and said only, "Remind me never to buy an old Cadillac. I could practically live on what that man spent on gas."
"Old case file, computer disks, tea bags -- tea bags? Must have been Natalie."
"Paper, paper, electric bill -- this explains why there's no power -- note from Tracy, more paper, form he never got around to filling out from the Blackwing case--"
"Don't mention that name to me. Ick, what's this?"
"I think it used to be coffee."
"What'd he do, keep the same cup filled with the same coffee for six years?"
"Smells like." Cath finished with her box and replaced the lid. "Nothing but junk."
"Nada," Perri concluded. "Where are the evidence boxes from his apartment?"
"Reese said they were around here somewhere." It took them less than a minute to locate the boxes, and half an hour to go through them. The only thing they accomplished was Perri breaking a nail.
"What now?" Cath asked with a defeated sigh.
Perri shrugged, examining her nail with a disgusted expression that didn't quite hide her concern. "Beats me. Where else is there to look?"
"The Raven? The church? The possibilities are almost endless."
"We can't even stick our noses in the church without being spotted, much less the Raven. And there's no way we can cover any kind of ground with only the two of us."
"So we yell for help. Discreetly. Nick's going to kill us, though."
"Your point being?"
Cath considered. "Right. Let's go."
"The phone at Nick's place is turned off, same as the electric and the water."
"Payphone, payphone... Oh man, let's just go to the Happy Souvlaki, the FoDs don't have anything against us."
Place: Toronto, Quebec -- The Happy Souvlaki Deli
The ring of the phone echoes through the stable; Marg got it by the second one.
"Marg? It's Cath. Can you meet us at the loft in a few minutes?"
Marg blinked. "The loft? What are you doing...?"
"Meet us there and we'll explain!"
Marg shrugged. "I'll be there in an hour."
Sandra was reading her downloaded email when the phone rang. She picked it up and said, "Hello?"
"Sandra? It's Perri."
Sandra clutched the phone a bit tighter and frowned slightly. Perri Smith? Why was she calling? They hadn't had much contact since the last war and none since Nick... She blinked. But all that came out of her mouth was a perplexed, "Yeah?"
"How soon can you get to the loft?"
"Of course, Nick's loft."
"I don't understand. Isn't he...?" She couldn't say the word dead.
"No, of course not. Can you come?"
Sandra let out a huge breath.
"Sandra? You okay?"
"Yeah. I'm just glad I was sitting down." She sighed and then said, "I'll have to make some arrangements for taking care of Amanda and get back to you. But I'll try to get there as soon as I can."
Marcia was getting ready to go on-line when the phone rang, almost startling her out of her upholstered rocking chair. "Hello," she answered it, retrieving her track ball with her other hand.
"Marcia? It's Cath."
"Cath, hi, what's up?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you. The short version is that we heard from Nick, you were right, he's fine, but he needs us in Toronto. Can you come?"
Marcia thought about it for all of three seconds. "Who'll meet me at the airport?"
"Marg. See you at the loft."
"Katrinka? How soon can you come to Toronto?"
Katrinka studied the pile of work in front of her, calculated how far she could push her professor, and decided. "Tonight."
"Good." Cath hung up and Katrinka instantly dialed the phone again. Time to call in that trip her uncle kept offering...
"Scottie? It's Perri."
Scottie sat down. "Let me guess. Another war."
"Please God, I hope not," Perri sighed, "but with our luck, it will be. How soon can you get to Toronto?"
"As long as no one bricks me into my house, I should be there tonight. Is Nick paying?"
"Amy, stop playing with your nephew and get to Toronto."
Courtney sighed as she stared at her computer screen. "Stupid *@#!! array processing!" she muttered darkly. Her Matlab program was being particularly uncooperative today. She was just about to spitefully give the hp workstation a good thump when the phone rang. "Drat!"
She frantically searched though drifts of papers that had accumulated on her desk. "Where is the darn thing?" She climbed over a pile of textbooks and found the phone hidden on its side behind an obsolete circuit board.
"Hello, this is Courtney..."
"Courtney!!! Hey, you need to come to Toronto!"
"Uh...Catherine? Is that you?"
"Yup! Come to Toronto! Come...come to Toronto..." she repeated in her best spooky ghost voice.
"What? Why?" Courtney managed.
"Well, um, you can, ah, see the sights!" she grinned. "Yeah." Catherine was sick of repeating the same thing over and over to various Knighties, so she was drawing things out a little.
There was a brief silence on Courtney's end of the phone, and then she said in her best Norwegian accent, "See the loveli lakes..."
It was Catherine's turn to say, "What?"
"The wonderful telephone system..." Courtney continued.
Catherine began to grin.
"And mani interesting furry animals..."
The grin turned into giggles.
"Including the majestik moose..."
Catherine was laughing helplessly.
"A moose once bit a vampire..."
Catherine fell off her chair, a vision of Nick being chomped on by a moose causing her to lose the last shreds of her composure.
"No realli! He was Karving his initials..."
Catherine was on the floor, laughing uncontrollably and banging her head against the wall softly. Perri, noticing that by this time absolutely every eye in the Deli was focused on the payphone in the corner, decided to come to her friend's rescue. She walked over and shook her head sadly as she looked at Catherine. "Things haven't even started yet and you're already cracking up."
Catherine pointed at the phone swinging from its cord, still giggling. Perri could hear a faint voice coming out of it, saying, "Mynd you, moose bites Kan be pretty nasti..."
Perri picked up the phone. "Now that you've incapacitated Cath, here's what's going on..." Catherine had managed to recover by the time Perri finished talking to Courtney and hung up. Perri turned to Catherine. "She's coming. Turns out she has a radar and remote sensing conference up in Toronto right about now anyway, so her advisor can pay for her trip." Catherine nodded, not quite trusting herself to speak yet for fear of giggles, and went back to the phone. What shall I say to the next Knightie? she thought. A smile spread across her face, and she began giggling softly again. "Wi not trei a holiday in Toronto this year?" she muttered, picking up the phone.
"Allison, got air in your tires?"
"Good. How long will it take you to get to Toronto?"
Allison leaned over and snagged a map. The loft was less than an hour's bike ride from the west side of Toronto, where she was working on the route for the upcoming charity bike tour." "Not long. What's up? Is it Nick? Trouble?"
"Too damn much, yes, and of course."
"But the Olympics are on!"
"Karin, you can watch them here!"
"Well...all right. For Nick."
"Great. And bring cookies."
"Well, they're coming."
"They are indeed."
"You sure this was a good idea?"
"No. But we have to find that book before anyone else does, or we really will be toast."
"-- probably isn't even in the city anymore; Nick's just being paranoid. Anyway, who's going to know we're here?"
"Get real! With this many Knighties, after about three hours the entire city will know we're here."
"....This was definitely a bad idea."
Place: Toronto, NatPackers' quarters at the university
"I think we've got a problem," Karen's voice sounded rather worried.
Amy sat up, almost pulling the phone off the table. "What problem?"
"I just saw a couple of Knighties on the street. They were headed into the precinct. They're the ones you and Jennie have all the pictures of."
"Knighties we have lots of pictures of? Hmmm...must be Perri..." Amy mused, "and maybe Scottie?"
"I'm not sure, but they looked like they meant business," Karen replied, "and if their business interferes with our...project, it could be big trouble."
"Thanks. We're just getting ready to move our stuff to the 'Natpack hostel,' as Lynn has already started calling it. Maybe you can head over there after work? We need to meet and talk about this," Amy said decisively.
"OK, will do. See you later!"
Amy hung up the phone and turned to Jennie. "We have trouble, possibly. Karen just saw a couple of Knighties downtown. She's not sure which ones they are, but they looked like they were on business, and they were heading into the precinct."
"Oh, oh. We don't want anything to possibly draw attention to our activities, I hope they don't cause too much of a ruckus. Maybe they're just up here to look for Nick, and since he's not around, they might leave right away again," Jennie suggested hopefully.
"And maybe pigs will fly," Amy shot back. "You don't really think that, do you? It's horribly optimistic, even for you!"
Jennie sighed. "Plan B?"
"I think that might be wise. We put it in place for a reason, after all. This might just be it. And it can't hurt. We don't really have to do this for much longer, anyhow." Amy pointed out.
"OK, I'll get my address book and get started. Can you find the others and let them know?" Jennie asked.
Amy signed 'OK' and headed down the dormitory hallway towards the other Natpackers' rooms.
Jennie dug in her purse and found her little book, then began dialing. "Sharon? Hi. It's time - there are Knighties snooping around town. We're putting out the call. Can you make it?"
Place: Jaime's house, Salt Lake City, UT
Jaime was already on the phone planning her next "let's go out and dance with strangers" night with her best friend, Kayleen, when the call waiting clicked.
"Hang on, Kay, I've got another call. Hello?"
"Jaime? It's getting crowded up here with suspiciously familiar faces. I think we're gonna need help."
"Oh, my God. I'll be there in a few hours. How many groups have already arrived?"
"We've seen Knighties, but we checked around and several members of other factions seem to be missing so I expect we may be seeing Cousins, Mercs and Vaqueros as well. And Perkulators. Becky apparently headed out on a trip today."
"Then I'd best hurry. Make sure there's room for me wherever we're staying. See you in a few."
"Kay? Gotta go, there's trouble. I'll keep you posted."
And with that Jaime hung up the phone and made a beeline for the airport.
Jamie MR, the Webgoddess and Listmommy, stepped out of her golden chariot...actually, it was a Toronto streetcar; she missed the last step, stumbled and fell half a foot to the ground.
"Owch," she commented, examining the scraped patches on her knees.
She limped up Yonge Street to the Second Cup, ordered herself a large cappucino, spent the next ten minutes heaping brown sugar and cream and cinnamon into the drink, then seated herself at one of the outdoor tables. Listening to a street musician play rock music, she lit a cigarette and inhaled happily, then began to clean and bandage her knees with the first-aid supplies she'd picked up at the drugstore along the way.
In the last few weeks, she'd gone coast-to-coast riding the Dawg, visiting friends from one side of the U.S. to the other, and though it had been a lovely trip, she'd never quite recovered; she was tired, a little dizzy, definitely somewhat frayed around the edges.
But she was in Toronto. And that was cool.
She sipped at her cappucino happily, occasionally pausing to lick foam off the end of the straw.
Time: Late afternoon
Place: Toronto Airport
"Why do airports have all the ambiance of a sleep deprivation chamber?" Jill Kirby mused, glancing around the sterile walls disdainfully. Jill was looking particularly elegant today--she had been using the time in Toronto profitably to augment her wardrobe in interesting ways.
"Why do drinks cost five times more at an airport than they would at the last outpost on the edge of the Sahara?" Kelly Gritten grumbled, sucking a fountain Pepsi comprised of at least ninety-five percent water through a straw. She surveyed the contents of the cup glumly, then dumped it into a nearby trashcan and wiped her hands, damp from the condensation on the cup, on her jeans.
"Why does it take the luggage three times as long as the duration of the flight to show up?" Sharon Himmanen muttered irritably, pacing across the pale airport floor like a caged monkey...er, tiger. Her combat boots tapped out an impatient rhythm on the floor.
Needless to say, the other passengers waiting for their luggage to appear on the silver conveyor belt which had been circling hypnotically for the last fifteen minutes without a single duffel bag, backpack, or formerly pristine guitar-case now horribly mangled and resembling nothing more than a Barbie Corvette trampled by an elephant, agreed with the complaint.
Alora silently watched the silver panels of the luggage belt sway by, her eyes lured by the afterimages of light bouncing off the shiny metal. "Oooh," she finally moaned. "I feel sick."
Mei nodded miserably in agreement. More than any of the other NatPackers who had flown into Toronto that morning, she seemed to have suffered from the ravages of Murphy's Law of Air Travel: even if you do manage to catch your flight, which will be delayed two hours but it won't matter because your alarm clock won't have gone off anyway, and besides you won't be able to find any of the clothes you had planned to take, so you leave the house with nothing more than a cellular phone clutched in your hand...even if all that happens, you won't be able to open the shiny silver bag of peanuts that the well-coifed flight attendant hands you as your only sustenance for the trip without a protracted struggle, and when you do finally RRRRIPPPP it open, the peanuts will go flying everywhere. So Mei just sat slumped next to Alora, her cellular phone in one hand, and crumpled piece of peanut bag in the other.
With all the torment of Nick trying to make a decision, the baggage carousel finally spat out the first piece of luggage. A small brown toiletries case landed abruptly on the conveyor and circled one, two, three times without being claimed. The waiting crowd stood absolutely still, daring somebody to be the first and only to pick up their luggage.
"Come on," Sharon ordered the luggage to appear quietly. She had been the last to arrive at the airport, where Jill and Kelly, who had been in Toronto since--she frowned at the thought--Natalie Lambert's disappearance, had arrived to pick up those NatPackers returning to the city this weekend. Using that unique NatPacker talent for organization, she, Alora and Mei had arranged to fly in at about the same time; as befitted the unique NatPacker talent for having plans go awry, they had all arrived much later than anticipated.
Suddenly other pieces of baggage erupted from the chute in an avalanche of mismatched luggage. The crowd dived upon the pile in a frenzy, and Jill and Kelly joined Sharon in the fray to find her bag.
"Brown bag with a gold buckle," Kelly chanted to herself, pushing past a troop of Girl Scouts to scope out the luggage.
"Brown bag with a gold buckle," Jill reminded herself, but promptly became distracted by two animal carriers which had arrived on another conveyor. At least Katie was being safely cared for while she herself was in Toronto.
Sharon stood back a little, surveying the crowd grimly. The pile of luggage had begun to thin as people claimed their belongings, but what remained was still hopelessly jumbled. If she could just get a glimpse of her bag...
"Got it!" came one NatPack cry from the left side of the luggage carousel.
"Found it!" came another, from the other direction.
"Hey!" Sharon shouted. "Stop! That's my bag!"
Jill and Kelly, each clutching identical bags, looked around in confusion as Alora pointed to Sharon, who was in pursuit of a tall, long-haired man lugging another brown bag with a gold buckle. The man looked back frantically at Sharon, who was gaining on him, and hastened to the doors leading outside. Alora followed, with Mei shouting from behind them, "Sharon, wait!" but they were already outside.
Jill and Kelly dragged their prizes over to where Mei was standing, preparing to follow their friend, but Alora came back into the airport, shaking her head in confusion.
"What happened?" Jill demanded.
"It was the weirdest thing. This guy took Sharon's bag and threw it into a waiting car and they took off. Kelly's car was still in the loading zone, so Sharon jumped into it and went after them."
"My car!" Kelly wailed. She loved her Autumn Wine (tm)-colored Chevy Cavalier--it had been her stepmother's mid-life crisis car until her parents gave it to Kelly as a wedding present.
Jill patted her on the shoulder consolingly, but continued to quiz Alora, who was still shaking her head in confusion. "What else?"
Alora looked uncomfortable for a moment, then shrugged. "I must have been seeing things," she said finally.
"What?" Mei demanded.
"Well, the driver of the car--he looked a lot like The Guy."
"Like The Guy!!" Jill and Mei shouted.
"Great," Jill continued. "We'll never get Sharon back now."
"Uh, guys. I don't think that will be a problem, actually," Kelly interjected. They turned to look at her, and found that she had opened the two bags identical to that of Sharon. One was filled with neatly wrapped packs of hundred dollar bills. The other was crammed with small white packets, one of which Kelly had opened and tasted sparingly.
"Drugs?" Alora demanded.
She shook her head. "Nope. Salt. We won't have any problem getting Sharon back now."
"So where the heck did it come from?"
Alora shrugged. "As near as we can figure, the guy that took off with Sharon's bag was looking for both of these bags, but got scared when Sharon started after him."
"But money and salt?"
"Salt smugglers," Kelly said abruptly. "Isn't there a weight-loss center near here? All those popcorn and pretzel lovers on low-sodium diets...you could really clean up selling them the pure stuff."
Behind her Maureen mouthed, "War hysteria" silently, and continued counting her share of the loot.
Maureen flipped through one of the packets of money gleefully. "And I didn't even have to work for this stuff!" she chortled.
Jill looked up from distributing the remaining bundles of currency to the NatPackers with a grin. "We aim to please."
Amy looked uncomfortably at the money. "We should turn this in," she repeated for the fiftieth time.
"We can't. We need to avoid contact with the police for as long as we can, remember? They probably remember us from when Nat went missing, and we don't want them wondering why so many odd things keep happening around us. We're used to it, but they will find it suspicious." Jennie pointed out.
Kelly, her salt delusions having been forgotten, stared blankly at her portion of the money for a moment, a frown crossing her face.
"What's wrong?" Betsy asked.
Kelly looked up, startled, then grinned sheepishly. "Well, I was trying to think...pay off school loans, or have a spending spree in Toronto?"
The other NatPackers smiled knowingly, and she shrugged. "Yeah, I knew you guys would say that."
Growing serious, however, Jennie gathered the attention of the nearly thirty people in the room. "That might fit in with our plans, but don't forget what we're here for. We need to have a serious powwow about this. Now, there are a lot of things you all need to know. It's not really a dangerous situation yet, but that's what we're trying to prevent. We can't mess anything up after...what happened..."
The reminder was too much for them all. They felt themselves going into a group flashback. It was not a pretty sight--if they'd been in traffic, half of Toronto would have crashed into them.
Time: Just after "Last Knight"
Place: Nick's Loft
"I don't know why she's late," said Kelly, impatiently stabbing the "up" button on the elevator. "Why are you asking me?"
"I had to ask someone." Sharon glared at the elevator door. "This thing is so slow."
"We don't even know if she's here," Amy pointed out practially.
"Doesn't hurt to try." Sharon held the elevator door open as the NatPack trooped in. "We've looked everywhere else--her place, the morgue, the station. It's not like Nat."
Leslie glanced at her watch. "We're going to miss the play. I was really looking forward to seeing Shakespeare..." her voice trailed off.
No one said anything. It wasn't like Natalie to miss an appointment, and everyone was worried. The ride up to Nick's loft seemed to take a year.
When the elevator door slid open, the NatPack stepped out gingerly. The loft was dark and quiet.
"I don't think she's here," whispered Leslie.
"Who can tell? Ow!" Valerie bumped into a piece of furniture, hard. "It's so dark!"
"Where the hell is his remote?" Jill closed her eyes and headed around the sofa by touch. "Ah." Pushing several buttons, she set off the radio, the dishwasher and then, finally, the lights. "There." Turning to throw the remote back on the couch, she froze--along with the other NatPackers looking in the same direction as she was.
There was one long moment of complete, stunned silence as they realized it was Natalie lying on the floor by the fireplace, absolutely still. Absolutely white.
Then pandemonium broke out. Organized, controlled, NatPack pandemonium--but pandemonium nonetheless, with GT firmly in charge of the situation.
That night, more than one Natpacker gave thanks for the presence of the Aussie physician, and former EMTs that keep crash kits in the trunk of their cars.
Coming back to the present, Jennie continued, "So we have to be very careful to keep control, and not let anything out. Confusion is our friend, but we need to be organized beneath it. Fortunately, that's our normal mode of operation..."