"Mrs. McNeil," Nick spoke softly to the woman, "Do you reside in this house?"

"No, sir. I just come in to clean three times a week."

"Did you see or talk much to Mr. Melville?"

"Only a few minutes at a time. I've only been working for him a few months. He was what you'd call a swinging bachelor. He liked throwing parties and inviting pretty women over. Seems like I was cleaning up after a different woman every week. But he was a nice man. He'd always ask how my family was doing and he'd tell me what a good job I do for him, and he liked to tip me a few extra dollars."

"So what you've seen of him," Nick queried, "he seemed pretty contented, did he?"

The woman nodded. "Yes. Up until recently, that is. The last couple of weeks, I could see that he was pretty upset about something."

"How could you tell that he was upset?" asked Schanke.

"I could hear him yelling and cursing."

"At who?"

"At himself, I guess. He was mad because he couldn't solve that puzzle."

"Puzzle?" both Nick and Schanke questioned at the same time.

"For the past two weeks he was always home when I came to work. He'd walk around with this little square puzzle, sort of like a Rubik's cube I guess. He spent hours at a time just twisting and sliding the pieces this way and that, and getting real frustrated that he couldn't figure it out. You know, I've seen people get kind of hooked on video games and stuff, but never anything like that. He was acting like...." The woman's words trailed off as she reflected on her late employer's behavior.

"Like what?" Nick prodded.

"He was acting like his very life depended on getting that little puzzle solved."

"Looks like it did," said Schanke with a mild grunt.

"Mrs. McNeil, would you happen to know if Mr. Melville has any close relatives we can contact?" Nick asked the housekeeper.

"None that I know of. He never mentioned any and I haven't seen any family pictures around the place. I kind of get the feeling he was a very lonely man not too long ago. Back before he came into all that money."

"What'd he do?" asked Schanke. "Win the lottery?"

"No, he was one of those people who would pick through other folk's trash for stuff he could fix up and resale. He told me that he came across a painting somebody threw out, and he picked it up because it had a good frame. When he started to clean the frame, some of the paint came off the painting and he saw that there was another painting underneath. Long story short, he found out he had an original Picasso and he auctioned it off for 2.3 million dollars."

Schanke whistled his amazement. "Man, some guys have all the luck."

"Seems like life was good to him for awhile," said Mrs. McNeil thoughtfully. "But then he started obsessing over that puzzle. And it was like nothing else mattered anymore. I accidentally threw it in the garbage the other day when I was cleaning his room and he really freaked out. He managed to rescue it just before the garbage man came to pick up. I remember thinking that if he hadn't gotten it back then, he probably would've gone completely insane. But I never thought he'd do something like this."

"Thank you, Mrs. McNeil for your help," said Nick, bringing the interview to an end. "I'm sure this has been a rather disturbing ordeal for you, so we won't hold you here any longer." Nick motioned to an officer standing in the hallway. "This gentleman will escort you out."

"Can you imagine that?" said Schanke after the housekeeper had been led away. "A guy's got all this," indicating the home which he'd never be able to afford on a cop's salary, "money, a different woman every week.... And he chucks it all cause he can't solve a Rubik's cube?"

"I'm sure there's more to it than that, Schank," replied Nick as he peaked around the doorway and noted the police photographer leaving the crime scene. "Looks like they've finished the preliminaries. Let's go take a look."

Natalie Lambert was bent over the body lying partially crossways on the bed. The smell of blood and the vision of splattered brains on the pale blue sheets seemed to have no ill effect on her senses. She was carefully examining the hand with a gun still loosely clenched within its grasp when in walked two of her favorite detectives. She glanced up and greeted them with a hint of a smile.

"Hi, guys."

"Hi, Nat," they each responded in kind.

"So what do you think?" Nick asked, keeping his distance a bit, to keep the massive amount of blood from triggering his vampire responses.

"Well, so far, it's looking like suicide. It appears that he sat down on the edge of the bed, held the gun with both hands, placed the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger."

"Was there a note?"

"Haven't found one yet. I've still got some more to do here, so maybe you guys can just have a look around."

Nick nodded, then with a pointed finger, indicated that Schanke should search the left side of the room while he checked the right. The room showed no signs of struggle or forced entry. The windows were locked, indicating that no one had exited through them. Cash and other items of value were found lying on the dresser. Picking up the man's wallet and scanning the contents, Nick noticed something interesting. He walked back over to Natalie and showed her Stanley Melville's driver's license.

"Nat, would you say that the man on this license is the same as the man on the bed?"

Natalie paused in her examination to compare the photo ID to the deceased. Disregarding the fact that driver license photos were notoriously unflattering, it was clear to see that the man had changed considerably since it was taken. Nat perused the photo with a magnifying glass, then finally nodded.

"Well, he's obviously lost a lot of weight and he's apparently had a hair transplant, but everything else including that little mole on his chin and the green eyes are the same. It's him, Nick."

After she handed the license back to him, Nick studied it again. Something just didn't seem right. "According to this license, Mr. Melville was weighing in at 315 pounds. He looks like he's probably -- what 160, 150 now?"

"Your point?"

"Nat, this license was renewed barely four months ago. That's about forty pounds a month. Is it normal to lose that kind of weight that quickly?"

"No, no it's not. He may have had some kind of illness or physical disorder. I'll check it out back at the lab. That just might be the answer to why he did this."

"Hey, Nick," Schanke called out as he stooped down to pick something out of the trash basket near the closet. "You think this is the thing the maid was talking about?"

Nick walked over to his partner and took the object he held. "I think so. It's a Chinese puzzle box. I've seen quite a few in my time but never one quite like this."

"What's so special about it that the guy would kill himself over it?"

Natalie approached Nick and Schanke, having taken an interest in their conversation. "What do you mean? He killed himself over what?"

"The maid said that for the past couple of weeks the guy has been obsessed with trying to solve this puzzle, like his life depended on it."

"I know of a legend," said Nick, "about an ancient Chinese wish box. The story goes that, if you can solve the puzzle, the box opens and grants you one wish. The puzzle then resets itself and to gain another wish, you have to solve it again. Only the puzzle is always different and it's supposedly harder to figure out the second time around. On the third try, it gets even harder and after that, it becomes virtually impossible to solve."

"So you're saying that Mr. Melville was trying to solve the puzzle to make a wish come true?" asked Nat.

"Then went wacko when he couldn't figure it out?" Schanke added.

"I don't know," said Nick with a thoughtful shrug. "It's just a legend. A fable. I've heard thousands of them."


------------------- Baghdad - 1258 -------------------


Sand. Everywhere he looked for miles and miles, there was nothing but sand. Nicholas couldn't understand why his master had dragged him out to such a barren wasteland. They had flown nearly non-stop all night to reach the palace before daybreak. Once there, however, the accommodations were so plush and their host so obliging, that being stuck out in the middle of nowhere was less frightening for the young vampire. LaCroix had been invited to meet with the Arabian King and offer his wartime expertise in defending the country against the impending Mongolian invasion. With a few well-worded hypnotic suggestions from LaCroix, the king made sure that his guests' every need was graciously met.

A bevy of harem girls were assigned to entertain and serve them. His master had cautioned him about being greedy or messy, but apparently it was understood that during their week-long stay, the king's extensive harem would be reduced by a dozen or so. It was a chance for the king to rid himself of the less desirable of his many wives.

On his fourth night in the palace, the young woman who was sent to his chambers to entertain him proved to be somewhat different than her predecessors. The first had been loud and obnoxious, babbling and giggling incessantly. The second had been rather tall with a manly build. Nicholas felt compelled to check her sex afterwards just to make sure that indeed she had been female. The third woman was very unattractive and less than graceful both in movement and in speech. Normally, Nicholas preferred to make love or at least steal a few kisses before reducing his women to dinner, but with what had been in the offering thus far had made him only want to take their blood quickly and dispose of the body as soon as possible.

As he lounged back on the plush cushions of his bed, he had already prepared himself for the worse. He sighed deeply as he pictured an older, toothless hag with leathery skin and long breasts, hobbling through the door. He was more than just a little amazed when a lissome young woman entered his chambers and lowered her veil. She was easy on the eye, with a sensual smile, exotic, cat-like eyes and flawless skin. Nicholas sat up instantly, thinking that perhaps there had been some mistake. The exquisite creature before him was not possibly meant to be sacrificed.

"Are you sure you have come to the right place?" he found himself questioning her presence.

"You are Nicholas, are you not?" came the reply.

"Yes. You are my entertainment for the night?"

"If entertainment is indeed what you seek, I am here to provide it."

"You think I seek something else?"

"I know of others who have come to entertain you. They have not been seen or heard from again. I imagine they displeased you?"

"I did find their company as well as their beauty somewhat lacking."

"I hope I do not displease you."

"No, on the contrary, I find you quite refreshing. The others the king have sent to me were not half as enchanting as yourself."

"Is that why you killed them?"

He was surprised by her question and wondered if she knew exactly what he was and what he had planned for her. Nicholas rose from the bed and circled her slowly, eying her hungrily. "That was one of the reasons I killed them," he replied honestly. "It was obvious that the king no longer desired them. Is there some reason that he no longer desires you as well?"

"Not him, but some of his other wives are jealous of me. They have banded together to have me removed from the palace one way or another. But I do not wish to die. Perhaps if I please you well, you will not kill me?"

Though he had already decided to take his time with this beauty, stretching out her death over a period of two or three nights, the thought of not killing her had not crossed his mind. He had yet to feed from someone and not kill them, so making her such a promise would not be easily kept.

"If you please me well tonight," he made the offer, "I will spare your life tonight. But you will return tomorrow night and attempt to please me again."

She readily accepted the challenge. She was smart enough not to do anything that would tempt him physically. She replaced her veil and kept her distance as she began to tell him of far away places filled with magic and marvel.


-------- Present --------


"Earth to Nick. Yo! Knight!"

Nick snapped alert at the insistent voice in his ear, embarrassed by his inward distractions from the past. "Sorry, Schanke, what did you say?"

"Just where is that planet you visit all the time? What, you get frequent flyer miles or something?"

"Sorry, just remembering some stuff."

"Yeah, pick me up a postcard next time, huh? A little wish you were here?"

"Okay, Schanke, I'm back now. You find anything else?"

"Nah. Nothing that suggests that this was anything other than self-sayonara. Looks like the guy just offed himself."

"Yeah, I'm inclined to agree."

Schanke gave a nod towards the Chinese puzzle box his partner still held in his hands. "You think maybe we should tag that as evidence? You know, if he did kill himself because of it, maybe the next of kin can use it to sue the manufacturer. A lot of that's going around these days."

Nick turned the item over in his hands and studied it carefully. The fine craftsmanship and the use of dark green jade with white marble in its creation helped Nick to loosely tag its age. He knew it was well over a thousand years old, but decided to play down that fact. "Whoever made this is long gone, Schanke. This is hundreds of years old. It's possible that Mr. Melville found this in the same pile of trash he discovered the Picasso painting."

"So, it's an antique then. How much you figure it's worth?"

"Apparently, a man's life." Nick tossed the puzzle back to Schanke, essentially allowing him to decide what to do with the object.

--------

The investigation into Stanley Melville's death moved rather quickly. Medical reports revealed that Mr. Melville had a serious glandular problem that accounted for his abnormal weight loss. His condition had been incurable and within a few more weeks he would have been bedridden, and a slow death -- hooked up to a life support system -- would have been his only future. It was the consensus that his bad health had led him to end his life prematurely.

"You know, I've been thinking," said Schanke as he reached for something in his bottom, desk drawer.

"In public?" Nick teased.

"Good one, Knight. About this thing." He pulled out the Chinese puzzle box still wrapped in the plastic bag he had used to tag it as evidence.

"What are you doing with that? Shouldn't it be in the evidence room? Or back in Mr. Melville's trash bin?"

"Well, it's not really evidence because it was never actually part of a crime. And the guy had thrown it in the trash, so that meant he never intended to pass it on to any next of kin, not that we were ever able to locate any."

"So you figure it's yours because you rescued it from the trash?"

"Well, let's not get into the technicalities of who it belongs to right now. I was thinking that maybe there's something to this. Listen to this. What if Melville found this in someone's trash, played around with it and solved the puzzle, then finds out he's got a wish coming to him. So, being a poor slob, the first thing he wishes for is a bucket-load of money. Next thing you know, he's cleaning off a frame and presto, a two-million-dollar-plus painting pops up. That's wish number one."

Nick smiled as he placed his elbows on his desk and propped his chin atop his folded hands. He usually didn't enjoy listening to his partner's theories, because they were so often contradictory to his own, but this particular theory promised to be rather entertaining. "Go on," said Nick, to show he was actually paying attention.

"Okay, so the guy's got money now. He can afford a fancy car and a great house in a snazzy neighborhood. Now, he wants to attract women."

"Wouldn't the money do that?" asked Nick.

"Yeah, of course. But not every woman is attracted by money alone. Some insist that you have good looks as well. They want the guy to have a trim physique and a full head of hair. Four months ago, Melville's got less hair than I have. Then all of a sudden, he's got a mop full of wavy brown locks. Wish number two."

"You think he wished for hair?"

"Hey, you think I don't look in the mirror at times and wish for the seventies again? Man, I thought I'd never become synonymous with the words thinning and receding."

"Okay, so he wishes for hair," Nick concedes. "Then what?"

"He's got hair, he's got money, but he's a bit on the heavy side. I checked out his closet, Nick. He still had some of his fat clothes there, probably as a reminder. And I'm telling you; he lied on his license. He weighed a lot more than three-fifteen. My guess would be three-fifty at the least."

"So he wishes that he could lose weight," Nick finished his partner's theory.

"Bingo. The medical reports show that his condition came on suddenly. He was losing weight at a rapid pace, and he was probably ecstatic about it at first. He was trimming down and looking good, but then he figures that something's wrong. He couldn't *stop* losing the weight."

"So he spends all his time trying to solve the puzzle so he can make another wish to save his life?" Nick hypothesized.

"Two weeks later and he still can't solve it, and he finally realizes he never will."

The sudden awareness of what he might be holding in his hands sent a chill through Schanke and he instantly dropped the puzzle onto the desk. Nick picked it up and removed it from the plastic bag.

"Hey," Schanke spoke while backing his chair away from his desk a few inches, "maybe... maybe we shouldn't fool around with that thing."

"Schanke, that was just a legend, okay? This," Nick emphasized as he held up the cube, "was created to entertain, to pass away idle time." Without giving it much thought, Nick began to randomly twist and slide parts of the puzzle into new positions. "It's nothing to be afraid of. It's merely a toy."

"I knew that," said Schanke defensively. "But it's just kind of creepy when you stop to think about it. I mean, you'd really have to be careful what you wish for, right? I hear people wishing they could lose weight all the time, but they usually specify a few pounds or fifty or whatever. My guess is that this guy never specified how much he wanted to--" Schanke instantly lost his trail of thought when he heard a strange clicking noise. His eyes focused on Nick and he glared in both horror and amazement as the object in Nick's hand began to open up like a blossoming flower.

 --------

end part 1