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Partners in Death

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Eve was just getting ready to leave the office when her shiny new wrist 'link--a gift from Roarke--let out a dulcet chime that reminded her suspiciously of their house monitor. She scowled at it, thinking sourly that at least Roarke hadn't programmed it to greet her with, "Hello, darling Eve." Which was just as well, since she might have throttled him, and it would be pretty embarrassing for a homicide cop to be charged with murdering her husband.

Not to mention, if she killed Roarke, then who would she have mind-blowing, earth-shattering sex with?

Her irritation eased when she saw whom the caller was and answered, "Hey, Nix. How are you enjoying life as a full-fledged lawyer?"

Nixie had graduated at the top of her class from law school, and was now employed by the same family law firm her late father had worked at. Of course it was her adoptive parents Richard and Elizabeth who deserved the credit for raising the traumatized young orphan into a successful, confident woman. Still, Eve felt an almost parental twinge of pride at seeing how far Nixie had come.

"It's a lot of work, but I'm enjoying it...mostly," Nixie replied. She smiled, but even in the tiny screen on her 'link, Eve could recognize the hint of anxiety on Nixie's face.

"Is something wrong?" Eve asked bluntly.

Nixie laughed ruefully. "Your detective skills are sharp as ever, Dallas. You're right; this isn't a social call. I need your help."

"You are still practicing family law, not criminal law, right?" Eve asked, even as she thought back on how many of her past cases had involved family situations that had turned ugly.

"Yes, but...well, it's complicated," Nixie replied. "Could I stop by your office and talk to you about it?"

"Sorry, Nixie, but I'm on my way to court," Eve replied. Spending the day being cross-examined on the stand ranked slightly above paperwork and press conferences in the grand scheme of things, but not by much. Still, it would give her great satisfaction to put a killer behind bars, so it was a chore that she didn't begrudge too much.

Nixie still looked anxious and now disappointed, so Eve added, "But why don't you come over tonight and we can talk about it over dinner?"

"That would be great, Dallas," Nixie said with obvious relief. "Though I have to warn you, I might spoil your appetite."

"No worries there," Eve replied with a grin, recalling the times that she and her team had scarfed down pizzas while examining gruesome crime scene photos. "Homicide detectives have cast-iron stomachs."

And a good thing too, since often there was no time to take a break for a leisurely meal while working a case. Actually, any cop had to have a cast-iron stomach just to survive eating the dubious stuff that passed as "food" in the police department vending machines.

Peabody came up behind her just as Eve was ending the call. "Hey, was that Nixie? You should've let me say 'hi'--it's been ages since I've last seen her."

"Well, you can stop by tonight and see her," Eve said. "She's coming over for dinner."

"Really?" Peabody asked eagerly. "That's great! I'm flying solo tonight anyway because McNab has a thing with his gamer buddies, but I'd take any excuse to eat Summerset's cooking."

Eve rolled her eyes but she couldn't really blame her partner. For all his other faults, Summerset was a great cook, although she'd never tell him so, of course.

"Summerset's cooking and a chance to catch up with Nixie," Peabody said, beaming. "Dallas, I'm so happy I could hug you!"

Eve hastily backed off, putting a few steps between them. "Do that and you're disinvited!"

"I'll try to restrain myself," Peabody said gravely.

"See that you do," Eve barked, and turned to stalk out of her office, pretending not to see the grin that spread across her partner's face.

***

Eve barely had time to open the door before Nixie flung her arms around Eve, saying, "It's so good to see you again, Dallas!"

She was never going to be the hugging type, but despite what she'd told Peabody earlier, Eve had learned to tolerate it from a few of her favorite people. Nixie was one of those few, so Eve awkwardly put her arms around Nixie and returned the embrace.

Mercifully, the hug ended a few seconds later, and Eve was able to take a step back and take a good look at Nixie. She stood tall and confident, dressed in a charcoal-gray suit and white shirt, her blonde hair pulled back in a neat tail. She wore minimal makeup and a few pieces of understated jewelry--gold studs in her ears and a small gold locket on a chain around her neck. Eve knew that the latter held a picture of her late parents and brother because the locket had been a Christmas present from herself and Roarke.

The fear and grief that Eve remembered from their first meeting was gone, but her eyes still held the same resolve and determination as the nine-year-old Nixie.

"You're looking at me so intently," Nixie said with amusement. "Almost as if you're sizing up a potential suspect."

"Just thinking how grown-up you look," Eve replied, then shook her head slightly. "Wait, did I really just say something so clichéd?"

Before Nixie had a chance to respond, Peabody stepped forward and swept her up in an enthusiastic hug.

"Oh Nixie, you're so grown up! You look so...so...lawyerly!"

"Well, I am a lawyer, after all," Nixie laughed.

Roarke came down the stairs, greeting Nixie more calmly but with no less affection. Summerset appeared behind him, saying, "Miss Nixie, how nice to see you again."

"You too, Summerset," Nixie said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

It was downright strange and a little creepy to see the old scarecrow's face relax into a warm and tender smile. But Eve remembered how good he'd been with young Nixie when she'd needed security and comfort, and how Summerset had lost his own daughter so many years ago. And for once, Eve refrained from starting their usual exchange of insults, which they kept up more out of habit than true animosity anyway.

"By the way," Nixie said. "I hope it's okay that I brought a guest."

"Is that my cue to enter?" asked a voice with a familiar Irish lilt, and a young man walked through the open door. He was older now, but Eve still recognized that golden-brown hair the same color as maple syrup, the scattering of freckles across his face, and most of all, the mischievous twinkle in his green eyes.

"Hello, Cousin Eve," Sean Lannigan said.

"That's 'Lieutenant' to you, officer," Eve replied with mock sternness. Sean had not outgrown his childhood interest in police work, and had decided to study criminology at a university in New York. Instead of returning to Ireland after graduation, he had joined the NYPSD and was now working as a rookie beat cop.

"Cousin Lieutenant," Sean said, leaning in to plant a quick kiss on her cheek, then just as quickly darted out of reach before she could react, although she wouldn't have done anything more than swat him for his audacity.

"Sorry to drop by uninvited," Sean said to Roarke, who clapped him on the shoulder, then pulled him in for a hug.

"You are always welcome in this house, Sean," Roarke said firmly. "No invitation needed."

When Roarke released him, Peabody enveloped Sean in a hug as enthusiastic as the one she'd given Nixie, exclaiming, "Sean!" Peabody exclaimed. "Oh my, you look so grown-up and handsome!"

"And you look as beautiful as ever, Detective Peabody," Sean said, eyes still twinkling.

"You're a shameless flatterer," Peabody said, giving him a playful whack on the arm. "Still, I appreciate that Irish charm of yours."

"It's nothing but the truth," Sean insisted gallantly. "Detective McNab would agree with me, I'm sure."

"He would if he values his life," Peabody said with a grin.

Greetings exchanged, Summerset ushered them into the dining room, assuring Sean that there was plenty of food and always room for one more at the table.

They tucked into a delicious meal of roast chicken and mashed potatoes--and vegetables, which Eve conceded were made tolerable with a bit of buttery sauce. As they ate, she asked, "So what did you need my help with, Nixie, and how does it involve Sean?" To the latter she said, "Not that I'm not happy to see you, but I assume she brought you here for a reason."

"Other than my Irish charm, you mean?" Sean joked, but then his expression turned serious as he and Nixie exchanged a look. "It's a long story."

"Start at the beginning, then," Eve said, as she would have done with a witness in a case.

Sean nodded, and the cheerful mood around the table changed into something more somber as he began to speak. "There's a boy I've gotten to know on my regular beat, name's Derek, about fourteen years old. He's a good lad, but his mother...well, she's a different story. Zoner addict, tries to get clean periodically, but when she falls off the wagon, she's indifferent at best and mean at worst. Too stoned to put food on the table and make sure he eats and gets to school, that sort of thing. Slaps him around when the drugs and money are running low, or when he tries to convince her to get clean. He's a good lad, as I said, and he loves his mum even when she treats him like crap."

He looked outraged on the boy's behalf, reminding Eve that unlike her, Sean had grown up with a loving family who would never dream of hurting their children. Though to be fair, he'd encountered a harsh lesson in reality when he had stumbled across a murder victim as a child when Eve and Roarke had been visiting his family in Ireland. As young and innocent as he'd been, he hadn't flinched away from that ugliness, and had done his best to stand up for the victim, in his own way. That was, perhaps, what had drawn him into this line of work.

"Derek's grandmother had been trying to help her daughter get clean," Sean continued. "But she finally had enough and alerted social services. They took Derek away and placed him with her. She dotes on him, provides a stable and loving home, and he was doing well with her, though he missed his mum. But then Mum went to social services, all tearful and remorseful, swearing to go into rehab and get clean for good this time."

"But she broke her promises?" Eve asked, although she already had the answer in Sean's disgusted tone of voice.

"She probably meant it when she said it, I'll give her that," Sean sighed. "And for awhile, she did get clean, and Derek was sent back to her over the grandmother's objections. But she fell off the wagon, as she always does. And then Mum picked up a boyfriend who started knocking Derek around."

"The grandmother decided to fight for custody of Derek, so Sean referred her to me," Nixie said. "Social services prefers to work at keeping child and parent together if at all possible, but we were building up a good case when..."

Her voice trailed off, and Sean resumed his story. "This morning, the mother was found stabbed to death, with Derek beside her, covered in blood and his prints on the weapon, a knife from the kitchen."

Eve looked at Nixie's pale face and knew she was remembering the murder of her own parents. And Eve remembered how she had found Nixie cowering in the shower, covered in their blood.

"You don't think he did it."

Nixie was still a little pale, but her voice was steady as she said, "He couldn't. Derek is a kind, gentle boy. He couldn't hurt a fly, much less the mother that he still loved no matter how much she neglected or abused him."

"It's a thin line between love and hate," Eve said, playing devil's advocate. "Pushed hard enough, anyone can snap."

"True, but I agree with Nixie," Sean said. "Derek hasn't got it in him. He was more inclined to blame himself, poor lad, for not being a good enough son rather than her for being a bad mother."

Of all days for me to be stuck in court, Eve thought. If she'd been the one to catch the case, she'd have a better idea if Nixie and Sean might be right or if they were letting personal feelings cloud their judgment. For the most part, she trusted them to have good instincts, but she also trusted her cops.

"Who has the case?" she asked.

"Detective Thompson," Sean replied in a voice that was obviously aiming for calm and level, but a hint of frustration seeped through. "He wasn't inclined to listen to the opinions of a rookie cop or a rookie lawyer."

That changed things slightly--Thompson was new, a temporary assignment sent over from the 80th Precinct to help cover the shortage at Homicide, which was down two cops at present. One detective had recently retired, and Baxter was recovering in the hospital after breaking an arm and a leg during a skiing trip with his latest squeeze. His head, being made of sterner stuff, was still in one piece although he had suffered a mild concussion. Eve wondering what on earth possessed people to go flying down an icy hill on a couple of flat sticks, then turned her mind back to the problem at hand.

She didn't know Thompson well, but judging by his record and what she'd seen of him so far, he was a good, solid cop who was maybe a little too by-the-book at times.

"He's a good guy, but...well, maybe lacking in originality," Peabody said aloud, echoing Eve's thoughts. "Not the type to think outside the box when there's a seemingly obvious solution right in front of him."

"And what does the kid say?" Eve asked.

"Not much," Nixie replied. "He was too traumatized to say much, other than that he got home and found his mother dead. Please, Eve, can you take a look at the case?"

Thompson wouldn't like that, any more than Eve would like some other cop questioning her judgment. But it was hard to resist Nixie's pleading gaze, and it wasn't like Nixie was in the habit of asking for frivolous favors. Besides, Eve rationalized, she was in charge of overseeing the homicide detectives, so looking over Thompson's case fell within her duties.

"I'll take a look, but no promises beyond that," Eve cautioned.

"That's all I ask," Nixie said gratefully. "I trust your judgment, Dallas."

***

"What the hell, Lieutenant?" Thompson demanded. "I know I'm the new guy here, but I resent the implication that I don't know how to do my job!"

"Then you have nothing to resent, because I haven't implied that," Eve replied coolly. "Now take a seat, and we can discuss this like adults." When he remained standing, glowering down at her, she said in a sharper voice, "That was a request, Detective, but if you prefer, I can rephrase it as an order."

"That won't be necessary, sir," Thompson said stiffly, and pulled up a seat in front of her desk. "May I ask why you're questioning my judgment?"

"So who says I'm questioning your judgment?" Eve retorted. "In case you've forgotten, I'm in charge of supervising the Homicide detectives, which includes you. Looking over those detectives' cases is part of my job."

"And do you look over Jenkinson and Trueheart's cases this closely, too?" Thompson asked sarcastically.

"Sometimes, depending on the circumstances," Eve replied. "Besides, as you said, you are the new guy. Trust takes time to build."

Thompson took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled. "Fair enough," he said, though he still didn't look happy about the situation. "Neighbors heard the kid arguing with his mom about her drug use, and mom and mom's boyfriend started yelling back at him. One of the neighbors yelled at them to shut up. The kid left shortly after that, around nine pm, slamming the door behind him. Boyfriend says he left about twenty minutes after that."

"I assume you checked the boyfriend's alibi?" Eve asked.

"Believe it or not, Lieutenant, this is not my first time at the rodeo," Thompson replied.

Eve had a vague idea that rodeos involved cowboys roping cattle and riding bucking bulls, and somehow clowns were involved with the latter. What the hell did clowns have to do with cowboys, she wondered.

"Not sure what rodeos have to do with police work, but I get what you mean," Eve said. "Run it by me anyway."

"According to the autopsy report, Marlene Chen was killed sometime between eleven and midnight. Boyfriend was at a bar until almost two in the morning. I confirmed it with the staff and the security vid shows him there, too. The next morning, a neighbor passing by noticed the door was open. She heard crying, peeked inside, and saw the son weeping over his mother's bloody corpse. And before you say that's odd behavior for a killer, we both know that plenty of people kill in the heat of the moment and regret it afterwards."

That was true enough. Eve had seen plenty of spouses or lovers crying over the partner they had killed out of jealousy or whatever. But this case didn't have the same feel to it from what Sean and Nixie had told her. On the other hand, their compassion for Derek might have affected their perception despite their protests to the contrary.

"What did Derek say?" she asked.

"Not much, other than that he came home and found his mother like that," Thompson replied. "He was pretty incoherent with grief. Then your lawyer friend showed up and wouldn't let him talk to me anymore."

"Did you look at any other suspects besides the boyfriend?" Eve asked "The victim was a drug addict, and that usually means associating with some shady people."

"I already have the kid, covered in blood, with the corpse and the murder weapon, after having an argument with his mother," Thompson said sharply. "What more do I need?"

"To be thorough," Eve retorted. "And to be absolutely sure we have the right perp in custody."

"I'm sure," Thompson said firmly. "Look, is this because of Lannigan? I know he's Roarke's nephew or something, but--"

"Cousin, actually," Eve interrupted. "But no, Officer Lannigan isn't the one who asked me to look into your case." Which strictly speaking was true, since Nixie was the one who had brought it up, even though Sean had agreed with her concerns.

"The lawyer, then?" Thompson asked.

"Ms. Swisher expressed some concerns, yes," Eve replied.

"I heard that she has a connection to you, too," Thompson said, but his irritation softened into something more sympathetic. "Kid had it rough, her entire family being murdered. I heard you looked out for her."

"You hear a lot," Eve said dryly.

"It's natural to be curious about my new boss," Thompson replied. "Besides, you are kind of famous, you know. Not many cops have vids made about them."

"Yeah, well, don't believe what you see in the vids," Eve said.

"This is what I believe," Thompson said. "Derek Chen had an argument with his mother, then came back and killed her. That's what all the evidence points to. I'm not without sympathy, Lieutenant. She obviously mistreated the boy, and if the defense wants to ask for leniency in the sentencing, I got no beef with that. But he did the murder and he's got to face up to that. If you ask me, I think Ms. Swisher can't see clearly because she's over-identifying with the boy."

"Maybe," Eve reluctantly conceded. "But it's still our job to be thorough." Thompson started looking mulish again, and Eve added, "If nothing else, to counter all the objections that the defense will raise in court. And as you pointed out, Swisher is personally invested in this case."

"Lawyers," Thompson said disgustedly. "Uh...no offense."

"Well, I am fond of this particular lawyer, but mostly I agree with the sentiment," Eve replied with a hint of amusement. "So I'd like to have fresh eyes take a look at the case--no offense. Just to take a closer look at the victim and rule out the possibility that anyone other than her son could have killed her. If Derek is confirmed as the killer, then no harm, no foul, and we'll be ready to counter the defense's arguments."

Thompson shrugged. "Well, whether I like it or not, you're the boss. You want to re-investigate, knock yourself out."

"So nice to have your permission, Thompson," Eve said dryly. "But I won't be the one investigating."

***

"You want us to investigate?" Nixie asked in surprise.

"Technically, Sean will be the one investigating since you aren't a police officer," Eve replied. "However, it's fine with me if you unofficially choose to tag along. It's unorthodox, but since we're legally obligated to share our findings with the defense, I figure we're just cutting out the middle step here."

"Not that I object, but is it really all right for me to take the lead here?" Sean asked. "I'm only a beat cop, not a detective."

"Peabody started off assisting me when she was a beat cop," Eve said. "Thompson thinks Derek is guilty and my other detectives are busy with cases of their own. You're the ones who believe in Derek's innocence, so the two of you should have the most motivation to investigate."

"Thank you so much, Dallas," Nixie said with a grateful smile

"Don't thank me yet," Eve cautioned. "I can't put this case on hold forever. You have forty-eight hours to find evidence exonerating Derek and/or pointing towards another suspect before I send the case on to the DA."

She turned to Sean and said, "As for you, if you do succeed in clearing Derek's name and finding the real killer, that will look good on your record and put you one step closer towards earning your detective's shield. On the other hand, some people will call it nepotism, say I gave you special treatment because of your connection to Roarke. And whether you fail or succeed, you might have made an enemy if Thompson decides to hold a grudge."

Sean lifted his chin, and gave her the same stubborn and determined look that she remembered from his childhood. "I'll stand for what's true, and not be bothered about what other people think."

Eve gave him a small smile and an approving nod. "You'd better get to work, then--you don't have time to waste."

***

Derek was tall for his age but gangly, with spindly limbs that were a little too long and thin for the rest of his body, like a puppy that had yet to grow into its outsized paws. He was currently huddled in a chair in the interrogation room: shoulders hunched, head hanging down, and his arms wrapped around himself, looking as if he was trying as hard as possible to retreat into himself and shut out the rest of the world.

His long, dark hair fell across his face in lank strands, but he looked up briefly when Nixie and Sean entered the room. Nixie had to take a deep breath and steady herself because the broken, haunted look in his eyes brought back memories of her nine-year-old self. She had thought her world had ended on the day that her family was murdered--and in a way, it had. However, thanks to Dallas she had survived and rebuilt her life and found happiness with her adoptive family.

But she wasn't nine years old anymore, and now it was her turn to be strong for Derek's sake. At least he still had his grandmother to help support him, although first she would have to clear him of the murder charges before they could be reunited.

"Derek?" Nixie said gently. When he didn't respond, she said, "Derek, please...we know you didn't kill your mother. We want to help you, but you need to talk to us."

"The cops think I killed her," Derek mumbled.

"I know that in the past it generally hasn't been a positive experience for you when the garda shows up," Sean said.

"Garda?" Derek asked, glancing up at him, curiosity having cut through the haze of his grief, at least for a moment.

"That's what we call the cops in Ireland," Sean replied.

"Why'd you become a cop, anyway?" Derek asked. "Your cousin is that rich guy, Roarke, right? Couldn't you have gotten a cushy job working for him?"

"Well, when I first met Roarke and Eve, I thought being a cop sounded much more exciting," Sean said, grinning at the memory. "I wanted to know all about her cases and how many bad guys she'd blasted. She said she thought I was a bloodthirsty little bastard." Then his smile faded and his expression turned more serious. "I thought of it like a vid show until I saw the real thing up close. When I was just a bit younger than you, I stumbled across a body in the woods. A young woman, not much more than a girl, really, murdered by some bloke for no better reason than that she didn't fancy him the way he fancied her.

"Eve was out of her jurisdiction, but she did what she could to help with the investigation. Made sure the crime scene wasn't compromised, and advised the local officer, who was young and green. Almost as green as I am, I suppose. With her help, they caught the killer. Eve stood for the victim and made sure that the one who killed her paid. That's when I knew that I wanted to be like her--not for the excitement or the glory, but to stand for the victims and make sure justice is done by them. I promise you, Derek, I will stand for you and for your mother, and Nixie will, too."

"Eve Dallas," Derek said slowly, turning to look at Nixie. "She's the one you told me about, the one who helped you when your family was killed."

"She caught the killer and put him in a cage," Nixie said with grim satisfaction. "He's still there today, and will be for the rest of his life. She put him away and she kept me safe like she promised."

"But what if I deserve to be put in a cage?" Derek asked, his eyes filling with tears.

"What are you saying?" Nixie asked gently. "I know you didn't hurt your mother."

"No, but..." Derek's voice faltered. "It might be my fault she got killed."

"We'll figure this out together," Sean said. "Tell us what happened, starting at the beginning."

"Well, we had a big fight that night," Derek said. "When Grandma said she wanted custody of me, Mom promised that she'd get clean--for real this time." He gazed at them with pleading eyes. "I mean, I love my grandma, but I love--loved--my mom, too."

"I understand, Derek," Nixie said quietly. "You didn't want to leave your mother, and you wanted to be loyal to her."

"And maybe for her to be loyal to you?" Sean added.

"She swore that this was her wake-up call," Derek said, his voice filled with grief and hurt and anger. "She said she'd do whatever it took to keep custody. She promised."

He paused, overcome with emotion, and Nixie gave him time to compose himself before gently prompting, "But she broke her promise?"

Derek nodded. "She was good, for awhile. But then she started using again. She tried to hide it at first, but I could tell. It was her new boyfriend Jack that got her using again." Then he sighed and shook his head. "No, it wasn't just Jack, although the guy's a sleaze. There was always some excuse: work was rough; the boss was hassling me; it's tough raising a kid alone, you know, Mommy just needs a little pick-me-up to keep her going."

"So you fought about the drugs?" Sean asked.

"I found her stash and flushed it," Derek said. "Like, down the toilet. Part of me thought maybe if I got rid of the drugs, she'd get clean, and part of me was just mad and wanted to get back at her. When she realized it was gone, she started screaming at me and Jack started yelling that he was gonna kick the crap out of me, so I took off. I didn't want to go home, so I stayed out all night, and when I came back home the next morning, I found her...like that." He began to weep. "She was lying there, all bloody, with the knife sticking out of her chest. I pulled it out, thought maybe I could still save her, but when I touched her, she was cold, and I knew it was too late."

Pulling a knife out of a wound could do more harm than leaving it in, but in this case, it wouldn't have made any difference. Marlene had been dead for hours by the time Derek found her, so Nixie said nothing except, "It wasn't your fault, Derek."

"Yes, it is," he sobbed. "Jack was really mad about the drugs. What if he killed her because of what I did? 'Your damn kid stole my drugs' is what he said. He was mad at me, but what if he took it out on her?"

"He supposedly has an alibi, which we're going to check out, but even if he did, that would be on him, not you," Nixie said firmly. Derek didn't look convinced, and and Nixie added, "I blamed myself too when my family was killed. I broke the rules and snuck out of bed to get an Orange Fizzy, and my friend Linnie got killed in my place because the bad guys thought she was me. But Dallas told me that it wasn't my fault, that if I'd stayed in bed like I was supposed to, the only thing that would have changed would be that I'd be dead, too. I'm really sorry about your mother, Derek, but if you had stayed home that night, the person who killed her--whether it was Jack or someone else--would probably have killed you, too. And I'm very glad that you're alive."

He didn't look completely convinced, but he seemed a little comforted by her words. Nixie hoped that by finding the killer, they would be able to give him some closure and ease his guilt. Assuming, of course, that they could manage to solve the murder within the next forty-eight hours, which was by no means a given.

No, she told herself resolutely. They would find the killer because that was the only way to clear Derek's name. Maybe she and Sean were both rookies, but they had spent years following Dallas's cases and seeing how she worked. Nixie knew that wasn't the same as having years of actual homicide investigation experience, but they knew how to follow leads, do the legwork, and look for any details, however small, that stood out.

Meanwhile, Sean was asking Derek where he had spent the night. "If we can prove you have an alibi, then we can get you out of here and start looking for the real perp."

Derek shrugged. "I don't have much of an alibi. I stayed at the library till it closed, then hung out at the arcade for a bit, but I didn't really have enough money to play games. I ended up sleeping in the park."

The local park, like the rest of the neighborhood where Derek lived, was run-down and in a state of disrepair, but was usually safe enough during the day. At night, however, it attracted homeless people looking for a place to sleep, and drug dealers looking for a place to peddle their goods.

"Oh, Derek," Nixie sighed. "You could have been mugged or worse. Why didn't you call me or Sean, or at least your grandmother?"

"I didn't wanna rat my mom out," he said miserably, hunching his shoulders again and dropping his gaze to stare at the table between them. "I was mad at her, but I still didn't want CPS to come take me away again."

Nixie instantly felt bad for making him feel bad. "I'm sorry, Derek," she said. "Was there anyone in the park who saw you?"

"I don't think so," Derek replied. "I mean, I saw a homeless guy sleeping on a bench, and a few kids hanging out on the basketball court. But I stayed away from them and kept to myself because, like you said, it's dangerous. I guess I really messed up, huh?"

Sean walked over and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry, lad. Nixie and I will get to the bottom of this."

Derek still looked worried but seemed comforted by his reassurance. However, after leaving the police station, Sean turned to Nixie with a look of helpless frustration on his face and said, "I know I'm not supposed to make promises like that, but I felt like I had to tell him something."

"So let's not make you a liar," Nixie said, trying to sound more confident than she felt. She gave him a hearty slap on the back and added, "Come on, partner, let's get moving--there's no time for us to feel sorry for ourselves."

"Yes, ma'am," Sean said with a grin, snapping a mock salute at her. "You almost sounded like Cousin Lieutenant there for a moment."

Derek had given them a rough timeline for the night of the murder. One of the librarians remembered him, and he showed up on the security vids of the arcade, but as he'd said, he'd left both places before the time of the murder. As for the park, there were a few security cameras, but they had long ago been broken by vandals and never repaired.

"If we had more time and manpower, we could canvas the park and the neighborhood and try to find someone who saw Derek," Sean said.

"But we don't," Nixie said briskly. "So let's check out Jack's alibi, since he's the most obvious suspect."

"I spoke to a guy I know in narcotics," Sean said. "That bar is what would politely be termed as a dive, and they've busted people for dealing or using drugs there several times. Jack is one of them, and the bartender is a friend of his. He could be covering for Jack, either out of the deep bond of friendship..." Nixie let out a derisive little snort, and Sean continued, "...or maybe Jack paid him off."

"The latter sounds more likely, but let's check it out," Nixie said.

***

The Neon Lady was easily spotted by its neon sign in the shape of a curvaceous female figure, and Nixie said sarcastically, "Points for originality."

"I don't think originality is their strong suit," Sean said as they walked in.

Nixie wrinkled her nose as she stepped carefully across the floor, which looked like it hadn't been mopped since...well, maybe since the place had first opened. One section of the room had a handful of privacy booths where customers no doubt conducted transactions of questionable legality. The other side of the room had open booths upholstered in worn and scuffed pseudo-leather, patched in places with duct tape. There were also a number of stools at the bar, though at this time of the day, both stools and booths were mostly unoccupied.

A man nursing a beer in one of the booths caught sight of Sean's uniform, then quickly tossed back his drink and hastily scurried past them for the relative safety of the streets.

The man behind the bar gave them a weary look and asked, "Are you guys here about Jack again? I thought we were finished with that. It's bad for business to have the cops coming in here all the time."

Sean looked around, feigning surprise, "I can't imagine why the patrons of such a fine establishment would have a problem with the police dropping by occasionally."

"Ha ha, very funny," the bartender said sourly. "You ought to quit your job and take up comedy."

Sean flashed his badge and said, "Well, the sooner you answer our questions, the sooner we'll be on our way. Are you the owner?"

"Yeah, I'm Robert Weiss, and this is my 'fine establishment' as you call it. Look, I'm sorry Jack's old lady got killed, but like I told the other guy, he was here the whole night. Had to kick him out at closing time, as a matter of fact."

"But he's your friend, right?" Nixie asked. "Maybe he asked you for a little favor--'hey, the cops are hassling me, do me a solid and say I was here all night'?"

"We're friendly, but not that friendly," Weiss protested. "And certainly not friendly enough that I'd risk going to jail for him. Chrissie will tell you the same--hey Chris, come over here and tell the cops about that night again."

Nixie decided not to correct his assumption that she was a cop, and remained silent as a blonde waitress with a bored expression on her face sauntered over.

"You're checking out Jack's alibi, right?" she asked. "I wouldn't really mind seeing the guy locked up, but yeah, he was here. I remember because the handsy bastard grabbed my ass so I dumped a glass of beer on his head."

"Wow, what a prince," Sean said.

"Tell me about it," Chrissie said. "I'm still waiting for my Prince Charming to come take me away from this dump--like that'll ever happen. Need anything else?"

"No, that's all for now," Sean replied.

Chrissie looked him up and down, then smiled. "You're cute, for a cop. I like your accent, too." She scribbled a number on a napkin, then folded it up and tucked it into his shirt pocket. "Give me a call sometime when you're off duty."

She sauntered off, swaying her hips, and Nixie elbowed Sean in the side, whispering, "I think she likes you, Prince Charming."

Sean elbowed her back, and Weiss said impatiently, "Will that be all, Officers?"

"Just one more thing," Sean said. "We'd like to view the security vid for that evening."

"I already gave a copy to the other cop, but if it'll get you out of my hair, I'll make another one for you."

***

They went to Nixie's office, deciding that it would be more tactful and discreet to watch the vid there, rather than at the police station where Thompson or one of his colleagues might come across them trying to disprove his case.

Nixie popped the disc into her PPC, and they sat at her desk, quietly but intently viewing the vid, fast-forwarding until they saw Jack enter the bar around the same time as he'd given in his statement to Thompson.

"Well, he was there," Nixie said grudgingly. "But maybe he left earlier than he claimed, or sneaked out and came back later."

So they kept watching, and eventually saw him grope the waitress as she had said. "Guess Chrissie was telling the truth," Sean observed.

"Including about how she dumped that beer on his head, which he totally deserved," Nixie agreed. "What a jerk."

"But not necessarily a murderer," Sean reminded her.

"We can still hope," Nixie said.

The vid continued with Jack shouting at Chrissie and looking as though he might hit her until Weiss intervened and led Jack away. They were gone long enough that Nixie hoped she might be right about him slipping out of the bar to commit the murder, but after about fifteen minutes, he returned to his seat, with his hair still damp and wearing a different shirt.

"He just went to get cleaned up," Sean said with disappointment. "Weiss must have given him a fresh shirt."

"Let's keep watching," Nixie said, but Jack stayed until closing, exactly as Weiss had claimed.

"I hate to say it, but he's not our man," Sean said regretfully. "Which leaves us back at square one. We might have to try canvasing the park tonight after all. And we need to dig deeper into Marlene's background. Maybe an old boyfriend was angry that she dumped him, or she owed money to someone who was tired of waiting to be paid."

But Nixie was rewinding the vid as she frowned at the screen. "I can't put my finger on it, but something about this is bothering me."

"I wanted him to be guilty too, Nix, but it's obvious that Jack never left the bar," Sean said.

That was when something clicked in Nixie's mind. "No," she said with growing excitement, "Jack didn't leave. But what happened to Weiss? See here..." She stopped the vid where Jack and Weiss walked out of camera range, then fast-forwarded it slightly. "Jack comes back, but where's Weiss? There's a different man behind the bar."

Sean had uploaded a copy of Thompson's report to his wrist unit, and quickly scrolled through it. "That would be the part-time bartender who works the night shift, David Martinez. He testified, along with Weiss and Chrissie, that Jack was at the bar all night."

Meanwhile, Nixie kept scanning through the vid. "The beer incident happened at about ten-thirty. Weiss doesn't appear on the screen again until after midnight."

"To play devil's advocate, he could be working in back, in the storeroom or office," Sean said, though he looked intrigued by Nixie's discovery. "And what's his motive?"

"Maybe he doesn't just let people deal drugs in his bar," Nixie speculated. "Maybe he's actively involved himself, and maybe Marlene owes him money for the drugs that Derek flushed."

"That's a lot of maybes," Sean replied. "But we can start by checking out his alibi."

Nixie thought for a moment. "We don't want to scare him off, though. Right now he has no reason to run because he thinks we only suspect Jack."

"And we don't want him rabbiting out on us before we can get an arrest warrant lined up," Sean agreed. "So how do we check out his alibi without asking him directly?"

Nixie grinned. "Well, Chrissie seemed quite taken with you, Mister Cute-for-a-Cop. Why don't you give her a call and see if she'll meet up with you during her break?"

***

They met Chrissie at a coffee shop a few blocks away from the bar. She flashed a bright smile at Sean, but it faded when she saw Nixie sitting next to him.

"I thought this was a date," she said accusingly. "Were you conning me with your Irish blarney?"

"You're a lovely lass and that's no lie," Sean said gallantly, exaggerating his Irish brogue. Chrissie gave him a skeptical look and he continued, "But it's true that I asked you here because we need your help. Please, just hear us out."

He got up and pulled out a chair for her, and she reluctantly sat down. "I don't see how I can help. I already told you that ass-grabbing bastard was there all night."

"We reviewed the security vids, and we know that's true," Nixie said. "But didn't Weiss leave the bar not long after the ass-grabber got a well-deserved dousing?"

Chrissie immediately caught on to what they were really asking, and demanded, "If Jack goes to prison, then what happens to the bar? If it closes down, I'll be out of a job. It may be a shithole, but a girl's gotta earn a living."

"I know of a few bars looking to hire," Sean said. "Places where the customers don't get away with molesting the staff. I can't guarantee you a job, but I will put in a good word for you if you do the right thing and help us. There's a young lad's life who depends on it."

Unexpectedly, Chrissie's expression softened a little and she seemed to waver. Nixie quickly jumped in with, "Jack's girlfriend had a son, a fourteen-year-old boy named Derek. He's a good kid who tried to take care of his mother even when she wasn't taking care of him. If we can't prove that someone else did it, he might end up going to prison for her murder."

"Juvie, at that age," Chrissie said, though she still seemed to be wavering.

"They call it by a different name but a cage is still a cage," Sean said grimly. "He's a sweet, shy, vulnerable kid. They'll eat him alive in there."

Chrissie hesitated a little longer, then a look of resolve filled her face. "I have a kid brother about that age. If he were in trouble, I'd want someone looking out for him. Yeah, you're right. Weiss took off, told me and Dave that he had some business to take care of and that we should hold down the fort. We were busy, but whatever that business was, he looked pretty pissed about it, so I didn't ask what it was. I didn't know that he had anything to do with the murder, honest."

Nixie believed her. "Do you know of any reason why he might have wanted to hurt Marlene?"

"Not really..." Chrissie said, but her voice trailed off uncertainly.

"But?" Sean prompted. When she still hesitated, he asked, "Maybe something to do with his drug business?"

By the look in Chrissie's eyes, he'd struck pay dirt. "Look, I don't ask what he does on the side, because I don't want to be involved with that shit," she said. "Waitressing doesn't pay much, but at least I don't have to worry about the cops coming after me." She added with a grimace, "Or worse. All I know is, some shady-looking people come in to see Weiss every now and then, and they do some kind of business in the back room. I don't ask what kind of business because those people don't just look shady, they look dangerous. I don't know whether or not his side business had anything to do with Marlene's death, and you didn't hear anything about this from me."

"I understand," Sean said. "We'll take it from here. Thank you, Chrissie. I really mean that."

"Yeah, well, I hope you're able to help that kid," Chrissie said, rising to her feet. "And remember what you said about helping me find a new job."

"I'll remember," Sean said. "I'm a man of my word."

After Chrissie left, they high-fived each other. "Good work, partner!" Sean said.

"You too, partner," Nixie said with a smile. "This has been fun, but I think it's time that we take what we have to Dallas."

"We can prove opportunity, but we still only have speculation for the motive," Sean objected.

"Yes, but I think we have enough to convince Dallas to look into Weiss as a suspect," Nixie said. "To interview his associates, and to ask Forensics to see if they can find any traces of Weiss's fingerprints or DNA at the crime scene. We could try doing that ourselves, but tracking down Weiss's drug connections will take time and manpower, and the lab is more likely to accept a request from the head of Homicide than a lawyer and a beat cop playing Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys."

"Nancy and who?" Sean asked in confusion.

"They're children's books about teenage detectives--a couple of old-time series that started back in the nineteen-twenties or thirties, I believe," Nixie replied. "They get updated and modernized every generation and are still going strong--I read a bunch of them when I was a kid. My favorite was one where Nancy solves a murder on the moon. Anyway, we're getting a little off-topic. What I meant was that maybe it's time to step back and let the pros take over."

"But would Nancy do that?" Sean asked with a grin.

"No," Nixie sighed. "I'd like to be Nancy and take down the killer myself, but real life isn't like a book or the vids. I want to make sure this is done right, so that Weiss doesn't skate on a technicality."

"You're right," Sean conceded. "Though it would have been satisfying to hand Cousin Eve the culprit on a silver platter."

***

Eve called the pair into her office, and they stood in front of her desk, trying to maintain their composure while still exuding an air of eagerness mixed with nervousness, like a couple of puppies on their first hunt.

No, that wasn't fair. They weren't kids anymore, and they'd proven that with this case, meeting and even exceeding her expectations. A better analogy, she decided, would be that they were like a couple of young hounds who had just tracked their first fox to his den.

"Good work, you two," she told Nixie and Sean, who beamed with pride, although the latter cast a nervous glance at Thompson, who was sitting off to the side, looking decidedly unhappy at having his case ripped apart.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Sean said, properly respectful with no hint of his usual cheekiness. "I heard that you arrested Weiss."

"We did," Eve replied. "He wore gloves, so there were no fingerprints, but the lab matched a stray hair found at the scene to him, and we caught his car on a traffic cam a few blocks away from the crime scene, when he was supposed to be at the bar. That was enough to get a warrant to search his home and business where we found a large quantity of drugs--too much for personal use. He finally caved during interrogation: Jack was one of his dealers."

"So the stash that Derek literally flushed down the toilet wasn't just for Marlene's personal use," Nixie said.

Eve nodded. "It was product that Jack was supposed to sell for Weiss. When Jack told him what happened, Weiss went to confront Marlene and things got out of hand. He was pretty mad at Jack, too--but Weiss couldn't kill him because he needed Jack to alibi him."

"We went into this thinking that he was covering for Jack, when it was really the other way around," Sean said, shaking his head.

"You had a theory; you investigated and disproved it, but in doing so you found the real killer," Eve said. "That's what police work is all about."

Thompson cleared his throat, and Sean's posture stiffened slightly, as if bracing himself for the detective's anger.

"You were right and I was wrong," Thompson said gruffly. "I still think you were being sentimental about the kid, but I had tunnel vision myself. I should have been more careful about ruling out other suspects. The Lieutenant's right--you did good work, Lannigan. No hard feelings?"

He held out his hand and Sean shook it firmly. "None at all, Detective."

"All right, that's enough of this touchy-feely stuff," Eve said briskly, but gave them a brief, approving smile. "We've got work to do here, so why don't you two run along. I know there's a young man being released who will be very happy to see you."

Eve made a shooing motion with her hand, and they exclaimed, "Thank you, Dallas!" and "Thank you, Lieutenant!" before running out of her office.

She turned towards Thompson, and was amused to note that he visibly braced himself in much the same way Sean had. "It takes balls to admit that you're wrong," Eve said.

Thompson relaxed slightly. "I don't know about that, but I'm man enough to admit when I've screwed up. If you give me a second chance, I promise it won't happen again."

"As far as I'm concerned, we're square, Thompson," Eve said. "Although it would be a different story if we had ended up charging the wrong person for the murder."

Thompson nodded in acknowledgement. "You know, I have another confession to make. I thought you were giving Lannigan special treatment because he's related to Roarke. But he's a bright kid and a good cop. A little cheeky, maybe..."

"More than a little," Eve said, smiling at the memory of her first meeting with Sean and his bloodthirsty curiosity. "You should have seen him when he was younger."

Thompson chucked, then continued, "Cheeky, but he has a lot of promise. I wouldn't mind working with him in the future. That is, if it's okay with you, Lieutenant."

Eve considered the idea. On one hand, it might be seen as nepotism to bring him into her squad, but on the other, he'd earned the chance with his work on this case. And she was impressed that Thompson was able to set aside his wounded pride--something men were often touchy about, in her experience--and not only apologize, but be willing to work with the rookie who had shown him up. Depending on how things worked out, she might arrange to keep Thompson and Sean on a permanent basis even after Baxter returned from his leave.

"I'll talk to his commanding officer and see if he's okay with the transfer," she said. "Actually, he'll probably jump at the chance to get rid of Sean." Thompson laughed and Eve continued, "You think I'm kidding, and mostly I am, but he is, as you have observed, a cheeky little bastard. Sometimes he rubs people the wrong way."

"I can handle him," Thompson said. "Besides, I've heard that you've ruffled a few feathers yourself."

"I can't imagine why," Eve said, deadpan, and Thompson laughed again.

After Thompson left the office, closing the door behind him, Eve opened her desk drawer and took out a silver picture frame. It was a birthday gift from Peabody, and had a small screen that scrolled through the pictures that had been uploaded to it. It was meant to be displayed on her desk, but it felt too sentimental and private to leave out where people could see it, so she kept it hidden except for those rare occasions when she was alone and feeling a little sentimental.

She activated the screen and let it run through the photos, most of which Peabody had pre-loaded: several of Roarke alone, and a few of him posing with Eve (few because Eve hated having her picture taken); Leonardo, Mavis, and Bella; Peabody and McNab grinning and mugging for the camera; Roarke's mother's relatives (way too many to fit into just one picture); Sean, looking surprisingly serious in his new uniform on his first day of work; and Nixie, grinning proudly in her cap and gown as she held up her diploma after her law school graduation.

Even smiled at the last two in a way that was downright sappy, but that was okay, because no one was here to see. She felt full to bursting with pride that the children she had watched over had grown into a remarkable young man and woman who were both fighting for justice in their own way.

"You did good, both of you," Eve murmured, then carefully stashed the frame back in its hiding place. As she put it away, she found a candy bar she had tucked away in the back of the drawer and forgotten about.

She tore off the wrapper and bit into the bar with satisfaction, savoring the taste of rich, dark chocolate. The case had been closed and the killer was sitting in a cage. Her kids had done her proud, and for once, she had outwitted the Candy Thief. She knew that people would continue doing horrible things to each other and that she would get called to another homicide before long, but just for now, all was right with the world.