Tracy fled the murder victim's apartment onto the narrow balcony and took a deep breath of crisp night air. Behind her, she heard someone laugh.
It wasn't fair.
Her partner, Detective Nick Knight, had the best solved record in the province and still regularly flinched at the sight of blood. With him, no one blinked. But when she — the rookie daughter of the inescapable Commissioner Vetter — shuddered at the sight of technicians unsticking a gore-encrusted corpse from a sofa, everyone either smirked or frowned. That she was young and blonde couldn't help. Granted, the techs and uniforms had not been there when she and Nick had broken down the door, when she had been the one to stride straight to the body and reach hopelessly for a pulse, just in case, but she doubted it would have made a difference. She was becoming a running joke.
Tracy returned indoors. The victim was now in a body bag, and the Medical Examiner, Doctor Natalie Lambert, was giving final instructions for when the contorted corpse reached the morgue. Parts of the sofa upholstery had been cut away with the victim; Tracy gritted her teeth. All around, the forensics team dusted for prints.
Tracy joined Nick at the fireplace, where a framed photo lifted from the mantle absorbed his attention. She peered over his shoulder. "What's that?" The black-and-white scene recorded a party, maybe a dance. Bouffant hair, wide-framed glasses, narrow ties. Her partner seemed almost as distant as the people in the photo. "Nick?"
"Oh, Trace." He shook his head and replaced the frame on the mantle. "It's nothing. But look, uh, I have something to check out." He pulled his keys out of his overcoat pocket and detached the biggest. "Would you mind getting the Caddy back to the precinct for me?"
"Would I " Tracy gaped at the key in her hand. Nick's barge of a car was older than she was, but he treated it like a cross between the space shuttle and the Mona Lisa. "Sure, but how will you ?" Nick was already gone when she looked up.
Tracy pocketed the key, shook her head and retraced the perimeter of the apartment. At least he wasn't leaving her stranded, but how could she tell Captain Reese she'd lost her partner again? And she would have liked to have been let in on the whole wild-Knight-inspiration thing this time. The murdered man had been their sole lead.
"Where's Nick?" Natalie asked when Tracy reached the living room again.
"He said he had something to check out." Tracy shrugged. "And then he was gone."
"I hate it when he does that." Natalie looked amused, and Tracy tensed up again. Was the humor at Nick's expense, or Tracy's? She had tried to become friends with the curly-haired coroner when she first got this assignment, but they just hadn't clicked. In retrospect, Tracy's veiled references to her early attraction to Vachon embarrassed her, making things even more awkward. Natalie continued, "Well, you get the run-down all to yourself, then. The cuts weren't deep or well-placed. It looks like the assailant just kept poking until finally something worked. I'm sure analysis will confirm the murder weapon was that modern-art knife you found."
"Santoku," Tracy corrected absently, updating her pocket notebook.
"Oh, um, the santoku is a classic Asian-style knife, like a cross between a chef's knife and a cleaver, but with indentations to prevent food from sticking to the blade." Tracy pursed her lips. "I took a fusion cooking class once. Anyway, this guy's kitchen is full of serious chef's gear."
"I wouldn't have known that." Natalie's smile seemed sincere. "Does it mean anything? For the case?"
"If it does, I don't know what yet." Tracy tried for a sincere answering smile, not the blinding Barbie grin she'd learned to flash defensively almost from her cradle. "We clearly aren't getting any answers tonight, but at least we can pick out some interesting questions, right?"
"Excellent approach!" Natalie buttoned up her coat and wrapped her scarf around her neck. "We've got to find the puzzle before we can solve it."
"Doctor Lambert?" A balding, bespectacled technician handed Natalie a deck of Polaroid photographs of the scene, a stopgap until the regular film could be developed. "I'm sorry for interrupting, Detective Vetter."
"No problem. Thank you, Arthur."
As Natalie flipped through the pictures, Tracy caught a glimpse of the body as it had looked in the technician's grip when peeled off the sofa. This just wasn't her night. She couldn't help it; she cringed.
Angry at herself, Tracy zipped up her coat and stepped toward the door. She had done all she could at the scene; she might as well begin filling out forms back at the precinct, and hope some ideas banged together to throw sparks in the back of her mind. How was it that Nick was never around when paperwork needed him?
"Wait, Trace!" Natalie caught up with Tracy at the stairs and joined her on the way down. "You said Nick took off. Do you need a ride?"
"No, thanks." Tracy dug the key out of her pocket and dangled it like a prize fish. "Actually, he asked me to take the Caddy back for him."
Natalie raised her eyebrows. "Congratulations! That's quite a rite of passage."
"Yeah, I suspected that." Tracy grinned. Not that she doubted Nick when he assured her that she was 'a good cop,' but that he felt the need to bolster her that way so often told her that he heard what was said behind her back — or, worse, that he really felt the same way himself. This expression of his confidence went further than words.
"We should celebrate." Natalie checked her watch. "Almost two. Ready for lunch?"
"Sure." Tracy felt the Barbie smile flash, that deep-dyed defense of raw agreeableness. Damn it. She really was having the worst night. But Natalie had never shown much interest in spending a social moment with her before. "Where?"
"There's a great dive called Daphne's that's open all night." Natalie opened the door to the outside. "It's right around the corner, actually, so we wouldn't have to test that key just yet."
"Okay." Tracy glanced up at the victim's balcony as she and Natalie headed down the sidewalk. The forensics team would finish their job, and then Tracy could better take another run at hers. "There's probably just enough gas in the Caddy to haul it back to the precinct as it is. I swear, Nick fills the tank every other night. He refuses to take my car, but either the mileage is so bad that his heap should be put out of its oil-addicted misery, or my partner lives in constant fear of fuel rationing."
One side of Natalie's mouth quirked up. "Yeah, the seventies must have been tough for — whoever owned the Caddy then." She shook her head. "Nick says the car is his favorite place to think. I'm sure he's out burning that gas when you're not around as well as when you are."
Tracy put her hands in her pockets, all at sea in this conversation. Natalie never talked to her about Nick. At least, she hadn't since Tracy had tried to put in a good word for him on the romance front. "I owe you an apology, don't I? For sticking my nose into your and Nick's business my first month here at the ninety-sixth."
"Water under the bridge." Natalie looked both ways at the crosswalk, and continued across without waiting for the light to change. Tracy hesitated, then hastened to catch up. On the other side, Natalie said, "Nick and I are good friends. That's enough. Anything else between us is just — complicated."
"Because you're coworkers?"
Natalie laughed. "Well, that's one reason. Look, if you've been thinking about that conversation during the Jerry Show case, I'm sorry. I was in a rotten mood that night. I thought I hid it better." She pointed up ahead. "There's Daphne's. What do you feel like for lunch?"
"Do you still call the meal break 'lunch,' on the night shift?" Tracy wondered. With his medicated diet, Nick didn't like to talk about food, so she hadn't picked up the vocabulary.
"I call it whatever I want." Natalie opened the door to the restaurant. "Tonight, for the first time in a long time, I want pizza. You up for it? My treat."
Daphne's turned out to be a diner offering an eclectic blend of Greek, Italian and Canadian food, and they weren't the only customers, even at this hour. Seated in a booth with a menu, Tracy asked, "Where do they get the traffic flow to stay open around the clock?"
"Mercy Hospital, mainly." Natalie unwound her muffler and opened her coat. "It's just a few blocks west. But they do close for a few hours every afternoon to clean and restock."
"Have you been coming here since medical school?"
"No, just about three years." Natalie pointed out some favorites on the menu, and Tracy wondered about the state of the coroner's taste buds. They compromised on tomatoes and olives, and their server brought them both diet colas.
After Tracy moved the straw wrappers to the edge so they couldn't be missed, she looked up to find Natalie's eyes fixed on the candle in the middle of the table.
"With me, it's burns," Natalie said quietly. "I can't handle them. What happens to human flesh in fire, not to mention smoke inhalation, being trapped I can't even think about it. Sometimes I have to, because it's my job, and the job matters. I'll joke, I'll obsess, I'll delegate. I'll get through it however I can. But when a burn victim comes in, I want to run away."
Tracy folded her hands in her lap and watched Natalie's face. "Nick reacts to blood at crime scenes."
"Yeah. He does." Natalie looked up. "How about you?"
"You saw me earlier, didn't you?" Tracy closed her eyes. "I'm good at this job — I know I am — but I just can't help a reaction in my stomach and my lungs. And it's so infuriating that no one minds Nick's little impediment, but when it's me "
"Hey!" Natalie rapped a knuckle on the table, and Tracy's eyes flew open. "Some things are about you — your dad — no matter what anyone says, but this isn't one of them. We all have triggers, 'impediments.' Some of us just don't know it yet, like the new guy who laughed at you tonight. He'll learn soon enough. Now, there're two ways to cope. You can tough it out on your own. Or you can depend on your partner and your team to fill in your weakness with their strength, and you do the same for them. Either way, you have to know what your weakness is. Do you?"
It took a moment, but Tracy nodded. "I'm a good enough detective to observe the common elements in my own embarrassments, anyway."
"You wouldn't want to be one of the ones who never reacts." Natalie leaned back against the booth seat. "They don't make good cops, from what I've seen."
"Yeah. I've seen that, too." Tracy thought of certain relatives and friends of her father. Then she thought of Vachon. "I've got a, uh, friend who would probably make a smart-alec remark about appropriate mealtime conversation at this point."
"But the food isn't here yet, and you're not your friend."
"Right." Tracy took a deep breath, and dropped her voice. "It's the — handling of dead bodies."
"What I do?"
"Sort of. Sorry!" Tracy tried again. "I don't mean lifting, moving, that kind of thing. But sometimes it's like the indignity, the ordeal, doesn't stop even with death. Whether it's a perp for some perverse reason, or no reason at all, or it's you, professionally, for very good and necessary reasons, it gets so I can't breathe."
"Good for you, Trace!" Natalie approved. "You have to get around it; don't get me wrong. But you don't have to get over it. Don't let anyone tell you different."
Tracy shook her head. It was weird to be given permission to be less than perfect. She didn't know what to make of it — but the feeling was not bad.
When their thin-crust vegetarian pizza came, Natalie folded her first slice lengthwise and held it up. "I propose a toast. To the only three people I know who've been allowed to drive Nick's Caddy: me, you — and Don Schanke, who introduced me to Daphne's when he couldn't convince Nick to join him on Souvlaki Special night."
Tracy held up her slice of pizza to match. "Don Schanke." Maybe it was a silly way to honor her predecessor, Nick's last partner, killed in the line of duty. But she took a bite and met Natalie's smile. No, it wasn't silly at all.
— End —