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A Little Salsa Picante

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"So Myra took away my plate of pierogi and gave me a milkshake. A milkshake!" Don Schanke leaned toward the Caddy's open passenger-side window. The warm summer night smelled unfairly full of tempting restaurants and backyard barbecues.

"I had a shake tonight," offered Nick, his eyes on the road.

Detective Schanke wondered why his partner sounded smug, then remembered Nick's wacky macrobiotic regimen for his skin condition. Poor guy probably never got dessert. "No, man, you don't understand. This wasn't a real milkshake with ice cream, and syrup, and, you know, milk. This was a diet shake: crushed ice and vitamin powder. There I was, the man of the house that is my castle, my wife and daughter eating Myra's famous family-recipe pierogi, sautéed in butter — and me, with a mug of pink sludge."

"Pink?"

"It's supposed to be strawberry." Schanke sighed. "You know, I can't believe you wouldn't stop for drive-through."

"The Captain said the media have hit already. We don't need your dinner live at eleven, do we?"

"I would have finished before we got there," Schanke protested. Since Stonetree had partnered him with Nick a few months back, Schanke felt they had found an easy rhythm in interviews, and usually a fair division of labor. But just like with the paperwork at the other end, they still clashed heading into a new case. Nick would wade in, all grim and absorbed from the get-go, where Schanke would rather play it fast, loose and light. Schanke had learned his own approach as Jimmy Anderson's partner in those wild early years right out of the Academy, before their career paths diverged into homicide and vice. He wondered where Nick's style came from. Knight wasn't exactly the confiding type.

Schanke's stomach rumbled audibly.

Nick looked amused. "I doubt Myra would thank me for helping you dodge her program. Besides," Nick piloted his boat of a classic car between news vans, police cruisers and the coroner's wagon, straight into safe harbor in front of the brightly-lit house at the center of activity. "Here we are."

"How do you do that?" Schanke marveled, snapping off his seatbelt.

"Do what?"

"Find spaces like this! Half the block is crammed with the residents' cars, and the other half with our people trying to get at this specific lot, but you park front and center as if 'Reserved for Nick Knight' were stenciled on the asphalt."

"Just lucky, I guess." Nick grinned. Schanke rolled his eyes as they climbed out of the car. Still, as long as Knight's string of parking-space windfalls held, Schanke would not insist they put the miles on his sedan, instead.

He took in the house, blazing with light in the soft suburban dark. A few hours ago, Schanke would bet, this house would have been as ordinary as they came. One-story ranch, shingle siding. Lawn that hadn't been mowed since the beginning of the Blue Jays streak, he estimated. No toys in the yard, one car in the open garage, a moth self-destructively circling the porch lamp. That was then. Now, numbered plastic triangles trailed reddish-brown men's sneaker footprints down the driveway and around the corner. And to get to the yellow tape cordoning the crime scene, the detectives had to pass television reporters doing stand-ups in the unfenced yard. Halfway across, Schanke realized Nick wasn't with him.

"What is it? Knight? Nick?" Schanke retraced his steps to the sidewalk, and snapped his fingers in his partner's face. "Hey, Nick!"

"Huh? Oh, sorry." Nick resumed walking, and pulled out his badge to show to the uniformed officer who appeared as soon as they ducked under the tape.

"What was that all about? Everyone knows you don't pause near reporters. That just attracts their interest, like vultures, or insurance salesmen."

"I hate the way they turn misery and misfortune into entertainment. I hate that some people are entertained by misery and misfortune."

"Yeah. Well, the public hunger for news must be appeased. Or at least fed at designated intervals, between commercials. Speaking of fed, do you suppose the paramedics would have chocolate bars in their kits, for insulin shock or something?"

Nick cracked a smile, but both men held their tongues as they passed through the front door and into the living room. The television was smashed — no, dropped and crashed — on the beige rug, with some stereo components mixed into the mess. Crying was faintly audible from what Schanke guessed were the bedrooms, down the hall to the left. The shorter hall on the right was silent to Schanke's ears. The forensic technicians had already completed a first pass with cameras and progressed to collecting samples, dusting for fingerprints, and spraying for assorted other traces.

Schanke almost stepped on an envelope from the cable company. At the last second, he spotted the numbered plastic tag marking it and some other mail scattered on the rug.

"Detectives?" Dan, the brisk, bespectacled senior forensic technician, gestured them around the pile of broken electronics and toward the shorter hallway. He kept his voice low. "The footprints run out a block down, where the shoes and knife were tossed in a trash can set out for tomorrow's collection. Even so, this should be an easy collar. The APBs went out almost immediately. The mom ID'd the perps as her son and a friend of his."

"Domestic dispute?" Schanke asked, accepting the pictures Dan handed him.

"Motive is your department," Dan shook his head. "I can tell you the mom says the son stayed home to work his summer job while the rest of the family was in Uxbridge visiting grandparents. They came home earlier than expected, surprised the boys. Preliminary evidence supports her story that she and the daughter stopped to pick up the mail and came in the front door, while the dad — the deceased — went in through the garage."

"Trapping the boys between." Nick rubbed his hand over his mouth and nose. "So they ran from the mother and sister, and bumped into the father. This hallway leads to the garage?"

Dan nodded. "Through a den. That's where the body is. Uh, Doctor Lambert asked me to say, if you got this case, that she thinks you might want to interview the family first, and that the photos will be all you need for the scene. As a matter of policy, I don't agree, but I said I'd pass it on."

Nick looked down the hallway. He sniffed, and stiffened. "She may have a point."

"What?" Schanke exclaimed. "Knight, sometimes I'm dumbfounded that the Academy let you out at all. Never mind that you ever made detective. Of course we'll look at the scene before we start asking questions." He waved Dan off, grabbed his partner's shoulder and steered him down the hallway. "I know we need to stay out of the way of the tech guys, yadda yadda, but sometimes you take it way too far. Heck, you're even passing up a chance to see Natalie, which is not like you at all. Everyone knows you can't solve a case without her. And me." Schanke pushed on the 'caution' tape to swing open the den's door. "Besides, nothing beats the evidence of experienced eyes."

"Or noses." Nick clutched the door jamb.

Schanke edged past his partner, careful not to get his fingerprints all over the wall like Nick was doing. The small room was crowded with bookshelves, two desks, and one computer, all splashed with blood. The braided rug in front of the door that must lead to the garage was soaked with it, explaining the footprints. And next to that, in a beige summer outfit which — to Schanke's purely aesthetic appreciation, honest — revealed more of her figure than usual, coroner Natalie Lambert stood over a closed body bag, filling out a form on her clipboard.

"Must have been some struggle," Schanke whistled.

"Not really," Natalie said. "Scalp wounds are especially bloody, even when they're not fatal."

"Scalp? You mean, like Indians?"

"Or like the colonists who paid the bounties? No, these knife wounds just happen to be largely to the head, when they're not on the arms where he fought back. I can't say yet whether all the blood came from our victim here, or some of it from the killers. Like I said, scalp wounds bleed all out of proportion to their size." Natalie looked past Schanke with concern. "Nick, are you handling this all right?"

Schanke turned around. His partner still clutched the door jamb as if he could not stand without it; his eyes were screwed shut. "Knight?"

"I'm okay." Nick barely opened his mouth. He didn't open his eyes.

Schanke grinned. Everyone had a weak spot, and he had pegged Nick's long before Stonetree hitched them up. Heck of a lot better to have a partner with a weak stomach than a weak brain. But that didn't let Knight off the hook. Oh, no. Absolutely not. "And once again, the sight of some salsa picante lays low the mighty Detective Knight. Do you realize, Natalie, that Mr. Pride of the Metro PD here cannot cope with a little ketchup on his crime scenes? Alas, if only the criminal element would restrain itself to poison to coddle his delicate sensibilities—"

Natalie gave him a quelling look.

Nick smiled, lips pressed together, but still didn't open his eyes. He turned his face back to the hallway. "I guess that protein shake tonight just wasn't enough, Nat. Sorry."

"It's all right. We'll try again. Why don't you two go regroup while I finish up?"

"Yeah, yeah." Schanke followed his partner back to the living room, chuckling. "So, you up to interviewing the witnesses?"

"At least, with the family here, there aren't any notifications this time," Nick said, seeming much recovered a room away from the scarlet spatter. He pulled out his notebook and checked what he'd written when Stonetree handed them the assignment at the beginning of the shift. "No comfort for them, though. The mother has refused to be separated from the daughter so far, or to leave the house. Do you want to lead this one?"

"Nah. Like Stonetree says, the live ones like you. Lay on, MacKnight."

Watched by a uniformed officer, the mother and daughter both sat on the bed in what must be the daughter's room, with rainbow pillows and unicorn figurines retreating before boy-band albums and movie posters. This girl was older than Schanke's daughter Jenny, but seeing some of her same books and toys made him briefly imagine his family in this one's place. He was glad Nick would take most of the talking.

"Mrs. Lewis, Zoe, I'm Detective Nick Knight. This is my partner, Don Schanke." Nick showed his badge and expressed polite sympathy without committing to any one view of the incident. The girl began crying again, and her mother, dry-eyed, put her arm around her shoulders. "I'm afraid we need to ask you a few questions. Mrs. Lewis, could we possibly talk in your bedroom, while Officer Phillips here stays with Zoe?"

"I'd rather not get out of her sight, if you don't mind."

"In the long run, this could be important to her, to you — and to your son."

"Zoe?"

"I'll be all right, Mom," the girl said, but followed them to the door. Schanke heard Phillips ask about one of the movie posters. The girl answered, but was still looking down the hall at him when Schanke closed the door to her parents' bedroom.

Mrs. Lewis paced beside the king-sized bed, between the closet and a nightstand under the window. She provided essentially the same story as the initial reports, adding context about her teenage son's summer job, the friend who had been with him tonight, and the escalating pleas for money that she and her husband had mistakenly thought the job would solve. Finally, she sat on the bed.

"I didn't know what was wrong until tonight. I didn't want to know. I pretended it was everything else in the world, because if it were this, it would be my fault."

"Your fault?" Nick prompted.

"I'm an addict, Detective Knight. Oh, I've been clean for eleven years now. Zoe probably doesn't even remember. I pray she doesn't. Ken does, though." She paused. "When I saw him tonight, I saw something I used to see in my mirror. I don't know exactly what he's been getting high on, but I know that ravenous single-mindedness. Intimately. My bad genes, my bad example, taking my husband's life, ruining my son's." She covered her face.

Nick knelt in front of her. "Controlling your addiction for eleven years, Mrs. Lewis, would give your children a role model for self-discipline, not an inspiration for indulgence."

She dropped her hands and met his eyes. "You want to question Zoe now, don't you?"

"Yes."

"We'll switch places, then. I want her room to stay a safe space for her, and these conversations aren't really very safe, are they?"

The daughter's interview didn't add anything in Schanke's book, which was all to the good. The sad stories matched. The boy's room hid few secrets. Back in the Caddy, they called for an update and learned that the son's friend had been nabbed a kilometer away, wasted and barefoot.

"No point in questioning him until whatever junk he's on wears off," Schanke said. "So how about that dinner?"

"After what you've just seen, you still want food?" Nick started the car.

"Those of us who don't faint at the sight of spilled tomato juice have to keep up our strength somehow. C'mon, I know a great little taco joint near the bus station. It's right on the way to the precinct. They've got a chili sauce that'll really put hair on your chest."

"My chest is just fine, thanks." Nick followed Schanke's directions, anyway. "So Myra's obsession with diet drinks for you is pretty recent?"

"Except for the time her supposedly psychic aunt predicted I wouldn't live to see another spring, and I had to give up triple-cheese pizzas for watercress salads all winter."

"Since you've been on night shift more, she's been seeing less of you. Have you thought that maybe this is her way of trying, you know, to hold you closer, keep you safer?"

"Yeah? I dunno." Schanke had thought he and Myra had worked out the night-shift thing, but it was all kinds of different. He could see how she might be feeling shortchanged. Maybe they should get up to the cabin for a weekend soon. "Thanks. I'll think about that."

"Just an idea," Nick shrugged.

As usual, a car pulled out of the all-night taqueria just as they arrived, opening a prime spot for Nick's turquoise tank. "I'm telling you, Knight, you've got a gift from the parking gods. It's like a superpower."

"I think I'll stay out here and hone my secret identity while you refuel."

"Okey-doke. Can I bring you anything?" Schanke breathed in deeply, the scent of baked corn and fried peppers tingling from his nose to his toes. His stomach growled. "You've got to try their fish burritos. Fish is healthy enough for your weird diet, right?"

"Uh," Nick hesitated. "Really, Schank, I'm not hungry. The crime scene and all."

"Well, if you're sure." Normally, Schanke would have put more effort into sharing the wonders of Juana's fresh fish burritos and secret chili sauce. But this close to real food, his pining digestive system had all his attention. Schanke wondered if he should place two orders, so they could start on some of his snack while he listed the rest.

Floating on that divine cooking smell, barely able to hear over his rumbling stomach, and looking only at the angel behind the register, Schanke collided with another patron at the front door. A family-sized take-out bag fell to the pavement. Food scattered for meters around. Tacos and flautas and chips. And everywhere, on everything, spicy red pico de gallo salsa with tomato chunks. For a second, Schanke couldn't breathe.

"Oh, man, I am sorry." Wrenching his eyes from the food, Schanke bent over to help pick up what could be salvaged of what he had knocked from the kid's arms. "In fact, I can't tell you how sorry I am to waste food just now. At least let me buy you—" Schanke saw socks without shoes, and looked up into the face of Ken Lewis.

"No, never mind; it's okay," the kid protested faintly, but then must have seen the recognition in Schanke's eyes. He bolted.

Schanke was not fast enough. Nick was. Almost before Schanke could stand up, Nick had Lewis immobilized in an approved hold.

"What, you decided to come eat after all?" Schanke asked as he fished out and applied a pair of handcuffs.

"Nah," Nick held Lewis's head down and recited his rights as he helped him into the back of the Caddy. Then he locked the doors. "I just couldn't resist the sight of the mighty Schanke overcome by the red stuff."

"This is not the same, and you know it." Schanke looked longingly at the marvelous meal wasted all over the sidewalk. "Everybody has to eat. Even murderers. Even cops who are allergic to sunlight."

"Yeah, I know. Go get some while I call this in."

"Thanks, partner." Maybe it was a bit the same, Schanke granted as he stepped around the spill and headed for the counter. He knew Knight's little weakness, and Knight knew his. Neither would let the other's get in the way of a case. And neither would ever let the other live it down.

Which is just the way it should be, with the guy watching your back.

"Okay, so I'll start with two fish burritos, a beef taco, and a cola. No, on second thought, make that a diet cola. Did I mention this is to go?"

 


End