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“Merry Christmas, partner!” Schanke upended a brown bag of festive cellophane bundles over his desk. Two more bulging sacks occupied his chair. “Nothing says ‘joy to the world’ like cookies; am I right?”

“It won’t be Christmas Eve for hours yet,” Nick noted, recoiling from the sweets cascading across Schanke’s desk onto his. Tonight’s shift had just started. The next two, between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and then Christmas Day and Boxing Day, Nick was on and Schanke was off; Nick had made sure of that. A number of officers — each for his or her own reasons — made a point of working holidays, and Nick had been relieved to join them when the sign-up sheet had come around the precinct. “Shouldn’t this wait?”

“Bah-humbug to you, too.” Schanke punched his timecard and unwound his muffler. Then he turned back to Nick, his brow furrowed. “Wait: we didn’t snag a new case, did we?”

“No.” Toronto’s year in homicides had approached its worst, starting with three serials: the blood-type killer, St. John’s self-styled ‘arm of God,’ and the thrill-seeking Ann Foley. A shadow had dimmed Metro PD’s holiday cheer ever since the Star had begun counting up to the city’s record for the most murders. As hard as they had all worked, that tally had never been within their control. “We’re holding in second place.”

“All right then.” Schanke began sorting the parcels by tags strung on curling ribbons.

Nick tried to return to the open file on his desk, but not looking at the desserts did him little good. Gingerbread, pfeffernüsse and peanut-butter, he had smelled as Schanke had crossed the busy squad room. Up close, Nick now recognized krumkake, spritzgebäck and Rice Krispie treats as well. Not eating himself had not prevented Nick from learning the dainties served at innumerable parties through the centuries . . . or advertised relentlessly in recent times. Nick imagined that this particular concentration of sucrose would overwhelm a confectioner, never mind a reluctant vampire who had struggled to down a mug of Natalie’s enriched artificial hemoglobin at sunset.

When Schanke began singing ‘Here We Come A-Wassailing’ — off-key — Nick interrupted. “So did your cousin the stockbroker sink your savings into a sugarcane plantation?”

“I wish.” Schanke straightened up. “Oh, hey, this is your first December here at the twenty-seventh, isn’t it? So this is your inaugural collision with Myra’s epic commitment to ye olde holiday bounty. Come midwinter, the watercress and tofu and yogurt disappear.” He sighed in contentment. “If I ever wonder why I married her . . . well, it won’t happen at Christmas, is all I’m saying.”

Nick poked a stray bundle off the case file he had been studying. Was that fudge? Or brownies? Chocolate was not his specialty.

“Anyway, Myra and Jenny have been baking straight through since school let out for winter break.” Schanke shrugged and dug into his next sack. “Dietrich. Lipinski. Alves!” Schanke set off down the short hall, bearing snickerdoodles and macaroons to the central desk from which Sergeant Norma Alves ran operations on behalf of Captain Stonetree.

Nick leaned back, composing himself to thank Schanke for his share. He planned to tuck his bundle of treats into the pocket of the first available homeless person or streetwalker or runaway. Although Schanke might be packing extra cookies for just that purpose; Nick frowned. And Natalie would be rooting for Nick to try what she called a ‘no-thank-you helping,’ he realized. Nick swallowed. Eight centuries of smooth excuses for avoiding food faltered before this friend who accepted his secret . . . and supported his dream.

Well, he would think of something. Nick turned again to the file on his desk and focused on the life cut tragically short. Nevertheless, while his conscious mind sifted the reports for inconsistencies, far back in his brain the scent of spiced dough nudged open warm kitchens in bitter winters, laughing indulgence for the Duke’s younger son, bearing honeyed tidbits like trophies to his tiny sister.

“Yo, Knight!” Schanke’s voice yanked Nick across eight centuries and around the globe. “Are you revving up your sleigh with me, or snoring visions of sugarplums here?”

Nick rolled his eyes and headed for the coat rack, while Schanke swept the remainder of his pile back into his bags and balanced them in his arms. Buttoning his coat, Nick said, “I thought we weren’t going to interview the coworkers in the stabbing until after Boxing Day.”

“Yeah, no point in hunting them down individually.” Schanke stepped around his desk toward the door to the parking lot. “Upstanding citizens all agreed to come in, and none of them were witnesses, obviously. Boy, I hate domestics, you know?”

“Schanke!” Stonetree’s voice boomed from his corner office. He appeared in the doorframe holding a red cellophane bundle of rum balls and shortbread. “I’ll be taking these to my son’s for Christmas dinner. You thank Myra and Jenny for me.”

“Will do, Captain.”

Nick opened the door. When he saw Schanke duck his face against the icy wind, Nick feigned a shiver of his own and strode ahead to start his venerable Caddy’s stubborn heater. “If we’re not working the stabbing case, what are we doing?”

“We’re working the case!” Schanke arranged his bags around his feet on the passenger side. “But instead of asking Patrice about the vic’s outgoing calls by phone, we’re stopping by her desk at City Hall. And yes, the Coroner’s Building is on our route, Mister ‘Just Good Friends.’” He made air-quotes with his gloved fingers. “Capische?”


~ ~ ~

Schanke had already stopped by the Toronto Reference Library on his way in, so Nick drove them to City Hall, Mercy Hospital and the liquor store where Schanke’s favorite informant worked. At first, Nick kept the radio on the police-band, but the night hummed along peacefully with minor infractions and accidents as Christmas Eve rolled in — one more day safely down against that murder record. Schanke dialed up some carols. Then the heater began acting out, so while Schanke ran into the force’s main garage with biscotti and oatmeal cookies for the mechanics, Nick stayed behind the Caddy’s wheel with the engine running.

The sweet-treat stockpile had dwindled. Still, Nick’s supernatural nose and unnatural digestion rebelled at the scents, despite all his hopes in Natalie’s treatments. Resentment flashed through Nick, then, a surge of bitterness that cookies tagged for him yet lurked somewhere in Schanke’s bags, turning his stomach and complicating his life. It was not Myra or Jenny’s fault, but Schanke worked with him night after night, meal break after meal break. How could Schanke have failed to notice that cookies were not on Nick’s menu?

Nick knew that he should feel grateful for how his partner’s obliviousness defended his secrets; usually, he did. This time, instead, Nick felt lonelier than he had since . . . Lacroix’s death.

Nick wondered how Janette would be spending the holiday: partying harder than any mortal, or with her blankets over her head until ordinary time resumed. She was rarely predictable.

“Eighty-one Kilo, come in,” the two-way radio crackled. Nick answered immediately. As Schanke settled back into his seat with a blast of cold air, the dispatcher said, “That bar fight off Bloor has become your kind of complicated, gentlemen.”

“Understood,” Nick said, as Schanke took down the address. “Sorry we didn’t make it into the New Year without another one.”

“No leaping to conclusions, now. A 419 doesn’t become a 187 until the ME says so, right?” she sighed. “But thanks again for the ginger snaps and bizcochitos, Detective Schanke.”

~ ~ ~

“Once again, you snag a primo, Grade A parking space, well-lit, right in front of our destination.” Schanke rolled his eyes and then leaned across the Caddy to look out the driver’s-side window. “And with time on the meter, for crying out loud!”

“We don’t need to—” Nick broke off. “Wait, how is that my fault?”

“Fault? Oh, no, no, no, partner! It’s your conspiracy. Someday, I’m going to crack your code with the meter maids and tow-truck drivers and demand halvesies on this parking nirvana you inhabit. I’m just warning you now.”

Nick unbuckled his seatbelt and stepped out onto the curb.

“Watch it!” Natalie huddled in the entryway of the ill-fated bar, her brown curls suppressed by a knit cap, mittened hands tucked under her arms, and medical case and purse at her feet. Through the bright windows behind her, Nick saw uniformed officers taking statements and crime-scene technicians taking photos. Bloor was not deserted, but traffic was light and passersby few. Natalie laughed. “Wait, what am I saying? Step straight forward, Nick, by all means.”

Schanke snorted and came around the car to the sidewalk.

Nick, warned, looked up into a tinsel-skirted streetlamp dangling plastic mistletoe, and then down at a painted circle on the sidewalk. He read, “Mistletoe Kissing Station - Approved by the Bloor Annex BIA.” Nick looked from Natalie to Schanke and stepped carefully around the target.

“Gotta credit the business improvement association’s holiday spirit,” Schanke plunged his hands into his pockets, “but when Myra and I came shopping last weekend, most people were ducking around these things like they were embarrassed.”

“But you weren’t embarrassed, were you, Schank?” Natalie teased.

“What, pass up an excuse to kiss the mother of my child, the baker of my cookies? Not this jolly old elf.” Schanke grinned. “So what are you doing outside here in this winter wonderland, anyway, Nat? I’m assuming that the vic didn’t succumb to mistletoe poisoning.”

“Closer than you know.” Natalie’s eyebrows rose. “Viscum album — mistletoe — causes acute gastrointestinal distress and a slow pulse. Turns out that our twenty-something white male fatality witnessed the barfight, but wasn’t one of the rowdies, not involved at all, except that when the officer went to take his statement . . . he was gone. Recent vomiting, but not a mark on him. Until the exam and tox screen, of course, I can’t say whether it was illness or drugs . . .”

“But you have an idea.”

“Natural causes.” Natalie met Nick’s eyes. “We don’t all get our threescore and ten—” Nick winced, but she continued, gently “—and it’s not always anyone’s fault.”

“Yes!” Schanke pumped his arm. “Second place and holding! We’ll make it out of this year yet, and that reporter can reset his ticker right off the front page.” Schanke plunged his gloved hands back in his pockets. “So dispatch connected the dead body and the disturbance. That’s why we’re here. But you still haven’t said why you’re meeting us out in the fresh air, Nat. What, did the coroner’s wagon leave you behind?”

“I heard that it was cookie day.” She grinned. “I figured I’d save you a trip to my building, and I didn’t want to be rude to the officers inside if there weren’t enough to go around.”

“Oh, sure! Knight: keys?” Nick unlocked the Caddy. Schanke retrieved two red cellophane bundles of chocolate-chip and chocolate chocolate-chip cookies, and presented them to Natalie. “Yours and Grace’s, with Jenny’s compliments. Apparently you said something nice about the ones she made for the Canada Day picnic.”

“I did, indeed! Thank you — and her.” Evidently practiced, Natalie tucked one packet into her coat pocket, slipped off her mittens, and untied the ribbon of the other with her fingernails. She lifted it to her nose and breathed in. When she looked up at Nick, her eyes twinkled. “And what kind did you get, Nick?”

He smiled. Just for that, the next time she had a bowl of popcorn, he was going to . . .

“Hey, now, you know better than anyone that he can’t eat cookies, Nat.” Schanke pulled an envelope out of his pocket. “I feel lousy resorting to this for my own partner, but — go on, open it.” Inside, Nick found a Christmas card and a gift certificate to a health-food store. Schanke explained, “Myra wanted to make you something that you could eat, and I’m embarrassed to say that all I could come up with for sure were those protein shakes and the red wine. Anyway, that’s for that new natural whole organic whatchamacallit store. Myra says, you pick the ingredients, and she will make you something delicious with them. Just, do it before next year’s baking binge, eh?”

“I don’t know what to say, Schank.”

“I know it’s not cookies—”

“Thank you,” Nick cut him off. “Thank you, and thank Myra and Jenny.” Nick clasped Schanke’s shoulder. His partner had been thinking of him; Nick felt unaccountably warm and strangely exposed. Cookies might have been easier, after all. “Merry Christmas.”

“Yeah? Okay, then.” Schanke clapped his hands together. “Let’s give this maybe-not crime scene a looksee, and then mosey on home to the big barn.” Instead of following, Nick tilted his head toward Natalie. Schanke laughed and continued inside alone. “‘Just friends’ in the freezing cold, right . . .”

“Is this Santa eruption normal?” Nick asked. “Should I—”

“The Schankes are very special people,” Natalie assured him. “Besides, Myra says that if they don’t give the goodies away, Don eats them all himself.” Natalie smirked. “You really wanted cookies, didn’t you? Here, I’ll trade.”

“Hey! That’s my gift certificate.” Nick sidestepped her grab.

“Just one cookie? I’ve got plenty.”

“Nat . . .”

“Just one bite!”

Looking up in desperation, Nick discovered that she had backed him into the center of the Business Improvement Association’s target. The plastic mistletoe’s green leaves and white berries glistened with hoarfrost in the lamplight. As Natalie offered her bag of treats, Nick grinned. He waited just long enough for her to realize their position, and then lowered his lips to her teasing mouth.

“Sweeter than cookies.”

Natalie licked her lips. “How would you know?”

Touché.” Nick stretched up his arm toward the artificial mistletoe. “It’s just out of reach.”

“What are you doing?”

“You’re supposed to get one kiss per berry. When they’re gone, the mistletoe’s power vanishes until next year.”

Natalie pursed her lips. “Limits can be good things, Nick, but don’t . . . ration joy. Okay? You won’t always have forever.”

He kissed her forehead at the brim of her hat. A little less forever was what he envied in Schanke’s life, worked at under Natalie’s guidance, and longed for with all his shredded soul. Someday, he would make it. Buoyed by her friendship and faith, he would make it sooner and stronger.

Wishing to give Natalie what Schanke had given him, Nick took a step back. Braced himself. Stuck out his hand. “Nat, may I try one of your cookies?”

~ ~ ~