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10

Marino had picked up Mrs. Simpson and was dropping Jimmy and her off at their home when Lucy rang his portable phone.

"What 'chu doin', dude?" Lucy loudly asked.

"Who's this?" Marino demanded, as if he didn't know.

"Your snitch, man."

"Which one?"

"Can't tell you over a cellular phone, dirt bag. Ten-twenty-five me in the West End at the usual spot."

"Hold on a minute," Marino said, covering the phone with a big meaty hand.

Jimmy and his mother were sitting in the truck, the boy in front, she in back.

"You guys have a good night, okay?" Marino said. "And listen here, you little runt." He poked his finger at Jimmy. "One more snowball at my house, and it's all over. Juvenile court. Death row. Get it?"

Jimmy wasn't the least bit scared, but suddenly he looked sad. His mother was very quiet and seemed too young to have a child of any age. She was bundled in an old corduroy coat with a fake fur collar, her face tired and pale.

Marino changed his mind.

"Hold on," Marino said to them. "Hey, listen up," he then said into the receiver. "Get the doc on the phone."

Scarpetta got on the line.

"Where are you and why aren't you here?" she asked. "I'm cooking stew."

"Shit. I'm gonna have the big one," Marino said, and he might have meant it. "I knew you'd be cooking something. You always do after you been around your old lady and whacko sister."

"Please watch your language," Scarpetta told him.

"You got enough for two more people?"

"Have you done background checks on them?" she asked.

"I'm not too sure of the kid," Marino said, giving Jimmy a look that was supposed to be hard and terrifying. "But I'll keep my eye on him."

This was fine. In fact, Scarpetta knew Marino well enough to sense that his guests were special and in need of warmth and nourishment. He had brought strangers over before, but never anyone who might harm her.

Chains cut into ice, clanking rhythmically as he pulled out of the Simpsons' driveway and followed the street to Midlothian Turnpike and soon was chopping through I-95 North and taking the West Gary Street exit. Very few people were out, and really, no one should have been. Marino kept his speed down to no more than forty miles per hour.

"Why are you doing all this for us?" Mrs. Simpson quietly asked.

"You got your seat belt fastened?" It was more an order than an inquiry, as he eyed her in the rearview mirror.

"Just like it was a minute ago," she said.

"He made me an omelet this morning," Jimmy bragged to his mother. "With cheese in it and jelly. And he likes Cocoa Puffs, too. I saw a box on top of his refrigerator. He's really cool!"

"Cocoa Puffs aren't good for you." Mrs. Simpson sounded tired when she spoke.

"Sure they are, if you slice a banana on top of 'em," Marino answered, as he carefully turned onto a narrow, tree-lined street.

He stopped at the guard booth and rolled down his window to greet Roy, who was still on duty this snowy winter's night

"Keeping trouble out?" Marino asked, lighting a cigarette.

"Just these Cadillacs sliding everywhere." Roy shook his head. "One of them's gonna hit the gate, I just know it."

"I guess if you live in a high-dollar neighborhood like this, the weather don't affect you, right?"

Roy laughed, glad that none of the homeowners, who paid his salary through their monthly dues, could hear him having fun at their expense.

"You eaten yet?" Marino asked him.

"Not 'til I get off at midnight"

"You hungry?"

"I can't go anywhere," Roy reminded him.

"Don't need to," Marino told him.

The windows were lit up in Scarpetta's well-appointed home, and now that Marino's pickup was added to the cars in the drive, it was beginning to look like a party or a tow lot. Mrs. Simpson almost lost her balance when she stepped out on the running board. She had never been in a neighborhood like this, much less invited inside a house so fine. She was suddenly intimidated, but the lady who opened the front door dispelled any insecurities or doubts. A Christmas green apron covered her slacks and turtleneck, and she was handsome, blond, blue-eyed, and somewhere in the middle years of her life. Her smile was warm and kind.

"Please come in," Scarpetta said, as if she had been waiting for them long before they had ever met. "I'm Kay."

"I'm Jimmy and this is my mom."

"So you're the one throwing snowballs," Scarpetta wryly said to him.

"Yes, ma'am," he politely said. "But I didn't try to hit him."

"Maybe next time you should."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Then what happens to you, huh?" Marino poked him.

"Same thing that happened last time, Captain. Nothing." Jimmy was full of himself.

He and his mother were trying not to stare, not sure where to let their eyes rest There were antique microscopes and apothecary scales, old books and beautiful paintings, so much to look at.

"I've never seen a house this big before," Jimmy told Scarpetta.

"Well, I'll be glad to give you a tour," she said.

"How 'bout you let me take a bowl of stew to Roy?" Marino asked.

"There's plenty for everyone," Scarpetta said.

"You can give me a hand," Marino told Mrs. Simpson, as if he had known her for quite some time.

"What?" She was startled.

"There are Tupperware containers above the stove," Scarpetta said to them. "You two take care of Roy, and I'll get Jimmy to help me out in the kitchen."

"Come on." Marino nodded at Mrs. Simpson. "The rule around this joint is you gotta earn your keep."

"I always earn my keep," she said, with a trace of defiance.

"Oh yeah?" He tugged her sleeve, moving her into the kitchen. "You like to bowl?"

"Before Hank leftII used to belong to a league. The Lucky Strikes. I'm pretty good."

"You ever heard of the Silvertips?"

"No."

"As in ammo. Hollowpoints-Plus P."

She had no idea what he was talking about. She removed the lid from the big pot on the stove. The stew was simmering and looked delicious.

"You want to stop somebody, that's what you use," he cheerfully went on, for bowling and ammunition were two of his favorite subjects. "Real destructive, in other words. Like the way we bowl."

"I see," she said.

She picked up a ladle and felt more at home as she began to fill the Tupperware container while Marino shook a cigarette out of his pack.

"I can never do those damn lids," he said, as he watched her. "You ask me, they don't fit right."

"You have to burp it," said Mrs. Simpson with a sudden rush of confidence. "Just like that" She showed him. "Men are too impatient That's the problem. Not to mention, it's worth your while to be worthless in the kitchen."

Marino noticed for the first time that Jimmy's mother had smooth skin and bright hazel eyes. Her hair was a deep chestnut and shaggy around her shoulders, the way he liked it.

"You got a first name?" he asked.

"Abby."

"I'm Pete. You want to walk with me to the guard booth?"

"That would be nice," she said.

"Your coat warm enough?"

"As warm as it's ever been."

"You can wear my gloves."

He pulled leather gloves lined with rabbit fur out of his pocket Abby Simpson could have fit both her hands in one of them. Suddenly, she started laughing.

"You must've been a Boy Scout," she said, feeling giddy.

"Nope," he said, "a juvenile delinquent"

"Silvertips!" She laughed harder, her eyes tearing up.

They walked out the door into the snow. Steam from the container of hot stew and smoke from Marino's cigarette dispersed into the dark, sharp air.

"Your kid's pretty cool," Marino confessed to her.

"You think I should have left him there?" she asked, as they made their way past grand, silent houses with windows lit up. "I don't want him to be a pest"

"Too late for that," Marino told her.

Jimmy had never been inside a kitchen like Scarpetta's, although he had seen pictures of similar ones in the magazines his mother bought at the grocery store. When Scarpetta opened a drawer and pulled out a roll of oven-strength Reynolds Wrap, he was suddenly afraid. He didn't know what to say to her. She was very smart and important. He could tell.

"Here's what we have to do," she began, as she tied an apron around his waist. "Now, don't be a tough guy and get nervous, all right? Some of the best cooks are men, and they wear aprons, and there's not a thing wrong with that."

Jimmy stared down at the stiff black apron wrapped around him. It hung below his knees and had a colorful crest on it.

"My special apron," she added. "I don't let just anybody wear it."

"How is it special?" He was glad Marino couldn't see him right now.

"It has my crest on it." She opened the oven door, and a wave of heat and the aroma of baking bread made Jimmy feel warm and happy.

"What's a crest?" he asked.

"Hmmm." She tried to think of a good analogy as she used potholders to lift the pan out of the oven and set it on the stove. "Sort of like the symbols you see for Nike, Speedo, the Atlanta Braves, the Redskins. Something that stands for a person, a team, a brand-whatever."

"What do you want me to do with the tinfoil?" asked Jimmy.

"We're going to wrap the bread in foil to keep it warm until Marino and your mom get back."

"They sure are taking a long time," he said.

Scarpetta tapped the sides of the bread pan with the handle of a knife. "That's to loosen it. Now I turn it over like this, and there we are."

The bread was golden brown and perfectly shaped. Jimmy tore off a long sheet of foil, his nails ragged and dirty and chewed to the quick. When he saw her looking, he quickly shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and felt his cheeks heat up.

"I'm assuming you've been to the doctor and the dentist," she said, as she set the bread on the foil.

"Yes, ma'am. They give shots."

"You notice how doctors and dentists scrub up?"

"I don't know."

"They wash their hands a lot," she explained. "Very carefully. I do, too. In fact, I must wash my hands at least a dozen times a day when I'm working."

"Oh," he said.

"To kill germs and so forth."

"Mom says germs are teeny little worms you can't see. They crawl inside you if you don't take a bath or brush your teeth."

"In a way she's right." Scarpetta moved a step stool close to the sink. "Stand on this," she directed.

He was uncertain as he stepped up, but it felt fine to be as tall as she was.

"Here we go," she said. "I used to have to do the same thing for Lucy. No matter what she did, somehow she got dirty."

Scarpetta began washing Jimmy's hands. It felt very good, but he would never tell her such a thing. When she finished, she dried them with a clean dishtowel. He stepped down and looked up at her, wondering what to expect next.

"Are you hungry?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am, a little." His stomach had retreated into its empty place, and the sights and smells in Scarpetta's kitchen were unbearably wonderful. "But I can wait," he added.

Scarpetta poured him a glass of milk, sat him at the kitchen table, and draped a cloth napkin over his lap. He watched her stir the stew and grate hard yellow cheese. Then she unwrapped the bread and cut off an end piece-his favorite part-and slathered it with butter. She fetched shakers from a cupboard and coated the hot, buttered bread with cinnamon sugar and a dash of cocoa powder.

"I call this cappuccino bread." She winked at him and smiled.

She placed his treat under the broiler for a minute and served it to him crusty and bubbling hot

"Of course, this is against all my rules. It will probably ruin your dinner."

"Qh no, ma'am."

"It will be our secret." She sat at the table with him.

"I won't tell," he said.

Jimmy wanted to be polite and eat slowly, chewing small bites, as his mother had taught him. But in seconds the bread was gone and warming his stomach. He wiped his hands on his jeans.

"I'm not giving you any more," she told him.

"That's all right." He felt very shy and didn't want her to think it would ever occur to him to want more, even though he did.

"Because you need to eat your stew. And a salad, too."

"Yes, ma'am, I will," he assured her. "I can eat a lot. A whole lot."

"You ever seen a microscope?" Scarpetta asked him, as they got up from the table.

"What's a microscope?" he asked.

"Something that makes small things very big," she said, taking his hand.

They walked out of the kitchen together.


| Scarpetta's Winter Table |