"What about meatballs?" her mother complained. "I can't believe you aren't serving sausage, prosciutto, or something."
"Not tonight," Scarpetta said.
In Richmond, at the precise moment Scarpetta was placing pasta in boiling water many miles south, Pete Marino was looking out at the weather. He was grateful his Dodge Ram Quad Cab pickup truck was safely under the aluminum carport. Otherwise it would, by now, be covered with at least three inches of snow-the soft, wet sort that he hated most. It inspired the neighborhood brats to fashion snowballs and hurl them in the direction of his small house in its quiet neighborhood south of the James River, just off Midlothian Turnpike.
These assaults inevitably occurred at night, resulting in soft thuds against windows, doors, and aluminum siding. By the time Marino was out on the porch, the suspects had fled, vanishing in the deep shadows of trees and to various residences along his street. He was an experienced officer of the law, and following footprints in snow was about as easy as arresting a rapist who leaves his wallet on the floor of the crime scene, or the thief who records his driver's license information on the back of the stolen check he's cashing. Oh yes, this had happened more times than well-behaved citizens would believe, but tracking children through the dark, frigid night, slipping and sliding, was a different matter altogether.
Marino lit a Marlboro and opened another can of Budweiser as he waited, ready in coat and boots, the television turned down low, an ear to the front of his house, as big flakes fell thickly. When he was growing up in New Jersey, he had committed far worse offenses than throwing snowballs at people. But in his case, violence was always justified and appropriate, for there were bullies and vandals in the blue-collar community of his youth. He had beaten the hell out of others only when he was picked on first or was protecting someone weaker. Marino was certain he had done nothing in this instance to justify the rude and thoughtless acts perpetrated by his small neighbors.
He had not factored in the many times he had chased them away from his above-ground swimming pool, or scattered them when they had dared to play football in his yard without asking. The occasions he had yelled and smacked a newspaper at the SPCA puppy that belonged one block away had not gone over very well, either, nor had the occasion when he had stopped his unmarked car and ordered Jimmy Simpson, who was ten, to pick up the candy wrapper he had just tossed on the street.
"You're lucky you aren't getting fined," he had told the blue-eyed boy.
"I'm not lost," Jimmy indignantly had said.
Marino believed, with no evidence, that Jimmy Simpson was the leader of the pack, and soon enough Marino would catch the vandal in the act and snatch him up by the scruff of his neck. He would march the boy into his single-parent residence and enlighten him and his mother about detention homes and jail.
The first artillery fire hit at exactly 8 P.M., snowballs pelting the front of the house. Marino didn't wait for a second round. Instantly he was out the front door, the enemy in sight. Jimmy Simpson was alone and no more than twenty feet from where Marino stood on the porch. Caught in the act, the boy was too frightened to run. He froze, eyes wide with terror. Marino stomped down the steps, his heavy boots crunching through snow.
"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?" he bellowed.
Jimmy began to cry. He cowered, arms in front of his face, as if he had been hit before by people bigger than he was.
"I knew it was you!" Marino severely went on, and he had reached the boy by now. "I've known it all along, you little scum bucket! What if you broke a window, huh?"
Jimmy was shaking as he sobbed.
"I didn't throw any at a window," his small voice barely said.
Marino had no evidence to the contrary.
"Yeah? Well, how would you like it if I threw snowballs at your house?" he gruffly said, his voice not quite as loud.
"I wouldn't care."
"Yes, you would."
"Well, your mother would care."
"Not if you didn't hurt anything."
"You're full of crap," Marino said, peering through snow at the milky smudges of windows lit up in Jimmy's two-bedroom brick home.
"You're not nice to me," Jimmy said, lowering his arms as fear began to leave him. "That's why! You started it!"
Marino had to think about this for a minute, his balding head getting cold.
"You mean that time I told you to get away from my pool?" Marino tried to remember.
The boy vigorously nodded.
"More than once!" Jimmy exclaimed. "And you give me mean looks when you pass me on the street in your police car."
"No, I don't."
"Only when you litter."
"That was one time! And there was chocolate all over the wrapper, and if I got it on my clothes, my mom would have gotten mad. So I dropped it by the road. So what!"
"What's your mom doing now?" Marino asked, as he began to feel something deep inside that made it hard for him to hate this lousy little kid.
"Stuck at her sister's house."
"I don't know," Jimmy quietly said, staring down at his feet. "I know it's near the park."
"The one with the lake and little boats. They sell cotton candy."
"She's not coming home?"
»Jimmy shook his head. "She said her car's stuck," he said.
"So you're all by your scrawny-ass self out here throwing snowballs."
"You eaten yet?"
"Not since lunch."
"You like chili?"
"I don't know," Jimmy said.
"What about your mother's sister? Your aunt, I guess," he asked Jimmy.
"She's really my dad's sister."
"Should we call him?" Marino asked.
"No, sir. I don't know… He…"
Jimmy stared harder at his feet as snow frosted his hair. He was shivering in a denim jacket that was at least five sizes too big.
"Well, maybe you know your aunt's number?" Marino said. "Uh-uh."
"Well, you sure as hell should."
"It's somewhere, I guess."
"Come on. Let's get out of the cold," Marino said.
They trudged through the yard and up Marino's front steps. He called Jimmy's house, and sure enough, no one was home. He left a message for Mrs. Simpson on the answering machine, saying that if it was all right with her, Jimmy would stay the night so he wouldn't have to be alone.
"I got Dr. Pepper, if you want some," Marino said, as he got ground beef out of the freezer.
Jimmy's eyes lit up.
"Sure!" he said.
Marino's Last Minute Chili
Marino's quick chili requires a number of considerations that differ from what most likely goes on in other kitchens. First, the chef should drink Budweiser out of the can or Rolling Rock out of the bottle. Second, finding the appropriate pot requires digging and much clanging in jumbled cupboards, and locating the matching lid may not happen, in which case Marino fashions one from Reynolds Wrap. Third, the ground beef should be regular versus lean, and thawed in the microwave oven on high to hurry things along. The TV should be left on at all times, and one should be irritable when the phone rings.
"Mr. Marino?" said Jimmy, who was perched on a barstool. "Is it all right if I have some ice in my Dr. Pepper?"
"Nope, it ain't all right," Marino said.
He opened the freezer again and pulled out a frosted beer mug. He poured the Dr. Pepper in it while Jimmy's lips parted in awe.
"Be a man," Marino said.
"Cool!" was Jimmy's response.
Within half an hour, ground beef and bacon were browning in the pot. Marino was hacking up onions and green chili peppers, and opening cans of kidney beans, field peas, and Richfood tomato sauce.