She unlocked the front door and walked inside the foyer, setting luggage on the hardwood floor.

"We're in here," Lucy called out

"Welcome home!"

"Thanks for letting us stay!"

Scarpetta followed cheery voices into the great room, where the women were still worthless around the fire, their pistols and other weapons out in plain view. Blankets, pillows, beer bottles, and whiskey tumblers were a mess on the rug.

"All of us slept in here last night," Lucy explained to her aunt

"Sounds like fun," Scarpetta said.

"Too much fun."'

"The cookies are what did it"

"Try what they were dipped in. That's what did it"

"Dr. Scarpetta, we'll clean up our mess and be on our way. Thanks again."

"Don't rush off because of me," she said. "The roads will be freezing soon, and it looks like it might snow again. I don't think any of you need to be in your cars."

She meant this for reasons other than the weather.

"We've been good so far today," Lucy assured her. "Just coffee and diet sodas. But you're right" She looked at her friends. "I don't think you guys need to be heading back north."

Scarpetta glanced at her watch. It was not quite 3 P.M. There was just enough time to make her famous stew.

Scarpetta's Famous Stew

The sine qua non is a restaurant-size pot capable of holding twenty quarts. Usually-and this day was no exception-Scarpetta had two going at once, as the abundance of ingredients she used simply could not be contained in a single vessel. Meat was her first priority, and she pulled ground turkey, cubed tenderloin trimmed of all fat, veal, and chicken breasts from the freezer. These she placed in the microwave oven to thaw. Unlike Marino, she did not rush the process. There was plenty else to do.

Over Lucy's protests, Annie Lennox and Meat Loaf were replaced by Pachelbel, Beethoven, and Mozart. Scarpetta opened two bottles of red table wine and began raiding her refrigerator, cupboards, and pantry for whatever her imagination seized upon. Without a doubt, the most important clue when making Scarpetta's stew is that the essence of it comes from her; the rest belongs to you. Use what you have and make the best of it, but as is true of any homicide case, it's only as good as the evidence brought in. So if you're stingy with your time and what you invest in your stew, what you cook is what you'll get.

Without question, this spectacularly hearty and loving dish requires work. Scarpetta tied an apron around her waist and began chopping Vidalia onions, red and yellow and green bell peppers, fresh oregano, basil, and parsley. She sliced baby carrots, squash, asparagus, fresh mushrooms, and pulled the strings from snow peas. Peeled Hanover tomatoes she had canned herself were not something she parted with every day, for once they were gone there were no more until summer. She pried off lids and mixed them and everything else in a huge glass bowl. She painstakingly peeled husks from the cloves of two large garlic bulbs and got to work with the garlic press. This, and salt and fresh ground pepper she stirred in with the vegetables.

She poured no more than a tablespoon of olive oil into each pot and turned the heat to medium. By now the meat was thawed enough to work with, and she crumbled equal shares of ground turkey into each pot and cut the tenderloin and chicken into small pieces. While this browned, she began opening jars of V-8 juice and cans of tomato sauce. It is important to note that the three most important elements in her stew are the tomato base, garlic, and red wine. These should be used liberally to taste, but without an extravagant amount of each, the stew will not bear Scarpetta's signature.

By 4 p.m., she was pouring herself a glass of the table wine and dividing the rest of the bottle between the two pots. At five o'clock, the stew was bubbling and permeating the house, and she poured a glass of wine from the second bottle. The rest went into the pots, which she covered with lids, turning down the heat Even the slightest hint of scorching will ruin her stew. Again, patience is essential. It is true that the best things in life require a bit of a wait.

"It's going to have to cook for a while," Scarpetta told her guests, as she walked into the great room, drying her hands on her apron.

"I can tell you right now, it's worth it," Lucy promised her friends.

"A little later, I'll make bread," Scarpetta went on. "We'll eat around eight Tomorrow, if you're here for lunch, the stew will be even better."

Ideally, it needed to simmer for at least five hours.

"Can't we help with something?" one of the ATF agents asked

"No." Scarpetta smiled. "It's no good unless I do it myself. If any other hands get involved, something goes wrong. It never fails. And by all means don't ever use expensive wine," she added, as she returned to the kitchen, "It doesn't like that, either."

"It?" the FBI agent puzzled

"Every stew has its own personality," Lucy explained, "like people. It's really strange, but each batch kind of reflects where Aunt Kay is coming from."

"You mean she projects herself onto it?"

"It channels through her?"

"Some kind of Taoist thing?"

"Kind of like that," Lucy said

"Makes sense, really. The same way someone's domes or the way they decorate their house fits who they are."

"Yeah," Lucy said "And the more peppery it is, the more you'd better run for cover."

"What about garlic?"

"Wards off bad spirits. The more she uses, the more stuffs going on that she probably hasn't told you about," Lucy replied.

"What if she chops up more raw meat than usual?"

"Or puts on surgical mask and gloves to cut up vegetables?"

"Or sections the gizzards?"

The women were getting silly.

"We should invite Marino over," Lucy suggested

"I thought you said the roads were bad."

"He's got a truck with chains," Lucy said


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.