The night after Christmas was cold and brittle, and in Dr. Kay Scarpetta's quiet Richmond neighborhood, trees were bare and groaning as they rocked in the wind. A candle burned in every window of her modern stone house, and a generous, fresh wreath of evergreen and holly was centered on the carved front door. Scarpetta had strung tiny white lights in shrubs on either side of the porch and tied big red bows on carriage lamps. She had been cooking since early afternoon, and by now her special people had gathered.
"That's enough moonshine," Scarpetta commented to Pete Marino, who was a captain at the Richmond police department and someone she had worked with for years. "No alcohol poisoning in my house."
Marino didn't listen as he poured two more jiggers of 100 proof Virginia Lightning into the blender. Each guest had his own contribution to the evening, and his was eggnog, as it was every December 26, the biggest letdown day of the year. Scarpetta always insisted that the three of them spend it together:
"You don't have to drink much of it," said Marino. "One or two snorts, and then you move on to the next thing."
"What next thing?" she asked, tapping a long wooden spoon on the side of the pot.
"I don't see any smoked oysters."
"In the pantry."
"Good. Wouldn't be right if you left those out."
"I never do. Doesn't matter who else likes them."
"That's the spirit," Marino said, pleased.
He was big with powerful hands capable of snatching bad people out of flight and pinning them to the ground or slamming them up against the side of a building. His red plaid shirt barely buttoned over his belly, and his thinning gray hair had a mind of its own. Scarpetta stirred the tomato sauce simmering on the stove.
"You got some wine, don't you?" he went on. "I thought I'd be civilized tonight and go with something besides beer. Here, taste this, Doc."
He poured a dollop of first-stage eggnog into a water glass and presented it to her. She sipped and her lips burned. The corn liquor warmed her throat all the way down on its way to heating up her stomach. Thoughts loosened. Much that had been vague and formless sharpened into focus.
"Wow," said the intrepid chief medical examiner of Virginia. "That's it. There will be no argument. Nobody's driving anywhere tonight. In fact, no one's going out of the house."
"I haven't finished mixing up everything, so it will be a lot better when I'm done. Plus it's got to sit for a while. You're safe for a couple hours, long enough to get your pizza going, because don't worry, Doc, ain't no way I'm letting you out of making that since you only bother maybe once a year."
It was true that Scarpetta rarely had time to spend half a day in the kitchen, and although pizza was not a conventional holiday dinner; in her case it was an unforgettable one. Her specialty pie was a unique blend of Italy, Miami, and her own originality. No one who had ever sat at her table had gone away unchanged. Scarpetta cooked with warmth and imagination. The good doctor's concoctions were meant to soothe and heal and make you feel less alone. When she gave you a meal, she gave you herself.
"Where's the eggnog?" Lucy Farinelli called out from the great room.
She was a special agent with ATF and Scarpetta's only niece.
"Hold your horses!" Marino called back.
"I want it now."
"A couple hours!"
"No way my horses can wait that long!"
"No eggnog before its time!" Marino thundered.
"Then I'm going running. All this frustration! OHHHH!"
"Aunt Kay says you can't leave the house!"
Lucy secured her Sig Saur 9mm pistol inside a butt pack, buckling the strap snugly around her waist. She walked into the kitchen and hugged her aunt from behind. Scarpetta smiled as she continued stirring. Lucy made a face at Marino.
"Remember the first time Marino made his eggnog for us?" Lucy reminded them. "Wild Turkey, and lots of it. Red food coloring-for Christmas, of course. Whipped cream and peppermint candy sprinkles on top, served in frosted beer mugs. With those rather disgusting chocolate cupcakes you made." She pointed at Marino. "Green icing, little Christmas trees made out of cocktail toothpicks stuck in the middle of each one-and they were raw in the middle!"
"You're making me ill," Scarpetta exclaimed.
Lucy's laughter was loud and out of control. She held her stomach, hopping around the kitchen on one foot or the other as she howled and her aunt stirred.
"And he glued little red hots on the trees. Like ornaments. Put little stars on top. Like you get in the first grade for perfect attendance!" Lucy could barely talk, her eyes streaming as she laughed and shrieked.
Marino scowled at her.
"Everybody's got to start somewhere," he said.
Marino's Cause-Of-Death Eggnog
This night he was expecting to serve three people, but it was his nature to make more of everything than was either healthy or necessary. One could look at him and deduce his modus operandi with no further evidence than his flushed face and considerable size. He began with a dozen eggs, cracking each with violence. Yokes went into the blender and whites went into a stainless steel mixing bowl. He blended the yokes and folded in a pound of powdered sugar.
Although most of the hoi polloi prefer dark rum or bourbon | in their eggnog, Marino gives business to the Virginia economy and is a patron of a small family-owned distillery that makes moonshine. If you're shopping for first-rate corn liquor, you need to consider a few points. It must be legal, the still regularly inspected by ATE It is important that copper pipes and kettles and filtered water are part of the process and that high-grade corn is used. The good stuff is rather much like combustible, mind-altering vapors. Marino likes his corn liquor in a shot glass now and then, but it is also quite compatible with eggnog and gives it a slightly different character. Marino's eggnog is for outlaws and those who war against them. It will fire you up or shut you down. If you're not used to it, it is not recommended unless you don't plan to move far or quickly from one spot for at least twelve hours.
At this stage, Marino's mixture needs to be held in custody inside the refrigerator until eggy flavors settle down and finally give in to the strong arm of alcohol. At five o'clock, while Lucy was taking her time stretching and dressing for the cold in front of the fire and Scarpetta was adding more fresh oregano to her sauce, Marino removed the blender from the refrigerator. He poured his starter eggnog into the large stainless steel bowl and with a hand mixer beat in two quarts of whipping cream. While Scarpetta wasn't looking, he splashed in four more jiggers of Virginia Lightning. He returned his spirited refreshment to the refrigerator, where it would serve hard time a little longer.
An hour later, Lucy was still running along West End streets and Scarpetta was taking a break, drinking hot cinnamon tea at the kitchen table. Marino whipped egg whites until they were stiff but not dry and blended peaks of them into the bowl. He added the egg mixture, constantly churning with the hand mixer until his brew was frothy. He poured a glass for Scarpetta and himself, liberally sprinkling both with cocoa powder.
"Merry Christmas," he said, touching her glass. "Maybe next year will be better."
"What was wrong with this one?" she wanted to know.
"I can't believe Lucy's out there running in the dark. You know it's dangerous, Doc. It's not like you got streetlights around here, and the sidewalks are all cracked up and pushed up with roots. Not to mention the way most of your neighbors drive. The little hot shot thinks nothing can hurt her."