Eyes of a Child

"Victim: male, Caucasian, 42 years old. Name, Aaron Marple. Stabbed to death, fourteen times with a pair of scissors, in his own kitchen. No sign of forced entry, although the wife says they left the doors unlocked when they were home. She says she was gone -- shopping, all afternoon -- came home and found him like this." Schanke's neutral tones followed Nick into the kitchen, where the uniformed policemen stood around the chalk-outlined body, ignoring the flash of the camera.

Nick took in the scene, noting the dishes in the sink and the overturned chair. The scissors were bagged; he glanced at them as the Forensic assistant passed them by. Nothing seemed odd, or out of place... except the dead man in the middle of the room. The smell of recently-spilled blood stirred an instinct in him, which he was used to squelching. He listened as the cops discussed, throughout the house. He heard a distraught woman's voice in the other room, telling someone that she had no idea. While he hadn't caught the question, he figured she had been asked if she knew who might have wanted her husband dead. A horrible question to ask someone, but a necessary one.

The kitchen looked remarkably undisturbed, and it made Nick wonder. There had been no fight, no struggle. The killer had gotten into the kitchen somehow, and stabbed the man fourteen times... how? Nick looked down again at the man; he was not a large man, but perhaps five and a half feet tall. Not a muscular build, a small paunch, but surely strong enough to fend off an attacker for a few moments. But apparently he hadn't. It was as if he'd stood still, while the scissors had gone in.

"The wife is in the living room... you wanna talk to her?" Schanke asked, waiting quietly as Nick had surveyed the scene. He'd done the same when he'd walked in. Later, they would compare impressions. Now, they still had to absorb the clues, hidden and obvious.

"What's her name?" Nick asked as he headed through the house.

"Sharon Marple. She works at the library part-time, runs some sort of kids' reading program."

They found her sitting on the couch, looking much like a thousand other wives and husbands and loved ones did, when a body lay not twenty feet away. Fortunately, they would be able to remove the body without bringing it through this room. No doubt why she had been brought in here. Nick walked up to her, and sat across from her. He looked at her calmly, trying to project as much reassurance as he could.

"Mrs. Marple, I'm Detective Knight. I'm terribly sorry for your loss." He felt the familiar wave of sorrow, that these words or ones like them had been spoken uncountable times due to his own actions. How many grieving loved ones lay in his wake? "I realise this is a difficult time to ask, but is there anything at all you can tell us, which might help us find the person who did this?" His soft words tried to elicit that twinge of anger that must be buried underneath the tears, which might spur the woman to fight back, enable the police to more easily conduct their investigation. An old, familiar trick.

Sometimes Nick felt that's all he had. Or did they just seem old to him, who had used them for hundreds of years? One way or another, manipulating the mortals around him for his own reasons. He swallowed a surge of anger and self-pity and concentrated on the woman before him.

She shook her head, eyes open wide and unseeing. She was trembling, and Nick heard her heartbeat racing. Her face was pale, and her hands clutched at the air, trying to grab onto something, anything... Nick reached out and gently took her hands in his. She started, and looked at him. "Mrs. Marple... is there someone we can call?"

Her brown eyes clutched at him, as if his words were the only sign of life she'd noticed in a very long time. She shook her head, and Nick had the sudden impression that that simple act was more of an admission that anything else she had done. Nick handed her one of his cards, telling her to call if she needed anything, remembered anything, wanted to tell them, ask them, hear from them. For now his words fell on an unhearing mind, but her hand held the card and he knew she would find it later, when she needed to.

He waved over one of the uniformed cops, and nodded that she should take over the care of the woman. He stood and exchanged a look with Schanke. They walked into the dining room, where they could see into each room -- the kitchen, the living room. Life and death side by side, separated by a thin expanse of plaster and wood. The smells were the same. Nick had never discovered why. Maybe it was just the proximity. Maybe it was because they really were the same.

"Do we have anything?" Nick asked.

"Nada. Maybe when forensics has a chance to go over everything. Hopefully, the scissors will give us some prints. Until then we go through the same old routine. Background, work, friends, family. Something will turn up." Schanke sounded sure, and sounded as if he hated it. He hated this part -- the death that set them in motion. It wasn't so bad when they caught a killer before he struck, struck again. He glanced down at his notebook. When he opened his mouth to speak, they heard the rattle of a door.

They both turned, and saw a door down the hall opening slowly. Each tensed, relaxing only slightly when the brown-haired head of a young girl peered out at them. She stared, and Nick felt a stab of sick fear. The child's eyes were blue, clear, and wide. Nick hoped, in spite of the difficulty of solving a case without witnesses, that they hadn't found one here.

The child's eyes were green. For a moment they were the only thing he saw, the only thing that registered in his conscious thought. Green... such a pure and innocent green. Or, at least, they had been. Then the reality of what those eyes meant hit him. He casually dropped the body of the drained man at his feet, and stepped forward.

"Look at me," he said softly. The child took a step back, fearfully staring now at its father. Nicholas didn't know how much he had seen, but he had to erase that sight before...

"What have we here? Why, hello young man." Lacroix entered the room, his coat sweeping around the doorframe as he stood, almost majestically towering over the frightened five-year-old. They could smell the fear, and the awful knowledge that somehow even a child could bear. The child knew his father was dead, and Nicholas realised the child knew he would die as well. Lacroix smiled, and looked at Nicholas. "Is he dessert?"

Nicholas didn't answer. He wanted to say no, and leave quickly, taking the body and the memories of the child with them. But the presence of his master forbade that.

Lacroix met his gaze, gently mocking. "Nicholas, you *know* how difficult it is, to hypnotise a child so young. You *also* know how sweet and delicate a taste is the blood of a child. Or at least you would, had you ever indulged." As his words finished spinning their way into Nicholas's heart, Lacroix grabbed the child and lifted him into the air. For a moment he stood there, holding the now-screaming boy, then he was at the boy's throat and Nicholas felt his own soul being drained with the child's blood.

He told himself if he had chosen better, chosen a victim who had no family, who had been alone, this would not have happened. If he had been quicker to leave before Lacroix showed... Lacroix sneered at his thoughts, and dropped the boy beside his father.

"Really, Nicholas... haven't you learned *anything* in the last three-hundred years?"

Nicholas watched Lacroix turn and leave, thinking that apparently he had not learned enough. Had not learned to harden his heart against what he still saw as needless deaths, had not learned to prevent his master from causing unnecessary pain. He looked up at the retreating back of the elder vampire, and wondered what resolve he would make tonight. To learn to be what his master bid, or learn to break free? Every night he changed his mind. Someday, perhaps, he would find the strength to know what he should... what he could do.

He glanced down at the green eyes, still staring, still seeing more than Nicholas thought he could ever see. He snarled, flipping his cloak around his shoulders and left the room, the house, the town forever.

"What's your name?"

Nick blinked, and saw Schanke standing beside the girl. She looked about eleven or twelve years old. Tall, almost the height of the woman she was so close to becoming. She was staring back at Schanke, holding herself tightly upright in the presence of so many strangers invading her home. Nick knew, from her stance, that she knew what was going on. The question was, would she tell them?

"Kathleen." Her voice was sharp, defensive. It sounded like the voice of someone who knew the realities of a life that children were not meant to see.

Schanke heard it, and bypassed the niceties and the gentle verbal dances. "Kathleen, can you tell us anything about what happened to your father?" Schanke heard his voice clutch, and knew it was because he could see his own daughter's eyes, staring at a stranger, listening to the voice say 'your father's not coming home again.'

Kathleen shook her head. She looked from Schanke, to Nick, as if challenging them to contradict her. Nick stepped forward. "Kathleen, I know it's a terrible shock, but if you can tell us anything... did you hear someone in the house? An unfamiliar voice, or see a car outside?"

She shook her head again, almost glaring at him. "I was in my room. I had the stereo on and I didn't hear anything." She said each word carefully, harshly. Nick remembered that, long ago, a girl this age was considered a woman, with the strengths and duties of any adult. The years might be different, but this adolescent girl could be as formidable as a grown woman. If she didn't want to tell them what she knew, then Nick didn't see how they could force her. They could only hope she would find a reason of her own to say it. Hopefully, they could find the killer on their own, and not have to bring this child into the fray.

Even if she did stand in the doorway to her bedroom, arms crossed and eyes piercing, looking more ready and able to deal with the hordes of policemen in her home, than the broken shell of her mother. Nick reminded himself this was a child, after all, and they could be very good at hiding the shattered lines inside.

"All right. If you think of anything, tell your mother. She has my card."

Neither Nick nor Schanke understood the look that passed over the girl's face, but they left her standing before her room, to search through the dead man's things.

Back at the precinct Schanke sighed, and rubbed his face. "Nothing. We got nothing. We got us a dead welder, who had only reasonable debts -- which he was paying off up-front and on time. No living relatives on the father's side, sister and nieces living in Vancouver. Co-workers either didn't know him very well, or didn't like him -- but no one seems to hate him. No long-standing feuds, no death threats, no serious trouble. No reason to kill him."

"We're sure nothing was stolen?" Nick sat at his desk, leaning over the reports.

"Not according to the wife. The silver, jewelry, and small, easily-fenceable appliances were all in the house. The neighbors didn't see anything; there were no deliveries, no this, no that, no clues." Schanke threw up his hands in frustration.

"There has to be something."

"I know! I hate to have to bring the girl into this, but if we don't find something soon, the Captain'll insist. I hate doing that to a kid."

"Someone else already did something worse. Maybe we should try talking to her again. If we can find out *why* she doesn't want to tell us, maybe we can learn something useful."

"You mean trick her into talking? Well, why not. I've already lost my Father of the Year award, might as well lose my Nice Guy award as well."

"Schanke-" Nick called after his partner, who had stepped away from his desk, heading for the garage.

Schanke waved a hand. "I know, I know. Look, let's solve this case first, okay? We can do the counseling after." He smiled, softening the anger of his previous statement. He tried to be a good father, but he felt sometimes that spending so much time away from Jenny and Myra wasn't good for any of them, was even more detrimental than being a more mediocre dad who spent all his evenings and mornings home.

Nick followed his partner out of the precinct and to his car. Neither of them said anything as Nick pulled out into traffic, until he flicked on the radio.

"Oh geez, not this guy again. Nick, why do you do this to me?"

Nick smiled briefly, as the voice spoke calmly.

"Why do we cling to our past, why do we reach out for what has already been, as if it were more real, more vital to our existence than the world which surrounds us now? Why do we tell ourselves that we are only what our experiences make us? Why not fling these illusions into the wind, and release yourself to your passions, your desires, the needs and demands of the moment?

"Why do you insist on calling yourself things that no one else has called you in years? Look in the mirror, if you can, and ask yourself who it is that is looking back. Is it the frightened face of a youth, is it the trusting innocent face of an infant... is it the weary eyes of one old enough to die? Who is staring at you in your mirror... is it anyone you know?"

Nick wondered if Lacroix's words would come to any relevance tonight, or if they were simply random thoughts tossed into the air to confuse him. He didn't worry too much about it, knowing he would find out sooner or later.

They stopped by Forensics first, to get their report on the fingerprints. Nick took one look, and decided the sick feeling in his stomach wasn't due to Nat's latest protein shake, or Lacroix's latest radio monologue.

"What does it say?" Schanke gave a half-hearted attempt to read the report in Nick's hands.

"The only prints on the scissors are the wife's, and the daughter's."

"Great. So our killer wore gloves..."

"Or one of them did it." Nick finished the thought.

"Man, oh man... no way. Nick, Sharon Marple couldn't have killed anyone. Did you see her? She was in shock -- and not the 'oh my god I've just killed my husband' shock. Her world had just fallen apart ... there's no way she was strong enough, and I don't mean physically, to kill him."

Nick looked over at his partner. "Then perhaps it was Kathleen." His voice was steady, as if he wasn't accusing a girl of killing her father.

Schanke stared at him. For a moment, he seemed to be about to ask the usual next questions, why would she do it, what was her motive. Then he shook his head, caught up in the images of his own daughter's smiling face. "No way. She's just a kid, Nick. Kids that age adore their fathers. We're perfect -- hadn't you heard?" His smile was genuine; Nick felt a stab of jealousy, then he turned his thoughts back to the case.

"It's a possibility, Schank. We should keep it in mind." But his soft voice wasn't insistent and for now they let it drop. They headed for Natalie's office, discussing the ways a stranger could have gotten inside the kitchen to kill Aaron Marple.

Nat looked up as they walked in. She took a moment to notice the colour of Nick's skin and decide that he had once again neglected to drink his shake. The look in his eyes made her decide not to mention it right now.

"What have you found?" Nick glanced down at the autopsied body.

"He died because he was stabbed fourteen times. But you knew that already."

Nick gave her an amused grin, and agreed. "We knew that already." How had he managed to find friends with such odd senses of humour?

Nat moved around to the other side of the table, pointing to various areas as she explained in more detail what she'd found. Nick and Schanke listened attentively until they realised she hadn't found anything of help at all. Nat saw the look of comprehension form on their faces and stopped. "Well I have to show you what I go through to find your clues for you. I don't want you to think--"

"Yes, Nat, we know. You work hard, you're very talented, and we greatly appreciate everything you do for us. Now, what have you found?"

Nat enjoyed the flattery, even if it was delivered in a slightly sarcastic tone. But she'd asked for it, after all. She directed them to the microscope. Schanke peered through it, and then straightened up. "Wow... I see what you mean. That clears everything up."

"What is it?" Nick asked, alert and curious.

"Haven't a clue." Schanke shrugged.

"You two are being to sound alike, you know that? Sarcasm becomes you both." Nat gestured for Nick to look, but he shook his head.

"What is it?"

"Dried vaginal fluid." Nat said it with a straight face, and watched their reactions. Schanke stared at her for a moment, then looked through the scope again. He gave her a funny look but said nothing.

"Should I ask where you found it?" Nick asked quietly.

"Under his fingernails. He'd washed his hands, but there was still some under the nails. He'd had sexual relations within three hours of his death."

"So how does that help us?" Schanke shook his head.

"Schank... don't you remember? The wife had been gone all day. For longer than three hours."

Schanke stared at his partner, then glanced from Nat, too the scope, and back to Nick. "So either she was lying, or we have a possible suspect, or witness. A mistress."

Nick looked slightly more pale than usual, as he quietly voiced his own thought. "Or I was right and it *was* Kathleen."

They left the Coroner's building and headed to the car. "So I guess we go talk to the family, again. Find out who Aaron Marple was *with* before he got killed." Schanke made it clear what he meant by 'with.'

Nick shook his head. "First, we go to the hospital and check the family's medical records."

"What? Why?" Schanke was getting used to figuring out his partner's strange suggestions, but this one left him a step behind.

Nick gave him a flat, expressionless look. "To see if there's a record of injuries among the family members. We already know there haven't been any police reports of disturbances of any kind, but--"

"Nick, you are reaching here. But okay... if only to prove I'm right... again!"

Nick said nothing as they drove. When they reached the hospital where the Marple family's physician worked, Schanke had almost gotten Nick convinced that they would find nothing. He'd woven a tale of a mistress, frustrated by Aaron's refusal to get a divorce, or even the wife's discovery or their liaison. Both sounded quite plausible. Both sounded much better than the alternative.

They argued with the physician on duty for half an hour, before Nick persuaded him to let them see the records. He left them alone, and Nick opened one of the folders. He read silently, as Schanke did the same with another.

He felt his cold blood still. "Schanke..." His voice was dry, and he heard a voice inside his head whisper. "Look at this." He showed Schanke the folder, but said it aloud. "In the last ten years Kathleen has been brought in seven times for bladder infections."

"So? Nick, that only means--"

Softly, almost calmly, Nick interrupted, "One of the most common reasons for bladder infections in young girls is sexual abuse."

Schanke stared at him, trying desperately not to digest the information. He swallowed, and tried again. "That doesn't mean... Nick, come on... do you really think Kathleen killed her father? Because he was abusing her? That's so..." He wanted to say unreasonable, unheard of, ridiculous. Instead he heard the words 'common' and 'tragic' flitter through his mind. He glanced through Kathleen's medical records and found a variety of other things, minor broken bones and bruises. Nothing that screamed out unless you had another clue to put it with. Like an unexplained dead body, killed with scissors bearing the girl's fingerprints.

Schanke shook his head slowly. "Nick... I hear what you're saying, but... it *could* be just what it looks like. Kids break things, kids get sick. It doesn't have to be..."

"I know," Nick said. "I know." But remembering what he'd heard, he knew.

Before they'd left the house, still sifting through the man's personal things, Nick had heard the girl through the walls of the house. The parents' bedroom was down the hall from the girl's, but most of the other cops and forensics team had left already and the sound was quite loud enough for a vampire to hear.

He heard the dialing of the phone, and knew he could duplicate the number if need be. He watched Schanke shuffle papers, as he listened.

"Margie... there's been cops all over the place. I think the rest are leaving soon, though." Kathleen's voice stopped, then spoke again. "Yeah, I'm okay. No, he didn't. I don't think so." He heard a slight sound, like a shuddering sigh. "I'll be okay. I'm gonna be okay, now. We both are. I just wanted to let you know. We're gonna be okay now."

The click of the phone was followed by silence, and Nick was left to file the conversation away in the stack of unanswered questions and unexplained clues. He knew they would be answered, soon enough.

They headed for Nick's car in silence, each thinking about the implications of the clues they'd put together. Nick hadn't mentioned the phone call, but everything without that was clear enough. Clear enough to go ask some very difficult questions.

Schanke kept glancing over at his partner, and finally he stopped and gave him a firm stare. "Nick, what's wrong?"

"What's wrong? You saw the same things I did. You know what's wrong."

Schanke shook his head. "That isn't what I meant. Look, this whole thing turns my stomach. But you... you act like you're walking through fog. You look like... well, I dunno. Like she was a friend of yours, or something." His words dropped off uncertainly; he knew there was something not quite right, but he couldn't figure out what it was. Even his accusation didn't sound exactly true.

Nick looked down at the ground, then shrugged. "It's just... you know. This whole thing. It's awful." Nick tried hard to distance himself from it, as if it were merely the horrible reality of the most likely explanation for the murder, and the abuse that must have led to it.

Schanke looked at him for a moment, then, when Nick thought he would drop it, believe him, Schanke took his arm and led him to a nearby bench. He pulled Nick down to sit, and sat down beside him. He waited quietly.

Finally, Nick shook his head. "It isn't anything, Schank. I just... I keep thinking about... how she killed him. How she must have been driven to kill him." Nick blinked quickly, not wanting the tears to spill and alarm his mortal partner with the blood dripping from his eyes.

Sympathetically, Schanke said, "It's an awful thing to do to a kid. I can't imagine how she must have felt, how scared she must have been. It must have taken a lot of courage, to survive this long." He brushed off Nick's claim that the girl *had* done it, for now. They could argue theories later.

Nick nodded absently, and he tried to ignore the images of the stake he'd held, the flames as they licked around them, at the expression on Lacroix' face as Nick had advanced.

"It must have been terrifying." Schanke's voice barely registered.

"It was..." Lacroix' face snarled in his memory, and he felt himself shaking and screaming, knowing this was going to be the only way he'd ever be free. He could feel the fire, feel the fear, feel the rage that threatened to consume him so often. He didn't realise he'd spoken aloud until he felt Schanke's hand on his arm, and an arm across his shoulders, and looked up to see the carefully composed expression on his face. For a moment he just sat there, then he put his hands to his face and turned away.

"Oh god, Nick..." Schanke felt the shudder run through Nick's body. "I'm sorry."

It was almost impossible to keep himself from crying. He had to, though; he couldn't clean his face with Schanke sitting right behind him. He had to push the pain away, like always. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep it from breaking through. Perhaps the dark night would shadow his face enough to hide the truth.

"Do you want to tell me?" Schanke's question was gentle, and Nick was grateful for the contact of his hands. Even if it brought the pounding of a human heart closer to him. Shaken and scared as he was, he felt the desire to feed and be done with it. Exactly what his master... his father... wanted. All the times Lacroix had tried to twist his desires onto him, force Nick to become the monster that he was.

He wondered what he could say to Schanke that wouldn't be the horrible, unbelievable truth, but would say enough to get this fear outside of him into the air where it could disappear. He hung his head and heard himself whispering, "I tried... it didn't work. He survived and he came back for me." He swallowed the rest, gripped with the knowledge that the very demon he spoke of might be listening in, reveling in his child's torrential emotions.

Hiding the shock that hit his spine, Schanke asked, "You tried to kill your father?"

"It was the only way I could get free of him. And it didn't work. I--" Nick held his head in his hands and tried again to push the tears away. He had to explain, but not like this. He aimed for facts, facts that could be turned into normal, twentieth-century, mortal facts that explained his words without... lying. "He wasn't my real father, but when I was... very young, he... he raised me, and tried to... make into something I didn't want to be. He forced me to..." his voice broke, and he wished he could tell it all, tell his friend exactly how Lacroix had destroyed his spirit and turned him into the evil thing from which he could never escape. How could he say, 'he taught me to kill,' and 'he tried to make me enjoy it'? Nick swallowed, and left it unsaid. "He forced me... to do things I didn't want to do. I couldn't... I tried to get away from him so many times and he always found me... I had to kill him. I had to do something."

The nighttime filled the empty places in his words, in his heart. For a long time, Schanke said nothing, just sat on the bench trying to let his best friend know he was not alone. He wondered why Nick had worked so hard to keep from crying; Nick had never been the macho type. He realised there might be a very good reason for it, and left the question alone. Stories of children punished too harshly for the smallest indiscretions haunted him, even when they weren't instantiated before him in a friend. Finally, when he knew Nick was going to say no more, he stood up. "Come on, Nick. Sun's gonna be up soon."

Nick let Schanke tug him to his feet, and followed almost blindly to the car. He handed over his keys when Schanke held out his hand. He wanted to curl up somewhere, someplace safe. He hated that he'd let Schanke hear words that would lead him to the wrong conclusions -- even if the effects were the same, even if somehow they were true. It was one more thing Lacroix had stolen from him, the chance to be honest with the people he loved. He leaned back in the seat and watched as the streetlights flashed in the windows.

Nick blinked in surprise. They were in Schanke's driveway, and Nick had a dim memory of being nudged. He looked over, not quite comprehending.

"Nick? You in there?" It was a common question, from Schanke to his easily-distracted partner. But this time the words were different, as Schanke realised there might be a reason for his behaviour.

"Yeah." Nick was listening, but he wasn't convinced he hadn't missed the first part of the conversation. Had there been a conversation?

"Come on." Schanke opened his door and got out, indicating that Nick should follow. Nick realised that maybe Schanke had simply brought himself home, and now Nick was supposed to drive back to his loft. He wanted to kick his brain into gear, but couldn't find a place to aim for. He got out and headed towards the driver's side, but Schanke grabbed his coat sleeve and pulled. "I know you don't want any coffee, or breakfast... but you're coming inside anyway. For a few minutes, at least."

Nick didn't ask why Schanke was so insistent that he go inside. He was often invited in for breakfast; Myra sometimes came out onto the porch, still half-asleep but coffee mugs in hand, and seconded Schanke's offer. He didn't want to try to explain, one more time, that he wouldn't eat their food. He just wanted to go home. He looked up at his partner, his eyes wide and pleading.

When he thought Schanke would capitulate and let him go, like usual, he found himself being gently pulled towards the door. Schanke still had his coat sleeve, and was walking for the house. Nick followed, his mouth working silently as he tried to find those phrases which got him off the hook for not acting normal.

He hadn't found any by the time Schanke got them inside, and shut the door. Schanke steered him towards the couch, and he sat down. Nick found himself staring at the wall, not hearing the soft mutter of voices as Schanke met his wife in the hallway. He did feel exhausted, like he had whenever he'd finally gotten to remove his chainmail and relax with the extra 50 pounds of metal gone. He leaned sideways, against the couch arm and stared at the comforting blank white wall before him.

Schanke sipped his coffee, sitting in the kitchen with Myra. He'd sat where he could see into the living room, keep an eye on his partner. He looked like his world had just crumbled, like everything he'd known had been destroyed and he was expected to start over without the tools or training to build again. Schanke had seen the look on disaster victims a hundred times, but had never before considered that surviving a family that wanted to destroy you might be a disaster as well.

"Is he going to be all right?" Myra kept her voice quiet, though, had he been listening, the vampire would have heard. She'd listened in silence as Schanke told her what Nick had said.

"Yeah, I guess." Schanke sighed. "I just never... I never imagined it would be something like this. He never talked about his family, but I figured it was because he just... didn't talk about much of anything." He rubbed his face, trying to wipe away the night's fatigue. "I can't believe it... how could anyone do stuff like that? How could a parent, a father, look at his kid and even *think* about hurting him?"

Myra put her hand on her husband's arm, and squeezed gently. She didn't have the answers; no one did. "Why don't you get some sleep, Don. I'll fix up the couch; Nick can sleep here today."

Schanke nodded, though he knew Nick would come up with some reason, some excuse to go home. He stood up, though, to tell him he was invited to stay. He stopped just inside the living room, and stared. Then he smiled, and took the quilt from Myra as she came in and shook it open. Tiptoeing, he walked over to the couch where Nick lay sound asleep, and draped the quilt over him. He knew better than to try and remove his partner's holster -- a cop's reflexes would probably get him a broken arm. Myra tiptoed to the end of the couch, and carefully removed Nick's shoes -- Schanke smiled as he realised how practised she was at that, from the many times he'd woken to find himself shoeless when he hadn't even intended to be asleep.

They left him lying there, and Schanke pulled the curtains closed across the windows, fixing them so no sunlight would come inside to disturb his sleeping partner. Then, with his arm around his wife, Schanke headed for his bedroom and reminded himself that for all his faults as a parent, his daughter would never have a reason to feel the way Nick, and Kathleen, did. Myra sat with him until he fell asleep, then she quietly went into the kitchen to get ready for the day.

She spent a few minutes staring out the kitchen window, thinking about her daughter.

Five hours later, Schanke woke up. He hadn't intended to, but after lying in bed for twenty minutes he knew he wasn't going to fall asleep again. He got up, somewhat grudgingly, and headed for the shower. He suddenly remembered he had someone on his couch, and headed down the hall.

It looked like he hadn't moved a muscle. Schanke shook his head and muttered something about sleeping like the dead, then headed back for his shower. He found a note stuck to the mirror, from Myra, which made him smile and hope fervently that he'd get off-shift early tonight. That particular brand of perfume always made him long for her. He sniffed the paper again, and decided he was going to enjoy his shower.

He figured the rest of the day was going to be rotten. He was going to have to talk to Kathleen and find out if their theory was correct.

The house looked so normal. It looked like every other house on its block, the yard was cared for and the roof had been recently repaired. Even the gutters were probably clean. Then again, maybe they weren't. Schanke sat in his car for a moment, trying to get up the courage to do this. What in the world could he say? He still prayed he was wrong. He hoped there would be a mistress hiding somewhere, hoping her prints weren't on the scissors, hoping the killer hadn't seen her.

Anything but this.

Schanke opened the car door and got out. Putting it off wouldn't make it any easier. But what would he say? How could he ask a twelve-year-old girl if her father was abusing her, if she had killed him? He tried to imagine what he would want to hear, but he just couldn't quite put himself in her place. Then he tried imagining what he would say if it were his own partner, and he found himself with a thousand different things he needed to say.

He knocked on the door.

He wasn't terribly surprised to see Kathleen answer. Her mother would have been given sedatives, medication to take her away from all of this for a while. Kathleen stared at him, eyes well shielded from the world outside. Even if he and Nick *were* wrong, something was not right here. It wasn't losing a father -- there was no grief in her eyes. But he thought he could see relief. Schanke felt an urge to take her and tell her life wasn't like that. Life wasn't all about people who hurt you and used you. But he knew better than to try. Besides... there was still the chance he was wrong.

A very slim chance. "May I come in?"

"I guess... what do you want?" Kathleen stepped back, and walked to the living room. Schanke followed. He could smell the odor of disinfectant.

"I need to ask you a few questions. Can we sit down for a minute?" She shrugged, and plopped down onto a chair. Schanke got the impression that she felt very confident, as if she were in total control here. He had to remind himself she was only twelve.

"What do you want to ask, detective?"

Schanke looked at her, trying to find the first question, trying to find the first phrase. What would she believe? He thought about trying to trick her into admitting what happened, tell her they knew and get her to confirm it. Then he told himself she had probably been lied to enough, and decided on another tack. "I want to know if you killed him."

She didn't move. Her blue eyes fixed on him, a mix of sheer blankness and what might have been amusement made Schanke begin to believe they *had* been wrong and she would soon start screaming at the audacity and cruelty of his question. Then he saw the fear and he knew more than he wished any human should ever have to know. He knew what had happened, he knew Nick had been right, and as he watched her he saw her realise he knew. She turned her head away, and waited.

"I'm sorry, Kathleen."

"Why? Sorry you have to read me my rights, take me down and book me? You gonna give me a speech about how kids don't belong in jail?" Her tough voice told Schanke that not all of her bravado was faked. She might be scared, but anything was better than having not killed him at all.

"I'm sorry he did those things. He had no right... fathers are supposed to love their kids. Not hurt them."

"Oh, yeah? Thanks, detective. I feel all better now." The sarcasm cut him more deeply than the glare in her eyes. He wanted to say something to make her believe, and knew it wasn't going to be possible. Not right now, not so soon.

"I know you don't believe me now. Someday you will. You don't even have to trust me, but you'll find out I'm right." He relaxed, knowing there was no urgency in his words. He didn't have to save her, only be honest with her so that when she could believe him she could look back and find out he hadn't lied.

Kathleen rolled her eyes. "I've seen this one, you know. Sunday night movie, starring what's-her-name. They had some great lines."

"Yeah, I know. I never realised how true they were." His voice still sounded so quiet, so sincere. He wasn't faking it, but he wondered why he wasn't screaming. One of them should have been screaming.

She gave him a funny look, and then went back to her script. She had planned this out, anticipated getting caught and knew what she would do, what she would say. "You going to arrest me now?"

"Did you kill him?" Schanke was surprised how soft, and how calm his voice was.

"Yeah, I killed... I killed him." For a second she had looked like a terrified child, then the walls went back down and it was gone.

Schanke nodded. It made him sick; he wanted to run outside and throw up and leave and pretend none of this was happening. He took a deep breath instead. "Then I'll take you, and your mom, down to the station to get some statements."

"And then jail? It's ok, detective. Really it is." She tried to reassure him.

"Actually, you'll probably be put in a foster home and given counseling. In cases like these, the judge usually declares it an act of self-defense."

"Oh... great." She didn't sound like she cared. Schanke decided there was nothing more he could do, and he held out his hand. "You gonna cuff me?"

"No." Schanke just shook his head. "Let's get your mom, ok?"

Kathleen shrugged, and went to get her mother. Schanke stayed in the living room, looking around. It even looked normal, on the inside.

Nick woke up and kept his eyes closed. He didn't want to face the world tonight, but he didn't remember why. There was something not quite right, and he realised that his loft didn't smell right. He took a small sniff and realised it was because it wasn't his loft. The smell was much more like... Schanke.

Then he remembered where he was and what had happened. Now he really didn't want to open his eyes. Maybe he could disappear into the couch and he wouldn't have to face anyone. He tried to figure out how he could talk himself out of having admitted things he didn't want to deal with.

A soft groan and the sound of something soft hitting something else not as soft made him open his eyes. He looked over and smiled. Jenny was laying on the floor, headphones over her ears. Her head was lying on top of a book, and there were some papers scattered around. Apparently her homework was not cooperating with her brain.

"Problem?" He asked, trying to pitch his voice to be heard over the music.

She looked up quickly, and smiled. "I didn't wake you, did I? Mom told me not to study in here but my stereo's on the fritz." She pulled her headphones down, and Nick heard the strains of what could only be called 'currently popular with teens.' It didn't sound like anything he'd ever heard before.

Nick felt an unfamiliar comfort in wide brown eyes staring at him in amusement and innocence. "No, you didn't wake me." He smiled at her, and tried sitting up. It worked.

"Good. Mom said I'd have to do the dishes for a week if I did."

Nick laughed. "Dish duty isn't your favorite?"

"Well... I don't mind, really. But dishes are Dad's job... and I hate to take away any of his chores." Her conspiratorial tone elicited another laugh. Then she sighed. "And yeah, there's a problem. This thing is full of trick questions."

"What is it?" Nick enjoyed the image of Don Schanke standing at the sink, doing dishes.

"It's a history quiz. Well, an extra-credit quiz, really. But I need all the points I can get in history."

"Oh? Maybe I can help."

She looked over at him eagerly. "You know stuff about history?"

"A bit, yes. What are you studying?"

"Seventeenth-century North American history. Real boring stuff."

Nick pushed himself off the couch, and lay down beside her. "Not necessarily. I found it quite interesting." Jenny scooted over to make room for him before her books. She pointed out the first question that had stumped her, and soon Nick was telling her stories which made the names, dates, and facts easier to remember.

Schanke stood still for nearly ten seconds when he walked into his home. The cozy scene which had greeted him when he'd opened the door had taken him by surprise, to say the least. Then he had his arms full of an excited girl, babbling something about finally getting all the answers to a history assignment.

He held his daughter tightly, then let her go before she could give him one of those exasperated looks. She was getting too old for that sort of thing... or so she said. He grinned at her. "So what's this about your history?"

"Uncle Nick's a whiz! He knows everything. I'm gonna get all the points on my quiz!" She was nearly dancing in place. Schanke looked over at Nick, still sitting on the floor, grinning sheepishly.

"It's not that big a deal."

"Oh yeah? History's the only thing I ever get Cs in. My teacher's gonna flip!" Jenny was grinning ear to ear.

"Sounds great!" Schanke let his daughter's enthusiasm lift him from the depression the afternoon had put him in. His smiled faded a bit. "Why don't you go see if your mom needs help? I need to talk to Nick."

Jenny nodded, and practically bounced from the room. Schanke sat down, and Nick could tell from the look on his face that he didn't want to hear it.

"What happened?" He got off the floor, and sat back on the couch.

"I talked to Kathleen..."

His expression told Nick everything. He looked away for a moment, then asked, "Did she..."

"I took her and her mom down to the station. Captain wants our reports in tonight." He felt exhausted, emotionally drained. It occurred to him that twenty-four hours ago he was just getting the call to go to the Marple's address.

"She really killed him?" It wasn't exactly a question.

Schanke nodded. "She said she did. She... she described everything, how he'd... gone into her room earlier, how she... cleaned herself up, called a friend of hers and then... went into the kitchen and stabbed him. Apparently, he was so surprised he didn't... try to stop her. Nat said he would have died from any three or four of the wounds. Apparently, once she got started..." Schanke stopped. There ought to be a way to finish this case, wrap it up and get it over with without... having to face the reality of it all. But from Sharon Marple's reactions, he knew that was exactly what Kathleen didn't need.

Mrs. Marple had spent the entire day simply sitting in a chair saying nothing. It wasn't the medication making her stare blankly at the walls, and Schanke got the distinct impression she'd done the same thing every time she would have otherwise been faced with the reality that had culminated with the death in the kitchen.

He looked over at Nick, and saw much the same expression. Then Nick blinked, and a little bit of life seemed to flow back into his eyes. "I suppose we should go and make our reports."

"Yeah, well... why don't you go home first? Take a shower, change clothes... There's no rush."

Nick glanced over at the sympathy in his partner's voice. A rush of gratitude washed through him, and he knew that he didn't need to say anything else, until he wanted to. He didn't have to work any harder at keeping Schanke willing to listen; he already would, whenever Nick was willing to talk. Too bad he had to keep most of the real truth hidden.

He stood up and suddenly discovered he wasn't wearing shoes. Schanke grinned at his startled expression and pointed. "Over here."

Nick couldn't help smiling. When he stood up again and headed for the door Schanke stopped him.

"You realise you have to come back, now." His tone was light, but the command was very clear.

"What?" Nick stopped, confused.

"*Someone* has to help Jenny with history. Myra helps her with math and social sciences, I get to help with English and astronomy. But none of us is any good at history. And she has a report due next week." Nick laughed. Schanke walked him out to his car, smiling.

"Just promise me you won't try to feed me souvlaki."

Schanke stopped, hearing the lightness in Nick's tone but also hearing the frightened need below it. He clapped Nick on the shoulder. "We won't feed you. Just come by."

Nick stared at his partner. He heard a dim voice asking why he had taken so long to realise how good a friend he had here, why he had kept him at a distance for so long. He knew part of the reason, of course. He couldn't let them discover all his secrets. But maybe if he was careful... He nodded. "Thanks."

Nick was momentarily startled when Schanke stepped closer and gave him a strong hug. Then he returned it, and when he let go, he heard Schanke say, "Any time." Then he was climbing into his car and driving away.

He had no idea why he'd turned it on, but when he heard the song fill his loft he threw himself down on the couch and finally let all the sobs and screams out. The radio faded into the distance but the lyrics remained... as well as the ache inside which asked whether Lacroix was trying to reach out or was deliberately being cruel...