Says Meg, "The story has a distinctly religious theme, because I believe that Ben Stone's Catholicism has had the single most profound influence on his character, yet is most likely to be the least-explored in fan fiction. The Russian-American character I am introducing gives Stone the opportunity to re-examine his life in the context of her own beliefs, while exploring an aspect of New York culture known to only a few."

The Nutcracker
By Meg Lark

There were times, thought Ben Stone, when being an Executive Assistant District Attorney didn't amount to a hill of beans. This was one of them.
He stared at the piece of paper in front of him, willing it to help him make the worst decision of the year: who was going to get the Christmas duty. Crime didn't stop for the Season of Goodwill, and every year he had to select a skeleton staff of six Assistant District Attorneys, four law clerks, and a secretary, so that those who saw Christmas Day as an excuse to carve up their fellowman -- or woman, he reminded himself -- could be brought to justice. The ADAs didn't present too much of a problem; there was usually at least one Jewish attorney who didn't mind swapping Christmas Day for comp time around Yom Kippur. The law clerks were hungry to move up in the ranks; they'd grumble a bit, but they'd see it in context, as a rung on the way up the ladder.
No, the real problem was the secretary. One year, there had even been a lawsuit threatened. Religious discrimination, if he recalled rightly, and then it had developed -- after the fact, of course -- that the young lady in question didn't even belong to a church, and had just wanted the holiday to go skiing with her boyfriend. He shook his head as he reviewed the possibilities, and pondered whose holiday he could bear to ruin.
A knock sounded at his door. "Yeah," he called, and it opened to reveal Annie, the newest secretary, whom Adam Schiff had hired a scant three months before to handle his and Paul Robinette's caseload. Strictly speaking, she was far from new; she was a transfer from the Fraud Division, where she had been on staff for at least fifteen years. It was rumored that she had set a personal goal to make life as miserable as possible for the ADA of the Fraud Division, Jack McCoy. Stone smiled faintly; she had made his own life anything but miserable. Under her quiet direction, the office hummed at a level of efficiency that was the marvel of every division in the DA's office. As he watched her compact figure bustle in with a tray of coffee and cookies, an idea began to take shape.
"Coffee, Mr. Stone?" She set down the tray and brushed back a wayward black curl from her face.
"You really don't have to do this, you know," he began, and she smiled as she busied herself with a pitcher of cream, a bowl of sugar, a cup and saucer.
"Trust me, I do," she said. "Offices function on coffee. Besides, you wouldn't want to take away my chief joy in life, would you?"
He smiled at the twinkle in her chocolate-brown eyes, the merriment that bubbled just below the surface of her voice. "Actually, I'm glad to see you. You can help me with the chief joy in my life. -- "
"Let me get my steno pad." She began to turn on her heel.
"Doesn't require any notes, just a little brainstorming."
She turned back and seated herself. "With what?"
"How well do you know the secretaries in this division?"
She stared at him for a moment, then said slowly, "Do you mean as far as work habits go, or....?"
"No, I meant as far as whether any of them would be more suited than any others for the Christmas duty. I usually work from the bottom of the pecking order, but for once I'd like to have someone competent."
"Oh, yes, I did hear about that lawsuit two years ago. Not a problem, Mr. Stone. I'll take it." She smoothed her brown skirt and rose to go.
"That's not really appropriate, Annie. You're senior clerical staff now, and that's a job for the junior staff. All I need is a recommendation."
"Mr. Stone, I'm more than happy to work Christmas Day. I used to do it all the time over at Fraud. All I ask for is comp time."
"You sure?"
"All right, then." And he heaved a sigh of relief as she glided from the office. One problem solved, two dozen to go.

He was leaving for the day when Adam Schiff called him into his office.
"Ben, a word with you."
"What about?"
"The Christmas Day duty roster. You've got Anne Kusnetsow's name penciled in?"
"She volunteered."
To his surprise, Schiff sighed. "I was afraid of that."
Stone took a seat. "Why?"
"What do you know about her?"
"Not as much as you do, or should. You approved her transfer from Fraud. What's the problem?"
"I approved her transfer mainly to get her out of Jack McCoy's hair. He and she get along about as well as the average divorced couple in a child-custody suit. He thinks she's engaging in a little fraud of her own, and he's had Internal Affairs onto her every year for about the past eight years. They've never turned up anything yet, but that doesn't faze him. And I have to admit, the signs are there."
Stone felt his jaw drop. "Such as?"
"Never takes sick days, takes the same two weeks' vacation every year -- in the spring -- always volunteers for the Christmas duty, in early, doesn't mind overtime. Sounds like everybody's dream secretary. Question is, why? That's McCoy's question, anyway. Mine, too. See if you can find out anything, will you? Find out what's going on, Ben. Bad enough she kept this up for eight years over at Fraud. If she's going to try the same thing at Homicide, I want to know why it's so important to her."

So instead of solving one problem, he'd created a larger one. What legitimate reason could he use for trying to get inside her head? He spent most of the evening brooding over the matter; even his favorite Michael Moriarty jazz CD, which usually helped him sort out the thorniest problems, was no help. He was awake early the next day, too, and ended up taking the subway from Brooklyn Heights to Foley Square at the ungodly hour of 6:30 a.m.
His footsteps echoed hollowly through the marble halls of the courthouse. Scarcely a soul was about. At least he'd get a lot of work done, or maybe not, if he spent the time brooding on a way to approach Annie for the information he needed. He wondered if he should just contact Internal Affairs. After all, they were the professional investigators. Even if an eight-year investigation had turned up nothing. And what did that signify, anyway? The Sneaker Squad had its own problems with corruption.
At the entrance to the office, he was stopped by an outpouring of rollicking baroque music. Annie sat with her back to him, busily clattering away at what proved, as he peered over her shoulder, to be a brief he'd given her two days earlier to work up at her convenience. So this was the secret to her efficiency. A strong scent of brewing coffee wafted around the room, and another mystery was solved: what good fairy had been brewing some of the best coffee in Manhattan.
"Concerto for String Quartet with Keyboard Obbligato?" he quipped, and was surprised at the way she jumped in her seat.
"Mr. Stone," she scolded, "that's not a very healthy thing to do to a hard-working secretary. How am I supposed to know you aren't Mack the Knife, or Ollie the Office Oaf, or somebody?"
He chuckled. Ollie the Office Oaf, indeed. "My apologies, ma'am. Next time I'll bellow opera on my way up the stairs, and you'll plead with me to sneak up on you in future. Are you always in at this hour?"
"I'm a morning person. I need the quiet to get my work done."
"There's no rush on that, you know."
"I know, but won't you be grateful to get it in good time to make any needed changes." And she turned back to her project, leaving him with yet another nagging doubt: What had she been doing before his arrival? This thing was looking blacker and blacker.
"Leave that for a minute," he said suddenly, "and come and have coffee with me. I've heard you were the mainstay of Fraud, and I'm curious why you decided to transfer."
"I bet you didn't hear that from Jack McCoy." She bustled over the coffeepot and began to collect the cups and saucers. "Incidentally, I give him two days to ask you if you've made up the Christmas duty roster, and if I've volunteered, at which point, he'll tell you I'm involved in fraud of some kind and you'd better call IA."
She shrugged. "Basic personality conflict. I like attorneys to look like attorneys, not refugees from the PoliSci program at NYU. There's a certain...I don't know, a certain respect that ought to be paid to one's office, you know?"
"Why does he think you're involved in fraud?"
"I don't know, maybe he's looking for work. During the '80s we had twice the staff we have now. Maybe it got into his blood and he feels homesick for the days of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken."
The telephone rang, and she answered with her usual cool, "Mr. Stone's office." A moment later, she made a face and handed him the receiver.
"Jack McCoy," she said, in a tone that made him smile, and left.

The phone call did nothing to ease his mind.
"Adam, I hate to say it, but Jack may have been on to something all this time. The woman is a CPA! And not just a CPA, but a certified paralegal, as well. Why should a certified public accountant be content with a secretary's job?"
Schiff sighed. "Call Internal Affairs."
Jimmy Sullivan, over at IA, laughed when Stone told him the problem.
"Annie Kusnetsow! We're old friends. After the fifth time we investigated her, we all decided that McCoy was out to get rid of her, so we just do this pro-forma Q&A thing. Last year, she suggested that we could all save a lot of time if we'd just take out her last statement and put this year's date on it, and do you know, McCoy never even noticed! Annie's clean. Eccentric, but clean."
Stone shook his head. "Not good enough. She's in a new division, I want a new investigation, with new personnel. Somebody who doesn't know her."
Sullivan looked surprised. "It's up to you, but I guarantee, it's a waste of time and resources. Hizzoner," he said in reference to the new Mayor of New York, "keeps us busy enough with his fifteen-minute justification sessions."
Stone was unimpressed. "Start with her background. Find out when she got her CPA, and if she's still certified. I want to know if she's ever used the thing, and how she uses it. I want to know all about that paralegal certificate. I want to know her personal background, too, and I don't want the stuff you already have on file -- I want a completely new investigation."
Sullivan shrugged. "You got it. As long as it comes out of your budget, you got it."
"I want her home address, how long she's lived there, her bank accounts, her driving record -- "
"That'll be a tough one, she doesn't have a license."
"She didn't have a license. Does she has one under a different name? Circulate her photograph -- "
"You don't have to tell us how to do our job, Stone."
"If you haven't found out anything over the course of eight investigations -- excuse me, seven investigations, since she bamboozled you into dropping last year's -- maybe I do need to tell you how to do your job."
Sullivan drew in a sharp breath, but faced with Stone's steely gaze, said nothing. At last he got to his feet and, still wordless, departed, leaving his tension behind. Stone sighed, reached for his intercom, then changed his mind. A cup of coffee would have been so nice right about now, but compunction made him hesitate to ask for anything from someone whose career he might be destroying.
But he needn't have bothered with his scruples. A scant two minutes later, his door opened, and Annie entered, bearing the familiar tray and accouterments.
"Thought you might need this." She grinned. "Jimmy Solomon didn't look best pleased when he left."
"I, I'm sorry, who?"
"Jimmy Solomon. He started out in Fraud before he transferred over to the Sneaker Squad. He got his nickname when we kept getting phone calls for 'Jimmy Solomon,' and this moron of a secretary kept saying, 'We don't have a Jimmy Solomon.' Needless to say, the person was looking for Sullivan! But the name has stuck."
"I didn't realize that Sullivan was a personal friend."
"Not exactly. Just a fellow gofer in the early days. He got out of Fraud about the same time I started doing the secretary's job for her. I'm assuming he told you that I started out as a junior accountant."
Stone eyed her. "Yeah, so I hear. What was that all about, anyway?"
"As I said, the secretary was a moron. Everyone in the office had to do his own typing anyway, and there was no way I could hide the fact that I was cranking out reports three times as fast as anyone else, just because I could touch-type. When Toots left in a huff, I sort of inherited her job, along with my own. Finally the head of Fraud -- it wasn't McCoy in those days, it was Pete DeAngelis -- said he was ready to send in my certification to the AICPA -- the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants?" Stone nodded. "-- and I could put in another year or two as a junior accountant until a CPA position opened up, or I could just take on Doozie's job and he'd continue to pay my salary as a junior accountant. I gave it some considerable thought, talked to my family about it, and decided I'd rather be a crackerjack secretary than a mediocre accountant. End of story. And that," she added as she picked up the coffeepot, "is why you get good coffee and service fit for a DA. When I was in high school, coffee was considered part of a secretary's job. I never dropped the habit. The world functions better on little touches of civilization, don't you think?" And she was gone before he could reply.
He brooded as he sipped. Pete DeAngelis. There was a name he hadn't heard in some few years. Guy had retired, was supposed to be living Upstate, growing grapes or something. Might be worth checking out. He jotted the name down on a pad, then turned his attention to this abortion-doctor murder that was looking more and more like the work of a nun. Of all things.

The spirit of Christmas was all around him, but he couldn't bring himself to share in it. The new fellows from IA, Kotarski and Spinelli, were young enough to have ideals and high standards for anyone involved in the law. He approved of their zeal, but he hated this sneaking around behind anyone's back. He hated the thought of destroying the professional boss-secretary relationship that was so essential to a successful DA, and so hard to come by these days. Anne's merry, bustling manner and sweet rosy-cheeked smile were almost unbearable. To top it all off, she herself seemed to be endowed with an overabundance of Christmas spirit, collecting cheerfully for the annual donation to the Police Widows and Orphans Fund, organizing the office Christmas party, and humming songs to herself as she worked. Stone supposed they were Christmas carols; to him they were unrecognizable, with a haunting purity that hinted at a mystery beyond comprehension.
Kotarski and Spinelli had turned up a wealth of interesting information that he would rather not have known. Her public-accountant certification was indeed current, though she appeared not to have a sideline business. She had no driver's license, in her own or any other name. She had been married in 1975, and divorced in 1978. There were no children. She shared a home with her sister and brother; another brother lived upstairs with his family, and a third brother lived, also with his family, next door. They appeared to do everything together. The address gave him pause, and he ran it by Paul Robinette.
"Norwood Avenue? That's in East New York." Robinette looked aghast. "Whites don't live in East New York."
"Apparently, this family does. And look at her tax returns. She's donating fifty percent of her salary to charity? I don't think so."
"What about her bank accounts?"
"Five thousand dollars in ready savings. But a stock portfolio worth a quarter of a million."
Robinette whistled. "Life insurance policies?"
"Nothing there. Ten thousand, enough to buy a decent funeral."
"What about Pete DeAngelis?"
Stone threw down his legal pad. "A dead end. Literally. Died suddenly two years ago. I tell you, Paul, she's a tough nut to crack."
"I guess," Robinette replied with a grin, "that makes you the nutcracker." Then, before Stone could respond, he blew air out the sides of his mouth. His pleasant face looked troubled. "Damn. I hate to lose a good secretary."
"Me too, but -- Damn it all!" Stone exploded, just as his door opened, and, "Mr. Stone, what is it?" inquired the subject of the investigation, concern written on her face.
"Close the door." All the worry and indecision of the past three weeks resolved itself in that moment into a white-hot rage. "Annie, I think you should know that you are this far away," he held up his thumb and forefinger pinched together, "from an indictment on charges of fraud. IA is following the paper trail right now, and when they finish -- "
"They'll find nothing. They never have. Is that what's been upsetting you all this time?" She clicked her tongue. "You should know better -- "
"-- than to allow a first-rate secretary to con me. I should have remembered what my father used to say. 'When something looks too good to be true, it probably is.' Now, I want the truth."
"About what? Where shall I start?" She crossed her arms and looked him straight in the eye. "What exactly would you like to know?"
"These charitable donations. -- "
"Thirty percent to my church, twenty percent to the Police Widows and Orphans."
"And you live on what?"
"My brother and sister and I pool our resources. We don't need much."
"How about your rent? I can't believe the place could still be rent-controlled."
She snorted. "Those Sneaker-Squad kids must be pretty wet behind the ears if they didn't bother researching the title. That house was left to the five of us by our parents. When it came time for one to buy the others out, no one of us had the money to come up with four shares, so we decided to hang onto it. It's been paid off since the 1960s."
He sat down hard. She was right, there had been no title search. "Your stock portfolio?"
"For heaven's sake, I'm an accountant. I realize I'll never be the Chairman of the SEC, but I'd have to be a worse accountant than I already am if I didn't know how to invest money. Actually, that portfolio is my experiment. I'm the accountant for my church, and when I want to invest the church's funds, I find a stock that looks good and invest my own money first to see how it does. If there's conservative growth over six months, I'll recommend it to the Board, and they invest."
"Living expenses? What do you eat, grass? What do you use for lighting, candles?"
"We grew up poor. We all know how to manage money. Mr. Stone, your boys can follow all the paper trails their little hearts desire, but I can tell you right now where they'll all lead: to Jack McCoy's fantasy fraud farm. Sir, I have a lot of respect for you as an attorney and as a man. I appreciate that McCoy has raised some issues that need to be resolved, but I live my life in constant awareness of my role as a public servant, and I have never claimed to be anything that can't be documented."
"Then what about this paralegal certificate? You only got it after you took the secretarial position. What was the point?"
"I should have thought that would be obvious," she replied acidly. "I might know how to type, but what kind of a legal secretary would an accountant make? I needed to know as much about this job as possible, in as short a time as possible. The paralegal route seemed the fastest way to go, and in retrospect, I think I was right."
He hesitated, then nodded. She had a point.
"Was there anything further?"
"Not at the moment."
She rose and stalked out, her back taut with strain. After a few minutes, Robinette left, too, and Stone was left alone with his dilemma.

It wasn't until Saturday that the obvious struck him.
Norwood Avenue. East New York. Robinette's horror: "Whites don't live in East New York." Just because a title search had turned up the names of five Kusnetsows, including his secretary, didn't mean they lived there. He would have to see for himself.
He spent the morning taking care of his few household chores, parceling out money for his cleaning lady, dropping off his laundry, reviewing and disposing of the personal correspondence that had accumulated during the week, answering a few Christmas letters. By two o'clock he was ready to pursue his investigation. He dressed with some care; he had decided that he would feel safest if he looked like what he was, a civil servant pursuing an investigation. Accordingly, his two-piece suit was neither his best nor his shabbiest, his trench coat looked every day of its age, and the shoes he wore were so old that no amount of polishing would ever brighten them.
Norwood Avenue proved to be a street that, like most of Brooklyn, had seen better days. The classic beauty of the brownstone houses looked a little frayed around the edges, and the sidewalk showed the ravages of trees that had long since been cut down, if not uprooted; but the houses generally had an air of faded elegance about them, with five-and-dime lace curtains at the bow windows and dilapidated doors still with their original oval windows and unmarred by the '60s desecration of storm-and-screen combinations. He found the address and rang the doorbell, then shivered in the cold grayness of the December afternoon. The leaden sky did nothing to relieve the drabness of the street. Yet there was an air of -- what? He couldn't put his finger on it. Anticipation?
The door opened.
"Mr. Stone?!"
She was dressed in a brown corduroy jumper that had seen better days, and one of the plain cream blouses that were the subject of much joking speculation among the clerical staff. A cream scarf decorated with a flower print covered her head, and he was reminded, suddenly, of the comfortable figure of Mrs. Steinmetz, the mother of his childhood friend, dispenser of acid-covered affection and velvet-glove justice to every kid in Middle Village, including the child of that scandalous drunkard of a history teacher. He shook himself back to the present. "Hullo, Annie. May I come in?"
"Oh, of course, of course, my manners." She whisked the scarf off her head, smoothed her skirt, and swept him in by the simple expedient of closing the door behind him. "Let me take your coat. Dasha!" she called, followed by a stream of foreign language in which the only intelligible words were his own name. "My sister will bring tea. Please, have a seat." She indicated an armchair near the bow window, then disappeared with his coat.
The room was a tired version of his own living room on Joralemon Street, he noted as he parked himself in the chair, which proved to be more comfortable than it looked -- could it possibly be horsehair upholstery? To judge by the number of neat darns in the fabric, it was certainly old enough. It appeared to be part of a suite, with a matching loveseat, Morris chair, and platform rocker; occasional tables in polished mahogany, and a spinet piano along one wall, completed the old-world atmosphere of a 1940s formal parlor. Grandma Stone, Jackson Heights, Sunday afternoons. Her tight-lipped disapproval of that Irish tart her son had stooped to marry. Her insistence upon antiquated formalities. Would he never be free of those Jackson Heights Sundays, he wondered, and stood as his secretary entered laden, here as at work, with a tray of tea things. Behind her, a heavy-set woman trundled a cart with some sort of urn on it, and an array of delicate-looking pastries.
"Mr. Stone," said Anne as she set down the tray, "this is my sister, Darya Mikhailovna. Dasha, this is my new boss, Ben Stone."
Good Lord, he had walked onto the set of The Cherry Orchard. The monolithic female before him glowered from eyes so deepset, they were hardly visible, and her accent as she greeted him was a thick as Russian black bread -- and then, incredibly, she was offering him a loaf of that very bread, with a shot-glass full of white granulated stuff on the side.
"It's a Russian custom," said Anne, "that even if a household only has bread and salt to offer, a guest is welcome to share. But we have more than that. Please, sit down."
He did so, and the monolith poured out an inky liquid from a tiny brass teapot, then filled the cup with hot water from the urn. "A samovar!" he exclaimed, and Anne flashed him a grin from the side of the piano.
"Yep. Now we celebrate! Russian teatime! You'll never eat better, not even at the Russian Tea Room." With that, she pressed a button, and the air was filled with the sounds of a string quartet and piano playing what sounded like klezmer music for classical instruments. "Salon music," she explained. "Little Viennese March, by Fritz Kreisler. Can't you just see them gossiping on the corner?"
It was the most remarkable afternoon of his life. The leaden sky and drab surroundings served as the backdrop for the glow of incandescent light, the gentle radiant warmth of the samovar, the sparkling conversation of three keen minds, conversation that covered everything from international affairs to the new mayor's chances for success to the arguments for and against the claims of rival bakeries. Far from being the stereotypical Russian peasant woman, Dasha was a librarian for the Russian department of New York University; and Anne, it turned out, was working on yet another certification.
"Eastern Orthodox music," she told him, sipping tea with lemon. "It's very complicated stuff, because you have to know both the Greek chant, which is like nothing Western music, and the Russian chant, which has about five different forms, some of which are rarely heard outside of monasteries. And it helps your chances if you know something about Antiochian and Syrian forms, too, as well as Romanian and Albanian. The real problem is that there are so few cantors left in any of the traditions. It used to be a profession passed down from father to son or daughter, but in this country, the kids are too busy getting assimilated to want to bother. So it has to be a professional field of study."
Suddenly, Dasha rose and excused herself with a garbled comment about soup. Seeing his puzzled expression, Anne elucidated, "We're having lentil soup for supper, and my sister is fussy about hers. She isn't happy unless she's stirring it every five minutes or so. Have another cookie, Mr. Stone."
"No, thanks, Annie, I'd better not."
She smiled at him, and he was startled by the change in her face as her eyes narrowed and danced. She looked years younger. "You can't possibly be watching your waistline, Sir. Have another."
He smiled back briefly, then glanced into his teacup. "Annie, I don't quite know how to say this, but neither you nor your sister have had a thing besides tea. I have the uncomfortable impression that you're a lot harder up than your income taxes indicate, and I'm not about to take food out of your mouths."
To his consternation, she didn't deny it. Was it possible, he thought, aghast, that they had been so completely wrong about this nice woman? He watched the color grow in her cheeks as she gazed off into space. At last she drew in a deep breath and turned to face him.
"You wouldn't be taking food out of our mouths, Sir, but I think you need to know something about me that I've never told anyone at work. I wouldn't tell you, either, but I know you're here because of the investigation, and this may help you to understand why I do -- some of the things I do."
He set his teacup down and leaned forward, wondering where this was going.
"Basically, my family and I are Russian Orthodox. For an immigrant family like ours -- my youngest brother and I are the only ones born in this country -- everything revolves around the church. When we were little, we went to school there, our social life took place there, simply everything took place in the context of the church. I didn't even know -- well, I knew there were other forms of worship, but for example, it never dawned on me that there were two Easter Sundays, ours and yours. And I had no idea that there were two Christmases -- ours and yours. As far as I can tell, the entire basis for Mr. McCoy's problem with me is my volunteering to work the Christmas duty, but it doesn't seem to have occurred to him that I always take January 6 and 7 off. -- "
"That's not the entire basis for his concern," said Stone softly, "but it is a big part of it. Your early hours, your working as a secretary despite your being an accountant...." He proceeded down the list. "You've answered everything to my satisfaction, but you still haven't explained why you haven't eaten any of your own cookies." And he put on his most disarming smile.
"Oh! Russian Orthodox abstain from certain foods at certain times of the year, and one of those times is the six weeks before Christmas."
"Sort of like giving up candy for Lent?"
She chuckled. "Sort of. But Dasha and I had just finished baking a whole lot of cookies for our office Christmas parties, so you came to visit at just the right time."
He nodded. He supposed the facts would be easy enough to check out. "Tell me about this January thing. Why do you celebrate Christmas in January?"
"Because we're what's called an 'Old Calendar' church, meaning we use the Julian calendar. I'm not sure why, but I know my parents and everyone else in their generation thought that the new calendar was an invention of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks used it, you see, so that made it automatically evil in the eyes of the Monarchists."
"What year did your parents emigrate here, 1917?!"
"No, of course not. After the War. I told you, my brother and I are the only ones who were born in this country, although of course we're all citizens. Anyway, I hope you can see, Mr. Stone, why I am the way I am. If there's anything fraudulent about me, it's just that I didn't want the whole office to know about my faith. I didn't want to sound like a religious fanatic, and you have to admit, some of this stuff sounds pretty fanatical. But it isn't. It's just different."
He nodded slowly. "One last question, then I'll come and help with the dishes. Why the early start in the morning?"
"I'm up early anyway, for a couple of reasons. One is that I'm genuinely a morning person, and the other is that...well...I say these prayers, I think the Catholics used to call them the Divine Office?"
Stone shook his head. "No wonder Mike Logan thinks you're a closet nun. Are you?"
She shrugged, then cocked him that delicious sideways grin again. "Essentially. And you may not help with the dishes. That's women's work."
He thought about that one all the way home. Where else in all New York would any woman be caught doing "women's work"?

On the afternoon of December 24, they closed down everything but Arraignment and set up the conference rooms for a party. Anne had arranged to have the whole thing catered, and as Stone nibbled on Stilton cheese and shortbread, he wondered how much of her own money had gone into the kitty. He knew, because Paul Robinette had told him, that no one in the office had contributed more than ten dollars, and the array of international foods surpassed anything he could possibly have imagined.
"First Christmas party I've been to," said Adam Schiff, "where they had blintzes and lox. It was a good idea to set up these little flags that show where each of the hors d'oeuvres comes from." And he speared another smoked herring to add to his bagel. "By the way, where's our hostess?"
Stone glanced around the room, then craned his neck and smiled. "Answering the telephone."
Schiff shook his head. "Russian Christmas. I should have known. I've heard about it, just never knew anyone who celebrated it. McCoy's fit to be tied. Says he's not going to let himself be taken in by that kind of story. She's not out of the woods yet, Ben."
"She never will be, as long as Jack McCoy and she work in the same building. But everything she told me checked out."
"Who'd you ask?"
"The priest over at the Russian Cathedral on 93rd Street. Paul interviewed her neighbors, too. The Russians in the area couldn't say enough good things about her, and the blacks were pretty impressed, too. Seems she and her sister offer free music lessons to any of the neighborhood kids who are interested, and keep a box of hand-knit hats and mittens on the porch for anyone who's lost his."
Schiff snorted. "It should be illegal for people to show up the rest of us with their good deeds."
Stone smiled, but before he could reply, Mike Logan showed up at his elbow.
"Did you taste this salsa?! Wow!! Like from the neighborhood bodega! Where'd you get this stuff, anyway?"
Stone gestured with his head towards Anne, who appeared to be immersed in reading. Logan laughed.
"I heard from one of the Fraud guys that McCoy is pissed as hell. They had their party yesterday, and I guess it was all rabbit food. You know, raw vegetables and dip?" He shook his head. "Y'ask me, I think McCoy's just jealous that Homicide got her. For food like this, I'd think seriously about getting married."
"She's too old for you," said Stone baldly, and headed out the door with a plate of Russian fruit pastries. Even a closet nun, he felt, should be part of the festivities.
She looked up from the book she was reading and smiled. "Those look like the piroshki I made. Do you like them?"
"They're a hit," he assured her, as he set the plate down and glanced at her reading material. The title was in Russian, but the cross on the cover told him what he had suspected. "Saying prayers?"
She shrugged. "I can't think of anyone who needs it worse than cops, can you?"
He thought for a moment. "No. No, I guess not. You allowed to have any of these?"
"All fruit and pie crust, no meat or dairy. Watch me." She slid a whole pastry into her mouth, then laughed at him with her eyes as she consumed it. Then she cocked her head.
"You okay, Mr. Stone?"
He opened his mouth, closed it again, then stood. When he spoke, his words surprised him more than they appeared to surprise her.
"Say a prayer for me, too, Annie, will you?"
"Every day, Mr. Stone. You're in my prayers every day."
He nodded and returned to the party, feeling strangely content. It was enough.



whaddya think?