Mace Mager steered his car against a curb ahead of the Russian restaurant and squinted down the alley beside it. The moonlight was not revealing much. He pushed open the car door and removed his badge from beneath his shirt. He let it dangle on the black cord and lay against his chest as he slammed his door shut and started around his car.
"Jenn?" he called as he removed a flashlight from his pocket and shined it down the alley. There was a slight movement beyond his beam. "Jenn, this is Detective Mager."
As he approached, he raised the beam up and saw someone else.
He crumpled to the ground and watched as someone rushed past him.
Konstantine opened his locker to see the photo of his graduating class at the academy. He was in the middle. Mager was at the right end. He slammed the locker shut and punched it when the door swung back at him. Both palms slammed the door closed. He touched his forehead to the metal and caught his breath.
He started with surprise and raised his eyes to see Sergeant Antipin standing beside a young recruit with brick red hair and inquisitive hazel eyes.
"I was just explaining to Maks here that you are soft-spoken and very calm to work with. Please wait at least a month to prove me wrong."
"A good man is dead, Serge. No reason to be calm about that."
"I get it. Come here." He waited until Konstantine approached to add, "Detective Konstantine Danshov, this your new partner Maks Levin Rusnak."
"Not a word," Sergeant Antipin pointed at his nose. "You have a wife and a kid on the way. Don't leave them in the same position you grew up in because you were too stubborn to let someone watch your back. You're not in middle school anymore. Learn to play with the other kids."
Resigned, he replied with "All right" and reached to shake the man's hand.
"Good," Sergeant Antipin said with a trace of relief. "I want the two of you to get to know each other before your lives depend on each other. Spend today in the training room. Investigate tomorrow."
He pivoted around and strode out of the locker room. Konstantine stared after him, then returned to his locket and reached inside for a paper thin bullet resistant vest. He removed his maroon and golden plaid shirt and pulled his white tee shirt over his head.
"What happened to training?" Maks asked.
"Was never an option," Konstantine answered as he fastened the vest around his torso and slipped his tee shirt back over his head. He thrust his arms down the sleeves of his plaid shirt and shrugged it over his shoulders. He reached toward his sidearm and holster to attach them. "Get yours on. Gotta go."
"Do I have a locker?"
"Yeah," Konstantine slapped a hand on the locker beside him. "Get a lock on it when you're done."
Maks removed his black shirt and opened his locket to retrieve a similar vest. He attached it around himself and returned his shirt over his torso. He shoved his badge deep into his pocket.
Konstantine attached his badge to a black cord around his neck and dropped it down his shirt. "Let's go," he strode past him and peered around each corner. Maks lengthened his stride to keep up until the corridor opened to a large area behind the receptionist.
There was a woman with strawberry curls pulled back and inquisitive sky blue eyes. Her hands were clasped against her buttermilk sundress. She opened her arms and received him into an embrace when he reached her with open arms.
"I am so sorry," she murmured into his shoulder. She moved her hand across his back with a perplexed scowl and released him. "You're wearing a vest."
"Your sergeant promised you were staying in to train with a new partner. Good morning," she reached out her hand to Maks. "My name is Panya."
"Maks Rusnak," he accepted her grip.
She returned to Konstantine and said, "I need you to make this work. Please," she reached up to lay a palm on his cheek when he started to protest. "You need someone to watch your back when there is a murderer on the loose. She wrapped her hands around his and kissed them. "Please make this work."
He touched his forehead to hers.
"I will keep him out of trouble, ma'am," Maks promised with a smile.
She smiled warmly at him. "I'm not sure you can, but I know that your partnership will minimize the danger for both of you, assuming you do what your sergeant says."
"I promise, we are going to have each others' backs and we're coming home tonight."
"Speaking of that," Panya brightened at once. "Come have dinner with us tonight, Maks."
"I do not want to intrude –"
"You're not! Please, the two of you are going to have to trust each other. Come over and we can all get to know each other!"
"I would be happy to," Maks smiled.
"Good," Panya returned to Konstantine. "I will see you both tonight."
"That's right," Konstantine smiled after her when she kissed his cheek and started to leave As soon as she disappeared, he caught Maks by the arm. "Come on."
"We're leaving still?"
"We are going to call Mrs. Mager and see who Mace last spoke to."
"Seems a little soon."
"Yeah. She's not gonna be happy with me. See which case he was currently investigating."
Maks stopped his car after driving up a narrow dirt path. There was a patch of thriving lawn to his right, and ahead was a square two story brick house with ivy crawling up the base. It was sheltered with pines and maples, and there appeared to be dense woods behind it.
He approached the dense wooden door and rapped against it. Moments later, it creaked open and Konstantine appeared. He reached out to shake his hand. "Welcome," he gestured into the house.
Maks entered into a den area, his shoes creaking on the warm Padauk heartwood. The walls alternated between golden and maroon, and the sofa and recliner were maroon and golden plaid. A red fox scampered into the room and wound around his legs. Another movement caught his eye and he saw a raven in a dangling black cage and a great-horned owl on a perch beside the fireplace.
"Annalise," Konstantine pointed to the fox, then to the birds respectively. "Moriah, and Raphael."
"You… collect wildlife?"
At that moment, Panya appeared at the entrance between the den and the kitchen. "Welcome! Pepperoni pizza is almost ready, so come on in."
Konstantine started toward her and Maks came after him. The kitchen was a small azure room with a cream and sky colored floral border. The cabinets were cream colored and contrasted the ebony counters. The small rectangular kitchen table was a natural wood, as were the floors.
Panya set the massive pizza in the middle of the table where there were already three plates. She reached her hand out to Konstantine, and he accepted hers and reached toward Maks. He closed his eyes and said, "God, we appreciate this meal You have given to us. Please help us to catch the suspect we are seeking. We ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen."
"Amen," Panya affirmed and seated herself. When she reached toward a slice of pizza, Maks noticed there was a tattoo on her ring finger: a daffodil sprouted close to a red rose, and an emerald vine around her finger that wove the sideways letter "K" on each side and aimed both up and down. "So, are you a recent academy graduate, Maks?"
"As a matter of fact, I graduated last Saturday," he answered proudly and reached toward a slice of pizza. He ripped away the point and chewed with an appreciative nod. When he swallowed, he added, "You make an awesome pizza."
"Thank you!" she answered with a pleased smile. "Konstantine loves it."
She smiled at her husband as he chewed in silence and stared down at his plate. She reached beside her and squeezed his arm with consolation.
"He gets absorbed in the cases that challenge him most," she explained to Maks. "Especially when it's close to home. But I say that we should enjoy this dinner and perhaps return to the case later tonight."
Konstantine raised his eyes and snapped out of his own mind. "Sorry. This one is too personal."
"You knew him?" Maks asked.
"We all did. Shame you never got to meet him."
"So what was he like?" Maks ripped away another chunk of crust with his teeth.
"Dedicated. He knew each man and woman in the department and how they were doing that day, and where their children were in school. Even came in with snacks to share during longer shifts. So," he continued and raised his eyes to Maks, "what made you decide to become a detective?"
"You start with the deep questions," Maks returned with a smile. "The challenge of it drives me. My parents made me competitive. Debate was my best class in school. I see it as a sort of game. Criminals have challenged us to catch them, or else they escape and they win. I refuse to let them win. And why did you become a detective?"
Konstantine dropped his eyes and considered his response. "My mother and I spent a good deal of time homeless. As a matter of fact, I was born on a train on the way to the hospital. She disappeared when I was fifteen and never returned to the shelter we stayed at," he raised his eyes again. "The general assumption was that she had abandoned me and gotten into prostitution or drugs. But they were wrong. I started my own investigation and skipped school to interview acquaintances and even some dealers. Closed the investigation when I realized she was murdered by a serial killer. So I suppose my main drive is to get answers to those who deserve them. And," he added with a small smile, "to stop those criminals and make sure they do not get away with it."
Panya rose and picked up the empty plates to set beside the sink.
"Chocolate gelato for dessert?" she asked.
"You are a saint," Maks praised.
Konstantine rose and started to open cabinets to remove three bowls and reached into a drawer for spoons. Panya extracted the gelato out of the freezer and started scooping it into the bowls. She passed the first to Maks, and then she and Konstantine seated themselves with their own bowls.
"And remember when Princess Julia was abducted," Panya added. "You discovered a clue that exonerated one of the innocent suspects."
"Really," Maks said with surprise. "When were you planning to mention that?"
Konstantine shook his head. "No major accomplishment."
"She is my cousin and one of the dearest people in the world to me," Panya reminded him with a warm smile. "You made a difference in that investigation."
"And most people would kill to have that on their résumé!"
"That was merely pointing out a shred of evidence because I wanted my friend to live."
"Wait," Maks raised both hands to put the brakes on the conversation. "You know her?"
"She is a sort of cousin of mine," Konstantine raised his spoon to his mouth.
"She is my cousin," Panya explained with affection in her voice. "And she reached out to Konstantine soon after his mother disappeared. She really impacted his life as well."
"Is that why they call you 'Cousin' at the station?"
"Yeah. I have become a sort of cousin to a lot of people."
"Imagine that," Maks scooped the last of his gelato into the spoon and raised it to his mouth. "My partner is a cousin to the King and Queen. I suppose that makes you a Yelizarov?"
"That's right," she swallowed the last of her gelato. She set the spoon back down and set her hands on the table with a deep breath."
Konstantine eyed her. "Panya?"
She managed a meek smile. "I apologize. Morning sickness sure seems ill-timed."
"Ti mIlaya. You are not rude to leave. Please, let me get you upstairs. I can clean up."
"No, I do not want to be the one who ends the night," she sent a pleading look to him.
"You aren't," he rose and reached his hand toward her. "Come with me. Excuse me," the second part was to Maks as Panya rose. "I will be down again in a moment."
He escorted Panya across the den and to the stairs. She stopped and clamped a hand around the black wrought iron rail. Maks saw Konstantine sweep her into his arms, slanted because the staircase was narrow, and carried her up the stairs.
When he returned, he waved Maks into the den. He dropped into the recliner and Annalise leapt onto his lap. She circled twice and lay down. He slipped his arms beneath her head and spine so that she was rather curled on her back. She laid her muzzle against him and closed her eyes with what appeared to be a smile.
"She all right?" Maks asked as he entered and sat down on the sofa.
"Yeah. Sometimes happens at night."
"So," Maks eased against the back of the sofa and crossed one ankle over his knee, "you married a cousin of the monarchs."
"Early April," Konstantine confirmed and leaned his head against the recliner with closed eyes.
"Late May now. I assumed the lords and ladies arranged their marriages."
"They do," he answered simply.
Maks eyed him. Konstantine spread a smile across his mouth.
"You're a curious one."
"I'm counting on it making me a decent detective," Maks affirmed with a nod.
There was the sense of amusement in that smile. Eventually, he answered, "She had a suitor. He was proven to be a bad match. And because she and I eloped, her father would have my head. Reminds me, keep my address private."
"Yeah, will do."
"She is a good woman. A sweet, loving girl…"
Maks stared at him as he relaxed against the chair with the sleeping fox in his arms. The detective was murdered at about five that morning, and it was closer to ten at the moment. Exhaustive hours with extreme emotions must have wiped Konstantine out.
He eased out of the chair and crept back into the kitchen. He washed the dishes and replaced them in their respective cabinets and drawers.
Konstantine was asleep when he was done, so he shut down lights as he went and locked the door before he sneaked out.