The other day at lunch, two Chicago police detectives, Bill Sullivan and Michele Moore-Grose, were talking with me about the murder cases they've been working and the young people shot dead.
They brought up a movie to explain what they see in Chicago.
Not some cop buddy movie. And not one of those police procedurals, where forensic specialists play the action heroes and the lab results come in before the final commercial.
It was a story about children hunting children.
"Did you ever see 'The Hunger Games'? We always equate … those kids in that neighborhood, that's what they're living every day. They're in 'The Hunger Games,'" said Sullivan.
"They're either the predator or they're the prey the next day," he said. "Everywhere they walk, they've got to be on all the time. They can never be looking down because you never know. … Your adrenaline is going all the time. It's a horrific way to grow up."
You might also say that studying the crime scenes with kids on the ground is a horrific way to make a living. But the detectives keep working cases. They have 37 in their caseload.
"Everybody has a mom," said Moore-Grose, a mother herself.
Right away, I liked both of them. You'd think they were college teachers, not swaggering TV cliches. But then, I don't think I've ever met a Chicago homicide detective who resembles a cop on TV.
Most are thoughtful people, quiet, introspective and injured somehow themselves, down deep where it doesn't show. It must come after years of seeing terrible things.
One of the cases that Sullivan and Moore-Grose worked was right out of Chicago's Hunger Games: a heater case that drew national attention, the murder of Derrion Albert, 16, beaten to death near Fenger High School in 2009.
What bothered them was that Albert was beaten when he got caught between two groups fighting for dominance. A video of the beating made the national news, and the Obama White House sent Cabinet officials to Chicago who insisted they'd "draw a line in the sand."
You know what happened. The line kept moving. There were 506 homicides last year, and more attention came from the Obama White House when 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was killed in late January.
She was front-page news, too. And even the memory of Hadiya, considered the epitome of the innocent victim, has begun to fade. It happens with homicide. And what's left are the parents and the detectives.
Sullivan and Moore-Grose have been partners for 12 years now. What I didn't consider before meeting them was the serendipity of murder, where victims are connected either by shooter or neighborhood, by circumstance or clique.
Some of their cases involve victims you've read about here: 12-year-old Nazia Banks, a little boy called "Peanut" who died last May when a bullet pierced his brain as he ran home for safety.
And a rough guy with a record, Norman "Mone" Stokes, 38, shot dead in a January dice game with eight people he knew, and none would tell the detectives who did it, not even a friend and purported eyewitness.
"He goes, 'Well, I'm just not gonna snitch,'" Moore-Grose recalled. "I said: 'What about if it was your mother?' He said, 'Even if it was my mother, I wouldn't snitch.' I said, 'Don't tell your mother that.'"
On Wednesday we spoke to Stokes' mother, Theresa Stokes Johnson, now living in Memphis.
I covered the funeral of Stokes, one of the imperfect homicide victims of Chicago whose deaths are often pushed aside. It was snowing when they cranked his coffin into the ground.
Mrs. Johnson knows witnesses refuse to talk, and said she dreams of her son.
"And he's telling me from the grave, 'Mama, don't let them get away with this,'" she said.
Sometimes, witnesses do talk. It's one way that cases get made. But often they don't, and without witnesses willing to testify, it's difficult for detectives to persuade prosecutors to file murder charges.
To be a homicide detective in Chicago is to live with frustration. They wait for lab results that could take more than a year. They wait for leverage on witnesses.
Sullivan told a story of a gang member who wouldn't cooperate, even though his own brother was shot dead beside him by members of their own gang.
"He sees the shooter. It's a mistaken shooting. It's their own gang guys shooting down the street. He realizes it. He won't tell us," Sullivan said.
On the TV shows, the brother talks. In Chicago, the brother handles things himself. Another statistic is made. And the detectives talk to the mothers of the imperfect dead.
"And that mom thinks that kid's the greatest thing since," Sullivan said, his voice trailing off. "His sister loves him. The boys love him. But when you look at what he was to society, it's …"
"Everybody has a mom," said Moore-Grose, finishing for him.
A mom is the reason we met. It was a reader of this column, Kathy Cummings, who wrote to me to praise the detectives for staying on the case of her son, Dwoyne Baker, killed in 2010.
Baker was shot near 79th and Brandon. There are several other victims on or near that corner in the detectives' caseload — like Nazia "Peanut" Banks, whose death was barely noticed by Chicago because it coincided with the NATO summit last May.
"He was a little boy," said Moore-Grose. "Some 12-year-old boys, you think they're 15, 16. This kid was just a little scrawny little kid. He had a little squirrel on his shirt."