Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Christmas Rescue by Annette Dashofy

“Have you met the new police chief yet?”
Zoe had been asked this same question at least twice a day for a week. This time it was her best friend Rose posing the question with the same level of eager anticipation as Rose’s five-year-old daughter when asking about Santa Claus. “Not yet,” Zoe said.
“I hear he’s handsome.”
“Better not let Ted hear you talking about other men like that.”
“Ted knows I’m only interested in other men for you.”
“I heard the new chief’s married.”
“Really?” Rose couldn’t have looked more disappointed if she’d learned Ted hadn’t been able to buy the diamond earrings she’d been hinting about for the last three months.
Truthfully, Zoe had no idea if the new police chief was married, single, handsome, homely, or even if he was straight. All she knew was what everyone else knew. Long time Vance Township Police Chief Warren Froats had retired the first of November. Interim Chief Jimmy Romano had neither the interest—nor the support of the township supervisors—to move into the job in more than a temporary capacity. In fact, he’d only agreed to lead the small, rural department until the first of December. Now it was Christmas Eve and he was still holding the position. The final thing Zoe knew was the supervisors had tapped a police sergeant from Pittsburgh to take over the job on January first.
Happy New Year.
Rose eyed the two shopping bags Zoe deposited on the kitchen table and the brightly wrapped packages poking out of the top. “You didn’t have to bring these over today. You could’ve brought them tomorrow.”
“I’m working.”
“On Christmas?” The disappointment of the new man in town being married took a back seat to the disappointment of Christmas not panning out as Rose had planned.
“The ambulance is gonna have a skeleton crew as is. A bunch of us single folks volunteered to man the station tonight and all day tomorrow so the happily marrieds could be with their families.”
“You worked on Thanksgiving too.”
“That was my regular shift.” Catching the disapproval in Rose’s eyes, Zoe added, “I’ll have New Year’s Eve off though.”
“Oh, whoopty-do. Are you gonna go out?”
Rose gave her an all-knowing, skeptical glare.
Zoe had no intention of spending New Year’s Eve out on the town. For one thing, she’d sworn off men after her last of several disastrous relationships. For another, every penny she earned with Monongahela County EMS went to rent a tiny apartment above a vacant storefront on Dillard’s Main Street and to pay board at a local farm for her horse. That didn’t leave anything extra for a frivolous night of horns, noise-makers, watered-down drinks, and sloppy drunks kissing her at midnight.
“Wish Ted and the kids a merry Christmas for me.” Zoe gave her friend a hug and beat a hasty retreat out the door.
Rose’s words trailed after her. “You need to get out and have some fun.”
The crew lounge at the ambulance garage boasted way more Christmas decorations than Zoe’s apartment. Some overly happy and eager paramedic/elf had decorated a tree and strung garland and red ribbons everywhere.
“Have you met the new police chief yet?” This time the question came from her partner for the holiday shift, Barry Dickson, but at least he didn’t make the new chief sound like fresh dating-meat up for grabs.
“No. Have you?”
“Uh-uh. But I saw a moving van down on Second Street in Dillard. I thought you might have bumped into him.”
Second Street—there was no Third or Fourth or Fifth Streets in Dillard—was Ted and Rose’s street. Zoe had spotted a moving van at a house a couple blocks down when she’d left but didn’t realize it was the new chief’s house. “Nope. I haven’t.”
Barry made a humming noise in this throat. “I wonder what he’s gonna be like. He’s from the city, you know?”
“I heard.”
“Couldn’t the stupid supervisors find someone local?”
“The township police force consists of three cops. Of those, the only one remotely qualified is Jimmy and he doesn’t want the job.”
“Not that local. Certainly there’s a cop somewhere in the county who’d be willing and able.”
Zoe shrugged. “I have no idea.” Nor did she care. As a paramedic, most of her interactions with the police department involved the cops directing traffic at emergency scenes. The old fart who’d just retired liked to drop in at the ambulance garage to either mooch a cup of bad coffee or scare the daylights out the junior crew members with threats of tossing them in jail if he caught them misbehaving in “his” township. Several of them had gone out to celebrate when Froats finally hung up his badge.
The sound of the emergency tones drifted back to the lounge from the office. Zoe glanced at the clock on the wall. Four fifteen p.m. on Christmas Eve. She and Barry exchanged looks. No time was good for needing an ambulance, but she knew this would be especially bad.
A moment later, Tony DeLuca’s voice called out. “All hands on deck. We have a missing kid.”
The missing kid in question was twelve-year-old Frankie Walker, who apparently had run away from his home on the edge of the Pennsylvania State Game Lands. Police, fire, and EMS had been ordered to a staging area set up in a parking area used by hunters. Zoe and Barry arrived at an already crowded lot by four-thirty. The heavy gray sky of an early dusk had started to shed fat, lazy snowflakes with the weather forecast calling for three to six inches by morning. Everyone had been ecstatic. A white Christmas! But with a pre-teen out there somewhere, Zoe and the rest of the crew tasked with finding him greeted the news with considerably less enthusiasm.
Emergency personnel gathered in a mass circle around a state trooper, Vance Township Acting Chief of Police Jimmy Romano, Phillipsburg’s chief of police, and Vance Township Fire Chief—and Rose’s husband—Ted Bassi. A fifth man wearing jeans, a hooded Carhartt jacket, and a Vance Township PD ball cap, stood with them.
Barry elbowed her. “That’s the new chief.”
Even in the gathering dusk, she could tell the new guy held a commanding presence. And she could imagine Rose whispering in her ear, “He’s really good looking.”
Ted took a step forward and called out. “Quiet. Everyone quiet down, please.”
The rumbled conversations faded until the only sound was the hiss of the wind through the dead grass and bare tree branches surrounding the parking lot.
Ted made quick work of introducing the men with him, including Pete Adams whom Ted referred to as “incoming chief of police” and then got down to the business at hand.
“We’re looking for a twelve-year-old male, four foot ten, approximately one hundred pounds. Brown hair, brown eyes. According to his mother, he’s wearing a black winter jacket, jeans, and snow boots. He left tracks in the snow behind his house indicating he’d walked into the game lands, but his mom lost the trail and called us. The boy is familiar with the area and is reportedly despondent over the recent split between his parents.
“We’re going to be in total darkness in very short order, so make sure you have your flashlights and extra batteries.”
At that point, he ordered the assembled search party to break into teams and to spread out.
Barry slung a backpack filled with basic first-aid and survival supplies over his broad shoulders. Zoe carried the oversized Maglite and clipped the two-way radio to her belt. Loaded down, they strode toward the search area they’d been assigned with just enough gray daylight lingering to not yet need the flashlight. Around them, teams called out the boy’s name over and over.
Acres of rolling reclaimed strip mines surrounded the parking area. For the first few minutes, other teams remained in view although appearing as ghostly silhouettes through the veil of snow. Soon, Zoe lost visuals on the other searchers. Haunting voices calling “Frankie” carried, barely audible, over the rising howl of the gale. Every few strides, Zoe and Barry took turns adding their own voices to the wind.
“You’ve ridden horses out here, haven’t you?” Barry asked between shouts.
“So you know the terrain.”
As if demonstrating the inaccuracy of his statement, she stumbled. Caught herself. And flipped on the Maglite. “Not in the dark.” And not on foot. “Frankie!”
Barry grunted. “Well, Ted assigned us this area because you’ve been out here before.”
Night had enveloped them, the black of the tree line in front of them a couple shades darker than the black of the dried grasses poking up through the lighter gray of the snow. Flakes streaked through the beam of the flashlight like tiny and numerous shooting stars.
In the distance, Zoe thought she heard something other than the wind and the echoes of the boy’s name. She stopped, and Barry slammed into her from behind. She staggered but didn’t go down.
“Use your brake lights,” he chastised her, as if his inattention was her fault.
She shushed him. “Listen.”
They stood in silence, listening to the moaning wind, the muffled patter of snow settling on their hats and shoulders, the distance calls of “Frankie” from the other teams.
“What’d you hear?” Barry asked.
“I don’t know. I thought someone yelled.”
They listened again. And then the radio crackled. “This is Pete Adams. I have an officer down. I repeat. Officer down.”
Zoe and Barry looked at each other in the thin illumination of the flashlight beam. “Officer down?” she said.
“Adams and Jimmy Romano started out directly to our left,” Barry said, turning in that direction.
Zoe unclipped the radio. “Chief Adams, this is Paramedic Zoe Chambers. Where are you and what’s the emergency?”
There was a moment’s silence. “Chief Romano has fallen down a hillside and may have broken his leg.” Another pause. “I’m not sure where we are. There’re trees and a rocky trail.”
“I think I know your general vicinity.” Zoe made a left turn and trudged toward a shadowy band of trees. She’d ridden her horse along a rocky trail down a wooded hillside about a quarter mile from her current location last summer. “We’re on our way.”
The snow pelted her face, stinging like a thousand icy bees. Each step seemed to carry her farther away rather than closer. Once they reached the woods and plunged into it, the trees blocked some of the wind, but roots and downed limbs created extra obstacles in the dark.
Ahead, a faint light bounced through the trees.
Zoe and Barry adjusted their path and picked their way around a large deadfall. Within a few minutes, they reached a ravine. She’d miscalculated the location of the path by about a hundred feet so she led the way, lurching over rocks and through vines, until they reached the narrow trail. Below, the flashlight beam waved.
“Hello,” the new chief called.
The trail had been easier to negotiate from the back of a horse. The rocks were glazed with ice, and snow camouflaged the slick leaf-mold beneath. No wonder Jimmy had fallen. Zoe’s flashlight revealed the mushy smear of snow and mud where he’d fallen and slid. Twenty or so feet below, the new chief waved his flashlight like a semaphore. Zoe skidded and staggered the rest of the way down with Barry crashing along behind her.
Jimmy sat with his back against a sapling, one leg stretched out in front, the other bent at the knee with his foot bracing him from taking a sledless ride to the bottom of the hill. “It’s my ankle and it’s not broken. It’s just sprained,” he groused.
Not that it mattered. Both injuries received the same treatment—immobilization and transport. They had the splints in Barry’s backpack to handle the first. The latter might be a problem.
Zoe handed her flashlight to the new chief and knelt beside the offending ankle. She reached for the laces of Jimmy’s boot, but he grabbed her arm. “Leave it on.”
“We can’t check you out without removing it,” Barry said.
But Zoe knew what Jimmy was getting at. The boots were tactical-style with eight-inch uppers.
“You can check me out once we get back to civilization. I can’t walk while wearing a splint.”
Barry folded his arms. “You shouldn’t walk anyway.”
Zoe raised a hand to quiet her partner. “He has a point. As soon as we remove the boot, his ankle’s gonna blow up like a balloon. And we can’t carry him out of here. If we leave his boot on, it’ll stabilize the ankle as well as any splint until we get him back to the ambulance.”
Jimmy nodded at her. “Exactly.”
Barry looked from Jimmy to Zoe to the new chief and back to Zoe. He shrugged. “Fine. Let’s get moving though, before we end up stranded out here for the night.”
The going was slow. Barry acted as a human crutch on one side, Pete Adams on the other. Zoe labored up the treacherous slope behind the men, a hand on Jimmy’s back as he struggled to hop on his good foot. By the time they reached the top of the ravine, sweat saturated the thermal shirt she wore under her clothes. Clear of the woods, they caught the full brunt of the wind-driven snow.
They stopped to catch their breath. Jimmy leaned heavily on the other two men. “That’s it,” he said. “We have to call off the search until morning.”
The word came out in stereo from Zoe and from Pete Adams.
“We can’t leave a twelve-year-old kid out here,” the new chief said.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Zoe added. “We have to keep looking.”
Jimmy shook his head. “I won’t risk everyone else’s lives and limbs. It’s too dangerous.”
“I’m not turning back,” Pete Adams said.
Zoe looked at him. “Me either.”
Barry unslung the backpack from his shoulders. “It’s a fairly easy trek from here to the staging area. You two take the gear. I’ll make sure Jimmy gets to the ambulance.”
The acting police chief complained but Zoe ignored him and accepted the backpack. Pete gave Barry one of the flashlights. “Be careful,” the new chief said.
Zoe and Pete stood in the blowing, stinging snow and watched the other two until their shadowy figures vanished into the darkness. Then Pete faced her. “I gather you know the area?”
“Some.” She thought about adding she knew it in the summer, in the daylight, from the back of a horse.
“Good. Because I have no idea where we are.”
“Suggestions on what direction we should head?”
She did a slow 360 gazing into the dark and trying to get her bearings. The wooded hillside from which they’d extracted Jimmy led down to a creek. More woods circled around to the right—north, she thought—with more rolling reclaimed strip mines to the south and back to the east where others were searching.
At least until Jimmy shut down the operation.
“Wait,” Pete said. “Did you hear that?”
She stood stock still, listening. The wind howled up through the trees, rustling the dried grasses, freezing the layer of sweat next to her body. For several long moments, the banshee-like wail of the blizzard was all she heard.
But there it was in the brief lull between gusts. Distant. Plaintive.  
At the same moment, Zoe’s radio crackled with static. “Rescue base to all teams. Due to dangerous weather conditions, we’re calling off the search until first light. Return to base.”
Pete took the radio from her and snapped it off. She started to ask him what the hell he was doing, but he shushed her.
And there it was again. “Help!
“What direction is it coming from?” Zoe asked. With the wind tossing sounds around as if they were wisps of smoke, it was hard to discern.
Pete cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed, “Hello!”
They listened. The eerie wail of the wind. Then a frantic “Hello!
Zoe pointed across the wooded ravine from which they’d just rescued Jimmy. “That way.”
Pete took a step toward the rocky trail, but she stopped him.
“No. I think I know where he is. There’s an old Boy Scout camp. It hasn’t been used in ages, but a couple of the cabins are still standing.” At least they had been last summer. “And there’s another way. Around the woods instead of through them. It’s longer but safer footing. We’ll make better time and not break a leg in the process.”
“Works for me. Lead on.”
She took the flashlight and aimed it in front of her as she started out, hoping she wouldn’t get them turned around in the blizzard. “Radio in and let them know where we’re headed.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
Under different circumstances, she’d have threatened him with physical harm for calling her a “ma’am” when she was only twenty-seven, but she didn’t know the new chief well enough to risk antagonizing him.
“Rescue base, this is Pete Adams. I’m with…a paramedic—”
“Zoe Chambers,” she told him.
“Zoe Chambers. We’ve heard what we believe might be the boy calling for help from the direction of some old Boy Scout cabins. We’re investigating now.”
A burst of static was followed by, “Ten-four. You may want to take shelter in those cabins whether or not you find the boy. They’ve upped the predicted accumulation to eight to ten inches by morning.”
“Roger that.”
Zoe kept sweeping the area with the flashlight beam to make sure they were keeping the tree line to their right. The hike rekindled the sweat, as the frigid wind stung her nose and cheeks.
After what felt like an hour but was probably closer to ten or fifteen minutes, Pete grabbed the back of her coat, pulling her to a stop. She turned, and he cupped his hands around his mouth. “Frankie!”
If the boy or anyone else responded, the blizzard snatched the words and whipped them to another county. There were a thousand good reasons why the kid didn’t reply, but fear, as icy as the wall of falling snow, chilled her and hastened her step.
They had to have been walking for miles and still hadn’t found the old camp. The snow had become a blinding cascade of white reflecting the flashlight’s beam back to them instead of allowing it to pierce the night.
Jimmy had been right. They should’ve turned back with the others. Now the rescuers would have to search for them in the morning too. And out here, if the snow covered their bodies, their bones might not be located until hunters stumbled over them during spring turkey season.
The cry was close. Still plaintive. And definitely young.
“Frankie?” Pete bellowed as Zoe bent over, braced her hands on her knees, and tried to catch her breath.
“Yeah! Over here!”
Pete placed a hand on Zoe’s back. “You okay?” he asked.
“Frankie, keep hollering. We’re coming.” Pete hooked an arm around her waist, almost carrying her in the direction of the boy’s voice.
They didn’t see the old cabin until they practically stumbled into it. The boy met them on the rickety stoop, a faint glow coming from the open door. Pete guided Zoe up the single step and ushered her and Frankie Walker inside.
The boy appeared unharmed. In fact he looked more prepared for the weather than either Zoe or Pete. A Coleman lamp sat on the mantle of a stone fireplace in which wood had been stacked but not lit. A backpack and an ancient, faded-red cooler sat in the middle of the floor next to a rickety table. A cot covered with a quilted sleeping bag had been set up against one wall.
Frankie flipped back the hood of his bomber-style jacket revealing tousled brown hair and huge brown eyes. “I’m glad you came. I was so scared.”
Pete stood in the middle of the small cabin and surveyed the camping gear. “I don’t know why. You look like you’re pretty well set up here.”
The boy’s shoulders sagged and he contemplated the toe of one Thinsulated hunting boot. “I couldn’t get the fire started. I thought I was gonna freeze to death. My grandpap would’ve been so ashamed of me.”
Zoe exchanged looks with Pete. “Your grandpap?” she asked.
Frankie lifted his face enough that she could see a teary gleam in his eyes catching the light from the lantern. “He used to bring me out here. We’d camp. He taught me to start a fire and cook on it.” The boy sniffed. “I miss him.”
Grandpap? Zoe rolled the boy’s name around in her head. Walker. And a recent emergency run sprung to mind. “Gerald Walker?”
Frankie looked down again and nodded.
Zoe moved closer to Pete and whispered to him. “He passed away unexpectedly almost a month ago. Heart attack.”
The new chief of police’s expression saddened. “Radio in that we’ve found the boy and will shelter here until morning. Tell them to let his folks know he’s safe.” Pete turned to Frankie. “Come on, son. Let’s see what we can do about getting that fire started.”
Zoe’s watch read 11:45 p.m. Young Frankie Walker was snuggled deep into his sleeping bag on the cot and hadn’t moved in over an hour, his breath deep and regular as he slept. Pete had found a musty blanket in an abandoned trunk, and he and Zoe sat with it draped over their shoulders, their backs to the hearth. The fire he and the kid had managed to start kept the small cabin tolerably warm. They’d decided it wise to conserve the firewood Frankie and his grandfather had collected during their autumn forays here.
Frankie had poured out his story to them. His parents’ plan to divorce had been hard enough but then he’d overheard them arguing about who “got” him for the holidays. Always before, he’d had his grandpap to tell him everything would be all right. Feeling lost and alone, Frankie had decided to run away to this place. Their place.
Some of the gear had been here from their regular visits—the cooler, the cot, the lamp, the stack of wood, and a box of matches. But the matches had gotten wet from a leak in the roof, and while Frankie had managed to find some dry ones in the bottom of the box, he’d only succeeded in lighting the lantern. Not the kindling.
Pete, however, had come prepared with a lighter in his pocket.
“Do you smoke?” Zoe asked him, keeping her voice low to not disturb the sleeping boy.
“Boy Scout?”
Pete chuckled. “No. But I do believe in being prepared.” He fell quiet for a few minutes and then said, “You did good tonight. Finding this place.”
She considered admitting how lost she’d become out there in the swirl of snow, but decided to keep her secret for now. “Thanks.”
“I gather you’re a country girl.”
“And I gather you’re a city dude.”
“Guilty as charged.” He shrugged one arm free from the blanket to reach behind them and set another piece of wood on the flames.
“So what brings you out here from a job with the Pittsburgh Police?” She grinned. “You get fired?”
He looked at her. Saw the grin. And chuckled again. “No, I didn’t get fired.” He tucked his arm back under the blanket and gazed across the room. For a moment, Zoe thought he wasn’t going to answer, but then he sighed. “My wife and I had a miscarriage this past summer. She took it pretty hard.”
“I’m sorry.” Zoe had a feeling the wife wasn’t the only one who’d taken it badly.
“Thanks. Anyhow, Marcy has always wanted to live in the country. When I was offered this job, it seemed like the perfect solution. A change of scenery. A fresh start.”
Zoe let his words settle into her brain. A wife. The handsome new police chief was married, just like Zoe had jokingly told her matchmaking friend. For a moment, Zoe felt the weight of disappointment. The good ones were always already taken. But a sense of contentment and peace settled over her. She liked this guy. And the tone in his voice when he said his wife’s name confirmed how much he loved and treasured her.
There was something sexy—and at the same time safe—about a man who was faithful to his spouse. Perhaps Pete Adams, brand new chief of police for Vance Township, might turn out to be a friend. The thought appealed to her much more than the whole heartbreaking ordeal of romance.
They sat in a quiet contemplative silence for a while before he asked, “What time is it?”
Zoe flipped the blanket off her wrist. “Five after twelve.”
In unison, they said. “It’s Christmas.”
And as one, they looked over at Frankie Walker who didn’t stir.
Pete turned to Zoe. “Merry Christmas, Zoe.”
“Merry Christmas, Chief.”
He made a face. “Pete. Please.”
“Merry Christmas, Pete.”
The morning sun glistened off the foot of snow, setting the ice crystals to sparkling like a million diamonds. The trek back to the search party’s staging area seemed much shorter in the daylight. Zoe lugged two backpacks—hers with the first-aid gear and Frankie’s lighter one containing the one remaining bottle of water they hadn’t drunk and a partial box of instant oatmeal. Survival necessities for a runaway boy. Pete trudged behind her with the kid on his back, Frankie’s legs hooked through Pete’s elbows and his arms around Pete’s neck.
Ahead of them, a shout went up as the gathered group spotted their approach. A woman broke free from the crowd and charged toward them, spewing a cloud of white stuff around her.
“Mom!” Frankie yelled.
A man trailed after the woman.
“Dad!” Frankie squirmed, and Pete swung him down to the ground.
Zoe and the new chief stood, breathing hard and watching as the boy raced to his parents and into their arms. The heat building behind Zoe’s eyes countered the chill of frosty air nipping her cheeks.
Pete took the backpacks from her and draped an arm around her shoulders giving her a quick brotherly hug. “We did it.”
“Yeah, we did.”
He released her and headed toward the Walker family and the cheers of the awaiting rescue personnel. Zoe watched him for a moment and smiled. “Best Christmas ever,” she said under her breath and then fell into step behind him, following the path his footsteps plowed.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Christmas Jokes for Kids

Christmas Jokes For Kids

Image by toa-heftiba on upsplash

Why does Santa like to garden?
Because he likes to hoe, hoe, hoe.  

What do elves learn in school?
The Elf-abet.

Why does Santa’s sled get such good mileage?
It has long-distance runners on each side.

Why was Santa’s little helper depressed?
He had low Elf-esteem.

What do you get if you cross a snowman with a vampire?

Where do polar bears vote?
At the North Pole.

Why do birds fly south in the winter?
It’s too far to walk.

What do you get if you cross an archer with a gift wrapper?
Ribbon Hood.

How do you have a politically correct Christmas?
You give presents TO the tree.

What nationality is Santa Claus?
North Polish.

What do snowmen eat?

What do you get if you cross mistletoe and a duck?
A Christmas Quacker.

What do you get if you eat Christmas ornaments?

What comes before Christmas Eve?
Christmas Adam.

Is there a reindeer named Olive?
Sure. Remember the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?” It includes the lyrics:
“Olive the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names.”

What did Santa say to his toys on Christmas Eve?
Sack time, everybody.

Why did Santa get a ticket?
He parked in a snow-parking zone.

Where does Santa put his suit after Christmas?
In the Claus-et.

Do Christmas trees knit?
No. They do needlepoint.

Where did the snowman meet his wife?
At the snowball.

Why did Santa get lost on Christmas Eve?
He was mis-sled.

Why are Christmas presents so easy to tease?
They get a lot of ribbon.

What do you get in December that you don’t get in any other month?
The letter D.

Did you know Santa had only eight reindeer last Christmas?
It’s true. Comet stayed home to clean the sink.

What does Christmas have to do with a cat lost in the desert?
They both have sandy claws.

Sister: What are you giving Mom and Dad for Christmas?
Brother: A list of everything I want!

What did the proud snowkid tell his Mom?
“Look, I won Best in Snow.”

What did one snowman say to the other snowman?
Do you smell carrots?

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

An Interview With Sujata Massey

by Grace Topping

On Sunday, November 18, 2018, The Washington Post released its list of Best Books for 2018. Among them was Sujata Massey's audiobook of The Widows of Malabar Hill, narrated by Soneela Nankani of Recorded Books. I had the pleasure of interviewing Sujata when her book was first released. Since then, The Widows of Malabar Hill has garnered all kinds of accolades. It's a pleasure to present the interview again for those who may have missed it last year. 

I first discovered Sujata Massey through her award-winning Rei Shimura mystery series set in Japan. Everyone around me seemed to be reading her books, starting with The Salaryman’s Wife, which won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel and was nominated for the Barry and Macavity Awards for Best First Mystery and the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original. She went on to win or be nominated for a number of other awards, including the Edgar. When I learned that she was writing a suspenseful historical fiction series set in 1920s India, I was delighted and contacted her to learn more about it.
The Widows of Malabar Hill Jacket Copy
Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father’s law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes women’s legal rights especially important to her.

Mistry Law has been appointed to execute the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen examines the paperwork, she notices something strange: all three of the wives have signed over their full inheritance to a charity. What will they live on? Perveen is suspicious, especially since one of the widows has signed her form with an X—meaning she probably couldn’t even read the document. The Farid widows live in full purdah—in strict seclusion, never leaving the women’s quarters or speaking to any men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? Perveen tries to investigate, and realizes her instincts were correct when tensions escalate to murder. Now it is her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that no innocent women or children are in further danger.
Welcome, Sujata, to Writers Who Kill.
The Widows of Malabar Hill is the story of the fictional first woman lawyer in Bombay, Perveen Mistry. What inspired you to write about a woman lawyer, and why in the 1920s?

Sujata Massey
 Actually, the setting was the original driving factor. I wanted to write a mystery set in 1920s India, a period that I fell in love with while writing my 2013 novel, The Sleeping Dictionary. While going through history and memoirs, I learned that in the Edwardian period, a significant number of young Indian women studied at colleges in India and Britain. These students wanted to take on professional jobs in their home cities. I discovered that India’s first two female lawyers worked in the 1890s through the 1920s; both shared a similar religious background, progressive parents, and an Oxford education—as well as hailing from Maharashtra, the western coastal state that was called Bombay Presidency during British rule. I believe a woman lawyer would have more freedom than other females to ask questions of people and become involved in dangerous situations such as theft, kidnapping and murder. Thus, a heroine was born!

Although Perveen Mistry is a lawyer, she is prohibited from appearing in court. With that limitation, how can she practice law? At what point could women lawyers appear in court? 

Perveen Mistry has completed all requirements for a Bachelor of Civil Law degree at Oxford University. In the British system, legal advocates either are barristers (arguing cases in court before a judge) or solicitors (the ones who draft contracts and formulate the arguments for barristers to use in court). Prior to 1922, Oxford allowed women to study there but didn’t grant women academic degrees. The London Bar and Bombay Bar wouldn’t admit women as barristers until Oxford and Cambridge’s prohibition against female degrees was ended.  India had one woman lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji, who worked from the 1890s through the 1920s. She was a solicitor who specialized in offering service to female clients. Cornelia’s clients—typically wealthy or royal Hindu or Muslim ladies living in seclusion--were sometimes exploited by their families or household agents. Her interventions saved women their fortunes—and sometimes, their lives. 

Perveen represents the interests of three widows of a Muslim. Why does she go to such great lengths to protect their interests, especially since they are all willing to sign away rights to their inheritances?

Interestingly, Muslim law protected women in a way that was different from Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. In Islamic law, a man pays dowry to a woman in two parts: the first half given at the marriage, and the second at the woman’s time of being widowed or (unlikely) divorced. Perveen knows a little about Muslim law so she is intrigued when a letter arrives at the law firm, ostensibly signed by three widows of a wealthy businessman named Omar Farid (Muslim men could marry up to three wives). The letter states the Farid widows wished to give up all their dowry. Perveen is suspicious whether all three women could understand the English document. She decides to meet them, to make sure that they really understand what they’re about to give up. And from that point, the adventure begins.

Perveen’s job as a lawyer in India sounded quite complex with different laws for different groups of people. For example, she has to address the issue of Muslim law as it pertains to the rights of inheritance. Also, a Muslim woman could not be ordered to appear in a court of law. Are there still different laws in India? 

When the British began formal rule of India in the mid 1800s, they sat down with leaders of the Hindu, Muslim and Parsi community to draft family law that was consistent with each group’s specific desires. Sikhs, Christians, Jews and others were governed by British common law. Customized laws made the various communities more likely to comply with British rule. The separate religious legal systems have endured to the present days, although many of the laws surrounding divorce have been liberalized. 

The widows of Malabar Hill live in a section of a house called a zenana and lead a purdah life. You wrote that after taking a short tour of a zenana, you felt that the life of an Indian maharani or a Muslim begum living in a zenana seemed like imprisonment. Why?

I toured the Udaipur City Palace in Rajasthan, the seat of the Mewar royal family, where one maharani lived in purdah through the 1970s. Although the rooms were gorgeously decorated and furnished, all the windows were shielded by jali screens. One literally could only see fragments of the outdoor view--and that gave me a very closed-in feeling. Many royal women grew up confined in these environments and socialized exclusively with other women and children. They would only see a father or husband if he came to the zenana quarters. If such ladies traveled, they went in a purdah carriage or car with curtains that kept outsiders from seeing them. It’s true that they were beautifully dressed and did very little work—but that doesn’t seem like a prize given how much else in life they missed.

Life was hard for women during this period. Has much changed for women in India?

Things have changed tremendously! Seclusion is no longer practiced, except in some rural areas. Two-income marriages are the norm, and there are many women with good jobs in STEM fields. There are more love marriages, more divorces, and some women who choose to remain single are adopting children. Women have freedom of dress, drive personal cars and taxis, and pilot planes. Life for an Indian woman is a lot like that of her American sisters.

The Widows of Malabar Hill is not the first book you wrote featuring Perveen. Please tell us about other books you’ve written about her.

I have a novella, Outnumbered at Oxford, which is a prequel novella: a mystery taking place during Perveen’s college years in England. Outnumbered was published within an anthology of my short India fiction called India Gray Historical Fiction.

Perveen’s best friend, Alice, an English woman newly arrived in Bombay, appears on the surface to have more freedoms than Perveen, but also faces many restrictions. What will life in India be like for her?

Alice Hobson-Jones is Perveen’s best friend from Oxford. Alice is typical of the British women whose fathers had prestigious careers in the British Indian government. M.M. Kaye, who wrote The Far Pavilions and other novels set in British colonial India, wrote a series of memoirs about her life as the daughter of a top Indian Civil Service officer in the early 20th century. Mary Margaret Kaye always had a grand house to live in but was expected to represent her family in a very proper manner. There was a scarcity of European women in India, so she was widely courted by young Englishmen working for the government. After marrying, Englishwomen could do charity work in India—but little else. It wasn’t seemly for an Englishwoman to work for an Indian, because Indians were supposed to be underneath the British. However, British females sometimes worked for Indian nobility as governesses, or in the employ of religious groups as missionaries and doctors or nurses. Alice is of their ilk—seeing Indians as fellow human beings with a lot to teach her, rather than as servants.

Will we see more of Alice in future books?

She will reappear in Book 3, I hope!

This book was so rich in detail. Did you travel to India to do research?

It’s always a challenge to decide how much of what I’ve learned can be included without distracting from the story line. I started my research for the book using the memoirs of India’s first woman lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji. After I had half of the book written, I traveled to Mumbai (as Bombay is now called) to fill in details on setting and also meet with Parsi and Muslim women to learn more about their traditions. I plan to visit India frequently as I continue working on this series. It’s a real pleasure for me, because I have friends and family in several cities.

I enjoyed your Rei Shimura series immensely—along with everyone I worked with. With parents from India and Germany, what inspired you to write a series about a Japanese-American living in Japan? Have you lived in Japan?

I wrote the Rei Shimura books because I had the great luck to live in Japan for the two years that my husband worked as a medical officer for the U.S. Navy. We were stationed in Yokosuka, about an hour south of Tokyo. I wanted to write a mystery set in Japan that explored the cultural arts I adored studying: flower arranging, food and antiques. I also worked as an English teacher, which is a pretty common job for foreign women in Japan, and that influenced Rei’s character.

There are more references to India and Germany in my Indian novels than the Rei Shimura series. This is because a long cultural interchange between Germany and India runs all the way from a German passion for movies made in India in the early 1900s, to Indian freedom fighters going to Germany for help during World War II.

You’ve won the Agatha and Macavity awards and been a finalist for the Edgar, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark prizes. Does having earned such acclaim put more pressure on you with each book you write?

Awards are such a surprising and delightful gift. I don’t see them as negatives for the writing process in any way. Awards ebb and flow—they shouldn’t define success for a writer. In the end, what counts is having loyal readers who stick and the ability to bring new readers to your work. 

What’s next for Perveen Mistry? I hope we’ll be seeing more of her.

I don’t yet have a title for Book 2, but I’ll tell you a little about it. Only forty percent of the Indian subcontinent was under British rule—the other sixty percent was a patchwork of hundreds of princely kingdoms that agreed to pay the British with crops in order to retain their right to self-rule.

In this next mystery, the British government asks Perveen to travel to a princely kingdom near Bombay to investigate the welfare of the Yuvraj, an eleven-year-old boy who’s supposed to inherit the throne at eighteen. The Yuvraj’s father, the last maharaja, is dead, a twist allowing the British government to consider the Yuvraj their ward. While interviewing the Yuvraj’s family and servants at the palace, Perveen gets the sense his life might be in danger. At the same time, she has to deal with an attraction that is completely out of bounds. And because this is a story set in the jungle, monkeys, dogs and tigers also have character roles!

Thank you, Sujata.

To learn more about Sujata Massey and her books, visit  

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Contemplating NaNoWriMo and Keeping Promises

by Paula Gail Benson

For the last few years, I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month, not always by planning to complete a 50,000 word novel, but by setting writing goals I want to accomplish for the month. I didn’t register on the website this year, but I did choose a few projects to finish. So far, I’ve made good progress.

I wondered why November was selected as the designated month. According to Wikipedia, the founder, Chris Blaty, began the observance in July, then moved it to November to “take advantage of the miserable weather.”

Perhaps November might be a month when fewer activities would lure a person outside and writing by a warm fire could be encouraged, but it’s also leading up to an action packed holiday season. With so many events on the horizon, so much added to an already overloaded schedule, why would people want to add one more obligation, particularly one of dedicating oneself to writing more than 1,600 words per day?

Could it be because at Thanksgiving we tend toward an retrospective mode? As the end of the year approaches, we take stock of what we’ve accomplished and what we have left to do. We contemplate what we want to be remembered for as we gather with family and friends. Maybe we even recall those holiday times when the congregated children were asked to play the piano as entertainment, with each selection being measured against the others for achievement.

With Thanksgiving, we are grateful, but also observant. We appreciate what others have done and try to figure out the legacy we’re meant to create.

Several articles I read about the benefits of NaNoWriMo mention that it emphasizes prioritization. Rather than putting other obligations first, participants are encouraged to place primary focus on writing and let others in their lives know writing will take priority. Group support helps participants make the practice a reality.

Yet, why choose this time, when so many other tasks loom large--like holiday shopping, food preparation, gift wrapping, and mail--to put writing first? Maybe it’s to take time to affirm, in the rush of the season, that what you have to contribute through writing is important. It’s your own work, your own voice being heard--even if only by yourself.

NaNoWriMo originated in San Francisco and a significant group event is held there each year. The Night of Writing Dangerously is a fund raising “write-a-thon.” The first 250 people who contribute a set monetary amount to the organization are invited to the party, which features food, speeches, and bouts of writing. An invitee who reaches 50,000 words during the event is invited onstage to ring a bell and be recognized.

Gigi Pandian, a writer I greatly admire, hails from San Francisco and used NaNoWriMo to achieve her goal of writing her debut novel. The fact that she wrote Artifact during a time when she had been diagnosed with a serious illness and was facing many life changes makes the achievement all the more commendable. Since that time, she’s gone forward to create a second series and win an Agatha this year for her most recent short story.

How do we let people know what our lives stand for? Through the work we do. And, by work, I mean the labor of our hands, the contributions of our hearts, the communication of our ideas, and the stories we feel obligated to tell.

Did you participate in NaNoWriMo this year? Whether you did or not, what promises have you made to yourself about your writing?

Monday, November 19, 2018

In Memory of My Mother - Words Rather Than Silence

In Memory of My Mother –Words Rather Than Silence by Debra H. Goldstein

A few years ago, a fellow writer asked me why many of my short stories, blogs and one of my books had Jewish characters or Jewish themes. Before I could answer, she confided that she was Jewish, too, but never mentioned that fact in any of her writings. I asked her “Why?” and she replied she was afraid it might narrow her readership. My immediate response was that I never thought of that in terms of my works or any of the writings I’ve read by people of race, culture, ethnicity, religion or sexual preference different than my own. In fact, my reading and writing is deliberately diverse.

She disagreed with me. I pitied her narrowmindedness and the wealth of things she was missing. I also was disappointed by her silence.
My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She came to the United States with her nine-year-old brother when she was ten. Other than two uncles who lived in America, but weren’t particularly welcoming to the two children, her entire extended family was killed in the camps. Her parents, educated wealthy members of Vienna society, never thought Hitler’s rhetoric would reach them. My grandfather had medical, dental and rabbinical degrees although he practiced dentistry; they had a box at the Opera House; and they owned numerous apartments. By the time my grandparents realized they weren’t immune, they were lucky to get their children out of Austria.

For two non-English speaking children, adjustment was difficult, but they both learned English, did well in school, and grew up to be responsible adults. They also taught their children to be tolerant and to never be silent. They encouraged their children to be anything they wanted, but to remember the importance of honesty, caring, and being open-minded.

A few weeks ago, a man filled with hatred and anti-Semitism, murdered Jews in cold blood at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During the past few years, there have been murders in mosques, churches, bars, and on the street simply because of hatred and animosity to other people’s religion, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, or cultural beliefs. We can think these things are wrong, but if we stay silent in the face of these terrible acts and the language that incites them, I believe we are guilty, too.

My mother died four years ago on November 13. In her memory, I cannot be silent. Can you?