“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.