If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com.











November Interview Schedule: 11/7 Lane Stone, 11/14 Maggie Toussaint, 11/21, Joana Garcia (Rescheduled for 1/23/19)


Saturday Guest Bloggers: 11/3 Barbara Ross
WWK Satuday Bloggers: 11/10 Margaret S. Hamilton, 11/17 Kait Carson

Starting on Thanksgiving Day, 11/22, WWK presents original holiday offerings until New Year's Day. 11/22 Warren Bull, 11/29 Annette Dashofy, 12/6 KM Rockwood, 12/13 E. B. Davis, 12/20 Paula Gail Benson, & 12/27 Linda Rodriguez. We will resume our regular blogging schedule on 1/2/19. Please join us!


Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:


Grace Topping signed a three-book contract with Henery Press for her Laura Bishop Home Staging series. Congratulations, Grace!

KM Rockwood's new short story, "Map to Oblivion," has been included the anthology Shhhh...Murder! edited by Andrew MacRae and published by Darkhouse Books. It was released on Sept. 12.

Warren Bull also has a story in Shhh...Murder! Look for "Elsinore Noir," Warren's short story, in this anthology.

Annette Dashofy's Uneasy Prey was released in March. It is the sixth Zoe Chambers Mystery. The seventh, Cry Wolf, will be released on September 18th. Look for E. B. Davis's interview with Annette on September 19th.

Shari Randall's third Lobster Shack Mystery, Drawn and Buttered, will be available February 26, 2019.

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Mixed Blessings by E. B. Davis



A recent Nor’easter caused flooding along Pamlico Sound. Behind my Sound-front home, I placed my mug of Irish coffee on the still wet dock, spread out a plastic poncho, and sat down on it. A candy cane leaned inside my cup. I used it to stir the coffee and took a sip. The sharp Irish whiskey contrasted with the candy cane’s sweetness. Beyond my dock, a glorious sunset sank in the western sky above Pamlico Sound. I wished for calmness and peace, but my work shift on this Christmas Eve day had left me edgy.

As a Dare County Deputy Sheriff, I’d spent months tracking the source of fentanyl-laced heroin, the cause of three deaths on Hatteras Island. Today, I’d arrested the drug-dealing murderer, Thomas Carson. I should have felt elated, but my heart focused on all his victims.

The young addicts’ families would feel no joy this Christmas. Unfortunately, the arrest occurred in the dealer’s front yard—in front of his mother, Ginny Carson, and his two children, Cassie, age seven and Tommy, age four. The scathing look on Ginny’s face told me I’d made a new enemy.

With a sigh, I held back tears, gulped my coffee, and sucked on the candy cane. There were too many victims. I’d taken the children’s father away at Christmas and the main source of income for the family. But, I’d done my job and was glad to get Carson jailed. I’d tell the county’s social worker on the island about them. Maybe she could arrange for assistance to the family.
   
I stared at the horizon as the sun offered a final wink. Woody, my fiancé, had taken my son, Jared, along with his daughter, Cindy, to his sister’s house earlier before he went on duty. He, too, was a Deputy Sheriff. We’d been unlucky. As I went off, Woody went on duty. I’d see him later. The kids were going to a church birthday party for Jesus later followed by a sleepover at his sister’s house. We planned on bringing everyone over here early Christmas Day to celebrate.

Glad to have these moments alone, I tried to regain my equilibrium and feel peace. Instead, I thought of the victims and felt tense. I looked at the darkness. My stomach tightened seeing a streak light up the darkened sky. The streak zigzagged and shot toward me. The Irish coffee jostled in its cup when I bent down to hit my head on the dock. No—not today. I didn’t know if I could handle one more thing. Righting myself, I lifted the mug and drank down the remaining Irish coffee before the banana landed on the dock.

Standing on one narrow end, the lumpy banana glowed beside me as if it emitted radiation. Its peel split at the top into four sections and unfurled, revealing six-inch Pamela, the Sprite of Pamlico Sound, and Nana, the dogs of Hatteras Island’s guardian angel. Nana didn’t like me. I watched as Nana morphed from a minute size to her normal St. Bernard-size self.

Pamela’s visits started a few years ago. At first, I’d questioned my sanity. Now, I felt like her servant. Her main job, she claimed, was to grant wishes to those who lived near Pamlico Sound, her territory. There was some hierarchy. I was unsure if her boss was Santa Claus or God. Pam never specified. But then, she never said much that made sense. I’d felt she used me to achieve her ends, but so far, her ends and mine were copacetic. Although Pam was Tinker Bell’s size, her attitude was all gangster. I trusted her—most of the time.

“Why is it you sometimes need a banana to fly?” I asked Pam.

“It’s needed to cross dimensions. Otherwise, I can fly on my own.”

I decided not to ask about dimensions and rose from the dock, anticipating Pam’s demand for treats. Then, I noticed her attire. Not her usual trashy-tacky, diva style. She was dressed like her version of a fisherman—plastic booties topped by a yellow plastic raincoat. She looked like an electrified SpongeBob. Her fashion statement made me suspicious.  

“Wait, Sue. We need your help now.”

“What help?”

“Get your skiff.”

“Pam, it’s dark. I don’t have lights on my boat.”

“That’s no problem. I’ll light your way, and I know exactly where we’re going.”

“That might not be a problem for you, but I doubt the Coast Guard will agree with you.”

“Don’t worry about them giving you a violation.”

I put my hands on my hips and opened my mouth. Nothing came out. I’d tried arguing with Pam before, a no-win situation, but I didn’t move at her command either.

“I have friends, Sue. If the Coast Guard is out and about, they’ll create a diversion. We’ll be back in no time.”

I couldn’t help but sigh. This didn’t sound like a good idea. “Let me get my hat, boots, and jacket.” I took a few steps toward the house.

“Also, get two bottles of water, two bowls, and two blankets,” Pam called out to me.
I turned to face her, but decided I didn’t want to pose the question and continued to the house. After getting the necessary gear, I returned to the dock, jumped onto my skiff, and checked the gas level. “Where are we going and why?”

“We’re going to that deserted island down by Hatteras Inlet. I’ll tell you why on the way.”

The island wasn’t that far away. My gas level was fine. I turned on the engine, kept it in neutral, and cast off. Pam had flown onto the boat, but Nana jumped aboard causing the boat to sway back and forth. “Really nice, Nana. Next time, just capsize us,” I said, knowing I was taking my bad mood out on her.  

Nana growled at me. Typical Nana, but I might have deserved it.

“Now don’t start, you two,” Pam said. To my surprise, she took Nana to task. “Sue’s doing you a favor. Be nice.” Nana had the good sense to lie down, head on paws.  

“Pam, can you find Channel Marker 10?” I asked and pointed out in the Sound. “It’s in that direction. Go sit on it and light up.”

“But the island’s down there,” Pam pointed to the Southwest.

“Yes, but I can’t go in a straight line. The Sound has shallow spots, and we’ll run aground. Not something you want to do going thirty miles per hour.”

“Of course. I know that, but since I fly over it, it’s never an issue for me. Will do,” Pam replied and flew off. Her acquiescence surprised me, but it also made me wary. Pam’s task was urgent, whatever it was. I kept sight of her line of light, which became stationary as she found the channel marker. I put the boat in high gear and took off after her. Nana looked back at me in surprise, but she didn’t growl.

I didn’t want to bring attention to my boat. Once out in the Sound, the noise of my engine wouldn’t carry as much as it did near land, and no one would be able to see me in the dark. I pointed in the general direction of the other channel markers to Pam in sequence until the closest one to the island appeared. It was a dark shape within the dark Sound. In the distance, I saw another smaller dark shape, one where nothing should be. My edgy feeling intensified. My stomach clenched as if a knife-point nicked it. This adventure wasn’t my idea of fun.

Pam flew back to the boat. I slowed and approached the island, beaching my flat-bottomed skiff in the sand. I placed one of my feet, encased in a waterproof boot, into the shallow water, launching myself out of the boat, and pushed it up onto the sand. The strong Sound current near the inlet could wash the boat off the island, stranding all of us. Oh yeah, I realized, just me since Pam could transport a diminutive Nana just fine. The thought made me wonder why I was involved.

“Pam, what’s going on? Why am I here?” I asked and grabbed a flashlight out of the boat’s bow.

“Shush. Can’t you hear them?”

I heard whimpering and walked toward the sound. A shape appeared in the darkness. I turned on the flashlight. An old rowboat rocked in the water. Its front half was on the beach, but the back half was submerged. Inside the boat, a puppy and a kitten shivered, huddling close to one another, and whimpered from the wet interior.

          
“Pick them up, Sue. Get them to your boat,” Pam said. “They won’t last much longer without water and warmth.”

To free up my hands, I placed the handle of the flashlight under my upper arm and clamped down on it, bending down into the rowboat to pick up the animals. The puppy was docile enough, looking up at me with relief, but the kitten hissed and clawed my hand, attaching itself to me. I straightened and made an abrupt about face, ran back to the boat, and placed them in the bottom of my skiff. Nana took charge, tucking them to her chest. Pam fluttered to the water bottles, straining to upright one. I took it from her and poured water into each bowl. Nana nudged the babies to the bowls, coaxing them to drink.

A light caught my eye, two flashes in the direction coming from the dark shape I’d seen in the Sound. I wondered if they saw my flashlight, wondered if they thought it was their contact, wondered if that contact was Thomas Carson. We’d nailed the dealer but not the supplier.

I took out my phone and called 911. Sometimes signals didn’t carry on the Sound, but Barb picked up after two rings. “Call the Coast Guard. There’s a boat without running lights on the Sound. But warn them. I suspect there are drugs aboard.” I gave her the coordinates where I thought the boat was located and hung up.

After their drink, the babies were content to sleep near Nana’s soft, warm, and furry chest. I threw both blankets on top of Nana and tucked it under her sides. She licked my wounded hand. My mouth popped open in surprise, but I had no time to waste.

“Time to scram, Pam.”

She looked up at me with raised eyebrows. “You just called the Coast Guard. I thought you needed to stay away from them.”

“I do. But getting them here is more important than me getting a violation. Besides, I hope we’re gone and home before anything goes down. Bad guys may be coming for us at two o’clock.” I pointed into the Sound. “Drug runners, I think. Let’s get out of here. Can you remember the markers?”

Pam looked at the dark shape approaching the island. “Yep—I already knew where they were, I just didn’t get the channel markers’ significance since I had no need for them. Follow me. I’ll also contact my buddies to create a diversion.” She flew off.

I pushed the boat into deeper water and hopped aboard. The engine was louder than I wished when it started, but I followed Pam’s light stream. The larger boat charged forward in pursuit. When Pam flew to the next marker, I made a decision I hoped I wouldn’t regret.

I cut diagonally across the Sound, bypassing the channel marker where Pam sat. My risk was running aground. The odds were in my favor. With a smaller boat, I might make it through shallows that would ground a bigger boat, like the one following me. Pam must have seen my change of direction. She flew back to the boat but kept ahead of me by a few yards. When she flew to the right, I responded by steering to the right away from the shallows, I assumed, Pam had discovered. The larger boat continued to follow.

After a few nerve-racking minutes of following Pam, who continued dodging shallows, I looked behind me. The boat looked as if it had stopped. I slowed the skiff and shut off the engine. In the silence, I heard swearing. Elated, I called to Pam. “They ran aground.”

“Once you explained about the problem, my friends camouflaged the channel marker and put up a dummy marker in a shallow area. They’ll stay stuck for a while—hopefully in time for the Coast Guard to pick them up.”

My only response was to nod. I couldn’t believe my luck or how well Pam was helping me. Of course, I was helping her, too. But my end usually came with an embarrassing cost.


We headed home. After securing the boat and helping Nana and her charges out of the skiff, we headed into my house. All of our stomachs growled. Last Christmas, Nana and Pam had brought Jared a puppy for Christmas against my wishes. His bed and bowls were lined up between the kitchen and dining room. Nana placed both babies in the dog bed. I got chili out of the refrigerator and heated it up. I poured kibble in the dog bowl and opened a can of tuna for the kitten. Nana got kibble and tuna in a new bowl I placed nearby. I sat on a chair at the table while Pam sat across from me at the Barbie table Woody’s daughter, Cindy, left at my house.

“Great chili, Sue,” Pam said and waved her spoon in the air. She probably thought it was her wand. “Now to prepare for the second part of our mission.”

“Second half. You never told me about the first half.”

“I never had a chance to explain. The Nor’easter that came in over the weekend caused a lot of problems. One mother stored all of her Christmas gifts in the trunk of her car. It was flooded, the car totaled along with the gifts. Luckily, her insurance paid out to replace the car and the gifts. But Ginny Carson wasn’t so lucky.”

“Ginny Carson?”

“Tommy wanted a puppy and Cassie wanted a kitten. Ginny was trying to keep the pets a secret so she kept them in their boathouse. They nested down in that old rowboat, but when the flooding occurred, the rowboat got loose with them in it. Ginny’s been frantic worrying about them. So, we rescued the pets. The only thing we have to do now is get them over to her so the kids get their Christmas wishes, and she can stop worrying.”

“To Ginny Carson’s?” My voice was probably a pitch higher than normal.

Pam raised her eyebrows again. “Problem, dear?”

“I just arrested her son. I’m not her favorite person right now.”

“Pish-posh, Sue. She’ll be happy once she sees the pets. But I’ve arranged a job for her at a real estate company starting after the holidays so the money issue will be lessened.”

“She’s still won’t want me at her house.”

Pam had taken off her raincoat to eat. Forehead in a pucker, she groped her sides. The sparkling red Las Vegas gown that had been covered by the raincoat seemed too tight for pockets, but she pulled out her wand, smiled and said, “Problem solved.” Pam flew next to me and clunked me in the head with her wand.

“Ouch.”

She waved off my complaint and said,

“In the midst of Sue’s trials, we pause,
to transform her into Mrs. Claus.
So she can deliver all eight paws.”

“What? Wait!” But the transformation occurred before I could say more. My waistline expanded. My cheeks felt fat. My ankles thickened. I waddled into the bathroom to see what had happened. In the mirror, a little old lady stood. The hat on her head was red with a white band above chubby, rosy cheeks. A white pompom decorated the bottom of its triangular shape. A Santa suit stretched over her fat, squat body. I couldn’t externalize it anymore. I was her, Mrs. Claus. “Pam!” I yelled and shuffled back to the table.

“Well it’s the perfect solution. You said you can’t go to the Carson’s, but Mrs. Claus can go.” She thrust out her hands toward me. “Perfect.”

“Why can’t you just give them Santa?”


Pam looked at me as if I were an idiot. “He’s busy tonight.” She turned to the door. “Now come along, we have to make this look as real as possible just in case the children are still awake.”

We went out my front door to the driveway. “What are we doing?”

“Getting your transportation ready.” Pam waved her wand at my squad car. It changed into a cherry red dune buggy.

“Cool! Let me start it up.”

“No dice, Sue. All Christmas vehicles have to be powered by magic. Rules, you know.” Pam put two fingers in her mouth and whistled a loud blast. I heard rustling in the trees.
 
Three large bucks emerged, one I had become acquainted with before. “No, not Buck.”

“He doesn’t have to be your date this time. He and his friends, Randy and Dandy, will pull the dune buggy to the Carson’s.”

“Buck, Randy, and Dandy. I’m not asking how they got those names.”

“Better off if you didn’t, dear.”

 “Come on, let’s gather up the troops.”

After tucking a blanket around Nana and the pets in the backseat of the dune buggy, Pam harnessed the three deer to my “sleigh.” Buck was in the front with Randy and Dandy side-by-side near the buggy. I took hold of the reins and shook them. “Come on, Buck, pull!”

Buck looked at me. Recognition dawned on his face. He got a goofy look in his eye and circled around to me. The dune buggy circled round and round. “Pam!”

“Buck, behave yourself.” Pam shook the reins. Buck stopped circling but he also didn’t move.

Having worked with and been embarrassed by Buck before, I knew of only one sure-fire way to tame the beast. I climbed out, went into the house, and got a bowl of Chex mix. “Can you hold the bowl while I steer?”

Pam sighed. “It never used to be like this. Now, everyone wants something or nothing happens. No sense of community.” She grabbed the bowl and flew in front of Buck, who walked toward the bowl with his snout quivering. Pam continued grousing, “Now it used to be…”

I tuned out Pam’s rambling talk as we got on Route 12 and headed north. In Buxton, we stopped in front of the Carson’s house. Pam flew over to the house and tapped on the door with her wand.

Ginny opened the door, looking at the dune buggy. I got out and motioned to her to come out. Before she took a step, two little people emerged behind her and ran down the sidewalk to the dune buggy.

“Ho, ho, ho!” I said. My Mrs. Claus-self seemed in tune with the role. I even chuckled. Ginny walked up the sidewalk, a skeptical look on her face. I couldn’t blame her and hoped once she saw the gifts her spirits would lift. “Santa told me an item on your Christmas Wish List needed a special delivery he entrusted me to do. Now Tommy, what was your biggest wish for?”

“A puppy!” he said while jumping up and down.

I bent into the backseat, took the puppy in my hands, and offered Tommy the dog. Tommy squealed with delight and held the puppy. I heard Ginny gasp.

“Where did you find him?”

I gave her a wink. “The North Pole, of course.” Turning to Cassie, I asked, “And what was your wish?”

A few years older, Cassie was cynical. She put her hands on her hips. “A kitten. You have one for me?”

I took the kitten from Nana. “Yep, I do have a kitten for you, but you have to promise to take care of it.” I placed the kitten in her hands.

Innocence reclaimed the child. Tears formed in her eyes. She said a quiet, “Thank you.”

“Take the puppy and the kitten to the veterinarian in a few days. It won’t cost anything.” Not after I called George, the vet, and bribed him. “They have pet food at the food bank, too. Okay?”

“Okay.” Cassie walked back to the house with her brother.

Life could be too hard for some children. Everyone needed to win sometimes. I watched as Cassie closed the door and then turned to Ginny.

“Where did you find them? And don’t get all Mrs. Claus on me, Deputy Sue. Can’t fool me.”

“Someone told me what happened. I was out on my skiff and found them in an old rowboat on the deserted island near the inlet.”

Ginny let out a gasp. “Oh, my Lord. If you hadn’t found them, they would have died, and the kids would have been devastated. So far, the season hasn’t been very merry.”

“I know. I’m sorry I had to arrest your son.”

“Not my son. I don’t have a son. That was my daughter’s husband. Not that I know where she is, but at least she isn’t with him. He dumped the kids on me and took off for weeks at a time. Of course, I had my suspicions.”

“You aren’t mad at me? You sure looked mad.”

“Yeah. I just didn’t like that it happened in front of the kids.”

“No—I didn’t like that either. Wish it hadn’t happened. But I had to do it.”

“I know, it was for the best. Cassie and Tommy were afraid of him and his friends who would drop by. We’ll be much better off without him around.”

“I hope so.”

“I got news today that I have a job after the New Year with a real estate company.”

“That’s great.” I smiled at her. “I won’t keep you. Have a Merry Christmas.”

“You, too, Sue.”

Ginny disappeared into the house. I wrapped the blanket around Nana and picked up the reins. A patrol car drove past. Woody stuck his head out the window and stared, his mouth dropped open, and he hit the brakes. “Sue?”

“Mrs. Claus to you, sonny.” I smiled. “On Buck, on Randy, on Dandy, down Route 12, to the bottom of Buxton, to the middle of Frisco, now dash away all.” To my shock, they did as I’d asked. I waved goodbye to Woody, who continued to stare at me as I left.

When I got back to my house, Pam was already there. After letting Buck, Randy, and Dandy go, Pam turned to me and reversed the transformation. “That went well tonight.”

She’d actually changed me back. I was thrilled. “All except getting caught by Woody.”

“Nope that was according to plan, too.”

I was about to protest when I saw lights in the driveway.

“Tootles, Sue. Have a great Christmas.”

“Thanks, Pam. You and Nana have a wonderful Christmas, too.”

Pam waved, swished her wand, miniaturizing Nana, and together they zipped into the banana and disappeared into the night sky over Pamlico Sound. I slipped into the house.

Woody knocked on the door moments later. To divert him, I opened the door and asked him a question. “Did they catch the drug smugglers?”

“Yep. They were beached like whales in some shallows. I talked to Barb. How did you know where they were?”

“A little fairy told me.”

“Really. A fairy. But what happened later—that was amazing,” he said.

“What?”

“I had just wished to grow old with you, and then you appeared looking old. And just like Mrs. Claus. What could be better?”

“Grow old with me. The best is yet to come,” I said, paraphrasing Browning.

“Exactly,” Wood said, smiling.

“Merry Christmas, Woody.”

He shook his head. “I don’t know how you transform like that, and why does it always fulfill a wish I had?”

I shrugged my shoulders and grinned. That would remain my secret.

“Merry Christmas, Sue.” Woody pulled me into a hug, and I found the peace I had wished for.


The End

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Christmas Morning Patrol by KM Rockwood


An occasional snowflake drifted across the beam of the headlights as Jason Avernis guided his patrol car slowly through the downtown streets. He traveled in an irregular circuit, providing a reassuring police presence and deterring anyone with nefarious plans.

He paused outside the churches as, one after another, the midnight services dismissed.

Somebody had to work overnight on Christmas. Jason had volunteered to take the shift. Let the mothers and fathers be home on Christmas morning.

Besides, his alternative was to spend the entire Christmas day alone in his tiny furnished apartment.

Now, he’d work until ten, stop by the diner for a hot turkey sandwich, and head home for a shower and some sleep. By the time he was awake again, his lonely Christmas would be almost over.

Yes. A hot turkey sandwich and mashed potatoes shouldn’t be too hard to eat. He fingered the rough skin of the irregular scar that covered the left cheek and extended down over his misshapen jaw. Not that long ago he’d considered himself sort of good-looking. Now he’d gladly settle for not freakish. He was lucky to be alive.

Last Christmas was a total blank in his memory. His National Guard unit was scheduled to return from deployment. He was ready to resume his career in law enforcement. And pick up the relationship with Carmela. In fact, he’d ordered a ring and planned to propose to her on Christmas Eve.

But he hadn’t anticipated hitting that IED, one of the many improvised explosive devices placed where American military were likely to patrol.

Carmela had apparently visited him in the hospital, taken a look at his shattered face, listened to the doctors’ tentative prognosis, and left.

Jason didn’t remember.

Soon afterward, when he was able to talk a little, even though his speech was garbled, he called her. She said she had a “medical condition” that prevented her from coming to see him. And her computer didn’t work, so no emails or Skype. She stopped posting on her Facebook page, at least the one he knew about. Her cellphone didn’t work, either, and she moved, so the landline was disconnected.

When he was finally well enough to move back and return to his job, Jason discovered that the “health problem” was a pregnancy, and that Carmela was now married. To someone else.

St. Luke’s was the last service to dismiss. He pulled into the huge parking lot and rolled down his window. The sharp fresh air warned of coming snow beyond the scattered flakes now falling. The bundled-up church-goers headed for their cars.

Most of the cars drove away, but two people stood under a light, gesturing wildly. Jason listened.

“You bitch!” the man shouted. “You know we don’t have enough money for all that!”

Her voice was softer, but still audible. “We’d have plenty of money if you didn’t spend it all on alcohol. You’re drunk again!”

Jason climbed out of his car and went over. “Is there a problem here?”

Both people turned to look at him. “N…no, officer. Just a little family quarrel.”

“On Christmas Eve? In front of the kids?” Jason nodded his head toward three children, slumped in the backseat. In the sudden silence, they could hear muffled sobs from the car.

The man looked stricken, as if he only now realized the children were present.

The woman wiped a tear from her eye and shivered. “You’re right, officer. We need to get the kids home. We can discuss this later when no one’s drunk…I mean, when we’re both calmer.”

The man opened the door to the driver’s seat.

Jason caught a whiff of alcohol and raised his eyebrows. “Who’s driving?”

The man squared his shoulders. “I am.”

“We can do a breathalyzer test if we need to,” Jason suggested.

The woman walked around the car. “Not necessary. I can drive.” To the man she said, “Get in the passenger seat, honey.”

After the church-goers went home, the streets were empty. The bright Christmas lights decorating the houses were dark, but those on the commercial establishments still glowed. Jason steered down the alleys, past the backs of the stores, and through the industrial park, where even the warehouses, which usually worked all night, were deserted. The wind picked up, and a smattering of icy snowflakes hit the windshield.

A traditional white Christmas would appeal to a lot of people. Jason hoped the weather would not take a dangerous turn, coating the asphalt with a slippery layer of ice which would make driving difficult for all the people who were planning to visit relatives for the holiday. He didn’t have any relatives to worry about. A wry thought.

At two-thirty, he headed for the bus depot, where an intercity bus from Columbia would make a brief stop in the pre-dawn chill. The depot itself was dark. It did not open until eight.

A few cars were waiting in front. Jason edged in next to the curb, dousing his headlights but letting the engine idle to keep the heat going. The roads were wet but the snow was not sticking yet.

A small crowd of people got off the bus. Two went into the twenty-four-hour convenience store across the street. Others went to cars in the lot and took off. After a few minutes the two came out of the store, clutching big cups of coffee, and climbed into the remaining cars. Soon Jason’s patrol car was the only vehicle in sight.

He switched on the headlights and started to leave.

As he swung the car around, his headlights illuminated the front of the depot. Someone was sitting on a bench in front of the building, under the inadequate overhang.

What was up with that?

Jason started to guide the car back to the side of the street.

His radio sprang to life.

“Report of suspicious activity at Church of the Redeemer. Several individuals loitering at the nativity scene.”

“I’ll check it out.”

Jason headed out to the church. He could come by the depot a little later, and make sure the last bus passenger had been picked up.

As he approached the front of the church, he slowed down. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught some movement near the brightly-lit nativity scene. He crept by, but didn’t see it again. Circling the block and cutting his headlights before he turned the last corner, he peered into the now-swirling snow.

Sure enough, two figures darted across the street in front of him. He switched on the car’s spotlight.

A couple of kids tried to dash away, but one slipped on the slick pavement, dropping a large bundle. The other turned back to help.

Jason got out of the car, carrying his flashlight.

Two boys about twelve years old stared up at him, their faces frozen in fear.

He shined the light down at the bundle lying on the street.

Wrapped in a blanket that was now falling open was the baby Jesus from the nativity.

“So,” Jason said, “stealing from the church, eh?”

One of the boys looked down at his feet. “It wasn’t exactly stealing. More like a joke. We were gonna put it back tomorrow night.”

Jason let his eyes bore into them. “Really? A joke? At a church? On Christmas? What’s funny about taking baby Jesus?”

They both squirmed.

The other boy shrugged. “But at St. Luke’s…”

His partner in crime elbowed him. “Shut up! We had nothing to do with that!”

“With what?” Jason asked. “Is St. Luke’s missing a baby Jesus, too?”

“No.”

Jason stared at them for a long minute, but they didn’t add anything. “Tell you what. You put the baby Jesus back. And I’ll take you both home.”

“But…” They looked at one another. “Our parents…”

“We could go downtown to the police station if you’d rather.”

“No.”

“Your parents don’t even know you’re not home asleep in your beds,” Jason said. “Am I right?”

They nodded.

“So let’s put Jesus back where he belongs and get going.”

The boys picked up the statute and placed it back in the manger. They glanced toward the back alley, then at each other.

Jason turned the flashlight on them. “You try to run, and I will take you downtown. And call your parents to pick you up there.”

They trudged back to the patrol car. Jason opened the back door for them to climb in.

“Who lives closest?”

“We live at the same place. 416 West Elm.”

“Brothers?”

“Yeah.”

Jason steered the couple of blocks through the deserted streets. He turned into the driveway of the darkened house, opened the door for the boys to climb out, and escorted them to the front door, where he rang the bell.

Lights came on. The door opened, revealing a bewildered man and woman in nightclothes.

“I brought your boys home,” Jason said. “It’s not safe for them to be out at this hour, especially in this weather.”

The woman raised her hands to her face in alarm. “What? You boys were outside? You’re supposed to be in bed.”

The man gave the boys a thunderous look. “You guys better get inside and take off your coats. I’ll see you in the kitchen after I talk to this officer.”

He turned to Jason. “Thank you for bringing them home. Where were they? What were they up to?”

“Just being kids.” Jason handed him a business card. “But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be consequences. Ask them what kind of prank they were up to. Call me if you have any questions.”

“Damn straight I’ll ask them. And call you to verify if I’m not satisfied with their answers.”

Jason nodded and went back to his car. That judgement gamble had paid off—the father sounded like he was going to handle the situation appropriately.

He’d have to head to St. Luke’s and see if he could uncover any mischief there.

But first he’d go check the bus depot.

Someone still huddled on the bench. Some light snow dusted the hunched figure.

Jason parked the car. He hefted his duty belt into a more comfortable position and approached. A faint smell of diesel exhaust blanketed the area.

A young woman was dwarfed by a huge overcoat. She sat with her hands tucked inside the sleeves. She had a fluffy scarf covering her head and around her neck. Her shoes were flimsy and worn, providing very little protection against the slush gathering on the sidewalk. A bedraggled suitcase stood next to her.

“You waiting for someone?” Jason asked.

“Y…yes, sir.” Her teeth were chattering.

“Who?”

“My boyfriend.”

“When is he supposed to get here?”

“Calvin works nights at a gas station. He’ll be here as soon as he gets off.”

“When’ll that be?”

“I’m not sure. Not long, though. Not more than an hour or two.”

“An hour or two? You can’t stay out here in the cold until then.”

“Yes I can.”

“How about you move over to the convenience store and wait in there? They have a dining area. You can sit next to the window and see when he pulls up.”

She shook her head. “Places like that don’t like you sitting there unless you buy something.”

“You could just get a cup of coffee.”

Her breath came quickly. “I suppose…”

A cup of coffee was only a dollar, but maybe she didn’t have a dollar to spare.

Jason looked around. Snow was gathering in the corners and the wind was picking up. Except for a quick trip to the john, he hadn’t taken any breaks at all. It seemed too depressing to stop some place for lunch and sit alone to eat it. He’d rather be in the car driving.

“Come on,” he said, picking up the suitcase. “I’m not letting you stay out here in this weather.” He felt a little like a bully, but he turned and walked toward the brightly lit store, not giving her a chance to argue.

“But…” She traipsed along behind him.

The odors of coffee, grilling food and disinfectant lingered in the air. He set the suitcase down next to a table by the window. “Sit. You drink coffee?”

“Yes. Black.”

While he was at it, he ordered two egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches.

Setting the coffee on the table, he slid into the molded plastic chair across from her.

He could feel her eyes on his misshapen face. She quickly looked away.

She’d tossed back the scarf, her dark hair tumbling across her shoulders. Jason felt a pang. If he ever had the good fortune to have a girlfriend like this, he certainly would not keep her waiting in the cold for him. Worry etched her pretty face, doing nothing to diminish the sparks in her dark eyes. She glanced down at her lap.

Jason saw a tiny baby, wrapped in what looked like an adult’s sweater.

“You were going to wait out there for another two hours with a baby?” He knew he sounded judgmental. He couldn’t help it.

“She’s warm enough, snuggled up inside my coat.”

“And if the coat got soaked through in the snow?”

The woman looked down at the table. “It didn’t.”

She shifted the sleeping baby and freed up a hand to take the coffee. “Thanks,” she said.

“Do you have what you need for her? Diapers? Bottles?”

A wan smile played on her pale lips. “I have a few diapers. And she doesn’t get bottles. As long as I’m with her, she’s got her food right here.” She pointed at her chest.

Jason blushed. Yes, yes, he knew all about how mother’s milk was the best food for babies, and that it was quite acceptable these days for women to breastfeed their babies in public, but he still felt a bit queasy about the whole thing. He hoped she wasn’t about to whip out her breast and go at it right now.

The baby stirred, murmured and slept on.

“My name’s Jason Avernis,” he said, hoping it would encourage her to open up a bit.

“Thank you for the coffee, Officer Avernis,” she said.

“Jason.”

She smiled. “Jason. My name’s Victoria Leonard.”

“And the baby?”

“Madison.”

“And the boyfriend?”

Victoria looked down at the table again. “Calvin Marshall.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar to Jason. “Is he from around here?”

“Yes.” She was quiet for a few seconds, her hands around the warm cup. “I met him when I was in high school. He was older and had a job. We moved to Columbia. Before I graduated. Not my smartest move.”

“So he was with you in Columbia?”

“Yes. Then he…he got in some trouble. I’ve been living on my own for a while.”

“He was locked up?”

She nodded. “For a few months. Then he was on parole or something, and he was supposed to come here to live with his mother.”

A microwave dinged behind the counter. The clerk brought over the sandwiches, and put them down.

They were just standard fast food breakfast sandwiches, but they smelled good. Jason realized how hungry he was. He was suddenly self-conscious about how he looked when he tried to eat. They were soft English muffins, with egg and cheese. He should be able to handle them without drooling all over the table. He hoped.

Victoria stared at the sandwiches.

He shoved one across the table at her. “Here.”

“Oh, I couldn’t…” She didn’t take her eyes off the sandwich. “It’s so generous of you to get me coffee…”

“Well.” He unwrapped one. “I can’t eat both. They’d sit in my stomach like lead, and I still have a ways to go on this shift. So if you don’t eat it, it’ll just get thrown away.”

She still didn’t reach for it.

“Besides…” He was getting into uncomfortable territory here. “If you don’t eat, how can you make enough milk for Madison?”

She looked up with tears in her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I haven’t eaten since last night, and it’ll be a few hours before I can get Christmas dinner.” She reached for the sandwich.

“Where are you going for Christmas dinner?” Jason asked.

She was busy taking a huge bite of the sandwich and had to chew and swallow before she answered. “My parents’ house.”

“Wouldn’t someone from there come pick you up?”

Victoria shook her head. “They don’t know we’re coming. We’re going to surprise them.”

“Do they know about Madison?”

“Well…”

That was going to be some surprise.

Jason finished his sandwich and stood up. “I have to get back out on patrol,” he said. “It’s been a fairly quiet Christmas Eve, and I hope it stays that way. Coffee refills are free. Stay here until Calvin gets here, or until the bus depot opens. No sitting out in the cold!”

“How can I ever thank you?” Victoria asked.

“Just take good care of that baby. And have a good Christmas.”

He stopped at the counter and ordered a large sub with all the trimmings. “Give it to that lady,” he said, nodding at Victoria as he paid.

On to St. Luke’s.

At first glance, he saw nothing amiss in the nativity creche. Better go check to see if baby Jesus were in his manger, though.

As he approached, a figure moved ominously, its eyes flashing red. It made a growling sound.

Jason whipped up his flashlight.

A horned devil, dressed in red and waving a pitchfork, was perched on the donkey’s back. Probably left over from someone’s Halloween decorations. When Jason stood still, it ceased moving and its eyes went dark. Undoubtedly motion activated.

More amusing than a missing baby Jesus.

Suppressing a chuckle, he went back to his car and called in, describing the scene. “Call the emergency number and tell the church warder about it,” he said.

The dispatcher laughed out loud. “Will do.”

As the sky began to brighten with the dawn, the snow settled down to a steady gentle descent, covering the trees and beginning to accumulate on the streets.

Jason swung by the convenience store. Without getting out of his car, he could see that the table by the window was empty. The depot was now open, and someone moved inside.

If that was Victoria, she shouldn’t have much longer to wait. And she was out of the weather.

The radio crackled. “Request assistance. State trooper. Traffic stop on I 62 near mile marker 47.”

Activating his lights, Jason sped up and headed out to the highway. An officer requesting assistance was the highest priority call. Traffic stops could turn dangerous quickly.

As he rounded a corner, the tires slid and his car skidded across the road. He immediately took his foot off the gas and held the steering wheel steady. When the car stopped moving, he gingerly turned in the direction of the interstate and proceeded at a much-reduced speed.

While he wanted to reach the traffic stop quickly, he would be doing no one any favors if he wrecked the car. No time was good for accidents and injuries, but Christmas was even worse than most.

As soon as he cleared the ramp, Jason could see a multitude of frenetic flashing lights. Every first responder in the area must have shown up.

He pulled up behind another police cruiser and climbed out.

A patrol officer from the next town stood by his car, his hand on his holster, and nodded a greeting. “Felony traffic stop,” he said. “Some guy with multiple fugitive warrants out of Oklahoma and Texas. He was packing heat.”

“Do you know who he is?” Jason asked.

The other guy shrugged. “Used to live around here. Bad news. I’ve picked him up a couple of times, a few years ago. Name of Calvin Marshall.”

Jason felt a lump in the pit of his stomach. Poor Victoria. How had she gotten involved with someone like that? She seemed like a nice person. But first impressions could be deceiving.

Her boyfriend would not be showing up to pick her up this morning. From the sound of it, he would most likely not be showing up for quite a while. Probably years. Should Jason go tell her? If he didn’t, who would? He couldn’t leave her sitting there, waiting.

His shift was ending soon. He had just about enough time to return to the station and turn the patrol car over to the next shift. He had the usual end-of-shift paperwork to do, but he could handle that later.

He thought about how disappointed Victoria would have to be. And he’d thought his Christmas was going to be disappointing. No comparison. He decided to change into his civvies and get his own pickup truck to go to the depot.

The snow had stopped. Sunlight was beginning to peek through the clouds and sparkle on the new snow. A plow roared down the street, hurling a wave of white to the side. Somebody else out working on Christmas morning. Jason wondered idly if the driver were missing seeing joyous children open presents. Or if the guy didn’t mind working since he’d just go back to an empty apartment.

Jason got behind the plow and followed it downtown.

He parked in a just-cleared space in front of the depot. He didn’t see anyone through the window, but he got out and went inside.

Victoria sat in a corner, her head thrown back against the wall and her eyes closed. She snored lightly. Madison lay on her lap, cradled in her arms.

She was probably exhausted. Should he wake her up?

Well, yes. She had to be told about Calvin, the sooner the better.

“Victoria?” he said softly. “Victoria? Can I speak to you for a minute?”

She startled awake, panic on her face. She clutched the baby to her.

“Sorry to wake you up. We talked earlier this morning. I was in uniform…”

Her eyes focused, first on his face, then on the scar. “Oh, yes. I recognize you. Even without your uniform.”

With an effort, Jason refrained from tracing his crooked jaw with his finger. Of course she recognized him. How could she not?

“I don’t know how to tell you this…” His voice trailed off.

She sighed deeply. “Is it about Calvin?”

“Yes.”

“That he’s not coming?” A tear glistened in the corner of her eye.

At least the news didn’t seem to be coming as a total shock. “Yes.”

“What happened?

“He was picked up out on I 62. He had a few warrants, out of Oklahoma and Texas.”

She bit her lip. “Was he headed toward here? Or away?”

Jason hadn’t considered that. He thought for a minute. “Away,” he conceded.

Madison stirred. Victoria looked down at her. More tears gathered in her eyes.

“Didn’t you say you were going to visit your parents?” he asked.

“Yes.” Her voice was flat.

“Well, why don’t you call them? They can come and pick you up.”

“I don’t have a cell phone.”

“You can use mine.” Jason dug it out of his pocket.

She shook her head. “I don’t think they’d come get me.”

“They wouldn’t leave you stranded here, would they? Especially not with a baby.”

“I haven’t spoken to them since I left home. They don’t know about Madison. We were going to drop in and hope they invited us to dinner at least. If they were still mad, we would have just turned around and gone back to Columbia.” She rubbed her eye with the back of her hand. “I haven’t got bus fare back.”

Jason considered. “So what do you plan to do now?”

“I dunno. There’s that homeless shelter a few blocks away. I guess I can get there and see if I can stay for a little while. Maybe see if they can help me find a job or get back to Columbia or something.”

Jason shoved his cell phone back into his pocket. “Look, suppose I drive you to your parents’ place? I bet they’ve been worried about you. And will be glad to have you back.”

She gave a soft laugh. “You don’t know my parents. They can be pretty stubborn.”

“It’s worth a try. After all, isn’t that why you came here?”

“True. But they might not even let me in the door.”

“I’ll wait and see. If they don’t let you stay, I’ll drive you to the homeless shelter.” After, he thought, I spring for hot turkey sandwiches for the both of us.

“I couldn’t impose on you like that.”

“Seems to me stubbornness must run in your family.”

Victoria laughed again, this time not quite so sadly. “Okay. It’s a deal. You drive me to my parents’ house and if they turn me away, take me to the homeless shelter. But what do you get out of this?”

“Not spending the rest of the Christmas season worrying about you.”

He grabbed her suitcase and escorted her out to his pickup. She climbed in the front seat, careful to keep Madison well wrapped against the cold.

Her parents’ house was only three miles away, but it would have been an impossible walk carrying a baby in this weather.

Jason eased the truck to the side of the street in front of the house.

Victoria just sat there.

“Well, come on.” He took the suitcase. “It won’t get any easier if you put it off.”

“You’re right.” She slid out of the truck and started up the front walk, stepping carefully in the unshoveled snow. Jason followed, suitcase in hand.

The door had a cheery evergreen wreath with a huge red bow.

Victoria squared her shoulders, hugged Madison closer and glanced back at Jason.

She rang the bell.

The door flung open.

A wave of warm air, carrying with it scents of cooking turkey and fresh Christmas tree, enveloped them.

A man stood there, peering at them through thick glasses. He held a newspaper in his hand.

Behind his glasses, his eyes opened wide. “Mother!” he called over his shoulder. “Our Victoria’s come for Christmas! And brought a young man with her.”

A rotund woman in a frilly apron came hurrying out of the kitchen. Her cheeks were rosy from the heat of cooking and she held a ladle in her hand.

“Oh, Victoria!” she cried. “How we’ve missed you! Come in, come in. You’re in time for dinner.”

Victoria ran to her mother’s arms.

Jason felt a lopsided grin break out on his face. He stepped inside to put the suitcase down.

The man shut the door behind him.

“I’m just bringing the suitcase in,” Jason told him. “I’m not staying.”

Victoria’s mother was hugging her and trying to coo at Madison at the same time. She looked toward Jason. “At least you can stay for dinner, can’t you? There’s plenty to go around.”

“I really can’t…” he started to say.

Victoria turned her head toward him. “Please do.”

“Well…” These seemed like nice people. They seemed like they really wanted him to stay. Especially Victoria. Maybe it wouldn’t matter that much if eating was awkward for him.

The man took him by the elbow and steered him toward the living room. “What do you drink? Eggnog? Brandy? Hot cider?”