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.
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?”
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.”
“Your parents don’t even know you’re not home asleep in your beds,” Jason said. “Am I right?”
“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.”
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.
“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?”
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.
She smiled. “Jason. My name’s Victoria Leonard.”
“And the baby?”
“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?”
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?”
“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.”
“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?”