A Very Safe Christmas Eve
Bradford Ellis was a rookie as green as a Christmas tree, a fact he couldn’t forget since not only his colleagues at the Beston Falls police department but his entire family, except his mom, called him “Rookie.”
Because he was a rookie, and low on the food chain, he was going to be working a double shift this Christmas, so his fellow—and sister—officers could spend Christmas Eve with their families. That was fine with Brad. If he was at home, he’d have to hear war stories from his father, chief in the next town, his uncle, chief in another, and his older brother, who was also a cop. While the men gathered in the living room to share stories, his sister would be upstairs, trying to settle her two little ones and occasionally snapping at the menfolk to please quiet down.
His mother, her rosary handy in her apron pocket, would be in the kitchen, making the dinner they’d eat before leaving for midnight mass, and lasagna and a Christmas cake for tomorrow. She made no secret of the fact that she hadn’t wanted her baby to follow the rest of the family into the business.
Her baby had, though. First the military, then the police academy. Now, as a gentle snow drifted down, he was taking a break between shifts, swapping his wet boots for a dry pair, and gearing up for Christmas Eve.
“Christmas Eve is crazy. It’s like three full moons at once,” his Uncle Joe said.
“Brace yourself,” his father said. “Domestics and drunks you expect. What you’ll also get are lonely old men who call in fake prowlers because they need someone to drink with, and sad old ladies with lost dogs or cats. You’ll get college kids driving around texting because they can’t stand to go home. Pissed off girlfriends who didn’t get engagement rings going out and driving into things, and a handful of shoplifters who don’t have money for presents.”
“Don’t forget lonely divorcees looking for comfort from a hot young cop,” his brother added.
It really made Brad eager for his next shift. The only plus in all their stories was that Christmas Eve was when Mrs. Gladys Young, who according to police lore made the best brownies in the world, dropped several dozen of them off at the department.
As Brad headed out this morning for his first shift, his mother had put a hand on his arm. “What they’ve said is true, Brad. It’s crazy out there. But what they can get kind of cynical about is how hard this holiday is on people. So do your job, of course. And stay safe. But remember to be kind.”
Now, his eyes already sore from eight hours of vigilance, his back stiff from so many hours in the car, his digestion off from too much sugar, he wondered whether he’d be called upon to be kind. Also where he’d find the energy for the next shift. As he passed his sergeant’s desk, he saw a big plate of brownies with a bright red bow. Looked like Mrs. Young had come through again. As he headed back out to his cruiser, he snagged one. The reputation was overblown, he thought. It was good enough, but too dry and cake-like. Brad like rich, fudgy brownies.
He’d barely had time to grab a coffee and begin patrolling his sector when the calls started coming. Another officer needed backup on a domestic. Domestics always had the potential to be dangerous, but he preferred a busy night to a quiet one, so he hit lights and siren and took off. It was a bad one. The husband ex-military with PTSD, the wife terrified, and two small children cowering in a corner. He let the other cop handle the husband while he took the wife and kids into another room to get their story.
Usually situations like this made him edgy but tonight, for some reason, he was feeling mellow. He took the smaller boy on his lap and answered the other boy’s many questions about his gear and his radio while the mother told her story. Rookie or not, he’d heard it before.
“I don’t want him arrested, Officer. He doesn’t mean to hurt me or scare the boys. He’s just got these troubles and sometimes something just sets him off.”
“I understand, ma’am, but he can’t be out of control and hurting you, even if he does have problems.”
She sniffled, and he gave her his handkerchief. His mother bought everyone in the family a couple dozen every Christmas. She knew they’d get used.
“I don’t want him arrested, is all, having to spend Christmas in jail,” the woman said. “The boys have been looking forward to having their daddy back home. He was away last Christmas.”
The small boy on his knee gave Brad a big smile and said, “Santa coming.”
“Does your husband have medication or some self-control strategies he can use to calm himself down?”
“He has meds. He ran out,” she said. “It was a busy day so he figured he’d go by the drugstore on Monday.”
Brad figured the man had better make a trip to the drugstore tonight. “Can you call in a refill?” he said. “Your husband and I can pick it up . . . what’s his name, anyway?”
She sorta grinned when she said, “It’s Brad, just like you.”
It was settled that Brad and Brad would go to the drugstore, and she would call her father to come over for the evening in case her Brad got out of hand again. The boys loved their Umpa, so that would be a good thing.
The other cop told Brad he was being a softy, an idiot making a rookie mistake, and they’d be back arresting the guy before the night was over, but he was just as happy to skip the paperwork and went on his way.
The husband sat still and sullen but Brad was thinking that the holiday lights were especially nice this year. The snow was nice, too, as long as it stayed light. While Brad the husband filled his prescription, Brad the Rookie decided it would be good to have some chocolate, and got one of those chocolate oranges for the boys as well. He handed it to Brad as the man was getting out of the car. “Stay on your meds or call another vet to talk,” he said. “Here’s something for the boys, if it’s okay for them to have chocolate.”
A small thing, yet Sullen Brad turned into apologetic Brad, said thanks and that he was sorry for the trouble. He and the orange disappeared up the path.
Brad the cop ate four squares of a Cadbury fruit and nut bar and decided working on Christmas Eve wasn’t all bad. That conclusion lasted exactly ten minutes before a shiny BMW suddenly pulled out in front of him and took off, veering wildly from almost going in the ditch to well over the center line. He hit the lights and siren and of course, the car didn’t stop until they’d turned into the town’s fanciest subdivision. Halfway up the hill, the Beamer suddenly lurched sideways and buried itself in a snowbank.
As he walked toward it, Brad was amused by the way the shiny car seemed to be kissing the snowbank. Part of his mother’s be kind? By the crunch of his boots on the sandy road. The psychedelic reflection of his lights off the snow.
The driver’s window was down and the kid, Brad figured him for late teens or early twenties, was slowly banging his head on the steering wheel, muttering “Oh fuck. Oh fuck. Oh, I am so fucked.” He waved a hand at Brad and said, “Excuse me, Officer. Just give me a minute and I’ll pull myself together.” After a few more obscenities, he straightened up and reached for his pocket.
Brad stiffened and his hand went for his gun. “Keep your hands where I can see them,” he said. Six months on the job, he’d already said that so many times. Tonight it made him feel like laughing. He struggled to keep his face straight.
The kid ran his hand through a thatch of dark curly hair. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry. I was just getting my license. Is that okay?”
License and registration were handed over. The kid was named Jason. He was twenty and lived in one of those tract mansions up the hill.
“You gonna arrest me?” the kid said.
Brad thought he sounded hopeful. “Should I? You been drinking? Smoking something? You were driving pretty badly back there.”
“Fight with my girlfriend,” the kid said. “On the heels of a fight with my dad. And then my mom called to start another fight about where I spend Christmas Eve. Christmas Day. Like there’s any pleasure in watching their endless fights. To hear them tell it, I’m a useless asshole who needs to grow up and be more respectful.”
Brad had heard similar things himself from girlfriends and family members, just not from his mom, who actually seemed to like him. “So you decided to go out and drive around while having these fights, never mind that you might be a danger to other people who have to be out tonight? Maybe injure or kill someone while you’re being all angsty about your poor life?”
The kid would have banged his head on the wheel again, but Brad put a firm hand on his shoulder. “Stop that,” he said. “It never does any good.” The kid was wearing a very fancy overcoat, cashmere probably, and it felt good under his fingers. “That cashmere?” he asked.
“I didn’t steal it,” the kid said, quickly. “It’s my dad’s. I ran out in a hurry and just grabbed the first thing I found. He’ll kill me if anything happens to it. He loves this coat.”
He would have started banging his head again, but Brad’s firm grip on his shoulder told him not to. “Are you a useless asshole?” Brad asked, thinking it would probably be punishment enough for the kid to have to dig his car out of a snowbank without a coat, since he couldn’t risk harming the expensive cashmere. If there was even a shovel in this fancy car.
“I’m a magician. And a musician. Just not very successful at either one. Yet. And a student.”
I’m a magician. I’m a musician. It sounded like the beginning to a song and Brad started a tuneless hum.
The kid stared at him. “Are you okay?”
Don’t let them get familiar, Brad thought. “Fine. Thanks for asking.”
The mike on Brad’s shoulder came to life with a call about a missing dog and an older woman in distress, could Brad respond? He could. He looked at the kid, still sitting behind the wheel, slumped with discouragement. Maybe seeing something of other people’s troubles would give him some perspective. “Come ride with me for a while,” he said. “See how the other half lives.”
“What if I don’t want to?” the kid said, giving Brad some insight into how people might find him annoying.
“Your choice,” Brad said. “Ticket or riding with me.”
He headed for his car without waiting for an answer. He heard the car door slam. The kid was coming. He hoped he wasn’t making a big mistake. A rookie mistake. He cleared space on the passenger seat and the kid climbed in. He’d left the expensive coat behind, so Brad turned up the heat.
The woman who answered the door looked sad, but she tried for a smile as she ushered them into a warm living room decorated for Christmas with a lovely tree and flickering candles scented with pine. Over the scent of the candles, he could smell dinner cooking. A roast, he thought. And baked potatoes.
“It’s my dog, Officer. He’s a little Yorkie named Fritz. I’d just gone out to sweep the steps and he slipped past me. I’ve been up and down the street, calling for him. He’s usually good but tonight he isn’t coming when I call.”
“We’ll take a look,” Brad said. “And by the way, your dinner smells delicious. Your family is in for a treat.”
The woman burst into tears.
Brad got out a handkerchief and gave it to her. “Ma’am,” he said, “why don’t you tell me what’s wrong while Jason looks for Fritz.”
“Mrs. Clemens,” she said. “Olive Clemens.”
“I don’t have a coat,” Jason said.
Brad gave him a look—the squint-eyed, do what I say look he’d learned from his father—and Jason went.
Brad led the woman to her couch and took a chair across from her. “Now, ma’am, tell me what’s wrong?”
“I’m cooking this lovely dinner and now no one is coming,” she said. “They couldn’t be bothered to let me know sooner. They waited until dinner was in the oven. Then my son called and said he has to cover the ER tonight and his wife doesn’t want to come by herself, doesn’t want to drive in the snow with the baby, and my daughter called and said her new boyfriend wants them to spend a romantic Christmas by themselves. So now I have this roast in the oven and potatoes baking. Sam’s favorite red cabbage and cheese cake, and green peas for Claire.”
Brad was off at eleven. Too late for this poor woman’s roast. The best he could do was tell her he sympathized, because he had to work on Christmas Eve, too. By the time she calmed down, Jason was back with the dog, her spirits were partially restored, and Brad and Jason were back in the car.
“Cute dog,” Jason said. “It came immediately when I called.”
“She let it out so she could call us and someone would come by,” Brad told him. “That happens at Christmas. Poor lady. Her kids both bailed on her after she’d started cooking them a special dinner.”
“Wish my mom would cook a special dinner. Her specialty is ordering takeout.”
“That why you’re out driving around, because your family doesn’t do a special Christmas Eve?”
“Told you why I was driving around,” the kid muttered. “Because our kind of Christmas Eve is a particularly ugly, drunken fight.”
“I could take you back to Mrs. Clemens,” Brad said. “I’m sure she’d be happy to give you dinner.”
“Yeah, and I’m starved,” Brad said. The scent of that roast had been amazing. If he were home, there would be a roast, too. Roast beef on Christmas Eve. Turkey on Christmas. Just thinking about it made him hungry. “Your mother doesn’t cook?”
“Nope. Said we didn’t appreciate her, so she stopped cooking.”
“You got siblings?”
The snow was getting heavier now and the car fumbled it way through a ridge the plow had left, fishtailed a bit, and settled down. “Siblings, Jason?” he said.
“Got a younger sister who’s a moody bitch and an older brother who can do no wrong.”
That sounded familiar to Brad.
They turned onto Main Street and started up the hill, clumps of snow thudding onto the undercarriage like a distant drum. Brad found he was humming again. Two blocks on, they found a car halfway off the road, its warning flashers on. A young woman in a white parka, a cloud of blonde curls under a bright red cap with a pompom that looked like something from Dr. Seuss, stood beside it, kicking one of the tires.
“Serve and protect,” Brad said, pulling in behind it and putting on his lights. He walked up to the young woman. Her face was painted red and blue from his strobes, illuminating the tears running down her cheeks.
“What seems to be the problem, ma’am?”
“I hate this car,” she said.
“What has it done to make you dislike it so?”
She gave him a puzzled look. “Excuse me?”
“The car,” he said. “Why are you beating it up?”
“Because it won’t go,” she wailed. “It just wants to sit here and spin its tires and I’m supposed to do this stupid errand which I forgot to do this morning because I was writing a paper and it won’t make any difference anyway but my mom says I need to learn responsibility and she made me take her car because it was behind mine and her car is crap in snow and now it won’t go up this darned hill and I don’t know what to do.”
“Let’s see if we can get you sorted out,” he said.
“Great,” she said. “Make me feel even more pathetic, why don’t you? I can’t do anything right and now a big tough cop comes and along and he can drive the damned thing.”
“Maybe I can. Maybe I can’t.” He gave her a handkerchief and told her to go get in his car so he didn’t run over her. Then he got into the car, backed it up carefully, drove to the top of the hill, and parked it. She wasn’t wrong. It was a crap car. Rear wheel drive and lousy tires. Whoever was in charge of maintaining it—most likely her mother—also needed to learn something about responsibility.
He walked back to his cruiser, his boots making sucking sounds in the slush. It was peaceful out here in the night. Few cars, pretty holiday lights. He was passing the Congregational church when a movement caught his eye. Two giggling figures burst out of the trees and dashed into the stable that sheltered the Holy Family. They grabbed the infant Jesus from the manger, and took off back toward the woods.
Almost giggling himself at the idea of pursuing statue-nappers, Brad shouted, “Stop! Police,” and took off after them. It wasn’t hard. He was six-three and ran five miles every day, rain or snow, while they were encumbered by the statue and their legs were short. After a disappointingly short chase, they stopped, shamefaced, and handed Jesus over. One of them was blond, pink-faced, and plump. The other was small and dark and definitely the instigator. And a girl.
Seeing the smirks they were failing to hide, he said, “You think stealing the magic out of Christmas is funny? You think your parents are going to think this is funny? You think Reverend Miller will think this is funny? What about how people will feel when they come for the midnight service and the manger is empty?”
“Stealing the magic out of Christmas?” the girl said, uncertainty in her voice. Maybe because he’d made her wonder. Maybe because she was worried that some cop was off his rocker.
He set the infant carefully on the ground, got out his notebook, and took their names, their addresses and phone numbers, and the names of their parents. He was pretty sure they were telling him the truth because the smirks were gone and their voices stuttered as they gave up their information.
He picked up the statue again. “Now get out of here,” he said. “And don’t let me hear of any more mischief tonight, or I’ll come to your houses and bring you down to the station. You can spend the night thinking about how to behave better. No stockings. No Christmas breakfast. How would you like that?”
He was channeling his father and it was actually kind of fun. The tough guy looks, the loud, angry voice. The way he could tower over them and make them feel small. But now he felt like laughing again, so he sent them on their way, and didn’t let the laugh escape until they were out of earshot. Then he carefully replaced the infant in the manger, told Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the ox and the ass and the angels to have a good night, and went back to his car. He was slightly envious of those kids. He’d always been a cop’s son. Never gotten to misbehave in ways that would bring shame on the family.
Back in the car, he found the girl—he learned her name was Sharlet—and Jason, busy getting to know each other, primarily through bitching about their respective families. He drove slowly up the hill and stopped by the badly behaved car.
“Here you go, Sharlet,” he said.
She sighed. “Can’t I just ride around with you for a while?”
“Thought you had an important errand to do?”
“Important?” She snorted. “My mom wants me drop off some old toys and stuffed animals at Goodwill. It’s not like they’re going to be sorting toys and getting them out for sale tonight or anything. She just wants things done her way.”
Brad could have told her that was true of most of the world.
Man but he was hungry. He got out his chocolate bar, then realized he couldn’t eat it now unless he shared. He held up the bar. “Chocolate?”
He didn’t have to ask twice.
They munched on chocolate and were otherwise quiet as they drove down a peaceful Main Street. Brad slowed as they passed the bank. The ATM was unfortunately a spot where those who had not too frequently decided to help themselves from those who had. Often from those who had little. Sadly, tonight was no exception. As they approached, he could see an elderly man making a withdrawal, and a dark figure in a hoodie poised to make that withdrawal his own.
Quietly, Brad pulled to the curb half a block away. “Stay in the car,” he told them, and quietly exited and approached the ATM. Though the man at the ATM appeared slouched and feeble, Brad spotted something mugger obviously hadn’t—the “elderly” man wore combat boots, shiny with a military polish.
The hooded figure, oblivious to his approach, sprang at the old man as the man was putting cash in his wallet, snatching at the wallet as he knocked the man off his feet.
Brad said, “Police officer,” as he grabbed the would-be thief and pushed him to the ground. He flipped the man onto his stomach, cuffed him, and checked for weapons. He found a knife in the man’s pocket. “Stay down,” he commanded, and went to check on the victim.
The man was still on the ground, his wallet, the cash halfway in, lying beside him.
“Police officer, sir,” Brad said, trying not to laugh. “Are you injured?”
The man looked at him and grinned. “Are you injured, sir?” Brad asked again, continuing the charade. No reason for it to get back to the scumbag community that the cops were using decoys at the ATMs. He helped the man to his feet, got out a notebook, and took down the “particulars” of the assault and robbery attempt. Then, with an admonition to the mugger “not to even think about running,” he helped the victim to his car, then hauled the mugger to his feet and put him in the back seat with Sharlet.
“Watch yourself,” he said. “There’s a lady present.”
Sharlet grinned, then wrinkled her nose as she scented her new companion.
The mugger growled and said something obscene. He smelled of unwashed body and clothes and cigarettes and greasy food. Not a bad introduction for Brad’s passengers to the uglier side of life.
His radio crackled. The undercover guy. “Stay put. Patterson’s coming to take him off your hands,” he said.
Brad didn’t mind at all. He idled at the curb, Sharlet and Jason silent, the mugger making enough noise for everyone as he cursed and mumbled inarticulately about his miserable fate. Soon Cheryl Patterson, a female officer so fierce she could make Brad cower, pulled in behind him. She pulled the mugger out of the car with a sharp, “Len Conway, you told me you were done with kind of thing. And on Christmas Eve, too. I’m ashamed of you.”
Brad’s passengers stared, goggle-eyed, as the man ducked his head and said, “Sorry, Officer Patterson. Sorry. I couldn’t help myself,” before he was out of earshot. Patterson’s car gave a quick bleep with its siren, and drove away.
“Wow!” Sharlet said. “I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.”
“Me neither,” Brad agreed. He didn’t tell them that Patterson was also one of the most compassionate people he’d ever known. Her toughness wasn’t a veneer, but it was only a part of her.
Then, “Will that poor old man be okay? It must be so scary to be jumped like that.”
“He’s okay,” Brad said.
“Why was he dressed like that and why does he smell so bad?” Jason asked, obviously not referring to the victim.
“Because he probably doesn’t have a home, or clean clothes, or a place to shower or do laundry. Because he eats fast food that’s cheap and because he can hang out there and be warm until they throw him out.”
He was beginning to regret bringing Sharlet and Jason along, but only because he was longing for something to eat and was feeling sleepy and he didn’t want to have to keep answering their questions. Careful what you wish for, he thought. He’d invited them along to give them an education. He didn’t want to give them an education that included driving behind a warehouse and taking a nap. He was puzzled, too, because the evening had been eventful enough to keep his adrenaline up but all he was feeling was mellow.
He was about to head to Dunkin’ Donuts for a peppermint mocha something when he got another call. This time was the dispatcher’s voice was not urgent, but cheerful. “Lieutenant Wyzanski wants to know if you can stop by Gladys Young’s house and pick up the brownies. She was late getting them baked and now she doesn’t want to drive in the snow.”
Gladys Young’s brownies were still at her house? He got as far as, “But . . .” and realized it was a question he didn’t want to ask. He might have just made the biggest rookie mistake of all—eating evidence. No wonder the lights were lovely and bad guys made him laugh and he was hungry and driving around with two idiots in his car. The biggest idiot was Brad Ellis. Stoned on patrol after eating a pot brownie.
He was about to turn around and take Jason and Sharlet back to their cars, then get a potentially unsafe officer off the street when another call came in. This time it was more urgent.
“Mr. Harmon is holding a shoplifter at the Budget Dollar store. He’s agitated and reports he’s armed. There are children involved. We’ll send you backup as soon as we can, but everyone’s tied up right now. Can you respond?”
“Responding,” he said. “Hang on,” he told his passengers. He hit the lights and siren and they slithered off through the snow.
Ralph Harmon never should have been a shopkeeper. He was bad tempered, quick tempered, paranoid, and mean. He couldn’t keep employees and only those most desperate and downtrodden worked there at all. Many of his wares were cheap crap. His customers people who couldn’t afford anything better. Christmas was worst, of course, because poor people desperate to give their kids something bought his junk, only to have it break in a few days. They would have been better off shopping at Goodwill, where decent toys could be found for decent prices. Not that Brad had an opinion or anything.
Now, reading through the lines of Dispatch’s message, Ralph Harmon was holding an adult and two children at gunpoint until the police arrived.
Once again, he told Sharlet and Jason to stay in the car. Inside, he found a bedraggled woman and two small frightened and crying children backed into a corner, while Harmon, clutching a handgun in a hand shaky with rage, screamed at them. Brad immediately broke a fundamental rule of policing. Chock it up to illegal drugs, he thought, as he stepped between Harmon and the terrified little family and held out his hand. “Give me the gun,” he commanded.
“Not until you arrest this woman,” Harmon bellowed. “She tried to steal from me.”
Arresting her meant getting someone from social services to come and take the children. It meant splitting up a family on Christmas Eve. It meant leaving these kids with the memory of being torn from their mother on Christmas, coming on top of being screamed at and held at gunpoint. The younger child, a skinny blonde girl, couldn’t have been more than four.
Brad drew himself up to his full six-three and two hundred forty pounds and stepped up until he was right in Harmon’s face. “Give. Me. That. Gun. Now!”
As Harmon reluctantly handed over the gun, Brad heard a commotion behind him and Jason and Sharlet rushed past him and picked up the children, carrying them away from Harmon and their cowering mother.
So much for telling them to stay in the car.
Brad said to the woman, “You stay with Jason and Sharlet and don’t you dare leave this store.” He jerked his chin toward the back and said to Harmon, “You. Come with me.”
When they were away from the children’s cries, he held up the gun. “You have a permit for this?”
“I don’t oughta need a permit to protect my own premises,” Harmon said.
“So I guess that’s no?” Brad said. “Tell me what happened.”
“I was working the register. Not my job but one of my damned useless clerks called in and said her kid was sick and she couldn’t leave him on Christmas. Like she was anything special. Anyways, I looked down the aisle, and there’s that woman with her two kids, and she’s stuffing something down her jacket. So I said to my customer, ‘Excuse me,’ and I went after her. I grabbed her and I shook her and all this stuff fell out.”
“A baby doll. A packages of cookies. Couple of those tuna lunches. A matchbox car.”
“Yeah. I check in her purse and I searched those kids, but that’s all I found.”
Brad could imagine how terrifying it must have been for those children, being searched at gunpoint.
“So how about this?” Brad said, getting out his wallet. “How about I pay you for the stuff she took.” He looked around. “You got it here someplace? At the register? For evidence, I mean?”
Harmon glared at him. “I got it. But it ain’t just the stuff. It’s the principle of the thing. She can’t be stealing. She can’t be teaching her kids to steal.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Brad agreed. “I’ll take the evidence, and her and the kids, with me and fill out a complaint against her for the value of those items. And . . .” He waved the gun. “Fill out a complaint against you for having an unlicensed handgun and menacing.”
“Menacing! I am a goddamned store owner trying to protect my property. How’d you cops want me to handle this? Just politely say ‘Please, ma’am, don’t steal from me?’ That’s bullshit. What do I pay my taxes for if it’s not to be protected?”
“Why I’m taking her and the kids in,” Brad said calmly. “Now, if you’ll get me that stuff, I’ll be on my way and you can get back to business. And be sure to make an appointment with the chief to get yourself a firearms permit. He’ll hold your gun until you’ve done that.” He paused, and gave Harmon his father’s glare. “You don’t have any more guns on the premises, do you?”
Harmon looked away.
Brad figured he had another gun, but that could wait for another day. With the threat of a possession charge hanging over his head, Harmon was unlikely to be using it.
When he had the shoplifted items in hand, he gathered Jason and Sharlet and the woman and her children and shepherded them out to the cruiser. The woman hesitated, trembling. She looked utterly beaten down. She wouldn’t even raise her head to look at him and made no effort to plead for him to let her stay with her children. Maybe finding herself facing a raging man with a gun in response to her effort to feed her children and get them each a gift had taken whatever she had left.
Her small son looked up at Brad and asked in a small voice, “Are you arresting us?”
That wasn’t Brad’s plan, but he hadn’t figured out what to do with them. The shelter would be noisy and crowded, if there was room for them at all. Then Jason was out of the car, whispering in his ear, “Olive Clemens.”
Brad nodded. It might work. “Get in the car,” he said. “Sharlet, one of the children is going to have to sit on your lap, okay?”
Sharlet grinned like she could read his mind. “Yes, sir, Officer,” and slid into the car with the two kids, while Jason got in front. His effort to slap some reality in Jason and Sharlet’s faces didn’t seem to be working. He could swear they were enjoying this. Probably they hadn’t realized what a threat Mr. Harmon had been. That moment when he stepped between Harmon’s gun and the woman had driven away any vestiges of the mellowing effect of his brownie. He was shaking like a leaf at the risk he’d taken and stone cold sober.
He motioned for the mother to join him. “Can’t promise anything, but I might be able to find you a nice dinner and a place to stay tonight,” he said. “Unless you’ve got dinner waiting at home?”
“Home is our car, Officer,” she said. “Only I guess you’ve already figured that out.”
He nodded. He already had her name. Joy Ambrose. And the children were Thomas and Angela. The name Angie Ambrose almost made him smile, but he knew the woman would think he was making fun of her.
“So a nice meal would be okay with you?”
Her thin, pinched face was streaked with tears as she said, “It would be heaven. But I feel like I don’t deserve any goodness tonight. Not after what I did. The children do. They’re only children and it’s Christmas. But trying to steal? I’ve never done anything like that in my life.”
He believed her.
Hoping he hadn’t just made an offer he couldn’t fulfill, hoping he wouldn’t have to take them straight to a shelter, he pulled his phone and called Olive Clemens.
“Sorry to disturb you, Mrs. Clemens. It’s Brad Ellis. The officer who helped you find your dog?”
“Oh. Yes,” she said. “You were so kind. I’m sorry I lost my composure like that.” She still sounded sad. He imagined her sitting by her pretty tree and with her small dog, still waiting for her doorbell to ring.
“Perfectly understandable, ma’am,” he said. “Now, I have kind of an unusual proposal for you.”
Her “yes?” was tentative.
“I’ve got a family here. Mother and two small children. It’s Christmas Eve and they have no place to stay and they’ve had no dinner. I thought. I hoped, I guess, that you might be willing to share that roast while I find them someplace to stay?”
She hesitated so long he thought she was searching for a polite way to say no. Then she said, “Thank you, Officer Ellis. I can’t think of a nicer way to spend Christmas Eve. And they are welcome to stay the night. I already have rooms made up for my family.”
“You’re very generous, Mrs. Clemens. May I bring them over now?”
“You certainly may.”
Then he motioned Sharlet out of the car again. As she stared at him, puzzled, he said, “Did you say that you’ve got toys and stuffed animals in your car?”
She nodded. Then she grinned. “I sure do,” she said.
“Anything these children might like?”
“Plenty,” she said. “This is so cool.”
They were off through the snow again, pausing by Sharlet’s mother’s bad car to retrieve a large black plastic bag from the trunk. Then they were pulling into Mrs. Clemens driveway. Sharlet got out, still holding Angie in her arms. Jason got out and said, “Come on, Tommy, let’s go get some dinner.”
Joy Ambrose didn’t move.
“Take them inside, Jason,” Brad said. “We’ll be along in a minute.”
He knelt down by the open door, so Joy Ambrose wouldn’t have to look so far up.
“I don’t know how it got so bad,” she said. “First my husband left. I tried to make it on my own, but everything is so expensive. Then Angie got sick and I had to stay with her and I lost my job and then we lost the apartment. Seemed like it all happened so fast and suddenly I’m living in a car and I’m broke and I’m shoplifting so they can eat and have Christmas.”
“You could have gone to a shelter.”
“We did. A man tried to molest Tommy. I figured we were safer in the car. Honestly, I just don’t know what to do.”
“Could you go home, just until you get on your feet?”
She shook her head. “I was too proud to let them see what I’ve become. Now we have to take this woman’s charity. I never meant it to come to this. I’m so ashamed.” She made no move to leave the cruiser.
“Before I headed out on my first shift today, my mother, who is a very wise woman, gave me some advice. She said that there would be plenty of action. Plenty of people behaving badly.”
The woman flinched, expecting Brad was about to give her a tough cop lecture.
“No,” he said. “It’s not what you’re thinking. My mother said that in the midst of all that happens, I needed to remember how hard this season can be on people. And she put her hand on my arm and said to remember to be kind. Now, the woman who lives here—” He gestured toward the house, “prepared a lovely dinner for Christmas Eve, and while it was cooking, both of her children called and said they weren’t coming. She’s been sitting here, smelling those delicious cooking smells and staring at her beautifully decorated house, and feeling terribly sad and alone.”
She was looking at him like she didn’t understand what he was saying.
“The thing is that now you have a chance to be kind. You have a chance to brighten up this woman’s Christmas, by being the company she needs and the people she wants to feed.”
He straightened up and held out his hand to her. “Do you think you can do that?”
Everything on her face said she didn’t believe him. “How can a ragged, dirty thief make anyone happy?”
He kept his hand out, waiting for her to take it. “Come inside and see.”
Inside, Jason was in the living room with the children. They were admiring the Christmas tree. Mrs. Clemens and Sharlet were nowhere to be seen.
Jason answered his question. “Mrs. Clemens is setting the table.” He glanced quickly at the children, then said, “I think Sharlet is doing something with the stuff in that bag.”
Brad nodded as Joy Ambrose, still hesitant, slipped off her coat and boots.
“The powder room is just there,” Jason said, pointing to a door.
Nodding her thanks, Joy Ambrose disappeared inside.
“I have another call,” Brad said. He fished out a card and gave it to Jason. “Give me a call and I’ll swing by later and take you and Sharlet back to your cars.”
“You’re not staying for dinner?”
“Wish I could, but I’m working tonight. You behave yourself, okay. Don’t be a jerk. And call your parents and tell them you’ll be late because you’re helping out at a homeless shelter tonight. Which,” Brad looked around at the lovely room, “this sort of is.”
“Yes, sir,” Jason said.
Brad went to find Sharlet. “She’s in the office, wrapping presents,” Mrs. Clemens said. “Such a lovely girl. Is there something you need to tell her?”
“Tell her to call her mother and say she’ll be home late. She can tell her mother she’s helping a homeless family.”
Mrs. Clemens nodded. Then she crossed the room, said, “I don’t care if this offends your dignity,” and gave him a hug. “Thank you.”
Brad Ellis walked out into the snowy night mentally thanking his mother for her wise advice.
He picked up the large tray of brownies from Gladys Young and drove them back to the station. His sergeant snagged him as he came through the door.
“Ellis. Please tell me you didn’t eat one of those brownies on my desk?”
His sergeant looked like he was on the verge of a breakdown, so once again, Brad decided to be kind. “I took one, thinking they were these,” he gestured with his chin toward the big platter of brownies he was carrying. “But I was too busy to eat it and then I dropped it as I was getting out of the car at Harmon’s. I’m sorry, sir, but your evidence is just a bunch of crumbs in the snow.”
“Bless your clumsy self, Rookie.”
Brad gave him the plate of brownies, took one for himself, and went back out to serve and protect.