“Before I was shot” isn’t a traditional way to begin a Christmas story. I know. I’m kind of big on truth telling, though, so that is how my story begins. My name is Angela. Angela Brooks, Angel to family and friends. And I’m a cop. Before I was shot by a piece of human trash named Travis Hannan who thought he shouldn’t be interrupted while he was beating his pregnant wife in front of his kids, I was fearless. Hell on wheels. I loved being a cop more than anything in the world. I loved helping people. I loved the adrenaline rush. I loved putting bad guys away. Despite the ever-present dangers of the job, I believed I was invincible. I’d logged a lot of years in dangerous situations to prove it.
Then I stepped into that shabby house, said, “Stop! Police,” and Hannan shot me. Also in front of his wife and kids. I shot back, Hannan died, and through the hole he made in me, some of my essence leaked out along with a pool of red on a blue tiled kitchen floor.
That happened less than four months ago. I’m fine now. At least my body is fine. A bit stiffer, and scarred, but fine. The docs say I’m fine. The heart pumps. The limbs move. My vision is clear. I can still hit a target better than most of the guys. The department shrink says I’m fine. The only thing that doesn’t find me fine is my spirit. My optimism. My joy. When your car needs its fluids topped up, you go to the garage or the auto store, you buy a can or a jug, pour it in, and everything’s fine. But how do you top off a broken soul? The only bottle or jug I can find that makes things fine comes from the local liquor store, and tempting as it is, I am not going down that road.
This particular Christmas eve I was sitting my living room, listening to a bad assortment of holiday music that Alexa was playing, trying to make myself take lights and ornaments from the boxes on my coffee table and put them on the tree. At least I had a tree, right? That was only because my brother Jeffrey brought it over and set it up with the fraternal admonition, “Christ, it’s Christmas, Angel. You aren’t a bear in a den, hibernating. Put some lights on the damned thing and maybe it will cheer you up.” Which, of course, cheered me immensely.
I was contemplating getting out a bottle of something resembling Christmas cheer when the phone rang. I hesitated, because telephonic communications from real people are few and far between and I wasn’t interested in being rude to some poor telemarketer on Christmas eve. My phone’s robotic voice bleeted some garbled ID. But it was Christmas, and there was an outside chance someone had called in sick and my help was needed. Those of us who were single topped the list of who got called. I would rather be out on the road, patrolling, than staring at this bare tree, so I answered. Thirty-two, unwed, and alone on Christmas eve. Of course I answered.
Dispatch informed me that I was needed, and right away. I waved at the naked tree and went to change into my uniform. Eager to work, yet apprehensive. The holiday season brought domestics like picnics drew ants, and domestics still gave me cold sweats. Yes, I wore my vest.
When I got in, my shift sergeant gave me a skeptical look. “Sure you’re up for this, Brooks? Gonna be domestic hell tonight.”
I gave him a grin I didn’t feel and said, “Want me to go home?”
“Hell, no. Here.” He handed me an intake form from dispatch. “Think you can handle a stray dog?”
I wanted real work, not spending an hour in the cold trying to catch some mutt. “That’s animal control,” I said.
“Would be,” he agreed. “Except animal control is stuck up in the heights, trying to get a flock of turkeys out of some bigwig’s pricy manger scene.” He tipped his head, like he did when he was trying to make a joke. “Unless you’d like to go up there and help out?”
“Think I’ve dealt with enough turkeys, Sarge.”
I got out my phone to take a note and entered the info from the form. A woman reported that she’d found a stray dog on her porch. It wouldn’t leave and didn’t have any tags to locate an owner. She’d brought it inside because of the cold, but it was a handful and she wanted someone to come and pick it up.
“When you’re done with that, call in. We’ve got plenty of work for you tonight.”
I shrugged back into my leather jacket and went out to the cruiser. Whoever had had it last had eaten pizza in the car and was a closet smoker who tried to cover up with aftershave. It was a pretty awful combination. I’d have to drive with the window open. To add insult to injury, the gas tank was nearly empty. What the hell, I figured I had time to get fuel. It wasn’t like the dog was some kind of emergency.
Tank full, I headed for the neighborhood where the dog had been seen. The holiday spirit wasn’t very evident here. A few sad-looking trees visible in windows. A few meager strings of lights. The woman who’d called the stray in lived at the end of the block, in a house with an unshoveled walk and an unplowed driveway. Probably elderly. As I made my way carefully up the walk, I wondered if there was a problem dog at all. Sometimes people called in problems simply because they were lonely.
I rang the bell, and when nothing happened, figured it was broken and knocked. The woman who answered made ancient look young. She wore a fluffy pink cardigan over a white sweatshirt with cute kittens on the front, a pair of corduroy trousers, and fluffy pink slippers. I said, “Officer Brooks, ma’am. You called about a dog?”
She peered up at me through coke-bottle glasses. “You’re a police officer?”
Despite the uniform, I get that a lot. Police officers aren’t supposed to be curvy and have curly blonde hair, I guess. My grandpa, a retired cop, used to say I had a sweet face. I’ve been on the force ten years, long enough to demonstrate to anyone who matters that I am far from sweet. The world, though, it goes by appearance far too much of the time. Earlier, I’d wound my hair into a disciplined chignon, but pieces tended to escape.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
She shuffled backward to let me in, then carefully closed the door behind me. I was relieved not to walk into a wall of old cat smell. Lot of the older ladies we dealt with had cats and apparently didn’t have working noses. But this house smelled good. It smelled of lemon furniture polish and fresh baked bread.
“You’ve been baking,” I said.
“The holidays, you know. The family is coming tomorrow and they expect me to have baked. Do you bake?” she asked.
“I never really learned how,” I said. “My mother hates to bake and so she never taught me.”
She patted my arm. “Well, dear, come back some day when you have time on your hands and I’ll teach you. I’m Doris. Doris Weller.”
“Angela Brooks. Do you have someone to shovel you out, Mrs. Weller?”
“Oh, I do, dear. A lovely neighbor boy. But he twisted his ankle on some ice, so my son is going to do it when he comes in the morning.”
I was glad to hear that. “Now, about that dog . . .”
“Oh yes. She’s in here.” She shuffled away, deeper into the house. Despite the baking and the polish, I thought Doris needed more lamps to make the place cheerful and to keep from having a fall. Falls were a big risk for our older citizens.
She opened a door and a dog stepped out. Cautiously, looking warily around, her back arched and her head low, looking like at any minute she expected to be hit or kicked. Some kind of shepherd mix, I thought. She would have been a nice looking animal if she wasn’t starved and subdued.
“I gave her some food and water while we were waiting. I told the man on the phone she’s got no collar, and she clearly hasn’t been cared for. But she’s a good dog.” She bent and patted the animal’s head. “Aren’t you a good dog?” she said.
The dog nodded like it understood.
She raised her head and looked at me. “Don’t underestimate this dog. And don’t . . . please . . . take her to a shelter where they’ll kill her. She deserves better than that.”
The woman handed me a collar and a leash. “We used to have a dog. Another very good dog. I kept this for sentimental reasons when she died. But it’s been years and now I’m too old to get another dog.”
Despite her age and the shuffling walk, she bent down and fastened the collar around the dog’s neck without any trouble.
She handed me the leash and Dog and I headed for the door, Doris shuffling behind us.
“Hold on a minute,” she said. She disappeared somewhere in the house, returning a minute later with something wrapped in red tissue paper. “Finnish coffee bread,” she said. “I always make extra. You can have it for your Christmas breakfast.” She gave Dog another pat. “You take care of Officer Brooks, you hear?”
The dog tilted one ear and tipped her head sideways and gave Doris a look and a head nod, like she understood her instructions.
Dog and I went out to the car. I opened the back door and said, “Hop in.”
Dog looked at the front passenger door.
I said, “Really?”
She nodded. Either this was an unusual animal or I was reading too much into this.
“Oh. All right.” I opened the door, moved my gear bag to the floor, and Dog jumped in. I could almost swear I got a nod of agreement as she settled into the seat.
I was planning on dropping Dog at the shelter, but as soon as I was in the car, my radio crackled. There was a woman passed out in the Walmart parking lot. Could I check it out.
“Sorry, Dog,” I said, “you’ll have to wait for your cell and some kibble. Someone’s got bigger problems.”
I found a security guy standing beside a car. He waved. I stopped and went over. The woman was slumped over the wheel. “Did you check on her?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Not my job. I called you guys.”
Right. They should print “Not My Job” tee-shirts. We cops could give them out. I, personally, would go through a few dozen a year.
The woman was young. The car was an Audi. A little unusual for our overdose victims. Maybe a daughter home from college, driving a parent’s car? Her coach bag was open and drugs were visible. Definitely an overdose. I tried the woman’s car door. Unlocked. I opened it carefully, one hand on the woman’s shoulder so she wouldn’t fall out. I administered Narcan and called for an ambulance. That took a while.
Dog waited patiently in the cruiser, watching through the window. The scene finally cleared, it was time for a dinner break. The shelter could wait a little longer. “You hungry?” I asked.
Dog nodded her head. Really, she did. Given the skinny state of her, I figured she was always hungry. I usually wasn’t. Something else that had leaked out along with all that blood. Food didn’t seem to interest me much these days.
While I had little appetite, my doctor and my therapist both insisted I had to eat. We stopped at Mickey D’s. I thought Dog might like a burger, and I got two for her—just meat and bread—and one for myself. The woman behind the counter scowled when I appeared in her line with a dog on a leash, but she didn’t say anything. Maybe the uniform deterred her? That wasn’t always the case. There were places around the country that were refusing to serve cops. I guess when they had a robbery, an altercation, or an intoxicated or abusive patron, they’d call their customers—the ones who object to them serving us—and let them handle it. One less problem for us to roll up on.
Dog liked her burgers very much. I ate mine without thinking. Then we headed for the shelter. We didn’t get very far. Maybe half a mile down the road, there was a male staggering along the side of the road. As we approached, he suddenly lurched toward the traffic, triggering a flash of brake lights and a wave of horns and swerves, though no one slowed or stopped. He staggered back toward the ditch, tripped, and fell.
I hit my lights and siren and pulled over. As I opened my door, Dog whined. I figured maybe she needed a bio break, so I let her out. I called it in and approached him carefully. Impaired people can be dangerous. Dog stayed right by my side as I knelt beside the figure and said, “Sir. Sir. Are you all right?” When he didn’t respond, I put on gloves and gently rolled him onto his back, using my flashlight to examine him.
Not drunk or intoxicated. The man was maybe mid-thirties. Unshaven. Needing a haircut. And he’d been stabbed. I called for backup and an ambulance. I was definitely keeping our EMTs busy tonight.
He opened his eyes. Brown and scared. Muttered something.
I identified myself and told him help was on the way, then went to my cruiser to get a blanket. When I came back, Dog was lying beside him and his hand was on her head. She looked at me with those smart dog eyes and twitched an ear. I didn’t speak dog, but I thought she was saying, “I’ve got this.” There was definitely more to this scrawny, unkempt beast than met the eye.
He muttered again and I bent to hear his words. “Jimmy did this.”
That was it. He was done. He closed his eyes, breathing shallowly. I covered him with the blanket, made a note of what he’d said, and Dog and I waited for help to arrive. However much I hadn’t wanted to spend this night at home, staring at my naked tree, this evening’s elderly and distressed made me long for home. I could ask Alexa for some real Christmas carols and throw lights on the tree. Put some rum in the eggnog Jeffrey had brought.
Dream on, Brooks. It’s Christmas. His ID said his name was Christopher Wright, and he wasn’t from around here. Once the hospital got him stabilized, someone else could go looking for the mysterious Jimmy.
When I handed it over to the unfortunate detectives working tonight, Dispatch had plenty more work for me. Next up was a shoplifter at the local supermarket. The manager, a guy named Sam, met me at the door, clearly distressed. “She’s in the office,” he said. “It’s been a good season. I was hoping we’d make it to Christmas without this.”
The woman had dressed carefully for her foray into crime. Her hair was styled. She wore a neat skirt, tall black boots, and a holiday red sweater under a white wool coat. Now she was in tears, uttering a steady litany of “I’ve never done anything like this before.” Sam stood shaking his head. His hands were tied. The store was a chain, they were trying to minimize shoplifting losses, and there was a protocol he had to follow.
I sat across from her in his office, getting the details for my report. Somehow, Dog managed to come with me, and while the weeping woman perched on the edge of a chair, sharing a sad, if predictable story of an absent husband, a lost job and no Christmas dinner for herself and her three kids, Dog rested his head in her lap and gave her a reassuring waggle of ears while she absently stroked the wiry coat.
I hadn’t gotten far when the manager interrupted. “Officer Brooks. Can I speak with you outside please.”
I stepped out, already knowing what was coming. He’d realized this was not the case to follow rules. If this had been the day manager, things would have gone differently. That man—I’d gone to high school with him, so I knew—had absolutely no compassion or empathy. He was as robotic as the voice on my phone.
He said, “I can’t do this. I look at her and I see myself. I see all of us and how easily things can fall apart. Can we forget about it and not press charges?”
We could. I ended up driving her home with a bag of donated groceries, along with some canned dog food and kibble for my canine pal. Our chief is a kind-hearted guy, and we keep a stash of toys at the station, so we detoured by there to get some gifts for her children—a boy, thirteen, a girl, eleven, and a younger boy who was seven. Last I looked there wasn’t a lot left, but we might find something.
Maybe there was some magic about Christmas eve, who knows, but someone had just dropped off a bag of fabulous toys and books that were perfect for these children. It was selfish, perhaps, but I snagged the whole lot.
When I told her what I’d found, it made the woman, Vinnie Talbot, start crying all over again. Between sobs, she said, “I grew up hating cops. My daddy hated cops. My mom hated cops because daddy did, and my two older brothers hated cops because they were always in trouble. I’ve tried so hard to make a different life from them and now look at me–I’ve become just like them. And you’re being so kind to me.”
“Ma’am,” I said. “This is what we do. Cops are just people.” I could have gone on about all the times we pay for groceries out of our own pockets. Buy kids shoes. Find remedies when society has failed. But she didn’t need the big cop lecture. Especially not tonight when she was humiliated and in tears.
Instead I said, “You have wrapping paper at home? And tape?”
“What about a tree?”
She gave a sharp, self-deprecating laugh. “You think I’ve got money for a tree when I can’t afford groceries?”
Damn these guys who abandon their kids. I’d seen it way too much—moms trying to keep things normal when they don’t even have enough for a birthday cake or a holiday tree. Looked like we were taking another detour. The guy who ran the local lot would just about be closing up, but maybe I wasn’t too late.
When I pulled in, Jake Carter, my old high school boyfriend, was helping a middle-aged couple tie a tree on their roof. “Stay in the car,” I told her. An unnecessary admonition. She was in the back seat of a police car. She couldn’t open the doors.
I looked over at Dog. “You coming?”
Dog and I got out. Jake waved to the couple and turned to me. “Hey, Angel,” he said, giving me a hug. He smelled deliciously of evergreen. He backed up and studied me with concern. “You doing okay? Back at work already?”
He’d come to see me in the hospital, with flowers, brought me pizza at home, and sent a bunch of silly cards, but I hadn’t seen him for a while. The holiday season is busy for someone running a Christmas tree farm.
I indicated the uniform. “Back at work, Jake.”
“I know you,” he said. “You’d be doing that if you had to crawl. You don’t know the meaning of take it easy.”
Which was pretty much the truth. Jake did know me well. We’d been a couple in high school, gone our separate ways for college and then disagreed about me going to the police academy. Then his dad had gotten sick and he’d scrapped his career plans and come home to run the family farm. Even after he married my best friend, we’d stayed close. She and I didn’t stay close. I thought she’d taken advantage of him when he was grieving the loss of his father and the death of his plans and married him when he was weak and confused. Still, Jake being Jake, he’d made the best of it. He was a loyal and honorable guy.
Then she went kind of nutty and slept around and ran off with a jerk named Anton she met at a local bar. It broke Jake’s heart, and he disappeared for a while. Still, we’d been friends a long time before he took his hurt into his cave to lick his wounds. I was glad to see him looking so good. And smiling.
He looked at Dog and grinned. “Who’s the rookie?”
“Stray someone called in. I’ve been trying to take her to the shelter for hours. Been too busy.”
He patted Dog’s head. “She looks like a good dog. Just needs some care and feeding. Maybe you should keep her.”
“I can hardly take care of myself.”
A nod. “Yeah. That’s what your brother said when he stopped to get the tree.”
We grinned at each other. My brother’s a good guy, but he’s chatty as hell. Jake knows I’m a private person. I was pretty sure he’d gotten a rundown from my bro about how getting wounded had damaged me and how I was a depressed reclusive who needed some Christmas cheer.
“Yeah. I’m just a lonely old spinster sitting home drinking eggnog. Only thing missing is a cat. Or maybe six cats.”
“I’ve got a cat,” he said. “And I’m a lonely old . . . divorced guy. I sell people trees and I don’t have one. By the time I get to Christmas eve, I’m sick of trees.” He gave me that concerned look again. Jake was such a decent guy. A decent, handsome guy. “Jeffrey did bring you your tree, didn’t he?”
“Oh yeah. And a lecture about how if I put a few lights on it, I’d cheer right up.”
“I told him heshould put the lights on for you.”
“I think he had a hot date.” My little brother always had a hot date. No sooner did my mom fall in love with one of his girlfriends and start dreaming about a wedding then he’d dump the girl. She’s given up on me, though sometimes she can’t resist telling me I should have married Jake. It almost broke her heart when he married Charlotte.
“You’ve already got a tree. So you don’t need one,” he said. A wistful smile. “Can I hope you came by to invite me to share that eggnog?”
“Wish I could, but I’ve got four more hours in this shift. Unless you want to come by around midnight?”
For a minute, I thought he might say yes. He needed people to drag him out of his cave just as much as I did. But we’re both ridiculously stubborn about taking help, even when we need it. I didn’t push him. Instead I said, “Got a shoplifter in the car. Woman trying to provide a Christmas dinner for her kids. Sam, down at the grocery, didn’t want to press charges, even gave her the groceries. I . . . uh . . .”
Oh man. Why was I so afraid of showing I had a heart? Too many years trying to show I was as tough as the rest of the guys?
“She needs a tree?”
I nodded. “Nothing too big. I’ll feel foolish enough driving around with a tree on the cruiser and if the chief sees me, he’ll be pissed as hell and I’ll get a huge lecture about the dignity of the department.”
“Pick one out, give me her address, and I’ll drop it off.”
I looked at Grace Talbot, huddling in the back of my car, hoping no one would see her.
“She can pick it. I’ll pay for it,” I said.
I stepped over to the car and got her out. “Jake’s going to help you pick a tree,” I said.
“You don’t have to do this,” she said. “I don’t deserve to have people be so nice to me.”
“You’ve got that wrong.”
She looked so dignified. Somehow, despite the description she’d given of her family, she’d pulled herself together and made a decent life. Until her husband abandoned the family and she got laid off. Sometimes it takes so little to tip people over the edge and steal their dignity.
Jake was kindness itself as he led her onto the lot. “I’m afraid there isn’t much choice left,” he said.
“Just . . . something small . . .” Her voice broke. Lights strung from poles around the lot illuminated her tears. She grabbed the first tree she came to, one as scraggly in its way as Dog. While she tried to convince Jake that the tree would do, Dog found a better one—short and plump—and gave a bark.
Mrs. Talbot smiled, because Dog’s bright eyes and goofy ears were hard to resist. “That’s a pretty one.”
Jake swung it onto his shoulder and carried it to the machine that would net it, pausing to give Dog a pat. “Who’s a good dog?” he said.
I could swear I saw the darned animal grin. But it might be that I was infected with a touch of holiday spirit. It wouldn’t last. The night was going to dish up more calls like the overdose and the stabbing. Good humor doesn’t last long in the face of that.
I paid. Jake wrote down the address, and I took Mrs. Talbot home. It was quite a distance from the market. Before we got out of the car, I said, “How did you get to the store?”
She started to lie, a cheerful, “I got a ride with . . .” then stopped. “I walked.”
“You don’t have a car?”
“I have to save my gas for emergencies. I’m really, really broke.”
Dispatch was calling again. Something about a fight at a local bar, the officers on scene needed back-up. I responded that I was en route.
We got out of the car. I grabbed the black trash bag that hid the gifts, and a bag of groceries. She got the rest. I followed her inside and set the groceries in the kitchen. She whisked the presents into a closet. From the living room came the sound of a TV and children’s voices.
“I’ve tried to keep it from them,” she said. “I wanted them to have a decent Christmas. Thanks to you, they will.”
“To me, the department, Sam, and Jake. Please don’t do anything that will bring us together again. The town has funds. People who can help. You just have to not be too proud to make the call.”
I left her pondering on that and raced to the Raise a Glass bar. It was the one place in town where you could almost guarantee trouble. Holidays only made it worse.
I got out of the car, Dog somehow slipping past me to get out, too, and headed for the door. I could already hear the commotion inside. People yelling. Furniture crashing. I was almost to the door when it burst open and a huge man clutching a broken bottle came charging out. He had a shaved head and beard Santa would envy.
Grabbing my gun and backpedaling fast, I said, “Drop it! Drop it right now and get down on your knees.”
Please, please cooperate, I thought. I couldn’t handle shooting another person. My stomach knotted like a fist was squeezing it. Breathe, I reminded myself. Just keep breathing.
His grin was that of an intoxicated man whose mind had closed around a single thought: I’m gonna get me a cop.
“Make me,” he said. He raised the bottle menacingly and took an unsteady step toward me. He was easily twice my size and unreachable by reason.
Quickly, I swapped my gun for my taser and pressed the trigger. My good luck he’d left his jacket inside. Those little darts went through his tee shirt like a hot knife through butter. He collapsed onto the pavement like a three-hundred pound sack of shit. I kicked the bottle away, cuffed him, and went inside.
The room looked like it had been struck by a tornado. Smashed chairs, overturned tables, broken glass everywhere. What I didn’t see was any people.
“Anybody here?” I called.
“I’m here,” a small voice said. A heavily tattooed young woman with striking purple hair rose from behind the bar.
“Where is everyone?”
“Went out the back.”
I looked at the mess. “Who did this?”
She shrugged, like the wrecked room was no big deal. “That huge idiot with the beard. He got pissed when I said I was cutting him off. Did this.”
“Where are the other cops who were here?”
Another shrug. “One of ‘em got hit with a chair. His partner took him out the back.”
I sighed. Looking after your partner was important, sure, but what about this girl, the one they’d left alone with an enraged giant?
I went through the kitchen and out the back door. There were three officers out there, one on the ground, the other two on their radios.
“Hey!” I said. “Someone called for backup?”
“Jesus, Angel,” a guy named Lopez said. “How’d you get past the giant?”
“Taser. I cuffed him. He’s on the sidewalk out front. Be nice if someone took him to jail before he destroys anything else.”
“We’re waiting on the ambulance,” Lopez said.
“And I’m waiting on some backup.”
The other guy standing, Pete Thompson, said, “What the hell?”
I turned. Despite having his hands cuffed, the Giant was on his feet and charging toward us.
Three cops with guns didn’t deter him and yelled commands to stop and lie on the ground didn’t penetrate. He was coming at us like we were bowling pins and he was the ball.
“Use your damned Tasers,” I said. “I already used mine. Or shoot him.”
Suddenly there was a flurry of barking and growling and a dark figure charged at him and sank its teeth into his ankle. The man shrieked, tried to kick Dog loose, and fell on his ass.
“For heaven’s sake, Tase him again. Please,” I said. My heart was pounding so hard I could barely speak. I slapped my leg and said, “Dog. Come.”
Dog gave one last bark to show who was boss and trotted over to me.
“Guys,” I said, “meet my new partner, Dog.”
“Jeez, Angel. That mutt saved us,” Lopez said. He looked as shaken as I felt. “Where’d you get her?”
“Someone called about a stray. I was taking her to the shelter, but we never got there. It’s been a busy night.”
“I’ll get my car,” he said. “Pete and I’ll take this guy in. You want to take Sandy to the ER? Dispatch says the ambulance is tied up, can’t get here for another half hour.”
“Sure.” I said, “Dog. Come,” and headed around the building, wishing I had some treats. “Who’s a good dog?” I said, scratching her head.
She gave me the head tilt and ear wag that said she was.
We loaded Sandy in the back, clutching his arm and moaning. Dog and I got in front and we headed for the hospital. On the way, we passed some tracks, like a car had lost control, gone off the road and down a slope. No way of knowing whether they were recent. The snow had been down for a few days. I’d check them after we got Sandy taken care of. I didn’t want to. I was tired, emotionally seesawed by the decision about whether or not to shoot, and ready for the evening to end. My shift was over in thirty minutes and all I wanted to do was take off my uniform, shower, and sleep.
If a cop’s Christmas eve was crazy, the ER’s was even crazier. Cops get normally get priority but it took some time to get Sandy checked in. I wasn’t leaving him there in the waiting room.
Finally that was done. Dog was waiting patiently for me in the car, snoozing in her seat. I started back to the station, wanting to be a lazy cop and ignore those tracks. But that’s not who I am.
I made a U-turn and parked near the spot where those tracks left the road, lights on. Grabbed a flashlight. Got out and buttoned my coat, put on hat and gloves. Dog looked at me through the window, as if she was saying, “Are you seriously going to leave me behind?”
“If you insist,” I said, opening her door. She jumped out. Together we slipped and slid, following those tracks down the slope. At the bottom, where open field ended in woods, my worst fears were realized. Here’s the thing—when a cop thinks that, you know it’s bad. We see so much awful stuff it takes a lot to shake us.
The car must have been traveling awfully fast to have wrapped itself almost completely around the tree like that. My flashlight showed two figures in what had been the front seat, tree between them, buried in a mess of hood and engine and shrouded in airbags that looked way too much like the medical examiner’s body bags. I tried to find a way to check for signs of life but I couldn’t. I had to call it in and ruin more people’s Christmas eve. I told dispatch I needed the fire department and all necessary personnel to extract people from the car in what was likely a fatal accident.
One of the rear doors hung open beside an empty child’s car seat. Hoping there had been no child in the car, I crouched down in the snow, using my flashlight to look inside. Empty. I stepped away, still crouched down, and studied the undisturbed snow. A set of small tracks led away from the car.
For a second, I thought I was going to be sick. I didn’t want this evening to end finding a small child dead. I’m not keen on going into dark woods at night, so as a precaution, I told Dispatch what I’d seen and where I was going. Then Dog and I set off, following the tracks, every step making me more pessimistic about what we’d find. It was freezing out and the wind was rising.
Dog trotted ahead, nose down.
It was tough going. The crust was hard enough to support a child’s weight, and Dog’s. I sank repeatedly, slowing me down, the sharp crust jabbing my ankles and shins until they were rubbed raw, tripping me when I tried to move faster.
The small steps went on and on. Amazing that a child could travel so far. All the time, my stomach knotted in fear of what I’d find. Worse when I saw the imprint of where the child had fallen.
It was totally dark in the woods and the bitter wind sang in the branches above. They creaked and groaned like a horror movie. Occasionally a clump of icy snow would cascade down. I had snow down the back of my neck and my fingers were numb inside my gloves. I felt like I’d walked for hours when Dog, who’d run ahead, barked an alert. I accelerated my pace and found Dog curled beside a small figure on the ground.
I grabbed the child up. God. It was so impossibly small to have made this trek. I pulled off my glove and slid my hand down inside the snowsuit. Still warm! Pulled off my hat and listened. The child—the pink snowsuit suggested a girl—was still breathing.
“Good dog,” I said.
I tucked the child inside my jacket, zipped it around her, and started the trek back. Easier this time using the steps I’d made, but I was hurrying and often missed the steps. I didn’t know if she could hear me, but I kept up a litany of reassurance as we walked. By the time we got back to the crash scene, I was drenched in sweat and trembling and one of my shins was bleeding.
The car was surrounded by lights and action, my sergeant and a fire captain directing the rescue. When he saw me and Dog coming out of the woods, he hurried toward me, his face anxious. Whatever craziness I’d dealt with tonight, he’d had double or triple from all the officers on patrol. Also, he had four kids of his own. “Angel! Did you find the . . .”
“The little girl? I’ve got her.”
“She’s alive.” I unzipped my jacket a bit so he could see the pink snowsuit.
“Ambulance up above. They’ll take care of her. Then go home, Angel. You’ve had a heck of a night. You can write it up tomorrow.”
“A miracle. They’re alive.”
A good night for miracles. I turned to go, almost staggering with weariness, Dog by my side. Sarge wasn’t much for compliments so his “Good job, Angel,” lifted my feet up the hill. At the top, I handed my small bundle over to Sarah, an EMT I worked with often.
“No idea how long she’s been out there, but she walked at least a mile before she collapsed.”
“Thank God you noticed those tracks. We’ve got her now.” Competent hands took her from me and unzipped the snowsuit. I saw a flash of pink skin and golden curls before they whisked her away. I didn’t think she was more than three years old.
Mission accomplished, the adrenaline I’d been running on vanished in an instant. Dog and I limped slowly to my cruiser, U-turned, and headed home. I was almost too tired to drive.
Jake’s truck was parked in front of my house, engine on, radio blasting. He was sound asleep.
Carrying the dog food I’d gotten at the market, I knocked on his window and invited him inside. He was awake and out of the truck in an instant, his warm hand under my elbow so welcome. My front steps looked dauntingly high and I was toast.
He got me out of my coat and boots like I was the child I’d just been carrying. I figured my hard night showed on my face. Jake has always been able to read me.
I changed into comfy sweats while he made a fire.
We decorated the tree. Two of us welcomed Christmas with rum and eggnog and one of us with kibble. The three of us sat by the fire, listened to real Christmas carols, and went to bed. Dog settled in at the foot, guarding us. She was just that kind of dog. My dog, it seemed, whether I liked it or not.
It was so right having Jake there. Sometimes you have to get it wrong before you can get it right. As I curled up next to him, warm despite the whistling wind outside, I thought about making choices. Not only the smart choice to invite Jake here. The choice to do my job even when it was hard and I was tired. What if I hadn’t bothered to check out those tracks? That tiny girl and her parents would have died.
The whole evening felt like I’d had something otherworldly—divine?—on my side.
Maybe tomorrow, if he didn’t have plans, the three of us would go to my parents for Christmas dinner. Mom would be thrilled to see me with Jake, and complain that I’d brought a dog. I was pretty sure, though, that my Grandpa and Dog would like each other.
Later, when the fuss died down, I’d check on my overdose girl, my stabbing victim, and that little girl and her parents. Sometimes policing feels like holding our fingers in a leaky dike, but often enough, we can see how the world would be different if we hadn’t been there.