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Tonight it would be.
It was Christmas Eve, and as Constable Molly Smith began a twelve hour shift the storm of the decade was settling in over Trafalgar. She'd scarcely had time to say hi to the earlier shift, the lucky ones who got to enjoy the evening with their families, before the first 911 call came in. The first, of what would be many.
Pedestrian struck by a car on Front Street. Appear to be injuries.
Smith reached for the keys to the truck, but she wasn't fast enough. "I'll drive," Constable Dave Evans said, tossing the keys in his hand and heading toward the back door and the parked vehicles.
"You'll be with Evans tonight," Sergeant Caldwell, the shift supervisor, shouted after her. "It's going to be rough in this. And it's supposed to get worse."
Grumbling under her breath, Smith climbed into the passenger seat. Evans flicked on the wipers to get rid of the snow that accumulated since the vehicle had been parked. Which hadn't been long: the truck had turned in as she'd walked up the steps to the station.
Caldwell's prediction came all too true, and Smith and Evans spent their Christmas Eve running from one call to another.
Cars in the ditch. Cars spinning out of control in the middle of the highway. Pedestrians slipping and sliding all over the place. Holiday revelers who'd started into the Christmas cheer a bit too early, and too heavily, but thought they could still drive.
In late December, in a town surrounded by mountains, it was dark before four-thirty. The night was a strange shade of shifting white as the lights of cars and homes and streetlamps reflected off snow cutting through the black sky in near-horizontal slashes. The snow was blinding; there were times when Smith could barely see the front of the truck as they drove.
The radio crackled with activity, everyone was out, and even Caldwell had grabbed a car and was answering calls.
A few minutes before midnight they were called to an accident on Cottonwood Street.
Smith and Evans arrived to find a fender bender. Two vehicles, a top of the line, fully-loaded SUV, and a rusty old van, had met in the middle of the road. Not hard to do, as drifts of snow had reduced the road, one of the steepest in a town built on the side of a mountain, to a one-lane track.
When the police arrived, blue and red lights reflecting off falling snow like manic Christmas decorations, the drivers were standing in the road, inches apart, screaming in each other's faces. Additional yelling came from the ditch and Smith could see two women on the far side of the cars, waving arms. Wide-eyed children peered through icy windows of the SUV. Cars began lining up in both directions, horns honking as drivers leaned out of windows.
Evans glanced at the clock on the dashboard. "Merry Christmas, Molly," he said. It was one minute past midnight.
"Let's go spread some seasonal cheer," she replied.
It was a battle just to get the truck door open, but she proved to be stronger than the storm. Snow and wind hit her full in the face. If it were possible, the power of the blizzard seemed to be increasing.
Without discussion, Evans approached the arguing men and Smith walked around the cars. The two women stopped fighting at the sight of the police officer, trying to keep her footing in the calf-high drifts lining the road.
"What's going on here?"
Whereupon the women resumed screaming, at each other and at Smith.
She wanted to ask them what had happened to their Christmas spirit. Instead she flashed a light into the back of the SUV. Two small, round white faces looked back at her.
"Why don't you get into the car, Ma'am. Your children seem distressed."
"They're fine," the woman snapped. She wore a beige fur coat, either real or a good fake, and leather gloves. Knee-high boots were planted firmly in the snow. Her chin-length blond hair was a wet mess and thick lines of black mascara ran down her face. "That fool came out of nowhere, and..."
"Don't you call my Ed a fool. If your goddamned husband had been watching where he was going he wouldn't have ..."
"Wait in the car, please," Smith interrupted. "My partner's taking the details of the accident. Your children are bound to be upset and in need of some care."
The woman had the grace to look embarrassed. Her shoulders lost their fighting stance, and she put her hand on the SUV door.
"You tell her, Molly," the other woman said.
That was not helpful.
The fur-clad woman swung around. "What the hell's this? You're going to pin this on Roger because they're locals, is that it?"
"I'm not going to pin anything on anyone. You can look after your children or I'll radio for someone from social services to come and do it for you."
"You can't ..."
"And as for you, Mrs. Morrison," Smith said, "if you don't get back into your vehicle, right now, and sit and wait quietly while Constable Evans talks to Mr. Morrison, I'll arrest you for interference. Decide ladies, but do it fast."
A tree groaned and let loose its full weight of heavy snow. A substantial portion of which found its way down the back of Smith's neck. Involuntarily, she yelped.
United in their anger at the female police officer, satisfied at her small bit of humiliation, the two women returned to their vehicles. Both doors slammed hard.
The radio at Smith's shoulder crackled. Two people were waving liquor bottles and screaming at each other outside the variety store on Aspen Street. The caller reported that she knew them: the LeBlancs. Smith groaned under her breath. Them again. She'd been called to their house in the summer. Husband and wife each as drunk as the other, both of them off to spend a night in the cells. Police had been at that address at least once since. Tonight, Dawn Solway responded and said she'd take it.
Evans put his notebook into his coat pocket and told the men to move their cars. People trying to get past were getting restless, and a few figures stepped out of the swirling snow to see what was going on. There didn't seem to be enough damage to either car to prevent them from moving.
Grumbling, and with shouts of 'see you in court' and 'I'll sue you for everything you've got,' the men joined their families.
Smith answered the call. "Five-one here."
"Car off the road at the bottom of Elm Street."
"We're almost clear."
"The car has gone into the river."
"On our way. Move it, Dave, we gotta go. This could be a big one." She jumped into the truck, heart pumping. Evans climbed behind the wheel. "What we got?"
"Car in the river."
"Jesus." He started the engine, while Smith punched lights and sirens on.
Visibility was poor, and the truck's windshield wipers weren't doing much more than stirring the white stuff around. Smith wanted to tell Evans to slow down or they'd end up in a fender bender of their own. She bit her tongue instead.
Elm Street descended from the upper town in a long straight line before taking a sharp turn at the river, where it carried on to the east. It used to be a street of industrial docks and warehouses; modern, expensive homes now lined the river. To the west lay the beach, Riverside Park, and city hall.
At the bottom of the hill a car was sprawled across the street, front end buried in a snow drift, rear end blocking the road.
Evans slammed on the brakes, and the front of the truck stopped within inches of striking the car broadside. "Close one," he said, trying to sound casual.
Smith stifled a grin, and jumped out of the truck. Either the wind had died, or they were facing in a different direction, but she had no trouble getting the door open.
"Oh, God, Officer. He was there. He was just there. I tried to get out of the way, and then he was gone. Oh, God."
The man was young, wiry, long-haired, and long-bearded. His brown eyes showed too much white, like a horse smelling fire, and his gloved hands flapped in the air. A purple toque, with a cheerful pink ball at the crown, sat on his head, and a black scarf had come unwrapped from around his neck. The long tasseled ends dragged in the snow.
"Who was there? Where? Dispatch said someone in the river?"
The man turned and pointed. "He went in, Officer. He went in."
Smith and Evans ran. The river was black and moving fast. Snow flew in their faces, sharp as the needles of fir trees. Cold wind sought gaps in necks and cuffs.
"I can't see a damned thing," Evans shouted.
"There." Smith grabbed his arm. "Look there."
About twenty-five feet from shore the undercarriage and wheels of a vehicle were pointing up. Some of the rear was visible, bright yellow, otherwise she might never have seen it.
Smith turned to the man with the long scarf, who'd followed them. "Did you see anyone? Did anyone get out?"
He shook his head. Ice was gathering on his beard. "Don't think so. I sat in my car for a few seconds, trying to get my head back. When I got out, he was in the river, going down. I didn't see anyone."
"Five-one to dispatch. We need Fire, now. Swift water rescue team."
"On their way."
A siren screamed down the hill.
"See anyone?" she asked Evans, who was passing the beam of his flashlight across the water.
"No." The wind whipped the normally placid Upper Kootenay River into tall peaks. Waves crashed against the sides of the car and washed over the exposed undercarriage.
Black water and white snowflakes covered the tops of the rocks lining the riverbank. The snow at the side of the road was piled as high as her waist. Smith climbed onto the snow bank. The snow was hard, packed by the plow. She'd swum in this river many times, and knew it was shallow for a long way out; the roof of the car must be resting on the bottom. People were trapped in there. How long had it been since it went in? Ten minutes at least. Time for the long-scarfed guy to get out of his car, run to the water's edge, pull out his cell, call 911. And then for Smith and Evans to arrive. More than time enough to drown.
People had survived for longer in a trapped car, if they had an air pocket. She moved to undo her gun belt.
Her boot slipped on a rime of ice, and she would have fallen into the water but for the hand on her arm. "You can't do it, Molly." Dave Evans was strong enough to almost lift her off her feet with one hand. "That water's freezing. You'll be incapacitated in under two minutes, and the rescue guys'll have to waste their time trying to find you."
He was right, much as she hated to admit it. She followed Dave Evans' hand back to solid ground. "We can't stand here and do nothing."
Another siren—the fire truck this time.
"Get that car out of the way," Evans said to the fellow with the long scarf. "There's going to be a lot of traffic coming this way and you're blocking the road."
"I'll try, but I'm pretty much stuck."
"Constable Smith'll give you a hand. Get that car moved. If not, the fire guys'll hit it so hard we'll be looking for pieces into next year."
They ran uphill to the car buried head first in the snow bank.
People were beginning to gather at the edges of the streetlights, ghostly shapes, faint outlines in a swirling white world. The curious, drawn by blue and red lights, the sense of urgency, the promise of excitement.
"You there," Smith called to a man in a good overcoat and black scarf. "I'm Constable Smith, Trafalgar City Police. Can you get your neighbors together and help this gentleman get his car out of the road. We need it cleared."
An ambulance made its way down the hill. It edged carefully around the stuck car, as if illustrating Smith's point.
"Glad to help," the man turned and with a single step he disappeared.
Fire truck. Top of the hill. Moving fast. Smith yelled into her radio to tell them to slow the hell down, a vehicle was in the way.
Whether her request got through or not, she didn't know. But the fire truck climbed the sidewalk to miss the obstruction and pulled parallel to the river. The occupants jumped out. Two were already dressed in yellow and black dry-suits. They fastened helmets as they ran. Another firefighter followed, carrying bundles of rope.
A group of locals, some in their Christmas Eve best, some in overcoats thrown over pajamas, came running, carrying shovels of various sizes. Snow flew everywhere as they began to dig. Smith tried to direct them, but she was ignored. The man with the long scarf jumped behind the wheel.
"Okay," a woman yelled, Santa Claus-patterned pajama bottoms sticking out from beneath her jacket. "Stand back everyone. I think we're free. Give it a go."
The car roared to life, and with a great burst of black exhaust, accompanied by applause from the snow shovel heroes, it backed into the road. The driver stuck his hand out of the window and gave everyone a wave. He pulled into a driveway, switched off the engine and joined them on the sidewalk.
The crowd moved toward the river's edge. Their euphoria at getting the car out of the way didn't last long as word spread that someone was in the river.
Feeling perfectly useless, Molly Smith watched the two firefighters moving in the black river. They'd made it to the vehicle. The shorter one ducked under the water, checking for signs of life.
The emergency tow truck was next down the hill. It turned into a driveway, and reversed to come in rear first. Smith and Evans guided onlookers out of the way.
Police radios sounded and dispatch said the RCMP were sending someone to keep the road closed.
They gathered at the water's edge. Police officers, EMT, firefighters, citizens, and neighbors. A man prayed softly. The tow truck moved as close as it could to the edge of the river.
On her radio, Smith heard Solway report that Mr. and Mrs. LeBlanc were being escorted to the station. Nice Christmas for their daughter, Lorraine, she thought.
Sergeant Caldwell reported from the scene of a three-car pile-up just outside of town. He needed an ambulance, but they said they had every vehicle out and would get to him when they could.
An aerial fire truck arrived. The ladder was raised and used to bathe the scene in strong white light. The tow truck driver got ready to fasten to the car. The people in the water, tethered by lines to their truck, moved with care, and signaled to each other with hand gestures. One came back, walking slowly in the heavy dry-suit. Chunks of ice drifted around her legs. Her face was dark and grim beneath the clear visor of the helmet. Firefighters clambered down the riverbank, dragging the end of the cable attached to the tow truck. The woman in the water grabbed it. Washed in the powerful lights of the ladder truck, snowflakes falling around her, up to her knees in black water, reflective stripes on her suit glowing, she looked like an alien, heading back to the mother ship after taking samples of Earth life forms.
Something soft, gentle and cold landed on Molly Smith's cheek. She looked up. Snowflakes drifted down from the heavens. She put her hand to her head. She'd lost her hat long ago, tossed into the back of the truck, hopefully, although she didn't remember. Her hair was soaking wet from snow melting against her scalp. Her boots were good, but even so her feet were getting cold. She wiggled her fingers inside her gloves.
But all this, she knew, was nothing compared to what the people trapped in that car must be feeling.
If they were feeling anything at all.
* * *
Eliza Winters snuggled up against her husband. It was Christmas Eve, Christmas morning now, and she was delightfully warm and content. He was on vacation, and, wonder of wonders, still on vacation. No one had called, sending him back to work, tossing apologies over his shoulder. Nothing urgent, nothing only he could handle.
In the early days of her marriage, she'd seriously considered unplugging the phone and hiding it behind the sofa, before leading her husband into bed with languid glances.
But, she'd realized, that would work exactly once.
And so she'd decided simply to accept the role of the wife of a street cop, a detective, and then, the most unpredictable of all, a homicide detective.
And thus the last twenty-five years had generally passed quite well indeed.
"I think we need another log."
"I think I need another log," she said with a giggle.
"Eliza, you're drunk."
She lifted her crystal flute. "I am not. But I am out of Champagne."
Excerpted from Winter of Secrets by Vicki Delany Copyright © 2009 by Vicki Delany. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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