In this scene, Police Chief Frank Bennett and his assistant, Earl Davis, prepare for New Year’s Eve in Trout Run.
New Year’s Eve arrived, and Tug O’Malley still hadn’t turned up. Frank had stopped worrying about him. His family wasn’t looking for him, and it wasn’t against the law for an adult of sound mind to leave home without notice.
Frank had other matters on his mind.
The weather had turned brutally cold: high of zero, low of twenty below.
Frank scanned the weather report with a frown. “Think this’ll slow down the celebration at the Mountainside?” he asked Earl.
“Doubt it. Just means the puke will freeze before it even hits the parking lot pavement.”
“Thanks. I’ll never be able to unsee that image.” Unlike Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve was a busy night for law enforcement everywhere, even Trout Run. The party at the Mountainside Tavern would start with the afternoon football games, continue through a greasy buffet of chicken wings and venison chili, and end after midnight in brawls and, as Earl predicted, plenty of puking. Add to that private parties that got out of hand, tourists tearing up their AirBnB rentals, and teenagers poisoning themselves at their parents’ liquor cabinets, and the Trout Run PD would be hopping all night.
The freezing temperatures added an extra layer of complication.
“We have to be extra alert for drunks who stumble outside or pass out in their cars. A person can freeze to death in under five minutes when it’s twenty below,” Frank warned.
“I’ve got both patrol vehicles packed with all our cold weather rescue gear.” Earl held up his checklist. “Unless there’s a party in the covered bridge and it collapses into the river, I think we’re ready for the night.”
Frank had warned Penny that as long as she was in a relationship with a cop, she’d never have a date on New Year’s Eve.
She’d married him anyway.
When he’d kissed her goodbye an hour ago, she and Yogi were snuggled before the fire with plans to read an entire Number One Ladies Detective Agency mystery before the ball dropped in Times Square.
Earl, in the prime of his dating life, had more romantic complications to deal with.
Frank pretended not to notice as Earl scowled at his phone. The kid’s fingers flew over the screen. Then he muttered, “Fine,” and shoved the device in his pocket. Apparently, whoever he was dating wasn’t planning on waiting home by the fire for him.
Frank glanced at the clock on the wall. “Care to bet on what time the first call will come in?”
Earl walked to the window and studied the gray sky. “Bad weather means people will stay inside and start drinking early. I’ll bet you a jelly donut we get a domestic disturbance by four-thirty.”
“I would’ve said six. You’re becoming a real pessimist, Earl.”
In the end, they split the difference.
“Domestic disturbance at 14 Harvey Jacobs Road,” Doris reported at five-fifteen. “Lots of screaming in the background. Kids crying.” She shook her head. “Oldest child called it in. It’s Jessica Malone’s place.”
“I’ll handle it,” Frank told Earl. “You better stay here to be ready for the next one.” The minute the words were out of his mouth, he second-guessed his decision. What if the next call was worse? He might be better off sending Earl to a known quantity like Jessica Malone. The kid was quite good at calming people down. But Earl surprised him.
“Yeah, you’d better handle it. Jessica and her boyfriend might not take me seriously. She used to babysit me when I was a little kid.”
Frank clapped Earl on the shoulder. “Be careful out there.” And he headed out.
In under ten minutes, he arrived at 14 Harvey Jacobs Road, a long ranch house where every window blazed with light. A huge supply of split firewood was stacked neatly by the garage, but the driveway had been plowed haphazardly and Frank had no choice but to park behind two other vehicles.
As soon as he got out of the patrol car, he heard screaming voices above the howl of the wind. He could just barely make out their words.
“You’re going to ruin everything. This isn’t what I–.”
“Shut up, bitch! I know what I’m doing.”
And then as he drew closer, a higher pitched voice. “Don’t touch my mother!”
Frank moved from a trot to a run. He flattened himself against the house and reached across to pound on the front door. “Trout Run Police. Open up.”
The sudden silence was more disturbing than the screaming.
“Who called the cops? You little shit!”
Frank heard running and the front door flew open. A skinny boy, maybe nine or ten, stood trembling on the threshold, his eyes wide with fear, his lips chapped from anxious licking.
Frank stepped into the house. “Good work, buddy. Everything’s going to be okay. Where’s your sister?”
The boy pointed to the right just as a man appeared from the left. “You go sit with her and stay there, okay.”
The boy cast one terrified glance over his shoulder and scampered down the hall.
“Good afternoon,” Frank nodded at the large man who filled the archway leading to the living room. “Bit of trouble here?”
The guy breathed heavily as if he’d just finished a race. His wheezing pushed out a cloud of alcohol soaked fumes into the space between him and Frank. “No. Nothing’s wrong. Sorry to trouble you.” He attempted a smile. “The kids think it’s funny to play with the phone.”
Frank had been called out on his share of 9-1-1 calls dialed by busy toddlers pressing buttons. Those kids didn’t shake like beech trees rattled by the wind when he arrived.
“Jessica,” Frank called. “Can I see you out here, please? Come through the kitchen.”
Marge’s daughter appeared at the far end of the front hall. Now Frank was positioned where he wanted to be: between the battling couple and within sight of the hallway that led to the cowering children.
Jessica was no sylph, but she looked small compared to her boyfriend. The defeated slump of her shoulders added to the impression of fragility. She rubbed her flannel-shirted sleeve across her red nose and sniffed. She hadn’t noticed that a button had popped off her shirt—or been ripped off—exposing a stretch of white bra.
“It’s not what you think,” Jessica began talking before Frank could ask a question. “Jack’s really good with the kids. He just got upset that the Patriots are losing. And Lucas kept asking him a lot of questions.”
Frank didn’t comment. He’d heard every lame excuse a woman could possibly offer for her man’s deplorable behavior. Some were more creative, but all were equally unbelievable.
“Just to make sure everyone’s had a chance to calm down and sober up, let’s take you and the kids to your mother’s house for tonight.”
“No!” Jessica and Jack chorused.
“Leave my mother out of this,” Jessica said. “That’s all I need.”
Frank pulled Jessica into the kitchen. “Listen to me. I have a busy night ahead of me. I might not get out here so quick the next time Lucas calls. Jack is still drunk, and he’s still angry. I won’t leave those kids in the same house with him. So you come up with a safe place to spend the night, or Jack can sleep in the Trout Run detention cell.”
Jessica stared at the floor as Frank talked. After a moment of silence, she nodded. “Fine. You can take me and the kids to my sister Cassie’s house.” She pushed past Frank and went down the hall toward the bedroom where the kids waited.
A few minutes later she reappeared with a stuffed backpack, out of which trailed a child’s pink footie pajama leg. “Get your coats,” she barked, her face rigid with anger.
Frank wasn’t sure if the anger was directed at him, Lucas, or Jack, and he didn’t much care. He held the front door open and the kids shuffled out. Frank watched as Lucas buckled his little sister’s seat belt before fastening his own in the back seat of the patrol vehicle. Jessica sat by the rear window and stared out in stony silence as Frank pulled out of the driveway.
Soon the little girl began asking questions. “Will we eat dinner at Aunt Cassie’s house?” “Can we watch a movie there?” “Can I sleep with you tonight, Lucas?”
Lucas answered every question in a low whisper, as if speaking in a normal tone of voice might provoke an explosion. Frank glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the boy’s thin face with a V of worry permanently etched between his brows. The poor kid was used to carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Frank knew where Cassie Malone Pritchard lived, so he didn’t need to ask for directions. Ten minutes later they pulled into the driveway of a large log-style house cheerfully decorated for the holidays. Cassie must’ve been watching for them because the front door opened as soon as Frank got out of the patrol vehicle. She stood on the porch and waved as if her sister and the kids were arriving for a long-panned visit.
Jessica grabbed her daughter’s hand and strode toward the house, the little girl scampering to keep up. Lucas took the backpack, trudging behind them with his head hanging.
Frank waited until Jessica entered the house before intercepting Lucas.
He crouched before the boy so they were eye-to-eye. “You did the right thing, Lucas. You’re a good big brother.”
The boy scuffed his sneaker in the snow. “My mom is mad at me.”
Frank’s gut clenched. He wondered if Marge was aware of how much responsibility her grandson had to carry. Could he hope to find a moment at the diner to talk to her about it? He squeezed the boy’s shoulders. “Sometimes a man has to follow his best instincts. You know what instincts are?”
Lucas chewed his lower lip. “Like a gut feeling?”
“Exactly. I think you’re a guy with good instincts.” Frank pulled a business card and pen from his pocket. “I’m writing my cell phone number on here. If you ever need some help, ever need to talk, just call me, okay?”
Lucas took the card and studied it solemnly. “Is Miss Penny at the library your wife?”
“Yes, she is. She’s another person you can talk to if you ever have a problem.”
Lucas nodded and stuffed the card in his coat pocket. He turned toward the house, then stopped and changed his mind. He took the card out of his outer coat pocket, unzipped his coat, and tucked the card into an inner pocket like it was a precious treasure he didn’t want to lose.
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