My name is Sam Maxwell.
I’m just a guy that’s done some things. Some I’m okay with, some I’m not, and all of which I believe had to happen. One night, really not all that long ago, I added something to that list - I killed a piece of filth called Little Georgie Monsino.
Because I heard him bragging through the wall of my shithole apartment about targeting and killing rookie cops for sport. No – I didn’t see him do it, but I followed him long enough to know he was serious before I made sure no more wives would have a visit from the Chaplain and P.C. because of him. Little kids were still going to have daddies because I ended him.
It seemed like a fair trade.
It also set my life down a different path. I ended up hiding in the middle of nowhere, in my case a place called Oberlin, Kansas. Like it always does, my past caught up to my present there. Part of that past was Stephanie, my partner from a very long time ago. The other part was Big Georgie Monsino , my enemy from…
Not very long ago…
As these things happen, Big Georgie grabbed Stephanie when she wasn’t looking because he wasn’t man enough to come at me for what I did to his kid.
And I wanted Steph back. So….
I’m not going to try to make it sound like I didn’t react – I’d just killed a guy. Of course it bothered me, even if the guy was an asshole like his son.
Like father, like son, right?
I kept my Glock level as I cleared the building. Monsino might be dead, but I had to expect some of his guys to take that personally.
I didn’t know if I’d bother with ditching the gun or not. Once Johnny Carr heard Monsino was dead, it was inevitable that he’d send someone by to ask questions and generally jerk my leash a time or two to remind me who the boss was. It wouldn’t behove me to leave him anything to strengthen his position.
NYPD wasn’t an issue. Little Georgie’s death had gone down as a suicide, even though I’d broken his neck. Georgie here would probably go down as an accidental drowning.
Even if we were on the second floor of a warehouse… And he had a forty caliber slug in the back of his head…
I kicked in the next door and was met with Stephanie (which was great) who furiously tried to kick the gun out of my hands as well as anything else she could make contact with (which wasn’t great at all).
I didn’t lose my gun, but she kicked like a mule on meth for the little thing she was.
“Steph! It’s me! Stop!”
She got in one more slap for good measure before she seemed to figure out what was really going on.
“You all right?” I whispered once she seemed to get her senses back.
She nodded slowly. Her hair was a mess, and it was obvious she’d been knocked around. She didn’t look good at all. “It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”
“Can you walk? We gotta go.”
Even if she wasn’t armed, it gave me great comfort to have someone watch my back as we stepped out of the nasty little room and into the main part of the warehouse. Stephanie bent over next to what was left of Monsino and picked up his nickel-plated revolver. Her look of revulsion was almost imperceptible, but she knew a blood-spattered gun from a fallen enemy was better than nothing.
We did a lot of ducking and weaving, but we managed to get out of the building with only one exchange and no more deaths. Frigid snow fell from the dark New York sky, not quite covering the gravel that covered the ground.
“Where’s your backup?” Stephanie said between quick breaths.
“I came alone. Truck’s parked about three blocks away. We’ve gotta hurry.” I heard sirens wailing in the distance and assumed they weren’t going out for doughnuts.
“Couldn’t you find anyone to help?”
Ignoring her question, I asked “Are you sure you don’t need me to carry you?”
I just swung her into my arms when she didn’t object and tried to hurry. She wrapped her arms around my neck in response and hung on.
We were out of town before she said a word. Even at that, it was only, “Cold.”
I turned the heater up and reached behind to the back seat of the rented pickup and grabbed a red woolen blanket. She pulled it around herself, blinked a word of thanks and passed into sleep.
I backed the heater down just before the plastic in the dashboard started to melt. It was common knowledge that the first rule to treating even a potential shock victim was to keep them warm.
But I just couldn’t take any more heat.
I wiped the sweat off of my forehead for what felt like (and probably was) the hundredth time and tried to concentrate on driving. I usually got sleepy during long drives, but staying awake didn’t feel like it was going to be a problem.
I listened for every single breath I could. She’d been through a lot. Intellectually, I knew she was just sleeping, but my mind kept running away from me and imagining a future without her. Of course, I knew it looked a lot like my present, really.
She was some one I loved, but… Was I still in love with her?
There was always the question of Johnny Carr. There was no telling if he’d let her stay with me, and it went without saying that he wasn’t going to let me leave Kansas. Even at that, there was no telling if she’d want to stay with me anyway. My life was far in a way different than it had been when we’d first met.
I shook my head.
Of course I was still in love with her. That, as they say, was a stupid question.
I’d fix her up and then she’d leave again.
That was just who we are to each other.
“How long was I asleep?” Dressed in my t-shirt and boxers, I could see all of the damage Monsino and his people had done.
It was no small tally. I might have actually gone a little easy on him, but my only other choice was to go and kill him again.
“About eight hours.”
“I thought I slept through Christmas.” She looked around with a slight look of contempt on her face.
“It’s not for a few days,” I said as I got up and headed to the coffee maker.
She followed me and slowly, gingerly took a mug from the cupboard. The pain resonated across her face, but there was no torture that would separate her from a morning cuppa. “You’re going to need to work fast.”
Just a hint of the smile I knew shined through bruised lips. “Giving me the Christmas I deserve.”
I stepped behind her, put a hand on her waist, and kissed the top of her head. “No Christmas tree? No carols playing on the radio? No candy-cane flavoring in the coffee? That’s what you’re going to complain about?”
She nodded playfully, and I kissed the top of her head again. “Well, okay then.”
We watched a morning news talk show. It was some affair hosted by an attractive woman and an ex-football player sitting on a couch. The set was laden with Christmas trees and garland, even if there wasn’t an actual news desk in sight.
“See? That’s how you decorate for Christmas,” Stephanie said, gesturing to the T.V.. She had her legs crossed beneath her, coffee cup in hand, and suddenly looked decidedly happier.
If sugar plums dancing in her head makes her smile, who am I to argue?
After her coffee and the digression of the T.V. program to a cadre of doctors wearing suits instead of scrubs, I fed her what I hoped was a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs and then sent her back to sleep with the promise that if I wasn’t there when she woke, I’d be back shortly.
It was only thirty miles or so to get to the nearest department store. It was handy – they had all of the Christmas garb a person could possibly want in one place. My cart was overflowing as I stood in the checkout line a half an hour later.
I was home and started decorating long before Stephanie woke from her nap.
She sure looked cute in my clothes.
For an instant, she also looked crestfallen.
I walked up to her and carefully kissed her bruised cheek. “Sleep good?”
“Ready for some chow?”
She nodded again.
“Are you going to say anything to me?”
She shook her head.
There wasn’t even a hint of a smile. She wasn’t being playful.
I tried to be. “Not a big fan of flashing colored lights?”
She nodded imperceptibly before she caught herself.
I stepped away from her and pulled the plug for the lights out of the wall outlet.
“Bad association?” I asked once I got closer.
She nodded again.
I didn’t ask her anything else while I warmed some soup and slightly burned a couple of grilled-cheese sandwiches. We may have been trained operators, but the only thing that really meant was we had seen and done more dark stuff than your average citizens.
We were still human – the dark stuff hung around, and it seemed to leap back to the forefront at the oddest provocation. Opinions varied, but as far as I was concerned, there wasn’t anything to do but ignore it. She knew the same thing. It was a protective instinct for her to settle in front of the television and flip through the channels until she found Kermit the Frog playing Bob Crachit.
She was laughing soon, and it was such a sweet sound.
Life is always about associations…
We made it through my cooking, the rest of ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’, some menagerie I’d never seen about an orphan boy turned elf singing to his dad in the Empire State Building, and Cousin Eddie’s arrival before she fell asleep and started snoring softly.
I cringed when I picked her up – not because she was heavy, but because she wasn’t.
I didn’t even want to think about what Monsino had done to her.
I sat with her for a while. I wasn’t past the worry yet. I needed to hear her breathing. In and out – I needed to make sure she was still with me.
I couldn’t lose her again.
I got back up and started stripping the lights off of the tree and the garland I’d hung around the edge of the ceiling. If it was enough to rattle Stephanie, there was no way I was going to let her get up and have to deal with it again. I went back into the bedroom and checked on her again, then carried the lights to the dumpster on the way to my pickup.
McCook was only a half an hour away, and the store was open all night.
I had work to do.
My apartment didn’t look as happy with the all-white lights, but it did look much more peaceful. Looking at their luminous white glow against the dark of the night made me wonder what I’d been thinking when I bought the blinkers. I shook my head hoping to rid my eyes of the burning they’d developed over the last few hours when my cell buzzed.
I answered at a whisper, grabbed my hat and was out the door before the switchboard operator finished her rushed briefing. My pickup had rumbled to life before she told me it was a truck accident, and I was headed up Main Street before she told me it was just a few miles on our side of the Rawlins County line.
Stabilizing the driver was the first order of business. Cutting his seatbelt was all it took to spring him from the wreck. Other than a couple of cuts from flying glass, I took him as just being knocked around for the most part.
The truck was another matter. The placards indicated the trailer was carrying diesel fuel, and it was leaking. Diesel isn’t flammable under atmospheric conditions, which is awesome, but it is highly toxic. Once the driver was back in my idling truck with a blanket and the switchboard was updated, I grabbed a shovel out of the back and went back to the wreck to see what I could do about diking the escaping liquid.
I would be here for a while…
Sirens announced the pending arrival of the ambulance and the reinforcements. Oberlin didn’t have a hazmat team; we’d have to wait for mutual aid to roll in out of McCook and Norton. There would be a wrecker along directly to start picking up the pieces, and eventually a backhoe and dump truck to clean up the slowly-growing puddle in the ditch alongside the road. Right now, I was just happy to see the white ambulance flanked by Maren’s Tahoe.
I glanced up from my digging to see Maren stopped at my pickup long enough to get the EMTs started on the driver. From there, she set up reflectors and got the little bit of traffic that had accumulated moving around the shoulder on the far side of the wreck. The highway was busy with truck traffic headed to and from Denver.
Flashing orange lights announced the arrival of the wrecker and its support truck. They had spill containment equipment, including an experimental temporary patch that was happily surprisingly effective. So much so, in fact, that there really wasn’t much for the hazmat crews to do. After a quick consultation, Maren got on the radio and turned them back. The trucking company would hire a reclamation team to deal with what I’d diked up in the barrow ditch in the morning.
“I’ve got this one, Maren. You head on home. Thanks for the backup.”
“Are you sure? I know you need to get back, too.”
“Tomorrow… I mean, today’s Christmas Eve. Besides, I should be done here before she wakes up by the look of things, but if not, she’ll be all right.”
“Well… Okay, I guess.”
I slowly started walking her toward her Tahoe. “Big plans?”
She shook her head. “Dinner with Jim’s family and football, I guess. And work, of course.”
“There shouldn’t be any of that,” I shook my head. “The state patrol is supposed to cover traffic. As long as nothing big happens, you should get to enjoy a little r-and-r.”
“That doesn’t seem completely fair.”
I shrugged. “I ran the trap on Thanksgiving, and I’ll take New Year’s. That ought to be payback enough. I’ll still be on duty tomorrow, too. I just hope it’s quiet.”
She got in, rolled down the window and started her engine. “Let me know if you need anything. Best wishes, Sheriff.”
“Merry Christmas, Maren.”
“And to you.” She smiled playfully. “And yours.”
I watched her tail lights disappear into the distance, mostly because I didn’t have anything else to do.
There wasn’t even traffic to direct.
Noticing things was a life skill. More than once, paying attention to that little twinge of Déjà vu, double-checking that face in the crowd that looked familiar, or just generally keeping my head moving had kept me out of far more trouble than it had ever gotten me into.
The shiny black sedan in the apartment parking lot wasn’t ostentatious by any stretch – it was just something I hadn’t seen here before.
Someone had a visitor.
I looked up and saw the light on through the window of my apartment, and knew that not only Stephanie was awake, but we were the ones with company. Stephanie had never mentioned any family, so I pushed the release on my holster and pulled up on my Glock just far enough that I knew it wouldn’t get caught if I had to draw.
As soon as I opened the door, I was greeted with, “Do you always greet your guests with a drawn weapon?”
“He’s just being cautious, Sally. He didn’t know you were coming,” Stephanie said tiredly.
“I’d think the County Sheriff would be a little less inclined toward gunplay,” the woman said. She was a pretty woman, and obviously Stephanie’s older sister.
I slid my gun back down fractionally, then shook it by the grip to make sure it had locked in place.
“Didn’t mean any unkindness, ma’am. I just didn’t know we were expecting company,” I said as I crossed to the coffee maker.
They’d emptied the pot…
Sally started talking while I looked for more coffee. “You’re out of coffee. There’s not any milk, and the orange juice is almost empty. Some fresh fruit would be nice, and the bread’s stale. I’m not sure what you intend to have for lunch, but frozen pizza probably isn’t the best thing for Stephanie to recover on. How about some chicken, or maybe even a steak?”
“I didn’t realize how low the provisions had gotten. I’ll head for the store,” I said, inwardly dreading the turn away from my bed and the thought of a third trip to McCook in the past twenty-four hours. “Is there anything else we need?”
“I’ll just make you a list,” Sally snapped as she stood up from the couch.
I took a deep breath and stepped toward the bathroom. “That’d be great. Thanks.”
Losing a half an hour listening to the well-meaning County Commissioner Dern prattle on about the budget implications of the forthcoming new year while yet another gentle snow started to fall was like having teeth pulled.
I'd only stopped for a tank of gas.
There wasn’t any good way to get out of it – Dern was my boss, even if it was a completely inappropriate time to talk shop at the gas pump.
On Christmas Eve.
When I had somewhere to get.
The real problem was the snow was gentle because it was dry. Anyone who’s driven on much snow knows that the dry stuff, for some reason, becomes super-slick after it gets compressed onto the highway. With all of the traffic from last minute shoppers heading out to the stores, the shoulders of the road quickly started to look like a war zone.
I was out for the biggest end of the day helping to answer calls.
Of course it got dark early in December, but the sun was dipping below the horizon by the time I got back on my way to fill Sally’s notably extensive list. Half last-minute shoppers and half early Christmas clearance shoppers, the store was overflowing with…
Pushing and shoving and stepping on feet and not a single ‘excuse me’…
People were terrible to each other even though, or perhaps especially because it was Christmas Eve.
It wouldn’t even be that by the time I got home, not officially, anyway.
I knew I was just tired, but it was hard not to get frustrated by the way things were going. It was simple enough to keep going knowing that I was doing what needed done, but in reality, I just wanted to be home with the girl I’d risked my life for – over and over again.
I wanted to see her smile, hear her laugh, watch her wander around in my shirt, smell her scent…
I wanted to simply know that she was there, and for her to know that I would be there for her.
The next few days looked to be devoid of those sort of moments now. I found myself moving on to imagine a future without them.
And felt profoundly sad.
“Where are you?”
“Maxwell. What do you need?”
“You’re still asleep, Sam. It’s me, Stephanie. You okay?”
The concern in her voice started to register. “I’m fine. I’m at the station.”
“Did you sleep there?”
“No,” I lied. I really didn’t sleep, when it got right down to it. “Got busy with the snow.”
“Are you coming home? I thought you had backup today.” Her voice suddenly brightened. “It’s Christmas!”
And here I am, hiding in a holding cell.
“It’s just good to hear you. It’s been a long time.”
“It’s been less than a day, Sam.”
“It’s been a day, and a long one.”
“Whatever.” The silence was awkward. “Sam?”
“Tell him we can’t eat until he brings the food home!” Sally’s voice shouted loud enough I could have stepped outside and heard her.
“She scared you off, didn’t she?” Stephanie whispered conspiratorially.
I imagined Stephanie’s smile, and it warmed my heart. “She scared me out of my own home. It’s a whole different thing.”
Her laugh was back. Hearing it reminded me how much I had missed it. “Come start Christmas with us, Sam. I’m waiting for you.”
Knowing that she both would and wouldn’t wait forever, I sprung up and grabbed my coat.
“Merry Christmas, Steph.”
“Merry Christmas to you too, Sheriff.”