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Except from lead story, "The Rose in the Snow"

Her name was Aimee Sumner, and she said she’d seen a rose blooming in the snow.

I hadn't noticed any rose bushes pushing through the snow drifts during the four years I'd spent in Oaktree, the small town in the California Sierras where I hung my Chief of Police hat. But it wasn't like anyone looked to Aimee for accuracy. Nature might have graced her with exceptional beauty, more apparent now that she'd turned nineteen than ever before, but it had cheated her in another way. If the light in the eyes is a reflection of the mind, then only the dimmest of bulbs glowed in that poor girl.

Because Aimee had gestured with such agitation when she babbled haltingly about the rose, I agreed to check it out. What the hell, it wasn't like being Super-cop in this no-horse town required much effort. But that was why I'd taken the job. Five years earlier I'd been a homicide detective down in Los Angeles. Man, I thought I had it made: great wife, new baby, career on the fast track. What I hadn't known was that when you think you've got it all — all you really have is everything to lose.

I'd learned how fast that can happen when a drunk driver plowed into the car carrying my wife and son, ending their lives. After months in a stupor, when I finally returned to the living, it was just to tell life to fuck itself. It's the caring that kills you, more than drunk drivers or drive-bys or cancer. Nothing and nobody would ever matter to me again.

Since I still had to pay the rent, I found a job I could do in my sleep, which was pretty much how I lived. But I hadn't counted on the barriers I'd need to erect. People in small towns worm their way into your life and refuse to accept that you want no part of them. Some were ruthlessly persistent. Most days around this time, Guy Kennedy, from the insurance office down the road, would throw the door open and shout, “Hey, Ben, got time to grab some coffee?”

Time? Sure. Any interest? None at all. For four solid years, Kennedy kept issuing those invitations. And I kept turning them down. But he wouldn't get it. None of them would. I'd police their damn town, but I refused to be their friend.

And that was the other reason why I agreed to check out Aimee Sumner's snow-rose. It was nearly time for Kennedy's coffee break — anything to avoid that.

So I followed her through the woods that skirted the north side of town. Up hills that left me panting, falling in snow drifts as high as my waist. Until she finally stopped before a pile of snow in a clearing. The mound wasn't a natural drift; it had obviously been built up with a shovel. And I had to hand it to Aimee, she wasn't that far off. While that wasn't an actual flower peeking through the snow, blood had tinged it the color of a ruby red rose.

I pawed through the packed snow, coming first upon a man wrapped in a sheepskin coat, drenched in blood. When I cleared the snow from his face, I saw that it was Jack Haggerty in that mound clinging to life. Jack published the local newspaper, The Oaktree Crier, and saw himself as some hotshot reporter. As if such a thing could exist in this burg.

When the ER docs got him into surgery, they discovered someone had put two slugs in Jack. They also said he'd had no more than minutes of life left in him.

Lucky bastard.

***
I went to the hospital first. Stared through the glass wall of Jack's room in intensive care, at all the equipment hooked up to a man who now looked as pale and still as ice. Though Jack must have had fifteen years on my forty-two, and his craggy, weathered face made him look older still, the drive and hope that had pulsed in him always made me feel anemic in comparison. Jack never stopped searching for the big story that would bag the Pulitzer for his pathetic little rag.

I paused beside a young surgeon. “Jack gonna make it?” I asked.

His offhanded shrug looked more jaded than uncaring, a remnant of his days in a big city hospital. “The gunshots probably wouldn't have killed him, but one nicked an artery. He's lost a lot of blood.”
The doctor was an Oaktree boy, who had gone to Harvard for med school, but who'd been lured back by the strength of his small town roots. How could he stand it?

“Jack's a tough old bird.” The doctor's cynicism fell away as sudden brightness stripped years from his face. “Once my dad told me about how he and Jack — ”

I turned away, too abruptly, making some excuse that came too late. I didn't want to hear their stories. If I did, I'd have to share their lives. Never again.

***