Judging for the Edgars Best Novel Award

By Brian Thiem

A year ago, author pal Susan Breen told me she had been asked by Mystery Writers of America to chair the Edgars Best Novel selection committee and asked me to be one of the seven committee members.

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Although I’m a newbie in the mystery writing world, I’ve been familiar with the Edgars Awards for some time. The Edgars are the most prestigious awards for mystery authors. When the nominations come out every year, I head to the library and local bookstore to grab copies of the books that Mystery Writers of America has determined to be the best. And like most mystery authors, I dream that one of my books might someday make the list.

Being asked to be part of the process was a true honor, so, not fully comprehending the enormity of the task, I agreed.

The books started trickling in. Brand new hardcover novels shipped directly from the publishers. Books written by my favorite authors. Authors I’d never previously read but always wanted to. Traditional mysteries, thrillers, procedurals. All mine to keep. It was like Christmas every day.Edgar Books 4

I started reading.

Then more books arrived. I’d get home in the evening and find several boxes of books on the porch. I’d watch the UPS guy and postal carrier plodding up my driveway carrying heavy boxes, obviously hating my decision to join the committee. In no time at all, my home office had piles of books on the coffee table and more on the floor. Soon, stacks twenty-books high covered an entire wall. I emptied half the shelves on my four bookcases to make space. But that wasn’t enough.

Susan had warned us the previous year’s Best Novel committee received more than 500 books, and we needed to find our own system to plow through the books and come up with our committee’s five nominees. It became obvious that even if I did nothing but eat, sleep, and read for the next year, I couldn’t possibly read 500 books beginning to end.

I remembered the semester in my MFA program when I interned with literary agent extraordinaire Paula Munier and was assigned her electronic “slush pile” sent by authors who dreamed of landing an agent. I quickly learned to read for “rejection.” As calloused as it sounds, I was searching for a great book by a great writer, and anything less, I had to reject.

I began doing the same with the Best Novel submissions. But it was tough. All the books came from traditional publishers who had qualified for MWA’s approved publishers list. The authors had already made the cut by attracting an agent. Their agents thought their books were great enough to pitch to publishers. The publishing houses thought the books were great enough to send out to the world and be profitable, even after the advances they paid out and the costs of editing, publishing, and marketing. All the books I received were worthy.

Many evenings, I sat in my office and stared at the twenty or more books sitting on my coffee table. Sometimes, I would read the first few pages, acknowledge it was a good book but not a winner, and put it aside. I’d read three chapters of others and think, “maybe,” setting it aside to read more. And some I read to the end over the next few days. Some of those made my list. I began whittling down the pile. Then the dreaded UPS guy came again.Edgar Books 1

The committee was comprised of avid readers and successful authors: Gray Basnight, Susan Breen, Tracy Clark, Tracee de Hahn, Mary Feliz, and Jeff Soloway. Our backgrounds and writing subgenres were different. We had different opinions about what made a “best” novel. Over the year, we traded hundreds of emails, discussing what we liked and why. We were often passionate in our opinions. But our diversity in background, voices, and beliefs turned out to be our strength.

I had only met a few of the committee members in person before we were selected, but by the end of the year, I felt I had six close friends. They’d share a book they loved, and I sometimes had to pull it from my “no” pile and give it another look. I’d tell them why I like a particular book. We’d sometimes argue over—I mean discuss—the merits of different books, but it never got personal, and I learned more about writing from this group than I thought possible.

We’re all sworn to secrecy about the inner workings of our committee and how we came up with the winners, but I will say, there’s no magic formula to what makes the best novel (or if there is, it still eludes me). If there was, every author could write the next bestseller.

Once we selected our nominees and winner, we all felt like we deserved a celebration. Too bad we lived in different parts of the country. I began boxing up my books. Some of the 540 books I had received I already gave away to friends. About 60 books—those that were not winners, but books I loved them enough to want to finish—remained on my shelves. I delivered the rest to the local library. The branch manager was thrilled. SomeEdgar Books 3 would go into their circulation, others would go to other branch libraries in the county system, and some would be sold by the Friends of the Library to raise money for library programs.

It was an honor to be part of this process. I’m in awe of the talented authors who wrote hundreds of amazing mystery, thriller, and crime novels in 2019. I offer a huge congratulations to the nominees. I’m equally in awe of my fellow committee members. You guys are awesome.

The winner of Best Novel and the other categories will be announced at the Edgars Banquet in New York on April 30.

 

Writing Spaces and Places

By Brian Thiem: Last week I posted a photo of my writing desk on social media and received a lot of comments. I’ve also been following my many author friends during their jaunt to Dallas for Bouchercon, where their writing juices are being replenished to help them crank out the successive thousand word days when they get home. It got me thinking about our personal sacred writing spaces and places where we create the stories others love to read.

I’ve written on my back porch, in the family room, on the kitchen counter, and countless other places in my house. I’ve also written during travels from the west coast to the east and countless foreign countries. Wherever I go, I normally take my laptop so I can write.

Although all I need to write is my laptop, the screen isn’t large enough for two windows opened simultaneously, and after a few hours of work, my old body, plagued with plenty of military and cop-career injuries, is feeling it in the neck, back, and hands.

I prefer writing in my own space, where I have everything at my fingertips—reference files, notes, books. Where I can control my environment and shut out distractions when necessary. I do most of my writing at my desk, where my laptop (a 13-inch Lenovo ThinkPad) snaps into a docking station that’s hooked to two external monitors, a quality keyboard that actually makes an audible click when a key is depressed, a LaserJet printer, and mouse. The external monitor is large enough to show my working manuscript on the right and my plot outline on the left side of one screen. I often bring up my character list (because I forget character names sometimes.) I can use the other monitor for reference and research. I have room to scatter papers and notes all around me on the computer table and desk. At my desk, I sit up straight with everything in the right ergonomic position.

After an hour or two at my desk, I try to take a break, and will often find myself in my reading chair. That’s also where I normally begin a new project, brainstorming and jotting down ideas that will eventually become a plot outline. That chair is where I frequently read one of the many novels on my TBR (to be read) pile that resides on the coffee table. I’ll admit I might also lie on the sofa to read, but somehow that position seems to make my eyelids heavy.

Annie, who’s been my writing companion for seven years, her own spot in the corner of my office. She’s not much of a critic though—she’s just as content watching me write garbage as a potential bestseller.

So, fellow writers, where do you write? Tell me about your space. Attach photos.

I’ve Seen The Elephant

By Brian Thiem: In my current WIP (that’s Work in Progress for my non-writer friends—the book I’m currently working on), one of my main characters had looked forward to “seeing the elephant,” but once she does, the experience profoundly changes her.elephants

The phrase “seen the elephant” has been around for centuries. It originally meant to experience the world at a significant personal cost. Years ago, people had to travel to Africa to see an elephant, an experience filled with excitement and danger.

More recently, the military coined the phrase to describe the experience of combat, and some police departments use the phrase to define an officer’s experience in a life and death battle.

There are various degrees of seeing the elephant. Some soldiers, especially those who served in Vietnam, only consider soldiers who really saw the elephant as those engaged in close-range firefights, where they could see the faces of the enemy as they traded volleys of bullets. Others qualify anyone who has faced death at the hands of an enemy and prevailed as having seen the elephant.

When I deployed for the Iraq War, I saw how my fellow soldiers experienced their first sighting of the elephant when we were still in Kuwait and the sirens sounded as Scud missiles headed our way. I saw the faces of soldiers preparing to face the elephant when riding in a C-130 amid anti-aircraft fire on a night landing in Baghdad, and when leaving the wire in a HUMVEE to travel along the road to the Green Zone, where roadside bombs, snipers, and suicide bombers killed or wounded soldiers daily.

Some young soldiers and police officers secretly desire to see the elephant. They want to test their courage and skill by facing an opponent determined to kill them. They want to know if they’ll freeze or if they have what it takes to fight and win. However, few cops or soldiers who have faced the elephant in that manner ever want to again. They often end up with more regrets than triumphs.

In my WIP, Simone had spent years in the Army and law enforcement yet had never elephant chargingtruly faced the elephant. When she does, she is like an African hunter who had tracked a rogue bull elephant that rampaged villages and killed dozens of people. When the elephant charges her, she has a split second to summon every bit of courage and skill she possesses. Or die.

Those soldiers and police officers who have never seen the elephant might think that once they face the elephant and prevail, it will be easier the next time. But that is far from reality. Seeing the elephant changes you. Some are hardened by the experience, others suffer enormous regret at having taken a human life, some numb their emotions with alcohol or drugs, and others experience various degrees of PTSD or debilitating anxiety. And some take their own lives, as demonstrated by the higher rates of suicide among police and combat veterans.

Although my WIP is about a murder investigation and stopping bad guys from killing again, it also explores the lives of several characters, one of whom had looked forward to seeing the elephant, and how after she sees and conquers it, her life and the lives of those around her are forever changed.   

Militarization of Police

By Brian Thiem
About two months ago, Sacramento Police Officer Tara O’Sullivan was shot during a domestic dispute call by a man with a high-powered rifle. Other officers immediately took cover as the gunman continued shooting, preventing them from rescuing Tara as she lay dying in the back yard of a North Sacramento house.Tara-OSullivan-Life-Mattered[1]

Within minutes, numerous officers responded, but they were unable to get to Tara without subjecting themselves to gunfire.

I can only imagine the sense of utter helplessness felt by Tara and her fellow officers as she lay dying in that backyard while rifle rounds pinged around them, her brother officers wanting to rush to her aid, but knowing that doing so meant certain death.

Those officers were armed with handguns, firearms that are effective out to about 20 yards. They wore concealable Kevlar vests that covered a fraction of their bodies and were only capable of stopping the most common handgun rounds. The rifle bullets the gunman was firing would punch right through them.

It was nearly an hour before the department was able to enter the kill zone with an armored vehicle called a Bearcat and evacuate Tara. Whether Tara was already dead at that time or died en route to the hospital hasn’t been determined or hasn’t been publicly released.Bearcat

I’ve heard and read too many politicians, activists, and media outlets decrying the so-called militarization of law enforcement—the acquisition of armored vehicles and other tools and weapons beyond what a uniformed police officer uses, and related training for major tactical situations.

Earlier this year, the Alameda County (in which Oakland, the city where I worked for 25 years, is located) voted to eliminate SWAT-type scenarios from a regional law enforcement training exercise that is attended by law enforcement agencies from around the state because it “promotes the militarization of police.”

As a tactical commander and the commander of the special operations section for several years toward the end of my police career, I oversaw hundreds of SWAT operations, and through formal Risk Analysis processes, I determined the circumstances under which specialized tactical teams and equipment was appropriate. Those decisions required balancing resources (personnel, overtime) with officer and community safety, while weighing community expectations and concerns.

Therefore, I cringe when I see news reports of heavily armed FBI SWAT teams serving a search warrant at the house of a white-collar crime suspect, or SWAT teams using armored vehicles with a battering ram for routine search warrants.

The debate over police acquiring and deploying heavy tactical equipment and weapons and engaging in training exercises focusing on terrorist attacks and active shooters should continue in our communities. However, I know some Sacramento police officers who wished they had an armored vehicle closer and more specially trained tactical officers with rifles as they were pinned down by a crazed gunman and their sister lay dying nearby.

Getting the Cop Stuff Right

by Brian Thiem

In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to help four writer friends get the cop stuff right in their novels. My cop friends know this stuff, but unless a crime fiction writer has carried a badge and gun for a living, they can make procedural errors that will make more knowledgeable readers cringe. Glock-23-40S-W_main-1

Most fiction writers these days (although a few are still clueless) know Glocks don’t have manual safeties and police officers carry their pistols with a round in the chamber, so there’s no dramatic racking of the slide before they go into a dangerous situation, as we often see on TV. Therefore, the questions I normally get are more nuanced and complex.

I helped two writers understand crime scene security. On major cases, such as homicides, the mayor, the victim’s mother, and reporters cannot enter the scene. In Oakland, our rule was that as soon as the life threating activities (medical care to the injured, arresting suspects, and searching and securing the scene) were complete, the only people allowed into the scene were the field supervisor (normally a patrol sergeant), homicide investigators, coroner’s deputies, and crime scene technicians.

Since every officer on the scene had to write a report, if some captain tried to pull rank to come in and “take a look,” I would just tell him that per the Report Writing Manual, he must complete a supplemental report detailing everything he did and saw while on the scene and his reasons for entering. I’d remind him he might have to testify in court because defense lawyers love to question everyone present looking for inconsistencies. In my time in Homicide, I never had any brass insist on entering a major crime scene.crime-scene-tape

I helped another writer create a realistic police detective character. Most major police departments require that all new hires start as a uniformed police officer and work their way through the ranks, except for possibly police chiefs, who are sometimes hired from outside the department. After a number of years in uniform, an officer may be promoted to detective. In some departments, detective is a duty position within the same ranks as those in uniform, such as officer or sergeant. In others, such as LAPD and NYPD, officers test for a separate detective rank. And if the detectives (or investigators, as many departments actually call them), work in crime-based units (homicide, robbery, burglary, etc.), they normally have to work their way up to Homicide.

I helped another writer understand the boundaries of an investigator’s legal jurisdiction. Investigators often have to cross jurisdictional lines to do their job. Crooks don’t stay within a particular city’s boundaries, so investigators can’t either. However, states have different laws governing the extent of a police officer’s authority. In California, for instance, a peace officer has police powers anywhere in the state. Even though I worked for Oakland PD, I could legally make an arrest in Los Angeles, although I’d be a fool to do so without the help of LAPD unless I accidentally stumbled on something and was forced to take action. Even if I was going a few blocks outside Oakland to make an arrest, I’d always notify the neighboring city first, and they’d often send their officers to assist.

Even though I had no peace officer authority outside California, I traveled to other states a number of times when investigating homicides. We’d always make contact with the jurisdiction we were visiting, either a city police department, sheriff’s office, or state police, as a matter of courtesy, but also because they knew the locale, the bad guys, and had direct access to a cavalry of blue suits if the feces hit the fan.

One investigation took me to Washington D.C., where the city’s homicide unit assigned two detectives to me and my partner to assist us as we interviewed an Oakland murder suspect they had arrested for us and helped us locate several witnesses in the seedier parts of our nation’s capital. I recall their assistance even included taking us to dinner and drinking with us at the local cop bar. Cop Bar

I worked with another writer whose police detective was getting into a romantic relationship with a crime victim. I won’t say it never happened in real life, but police officers know that’s an ethical no-no. Firstly, the investigator is in a disparate power position with a citizen victim or witness, somewhat like a teacher and a student or a therapist and a patient. Secondly, a personal relationship could taint the investigator’s objectivity and therefore, the investigation. And lastly, if the case goes to trial, the defense attorney will have a field day with the investigator in court, challenging his professionalism, objectivity, and honesty (he probably lied about the affair or at least kept it secret), which will likely damage the case beyond repair.

I’m not telling my author pals not to do it, because it makes for such great drama—the dedicated detective willing to destroy his career for the beautiful heroine or the flawed detective who breaks the rules in the name of justice and love—but understand the consequences in the real world.

I’m impressed with authors who try to get the cop stuff right in their novels, so don’t be afraid to ask if I can assist. And if you’re a writer and going to the Mystery in the Midlands conference next month, I’ll be teaching a masters class on Police Tactics for Writers.

Face Crimes and Mean-Mugging

During the last week or so, I was fascinated with the mainstream media reporting and social media hubbub over a young man’s facial expression at the Lincoln Memorial. Not because I want to get involved in the national debate over who’s right and who’s wrong smirk emojior when a smile is a smirk (BTW, I refuse to get involved in divisive political debate in this blog or elsewhere in social media).

I followed the reporting because, as a police officer and detective, I have studied body language and facial expressions for decades to figure out what was going on inside people’s heads, and today I try to use it in my fiction writing.

Although high-level detectives (such as homicide detectives who spend thousands of hours interviewing people) are better than the average person at “reading” people based on their expressions, most of us would admit, it’s often guesswork. Even when we feel someone is lying, it’s nearly impossible to identify specific eye, face, or body language as proof.

Many of us young cops in Oakland had been accused of committing “face crimes,” as one of my early sergeants termed them, based on George Orwell’s novel, 1984:george orwell 1984

A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself—anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: FACECRIME, it was called.

Citizens complained if we smiled and wished a motorist a nice day after issuing them a traffic citation. Although we were trying to be polite and friendly, a smile was sometimes viewed as us taking smug pleasure in the motorists’ misfortune. Other motorists complained if we remained stone-faced during the encounter because it conveyed a “storm trooper” and robot-like mentality that lacked humanity.

I remember being counseled for allowing the expression of the rage I was feeling to show on my face when I once arrested a man who had pressed his son’s hands on an police at protestelectric stove’s burners. Control my emotions, I was told. Another time I had to respond to a complaint for appearing dispassionate toward a sexual assault victim, whom I spent hours interviewing while holding in my emotions to avoid crying along with her.

I also saw a “face crime” turn deadly when investigating a murder where a young man was shot and killed by a street-corner drug dealer. With overwhelming evidence showing he did it, we arrested and interviewed the suspect. Our main question was why. The shooter explained that the victim never said a word to him, but walked by his corner and “mean-mugged” him.

Statisticians at the city and state level mandated we classify every homicide by motive. Some were clear-cut, such as murders committed during a robbery or when a husband killed his wife (domestic), yet my fellow homicide detectives knew many of the senseless murders we investigated defied classification. Still, there was no category for “mean-mugging.”

There was no indication the victim intentionally meant to disrespect the drug dealer (and even if he did, it certainly didn’t justify the killing), and friends and family believed the victim was attempting to appear confident so the local dealers didn’t mess with him. A look of confidence to one person can appear to be arrogance to another.

Detectives have been trying to discover methods to ascertain deception in people for years, hoping for insight into a subject’s mind and true thoughts. I attended training mona smirkabout eye movement, where the instructors said a subject’s eyes move up and right when they lie. Another training course described micro-expressions that supposedly indicated deception. However, recent studies indicate none of these methods is much more accurate than a flip of a coin.

Despite its inherit unreliability, it’s human nature to try to read people’s thoughts based on their body language, so in my novels, I try to incorporate characters’ facial expression with their actions and dialogue to better bring them to life. In my next book, I know I’ll have to make a character smirk to see how the characters around him react.

Saint Nicholas

Several years ago I penned a tale titled Saint Nicholas, which I post every year as a holiday greeting to friends near and far. Knowing that many folks find the holidays a bit overwhelming, I wrote this seasonal short story to remind us all what is truly important and to provide an emotional lift to those in need. If I’ve done my job well, this story will put a smile on your face and some warmth in your hearts. Feel free to share if you think it might mean something to others. Here’s wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday season.

Bruce Robert Coffin

I’ve always believed that it’s part of the human condition to focus on the negative. Maybe it has something to do with our upbringing, although upon reflection we are all raised very differently so perhaps not. Whatever it is, it definitely exists in each of us. How else can we explain the age old news reporting axiom “if it bleeds it leads?” Police officers are even more inclined to focus on the negative. Being exposed to it day in and day out tends to make one jaded. But, I’m getting way ahead of myself. I should probably begin by telling you a little bit about me before I tell you my story.

My name is Crispin Mallory and, in case you haven’t already guessed, I am a police officer. I’ve been with the same department for thirty years, pushing a cruiser around, investigating motor vehicle accidents, breaking up domestics, chasing down criminals, and writing the occasional traffic citation.

One day, several years back, I was working a double shift. Cops aren’t paid all that well and when an overtime opportunity presents itself most of us are quick to say yes. It was December twenty-fourth and I had just finished my first tour. I’d returned to the station to attend roll call before heading back out for another eight hours. I was tired and not in a particularly festive mood, mostly due to the fact that I had to work on Christmas, which meant my wife and two children would be celebrating without me. Another holiday missed. Such is the life of a cop. Anyway, the sergeant held me back after the briefing, said he had a task for me. I was instructed to return some valuables to a local home for the aged. Apparently one of the nursing staff had confessed to stealing jewelry from some of the residents at the home, to support her drug habit. See what I mean? All negative. The sergeant provided me with the name of the medical administrator and asked me to deliver the items to him.

After checking out a squad car and loading my gear, I got on the radio and requested that the dispatcher show me 10-6 (busy) on assignment. I drove toward the nursing home, stopping long enough to grab a drive through coffee along the way.

I parked in the lot and made my way inside. The receptionist was talking to one of the orderlies and they both turned as I entered.

“Hello officer,” the receptionist said. “Merry Christmas.”

I returned the greeting.

“What can I do for you?” she asked.

“I’m looking for Mr. Ashby,” I said. “I’m supposed to deliver something to him.”

“I’ll try his extension.”

I wandered around the lobby as she tried to locate Ashby. Everything was brightly painted and decorated for the season. In one corner stood a small lit Christmas tree from which emanated the pleasant scent of balsam. I wondered if the employees were still allowed to call it a Christmas tree.

“Officer,” the receptionist called out.

“Yes.”

“Mr. Ashby will be right out.”

I thanked her and continued to look around. Ashby walked up to me and introduced himself as the facility’s head administrator. I explained my purpose for being there and he led me back to his office so we could talk in private.

Once we were seated, I handed him the package and an evidence slip explaining that he needed to sign for the items.

“I am so pleased that your detectives were able to recover so many of the things that our former employee took. I’m sure you can imagine how much these items mean to the residents here. Some of these pieces of jewelry aren’t all that valuable, but they represent gifts from and memories of loved ones. As I’m sure you know, some things are worth far more than money.”

I agreed. After going through each of the items he signed for them and returned the evidence sheet to me. I stood, preparing to leave, when he stopped me.

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to do me one small favor, would you, officer?”

I wondered why I would need to do another favor for him. After all, I’d just returned a number of stolen items. Shouldn’t that have been sufficient?

“I really do need to get back on the road, Mr. Ashby,” I said.

“You’re right. I shouldn’t impose. You’ve got places to go I imagine.”

Now verbally he was letting me off the hook, but his tone and facial expression told another story. I knew he was attempting reverse psychology on me. Something my wife and I did to our kids daily.

“What do you need?” I asked.

“It’ll only take a second. I promise. But it will mean so much to her.”

Ashby proceeded to tell me about an eighty-one-year-old patient named Ruth Perkins. Mrs. Perkins was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“She’s all alone now,” Ashby said. “Her husband passed last year. They had one son, Nicholas, and he was a police officer. Nicholas was killed during a shootout many years ago. Apparently, he would visit her every Christmas, whether he was working or not and it meant the world to her. Her Alzheimer’s is advanced but she still manages to put several good days together each month. I have no idea how she does it, but she does.”

I sat down again as he continued.

“Every month since the death of her husband, just prior to the twenty-fifth, she gets it into her head that Christmas is approaching. She gets so excited and makes a point to tell all of the staff that her son is coming to visit. She even has a lighted ceramic tree that she makes us put up in her room. Of course when the twenty-fifth passes and Nicholas doesn’t show up her condition quickly worsens and she reverts back to her former state. It really is quite sad.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked. “I’m not her son.”

“I know that, but I thought it might cheer her up to get a visit from an officer in uniform. If you could just stop by and wish her a Merry Christmas.”

I only wanted to get back to my comfort zone. Back to my cruiser. I really wasn’t enjoying the idea of popping in on an already confused old woman, possibly making her situation worse. But Ashby’s attempt at reverse psychology must have worked because I found myself saying okay.

He told me that he’d introduce me, then he led me down the hall to her room. I followed, amid the stares and whispers of the other residents. Each of them probably wondering what the cop was doing there. At last he stopped and entered a room. The sign on the door said R. Perkins and a white ceramic tree stood on the table under the window. As I rounded the corner I saw her sitting up in bed, wearing a festive green robe over a red sweater. She was wearing makeup and it looked like she had just paid a visit to the hair dresser. She looked dignified and radiant, like someone waiting to be called upon, not at all what I had expected.

“Mrs. Perkins,” Ashby said. “I’ve brought you a visitor.”

She turned toward me and her blue eyes lit up instantly. “Nicholas,” she cried out. “My Saint Nicholas, I knew you’d come. Didn’t I say he would come? Oh, this is the best Christmas ever.”

She held her arms out to me as I approached the bed. Awkwardly, I bent down toward her. She hugged me tightly, even kissed me on the cheek.

“Merry Christmas,” I said, as I felt myself blushing.

“I should leave the two of you alone now,” Ashby said, as he left.

I sat down in the chair beside the bed and she began asking me all sorts of questions. I was afraid that I might say the wrong thing, but as time passed it became obvious that nothing I said would lessen her faith that I was her son. We talked for close to an hour. I told her all about my family and about my work. She asked if I remembered this thing or that and of course I told her I did. The smile never left her face.

I stayed with her until she began to tire. All the excitement had worn her out. She hugged me again and made me promise to return the following day. Christmas Day. I promised that I would and kissed her on the cheek. I returned to my cruiser and radioed that I was back in service. My heart was full and I was happier than I’d been in a long while. It was clear that my visit to Ruth Perkins had had a positive effect on both of us. I no longer cared that I’d be missing this Christmas with my own family. Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted to be with them, but after visiting a lonely old woman I realized I had no right to complain. There would be other Christmases to spend with my family. Mrs. Perkins’ family was gone leaving her with only memories.

I returned to work the following day. Christmas Day turned out to be busier than any of us had imagined. A light snowfall had left the roads slick resulting in many accidents. The calls for service were already piling up by the time I hit the street.

It was nearly one in the afternoon before I was finally able to take a lunch break. I grabbed a sandwich and a couple of eggnogs at the local market before heading over to see Mrs. Perkins. I was excited about being able to keep my promise to her and looking forward to seeing her face light up at the sight of me.

I parked in the nearly vacant lot and headed inside. The receptionist was a different girl than the one I’d spoken to the previous day. Holiday help I assumed. She asked if she could help me and I politely declined. “Thank you but I’m all set. Just visiting someone.”

I walked down the corridor to her room, stopping as I reached her door. The room was empty. Her personal belongings were gone and the nameplate was missing from the door. I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me.

“Can I help you, officer?” a soft female voice asked from behind me.

I turned and saw a young orderly. “I’m looking for Mrs. Perkins. Ruth Perkins. Has she been moved?”

“Are you a relative?”

I pondered her question before answering. “Sort of. I just visited her yesterday.”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Perkins passed away last night.”

*****

Many years have passed since that Christmas. I’m still a police officer with the same department. Heck, I’ve been on so long now that I get every Christmas off. I’ve never forgotten Ruth Perkins or her gift to me. Oh, I know what your thinking. That it was I who gave her one last visit with her son. But I think of it a it differently. I believe Mrs. Perkins is the one who bestowed a great gift on me. She restored my faith in humanity, helped me appreciate what I have. Her belief that I was her son was so strong and so real that I couldn’t help but feel the same love for her in return. Her faith and her love changed me forever. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?