The two stories below were the second- and third-place winners in the 2023 Short Story Contest. Congratulations to these authors!
On the Road to Bethlehem
By Janice Rodgers
It was three days before Christmas when the snowstorm slunk into the valley like a feral cat. When the first icy crystals fell, folks barely noticed. By late that evening, though, it was plain this storm wasn’t pussyfooting around.
At ten-forty that night, rookie Patrolman Jack Callaghan got off the trolley. With less than six minutes to check in for his shift, he plunged headlong into the stinging snow, gusts of wind hurrying him along.
Callaghan dashed through the back door of the station house and slipped into the duty room.
“What’s the weather doing out there, Jack?”
“About five inches and coming in fast, Captain McCarron,” he replied, brushing the snow off his jacket. He hung it on the back of his chair, nodding a greeting to Lou Charles, another rookie sitting behind him.
Officers trickled into what passed for a duty room in the ancient building. It had once been part of the stables, when the city used horses to pull their fire engines.
Jack looked up as his buddy, Bobby Miller, slid into the chair next to him. The flaps on Bobby’s cap stood out like another set of ears.
“You got a new hat,” Jack said.
“Early Christmas present from my wife.”
“Miller,” Captain McCarron growled. “Hat.”
“Yes sir.” Miller pulled the snow encrusted cap from his head.
“Yeah, Bobby. Give us a break. You look like Michael T. Mouse,” Lou teased him.
Jack gave Bobby a little punch and chuckled.
McCarron’s stentorian tones filled the stuffy, windowless room.
“Okay, gentlemen. Here’s tonight’s rundown.” Pulling out some papers, the Captain listed the day’s events, arrests, incident reports, accidents and leftover business.
“Also, some changes to the lineup. Bobby, you and Lou are sharing Callaghan’s beat tonight. Jack, you’re on Car One, District One. Ernie went home sick.”
Jack’s tense shoulders relaxed. What a lucky break. No bar beat, no mucking around in back alleys for him tonight. And District One was even better. The Boulevard, the road to Bethlehem, always had light traffic. He’d be in a warm car on a crummy night!
“And Callaghan,” McCarron’s voice bit into his happy little bubble, “Take that heap down to the city garage and get chains on it. Ernie didn’t have time.”
“On it, sir,” Jack replied, pulling his jacket back on.
“I don’t have to tell you all it’s pretty nasty out there,” McCarron reminded them. “Not to mention, bars are still open with Christmas revelers. So, stay sharp gentlemen.”
Chairs scraped the floor as officers stood at attention for their Captain. Then in twos and threes, the young officers departed the once stable into an uncertain, snow muffled city.
Jack pulled up to the city garage, his patrol car fishtailing in the slick snow, and walked into what looked like controlled chaos.
What the devil – one patrol car was up on the lift, another parked in a bay, hood up, tools scattered around and in the middle of the mess, chomping on his ever-present unlit cigar, stood Pete Schrafft, the generally mild-mannered supervisor of the garage.
“Yo, Pete. What’s going on?”
“Two of my best mechanics quit today.” He ground down on his cigar so hard, Jack thought it would split.
“Oh, man. Rotten timing,” Jack commiserated. “Can I at least give you a hand with my chains?”
Pete looked at the rookie. Spit shined brass, pressed uniform, eagerness pouring off him.
“Okay, Jack. I won’t say no to the help. Pull into bay six and we’ll get you out of here pronto.” Pete grabbed a clean rag from his pocket and handed it to Jack. “Just in case,” he smiled.
Twenty minutes later, Callaghan was on the road to Bethlehem with a full tank of gas, chains crunching along beneath him.
Barely two hours into his shift, he had already assisted several stranded motorists, helped a busload of travelers find the nearest motel and checked a faulty alarm at an appliance warehouse.
Meanwhile, the snow continued to pile up as squalls of wind hammered his car in rolling whiteouts. By 1:45, the normally wide Boulevard had tapered down into two narrow lanes. A few stalwart motorists plowed through the drifts.
Crackling static on his radio signaled yet another incoming call.
“Car One. What’s your 20? Over.”
“This is One. Just pulled onto the Boulevard from Jasper Street. Over.”
“Car One, we got a 10-17 at 7952 Fenwick Avenue. Please assist. Ambulance on the way. Possible heart attack. Over.”
“10-4, on my way. Over.”
He rolled off the Boulevard onto Graham Road, making a loop over to Fenwick. Pulling up in front of a tidy Cape Cod, Jack grabbed his emergency kit and ran inside. He found an older gentleman who had been adjusting his outdoor Christmas display, for pity’s sake.
By two-twenty AM, the ambulance and its passenger were hospital bound and Jack was back in his patrol car. Time to check out the warehouses along Irving Road bordering Bethlehem. Just because the city was being pounded with a snowstorm, didn’t mean thieves would take a night off. Especially around the holidays. He made a loop through that quarter but all was quiet.
Back up on the Boulevard, traffic was finally thinning out. About three car lengths ahead, he watched an Oldsmobile entering the roadway from Irving. The car had seen better days but at least it had chains on. But what actually caught his eye was the flash of a bright red sweater as the Olds settled into the snowy ruts. A little girl toddled back and forth along the back seat. Mom and dad appeared to be having a discussion up front.
Why was this kid even out at this hour for Pete’s sake? He thought of his own two children at home in their beds.
Jack pulled up behind the Olds as the light turned red and watched the little one bounce around. She held a little doll by the arm.
Come on, honey. Sit down, sit down, Jack muttered as though the child could actually hear him. He didn’t realize he actually motioned to her in a down gesture, until she turned around and slid down the seat.
When the light changed to green, the Olds accelerated, lurching as heavy chains dug into packed snow. The Olds still had a pretty quick pick up. It was already a few car lengths ahead of him and almost across the intersection.
Suddenly, off to his left, Jack saw lights flickering in the whiteout.
“No, No, No,” he yelled.
Before he could make a move, a truck barreled out of the curtain of snow heading straight for the Olds. The box truck caught the Olds on the driver’s rear door quarter panel and pushed it halfway across the intersection.
“Dispatch, Car One calling. 10-45 at the Boulevard and Porter Road intersection involving truck and car. Possible injuries. Need assistance.”
“10-4, Car One. Dispatching Car three, he’s nearby. Ambulance is still at City General Hospital.”
Running to the Olds, Jack could see no one would be getting out the driver’s side where the truck had rammed it. The truck driver stood looking at the Olds as though he didn’t know how it got there.
Sirens of approaching patrol cars filled the night, as Jack pulled on the back passenger door and wrenched it open.
“Mother of God,” Jack whispered to himself, as he half knelt in the door frame. The child lay motionless on the floor, as limp as her little doll. She was unconscious, but still breathing. Jack took off his jacket and carefully wrapped her in it.
The parents, stunned but uninjured, hovered quietly behind him, along with three fellow officers.
“There’s no time to wait for the ambulance,” Jack told his officers. “They’re still at Valley General at the other end of town. We need to get the baby to the hospital now.”
“Get going, Jack. We’ll take over here.”
“Dispatch, this is Car One. Enroute to Sacred Heart Hospital. I have an injured child, unconscious. Three-year-old girl. Parents are with me. Over.”
The normally cool and detached dispatcher seemed to pause.
“Uh, 10-4, Car One. I’ll call and tell them you’re on the way, Jack. Godspeed.”
Jack watched with the parents as the doctor laid the baby on the gurney and then gently removed her from the heavy police jacket, handing it to a nurse. Jack took his jacket and stepped back, but not before he saw the tiny hand twitch as though reaching out to him.
As the doctors wheeled the gurney back to the dispensary, he tried to reassure the young couple.
“They’ll take good care of her.”
“I never saw him, that truck,” the father stammered.
“Come with me,” Jack told them gently. “I know a place where we can wait.” They seemed afraid to move.
“Don’t worry, the doctors will know where to find us,” he said, sensing their fear.
Jack led them down a dimly lit corridor until they reached a door with a cross on it. His soft knock was answered by a nun, garbed in white.
“Sister Rafael, do you mind if we use the chapel sitting room for a bit.”
“Of course not, Officer Callaghan.” She led them into a warmly lit, comfortable sitting room off of the chapel.
“How about some tea or coffee for all of you?”
“That would be grand, Sister,” Jack replied gratefully. She disappeared with a gentle swish of rosary beads.
While they waited, Jack took a closer look at the couple. Young, hardworking, just trying to make it all work.
“I’ll stay with you as long as I can,” he told them. “And Sister Rafael is here to help too.”
The father nodded. His wife still appeared distressed and in shock. A good hot cup of tea with sugar should help that, Jack prayed. And a Christmas miracle, but that was in God’s hands now.
The young father twisted a knitted cap in his hands. He cleared his throat thick with unshed tears and the heartache spilled out.
“I had to work late, and she came to pick me up,” he nodded to his wife. “We couldn’t get a babysitter, otherwise Jenny never would have been in the car.”
“I understand,” Jack replied. “Where do you work?”
“Harry’s Garage and Lube. I’m a mechanic there.” He took a deep steadying breath and pulled a hanky from his pocket. “But today was my last day. They let me go. Not enough work for me, they said.”
“And we were almost home. Almost home,” his wife added softly, a sob on her breath. “We’re new to Bethlehem. We just moved there from Nazareth.”
As Jack took notes and asked pertinent questions, Sister Rafael returned carrying a tray with hot drinks.
Jack took a swallow of the bracing coffee and thought about how the chaos of this night had altered time. Hours had flown. Yet now, in this tiny room, minutes dragged painfully by, for a police officer, a nun, and two young parents.
Suddenly, a sharp rap came at the door, driving those sluggish minutes into action once again.
“Your little girl’s going to be fine,” the doctor told them. “We’ll be keeping her for a day or two just to make sure. But right now, she wants her Mommy and Daddy.”
As the parents started to leave, the young man turned to Jack.
“Thank you, Officer, I just . . .”
Jack grasped his hand. He pressed a slip of paper into it.
“Give this man a call when you get settled. He’s looking for a good mechanic.”
Rookie Patrolman Jack Callaghan stepped out into the snowy night. Weatherwise, nothing had changed, yet everything had changed for a young family from Bethlehem. But he still had two more hours left on his shift. Because you never knew what could happen—on the road to Bethlehem.
Janice Monahan Rodgers is a Pennsylvania native who writes short stories and memoirs. She is the author of four books of short stories about growing up during the ‘40s and ‘50s and is presently working on several children’s books. What began as an adventurous birthday gift for her sister instead became family stories that turned into self-published books and reignited her passion for children’s literature. You can visit her website at janicemonahanrodgers.com or connect with her on Facebook at janicemonahanrodgers.
The Holiday Parade Princess
By Pat Remick
Everyone loves a parade. But producing a successful one is more complex than you’d
expect. You’re probably thinking: “What’s the big deal? People line up and march down a street.” If only. And take it from me: wayward holiday floats and dead bodies can complicate everything.
As coordinator of my hometown’s annual December parade, which draws spectators from miles around, I spend months working on an event that typically lasts about a half-hour (and that’s if the participants are strolling instead of marching).
Before the parade steps off, I have applications to process, entry fees to collect, inquiries to answer, news releases to write, rules to decree (“throwing candy into the crowd triggers automatic removal”), parking and illegal vendors to ban, streets to close, a program to orchestrate, and pleas to offer to the weather gods.
Creating a seamless lineup is difficult enough. Entreaties for entry after the deadline and last-minute cancellations make matters worse. The principal goal is to space everything out evenly: the bands (and their holiday music), large vehicles and floats (generally flatbed trailers pulled by trucks), walking units, and yes, even beauty contestants. “Mine should go first because she’s the only one who can compete for Miss America,” one pageant sponsor complains every year. But I respect my elders and place Ms. Pennsylvania Senior America in the first section. If the other women are disappointed, you can’t tell from their perfect smiles.
There also are philosophical issues, like whether to place the peace group near the Veterans of Foreign Wars contingent. And will our audience appreciate the irony of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement delegation following fans of Jimmy Buffet and “Margaritaville”?
It takes all this and more to make a parade. The down jacket I wear over layers of clothing to ward off the Pennsylvania cold reads “Event Staff,” but it should say “Parade Princess.” It sounds better than “Grinch,” which is what the local cops call me since the year I proclaimed: “You may carry a gun, but I’ve got a clipboard, so call the $#!& tow truck to haul those cars away.”
The parade’s entry fees and official paraphernalia sales are major contributors to our town’s budget. To clear space for the thousands of people we want pouring into Harrington for our parade, we remove vehicles that disregard the “No Parking after 5 p.m. signs” along the route and side streets.
That process can significantly back up traffic. But the ensuing chaos is nothing compared with what happens when the trunk of a vehicle being towed springs open and parade-goers spot what’s inside.
Too far away to hear the screams and preoccupied with trying to reach Town Inspector Andy Stone to ensure he’d completed safety inspections of the floats, I didn’t notice the pandemonium—or Police Chief Mike DuBois sprinting across the square.
“Shut the parade down,” the not-so-fit chief wheezed when he reached me on the reviewing stand.
I gasped. “But it hasn’t even started.”
“We’ve got a body in the trunk of one of the cars you had towed from Oak Street. It looks like he was stabbed. We need to process the scene.”
I’d ordered lots of vehicles taken away that afternoon, but I remembered the Maryland plates on the Oak Street ones because I’d briefly hesitated about having them taken away. We try to avoid alienating tourists.
“Canceling means dealing with about 8,000 unhappy people,” I said. “Do you really want to forfeit the entry fees and holiday souvenir profits earmarked for your evidence room equipment? Besides, those cars weren’t parked along the main route. And are you sure a crime was committed?”
It was the chief’s turn to look stunned. “Do you honestly believe someone bleeding like a stuck pig willingly climbs into a car trunk?”
I did not, but I also didn’t want to give in to DuBois. So, I shrugged.
Mayor Lee and his wife arrived moments later, and the chief whispered in his ear. The mayor’s eyes widened. “Let’s keep this quiet for now. Act like nothing’s happened. Chief, let us know when you have more info,” the mayor said softly before the couple took their seats on the reviewing stand.
Still unable to reach the town inspector by cellphone or walkie-talkie, I tracked down his assistant, Donnie Daigle, and sent him to Float World to look for Andy and, if necessary, conduct the safety checks himself. Minutes later, Donnie radioed that there was no sign of his boss, but a nearby police officer had agreed to assist with the assessments. “Unfortunately, we’ve got another problem,” Donnie said. “The Premium Spas float hasn’t arrived. Apparently, the driver got lost.”
This threatened to be a major glitch. The Premium float is a crowd favorite because of the innovative ways the owner integrates a working hot tub into each year’s parade theme. Since this year’s was “Everyone is Santa,” we looked forward to seeing Santa hats and red and green swimsuits early in the parade.
“Can you direct him to Float World in time? Or should I rejigger the lineup and hope he arrives before the parade is over?” I yelled into my walkie-talkie to be heard over the pre-parade holiday music piped into the square.
Donnie promised to do his best to avoid a program change. I disconnected just as the mayor sidled up. “Chief DuBois called with bad news,” he said. “He’s confirmed the victim is Andy Stone and says he has no idea why anyone would kill Stone.”
I had several. Andy Stone was a jerk to anyone below him in the town hierarchy, including me, but a “good ol’ boy” to everyone above him, including the mayor. He’d also made countless residents and businesses miserable by going beyond the building and safety codes when inspecting their premises. And he had an ex-wife who hated him. Meanwhile, there were rumors the State Police planned to investigate claims that Stone demanded payoffs in exchange for favorable inspection reports—allegations DuBois vociferously rejected about his golfing buddy.
I was among many who wouldn’t shed tears over Andy Stone. But my immediate concerns were getting the floats inspected and the hot tub entry to the front of the parade in time. With minutes to go, Donnie radioed that Harrington’s Holiday Parade would proceed on schedule again this year. I was so relieved I almost forgot about Andy’s murder.
Soon the bands, floats, and marching units were making their way through the crowded square—the midway point of the parade route. A local radio station DJ announced each of them, following my carefully prepared script.
No one seemed aware that a town employee was dead. Or that his killer might be among them. The DJ didn’t mention it. Nor did the mayor, not even to the City Councilors with him on the reviewing stand.
The parade was going as planned until I spied some hucksters pushing grocery carts filled with cheap, plastic items through the crowd. I dashed across Main Street to confront them. “You have two minutes to get your non-official souvenirs out of here,” I said, motioning for a nearby police officer.
I returned to the reviewing stand in time to witness two teenage girls in festive attire weaving their garishly decorated bicycles in and out of the parade near the somber Police Department color guard. I rushed to challenge the interlopers. “You’re not part of this parade,” I roared. “Yes, we are,” one laughed. “Not anymore,” said I, with a police officer behind me.
Minutes later, I was astounded to see a seven-foot-tall chicken approach, followed by two young women wearing yellow T-shirts over their parkas. I was certain they hadn’t paid the $100 commercial entry fee. I considered jumping off the reviewing stand and tackling the chicken suit in front of thousands of people. Or grabbing the DJ’s microphone and screaming, “Leave my parade, you ‘cheep’ piece of poultry!” But neither option seemed very jolly.
The announcer adlibbed, “Here comes a really big chicken, representing . . . ” We couldn’t make out the wording on the T-shirts, but they resembled one worn by a young woman who approached me before the parade began to ask how to retrieve her friend’s towed car. I vaguely remembered that it advertised a chicken restaurant.
I needed the business name to collect the fee. I leaped from the reviewing stand and hustled to catch up with the chicken and its cluster. “Hey, where are you from?” I yelled.
The chicken-suited figure increased its speed, and the women matched its pace. I sped up. They did too. With the side streets clogged with onlookers, the fleeing flock was using the parade route to escape and zipping past the other marching units.
Soon we were racing at a full clip, but my age handicapped me. Panting, I heard someone say, “Mommy, why is that lady chasing a big chicken in the parade?”
I wondered the same thing. The entry fee wasn’t worth a heart attack. Breathless, I surrendered. But not before I got close enough to determine that the T-shirts advertised Wonder Wings Café in Baltimore, 170 miles away.
I radioed for police assistance, urging officers to be on the lookout for a giant chicken accompanied by two women in yellow T-shirts. “Is this a joke?” one radioed back. “Should we draw our weapons and demand your entry fee?” I heard snickering in the background.
“No, but there’s something fishy because they’re advertising a Maryland restaurant almost three hours from here.”
“Do you suspect f-o-w-l play?” another officer chortled.
“Very funny,” I snapped. “I’m no detective but just maybe there’s a correlation between a body found in the trunk of a Maryland car and three unverified people in my parade who also are probably from Maryland. Oh, and they’re running away from me, too.”
I struggled back to the viewing stand in time for the first truck in a procession of fire apparatus from surrounding towns. Because the departments never knew until the last minute whether service calls would prevent their participation, I had to scramble to supplement the announcer’s script before the traditional grand finale: Santa waving from atop Harrington’s largest fire truck.
Once Santa had passed by, Mayor Lee stood and said, “And thus ends another successful holiday parade, thanks to you, Barb.”
I doubted Andy Stone would agree, but I smiled graciously anyway.
When we arrived at the dignitaries’ reception, Chief DuBois was waiting. “Turns out Barb was correct. One of the towed Maryland cars is registered to the big chicken, aka Danny Molina, who happens to be a cousin of Andy’s ex-wife, Sofia.”
“Andy was killed by the big chicken?”
The chief nodded. “Molina confessed. He said he figured things might get violent when he confronted Andy over delinquent alimony payments. And they did. So, he and his two restaurant workers put Andy’s body in the trunk of their car until they could dump it. They parked on Oak Street and walked to the Exxon station to clean up and get ready for the Baltimore parade since they wouldn’t arrive until just before the 8 p.m. start. Molina thought that if they marched there, no one would suspect they’d been here.”
“They never planned to crash my parade?”
“Nope. After the car was removed, they realized the quickest way to the tow lot was the parade route, so they improvised. But we were waiting for them.”
“It’s good to be right,” I said benevolently. Because that’s what a Princess does, even when she deserves to be Queen for conquering a royal mess. And if I could make a royal decree, it would be this: The next time you’re enjoying a parade, remember and respect all it takes to bring it to you.
Pat Remick is an award-winning mystery short story author and non-fiction writer. Her short stories have appeared in various anthologies, and she has co-authored two professional development books. A veteran print, wire service, TV, and web journalist, Pat retired in 2021 from the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she was a press officer for the international environmental organization. She serves on the national Sisters in Crime membership committee and is editor of the newsletter for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of Mystery Writers of America. She recently was elected to the Board of Directors of the large Washington, D.C., co-op building where she resides with her husband–and suspects her experiences may inspire even more mystery stories. Pat’s love of travel has taken her to 48 states thus far, but her favorite locations are wherever her two adult sons are residing.